Archbishop Minnerath on Rome, the Papacy, and the EastAug 21st, 2012 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
How was the Papacy understood in the ancient Christian East? This is the topic of an essay by Archbishop Roland Minnerath entitled “The Petrine Ministry in the Early Patristic Tradition.”  I address Archbishop Minnerath’s essay because I do not want it to become an occassion for misunderstanding. In this ecumenical essay, the Archbishop acknowledges, “The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West.” We must be clear about what this means.
Archbishop Minnerath offers an interpretation of Patristic history in which he extends great liberality to Orthodox sensibilities and construes the historical data in a non-polemical light. Thus, while recognizing the early date for a specifically Petrine claim for Roman primacy, the archbishop acknowledges that this claim was not unanimously accepted, and that some Eastern synods articulated a canonical rather than a Petrine justification for Roman primacy. Key passages in that regard include the following statements:
The Eastern church has never taken into account the developments about the Roman bishop as vicar, successor or heir of the Apostles Peter . . . The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter.
We must not construe these passages in the wrong way: “No acceptance of Papal claims in the East!” Rather, there is an important context that cannot be overlooked. It would be surprising indeed if a Catholic archbishop thought that Petrine theology was innovative and uncatholic. However, the archbishop offers important qualifications:
If we look at churches established outside the patriarchal territoris of the Roman Empire, we find amazing support for the primacy of the See of Rome on the ground of the Scriptures and not of the synodical canons. So a Persian collection of 73 canons attributed to the council of Nicea and composed around the year 400 develops a mystique of the four patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Antioch. The Syriac version says ‘the patriarch of Rome will have authority over all the patriarchs, as Peter had over the whole community.’
Thus, it clear from the essay that Minnerath does not mean to assert that no one in the East accepted Roman claims for a Petrine primacy. Rather, he has in mind the specifically Byzantine development of an alternate theory to explain (in non-Petrine terms) the universally acknowledged primacy of Rome.
The Archbishop offers other qualifications as well. He acknowledges, for example, that by Nicea II the cooperation or “Synergeia” of the bishop of Rome was considered necessary for a valid council, even in Byzantium. He also remarks, “It is worth mentioning that the Petrine claims of the popes were never invoked as a cause for schism by the Eastern church during the first millennium.” Finally, Archbishop Minnerath clearly believes in a Petrine primacy and hopes future ecumenical developments will show that “synodality and primacy are not only compatible, but mutually necessary, and that primacy and synodality are both implied in the words the Lord directed to the apostle Peter.”
Obviously, it is necessary to place the Archbishop’s essay in context, and especially to define what we mean by “The East never accepted Roman claims to a Petrine Primacy.” If we mean that Byzantine theologians offered alternative (and novel) readings of Papal primacy that Orthodox theologians would appropriate in the following millenium, then well and good. No argument here. (We must recognize, though, how very anachronistic it would be to identify modern Orthodoxy with Eastern Patrology tout court.) If, however, we mean that Petrine primacy was invented in the West, and rejected wholesale in the East as a novelty, then the evidence contradicts that claim.
East and West both accepted the fact of Roman primacy, but the theory of a merely canonical primacy, deriving from convention or from Rome’s location as seat of the Empire is a later and exclusively Byzantine development. On the contrary, the earliest arguments for Roman primacy were exclusively theological¸ based on Rome’s fidelity to apostolic tradition or upon apostolic succession. The oldest theory we know of explaining the primacy of Rome’s bishop was given by Pope Stephen I (254-257), who claimed unambiguously to sit in cathedra Petri.
In what follows, I wish to consider some of the evidence that this claim was understood, acknowledged, and even embraced by Catholic Christians East and West from antiquity to our own day. Only then can we properly understand the Archbishop’s essay. That that end, I would suggest we consider four lines of evidence: Papal theology in the Syriac tradition, the witness of the sui iuris churches (especially the Maronites), the surprising acquiescence to Roman claims by even professed Byzantine anti-Romanists, and the full acceptance of Roman claims by at least some pre-schism Byzantines. After we have looked at this evidence, we can assess the significance of the Archbishop’s essay.
