Pope in general audience june 12

The Bishop of Rome: Primacy and Synodality. Summary, ideas and proposals of a new Vatican document

Origin and status of the document, drafting process, structure, main ideas and practical suggestions

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(ZENIT News / Rome, 06.12.2024).- On the morning of Thursday, June 13, a new document was presented by the Dicastery for Christian Unity on the role of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) in view of an eventual unity with all the Christian Churches. The following are the highlights of the document:


Origin and status of the document 

The study document The Bishop of Rome is the first document to summarize the entire  ecumenical debate on the service of primacy in the Church since the Second Vatican Council.  The origin of this text goes back to St John Paul II’s invitation to other Christians to find,  ‘together, of course’, the forms in which the ministry of the Bishop of Rome “may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned” (UUS 95). Numerous responses to this invitation  have been formulated, as well as reflections on the topic and various suggestions from the theological dialogues.

In 2020, the 25th anniversary of Ut unum sint, the Dicastery for Promoting Christian  Unity saw an opportunity to synthesize these reflections and gather the main fruits. Pope Francis  himself called for this, noting that “we have made little progress in this regard” (Evangelii  Gaudium 32). Moreover, the convocation of the Synod on Synodality has confirmed the  relevance of this project as a contribution to the ecumenical dimension of the synodal process.

The status of the text is that of a ‘study document’ that does not claim to exhaust the  subject nor summarize the entire Catholic magisterium on the subject. Its purpose is to offer an  objective synthesis of the ecumenical discussion on the subject, thus reflecting its insights, but  also its limitations.

Drafting process 

The document is the fruit of almost three years of truly ecumenical and synodal work.  It summarizes some 30 responses to Ut unum sint and 50 ecumenical dialogue documents on  the subject. It involved not only the Officials, but also the 46 Members and Consultors of the  Dicastery who discussed it at two Plenary Meetings. The best Catholic experts on the subject  were consulted, as well as numerous Orthodox and Protestant experts, in collaboration with the  Institute for Ecumenical Studies of the Angelicum. Finally, the text was sent to various  Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and to the Synod of Bishops. In all, more than fifty opinions  and written contributions were considered. All were positive about the initiative, methodology,  structure and main ideas of the document.

Document Structure 

The document offers a schematic presentation

1) of the responses to Ut unum sint and the documents of the theological dialogues  devoted to the question of primacy;

2) of the main theological questions that traditionally question the papal primacy and  some significant developments in contemporary ecumenical reflection: a renewed reading of  the ‘Petrine texts’; overcoming the opposition between de iure divino and de iure humano; a  hermeneutical re-reading of the dogmas of the primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility (Vatican  Council I);

3) of some perspectives for a ministry of unity in a reunited Church: necessity or  otherwise of a primacy in the Church; the criteria of the first millennium; principles for the  exercise of primacy in the 21st century;

4) of practical suggestions or requests addressed to the Catholic Church: renewed  interpretation of Vatican I; differentiated exercise of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome;  synodality ad intra; synodality ad extra.

In addition to this synthesis, the document concludes with a brief proposal from the  Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery, entitled Towards an Exercise of Primacy in the 21st Century, which identifies the most significant suggestions put forward by the various dialogues  for a renewed exercise of the Bishop of Rome’s ministry of unity ‘recognized by all concerned.

Main ideas of the Document 

The Study Document points out that:

1) the dialogue documents and the responses to Ut  unum sint have made a significant contribution to reflection on the question of primacy and  synodality;

2) all the documents agree on the need for a service of unity at the universal level,  even if the foundations of this service and the ways in which should be exercised are subject to  different interpretations;

3) unlike the controversies of the past, the question of primacy is no  longer seen simply as a problem, but also as an opportunity for a common reflection on the  nature of the Church and its mission in the world;

4) the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome  is intrinsic to the synodal dynamic, as is the communitarian aspect that includes the entire  people of God and the collegial dimension of the episcopal ministry.

Among the future steps to be taken in the theological dialogues, the Document  suggests the need for:

1) a better connection between the dialogues – local and international,  official and unofficial, bilateral and multilateral, Eastern and Western – in order to enrich each  other;

2) addressing primacy and synodality together, which are not two opposing ecclesial  dimensions, but rather two mutually supportive realities,

3) a clarification of vocabulary;

4)  promoting the reception of the results of the dialogues at all levels, so that they can become a  common heritage; 5) theological interpretation of the current relations between the Churches,  since the ‘dialogue of truth’ should not only focus on past doctrinal differences.  


