Things Roman Catholics often don’t understand about Eastern Orthodoxy

‘Why aren’t you under the Pope?’

RTHODOX believe the Church in its fullness is present wherever the faithful are gathered round their bishop — a successor to the apostles holding the true faith — celebrating the Eucharist. (Priests in the thinking of the early Church are ordained to stand in for the bishop at the local community’s offering of the Holy Sacrifice.) Therefore national or autocephalous (self-headed) churches (under their own patriarchs — some of these patriarchates date back to the apostles) are each the Church in its fullness. (The patriarch of Constantinople is not ‘the Orthodox Pope’ or ‘the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians’ as is often wrongly reported.)

The word Church often is used in four ways: the one true Church (the universal or Catholic Church) is made up of Churches (particular autocephalous or autonomous churches) in communion with each other. These in turn are made up of local churches each gathered round a bishop, and these are made up of local congregations (including, for example, geographical parishes).

Roman Catholicism agrees with much of this Orthodox understanding but it holds that communion with only one patriarch, the Pope of Rome (who indeed was pre-eminent in the pre-schism Church), is necessary to be fully the Church. He is regarded as both the patriarch of his particular Church, the Roman one, and a kind of super-patriarch, the vicar of Christ, of the entire universal Church. This implies (but doesn’t actually say) that the Roman Church (its rite, its theological schools of thought), of which the Pope is patriarch, is somehow superior to the Byzantine and other Churches: ‘more Catholic’, as if ‘Roman’ equalled ‘universal’. Many Roman Catholics at least unconsciously take this as a given. Unfortunately, this in practice relegates the Eastern Churches to second-class status. This is unacceptable to all Orthodox.

Before the Schism, the historic, apostolic Orthodox Churches of the East, which like Rome accepted the Council of Chalcedon’s teaching on the two natures of Christ, were in communion with the Pope but never were under him as parts of his patriarchate.

The Orthodox communion today is a collection of churches independent of each other and often nothing to do with each other, not only with no Vatican but not even a Lambeth Conference as a sign of communion, yet in communion, in agreement on essentials and remarkably alike. Not liberal Protestant like you might think but Catholic.

What it boils down to really is: is and has the Pope always really been the head of the whole church on earth with immediate jurisdiction everywhere (so why bishops then?), the RC position today, or is the Pope simply one of several man-made ranks, like other patriarchs, metropolitans and archbishops, in the divinely instituted episcopate, the apostolic ministry? (To hold to the latter is not to hate the papacy or Western Catholicism, believe they’re graceless heretics and so on, which is where I think I and many/most Orthodox sharply part ways.)

‘The Catholic Church has the Eastern rites. Why don’t you all just join those?’

Patriarch Joseph I: click to see larger image

...because Catholicity cannot be truly ‘Catholic’ — universal — without you, without the other authentic and apostolic ‘half’ of Christ’s Church, we have no intention of replacing you in this Church, for you are the only one capable of preparing us a place in it. Only as the Catholic Church opens and affords you a loving home within its fold, on an equal basis with the Latins, will we be able to feel at home in it ourselves.

— Metropolitan Joseph (Slipyj), who spent nearly 20 years in Soviet prisons for not breaking with Rome to serve the Communists
Roman Catholicism holds the Orthodox have real bishops and real sacraments and therefore that corporate reunion with the Orthodox as whole Churches, not as individual converts, is possible. (This is not true of Protestants.) This in part makes the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches (also called ‘the Eastern rites’ or ‘the Oriental rites’) possible. But:

The creation of the Eastern Catholic Churches from the late 1500s onwards reflected a thinking among many Catholics that identified the Church in its fullness with the Roman Rite. Rather than seeking corporate reunion, Roman Catholics sought to gain individual conversions at the Orthodox’ expense, angering and hurting the Orthodox to this day. The Eastern-rite Catholic churches were set up as vehicles to steal people and local churches from the Orthodox and also with the long-term goal of making the converts Roman Catholics, with the Eastern rites tolerated as an interim measure. While Roman Catholicism (including the Popes) did not officially sanction this ‘latinisation’, it did view its Eastern rites as some sort of substitute or replacement for the Orthodox: a strategy called ‘Uniatism’.

