Orthodox Saints and the Ecumenical Movement

Orthodox Saints and the Ecumenical Movement

For Christians, the criterion of truth is fidelity to Christ and the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

The Saints, being wholly united to Christ by the Spirit in his holy Church, in turn become the empirical datum par excellence by which truth is measured. This is why, for Orthodox Christians, the teachings of the Holy Fathers are received as an authority to be followed and believed, far and above whatever opinions any individual or group may have.

I offer this foundational belief as a preface to discussing the issue of relations between the Orthodox Church and the See of Rome, which in light of the forthcoming Apostolic Pilgrimage is a topic generating some discussion in ecclesiastical circles.

Since Vatican II, Rome has developed the ecclesiological notion that our schism is a matter of separated ‘sister churches,’ and that the Orthodox Church ‘lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.’1. Does the Orthodox Church share this understanding of the schism and the status of the Roman Catholic church? To answer that question, we must turn to her Saints and synodal decrees. And when we do, the answer is a rather unambiguous ‘no’.

When we examine the controversies with Rome in the lives of St. Photios the Great and St. Mark of Ephesus (in the ninth and fifteenth centuries respectively), we find clear repudiations of Rome for her heresies—so long as she holds to them—and in the latter case, a rejection of the possibility for union with her for that very reason. In the eyes of the Orthodox Church—who not only canonized these men, but deemed them ‘Pillars of Orthodoxy’—their teaching with respect to Rome was vindicated over against papism, filioquism, and ecumenism. St. Photios’ teaching against the Filioque and papal supremacy was formally affirmed by the Church at the ecumenical Council of Constantinople (A.D. 879–880), and St. Mark was vindicated and affirmed in the Church’s rejection of the false union of Basel-Ferrara-Florence.

At this juncture, one might posit that much has changed since the fifteenth century, and heterodox bodies may have drawn more into conformity with Orthodox doctrine over the centuries, and therefore, such bodies ought to be closer to full Eucharistic communion. For this to be the case, there would have to be some dramatic movement—not in gesture or disposition, but in dogma and life—of Roman Catholicism towards Orthodoxy, at least since the time of St. Mark of Ephesus. But the notion that Rome has moved in this direction is untenable. If anything, she has moved further away in a number of important respects.

Met. Philaret of New York, responding to the original Apostolic Pilgrimage in 1965, articulates:

The Roman Catholic Church [today] is not even that same church with which the Orthodox Church led by St. Mark of Ephesus refused to enter into a union. That church is even further away from Orthodoxy now, having introduced even more new doctrines and having accepted more and more the principles of reformation, ecumenism, and modernism.2

Even many traditionalist Roman Catholics would agree with this honest assessment. And since the fifteenth century, there have been no shortage of Orthodox Saints who have addressed the issue of Rome, her teachings, and her standing with respect to Orthodoxy. Strikingly, there is not an ecumenical sentiment to be found anywhere among them.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite (18th c.):

The baptism of the Latins is one which falsely is called baptism . . . because they are heretics . . . Enough was said concerning them by St. Mark of Ephesus in Florence (at the twenty-fifth general assembly), who spoke frankly as follows: “We have split ourselves off from the Latins for no other reason than the fact that they are not only schismatics but also heretics.” Wherefore we must not even think of uniting with them.3

St. Theophan the Recluse (19th c.):

The truth of God, the whole, pure, and saving truth, is to be found neither in the Roman Catholics, nor in the Protestants, nor in the Anglicans. It is to be found only in the One True Church, the Orthodox Church . . . The Roman Catholics [were] the first to split from the Church.4

St. Justin Popovich (20th c.):

The first radical protest in the name of humanism against the God-Man Christ, and his God-Man organism—the Church—should be looked for in papism, not in Lutheranism. Papism is actually the first and the oldest Protestantism.5

Elder Sophrony of Essex (20th c.):

But the ‘union of churches’ is difficult, if not impossible. Those who speak of ‘union of churches’ do not know the mindset of the heterodox nor the height of Orthodoxy. . . I do not want, at least now, the ‘union of churches’ because the Romans will not change, and the Orthodox will not be corrupted.6

St. Nikolai Velimirovich (20th c.), who expressed ‘ecumenical’ ideals as a younger man, later shows consent with the rest of the Saints:

