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Faith and Order Commission Releases Response to
"Petrine Ministry"

May 23, 2003, WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches USA has released its response to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’s report entitled, "Petrine Ministry: A Working Draft."

The effort originated from the Encyclical "Ut Unum Sint." In it, Pope John Paul II invited theologians and church leaders to enter with him into "a patient and fraternal dialogue" on how the pope can carry out the ministry he is called to exercise by the self-understanding of the Catholic Church, in a manner that:

1. all may perceive as a "ministry of love," and

2. fosters the unity of the churches.

This is in accordance with the plea made by Christ in John 17:21, "that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me."

The Vatican report is a synthesis of the initial responses of scholars, churches and commissions to the pope’s request. To initiate a second round of dialogue, the "Petrine Ministry: A Working Draft" report was shared with the NCC Faith and Order Commission, among others, with a request for continuing conversation and response.

The study group on "Authority in the Church" prepared an initial draft of the response, which was then reviewed and later affirmed by the entire commission during its March 2003 meeting at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The NCC Faith and Order Commission gives the Pope access to voices he will not hear from any other source.


To The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity

I. Prefatory Comments

A. Gratitude for the invitation to discussion

At the outset of its response to Petrine Ministry: A Working Paper, the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA acknowledges with gratitude the graciousness and the significance of Pope John Paul II’s offering an open invitation based "on the already existing, though still imperfect communion between all Christian communities" . . . "to discover and to realize together the will of Christ for his Church" (1.4). The Faith and Order Commission has worked hard to foster the degree of communion that currently exists among Christian communities in the USA; thus we recognize the invitation as addressed to us, and count it a privilege to respond to the invitation. The Commission shares the concern for the unity of the Church, and for the charism of primacy to be exercised as a ministry of unity and a service of love (1.2). Further, the Commission notes with gratitude the mandate for all to "discover and to realize together the will of Christ for his Church"(1.4). We engage in the process of dialogue in a spirit of deep humility before Christ and in a spirit of willing openness to his will for the whole people of God, recognizing that a fuller exercise of primacy may call for revision or adjustment (1.3) not only in the exercise of papal primacy, but also in the manner in which Christian communities respond to and/or receive the exercise of a Petrine ministry.

B. The desire to make common cause with the PCPCU

This response is offered to the Pontifical Council by the whole Commission on Faith and Order in hopes that its work may further the cause of Christian unity. Where points of tension may surface between what Petrine Ministry says and the Commission is able to say at this point, these tensions should be understood as those areas of concern that, when discussed with a desire for mutual understanding and a common desire to discern the will of Christ, may bear rich fruit for the life of the church.

C. Recognition of the breadth of concern

The Commission recognizes that issues concerning the nature of primacy and the exercise of the Petrine office have been a widely shared concern from the earliest days of the church, have played a significant role in defining the divisions between churches, and continue to be discussed in a broad spectrum of ecclesial communions today. Questions about primacy, therefore, are of concern to all the churches. We recognize the fact that when the Bishop of Rome speaks, he is understood not only by most Christians but also by the non-Christian world to be the major spokesperson for Christianity. In a world crowded by many voices, we celebrate that the Gospel of Jesus Christ thus receives a hearing. The Commission is pleased to respond in a manner that acknowledges that all churches may benefit from a common understanding of primacy and Petrine ministry, because such common understandings have the potential to enhance the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

D. The Commission’s prior work on authority

Prior to the invitation of the PCPCU, the Commission on Faith and Order had begun discussion of some of the issues posed in Petrine Ministry. In response to specific requests from its member communions, the Commission’s current quadrennium (2000-2003) has devoted two of its three Study Groups to the issue of authority. One Study Group is concerned with the question of how authority is exercised within the Church. Another Study Group has focused its efforts on considering how the Church may speak authoritatively in the pluralistic culture in which it finds itself. A third Study Group is assessing current progress toward full communion in the North American context. While the issue of authority is by no means coterminous with the issue of primacy or of the exercise of Petrine ministry, the Commission notes (concurring with Ut unum sint 94) that without power and authority the office of Petrine ministry would be "illusory." Hence, the studies underway by the Commission may well serve to respond to the invitation for fraternal dialogue (UUS 96).

E. The process by which this response was formulated

In June 2002, the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA received Petrine Ministry: A Working Paper from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. All members of the Commission have had opportunity to read that document, to consider it prayerfully, and to offer responses to it from their various confessional positions. Responses from commissioners were forwarded to the Study Group considering Authority in the Church, which coordinated those responses and offered a single paper to the Commission for its consideration at its March 2003 meeting in Washington, D.C. Therefore, this response to Petrine Ministry includes input from a very broad spectrum of confessional positions.

