The New Vatican Statement: A Ticking Time Bomb

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.

By Jules Gomes Published on June 13, 2024

On June 13, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity released a 151-page document inelegantly titled “The Bishop of Rome: Primacy and Synodality in Ecumenical Dialogues and Responses to the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint.”

The papal-approved dossier, which claims to have the status of a “study document,” is a time bomb carefully calibrated to keep ticking until it detonates the theory and practice of papal supremacy in the Roman Catholic Church.

The document performs a Samson-like suicidal feat: It nobly announces that it is bringing the pontifical palace crashing down for the sake of ecumenical unity among the churches, as a response to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism. So if you are an evangelical or Orthodox Christian who is gung-ho about Christian unity, pop a cork and sit down to read it.

Here are seven takeaways from The Bishop of Rome.

Stop Claiming the Papacy Is “The Rock” on Which the Church Is Built

“Contemporary exegesis has opened new perspectives for an ecumenical reading of the ‘Petrine texts,’” the document states. “Catholics have also been challenged to recognize and avoid an anachronistic projection of all doctrinal and institutional developments concerning papal ministry into the ‘Petrine texts,’ and to rediscover a diversity of images, interpretations and models in the New Testament.”

As I wrote here, it vindicates Archbishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis, Missouri, who demonstrated how most of the church fathers did not believe that the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 was Peter: 44 fathers understood the rock as Peter’s confession, 16 interpreted it as Jesus, eight interpreted it as all the apostles, and a few believed the rock to be the faithful. Only 17 fathers thought the rock was Peter.

“From this it follows, either that no argument at all, or one of the slenderest probability, is to be derived from the words, ‘On this rock will I build my church,’ in support of the primacy,” Kenrick concluded.

“From the moment they appear in patristic literature at the beginning of the third century, the interpretations of Matthew 16:17–19 are multiple,” the Vatican document concedes, virtually repeating Kenrick’s findings. “But it is never forgotten that the first stone on which the Church is built is Christ himself.”

Rethink “Infallibility”

“Vatican I should be understood within the framework of its historical context,” the document insists, lamenting that the council’s “dogmatic definitions have proved to be a significant obstacle for other Christians with regard to the papacy.”

The document acknowledges that Vatican I was a product of its times and is hence historically contingent. “That Council had no intention of either denying or rejecting the tradition of the first millennium, to wit: the church as network of mutually communicating churches,” it recognizes.

Vatican I can only be correctly received in light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II treated questions which had remained open at Vatican I,” it explains. On the question of papal infallibility it cites a Lutheran statement that “infallibility language is not intended to add anything to the authority of the Gospel, but rather to let that authority be recognized without ambiguity.”

Listen to the Orthodox and the Protestants

“The Bishop of Rome” summarizes 30 responses to John Paul II’s Ut unum sint and 50 ecumenical dialogue documents on the subject. It is loaded with quotes from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, the Bishops’ Conference of the Church of Sweden, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the World Council of Churches. It liberally cites documents and dialogues with Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Old Catholics, Baptists, and Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches.

For Pope Francis, “today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ.”

For 1000 Years the Papacy Wasn’t Supreme

Referring to the fact that the pope did not enjoy universal jurisdiction in the first thousand years of Christianity, the document quotes Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI): “As far as the doctrine of the primacy is concerned, Rome must not require more of the East than was formulated and lived during the first millennium.”

It also cites the Orthodox–Catholic international dialogue on Synodality and Primacy during the First Millennium, which notes “the right of appeal to major sees” but insists that “the bishop of Rome did not exercise canonical authority over the churches of the East.” Moreover, there is no evidence that the Oriental Orthodox Churches even accepted such a ministry.

The Lutheran Perspective

The two most important Lutheran doctrinal treatises on the Petrine office — Papacy: The Smalcald Articles (1537) and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537) are mentioned favorably in the Vatican document.

It even quotes the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon who argued that, if the pope “would allow the gospel,” the papacy’s “superiority over the bishops” could be granted iure humano (by human law). The Lutheran–Catholic dialogue in the USA introduced a general concept of “Petrine function,” which is not necessarily tied to a particular see or person, it observes.

The Autocratic Papacy Is a Rock Obstructing Unity

Convinced that “the Pope […] is undoubtedly the gravest obstacle on the path of ecumenism,” Pope Paul VI, “by his gestures and statements, contributed in many ways to a new understanding of papal ministry,” the document records.

Pope John Paul II was equally “convinced that a mutually acceptable ministry of unity cannot be defined unilaterally.” Recognizing that “we have made little progress in this regard,” Pope Francis has called for a “pastoral conversion” of the papacy, insisting that “today the Petrine ministry cannot be fully understood without this openness to dialogue with all believers in Christ.”

Pope Francis Is Dismantling the Model of the Papacy

 I observed that Francis was rewriting papal history and “taking the papacy down a peg or two” when he started shedding papal titles. “The Bishop of Rome” now admits this has been his strategy.

“In line with the pastoral practice of his recent predecessors, the emphasis of Pope Francis on his title of ‘Bishop of Rome’ from the beginning of his pontificate, the other pontifical titles now being listed as ‘historical’ (see Annuario Pontificio 2020), also contributes to a new image of the Petrine ministry,” it concedes.

While the document continues to maintain the historical, political, geographical, and ecclesial centrality of Rome and hence the claims of its bishop to “preside in love,” the ramifications of its conclusions and methodology are explosive.

Indeed, the headline of the news story on the document in the German bishops’ media says it all: “The Papacy Should Be Transformed from a Stumbling Block into the Cornerstone of Ecumenism.”

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And Pope Francis’s own words reflect a total reversal of the supremacist claims of Pope Pius IX, who at Vatican I declared that papal supremacy and universal jurisdiction was “supported by the clear witness of Holy Scripture” — a claim debunked by biblical exegesis.

While Pius IX claimed “the primacy of Peter over the whole Church,” Francis admits that “the Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but within it as one of the baptized.”

Pius IX warned that his teaching of papal supremacy was “the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.”

One wonders how he would react if he knew that 150 years later his successor would call for a reinterpretation of Vatican I, complaining that “the dogmatic definitions of the First Vatican Council are a significant obstacle for other Christians” — the very followers of Jesus he would have condemned as heretics and schismatics.


Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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