[I]f each denomination contains only a part of the Christian faith, only the Orthodox Church contains the totality and plenitude of the true faith, ‘which was transmitted to the saints once and for all’ (Jude 3) . . . The union of all the churches cannot be achieved through mutual concessions, but only by adherence by all to the one true faith in its entirety, as it was bequeathed by the Apostles and formulated at the Ecumenical Councils; in other words, by the return of all Christians in the one and indivisible Church to which belonged the ancestors of all Christians in the entire world during the first ten centuries after Christ. It is the Holy Orthodox Church.7

This consensus among  fairly recent Saints in opposition to a union with Rome—so long as she remains committed to her errors, of course—would not be so striking if there were also Saints in favor of either ecumenism or religious pluralism. But in fact, they simply don’t exist.

One counterpoint might be Rome’s theological dialogue with the Orthodox Church on the Filioque in recent decades. But for me, it’s difficult to see in this much beyond equivocation,8 along with an example of Rome’s “doctrinal development,” which in itself is fundamentally problematic for the Orthodox Church, abiding by the apostolic dictum: “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).

With all that being said—and without apology—none of this calls for vehemence or ill-treatment of Roman Catholics. On the contrary, it’s an essential call of the Gospel to engage in dialogue, while speaking the truth in love. This includes sincerely listening to concerns, being cordial, and, as St. Paul says: “becom[ing] all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

This emphatically (and obviously) does not include compromising the Gospel message itself, of which the orthodox doctrine of both the Trinity and the Church are central. There is nothing loving about letting your brother persist in destructive error, if he earnestly desires the truth. It is even less loving to try and wed truth with falsity, thereby blaspheming against the Most Holy Trinity.

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (who is shortly to be canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate) puts it this way:

There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness—we have to tell them that they’re in error.9

Show 9 footnotes

  1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838
  2. The Second Sorrowful Epistle
  3. The Rudder, pp. 72-74
  4. Preaching Another Christ, p. 20
  5. The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism
  6. I Knew A Man in Christ: The Life and Times of Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian, by Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. Translation by John Sanidopolous
  7. Collected Works, vol. 13. Himmelsthür, 1986: pp. 42-46 (Serbian)
  8. On the one hand there’s The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue (Munich, July 1982); from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity under Pope John Paul II. In which it is essentially conceded that the Orthodox are right and always were. On the other hand, there’s the continued confession of the Filioque.
  9. Hieromonk Isaac, The Life of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, pp. 658–659


  1. Jimmy says

    The issues surrounding VII are not black and white or as simplistic as you made it to be. Ecumenism, modernism, etc. are tools to DESTROY Catholicism not enhance it. Every Catholic nation has been wiped out by Masonic diabolical disorientation. The prime target of the enemy has been the Catholic Church. Whether it be the Enlightenment, Protestantism, Communism, etc. Faithful Catholics have a target on their back. Whether it be their stance against abortion, same sex marriage, multiculturalism, contraception. Modernism has resulted in apostasy. The growing secularism in the West is from the increasing decline of Catholicism. The number of Orthodox Saints that disparage the Catholic Faith doesn’t mean a hill of beans if they are not there to fill the void. If anything, Orthodox Saints have been completely ineffective in convincing Catholics of their necessity of becoming Orthodox. Most Catholics have witnessed charity in action and heroic virtue through the lives of their own Saints. A restoration of what was lost or destroyed by liberalism in the wake of VII is what is needed. Orthodoxy has never been a factor and has never offered anything. In the major city I live near the population out of nearly 2 million people had grown to 50 plus percent by 1963. The devil didn’t create that. The devil sure destroyed it. Now many of those Churches, that were at one time filled to capacity are closed. And people are aborting and contracepting themselves out of existence. Where were the Orthodox? Where were they to fill the void with truth that they claim to solely posses? As far as I am concerned the words of Orthodox Saints on this matter is hot air. All talk, no action. The world is spinning out of control. Catholicism is being eradicated. The Faith has been weakened BY DESIGN. Where is Orthodoxy to change the world??

    • says

      Hey Jimmy,

      Who knows where an undivided Ortho-Catholic Church would be, in terms of its potency for dealing with the enemy of modern secularism, had the Latin church never apostatized? This apostasy from the true Church is indeed a travesty, some of the results of which you are witnessing. And this is another reason why heresy is so tragic, because of the fruits of dissension, dissolution, and distress which it yields.

