Group of FARFA SABINA. Communion of Churches and Petrine Ministry: Lutheran-Catholic Convergences. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. 139. $28 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7194-7. Reviewed by James DALLEN, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258.


This product of an ongoing private initiative of Lutheran and Catholic theologians was published in German in 2010. The Group of Farfa Sabina Group originated in symposia held in 2003 and 2004 responding to Pope John Paul II’s 1995 request in Ut unum sint: that theologians find ways of restructuring the papacy to make it ecumenically acceptable while retaining the essentials of a Petrine ministry to serve the communio of churches. This report attempts to bridge between Lutheran reservations and Roman Catholic understanding by focusing on the renewed understanding of Church as communion of churches, also known as communion ecclesiology.

The report first analyzes criticism of the papacy from Luther and the Lutheran confessions. The theologians conclude that neither Luther nor the Lutheran Reformation rejected the papacy in principle but rather focused theologically on deformities and abuses. There was, in fact, willingness to accept a papacy that was faithful to the Gospel.

Secondly, the report analyzes Roman Catholic dogmatic commitments regarding the papacy at Vatican Councils I and II, a much more complex matter. The theologians conclude that only the maximalist interpretation of Vatican I’s dogmas regarding papal primacy of teaching (infallibility) and jurisdiction—which makes the pope an absolute monarch—prevents restructuring. Limitations and conditions for both infallible teaching and primatial jurisdiction were acknowledged at Vatican I, for example, though they were not noted in the documents and were  little noticed in an era of what other authors have called “creeping infallibility.” The rereading of Vatican I at Vatican II, though a compromise, also undermines the maximalist interpretation, especially its teaching about the collegiality of bishops.

But is this renewed understanding realized in church structures? The report examines the understanding of Church as communion of churches and differing confessional approaches to a ministry for maintaining and fostering unity. It looks at Anglican, Orthodox, and Methodist views as well as Catholic and Lutheran. The theologians agree that the teaching of Vatican II in this regard is far from being realized, particularly as regards the international synod of bishops, national conferences of bishops, diocesan synods, bishops’ liturgical authority, and so on. Current canon law likewise falls short of Vatican II and fosters a maximalist interpretation of Vatican I, as do some exercises of the papal ministry by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Four recent Roman documents on ecclesiology from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are major obstacles to significant restructuring. How, for example, can the papacy provide a service of unity within a communion of churches if the ecclesial status of the Lutheran churches is denied?

The report identifies promising theological developments in ecumenical dialogues, particularly regarding tradition and the relationship of scripture, tradition, and magisterium as well as the Petrine ministry itself.  However, it also notes reservations Lutherans have stated and Catholics have acknowledged: Is the primacy of jurisdiction really understood within the communio structure of Church and embedded in it? Are ex cathedra papal judgments subject to the judgment of scripture? The report sketches an initial common understanding of the Petrine ministry and how this might be implemented and exercised.

The report provides an excellent scholarly overview of convergences between Lutheran and Catholic theologians and some promising developments between the churches. It is also frank in identifying obstacles in both communions but optimistic that, at least theologically, they can be overcome. Though the report is concerned with primary sources, it references relevant scholarly literature, especially German, though without a bibliography. German and Latin quotations are almost always translated. The paragraph numbers would be helpful for discussion but are unusual in an unofficial document.

For another book on papal primacy in ecumenical perspective, in relation to the Orthodox Churches, see Paul MCPARTLAN. A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist & Church Unity. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013.