But I thought this would be a helpful introduction to what some of the current dialogues are saying with regard to the papacy, as well as some of the historical backgrounds and attitudes.
The question was recently put to me: Should the Orthodox Church be dialoguing with the ancient see of Rome with a view to our eventual reconciliation and reunion? In spite of thus disagreeing with certain other Orthodox Christians holier and wiser than myself, I must answer: Yes, most emphatically, the Orthodox Church should be doing exactly that....Touchstone also notes that this article, "Dialogue & Papal Strength," first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone . But it is not available at that link.
I suggest that the proper model for such an Orthodox dialogue with Rome was provided by the example of St. Mark of Ephesus, the most unforgettable of the Eastern delegates to the Council of Florence back in the fifteenth century. St. Mark is best remembered because of his casting the sole dissenting vote against the reunion of the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church. At the end, he became convinced that the effort for reunion at Florence would be successful only by an infidelity to the ancient Tradition, so he conscientiously voted against it.
Still, St. Mark did not refuse to dialogue and discuss the matter. His fidelity to the true faith did not prevent his taking part in serious theological dialogue with those with whom he disagreed. Even though the Roman Catholic Church was at that time in circumstances indicating great spiritual and moral decline, a decline that would soon lead to its massive dismembering at the Protestant Reformation, St. Mark did not despise Rome or refuse to join his voice to a dialogue summoned to make real that prayer of Christ that we all might be one. Those Orthodox who, like myself, believe that continued dialogue with Rome is a moral imperative, would do well to take St. Mark of Ephesus as their model.
At the same time, nonetheless, we Orthodox should be under no illusions about the difficulties attendant on such dialogue. Because Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have followed progressively divergent paths for nearly a thousand years, arguably we are right now farther apart than we have ever been.
For example, it should be obvious that the Roman papacy is the major obstacle to our reunion. Make no mistake—we Orthodox do not miss the Roman papal authority, for the simple reason that we were never under it. Not for a minute in antiquity did the pope of Rome ever exercise over the churches of the East the level of centralized authority he has grown, over the past thousand years, to exercise over the Roman Catholic Church. In the East, the pope of Rome was simply the senior among his brother bishops, all of whom taught, pastored, and governed the Church through various common actions, occasional synods, periodic consultations, and other forms of consensual adherence, most of them with only the faintest reference or attention to Rome.
The current Roman teaching that all doctrinal and moral questions can be definitively answered and settled by an appeal to Rome is not, the Orthodox insist, the ancient and traditional teaching and practice of the apostolic and patristic Church. If the ancient Catholic Church really did believe in any doctrine even faintly resembling the current doctrine of papal infallibility, there would never have been any need for those early ecumenical councils, all of them held in the East, which laboriously hammered out the creedal formulations, canons, and policies of the Church. The current papal claims, standard doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church since the defining of papal infallibility in 1870 and repeated most recently by Cardinal Ratzinger’s official Vatican declaration Dominus Jesus (released on September 5, 2000), represent an ecclesiastical development radically at odds with the Orthodox understanding of the very nature of the Christian Church as manifest in her ancient life.
The “solution” to this problem sometimes suggested by ecumenically minded Orthodox would be simply for the pope of Rome to forswear these recent claims and go back to the humbler status he enjoyed for the first thousand years of Christian history, namely, that of being the “first among equals,” the chief and foremost of his brother bishops, within a Church taught and governed by the broad consensual understanding of an authoritative Tradition. That is to say, many Orthodox would be delighted for His Holiness of Rome, repudiating what we regard as the errors attendant on his recent understanding of his ministry, to take once again his rightful place as the ranking spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church (a position that the patriarch of Constantinople has held since the separation of Rome from Orthodoxy in the eleventh century).
One fears, however, that this would be no solution at all. Such a weakening of the Roman papacy would be an utter disaster for the Roman Catholic Church as it is currently constituted. To many of us outside that institution, it appears that the single entity holding the Roman Catholic Church together right now is probably the strong and centralized office of the pope. The Roman Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years has moved toward ever-greater centralized authority, and it is no longer clear that she would thrive, or even survive intact, without that authority maintained at full strength. Anyone widely familiar with Roman Catholic publications these days is well aware that, aside from a general and somewhat vague agreement about the authority of the pope, there are reasons to doubt that there really is a unity of faith among Roman Catholics right now. Weaken the authority of the pope? I would truly hate to see such a thing. For instance, if Rome did not occasionally censure the heretics in that church, just who in the world would do it? Can anyone really remember the last time a Roman Catholic bishop in the United States or Germany or Holland (or elsewhere, for all I know) called to account a pro-gay activist priest, or a pro-abortion nun, or a professor in a Catholic college who denied the Resurrection? No, take away the centralized doctrinal authority of Rome, and one fears that the Roman Catholic Church today would be without rudder or sail in a raging sea.
If an Orthodox Christian, then, loves his Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, I believe that he will not wish for a diminished papacy....
On the other hand, I do believe it would be in the best interest of the church for not only "a diminished papacy," but also for some future pope, yes, to "repudiat[e]... the errors attendant on his recent understanding of his ministry," and just step down. True, such an act would be a "blueprint for anarchy," but if Reardon is correct, the papacy today merely functions as a Band-aid® on the anarchy that already exists.
As Steve Hays has said, only truth is normative. The papacy today does not reflect anything of the truth that Christ preached for his people. It does not reflect the ministry that Peter had in his lifetime, either as a disciple of Christ or as a leader in the nascent church (even if, with Cullman, you think he was a foundational leader). No one in the Apostles' lifetimes had any concept "successors of Peter" or of a continuing "Petrine" ministry.
I think the papacy should be abolished. It only harms Christianity. If Protestants of all stripes were to start saying that, and if they start saying why, such conversations are sure to be picked up among the broader Christian culture, and people are sure to start asking "why?"
On the verge of the anniversary of the Reformation, I think that that can only be a good thing. What do you think?