In recent years, there has been a brewing conflict between two ecclesial camps within the Orthodox Church: the Constantinopolitan and Moscow Patriarchates. The former camp is accused of “neopapism” and the latter camp of “Russkii Mir.” Additionally, the Russian side asserts the ecclesiastical view that bishops cannot appeal beyond their own local jurisdiction/patriarchate. This, taken in an exclusive sense, would also be incorrect due to mamy appeals throughout church history that were inter-Patriarchal in nature.
Due to people favoring binaries, many feel compelled to choose between what is presently being presented by Constantinople and Russia. Thanks to the weight of the canonists, many rightly sympathize with the Russians. In reality, there is a third way which harmonizes the view of the Russians and canonists with that of appeals found in patristic tradition. It is this third way, and not strictly the Russian view as presented, which must be emphasized.
The Historical Absurdity of Neo-Papism. Neo-Papism, in short, is the idea that Constantinople is assuming to itself prerogatives akin to the post-schism Roman church. Two of these anachronistic, non-canonical prerogatives are as follows.
First, Constantinople asserts they are the only Patriarchate that can convene an ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox council. This is patently absurd, as they technically did not even exist when Nicea was convened and the Council of Jerusalem (1672) is Pan-Orthodox, by Constantinople’s own admission in Crete (2016), and it did not even include any of the other Patriarchs–though they received the council later. The Synod of Jassy (1642) is similar in this regard.
Second, Neo-Papists assert that autocephaly (i.e. complete church independence) can only be granted by Constantinople and even rescinded at any point afterwards. However, the history of autocephaly in the example of Georgia both in ancient and modern times does not follow this model (in latter days, Constantinople sought to grant autocephaly to an already autocephalys church simply to assert that they had the right all along). The Church of Cyprus, likewise, was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus without the direct input of the Patriarch of Constantinople, as Nestorius was deposed by that council.
The alleged similarities between Neo-Papism and Roman Papism end there. Neo-Papism has never seriously asserted Roman Catholic claims such as doctrinal infallibility. In a few occasions flattery, when taken literally, could be taken to that effect. For example, Cyrus (a heretical Pope of Alexandria during the Monoenergist controversy) spoke of the Patriarch of Constantinople as follows:
To my Master, honored by God, the good chief shepherd, the father of fathers…I summoned the courage to write, when I had taken to heart the inspired teachings of You Thrice-blessedness…I was commanded to embark on reading the all-revered report of You divinely inspired Self…I have learned to take refuge in Your teaching, which speaks from God, even as I beg its precious and clearly instructive message to vouchsafe still brighter clarity…As a result, when our ignorance has been illuminated by You God-taught Self, perhaps in this too we may imitate the fat and fertile land. (Source)
Despite the preceding, mere decades later an ecumenical council condemned that same Patriarch of Constantinople as a heretic. In the ninth century the Patriarch of Constantinople alone was bestowed the title “the animated image of Christ.” (Isogoge, Title II, 1) In the 14th century the same Patriarch was given various other honorary titles: “vicar of Christ on Earth,” “the father approved by the Most High God for all Christians wherever dwelling on earth,” and “the universal guardian and keeper of all souls.” A few centuries later Nectarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, wrote in his introduction to Saint Peter Mogila’s catechism:
[T]hey should consign this exposition of faith to writing, point by point, and lay it before the Church of Constantinople…at that time they followed the authority of that church and unto her as as to a head did all Orthodox Greeks submit themselves and on her fixed attention, as a most sure guide) (p. 7).
One must take into account that Nectarius was endorsing an exposition of faith meant to be a response to Cyril Lucaris, a Patriarch of Constantinople who just shortly before was condemned as a heretic. Recently, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople likewise appears capable of using such hyperbolic language:
Until the end of the ages…in Constantinople shall live steadfast and immovable the most precious and holiest [possession] of our pious Race [τοῦ εὐσεβοῦς ἡμῶν Γένους] and our blameless faith, our Holy Great Church of Christ, the Mother and mistress among the Churches. (Source)
Patriarch Bartholomew is likely not seriously asserting infallibility because he himself claims that, “The Ecumenical Patriarch has never claimed a primacy of administration or authority among the Orthodox Churches nor has it imagined itself to be enveloped with infallible authority.” (Source)
Due to the preceding, one must conclude Neo-Papism lacks any profound Roman Catholic parallels. The heresy is much more narrow in focus, as it pertains solely to the alleged privileges of convening and presiding over Pan-Orthodox councils and granting autocephaly. Apparently, this is not imagined as “a primacy of administration.” Nevertheless, through these powers, it for all practical intents and purposes makes the Ecumenical Patriarch as powerful as a Roman Pope, because he can literally dissolve local autocephalous churches and prevent any ecumenical recourse by simply refusing to “convene” a council–two things Patriarch Bartholomew has precisely done since recognizing schismatic bodies in Ukraine. Sadly, these assertions of solely having such prerogatives are so obviously historically wrong, its laughable that anyone seriously asserts it. Because these claims are so laughable, many are attracted to the Russian view of ecclesiology.
