The Road to Rome? Why Orthodoxy Deserves a Look

The Road to Rome?

A few years ago, I came across a series of posts by Jason Liske, a convert to Roman catholicism.

In one such post, he laid out a few reasons why he had chosen Rome over the Orthodox Church. (For those interested, the full post can be found here.)

Before I respond to some of Jason’s thoughts, I will provide a few disclaimers:

  • There are likely millions of Roman catholics who are far more loving, charitable, and honorable people than I could ever hope to be. Because the Orthodox Church disagrees with them on a number of doctrinal issues does not mean I have no positive thoughts regarding people of the Roman faith.
  • While ‘schism’ and ‘heresy’ are seen as insults in contemporary, Christian dialogue, this is not how the Orthodox Church uses them. These are words with important, historical meaning, centered around the Divine declarations of Ecumenical Councils.
  • My father’s side of the family is Roman catholic. And every Sunday, during the Great Entrance, I pray for my grandfather when making intercessions for the reposed. (May his memory be eternal.)
  • Following on that point, we can—and should—love people, even when we disagree with them. The differences between Rome and Orthodoxy are both serious and real, but they should not hinder our prayers for their health, peace, and salvation—as with all the world.

I will now interact briefly with a few of Jason’s points.

Expressing his love for “our eastern Christian brethren”—duly noted—Jason writes:

The first issue is the attitude of many Orthodox toward the Catholic Church, which in my experience can be described as reactionary and overly suspicious.  While the West views the Eastern Orthodox in a very sympathetic and conciliatory fashion, the East seem to view the West much in the same way that hardline Protestants might – as a bastion of error, as “papists”, heretics, the antichrist, and the like.  It is truly saddening, but in my experience, I have found it to be somewhat true. Catholic saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of the Cross are viewed as heretical figures overcome by imagination in their spiritual lives, and tainted by “Romanism”.  A truly sad thing, as the West views many of the great saints of Eastern Orthodoxy with admiration and a willingness to learn from their teachings.  While such figures as Photios and Gregory Palamas may still be viewed in a negative light, they are venerated in Eastern Catholic rites as saints.  Seraphim of Sarov, a truly remarkable and saintly figure, has become an object of much veneration and love amongst Catholics, and Catholic scholars are starting to truly acknowledge the profound writings and thought of such Eastern Orthodox saints as Symeon the New Theologian, Theophan the Recluse, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Nectarios of Aegina, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Nicodemus the Hagiorite, and many others.  But the East does not return the favor, instead acknowledging the greatest saints of the West to be, at best, in error and whose salvation is also at best uncertain.

I admit that there are Orthodox Christians excessive in their condemnation of ‘the West’ in general, and of the Roman church in particular. I cannot speak for everyone, nor should the entirety of the Orthodox Church be held responsible for extremists—no more than I would associate all Roman catholics with child molesters or clown masses.

However, the fact remains that there are heresies that separate the Orthodox Church from the Romans.

In mentioning Ss. Photius and Gregory Palamas, Jason is acknowledging that the Roman church, too, sees some of our revered saints “in a negative light.” Along with St. Mark of Ephesus, these three Saints have made it plain that certain errors of the Latin church are not only schism, but also heresy. It does us no good in ecumenism or interfaith dialogue to pretend this isn’t the case.

But in a more problematic (and inconsistent) sense, Jason’s church also receives a whole host of dioceses under the Eastern or Byzantine Rite, which also venerate these men—although any veneration of St. Mark of Ephesus would be mere lip service.

Jason continues:

Secondly, their is a certain sense of insularity in terms of ethnocentrism within the Orthodox Church – simply take note of the titles of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, American Orthodox, and the like. Once, when I inquired of an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine why he did not go to just any Orthodox church, he replied matter-of-factly that “We go where the Russians go” (for he is Russian). But Catholics go where a Catholic Church is, whatever rite it may happen to fall under. In other words, the catholic (universal) nature of the Church is lacking in Eastern Orthodoxy.

I fear a lack of familiarity with the Orthodox Church has led Jason to this perspective.

The local (not ‘ethnic’) boundaries within the Orthodox Church are established for the sake of shepherding a Church throughout the world. After all, this is how there came to be a Church of Rome. But the Roman See and the now fourteen other, local Orthodox churches are now separated. These Orthodox churches are not ‘different churches’ or denominations, but are all part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This is how the Church functioned even in the first century.

While Jason’s friend is certainly wrong about his church-selection decision making—unless he lives in Russia, then it makes perfect sense—the Orthodox Church has condemned phyletism as heresy (Synod of Constantinople, A.D. 1872). Of course, Jason’s friend should not be taken as representative of the entirety of the Orthodox Church on this (or any) matter.

Despite his insistence, a Roman Christian will too go to their preferred church, if there are options available. The seemingly unstoppable revolution brought by Vatican II has only made this more and more necessary, I would imagine. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, there was a considerable amount of ‘ethnic divisions’ in the Roman church, as well. Irish people only went to the Irish church; French to the French; and so on.

It should also be noted that, according to Roman canons, one cannot simply transfer from one Rite to another within the Vatican communion. It is a far more complicated—and lengthy—process than in Orthodoxy, where a Baptized, Orthodox person is welcome in every canonical church at all times (throughout the world).

And its worth noting here that ‘catholic’ does not simply mean ‘universal.’ The Orthodox Church claims to be the Catholic Church, as She uniquely preserves the fullness of the apostolic faith.

Jason then writes:

Thirdly, the objections against the papacy brought up by the Eastern Orthodox are incredibly difficult to overcome at first, for as I have noted, they too have apostolic succession.  So, I endeavored to dig through the Fathers and the history of the Church to find out who in fact was right.  I especially dug through the writings of the Eastern Fathers (the Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, and the like) to see what they in fact said.  The answer was seemingly unanimous, and in agreement with the Catholic Church.  This I could not ignore, despite any accusations of selective quote-mining that might occur from this point on.  Even St. John Chrysostom’s understanding of Matthew 16:18, which I have treated earlier, is in accord with the Catholic understanding of the Papacy and the chair of St. Peter.  I cannot ignore this.  Even Gregory Palamas states that St. Peter is ‘the leader of the apostles and foundation stone of the Church.’

There is obviously a lot of material both in print and online on this issue. But the Ecumenical Councils—when discussing both Old and New Rome (Constantinople)—never mention the apostle Peter as a point of discussion. What they mention, rather, is that Constantinople was “the Imperial City.”

And yet, no one in the Orthodox Church would dispute the importance of Peter in the foundations of the apostolic Church, nor would we make light of apostolic succession and its importance. Both Antioch and Alexandria also claim Petrine foundations, and the greatest Pope in the history of the Roman church—St. Gregory the Great—claims himself that the chair of Peter is in three places: Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Peter (and Paul) laid the foundations for the Antiochian Church decades before his martyrdom in Rome.

Jason continues:

Now, let me state here, somewhat controversially no doubt, that I consider the rift between the East and West to be based more in language, politics, and crimes on both sides, than on anything theological.  The filioque controversy is not something that is hard to overcome, as the statements of ‘proceeds from the Father through the Son’ and ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ mean essentially the same thing.  Though many disagree with me, I see no reason to separate the Body of Christ over this trifling semantic issue.

Controversial, indeed.

This is another topic that has been discussed at length over the centuries. It is also one of the reasons Saints such as Mark of Ephesus have called the ‘Latins’ heretics.

However, Jason must clarify that while “proceeds from the Father through the Son” is a potentially orthodox description, the Latin Filioque is not. In recent statements, the Roman church has backtracked and even softened their perspective on this debate, conceding a considerable amount of ground to the East.

We must also remember that they include within their communion millions of Eastern Rite Christians who refuse to confess the Creed with the Filioque. So any honest ‘Roman catholic’ stance on this issue must also take them into consideration.

Jason’s historical revisions here also contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church (246), where it makes plain the ‘eternal’ nature of the Holy Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son in the Roman view:

The Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).”

The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: “The Holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son; He has his nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration… And, since the Father has through generation given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being the Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.” —Council of Florence [1439]: DS 1300-1301

Certainly language and other political barriers led to a number of schisms between the East and West during the late Middle Ages, but that does not explain the entirety of our continued division. Rather, a continuation in heresy, an abundance of innovations, and the addition of new dogmas must be our real focus in meaningful East-West dialogue; we can’t blame politics, the Franks, and historical circumstances for everything.

