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Making sense of the bishop of Rome

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This year Pope Francis decided to re-introduce the title Patriarch of the West, with many believing it was to strengthen ties between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The title of Patriarch of the West was first used in the 7th century. But after more than 1400 years, Benedict XVI removed it from the list of papal titles.

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“The title of the Patriarchate of the West, today, is a little bit difficult to understand,” explained Cardinal Kurt Koch, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians.

“The majority of the Catholic Church is no longer in the West. It’s in Latin America; it’s in other countries. In this sense, it’s a little bit difficult to talk about the Holy Father as the Patriarch of the West.” he said.

Yet, the pope’s decision did not address a concern that arose following the First Vatican Council in 1870: how to explain the connection between the Patriarch of the West and all other Christian churches.

It is exactly this question of how the primacy of the bishop of Rome and the infallibility of the pope play a role in ecumenical dialogue that is the focus of the Vatican’s newest document, entitled, Bishop of Rome.

“In the document, we point out we have to review the different functions of the primacy of the bishop of Rome,” cardinal Koch said.

“First, he is the bishop of Rome. After that, he has primacy in the Latin Church and, when all Christians are united, he would also have this universal primacy for all Christians.”

But not all Christian denominations believe in papal primacy. And it is a topic that has been on the table for decades. In 1995, Pope John Paul II invited Christians to work together to find ways for the bishop of Rome to be at the service of all Christian faiths.

But to achieve Christian unity, the responsibilities of the pope as the bishop of Rome and how those relate to other denominations need to be clarified.

“I would like to stress the importance of a ‘reformulation’ or an official commentary on the teaching of Vatican I, which remains a major stumbling block between our Churches, especially because it is difficult to understand nowadays and open to misinterpretation,” said Archbishop Ian Ernest, Representative of Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See.

“It is therefore still necessary to present the teaching of Vatican I in the light of an ecclesiology of communion, clarifying the terminology used.”

And that’s exactly what the new document suggests. In 1870, the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal primacy and infallibility.

The new document proposes both “re-interpreting and re-wording” these teachings without going so far as changing the basic tenants of the Council.

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