Much ink has been spilled on how to properly understand the First Vatican Council’s teaching on Papal supremacy, which Canon 331 in the Code of Canon Law summarizes as being “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power…”. The profuse number of documents addressing this doctrine are abundant, partly due to the problem of ultramontanism within Roman Catholicism. For the moment, I’d like to set aside the historical debate between maximalist and minimalist interpretations of the council and focus on the Eastern Orthodox object to papal supremacy in order to draw some general conclusions about the use of implicit argumentation in apologetics.
Many Orthodox claim the Roman Catholic view of Papal supremacy is novel and not in any way reflective of the ecclesiology shared by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the united church of the first millennium. At best, Orthodox say, Vatican 1 ecclesiology can be seen in the first millennium as a rarely attested deviation from the predominantly conciliar ecclesiology handed down by the Apostles.
For the moment, let’s assume the Roman Catholic position illegitimately reads its ecclesiology back into the first millennium. This does not automatically prove the Orthodox position nor does it free Orthodox from the same charge. It can be argued that Orthodoxy reads several of its authoritative doctrines back into the first millennium. For instance, some might say the Orthodox read the essence/energies distinction back into the Third Council of Constantinople. The council, in session 18, confesses:
Preserving therefore the inconfusedness and indivisibility, we make briefly this whole confession, believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity and after the incarnation our true God, we say that his two natures shone forth in his one subsistence in which he both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of his economic conversation (δἰ ὅλης αὐτοῦ τῆς οἰκονομκῆς ἀναστροφῆς), and that not in appearance only but in very deed, and this by reason of the difference of nature which must be recognized in the same Person, for although joined together yet each nature wills and does the things proper to it and that indivisibly and inconfusedly. Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in him for the salvation of the human race. (Emphasis mine)
From the distinction between the phrases “two natures” and “two operations [energies]” some Orthodox apologists argue the council enshrines the distinction of God’s essence and energies. Yet, the council was not directly addressing whether these concepts are distinct in God, but was directly addressing the issue of monothelitism. At best, Orthodox apologists could argue it was implied in the phrases used by the council, but that is also what Roman Catholics argue when they say the Letter of Agatho, read aloud at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, implicitly teaches papal supremacy. If Orthodox apologists get to read the E/E distinction into the Sixth Council, why can’t Catholics do the same for papal supremacy?
Another example is the Council of Blachernae (Constantinople) in 1285 uses John of Damascus to teach the distinction between an “eternal manifestation” (manifestation of the divine energies) of the Holy Spirit and the filioque (hypostatic origin of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son as from one principle). Blachernae says:
To the same, who say that the Father is, through the Son, the cause of the Spirit, and who cannot conceive the Father as the cause of the hypostasis of the Spirit — giving it existence and being — except through the Son; thus according to them the Son is united to the Father as joint-cause and contributor to the Spirit’s existence. This, they say, is supported by the phrase of Saint John of Damascus, “the Father is the projector through the Son of the manifesting Spirit.” John of Damascus, De fide orthodoxa, in Kotter, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos II, 36 (= PG 94.849B): “He Himself [the Father], then, is mind, the depth of reason, begetter of the Word, and, through the Word, projector of the manifesting Spirit.” This, however, can never mean what they say, inasmuch as it clearly denotes the manifestation — through the intermediary of the Son — of the Spirit, whose existence is from the Father. For the same John of Damascus would not have said — in the exact same chapter — that the only cause in the Trinity is God the Father, thus denying, by the use of the word “only,” the causative principle to the remaining two hypostases. John of Damascus, De fide orthodoxa, in Kotter, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos II, 36 (= PG 94.849B) Nor would he have, again, said elsewhere, “and we speak, likewise, of the Holy Spirit as the ‘Spirit of the Son,’ yet we do not speak of the Spirit as from the Son.” Ibid., 30 (= PG 94-832B). For both of these views to be true is impossible. To those who have not accepted the interpretation given to these testimonia by the Fathers, but, on the contrary, perceive them in a manner altogether forbidden by them, we pronounce the above recorded resolution and judgment, we cut them off from the membership of the Orthodox, and we banish them from the flock of the Church of God.
As evident from the way the council argues its case, the distinction provided by the council is not explicitly taught by John of Damascus, but is arguably implied in his writings. However, if Orthodox can claim their doctrines are implied in the fathers, why can’t Catholics do the same? Is not what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?
As it stands, simply arguing that a particular theology is implied in the first millennium is inadequate, because it is clear that both sides appeal to conciliar and patristic sources for their respective positions. This brings us to the central question, if both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics can argue their doctrines and respective ecclesiologies are at least implied in the councils and fathers of the first millennium, then what objective means can be used to arbitrate between these different communions? Did Christ leave us orphans, without any objective way of settling disputes, or is there an objective way of knowing the truth when both sides appeal to ecumenical councils and church fathers for their positions?
For most Orthodox today, the answer would be there isn’t an objective means of arbitrating between doctrinal disputes that rise to a conciliar level because even the decisions of an ecumenical council are subject to the theory of reception, which is ultimately subjective in nature. Some Orthodox might argue for an enlightened knowledge given directly to the nous. which may or may not be mediated through sacramental grace. This too is subjective and begs the question.
It would seem that Catholics alone offer an objective solution to the question. What is this objective means of arbitrating between doctrinal disputes that may even rise to a conciliar level? For the Catholic, the objective means would be papal ratification of an ecumenical council or a papal teaching taught ex cathedra. However, properly defining what is considered an ecumenical council, what is taught ex cathedra or if the objective solutions offered by Rome are apostolic in origin are questions left for another day.