The Road to Rome? Why Eastern Orthodoxy Deserves a Second Look
For those who aren’t aware, Catholic Lane is a well-maintained Roman Catholic news and resource site that I have had the pleasure of contributing to from time to time (by the gracious invitation of their staff). While there are (from an Orthodox perspective) a great number of differences between our two churches — and we are not in full communion, nor really anywhere close to it — there are still many ways in which our two worlds overlap and our distinctives and theological viewpoints merge. In such cases, I have been more than happy to collaborate with them.
Recently, I noticed a series of posts by Jason Liske, outlining his reason for converting to Roman Catholicism. In one such post, he laid out a few brief reasons for why he had chosen Rome over the “Eastern Orthodox” Church. For those interested, the full post can be found here. He has also written posts in a similar manner related to Anglicanism, Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition.
Before I make an effort to respond to some of Jason’s thoughts on Orthodoxy, I wanted to lay out just a few disclaimers.
First, it should be noted that there are likely millions of Roman Catholics who are far more loving, charitable and honorable people than I could ever hope to be. Simply because the Church I have committed my life and faith within disagrees with them on a number of theological issues does not mean I have no positive outlook on their church or its people.
Secondly, my father’s side of the family as a whole is Roman Catholic (being Italian), and while words like “schism” and “heresy” are often seen as “insults” in our present cultural context, they are not meant as such when I use them, nor should they be seen in such a light. Rather, these are words with meaning that are linked rather intimately to the Person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we take that subject very seriously. Every Sunday when I have the opportunity to walk (backwards, trying not to fall over myself) before the bread and chalice of the holy Eucharist during the “Great Entrance,” I always pray for my recently deceased Roman Catholic grandfather (also named Vincent) when we are making intercessions for the reposed; may his memory be eternal!
These differences are serious (between the Orthodox and Roman Catholicism), but they do not discount our love for such people, nor does it hinder us in our prayers for their health, peace and salvation (as with all of the world).
With all that being said, I will now interact briefly with a few of Jason’s points.
Expressing his love for ”our eastern Christian brethren” (much appreciated!), 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.
This seems to be a fairly common objection (in my limited experience) from our Roman friends of the West.
Again, I must hearken back to my point above that words like “heresy” and “schism” should not be thrown around flippantly, nor should they be seen as “insults” or “personal attacks” when they are necessarily employed. I would also freely admit that there are some among us (within the Orthodox Church) that go “over the top” 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 the extremists among us (no more than I would callously associate all Roman Catholics with child molesters or with those who claim the Orthodox Church is an invention of the Turks in the middle ages — as I have sadly seen before). However, the fact remains that there are heresies that separate the Orthodox Church from the Roman.
By mentioning Saints Photius and Gregory Palamas, Jason is acknowledging that the Roman church, too, sees some of our revered saints ”in a negative light” (the word he’s looking for is probably “heretics,” but he doesn’t say it), and that leaves our two communions where we are, from a relational standpoint; it is what it is, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. The “conscience of Orthodoxy,” Saint Mark of Ephesus, said it most clearly: ”The Latins are not only schismatics but heretics… we did not separate from them for any other reason other than the fact that they are heretics.” I don’t share this because it is some sort of debate-shattering insult, but because it is (from an Orthodox perspective) a matter of fact. We are not “two lungs” of the same one, holy Church that have a few minor issues separating us (schism), but we are separated because of a number of theological heresies that have arisen over the centuries during our separation. I don’t find any joy in these circumstances, but here they are. I hope Jason (and others) can understand and respect this position, while also realizing we do not hold to it in vain. Lord, have mercy.
He continues with his next point:
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.
Again, I fear that lack of familiarity (and apparently, research) has led Jason to this mistaken viewpoint. He admits as much in his introduction, and I must certainly take him at his word in this case.
The “ethnic,” jurisdictional distinctions within the Orthodox Church are based upon (for the most part) ancient boundaries that were established for the purpose of effectively shepherding the growing Christian Church, even from the days of the apostles. These jurisdictions (sees/patriarchates) are what, in fact, established the Roman Church to begin with! It just so happens that the Roman Church separated from the rest of these patriarchates through various circumstances down through the Council of Florence (of which St Mark of Ephesus, mentioned above, was a part) in the 15th century. These are not “different churches” or “denominations” (which would be an anachronistic way of looking at it), but are all part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
While Jason’s friend is certainly in the wrong about his church-selection viewpoint (unless he’s living in Russia, and then it makes perfect sense), the Orthodox Church has wholly condemned phyletism as a pan-Orthodox heresy (cf. Synod of Constantinople, AD 1872), and Jason’s friend should not be seen as representative of the entirety of the Orthodox Church on this matter. And really, despite Jason’s insistence (and perhaps, naivety), a Catholic Christian will go to their preferred Catholic Church, if there are options available to them. The liturgical revolution brought on by Vatican II has only made this all the more applicable, I would imagine — one never knows what one might get when visiting any given Roman parish these days. We can split hairs all day long if we want, but in the American context of Christianity, avoiding this “cafeteria” approach is an uphill battle. It should also be noted that, according to Roman Catholic canons, one cannot simply transfer from one rite to another, even within the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. A “letter of transfer” is required to leave the rite into which one was baptized.
