Academic Forum of Peace

Oikoumene’ as an Instrument of Peace: Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue in the light of the Ravenna Document


In the year 1964 an encyclical of Paul VI entitled Ecclesiam Suam was published. Its third chapter deals with the topic of dialogue. Within the sphere of the dialogue, the Pope distinguishes four circles.

The first circle of the dialogue is mankind. The contribution of the Church to the dialogue with mankind consists in consolidating moral truths in conscience. The significance of these truths was emphasized by a German poet, theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Schneider. He claimed that all great catastrophes in the history of mankind first took place in the sphere of morality and only later manifested themselves in wars.

The second circle comprises worshippers of the One God. Referring to this circle, Paul VI wrote: “But we do not wish to turn a blind eye to the spiritual and moral values of the various non-Christian religions, for we desire to join with them in promoting and defending common ideals in the spheres of religious liberty, human brotherhood, education, culture, social welfare and civic order. Dialogue is possible in all these great projects, which are our concern as much as theirs (…)” (par. 108)1. In the circle of worshippers of One God, the scope of dialogue is being continually extended to such areas as the defence of the primacy of God’s law over man’s law, the defence of marriage and family as well as defence of human life, to name but a few. Undeniably, a substantial contribution to the sphere of interfaith dialogue is that of Horst Bürkle. In his monograph “Erkennen und Bekennen. Schriften zum missionarischen Dialog” we can find theological foundations for the interreligious dialogue. The aim of the dialogue between religions is not at all the creation of any such entity as United Religions, nor any other institution modelled after the United Nations or the like. It is true that we must aim at finding common values. But at the same time we also need to maintain our own spiritual wealth and identity. Therefore, the interreligious dialogue is in fact an intercultural dialogue. As such, it is supposed to expose the cultural consequences that may ensue from our basic religious presumptions. During the last interfaith meeting in Assisi, the representatives gathered were reading out a declaration calling for peace. The representative of Islam read the following commitment: “We commit ourselves to engage in dialogue with sincerity and patience, without considering what separates us an insurmountable wall, on the contrary, recognizing that facing our differences can become an occasion for greater reciprocal understanding”2. These words point to the essence of intercultural dialogue – that which is different cannot be treated as an obstacle. Rather than that, it should be treated as an opportunity for mutual understanding. Such mutual understanding results in the art of differing in agreement. The art of differing in agreement is a foundation for peace, whereas the art of differing in discord triggers terrorism.

The third circle comprises separated Christians. According to the words of Pope Paul VI, it is especially the matters of contention that should be taken up in a dialogue within this circle. One of those divisive issues is that of papal primacy (πρωτείο).

The dialogue concerning the issue of papal primacy (πρωτείο) has been conducted within the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Kallistos Ware is among its members. The present state of the dialogue is delineated in the Ravenna document entitled Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority. On the basis of this document we can answer the questions of how the Orthodox and the Catholics understand primacy (πρωτείο), of the extent to which they are already united in their interpretation, of what yet remains a matter of contention and of the possibility of future agreement.

The Ravenna document was signed on the 13th of October 2007. Its structure, apart from the introduction and conclusion, comprises two chapters. The first of them, drawing on the Bible and the Tradition, presents the theological basis of conciliarity and primacy (πρωτείο) in the Church. Subsequently, the second chapter depicts their realisation on the local, regional and universal level of the Church’s life. Conciliarity and primacy in the Church are most fully justified on the grounds of the essential dogma of Christianity – the dogma of the Holy Trinity. This dogma is often considered to be irrelevant to everyday life, resembling some sort of a philosophical theory, called a ‘cross for the human thinking’. However, it helps us understand the Church. The Church is the icon of the Holy Trinity both for Eastern and for Western theology. That is why, when reflecting upon the Church, we have to take the dogma of the Holy Trinity as our starting point.

1. Primacy (πρωτείο) and Conciliarity as an Icon of the Holy Trinity

We can distinguish two models of understanding the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Eastern and the Western one. The Eastern model concentrates on the three persons and their communion (koinonia), whereas the Western takes as its grounding premise the Divine Nature which the three persons share. The Ravenna Document should be examined in the light of the Eastern model of the Holy Trinity. According to this model, the Father has primacy among the equal persons. As the metropolitan bishop Kallistos Ware asserts: “The first person of the Trinity, God the Father, is the ‘fountain’ of the Godhead, the source, cause or principle of origin for the other two persons. He is the bond of unity between the three. (…) The other two persons are each defined in terms of their relationship to the Father: the Son is ‘begotten’ by the Father, the Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father”3 (32). Since the Church is an icon of the three persons, among which God the Father holds primacy, it follows that also within the Church there must be a place for the primacy. Yet in the Holy Trinity all three persons act together and therefore, according to Metropolitan Kallistios Ware, it can be said that “God is ‘social’, ‘conciliar’; there is something in him that corresponds to the notion of sobornost4 (4). It would follow that since the Church is an image of the conciliar God, this conciliarity should also be mirrored in Its nature.