Today, one of the few good outcomes of Roman Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) — otherwise a débàcle of mistakes in prudential judgement in favour of that counterfeit of Christianity called liberalism — is that this approach to the Orthodox has been dropped, and again, corporate reunion — a restoration of communion between the Churches, not the liquidation of the Orthodox — is the goal. (The late Metropolitan Joseph (Slipyj) of the Ukrainian Catholic Church agreed.) The Balamand Statement signed by officials from both sides in 1993 reaffirmed this. Here is a list of the Orthodox signers.

Roman Catholicism today defends the right of the present-day Eastern Catholics to exist in communion with Rome, but has discarded the use of these churches to solicit conversions from the Orthodox. Fr Serge Keleher Also, the Eastern Catholics are being told to remove latinisations and become as much like the Orthodox as possible — more traditional! — to prepare for an eventual reconciliation of Roman Catholicism with Orthodoxy. Here is a more in-depth article on the Eastern Catholics by my acquaintance Archimandrite Serge (Keleher), a Russian Catholic priest. Still more from Fr Serge.

May an Orthodoxy that is holy and strong, not broken or vanquished, be the saving medicine for what ails many in the Roman Church today, sweeping the whole Catholic Church clean of Modernism (the religious version of liberalism).

The terminus ad quem of all legitimate ecumenical dialogue and the goal of this site: One Catholic Church under the Pope much as it was in the first millennium A.D. with an equality of rites, including a restored Roman Mass and office, and the Christian East not in the diminished state of the present-day Eastern Catholics but rather as Metropolitan Andrew (Sheptytsky), Blessed Leonty (Leonid Feodorov) and Pope St Pius X (nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter: no latinisations) envisaged it with full Orthodox usage.

OOK down, most merciful Lord Jesu, our Saviour, upon the prayers and sighs of thy sinful and unworthy servants falling down before thee and unite us all in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. Pour thine ineffable light into our souls. Resolve religious differences so that we as thy disciples and beloved children may glorify thee with one heart and one voice. Most merciful Lord, quickly fulfil thy promise that there be one flock and one shepherd of thy church and grant that we may worthily glorify thy holy name now and ever and unto endless ages. Amen. — Blessed Leonty

‘Is Russian Orthodoxy the same religion as Greek Orthodoxy, etc.?’

Russian Orthodoxy is the same religion as Greek, Antiochian (Arab), Romanian, Bulgarian and Serbian (etc.) Orthodoxy. Remember that in Orthodoxy, the Church is a family of Churches in communion with each other, and that these Churches are independent of each other in government, even though they hold the same faith. So, in Europe and the Middle East, each country or ethnic group has its own Church, usually geographical, that is communion with the rest of the Orthodox community worldwide.

‘If you’re all one religion, why are you in different churches in America?’

Fr Alexis TothIn America before 1917, all Orthodox of whatever ethnicity were under one Church jurisdiction, the Russian mission, otherwise made up mostly of Slavic former Eastern Catholics from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (reacting to the bad treatment they got from the Roman Catholic bishops in the US — see the note below) and some immigrants actually from Russia. But after the Russian Revolution, communication with the Church in Russia became difficult and unreliable so the various ethnic groups started their own jurisdictions, asking the Churches in their homelands for help. (The Russians themselves split into three groups to deal with this problem.) Today, the Orthodox in America recognise that their multiplicity of jurisdictions is an historical anomaly that is uncanonical and needs correction, especially since the original reason for the proliferation of separate Church groups — Communism in Russia — no longer exists. (The apostolic ideal is one bishop per city; Americans live simultaneously in at least five Orthodox dioceses.) All of the divisions are superficial and temporary, and have nothing to do with the essence of Orthodoxy. All Orthodox can cross jurisdictions and receive the sacraments at other canonical Orthodox churches. Click here for more on the divisions among Eastern churches. Right: Fr Alexis Georgievich Toth, originally an Eastern Catholic from what is now far eastern Slovakia. His ill treatment by Archbishop John Ireland in Minneapolis, for being a married priest (widower), caused him, and consequently many churches along the US East Coast, to join the Russian mission in the 1890s and early 1900s. (The Russian archbishop had to move from San Francisco to New York to oversee his new flock.) Today, about 60% of Russian Orthodox in America are really ethnic Ruthenians (more) like Fr Alexis, whom one Orthodox Church has declared a saint. (In Orthodoxy, local Churches can glorify their own saints, whom all Orthodox recognise.)