The Syriac Tradition
As the Archbishop points out, there is substantial evidence for a doctrine of Petrine succession in the canons, liturgy, and theology of Syriac Christianity. In our own day, we have witnessed the reconciliation to Rome of many of the Nestorian Christians (Assyrian Church of the East). Their own theologian and Bishop Mar Bawai Soro explains one reason why:
The Church of the East attributes a prominent role to Saint Peter and a significant place for the Church of Rome in her liturgical, canonical and Patristic thoughts. There are more than 50 liturgical, canonical and Patristic citations that explicitly express such a conviction . . . The Church of the East possesses a theological, liturgical and canonical tradition in which she clearly values the primacy of Peter among the rest of the Apostles and their churches and the relationship Peter has with his successors in the Church of Rome.
Probably the clearest Syrian witness to Petrine primacy can be found in the works of Theodore Abu Qurrah, a Syrian Catholic bishop who died in 820 A.D. Here is what Qurrah had to say about the Bishop of Rome:
You should understand that the head of the Apostles was St. Peter . . . Do you not see that St. Peter is the foundation of the church, selected to shepherd it, that those who believe in his faith will never lose their faith, and that he was ordered to have compassion on his brethren and to strengthen them? As for Christ’s words, ‘I have prayed for you, that you not lose your faith; but you, have compassion on your brethren, at that time, and strengthen them’, we do not think that he meant St. Peter himself. Rather, he meant nothing more than the holders of the seat of St. Peter, that is, Rome. Just as when he said to the apostles, ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age’, he did not mean just the apostles themselves, but also those who would be in charge of their seats and their flocks; in the same way, when he spoke his last words to St. Peter, ‘Have compassion, at that time, and strengthen your brethren; and your faith will not be lost’, he meant by this nothing other than the holders of his seat.
Based on this tradition alone, it is simply impossible to argue without qualification that “The East” never accepted Roman claims.
Sui Iuris Churches (Especially Maronites)
There are currently 22 sui iuris Churches in communion with Rome. These are Eastern-rite Catholics, with their own hierarchies, canons, and liturgies, but which nevertheless accept all the claims of the Pope. Each of them has their own unique history with Rome. Many have suffered persecution in the East for their fidelity to the Holy Father. To discuss each in detail is beyond the scope of this article, but their present existence puts the lie to the claim that Eastern Churches have never accepted Papal claims.
Of particular importance are the Maronites, a Syriac rite that has never been in formal schism from Rome. The Maronites were pre-Arab Semites in the Levant, Chalcedonian in theology, and persecuted by the Jacobin, Monophysite Church. Eventaully, they fled Syria and found refuge in Lebanon. They are named for their 4’th century founder, St. Maron, hermit and one-time friend of St. John Chrysostom.
In 517, the Monastery of St. Maron could address Pope Hormisdas as “Hormisdas, the most holy and blessed patriarch of the whole world, the holder of the See of Peter, the leader of the apostles.” During the 11th century, at the same time that Constantinople was excommunicating Rome (and vice versa), the Maronites reaffirmed their unity with the Holy See. Pope Pascal II gave crown and staff to the Maronite Patriarch Youseff Al Jirjisi in 1100 A.D. Innocent III likewise recognized the authority of their Patriarchate, and a Maronite bishop was present at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. They remain to this day a shining, blatant, everlasting, and definitive rebutal to the bald assertion that “The East” has never accepted Roman claims.
It is worth noting, furthermore, that Byzantium itself was not fully united with Constantinople in issuing the excommunications of 1054. Intercommunion between Eastern and Western Christians persisted for many years after 1054. Many, including the Slavs whose descendants reunited with Rome through the Unions of Brest and Uzhhorod, only accepted the schism as a reality as the centuries went on. (We should also recall that the excommunications have been revoked.)
