Without any fanfare, Benedict XVI last week set aside a traditional title of the Roman Pontiff for roughly 1,500 years, "Patriarch of the West."
While initial speculation construed the move as a gesture of ecumenical sensitivity to the Orthodox, most experts say the real logic was almost certainly the exact reverse - a rejection of attempts to impose Eastern concepts upon the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church.
News of the deletion broke only when intrepid readers of the Vatican's Annuario Pontificio, the massive yearly compendium of prelates, dioceses, and curial officials, noted that the title was missing in the 2006 edition.
Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert on Eastern Christianity at Rome's Oriental Institute, said it's "simply unthinkable" that anyone in the Vatican would eliminate a papal title without the direct approval of the pope.
"This goes right up to the top of the ladder," Taft said.
To date, no official explanation has been given, a fact that Taft said he found "strange."
"It's like getting up and finding out the lights don't work," Taft said. "It leaves us stumbling around in the dark."
Yet like other experts, Taft said the decision did not fall from the clear blue sky. Recent debate on the nature of the papacy has highlighted the question of whether the universal primacy of the pope can accurately be understood on the model of the patriarchs, a concept that comes out of Eastern Christianity.
The most-cited example of this reflection is the 1990 book of Franciscan Fr. Adriano Garuti, Il Papa Patriarca d'Occidente?: Studio storico dottrinale (Collectio Antoniana, 1990). Garuti, who served in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1975 to 2003, and hence is a longtime collaborator of Benedict XVI, argued that the title of "Patriarch" is of Eastern origin, influenced by the perspective of Byzantine Emperors. The Roman Pontiffs, Garuti wrote, would never accept the reduction of their universal primacy to a mere "patriarchate," as did later medieval Byzantine thinkers who regarded the pope as the "first of equals" in a Pentarchy, meaning the patriarchs of the five ancient sees of the church: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome.
Taft said this discussion is almost certainly the background to Benedict's decision.
"My best guess is that this amounts to a refusal on the part of the Vatican of an attempt to put the Petrine primacy into a framework that's not perceived as proper to it," Taft said.
"Calling the pope 'Patriarch of the West' could be seen as an attempt to Orientalize Western ecclesiology," Taft said.
Other experts, however, believe that the substance of the title "Patriarch of the West," if not the exact verbal formula, captures something essential about the pope's traditional role as the head of Latin Christianity.
Msgr. Michael Magee, an American who recently defended a dissertation on the institution of patriarchs at Rome's Gregorian University, argues that what people have usually meant by calling the pope "Patriarch of the West" -- that is, his role in overseeing the Latin church, with its own distinct liturgy and discipline -- is indeed distinct from his role as supreme pastor of the universal church.
To take just one example, the pope directly appoints the archbishops of Paris, New York and Vienna, but "confirms" the election by local synods of a Maronite bishop in Lebanon or in the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. In this sense, papal primacy in the Western church operates in a different way than in the East, and has been that way for most of church history.
Some theologians would go so far as to argue that no pope has the right to renounce the substance of what the title "Patriarch of the West" was meant to represent, his distinct role as leader of Latin Christianity.
Ironically, Magee, a priest of the Philadelphia archdiocese who is currently serving in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, learned of the decision to drop the title "Patriarch of the West" just three minutes before his dissertation defense began on Feb. 20.
"At first, I thought it was a joke," Magee laughed.
Ecumenical observers also warn that renouncing the title may alarm the Orthodox about a lack of sensitivity for the legitimate autonomy of Eastern traditions. On that score, there are already early indications of negative reaction.
"It remains a mystery how the omission of the 'Patriarch of the West' title can improve relations between the Holy See and the Orthodox Church," Orthodox Bishop Ilarion of Vienna, an official of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Interfax news service March 3.
"On the contrary, this omission could be viewed as a further claim to the church's worldwide jurisdiction, which is reflected in the pontiff's other titles," Ilarion said.
Taft, however, cautioned against making too much of the move.
"There's nothing new here," Taft said. "We're not making something out of the papacy that we haven't made before. To say the pope is not a patriarch implies no disrespect to patriarchs."
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Just as Garuti's objection to the term "patriarch" concerns a possible weakening of papal authority, some theologians who favor greater collegiality have long urged that Western Christianity create new patriarchates as a way of assigning greater autonomy and authority to local churches.
Under such a scheme, there could be a Patriarch of Africa, and a Patriarch of Asia, even a Patriarch of North America. The pope would be seen as the supreme guarantor of faith and discipline, rather than the CEO of local churches. To take one potential application, a Patriarchate of Africa could have its own inculturated liturgy, rather than requesting permission to tinker with the "Roman rite."