(nn. 166-181) 

  1. Theunderstanding and exercise of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome entered a new phase  with the Second Vatican Council. Since then, the ecumenical dimension has been an essential  aspect of this ministry, as illustrated by successive popes. John Paul II’s invitation in Ut unum sint to find, with the help of the Pastors and theologians of all Churches, a way of exercising  primacy “recognized by all concerned”, marked an epochal moment in this ecumenical  awareness. That invitation finds particular support in the context of the pontificate of Pope  Francis, whose teaching and practice emphasise the synodal dimension of his ministry.


  1. The invitation inUt unum sint elicited a wide range of responses and ecumenical  reflections. The ecumenical theological dialogues, official and unofficial, national and  international, initiated after Vatican II, have also proven to be, during the last decades, a  privileged place for research into a ministry of unity at the universal level. Identifying the main  themes and perspectives, they illustrate the interest in this topic and the developments in the  discussion with the different Christian traditions. They also evidence a new and positive  ecumenical spirit in discussing this question.
  2. Thisnew climate is indicative of the good relations established between Christian  communions, and especially between their leaders. At a time when the relationships between  Churches are intensifying, this “rediscovered brotherhood” (UUS 42) should also be re-read  theologically, alongside the dogmatic differences of the past. This life of relationships includes  a growing awareness of ‘mutual accountability’ between Christian communions. 
  3. It should be noted thatthe concerns, emphases and conclusions of the different dialogues  vary according to the confessional traditions involved. Furthermore, not all the theological  dialogues have treated the topic at the same level or in the same depth. If some have dedicated  entire documents to the subject, others have only treated it in the context of broader documents,  while others again are yet to address the matter. Without wanting to obscure these different  approaches and accents, nevertheless the following fruits can be identified.


  1. One of the fruits of the theological dialogues is a renewed reading of the ‘Petrine texts’,  which have historically been a major stumbling block between Christians. Dialogue partners  have been challenged to avoid anachronistic projections of later doctrinal developments and to  consider afresh the role of Peter among the apostles. On the basis of contemporary exegesis and  patristic research,new insights and mutual enrichment has been achieved, challenging some  traditional confessional interpretations. A diversity of images, interpretations and models in the  New Testament have been rediscovered, while biblical notions such as episkopè (the ministry  of oversight), diakonia, and the concept of ‘Petrine function’, have helped develop a more  comprehensive understanding of the ‘Petrine texts’.
  2. Another controversial issue is theCatholic understanding of the primacy of the Bishop  of Rome as established de iure divinowhile most other Christians understand it as being  instituted merely de iure humano. Hermeneutical clarifications have helped to put into new  perspective this traditional dichotomy, by considering primacy as both de iure divino and de  iure humano, that is, being part of God’s will for the Church and mediated through human  history. Superseding the distinction between de iure divino and de iure humano the dialogues  have emphasized instead the distinction between the theological essence and the historical  contingency of primacy – as expressed in Ut unum sint (UUS 95). On this basis they call for a greater attention to and assessment of the historical context that conditioned the exercise of  primacy in different regions and periods.
  3. The dogmatic definitions of the First Vatican Council are a significant obstacle for other  Christians. Some ecumenical dialogues have registered promising progress when undertaking a  ‘re-reading’ or ‘re-reception’ of this Council, opening up new avenues for a more accurate  understanding of its teaching. This hermeneutical approach emphasizes the importance of  interpreting the dogmatic statements of Vatican I not in isolation, but in the light of their  historical context, of their intention and of their reception – especially through the teaching of  Vatican II.
  4. Studying the history of the text ofPastor æternus, and especially the proceedings of the  Council and the background that conditioned the choice of terms used (‘ordinary’, ‘direct’,  ‘immediate’), some dialogues were able to clarify the dogmatic definition of universal  jurisdiction, by identifying its extension and limits. Similarly, they were able to clarify the  wording of the dogma of infallibility and even to agree on certain aspects of its purpose,  recognizing the need, in some circumstances, for a personal exercise of the teaching ministry,  given that Christian unity is a unity in truth and love. In spite of these clarifications the dialogues  still express concerns regarding the relation of infallibility to the primacy of the Gospel, the  indefectibility of the whole Church, the exercise of episcopal collegiality and the necessity of  reception.