Being the icon of the Holy Trinity, the Church must at the same time be conciliar in nature and be internally characterized by primacy. Conciliarity and protos must be visible on all planes of the Church’s life, i.e. local, regional and universal. According to the Ravenna document, “Primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent. That is why primacy at the different levels of the life of the Church, local, regional and universal, must always be considered in the context of conciliarity, and conciliarity likewise in the context of primacy”5 (p.43). As far as primacy at all planes of the life of the Church is concerned, the document affirms that “primacy at all levels is a practice firmly grounded in the canonical tradition of the Church”. Moreover, it asserts that “while the fact of primacy at the universal level is accepted by both East and West, there are differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which it is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations6.

2. The Primacy (πρωτείο) on the Universal Level of the Church

Since the Church is an icon of the Holy Trinity, it is not only conciliar in nature, but is also characterised by primacy modelled after the Father, who has primacy between the Son and the Holy Spirit, both equal to him in the Holy Trinity. The primacy in the Church is visible on the local, regional and universal planes. On the local plane, it is the bishop who holds primacy in relation to the priests and congregation of the local church community. On the regional level, bishops are to acknowledge the primacy of the metropolitan and, hence, in case of decisions of greater importance should always await the metropolitan’s consent. At the same time, the metropolitan should refrain, in matters of greater significance, from arriving at decisions without the counsel of bishops from the archdiocese. Lastly, on the universal level, the Bishop of Rome has primacy over other patriarchs.

The primacy of the Bishop of Rome cannot, however, replace the Church’s conciliar structure. The Bishop of Rome operates neither above the Church and nor beyond it, but within it. Meanwhile, the papacy has exhibited a tendency towards overruling the Church’s conciliarity. One classical example of such conduct is the case of the Filioque. The Western theologian’s conviction of the Holy Spirit’s proceeding not only from the Father, as stated in the Gospel according to John (15,26), but also from the Son, was incorporated into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by Pope Benedikt VIII in 1014. The Orthodox Church sees the introduction of the Filioque as “unauthorized addition—for it was inserted into the Creed without the consent of the Christian East” (32)7. Having introduced such changes, the Pontiff positioned himself above the council, upsetting thereby the balance between the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the council. However, the Church should necessarily seek to maintain that balance. One example of an attempt to act in accordance to that principle is the cooperation of Pope Leo with the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon. As Klaus Schatz in his historical study confirms, “at Constantinople III (680-681) and Nicea II (787) the popes, like Leo at Chalcedon, pointed the way for the council through dogmatic letters. They did not expect their decisions to be accepted by the councils without discussion, and they always acknowledged the councils’ independent authority” (49-50)8. Even though the papal legates wanted the council only to sanction the Pope’s letter, a new definition of council, proposed by the council itself, emerged during the session. In turn, Pope Leo voiced his objection to the ‘Canon 28’ of Chalcedon, which decreed that “the most holy throne of New Rome, (…) the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her”9. Pope Leo justified his appeal by referring to the Nicene ruling, according to which it was Alexandria that was to be ranked after Rome, followed by Antioch (‘Canon 6’). The Pope also invoked the theory concerning the traditional triad of capitals of Peter championed by the Council of Rome in the year 382. It stated that it was also Alexandria and Antioch that were assigned a prominent role in the Church because of their special relation to the life of Peter. Antioch is the city of Peter’s long activity. Alexandria, in turn, is included in the tradition of Peter through Mark, his disciple10. That is why Constantinople has long tried to have its connection to Rome established through the person of Andrew, brother of Peter. The Bishops of Rome occupied crucial role in the proceedings of councils. Although not always present, they were always involved in the deliberations.

The primacy of the Bishop of Rome has to be understood in the light of the words of Ignatius of Antioch. In his Letter to the Romans he wrote: “Ignatius who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father11. Thus, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome consists in his presiding in love.

During Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Fanar in 1967, Patriarch Athenagoras acknowledged him as the successor of Peter, most worthy of veneration, as the first among us, and presiding in love. Thus, the high dignitary of the Church uttered a very important formulation of the role of primacy in the first millennium. Also Joseph Ratzinger maintains that Rome should not demand anything more than to be recognized as holding the presidency in love.

What yet needs to be reassessed is the biblical foundation for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Catholic theology most often cites the Gospel of Mathew saying “You are Peter (or Rock) and on this rock I will build my Church” (16,18). However, it is important to note St. Augustine’s words. He claimed that the Church indeed rests on Peter, though not on him as an individual human being, but on his faith in Christ, (“Non enim dictum est illi: tu es petra, sed: tu es Petrus. Petra autem erat Christus”). Thus, the sole foundation of the Church is Christ (180)12.

The Ravenna Document, however, does not exhaust the subject of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. It is merely a beginning of a discussion over this issue. The dialogue will be taken up again during the next session. Its topic is to be “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millenium”.


