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Otto Hermann Pesch

Papacy as an Obstacle to the Ecumenical Dialogue?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 10/2011, P. 661-667
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Via Constantinople to Wittenberg: Otto Hermann Pesch, Professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Hamburg, problematizes the papacy as an obstacle in the ecumenical dialogue and lists a number of points for a trusting and forward-looking dialogue.


During his state visit to Germany from 22 to 26 September 2011, Benedict XVI visited apart from Berlin and Freiburg also Erfurt - that city where in the time of the GDR the church-run "Theologisches Studium" so bravely endured. It trained the theological junior staff and has today deservedly found its place as a Catholic Faculty of Theology in the "House of Sciences" in the university. At his own request the pope met in the former Augustinian monastery with representatives of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) to exchange views on the situation of the ecumenical dialogue and to hold an ecumenical service.

It is probably impossible to find a place of greater symbolic importance for this meeting. Since 1505 Martin Luther lived here as a monk. From here he has - at his superior's behest - after his ordination, as it was usual at that time, studied theology at the university, namely a theology whose stronghold Erfurt was at that time: it was the theology of the school of the Franciscan William of Ockham (1285-1347). Its theoretical and existential consequences caused tremendous fears in Luther (as a condition of God's grace it is necessary to love God more than anything else - out of one's own natural strength; the absolution in the confession is only valid if perfect contrition from pure love of God exists, etc.). The pioneer of a renewed Catholic image of Luther, Joseph Lortz ( 1975) has bluntly described this theology, which at that time was not objected to by any teaching authority of the church , as "non-Catholic": "Luther wrestled a Catholicism down within himself which was not Catholic." And the Council of Trent (1545-1563) has explicitly rejected central tenets of this theology. Luther - this is the consensus of the research - has at last overcome this theology by studying Augustine, the founder of his religious community and as "Professor of the Holy Scriptures" by his professional work on the theology of the Apostle Paul.

All this is reason enough to ask in these current and historical contexts, whether and how far today the papacy is an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue, and finally causes the breakdown of the harmony which has been achieved in the other positions. Especially since Luther's view of the pope as the "Antichrist" is still in the air. This view was first very cautiously and later increasingly aggressively presented by him. It was adopted by the Lutheran Confessions but has meanwhile been relativized by the Lutheran Church! How are we to judge that?



Two statements by popes characterize still the situation: Pope Paul VI said in 1967, "The Pope, as we well know, is undoubtedly the greatest obstacle on the path of ecumenism" and Pope John Paul II in 1995, "The Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved... the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections".


The Papacy is Indeed an Obstacle in the Ecumenical Dialogue

Paul VI made this statement, which since then has repeatedly been quoted, in a speech on 28 April 1967 to the "Secretariat for the Unity of Christians" in Rome, today's "Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity". And the sentence of John Paul II comes from his encyclical on ecumenism of 1995, "Ut unum sint" (No. 88). So you need not prove the fact but only explain it. What should you know?

Throughout the entire first Christian millennium a primacy of the bishop of Rome - the exclusive title 'pope' is used since the 5th century in the Western Church - is out of the question, and a fortiori a universal primacy of jurisdiction with an infallible magisterium. The pope was the "patriarch of the West" and had, if at all, a kind of "honorary primacy" as bishop of the city where the "Princes of the Apostles", Peter and Paul had died a martyr's death. As regards the for the Christian faith so important early church councils, the bishops of the Western church took part only in Nicaea (325) - the Roman Empire was not yet divided; in Constantinople I (381) they were not present. In Ephesus (431) the representatives of Rome were not allowed to speak; in Chalcedon (451) they were only represented by a legation of the Roman Bishop Leo I, and in Constantinople II (553) they were together with Pope Vigilius in a humiliating manner locked out from the council.

The decrees of those councils were subsequently accepted by Roman synods or by the Roman bishop, and thus made mandatory for the Western Church. The dogmatic spadework of Leo I on the divinity and humanity of Christ ("doctrine of the two natures of Christ") for the Council of Chalcedon was by no means a "dogma", although it can hardly be overestimated. And the famous phrase of the council fathers, "Petrus has spoken through Leo" does not at all mean the recognition of a Roman primacy in doctrinal matters.

According to the historians the schism between the Eastern and Western churches begins normally with the events of 1054. After inconclusive negotiations, on 16 July 1054 Cardinal-Archbishop Humbert of Silva Candida had - without papal authorization - laid on the altar of the Hagia Sophia a by him formulated bull of excommunication against Patriarch Michael Kerullarios. This was at least partly also the result of a personal vendetta against the equally intransigent patriarch.



However, this event sealed only the alienation between Eastern and Western Church in the preceding two centuries, especially in the wake of the new Western Roman Empire since Charlemagne (crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800).

But Eastern Church historians see the traumatic incurability of the separation only as complete due to the Fourth Crusade: Its army - instead of marching on the Holy Land - conquered and pillaged Constantinople in 1204 by a barbaric massacre and established the "Latin Empire", which lasted until 1267 and was combined with the attempt to "latinize" the Greek Church.