The Russian View of Ecclessiology. In response to Constantinople’s claims, Russia has synodically (2007) asserted in Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church that primacy or precedence between the local synods and their respective Patriarchs merely “represents primacy in honour” which:
on the universal level is not informed by canons of Ecumenical or Local Councils. The canons on which the sacred diptychs are based do not vest the primus (such as the bishop of Rome used to be at the time of Ecumenical Councils) with any powers on the church-wide scale.
“By eliminating the sacramental equality of bishops,” the postion paper asserts, such as ecclesiology “leads to the emergence of a jurisdiction of a universal first hierarch never mentioned either in holy canons or patristic tradition and resulting in the derogation or even elimination of the autocephaly of Local Churches.” As one shall see in a moment, patristic tradition does not square entirely with this assertion due to there being some sort of inter-Patriarchal appellate system in the early Church.
In any event, the Moscow Patriarchate’s position paper does not explicitly deny appellate jurisdiction. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is similar in this regard as he only obliquely addresses the issue:
In the Orthodox tradition at the regional level, or rather at the level of an autocephalous Church, there is a synod and a primate with clear prerogatives. In the Catholic Church there is no primacy at the regional level…the canons that establish a taxis (order) for the five major patriarchates. This taxis implies that one would be first but gives no indication of his prerogatives over and above the remaining four patriarchs.
Archpriest Andrey Novikov in The Isagoge as a medieval source of the Eastern papism takes issue with inter-Patriarchal appeals specifically in his critique of the Isogoge. The Isogoge traditionally and plausibly is ascribed to Saint Photius. Titles 3:9 and 10 cite his conception of inter-Patriarchal appeals–
The throne of Constantinople…is declared as the first by Council’s resolutions…Divine laws rule that apprehensions arising at other thrones shall be presented to its investigation and judgement…The presider of Constantinople is allowed…to observe and rectify apprehensions that happen at other thrones and to finalize the courts.
As one can easily see, Photius is asserting that Constantinople’s has prerogatives as the highest court of appeals. In fact, according to Canon 1 of Constantinople IV (879-880), decisions of Constantinople could not even be appealed to Rome. And so, one would be justified in inferring that Photius was trying to universalize Constantinopolitan intra-Patriarchal prerogatives and apply them to the other Patriarchates. However, one may infer the opposite about Canon 1 specifically: Photius was merely affirming that disputes were handled within each individual Patriarchate. This would put Canon 1 at odds with the Isogoge.
Novikov, in his denial of the Isogoge, also disputes an appellate reading Canon 17 of Chalcedon:
Outlying or rural parishes shall in every province remain subject to the bishops who now have jurisdiction over them…But if within thirty years there has been, or is, any dispute concerning them, it is lawful for those who hold themselves aggrieved to bring their cause before the synod of the province. And if any one be wronged by his metropolitan, let the matter be decided by the exarch of the diocese or by the throne of Constantinople.
He cites Matthew Blasteres, a 14th-century opponent of Rome but expounder of the Isogoge, who interprets the aforementioned canon as applicable “if he is subject to it [Constantinople specifically].” And so, the assertion is that appeals exist within, and not between, Patriarchates.
