Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pope no longer "Patriarch of the West."

In a move rumored for the past month, Pope Benedict XVI has decided to renounce the title "Patriarch of the West." In a communiqué issued yesterday, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity explains that the Pontiff's decision was motivated by concerns about the ambiguity of the patriarchial title as well as hopes that dropping it from the list of papal titles will improve relations between the Holy See and the Orthodox churches.

At least so far, the change seems not to have opened new doors to ecumenical dialogue. Speaking on behalf of the Patriarch of Moscow, Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev stated that the move would not improve Catholic-Orthodox relations. In essence, Bishop Hilarion argued that dropping the 'Patriarch of the West' title doesn't get to the heart of Orthodox concerns about the papacy and may in fact introduce new barriers to dialogue. This statement is about par for the course considering the recent state of relations between Rome and Moscow. Given that the Vatican enjoys relatively cordial relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I'd be curious to see what, if anything, Patriarch Bartholomew or his representatives have to say about Benedict's decision.

Personally, prior to reading the Vatican statement I never realized there was anything ambiguous about the Pope's patriarchal title. As I've understood it, describing the Bishop of Rome as Patriarch of the West simply reflects the fact that he is not simply the Universal Pontiff but also the head of a particular church within the Catholic communion, namely the Latin or Roman Church. Thinking in these terms helps one understand that the Roman Catholic Church is one among many churches of equal dignity that are in communion with the See of Rome and with one another. Given that several of the Eastern Catholic churches are led by bishops who hold the title of patriarch, identifying the Pope as a patriarch emphasizes that the Latin Church is one among many churches in the Catholic communion. Even so, as the Vatican communiqué point out, the historical pedigree of the title 'Patriarch of the West' isn't quite as strong as those of other patriarchal sees. Vesting the head of the Latin Church with the patriarchial title may also create a problem inasmuch as there are other Roman Catholic bishops with the title of patriarch, though their titles are purely honorary - the best known is the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, though there are also Latin Patriarchs of Lisbon, Venice and the East Indies (this last title belongs to the Archbishop of Goa and Daman in India). Though Pope Benedict XVI may have had good reasons for dropping the 'Patriarch of the West' title, I can't help but feel that something rich and resonant has been lost in the process. The Pope's decision changes nothing about the Church's self-understanding, so I hope new ways can be found to symbolically express the same concepts that were conveyed by the now-extinct title 'Patriarch of the West.' AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home