A Greek Orthodox Theologian Pleads
for a Petrine Primacy for the Patriarch of Constantinople

Centuries of violent polemics against the Bishop of Rome's assertions of a universal authority and jurisdiction over all the Churches of East and West have marked the history of Eastern Orthodoxy since the rejection of the famous Reunion-Council of Florence (1439). What is interesting despite the mellowing of attitudes with the advent of the Ecumenical Movement and participation of Orthodox hierarchs and theologians in Dialogues with Catholic theologians is the continued resistance of certain Orthodox bishops and theologians to "Papism and the pan-heresy of ecumenism".

Orthodox Websites have widely circulated articles by theologians:

  • Protopresbyter George D.Metallinos of the University of Athens;
  • Protopresbyter Theodore Zisis of the Theological School of the University of Thessalonica;
  • Archimandrite George Kapanis, Abbot of the Monastery of Gregoriou on Mt. Athos;
  • Nicholas P. Vasiliades of the Brotherhood of Theologians 'O Sotir';
  • and Dr. Demetrius Tselengidis, Professor at Aristotle University of Thessalonica,

all of whom condemn in no uncertain terms Papal Primacy as a "Hideous Ecclesiological Heresy".

Various Orthodox Bishops have gone on record to reject any possible accord with "heretical Rome"; Bulgaria's youngest Metropolitan bishop Nikolay called the Pope a heretic on national TV.

Reacting to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cyprus, Metropolitan Paul of Kyrenia stated:

"Our conscience does not permit our participation as the Pope is not just any political leader, but the leader of the heresy of Papism."

His fellow Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol also refused to attend ceremonies, commenting:

"It is one thing to have a dialogue with anyone, and another to receive the Pope as a canonical bishop, who for us Orthodox is a heretic, estranged from the Church, and therefore not even a bishop."

In an insolent Letter addressed to "Francis, head of the State of the Vatican City", two Greek Metropolitans, Andreas of Dryinoupolis and Seraphim of Piraeus declare teachings of the Catholic Church to be "a clear blasphemy against the All-Holy Spirit and which show your theological departure and the satanic pride of which you are possessed."

The existence of such hard-core opposition to the ecumenical overtures of Patriarch Bartholomew and other prelates seeking to overcome the "odium theologicum" of the past and examine the possibility of doctrinal agreement bodes little hope for a happy outcome to the long-hoped for Pan-Orthodox Council scheduled for 2016.

The Ravenna Statement of 2007 emanating from the International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission and which accepted the notion of a Universal Primate for the Church (and as reconciliable with Conciliarity/ Synodality) has come under heavy attack from intransigent circles. Examples of fierce opposition to ecumenical contacts and theological dialogues with Catholics are plentiful and are certainly reflected in the outrageous belief (expressed by various Orthodox prelates and theologians) that all Catholic sacraments are invalid ("without grace").

Certain Catholic ecumenists appear oblivious of the seriousness of the doctrinal divisions and discord increasingly evident among the various Orthodox Churches and which are being exacerbated by the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue.

The fear of future 'de facto' schisms (like those of the "Old Calendarists") that will further rend the union of the Orthodox Churches following the ecumenical lead of Constantinople, is not to be summarily discounted. A Greek Orthodox theologian candidly fears this in his new book "For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue Between East and West" (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2015). Its irenic author, Fr. John Panteleimon Manoussakis, an Orthodox professor of theology and philosophy, introduces the reader to quite another Orthodox world - one of sincere desire for the Reunion of Christians, sympathy for the Catholic West, and openess to modern scholarship disclosing that the union and communion between Rome and Byzantium actually continued long after 1054. Dedicating his volume to Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew, he emphasizes that:

"I write for the Catholic as well as the Orthodox reader ... [to discuss] some of the more familiar themes of the theological divide".

The ecumenical dialogue with Catholics, he writes:

"imposed itself on me as a problem in the days of my junior seminary in Athens, in the all too urgent form of my young classmates' hostility toward all things Latin [and] when the risk of being branded a sympathizer of the pope was much greater than the punishments we would have suffered had our schoolmaster found us out of our beds long after the lights went out."

Taking care not to engage in "endlessly perpetuating a largely artificial opposition" between Catholics and Orthodox, he revisits doctrines that have been the source of centuries of polemic and tries to "open some new windows" on the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Spirit's procession (filioque), and the Petrine ministry (this last historically the most important divisive issue). He observes acutely that:

"As a theoretical issue Petrine primacy divides Catholics from Orthodox, while as a reality it divides the Orthodox among themselves."