As Archbishop Minnerath points out, the doctrine of Petrine primacy was never a cause of schism with the East. Even Photius and Cerularius, the critical players in the East-West schism, never argued that the Petrine doctrine could justify schism. Therefore, to the extent that modern Orthodoxy rejects reunion with Rome on this basis, to that extent Orthodoxy is novel.
Furthermore, there can be little doubt that ancient Byzantium understood the Roman claim to Petrine succession, and at times even acquiesced to it. Thus, the Libellus Hormisdae (519), signed by Byzantine bishops, reads:
We cannot pass over in silence the affirmations of our Lord Jesus Christ, “You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church.’ . . . These words are verified by the facts. It is in the apostolic see that the Catholic religion has always been preserved without blemish . . . This is why I hope that I shall remain in communion with the apostolic see in which is found the whole, true, and perfect stability of the Christian religion.
The papal legates at Ephesus (431) also advanced a very robust doctrine of Petrine primacy. None of the council fathers could have been ignorant of the claim. Consider:
Philip, presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable Synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members by our [or your] holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the Apostles, is blessed Peter the Apostle. And since now our mediocrity, after having been tempest-tossed and much vexed, has arrived, we ask that you give order that there be laid before us what things were done in this holy Synod before our arrival; in order that according to the opinion of our blessed pope and of this present holy assembly, we likewise may ratify their determination. (Acts of the Council, session II).
Aidan Nichols, O.P. expounds on this incoventient truth:
Not only did Cyril preside over the council in the Pope’s name, but Nestorius himself, when faced with the apparent victory of his bitterest opponents – the extreme Alexandrians – at the subsequent latrocinium of 449 (for Monophysites, the Second Council of Ephesus), also appealed to Roman authority as an indispensable element in the determination of doctrine. As he pointed out in criticism of the Ephesian synod: “We did not find there the bishop of Rome, the see of Saint Peter, the apostolic dignity, the beloved leader of the Romans.” Faced with such texts, contemporary Orthodox spokesmen sometimes claim that, in the patristic age, Easterners appealed to Rome only when desperate, plying her with high-sounding titles in the hope of gaining her active support. And yet such appeals are made not only by individuals in difficulties but also by councils themselves.
Finally, let us not forget the famous acclamation of Chalcedon, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” It has been argued that this cry did not amount to an acceptance of specifically Petrine primacy for Rome. Whether or not this is true, however, there can be little doubt that Pope Leo believed in and articulated such a Primacy. If his claims were considered heretical, how could the council fathers have celebrated the faith of Peter, received through an avowed heretic?
Nichols points to a possible rejoinder to these texts. Namely, the East only acquiesced to Roman claims when desperate or under duress. Still, this does nothing to falsify the claim that Papal claims were widely understood and at least sometimes accepted. Nor were they ever understood as a justification for schism.
Finally, there is ample evidence that individual Byzantine Church leaders understood and embraced the doctrine of the papacy. We could provide great lists of quotations (see here, and here) but, as that seems rather pedantic, I prefer to select only one example: St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 650) (Thanks to www.fisheaters.com):
The extremities of the earth, and everyone in every part of it who purely and rightly confess the Lord, look directly towards the Most Holy Roman Church and her confession and faith, as to a sun of unfailing light awaiting from her the brilliant radiance of the sacred dogmas of our Fathers, according to that which the inspired and holy Councils have stainlessly and piously decreed. For, from the descent of the Incarnate Word amongst us, all the churches in every part of the world have held the greatest Church alone to be their base and foundation, seeing that, according to the promise of Christ Our Savior, the gates of hell will never prevail against her, that she has the keys of the orthodox confession and right faith in Him, that she opens the true and exclusive religion to such men as approach with piety, and she shuts up and locks every heretical mouth which speaks against the Most High. (Maximus, Opuscula theologica et polemica, Migne, Patr. Graec. vol. 90)
How much more in the case of the clergy and Church of the Romans, which from old until now presides over all the churches which are under the sun? Having surely received this canonically, as well as from councils and the apostles, as from the princes of the latter (Peter and Paul), and being numbered in their company, she is subject to no writings or issues in synodical documents, on account of the eminence of her pontificate …..even as in all these things all are equally subject to her (the Church of Rome) according to sacerodotal law. And so when, without fear, but with all holy and becoming confidence, those ministers (the popes) are of the truly firm and immovable rock, that is of the most great and Apostolic Church of Rome. (Maximus, in J.B. Mansi, ed. Amplissima Collectio Conciliorum, vol. 10)
If the Roman See recognizes Pyrrhus to be not only a reprobate but a heretic, it is certainly plain that everyone who anathematizes those who have rejected Pyrrhus also anathematizes the See of Rome, that is, he anathematizes the Catholic Church. I need hardly add that he excommunicates himself also, if indeed he is in communion with the Roman See and the Catholic Church of God …Let him hasten before all things to satisfy the Roman See, for if it is satisfied, all will agree in calling him pious and orthodox. For he only speaks in vain who thinks he ought to pursuade or entrap persons like myself, and does not satisfy and implore the blessed Pope of the most holy Catholic Church of the Romans, that is, the Apostolic See, which is from the incarnate of the Son of God Himself, and also all the holy synods, according to the holy canons and definitions has received universal and surpreme dominion, authority, and power of binding and loosing over all the holy churches of God throughout the whole world. (Maximus, Letter to Peter, in Mansi x, 692).
The fourth century witnessed rival interpretations of Papal authority. What no one questioned, however, was the fact of Roman primacy. To quote one Orthodox theologian, Nicholas Afanassieff:
Rome’s vocation [in the pre-Nicene period] consisted in playing the part of arbiter, settling contentious issues by witnessing to the truth or falsity of whatever doctrine was put before them. Rome was truly the centre where all converged if they wanted their doctrine to be accepted by the conscience of the Church. They could not count upon success except on one condition — that the Church of Rome had received their doctrine — and refusal from Rome predetermined the attitude the other churches would adopt. There are numerous cases of this recourse to Rome…
When the Council of Constantinople (381) advanced a theory of Papal primacy based on her connection to the Imperial capital (rather than Petrine primacy), the Roman legates adamantly refused to accept it, and Pope Damasus I repudiated it at a Roman synod the following year (382). The canonical theory was clearly an alternative to Rome’s older position, argued by Pope Stephen I (254-257), that Rome’s primacy derived from Petrine succession. That Byzantine theologians would offer alternative interpretation is not surprsing, since they wanted to bolster Constantinople’s position as the new seat of the Empire. Thus, Aidan Nichols, O.P. in his book Rome and the Eastern Churches, can write, “The rupture between Rome and Orthodoxy may not unfairly be called a separation between Rome and Constantinople.“
Modern Orthodox, who deny Papal claims to a specifically Petrine succession, look back to these Byzantine theories for support. As a justification for schism, however, their position is completely novel. The Roman claim is older, and was widely accepted in both East and West. We have provided ample evidence that both Greeks and Syriacs understood and accepted the claim to a Petrine Primacy. Even Byzantine synods and theologians acknowledged them.
Archbishops Minnerath’s essay is no “smoking gun.” He has admitted nothing that has not been common knowledge for 1,000 years. Some Byzantine theologians resisted Papal claims. Their work has provided some theologial “cover” for modern Orthodoxy. But, once again, this just has no significance for the Catholic doctrine of the Papacy. Of the “Blasphemy of Sirmium,” St. Jerome once lamented, “The whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” At that time, there was but a handful of bishops who maintained the Nicaean faith and stayed faithful to the Pope. This was no threat to the unity or Catholcity of the Church. After all, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”
 In How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? ed., James F. Puglisi (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), pgs. 34-48.
 “The Position of the Church of the East Theological Tradition on the Questions of Church Unity and Full Communion” cited at http://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2008/05/3000-assyrians-received-into-catholic.html