The Proposed 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council, and an
Orthodox Theologian's View of the Petrine Primacy

In 2007 in Ravenna, Orthodox and Catholic theologians who were members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue issued a document on Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical relations termed "Primacy and Conciliarity" which marked a certain advance regarding the role of the Papacy as the possible Primate of a reunited Church.

However, Cardinal Kasper noted at the time:

"We must not exaggerate its importance... The road is very long and difficult".

At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church took offense rejecting the document and objecting to its implication that the Patriarch of Constantinople was the leader of the Pan-Orthodox world just as the Pope is the leader of the Catholic Church - a notion often parroted in the secular press.

Here was revealed again the long-standing dispute and conflict between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow over ecclesiastical leadership of the 16 or so autocephalous and autonomous national Orthodox Churches. The well-known Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev had previously made clear the Russian Church's opposition to any "Papism" in ecclesiology:

"We respect the Patriarch of Constantinople as the 'first in honor', but we are against viewing him as 'Pope of the East'."

Moreover, quarrels had festered over which patriarchate had "authority" to make decisions regarding the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), and the Churches of Estonia, Czech-Slovak Lands, Ukraine, Macedonia, and communities in South America. The dispute over the Estonian Church led the Russian Orthodox delegation (representing the largest Orthodox Church) to "walk out" of the Ravenna meeting.

Plans for the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue which includes Catholic and Orthodox scholars were scheduled to meet again in 2012, but had to be postponed because of disagreements among Orthodox participants regarding the Ravenna Statement on Primacy. Cardinal Koch president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity was led to remark:

"I think there are more tensions between the Orthodox, than between the Orthodox and Catholics."

Nevertheless, the Patriarch Kyril of Moscow attended the March 6-9, 2014, meeting in Istanbul called by the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to plan for a "Pan-Orthodox Council" in 2016 to deal with the serious questions that trouble the relations between the local national Churches. Such a Council would be of great benefit to Catholic-Orthodox relations if its members would go beyond internal problems of governance and administration and deal with doctrinal issues on which their theologians have long disagreed. For example, are the doctrines of the 'Filioque' and Immaculate Conception really 'heretical'? Needed light would be thrown on the specific dogmatic issues which are said to separate the Churches. Catholics would appreciate knowing whether the Ravenna Statement concerning Papal primacy in the Church has the support of all the primates in a Pan-Orthodox Council.

What cannot be ignored, however, is that open disputes on dogmatic issues might reveal the doctrinal fissures that exist between the more ecumenically-minded Orthodox and the fierce anti-ecumenical extremists crying anathema against the Papacy and the 'ecumenical heresy'. Fear of such debates opening up a "Pandora's Box" could well postpone such a Pan-Orthodox Synod being held in 2016.

It is interesting to note that the noted Eastern Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement was in agreement with Pope John Paul II that "the problem of the Papacy" represented the greatest difficulty in the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. In 1997 Olivier Clement published a book "You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflections on the Exercise of Papal Primacy" (New City Press, N.Y., 1997) with a Foreword by no less than Avery Cardinal Dulles. The latter expressed pleasure with the author's irenic tone and his book as a sign of the theological progress made and a "beacon of hope for the future."

Clement's book is of particular interest as conceding various positions traditionally held by Orthodox theologians not sympathetic to the ecumenical efforts conducted by Patriarch Bartholomew and other Orthodox. Olivier Clement had no doubt:

  • that Peter and Paul came to Rome;
  • that the Apostle Peter was the first bishop of Rome;
  • and that the Rock (petra) on whom Christ built His Church was the person of Peter as the one who confessed the apostolic faith.

He also admitted that from the time of Tertullian writing at the beginning of the 3rd century:

"the idea develops that Peter received from Christ a particular charism that made him first among the Apostles and that the bishop of Rome is his successor, or rather, his vicar, the one who inherits this charism... The role of Rome, its petrine charism, is therefore to keep watch over the communion of the local Churches, to prevent them from breaking away, to intervene at the request of any of them (as at Corinth in 86 or again around 170) to serve as a point of reference to anyone seeking insertion in one of the most prestigious of the apostolic traditions... By the time of Leo the Great, pope from 440-461, the doctrine of Roman primacy was complete".

There are other remarkable admissions which contradict the allegations of other Orthodox that the "Bishop of Rome enjoyed only a position of honor among equals". Clement saw clearly that the "Roman Primacy... finds its place in the context of episcopal collegiality". With other ecumenically-minded Orthodox (e.g., Nicholas Lossky) he acknowledged that the 'Filioque' was a "legitimate approach" to Trinitarian doctrine. Nevertheless, his ecclesiology falls short of Vatican II's exposition of the Roman Primacy as essential to the visible Unity of the Church. He believed that Rome had more than a "primacy of honor" but less than a primacy of jurisdiction 'de jure divino'. He was caught in the quandary of how to explain the Holy Spirit's ever permitting an utterly false ecclesiology (the See of Rome as the indefectible center of visible Unity in the Church) to pervade the First Millennium of the Church's history. Nevertheless, were the theological discussions on the part of the prelates and theologians preparing for the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Synod to follow the path of Professor Clement's valuable and positive contribution to ecumenical dialogue, the "Mystery of Primacy" would be greatly clarified for those seeking the end of a tragic schism.

Olivier Clement's book was written as a direct response to Pope John Paul II's invitation in his encyclical letter 'Et Unum Sint' (1995) to theologians to enter into a patient and fraternal dialogue regarding his Petrine Primacy and its exercise in the Church. As a leading Orthodox theologian in France, Clement was known to the Pope who asked him to compose a Stations of the Cross for the Good Friday service in Rome. Clement died at the age of 87 in 2009. He was an important ecumenical theologian with great sympathies for the Catholic Church, believing that the great Reunion Council of Florence (1439) had not been legitimately revoked.  R.I.P.

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:, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage