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You Are Peter:
An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy

By Olivier Clément, translated by M.S. Laird
Forword by Avery Cardinal Dulles
NewCityPress, 112 pp. $12.95

This book is a rare gem because it is one of the extraordinarily few Orthodox responses to the unprecedented invitation of Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint , to help him reconfigure his office as bishop of Rome so that it could once again be an instrument of unity. Listen once more to his request:

I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility . . . to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation. I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon . . . all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek”together, of course”the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.

By November 2002, more than seven years after the encyclical was issued, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome had put together a dossier of responses received to this request, noting that many Western Christians responded but that “there were no official answers from the Orthodox Churches.” While Clément makes no claim to speak on behalf of his entire Church, his book is nonetheless important and is, as Avery Cardinal Dulles says in his foreword to the English edition (the French original was published in 1997 as Rome autrement ), “almost exactly the kind of response for which Pope John Paul II was hoping.” Clément, a theologian teaching at the Institut Saint-Serge in Paris, is a convert to Orthodoxy, not from some supposedly “native” French Catholicism as some imagine, but from atheism. He therefore has much less of the baggage that converts often bring, and he is able to write in a largely irenic and fraternal manner.

The first half of You Are Peter gives a very brief historical overview of the first millennium: the treatment of Peter in the Church Fathers; the role of the bishop of Rome in the early Church; the relationship between the Roman patriarchate and the other patriarchates in the pentarchy; and the tension between the early ecumenical councils and an inchoate sense of Roman primacy. About this last, he remarks: “the true greatness of the period of the ecumenical councils is precisely that the power of decision rested with no one: neither pope, nor council, nor emperor, nor public feeling.”

In the second half of the book we move quickly from the first millennium to the First Vatican Council in the nineteenth century. Vatican I, however, had deep roots, going back as far as the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century. From Gregory VII to Pius IX, Clément argues, “little by little . . . Roman primacy showed signs of becoming contaminated by the problem of power . . . [as] apostolic Rome appeared to have taken over from ancient imperial Rome.” This is seen most clearly in the declaration of the thirteenth-century Pope Boniface VIII: “I am pope and emperor.” Such statements could only call forth equally vigorous counter-polemics from the now-estranged Orthodox, and there is no shortage of those. Clément, for his part, issues a sober call for reform of both Roman and Orthodox ecclesiology.

He deals first with Rome, expressing the hope that “Rome, when God wills it, and by an operation of grace unique to her, will return to the authentic conception of primacy as the servant of communion, within a framework of genuine interdependence between her bishop and all other bishops.” There are signs of this return, including Pope Paul VI’s giving away his tiara and disbanding the papal court, together with his stunning gesture in 1971 of dropping to the ground and kissing the foot of Metropolitan Meliton, delegate of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Such signs have been multiplied and amplified by Pope John Paul II, especially in the years leading up to the Great Jubilee of 2000, which was replete with many gestures of repentance and reconciliation and many attempts at the healing of memories, culminating in the unprecedented Day of Pardon during Lent when the Pope asked forgiveness in the name of the Church for, inter alia, sins against Christian unity. Such gestures are what Clément calls (quoting a phrase from an 1895 encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch) the “tears of Peter.” Such tears”that is, signs of metanoia ”are increasingly abundant, and Clément cites such examples as the 1983 Code of Canon Law ; the 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen , with its “remarkable grasp of the spiritual sensibilities of the East”; and the 1995 clarification by Rome that the much-vexed filioque is not a church-dividing issue but rather shows, in Clément’s words, that “there are two differing approaches, of which both are legitimate and neither in any way contradicts the other.”

While these “tears” have been significant, Clément suggests that there is still much work to be done. Such work, however, is not limited to the Roman Church. Clément is to be commended for his candor and sense of fair play in criticizing Orthodoxy as also being riven with numerous problems, including the continuing presence of the heresy of phyletism and incoherent practice of eucharistic ecclesiology, whose revival was much touted in the twentieth century by Nicholas Afanassieff and, recently, Metropolitan John Zizioulas.

