Thursday, May 25, 2006
Unpacking "The Gift of Authority": Toward an Anglican View of Papal Primacy
While a full reading of ARCIC II's "The Gift of Authority" (TGOA) is well worth the effort, and necessary for a full appreciation of this important issue, alas, the nature of the blogosphere is such that we can only effectively handle soundbites. TGOA is a lengthy document, but certainly the most controversial, and most important, section is paragraph 47 (see my last entry below). The following is an attempt to unpack its meaning.
(1) The affirmation of a "specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth" afforded to the Bishop of Rome goes beyond the primus inter pares role that the Eastern Orthodox are willing to acknowledge. Eastern Orthodoxy merely affords a primacy of honor to the Pope; TGOA affords a universal primacy that is exercised as a specific ministry for discerning truth.
(2) By affirming such a role the Anglican partners in this dialogue have made a huge post-Reformation concession, though not one that is necessarily inconsistent with the understanding of the "undivided church of the first millennium," at least not in the West. Western theologians as early as Irenaeus have recognized the Church of Rome's special guardianship of the apostolic faith; regional churches and even Patriarchates have made final appeals to the Papacy on points of controversy and doctrine throughout the first millennium; and even the ecumenical councils were not deemed to be so until ratified by the Bishop of Rome. (It is interesting to note that Eastern Orthodoxy has not presumed to hold an ecumenical council since the Great Schism.)
(3) The statement leaves enough "wiggle room" for the Anglican partners in this dialogue, on the one hand, to affirm this special ministry of discernment for the Bishop of Rome, while, on the other hand, leaving the question wide-open of whether or not the Bishop of Rome can legitimately "pronounce from the chair of Peter" on behalf of the whole Church while the Church is in its present state of division and separation.
(4) This point is especially brought home in the restriction that TGOA places upon such "solemn definitions," namely that "any such definition is prounounced within the college of those who exercise episcope and not outside that college." (Notice the designation "those who exercise episcope." Why didn't they just say "bishops"? My hunch is that this is the closest that the Roman Catholic partners could/would come in acknowledging Anglican ministerial orders.) Be that as it may, it is worth noting that this restriction is at considerable variance with the teaching of Vatican I, which affords the Bishop of Rome the authority to speak of himself in speaking for the Magisterium.
(5) Under such conditions, namely the Pope speaking authoritatively within the college of bishops of a united Church, the Anglican partners in this dialogue have made another large concession: such pronouncements are "wholly reliable," and thus implicitly irreformable, which could indeed be argued (as the Roman partners invariably did argue) is but "papal infalliblity" writ small.
(6) HOWEVER (and this is a big however), by affirming that papal pronouncements have "no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils" TGOA perhaps has left the door wide open for the Anglican argument that councils "may err, and sometimes have erred" (cf. Article 21). If it's good for a council, it's good for the Pope.