Chalcedon Canon 28: Yesterday and Today

Very Rev John H Erickson

A vote [psiphos] of the same holy council
taken in favor of the prerogatives [presbeia] of the throne
of the most holy Church of Constantinople.

Following in every detail the decrees of the holy fathers, and taking cognizance of the canon just read of the 150 bishops dearly beloved of God who gathered under Theodosius the Great, emperor of pious memory, in the imperial city of Constantinople, New Rome, we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things concerning the prerogatives of the most holy Church of the same Constantinople, New Rome.  For the fathers rightly acknowledged [apodedōkasi] the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome because it was the Imperial City, and moved by the same consideration the 150 bishops beloved of God awarded [apeneiman] the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of the New Rome, rightly judging that the city which is honored by the imperial authority and the senate and enjoys the same [civil] prerogatives as the imperial city of the Elder Rome, should also be magnified in ecclesiastical matters as she is, being second after [deuteran met’ekeinēn] her.

Consequently [kai hōste], the metropolitans – and they alone - of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforementioned most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.  Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons; but the metropolitans of the aforementioned dioceses, as has been stated, shall be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after proper elections have been made according to custom and have been reported to him.

This text presents some delicate hermeneutical problems.  Historians are obliged to wrestle with what it meant in its original historical context, but canonists and churchmen must also consider how it has been interpreted and applied over the centuries.  For Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians, this text is an integral part of the ancient canonical corpus that still serves as a common point of reference for the life of their churches.  For them - but possibly for others as well, Catholics and perhaps even non-Chalcedonian Orthodox – this is a living text.  Reflection on it continues to shape church life in various ways.  How have reactions to this text contributed to Christian divisions in the past?  What can renewed consideration of this text mean for the future?

As its rubric in the most ancient manuscripts indicates, what we commonly call canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon is more precisely a vote concerning the presbeia – the prerogatives or primacies - of the see of Constantinople. [1]   What is meant here by presbeia?  The vote in question, taken during the council’s final session, approved – over the strenuous objection of the Roman legates - a motion prepared the previous evening by a relatively small number of council fathers.  Why did the legates, and thereafter successive popes, object to it?  These questions point to one of the most fundamental but also most divisive issues in ecclesiology:  What is the nature and basis of primacy?  

The announced title of this paper was “Chalcedon Canon 28:  Yesterday and Today.”  If time permitted, no doubt it would make sense to proceed in chronological fashion, from “yesterday” to “today,” examining in turn the circumstances leading to canon 28, the actual formulation of canon 28, and then interpretations and assessments of canon 28 from late antiquity through the middle ages on down to modern times.  If only because of limitations of time, however, it may be useful to reverse this sequence and to begin by reviewing some of the more conspicuous aspects of modern discussion of this text.  Two tendencies can be noted:  a tendency to dichotomize and a tendency to project later realities and preoccupations onto the church life of the fifth century.  

It has become commonplace, first of all, to distinguish Eastern and Western approaches to church order rather sharply.  In examining the Church’s historical relationship to civil society scholars frequently have contrasted a “principle of accommodation” or “political principle” in the East to a “principle of apostolicity” or “Petrine principle” in the West. [2]   In these assessments, the solemn preamble of Chalcedon canon 28, with its emphasis on the significance of imperial status for ecclesiastical primacy, is seen as offering a classic example of Eastern accommodation of church structures to socio-political realities, while the reaction of the Roman legates, subsequently pursued by Pope Leo and his successors, is seen as offering an example of the “Petrine” approach, according to which Rome’s primacy is a consequence of its apostolic foundation and of its bishops’ succession from Peter.  Are these differences of approach so absolute as to be irreconcilable?  While the Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches remained in communion for many centuries after Chalcedon and its canon 28, these centuries were punctuated by a number of schisms and disputes, often related to the question of Roman primacy.  Does this mean that fundamental differences in ecclesiology, present already at the time of Chalcedon, were simply papered over at the time, leaving us today with no real hope of reconciliation save through submission of one side to the ecclesiological presuppositions elaborated more fully and explicitly by the other side in the later course of its historical development?  We shall have to return to such questions.

Many more differences between Eastern and Western approaches to ecclesiology have been detected.  These reflect the very different historical trajectories of our churches; and very often these differences do appear to be irreconcilable, or at least they have been presented as though they are irreconcilable.  Consider, for example, the self-presentations of the Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Churches in the 19th century.  In the course of the century, two popes – Pius IX and Leo XIII – made overtures to the “dissident Orientals,” as the Eastern Orthodox usually were labeled.  In his 1848 Letter to the Easterners, Pius IX acknowledged that these did indeed “serve Christ,” but he lamented that these “scattered sheep” were “aliens from this holy throne of the Apostle Peter” and exhorted them to “return within the enclosure of the fold of the Lord.”  The pope addresses himself especially to those “who, accomplishing the holy ministry…, excel others in ecclesiastical honors,” but he studiously avoids referring to these personages as bishops, much less as brother bishops heading sister churches. [3]  Clearly for him as for most Catholics of the period in question, Christian reunion was above all a matter of due submission to the Roman pontiff rather than of reconciliation of separated churches.