  1. Thesenew approaches to fundamental theological questions raised by primacy at the  universal level have opened new perspectives for a ministry of unity in a reconciled Church.  Many theological dialogues and responses to Ut unum sint, based mostly on arguments  concerned with the bene esse rather than the esse of the Church, acknowledge the requirement  for a primacy at the universal level. Referring to apostolic tradition, some dialogues argue  that, from the early Church, Christianity was established on major apostolic sees occupying a  specific order, the see of Rome being the first. Based on ecclesiological considerations, a  number of dialogues have maintained that there is a mutual interdependency of primacy and  synodality at each level of the life of the Church: local, regional, but also universal. Another  argument, of a more pragmatic nature, is founded on the contemporary context of globalization  and on missionary requirements.
  2. Theological dialogues, particularly with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches,  recognize thatprinciples and models of communion honoured in the first millennium (or,  for the latter, until the middle of the fifth century), remain paradigmatic. Indeed, during that  period, Christians from East and West lived in communion despite certain temporary ruptures,  and the essential structures of the Church were constituted and shared. Certain criteria of the  first millennium were identified as points of reference and sources of inspiration for the  acceptable exercise of a ministry of unity at the universal level, such as: the informal – and not  primarily jurisdictional – character of the expressions of communion between the Churches;  the ‘primacy of honour’ of the Bishop of Rome; the interdependency between the primatial and  synodal dimensions of the Church as illustrated by Apostolic Canon 34; the right of appeal as  an expression of communion (Canons of Sardica); the paradigmatic character of the ecumenical  councils; and the diversity of ecclesial models.
  3. Although the first millennium is decisive, many dialogues recognize that it should not be  idealized nor simply re-created, since the developments of the second millennium cannot be  ignored and also because a primacy at the universal level should respond to contemporary  challenges.Some principles for the exercise of primacy in the 21st century have been identified. A first general agreement is the mutual interdependency of primacy and synodality  at each level of the Church, and the consequent requirement for a synodal exercise of primacy.  A further agreement concerns the articulation between ‘all’, ‘some’ and ‘one’, three  complementary dimensions of the Church, at each ecclesial level: the ‘communal’ dimension  based on the sensus fidei of all the baptized; the ‘collegial’ dimension, expressed especially in  episcopal collegiality; and the ‘personal’ dimension expressed in the primatial function.  Different dialogues identify the synodal dynamic inherent in the articulation of these three  dimensions.
  4. Ecumenical reflection has also contributed to the recognition that the Petrine function must  be understood within the context of a wider ecclesiological perspective.In considering primacy,  many theological dialogues have noted that these three dimensions – communal, collegial, and  personal – are operative within each of the three levels of the Church: local, regional and  universal. In this respect, a crucial issue is the relationship between the local Church and the  universal Church, which has important consequences for the exercise of primacy. Ecumenical  dialogues helped bring about agreement on the simultaneity of these dimensions, insisting that  it is not possible to separate the dialectical relationship between the local Church and the  universal Church.
  5. Another important consideration related to the different levels in the Church is the  ecclesiological significance of the regional or supra-local dimension in the Church. Many  dialogues stress the need for a balance between the exercise of primacy on a regional and  universal level, noting that in most Christian communions the regional level is the most relevant  for the exercise of primacy and also for their missional activity.Some theological dialogues  with the Western Christian communions, observing an ‘asymmetry’ between these  communions and the Catholic Church, call for a strengthening of Catholic episcopal  conferences, including at the continental level, and for a continuing ‘decentralization’ inspired  by the model of the ancient patriarchal Churches.
  6. The significance of the regional level is also advocated in the dialogues with the Orthodox  and Oriental Orthodox Churches, which emphasize the necessity of a balance between  primacy and primacies. These dialogues insist that the “ecumenical endeavour of the Sister  Churches of East and West, grounded in dialogue and prayer, is the search for perfect and total  communion which is neither absorption nor fusion but a meeting in truth and love” (O–C 1993,  14).In a reconciled Christianity, such communion presupposes that the Bishop of Rome’s  “relationship to the Eastern Churches and their bishops […] would have to be substantially  different from the relationship now accepted in the Latin Church” (O–C US 2010, 7a), and that  the Churches will “continue to have the right and power to govern themselves according to their  own traditions and disciplines” (Coptic–Catholic dialogue, 1979).
  7. The Orthodox–Catholic dialogue also allowed a new critical reading of the phenomenon  of ‘uniatism’, closely related to the question of primacy and to an ecclesiology claiming the  direct jurisdiction of the Roman See over all the local Churches, which “can no longer be  accepted either as a method to be followed nor as a model of the unity our Churches are seeking” (O–C, 1993, 12). The historical phenomenon of ‘uniatism’ should yet be distinguished from the  current reality of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which represent a particular paradigm of ‘unity  in diversity’ due to their sui iuris status in the Catholic Church maintaining their autonomy  within synodical structures. Nevertheless, the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches do  not recognise the present relationship with Rome of the Eastern Catholic Churches as a model  for future communion. 
  8. Considerations regarding the different levels of the Church lead to reflection onthe  principle of subsidiarity. This principle means that no matter that can properly be dealt with at a lower level should be taken to a higher one. Subsidiarity is recognised as an important  principle if the exercise of primacy is to guarantee the participation of the whole Church in the  decision-making process. Some dialogues apply this principle in defining an acceptable model  of ‘unity in diversity’ with the Catholic Church. They argue that the power of the Bishop of  Rome should not exceed that required for the exercise of his ministry of unity at the universal  level, and suggest a voluntary limitation in the exercise of his power – while recognizing that  he will need a sufficient amount of authority to meet the many challenges and complex  obligations related to his ministry.


