Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are Patriarchs Real?

Dreams of a Church decentralized along traditional lines inevitably rely on a strong role of patriarchs over the location churches who preserve their native traditions rather than positive obedience to Rome. The Bishop of Rome is St. Peter's successor; the heads of the Roman dicasteries, the Secretariat of State, Peter's Pence, and the Vatican bank are more successors of the Roman Senate, and not very good ones at that. A patriarch, so the argument goes, is the father of his particular church and so he should be its overseer, not another bishop or bureaucracy extrinsic to that church's tradition. This line of thought provokes discussion of inherent differences in ecclesiology between the ancient Byzantine Church and the rest of the Church, as well as the differences between modern Roman ecclesiology and Eastern Orthodox views on the same subject.

This writer once witnessed an exchange between a monk from Collegeville and a young student on the possibility of reunion between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The monk said, "Well, the ancient Church wasn't ruled by the pope. There were five people called patriarchs who governed the Church collegially. The Pope was just the most famous of them." The Pope, so it goes, was the primus inter pares in the Pentarchy, a purported model of Church government inaugurated at the first Nicene Council in 325. According to this model the local patriarch governs his individual church while the administration of the general Church belongs in principle to the five collectively and in fact belongs to the Roman Emperor with the counsel of the five collective patriarchs. This model, if it ever really existed in a substantial way, ended the following century.

The Pentarchical model is a model of patriarchs. The etymology of "patriarch" seems to give a concise definition of the position and its power, the right and duty of fatherhood over the church. However, the Nicene Council no where uses the title of patriarch. The most prominent title in the Nicene canons is that of metropolitan bishop. The sixth canon defers to the local synods and asks that the Bishop of Alexandria might have authority over his synod like the Bishop of Rome has over his.

Msgr. Dvornik
As historian Francis Dvornik notes in his Photian Schism (despite the title he held a favorable opinion of the occasional archbishop), the ancient sees derived their prestige from their founders and their locations. People did not necessarily speak of St. Peter or St. Mark as the first bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, but as the founders of those churches. St. Paul founded any number of Mediterranean churches in lesser cities that never rose to the status of the three original "patriarchal" sees. Alexandria was an ancient center of scholarship, philosophical speculation, and seafaring travel. Antioch was a multicultural trade center on the Spice and Silk Roads. And Rome was the capital of the known civilized world. It was only natural that smaller apostolic churches would look to the larger apostolic churches for guidance and that churches would divide themselves along the same administrative lines as the Empire. The Roman See enjoyed a special position because both Peter and Paul oversaw the Roman Church, met their ends and were buried there, and because of the Eternal City's place as the Imperial capital. When Irenaeus wrote of Rome "It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority" he did not reference the person of the Bishop of Rome, but instead a charism belonging to the entire Roman Church because of its origins. Rome would continue to claim a unique primacy over the other churches because of its origins in the succeeding centuries, but generally the major sees oversaw the lesser sees on account of both their apostolicity and their urban nature. All of this changed in 330.

Constantine the Great relocated the capital of his empire from Rome, a city he only visited two or three times, to the small port city of Byzantium, whose bishop of a suffragan of Heraclea. The first Council of Constantinople, which was a local council until its acceptance by non-Greek bishops in the following decades, decreed that "Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the bishop of Rome" (canon 3). The Roman and Alexandrian Churches begrudgingly tolerated the imperial promotion of a minor bishopric to the second most prominent position of authority within the Church. Rome feared further intrusion on its prestige and Alexandria felt its apostolic origins were ignored in favor of political expediency. The original sees continued to assert their apostolicity while the Greek church countered, not unreasonably, that the Church should meet the needs of the time. 

Sir Steven Runciman
In practice the promotion of Constantinople might not have been so controversial if not for the caesaropapism that followed. Byzantium—which never called itself anything other than the Roman Empire—saw the Church as a visible human society. The Church and Byzantium were, aside from tolerated sects, one and the same. A breach between bishops or a dispute between clergy and public officials was tantamount to violence within God's Church. The Emperor was in a way the living icon of God the Father, from whom the Son in the episcopacy and the Spirit in the Church came. As Byzantine historian and Orthodox believer Steven Runciman once described the situation, the Emperor and bishops were partners, but the Emperor was undoubtedly the senior partner.

To the Latin Church this idea was utterly foreign. Most of Europe ceased to be a part of the Empire by the Council of Chalcedon. The reconquests of Justinian brought some of Spain and Italy back into devotion to Constantinople, but most of Europe was permanently lost. The Latin Church maintained Communion with other peoples who no longer belonged to the same socio-political fabric as the city of Rome. Britannia ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire by 410, yet the skeletal Christian community retained relations with Rome until the Saxons subdued them into paganism and set the stage for missionary efforts during the Gregorian papacy. Byzantium's recession from Italy only crystallized the Latin ecclesiology. Wishing to retain influence in the universal Church, the popes continued to assert their judgments in Eastern affairs. In practice, the popes and the city of Rome could no longer rely on the Emperor for protection. From the eighth until the eleventh century the popes made a series of frail alliances with Frankish kings, Italian nobles, Norman adventurers, and the odd Greek to ensure the City's stability and the Church's security. 

The Latin and Greek views were not incompatible because they are different, for different ideas can be found complementary. St. Augustine's understood the Trinity as God's full expression of personhood. By contrast St. Gregory the Theology took the Three Divine Persons and the first commandment as given facts of revelation with the Trinity as the only possible explanation for both. The Latin and Greek ecclesiologies were incompatible because the two churches had less and less to do with each other. 