In the course of his letter, the pope referred to various ancient examples of what he considered appropriate Eastern recognition of papal primacy, including the famous cry of the assembled fathers of Chalcedon, “Peter has spoken through Leo!”  In their own detailed response to this papal letter, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem together with their synods put forward their own very different understanding of the significance of Chalcedon.  “His Holiness ought not overlook how, and after what examination, our fathers cried out as they did in praise of Leo.”  Before accepting Leo’s Tome, its every detail was carefully scrutinized by the council fathers, thus offering “manifest proof that an ecumenical council is not only above the Pope but above any council of his….”  As for the various prerogatives that the ancient canons ascribe to Rome, these were based on custom sanctioned by conciliar decisions, made - as Chalcedon canon 28 insists - “because it was the imperial city.”  In these conciliar decisions, “nothing is said of the pope’s special monopoly of the apostolicity of St. Peter, still less of a vicarship in Rome’s bishops and a universal Pastorate….  The reason assigned for the primacy [was] not ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘On this rock I will build my Church,’ but simply old custom and the fact that the city was the imperial city.”  The pope enjoins the Easterners to “cast away everything that has crept in among them since the separation,” but in fact he is the innovator.  It is actually the Orthodox who have “preserved the Catholic Church as an incorruptible bride for her Bridegroom,” for it is they who uphold in all its integrity the faith of “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” and maintain without alteration the practice of the early church, when “each local self-governing church, both in the East and West, was totally independent and self-administered” by “local synods.”  The Romans, by contrast, have abandoned conciliarity in favor of “monarchy” and “monopoly of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” [4]

This response of the Eastern patriarchs and bishops to the letter of Pius IX met with wide-spread favor in the Orthodox world.  The Orthodox Church, apologists insisted, was conciliar as opposed to papal.  It valued spiritual unity, in contrast to the Catholic Church, which insisted above all on institutional unity under the jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff.  It recognized Christ as the true head of the Church, rather than the pope.  It maintained, in its system of autocephalous churches – utterly independent yet united in faith - , the spirit of the early Church’s pentarchy of patriarchates.  In this way it was able to preserve ancient tradition intact, unlike the Roman Church with its myriad innovations.  In this way also, it was able to consecrate the unique gifts of the various Orthodox nations unto the working out of God’s design for the world.

The weakness of these arguments, however, became increasingly clear, even to the Orthodox, in the course of the 20th century.  Like the pre-World War I system of sovereign nation states, on which in so many respects it was modeled, the system of autocephalous churches failed to meet the many challenges of the modern world – a world radically different from that of the ancient ecumenical councils, a world different even from that of Byzantium and the Turkocratia.

One of the most conspicuous signs of this failure has been periodic confrontation, this time within the Orthodox world, concerning the significance of Chalcedon canon 28.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, effective leadership of the Orthodox Churches had passed to the Russian Church, even though it ranked only fifth in the order of precedence enshrined in the diptychs.  The Church of Constantinople was still recognized as “first among equals,” but its hegemony, shrinking along with the Ottoman Empire as new nation-states and national churches emerged in the Balkans, found effective expression only among the ancient patriarchates.   In the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, all this changed dramatically.  The Russian Church faced liquidation at the hands of Russia’s new Soviet masters.  Meanwhile the Church of Constantinople discovered new opportunities to express its leadership in Orthodox affairs, even as it lost its old power-base within the Ottoman Empire.

Particularly significant in this regard were initiatives taken by Meletios (Metaxakis), former archbishop of Cyprus and then archbishop of Athens, who served as patriarch of Constantinople from December 1921 to July 1923 and later went on to become patriarch of Alexandria.  During his brief but busy tenure in Constantinople, he assembled a pan-Orthodox congress; took various ecumenical initiatives; and – particularly significant for our present purposes – introduced the canons of Chalcedon, and especially canon 28, as justification for a series of interventions on Europe and America.  These included

- establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, on the grounds “the enactments of the canons and the traditional practice of the Church give to the most holy and apostolic patriarchal and ecumenical see the spiritual government of Orthodox communities outside of the regular boundaries of each of the Churches of God”;

- appointment of a patriarchal exarch for the Greek Orthodox of Western Europe; and

- granting the status of autonomy to the Orthodox Churches of Finland and Estonia, which before World War I had been part of the Russian Orthodox church.