The Canonists’ View of Ecclesiology. Canon 9 of Chalcedon (another appellate canon) was similarly interpreted by Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite. He plainly states that “the Bishop of Constantinople has no authority to officiate in the dioceses and parishes of other Patriarchs, nor has he been given by this Canon to grant a decision in reference to an appeal on the part of the whole Church.” (The Rudder, Comments on Canon 9 of Chalcedon) In the same section, Nicodemus quotes Saint Justinian to the same effect:
Even Justinian too, in Book 3, ch. 2, of his Ecclesiastical Compilation, says: “Let the competent Patriarch examine the decision without fearing an appeal”; and in Book 1, Title 4, of his Ecclesiastical Injunction: “The decisions of Patriarchs cannot be appealed”; and again, in Book 1, Title 4, ch. 29: “It has been made a law by the Emperors preceding us that no appeal can be taken from the decisions rendered by Patriarchs.”
Nicodemus then cites John Zonaras, a 11th century canonist, in his interpretation of Canon 5 of Sardica:
The Bishop of Constantinople must hear the appeals only of those who are subject to the Bishop of Constantinople, precisely as the Bishop of Rome must hear the appeals only of those who are subject to the Bishop of Rome.
Is this a rejection of canon 5 of the Council of Sardica (granted Churchwide authority by the Council of Trullo, canon 2)?
It has pleased this Council to decree that if any Bishop be indicted, and the Bishops of the same diocese remove him from his rank, and, by way of appeal, he has recourse to the most blessed Bishop of the Church of the Romans.
Canons 3 and 4 of Sardica are similar in granting appellate power to Rome. According to Nicodemus, Canon 3 “refers not to provinces that are not subject to the Pope, but only to those that are subject to him.” (The Rudder, Comments on Canon 3 of Sardica) The reason Nicodemus infers this is likewise due to Zonaras expressing this interpretation and the fact that Sardica was part of the Patriachate of Rome in its day.
Even Roman Catholic scholars take such a narrow view of Sardica. Federico Montinaro states the following concerning Gregory Asbestas’ appealing his deposition from the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Pope of Rome:
To be sure, Gregory’s ground for appeal was a remarkable stretch of what Sardica did, or could have, set out in the mid-fourth century, long before (that is) the system of the Pentarchy reached its mature form. Whether the canons in question could, five centuries later, provide any justification for Rome’s interference in the affairs of another patriarchate was wholly a matter of interpretation. There was certainly no clear precedent. (Price and Montinaro, Constantinople IV 869-870, p. 8; emphasis added)
In other words, the Orthodox canonists are fundamentally correct in interpreting the appellate canons, such as Chalcedon’s or Sardica’s, and intra as opposed to inter-Patriarchal. Applying these canons in inter-Patriarchal appeals was unprecedented for centuries and when it began occurring , it literally gave rise to Papism in Rome and sowed the seeds of schism.
The Problem of History. Are the views of Russia, the canonists, and historians (in some respects), too narrow a reading? Inter-patriarchal appeals appear ubiquitous in history. Appeals of Constantinople’s clergy to Rome and Alexandria concerning Nestorius, Antioch’s clergy to Alexandria concerning Paul of Samosata (Eusebius, Church History, Book 7, Chap 32:2), and various other examples show that the ability to appeal above one’s local Patriarch to another with a higher, honorary status, was very real.
For example, Saint Flavian after the dastardly events of the Council of Ephesus II, wrote the following to Pope Saint Leo:
[M]y appealing to the throne of the Apostolic See of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and to the holy council in general which meets under your holiness, a crowd of soldiers at once surrounds me, prevents me from taking refuge at the holy altar, as I desired, and tried to drag me out of the church. (Appeal to Leo, Par 7)
However, it must be understood that these appeals, though made, were not binding. Rather, they in effect put an individual in a tentatively good state of having communion (such as Saint Athanasius, who maintained communion with the West/Rome) or the opposite (Nestorius was treated as if he were deposed by Rome and Alexandria, thereby losing their communion). In the latter’s case, his deposition was only official until it was decreed by an ecumenical council.
A Possible Resolution Between the Canonists and History. Let’s unpack the episode around Nestorius, because by doing so one can reconcile the apparent difference between patristic tradition and the Russian/canonists’/historians’ view.
The controversy with Nestorius began when clergy contacted/appealed to Saint Cyril of Alexandria about his questionable doctrines. (“I have read the memorandum sent by you…,” Letter of Cyril to His Apocrisiarii at Constantinople; Price and Graumann, Ephesus, p. 104; cf First Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, Ibid., p. 113) While Pelagian western clergy went to Constantinople to appeal Rome’s decisions against them (First Letter of Nestorius to Celestine, Ibid., p. 98), no one in Constantinople on record appealed to Rome, though it likely did occur. Nevertheless, Cyril did coordinate with Rome seeking for them to synodically depose Nestorius before Alexandria went ahead and did so. (“We shall not publicly withdraw from communion with him until we have shared this matter with your religiousness,” Letter of Cyril to Pope Celestine, Ibid., p. 131) Hence, what Alexandria did was not exactly an appeal, but rather a move to consolidate the whole of local parts of the Church against Nestorius.
