December 12th, 2014
Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey (28-30 November 2014) was significant for a number of reasons. The two most outstanding reasons concern the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to engage in “dialogue”: that is dialogue with Islam and dialogue with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The former takes the form of inter-religious dialogue, the latter is primarily an expression of ecumenism. Turkey is a threshold into the Muslim world. The country borders Syria and Iraq, places where Islamic fundamentalism threatens the sheer survival of the local Christian communities. Turkey is also the historical see of the “second Rome”, i.e. Constantinople, an influential center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The focus of the visit was therefore twofold: to foster mutual understanding with the “moderate” Islam and to advance the ecumenical agenda with Constantinople.
Your Prayers for Me
Pope Francis had several meetings with various Muslim leaders. In each of them he stressed the commonalities between Christians and Muslims in terms of them worshipping the All-Merciful God, having Abraham as father, practicing prayer, almsgiving and fasting, and sharing a religious sense of life that is foundational for human dignity and fraternity. In addressing Muslims, the Pope used the language of brotherhood and focused on what they have in common. This same approach was used in Turkey.
One interesting albeit striking element emerged as he spoke on 28 November to the Department for Religious Affairs in Ankara. After referring to the common themes that we already mentioned, he said: “I am grateful also to each one of you, for your presence and for your prayers which, in your kindness, you offer for me and my ministry”. Pope Francis is used to asking for prayers for himself and to thanking people who pray for him. But in this case he was speaking to Muslims and he nonetheless thanked them for their prayers for him. It seems that in this case he went further than simply underlining commonalities in basic theology and spirituality. He went as far as recognizing Islamic prayers as legitimate, and even useful acts of intercession. Should a Christian be thankful to Muslims for their prayers? Are these prayers accepted by God? Didn’t the Pope unwarrantedly stretch the inter-faith theology that assumes that all prayers are pleasing to God and answered by Him? Didn’t he further blur the distinction between the Christian faith and the Muslim religion by implying that Christians and Muslims can pray for each other as if God accepts their respective prayers as they are?
Back to the First Millennium
The other focus of the visit was to strengthen the ecumenical relationships with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. According to the Roman Catholic principles of ecumenism, the Eastern Orthodox churches are close to “full communion” with Rome because they profess the same apostolic faith, they celebrate the same Eucharist and they have maintained the apostolic succession in their priesthood. From a theological point of view, the role of the papacy is the only imperfection that inhibits them from full communion. The papal office as it developed after the schism of 1054 AD makes Eastern Orthodox churches unwilling to accept the primacy of the Roman Pope as it stands. In their view, certain monarchial aspects of the Petrine ministry that were introduced in the Second Millennium (e.g. the infallibility of the Pope as he speaks ex cathedra) go against the collegiality principle of Orthodox ecclesiology.
Being aware of these complexities and yet wanting to promote an ecumenical breakthrough, Pope Francis said that he is willing to envisage a way forward: the Roman Church is open to concede that in order to enter into full communion with Rome, Eastern Orthodox churches need to accept the Papal office as it was understood and practiced in the First Millennium when the Church was still “undivided”. This is not a new idea – even Joseph Ratzinger was in favor of it – but it is important that Francis made it his own. It seems that the way forward is to first go backwards. The Roman Church is willing to exercise its catholicity, i.e. being flexible enough to accommodate a different point of view, all while maintaining its distinctive outlook without renouncing any of it. This suggestion needs to be worked out historically and theologically. What exactly were the forms of the papacy in the First Millennium? How can they be implemented after so many centuries? How can an institution such as the Papacy that the Roman Church couched with dogma (i.e. the infallibility) be diluted for non-Catholic Christians? How can one be cum Petro (with Peter) without being sub Petro (under Peter)?
While ecumenical theologians have some homework yet to do in this field, a final comment is warranted. In the end, even the Protestant Reformation was a cry to go back to the written Word of God, i.e. Sola Scriptura! In calling for a new season under the rule of the Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Reformation beckoned the church to re-discover the Scriptures and re-submit to them. Back to the Word was a way of saying: back to Jesus Christ, back to the Gospel! The Catholic Church of the XVI century was however unwilling to receive this challenge and wanted a way forward without giving thought to the need of going backward. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) imagined a renewal without a reformation, a way forward without having to go backward. Now, Rome is ready to go back to the First Millennium and fully embrace the Eastern Orthodox churches. Why not go a bit further than the First Millennium? A return to Sola Scriptura should be the real starting point for a much needed breakthrough.