During the interwar years Meletios’ successors in Constantinople continued his policies years in various ways, most notably in Poland and in Western Europe, but following World War II, after the Soviet government at long last allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to reorganize, that church was quick to respond to what it regarded as Constantinople’s unwarranted claims and actions.  It is not necessary here to review the Moscow’s arguments or Constantinople’s counter-arguments or to comment at length on the successive crises – over Moscow’s 1970 grant of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America or Constantinople’s reactivation of Estonian autonomy following the breakup of the Soviet Union – that have marred relations between these two churches ever since.  It is enough to observe that, for the Orthodox, the question of how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted has enormous practical implications. [5]

Does Constantinople’s interpretation of canon 28 accurately reflect its original intention or at least represent a legitimate extension of its meaning?  Or does it serve simply as a pretext for unwarranted “neo-papalism,” as the Russian Church has charged?  A purely historical exploration of what this canon meant in its original context will not answer such questions any more than it will resolve modern differences between Catholic and Orthodox understandings of primacy, products as they are of very different historical circumstances.  But such an exploration may be instructive nonetheless.  A full study of this subject cannot be undertaken here, but it may be possible to identify some points of agreement and not just points of disagreement.  At the very least, it may be possible to identify what the various parties took for granted at the time of the council.

The first and most obvious point is that all parties took for granted the happy coincidence of church and empire.  As Christian apologists had recognized long before, the church’s universal vocation (“go into all nations”) and the Roman Empire’s aspirations to universality neatly complemented each other.  As Vittorio Peri has put it, “The ecumenism of the Church and that of the State were so intertwined culturally and so ‘harmonized’ between themselves that they became interdependent in the common consciousness and behavior of Christians.” [6]  In this situation, relationships of filiation and dependence in the ecclesiastical sphere quite naturally corresponded closely to the prevailing patterns of government and public life.  The gospel spread from major cities to outlying areas, from capitals to dependencies.  To a high degree, therefore, the geopolitical importance of a city and the antiquity of its church’s foundation coincided, reducing the potential for conflict between “accommodation” and “apostolicity,” at least until the rise of Constantinople opened the question in a fresh way.

The empire provided the template, as it were, for the church’s evolving structures for communion and communication, and this was a template that took for granted the preeminent role of cities in the structuring of society.  It was, in other words, a template that differed significantly from our own modern society or, for that matter, from many other societies that could be mentioned (warrior empires, seigneurial agrarian societies, nomadic or semi-nomadic cultures…).   It did not begin by defining the outer limits or borders within which social controls would be uniformly exercised.  Rather, it started with a number of urban centers, each with a keen sense of its own identity, whose effective force would be variously felt over a more or less extended hinterland.  We therefore should avoid projecting our later notions of patriarchates, i.e. neatly defined and uniform autocephalous entities, each possessing something analogous to the modern state’s internal and external sovereignty, onto the church of the Roman Empire, just as we should avoid projecting later notions of papal monarchy onto it.  The church was an ordered communion of local churches, just as the empire itself was an ordered commonwealth of cities.

Of these local churches, some – depending on a variety of factors – might possess certain prerogatives, privileges, honors, rights and powers.  But these presbeia – these primacies - were not uniform or held in equal measure.  If one examines texts of this period, one cannot but be struck by the fluidity of terminology.  Word like presbeia, primatus, privilegia, timē, honores, potestas, proteia, and auctoritas are used in various combinations and almost interchangeably.  Often, though not always, context can indicate more precisely what is meant in a given case.  In some cases presbeia may mean simply seniority or precedence, but in other cases it may mean the rights and prerogatives that go with seniority, i.e. an institutionalized position of responsibility.  In some cases timē may mean “honor” as we so often understand that word today:  a mark of public recognition without practical consequences (cf. the honorary degree or honorary citizenship).  But more often, as Brian Daley has reminded us, “honor” in the ancient world suggests “the grateful recognition not only of political goodness but of political service,” recognition normally expressed “through bestowal of office: an institutionalized position of public responsibility.” [7]   Honor was inseparable from responsibility and from recognized capacity for making authoritative decisions.  Thus when canon 3 of I Constantinople accorded the bishop of Constantinople the “primacy of honor,” the presbeia tēs timēs, “after the bishop of Rome,” it was not simply recognizing his moral leadership and prestige.  It anticipated the major role that his see would play in the eastern part of the empire, above all in restraining the ambitions of Alexandria.