Jason concludes his article with a summation of his main arguments:

  1. A certain sense of suspicion held by the East towards the West, as well as what I note to be an uncharitable attitude by some towards the great saints and theologians of the Catholic Church.  I found the Catholic understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy to be far more fair, conciliar, and loving.  The West holds their saints in high regard, and they are venerated in many of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church.  Of course, this attitude has not always been held by the West – this is true.  But I find the move by the Church towards unity with the Orthodox is by far the more charitable than the still current attitudes held by some in Orthodoxy towards Catholics.
  2. Concerning Orthodox and Catholic claims about the papacy, I found the evidence from both the Eastern and Western Fathers to be in support of the Catholic claim far more than the Eastern Orthodox claim.
  3. The sense of insularity and lack of catholicity in the Eastern Churches – here I speak of the varying groups of Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, American, Coptic, Oriental, etc.)

And here are my (summarized) thoughts in response:

  1. Jason—and other Roman catholics—must understand that we do not find joy in the reality of our schism, but remain faithful in our beliefs as Orthodox Christians. This is not an affront to unity, but is rather the only means by which it can truly come about: mutual agreement on key, doctrinal issues, not pretense towards ‘understanding’ or contrived concessions. Pretending that there are no differences, or that there is no real schism, accomplishes nothing.
  2. Apostolic succession is central to Orthodox ecclesiology (and Christology). However, the later beliefs of Rome regarding their patriarch and archbishop are neither tenable nor acceptable. Even the greatest Pope of all time agrees. Peter was foundational, but he was foundational for three different Sees—not Rome alone.
  3. I believe that Jason—and other Roman catholics—misunderstand the historical use of the term ‘catholic.’ They also misunderstand how the organization of the Orthodox Church really works, ignoring too their own ethnic divisions of recent memory.

He also lists a few positive things (from his perspective) regarding the Orthodox Church, and this is appreciated.

I have no doubt that Jason is a devoted and serious person, seeking to find rest in Christ’s one, true Church. I only wish that he (and others) would give the Orthodox Church a second look before ‘swimming the Tiber,’ as I believe many of his primary concerns are both confused and groundless.

Also, many of Jason’s concerns are ‘pastoral’ and have no real bearing on whether or not the Roman church is the one, true Church—or whether the Orthodox Church is wrong on specific, historical, and doctrinal issues. Many of his concerns (misguided or not) are such that they can be changed or improved over time, wherever warranted.

On the other hand, the errors within the Roman church—e.g. the Filioque and papal supremacy—are so foundational to Roman dogma, expecting reform or correction on these long-standing errors seems to me a taller order.

Comments

  1. Hidden One says

    As an ex-Protestant Latin rite Catholic, it seems to me that Orthodoxy does suffer from certain doctrinal innovations on such matters as “re-marriage” and contraception.

    • says

      Are you also condemning the Eastern Rite archdioceses under Papal authority—in full communion with the Roman church—which follow these same “innovations?” Would this not then be a critique of the Roman church?

      With the post-doctrinal, Vatican II church—allowing married priests from both Anglican and Eastern Rites, along with non-azyme, non-Filioque-confessing Eastern Rite parishes throughout the world (again, in full communion with Rome)—such ‘pot-shots’ from the Roman side ring … hollow.

      • says

        Just to be clear, the Eastern Catholic Churches (of which some are Patriarchal some are Metropolitan Churches, not simply Arch-Dioceses) do not allow divorce and remarriage or the use of contraception. One needs to only look at the Code of Cannons of the Eastern Churches to confirm.

        Historically, I believe the Eastern Catholic Churches followed the Orthodoxy praxis in regards to marriage (I doubt in terms of contraception), but I’ve yet to see an English translation of the pre-1917 Canons that allowed this. I’ve asked but never have never seen it.

        • says

          Still, we are dealing with mere semantics.

          What the Roman church calls an annulment is what Orthodox clergy do when they pastorally deal with the same unfortunate situations in their own parishes and dioceses. Calling it an annulment does not actually change or remove the fact that a couple is splitting, or that they are enabling a person to remarry.

          Arguing against Orthodoxy on the basis of these issues is nonsensical, as a result.

          • says

            “What the Roman church calls an annulment is what Orthodox clergy do when they pastorally deal with the same unfortunate situations in their own parishes and dioceses. Calling it an annulment does not actually change or remove the fact that a couple is splitting, or that they are enabling a person to remarry.”

            Agreed.

            “Arguing against Orthodoxy on the basis of these issues is nonsensical, as a result.”

            Also, agreed but I was not trying to argue just point out the Eastern Catholic Churches do follow and use the same terminology, for good or ill, that of the Roman Church.

