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Earlier this afternoon, I was listening to James Likoudis, founder of Catholics United for the Faith, on Catholic Answers Live. The insights were interesting to me, but there are some points that I would like to pick apart and explain for those of you are curious about issues such as Petrine primacy, the East-West Schism of 1054, and some other topics.

Petrine Primacy

This is one of the most hotly disputed issues among Catholic and Orthodox theologians. The Orthodox give the Pope a primacy of honor  while Catholics believe that he is Christ’s Vicar and the head of the entire Church. Why the difference? Why the arguments?

The primary reason comes from the way in which each of the two Churches view their governing bodies. The Orthodox Church views the Body of Christ as being ruled by the Holy Spirit and the numerous patriarchs, bishops, archbishops, metropolitans, and other hierarchs of the respective national churches (Greek, Serbian, Russian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Antiochian, and so on).

The governance of the Church is based on the canons (decrees) of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (314 – 787) which defined such issues as church governance, the Divine Nature of Our Lord, and numerous other issues that were of relevance. These decrees continue to stand as a matter of la and they are so respected.

For the most part, the Churches within this governing body are autocephalous. This means that each of them is independent of the others. The rites of these Churches are all the same. The liturgy you will find at a Russian Orthodox parish on Sunday is almost exactly the same as you would see in the neighboring Antiochian or Greek church. I say almost because there are some cultural differences and the languages in which they are used.

Since the Churches are autocephalous, they do not have anybody remotely resembling a visible head in the Catholic sense of that term. The closest the Orthodox have is the Ecumenical (Universal) Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is merely “primus inter pares” rather than being the most authoritative representative. Indeed, other hierarchs of the national churches have disagreed with Patriarch Bartholomew on various issues including union with Rome. This is done in the spirit of fraternal correction.

In this spirit of allow churches to govern themselves, the Orthodox view the Roman Pontiff as another “primus inter pares.” They do not see Him as being Christ’s Vicar nor do they see him as having any of the powers that are attributed to him within the Catholic Church. For example, the ability to speak infallibly when defining matters of faith and dogma. More often than not, Pope Benedict and his predecessors are seen as monarchs who control the Catholic Church.

It should be noted here that the primacy of St. Peter comes from Sacred Scripture (Matthew and Acts). Within all of these writings, it is St. Peter and not the other Apostles who speaks to Christ. He is the most authoritative figure in the Apostolic college and the one who received the keys of the kingdom. Clearly, the Apostolic college was not equal or democratic in the ways that we believe it to be. Rather, it was ruled by the Holy Ghost in the person of one man.

I make the argument above not only based on my own theological opinions, fallible as they are, but also on what I have read elsewhere. Indeed, St. Peter and his successors have an important place in the Church. Read the acts of the Ecumenical Councils and other documents from the early centuries of the Church and you will see clearly that the Pope had an authoritative role to play.

I would also like to note here that the two Churches also operate on different models. Orthodoxy runs on a collegial system where every bishop and patriarch is viewed as the equal to that of an equivalent rank in another of these churches.

In Catholicism, however, this is not the case. Rather, Catholicism is top down structure where Rome rules and everybody obeys. Essentially, this means that the Pope is the head of all the bishops united with him. He is, as he sometimes signs himself, the Servant of the Servants of Christ.

The East-West Schism

Contrary to popular belief, the East-West Schism of 1054 was actually a long time in coming before the excommunications were ever placed at Aghia Sofia in Constantinople. The issue of the Filioque (the procession of the Holy Ghost from both the Father and the Son) had been around since the time of the Frankish kings during the 500s and it had been used in the Nicene Creed since then at Rome.

Of course, there were numerous other disagreements that led to the final rupture of communication between the Churches. Some of these included the growing temporal power of the Catholic Church with regard to the lands it acquired and the Pope’s supremacy over various monarchs (the later investiture controversy between Emperor Henry IV and Innocent III comes to mind).

To the Orthodox, the Pope was seen as putting on airs and gaining for himself the powers of a potentate. In fact, the exact opposite was true. The Pope was not putting on any airs. During the chaos that characterized most of the Middle Ages, Christianity served as a bulwark against those that would bully their way into the Church. Indeed, the Pope was merely protecting his interests and those of his flock.

Of course, the popes of various ages have made mistakes. The Church is made up of human members and the Pope is just as humans as other people. However, we should not forget that some popes used whatever means necessary to retain their powere and to govern the Church. Indeed, they were fulfilling Christ’s command to St. Peter to “feed My lambs.”

Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!

NOTE: The comments for this post have been shut down. Please e-mail the editor (agoukass at gonzaga dot edu) and I will add your comments at a later point in time.