If I Constantinople canon 3 was rather vague about the content of presbeia, that was not the case with Chalcedon.  At most critical points, it distinguished between the merely honorific on the one hand, and specific rights relating to jurisdiction and practical influence on the other.  At the end of session 6, for example, when emperor and empress formally received the council’s definition of faith, Marcian decided to honor the little city of Chalcedon and the church in which the council was meeting:  “In honor of the holy martyr Euphemia and of your holinesses, we have decreed that the city of Chalcedon, in which the holy faith has been confirmed by this synod, shall have the rank (presbeia) of a metropolis; but we only wish to honor it with the name (onomati monō…timēsantes), and the proper role of the metropolitan city of Nicomedia is to be preserved.” [8]   On the other hand, there was nothing merely honorific about the presbeia conferred on the throne of Constantinople by canon 28.  The canon itself is very clear on this point:  “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.”

As  suggested earlier, the presbeia of the churches were not identical or uniform.  Canon 28 gave Constantinople certain clearly specified – and clearly delimited - rights with regard to ordinations within the three civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace.  Two other canons (9 and 17) gave him certain less clearly defined rights in matters of judicial appeal.  According to canon 9, “if a bishop or cleric has something against the metropolitan of the province in question, let him appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of the imperial city of Constantinople…”  Similarly, according to canon 17, “if someone has been wrongly treated by his metropolitan, let him make an appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of Constantinople, as has been said earlier.”  It is the subject of much debate whether these provisions are meant to apply, like the jurisdictional details of canon 28, only to the three minor civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, or whether they are intended to recognize Constantinople as an alternative court of appeal for the entire eastern part of the empire. [9]  The latter seems to me more likely.  Certainly even for the period between 381 and 451, cases of appeal are on record not only from the three minor civil dioceses but also from the diocese of Orient, whose “exarch” would ultimately bear the title of patriarch of Antioch. [10]  It is important, however, to recognize why such appeals might be directed to Constantinople rather than to the “exarch of the diocese.”  Exarchal structures, particularly in the three minor dioceses, were ill-defined and undependable, whereas in Constantinople, thanks to the continual flow of visiting bishops from all parts of the empire, a convenient court of appeal, in the form of the synodos endēmousa, could easily be convoked by the capital’s archbishop. [11]

The point here is that Constantinople’s rather wide-ranging rights in matters of appeal were clearly distinguished from its rights in matters relating to ordination, which were much more limited both in geographic extent and in their nature.  As Chalcedon canon 28 clearly specified, “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace…shall be ordained by the most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.”  Similar distinctions were made with regard to the presbeia of other major sees.  The Council of Sardica, for example, gave Rome specific but very wide rights in matters of appeal, but this did not mean that Rome enjoyed comparably wide rights in matters of ordination, and neither the canons of Sardica nor other canons directly addressed the question of Rome’s wider role within the communion of the churches.  Quite simply, at the time of Chalcedon the prerogatives or presbeia of major sees still were not uniform or evenly distributed, and neither were the bases for these various prerogatives clearly defined.  The patriarchal system of the age of Justinian had not yet fully emerged – and, a fortiori, the modern system of autocephalous churches.

Here we come to the main reason why Chalcedon canon 28, in some respects so clear, was also quite ambiguous and potentially misleading.  As Archbishop Peter (L’Huillier) has observed, the canon “did not have the purpose of defining the primatial prerogatives of the see of old Rome but only those of the see of Constantinople.” [12]  In this context, Rome’s presbeia were mentioned only as a point of reference and to provide a certain, by-no-means perfect analogy.  Much the same holds true for canon 6 of Nicea, to which Chalcedon canon 28 will allude.  Here the exceptional situation obtaining in Egypt, where custom in effect made the archbishop of Alexandria the metropolitan over several provinces, was justified by reference to the similar situation of Rome in relation to the suburbicarian provinces of Italy.  No reference to Rome’s apostolicity, or to any wider prerogatives it might have, was necessary.  So also in Chalcedon canon 28, the analogy drawn between the prerogatives of Rome and Constantinople was not intended to minimize the importance of Rome’s apostolicity.  (On other occasions, e.g. in their letter to Pope Leo, the council fathers could speak in much more deferential terms to the holder of the most venerable and preeminent apostolic see of Rome.)  Even in the initial section of canon 28, the drafters of the text made a subtle difference between Rome and Constantinople even as they drew an analogy between them.  The fathers of Nicea “rightly acknowledged [apodedōkasi] the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome” whereas the fathers of I Constantinople “awarded [apeneiman] the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of New Rome…” [13]

But why was it necessary for the redactors of this text to develop its long and laborious initial section in the first place?  The answer is quite simple.  Consider the style of the opening formulation:  “Following in every detail,” which so strikingly echos the introduction to Chalcedon’s dogmatic horos.  Here, just as with the dogmatic horos, the goal is to demonstrate the continuity of tradition, above all the council’s fidelity to Nicea, while at the same time explaining this tradition and giving it contemporary application.  The same concern can be seen in the curious restrictive clause in the dispositive second section of the canon:  “the metropolitans – and they alone…”  And then, “Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons.”  The allusion here is to Nicea canon 4, which along with canon 5 and the concluding sentences of aforementioned canon 6 deals entirely with the structure of the provincial church.  Here, just as in the initial section of the text, it was necessary to demonstrate Chalcedon’s fidelity to Nicea, in this case meaning that it was necessary to demonstrate that the supervision of provincial episcopal elections would remain in the hands of the provincial metropolitans, as provided for by Nicea, rather than pass to Constantinople.