  1. Throughout the ecumenical dialogues and responses toUt unum sint concerning primacy,  various practical suggestions or requests have been made to the different Christian  communions, and especially to the Catholic Church. Since the first ecumenical duty of  Catholics is “to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and accordingly  to undertake with vigour the task of renewal and reform” (UR 4), they are invited to seriously  consider the suggestions made to them so that a renewed understanding and exercise of papal  primacy can contribute to the restoration of Christian unity. 
  2. Afirst proposal is a Catholic ‘re-reception’, ‘re-interpretation’, ‘official interpretation’,  ‘updated commentary’ or even ‘rewording’ of the teachings of Vatican I. Indeed, some  dialogues observe that these teachings were deeply conditioned by their historical context, and  suggest that the Catholic Church should look for new expressions and vocabulary faithful to  the original intention but integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current  cultural and ecumenical context.
  3. A second suggestionmade by some ecumenical dialogues is a clearer distinction between  the different responsibilities of the Bishop of Romeespecially between his patriarchal  ministry in the Church of the West and his primatial ministry of unity in the communion of  Churches, both West and East, possibly extending this idea to consider how other Western  Churches might relate to the Bishop of Rome as primate while having a certain autonomy  themselves. There is also a need to distinguish the patriarchal and primatial roles of the Bishop  of Rome from his political function as head of State. A greater accent on the exercise of the  ministry of the Pope in his own particular Church, the diocese of Rome, would highlight the  episcopal ministry he shares with his brother bishops, and renew the image of the papacy.  
  4. A third recommendation made by the theological dialogues concerns the development of synodality within the Catholic Church. Putting an emphasis on the reciprocal relation  between the Catholic Church’s synodal shaping ad intra and the credibility of her ecumenical  commitment ad extrathey identified areas in which a growing synodality is required within  the Catholic Church. They suggest in particular further reflection on the authority of national  and regional Catholic bishops’ conferences, their relationship with the Synod of Bishops and  with the Roman Curia. At the universal level, they stress the need for a better involvement of  the whole People of God in the synodal processes. In a spirit of the ‘exchange of gifts’,  procedures and institutions already existing in other Christian communions could serve as a  source of inspiration.
  5. A last proposal is the promotion of ‘conciliar fellowship’ through regular meetings among  Church leaders at a worldwide level in order to make visible and deepen the communion they  already share. In the same spirit, many dialogues have proposed different initiatives to promote synodality between Churches, especially at the level of bishops and primates, through regular  consultations and common action and witness.

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