Catholicism Faith

Impressions of “You are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy,” by Olivier Clement

You are Peter is an Orthodox reflection on the proper status of the Bishop of Rome. The author, Olivier Clement, argues based on linguistics, tradition, and the Church Fathers for Roman primacy among the bishops. Challenging the assumptions of the Catholic west and Orthodox east, Clement argues that the Roman Pope is as important for declaring and teaching the truth as the Ecumenical Councils.

The Roman Primacy

Peter is the first of the Apostles (primus) in the New Testament and early Church writings.

The gospel emphasizes over and again the place of Peter as first among the twelve. “Simon and his companions,” we read (Mark 1:36); and again, “Peter stood up with the Eleven,” or “Peter and the other apostles” (Acts 2:14 and 37). Peter is the first on the list of the apostles; he is the first to confess Jesus as Messiah; the first to see the risen Christ. It is Peter who gives Pentecost its orientation and from then on becomes the spokesman for the infant Church. In the name of the other apostles, he proclaims the fundamental message: “God raised this man Jesus to life, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

This protos, for all that, does not stand alone. Protos means the first in a series and not arche, the first cause, for that could only be Christ., The other apostles – and the prophets, as Paul interestingly adds – are, along with Peter, the “foundations of the Church,” “and Christ Jesus himself is the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). Oliveir Clement, You are Peter, p. 19

Missing from either Olivier Clement’s writing or from the Church Fathers is the later eastern Orthodox qualification of “first among equals”. Clement insists on a true Roman primacy – a primacy of communion that must function with the other bishops:

But at the the time of the ecumenical councils [the East] acknowledge a true Roman primacy and the Petrine charism which that presupposes. And this was by no means a simple “primacy of honor”, a primus inter pares, in the purely honorific sense of these expressions…. [Pope Leo the Great] never ceased affirming that the purpose of Roman primacy was to serve ecclesial communion, fidelium universitat itself founded upon the “unity of the Catholic faith.” Moreover, he says time and again that he cannot exercise his charism except in communion with his “brothers and co-bishops” whose rights he respects and safeguards.
Oliveir Clement, You are Peter, pp. 55-56

Clement challenges the East by showing the Church Fathers of both sides of the Mediterranean were united in their deference to the See of Peter:

Beginning in the fifth century, the eastern Fathers Flavian, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Maximus the Confessor, and Theodor the Studite spoke unambiguously of the Pope as the “Successor of Peter.” It was likewise with Byzantine legislation; whenever the Pentarcy was mentioned in the Novels of Justianian, the Church of Rome was always at the top of the list, and its bishop referred to as the “first among priests” (The word is used here in the wider sense of the episcopate).

The fourth ecumenical council, gathered at Chalcedon in 451, wrote in its message to Leo the Great. “You came to us; you have been for everyone the interpreter of the voice of the blessed Peter… We were some 520 bishops whom you guided, as the head guides the members.” The Fathers of the sixth ecumenical council (Constantinople), wrote similarly to Pope Agathon: “We place ourselves in your hands, you who occupy the first see of the universal Church, you who rest on the firm rock of faith.”
Oliveir Clement, You are Peter, pp. 34-35

Yet (and here Catholics irritated by Pope Francis may find common ground), the Pope is prime among bishops as Peter was prime among the disciples. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul nonetheless criticized the first Pope to his face:

But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter 8 (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.

But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all,

“If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
* Galatians 2:6-16*

The same attitude was held by the same Fathers who wrote of Roman primacy:

But whenever Rome seemed to waver, ready to compromise, were it only by silence, the example of Maximus recalled that the Pope’s confession of faith could never take the place of a personal act of faith. The Peterine charism cannot replace personal conscience, humble and curageous, based on the internal evidence of the Good News.

“Yesteday on the eighteen of the month (April 658), on the day of mid-Pentecost, the patriarch spoke to me as follows:”To what Church do you belong? To Rome? To Antioch? To Alexandria? To Jerusalem? By they are all all one. If then, you belong to the catholic Church, remain at one with it least in taking a path other than the way of life you meet with something unforseen.”

I said to him:

“The Catholic Church is the forthright and saving confession of faith in the God of the universe, who showed this in proclaiming Peter blessed for confessing it forthrightly.”
Oliveir Clement, You are Peter, pp. 36-37

Clement’s formula is that the Pope is the caretaker for the communion, expressed by the Councils and sensed by the People. In his words:

Widening the focus, one could say that the Church had several aerials for receiving what the Spirit had to say to her: – The council as an expression of universal communion – The Pope as being charged with care for this communion and watching over the Petrine and Pauline correctness of the faith.
– But also the utilitas of the people of God, its “Sense of the Church,” which can express itself in times of major crisis through the witness, the martyrdom, of a lone prophet.
Oliveir Clement, You are Peter, pp. 54-55

This similarity between the Papacy and the Councils evokes Joseph Ratzinger’s (Pope Benedict XVI’s) own interpretation, in which Papal infallibility is phrased as the Pope, when speaking correctly and authoritatively about matters of faith, is infallible. Similarly. Ratzinger allows for the “purified memory” of the Church to receive or reject Councils:

It can be changed to the extent that in the continuing identity of the subject Church certain events have a continuing legal effect. In international law, the retroactive nullification of a contract would represent a comparable situation (As we have recently experienced in the historic settlement between Germany and Czechoslovakia); in the realm of Church history, the history of the councils offers a point of comparison: the situation of the Church changes when a council that at first had been considered valid is, after some time, definitely and universally labeled a “Robber Synod” and excluded from the official history of the faith; or, vice versa, when an originally local council is recognized as ecumenical.
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 212

Two more brief notes.

I enjoyed the author’s discussion of history. The repeated and rather pedestrian ex-communications of the early Middle Ages resemble today’s world (where Constantinople and Moscow flippantly excommunicate each other over the geopolitical crisis of the moment) more than the early Reformation. However, in popular imagination, the Great Schism is remembered as closer to the Protestant Reformation in terms of consequences. The historical ex-communications discussed, including those when one or both parties were dead by the time the message was delivered, and times when a figure would be variously excommunicated or cited as a pillar of the Church, were fascinating. This was the best discussion of what church politics looked like in the early middle ages since Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin Madigan.

The only part I disagreed with was a line said in passing that Christ’s statement of Peter’s ability to “bind and loosen” referred to matters that might occur at a local synagogue. One does not have to believe in a Monarchial Papacy to [Peter’s role as Prime Minister]) in this ancient biblical formula. Indeed, this is simply a missed opportunity, as even the phrase Prime (as opposed to Master) Minister implies first-in-a-sequence but also a special authority, which would have complemented Clement’s discussion of the Papacy.


Olivier Clement’s You are Peter is closer to Joseph Ratzinger’s work on Orthodox-Catholic relationships than any other book I have read. I greatly enjoyed understanding the other side of that argument, and recommend it to others understanding how the Great Schism that has split the apostolic churches for a thousand years may one day come to an end.

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