F. Future response expected

The Commission’s current quadrennium will conclude in October 2003. The publications of one of the working groups should have been completed by then and the other should be completed around 2005. The results of these studies will be made available to the PCPCU once they are in completed form. The Commission hopes that the fruits of its labors will serve to clarify those issues of authority and its exercise that continue to be sources of division, as well as those issues upon which the churches are in agreement. Such clarity, we believe, can serve to enhance the process of dialogue concerning the nature and exercise of a Petrine ministry.


II. Statements of Convergence and Divergence

In the meantime, the Commission is already at this stage able to offer to the PCPCU some statements of convergence and recognizable divergence among its members regarding the nature of authority. Following these statements of consensus and divergence, the Commission offers a number of suggestions of issues that may warrant further conversation as the discussions of primacy and the Petrine ministry continue.

A. "Petrine Ministry" seems to assume a particular "shape" of primacy, i.e., primacy as a ministry to the universal church (cf. 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3, which speak of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome in terms of "all the churches", and the extensive discussion in 3.3 of the universal jurisdiction of Petrine Ministry). In the first instance, the Commission notes that not all communions recognize the category of "primacy", and that even within communions that recognize the term, "primacy" has acquired several different meanings. Further discussion of the Petrine Ministry would be well served by the development of a common language of primacy per se that could be shared by all communions. (See A. below)

B. The Commission recognizes the foundational work performed by Biblical scholars in recent years, work that has surfaced the existence of a variety of understandings of the Church and its order within the New Testament itself. (WCC Faith and Order Paper 181, The Nature and Purpose of the Church, hereinafter NPC, 86)

C. That said, the Commission affirms that, in conformity with what is common to that variety of understandings, all authority in the Church is received from Christ, the sole Head of the Church, and is mediated by the power of the Holy Spirit.

D. Many communions believe that authority exercised within the Church is therefore a delegated authority, implying a distance and discontinuity between Christ and the Church. Others speak of Christ’s authority as transferred to the Church, implying an organic unity between Christ and the Church. Still others see the relationship between the authority of Christ and the Church not so much in terms of structure or office but as a function of truth and discernment - a process by which effective leadership facilitates the ongoing leadership of Christ. This is an area of divergence among the churches, and the PCPCU may encounter this divergence as dialogues concerning primacy continue.

E. While there is convergence on point C above, there remains divergence among the churches regarding the manner in which the Holy Spirit acts within the Church as it responds to the mandate to speak the Word of Christ to the people of God. The issue of primacy, therefore, may bring to the surface significant pneumatological differences among the churches.

F. The Commission concurs with Petrine Ministry (4.2) that many "ecclesiological fundamentals still need preliminary ecumenical study and discussion, viz., regarding the sacramental structure of the Church, episcopal ministry and apostolic succession." During the course of our discussions, for example, we encountered vigorous disagreement between, and in some cases within, communions regarding whether the Church itself is a sacrament.

G. We have found, further, that as a consequence of their positions regarding the Church’s sacramentality, some assume that the Church itself (not merely individual members of the Church) is constantly in need of renewal and conversion; others will rule out such a notion prima facie. This difference not only reflects widely divergent assumptions regarding the nature of the Church; it also has profound implications on how the nature of authority is construed and put into practice.

H. During the course of our discussions, the Commission has discovered that churches differ regarding the interpretation of Matthew 16:17-19; Luke 22:31-32; John 21:15-19; John 20: 21-23; Galatians 2; and Acts 15, viz., whether these texts establish a particular form of primacy (e.g., a "Petrine Office" distinct from a more functional role of "Petrine ministry" or "Petrine function," cf. "Petrine Ministry" 3.1) and, more specifically, whether primacy is to be vested in a single individual. Indeed, some of the churches within the Commission in principle reject the possibility of an earthly primate, believing that it may diminish the uniqueness the Church’s awareness of the primacy of Christ.

I. The Commission affirms the statements in The Nature and Purpose of the Church that the ministry of oversight in the church is exercised "communally, personally, and collegially." (NPC 94-106) The Church is, thus, ordered in a fashion that enhances the full and conscious participation of the whole people of God in its life.

J. Different communions recognize different sources of authority as gifts of the Holy Spirit, including but not limited to the following: Scripture, Tradition, traditions, office, creeds, confessions, worship, spiritual experience, reason, and conscience. Not every one of these sources of authority is recognized in every communion, and even in those cases where two or more communions may agree on locating authority in a common source, they may give different weight to one or more than one source of authority compared to other sources.

K. The recognition and reception of an office of Petrine Ministry by all would entail revision and alteration of practices not only within the Roman Catholic Church, but also within the various communions. The nature and extent of those revisions and alterations are difficult to foresee, but could call forth significant change in the day-to-day functioning of both the Roman Catholic Church and the other communions.

