Today’s topic is, Three Cheers for Pope Benedict. The Roman Catholic Church has recently issued a clarification of the way the term, Church, is used in various conciliar documents. In this clarification, the Pope explains that the Orthodox Churches are called churches because they have apostolic succession. On the other hand, the same is not said of Protestant groups because they lack apostolic succession. Pope Benedict goes on, however, to say that the Orthodox Churches are defective because they are not in communion with the successor of Peter, who is the visible head of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, he asserts that this communion with the chair of Peter is not something external to the being of a particular church, but is one of its internal constitutive principles.
Talk like this is enough to get some Orthodox folks’ nostrils all in a twist. But I actually applaud this Pope for his candor. Indeed, I join with Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk who greeted this pronouncement by saying, “Now we know how far apart we really are.” The fact is, that in matters of ecumenical dialogue, talk of reaching consensus and points of agreement only serves to mask the very real theological differences that separate the Orthodox Churches from Roman Catholicism.
Frankly, I find this German Pope to be a great improvement over John Paul II, who some dubbed John Paul Superstar because of his media friendliness. Pope Benedict is, of course, completely wrong about all of this. This latest pronouncement rests upon three fundamental misunderstandings.
The first misunderstanding is something that I have written about before—the Pope’s pronouncement contrasts the Catholic Church, whose head is the Pope, with the particular churches. This universal local dichotomy is predicated upon a complete misunderstanding of what the word, Catholic, actually means. Catholic does not mean universal. There is another Greek word for that—ecumenical. Catholic, in Greek, means whole, or complete. When St. Ignatius said, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” By the way, Ignatius was the first person to use this phrase. He was referring to the local church in each place, headed by the local bishop. In other words, when the people of God gather around their bishop in the same place to celebrate the Eucharist, there is the Catholic Church. There is Christ in all of his fullness. Nothing is lacking.
Similarly, in the Creed, when we confess belief in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are not confessing our belief in some universal organization, but in the local body of Christ, gathered around her visible head, the bishop. Roman Catholics, however, use the term to mean the universal Church, which to their minds, is the Church, proper. This is contrasted with the local, or particular churches, which are churches only to the extent that they are fully in communion with this universal church. Hence, to the extent that these churches have bishops with apostolic succession and the Eucharist, they are churches. But to the extent that they are not in communion with the Catholic Church, whose head is the Pope, they are defective.
This brings me to the second misunderstanding, which is the idea that bishops have apostolic succession. This is completely wrong. Churches have apostolic succession, not bishops. In the early church, the office of apostle was unique and non-transferable. The apostles were not bishops and the earliest lists of bishops confirmed this. Linus was the first Bishop of Rome, not Peter. This means then, that bishops are not the successors of individual apostles.
To say that a church has apostolic succession is to say that it shares the same life and theology as the apostolic church in Jerusalem. This succession is traced through the office of bishop because the bishop is the sacramental head of the church, but this does not imply any sort of personal apostolic power on the part of the bishop. Otherwise, bishops would be able to appoint and consecrate their own successors, which they cannot do.
The idea that the office of bishop is tied to Peter, in particular, comes from St. Cyprian of Carthage in the third century. He is the first to speak of the chair of Peter, and yet, for Cyprian, each bishop in each local church has an undivided share in the chair of Peter. In other words, all bishops sit on the chair of Peter, not just the Pope in Rome.
In fact, Cyprian had a rather famous falling out with Pope Stephen. He certainly did not believe that the Bishop of Rome was either infallible, or the head of a universal church. So we see that in the early church, both East and West, the term Catholic Church referred to the local church in each place, headed by her bishop, and no one claimed that individual bishops were the successors of individual apostles, with the exception, perhaps, of Cyprian, who asserted that all local bishops were the successors to Peter.
But what about communion among the churches? What is the difference between the Orthodox view, and, for instance, congregationalism? If each local church is Catholic, the body of Christ in all of its fullness, then it will be identical in faith and life with all of the other Catholic churches. Obviously, this allows for differences in language and local custom.
This identity is visibly expressed by the concelebration of bishops with one another. The apostolic canons require that the bishops in a given area meet in a synod twice a year, and that this synod be chaired by the bishop of the most prominent city in the area, the Metropolitan. Over time, these Metropolitan districts grew into patriarchates. As my didaskalos, Father John Meyendorff, used to say, national churches are just overgrown Metropolitan synods.
Here is what I want you to notice. Strictly speaking, national churches are not really churches at all, but synods of local churches. This is an important point, because it illustrates the difference between Orthodox ecclesiology and that of the Roman Catholics. Communion with all of the other Catholic churches in the world is an expression, or a manifestation of, the unity that already comes from each church being the undivided Body of Christ. This communion of bishops, however, does not guarantee or create this unity. And yet, according to the Pope, it is precisely communion with himself, as the successor to Peter, that creates this universal unity.
Last year the Pope dropped the title, Patriarch of the West, and this was announced with great fanfare as an ecumenical gesture. Most Orthodox observers were quite puzzled by this, however, because that is one of the few papal titles that we do not actually have a problem with. That move, combined with this recent pronouncement, indicates that the Pope is trying to get away from the idea of the Vatican as a central administrative center, and yet, at the same time, he is strengthening his claim to be the universal pontiff. You will notice that he has done nothing to divest himself of the blasphemous title, Vicar of Christ.
We do not believe that Christ has gone anywhere, and therefore he does not need a vicar on earth. And that, in a nutshell, pretty much sums up the difference in ecclesiology between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Churches. And once again, I am grateful to Pope Benedict for dispensing with irrelevancies and helping both sides get to the heart of the issue.
And now may our great God and savior, Jesus Christ, who abides in his body, the Church, as her one and only Lord, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the blessed elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal Kingdom.