The Russian theologian Nicholas Lossky has recently suggested that the revival of eucharistic ecclesiology has a long way to go before it overcomes the still prevalent “autocephalist ecclesiology” in which “relations among the ‘sister churches’ tend to resemble . . . the relations between sovereign states.” Orthodoxy must, as Clément puts it, “overcome its fear, mistrust, and isolation,” both internally and externally; it must grow out of what Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has called its “anti-Catholic hysteria.” The signs of such a growth are, Clément admits, often hard to discern on the Orthodox side, but he suggests that “the healing over of wounds has begun, and no longer just in the heart; for the first time its possibility is foreseen in the very structures of the Church.”

On this matter of structural reforms in the Roman Church Clément makes several suggestions. First, he argues that “it is in no way essential . . . that the bishop of Rome should appoint the bishops of the entire world.”

Second, it is equally unnecessary that the bishop of Rome’s “administrative headquarters should be a sovereign territory . . . and in consequence maintain a diplomatic corps.” (To the assertion that this arrangement secures for the papacy a necessary independence, Clément offers the rejoinder that “none of the great popes of the first eight centuries had at their command such a state. They bore witness to the independence of the Church through martyrdom if necessary. Today everything depends on the political and ideological situation of Italy and Western Europe.”)

Third, there must be some clarification of the authority of the councils held in the West since Nicea II in 787. Later councils are plainly not “ecumenical” in the way the West continues to insist. Their decrees, therefore, carry a significantly different degree of authority and this must be clarified.

Fourth, there must be”Clément quotes John Paul himself as saying this”a papal primacy “with different gears” for different parts of the Church, so that ultimately the relationship between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is not one of jurisdiction but of the plenitude of communion as sisters. Such an approach does not mean a gutting of the papacy. “This does not mean that the pope must be merely a spokesman,” Clément says. Rather, the pope would have significant authority as one to whom a “certain right of appeal” could be had (first granted the bishop of Rome by the Council of Sardica in the mid-fourth century), together with his responsibility for the “convocation of councils,” over which he would preside and the decrees of which he would ratify.

In sum, then, Clément argues that “the one essential would be to pass from a situation where the hierarchical dovetailing of power structures has legal back-up to one where tensions are held in balance without predetermined juridical solutions.”

Such are some of the reflections of Clément in response to Pope John Paul’s request. They do not constitute a systematic program for reform or even an ordered checklist of Orthodox requirements but simply some reflections offered as part of an ongoing debate. As such, they are fair game for criticism, and Clément’s text is not without its problems, the two main problems being, first, that Clément makes several sweeping claims that go against the grain of received scholarship and therefore require evidence (which he fails to provide), and, second, that he goes off on strange tangents, of which his postscript is the most egregious example.

In the first category we have the hoary tale of what Clément calls “the annexation by Rome of vast Orthodox territories under the cover of uniatism.” This remains the most poisonous charge of Orthodoxy against Catholicism, especially in western Ukraine, and the international Orthodox-Catholic joint dialogue has nearly collapsed under the strain of it. It is disappointing to see Clément repeat it, not only because Rome has dealt with this question in the 1993 Balamand Statement of the joint dialogue, but especially because recent scholarship has demolished these charges.

In the second category are Clément’s excursuses unconnected to his essay and filled with an exquisite condescension one typically associates with such as Hans Küng or the New York Times . Commenting on reforms in the Church of Rome after the Second Vatican Council, Clément retails the standard leftist line that “things became more complex with John Paul II. Whatever his original dispositions, John Paul II has been deeply marked by his collision with the Marxian influence (Marxian rather than Marxist, but he has failed to make the distinction”a measure of his lack of fully understanding it).” The book’s postscript is its most regrettable feature”a long, rambling, fevered rumination on war, evil, technological changes, the environment, and the future of Christianity”all topics that have been better addressed elsewhere.

But these flaws do not mar the originality of the main text or the importance of its contribution to that “fraternal dialogue” for which the ever-patient John Paul called in 1995. Whether Clément’s example will prod his more reticent Orthodox brethren into responding remains to be seen. Whether Rome heeds any of his suggestions also remains to be seen. But the dialogue has begun, and for it to continue there must be more interlocutors like Olivier Clément.

Adam A. J. DeVille, a doctoral student at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, is a subdeacon in the Eparchy of Toronto of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

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