      As for expecting the Orthodox to ‘step in’ to traditionally Catholic areas and ‘fix’ their problems for them.. this is a bizarre standard to hold the Orthodox Church to. What would that even look like? The Orthodox forcibly taking over Catholic territories and cultures and making them submit to the truth? What is it you’re asking for exactly?

      This pragmatist evaluation of yours is ultimately not how things are evaluated in the Christian faith. Commitment to the gospel of Christ and His Church, being united to Him by the Spirit and being conformed to his likeness so as to be a beacon of light to the world.. this is what we are called to. This is what the Orthodox Church has faithfully done for 2000 years. If people love the darkness and hate the light that has come into the world, well, this is precisely what our Savior promised is and will be the case.

      I mourn the state of the post VII church and pray for her return, not to some earlier-but-still-apostate state, but rather to the faith of the apostles and fathers, which is to say to the Orthodox faith.

      • Jimmy says

        Exactly. Be a beacon, which… The Orthodox in the US have not. Where are they? I see Catholics defending life in the public square and outspoken against the injustice of the culture of death. Such as tax payer funded abortion. Where are the Orthodox being witness to Truth for those Catholics that supposedly lack Truth, or worse, are openly working for the devil …as heretics. You say “fix the problems” of Traditionally Catholic areas. This is exactly what you should be doing, no? This is what you are CALLED to do. If Catholics are opposed to Truth then you should be leading them to Truth.

        • says

          Again, I disagree that the Church has ever ceased being a beacon, and you have presented no evidence that she has. Certainly her presence in some lands (like America) is small due to accidents of history, but again, faithfulness is what the Church is called to. Whether people receive the light, whether God gives the increase, etc. are things beyond her control.

          As for faithful Catholics standing against abortion and such in the public square (as do Orthodox), I’m all for it and very happy that they do, and may they continue to do so. But I’m not sure how it’s pertinent to the topic.

          • loggats says

            It’s pertinent to the topic because it evinces Christ-like lives, lived in the danger of a public square filled with enemies. It’s disheartening to see Orthodox people attack the Church in this way.

          • says

            We are not seeking to ‘attack the Church’ in any way, shape, or form.

            Out of our great love for Christ’s Church, and all of God’s beloved people, we desire to be united not only in dialogue and love, but in reality. And this reality can only be found in Truth, and its personification: the Lord Jesus Christ, and his one, true Body.

            We hope for nothing more than a union of the Orthodox and Roman Christians. But this will never take place so long as we pretend that we’re the same, and talk past each other on secondary, political minutiae.

          • Jimmy says

            I’ve given you an example. The Catholic Faith grew in a major city of a non-Catholic country of nearly 2 million to a point that 50+ % of the population was Catholic. It continued to expand until liberalism/socialism caused the majority to flee. But I digress. At the same time Catholic Churches were being built Orthodox moved into the city. Yet they remained small and segregated, even from each other. Both communities had equal opportunity to evangelize the area and provide charity. Catholics did. Orthodox were not to be seen. Who was the beacon?

          • says

            I’ve grown tired of this, Jimmy. Honestly. This is the last comment on this particular subject I’ll approve.

            Looking at ‘evangelism numbers’ is no sign of spiritual success or prowess. If it is, then we should be lauding the Muslims and Mormons, not any particular part of global Christianity.

            Your examples also ignore centuries of evangelism and witness on the part of the Orthodox Church, including both Saints Cyril and Methodius and the Russian and Syrian missionaries who helped bring the apostolic faith to North and South America over the past three hundred years.

    • Ted says

      With respect, I think part of the issue is that Orthodoxy is a relative newcomer to these parts. The Catholic Church has had centuries to develop their missionary outreach to the poor in these areas. The Orthodox Church has largely been in survival mode in lands occupied by Islam, and then communism. It IS time for the Orthodox Church to be more active in the communities wherein it physically exists, but God has plans we can never understand fully…..in their relative isolation, Orthodox have preserved what is needed for everyone to move forward.

