A reader recently commented on my kinder, succinter statement of a question I have about papal supremacy:
Perhaps I’ve missed something but, though you’ve frequently referred to St. Peter as embodying the necessary existence of an infallible “mouth,” how do Ecumenical Councils fit into the picture in your view? How does the collegiality of the Apostles fit this view?
I’ve never quite understood how an infallible Pope fits in with infallible Ecumenical Councils (which both Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge).
As for the pope and collegiality, this is how I see it from the gutter: The Apostles spoke together, which is to say the Apostles spoke and acted together WITH Peter AS their mouthpiece and chief. Likewise, the bishops speak together, which is to say the bishops speak and act WITH the pope as their mouthpiece and chief. Did Peter need to ratify every Apostolic action? I don’t believe so. But did every Apostolic action or proclamation need to pass through Peter (even if in a providentially mystical way)? I’m inclined to say yes. Did Peter need to vet every Apostolic utterance? Hardly. But could any Apostolic teaching have transgressed Peter’s authentic teaching and leadership? I’m inclined to say no. (Alas, we’re batting counterfactuals around.)
Consider also what Peter is in the NT. He is, by the Father’s illuminating grace, the confessor par excellence of Christ’s Messianic divinity. He is the herald, by the power of the Holy Spirit, par excellence of the gospel of Christ. As such, we (all Christians) partake of that Petrine function to some degree. If all can be little Christs, I see no reason why everyone cannot also be little Peters – if both claims are properly understood.
For example, what sensible Orthodox or Catholic has the slightest qualms about calling a priest “Father” even though she knows there is only one TRUE Father in Heaven? Part of being human, and especially being a Christian, means understanding the same words in very different ways. Obviously, there is only one Christ; but who would deny all believers become Him by baptism and theosis, and that bishops in particular actualize His unique but communicable grace? So, obviously there is only one Peter; but why deny we all have a share in his witness, and that the pope in particular actualizes His unique but communicable authority as the vicarious herald of Christ?
So there is, biblically and patristically, a range of meaning for the rock of the Church. Neat-o. I admit this. Why should I waste time bickering with William Webster or Eric Svendsen or James White about patristic ambiguities? Why expect every single quote about Peter to be an ironclad, airtight, hyper-precise declaration of papal supremacy? Indeed, I see no conflict between believing the rock of Matthew 16 was *simultaneously* Peter, his confession of Christ and Christ working IN Peter by the economy of the Spirit in union with the Father. Peter the Rock was inseparable from his faith, and the rock of Peter’s faith was inseparable from Christ the Rock. In the same way are his successors inseparable from his person, his faith and his Lord. Peter carried the weight of the Gospel WITH the Apostles – which necessarily means PETER carried the weight.
By analogy, the pope in every age need not carry each and every single doctrine on his own two shoulders. But his shoulders MUST in some way be helping carry that weight (whether ex cathedra without a council or “passively” with an ecumenical council). Conciliar infallibility (with even the most basic papal cooperation) is a sufficient but not necessary condition for proclaiming true dogmas. Whereas, papal infallibility (usually and ideally with broad episcopal support) is BOTH necessary and in itself sufficient to proclaim dogmas. That is, as I say, how I see collegiality and the papacy relate to each other.
Next we need to consider the Church’s Marian and Petrine dimensions. In the baldest terms, Mary is the vessel of grace and Peter is the chief confessor of Christ’s good news. Mary is the model for Christians of fully embracing the pneumatological dimensions of redemption. Peter, on the other hand, is the model for Christians fully embracing Christological dimensions of that same redemption. Apart from Mary’s “Fiat” at the Annunciation and her “Do all he tells you” at Cana, I wonder with aching dread what would have become of the Incarnation as the full in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. And, apart from Peter’s “You are” at Caesarea Philippi and his “Repent!” at Pentecost, I wonder just as anxiously what would have become of the Church’s understanding of Christ as the vicar of God.
Both Mary and Peter are, by God’s providence, hugely significant figures in the ordo salutis and the Kingdom of God. Mary and Peter both mark key turning points in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Luke’s Gospel and Acts. Now, Mary obviously has her enduring and co-redemptive role in Orthodoxy and Catholicism. But why does Peter have a similarly enduring and “vicarious” role only in Catholicism?
