The Alexandria Document and Constantinople’s Concept of Primacy

11 July, 10:03
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On June 9, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church released its seventh dialogue document, entitled “Synodality and Primacy in the Second Millennium and Today,” also known as the “Alexandria Document.”

by Benjamin Martin

Like the two prior documents of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, the Alexandria Document examines the question of Roman primacy and how it would be exercised if ever the Great schism is overcome.

The conclusion indicates an ongoing need for deeper ecclesiology in both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church:

“The Church is not properly understood as a pyramid, with a primate governing from the top, but neither is it properly understood as a federation of self-sufficient Churches… Similarly, it is clear that for Roman Catholics, synodality is not merely consultative, and for Orthodox primacy is not merely honorific” (5.1).

The document acknowledges that in the Catholic Church the process of deepening ecclesiology has been underway for some decades:

“The Second Vatican Council opened new perspectives by fundamentally interpreting the mystery of the Church as one of communion. Today, there is an increasing effort to promote synodality at all levels in the Roman Catholic Church. There is also a willingness to distinguish what might be termed the patriarchal ministry of the pope within the Western or Latin Church from his primatial service with regard to the communion of all the Churches, offering new opportunities for the future” (5.2).

Finally, the document indicates what is still required to settle the controversy over Roman primacy:

“The interdependence of synodality and primacy is a fundamental principle in the life of the Church. It is intrinsically related to the service of the unity of the Church at the local, regional and universal levels. However, principles must be applied in specific historical settings… What is required in new circumstances is a new and proper application of the same governing principle” (5.4).

Unfortunately, agreement on such an application is unlikely to emerge soon, in part due to the divergent national and geopolitical interests among the Orthodox autocephalous churches – divergent interests that have become ever clearer since Constantinople opposed the Russian Orthodox Church and granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019. In the wake of the assembly of the dialogue commission in Alexandria, Ukrainian Catholic participant Fr. Iwan Dacko reported the account of Archbishop Job Getcha that the Orthodox Churches of “Antioch, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Poland receive considerable funds from Russian oligarchs, on the instructions of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and are completely dependent upon him.” This situation is likely to hamper Orthodox unity and further Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement for the near future.

In spite of disagreements among the Local Churches, however, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has in recent years sought to exercise primacy within the Orthodox Church in a manner that both addresses the challenges that Orthodoxy faces in the present and charts a path forward to an appropriate exercise of primacy in the future. This future could include the healing of schisms – with the Catholic Church or with the Miaphysite Churches or perhaps even with the (Diophysite, though not Nestorian) Assyrian Church of the East.

To do this – to embody a new application of the ecclesiological principle of primacy – Constantinople cannot reach for the inappropriate expressions of primacy that have been employed by Rome. Instead, Constantinople has had to defend a vision of primacy drawn from her own Orthodox tradition. The controversy over Orthodoxy in Ukraine especially has demanded it. In a letter to Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana of February 20, 2019, for example, Patriarch Bartholomew wrote the following:

“[N]ot only in cases of Doctrine, holy Tradition, and Canonical Church Regulations, or even of general matters concerning the entire body of the Church, but also in all matters pertaining to important issues of specific interest to one or another Local Church, the supervisory provision and protection of the Great Church of Christ intervenes – sometimes ex officio and out of obligation, at other times at the request of interested parties – in order to offer an effective contribution for the sake of arbitration and resolution of differences arising among the holy Churches of God, to settle differences between shepherds and their flocks, to avoid inflaming difficulties and facilitate the return of Ecclesiastical affairs to a Canonical path, to bolster the occasional inadequate ministry of spiritual leaders in certain Churches, to support the weak, wavering, or misled in the Orthodox faith, and overall never to delay or eschew suppressing all kinds of moral and material danger that threatens the stability of the most holy Churches.”

In short, Patriarch Bartholomew has argued that a primate who is first among primates can authoritatively intervene beyond the canonical territory of his Local Church “sometimes ex officio and out of obligation, at other times at the request of interested parties.” Since the letter to Archbishop Anastasios was written, Constantinople has retained this vision. On June 13 of this year, Patriarch Bartholomew said that the Church of Constantinople “is dynamically expanding its pan-Orthodox responsibility, by intervening, when circumstances require it, in order to solve long-standing or new matters that arise.”