Rome then synodically “expelled” Nestorius “from the universal fellowship [of bishops] and the assembly of Christians, unless” he repented within 10 days of receipt of the letter. (Letter of Celestine to Nestorius, Ibid., p. 141) Additionally, Rome (likely in response to appeals from Constantinople’s clergy of the time) announced that all who have been deposed by Nestorius are no longer “considered either deprived or excommunicated” by Rome at least. (Letter of Celestine to the Presbyters, Deacons, Clergy, and Laity of Constantinople, Ibid., p. 153) Cyril then followed suit with his own deposition (Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, Ibid., p. 162) and likewise announced their continued communion with clergy deposed by Nestorius. (“With the clerics or layman [sic] who have been excommunicated or deposed by him…we remain in communion, since we do not confirm his unjust verdict,” Letter of Cyril to the Clergy and Laity of Constantinople, Ibid., 173)
In short, it appears that both Rome and Alexandria answered appeals from Nestorius’ ecclesiastical enemies by using them as an opportunity to excommunicate Nestorius. Additionally, for all practical intents and purposes, they restored Constantinopolitan clergy by maintaining communion with them (similar to how Saint Athanasius retained communion with the West during the Arian controversy).
Someone trying to minimize the appellate nature of what occurred would assert that maintaining communion with someone is surely within the rights of a local Patriarchate and, therefore, one should infer such actions as intra, as opposed to, inter-Patriarchal. However, this would not be strictly accurate. Cyril styled these appellate decisions as universally binding:
if he [Nestorius] does not swiftly renounce his innovations, and, in accordance with the deadline laid down by the most sacred and most religious Celestine…he has no communion of the priests of God, but will be held excommunicate by all.” (Letter of Cyril to the Clergy and Laity of Constantinople, Ibid., 172)
In writing to John of Antioch, Cyril wrote to the same effect:
the holy council of Rome issued a decree and indeed wrote to your piety [John] the instructions that must be followed by those who wish to remain in communion with all the West…for we ourselves [Alexandria] shall follow his judgement, fearing to lose the communion of so many.” (Letter of Cyril to John of Antioch, Ibid., p. 159)
The preceding shows it was not the appeal to Rome that allegedly made Nestorius “excommunicate by all,” for Celestine merely gave the final word for “all the West.” Cyril framed Alexandria’s condemnation as definitive for all the East, asserting Alexandrine primacy over and against Constantinople (or anywhere), for eastern appeals. Alexandria’s role in dealings with Paul of Samosata served as juridical precedent.
From the preceding, it is incontrovertible that patristic tradition has, as preserved in the correspondence of both Cyril and Celestine, inter-Patriarchal appeals. They are very real and in some way binding.
Yet, they themselves can be appealed to an ecumenical council. Theodosius II warned the whole Church that “no fresh step [i.e. excommunication] obviously, is to be taken by anyone” until the council at Ephesus made a common decision. (Imperial Letter of Convocation, Ibid., p. 198) What was so obvious to contemporaries?
Only a few years previously, Saint Augustine took it for granted that a decision from Rome can be appealed to an ecumenical council (Epistle 43:19). A few years later, Saint Flavian likewise took for granted the appellate nature of an ecumenical council. In the aforementioned Appeal to Leo, he requested that the decision of Alexandria and other Patriarchates in Ephesus 2 be overturned by “an united synod of the fathers both of West and East…that the constitutions of our fathers may be upheld.” (Par 8) Subsequent to Flavian’s appeal, Saint Pope Leo the Great (citing the canons of Sardica) concurred, writing that “all the bishops tearfully request, because of the appeal contained in the libellus of Flavian, that you [the Roman Emperor] command a special council to be held in parts of Italy…[a] constitution of the bishops of the entire world.” (Ep. 43. PL 54: 821-3) Hence, it appears Sardica (whose canons Leo included incorrectly as part of Nicea I) was interpreted as canonically requiring appeals at an ecumenical council, not merely intra-Patriarchal appeals as post-schism canonists/historians infer. However, as one can see, neither were inter-Patriarchal appeals inferred.
