Patriarchate vs Papal Primacy – Fr. Joseph Ratzinger

Something which I have observed constitutes a cause for confusion in the dialogue between East and West is the notion of Patriarch. The Eastern Orthodox are wont to be thinking of the primacy of the Roman see by the concept of this term. But this isn’t how Catholics see it, and it would serve the purpose of both our communions if we were to clarify the root and origin of that authority that we call Papal, and explain how it differs from Patriarch. Though, by this, I do not intend a force being applied to the Eastern side which would compel agreement. Having said that, this clarification aids in shining more light on what the Catholic position is, given her dogmatic teaching laid down at the councils of Lyons, Florence, and both councils of the Vatican.

Now, the fact that we have interpreters who descend from the Greco-Byzantine patrimony who think Patriarch when considering the primacy of Rome is not difficult to believe in light of the fact that the Christian church under and with the Byzantine Empire had accommodated much of its external structuring to suit the geographic and Ecclesio-political operations. Moreover, the 6th canon of one of our shared Concils, Nicaea AD 325, seems to indicate that the Roman bishopric had a sort of quasi-Patriarchal (whose full form sees flowering more than a few centuries after the founding of the church), but more akin to Metropolitical, oversight of a wider region of churches. Some have argued that this canon bears no hint in this direction. But even if it did, it would only be a referent to the growing mode of Metropolia for the church of Rome, which encompassed churches close to the Italian territories. This had already been called “ancient custom” by the early 4th century. Since the churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and then Rome, held certain greater than average prominence, it was appropriate for administrative centralization to occur, bringing together many nearby churches, which were most likely daughter churches from the Mother-church.  This basic application is serves to reflect the practical rationale, and would  do the same for the upcoming 3rd canon of the Council of Constantinople held in 381 , as well as that of the 28th canon of Chalcedon held in 451. Now, Rome had never ratified these canons, and even when there is a final concession to  the inevitable Constantinopolitan primacy, it was not accepted on the logic of those two canons. In fact, n the year 381, no one could say that it is on the basis of “ancient custom” that Constantinople should rise in primacy. Rather, it proffered by the Byzantines that since her city was the new home of the Empire’s capital, it was due for elevation.  Further, it was said that since Rome had received her primacy from the same principle, it would only naturally follow that Constantinople is now Rome, though new. The Pope of Rome at the time, St. Leo I, had disallowed the canonization of that attempt, and emphasized the irreformability of the Nicaean canon which put the order at Alexandria first,  then Antioch, and after that, Jerusalem.

It helps to emphasize now that this level of primacy, that of Metropolitical, and which would turn into Patriarchs for the 5 greater Sees, is a creature of the Church. It was the “ancient custom” of the Fathers. This may or may not include a custom laid down by the Apostles, but I’m unaware of any positive or negative evidence. These Metropolitical centers only grew in light of circumstance, and not divine law. Secondly, they originated on the basis of a strategy to better manage the unity of nearby churches. The prerogatives were recognized by the Church, and originated by her.

On the other hand, Rome’s primacy was never stated to have been based off some conciliar or episcopal decision, but was rather something to have begun with the investiture of Jesus Christ in the Apostle Peter. Rome inherited the throne of Peter, and thus she receives, like a depository, his primatial authority for the universal Church. This is not extensive with Italy, or the West, but is universal. This was even held by the Eastern churches at Chalcedon. Their letter to Pope Leo represents the Eastern consensus just as much as the Council does. The novelty was, quite probably, the logic of the 3rd canon of Constantinople I and the 28th of Chalcedon. It is even more of a cause to wonder how the Easterners could say the things which they did about Leo in their epistle, and at the same time conceive of Rome’s primacy as entirely built off her being home of the elder Imperial capital. Some have argued that the Eastern bishops intended by  “fathers” in “the fathers gave Rome her primacy” (canon 28) on the basis of her being the home of the Imperial capital as the Apostles themselves. It seems like a fair explanation, though it leaves one still wondering.

Anyhow, I think it serves both sides best to realize that the Papal primacy is actually one and the same thing with Petrine primacy, and the latter was created by Christ in the Apostles, and was universal in scope. This is not just a matter of a distinction in the area of jurisdiction, but a whole different category of primacy than was conceived for Alexandria and the rest of the Patriarchs, especially Constantinople.

As a wrap, I give you hear the words of the younger Fr Joseph Ratzinger, who wrote an interesting article (now published in book form)  and which speaks directly to the inner logic of what I’ve tried to show:

“It is clear that the duality, set up by the earliest theology of succession with its emphasis on apostolic sees, has nothing to do with the later patriarchal theory. Confusion between the primitive claim of the apostolic see and the administrative claim of the patriarchal city characterizes the tragic beginning of conflict between Constantinople and Rome. The theory of patriarchal constitution, which especially since the council of Chalcedon, has been held up against the Roman claim and which has tried to force the latter into its own mould, mistakes the whole character of the Roman claim, which is based on an entirely different principle. The patriarchal principle is post-Constantinian, its instinct administrative, its application thus closely tied up with political and geographic data. The Roman claim, by contrast, must be understood in the light of the originally theological notion of the apostolic sees. The more new Rome (which could not dream of calling itself ‘apostolic’) obscured the old idea of the apostolic see in favor of the patriarchal concept, the more; the more Old Rome emphasized the completely different origin and nature of its authority. Indeed, this is something entirely different from a primacy of honor among patriarchs, since it exists on quite a different plane, wholly independent of such administrative schemes. The overshadowing of the old theological notion of the apostolic see – an original part, after all, of the Church’s understanding of her own nature – by the theory of five patriarchs must be understood as the real harm done in the quarrel between East and West. The mischief has had its effect on the West to the extent that, though the notion of apostolic authority has remained unharmed, nevertheless a far-reaching administrative-patriarchal conception of the importance of the Roman see has necessarily developed, making it no easier for those outside the fold to grasp the real hart of the Roman claim in contrast to other claims”
 (Fr Joseph Ratzinger, Primacy, Episcopate, and Apostolic Succession in The Episcopate and the Primacy , pg. 58-59)


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