The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium

Chiesa news agency has published a copy of a draft text (previously unpublished) from the current Orthodox-Catholic ecumenical dialogue.

It’s entitled:

The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium,

from the Joint Coordinating Committee for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church
Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece, September 27 – October 4, 2008.

Here’s the first part:


1. In the Ravenna document, “The Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church – Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority”, Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge the inseparable link between conciliarity and primacy at all levels of the life of the Church: “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” (Ravenna document, n. 43). They also agree that “in the canonical order (taxis) witnessed by the ancient Church”, which was “recognised by all in the era of the undivided Church”, “Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs’ (nn.  40, 41). The document refers to the active role and prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as “protos among the patriarchs’, “protos of the bishops of the major Sees’ (nn.  41, 42, 44), and it concludes that “the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches’ must be ‘studied in greater depth”. “What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia?” (n. 45)

2. The topic for the next stage of the theological dialogue is therefore: “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium”. The aim is to understand more deeply the role of the bishop of Rome during the period when the Churches of East and West were in communion, notwithstanding certain divergences between them, and so to respond to the above question.

3. The present text will treat the topic by considering the following four points:
– The Church of Rome, prima sedes;
– The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter;
– The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion;
– The influence of non-theological factors.

The Church of Rome, “prima sedes”

4. Catholics and Orthodox agree that, from apostolic times, the Church of Rome has been recognised as the first among the local Churches, both in the East and in the West. The writings of the apostolic fathers clearly testify to this fact. Rome, the capital of the empire, quickly gained renown in the early church as the place of martyrdom of saints Peter and Paul (cf Rev 11:3-12). It occupied a unique place among the local churches and exercised a unique influence. Late in the first century, invoking the example of the martyrs, Peter and Paul, the Church of Rome wrote a long letter to the Church of Corinth, which had ejected its elders (1 Clem. 1, 44), and urged that unity and harmony (homonoia) be restored. The letter was written by Clement, subsequently identified as bishop of Rome (cf Irenaeus, Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2), though the exact form of leadership in Rome at that time is unclear.

5. Soon afterwards, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Rome with high esteem, as “worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of being called blessed, worthy of success, worthy of purity”. He referred to it as “presiding in the region of the Romans’, and also as “presiding in charity” (“prokathemene tes agapes’; Romans, Salutation). This phrase is interpreted in various ways, but it seems to indicate that Rome had a regional role of seniority and leadership, and that it was distinguished in the essentials of Christianity, namely faith and charity. Ignatius also spoke of Peter and Paul, who preached to the Romans (Romans, 4).

6. Irenaeus emphasised that the Church of Rome was a sure reference point for apostolic teaching. With this Church, founded by Peter and Paul, it was necessary that every Church should agree (convenire), “propter potentiorem principalitatem”, a phrase which can be variously understood as “because of its more imposing origin” or “because of its greater authority” (Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2). Tertullian also praised the Church of Rome “upon which the apostles [Peter and Paul] poured their whole teaching together with their blood”. Rome was foremost among the apostolic churches and none of the many heretics who went there seeking approval was ever received (cf De Praescrip. 36). The Church of Rome was thus a point of reference both for the “rule of faith” and also in the search for a peaceful resolution of difficulties either within or between certain Churches.

7. The bishop of Rome was occasionally in disagreement with other bishops. Regarding the dating of Easter, Anicetus of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna failed to agree in 154 AD but maintained eucharistic communion.  Forty years later, bishop Victor of Rome ordered synods to be held to settle the matter – an interesting early instance of synodality and indeed of popes encouraging synods – and excommunicated Polycrates of Ephesus and the bishops of Asia when their synod refused to adopt the Roman line. Victor was rebuked by Irenaeus for this severity and it seems that he revoked his sentence and that communion was preserved. In the mid-3rd century, a major conflict arose regarding whether those baptised by heretics should be re-baptised when received into the Church. Recalling local tradition, Cyprian of Carthage and the bishops of north Africa, supported by synods around the eastern bishop Firmilian of Caesarea, maintained that such people should be re-baptised, whereas bishop Stephen of Rome, with reference to Roman tradition and indeed to Peter and Paul (Cyprian, Ep. 75, 6, 2), said that they should not. Communion between Stephen and Cyprian was severely impaired but not formally broken.  The early centuries thus show that the views and decisions of the bishops of Rome were sometimes challenged by fellow bishops. They also show the vigorous synodal life of the early Church. The many African synods at this time, for instance, and Cyprian’s frequent correspondence with Stephen and especially with his predecessor, Cornelius, manifest an intense collegial spirit (cf Cyprian, Ep. 55, 6, 1-2).

