Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles prescribes that the primate shall not “do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all.” But in the “Code of Canons” which John Paul II promulgated in 1990, we find the amazing claim that “Romanus Pontifex a nemine iudicatur” – the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one. This is not merely an historical inaccuracy. The Sixth Ecumenical Council, as is well known, considered itself competent to judge and anathematize Honorius of Rome, and no Pope since has ever dared attempt to overturn that decision.
The same “Code of Canons” also announces that “contra sententiam vel decretum Romani Pontificis non datur appellatio neque recursus” – there is neither appeal nor recourse against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff. What should we Orthodox think about these very strong statements?
Pope John Paul II, in Ut unum sint, has invited us to contribute to the discussion on how the Roman Primacy can be exercised convincingly and effectively as a divinely-blessed service to the Church. I believe these canons should be considered at the heart of our discussions. Despite all the administrative chaos one can find within Orthodoxy, despite all the need for order, the Orthodox are not able to accept the notion that this particular human individual has a right to judge the entire world, purely on his own initiative. To quote another Latin phrase, nemo debet esse iudex in propria causa – nobody can be the judge of his own case.
The ultimate effect of this is to render the Roman Primacy, in its current form, unconvincing. Archimandrite Victor Pospishil, who is perhaps the most eminent of Eastern Catholic canonists, has repeatedly asserted that no “Roman Pontiff” can be bound by his own word, and still less can the word or promise of the “Roman Pontiff” bind his successors in that unique office. It is reasonable, therefore, to ask in all seriousness: what possible value could such a primacy have? When universal primacy functions in this manner, then the over-development has reached the stage of preventing the primacy from functioning effectively. Therefore, I believe some sort of “therapy” is needed in order to restore the primacy to a healthy functioning.
There is a natural human weakness to seek to extend one’s own power, one’s own control over others. In the case of the Roman Primacy, this weakness manifests itself in several areas, but perhaps most clearly in the matter of the “right” to select bishops. As can easily be shown, up until the twentieth century most of the Catholic bishops of the world were not directly nominated by the Pope. Nor will anyone be apt to claim that in the earlier centuries of the Church the Pope had some sort of right or function to name all the bishops. However, owing to a combination of political circumstances and the general centralizing tendency of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical administration, the Popes of Rome have managed to obtain the “right” to name almost all the Catholic bishops of the world. Meanwhile, in absolute terms the number of Catholic diocesan bishops and titular bishops has increased, to the point where today there are probably about three thousand diocesan bishops, and perhaps a thousand or more titular bishops.
No one man, not even the Pope, could possibly have a personal acquaintance with three or four thousand bishops, let alone all the potential candidates to succeed the three or four thousand bishops.
The ancient canons of the Church are clear: bishops are to be elected by their prospective colleagues, the bishops of the province. That, I submit, makes sense: the bishops of the province are well placed to know the diocese, to know the needs of the diocese, and to know the candidates.
Certainly there have been abuses. One reason which enabled the Popes to aggregate to themselves the power to select bishops was the habit of secular governments to interfere in the process. Reserving the matter to the Pope has not completely prevented governmental interference, but it has unquestionably reduced that problem significantly.
Nevertheless, this has created a situation that may be even more difficult to correct. Since, as I have said, it is obviously impossible for the Pope personally to select all these men, the practical result is that bishops are selected by members of the Roman Curia, ecclesiastical bureaucrats whom no one can call to account.
Father Clarence Gallagher, a highly respected canonist and former Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, informs me that he questioned the provision in the so-called “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” which requires that every episcopal election by the Eastern Catholic Synods must be approved by the Pope. In response to his question, he was told that this Papal approval is necessary “because the Eastern Catholic Synods might make a mistake.” So they might; no doubt they have done so from time to time. But does anyone care to defend the implication that the Roman Curia cannot make a mistake in episcopal appointments? A restoration of genuine conciliarity is urgently needed in the matter of episcopal elections. If the bishops of the province make a mistake, there is the possibility of correcting that mistake. Who is to correct the mistakes of the Roman Curia when they act in the name of the Pope?
Another human weakness is to attempt to expand one’s own power-base at the expense of others. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, obviously. He is also “Patriarch of the West,” according to the titles of the Pope which appear in official documents [N.B. This title, apparently, has been officially dropped by Benedict XVI – Ed.]. The “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” requires an Eastern Catholic Patriarch to have a clear-cut distinction between his functions as a diocesan bishop and his functions as Patriarch; the Patriarch must have two separate administrations for these two functions. But the Patriarchate of the West is administered by the Roman Curia, who seldom distinguish between those matters that concern the Patriarchate of the West, and those matters that concern the Universal Church.
What is the result? The Patriarchate of the West has expanded all over the world and continues to do so. Meanwhile, the Eastern Catholic Patriarchates are confined to, of all things, the territory of the Ottoman Empire as it existed in 1894. It is not at all self-evident that Australia, Oceania, China, the Americas, and many other places belong by right to the Patriarchate of the West, but the Roman Curia seems to take that for granted. The rights of the primates of the local Churches in Western Europe have also been drastically reduced, and abrogated instead to the Roman Curia which has thus aggregated these territories to the Patriarchate of the West.
Africa quite definitely belongs to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, who bears the title “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa.” Nevertheless there are Latin dioceses with territorial titles in most African countries, and the Roman Curia appoints bishops to those African dioceses without the faintest reference to any Patriarch of Alexandria.
The honor of the Roman Primacy requires that this situation be put right, even at considerable cost. The Pope claims the right to adjudicate disagreements between Patriarchs. The Church needs to have such an arbiter. But no Patriarch will take the Pope’s arbitration seriously until it is clear that the Pope will not abuse such an occasion to bring further profit to his own Patriarchate.
On this point, I rather suspect that within the Western Patriarchate there are not a few people, including even bishops, who would agree with me. In some of the countries I mentioned, the Catholic Church is sufficiently developed to qualify as a full-fledged Local Church on its own, with a Synod, and able to elect her own bishops and take major decisions. The Eastern Churches are always alert to defend the rights of the Christian East, but it seems to me that the Local Churches of the West should also share these rights.
With that point, I shall conclude for the present, because I wish to end with the consideration that a genuine reconciliation between primacy and conciliarity will be for the benefit of the entire Church, not only of the East. I hope that through fraternal discussion we may develop and refine these ideas. May the divine grace, which always heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking, bring us this gift. May God thus grant us “concord, and be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”