Finally, and just as a little quibble, “catholic” emphatically does not simply mean “universal,” and this is something that’s been covered in numerous places before, so I won’t belabor the point. The Orthodox Church is most definitely catholic, as it contains (and has preserved) the wholeness and fullness of the once-delivered 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 have been pages upon pages devoted to this controversial topic. Sufficed to say, I won’t go into everything related to this here. I would suggest that Jason consult a book (from an Orthodox perspective) such as Popes and Patriarchs by Michael Welton. I would also submit that the Ecumenical Councils — when discussing the subject of “Old” and “New” Rome – never (to my knowledge) mention St. Peter as a discussion point. What they cite, rather, is the fact that Constantinople is now ”the imperial city” – not because it (or “Old” Rome) is the see of Peter.
No one in the Orthodox Church would discount the importance of the apostle Peter in the foundation of the catholic Church (especially not an Antiochian Orthodox Christian like myself, whose very Church was founded by the apostle Peter, and years before he ever ventured to Rome), nor would we make light of the importance of apostolic succession. That is simply not the point when it comes to Rome vs. Constantinople, and all related discussions. Again, I’m not an expert on this, but that’s my two cents, for whatever it’s worth.
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. The problem here is that Jason is simply re-asserting the historically revisionistic viewpoint of the Roman church regarding the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (or the “Symbol of Faith”). This is, yet again, another topic that has been discussed at length over the centuries (and is one of the main topics of discussion for why St Mark of Ephesus referred to the “Latins” as heretics), so I won’t try to re-invent the wheel. However, Jason needs to understand clearly that while “proceeds from the Father through the Son” is an Orthodox way of speaking, the Latin Filioque is not. While many today will “soften” the Filioque in this manner, it is simply being dishonest about the heart of the matter, and that is eternal procession (not “proceeds” in a temporal sense, like Jesus sending a postcard in the mail, to use a simplistic analogy). These are not mere semantics, and the ramifications are unending for the West.
Jason’s thoughts here also contradicts the current, dogmatic belief — per the Catechism of the Catholic Church — on the issue (#246), where it makes plain the “eternal” quality of the Holy Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son (filioque), as seen from the Latin perspective:
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 : DS 1300-1301)
With regards to the first half of his statement above, I would agree that language, politics/crime (the barbarous Charles and his Frankish cohorts) led to a great deal of our issues and rifts, but that does not explain the entirety of our continued division. Rather, the continuation in heresy, the abundance of innovations and the multiplication of new dogmas should be our real focus; we can’t blame “politics,” the Franks and historical circumstance for everything.
Jason concludes his article with a summation of his main arguments against the “Eastern Orthodox” Church:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
For point one, I will say in summary that Jason has to understand that we do not find joy in the reality of our schism, but that we must be faithful to our beliefs and to the Orthodox Faith. This is not an affront to unity, but the true means by which it will come about: mutual agreement in these key matters of our Faith in Christ (not mere “understanding” or compromising concessions). I also haven’t mentioned the “Eastern Catholics,” as Jason does a few times in his article, but I will only say that they betray the memory and the life of St Mark of Ephesus by their very existence; they are the embodiment of everything he so courageously fought to avoid, for the sake of the Orthodox Faith.
In regards to his second point, I think Jason has missed the point with regards to Saint Peter and apostolic succession (something that applies to all of the apostles and their Churches, assuming they have preserved the one, true Faith), and especially how this applies to the claims of Rome (which held importance, in my understanding, because it was “the imperial city,” as the Ecumenical Councils claim — later to be supplemented and eventually supplanted by Constantinople, as the interests of the empire shifted).
And finally, to his third point, I believe that Jason has misunderstood not only the true meaning of “catholic,” but also what the various jurisdictions (and patriarchates) of the Orthodox Church signify (and how that relates to the overall communion and relations between our local, Orthodox churches).
Jason’s article also lists a few “positive things” about the Orthodox Church from his perspective, and I know all Orthodox Christians would share in his affections and appreciate his charity in these matters. All in all, I have no doubt that Jason is a devoted and serious person, seeking to find the Truth of Christ in this world. I only wish that he would consider giving the Orthodox Church a second look, for I believe many of his concerns are unjustified and unfounded.
In the end, it seems that most of Jason’s concerns are of a “pastoral” nature, and have — as a result — no real bearing on whether or not the Roman Catholic Church is the one, true Church, or whether the Orthodox Church is “wrong” on certain theological matters. Many of these issues (and I submit that phyletism, for example, is a real problem that needs correction) are such that they can be changed and improved over time. On the other hand, the issues I’ve noted with the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. the innovations regarding the filioque) are so “set in stone” through Roman Catholic dogma, that seeing true reform and correction on such matters is far less likely.
May Christ our true God have mercy on us both, and I wish Jason the best in his endeavors. Lord, have mercy.
Vincent Martini has a BA in Philosophy from Indiana University and is an Orthodox convert / layman in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. He resides in northwest Arkansas.