L. We have found that communions differ widely concerning whether authority is more properly understood as a form of power granted to holders of office by a rite of conferral conducted by the Church, or whether the authority of a holder of office is a charism that must be recognized by a community of faith and continuously confirmed by the congruity of the office holder’s life and witness with the community of faith’s construal of the Gospel. This distinction is not principally a matter of "top-down" vs. "bottom-up"; but of how tenure in office and the office-holder’s leading of a life that exhibits holiness and integrity are understood to relate to one another.

M. We affirm that because the Holy Spirit is given to the whole Church (1 Cor. 12:7, NPC 11), authority in the Church should be exercised in such a way that it is open to the participation of all members. While communions may not agree that this implies a democratic or egalitarian church polity, we share a common conviction that consultation with all in decision-making is important. Such consultation as a pattern for decision-making finds warrant in Acts 15, was echoed in the ancient Ecumenical Councils of the Church, and continues to find successors in the polities of many churches today.


III. Suggestions for Further Discussion

During the course of our discussions, we have identified several areas of concern that may be useful for the PCPCU to consider in future dialogues regarding Petrine Ministry. We offer the following considerations and suggestions that have arisen from our continuing attention to the study of authority within the church.

A. Given II A above, the Commission expects that further discussion of primacy and the Petrine Ministry could be served by starting with primacy as a local, pastoral, and Eucharistic ministry in contrast to primacy as a ministry understood primarily in universal and jurisdictional terms. The distinction is not made in order to forestall all possibility of discussion the universal and jurisdictional aspects of primacy, but to recommend a starting point that may welcome all churches to a frank and productive discussion of the Scriptural and experiential warrant for primacy.

B. While the Scriptures put forward many images of the Church, within the USA the Church as the People of God has become a widely shared metaphor. One area of discussion in the future may be an exploration regarding whether further development of an understanding the Church as the People of God in contrast to, while not in contradistinction to, other metaphors for the Church might affect the manner in which primacy and the Petrine Ministry are exercised and received.

C. From their beginnings, some communions within the Reformation tradition have longed for the reformation of the Church, not for revolution. That said, even those communions most sympathetic to the possibility of a Petrine ministry vested in an individual may find it difficult to overcome centuries of anti-Roman polemics. That polemical spirit has given rise to differences in the use of language that make it difficult to attain mutual understanding of even the most basic issues involved. (See IIF above; what, for example, is meant by ‘Church?’) While some churches of the Reformation may find it possible to speak positively of a Petrine Office, Petrine Ministry, or the functioning of universal primacy in some form, for many the binding of that ministry to Rome is considered to be, at most, a gift from God for the ‘bene esse’ of the church, and not ‘de iure divino’ (Petrine Ministry, 3.2).

D. Because churches differ regarding the relationship between the Scriptures and the Tradition, warrants for positions derived principally or wholly from Tradition without sufficient Scriptural support are not likely to be received broadly.

E. While many communions may recognize a pastoral and unifying role for the Petrine Ministry, and may even be willing to locate that ministry in Rome and recognize a limited universal jurisdiction for pastoral purposes, they may also insist on a fundamental difference between pastoral authority and magisterial authority.

F. Future dialogues may find it helpful to consider, in a spirit of mutual grace and patience, the extent to which the exercise of the Roman Petrine Ministry has been actually received as either a building block or a stumbling block to the expression of koinonia within the Church.

G. Dialogues may find it helpful to discuss primacy and Petrine ministry in eschatological terms, particularly with regard to the vision of Paul in I Corinthians 15: 20-28.

H. Future dialogues concerning the exercise of authority and the Petrine Ministry could explore the influence of neo-Platonic/Aristotelian philosophical systems, incorporated into Western thought through the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius and other late antique and medieval thinkers, on presumptions about whether a given practice or understanding is a consequence of the use of that philosophical system rather than de iure divino. Because the intellectual foundations of society in the USA were formed within a post-Enlightenment context that granted little authority to any source other than human reason and are today strongly influenced by Postmodernism, further discussion with churches in the context of the USA may do well to confront the philosophical difficulty of attaining either a common understanding of primacy and authority or a widely received form of their exercise.

I. Given II I and II M above, future discussions of primacy and Petrine Ministry would do well to explore what kinds of structures and processes, either at the level of the local or the universal Church, enhance the full and conscious participation of the whole people of God in the life of the Church.


IV. Conclusion

The Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA looks forward to further dialogue with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It is our prayer that this response to the working paper Petrine Ministry might bear fruit as communions seek to develop a common understanding of the Church’s ministry as servants of Christ, and of the place of a Petrine ministry within the continuing ministry of Christ to his beloved.

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