In the anticipation preceding yesterday’s election of the new Roman pontiff, especially what with the American media’s constant chatter about reform for the Roman Catholic Church, I could not help but be reminded of a somewhat less-anticipated primatial election that is still fresh in the hearts of the faithful of my own church, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. In December, the Holy Synod of Antioch somewhat surprisingly elected Metropolitan John Yazigi of Europe, a Syrian-Lebanese scholar and pastor who for only a few years served as the Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan of Europe.
Patriarch John X of Antioch is very much regarded as someone with a fresh and flexible approach to church life, though nevertheless uncompromising in the ways that an Orthodox hierarch should be. In this at least, it may be said that the election of the new bishop of Rome, the Argentinian Jesuit Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, marks a similar accession for his own church.
My purpose here, though, is not to engage in a thoroughgoing comparison of these two men in terms of their personal biographies and qualities (though that might be quite interesting) but rather to offer a few brief reflections in terms of the kinds of reform each of these two men might be capable of offering by virtue of their office as it is understood in the dogma of the respective churches.
And it’s also worth noting here that I am not merely comparing two primates but rather two primates who, according to Christian tradition, sit upon the Chair of Peter. Even though there is no evidence (Update: I really should have written “scant and not universally established evidence”) that Peter was ever bishop in Rome, it is the tradition of both the Orthodox and Latin churches that Peter did indeed exercise episcopal authority in Antioch, long before he ever came to Rome. There is even a feast day on the Roman calendar whose ancient name was The Chair of Peter in Antioch but is now the reduced Chair of Peter, celebrated on February 22 and referenced by Pope Benedict XVI in an audience he gave on that day in 2006. It is also worth noting that even many early Roman popes regarded the Church has having not one or two but three Petrine sees, not just Rome and Antioch but also Alexandria, by virtue of its establishment by St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter. This kind of language is found in this passage from Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604), who did not look at Antioch and Alexandria as former sees of Peter but current ones:
Your most sweet Holiness has spoken much in your letter to me about the chair of Saint Peter, Prince of the apostles, saying that he himself now sits on it in the persons of his successors… Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to the principality itself the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority, which in three places is the See of one… He himself stablished the See in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years. Since then it is the See of one, and one See, over which by Divine authority three bishops now preside, whatever good I hear of you, this I impute to myself.
(“To Eulogius, Bishop of Alexandria,” Book VII, Epistle XL, emphasis added)
That said, this post is also not about criticizing the Roman Catholic understanding of papal authority. Suffice it to say for our purposes here that even though Christian tradition associates three major sees with St. Peter, the Orthodox have traditionally followed St. Cyprian of Carthage (third century) in insisting that all true bishops sit upon the chair of Peter and that none has an exclusive right to his authority. And that brings us to my point here, which is limited but I think worthy of at least a moment’s notice.
Even though the media nearly invariably show a marked ignorance when it comes to religious matters, even things that are not terribly abstruse such as the mundane tasks of basic governance, they do seem to have a basic (if rudimentary) sense of what is actually possible for the Pope of Rome. They know that, even if he be a humble and unassuming man as it seems now subsists in the new pontiff, he is still in fact the monarch not only of the Vatican City State but of the whole Roman Catholic Church. With the twin dogmatic powers of papal supremacy and papal infallibility, he at least theoretically has the possibility for radical changes in both the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, I should say that I think it highly unlikely that the new Pope Francis will undertake anything truly radical, certainly not the kind of thing that the media and probably many American Catholics would like, mostly things pertaining to the one sacred history of American secularism, the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But it is at least theoretically possible, which is what makes such expectations available for contemplation.
Of course, some of this sensibility does come from a misunderstanding especially of papal infallibility. Roman Catholic teaching is not that the pope can make up new dogmas that were never before true or negate things long-believed by their church. (Mind you, the Orthodox would say that in certain cases he has done exactly that.) He would be prevented by God from doing so. That is where the infallibility comes from, the action of God. That said, stating that that kind of doctrinal authority even exists is the basis on which people get their hopes up for changes to doctrine.
The contrast I wish to draw here is with the Orthodox understanding of primacy, even the primacy of an exalted patriarch who is the successor of Peter. There is no power of infallibility in the office of any Orthodox bishop, even patriarchs, not even the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the most senior of all bishops in Orthodoxy. As such, even when he is solemnly making declarations concerning faith and morality by virtue of his office, the Orthodox do not believe that God will necessarily prevent him from erring. We have, after all, seen patriarchs who are heretics, including a pope of Rome.
Thus, on the one hand, we have the dogma of the Latins who say that their pope cannot err in such matters under certain conditions, and on the other we have the observation (not a dogma) from the Orthodox that their patriarchs are not necessarily preserved from such errors.
Likewise, concerning papal supremacy, the claim by Rome—and again, this is dogma, not just longstanding custom or tradition, meaning it is required for salvation to be believed—is for universal, ordinary, immediate episcopal jurisdiction by Rome’s bishop in every church throughout the world. That theoretically means that the pope could make big, big changes for 1.2 billion people. He may well be stymied by the inertia that comes of ancient religious institutions, but at least theoretically, tomorrow he could not only fire all Roman Catholic bishops and priests and replace them, but he could rewrite the mass, change the calendar of saints, decree married men to be eligible for priestly ordination and make them all worship in Argentinian Spanish. (A bit of trivia: Argentina is the only major Spanish-speaking country in the world that largely ignores the prescriptions of the Real Academia Española, having its own institution for such things.)
Now, would it be incredibly hard to make all those changes? Of course. Would he even dream of it? Probably not. But because he could, then people at least expect it may be possible and even want some of those things to happen. And it’s quite clear that it is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that he has that authority.
By contrast, no Orthodox bishop claims authority like that. Any Orthodox patriarch could be deposed by his synod. I do not see how it would be possible to depose a pope these days (though the last resignation by a pope was forced by a council). Because of the rather different nature of the authority of Orthodox bishops, sweeping changes of nearly any kind are almost impossible. Doctrinal statements and even administrative rulings are expected to be done in concert with the rest of the patriarch’s synod, and every Orthodox synod is expected to be in union with the rest of the Orthodox Church on such things.
This does not make for an absolute uniformity in all things, but rather for a consistent (and virtually immoveable) tradition to which all bishops are ultimately expected to be faithful. They are in no sense the architects of that tradition, and because Orthodox Christians do not also possess the Roman Catholic belief in development of doctrine, there really is no sense in which new things can pop up which in former centuries would have been rejected by the faithful—a prime example being papal infallibility itself, which was formerly rejected by Roman Catholics, even just shortly before its declaration as dogma at the First Vatican Council in 1868-1870.
The upshot of all this is that Roman Catholics can expect quite a bit more from their popes than Orthodox Christians can from their patriarchs, even patriarchs whose glory it is to sit in one of the ancient Petrine sees.
Although I reject a number of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, I nevertheless wish God’s blessings on the new Pope Francis and all his flock, and my prayer for him (and I mean this seriously without any sense of triumphalism) is that he will be a servant of Christian tradition and continue to ask, as his predecessor did, how his own Chair of Peter may be understood in terms of the first millennium of Christianity.