Earlier I posed a question that frequently is asked when basic issues in ecclesiology are discussed:  What is the nature and basis of primacy?  From the foregoing, it is clear that when we are referring to the church of the Christian Roman Empire the question should be phrased slightly differently:  What is nature and basis of primacies?  Within the one church, bishops of the various local churches exercised a variety of responsibilities.  Collectively they were responsible for maintaining the ecumenical well-being of the universal church, but they did not exercise this responsibility in identical ways.  They were bishops of particular sees - sees with various characteristics, some large, some small, some distinguished by apostolic foundation, some by geopolitical circumstances, some by both, some by neither.  But precisely because of the particular characteristics of their sees, some of these bishops had responsibilities that were more far-reaching than others - in matters of ordination or appeals, for example, or in matters that were less specific but no less vital, particularly when these related to definition of the faith.  There were, in short, various levels and various kinds of primacy.  But these various primacies, whether at local or regional or universal levels, were all intended to be of service in and for the Church understood as a communion in faith and love.

These various primacies were not simply honorific, a matter of high titles, chairmanship at meetings and the first seat at banquets.  They could involve effective decision-making and juridical power.  But the power of a primate was not absolute or something that could be wielded in arbitrary fashion, as though the primate were outside and above the collective episcopal college.  The primary responsibility of those exercising a primatial role within the church was oversight, care, sollicitudo, phrontis, and through oversight the strengthening of their brother bishops.  Their responsibility was to see to it that the canons were observed, that due process was maintained, that the faith was rightly taught, that no scandal bring the church into disrepute, etc.  “Do not transgress the ancient landmarks which your fathers have established.” (Prov. 22:28)  This biblical injunction was on the lips of many churchmen at the time of Chalcedon.  They understood themselves to be guardians of the tradition, and this included not only the symbol of faith but also the canons, not just the church’s apostolic faith but also its received order.  This concern is evident both with those responsible for the drafting of canon 28 and with the Roman legates and eventually Pope Leo, who complained precisely that it violated ancient canonical order and the accepted prerogatives of the churches.   But as the example of Chalcedon itself indicates, both in its dogmatic decree and in its canon 28, sometimes it was necessary not just to safeguard the tradition but also, in view of changing circumstances, to explain it and give it contemporary application.   When is such re-articulation of tradition appropriate?  What distinguishes legitimate renewal from illegitimate innovation?

On such questions, there obviously was disagreement at Chalcedon, and there has been disagreement since.  Can the conception and practice of papal primacy that developed in the West from the 11th century onward be regarded as a legitimate development, a natural evolution from common principles held by all in the early Church?  Or is it, as the Orthodox so frequently have charged, a dangerous innovation, whereby the pope has effectively severed himself from the common fellowship with those who faithfully maintain the legitimate tradition?  Or, on a different front, do Constantinople’s 20th-century initiatives in the so-called “diaspora” represent a legitimate contemporary application of Chalcedon canon 28’s provisions for “bishops…who are among the barbarians”?  Or are they unwarranted intrusions into the internal life of other Orthodox Churches, the result of overweening ambition and self-interest which can only be destructive of Orthodox unity?

At the time of the last major anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon, in 1951, there was little agreement on such questions.  In the fifty years since then, Orthodox and Catholics, both independently and together, have made efforts to address these questions in new ways, in hopes of internal renewal and of ecumenical reconciliation.  There is both good news and bad news to report.

The good news and the bad news from among the Orthodox can be reported very quickly and easily.  The good news is that the issues of the “diaspora,” the diptychs (i.e., the order of precedence of the churches), and autocephaly and autonomy were placed on the agenda of the long-awaited Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.  The bad news is (a) that preparatory papers and schemata reveal sharp disagreements on many basic issues, such as how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted; and (b) that preparations for the council itself, never speedy, now seem to be indefinitely on hold, due to new tensions between Constantinople and Moscow.