In separate chapters Professor Manoussakis deals with the questions of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God and the procession of the Holy Spirit and finds that stripping away the misunderstandings of these Catholic dogmas by Orthodox critics, neither dogma is incompatible with the Easterns' concern for orthodoxy, a conclusion Catholics can only welcome!

Prof. Manoussakis directs his fire at the "phenomenon of anti-papism become increasingly more observable within the Orthodox Church". It is one intimately "linked to racism, which was condemned as a heresy in 1872 under the name of ethnophyletism [ethnic triumphalism]" and which led deplorably to the Balkanization of Eastern Orthodoxy via the establishment of national Churches. It is truly remarkable to witness a Greek Orthodox theologian unequivocally declaring the "phenomenon of anti-papism" understood "as the denial of a 'primus' for the universal church and the elevation of such denial to a trait that allegedly identifies the whole Orthodox Church, to be, properly speaking, heretical."

What is particularly astonishing in Prof. Manoussakis' book is his defense "as an Orthodox clergyman" of a Petrine Primacy as essential to the hierarchical structure of the Church. Such primacy, he notes, cannot be merely "of honour":

"There can be no honour in the Church of the Servant Jesus Christ, that is not based on service - and therefore, on ministerial function." "Such a primacy", he avows, "is required by the very structure of the Church's ecclesiology and that, furthermore, it is a prerequisite necessitated by the Church's theology".

No Catholic theologian would differ with that judgment, but the reader must be cautioned to note that Prof. Manoussakis argues in his book for "a Petrine primacy" involving a universal primacy for the Patriarch of Constantinople! To his mind, this solution could "end the divisions of autocephalies and autonomies", and conflicting canonical jurisdictions and "even schisms" which have resulted in the "present pitiable state" of Eastern Orthodoxy. In short, his "Petrine primacy" IS NOT THE Petrine Primacy of divine right declared as dogma by the Ecumenical Councils of Florence, Vatican I and Vatican II.

What is fascinating in his defense of a "ministry of primacy at the universal level" (for the Patriarch of Constantinople as a real head for all Eastern Orthodox) is his refutation of major objections traditionally made by anti-papal Orthodox theologians to the Roman Pontiff's universal authority and jurisdiction. He admits that:

"The history of the first Millennium leaves no room for doubting that the pope's primacy in terms of such Petrine primacy [not one of a mere 'primacy of honor'] was universally acknowledged and accepted even by the Greek-speaking Church. Theologically, there is no reason why the Orthodox Church should not do the same presently."

Clearly contradicting the "anti-papal party" of Orthodox theologians, Prof. Manoussakis confesses that Peter is the Rock; the Church was built on the person of Peter, not his confession. Peter was "given by Christ a certain primacy in accordance with Matt 16:18 and that this primacy is personal, and exercised by a person (Peter, Peter's successor); and that this view was ... a perennial belief shared by the Fathers of old."

There is no contradiction between Primacy and Conciliarity/Synodality operating in the Church, and there can be "no question that Orthodoxy needs a 'primus' [a first hierarch], and especially at the universal level." Nor does Christ's being the head of the Church prevent the Church having a 'primus' or Primate who exercises a universal primacy among the Orthodox Churches. An Ecumenical Council cannot be the principle of unity in the Church, he states, since it itself demands a personal Primate whereas it is both a rare and "impersonal authority". Since the separation with Rome no longer permits the Bishop of Rome to exercise that personal and universal primacy, such naturally accrues to the Patriarch of Constantinople who, in fact, in the past did exercise real authority over the other Orthodox Churches. It is, moreover, the establishment of the Patriarch of Constantinople as Orthodoxy's universal Primate who could "speak on behalf of all the Orthodox" that would immensely facilitate the possibility of eventual Reunion with Rome.

Here we see elements of convergence with Catholic doctrine concerning the Petrine Primacy. However, Prof. Manoussakis falls far short in fully acknowledging the singular and perduring Petrine Primacy of the Pope in the Church as willed by Christ. Actually, he denies it. The positions he advocates in his book are sure to intensify the conflict with what he terms the "anti-papal party" in Orthodoxy whose "identity [is] exclusively based on the hatred for the office of Peter". They will also assuredly exacerbate the theological opposition of the patriarchate of Moscow which has repeatedly denounced the tendencies to "Papism" in the Greek patriarchate.

There are other subjects treated in Prof. Manoussakis' book worthy of comment but they are beyond the scope of this brief review.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage