Over the past month, the conservative-leaning German Catholic weekly Die Tagespost has featured a series of essays about the prospects of reunion between the Orthodox Churches and Rome by the Greek theologian and professor at the University of Graz Grigorios Larentzakis (Part One and Part Two) with responses by the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch (Part One and Part Two). Although Larentzakis takes the dubious position, held by many theologians associated with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, that there is no schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, only an absence of communion, his suggestions for furthering grassroots familiarity and affection between Orthodox and Catholic believers are worthy of practical consideration.
Larentzakis also makes important suggestions for measures that Rome and the Orthodox Church should take to draw closer to each other institutionally. In particular, he proposes a joint re-affirmation of the ecumenical character of the Fourth Council of Constantinople (879-880), which, with the participation of papal legates, recognized Saint Photius as Patriarch of Constantinople and condemned the filioque. Moreover, although Larentzakis does not mention this, its first canon binds Photius and Pope John VIII not to receive excommunicated clergy from each other’s jurisdictions, demonstrating that the right to hear appeals is neither absolute nor jure divino, but rather subject to limitation in order to preserve good order in the Church.
Larentzakis also provides a concise and clear vision for how papal primacy should work after a restoration of communion:
From the Orthodox side, it would be self-evident and there would be no resistance to the fact that after the resolution of all controversial theological and ecclesial issues through ecumenical dialogue, Rome would once more take the first place among all the churches, on the basis of the foundational principle of the Pentarchy, as the Ecumenical Councils have decided.
The primus inter pares, the first among equals in the communion of sister-churches, the Bishop of Rome, the Pope and Patriarch of the Catholic Church, would have not merely a primacy of honor, but also concrete duties and tasks, as well as rights in the service of the Church as a whole, bound not only by the sensus ecclesiae but also in consensu ecclesiae, that is, through the consent of all in the synodal and conciliar community. Thus, after consensual deliberations and agreements, he would have the right to take initiative, the right to convene, preside and coordinate a general ecumenical council–or whatever the whole Church of Christ together agrees upon for the salvation of all people.
Cardinal Koch’s response is demure and lacks the clarity and concreteness that make Larentzakis’ contribution worth reading and he dangerously glosses over the highly controversial nature of the 2007 Ravenna Document (which has been ratified by few, if any, Orthodox Holy Synods) and the 2016 Council of Crete within Orthodoxy. He does, however, usefully allude to the fact that at this moment the Roman Catholic Church is figuring out how synodality works within its own life just as the Orthodox Church is debating the nature of primacy. The outcome of the German Synodal Way and the 2023 Synod on Synodality will do much to demonstrate to the Orthodox the degree to which Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and much else besides) can be reformed, even as this week’s move by Pope Francis to declare “on his own initiative” (motu proprio) that only post-Vatican II liturgical books constitute the lex orandi (and thus lex credendi) of his church is cause for grave doubts as to whether arbitrary papal authority can be limited in any meaningful way.
It is Rome’s actions within its own ecclesial life, rather than agreed statements and theological abstractions, that show the Orthodox what a reunited church would actually be like. Likewise, the Patriarch of Constantinople’s understanding and exercise of primacy within Orthodoxy demonstrates how he would expect Roman primacy to be exercised toward his own local church and toward all of Orthodoxy. Can the vision of a primate coordinating a council in consensu ecclesiae be reconciled with the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s abandoning the principle of consensus during the preparations for the Council of Crete? Can theologians of the Ecumenical Patriarchate credibly speak of the Pope as a primus inter pares while also promoting the Patriarch of Constantinople as primus sine paribus? Can a vision for a future communion of sister-churches be reconciled with the Patriarch of Constantinople’s attempts to re-define the concept of autocephaly to suit a centralizing vision of the Church?
Ecumenical dialogue with Rome can only make meaningful progress if the proposals put down on paper are congruent with ecclesial reality. To that end, Patriarch Bartholomew would do well to take heed of the vision put forward by his Archon Grand Protonotarios, Grigorios Larentzakis and model the role of first among equals.