An article by Luigi Accattoli in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera reports a change in the Holy See’s official year book for 2006 the Annuario Pontificio. Among the various titles attributed to the Pope, one has been dropped: Patriarch of the West. It would have been a decision of this Pope to allow the publication of the Annuario without that title.
In the Annuario we would read for the Pope’s titles by his photo:
Bishop of Rome
Vicar of Jesus Christ
Successor of the Prince of the Apostles
Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church
(Patriarch of the West)
Primate of Italy
Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome
Sovereign of the Vatican City State
Servant of the Servants of God
People I am talking with are divided about what this means. Some think that there was not much of a theological basis for the title Patriarch of the West. Others think that it is simply strange to drop a title which the Pope had for so long and was not really doing much harm. Still others, who are more ecumenically attuned are alarmed by the change. Dropping this title might have negative impact on relations with the Orthodox and even Eastern Catholics. Here is why.
First, the Eastern Christian world is very attached, to say the least, to the title "Patriarch". For the Pope to drop an ancient title, however he came by it, sends a bad signal. Futhermore, the title "Patriarch of the WEST" in a sense delimited the scope of the patriarchal claims of the Bishop of Rome. Dropping this title suggests that it is now desirable to underscore that the Pope of Rome is the "universal patriarch", without any ecclesial-geographical
The title "Patriarch of the West" was probably first attributed to Pope St. Leo I "the Great" (+461) in a letter of 450 from the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II.
There were five great patriarchates: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and, later, Jerusalem. Each of these had a corresponding Patriarchal Basilica in Rome (just as Cardinals had their Minor Basilicas as Roman clergy for the orders of deacons and priests, cardinal bishops having Roman dioceses). There are five patriarchal Basilicas in Rome, four major and one minor. St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, was associated with the "Patriarch of the West". St. Peter’s in the Vatican was assigned to Constantinople, St. Paul’s outside the walls to Alexandria, St. Mary "Major" to Antioch and the Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence outside the walls to the last (chronologically) of the patriarchates, Jerusalem. So, the Patriarch of each of those sees had a basilica in Rome.
I wonder if now the Major Patriarchal Basilica of St. John Lateran will now be stripped of the title. Or, does this mean pretty much nothing? The Pope remains Patriarch of the West, but it has been decided not to talk about the fact anymore? Was the title, given by Theodosius, simply a political issues without theological importance? Stay tuned! This is not the last we have heard of this issue, to be sure.