The good news from among Catholics is that developments in ecclesiology from Vatican II onward have helped to place the question of papal primacy in a new light. Particularly significant was the council’s rediscovery of episcopacy as a true and proper order, “that by episcopal consecration is conferred the fullness of the sacrament of orders.” [14]   In principle, therefore, it is now recognized that the jurisdiction of the bishops, and not just their “power of orders,” is derived directly from Christ through sacramental ordination rather than by delegation from the Pope.  Equally important was discovery of the collegial nature of the episcopate and the beginnings of a more satisfactory way of accounting for the pope’s place within the episcopal college.  Theologians like Rahner, Congar, McBrien, Semmelroth and others can argue that “there is only one subject of supreme authority in the Church:  the episcopal college under papal leadership which can operate in two ways:  through a strictly collegial act [e.g., a general council] or through a personal act of the pope as head of the college.” [15]   Seen in this perspective, every primatial action in principle is collegial in nature.  Primatial ministry in principle is situated within the episcopal college, not outside it or over it, and the exercise of this ministry must be evaluated accordingly.

This understanding of primacy certainly comes closer to that of the early Church than did the papalism of Vatican I, and for this we should be thankful.  But the actual exercise of primacy in the Catholic Church often goes in directions quite at odds with the perspective offered by its leading theologians.  Lengthy demonstration of this point is not necessary here.  It is enough to quote from the concluding words of Fr. Tillard’s book The Bishop of Rome:  “The bishop of Rome is the sentinel who ‘watches’ over the people of God, which is his true function; but he often prefers to act as if he were the only one in charge, instead of alerting the bishops as authentic pastors in the Church of God.” [16]

Finally, from Orthodox – Catholic dialogue also comes good news and bad news.  The North American Orthodox - Catholic Theological Consultation has issued some encouraging statements on Apostolicity (1986) and on Conciliarity and Primacy (1989). [17]  Challenging past tendencies to dichotomize, for example, the consultation found no intrinsic opposition between a “principle of accommodation” in the East and a “principle of apostolicity” in the West, for “at a time when East and West were united in one Christian Roman Empire, neither approach necessarily excluded the other, for both pointed and aspired to universality.” [18]  The Orthodox - Catholic Joint International Commission was to have taken up the subject of Conciliarity and Authority in the Church in 1990, and quite possibly it would have produced an agreed statement at least advancing discussion of the subject of primacy.  Unfortunately, following the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, new challenges to Orthodox - Catholic relations have arisen, and it is unlikely that the Joint International Commission will return to its previous agenda in the near future.

If and when Orthodox and Catholics resume discussion of issues relating to primacy, at least two outstanding problems will have to be addressed:

(1) One problem arises from the way in which the ultimate basis for papal authority has been discussed hitherto.  Catholic theologians long argued that the papal office and the episcopacy exist iure divino, whereas intermediary entities like patriarchates and metropolitanates are simply administrative institutions established by ecclesiastical law.  One problem with this approach is that it seems to posit a qualitative distinction between two kinds of ecclesiality, one primary and necessary, the other derivative and dispensable.  In contrast to the local or particular church headed by its bishop on the one hand, and the universal church headed by the pope on the other, intermediary entities like patriarchates (but conceivably also other groupings reflective of diverse cultural patrimonies) are only nominally churches, possibly acceptable for pastoral reasons but lacking a properly theological basis.  For their part, Orthodox theologians have been inclined simply to deny that the papal office is a matter of ius divinum and to argue that church order above the level of the local church, whether intermediary or universal, is determined by the competent authority (the ecumenical council but conceivably also the emperor) in response to particular sociological and political circumstances -- in short, it is determined by ecclesiastical law.  The main difference, then, between Catholic and Orthodox conceptions would appear to lie simply in their evaluation of the basis for universal church order (i.e., papal primacy), Catholics saying iure divino and Orthodox saying iure ecclesiastico, and not in their evaluation of the basis for intermediary ecclesial entities.  The issue of primacy on any level but the universal therefore has not been addressed from a theological perspective.

This schematization represents, grosso modo, the way that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of ecclesiology have been pitted against each other in past polemics and possibly also in more recent discussions.  Is any other approach possible?  As a number of modern studies have argued, the concept of ius divinum is not very helpful here.  Its implication is always that certain institutions are necessary, and the others, historically contingent, are a matter of relative indifference.  But as Fr. Tillard has observed, “No clear boundary exists which permits us to say:  ‘What is on this side has been positively willed by God, what is on that side is entirely dependent on human freedom’.” [19]  If the Church were merely a societas instituted long ago by Christ, such a schema might be possible.  But the Church is also the living body of Christ, which is always being constituted in history by the Holy Spirit, as the locus for restored communion of men and women with God and with each other.  The necessity of a given structure for the Church, at whatever level, therefore does not depend simply on whether it was explicitly mandated or established in Scripture but rather on whether it responds to what the nature of the Church itself demands.  In this perspective, perhaps, it may be possible to reach a deeper understanding of the ecclesiological significance of primacy as such, and not just of universal primacy. [20]

