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“Patriarch of the West” is a title with great potential, say experts

Patriarch of the West and Patriarch of the East

Alexandros Michailidis | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 04/27/24

The title fills a need to distinguish when popes are acting universally or only for the Latin Church.

There are times when a pope is acting or speaking as “universal pastor” and times when he is doing so as head of the Latin Catholic Church, one of the 24 sui iuris, or self-governing, Churches that make up the Catholic communion of Churches. For the past 18 years, there has been a “lacuna” that made it more difficult to identify which “hat” the pope is wearing at any particular time, according to a Catholic priest who is involved in ecumenical dialogues.

The problem was fixed, said Chorbishop John Faris, an expert in Eastern canon law, when Pope Francis restored a historical title for the pope that his predecessor had removed in 2006.

“Patriarch of the West” showed up on the page of “historical titles” for the pope in the new Annuario Pontificio, the annual directory of the Holy See. The title is listed along with other historical titles such as Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Sovereign Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, and Servant of the Servants of God.

Pope Francis is identified on the main page of the Pontifical Yearbook as Bishop of Rome.

“The issue is that [Patriarch of the West’s] removal created a lacuna. When the Roman Pontiff acted in his capacity as the head of the Latin Church, there was no title,” said Fr. Faris, a Maronite priest who is pastor of St. Anthony Church in Glen Allen, Virginia, and an assistant professor at The Catholic University of America. “There is a need to identify which ‘hat’ the pope is wearing.”

Gesture to Protestants, slight to Orthodox

Pope Benedict XVI deleted “Patriarch of the West,” a move that some ecumenists saw as a friendly gesture to Protestant Christians.

“The title ‘Patriarch of the West’ would imply that he’s also the leader of Protestant Churches,” explained Fr. Radu Bordeianu, professor of theology at Duquesne University. 

But the deletion troubled Orthodox Christians, who liked the title because “it showed that the pope had different levels of authority, as far as his primacy is concerned,” Fr. Bordeianu told Aleteia

“With that, we can understand different levels of primacy with the pope,” said the priest, who is also pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh.

Both Fr. Faris and Fr. Bordeianu serve on the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, and Fr. Faris is a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

“For us Orthodox, the title Patriarch of the West reminded us that he would not claim to be the equivalent of the patriarch of the entire world, but rather, his primacy at the universal level is different from primacy at the local level,” Fr. Bordeianu said. “We Orthodox would have said, ‘Yes, he has the right to mediate conflict [among the Churches]. But he does not intervene in the appointment of bishops.’ He can do that in the West but not in Romania, for example, my country.” 

Fr. Bordeianu agreed that restoring the title Patriarch of the West had not elicited much reaction from Orthodox Churches.

“Unfortunately, I did not see much of a reaction in the Orthodox world, probably because we are simply consumed now with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” he said.

No official Vatican comment

There has been no official explanation from the Vatican for the change, but there was none in 2006 either, until the then-Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity responded to certain voices of protest. The Council issued a statement saying the term “West” currently refers to a cultural context not limited only to Western Europe but including North America, Australia, and New Zealand, thus differentiating itself from other cultural contexts.

“If we wished to give the term ‘West’ a meaning applicable to ecclesiastical juridical language, it could be understood only in reference to the Latin Church,” the Council said. “In this way, the title ‘Patriarch of the West’ would describe the bishop of Rome’s special relationship with the Latin Church and could express the special jurisdiction he has over her.”

Originally, the title “Patriarch of the West” was adopted in the year 642 by Pope Theodore, when the Churches of Rome and Constantinople were still in communion. 

Reached by phone Wednesday, Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, said he was “not informed about the background” of the decision to restore the title.

The cardinal added that he has not heard from any Orthodox about the change, “but it’s too early. When I have meetings with the Orthodox, they speak about this, but they don’t write and say something.”

Bulky but good

Fr. Faris said that although the title Patriarch of the West is “a little bulky,” it fills the need for a title for the head of the Latin Church exercising a “role that is just directed to the Latin Church” – for example, when he promulgates liturgical law for the Latin Church, as opposed to the Eastern Catholic Churches.

When Pope John Paul II promulgated the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, he indicated in the first canon that it is exclusively for the Latin Church, said Fr. Faris. 

“I think Pope Francis is trying to make some real clear distinctions between when he’s acting as universal pastor, when he is acting as the head of the Latin Church, and when he is acting as the Bishop of Rome,” Fr. Faris told Aleteia. “He’s not using universal power when he appoints the assistant pastor in Rome.”

In addition, this understanding of the different ways a pope can act brings about an attitude that would leave open the possibility of the creation of other sui iuris Churches out of the Latin Church, Fr. Faris said. 

“Maybe in the future, just as Churches came out of [the Patriarchates of] Antioch or Alexandria, other Churches will come out of the Latin Church, because with the synodal process that is taking place that the pope is trying to implement, we’re going to realize that one size doesn’t fit all,” the priest said. “That’s going to be a big issue because the Church in South America is going to act quite differently than the Catholic Church in Germany or France. This does not mean we’re rejecting the supreme authority of the Church, but that things are going to be done differently.”

Also, he said, using the title emphasizes that other apostolic Churches could be brought into ecclesial communion with the Church of Rome, such as the Church of Constantinople or the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Said Fr. Faris, “So it allows for some diversity in the Catholic communion of Churches.”

CatholicismChurchEcumenismOrthodoxyPope Francis
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