Tillard on the role of the local church of Rome

Tillard on the role of the local church of Rome September 10, 2009

[T]he catholic Church of God is the koinonia of local churches mutually recognizing themselves as churches of God. This mutual recognition we think is essential. The Latin West concealed this in its desire to make everythng depend upon the relationship with the Church of Rome and its bishop. The catholic communion was seen as a totality of local churches all in communion with the sedes of Rome, without it being made clear that this necessary relationship with Rome is in the service of the mutual koinonia of local churches throughout time and space. In the gospel of God, which expresses the divine plan to reconcile all the human blocs shredded by sin, this mutual relationship is what counts more than anything else. What good would it be for them all to be in communion with Rome if the local churches remained water-tight compartments, shut up in their differences, as portrayed in a book for children which shows the Church as a great sun radiating around Rome, with the rays only converging. In the Holy Spirit and by the power of the Eucharist, it is mutual recognition that forms the concrete fabric of koinonia.


The function of the local church of Rome and of its bishop must be understood in this perspective. It seems to us above all to be a ministry of recognition. Its principal task is that of ensuring the mutual recognition of the churches and basically the maintenance in each of them of the traits of the Church of Pentecost. Thus it is the guardian of communion, a communion which is realized in and by the local churches themselves, not imposed by some authority that transcends them. For communion is not realized around Rome, but thanks to Rome.

J. M. R. Tillard, “The Local Church Within Catholicity.” The Jurist 52 (1992): 448–54.

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  • david

    Rome–first among equals? Isn’t the primacy of Rome the primacy of Peter, and isn’t that in fact legitimate authority?

    Please clarify m.i.

  • Ryan K

    I am curious about the implications of this perspective for non-protestant congregationalist traditions such as my own Anabaptist church. What would it take or what would it mean for churches that are themselves organized around this principle of mutual recognition (but without a centralized guarantor of unity) to be recognized or included in communion with Rome? I have long argued that one of the most significant issues my congregationalist tradition faces, and one of the reasons we tend to fragment so easily, is that we do not have the guardian of communion that Rome and the bishops would provide.

    A similar question on a personal level springs out of my involvement in dialogue and worship with Roman Catholics. What would I, as an Anabaptist Christian, need to do in order to participate in the Roman Catholic eucharist? I am drawn to Rome as the Mother Church, but feel it would be unfaithful to abandon the Anabaptist faith in which I have been formed. Would there be a way to participate at the Anabaptist eucharistic table (where Roman Catholics are already welcome) and at the Roman Catholic eucharistic table?

  • Isn’t the primacy of Rome the primacy of Peter, and isn’t that in fact legitimate authority?

    I haven’t read very much Tillard yet. This is the first of a handful of texts by him that I am reading for a comprehensive exam on the relationship between the local and the universal church. This passage is, in fact, somewhat peripheral to the concerns for which I read the article, but I found the passage interesting nonetheless.

    But from what I know of Tillard, I don’t think he would argue with the statement that Rome has legitimate authority. He is trying to explain how that authority should be exercised.

    If your concern is this sentence:

    Thus it is the guardian of communion, a communion which is realized in and by the local churches themselves, not imposed by some authority that transcends them.

    then I would rephrase it by saying that Rome should exercise its authority by being the guardian of communion, not by being an authority that imposes from above as if it transcends its own reality as a local church. Rome is a local church with a “universal” role, but Rome does not transcend the local itself, nor can it be equated with the “universal church.”

    Hi Ryan –

    I would first say that the view Tillard expresses sounds right to me, but unfortunately it’s not the way Rome tends to operate. Tillard wrote as an ecumenist and I think he’s presenting the papacy here precisely in a way intended to resonate with other churches who “do the koinonia thing” a bit better than Roman Catholics do, in practice, and who could hear their own ecclesiologies echoed in his description. As you probably know, the line about imposing authority from above is the way things tend to work in practice.

    As for your second question, from your ecumenical experience you’re no doubt aware of the Roman Catholic view on eucharistic sharing. That’s the black and white answer. There are, of course, all sorts of reasons why exceptions could be made for Christians who are part of other churches, but typically those would be evaluated by individual priests or, technically a bishop who would be the one to grant a dispensation in an official sense. That kind of case-by-case evaluation involves all sorts of dimensions, but two essential pieces that would surely come into the discussion are the person’s view of the sacrament itself, i.e. whether or not he or she can affirm belief in the Real Presence, and also his or her stance toward the R.C. church, including what it would mean for the person to receive eucharist in the Roman Catholic church. But again, it depends on the situation and the particular priest(s) and communities involved.

    Are you familiar with Gerald Schlabach?

  • Ryan K

    I am rather familiar with Gerald Schlabach and his identification as a “Mennonite Catholic.” I’m a member of the Bridgefolk group as well and have been intrigued by his journey.

    I agree with your reading of Tillard as concerned with the exercise of the legitimate authority of Peter. While it might be more difficult to be a guardian of communion, I would ask whether it is even possible to impose communion. One can impose unity but not communion. Communion requires reciprocity, and while an authority can (and sometime should) exclude someone from communion, it cannot force communion.

    If Rome is the local church that is the guardian of the communion of the universal church, but not the universal church herself, would that mean that she is as broken by schism as the schismatic churches themselves? I recall someone coming close to this position in a comment on a previous post before drawing back.