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Papacy, unity and synodality


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Ramiro Pellitero

Professor at School of Theology

The feast of Saints Peter and Paul highlights the task and mission statement of the successor of Peter. The priest and theologian Ramiro Pellitero, makes a clear exhibition on the figure of the Pope in the Catholic Church, his task of unity at the service of the universal Church, without forgetting the synodal process in which the Church is currently involved.

The annual feast of Sts. Peter and Paul provides an opportunity to point out some fundamental questions concerning the figure of the Pope and his ministry of unity at the service of the universal Church, taking into account the current context, particularly the ongoing synodal process. 

Regarding the first questions, these and others can be found developed in a synthetic way in theological dictionaries and other texts. On this occasion we have found particularly useful the voice "Roman Primacy", written by D. Valentini, in the Diccionario de Eclesiología, directed by G. Calabrese and others, and coordinated in its Spanish edition by J. R. Villar, Madrid 2016.

The primacy of Peter and its transmission

The starting point can be none other than the New Testament. Two issues stand out: the primacy of Peter in the group of the apostles - as both the synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles point out - and its transmission to the bishop of Rome. 

Peter (formerly Simon) is the one who confesses the divinity of Jesus. Peter is promised to be the cornerstone for the unity and solidity of the Church. And Peter receives the power to interpret and transmit the teachings of the Master, with a higher apostolic authority, but always in communion with the other apostles. He is the first "fisher of men" and spokesman for the other disciples, whose duty is also to confirm them in the faith, on the living foundation and guarantee of the prayer of Jesus. He is especially present in the Gospel of St. John. He receives his primacy from Jesus (cf. Jn 21:15-17), under the category of the shepherd, in reference letter to his union with the Lord, who requires him the availability for martyrdom. And all this presupposes the "succession" of Peter's primatial ministry in the Church.  

Other books of the New Testament bear witness to the "exercise" of this ministry. In synthesis, as the biblical scholar R. Fabris writes: Peter "occupies a position of first place, recognized and witnessed to by the entire New Testament tradition. Peter is the historical disciple of Jesus, the authorized witness of his resurrection and the guarantor of the authenticity of the Christian tradition". 

As regards the transmission of the primacy of Peter to his successors, a number of factors come together to affirm it: a certain "direction of meaning" in the texts of the Gospels referring to Peter in the framework of the attitudes of Jesus; a conviction of faith, in the ecclesial tradition, about the succession of Peter, and not only of the apostles; the succession itself as the means of that tradition; the interpretation of Peter's function as representative both of Jesus and of the apostles; the succession essentially linked to the transmission of the words of Christ and therefore of faith, as well as of the laying on of hands.

The Petrine ministry: communion and jurisdiction

How has the Roman primacy been interpreted throughout the history of the Church? St. John Paul II wrote: "The Catholic Church is conscious of having preserved, in fidelity to the apostolic tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the ministry of the successor of Peter, whom God has constituted 'the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity'(Lumen gentium, 23)"(Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, in "L'Osservatore Romano", esp., 13-XII-1996).

In the first millennium, the Fathers (St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus) referred to the confession of Peter (cf. Mt 16:16), but it was not until the fourth century that a theological doctrine on the ministry of the successor of Peter was elaborated. To this is added the prestige of the authority of the "first see" and some decisive interventions of the Popes, in various formats, on the occasion of the councils of the time or of questions raised by the bishops or ecclesial communities. 

In the second millennium, the mode of primate intervention changed. Between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, the Roman primacy was strongly emphasized. At the Council of Constance (15th century), the accent is placed on the figure of the council, with the risk of conciliarism. From then until Vatican Council I (19th century) a harmonious synthesis between the role of the Pope and that of the bishops was desired. At Vatican I, circumstances led to defining the Pope's power with juridical categories. The Second Vatican Council advances in this desired synthesis, deepening the relationship between the Pope and the bishops, in the framework of ecclesial communion. The Petrine ministry is understood within and at the service of the episcopate and, thus, at the service of the entire ecclesial community, while promoting ecumenical commitment.

Since then, the deepening of that substantial understanding of the Roman primacy has continued, an immutable and permanent understanding, present since the first centuries. What has been changing is the way in which the primacy of the successor of Peter is exercised, depending on numerous factors and circumstances. In any case, the essentials remain, so that between the second and the first millennium there is no rupture, but rather a novelty in continuity;certainly, in the first millennium ecclesial communion is emphasized, while in the second millennium jurisdiction is emphasized; but both dimensions are always present. 

The infallibility of the Pope, at the service of unity 

The dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) focused on the ministry of the "Roman primacy" or "apostolic primacy". It wished to confront above all the risk of Gallicanism. He points out that the purpose of Peter's primatial ministry is unity among the bishops, unity of the faith and among all the faithful. He affirms that Peter received from Christ a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction (of obedience and not only of honor) over the whole Church, and that this primacy remains in Peter's successors. The primate's power of jurisdiction is qualified as supreme (not only as primum inter pares; and unappealable), full (in all matters), universal (throughout the world), ordinary (not delegated), immediate (not needing mediation by bishops or governments) and "truly episcopal" (not supplanting the local bishop). It does not distinguish between the power of jurisdiction (to teach and govern) and the power of order (to sanctify). 

Regarding the infallibility of the Pope, the First Vatican Council solemnly defined that the Pope is infallible in his ex cathedra declarations, that is to say in his dogmatic declarations. The infallibility of the Pope is understood there in the service of his Petrine ministry, not in an isolated way, but as head of the high school of the bishops and of the ecclesial community.