‘Why are some of your priests married?’

In the early Church, priests often were married, and the Orthodox have maintained this discipline, confirmed by the (non-ecumenical) Quinisext Council in trullo, which also ruled that bishops must be celibate (a discipline, not a doctrine). Orthodox bishops are either widowers or longtime monks. Except in places where Rome banned it (including the US), the Eastern Catholics also ordain married men. The rule is ‘a married man can become a priest but a priest can’t get married’. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are deacons and former Anglican priests who are married; these follow the same discipline as the Orthodox. They were married before ordination to major orders (starting with the diaconate) and when the wife dies they can’t marry again except by dispensation.

‘Why do your churches have those paintings and not statues?
Why don’t you have Stations of the Cross?’

Byzantine Rite churches — most Orthodox churches and some Catholic churches under Rome — are full of special paintings called icons, which are more than decoration, teaching tools — though a lot of theology is behind their designs, and they do teach theology — or devotional aids. They are more like a sacrament, halfway between pictures and having the Sacrament in the room with you. The person shown in the icon is mystically present. However, icons are not idols — the prayer passes through the icon to the person represented and so the wood and paint aren’t literally worshipped or adored. Icons aren’t meant to be lifelike or realistic, but instead are painted following strict rules, an elaborate language of colours and symbols. They are blessed by a priest before being used in church or at home. Early and mediæval Western religious paintings, before the Renaissance, resembled icons.

Also, using paintings instead of statues is partly cultural. In the early Church there was controversy over whether one could use images in worship — the Jews say it violates the First Commandment and the Muslims have adopted this position. For about 100 years, enforced by the Byzantine emperor, the anti-images faction in the Church, called iconoclasts (Greek for ‘image-smashers’), won. But then the whole Church had a council, the second Council of Nicæa, which restored the use of images — the fact that God has become man means we can show His face in figural art. But in the East there was and still is a compromise: instead of statues, which look like the figures of Greek and Roman gods in pagan temples, Christian images are flat, or at most bas-relief.

Every year, on the first Sunday of Great Lent (the fasting period before Easter), called ‘the Sunday of Orthodoxy’, the Byzantine Rite celebrates the Church’s teaching on icons.

The Stations of the Cross is a mediæval devotion spread in the Roman Catholic Church by the Franciscans, who based it on the route Jesus took on the way to His crucifixion. Because the Byzantine Rite evolved separately from the Roman Rite, there are no Stations in Orthodox churches. Also, Orthodox devotion tends to emphasise the glorified, transfigured, risen Christ more than His earthly sufferings, but the latter are not ignored. Orthodox use and venerate the crucifix.

‘Why don’t you pray the rosary?’

Using beads to count prayers is a nearly universal religious practice older than Christianity. Eastern Orthodox do it — monks and nuns count prayers this way and the beads are part of their habit, worn on the left wrist — but the rosary was introduced to the Roman Catholic Church by St Dominic after the Schism. Again, the Byzantine Rite evolved separately from the Roman. The rosary is a wonderful practice but not native to the Orthodox tradition, and with all the akathists, canons and molebny to choose from in their tradition you can argue that the Orthodox don’t need it!

‘Why don’t you kneel?’

In the Roman Rite kneeling is a posture of adoration; in the Byzantine it’s penitential so it’s not done in church on Sunday, a joyful day celebrating Jesus’ rising from the dead.

‘Why do you cross yourselves backwards?’

An Orthodox hieromonk (priest who is a monk) crosses himself: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Why do you? (Only joking.)

Those who follow American football might remember Bernie Kosar, who played for the Cleveland Browns and would cross himself the Orthodox way on the field. (He is an Eastern Catholic.) Actually, the way people make the sign of the cross in the Byzantine Rite used by the Orthodox and some Eastern Catholic Churches — using the fingers of the right hand, touching the forehead, below the chest, right shoulder, then left shoulder (like this: actually a bigger, fuller gesture than what’s done in the Roman Rite) — is the original way of doing it. The Roman Catholics did it this way too! 3-bar Russian cross: Click here to learn its symbolismThe Byzantine way also uses the fingers symbolically, holding the thumb, index and ring fingers together to stand for the Trinity, and the fourth and little finger folded against the palm to stand for the two natures, human and divine, of Christ. Sometime in the 11th century, starting in Italy, Roman Catholics began touching the left shoulder first. Nobody really knows why.