A few analysts have suggested that dropping the title "Patriarch of the West" might be the first move in this direction. The pope could eventually become something like the "Patriarch of the Latins," making room for other patriarchs within the historical Western tradition.
Whether any of that is in the cards very much remains to be seen.
But lest it appear merely wild speculation, it should be noted that then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger floated this very idea in a 1969 essay titled "Primacy and Episcopacy," which appeared in the book Das neue Volk Gottes. The following translation comes from Fr. Joseph Komonchak of the Catholic University of America:
"The image of a centralized state which the Catholic church presented right up to the council does not flow only from the Petrine office, but from its strict amalgamation with the patriarchal function which grew ever stronger in the course of history and which fell to the bishop of Rome for the whole of Latin Christendom. The uniform canon law, the uniform liturgy, the uniform appointment of bishops by the Roman center: all these are things which are not necessarily part of the primacy but result from the close union of the two offices. For that reason, the task to consider for the future will be to distinguish again and more clearly between the proper function of the successor of Peter and the patriarchal office and, where necessary, to create new patriarchates and to detach them from the Latin church. To embrace unity with the pope would then no longer mean being incorporated into a uniform administration, but only being inserted into a unity of faith and communion, in which the pope is acknowledged to have the power to give binding interpretations of the revelation given in Christ, whose authority is accepted whenever it is given in definitive form."Ratzinger concluded: "In the not too distant future one could consider whether the churches of Asia and Africa, like those of the East, should not present their own forms as autonomous 'patriarchates' or 'great churches' or whatever such ecclesiae in the Ecclesia might be called in the future."
In later writings Ratzinger did not repeat the idea, but it was there at one stage in his ecclesiological reflection.
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The decision to drop "Patriarch of the West" is also the latest in a series of signs that Benedict XVI, who has impressed the world with his graciousness and positive tone, is nevertheless by no means "politically correct."
At the moment, for example, conventional Vatican logic shuns doing anything to irritate the Chinese, since opening formal relations with Beijing is among the Vatican's top diplomatic priorities. Yet Benedict XVI recently made the outspoken bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, a cardinal anyway, feeling that Chinese Catholics deserve a cardinal and that Zen is the right man for the job.
Conventional wisdom also holds that this is the wrong time to say anything provocative about Islam, since the world is trying to avoid a "clash of civilizations." Yet Benedict has transferred the Vatican's top official for inter-religious relations, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, known as a "dove" on Islam, and has green-lighted tough comments about religious liberty in Islamic nations by senior officials. Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and a papal confidante, recently said it's time to "drop the diplomatic silence" about anti-Christian persecution, and called on the U.N. and other bodies to "remind the societies and governments of countries with a Muslim majority of their responsibilities."
Similarly, the consensus of the moment holds that since ecumenical progress with the East, especially the Russian Orthodox, is among the pope's top priorities, he should do nothing to upset that applecart.
Once again, however, he dropped the title "Patriarch of the West" anyway, apparently believing that an important ecclesiological principle is at stake.
The pope's determination to call his own shots goes all the way back to his first significant personnel move -- the appointment of Archbishop William Levada as his successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Conventional Vatican wisdom said you can't have an American running la Suprema, the "supreme" congregation. Feeling he had the right man, the pope did it anyway.
In the same way, conventional Catholic geopolitical logic held that in a small consistory, Benedict couldn't name two new American cardinals, since the Americans were already over-represented. Lo and behold, on Febr. 22 two Americans -- Levada and Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston -- were on the list.
All this by way of saying that when it comes to anticipating Benedict's moves, weighing ecclesial tradition and the personal qualities of candidates will usually be far more valuable than the calculus of realpolitik.
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From this week:
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Last week, in writing about Benedict XVI's decision to drop the traditional papal title "Patriarch of the West," I referred to a 1969 essay in which then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger discussed the idea of creating new patriarchates in the Western church, such as in Africa or North America.
Chris Ruddy, author of The Local Church: Tillard and the Future of Catholic Ecclesiology, brought to my attention that Ratzinger was more dubious in 2000's God and the World:
Whether this is the form by which great continental units will have to be organized -- as I used to think -- does in fact seem more and more questionable to me. The roots of these patriarchates lay, after all, in their connection with their respective place of apostolic origin. The Second Vatican Council, on the contrary, has already defined the bishops' conferences as the form giving concrete shape to such supra-regional units. … Perhaps these offer possibilities better adapted to the current situation. There have to be supra-regional structures of cooperation, in any case, that remain more of a loose association and do not degenerate into great bureaucracies or lead to domination by officials. But there is no doubt that we need such supra-regional associations, which can then take over some of the work from Rome.