            Where this get tricky is in the understanding of who administers the Mystery/Sacrament of Marriage. Within the Eastern Catholic Churches it is the priest who administers the sacrament. In the Roman Church it is the couple themselves. As you can see, this throws a monkey wrench into the annulment process. How can a priest not validly marry a couple? He most certainly has the intent to marry the couple according the teaching of the Church.

    • mike says

      As a former Roman Catholic let me chime in on innovations such as:

      Required belief in Purgatory
      Separation of the sacraments
      Indulgences

      and on, and on…

  2. John says

    Regarding contraception, isn’t that a pastoral issue for the Orthodox? Unlike Rome, I’m not sure that the Orthodox Church has made any ecumenical or dogmatic statements about it. So to say that “the Orthodox Church allows it” in the same way that “the Roman Catholic Church forbids it” is wrong. I want to say that it is a categorical error, but words fail me at the moment. The Orthodox Church has not said, as a unified body, anything pro or con, at least none that I’m aware of. If our Church has, does anyone have a link? That would be an interesting read.

    John

    • says

      I think most would say it’s ‘up for debate.’ There have been some books written on this (and related) topics recently. One just this past year from St. Herman’s Press. But like you said, it isn’t dogmatized for us, as it is with Rome. Lately, I’m wondering if they have any other dogmas besides anti-contraception and anti-re-marriage/divorce. There are compelling reasons why a faithful person would believe what they do on these issues, but to make them the lynchpin of orthodoxy seems odd. But, that’s the ‘post-doctrinal’ Roman church of Vatican II (with all due respect).

      • says

        That Roman Catholicism prohibits by “dogma” re-marriage is really pretty much a joke “on the ground” is it not? Couples can be legally married for decades with grown children…then divorce and remarry by receiving a “papal annulment” for that decades-long marriage with kids, often within a year, as IF the 1st marriage never happened. i’m aware that the divorce and remarriage in Orthodoxy is not always exemplary, and unhappy liberties are taken. But then there is not reason to engage in such pretense either. Local Priest and Bishops rule Pastorally over such matter, for better or worse.

    • Karen says

      Fr. Josiah Trenham has recently spoken on this topic from an Orthodox perspective at AFR. Another article summarizing his views is here: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/TrenhamSexuality.php.

      If there is any dogmatic statement on contraception from traditional Orthodox sources (as opposed to the opinions of contemporary Orthodox pastors), likely they would be found to be more quite firmly contra contraception (at least contra artificial contraception), but that’s just the impression I’ve gotten from my reading.

      Regarding divorce and remarriage, divorce is a tragedy which the gospel accommodates by concession, and the Orthodox Church acknowledges this in the penitential nature of its rite for remarriage. At least divorce is not a legal fiction like many of the kinds of “annulments” granted in the Catholic Church. I have a friend who was raised Roman Catholic who refused the annulment he would surely have been granted since his first wife abandoned him early in their marriage for another man. In his spiritual integrity, my friend refused because he knew annulment would be a lie. He knows he was truly married to his first wife. This was one of the reasons he left the RC Church.

      • Archpriest John W. Morris says

        The best summary of the attitude of the Orthodox Church concerning contemporary issues is The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church which does not condemn non-abortive methods of contraception as sinful. Most modern Orthodox theologians who study ethics do not consider non-abortive methods of birth control sinful when used for the right reasons within marriage such as spacing the birth of children or producing more children than the family can support or when a further pregnancy would threaten the mother’s health.
        The Holy Fathers did not understand the difference between abortion and contraception. Before William Harvey, d.1657, scientists did not understand conception. It was thought that the sperm contained a tiny human. Thus anything that killed the sperm or prevented it from reaching the fertilizing the egg in the woman was a form of abortion. Therefore, one must look at the Fathers within the context of their time. What some modern scholars take as a condemnation of birth control is actually a condemnation of abortion.

        • j. phillips says

          Father,

          The Holy Fathers didn’t understand…?

          “Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before the birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God, and fight with His laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?”
          -St. John Chrysostom, Homily XXIV on Romans

          It seems the Golden-mouthed knew very well the difference between abortion and contraception. The Fathers might have well been more ahead of their time than you’d give them credit for.

        • Karen says

          Father, with respect, Fr. Josiah Trenham’s AFR podcast refutes the assertion that the Fathers didn’t understand the difference between abortion and contraception. He says, in fact, both were available and the difference was well understood in the ancient world. What I take away from this is that there is far from unanimity within the Orthodox Church on this subject as J. Phillips comment also shows.

