The Pope and the Patriarch

The Theology

His All-Holiness Bartholomew I is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the city now called Istanbul. He is considered the equivalent of the Pope for the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world. He is the `first among equals’ of the four Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem who are successors to the Apostles. (Several Patriarchates have been added more recently to reflect the growth of the Church in Eastern Europe, such as those Serbia, Moscow and Bulgaria).


The Roman Catholic Church asserts its primacy over all Christians
, including the Orthodox: the word `Catholic’ means Universal. This is hotly contested by the Orthodox who insist that in the early Church the five Bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were equals. By the time of the great Schism in 1054 when the Western and Eastern Churches split up, the other Eastern Churches had accepted the Patriarch of Constantinople as the `first among equals’. This would make the Patriarch of Constantinople the Pope’s equal.

In the reality today, the Bishop of Rome-the Pope-is far more powerful by any measure. His church is far wealthier, his flock is growing faster (especially in the New World) and he is a universally respected figure with unequalled moral authority. The Patriarch of Constantinople, in truth, only has dominion over the Orthodox Christian minority in Turkey as well as a few additional regions that were formerly under Ottoman Turkish rule. His role as spokesman for the Orthodox is mostly symbolic; the Patriarchs of the various Orthodox Churches largely run their own affairs. The Pope, by contrast, appoints directly each of his 2,782 Bishops and everyone above them in the hierarchy. He is the uncontested spiritual leader of over a billion baptized Catholics: fully one-sixth of all humanity, as big as the population of India or China . When he asserts dominion over the whole Christian faith, he is standing on a solid power base.

Religious disputes are not necessarily settled by rationality or even reality. Faith has always been a far more powerful force than reason among human beings. What is the theological basis of the Catholic claim of leadership? We must go back to the Bible. The Apostle who founded the Church of Rome was Peter, whose original name was Simon. Simon was the first to proclaim that Jesus was Christ (the anointed or chosen one), the Son of God. On that occasion, Jesus renamed him Peter (the Rock) instead of Simon Barjonah (`son of John’) and said that Peter is the rock upon which he will build his Church . Let us read from the Gospel of St. Mathew Chapter 16 ( in the King James Version):

16: And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17: And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
18: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19: And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Based on this, the Catholics argue that Peter and his successors-the Popes in Rome- have primacy over the entire Church of Christ. Peter is depicted, even in Orthodox Church mosaics, as holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

If things are so clear in the Bible, what case do the Orthodox have? They argue, all the early churches were founded by the Apostles and their successors are therefore equal. St. Mark, the evangelist, founded the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch was founded by St. Peter as well, with the help of St. Paul, just like the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem was founded by St. James, the brother of Jesus.

The founder of the Church of Constantinople is St. Andrew, who was the first disciple (Protokletos, or first called) chosen by Jesus. He was already present when St. John the Baptist baptised Jesus-the very beginning of Christ’s ministry. Andrew was the who first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Simon Peter was actually Andrew’s brother and it was Andrew that introduced Simon to Jesus. Thus the successor of Andrew, the first among the Apostles, is the first among the Church leaders of today. The Orthodox just do not accept that Peter is superior to all others. Each side has its own irrefutable logic. The answer is determined by your faith.

The Politics

For some one outside of the two ancient faiths, the power game between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is interesting as a case-study in politics: the longest continuing political struggle in human history.

Why did all the churches except for Rome accept the leadership of Constantinople? The reason is simple: Constantinople was the capital, and the Church there had the protection the Emperor. The Canons of the Church were decided upon at Councils organized by the Emperor in or around Constantinople.

The first Council was held at Nicea in 325 CE. (The town is now called Iznik, near the modern Turkish City of Bursa. Iznik now famous for is beautiful tiles.) The council of Nicea voted and decided on the basic canons. Thus it defined Christianity as we understand it today.

Nicea also established a hierarchy among the bishops of the church, changing its character from being a grass-roots movement to an instrument of power. The sixth canon of Nicea gives the Bishop of Alexandria a status in the hierarchy second only (and possibly equal) to the Bishop of Rome. Antioch and Jerusalem are listed after that. Rome and Byzantium came to interpret this most crucial sixth canon differently in later years. To a neutral observer, sixth canon reads as though Alexandria was being given equal status to Rome. But the Egyptian Church was riven by internal strife. Actually, the original purpose of the Nicean council was to settle a theological dispute within the Egyptian Church. Rome looks better at politics right from the beginning, already presenting a united front.