The second field where the papacy becomes an obstacle to a new unity of the Church is, of course, the Reformation and the many Evangelical ("Protestant") Churches which emerged from it, and which as such are again multifaceted. It is important to know about it that Martin Luther has not primarily criticized and rejected the papacy because of its then scandalous lifestyle - although every reason was given to do so -, but because the pope placed himself and his authority above the Scriptures. In the response, which the papal court theologian Silvester Prierias in 1518 wrote listlessly, as he admits, but forced by Pope Leo X to Luther's theses on indulgences and which should be the basis of the Roman trial against Luther, right at the beginning Luther must read as the third "Fundamentum" (principle): "He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic." This sentence was the reason that Luther for the first time wondered, initially very cautiously, whether the pope was the "Antichrist".

Well, Prierias' sentence was even at that time a gross exaggeration. For even among the "papalists", i.e. the advocates of the pope's supremacy over the councils - one has always taken the possibility into account that also a pope may become a heretic and lead the Church into error, namely, when he clearly contradicts the Holy Scriptures. And Prierias' sentence has certainly not been confirmed by the First Vatican Council (1869-70) in the dogma on the primacy and the infallible magisterium of the pope. In order to convince yourself of this fact you only need read accurately the text of the dogma - even without any prior knowledge. But it is no wonder that the Protestant Christian world is still not convinced that the papacy has sufficiently clearly distanced itself from Prierias. The relation of Scripture and Magisterium is certainly even today, despite all the progress of the ecumenical dialogue a not yet fully remedied problem.

So, one must still say that the papacy, as it is presently constituted, has in the 21st century no chance as regards ecumenism. Of course, that the pope claims "supremacy over the Scripture", is out of the question: "The teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it" it says in Article 10 of the Constitution on Divine Revelation "Dei Verbum" of Vatican II.



Papacy need not be an Obstacle to the Ecumenical Dialogue

An old proverb says, "History gives freedom." In fact, the "obstacle" of the papacy shrinks quite substantially if we consider its historical development. For the sentence is not too daring: The Papacy in its present form with the (theoretical) claim to universal jurisdiction, and (in certain limiting cases) to an infallible magisterium, i.e. a teaching authority that is preserved from error, is the result of history. An outline of the main points: The word of Jesus to Peter, "You are Peter, which means the rock, and upon this rock I will build my community" (Mt 16:18) means, as the "Catechism the Catholic Church" ("World Catechism") of 1993 explicitly states that Jesus wants to build his church on that faith which Peter was the first to profess (No. 424, 442). Peter is the authorized spokesman of the Twelve, and by virtue of Jesus' prayer for him he shall "strengthen his brothers" (Lk 22:31 f.) - the only word of Jesus where Peter is compared with the rest of the Apostles.

But these words cannot mean a Petrine ministry, which has to be passed on and then handed over to the bishop of Rome. This is because the Roman church existed already before the arrival of Peter in Rome; and Peter was not her bishop. Instead, the church in Rome was led still for a long time by a collective, a "presbyterium." It is hardly to imagine that the word to Peter had quite clearly meant for all participants a "ministry" which must be passed on. The alleged Roman bishops, whom the church father Irenaeus at the turn of the third century lists in his fight against false teachers, are one and all legendary figures. On firm historical ground we stand only with Bishop Victor I, who at the end of the 2nd century intervened in vain in the dispute with the Eastern Church about the date of Easter. After that there emerged, as described above, a kind of honorary primacy towards the patriarchates of the East.

It becomes a universal entitlement not before the 2 millennium. This starts with the infamous Dictatus Papae of Gregory VII (1073-1085) - 27 guiding principles, which the pope incorporated in his register of letters. The Eastern Churches, and since the 16th century the churches of the Reformation have never recognized it. It was also controversial in the "Catholic" countries ("conciliarism" of the late Middle Ages, France; "Gallicanism") and in the Catholic theology it is up to this day a subject of "loyal discussion." Today, a pope can no longer, as still in the time of Pius XII, expect that a papal opinion or decision - even below the threshold of a solemn dogma - would be immediately withdrawn from any discussion among Catholics.



The Papacy can Contribute to Remove the Obstacle in the Ecumenical Dialogue

The papacy would significantly help to reduce the obstacle in the ecumenical dialogue if it - if the pope - publicly admitted this historical development, and thus the relativization and the possibility of far-reaching changes of his office. The legitimacy of the development of the Petrine ministry is judged by the criterion of whether it has provided a Petrine service in history - with the pope's words, whether it has worked "as the visible sign and guarantor of unity." This has been done certainly not always, as shown above, but nevertheless up to the present day in many cases that can not be enumerated here. The history of the papacy is by no means only a history of scandals!

What could, what should the papacy, i.e. the pope, do? Broadly speaking, he should do everything that awakens and strengthens the other churches' confidence: their own good Christian traditions are in good hands in a new communion with the pope. This could and should include:

1st The Pope should declare publicly that he in the case of a new full communion does not claim jurisdiction over the merging churches, as he exercises it at present in the Roman Catholic Church, due to the historical development.

