If you were to ask the armchair historian of Christianity what prevents the reunion of the Roman Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church, you would undoubtedly be regaled with a smattering of topics that evoke some of the most important theological disputes of the last two millenia: “filioque,” “liturgy,” “papal infallibility,” “Marian dogmas,” “Palamism,” “clerical celibacy,” “doctrinal development,” and the like. But if you were to ask an expert on Catholic-Orthodox dialogue like Monseigneur Paul McPartlan, professor of Ecumenical Theology and prominent member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, he would respond “none of the above.”
For Msgr. McPartlan, an authority on celebrated ecumenical theologians such as +John Zizioulas and Henri DeLubac, the only true sticking point between Catholics and Orthodox is their ecclesiology: the fundamental way that they view the structure of the church. While issues such as the Filioque and the Immaculate Conception have been formally declared by both Orthodox and Catholic leaders to be questions best sought in union with one another, rather than “church-dividing issues,” there still remains the practical administrative issue of episcopal leadership, and most particularly the Pope.
In his new book, A Service of Love, McPartlan sets out to recast the role of the Roman Pontiff in a way many Catholics may not be familiar or comfortable with, but, he argues, is the most historically and doctrinally sound Catholic teaching on the subject. In a brief 100 pages, A Service of Love takes the reader on a whirlwhind tour through centuries of papal history. It contrasts the shepherding role of the office in the first millenium, based on the eucharistic “service of love” with its monarchical, jurisdictional role in the second, and argues for the doctrinal and practical soundness of Roman “collegiality” as the golden mean between the unworkable models of conciliarism (councils can “veto” papal statements) and per Petrum ultramontanism (the authority of every bishop flows from the pope). Collegiality sees the pope as a corporate personality; as McPartlan explains, “there is no pope without the episcopal college of which he is a member, and there is no college without its head, the pope.” It may be difficult to understand how this should be taken by Orthodox Christians, whose episcopal succession and synodal Patriarchates are recognized by Catholics, but who do not participate in the Catholic episcopal college. Perhaps this ecclesiological paradox will only be understood retrospectively, after the hoped-for future reunion of Catholics and Orthodox?