Byzantium and the Roman primacy

Francis Dvornik





It was generally expected that after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council the atmosphere would be favorable for dialogues between the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the leaders of other Christian churches; the intention being to find ways of better understanding the problems and to bring closer a rapprochement which would finally lead to reunion.


Many Catholic leaders feel that the dialogue with the Eastern Churches should begin as soon as possible, and hope for positive results, since there are no fundamental dogmatic differences between the Roman and the Orthodox Church. This may be true, but it is premature to expect a speedy agreement. There are many aspects of the historical development, constitution and spiritual life of Eastern Christianity insufficiently understood by the West. In many ways Roman Catholics comprehend the Protestant mind better than they do the Eastern Orthodox, perhaps because they live in the same environment and possess a similar mentality. In many respects the mind of the Easterners is very different from that of the Westerners, and there are few specialists among Catholic scholars who are familiar with the development of Eastern Christianity.


I have studied some of the controversial problems which are at issue between the two Churches and have discussed them in books such as The Photian Schism: History and Legend (Cambridge, 1948), and The Idea of Apostolicity in Byzantium and the Legend of the Apostle Andrew, Dumbarton Oaks Studies, IV (Washington, D.C., 1958). In both these works, as well as in other studies, I have touched on the problem, which, above all,





will occupy the minds of both sides in the dialogue, namely, that of the Primacy of the Roman pontiff and the attitude of the Eastern Church towards it.


I was asked to present some of the results of my research on these problems to a larger audience, and, having accepted this invitation, I published, in French, a book entitled Byzance et la primauté romaine. This appeared in 1964 as volume 49 of Unam Sanctam of the Éditions du Cerf. Until now the problem of the Roman Primacy and the attitude of the Eastern Church towards it have been studied mainly by theologians, and the study has been overshadowed by the acrid spirit of the polemical literature which has imprisoned the minds of either side from the eleventh century on up to the present day.


The historical background of the problem has been generally neglected. The main object of my study has been to shed more light on this and also on the political aspect of this problem. It was important to explain first the origin and the development of the principle of accommodation of the primitive Church to the political organization of the Roman Empire, and to show how this adaptation influenced the idea of Roman Primacy in both East and West. The recognition by the Roman and Orthodox Churches of the Apostolic and Petrine character of the Roman See also had to be examined. The consequences of the adaptation of Hellenistic political philosophy to Christian doctrine, and the break with this Christian Hellenism by the West in the eleventh century, are only briefly sketched in this book. They will be studied thoroughly in my next book, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy (Dumbarton Oaks Studies, IX) soon to be published. Here, however, I have limited myself to the most important facts and statements to be found in Byzantine religious literature bearing on the Roman Primacy in the various periods. It would, of course, be futile to look for a clear definition of the Roman Primacy in Byzantine documents. But many official declarations appear to show that the Byzantines saw the Bishop of Rome,





at least on some occasions, as more than first among equals.


I am obliged to Father Edwin A. Quain, S.J., who undertook the translation of this book into English in order to make it accessible to the English-speaking public, and to Fordham University Press which accepted the publication.


The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in their decree on the Eastern Churches, and in many other declarations, have opened the way to a rapprochement between East and West. The encounter of Pope Paul VI with the Oecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, and the presence of observers from the Orthodox Church at the Council, have furthered a spirit of friendship and mutual understanding. The annulment, pronounced simultaneously in Rome and Constantinople on December 7, 1965, of the excommunication in 1054 of the Patriarch Michael Caerularius by the papal legates, and of the latter by the Patriarch, was a noble gesture. This, however, cannot heal the schism between East and West, completed, not in 1054, but after 1204 when Constantinople was conquered by the Latin crusaders, and a Latin patriarch enthroned in Hagia Sophia. The dialogue between the Christians of East and West will still have many problems to solve. Nevertheless, these recent events have created a more favorable atmosphere for friendly and fruitful discussion. Let us hope that at least some of the ideas discussed in this short study will help to form a base from which a plan for final reunion can be established.


F. Dvornik


Dumbarton Oaks

January 6, 1966



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