On Primacy and Conciliarity

Archbishop Vsevolod of Skopelos

Ukranian Orthodox Church USA - Ecumenical Patriarchate 

October 14, 2007

“It behoves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is the first or chief, and to recognize him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval: but, instead, each of them should do only what is necessitated by his own parish and by the territories under him. But let not even such a one [the primate] do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For this will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

These are the words of Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles. This canon is frequently quoted in the discussion of primacy and conciliarity in the Church; it is an early witness to the need to balance both of these functions in order for the Church to function well. I offer it to us here, quite frankly, in the hope that this early patristic text will provide both the Orthodox and the Catholics some food for thought.

It is no secret that I believe that the positions of the East and West are complimentary, and can be reconciled without either a facile “compromise” or a surrender of one side to the other. I am also convinced that authentic ecumenism does not have as its goal the mutual ratification of each other’s abuses. Nor does a worth-while ecumenical process lie in contrasting the highest ideals of one side with the most deplorable practices of the other side.

The Apostolic Canon clearly excludes two extremes. The primate is not and cannot be “above” the Church, nor “above” the episcopate. He is not to act without obtaining the consent of his brothers. The episcopate is not and cannot be “independent” of the primate; the remaining bishops shall not act without obtaining the primate’s advice and approval. Thus the primate is not to be a dictator or tyrant, but neither is he a mere figurehead. The history of the past two-thousand years provides more than sufficient examples of what can happen when either extreme is pressed too far. But before I come to examples, let me address an objection sometimes voiced.

The Apostolic Canon speaks clearly of “the bishops of every nation”, and therefore appears to be discussing local primacies: in Italy, in Gaul, in Egypt, in Ireland, or wherever. Is it, then, proper to refer to this canon in the context of a discussion of the universal primacy?

Surely it must be proper. The Orthodox insist, correctly, that there is not and cannot be any radical, essential difference between one diocesan bishop and another. Whether the Pope of Rome offers the Holy Eucharist in Saint John Lateran, or the Bishop of Scopelos serves the Divine Liturgy in some small village church in the western United States, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is identical. Whether the Ecumenical Patriarch ordains a priest in Saint George’s Cathedral in Constantinople, or the Bishop of Peoria ordains a priest in a small church in Illinois, the divine grace of the Priesthood does not differ in the least.

Thus the relationship of the primate to the rest of the bishops, be this on the “universal” level or within a given “nation,” must in either case be the relationship of the first among brothers with the remaining brothers. The primate does not stand as Jesus Christ stands among the Apostles; the primate does not stand as each bishop stands among his presbyters. The primate and the remaining bishops are brothers: the primate is not the father, and the rest are not his sons.

The Apostolic Canon does not mention it, but there is another matter arising directly from the comparison of the local level with the universal level of primacy: traditionally, the Church links primacy among the bishops, whether locally or universally, to the city of which a given hierarch is the bishop. The authentic tradition does not know of a “shifting primacy,” which can be moved from place to place almost without notice. One is the primate of Egypt and Africa because one is the Bishop of Alexandria, not because all the bishops of Egypt and Africa happen to prefer that for this particular term of years bishop so-and-so should be their president. This link between the primacy and the Local Church in which the primacy is situated is an important element in the stability of the Church.

My English colleague, Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, remarks (perhaps with a degree of frustration) that each time he attempts to explain what an Orthodox understanding of the universal primacy should be, the Catholics in the conversation invariably respond by expressing their complete agreement and affirming that what Bishop Kallistos has said is exactly what they teach! Bishop Kallistos might be pardoned if he were to suspect that this ready agreement from the Catholics might represent at least a small degree of wishful thinking.

However, there is also the matter of conciliarity. For rather more than a century, the Orthodox have been extolling the merits of sobornost‘ to such an extent as to give the impression that this is some sort of cure-all. One reason, perhaps, for this is the belief among some Orthodox, that ever since the Protestant Reformation the Roman Catholic Church has been nervous about “conciliarism.” We shall come to that problem as well.

For the moment, I wish only to note that there is a considerable distance between the lofty theory of the universal primacy as Bishop Kallistos describes it, and the day-to-day functioning of the Roman Catholic Church. So too, there is a considerable distance between the love-feast of sobornost‘ and the sometimes disreputable reality of Orthodox administrative chaos with seemingly irreconcilable quarrels. It sometimes comes to the point that merely attempting to determine who is an Orthodox bishop in good standing and who is not can lead to lengthy and expensive litigation in the secular courts for want of any other arbiter.