3. The Possibility of Reinterpretation or Correction to the Western Understanding of the Papal Primacy (πρωτείο)

The Western understanding of the papal primacy is presented in the Pastor Aeternus Constitution of the First Vatican Council from the 18th July 1870. According to the Constitution: “Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world”13. The Pastor Aeternus Constitution comprises four chapters: first dealing with Christ bestowing primacy on Peter, second presenting the continuation of the tradition of primacy, third exploring its character as the highest jurisdictional power and the last one dealing with the doctrine of papal infallibility. While the first two chapters contains well consolidated claims, it is the last two chapters that contain new and controversial statements. The old controversy over conciliarity is here resolved in the Church’s favour. The balance between the power of council and the papal primacy was upset to the advantage of the latter. It means a new model of the Church, whose sacramental structure has been replaced with a legal one. As Joseph Ratzinger recognized, it may have appeared that the sacramental structure of the Church was abandoned, but he answers this fear by asserting that the papacy is not sacramental in nature. Rather than that, he claims, it is a legally sanctioned institution (263)14.

Meanwhile, Orthodox theology maintains that the fundamental function of the Church is that of mediating grace through sacraments. It would follow that, within the Church, power is in the hands of those who administer sacraments. This establishes a radical division in the Church, the division into its lay and sacerdotal members, ordo laicalis and ordo sacerdotalis (51-52)15. Therefore the East is calling for the rejection of the doctrine concerning papal primacy from 1870 and, consequently, the annulment of the doctrines that have its basis there, that is the doctrine of Filioque, of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption.

When attempting to reinterpret the Western understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, it seems crucial that radical demands be avoided. As Joseph Ratzinger asserts, it would have been an example of making such radical demands if the West was to impose on the East the ultimate recognition of papal primacy in the shape in which it is presented in the 1870 document (267)16. By rejecting this claim, it cannot be maintained that the definition of papal primacy from Pastor Aeternus is to be regarded as the only possible one for all Christians. What was possible throughout the whole millennium cannot become impossible now. Therefore in its teachings on the issue of the primacy, the West does not have to demand from the East anything more than what was formulated and practised in the first millennium (269)17.

A reinterpretation of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome could be conducted in a comparable manner to the correction to the matter of Holy Orders made by Pius XII in Sacramentum Ordinis from 1947. The Council of Florence in the Decree for the Armenians from 1439 established that an essential element in conferring the Orders was the delivery of the chalice with wine and the paten with bread. This gratuitous addition to the original sacrament was annulled by Pius XII. It meant a conscious return to the tradition of the Ancient Church and, by the same token, to the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was thereby an amendment to the Western tradition made in accordance with the norms of the Universal Church18. The Western tradition of primacy could be likewise amended in the light of the tradition of the Ancient Church. It would be all the more possible if the status of the councils that were held in the West in the second millennium was reassessed. If they were to be treated not as universal councils but rather as synods of the Western Church, the Pastor Aeternus Constitution would acquire a different status. The Ravenna document points to the urgency of the question of what is the normative significance and the meaning of the Western councils as compared to the seven universal councils of the first millennium. All in all, it appears that it is possible to revise to the Pastor Aeternus Constitution, just as it was possible to revise the teachings of the Council of Florence concerning the matter of Holy Orders.

According to Imre von Gaal, the unity of Christians “is the result of spiritually living Christ`s charity, not of an administrative approach” (197)19. Therefore, as Benedict XVI suggests, what is already possible on the level of theology, must take time to mature spiritually in order that it would become possible to implement it in the sphere of the reality of the Church (269)20. This spiritual maturation is possible also through patient dialogue, of which the ongoing Academic Forum for Peace is also a part.

1 Pope Paul VI. “Ecclesiam Suam”. Encyclicals. <>. Accessed 9 Nov 2011.

2 Decalogue for Peace

3 Kallistos Ware. The Orthodox Way.

4 Kallistos Ware. „Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity”. The Website of St. Nicholas Church of Portland. Articles. <>. Accessed 9 Nov 2011.

5Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority. Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority”. Ravenna 13 Oct 2007. <>. Accessed 9 Nov 2011.

6 Ibid.

7 Kallistos Ware. The Orthodox Way.

8 Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: from its Origins to the Present. 1996.

9 Philips Schaff. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. (p. dxlix)

10 Schatz. Ibid.

11The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans”. In: Philip Schaff. Anti-Nicene Fathers. Vol. I.

12 Joseph Ratzinger, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche, St. Ottilien 1992.

13Decrees of the First Vatican Council.”. Papal Encyclicals Online.<>. Accessed 9 Nov 2011.


14 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Formalne zasady chrześcijaństwa. Poznań, 2009.

15 Ph. Sherrad.Church, papacy and schism. Limni, 2009.

16 Ratzinger. Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Imre von Gaal. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. New York, 2010

20 Ratzinger. Ibid.

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