Pope Benedict XVI has just released a clarification on the documents of Vatican II where he explains what is meant by calling the Orthodox “Churches” while still maintaining that they are “defective.” In a major problem that exists between Orthodox understandings of the nature of the Church and Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of the Church – he reiterated that the recognition of the papacy as universal primate of the Church is necessary for the proper constitution of every local Church.
This has not been embraced by Orthodox theology but has been seen as an aberration on the part of Rome. There is no news in this, except for the fact that the Vatican is now saying openly what the Orthodox thought they were always saying. Honest dialog where all the cards are turned face up on the table is appropriate dialog. Thus, I am pleased.
My own understanding of ecclesiology, refecting on Orthodox works and writings, is well documented on this blog: the series of articles on ecclesiology were among my earliest postings. I commend them to you for re-reading. Doubtless, proper responses will come from Orthodox authorties soon enough. I am only a parish priest and in this matter do not speak for my Archbishop, Metropolitan, nor any of the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church.
The text of the Pope’s relevant remarks:
Fourth Question: Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?
Response: The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. “Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.
“It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”. However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.
On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.
The footnootes refer to notes in the original text [editor's note]
I thought the following quote from my articles on ecclesiology to be appropriate for mediatation:
I would start… with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way. If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.
The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.
Universal Primacy has a way of offering a [false] guarantee that transcends the cross [which can never be transcended]. No matter how badly we fail, the de jure Primacy of the Pope in every local Church, guarantees that no one can really mess it up. I think that is neat, and the product of human imagination. I believe that God has established His Church such that, just like Christ, when pierced with nails it will bleed. Only love binds the Church together, nothing more.
[notes added for fear that some were misunderstanding - again read my earlier posts on ecclesiology of the cross]
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