No, Fr Joseph Ratzinger Did Not Concede To The Eastern Orthodox Notion Of Ecclesial Authority, Part 2

In a popular book entitled The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church,  authored by Vittorio Messori, a series of questions posed for then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to which all his answers are scripted in the book. Many consult this text to find what they claim is an admission on the part of Ratzinger that the Eastern Orthodox are the ones who carry the torch of first millennium Christian beliefs. I quote the portion that is often used below.


We have already referred indirectly to the Eastern Orthodox Churches. What are relations like with them? 

‘Contacts with them are only superficially easier; in reality we are faced with grave problems. These Churches have an authentic doctrine, but it is static, petrified as it were. They remain faithful to the tradition of the first Christian millennium, but they reject later developments on the grounds that Catholics decided upon these developments without them. For them, questions of faith can only be decided by a “really ecumenical” council, i.e… one which includes all Christians. Therefore they regard as invalid what Catholics have declared since the split. In practice they are in agreement with much of what has been defined, but they see it as restricted to the Church dependent on Rome and not binding on them’

Here at least, surely, ecclesiology is not such an insuperable problem?

‘Yes and no. True, they share with us the conviction of the necessity of the apostolic succession; they have a genuine episcopate and Eucharist. But they cling to the idea of autocephaly, according to which the Churches, even if they are united in faith, are also independent from one another. They cannot accept that the bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the principle and center of unity in a universal Church understood as a communio'”

When Ratzinger says that the Orthodox have an “authentic doctrine“, and that “they remain faithful to the tradition of the first Christian millennium“, does he intend to mean that the Orthodox are the true bearers of Patristic Christianity; moreover, does he imply thereby that the Roman Catholic communion has abandoned this first millennium patrimony and has innovated brand new doctrines which are departures from the Patristic heritage? After all, he says of Catholic doctrine that they were “later developments“.

Let’s take a step back.

For Ratzinger, these “developments” that took place in the Latin West are not additions to the faith already held in the first millennium. For starters,  according to Ratzinger the very basis for primacy in the early church was quite different than what had evolved in Byzantium law, and it was this difference which mainly contributed to the original schism in ecclesiastical government (See here). Constantinople had wanted to see the political prestige of the Empire as the principal cause to the who and where of ecclesiastical precedence. That would indicate that for him, there is definitely a divergence theologically divergence between East and West right there in the first millennium. Secondly, in 1996, which is 10 years after the publication the first large quote is taken from, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith organized a doctrinal symposium on the Primacy of the Succesor of Peter held in the Vatican. This was in answer to the request of Pope St. John Paul II, who had stated in his famous Ut unum sint that Catholics should “find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation“.(John Paul II, Encyc. Let. Ut unum sint, 25 May 1995, n. 95).  Ratzinger wrote a document while prefect of the Congregation summarizing that Symposium and of interest is a portion wherein he quotes St. John Paul II, and then gives his own thought:

“In his Message to those attending the symposium, the Holy Father [St. JP II] wrote: ‘The Catholic Church is conscious of having preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the ministry of the Successor of Peter‘. In the history of the Church, there is a continuity of doctrinal development on the primacy“.

So here we see an explicit statement from. Ratzinger which demonstrates he believed that these developments were actually a way to preserve the Apostolic tradition and faith of the fathers.

Some might read the statements made in the quote from the Ratzinger Report and recall other statements that Ratzinger made in Principles of Catholic Theology (1982) :

““Nor is it possible, on the other hand, for him to regard as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The symbolic gestures of Pope Paul VI and, in particular, his kneeling before the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch were an attempt to express precisely this……..In other words, Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of the primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium.  When the Patriarch Athenagoras designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one who presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the ecclesial content of the doctrine of the primacy as it was known in the first millennium.  Rome need not ask for more” (page 198-99)

Boom. Right?