      • says

        Thank you. There is a substantial difference in the ministry and global ‘strength’ of the Roman and Orthodox churches. Substantial. To be fair, we are often doing the best we can, with the circumstances we’ve been given. In recent centuries, and even decades, it is a miracle that Orthodoxy has survived the multitude of onslaughts from every sort of foe—both political and spiritual.

        Nevertheless, here in the West, we have a real opportunity to spread the Gospel and be a light to the world. And thus, this blog and other ministries like it. We are fully in favor of evangelizing, but this doesn’t always look the same.

  2. says

    I think one can find many quotes from Catholic saints who also rejected unity for the same reasons you’ve listed above; a saint isn’t perfect or infallible in all things. We can draw a line in the sand and demand one another to come to our side or we can meet in the middle and work out our differences; humilty from all sides is the key. We have a lot to work on, Greek and Latin, but let’s hope in the Lord that he will unite his Church one day.

    • says

      Hey Jason,

      A few things: while you can find similar quotes from Catholic Saints, the Latin church just canonized two popes with strong ecumenistic credentials. Hence, there is not symmetry in the situations: there are *no* Orthodox ecumenist Saints; there are Catholic ecumenist Saints.

      Saints aren’t infallible yes, but the consensus patrum is, and the consensus patrum on this point, from an Orthodox perspective, is fairly clear. Without renunciations of the Latin heresies, union can not even be contemplated.

      Lastly, I, and I would submit the Orthodox Church, fundamentally disagrees that this is something to work through by a process of negotiation, working through differences etc. No. Not only no, but you will find no such attitude in the first millenia of the church. Truth is proclaimed; heresy is anathematized. Ironically, there would be a greater hope for union if Rome maintained this attitude, rather than the sloppy, syncrenistic approach that she takes today, which only impedes a dialogue of truth in love, as it sets aside truth at the very outset, or at the very least demotes truth to an unacceptable degree.

      • Jimmy says

        The more modern problems of the Orthodox are now beginning to creep into the Catholic Church. That is, the idea of leaving moral issues to the consensus of local bishops. The idea of allowing the divorced and remarried, who in reality commit adultery, to receive holy communion is one example of ecumenism used by some Catholic bishops following the example of their Orthodox counterparts. Allowance of divorce and contraception by bishops are moral evils that the faithful do not need. They are mortal sin, with the approval of those commissioned to shepherd the flock. For all the “Latin errors” ….these moral evils can never be approved for any union to happen.

        • says

          I’m glad to see you finally drawing distinctions between our two churches. ;-)

          But in reality, there is no difference between an annulment and a Church-approved divorce. They are both separations of married couples. The difference is in name alone, and the way the Orthodox Church handles such situations is with a great deal of pastoral care and penitence. Your characterization of how it works here is far from fair.

          And yes, we do believe in the authority and prominence of local bishops and synods—something that is woven into the very fabric of the apostolic and catholic Church. Consult any of the first seven Ecumenical Councils to see this. Even with a first among equals, synodality prevails, and especially on pastoral issues.

          But again, I’m very happy to hear you say that you believe some things would have to change before we could be united. :-)

    • says

      Hello Hartmut,

      Individual Saints can err, but when *all* Saints say one thing about an ecclesial, theological, or moral issue, and *none* say anything to the contrary, it is incumbent upon those in the Church to follow who have been fully illumined by the light of Christ — her Saints. This is Orthodoxy.

      • Mark says

        I thought sainthood was about being holy. But you are saying in Orthodoxy it implies being smart, too?

        • says


          Yes, essentially. Though I wouldn’t use the word ‘smart’. The Saints are illumined by divine Grace to the fullest extent, and therefore most fully know God and the things of God. But one doesn’t have to have a high IQ or be extremely learned in order to be a Saint — though most of the more well-known Saints who were theologians, and left behind treatises and such were both.

          But yes, in Orthodoxy, in contradistinction to the scholastic west, true knowledge is found only in holiness and sanctity. Purely worldly wisdom is worth nothing. Our Lord says that the pure of heart — not the ‘smart of brain’ — will see God.

          Interestingly, this supremacy of sanctity with regard to knowledge was dogmatically defined most clearly by St. Gregory Palamas who, while he didn’t get in any direct controversy with the Latin Church, opposed the “Latin-minded” Barlaam and others like him, who claimed that discursive reason and philosophical speculation was the greatest path to ‘knowing’.