8. All the Churches of East and West believed that the Church of Rome held first place (i.e. primacy) among the Churches. This primacy resulted from several factors: the foundation of this Church by Peter and Paul and the sense of their living presence there; the martyrdom in Rome of these two foremost apostles (koryphes) and the location of their tombs (tropaia) in the city; and the fact that Rome was the capital of the Empire and the centre of communication.

9. The early centuries show the fundamental and inseparable link between the primacy of the see of Rome and the primacy of its bishop: each bishop represents, personifies and expresses his see (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrnaeans 8; Cyprian, Ep. 66, 8). Indeed, it would be impossible to speak of the primacy of a bishop without referring to his see. From the second half of the second century, it was taught that the continuity of the apostolic tradition was signified and expressed by the succession of bishops in the sees founded by the apostles. Both East and West have continued to maintain that the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishop and is the source of the latter.

10. Cyprian believed that the unity of the episcopate and of the Church was symbolised in the person of Peter, to whom primacy was given, and in his chair, and that all bishops held this charge in common (“in solidum”; De unit. ecc., 4-5). Peter’s chair was thus to be found in every see, but especially in Rome. Those who came to Rome came “to the chair of Peter, to the primordial church, the very source of episcopal unity” (Ep. 59, 14, 1).

11. The primacy of the see of Rome came to be expressed in various concepts: cathedra Petri, sedes apostolica, prima sedes. However, the saying of Pope Gelasius: “The first see is judged by no–one” (“Prima sedes a nemine iudicatur”; cf. Ep. 4, PL 58, 28B; Ep. 13, PL 59, 64A), which afterwards was applied in an ecclesial context and became contentious between East and West, originally meant simply that the Pope could not be judged by the Emperor.

12. The Eastern and Western traditions recognised a certain “honour” (timi) of the first among the patriarchal sees which was not purely honorific (Council of Nicaea, can. 6; Council of Constantinople, can. 3; and Council of Chalcedon, can. 28). It entailed an “authority” (exousia; cf Ravenna document, n. 12), which nevertheless was “without domination, without physical or moral coercion” (Ravenna document, n. 14). Although in the first millennium Ecumenical Councils were called by the emperor, no council could be recognised as ecumenical without it having the consent of the pope, given either beforehand or afterwards. This can be seen as an application at the universal level of the life of the Church of the principle enunciated in Apostolic Canon 34: “The bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is first (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories. But the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. For in this way concord (homonoia) will prevail, and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit” (cf Ravenna document, n. 24). At all levels in the life of the Church, primacy and conciliarity are interdependent.

13. The Emperor Justinian (527-65) fixed the rank of the five major sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, in imperial law (Novellae 131, 2; cf 109 praef.; 123, 3), thus constituting what became known as the Pentarchy. The bishop of Rome was seen as the first in the order (taxis), without however the Petrine tradition being mentioned.

14. Under Pope Gregory I (590-604), a dispute which had already started under Pope Pelagius II (579-590) over the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the patriarch of Constantinople continued. Different understandings, in East and West, gave rise to the dispute. Gregory saw in the title an intolerable presumption and violation of the canonical rights of the other sees in the East, whereas in the East the title was understood as an expression of major rights in the patriarchate. Later, Rome accepted the title. Gregory said that he personally refused the title “universal pope”, being honoured instead simply when each bishop received the honour that was his due (“my honour is the honour of my brothers’, Ep. 8, 29). He called himself the ‘servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum dei).

15. Charlemagne’s coronation in 800 by Pope Leo III marked the beginning of a new era in the history of papal claims. A further factor leading to differences between East and West was the emergence of the False Decretals (c.850), which aimed towards strengthening Roman authority in order to protect the bishops. The Decretals played an enormous role in the following centuries, as popes gradually started to act in the spirit of the Decretals, which declared, for instance, that all major issues (causae maiores), especially the deposition of bishops and metropolitans, were the ultimate responsibility of the bishop of Rome, and that all councils and synods received their legal authority through being confirmed by the Roman see. The patriarchs of Constantinople did not accept such a view, which was contrary to the principle of synodality. Though the Decretals, in fact, did not refer to the East, at a later stage, in the second millennium, they were applied to the East by Western figures. Despite such increasing tensions, in the year 1000 Christians in both the West and the East were still conscious of belonging to a single undivided Church.

It’s still unofficial, but very interesting. The complete document can be read here.

Update (September 29, 2010)

The above document should not be considered to faithfully represent the Orthodox views on the subject, according to a statement from an Orthodox Bishop attending a subsequent meeting of the ecumenical discussions. See:

Update from Catholic — Orthodox Talks in Vienna


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