The hasty end of the First Vatican Council did not allow for a harmonious configuration of the doctrine of the episcopate in its relationship with the primacy, which it would do after the Second Vatican Council in the framework of an ecclesiology of communion, declaring the doctrine about the sacramentality of the episcopate and episcopal collegiality.

In the Second Vatican Council the doctrine on the Roman primacy is situated in continuity with Vatican I, or rather in the perspective of a novelty in continuity. Novelty above all because of the ecclesiological context, rather than because of the concrete doctrinal contributions. Let us point out three main contributions related to the primacy of the Pope:

The Council declares the sacramentality of the episcopate. That is to say, by the sacrament of Holy Orders the bishop is conferred the triple munus of teaching, sanctifying and governing, in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the episcopal high school . 

It also teaches the meaning of episcopal collegiality: the high school of the bishops succeeds the high school of the apostles, under the head who is now the Pope, successor of Peter. The unity between the Pope and the episcopal high school is solemnly manifested in the Ecumenical Council.

In addition to the infallibility of the Pope's dogmatic declarations, the Second Vatican Council declares three other ways in which the Church participates in divine infallibility (the only one that is absolute). 1) The Ecumenical Council, in which the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops is solemnly exercised. 2) The ordinary and universal magisterium, exercised by the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, when they propose a doctrine final in subject of faith and morals, even if they are not gathered in the Council, but dispersed throughout the world. 3) The whole of the faithful in communion with the Pope and the bishops in matters of faith and morals enjoys infallibility (infallibility in credendo) as a manifestation of the "sense of faith".

After the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium has explained that the primacy of the Pope and the episcopal high school belong to the essence of each particular Church "from within" themselves (Letter Communionis notio, 1992, 14; cf. Lumen gentium, 8).

From all the above it follows that one must distinguish the supreme pastoral authority, which the Pope has, and the aspects and ways of exercising it. This authority can only be unique. Two extreme positions are discarded: the conciliarist-episcopalist one that defines the authority of the bishops gathered in Council above the Pope; the one considered "papalist", according to which only the Pope (or the Pope alone) would have the supreme authority in the Church, and the bishops would receive it from him. 

The relationship of the Pope and the bishops today tends to be considered in the perspective of a single "subject" of supreme authority in the Church: the high school of the bishops with their head; and two ways of exercising it: through the Pope, as head of the high school; through the high school of the bishops in communion with their head. 

As for episcopal collegiality, today we speak of an "effective" episcopal collegiality and an "affective" one. Both are necessary and must be carried out in communion with the Petrine ministry and vice versa. The "effective" one is manifested in the Ecumenical Council (in a solemn and fully technical-legal way) and in the ordinary universal magisterium of the bishops in communion with the Supreme Pontiff. Affective" collegiality refers to partial realizations of collegiality such as the Synod of Bishops, the Roman Curia, local councils and episcopal conferences.

Primacy, unity and synodality

Returning to the ministry of the Pope at the present time and in continuity especially with the pontificates in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, it should be noted that the papacy manifests itself at the same time on a double plane that is also a double challenge: on the one hand, the service to the unity of faith and communion for Christians (with the ways of exercising and explaining it that are appropriate in the ecumenical context); and simultaneously, its undeniable moral authority at the universal level (on central themes such as the dignity of the person and the service of the common good and peace, effective concern for the weakest and most needy, the defense of life and the family, the care of the Earth as a common home).   

The present Instrumentum Laboris refers to the primacy of the Pope on several occasions, precisely in relation to synodality. 

In the first place, quotation and its vision of the catholicity of the Church, to express that synodality must be carried out "while the primacy of the primacy of Peter Chair remains unchanged, which presides over the universal assembly of charity, protects legitimate differences and at the same time ensures that divergences serve unity instead of damaging it"(Lumen gentium, 13). 

Secondly, the primacy appears in three of the questions formulated as financial aid for prayer, reflection and synodal discernment.

The first is formulated as follows: "How can the ongoing synodal process contribute to 'find a way of exercising the primacy which, without renouncing in any way the essentials of its mission statement, is open to a new status '" ( quotation is from St. John Paul II, encyclical Ut unum sint, 1995, n. 95, a text quoted by Pope Francis in the exhortation ap. Ut unum sint, 1995, n. 95, a text quoted by Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium,32 and in the Apostolic Const. Episcopalis communio, 10). 

Later he asks again about this topic: "How should the role of the Bishop of Rome and the exercise of the primacy evolve in a synodal Church?"

Then there is an affirmation that must be substantiated and explained, as well as accompanied, with the appropriate resources (at the spiritual, formative, theological and canonical levels), by the conditions necessary for it to contribute effectively to the good of all:

"Synod 2021-2024 is clearly demonstrating that the synodal process is the most suitable context for the integrated exercise of primacy, collegiality and synodality as inalienable elements of a Church in which each subject performs his or her peculiar role in the best possible way and in synergy with the others."

Finally, the primacy reappears in a consideration and a question on the general framework of synodality: "In light of the dynamic and circular relationship between the synodality of the Church, episcopal collegiality and the Petrine primacy, how to perfect the institution of the Synod so that it becomes a certain and guaranteed space for the exercise of synodality, ensuring the full participation of all - the People of God, the episcopal high school and the Bishop of Rome - while respecting their specific roles? How to evaluate the experiment of participative extension to a group of 'non-bishops' in the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 2023)"?