Not so. In Part One, we already saw what Ratzinger thought about this Athenagorian designation (i.e. presides in charity and first in honor), and it most certainly was not that the *content* of it was reflecting the Eastern Orthodox idea of autocephaly, which Ratzinger not only implies is out of step with the tradition, but is explicitly wrong.  Ratzinger had then explained (2001) that the basic concept of the Vatican’s definition on primacy can be traced back to this notion of “presiding in charity“, when understood correctly, and that the 2nd millennial exercise of the Patristic notion of Papal primacy is what made such a stark differentiation. If one were to subtract the Latin developments, you still have, per Ratzinger, the roots of Papal primacy in the first millennium, albeit practiced in a different manner.  So here he is not saying that the Patriarch already fulfilled the conditions for a proper belief in the Papal primacy, but that his statements themselves can , once integrated into a historical interpretation, reflect the content of what can be shown to be in continuity with the later developments. So when he says that the Catholic Church cannot require more from the East, he does not mean to suggest that the Eastern Orthodox *already meet those requirements* as reflected in the Patriarch’s intention, but rather that the bare words themselves, when understood properly, tend towards the essential equivalent of what Catholics themselves believe, minus the 19th and 20th century developments.

But there is still more to quote. Ratzinger goes on the in the same work (Pg 216-17):

“Patriarch Athenagoras spoke even more strongly when he greeted the Pope in Phanar: ‘Against all expectation, the bishop of Rome is among us, the first among us in honor, ‘he who presides in love’.’  It is clear that, in saying this, the Patriarch did not abandon the claims of the Eastern Churches or acknowledge the primacy of the west.  Rather, he stated plainly what the East understood as the order, the rank and title, of the equal bishops in the Church – and it would be worth our while to consider whether this archaic confession, which has nothing to do with the ‘primacy of jurisdiction’ but confesses a primacy of ‘honor’ and agape, might not be recognized as a formula that adequately reflects the position that Rome occupies in the Church..'” .

Here again, the idea is not that the concept held by the Eastern Patriarch is the correct one, but that the formula itself could be assimilated to explain the roots of what were later developed as Catholic dogma on the primacy of the Pope.

In the Report, however, Ratzinger had further critiqued the Orthodox ecclesiology when he said:

These Churches have an authentic doctrine, but it is static, petrified as it were. They remain faithful to the tradition of the first Christian millennium, but they reject later developments on the grounds that Catholics decided upon these developments without them…….They have a genuine episcopate and Eucharist. But they cling to the idea of autocephaly, according to which the Churches, even if they are united in faith, are also independent from one another..”

Obviously, Ratzinger does not believe the theory of autocephalous churches is a faithful representation of the Church’s tradition, and thus he is not implying that the Orthodox are faithful in that regard. His view, therefore, is that the Orthodox have embraced the first millennium tradition of doctrine, i.e. the 7 Ecumenical Councils. This is clear since the rejection of the Latin developments are partly on the basis of them not being “Ecumenical” for the Orthodox. The implication here is that what they *do accept* is what has historically been accepted in the context of both East and West, which would be the Council list of Nicaea I to Nicaea II. That said, Ratzinger would still say that the modern Orthodox have not understood the authentic and genuine development of the Catholic dogma of primacy, which itself is even reflected, at least in the bare text , in the terminology that the modern day Orthodox [Patriarch Athenogoras] are willing to use in reference to the place of the Pope.

One last point – The dates of these material should also be consulted. Often enough we hear of people say  Pope Benedict XVI had believed that the Orthodox were faithful to the first Christian millennium, without any care to elaborate on what he means, when he said this, if he was Pope at the time, etc,etc. In fact, two works Principles of Catholic Theology and The Ratzinger Report were both published in the 1980’s. The document Ratzinger wrote as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was written in 1996, and the letter to Metropolitan Damaskinos quoted from in Part One was written in 2001 , only four years before he entered the Papal office. I think therefore that Part One should be consulted as the latest word of the Pope explicitly on what he thinks about the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology and the components therein that he feels can be managed to work a reconciliation of theology.  But even then, one does not detect a break, but only a growth in clarity.

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