By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

In the early part of the 15th Century a brilliant priest and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464), began applying his substantial intellectual talents to solving a problem that for centuries had prevented the Apostolic Churches of the East and West from the hope of a lasting union. Since the time of Schism of 1054 – Rome and the Eastern Patriarchates had found themselves, even after a number of conciliatory efforts, still irreconcilably divided. The after-shock of the graphic confrontation in Hagia Sophia between Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch Michael Cerularius – had not settled; in fact the wound had seethed and festered. The fundamental issue that had created the fracture of the Catholic Church had not been one of married clergy, nor of clerics wearing beards, or accusations of baptising unborn infants in the womb – but of the structure of governance and authority in the Universal Church. The debate regarding the inclusion of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed in the West had served well to highlight papal authority as the catalyst of the dispute, for the Catholic East saw the inclusion of the filioque as a contravention of a decision proclaimed at a fourth century Ecumenical Council, whereas the West saw this alteration to the Nicene Creed as merely an exercise of Papal rights in overseeing the Faith of the Universal Church. Had the issue been solely or centrally about the filioque then there would be no disunion today – for contemporary Orthodox Christians who are in union with Rome, are not required to pray the filioque as part of the Divine Liturgy.

Thus it was during the Council of Basel (1431 – 1449) that Cusa began placing pen to paper, tackling the idea of the role of the papacy in the future structure of a united Universal Church, and how a design could be constructed so as to meet the approval of ancient Apostolic Tradition, as well as appease the disgruntled Eastern Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, and not the least to satisfy the Roman Patriarch, who despite losing half of the ancient Catholic Church, still held the chair of St. Peter.

The final product of Cusa’s musings became known as The Catholic Concordance. The basic tenets of this work still appear modern and radical in their construct, even to post-Vatican II theologians. The main thrust of The Catholic Concordance can be summarized as follows: First, in matters of the formulation of doctrine and dogma, Cusa upheld the notion that a Council held supremacy over the Pontiff. Cusa clearly stated: “Even in the decision on matters of faith which belongs to him by virtue of his primacy he is under the council of the Catholic Church”. (I, 15, no. 61). Second, if the Pope was recalcitrant and refused to attend a Council, then the Council would still be valid, for “The council has power both over abuses and the one who causes the abuses …l Its power is immediately from Christ and it is in every respect over both the pope and the Apostolic See”. (II, 16, no. 148). Third, should the pope become a heretic, he could be removed, by decision of Council (II, 18, no. 159). Fourth, Cusa stated that any judgement of a council “is always better than the individual judgement of the Roman pontiff” (II, 18, no. 158). At the core of Cusa’s design was his belief that: “The canons of the ancients [in the early church councils] are of greater authority than decretals of the popes which contradict them – despite what modern writers say” (II, 18, no. 177).

In support of the papacy Cusa added that the office of the papacy does not depend on the Council, for its existence – for Christ Himself had constituted the papacy in order to maintain unity and avoid schism (cf. I, 6, no. 35; II, 34, nos. 259, 261, and 264). Cusa was adamant: the pope is, and will always be “prince of the bishops” (I, 15, no. 61), and “first over the others” (II, 13, no. 126). The pope has the authority in normal circumstances to call councils, but he is obliged to yield to the majority view (II, 15, no. 137). He is the “judge of the faith” (II, 7, nos. 94 – 95); and cannot err on matters of faith when a conciliar decision has been ratified by him (II, 4, no. 81).

Much of Cusa’s work was based on the writings of the 14th Century Franciscan scholar, William of Ockham (d. 1349). Ockham had understood that the Church had never fallen into error, with regard matters of teaching – sometimes even despite the quality of papal leadership. Ockham thus sought a stop-valve measure, so as to prevent the fallibility of one human being, from soiling a Divinely endowed infallible fabric of Church teaching. Ockham’s work can be seen as prophetic, especially as it was written before the events of the Council of Constance, and the preceding Western Schism (1378 – 1417); for it was by an agreement of Council of Constance, that Martin V was chosen so as to end a continuance of the extraordinary events that had led to a profusion of popes. Cusa would have had this most unholy farce in the forefront of his mind as he drafted his tract. St. Thomas Aquinas had also foreseen the issue of Conciliar versus Papal authority as an area needing definition. (cf. ST I 1, 10, ad 2).

