When an Orthodox Christian is asked to state what is considered to be a major difference between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism, the response is: “We don’t have a pope.” In other words, Ortho- doxy does not recognize the claim of the Bishop of Rome to have universal jurisdiction over the Church.
Jesus put a question to his disciples. “But you, who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, `You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, `Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So now I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community.” (Mt 16:15-18 NJB)
The Church of Rome interprets this to mean that the person Simon son of Jonah; now called “Peter,” would be the individual in whom would reside the fullness of Christ’s own authority after the earthly mission of the Lord had been fulfilled. In other words, Peter’s personal profession of faith gave him the authority to be the guarantor of the Christian faith.
From the Orthodox point of view, there was no such understanding among the Apostles. Orthodox interpretation of Saint Matthew’s text is that Christ’s statement refers to Peter’s faith that Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Son of God and does not refer to Peter as a person in whom will reside the gift of authority over the entire Church. The Orthodox interpretation is that everyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Son of the living God is a “rock,” a witness of faith and of these witnesses is the Church of God comprised. The so-called “Petrine privilege” is a late Roman invention and is not recognized by serious historians.
Perhaps due to the unification of Italy into a secular state in the last century at the expense of the papal estates and due to the decline of Catholic ecclesiastical power in Western Europe following the “Enlightenment”, Pope Pius IX insisted on the declaration by the First Vatican Council (1870) that the Bishop of Rome is infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra,” or “officially.” In this moment in history the Roman Pontiff was guaranteed a limited geophysical site, a “political state” complete with diplomats, its own currency, postal system, etc. the “City-State” known as “The Vatican” which did not in anyway challenge his “right” to a universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
The Pope of Rome claims universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all adherents of the Church of Rome (and implicit is a jurisdiction over all human kind because of the great command to bring all nations to Christ). By himself, he can define dogma, and he alone chooses who will be consecrated a bishop. Every hierarch is thus a “suffragan bishop” to the Bishop of Rome.
We have gone to some length to state what we understand to be the Roman Catholic teaching of the universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, not to herein refute it so much as to use it as a point of departure in contrast with Orthodox ecclesiology. Orthodoxy states that “where the bishop is, there is the Church.” Orthodox ecclesiastical consideration is that every Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch has a particular geographic, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but no one hierarch can claim a universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
In the context of Orthodox Christianity in North America today, however, the status of the Church here is in an unusual state of being in that numerous Patriarchs “de facto” claim jurisdiction over “their” people in the United States and Canada, even though this jurisdiction is outside their own national boundary and over another continent. Many of the same Patriarchates also lay claim to “their” people in other continents, as well.
It can be stated then, that identifiable, overlapping “Orthodox” universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictions exist in Orthodoxy today. This is not an Orthodox concept.
Whereas the Pope of Rome claims universal jurisdiction based on Petrine Privilege, some Orthodox Patriarchs are exerting universal jurisdiction based on ethnic priorities. We do not know where in the Canons of the Church or the historical experience of the Church it can be found that any Patriarch may lay rightful claim to universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction based on ministry to a select ethnic presence, the so-called “diaspora” (not to be confused with the “Babylonian Captivity).
The word, “diaspora,” at best, meant the technical term for Jewish communities settled outside Palestine during the last century BC and the first century AD. These individuals regarded Jerusalem as their spiritual capital.
The use of the word “diaspora” by various Orthodox Churches to express the status of their faithful who have left their nation, willingly or unwillingly, and are living “beyond” the political, geographic borders of that homeland is strained. It is strained, because there is no geographical “center” for Orthodox Christianity; there is no “Rome,” old or new which is the unique “touchstone” for the faith; the “new” Jerusalem is the heavenly one, yet to come; and, then it is the center because the Lord Himself will dwell there, and He is the source of life and truth. The guarantor of the faith is not a place nor a particular person but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
Can there ‘ be a multitude of Orthodox “centers/ capitals,” each claiming spiritual obedience but just for a determined ethnic few? How can one admit to a multiplicity of such centers of jurisdiction without creating a plurality of interpretations or variations of the truth? The Church is one, the faith is one, baptism is one; and, although it might have been useful to allow an elasticity of jurisdiction based on an assumed “temporary” status of the immigrant, surely that time is past. This temporary status has continued for two centuries. Orthodox Christians in North America, for the most part, do not consider themselves to be in a state of “diaspora,” nor do they have any intention, nor desire, nor plan to “return” permanently elsewhere. Just as they are permanent citizens of North America, and those nations of birth or naturalization, so too, their Church is permanent and not in. diaspora.
It appears that the basis for the employment of universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction rested on a particular interpretation of Christ’s command to go forth and preach to all nations; that is to say, that Christ’s reference is to the conversion of people being part of a national identity, not to the conversion of individuals. One is saved through being part of a people.
This interpretation appears to have arisen in these latter times as a response to sustaining modern “national” identities, and has given rise to the “obligation” of the Mother Churches to care for her spiritual offspring around the political globe. If the obligation was forced by geo-political pressures, the Church can be excused, temporarily. This was the experience during the communist era. Now that the Churches are free to reestablish traditional Orthodox ecclesiology, they can also eradicate this un-Orthodox “universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictionalism.”
How can the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church have a multiplicity of jurisdictions overlapping the same geographical area? How can the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia, all claim universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction in North America (and the rest of the world) based on the existence of their particular ethnic spiritual children living here? We are thankful that the Churches of Cyprus, Finland, Slovakia, Japan, etc., have not yet made similar claims to their ethnic compatriots in North America.
We respond to the question: “Is the concept of universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictions an Orthodox one?” We believe it is not. Therefore, let the Orthodox Christians of Canada and the United States work with the Mother Churches and seek their blessings for their respectful “long-distance” shepherds and flocks to join into one administrative unity as is the Orthodox ecclesiastical principle. Let them elect patriarchs for Canada and the United States so that the Lord’s work can continue with one heart and one mind to serve and thus give glory to the All Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To whom be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever. Amen.
+NATHANIEL, Archbishop of Detroit
Originally published in Solia – The Herald, February 2000