What are we to think? We do not want a primacy that may produce a too-powerful monarch, nor do we want episcopal equality run rampant with bishops who are unable to agree on anything while constantly repeating that of course they agree on everything!

Is there a way out of this dilemma? Yes and no. Let me consider both of those answers.

If we expect to find the solution to the seeming dichotomy between primacy and conciliarity in the history of the first millennium, in canons, in constitutional arrangements, or in some brilliantly-devised system of “checks and balances”, to use a phrase which we Americans like, we shall be wasting our effort. Humanly speaking, there is no such perfect or magical solution. We can note and realize that the problem has been with the Church from the beginning of her pilgrimage towards salvation. This is why I am convinced that this problem is an insufficient reason to justify the schism. On this issue there was never an Arcadian ecclesiological utopia to which we can look back for a perfect model of successful primacy and conciliarity, in unmarred harmony with one another.

Yet there is a way forward, combining realism with faith. Realistically, we all know that so long as we live in this sinful world, and so long as our hierarchs are by necessity chosen from among us sinful men, we may expect manifestations of sinful behavior, including pride, envy, stubbornness, lust for power, jealousy, personal animosities, vanity and the attempt to aggrandize one’s own greed at the expense of others. Here is the root cause of the seeming contradiction between primacy and conciliarity. By faith, we may look again at Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles and notice that the Canon concludes with this promise: “thus there will be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The unity of the Church, which requires both primacy and conciliarity, is a unity that should reflect the unity of the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Between the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and ourselves there is a most drastic difference: we are sinners, They are not. Thus in the Most Holy Trinity the Monarchy of the Father and the complete Equality of the Three Divine Persons do not involve any contradiction.

If the Church is truly to reflect the Kingdom of Heaven, and if we, the hierarchs, are to preach the Gospel in a convincing way, it behooves us to make every effort to act as though we ourselves believe the Gospel, and as if the Christian life is not an utterly unattainable ideal. That would at least bring us an appreciable distance in the effort to reconcile primacy and conciliarity from the present impasse.

The mention of the Most Holy Trinity has a second significance in our attempt to understand the interplay of primacy and conciliarity: dynamism. Legal, canonical, or constitutional arrangements, especially on paper, are by nature something static and motionless. The life of the Most Holy Trinity (and the life of the Kingdom of Heaven) are just the opposite: the service-books of the Byzantine Liturgy often compare the life of the Most Holy Trinity and the life of the Kingdom of Heaven to a dance.

I was never much of a dancer. But I know enough about the subject to be aware that one cannot dance while standing still and remaining motionless, and that unless one is dancing absolutely alone (without even any music) one’s motions must be perfectly coordinated with the simultaneous movements of one’s dancing partner or partners.

“Liturgical dancing” is not a feature of the Byzantine tradition. But in our solemn divine services there is quite a lot of complicated choreography, which requires the participants to know what they are doing and how they must do it, and to defer to one another rather than constantly asserting themselves. There are many occasions when the clergy must sing this or that prayer together. If they try to outshout each other, of if each participant seeks to hog the limelight, the result would be a chaotic cacophany which would edify no one. When these parts of the service are done well, the result is an edifying harmony of unparalleled beauty.

A perfect harmony between primacy and conciliarity may be an ideal that is unattainable in this world. But it remains true that each of these true attributes is essential for the Church. Even in our present condition, we must continue to strive to keep both of these attributes, primacy and conciliarity in balance. The schism between East and West allows us to see clearly – perhaps too clearly – what can happen when either of these attributes goes to extremes at the expense of the other.

To begin at home, so to speak, the Christian East has attempted two solutions to the problem posed by the absence of (or estrangement from) the Roman Primacy: sometimes we attempt to substitute someone else for the Pope of Rome, creating a surrogate or substitute universal primate. And sometimes we try to theorize that there is no need for a universal primate in the Church. Neither of these two solutions has worked satisfactorily. On another occasion I have examined the attempt to create or foster a surrogate primacy. Today I shall only mention that the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Eastern Roman Emperor, the Sultan and the Comissar all failed, although for quite different sets of reasons, and there would be little point in yet another attempt to set up such a straw man only to knock him down again.