2.  A second problem has to do with our “reading” of church history.  Often we speak of our unity during the first millennium.  But such appeals to history can be misleading or even dangerous.  We all know the old adage, that you can prove anything by Scripture.  Much the same could be said of church history.  Both the 19th-century papal initiatives vis-à-vis the East and the Eastern responses to these initiatives appealed to the undivided Church of the first millennium, or the Church of the seven ecumenical councils, but they drew from the historical record very different conclusions.  We still face the same problem today.  Should more weight be given to Leo the Great’s legates at the Council of Chalcedon, who referred to him as universalis papa, or to Gregory the Great, who pointedly objected when Eulogius of Alexandria referred to him as universalis papa?  Should we regard as particularly significant the fact that St. John Chrysostom appealed to Pope Innocent of Rome after his deposition from the see of Constantinople, or should we also take into account the fact that he appealed as well to Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquilea?  In an interview given soon after the publication of Ut Unum Sint, Cardinal Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity gave a non-technical exposition of his understanding of the exercise of the Roman primacy in the early Church:  “When one studies the first centuries to see what primacy was and how it was exercised, fundamentally it was to maintain communion.”  Bishops nominated by their local churches would request communion with the bishop of Rome, “and when the bishop of Rome accepted that bishop into communion, all of the churches automatically accepted that bishop in communion.”  Also, “when in a church or between churches there were problems or disputes, they went to Rome to ask the bishop for mediation and eventually, if it was necessary, to make a decision in order to maintain the unity of communion.” [21]  An Orthodox theologian or historian would present the historical record somewhat differently, even in a non-technical exposition.  He would point out, for example, that while other bishops sent letters of communion to the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Rome also sent letters of communion to the other bishops.

But should we be bothered by such differences in our presentations of the historical record?  Some might argue that, if we could remain in communion during the first millennium despite such differences, such differences should not divide us now.  A statement made by Joseph Ratzinger in 1982 perhaps could be construed in this way:

Rome must not require more of a doctrine of the primacy from the East than was formulated and experienced in the first millennium.  On July 25, 1976, when the Patriarch Athenagoras addressed the visiting Pope as the successor of Peter, the first in honor among us, and the presider over charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the declarations on the primacy of the first millennium.  And Rome cannot ask for more.  Reunion could occur if the East abandons its attacks on the Western development of the second millennium as being heretical and accepts the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form which it experienced in its own development.  Conversely, reunion could occur if the West recognized the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself. [22]

But would either Catholics or Orthodox consider this a satisfactory basis for reunion?  Would either side be willing at this point to regard issues relating to papal primacy, for example, simply as theologoumena?  One of the anathemas of Vatican I reads:

If, then, any one shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that Blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the Universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy -- let him be anathema. [23]

Does this apply to my Catholic neighbor, presumably because of his Western mentality, but not to me, because of my Eastern mentality?  It seems likely to me that many Catholics would be confused by reunion on such terms and that most Orthodox would reject it.

Doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Orthodox on the subject of papal primacy may one day be possible, but it will not be achieved simply by a retrospective ecumenism that looks only to the mythic “undivided Church of the first millennium.”  Deeper exploration of the meaning of primacy for the ongoing life of the Church is needed.  It is easy to explain why second-millennium Roman Catholic developments in ecclesiology and other areas took place as they did.  It might even be possible for the Orthodox to accept these developments as legitimate in their own very particular historical context - to acknowledge, for example, that Vatican I represented a legitimate, if partial, response to certain perceived needs within the Roman Catholic Church.  Conversely, if Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks offer any indication, Roman Catholics are willing to recognize “the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself.”  But both Orthodox and Catholics must consider whether their understanding and practice of primacy corresponds to what the nature of the Church requires at this point in history, on the eve of the third millennium. Given what Fr. John Meyendorff has called the “pragmatic realism” of the Orthodox Church on this point - her “dynamic and living ability... to preserve her own norms, her own principles of polity, her own divinely established eucharistic structures in the midst of contemporary realitities” [24]  - , it should be relatively easy for the Orthodox to consider this question - in principle, at least.  For Roman Catholics, given the burden of their previous ecclesiological formulations and their present administrative structures, this task in principle should be more difficult.  In reality in may be easier.  In an address at the Seminary of Rome in 1984, Pope John Paul II offered a refreshing survey of papal titles:

It is said – and this is true – that the Pope is Vicar of Christ…. The attribution, the phrase in question, is undoubtedly a strong one that arouses trepidation.  I must tell you that I prefer not to abuse this phrase, and to use it only rarely.  I prefer indeed to say “Successor of Peter”; but I prefer even more to say “Bishop of Rome.” [25]

If this can be not only said but also lived out, Orthodox and Catholics may hope one day for agreement even on this very difficult issue of primacy in the Church.


