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Why is Pope Francis embracing the patriarchy (of the West)?

Pope Francis has revived the papal title Patriarch of the West, bringing back the style which has fallen in and out of usage over the centuries and was most recently dropped by Benedict XVI in 2006.

Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Servant of the Servants of God, presides at a prayer vigil at the Vatican on Oct. 4, 2014. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

In the 2024 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican’s annual statistical yearbook, Patriarch of the West once again appears, in the litany of formal papal dignities listed at the opening. 

It’s an historical title, though sometimes controversial, which was in continuous use for more than a century after it was first introduced into the annuario by Pius IX in 1863. Before that, the style was used more or less at the pope’s pleasure, after being first coined by Theodore I in the seventh century.

The Vatican has not, as yet, made any statement or clarification on why the title has suddenly come back into use, or what, if anything, Pope Francis intends to signal by reasserting his claim to it.

But what does it mean, anyway?

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Which way is West?

At the time “Patriarch of the West” was dropped by Benedict XVI, the then-Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity issued a clarifying statement recapping the history of the title and claiming that dropping it from the list of papal styles and dignities would be a boost to ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Churches.

Historically speaking, the council (now dicastery) explained, “the ancient Patriarchates of the East, fixed by the Councils of Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451), were related to a fairly clearly circumscribed territory, when the territory of the See of the Bishop of Rome remained vague.”

“Within the imperial ecclesiastical system of Justinian, alongside the four Eastern Patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem), the Pope was understood as Patriarch of the West.”

Coined as a formal style of the pope by Theodore I in 642, the title itself, though, was “only rarely resorted to and had no clear meaning,” but became fashionable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during a period when papal titles multiplied, said the council.

At the time it was dropped from formal usage in 2006, the Vatican’s ecumenical department noted that the notion of “the West” had become something of a geographic contradiction. 

While it was traditionally understood to mean what had been the western European part of the Roman Empire, in the modern world it applied loosely to the whole Latin Church, which stretched from New Zealand around the world to Hawaii. 

As such, the council called it “obsolete and practically no longer usable. It therefore seems meaningless to insist on dragging it behind [the pope’s name].”

Giving up the title was an expression of “historical and theological realism,” the pontifical council said.

But if that’s the case, what does bringing it back now signal?

An ecumenical matter?

The ecumenical dicastery also suggested in 2006 that dropping the title “could be of benefit to ecumenical dialogue” with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, though it wasn’t clear how that might happen — nor is it obvious that it’s made a difference in the last 17 years.

As regards the perennially thorny issue of papal primacy and ecumenical relations, the council’s statement noted that “without using the title of ‘Patriarch of the West,’ the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869–70), the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Florence (1439), listed the Pope as the first of the then five Patriarchs.”

For the avoidance of all doubt, it also said dropping the title “clearly changes nothing” regarding the status of the Roman Pontiff as head of the global Church and (in the words of Lumen gentium) “the successor of Peter” and “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” 

So, what were they hoping it might do? Well, some speculated at the time that shedding the title “Patriarch of the West” could better articulate the Roman Pontiff’s role as head of the universal Church, East and West, and not specifically or problematically concerned only with the governance of the Latin Church. 

Conversely, some worried at the time that the move was a kind of subtle assertion of universal papal primacy over the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and generated some pushback in ecumenical relations. 

This kind of criticism actually followed the pontifical council’s statement, even though it tried to make clear that while the pope wasn’t giving up any actual authority or prominence — just a title — “even less” was he asserting any substantive new claim.

It’s possible that in the course of more than fifteen years of ecumenical talks since 2006, Benedict’s move simply hasn’t been received well by the Orthodox, and it was quietly recommended that Francis bring the title back since the people to whom it’s renunciation was most meant to appeal actually didn’t care for it.

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Is this about… synodality?

Of course, it’s possible Francis’ decision to bring back the title has nothing to do with ecumenism at all. In fact, it could be he’s rethought the whole idea of a western patriarchy, so to speak, in the light of his own brand of applied ecclesiology, and decided it’s a useful way to think about how he sees his role in the Catholic Church.

Writing in 2006, the dicastery for Christian unity made an interesting point about Vatican Council II and how the Catholic Church expresses its unity and hierarchy in the modern age.

Calling the title “meaningless” in the modern age, the pontifical council said at the time that “this is all the more so since the Catholic Church, with the Second Vatican Council, found for the Latin Church in the form of the episcopal conferences and their international meetings of episcopal conferences, the canonical order adapted to today’s needs.”

While bishops’ conferences continue to play an important role in Church affairs, Pope Francis has made synodality a fundamental expression of how he sees the Church growing and functioning in the coming years. To this end, he has also made the ongoing synod on synodality his signature legacy in office, and it’s a process in which he may have decided the old patriarchal title might just be useful.

In the Catholic Church, the rank of patriarch is somewhat rare. 

In addition to heads of some Eastern Catholic Churches, the rank is given to the head of the Latin diocese of Jerusalem, the archbishops of Venice, Lisbon, and Goa and Deman in India (known as the Patriarch of the East Indies) — dioceses of historically seafaring cities or otherwise expansive territories and widely scattered communities. 

In addition to ceremonial precedence, patriarchs historically functioned as a kind of “super metropolitan,” presiding over metropolitan archbishops in the same way archbishops head up ecclesiastical provinces. 

It could be that as Pope Francis is encouraging increased synodality in the life of the Church —  both theoretical and practical — he has decided that the traditional patriarchal title is a useful expression of how he sees papal hierarchical leadership functioning in an increasingly synodal Church.

Whatever the reason for the change, Pope Francis’ move is likely to prompt questions about his reasons. Whether the Vatican plans to offer any answers remains to be seen.

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