  3. says

    (Note – My remarks are shaped by the reality that I spent 37 years in the Roman Catholic Church before being received into the Holy Orthodox Church along with my children last year. As contemporary Catholics go, I was well catechized via Catholic school from K-college, spent catechetical time with Opus Dei in college, invested considerable time studying Catholic apologetics, and as an RCIA catechist, and when I found Orthodoxy and began reading, I had absolutely no intention of becoming Orthodox; I was trying to prove an Orthodox friend wrong. As I’ve sad several times, I had no problem with the idea of one true church, I just thought I was in it. May God have mercy on me for my stubborn pride, and I’m grateful that God was able to use said pride to help me discover the fullness of the Gospel and accuracy of tradition within Orthodoxy. Also, as the sleepy mom of 4 young uns including one who didn’t sleep last night, hopefully my thoughts make sense. :) )

    Jason’s remarks about the papacy miss an important point, I think; Subdeacon Gabe, you hit on this in your comments, but I think there is additional information from even more recent history that needs to be added to the conversation.

    Any discussion about the understanding of the papacy must necessarily compare apples to apples, in that it needs to examine the understanding of the papacy up to the point of schism and, on the Roman Catholic side, take a serious look at the changes made (theological innovations added) to the role of the papacy, especially in recent years.

    Examining the role of the papacy through Scripture and Tradition will absolutely be a challenge, not only due to the different way that role was interpreted at the time of the schism, but because of how the papacy has changed since then, and very few Catholics even realize that the papacy has changed, much less understand the impact those changes have had on the Catholic Church and on it’s theology.

  4. mike says

    I spent 34 years of my life in a very Roman Catholic family. Attended a Roman Catholic school, was devout, and a trained as an apologist for the Roman Church and its cathecism.

    I always had some issues with the Roman Church’s dogma, even as a child. I could not understand why Christ tells us to wash our face and comb our hair when we are fasting…yet the Romans began Great Lent by placing ashes on their foreheads — seeming to say “Hey, look at me”. It was these issues that caused me to choose not to be confirmed in that faith at age 16 with the rest of my class. I will not get into the wonky theological issues, as I am sure many here are better suited to that than I.

    However, what I found in Orthodoxy, that I had not seen in all my life as a Roman Catholic, is the emphasis on humility by the priesthood in Orthodoxy. I will never forget attending my first Divine Liturgy and the priest expressing his unworthiness and asking the parish for forgiveness before the start of the Liturgy. WOW! Compared to my old Roman Parish, where after a priest had just been arrested, the next Sunday the Monsignor stood before a packed house and gave a homily about “what beautiful men” make up the priesthood…and made no words or expressions that could be seen as anything close to humility, although the crime against two children took place under his very nose, in his own home. Pastorally, the Roman Catholic Church leaves much to be desired.

    • John says

      Mike,

      I have heard some Orthodox call Ash Wednesday a service that is acceptable, at least theoretically, as a Western Lenten practice that could still exist if there was union with the Orthodox and the RCC. There are varying traditions even without Orthodoxy regarding Lent and a remembrance of death before the beginning of the Great Fast seems appropriate, at least to this ignorant man. I could very well be wrong on that, and I am certainly open to correction. I find the service to be quite beautiful, though I’ve only heard/read about it and have never actually seen it in action.

      John

  5. jackie says

    From 35yrs Pentecostalism to 15 years Catholism, i am very intriged how faithful to God the Orthodox Church is…God Bless…it is His Glory ihope to shine for.

  6. Seb says

    I pray for unity between east and west.. No more division,,, dialogue and dialogue .. Don’t hate each other. May God blees us and Theotokos pray for us

  7. Yannaro says

    A few brief comments. Concerning apostolic succession….if, in fact there is heresy there can be no apostolic succession. Concerning the Filioque…..not only does the original Creed not state the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, there is also no language that suggests “through” the Son. The English translation from the Greek is clear “…..and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified….” Nothing suggests the word through. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, etc., are not revered as saints by the Orthodox because Orthodox do not consider them saints. Divorce and remarriage, indeed three marriages in the Church, is a pastoral matter. One need only to read the prayers in the services for second and third marriages to understand how seriously Orthodoxy takes the issue. Finally, Roman catholic priests use “I”, as in I baptize, etc., whereas Orthodox priests say “is baptized”, “is annointed”, etc. A big difference. The word “catholic” does indeed refer to the fullness of the faith, as the word is derived from two Greek words, kata and oli, which when put together convey the meaning “according to the whole”, that is the whole faith.