"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Pope of Rome and the Christian East

Peter Seewald's new book-length interview with the pope,

Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times 

on which I briefly commented earlier, has of course already generated enormous discussion on--predictably and tiresomely--sex. Some have said that the pope allowed himself to be played by the media and should have known how these comments would be received. I would say, based on the entire book, that the pope did know the likely reception his comments would receive, and proceeded anyway. His previous interviews--especially the 1985 Ratzinger Report--as well as his 1997 volume of memoirs, Milestones set off firestorms so I'm sure he was not unaware that something similar would happen again--all the more so in an Internet age. In any event, I've just finished reading the entire thing and have seen that the "condom comments" are so tiny that only the tendentious would be interested in repeating them.

Let me, instead, focus on those aspects of direct interest to Eastern Christians, of which there are about twenty or so passages in the book that are noteworthy. I would divide the comments into (i) the encouraging but not really surprising comments (not surprising, that is, to anyone who has read Ratzinger over the last 40 years); (ii) the truly surprising; and (iii) the disappointing. Of these, (i) is the largest category; (ii) the next largest; and (iii) has only one disappointment. Let me take them in order. Not all treat Orthodoxy directly, but all of them, I believe, have clear and obvious bearing on issues about which Orthodoxy is concerned.

i) Encouraging Comments: 
  • The pope is not omnipotent: right at the outset (p.6), he underscores that notwithstanding the fact the Catholic Church is the largest such organization in the world, "the Pope does not have power because of these numbers." Indeed, he goes on to say that while the pope bears "a great responsibility," he "is, on the one hand, a completely powerless man" (6). He cannot control or correct or confront everything, and it is not his job to keep the entire Church in being: "only the Lord himself has the power to keep people in the faith" (7).
  • The pope is not exclusively the "vicar of Christ": this title, rather, belongs to "every priest" when he "speaks on behalf of Jesus Christ" (7). This is important, not only because history clearly bears him out in refusing to see the title as exclusively papal, but also because, in the furor in 2006 over papal titles (about which more presently), Orthodox commentators like Met. Hilarion (Alfeyev) noted that other titles, including "vicar of Christ" needed critical examination.
  • Infallibility cannot be invoked arbitrarily: Vatican I has, of course, been seen (often incorrectly, in my judgment) as a huge impediment to Orthodox-Catholic unity. Much of that is based on misunderstanding, which the pope is at pains here briefly to correct, insisting that the pope can never act "arbitrarily" but only in concert with other bishops and only "when tradition has been clarified" so as to proclaim "the faith of the Church" (8).
  • A papacy of martyrdom: Seewald quotes back to the pope a paper the latter gave in 1977, with which he still agrees today, saying the papacy must first and foremost be understood to have and to exercise "a primacy of martyrdom" (9). In other words, "standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being pope" (10).
  • Papal bibliophilia: not a major point, but on a blog about books, I was heartened and amused to read that after he moved into the papal apartments in 2005, he gave pride of place to his bookshelves: "in them all are my advisors, the books" (14). Only after they were installed did he give any thought to furniture, decorations, etc.
  • Curial criticism: In several places he very briefly (and in one place obliquely) criticizes the curial bureaucracy, calling it "spent and tired" (59); noting that "certainly John Paul II sometimes put off making decisions"; and agreeing that, while his predecessor "did undertake reform of the Curia," he "subsequently left many decisions to his collaborators" (79), not always, he seems to suggest, to good effect.  
  • Synodality: saying he sees no need for a "Vatican III," he expresses his view that "I believe that at the moment the bishops' synods are the right instrument, in which the entire episcopate is represented and is, so to speak, 'searching,' keeping the whole Church together and at the same time leading her forward" (65-66). This is not really surprising, though a little disappointing because the limits of the Roman "synods of bishops," as I have noted elsewhere, are considerable and perhaps most memorably summed up in the words of the late Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk, who dismissed them as synods, archly calling them no more than "international study days of the Catholic bishops." No Orthodox recognizes these synods as real synods in the sense in which that word is used in the East: i.e., as a legislative body, having real power exercised in conjunction with its (usually patriarchal) head. Roman synods are purely consultative bodies. That being said, the popes have so far not ignored the recommendations of all the synods held since Paul VI instituted them in 1965, but they are certainly free to do so, and that remains a point of concern to Eastern Christians. 
