You Are Peter: A Critical Analysis of the Orthodox View of Papal Primacy in View of an Alternative Way of Exercising Papal Primacy

By Mshanga, Vitalis | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

You Are Peter: A Critical Analysis of the Orthodox View of Papal Primacy in View of an Alternative Way of Exercising Papal Primacy


Mshanga, Vitalis, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. Introduction

Written in Latin, around the base of the big dome in the interior of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, are the following words: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. This phrase is an extract from Mt. 16:17-19, which presents Jesus' words to the apostle Peter: "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." (1) It is clear that this inscription is indicative of the mission entrusted to Peter. Very often in Roman Catholic circles--and not without criticism--reference has been made to this text in support of papal primacy. (2) Papal ministry, which is considered a symbol and instrument of the church's unity, has paradoxically turned out to be a stumbling block on the road toward such unity. (3) This is so partly because of the manner in which papal ministry understands itself and has exercised its authority down through the centuries. (4) Orthodox theologians such as Mesrob Krikorian, emeritus archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, have consistently criticized the traditional Catholic understanding and the practice of primacy as having evolved from being a ministry of service to an instrument of power and authority. (5) The many criticisms levied against this ministry indicate the need for thoroughgoing revision of its understanding and exercise.

Traditionally speaking, papal primacy has often been linked with the primacy of the city of Rome as the head of the world (caput mundi). Rome was considered to be caput mundi because of a number of factors, such as "the dignity of Rome as the only apostolic church in the West, the tradition that both Peter and Paul had been martyred there, the long history of Rome as capital of the Empire, and its continuing position as the chief center of commerce and communications." (6) Consequently, up until today, the Church of Rome and its bishop are considered as representing the unity and universality of the church. According to Francis Dvornik, there are two principles that shaped the understanding of primacy in the Western and Oriental churches. While the Western Church stresses the "principle of apostolicity," the Oriental Church emphasizes the "principle of accommodation" in the organization of the church. (7) This means that whereas the church Fathers in the West stressed the primacy of the see of Rome on the basis of the apostolic and Petrine origin of the see, the Oriental Fathers emphasized the significance of the sees of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria based on modeling the ecclesiastical organization after the political system of the imperial provinces. Therefore, in the West, the "principle of apostolicity" gave popes uncontested authority to govern, judge, and issue decrees to all holy churches of God throughout the world. (8) Historians believe that not only Christ but also holy councils bestowed such prerogative on the Holy See.

This essay, therefore, undertakes a critical examination of the Orthodox understanding of primacy, in view of proposing a model of papal primacy befitting the contemporary ecumenical situation. I will argue that the model of primacy fitting for the third millennium is the "primacy in communion." In view of this, I shall proceed in four steps: first, I shall present the Roman Catholic understanding of papal primacy. Second, I shall present the Orthodox understanding of authority in general and primacy in particular. Third, I shall examine the Orthodox understanding of papal primacy in order to propose a new way for papal primacy to be understood and exercised. Finally, I shall offer an alternative model of exercising papal ministry. The question that lurks in the background of this study is: In the light of Orthodox criticisms regarding papal primacy, what could be the most appropriate model of papal primacy in the contemporary ecumenical situation? (9) Let us begin with the Roman Catholic view of papal primacy. …

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