I suspect the willingness by the Orthodox Church to embrace the Marian dimensions of ecclesial life while effectively avoiding the Petrine dimensions stems from its much-discussed emphasis on pneumatology. Where pneumatology flourishes, the Church’s Marian dimensions also expand. Where Christology flourishes, the Church’s Petrine dimensions swell. So, say what you will about the Western Church’s supposed “Christomonism” and its supposedly anemic pneumatology, but only in that very Western, that very Roman, Church do I see Marian and Petrine, pneumatological and Christological, energies *all* vigorously at work.
A similar point can be made about the Eastern Fathers I cited a few days ago. One reader (on another blog) said I must show how those alarmingly papalist quotes CANNOT mesh with Orthodox ecclesiology. But, as I replied, I am not at all sure why the burden of proof is on me to show how the Eastern Fathers’ papalism CANNOT mesh with contemporary Orthodox ecclesiology. It’s *extremely* hard to prove a negative. The burden of proof seems to be on the person claiming such papalist rhetoric CAN be reconciled with contemporary Orthodox ecclesiology (or, better, vice versa). For me, it’s a simple question: who still talks about Rome like the Eastern Fathers I cited (let alone the Western Fathers? Who still embraces and explores the peculiar importance of Rome in the whole Tradition? Who in their right mind today would say what those Eastern Fathers said? As far as I can see, only Catholics. And that’s very telling.
Now, having said all this, we need to give ecumenical conciliar infallibility a closer look. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of conciliar infallibility – as the authentic one voice of the ecumenical (ie., universal) Church – is the rejection of even very early councils by some old and august sees (eg., the Oriental Orthodox, Coptics, etc.). The idea of “ecumenical” councils as the Church’s criterion for truth, I admit, does *sound* a lot more reasonable and humane and democratic and, heck, more “Trinitarian” (unity in diversity, etc.). But we must be honest that even the most humane attempts to hear and respect ALL the bishops so everyone can defer to everyone else for the sake of unity is a very naïve way to look at the councils. It’s sad to say, but this side of the eschaton, collegiality has its limits. That’s what anathemas are for; to demarcate the boundaries of the true faith and, sorry to say, to tell others they’re outside that line.
My point? Remember, the question is how allegedly infallible papal declarations can be authentic expressions of the Church’s one true voice if there is episcopal or lay dissent? How can the part be greater than the whole? My reader asks how papal infallibility meshes with ecumenical conciliar infallibility as if this were an *exceptionally* problematic idea. But a more basic question, logically and historically, and one just as problematic, is how ecumenical conciliar infallibility meshes with allegedly infallible *but not ecumenical* conciliar decrees. The councils were not democratic picnics; the truth was not and is not a majority vote. Not every bishop at every council has had equal influence. Some tracts of the episcopal collegial filed were mercilessly razed and salted, sometimes by the minority of bishops, for the protection of orthodoxy. But how can councils apparently BASED ON the full and harmonic testimony of the whole episcopacy “pull rank” on dissenters? How can the parts trump the whole? It seems like trying to lift a ladder your standing on.
Of course, once you admit it is possible for councils to be infallible *even despite massive episcopal dissent*, it is only a difference of degree, *not of principle*, admitting the possibility of a bishop speaking infallibly despite numerically greater opposition. There was some decisive mechanism at work – in the hands of the Spirit, of course – in all authentic infallible councils. What is this mechanism? Orthodox and Protestants, however, are strangely silent about this mechanism. By contrast, Catholics believe the crucial mechanism was and still is the bishop of Rome in sacramental collegial union with his fellow bishops. So allow me to reverse the questions and ask, “How do infallible councils fit in with an infallible ecumenical CHURCH?” How can councils be an authentic expression of the one true voice of the Church if there is episcopal and lay dissent? I don’t know; but I have a strong suspicion the answer to THAT question goes a long way towards vindicating and clarifying the personal (papal) dimensions of infallibility in a Church of PERSONS.
My train of thought has derailed, so let me close by clarifying my manner of communicating. I have a strong distaste for padded language, like “I feel” or “It seems to me” or “I think”. How redundant. What I write IS how I feel and think and how things do seem to me, even if an undetectably tentative way. I state things as “strongly” as I do in order to be clear stay on point. I don’t want anyone to get the impressions I’m bullying just because I avoid “I feel” language in my writing.