  • On not being a busybody: Referring to a document written in the 12th century by Bernard of Clairvaux for Pope Eugene III, Benedict agrees with him that no pope can allow himself to be consumed with files, meetings, decisions at the expense of "deeper examination, contemplation, time for interior pondering, vision...remaining with God and meditating about God" (71). Remember, he says, the pope is "not the successor of Emperor Constantine but...of a fisherman" (71). This is important because, as David Bentley Hart has memorably observed, many Orthodox fear the papacy as "the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire." It is good to have (as he notes below, and had done so previously) a "pared down" papacy, and thus good to have a pope who is not forever trying to insert himself into the business of his brother bishops around the world--unless, of course, a truly genuine emergency, that admits of no other solution, requires his intervention.
  • On not being a star: Some time ago, as those who follow him know, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed considerable unease with the fact that John Paul II was considered a "superstar." (He appeared on the cover of Time more than a dozen times.). He reiterates that here, but more gently and circumspectly, asking "is it really right for someone to present himself again and again to the crowd in that way and allow oneself to be regarded as a star? On the other hand, people have an intense longing to see the pope" and not him personally so much as "this office...the representative of the Holy One" (73).
  • On dialogue with Orthodoxy: Noting that as a "professor in Bonn and Regensburg, I always had Orthodox among my students, and this gave me the opportunity to form many friendships in the Orthodox world," he goes on to note that it is with Orthodoxy "where there is...the most hope of reunion" in part because "Catholics and Orthodox both have the same basic structure inherited from the ancient Church" (86). I confess I was slightly taken aback by this because Orthodox and Catholic structures--assuming the pope means ecclesial structures--do vary considerably: the Roman is bipartite (the universal and local), while the East is usually tripartite (the local, the regional, and the "universal" in some sense, pace the denials of some ignorant Orthodox polemicists who like to sneer at "universal" structures as purely Western and having no place in Orthodoxy, a risible claim to anyone who really knows what he is talking about). But this is a very brief comment he does not develop so we should not read too much into it. His larger point is valid.
    • Cordial relations between Old and New Rome: he expresses delight in the "real friendship and sense of brotherhood between" him and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
    • Russian relations: he notes his gratitude for "the friendship and the great cordiality that Patriarch Kirill has shown me," noting the latter has "such a joy about him, such a simple faith....So we understood each other well" (87).  The interviewer presses him a little later as to whether there will be a meeting between the two "in the not too distant future", and the pope responds: "I would say that, yes" (91). 
  • The nature of the unity we seek: he notes that unity between Orthodoxy and Catholicism needs to happen in order to spread the gospel and help the world believe, but that we must "truly relearn to see and understand our inner spiritual kinship with each other." He is not, he says, concerned firstly with "tactical, political progress, but rapprochement on the level of our interior affinity" (87). He expands on this later, rightly noting that 'beyond the doctrinal issues, there are still many steps to be taken at the level of the heart. God still needs to do some work on us here. For the same reason, I would also be shy about making any predictions about when reunion will happen. The important thing is that we truly love each other, that we have an interior unity, that we draw as close together and collaborate as much as we can--while trying to work through the remaining areas of open questions" (89-90).This, of course, clearly echos John Paul II's oft-stated call for the "healing of memories," on which I've commented previously with reference to Orthodoxy (“The Healing of Memories: a Suggestion for Liturgical Enactment,Ecumenical Trends 34 [2005]: 9-12), including here.
  • No new Uniates: Discussing the prospect of Anglicans entering the Catholic Church, the pope notes that structures being set up for them will be flexible. "We don't want to create new uniate churches, but we do want to offer ways for local church traditions, traditions that have evolved outside of the Roman Church, to be brought into communion with the pope and thus into Catholic communion" (97).