[1] For a thorough discussion of the text itself and of the circumstances of its drafting, see especially Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood, NY:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996) 267-96.  Other recent treatments of Chalcedon canon 28 include André de Halleux’s irenic “Le décret chalcédonien sur les prerogatives de la Nouvelle Rome,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 64 (1988) 287-323.  Especially useful among older presentations are Emil Herman, “Chalkedon und die Ausgestaltung des konstantinopolitanischen Primats,” in A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon 2 (Würzburg, 1954) 459-90, and A. Wuyts, “Le 28me canon de Chalcédoine et le fondement du Primat Romain,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 17 (1951).265-82.

[2]  For example, the classic presentation of Francis Dvornik, Byzance et la primauté romain (Paris, 1958) and also Anton Michel, “Der Kampf um das politische oder petrinische Prinzip der Kirchenführung,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon, 491-562.

[3]  Quoted in introduction to Encyclical Epistle of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the Faithful Everywhere, Being a Reply to the Epistle of Pius IX to the Easterners (reprint South Canaan, PA:  Orthodox Book Center, 1958) 3-4.

[4]  Encyclical Epistle 11.

[5]  Joseph E. Olšr and Joseph Gill, “The Twenty-eighth Canon of Chalcedon in Dispute Between Constantinople and Moscow,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon 3, 765-83.  Contemporary inter-Orthodox debate is also presented, from the Constantinopolitan perspective, by Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes, The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church:  A Study in the History and Canons of the Church (Thessaloniki:  Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1976) 132-233.

[6]  “First Millennium of Roman Tradition,” The Jurist 52 (1992) 84.

[7]  ”Position and Patronage in the Early Church:  The Original Meaning of ‘Primacy of Honor’,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 44 (1993) 529-53 at 531.

[8]  Cited by Daley, 544.

[9]  For discussion of these canons see, among others, L’Huillier, Church of the Ancient Councils, 229-36 and 251-54.

[10]  See Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Activity of the Bishop of Constantinople Outside his Paroikia between 381 and 451,” in Kathegetria:  Essays Presented to Joan Hussey… (Camberley, Surrey:  Porphyrogenitus, 1988) 179-210, who calls attention among other things to the importance of imperial rescript of 421, which authorized appeals to Constantinople from the entire eastern part of the empire, including Eastern Illyricum and Orient.

[11]  On the synodos endēmousa see J. Hajjar, Le Synode Permanent dans l’Eglise byzantine des origins au XIe siècle (= Orientalia Analecta 164, Rome, 1962).

[12]  Church of the Ancient Councils, 282.

[13] The similarities but also the differences between Rome and Constantinople were brought out as well by the imperial commissioners in their “official” exegesis of the canon:  “We declare that in conformity with the canons, the primatial rights [ta proteia] and exceptional honor [tēn exaireton timēn] of the dearly beloved-of-God Archbishop of Elder Rome have been preserved, but that it is necessary that the very venerable archbishop of the imperial city of Constantinople New Rome enjoy the same prerogatives of honor [presbeia timēs], and therefore that he should have authority to ordain the metropolitans in the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace.”  And the text goes on to describe procedures for this in detail, calling attention to its restricted nature.

[14]  Lumen Gentium 21.

[15]  Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy (New York:  Crossroads, 1990) 85.

[16]  (Wilmington, DE:  Michael Glazier, 1983) 193.

[17]  Available most conveniently in The Quest for Unity:  Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue, ed. J. Borelli and J. Erickson (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and Washington:  United States Catholic Conference, 1996) 125-30 and 152-55 respectively.

[18]  “An Agreed Statement on Apostolicity as God’s Gift in the Life of the Church” para. 13, in Quest for Unity, 129.

[19]  Church of Churches:  The Ecclesiology of Communion (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1992) 304.

[20]  On this subject note the conclusions of Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy:  From Its Origins to the Present (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1996) 180-181:  “The real problem and task today... is not the strengthening of the episcopal office as exercised by the individual bishops.  Instead it is the theological revaluation and practical strengthening of the functions of supra-diocesan structures whether those be national bishops’ conferences or similar bodies on a continental scale.   Theologically these supra-diocesan structures must be seen as ecclesiastical authorities with their own rights and not as bodies that exercise papal power by delegation.  They represent an independent expression of episcopal collegiality.”

[21]  Quoted in Origins 25.4 (June 8, 1995) 50.

[22]  Theologische Prinzipienlehre:  Bausteine zur Fundamentaltheologie (Munich:  E. Wewel, 1982) 209, quoted by Granfield 190-91

[23]  Denzinger 3058.

[24]  “The Ecumenical Patriarchate, Yesterday and Today,” in The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982) 241.

[25] Osservatore Romano, March 5-6, 1984, p. 6, quoted by Granfield, Limits, 184.