Both these statements indicate a limit upon the primatial authority that a primate can exercise in relation to other Local Churches. It is a limit of moral necessity: Unless requested by the interested parties, intervention must be “out of obligation” and “when circumstances require.”

The fifth document of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, called the “Ravenna document,” may shed further light on Constantinople’s concept of such primatial authority:

“The exercise of authority accomplished in the Church…since it expresses divine authority, cannot subsist in the Church except in the love between the one who exercises it and those subject to it. It is, therefore, an authority without domination…or moral coercion…it can and must call for obedience.” (§14)

Ecclesiastical authority calls for obedience. So when her intervention beyond her own canonical territory becomes necessary, Constantinople too seeks obedience.

To speak for a moment of obedience generally, the obedience owed by a subject to his superior is limited by the precise jurisdiction of the superior and by the commands of higher authority, such as commands of God. Patriarch Bartholomew has described in very broad terms the matters subject to the jurisdiction of a primate obligated to intervene beyond the territory of his Local Church: extending to “cases of Doctrine, holy Tradition, Canonical Church Regulations,” to “general matters concerning the entire body of the Church,” and even to “all matters pertaining to important issues of specific interest to one or another Local Church.” But no ecclesiastical authority can contravene the commands of God or contradict the faith that He has established in the Local Churches. Consequently, if we may employ the concept of conscience, Constantinople can understand the authority of a primate who is first among primates to apply to what conscience obligates the primate to command and what conscience permits those commanded to obey.

Conscience can never be understood as opposed to ecclesiastical authority as such. But it can be understood as a check against the abuse of such authority. It is precisely for this reason that the Church has long recognized the eminence of certain sees, in which the Christian faith is long and well established. The witness of these Churches especially, and the dictates of the conscience of their primates, check the primatial authority of the primate who is first among the primates. For the same reason, the fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea considered especially the consent of the Patriarchs of the Pentarchy to determine whether a synod could be counted an ecumenical council.

With this concept of primatial authority that is exercised by a primate who is first among primates, that is limited by moral necessity, that calls for obedience, and that is checked by conscience and especially by the conscience of the primates of the most eminent sees, Constantinople has coupled one more element. Without “imply[ing] inequality in their ecclesial nature,” (‘Ravenna Document’, §5) the Ecumenical Patriarchate consistently distinguishes between her “daughter churches” and the “elder patriarchates.” Constantinople’s recent interventions have concerned her daughters – the Byzantine national churches of Eastern Europe. (Cyprus and Georgia are not daughters of Constantinople strictly speaking, having first gained autocephaly apart from her, yet they too benefit from her maternal care.) Constantinople is perhaps more apt to intervene among the Churches of Eastern Europe – always from moral necessity – and she clearly expects from them readier obedience.

In contrast, Constantinople is less likely to intervene among the elder patriarchates, and perhaps she could not find herself obligated to intervene among them at all. This distinction that Constantinople makes among Local Churches is important because by it Constantinople establishes a precedent to regulate future relations with Rome. If ever the Great Schism is overcome and the Orthodox Churches recognize in Rome more than honorific primacy, Constantinople has demonstrated for the benefit of all the Church how to exercise primacy more readily among her own daughters than among the other elder patriarchates and their daughters. Because of Constantinople’s example, the Churches of the East can expect Rome to exercise her primacy more readily among the national churches that make up the Latin Church than among the Eastern Churches, and therefore to employ a far lighter touch if ever Rome finds herself obligated to intervene in the affairs of the most eminent sees in the East or their daughter churches, who are of course better entrusted to their maternal care.

By her careful leadership, Constantinople teaches Catholics and Rome to respect the differentiated responsibilities of their primate: Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan Archbishop of Latium, Primate of Italy, Patriarch of the Latin Church, and Supreme Pontiff of the Church Universal. May the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople forever remain so eminent a witness to the Lord through whom He accomplishes His gracious will.

Benjamin Martin studied philosophy at Boston College and Loyola University Chicago. He writes on ethics, ecumenism, and religion and politics in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.