Historians following the tradition of Runciman characterized this breach as a gradual separation of the Bishop of Rome from the other four patriarchs of the Pentarchy, that the collegiate pares lost the primus. This is the commonly accepted narrative of secular historians eager to point the finger at the expansionist papacies of Nicholas I and Gregory VII and of Eastern Orthodox polemicists, and one for which Ultramontane Roman commentators have had no answer. Greek Patriarchs would continue to cite the first few ecumenical councils to support their place in the Pentarchy while Nicholas I asserted the more ancient position of Alexandria over Constantinople, which he derided as a newfangled see. The underlying difference is that the Greek had a more substantial understanding of patriarchs than the Latins.

The first several councils never spoke of patriarchal government of the Church, of patriarchal sees, and their innate privileges. The word patriarch never appeared until Justinian coined it. The councils spoke of the authority and honor of three ancient bishops, one elevated bishop, and one honored bishop (Jerusalem). Nicaea I and Constantinople I defer much authority to metropolitan bishops, but there were many metropolitan bishops, not just five. Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch garnered mention at Chalcedon because of their roots; Constantinople owed its place at the Council because of its position; and Jerusalem, a city destroyed centuries earlier and rebuilt as Aelia, was given a special place of honor because of its location, not because of any inherent right it was owed. Each bishop enjoyed a distinct level of authority in his jurisdiction. The Bishop of Rome had far more power in the West than any contemporary Eastern bishop possessed among his brother bishops. The Bishop of Alexandria likewise enjoyed a substantial, if less extensive and more limited, power among churchmen in his native lands. Aside from historicity, little distinguished the Bishop of Antioch from other archbishops in exercise of power. If there are any defining features of a patriarch, ecclesiastical authority over suffragan bishops is not one of them; none of the supposed ancient patriarchates possessed qualitatively similar traits.

No one looks too sure.
The next logical assumption is that a patriarch is the guardian of a particular tradition. The Greek Patriarch represents the Greek liturgical, theological, cultural, and spiritual tradition. The Coptic Pope fulfills the same role for the Egyptian church and so on. This is true today; it may not have been true in the fifth century. Theology and liturgy were in flux. "Spirituality" was hard to define and culture was a mix of Roman law, Greek philosophy, and whatever local customs predated the pax Romana

Patriarchs sprung up in Slavic lands over the next millennium along the Alexandrian and Antiochian line, that of a graduated archbishop with some authority in the national synods, but not substantial power over the entire church he governed. The Latin church witnessed atavistic patriarchs, too. The Patriarch of Aquileia played a major role in the Three Chapters drama, but not because of its titular name. The Patriarchate of Venice is merely honorary. Latin primates in France and England functioned much like Slavic patriarchs would in Eastern Europe. The Bishop of Rome never stylized himself as "Patriarch of the West" until the multiplication of papal titles in the baroque era.

Amid contemporary challenges in the Church, Christians peer into the rear view mirror of history and find Divine revelation in the early councils when they should see inspiration. The ancient Church, political expediency aside, never behaved as though the five bishops mentioned distinctly at the first, second, and fourth ecumenical councils were meant to govern the Church collectively and in perpetuity. Those councils recognized the ecclesiology of older times in nodding to the three Petrine sees, honored the one see's geography, and elevated another because of the needs of the day. Were a patriarch a figure of substance the Pentarchy would be indefensible today. There are five claimants, three Catholic and two Orthodox (neither in communion with the other), to succeed St. Peter as the Patriarch of Antioch while there is not one purported Patriarch in the New World. This writer is interested in seeing how the Eastern Orthodox "great council" progresses because it should reveal how those oriental churches understand who a patriarch is today, fourteen centuries since an emperor presided at anything presuming to be an ecumenical council. The Greek Patriarch is now bishop of very little in contrast to the major Slavic metropolitans and patriarchs. The Latin church has its share of trouble with those incarnations of frivolous bureaucracy, the permanent national episcopal conferences, but those are matters primarily of administration, not ecclesiology. Constantinople and Antioch no longer exist; Jerusalem and Alexandria have minority Christian populations; Rome is a city of non-practicing Catholics and tourists. The Bishop of Alexandria left Communion with the universal Church in 451; the Pentarchy is predicated on the Greek Alexandrian church, not the Coptic church. Neither the ancient nor the imperial understanding of the ancient patriarchs suffices today. Hopefully church leaders will consider our common past more astutely as they envisage our common future in the the coming centuries.


  1. If Pariarchates were to be reevaluated to meet today's demands, then the Phanar has little justification for its existence. It practically is he Orthodox equivalent of the Patriarch of Milan - a see that once held real significance but now is remembered for its history. All 4 Ukrainian patriarchs are more leaders of a Church than the former Imperial see.

  2. If it comes down to that, few of the Churches to whom either the apostle Paul or John of the Revelation wrote now remain as churches.

    1. True, but if patriarchates should (per Constantinople) meet the needs of the times then there is a great realignment that should take place. Several bishoprics could be elevated (especially if it will do away with episcopal conferences) and several could be abolished.

  3. Dear Rad Trad. ABS loves all of your impressive industry anchored in your intellect and knowledge. Thank you so much for all that you teach us on your GREAT Blog.

    It does not go unnoticed or unappreciated just how much time and effort you devote to your craft.

    May God Bless you and keep you and bring you to Heaven to live with Him forever when your work on earth is done.

  4. I know Runciman was pro-Byzantine and thought poorly of the West. His writings on the Crusades were extremely slanted. However, I never knew he actually converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.