The work of Cusa stills holds much weight and worth for us today; in particular as there has been no en-masse reunion of East and West.  The Orthodox East have never supported the notion of Papal infallibility. Whereas the Orthodox do believe in the infallibility of the Church – this infallibility arises out of the decisions made by Ecumenical Councils. If the Catholic Church is ever going to reconcile with the East in toto – the impasse of Papal versus Conciliar infallibility has to be candidly discussed and resolved. For their part the Orthodox must understand how the Holy Spirit moved the Head of the Universal Church, the pope, to issue the proclamation of papal infallibility – for without a foreseeable reconciliation with the East – the Roman Pontiff, who walks in the Shoes of Peter, had to be able to make decisions that had an infallible stamp of authority. Despite the tragedy of the on-going East/West schism, infallible pronouncements still had to be made even if this meant that they were without the counsel of the Patriarchs of the East, and their representatives. Christ’s barque could not list because men and women refused on both sides to ever be reconciled. Alternately, what Rome must realize is the reasoning for the reticence of the Orthodox East in considering papal infallibility – for if the pope is infallible, and an impartial shepherd, how did it ever become possible for the rending of the Church in 1054, the greatest disaster to have ever struck the Church? The subsequent sacking of Constantinople by the ‘Pope’s men’ gives other cause for the East to be suspicious of Roman’s bearing gifts of olive branches.

With regard papal infallibility, the singular concept that the Orthodox would have most difficulty accepting is in the final sentence of the following statement made at the First Vatican Council: “The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra — that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and therefore such definitions are irreformable of themselves, and not in virtue of consent of the Church” (Denzinger 3074). An Orthodox theologian could accept that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra to the Universal Church on a matter of “doctrine regarding faith”, that has been agreed upon at an Ecumenical Council, then of course he cannot be fallible – but they could not accept that any papal and infallible decision could be made in the face “of consent of the Church”. Herein lies the crux of the issue for according to Orthodox thought, there would be no need for an Ecumenical Council. If any decision at Ecumenical Council could be revoked by the head of the Universal Church; and then deemed to be infallible; the Orthodox would see this as a situation by which to justify such events as the inclusion of the filioque; a situation where the pope and the Latins hold eventual veto power over the Greeks. Moreover many Orthodox theologians would counter the notion of papal infallibility over conciliar infallibility, by arguing that the Council of Nicaea, a Council virtually devoid of western representation, provided the Catholic Church and the Christian World with a statement of belief that has not been surpassed – despite the pope, Sylvester I, not being present at the Council because of ill-health.

The Orthodox theologian, John Meyendorff in his seminal work, Catholicity and the Church (1983), opened up a polemic as to the status of the papacy and the role of Tradition, according to Occidental and Oriental Christianity, and how this has impacted on the relationship between the two lungs of the Church. Interestingly Meyendorff wrote: “It is not my intention to engage here in a discussion of the origins and the legitimacy of the Roman primacy, but only to point out its crucial importance for the understanding of tradition. First of all, I would point to the fact that – contrary to the antipapal polemics of all times – papal authority did not result from some ambitious, power-seeking plan of the pope to take over the leadership in the universal Church. If the Eastern belief in consensus of the churches was founded, as I said earlier, upon a mystical and eschatological perception of the Church, so was the belief in the special charisma of Rome. Indeed, it was not plainly described in Scripture, and not clearly sustained by early Church history. All informed Roman Catholic historians and theologians today recognize that the medieval papal authority was the result of a doctrinal and canonical development, which consisted in a gradual recognition by the Church of the fact that God had granted to His people a permanent leadership, able to regulate and to unify the local churches within a single, universal, disciplinary, and doctrinal structure. Ultimately, the conflict between East and West resides in two conflicting spiritual perceptions of tradition.” (Meyendorff, 1983, pp. 96 – 97). Meyendorff discussed how one could construct an eventual reconciliation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, if the Councils that took place after the Schism of 1054 – such as Florence, Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II, as well as the formal doctrinal statements made by popes and not accepted by Eastern Orthodoxy, could be considered: “Western historical theologoumena, which Eastern Christians are under no obligation to accept”. (Meyendorff, 1983, p. 99). This would also mean that the Orthodox would of course not be obliged to accept papal infallibility according to the Meyendorff proposal, nor for that matter, any statement of dogma proclaimed by the West that was not ratified during the time of schism, nor could be accepted at the time of reunion, as a Universal teaching by the Christian East. An impasse; perhaps. Such a plan as Meyendorff acknowledges would raise the interesting question as to whether the Occident would accept a provision to allow Oriental Catholics, the right to reject teachings that the Occident is obliged to accept, and prevented from discoursing.