ii) Surprising Comments:
  • No hand kissing? The interviewer enumerates things that changed in 2005 when Benedict took office, saying "you abolished the custom of kissing the Pope's hand--though no one followed the new protocol" (82). Is this true? I never heard or saw this anywhere. Orthodoxy has objected to an over-exaltation of papal authority and some of its concrete expressions, but this would not be an objectionable practice given that Orthodox regularly kiss not only patriarchal and episcopal but also priestly hands.  The pope does not respond to this comment, instead insisting that his removing the tiara from the papal coat of arms was not so original because already Paul VI had given it away (and none of his successors have worn one). Frankly no Orthodox could object to the tiara (except, perhaps, the one Paul VI wore because it looked like some nasty cheap nursery-school project) unless we were prepared to renounce the use of imperial headgear on our bishops.
  • Backtracking from Dominus Iesus?  Discussing the conciliar language of particular churches, the pope notes that "the Eastern Churches are genuine particular churches, although they are not in communion with the pope. In this sense, unity with the pope is not constitutive for the particular church" (89; my emphasis)! When I have time I'll have to check this (especially the word "constitutive") against Dominus Iesus and also the 1992 declaration on the Church as communio because it sounds like the pope is introducing an important clarification or nuance here....  
  • No nationalism or nationalist "autocephaly" in the Church: Noting that "there has always been a tendency toward national churches, and in fact some have actually been founded," he nonetheless notes that in today's world the need is "precisely" for "an interior unity": "the Church needs unity, that she needs something like a primacy. It was interesting for me that the Russian Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff, who lives [sic] in America, said that their autocephalies are their biggest problem; they could use like a first authority, a primate" (138-39).
    • this is certainly true, as I have demonstrated at length in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press early next year. But I was a little taken aback here by two things: others have said this more recently--e.g., Nicholas Lossky--so this suggested to me the pope has not followed the recent literature. (I'm sure he's kept sleepless at nights waiting for my book on this score!) And surely he knows that Meyendorff is...dead? Meyendorff died in 1992--perhaps this is a translation issue--or even a typo--and the present tense ("lives") should, of course, have been in the past: lived.
iii) Disappointing Comments: 
  • Papal reform: the interviewer presses him to say more about why the title "Patriarch of the West" was abandoned and about how the papacy might be reformed to take account of Orthodox concerns, but the pope will not say, arguing that "these are contentious issues, which I would have to say more about than I can right now..." (89). I examined this question in  my “On the Patriarchate of the West," Ecumenical Trends 35 (June 2006): 1-7. There I said we very much needed to hear from the pope because the decision created such turmoil in the Orthodox world and the statement put out by Cardinal Kasper at the time was unhelpfully ambiguous--a concern I expressed in greater detail here. I very much stand by those comments. The 2006 deletion of the title was, and is, a puzzling decision. Many of us have tried to remain hopeful about its intended import, but further developments and clarifications here would be most useful.
This book covers much else besides. The overall impression, right from the beginning, is confirmed for those of us who know and have read and met Ratzinger (as I did very briefly in 1998), but may be new to others, including the media: he is a wonderfully gracious, humble, open man with a deeply affecting, inspiring simplicity of faith and trust in Providence.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr DeVille,

    Thank you for these comments. My copy of "Light of the World" arrived yesterday here at the office of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, and I have taken the liberty of posting this entire post on our website (http://www.cam.org.au/eic/news/the-pope-of-rome-and-the-christian-east.html) which is also distributed to email subscribers. I felt your commentary and analysis was very useful. Like you, I agree that the only disappointing thing is that we didn't get an answer to the deletion of "Patriarch of the West" from the Holy Father himself, given that the opportunity was delivered up to him on a platter!

    God bless your work, and I look forward to your book coming out. I hope it will be able to hold up an Orthodox "mirror" to Aidan Nichols excellent work "Rome and the Eastern Churches".


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