How can one then harmonize the preceding? The Letter of Celestine to Cyril helps make sense of these seemingly divergent views. Celestine writes:
For you [Cyril] ask whether the holy council ought to receive a man who condemns what he himself has preached, or whether, because the period of respite has now passed [the ten day deadline for Nestorius before the excommunication takes effect], the sentence already passed must hold…I am zealous for universal peace, and I am zealous for the salvation of one who is perishing, if indeed he is ready to acknowledge his sickness. Our reason for saying this is lest we appear to fail one who wishes to reform. If however, while he look for grapes he has grown thorns, let the earlier decree stand.” (Price and Graumann, Ephesus, p. 203)
In other words, the earlier decree/excommunication is not in effect, and Nestorius not deposed, until the council investigates matters in reviewing the appellate decision and either affirms or denies it. If for whatever reason this is unclear, before deposing Nestorius he was identified as “most devout Nestorius” by Saint Juvenal of Jerusalem and Cyril of Alexandria (June 22 Session, Ibid., p. 231, 232) In deposing Nestorius, recording the votes of those present, he likewise is given the title “most devout” (Ibid., p. 250-254), Acacius bishop of Melitene specifically calling him “most devout Bishop Nestorius.” (Ibid., p. 250) After all the votes are tabulated, he loses the title “most devout:” “All the bishops exclaim together: ‘Let whoever does not anathematize Nestorius to be anathema.’..He is anathematized by the holy council.” (Ibid., p. 254) It is common knowledge that “the omission of all honorifics implies” that a given bishop “was judged worthy of condemnation and deposition.” (Price, Constantinople II, Vol. 2, p. 99)
In Ephesus, Nestorius was then deposed again, and before this deposition was made official he was identified again as a bishop (“most honourable Nestorius”) and the council described itself as “obliged of necessity” to act due to “canons and by the letter of…Celestine bishop of the church of Rome.” (Price and Graumann, Ephesus, p. 281) After this point, Nestorius is never again identified as a bishop, but simply as “Nestorius.” Whether the placing side by side of the canons with Celestine’s letter was due to the Rome’s importance as the most authoritative appeal below that of the council, or that the council itself cited the letter as an authority showing Roman cooperation with the council (something needed for an ecumenical council to be official), is not all together clear. The latter is more likely.
With the preceding, a harmonization can now be struck between the canons and the historical existence of appeals. In short, appeals are “real” and they have a sort of power, but they are tentative and not binding. As Cyril’s letter shows, one can consider a Patriarch deposed and communion restored to those that Patriarch deposed after an inter-Patriarchal appeal (or appeals) have taken place. However, only an ecumenical/Pan-Orthodox decision on a matter is actually definitive and binding. This is evidenced by the fact that Nestorius was accorded the honor of being a bishop until he was officially deposed by that council.
Therefore, there is an authentic sense that the canons when speaking of appeals are only addressing those of an intra-Patriarchal nature. This is because a definitive inter-Patriarchal appeal is not actually possible, unlike an intra-Patriarchal appeal. Only an ecumenical council can definitively settle inter-Patriarchal disputes, as Pope Leo explicitly inferred from the Sardican canons.
Conclusion. With the preceding said, one can get a firmer grasp on the heresy of Neo-Papism. By avoiding a conciliar resolution, it appears that Constantinople is purposely trying to avoid a definitive condemnation of themselves. However, just as Nestorius found out, a Patriarch of Constantinople can very well be deposed by the common, unanimous will of the Church and her bishops.
In the Council of Ephesus‘ case, this was only definitive two years later with Antioch’s consent to the council. As for the expounders of Neo-Papism today, the verdict of history has not yet to come. All one can say with confidence is that their assertions of Constantinople’s solitary prerogatives to convene Pan-Orthodox synods and declare autocephaly are entirely ahistorical. As for their Russian, canonical, and scholarly opposition, the Church indeed apart from the Pan-Orthodox/Ecumenical council cannot in any definitive way meddle with the affairs within one or another Patriarch’s jurisdiction. History, understood correctly, bears this truth out. In the final analysis, only the unanimous will of the Church in an Ecumenical/Pan-Orthodox setting can issue binding decisions within a given local jurisdiction.