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Posted April 27, 2006

An Excellent Article on Joseph Ratzinger by one of his students

The Old Church

Taken from Commonweal April 21, 2006
For the entire article, please see Commonweal

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 theology of Roman primacy correspond to the structure and theology of the old church. But, as the Eastern churches see it, Rome has replace 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.