2nd The pope should consider where he in his own church could relinquish rights which historically fell to him, if they could endanger the other churches' confidence in the protection of their own traditions. An important example of this would be the decentralization of responsibilities in the church: strengthening the responsibility of the bishops, participation of clergy and laity in the election and appointment of bishops, responsibility of the Episcopal Conferences for the translation of liturgical texts, and particularly the protection and promotion of the autonomy of particular Churches (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium", Article 13, Section 3).

3rd In matters of doctrine, the Pope should keep to the narrow limits of the First Vatican Council, i.e. he should stop the "administrative doctrinal decisions" [Lehrentscheidungen auf dem Verwaltungswege], above all by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - expecting an obedience as if it was about a solemn dogma. If at all, then only the pope in person is entitled to binding teaching competence, and not an authority which once at its founding in 1542 was called "Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition."

4th The Pope should exemplarily for all churches encourage the free word in the church, in the confidence that in the free exchange of arguments the truth will emerge, because all the baptized (and confirmed) Christians participate in the prophetic office of Christ (cf. "Lumen Gentium", Article 12).



5th The pope should publicly distance himself from anti-ecumenical tendencies, as they are cultivated even by some bishops, but especially in conservative Catholic networks - possibly with selective reference to statements of popes.

6th The Pope should and could already today try from the start to develop together with the representatives of the non-Catholic Christianity (Ecumenical Patriarchate, World Council of Churches, confessional world alliances) statements on issues that affect the whole of Christendom, or even, as in recent statements which are intended "for all people of good will" . It is on record that such cooperation has already worked well in the preparation of some texts of Vatican II.


Via Constantinople to Wittenberg?

Already in the 70s of the 20th century and until today, from the Protestant theology and church the proposal was made there should be a "ministry of ecumenical unity," a "Speaker" for the whole of Christianity, and under the circumstances the papacy could become such a ministry. Of course, in a legally precisely circumscribed manner, and only after proper reforms, for which already serious proposals exist. In today's media world, the pope is de facto already perceived as such a speaker by the non-Christian world.

In his ecumenical encyclical of 1995 Pope John Paul II has invited the representatives of non-Catholic churches to discuss with him the manner, the "style" of exercising his ministry, "while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission" (No. 95). As indicated above, only very little belongs biblically and historically to the "essential features" of this ministry. Well, in the previous section, the pope described this "essential feature" to the effect that the pope had to 'keep watch' like a sentinel (episkopein), so that, through the efforts of the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular Churches." He has thus anticipated the foundation of the result of the dialogue expected by him. It is understandable that thereupon nobody wanted to accept the invitation to engage in dialogue.

There is a process in the church, which, if it is taken seriously, can awaken ecumenical hope: Rome, the popes have been cherishing the hope for some decades that - due to the joint approval of the seven sacraments and the episcopacy in "apostolic succession" - a new communion with the Eastern churches could be achieved in the foreseeable future. However, the Eastern Churches will never accept even the mildest form of papal primacy of jurisdiction. If one nevertheless cherishes this hope, this means: "Rome" thinks that a communion is possible with churches which do not recognize a doctrine which has the rank of a solemn dogma in the Church of Rome.



If that is possible with regard to the Eastern Churches, it must consistently be possible also as far as the churches of the Reformation are concerned. It could therefore be possible that, in terms of the papacy, the ecumenical path to Wittenberg goes via Constantinople.



About the history of the papacy see the recommendable, sober book of the (Catholic) secular historian Rudolf Lill, Die Macht der Päpste (Kevelaer 2006); as church history 'proofreading': Georg Denzler, Das Papsttum. Geschichte und Gegenwart (München '2009); about the reform of the papacy, see the work of the retired archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, Die Reform des Papsttums (QD 188) (Freiburg 2001). - Many more details on the history and the ecumenical problems of the papacy can be found in: Otto Hermann Pesch, Katholische Dogmatik. Aus ökumenischer Erfahrung, volume 2 (Ostfildern 2010) 243-309; see also the observations of Paul Schroffner SJ, Geteilte Hoffnung - getrennte Kirchen. Ekklesiologie u. Sakramentenlehre als Herausforderungen im ökumenischen Gespräch, in this journal 229 (2011) 566-568. About the a recent ecumenical venture between a group of Lutheran and Catholic theologians, see Gemeinschaft der Kirchen u. Petrusamt. Lutherisch-katholische Annäherungen, edited by the group Farfa Sabina (Frankfurt 2010); for a report about it and a meeting about this issue at the Theological Faculty in Erfurt, see HerKorr 65 (2011) 169-171. About the most recent, surprisingly lively discussion and its implications for the churches, see Peter Gemeinhardt, Petrus in Rom? Neue Diskussion über eine alte Frage, in: Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen Instituts Bensheim 62 (2011) 63-67.


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