Can the papacy somehow promote Christian unity?

A couple of pope-related notes…

Generally, I think it’s safe to say, the place and role of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church has been an obstacle to ecumenism — or non-Catholic Christian churches getting closer to, or somehow aligning with, Rome.

If other Christian traditions saw the Petrine Ministry as essential, after all, they might well go Catholic.

So I was interested to see that Father James Puglisi, minister general of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, has received a Catholic Press Award for editing a 2010 book, “How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?”

Yes, it is a title that does not sing.

I, for one, would be curious to know how the papacy might contribute to Christian unity. I don’t have the book, but have been trying to skim it on Amazon.

I stumbled on a chapter by Father Joseph Komonchak, a West Nyack native and a well-known and veteran theologian at Catholic University in Washington. It includes this great passage:


It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the Roman Catholic Church is regarded as a vast multinational religious corporation with central headquarters in Rome, branch offices in large cities, and retail shops, called parishes, dispensing spiritual goods. On this view, the pope is seen as the CEO of the firm. This view, I say, is rather widespread, and it can be found, almost taken for granted, among both progressives and liberals, among the laity, and among the clergy, including among some bishops.”


This “administrative view” of the church won’t fly with many Christians, he writes. He goes on to cover some difficult ground, including on the relationship between the universal church and individual churches. I won’t attempt to summarize it (nor could I), but Komonchak doesn’t seem to like the way Rome chooses bishops without diocesan input and drops them down from the outside.

He writes: “A theory and a practice that cannot acknowledge the local churches as full subjects in their own right cannot be correct.”

So here is an argument in favor of the pope’s administrative role being reduced — or the local church’s role being increased. Some non-Catholic Christians would certainly agree.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reading Bill Keller’s review in the NYT Book Review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy” by John Julius Norwich.

Keller starts his review with this:


John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.


Now, Norwich may be scrupulous with his research and he may have no ax to grind. In fact, his book may be fantastic in every way.

But, unless I’m missing something, Norwich’s lack of scholarly standing does not mean that he will be scrupulous with his research. His status as an agnostic Protestant does not mean that he has no ax to grind.

He could well be an agnostic Protestant and popular historian who does lousy research and has a huge ax to grind.

I’m not saying he is. But he could be, right?

Imaging a Catholic-Orthodox reunion

What would a reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christian churches look like?

Beats the heck out of me, but it would be bigger than Brad and Jennifer getting back together, even Woody and Mia, maybe even the Beatles (celebrities have become our measuring stick for just about everything, haven’t they?).

An ongoing dialogue between North American Catholic and Orthodox scholars continued this month in Brookline, Mass., where they worked on a draft statement called “Steps Towards a United Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future.”

According to a release from the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference: “The document briefly outlines the history of divergences between Catholics and Orthodox, especially with regard to the role of the Bishop of Rome in the Church. It also outlines all that the two churches share and notes that overcoming differences has become a matter of urgency. The text also reflects on what a reunited Catholic and Orthodox Church might would look like, the ecclesial structures needed to facilitate such unity, and the questions that remain to be answered if such a reconciliation is to take place. Work on this text will continue at the next meeting.”

...what a reunited Catholic and Orthodox Church might look like, the ecclesial structures needed to facilitate such unity…

Fascinating stuff. I hope they release the statement when it’s done.

Several local figures play a key role in the dialogue.

Father John Erickson, former dean and professor of canon law and church history at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, presented a paper about the autocephalous — or self-governing — nature of the Orthodox churches.

And Father Joseph Komonchak, a native of West Nyack and professor emeritus of religious studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, offered a Catholic response to Erickson’s paper and another.

The North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation was established in 1965 and has issued 23 statements, available here and here.

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches also have an international dialogue, which attempts to face the same millennium-old issues (what about that bishop in Rome, anyway?).

Last fall, the North American dialogue actually put out a critique of a key statement from the international dialogue. But if you think I’m going to try to explain it here, you’ve got another thing coming.

But here are two interesting and vaguely accessible paragraphs from the critique of the international dialogue’s “Ravenna” document:


Finally, we take exception to the contents of the Ravenna document’s sole footnote:  “Orthodox participants felt it important to emphasize that the use of the terms ‘the Church’, ‘the universal Church’ and ‘the Body of Christ’ in this document and in similar documents produced by the Joint Commission in no way undermines the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks.  From the Catholic point of view, the same self-awareness applies: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church ‘subsists in the Catholic Church’ (Lumen Gentium, 8); this does not exclude acknowledgement that elements of the true Church are present outside the Catholic communion.”

We find this footnote inaccurate.  First, we think that its two assertions do not adequately represent the ecclesiology of either the Orthodox or the Catholic Church.  The Orthodox Church’s self-understanding as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not understood by all Orthodox in exclusivist terms.  Throughout the centuries, significant currents within Orthodox ecclesiology have recognized the presence of the Church’s reality outside the canonical, visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church.  Also, to assert that “from the Catholic point of view the same self-awareness applies” misrepresents Catholic ecclesiology at and since the Second Vatican Council, in spite of the Ravenna document’s reference to Lumen Gentium 8.  Because of apostolic succession and the Eucharist, Vatican II did not hesitate to recognize that the Orthodox constitute “Churches,” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 14) that they are “sister Churches,” and to assert that in their celebration of the Eucharist, the Church of God is being built up and growing.  To our Consultation, these two points of view point to the fact that the ecclesiological issues regarding mutual recognition raised at Bari still require resolution.


Got that?

Graymoor friars re-elect Puglisi as leader

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement have re-elected Father James Puglisi to a second term as minister general. The boss.

Puglisi has been based in Rome since 1973, serving at the Centro Pro Unione, the friars’ ecumenical research center there. He’s been director since 1991.

He was first elected as minister general in 2004, becoming the first friar to oversee the community’s worldwide ministries from outside New York state. The friars are, of course, based on Graymoor mountain in Garrison.

Since one of the friars’ main objectives is to promote Christian unity, it made sense to have a leader who focuses on this most difficult, but important, subject all the time.

Puglisi, 62, is from Amsterdam, N.Y., northwest of Albany.

The friars have been planning a major renovation of their Graymoor headquarters — including a new residence for the friars, who live in old dormitories that were not meant for long-term living.

But planning has slowed because of the economy.

Anyway, here is Puglisi (in the middle) and his General Counsel (left to right): Brother Kevin Goss, Father Elias D. Mallon, Father Timothy MacDonald,  and Father Paul Ojibway.