The theory that there is no need for a universal primate flies in the face of both tradition and experience. If there were no need for a universal primate, there would be no need for a local primate either, and Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles would be so much empty verbiage. The experience of the past century and a half, roughly speaking, should be enough to convince anyone in the Orthodox world that trying to keep simple order without an accepted primacy causes our administration to dissolve into chaos that cannot be resolved by Khomiakov’s fine words about sobornost’. Right here in America, where there is little government interference in religious matters and the hierarchs are in principle free to arrange Church administration, Orthodoxy is divided into an uncountable plethora of competing “jurisdictions.” Not one Orthodox theologian defends this intolerable state of affairs, but neither has anyone succeeded in finding an effective way out of it. There has been a never-ending parade of litigation in the American civil courts between competing Orthodox hierarchs, to the great scandal not only of our own faithful but of everyone else who becomes aware of it; everyone deplores this and no one is able to stop it.

This is conciliarity run riot. On the parish level, there is a further consequence: the severe reduction of the pastoral authority of the priest. To put it crudely, the congregationalists take advantage of the over-development of “conciliarity” to seize power in the parish, often to the detriment of the Church herself.

The collapse of Communism has set the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe free. So, there are three competing jurisdictions in Ukraine, repeated ecclesiastical strife in Bulgaria, attempts to erect parallel Orthodox jurisdictions in Russia, a most ominous breach between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Moscow Patriarchate (over a dispute in Estonia) again, all of this is to the great scandal of the faithful and brings opportunities to the enemies of the Church. But no one seems able to stop it or to arbitrate.

In the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem there is a running wound, constantly growing worse, between the hierarchy, who are exclusively Hellenes, and the parish clergy and faithful, who are Palestinian Arabs. This is among the reasons for the relative strength of the Greek-Catholic Church in Palestine and Jordan, where they have Palestinian Arab hierarchs. The situation among the Orthodox in Palestine and Jordan continues to become ever more embittered, but no one seems able to do anything about it.

This is only an abbreviated list; I could go on. But it is necessary to look at the other side of the coin. What happens when primacy is too strong and conciliarity is suppressed?

Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles prescribes that the primate shall not “do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all.” But in the “Code of Canons” which John Paul II promulgated in 1990, we find the amazing claim that “Romanus Pontifex a nemine iudicatur” – the Roman Pontiff is judged by no one. This is not merely an historical inaccuracy. The Sixth Ecumenical Council, as is well known, considered itself competent to judge and anathematize Honorius of Rome, and no Pope since has ever dared attempt to overturn that decision.

The same “Code of Canons” also announces that “contra sententiam vel decretum Romani Pontificis non datur appellatio neque recursus” – there is neither appeal nor recourse against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff. What should we Orthodox think about these very strong statements?

Pope John Paul II, in Ut unum sint, has invited us to contribute to the discussion on how the Roman Primacy can be exercised convincingly and effectively as a divinely-blessed service to the Church. I believe these canons should be considered at the heart of our discussions. Despite all the administrative chaos one can find within Orthodoxy, despite all the need for order, the Orthodox are not able to accept the notion that this particular human individual has a right to judge the entire world, purely on his own initiative. To quote another Latin phrase, nemo debet esse iudex in propria causa – nobody can be the judge of his own case.

The ultimate effect of this is to render the Roman Primacy, in its current form, unconvincing. Archimandrite Victor Pospishil, who is perhaps the most eminent of Eastern Catholic canonists, has repeatedly asserted that no “Roman Pontiff” can be bound by his own word, and still less can the word or promise of the “Roman Pontiff” bind his successors in that unique office. It is reasonable, therefore, to ask in all seriousness: what possible value could such a primacy have? When universal primacy functions in this manner, then the over-development has reached the stage of preventing the primacy from functioning effectively. Therefore, I believe some sort of “therapy” is needed in order to restore the primacy to a healthy functioning.

There is a natural human weakness to seek to extend one’s own power, one’s own control over others. In the case of the Roman Primacy, this weakness manifests itself in several areas, but perhaps most clearly in the matter of the “right” to select bishops. As can easily be shown, up until the twentieth century most of the Catholic bishops of the world were not directly nominated by the Pope. Nor will anyone be apt to claim that in the earlier centuries of the Church the Pope had some sort of right or function to name all the bishops. However, owing to a combination of political circumstances and the general centralizing tendency of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical administration, the Popes of Rome have managed to obtain the “right” to name almost all the Catholic bishops of the world. Meanwhile, in absolute terms the number of Catholic diocesan bishops and titular bishops has increased, to the point where today there are probably about three thousand diocesan bishops, and perhaps a thousand or more titular bishops.