‘Why do some of your crosses have extra bars like the slanted one on the bottom?’

The top bar is the sign placed on the cross that said ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. The bottom bar is the piece of wood to which Jesus’ feet were nailed. (On Byzantine crucifixes, the feet are side by side, each with a nail through it; on Roman ones they are crossed, with one nail going through both.) There are several stories to explain why the bottom bar is often slanted. One identifies it with the X-shaped cross on which St Andrew later was killed. (St Andrew the apostle is a patron saint of Byzantine Churches — legend has it he visited Scythia, which later became the Ukraine.) Another is a legend that says the bar tilted like a scale to show the good thief crucifed next to Jesus, St Dismas, joined Him in paradise while the thief who mocked Him was lost. Still another explanation simply says Jesus was in such pain He tried to move His legs, causing the bottom board to shift. Most often identified with the Orthodox and particularly with the Russian Church, the three-bar cross pre-dates the conversion of the Russians in 988. In Byzantine iconography it has been used as a symbol of martyrdom. Click on the Russian three-bar crucifix at right for a more detailed explanation of its symbolism.

‘Why do some of you celebrate Christmas on a different day? Why is your Easter later than ours?’

The churches in some Orthodox countries didn’t adopt the modern Gregorian calendar and still use the Julian one, which is now 13 days behind the Gregorian or civil calendar. So when Russians celebrate Christmas on the 7th January it’s because according to the Julian reckoning it’s the 25th December!

The Orthodox date for Easter is a different issue. Sometimes it’s the same as the Western date but more often is later because of an ancient church rule not followed by the West that says Easter can’t coincide with or come before the Jewish Passover.

‘What do you believe about Roman Catholic saints who lived after the split between the churches?’

My understanding is the only limit to recognition of the other side’s post-schism saints is they’re not commemorated liturgically, that is, in church. Entirely fair and in a way humble — the bishops don’t claim the authority to rule either way on phenomena outside their church.

Private devotion, however, is free: at home you can venerate anybody from the other church’s post-schism saints to your deceased relatives.

What Orthodox often don’t understand
about Roman Catholicism

‘Roman Catholicism fell away from the Church in 1054.’

False. What happened in 1054 was the result of political rivalry between the western ‘Holy Roman’ empire (started when the Pope crowned Charlemagne) and the Byzantine or eastern Roman Empire (the continuation of the Roman Empire). Here is an excerpt from Bishop Kallistos’ (Timothy Ware) book The Orthodox Church on the Schism. Papal legates excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople and vice versa in 1054, but neither Church at the time saw this as a permanent break. In fact, the Slavic Byzantine churches remained in communion with Rome after that year, which is why the Russians commemorate the moving of St Nicholas’ body to Bari, Italy, and the Greeks don’t: it happened after 1054.

The Schism was a gradual estrangement in the Middle Ages, exacerbated by the rise of Islamic power in the Middle East, which cut off contact between Latin Christian western Europe and the Greek Christian Byzantines, and by the sacking of Constantinople by soldiers of the Latin Fourth Crusade in 1204, and narrowed with attempts at reconciliation (the councils of Lyons and of Ferrara-Florence). Some Orthodox sees, like the metropolitanate of Kiev in Rus’ (now Ukraine) and the patriarchate of Antioch in Syria, tried at times to maintain communion with both Rome and Constantinople during the mediæval years. The reunion effected at Florence was broken in 1473 after the Turks destroyed the Byzantine Empire (conquering Constantinople in 1453).

So there was no great falling away in 1054. The Russians schismed because they were angry at Poland for stealing Galicia (the southwestern Ukraine) in the 1300s and the Turks restarted the Greek schism in 1473 because like the Communists 400-some years later (who banned and persecuted the Eastern Catholics for the following reasons) they didn’t want their Christian subjects in a church they couldn’t control — they didn’t want them in a church with a foreigner in charge. Theology really had nothing to do with it — differences in method were used as excuses.

Some say the Schism wasn’t final until the creation of the Eastern Catholic Churches by Rome outraged the Orthodox.

‘Catholics believe the Pope isn’t a sinner... they believe he is automatically a saint.’
(Actual quotations from eastern European Orthodox.)

