The 'Foreign Minister' of the Russian Patriarchate has delivered (8 November) a characteristically brilliant paper on Primacy and Synodality to the great American, Orthodox, seminary of S Vladimir.
Of course, a Catholic ecclesiologist might have, at many points, very different things to say. He might wish to suggest that too much is made in this paper of a normativeness discerned in a 'Conciliar' period supervised by the imperial power in New Rome; and too little of the function of the Petrine Primacy in the centuries before Caesaropapism was invented. Journalists might dismiss Hilarion's masterly exegesis as being merely the establishment of political 'position' as between Moskow and Constantinople. In each case, to use these judgements as an easy excuse to dismiss his detailed, lucid, and scholarly exposition would be unfortunate.
I will simply pick out two of his points which bear upon matters which are relevant to Catholic Church life at this particular moment.
(1) We sometimes read about 'intermediate primacies' and about the importance of local gatherings of bishops in particular regions. Metropolitan Hilarion makes absolutely clear that the local particular church, in communion with its bishop, is theologically fundamental; while regional primacies are merely a matter of convenience, without being rooted in an essential doctrine of the Church. "The primacy of the diocesan bishop is clearly based on fundamental theological principles, such as the one famously emphasised by S Cyprian: 'The bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop and ... if somebody is not with the bishop, he is not in the church.' Primacy at the regional level, a matter of canonical convenience, is based on church canons ...".
Absolutely. This is why the Holy See has been concerned that Episcopal Conferences should not usurp the primacy of the Bishop in his Particular Church, either theologically or practically.
(2) Synodality implies consensus, not majority voting. Indeed, Hilarion goes further: Conciliar decisions are to be agreed "by consensus, not by vote; they will be approved by the entire assembly of bishops".
This is important; it is one reason for deploring the proceedings of the recent Roman Synod, after which paragraphs which had failed even to reach a two-thirds majority were, nevertheless, circulated with an indication of the number of votes cast for and against. In this, the Holy Father was, surely, badly advised. This action had an unfortunate appearance of the arbitrary. Catholics have always expected that Ecumenical Councils should 'morally unanimous'. It is well known that, after Vatican I, B John Henry Newman was concerned that "an aggressive insolent faction" might have "so practised on" the Fathers that "there will be the gravest reasons for determining that the Definition is not valid". If, at some future time, there were to be Synodical or Conciliar proceedings dominated by a particular will or faction determined to impose heterodoxy or heteropraxy, and if that faction secured a majority vote for their aims without securing the consensus of moral unanimity, and if they were to attempt forcefully to impose their 'majority decisions' upon the Church; such 'imposition' would be vis sine iure.
POST SCRIPTUM (1)
Metropolitan Hilarion was criticised by some Catholics for what he said at the Synod. I think such criticism is understandable but insensitive. Given the ecclesiastical situation in the Ukraine, where several jurisdictions are in competition for Byzantine Rite faithful and the primacy of Moskow is one of the points of fierce division, and where, moreover, there are Russian apprehensions about Western dreams of expanding Nato and the EU up to the boundaries of the Russian Federation, his words were unsurprising. Orthodox delegations have, in the past, refused to visit Rome on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul if 'Uniate' archbishops were to be given the Pallium; and, at the Inauguration of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI, some of the Orthodox present turned their backs when the Greek Deacon sang the Gospel. Life will be simpler if we can try to understand their feelings; just as life will also be simpler if Russian Orthodox can try to understand the immense sympathy and admiration which we feel for a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which suffered a long living martyrdom for its Unity with the See of Peter.
POST SCRIPTUM (2)
It is probably with the advice of Metropolitan Hilarion that Kyril, Patriarch of Moskow and of All the Russias, intervened with the Pakistani government on behalf of Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman threatened with martyrdom. I have heard it suggested that the unwillingness of Pope Francis to do the same personally, or, indeed, to make any utterance in criticism of our current menace, militant Islam, is rather like the unwillingness of B Paul VI to say anything which might have damaged his Ostpolitik, his outreach to the then current menace of militant Marxism. I suspect that this may be completely unfair to the present pope. Perhaps behind-the-scenes diplomacy is going on which would be compromised by public rhetoric. Or perhaps Moskow is actually acting at the request of the Holy See. We don't always know everything.
In any case, if the action of the Moskow Patriarchate is an expression of the historic Russian sense that they are protectors of the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East, I, for one, applaud it.