    • says

      This is true. But in this case, and looking at it from an Orthodox (‘Eastern’) perspective, all Saints would have to be in error. That’s a pill I refuse to swallow.

      • Jimmy says

        Essentially, if the words of the Orthodox Saints are to be taken as Truth then I, as a Catholic am completely cut off from Christ. I am incapable of obtaining grace and therefore incapable of virtue and repentance. But I know this not to be true.

        • Jimmy says

          BTW, before I was cut off by Gabe I wanted to reiterate the point that I was not playing a numbers game of evangelization as he dismissed me as doing. The fact that the Catholic Church grew, had a fruitful sacramental life which flowed into acts of charity shows that grace works in and amongst her members.
          A beacon.
          While on the other hand you are attempting to maintain a position that Catholics are heretics cut off from the live giving waters of sanctifying grace. A position I reject.
          To compare the Faithful of the Catholic Church to the spreading of the sword by Islam or a sect such as Mormonism was highly offensive Gabe.

          • says

            This is your last warning, Jimmy. No more on this topic, especially if you continue to misrepresent or misunderstand what is being said.

            I’m glad to know that you’re not playing a numbers game. But you are making judgments—wrong ones, in my estimation—regarding the life and ministry of the Orthodox Church. History is messy, and anyone who knows anything about the recent life of the Orthodox Church knows that she is a Church of persecution, and a Church of suffering. Lord, have mercy. We want nothing more than to spread the light of Christ’s Gospel to the nations, and have done so for centuries. But the reality is also that many Orthodox Christians around the world are in the midst of turmoil. Survival is at the forefront of their concerns.

            I believe that by her simple, faithful, and relentless witness, the Orthodox Church is indeed a beacon of hope for many, many people in the West. Christianity here in America is especially spinning out of control. The steadfast witness of Orthodoxy (which used to be the case for Rome in a lot of ways, but is less so now) is something that really resonates with people in a culture of relativism, pluralism, and amoral behavior. We are glad that our Roman catholic friends continue to promote moral truths and traditional family values, and I hope that you continue to do so.

            We are not saying in any way that Roman Christians are ‘cut off from the life-giving waters of sanctifying grace.’ We’d reject such a position, as well. What we are saying, however, is that we’re not the same. We’re not the same Church. We have differences in both practice and belief, and they are both real and significant. Only by working through those issues in truth will any of our love and dialogue ever matter. Pretending they don’t exist isn’t love; it’s a lie. It only hinders an effort at reconciliation.

            And finally, I don’t see how you misconstrued what I said about numbers and evangelism as if I was comparing Rome to either Islam or Mormonism. I was not. There’s nothing offensive about what I said, you simply misunderstood it. My point was that success in numbers, growth, and other outward ways is in no way indicative of God’s Grace or the truth that is being espoused. The rapid spread of these two false religions is proof of such.

        • says

          That’s not true at all, actually. We know for certain where the Church is, but we do not know where or how God will show mercy elsewhere.

          We pray for the salvation of all repeatedly in our services; we hope for the salvation of all. We hope against all hopes that God will be merciful and long-suffering to all peoples, Orthodox or not.

          But we also know what he has revealed, and what he has revealed in his holy Church and the lives of the Saints. We cannot ignore this. And as a result, we feel bound to call all of God’s children both to repentance and to the eternal rest of both Christ and His Body. We have said nothing in these recent posts that would indicate we believe Roman Christians are ‘cut off from Christ’ or ‘incapable of obtaining grace’ and ‘virtue’ and ‘repentance.’

          • Jimmy says

            Really? According to one of your quotes… I wasn’t even baptized! If those quotes you reference don’t imply that I am cut off, I don’t know what does.

  3. Matthew Dunn says

    One of the best treatments of this topic I have read. Thank you, Nathan and Gabe, you have restored some faith that I fear I was about to lose.

    • says

      Glory to God! Your words are very encouraging, brother. Addressing this topic is precarious, but I know when I read (or heard) similar things from Orthodox on my journey to Orthodoxy it was refreshing and very welcome, so I’m glad not all the feedback is critical!

  4. Fr Paul says

    Very good and level-headed treatment of this topic, Nathan. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to portray to people that love and truth must go together. Truth without love is unhelpful and even harmful; love without truth, though, isn’t really love.