3. We come now to a third hermeneutical principle: the historical interpretation. As is the case for all dogmas, so also for the First Vatican Council it is fundamental to make a distinction between the unchangeable binding content and the changeable historical forms. This principle was clearly expressed by the Second Vatican Council: “The deposit and the truths of faith are one thing, the manner of expressing them is quite another” [Gaudium et spes, 62]. Hence it would be wrong to take the formulations of the First Vatican Council as the only possible way of expressing what the Petrine ministry concretely means and what is permanently binding in it.
The Fathers of the First Vatican Council experienced specific historical conditions that led them to formulate things the way they did. The Council majority saw the Church besieged from all sides and in an almost apocalyptic situation. They were traumatized by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the absolutism of modern states, by Gallicanism and Episcopalism, and wanted to make sure that the Church would remain capable of action even in extreme situations. This is why they reverted to the modern idea of sovereignty: they defined the primacy of the Pope in terms of an absolute sovereignty, in such a way that he could act even if he were to be prevented from communicating with the Church. Their statements on primacy were especially conceived for extreme and exceptional situations.
The understanding of the primacy in the sense of sovereignty does not mean – even according to the First Vatican Council – that the Pope’s power is unlimited. It is limited in several ways: by revelation itself and by the binding tradition, by the sacramental structure and the episcopal constitution of the Church, and by human rights given by God. Therefore the problem is not the dogma of the First Vatican Council itself but its maximalist interpretation both by its Ultramontane advocates and by its critics. This has turned what was considered an exceptional situation into a normal one. The exceptional case has been, so to say, stretched in time and made permanent. Therefore we should agree with Cardinal Ratzinger when he says that the centralized image given by the Church until the Council did not stem directly from the Petrine ministry. The uniform canon law, the uniform liturgy, and designation of episcopal chairs by the central power in Rome – all these are elements that do not necessarily belong to the primacy as such.
If we separate the declarations on the primacy of jurisdiction from their historical forms, then we find their binding essential meaning, that the Pope is free to act according to the specific and changing necessity of the Church. The primacy should therefore be interpreted in the light of the needs of the Church and applied accordingly. In this sense, Pope John Paul II, in Ut unum sint, speaks of the need to find ways of exercizing the primacy according to the new ecumenical situation of today.
4. A fourth and last hermeneutical principle is the interpretation of the Petrine ministry in the light of the gospel. The importance of this principle has been highlighted especially in the dialogue with the Lutherans, but also Catholics agree on its significance. Real value in the Church belongs to what has its foundation in the gospel and not to what is only a human invention.
In this sense, the Catholic Church is convinced that the primacy is founded in the testimony of the Bible and ultimately in Jesus Christ himself. Mention should be made not only of the well-known Petrine references in the New Testament (especially in Matt. 16:18f; Luke 2:32; John 21:15-17) but also of the fact that Jesus gave Simon the name Kephas (John 1:42), meaning “rock,” thereby explaining his function in the Church. Furthermore, mention should be made of the privileged role of Peter among the twelve as their spokesman and representative, and his role as leader of the early community in Jerusalem, as well as the entire Petrine tradition in the Bible (especially 1 and 2 Peter) which goes beyond the earthly existence of Peter, extending into the postapostolic and postbiblical era and tradition.
While it is true that historical interpretation of the Bible provides a firm basis, historical interpretation alone does not provide the ultimate foundation for our belief. In its original meaning, the gospel is not a book but the message witnessed in the Bible and, in the power of the Spirit, also proclaimed and believed in the Church. Therefore the Bible witness cannot be cut off from this witness of the living Church tradition. Thus today a purely historical understanding of the gospel, which looks only for the exact historical meaning of the words of the so-called historical Jesus, is obsolete. Historical exegesis is certainly legitimate, helpful, and fundamental, but theological debate cannot be in a narrow sense biblistic and should not separate the Scriptures from the living tradition. It should take into account both Scriptures and tradition, employing a spiritual and theological hermeneutics.
In this sense, the faithfulness of the community of Rome despite persecution and the confrontation with Gnosticism, its steadfastness against Marcion, and its contribution to the final establishment of the biblical canon, together with the role of its bishops, who very early took over responsibility for the unity of the Church beyond the Roman community, were all factors that convinced the early Church that in the church of Rome and in its bishop the promises given to Peter are realized and still at work. And so, from the third and fourth century on, the Church referred to the biblical witness, which is given especially in Matt. 16:18.
However, such a historical and, at the same time, spiritual interpretation entails not only finding the formal biblical foundation of the Petrine ministry but also highlighting its meaning and exercise according to the Gospel, that is, its interpretation not in the sense of power but in the sense of service. Indeed, the Gospel says: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt. 20:27). This aspect is reflected in the expression servus servorum Dei used by Pope Gregory the Great.
Pope John Paul II has emphasized this dimension anew. He has referred to the martyr bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who described the primacy of Rome as the “primacy of love.” Thus, the Pope himself has given an important indication for a new interpretation of primacy inspired by the gospel. His interpretation is not a jurisdictional one based on the idea of sovereignty; it is a spiritual one based on the idea of service – a service to unity, a service and sign of mercy and love [Ut unum sint, 88-93].
This closer reference to the Bible has brought it about that the commonly employed language now substitutes, for the expressions papal ministry and papacy, the terms Petrine ministry and Petrine service. This linguistic change is quite telling. It seeks to give the papacy – developed throughout history and in part also burdened by history – a new interpretation and reception in the light of the gospel, not renouncing its essential nature but setting it in a new, wider spiritual understanding on the theoretical as well as on the practical level. The Petrine ministry is episkope; that is, it is a pastoral service following the example of Jesus the good shepherd, who gives his life for his flock (John 10:11). In this sense Peter admonishes his fellow elders: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:2-4).
In this sense we can say that the Petrine ministry should be interpreted theologically as episkope. Such an interpretation of the juridical formulations would correspond to the intentions expressed in the Proemium of the First Vatican Council, taken up also by the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul made reference to this interpretation in Ut unum sint, placing such juridical formulations in a biblical and theological context. This could constitute an ecumenically useful approach.
Such a pastoral understanding of episkope does not exclude authority in the biblical sense of exousia, a primacy of jurisdiction and a pastoral primacy cannot be mutually substituted or places in opposition, as some theologians propose. For pastoral responsibility without the means to carry it out would be void and would not help the Church in the urgent situations in which she would most need it. Rather, the question is now the service of episkope in the spirit of the gospel can be carried out with exousia. This question concerns, in different ways, both our ecclesiological traditions.
In conclusion, I would say that with the help of such an interpretation in the light of the four hermeneutical principles outlined above, it is possible to uphold the binding and unchangeable essence of the Petrine ministry and, at the same time, open and explore a pathway and prepare a new spiritual reception in our own Church that – as we hope – can facilitate a broader ecumenical reception as well. My hope is that, as was the case in the first millennium, the Petrine ministry may take a form that, although differently exercised in the East and in the West, could be recognized both by the East and by the West within a unity in diversity and a diversity in unity. I have no illusions. I am aware that the path ahead, on the basis of human measures, may yet be long. But I still hope that when we patiently and at the same time courageously do what we can do, God’s Spirit will help and accompany us to reach what He has in mind for the full visible unity of the Church.