Cardinal Kurt Koch at an ecumenical celebration (archive photo) Cardinal Kurt Koch at an ecumenical celebration (archive photo)  (Vatican Media)

Koch: Papal primacy is service, exercised in a synodal manner

Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, explains the ecumenical document entitled ‘The Bishop of Rome’: the ministry of the Successor of Peter is no longer seen by the other Churches simply as a problem, but rather as an opportunity for a common reflection on the nature of the Church and its mission in the world.

By Andrea Tornielli

“The primacy must be exercised in a synodal way, and synodality requires primacy,” says, Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, highlighting one of the key points a new study document entitled, The Bishop of Rome. The text, released on Thursday, 13 June, summarises the developments in ecumenical dialogue on the theme of primacy and synodality in the decades since the publication of Ut unum sint, Pope St John Paul II’s landmark encyclical on Christian unity.

Cardinal Koch spoke with Vatican News’ Andrea Tornielli about the new document.

Interview with Cardinal Kurt Koch

Your Eminence, can you first explain what this document is, and then how it came into being and its purpose?

This document, entitled The Bishop of Rome, is a study text that offers a synthesis of recent ecumenical developments on the theme of primacy and synodality. Its genesis goes back to the invitation addressed to all Christians by St John Paul II in Ut unum sint to find, “together, of course,” the forms in which the ministry of the Bishop of Rome “may accomplish a service of love” recognised by one another. This invitation has been repeatedly reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. The document summarises about thirty responses to this invitation and about fifty texts of ecumenical dialogues on the subject.

In 2020, the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity saw the 25th anniversary of the encyclical Ut unum sint as an opportunity to take stock of the discussion. The convocation of a Synod on Synodality confirmed the relevance of this project as a contribution to the ecumenical dimension of the synodal process.

What methodology was used to produce this document?

The document is the result of real ecumenical and synodal work. In its realisation, it involved not only the officials, but also the members and consultors of the Dicastery, who discussed it in two plenary assemblies. Many Catholic experts and scholars from various Christian traditions, East and West, were consulted, in collaboration with the Angelicum Institute for Ecumenical Studies. Finally, the text was sent to various Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and to the General Secretariat of the Synod. In all, more than fifty opinions and contributions were considered. Our document also takes into account the latest interventions in the framework of the synodal process.

In the encyclical Ut unum sint (1995), John Paul II said he was willing to discuss the forms of exercising the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. What path has been travelled in these three decades?

The question of primacy has been intensively discussed in almost all ecumenical contexts in recent decades. Our paper reports progress and highlights the fact that the theological dialogues and responses to the encyclical testify to a new and positive ecumenical spirit in the discussion. This new climate is indicative of the good relations established between Christian communions, of that “rediscovered fraternity” of which Ut unum sint speaks.

It can be said that ecumenical dialogues have proven to be the appropriate context for discussing this sensitive topic. At a time when the results of ecumenical engagement are often considered meagre or insignificant, the outcomes of the theological dialogues demonstrate the value of their methodology, that is, of reflection done “together, of course.”

Reading the document, one is first of all struck by the growing consensus found in the various ecumenical dialogues on the necessity of primacy. Does this mean that for the other Christian Churches, the role of the Bishop of Rome is no longer merely perceived as an obstacle to unity?

In 1967, Paul VI stated that “the Pope [...] is without a doubt the greatest obstacle on the path to ecumenism.” However, fifty years later, a reading of the dialogue documents and responses to Ut unum sint attests that the question of primacy for the whole Church, and in particular of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, is no longer seen only as a problem, but rather as an opportunity for a common reflection on the nature of the Church and its mission in the world. Moreover, in our globalised world, there is undoubtedly a growing sense of the need for a ministry of unity at the universal level. The question that arises is to agree on how to exercise this ministry, defined by John Paul II as a “service of love.”

In the two millennia of Church history, how has the manner of exercising primacy changed? And what development could there be to make this exercise acceptable also to other Churches that are not in full communion with Rome today?

Certainly, the manner of exercising the Petrine ministry has evolved over time, depending on historical circumstances and new challenges. However, for many theological dialogues, the principles and models of communion honoured in the first millennium remain paradigmatic for a future restoration of full communion. Certain criteria of the first millennium have been identified as reference points and sources of inspiration for the exercise of a universally recognised ministry of unity.

Although the first millennium is decisive, many dialogues recognise that it should not be idealised nor simply recreated, because the developments of the second millennium cannot be ignored and also because a primacy at the universal level should respond to contemporary challenges. In any case, a renewed exercise of primacy must ultimately be modelled on service, on diakonia. Authority and service are closely related.

Is it possible to envision for the future a shared form of exercise of the Petrine primacy over all of Christendom that is separate from the Pope’s jurisdiction over the Latin Church?

Indeed, some ecumenical dialogues suggest a clearer distinction between the different responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome, in particular between what might be called the Pope’s patriarchal ministry within the Western or Latin Church, and his primatial service of unity in the communion of all the Churches, both Western and Eastern.

Moreover, they emphasise the need to distinguish the patriarchal and primatial role of the Bishop of Rome from his function as head of state. The emphasis on the exercise of the Pope's ministry in his particular Church, the diocese of Rome, which Pope Francis has particularly emphasised, helps to highlight his episcopal ministry, which he shares with his brother bishops.

This document is published while the Catholic Church is going through a synodal journey centred precisely on the theme of synodality. What connection is there between synodality and primacy?

The greater part of the responses and dialogue documents clearly agree on the mutual interdependence of primacy and synodality at every level of the Church: local, regional, and even at the universal level. Consequently, primacy must be exercised in a synodal manner, and synodality requires primacy.

On all these aspects, our Dicastery has also organised conferences entitled “Listening to the East” and “Listening to the West,” listening to the different Christian traditions regarding synodality and primacy, as a contribution to the synodal process.

A decisive step regarding primacy was the dogmatisation of the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome when speaking ex cathedra and his jurisdictional power over the Church. Can you tell us whether, and how, a new reading and understanding of Vatican Council I is possible in the light of Vatican II and the steps taken on the ecumenical path?

Certainly, some dialogues have endeavoured to interpret the First Vatican Council in the light of its historical context, objective, and reception. Since its dogmatic definitions were profoundly conditioned by historical circumstances, they suggest that the Catholic Church seek new expressions and vocabulary faithful to the original intention, integrating them into an ecclesiology of communion and adapting them to the current cultural and ecumenical context. There is therefore talk of a “re-reception,” or even “reformulation,” of the teachings of Vatican I.

What are the next steps to continue the Churches' common reflection on the primacy?

This study concludes with a brief proposal of the Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery, entitled “Towards an Exercise of the Primacy in the 21st Century,” which identifies the most significant suggestions proposed by the various responses and dialogues for a renewed exercise of the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome. Our dicastery would like to share this proposal, together with the study document, with the various Christian communions, asking for their thoughts on the matter. We thus hope to continue the discussion, “together, of course,” for an exercise of the ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome “recognised by one another.”

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13 June 2024, 11:30