11 February 2013

The rule of Rome

Patrick Comerford

On the day Pope Benedict has announced his retirement, I am posting my contribution to the special supplement in The Irish Times in April 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II.

The rule of Rome

Despite high hopes, many believe John Paul II’s papacy resulted in a winter for ecumenism, writes Church of Ireland priest, Patrick Comerford

When Pope John Paul II visited Dublin in 1979, a large, ecumenical congregation waited in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, with the slight hope that he might include the service in his itinerary.

We were to be disappointed: and those deferred hopes were reinforced as John Paul’s papacy took shape. The American Jesuit theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, argues that John Paul had a deep, personal, philosophical commitment to ecumenical relations.

Certainly, when it came to inter-faith relations, this was a Pope who was deeply committed to dialogue. The inter-faith gatherings at Assisi in 1986 and 2002 underlined this, although he once candidly declared he found Buddhism too negative in its attitude to the world.

His visits to the Middle East in 2000 proved without doubt that John Paul wanted to crown his reign by opening new chapters in both Muslim-Christian and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

However, these breakthroughs in inter-faith dialogue stand in stark contrast to his attitude to inter-Church dialogue.

There were early hopes that he would build on the ecumenical advances made by John XXIII.

As a young bishop in Cracow, Karol Wojtyla made a submission to those planning Vatican II in which he spoke strongly of his ecumenical hopes, saying Christians separated from the Roman Catholic Church are not outside the Body of Christ, and hoping the council would emphasise those factors that unite rather than divide Christians.

At the council, he criticised the declaration On Religious Freedom for its inadequacies when it came to inter-Church relations. Sadly, as Pope, he never developed the same warm personal relations Paul VI had with both the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury. Although his speech in Drogheda came early in a Papacy that was marked by similar calls for co-operation with other Christians in opposing violence, and working for social justice, human rights, and development, many felt (perhaps unfairly) that these were the limits to ecumenism for this papacy.

He laid particular emphasis on building relations with the Orthodox and other ancient churches of the East, which he saw as retaining the apostolic faith, a true Eucharist, and a valid apostolic ministry. But while he genuinely believed the Eastern-rite churches in communion with Rome could be an aid in contacts with the Orthodox communities, many Orthodox leaders saw those Uniate churches as Trojan horses, undermining their own communities.

In 1979, he visited the Ecumenical Patriarch Diodoros of Constantinople, and on a return visit to Rome in 1987, the Pope and Patriarch together recited the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, according to the original, unaltered Greek text, omitting the West’s controversial filioque clause. But symbolism apart, Orthodox relations remained cool.

When Patriarch Bartholomeos visited Rome in 1995, a joint statement referred to work for the restoration of full communion; but the Old Rome and the New Rome remained divided on the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit and on the function and exercise of Papal primacy, and relations became particularly difficult with the Russian Orthodox Church as the Vatican encouraged missionary expansion and church building in the former Soviet republics.

Relations with the Churches of the Reformation were even less fruitful and fraught with greater difficulties, despite early hopes.

In Germany in 1980, on the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, he offered the hope that the Vatican and Lutherans could agree that the benchmark Lutheran statement of faith represented “a full accord” on “fundamental and central truths.”

At Canterbury in 1982, he had knelt in prayer with Archbishop Robert Runcie. When he visited the Geneva headquarters of the World Council of Churches in 1984, he acknowledged the exercise of Papal primacy had been marked by painful memories, and expressed sorrow for the extent to which he and his predecessors had been responsible.

But there was a major stumbling block as he continued to try to use that primacy to influence the decisions of the other Churches, particularly those in the Anglican Communion. Long after other Anglican Churches, including the Episcopal Church in the US and the Church of Ireland, had started to ordain women, he pleaded with Archbishop George Carey not to follow this course in the Church of England.

The stumbling block was not so much the ordination of women (a considerable minority of Anglicans remain opposed to this), but the exercise of authority within the church, and the processes by which the shared doctrines and traditions of the church could be developed without losing continuity.

There were other signals that there could be no major breakthrough in ecumenical dialogue. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ensured the deliberations of ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (at one time co-chaired by Dr Henry McAdoo of the Church of Ireland, and the present Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor) remained on the shelf for years before being rejected.

The use or abuse of papal authority in appointing bishops in many countries, including Austria, Switzerland and Germany, the disciplining or silencing of theologians such as Hans K√ľng, Leonardo Boff and Lavinia Byrne, and the Vatican’s attitude to the German bishops’ recent dilemma on pregnancy counselling services, all stoked fears that John Paul II could not exercise his papal primacy in a collegial way that would allow the ecumenical movement to move forward and find compromises.

In 1995, in Ut Unum Sint, John Paul warned that unity could not be achieved at the price of doctrinal compromise. The implication was that Church unity could only be attained by other churches accepting what was being taught from Rome as the “revealed truth in its entirety.”

And so by the close of his reign, many believed the churches were going through an “ecumenical winter.” During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the Middle East, the Pope was politely welcomed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, but he received a frosty reception from the Greek Orthodox authorities on Mount Sinai and later in Greece. And there was little surprise that he never made his long-hoped-for visit to Russia.

It’s easy in the present climate to imagine that Dominus Iesus represents not only the darkest days of the “ecumenical winter,” but summarises the mishandling of inter-church relations during John Paul’s papacy. Perhaps, in time, however, the joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic agreement on that major doctrinal stumbling block of the Reformation, justification, will be counted as the one singular ecumenical achievement of Pope John Paul’s reign. But organic, visible unity as a goal for the ecumenical movement needs political as well as theological visionaries who know what compromises are possible on authority and discipline without compromising central doctrines and core traditions.

John Paul was never the theological diplomat to recognise the possibilities for such compromises. We must wait for a new Pope to hope we can move out of the “ecumenical winter” into a spring that may see new growth.

Patrick Comerford is a former Irish Times journalist and a Church of Ireland priest

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