So whereto in the future? One possible solution is perhaps in that as the Spirit moved the Pontiff to proclaim on papal infallibility – so too the Spirit may also move him to pronounce that in future – in matters of teaching, (on the event when East and West are fully reconciled), the infallibility of the pope would still be retained, but only be exercised so as to ratify a decision made by Ecumenical Council. This would not be a revocation of papal infallibility – a form of ‘now you see infallibility – now you don’t’ – but it would be an evolution of the principle of infallibility of the Church, according to the nature of the future reconciliation of the apostolic churches.  

The pilgrim people on earth have a shepherd who has the Christ ordained capacity to bind or to loosen, according to the needs of the Church, and the preservation of Divine Truth. Christ’s comment to Peter would suggest that the principle of oikonomia belongs to him to put into practice. (cf. Mark 10: 5 & Matthew 16: 19). Ecclesiastical economy, a well-known concept in the Eastern Churches, stresses that no law should be so binding that it becomes spiritually anesthetising. Peter and his successors should be adept in knowing when to be stringent, and when to relax an ecclesiastical principle in order to achieve a fuller revelation of the Truth. The Truth is still revealed when Christ’s Body breathes predominately with one lung, as it has done for a thousand years – but how much more will the Body be glorified if it reclaims its capacity to breathe with both lungs; not only in terms of theology but in terms of the fullness of ecclesiology. Whereas the apostolic Churches of the East and the West are in the full sense of the term ‘churches’, the Universal Church will come to Her fullest glory, when all will one day be one again; for if this was not the case, why did Christ speak to his apostles about the marquee of unity in Divinity (cf. John 17: 20 -23); and why did St. Paul speak about the unity of the body with such fervour? (cf. 1 Corinthians 1: 11 – 13). The Document from the Second Vatican Council, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, (1964) elaborates in its conclusion on the need for East and West to find unity: “The Sacred Council feels great joy in the fruitful zealous collaboration of the Eastern and the Western Catholic Churches and at the same time declares: All these directives of law are laid down in view of the present situation till such time as the Catholic Church and the separated Eastern Churches come together into complete unity. Meanwhile, however, all Christians, Eastern as well as Western, are earnestly asked to pray to God fervently and assiduously, nay, indeed daily, that, with the aid of the most holy Mother of God, all may become one.”(par. 30).

The West needs the Eastern mystique – the sense of the apophatic, as well as the notion of diversity of religious expression, and mystery; whereas the East needs the cataphatic expression of the Law, and the notion of unity.

In Cusa’s model, the pope would still be first among equals, primus inter pares, and the Patriarchs of the Apostolic Churches would be allowed and encouraged to shape doctrine and dogma – to that point where all parties come to a concordance. Thus the Eastern mind set of conciliar concordance, could be married to the Western notion of papal infallibility. For no decision made by an Ecumenical Council and signed officially by the pontiff could ever be deemed at a later stage, as fallible.

St. John Chrysostom once eulogised the first pope in the following words: “Peter, that head of the Apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, who received the revelation not from man but from the Father….this Peter, and when I say Peter, I mean the unbroken Rock, the unshaken foundation, the great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called, the first to obey.” (De Eleemos III, 4, vol II, 298[300]). Chrysostom’s words are vital both from a Catholic and Orthodox point of view – for Peter is the undisputed Head of the Church – but he is also a member of a group of Apostles. Thus Peter is First – but among equals; he is the first called of many; he is the first to obey, of many – and being such, of many, he needs to act in consultation; and not in splendid isolation; consultation, especially with the hierarchs who represent the breadth of the ancient Christian heart, a heart that is most holy, catholic and apostolic; a heart that has been for so long broken in two; a heart that can only be mended by a love that is Divinely human. It is important that the West shows the East that they long for reunion – and what better ambassador to show this – then the Head of the Universal Church; for in the matter of the Schism of 1054 – it was a question of leadership and leaders – and this fracture can only find healing, if moves are made as dramatic as those in 1054, but moves with the power and strength to reunite the Apostolic Churches of the Catholic Church. Theologians and hierarchs, on both sides have to think of possibilities rather than speak of ancient hurts and long-held suspicions, of differences and impasse.

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