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Theological Notebook: Vatican's Official Explanation of Dropping "Patriarch" Title

John Allen's "The Word From Rome" this week carries an official explanation from the Vatican for its recent dropping of the title "Patriarch of the West" from its list of titles ascribed to the Pope, a move which might seem purely ceremonial but in fact could be considered "constitutional" if the change reflects a move in the understanding of what constitutes the office of the papacy. Also here is appended a note on Orthodox theologian's John Zizioulas' talk this week at the Vatican on an anthropological approach to ecclesiology, with attention to that ancient Christian theological concept that has become part of the West's common legal and psychological vocabulary: the idea of a "person."


A month after the fact, the Vatican has issued an official explanation of the recent decision to drop the papal title "Patriarch of the West." Issued on Wednesday, the six-paragraph statement from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity says that the title never had a clear meaning, and appeared officially in the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican's yearbook, only in the 19th century.

The statement makes three key points:
* Dropping the title "Patriarch of the West" signifies no new claim to papal authority;
* The move should therefore not be read as anti-ecumenical, and may even have positive ecumenical value;
* The pope has a special relationship to the Latin Church, which involves a more direct form of authority than he has in the East, but the term "West" is not the right way to designate that relationship.
In addition, it seems clear from the March 22 statement that the creation of new patriarchates in the West is not in the cards, since the document says that bishops' conferences and international associations of conferences represent "the canonical order adequate for the necessities of today."

"The title 'Patriarch of the West,' which was not very clear from the beginning, became over the course of history obsolete and practically not usable any more," the statement said.

"Abandoning the title … clearly does not change anything regarding the recognition, solemnly declared by the Second Vatican Council, of the antique patriarchal churches," the statement said. "Even less so does the suppression signify new claims of authority. Renunciation of the aforesaid title is intended to express a historical and theological realism, and, at the same time, the renunciation of a pretense that could be helpful for ecumenical dialogue."

Though the statement did not quite say so explicitly, the Council for Unity issued the text in response to requests for clarification from other Christian bodies, especially the Orthodox churches in the East.

While most experts said the statement seemed fine so far as it goes, several said that there are still unanswered questions.

First, some wondered if the statement goes too far in suggesting a kind of equivalence between patriarchates in the East and bishops' conferences in the West. Patriarchates, these experts argue, are not a purely juridical construct like conferences, but belong to the apostolic patrimony of the early church. Some worry that Eastern Christians might be offended by the suggestion that an Eastern patriarchate is the equivalent of a Western conference of bishops.

Second and related, some experts said the statement may attribute a weight to bishops' conferences that they can't bear. The relationship of a diocesan bishop to the president of an episcopal conference in the West, for example, is far more informal and collegial than the relationship of a bishop in an Eastern church to his patriarch, who is clearly his superior.

Third, the statement acknowledges that the pope has a special relationship with Latin Christianity, yet with the suppression of "Patriarch of the West," he now has no title to designate that relationship. Isn't it odd, some experts ask, to acknowledge a core aspect of the papal office without offering a vocabulary to name it?

Fourth, the statement says that the term "West" is no longer a geographical concept, since "Western Christians" can be found as far away as New Zealand. Experts add that much the same thing could be said of Eastern churches, which also have faithful scattered worldwide. Hence there's a need to rethink the identification of rites with territorial boundaries.

Despite such points, many experts initially concerned about the decision to drop "Patriarch of the West" appeared reassured by the March 22 statement.

"I am very happy to see that the distinct role of the pope as the head of the Latin Church is being acknowledged," said Monsignor Michael Magee, an American who works in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Magee defended his doctoral thesis at Rome's Gregorian University on February 20, calling for a renewed appreciation of the pope's role as "Patriarch of the West."

"More will have to be worked out at a future date regarding that role, because it's important to have a sense that the Latin Church is not just a particular church, but one particular church," Magee said.

* * *

Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but just two days before the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued its statement, perhaps the best-known Orthodox theologian in the world was in Rome. Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, famous internationally for his "Eucharistic ecclesiology," delivered a lecture on Monday at the Oriental Institute on an anthropological approach to ecclesiology.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, was in attendance.

While Zizioulas did not touch on the "Patriarch of the West" issue in his public comments, it's not difficult to imagine that he and Kasper, or members of Kasper's staff, stole a few moments to talk about Orthodox reaction to the move, and what might be helpful by way of clarification.

In the lecture, Zizioulas unfolded what an ecclesiology based on the classical, patristic notion of "person" might look like.

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Zizioulas said the very notion of "person" as it's used today "has a birth certificate signed by the Fathers of the Church." By that he meant that the fathers saw the concept of "person" not just in ontological, but in relational terms, with the two dimensions being inseparable - there is no such a thing as a "person" in complete isolation from others.

In that sense, it is the action of the Holy Spirit which transforms individuality into personhood, and thus, Zizioulas argued, builds the church.
Tags: benedict xvi, ecclesiology, historical, papacy, theological notebook

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