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Divergence on this point goes back much farther, even centuries before our formal divisions, when the Western understanding of the pope’s role in the church rarely if ever fully corresponded to that of the East. It is important to recall that there was never a time in history when the Eastern churches – even when in full communion with Rome – would automatically accept decisions by the pope by virtue of his office. And there was never a time when popes would, for example, appoint bishops in the Eastern churches. The pope has always had a much more direct authority over his own Western church than he ever had over the Eastern churches.

The centuries of separation exacerbated these differences to the point that one’s obedience to or rejection of the papacy was seen almost as an article of the true Christian faith. In addition, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox experience during those years has made it increasingly difficult for them to see any value in a universal primacy.

It is true that the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople plays a role among the Orthodox churches that some see as a form of primacy, but any such claims have been generally rejected by the Slavic-speaking Orthodox churches, particularly the Russian.

For their part, the Oriental Orthodox have existed for well over a thousand years as a kind of “flat” communion with no one bishop or patriarch serving even as a symbolic point of unity among them. Thus, it is difficult for them to see the value in a universal primate, especially one that would have authority to intervene in the internal affairs of their churches.

The recent decision by Pope Benedict XVI to set aside the papal title of “Patriarch of the West” has complicated the situation somewhat. Many theologians, in both the West and in the East, had seen this title as a way of expressing the special relationship that the pope has with the Western Church, thus making it possible to say that he has a different relationship to the churches of the East. Now that the title has been abolished this is no longer possible. The explanation issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in March, emphasized that this decision did not in any way compromise the Catholic Church’s respect for the ancient patriarchates of the East, and that the renunciation of this title should be seen as an ecumenical opportunity. The consequences are still unclear, and it will remain for theologians to unpack what ecumenical opportunities this may provide.

In the meantime, important work is being done by historians and theologians to examine in great detail the dogmatic teachings of Vatican I with regard to papal primacy and infallibility, studies that have done much to clarify the situation of that time and to create greater understanding and appreciation of those teachings. Moreover, there seems to be a growing appreciation by other Christians –including many Orthodox –of the role that some sort of universal Christian primate could serve in the world today.

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