John Paul II, Pope of Rome False. Papal infallibility isn’t nearly as broad in its powers as non-Catholics think! Roman Catholicism teaches that this dogma (defined in 1870) is a specific application of Church infallibility, something both sides believe in. It says the Pope can at times act as a one-man ecumenical council to defend and interpret Holy Tradition, not invent new dogmas that contradict Tradition. It is a function of the Pope’s office, not a personal power of the man. In his opinions as a man the Pope is as fallible as everybody else (he can’t predict the weather, for example) and can even be a private heretic (which takes care of Pope Honorius, condemned posthumously for heresy). St Robert Bellarmine explained that if a Pope tried to teach heresy in his function of infallibility, he ipso facto wouldn’t be Pope anymore, because by so doing he would have put himself outside the Church: ‘The manifestly heretical Pope ceases per se to be Pope and head as he ceases per se to be a Christian and member of the Church, and therefore he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the teaching of all the early Fathers’ — De Romano Pontifice (Milan, 1857), vol. II, chap. 30, p. 420. (Orthodox may understandably ask why only the patriarch of the West is blessed with this gift, since again it seems to place the Eastern churches in the role of supporting players to the Roman Church, but the first-millennium Church believed in Roman primacy.) In about 900 years only three Popes have been canonised as saints (including St Peter Celestine, a holy monk but a disaster as Pope, the only one who has had to resign!). John Paul II was said to go to Confession often, so obviously he didn’t think he wasn’t a sinner! Here is an article by Jonathan Tuttle, a Roman Catholic, explaining that Catholicism is not the cult of the Pope.

‘What about the filioque?’

Icon of Trinity (Old Testament appearance) by Andrei Rublev: click for explanation To refute the heresy of Arianism, which teaches Jesus is less than God, Latin theologians starting in Spain began to add the word filioque — Latin for ‘and the Son’ — to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (‘... and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]’) adopted by the Church at ecumenical councils. (An idea found in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, who individually were, of course, fallible.) By this the West did not teach that there is a double procession, or two Holy Spirits, one from the Father, the other from the Son! Still, the Creed shouldn’t have been altered (one of the Popes at the time agreed!), except by another ecumenical council. At the mediæval reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence, it was agreed that filioque means that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

‘And the Immaculate Conception?’

First of all, the Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth of Christ. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy hold that Mary is sinless, and indeed the Byzantine Rite calls her ‘immaculate’. The post-schism (1854) Roman definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (the concept dates back to John Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages and even before him to Paschasius Radbertus in the 800s) refers to Our Lady being free from original sin from the moment of her conception. Some object that this rules out her redemption by her Son, but since Jesus is God, His acts aren’t bound by time or space. So by ‘prevenient grace’ she was, retroactively if you will, redeemed by Him.

The thinking behind this definition is very bound up in western Catholic thought about original sin. Since the East doesn’t use this theological framework to describe the faith, perhaps the wording of the Immaculate Conception isn’t necessary for the Orthodox to describe the purity of Our Lady.

‘Doesn’t Orthodoxy teach that Roman Catholicism is heretical or without grace?’

Archbishop Vsevolod,  Ukrainian Orthodox Church Orthodoxy has never dogmatically taught either thing. (Conversely, Roman Catholicism does not teach that postschism Orthodox are heretics.) Fr Seraphim RoseAll it holds to dogmatically is that Orthodoxy is the Church and has grace in its sacraments: the Church is one, her mysteries (sacraments) are one. The rest is a matter of opinion, and actually one that the Orthodox aren’t particularly interested in. Some Orthodox, like Archbishop Vsevolod (left) in Chicago, hold a view that reciprocates Rome’s toward Orthodoxy; others, like the late Fr Seraphim (Rose) (right), hold the opinion that only Orthodoxy has grace. Both positions are allowable as Orthodox, but neither are what Orthodoxy definitively teaches. In fact, the 19th-century Russian thinker Vladimir Soloviev took this to an unusual extreme, holding that since Russia never formally had broken communion with Rome and because Orthodoxy never had condemned postschism Roman Catholicism in an ecumenical council, one could hold everything Roman Catholicism teaches yet remain in the Russian Orthodox Church! (Roman Catholics today agree with him.) Such views are very rare, however. Most Orthodox simply don’t speculate about grace outside Orthodoxy.

The walls which divide us... do not reach up to heaven. — Paraphrased from Metropolitan Platon of Kiev

That they all may be one



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