We can debate the filioque and the Quartodeciman Controversy all day. What are some specific proposals for unity between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy? Let’s meet rubber and road.
John Paul II’s challenge of Ut Unum Sint, mostly ignored by the Eastern Orthodox Church, has been at least answered by the Eastern Catholic theologian Adam DeVille, who wrote a book outlining precisely such a plan. I haven’t read the book (yet) but here is an apt summary.
DeVille proposes to essentially separate the Pope’s function of universal primacy and his function of administrative oversight of the (Western) Church as patriarch. He proposes the Church to be reorganized as a federation of autonomous patriarchates, one per continent, who would take over the duties currently held by the Roman Curia. The Pope would be assisted by a permanent synod representing the whole Church. His role would be as a court of final appeals to settle disputes between or within patriarchates, and essentially as a global spokesman and spiritual leader for the Church. He could still formulate dogma infallibly ex cathedra, but only if the synod agrees.
There is much to like in this proposal, starting with the fact that it exists. It is clear that if there is a solution to be found for unity, it is located somewhere at the intersection, or bifurcation, between the Pope’s jurisdiction of primacy, and his administrative jurisdiction.
But, well, frankly, I need to put my cards on the table: the idea of turning the Church into a federation of autonomous patriarchates simply terrifies me. The historical reason why the Pope had to assert his authority in the way he did was because of the rampant corruption of the local churches. National councils or synods or churches were always ready instruments of sovereigns, and it is breaking their backs that made the Church. I see no reason to see that danger as having abated, quite to the contrary. We see the corruption of so many dioceses today; one shudders to think how much worse it would have been without Rome as a final recourse. The fantasy of “synodality” is just that. In every area of human endeavor, when there is some big problem, the natural instinct is to say “Let’s form a committee of our best people; they’ll figure it out”, and yet it never works. It forgets original sin. In a committee, what happens is not (or so very rarely) a fruitful meeting of great minds, but rather ego-driven politics and the rule of the lowest-common denominator. National episcopal conferences are little more than navel-gazing bureaucratic talking shops. I shudder to think how much greater the chaos in the Church would be if the recent synod on the family had freestanding authority, or if Cards. Burke and Kasper were members of a permanent super-synod with freestanding authority. And let’s not forget what “synodality” looks like within the Anglican Communion. Papal monarchy really is the worst ecclesiology at the exception of all the others, and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit got us where we are today.
I certainly believe that, both to respect ancient practice and to assuage legitimate concerns over Papal imperialism, the Pope ought to bind himself to respect the autonomy of the existing Eastern Orthodox patriarchates. But while I understand why, from a psychological perspective, it might prove appealing and reassuring to the East to see a Pope willing to shed some of his power over the Latin Church, I do not see whence it follows doctrinally or theologically: the East has always recognized that within the Latin Church the Bishop of Rome can do whatever he well pleases; the dispute was always over the extent of the Pope’s authority on the other Patriarchates.
What is more, I believe that there are serious theological and doctrinal, not just practical, problems with the proposal. The structure of the Church founded by Christ, as described in the New Testament, only has two tiers: the faithful, and the episcopal college (with Peter as primate). Patriarchates may or may not be a good idea, and can certainly have their place within the Church as a matter of prudence, but they are not part, it seems to me, of the divine constitution of the apostolic Church. But the proposal, it seems to me, would reify a three (or four?) tiered structure of the Church, with the episcopal level, the patriarchal level and the papal level, and I think it is at least dubious that the Church has the authority to establish something like that.
All that being said… After delivering myself of this rant, I should probably force just a little bit of humility in myself. As a strong ultramontane, I should recognize that I’m not the one who’s infallible. The reviewer I linked to acidly notes that the same Catholic Church that lectures governments about the principle of subsidiarity might want to apply it to itself. My take on decentralization rests on assessment of facts and prudential judgement, things that one can certainly be mistaken on. And certainly one has to be conscious that reunion between East and West will involve each party being willing to shed some self-regarding pseudo-certainties; both sides must come to a renewed understanding of the authentic ecclesiology of the Body of Christ, and if there is one guarantee, it’s that it probably won’t look like extreme Ultramontanism any more than it will look like extreme Eastern fractionalism. In the end, I believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. If a future ecumenical council decides that this is the way to unity, I might have to swallow very hard, but I would accept it, ultimately joyfully.
Ut unum sint.