The Bishop of Constantinople was not important at Nicea, since Constantine had only just moved the capital to Byzantium and renamed it New Rome (later to be Constantinople). A later (381 CE) council at Constantinople recognized the Bishop there as a Patriarch as well. As time went on the power of the Bishop of Constantinople grew, under the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor, as the Western Roman empire fell apart. The canons adopted at the later councils that asserted equal status for the Bishops of Constantinople and Rome were contested by the Popes, but there was little they could do about it.

In a counter trend, as the Western Empire waned, the Pope stepped in to fill the power vacuum. What remained of the empire became Church territory. Even as the Eastern empire grew, the Eastern Church decayed in strength, being subservient to the Emperor. Later on, as the Eastern Empire too decayed, the Eastern Church was unable to fill that power vacuum, in no small part due to the machinations of the-by now powerful- Pope in Rome.

The looting and total destruction of Constantinople by the Western armies of the fourth Crusade, which began with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, is a trauma from which the city never recovered. The purpose of the Crusades was to retake the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims: Egypt was the original destination of the Fourth Crusade. But the Crusaders were a desperate and ignorant horde, who needed the help of the wily Doge of Venice. He essentially hijacked the Crusade and got them to redirect their efforts at conquering Constantinople, his main rival in the Mediterranean trade. The city was rich, but poorly defended and fell without too much effort.

The Patriarch escaped to Nicea. The Crusaders got a prostitute to sit on the Patriarchal throne to mock him, an act that shocked the Pope. The greatest Cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia, was stripped of its treasures. Relics of saints, former Patriarchs, were stolen. Ancient works of art were melted down for the gold. Women, including nuns, were brutally raped. A great fire set by the Venetians destroyed much of the city.

If you are rich but weak, beware of your friends.

The Eastern Church was so weakened that it could not stand up to the challenge from Islam. Most of the Holy Land was lost to Islamic armies. The Patriarchates of Antioch,Alexandria and Jerusalem all fell under Islamic rule. This loss which was not compensated by the later growth into Eastern Europe.

The lesson is that to be your own boss is a better position,for the long term, than to be under the protection of a rich and powerful emperor.

By the time the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the Eastern Church was a spent force. Following the principle of keeping `your friends close but your enemies closer’, the Ottomans allowed the Patriarch to continue in Istanbul.

However, they never let him forget who was boss. On Easter Sunday of 1821 the Ottomans publicly hanged Patriarch Gregory V, right after mass, still wearing his ceremonial robes, in full view of his congregation. Then they threw his body into the Bosphorus. This was to punish the Greeks for an uprising against Turkish rule, although it was not clear the Patriarch had incited it.

The Orthodox Patriarch regards himself today as the `spokesman of matryrdom and persecution’ of the Orthodox : first at the hands of the Romans, then the Crusaders, followed by the Ottomans, the Nazis (who massacred many Serbian Orthodox), the Communists and the modern Turkish State.

What rankles the Turkish Government is the title `Ecumenical’ that the Patriarch of Constantinople insists upon. Each of the national orthodox churches asserts dominion only over the local people and the descendants of immigrants from there: the Serbian Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox and so on. An Ecumenical Patriarch is a transnational figure who is claiming dominion over the Orthodox faithful worldwide. Words and symbols are powerful when dealing with religious beliefs. As Eastern Europe becomes integrated into the Europe Union, the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be able to claim to be the `Vatican of the East’. It might some day be able to achieve the status of an independent country, as the Vatican is, within Italy. No nation wants to see an independent state develop within its borders.

The current Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has made a name for himself as a conciliatory figure. He has visited many Muslim countries and carried on a dialogue between religions as well as faiths within the Christian tradition. He has spoken up in favor of environmental causes and criticized the foreign policy of the Turkish Government.

Bartholomew I has found an ally in his traditional rival. Pope Benedict XVI visited him in December of 2006. The two have attempted to settle many contentious issues. Benedict attended mass conducted by the Patriarch, but did not receive communion. The Pope and the Patriarch excommunicated each other (in effect, condemned each other to hell) back in 1054 AD. Although the excommunications were withdrawn in the 1960’s, relations are not yet at the stage where each can fully participate in the other’s religious services. But the Pope apologized for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. In an earlier visit of Bartholomew I to Rome, Pope John Paul II had returned the remains of two Orthodox Saints that were plundered from the city back then. You can see them in their place of honor at the Patriarchate Church in Istanbul now. Maybe a new era in inter-faith harmony has begun. More likely, conflict will continue.

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One Response to “The Pope and the Patriarch”

  1. […] Read First Part I: The Theology For some one outside of the two ancient faiths, the struggle between them is interesting as a case-study in politics: the longest continuing political struggle in human history. […]

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