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In His Own Footsteps (Mon May 1, 2006 2:59 pm )

The following are excerpts from an article written by Ron Modras, a former ARCC board member, published in COMMONWEAL, April 21, 2006 / Volume CXXXIII, Number 8, and quoted here with permission.

In His Own Footsteps Benedict XVI: From Professor to Pontiff "In its first thousand years, in the "old church," as Ratzinger phrased it, episcopal office had a horizontal structure. The relationship of the various churches to one another was described with the Trinitarian language of unity amid equality. Collegiality was regulated regionally by metropolitan bishops, and across the empire by the five patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Roman Catholics no longer have a strong sense of that horizontal bond. Ratzinger blamed the subsequent schism between East and West for the impetus toward "papalism" and a consequent devaluation of the episcopate in the West.

"Papalism" is not a word one expects to hear from someone who later came to exemplify Catholic orthodoxy. Similarly unexpected was Ratzinger's opinion that "the form of the old church described above has been essentially preserved in the Orthodox churches of the East." Rome has traditionally maintained that its structure and its theology of Roman primacy correspond to the structure and theology of the old church. But, as the Eastern churches see it, Rome has replaced a Trinitarian theology of church with the "profane" concept of "absolute monarchy."

Ratzinger has long been forthright in his sympathy for the Orthodox point of view. The Eastern churches have never denied Rome's primacy, but they have interpreted it using Trinitarian categories like unity, plurality, and diversity. From a Trinitarian perspective, unity does not require rigid uniformity, and it excludes a priori anything like top-down subordination. Roman Catholic theology, in Ratzinger's view, needs to take this Trinitarian view seriously. As he wrote in a 1977 article on the future of ecumenism, what was possible for a thousand years cannot be regarded as impossible today. In short, Catholics could learn something about the papacy from the Orthodox.

Citing Protestant ecumenist Hans Dombois, Ratzinger compared the modern papacy to a mountain climber who, after managing to reach the summit, now finds he can't get down without breaking his neck or losing face. In the Catholic Church the gradual suppression of the communio of bishops reached its culmination at Vatican I. Conversely, to the detriment of unity, the Orthodox churches have grown increasingly apart, while the disintegration of Protestantism has continued apace. Divided churches have divided the power of Peter's keys among themselves. Here is the heart of the problem facing us today: the Roman church binds but can no longer loosen, other churches loosen but cannot bind."

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