This admission is especially noteworthy given that Minnerath was in the inner circle of the Vatican’s own studies of the early papacy, and had written the paper for the Vatican symposium on “La position de l'Eglise de Rome aux trois premiers Siècles” (“The position of the Church of Rome during the first three centuries”). The study was never published in English.
Minnerath’s statement came at the conclusion of a presentation for a 2004 ecumenical symposium in Farfa Sabina, Italy (50 miles from Rome) entitled “The Petrine Ministry in the Early Patristic Tradition,” in which he outlined “the development” of – “the rise of” – the bishops of Rome in the West. Here’s the statement in context:
In the first millennium there was no question of the Roman bishops governing the church in distant solitude. They used to take their decisions together with their synod, held once or twice a year. When matters of universal concern arose, they resorted to the ecumenical council. Even [Pope] Leo [I], who struggled for the apostolic principle over the political one, acknowledged that only the emperor would have the power to convoke an ecumenical council and protect the church.The statement came at the end of a typically long explication of this rise, noting that “Victor had done this” and “Stephen had said that” and in the end “Leo cited Roman law according to which an heir receives the goods and the rights of the testator, and constitutes with him the same legal person.” The problem with this statement, as Minnerath noted sheepishly at the end, was that the Eastern Orthodox churches had never bought into that line of thinking.
At the heart of the estrangement that progressively arose between East and West, there may be a historical misunderstanding. The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter. So the East assumed that the synodal constitution of the church would be jeopardized by the very existence of a Petrine office with potentially universal competencies in the government of the church (in How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? James F. Puglisi, Editor, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2010, pgs. 34-48).
A Personal Opinion
As I’ve written in the past, the early papacy is a clear example of Rome having assumed too much for itself. It was not mindful of this parable of Jesus:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-14)It is to Minnerath’s credit to make this admission, but where was he 1500 years ago?
Clearly, the Eastern Orthodox were in the right to reject papal claims, and it is they who were wronged in the 1054 split. Martin Luther was right to reject papal claims; the Reformers who called the papacy “antichrist” had legitimate complaints. The 500-year split in the Western churches is clearly the fault of Rome’s over-reaching.
Minnerath’s statement came in the context of an “ecumenical symposium” (and one seemingly sponsored by Rome). But this is no time to see if a “Petrine ministry” can bring unity to the church. What’s required is that Rome give up a 1500 year charade – which, it is evident, has caused immeasurable harm to the cause of Christ in the history of the church – and it must genuinely repent of its presumption and bombast.
Nothing less than an honest confession of sin and repentance can even begin to heal the breaches that Rome has caused in the history of the church.