No one man, not even the Pope, could possibly have a personal acquaintance with three or four thousand bishops, let alone all the potential candidates to succeed the three or four thousand bishops.

The ancient canons of the Church are clear: bishops are to be elected by their prospective colleagues, the bishops of the province. That, I submit, makes sense: the bishops of the province are well placed to know the diocese, to know the needs of the diocese, and to know the candidates.

Certainly there have been abuses. One reason which enabled the Popes to aggregate to themselves the power to select bishops was the habit of secular governments to interfere in the process. Reserving the matter to the Pope has not completely prevented governmental interference, but it has unquestionably reduced that problem significantly.

Nevertheless, this has created a situation that may be even more difficult to correct. Since, as I have said, it is obviously impossible for the Pope personally to select all these men, the practical result is that bishops are selected by members of the Roman Curia, ecclesiastical bureaucrats whom no one can call to account.

Father Clarence Gallagher, a highly respected canonist and former Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, informs me that he questioned the provision in the so-called “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” which requires that every episcopal election by the Eastern Catholic Synods must be approved by the Pope. In response to his question, he was told that this Papal approval is necessary “because the Eastern Catholic Synods might make a mistake.” So they might; no doubt they have done so from time to time. But does anyone care to defend the implication that the Roman Curia cannot make a mistake in episcopal appointments? A restoration of genuine conciliarity is urgently needed in the matter of episcopal elections. If the bishops of the province make a mistake, there is the possibility of correcting that mistake. Who is to correct the mistakes of the Roman Curia when they act in the name of the Pope?

Another human weakness is to attempt to expand one’s own power-base at the expense of others. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, obviously. He is also “Patriarch of the West,” according to the titles of the Pope which appear in official documents [N.B. This title, apparently, has been officially dropped by Benedict XVI – Ed.]. The “Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” requires an Eastern Catholic Patriarch to have a clear-cut distinction between his functions as a diocesan bishop and his functions as Patriarch; the Patriarch must have two separate administrations for these two functions. But the Patriarchate of the West is administered by the Roman Curia, who seldom distinguish between those matters that concern the Patriarchate of the West, and those matters that concern the Universal Church.

What is the result? The Patriarchate of the West has expanded all over the world and continues to do so. Meanwhile, the Eastern Catholic Patriarchates are confined to, of all things, the territory of the Ottoman Empire as it existed in 1894. It is not at all self-evident that Australia, Oceania, China, the Americas, and many other places belong by right to the Patriarchate of the West, but the Roman Curia seems to take that for granted. The rights of the primates of the local Churches in Western Europe have also been drastically reduced, and abrogated instead to the Roman Curia which has thus aggregated these territories to the Patriarchate of the West.

Africa quite definitely belongs to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, who bears the title “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa.” Nevertheless there are Latin dioceses with territorial titles in most African countries, and the Roman Curia appoints bishops to those African dioceses without the faintest reference to any Patriarch of Alexandria.

The honor of the Roman Primacy requires that this situation be put right, even at considerable cost. The Pope claims the right to adjudicate disagreements between Patriarchs. The Church needs to have such an arbiter. But no Patriarch will take the Pope’s arbitration seriously until it is clear that the Pope will not abuse such an occasion to bring further profit to his own Patriarchate.

On this point, I rather suspect that within the Western Patriarchate there are not a few people, including even bishops, who would agree with me. In some of the countries I mentioned, the Catholic Church is sufficiently developed to qualify as a full-fledged Local Church on its own, with a Synod, and able to elect her own bishops and take major decisions. The Eastern Churches are always alert to defend the rights of the Christian East, but it seems to me that the Local Churches of the West should also share these rights.

With that point, I shall conclude for the present, because I wish to end with the consideration that a genuine reconciliation between primacy and conciliarity will be for the benefit of the entire Church, not only of the East. I hope that through fraternal discussion we may develop and refine these ideas. May the divine grace, which always heals what is infirm and supplies what is lacking, bring us this gift. May God thus grant us “concord, and be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

From the essay “Primacy and Conciliarity” by His Eminence, Archbishop Vsevolod of Skopelos (Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), from the book We Are All Brothers (Fairfax, VA: Eastern Christian Publications, 1999), pp. 329-332.

© Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America, Inc. 2013