Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Pope's Spring Cleaning

So I received a veritable mountain of e.mails this morning, all on the same topic: Luigi Attacoli's piece in today's Corriere della Sera which reports that Benedict XVI has decided to forgo the papal claim to the title "Patriarch of the West." It was conspicuous by its absence from the list of the pontiff's official styles in the first pages of the Annuario Pontificio, the Holy See's statistical yearbook, which was been published and presented to the Pope on 18 February, but not yet released (for me to buy).

Many of you are fascinated by this, I see.... And I was just looking to have a quiet, prayerful Ash Wednesday....

But oh well.

According to Accatoli and his sources, the use of "Patriarch of the West" as a reference to the bishop of Rome dates back to 450, when it was used in a letter to Leo the Great from the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II.

The report cites Yves Congar, the Dominican theologian elevated to the College of Cardinals shortly before his 1995 death, who called the patriarchal distinction of the Popes "Not a proper papal title," but a habitual reference for Christians of the Eastern tradition, who were accustomed to Patriarchs at the heads of churches.

Another theologian cited by Corriere, Adriano Garuti, wrote a 1990 study on the title, concluding that it has "neither an historical nor a doctrinal foundation." Garuti's work was cited by Cardinal Ratzinger in his treatise on The New People of God. While the professor denied involvement in the papal decision, Garuti "considers it 'accurate' that Benedict XVI has, on his part, shared his arguments."

One question I've repeatedly gotten is what this means for the Orthodox. Well, first off, then as now the patriarchal designation is of prime importance to the churches of the East -- they take it quite seriously. If anything, the demise of the "Patriarchate of the West" (there never was such a juridical territory to begin with) reinforces this Pope's pre-eminent affinity for the churches of the East -- particularly Constantinople, which he will visit in late November for its patronal feast of St. Andrew -- and his respect for their proper customs and traditions.

In my interview last week with Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the major archbishop of Kiev and head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church, the cardinal did say some things about the nature of the title which might be of use here. The full interview piece will be in the coming issue of The Tablet, but this is from one of the parts of our lengthy session which didn't make the text....

Husar has long been working toward the elevation of his 5.5 million-member church to a Patriarchal one, so that the UGCC may be seen within the Eastern milieu as having an equal footing with its top hierarchs. The cardinal said that the patriarchate "is a question of a normal development of a structure that is typical to an Oriental church," emphasizing that the Byzantine tradition, the Eastern ecclesiology from which the concept of patriarchate is drawn, "is not a Latin tradition."

That line of reasoning seems to echo the Pope's. Going forward from it -- and this is strictly my own analysis in the light of the current development -- today's reported move is tantamount to Benedict's acknowledgement that while he may be the church's Universal Pastor, including the numerous Eastern patriarchates in communion with him as successor of Peter (Alexandria, Antioch, Cilicia, Babylon of the Chaldeans, etc.), as bishop of Rome and therefore the head of the Roman rite, he is a Latin hierarch, a Western one.

On top of its dubious history, the use of the Patriarchal title by a Western prelate could be seen as a tone-deafness to the churches of the East and, what is more, a claim to something which is not his -- at least not in the sense of "the West." Its elimination from the formal list of the papal accolades signals that, contrary to initial speculation which sees the move as a setback for ecumenical relations, that it is Benedict's way of moving to further them, as the Pope is indicating a deference to the Eastern tradition and seeking to avoid usurping the customs and dignities proper to it.

Bottom line: as, in the Latin church, "Patriarch of the West" does not have the weight of a juridical or theological title (e.g. Servant of the Servants of God, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province; Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; Primate of Italy; Vicar of Christ; Bishop of Rome, etc.), the Pope has reasoned that shouldn't be there. Amen.

Danilo Schiavella/POOL