Sunday, June 27, 2004

Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A Comparison

This is the Introduction to a new book I hope to complete in the next few weeks. I basically withdrew from the ongoing argumentation between Orthodox and Catholics about four or five years ago (despite a rather large collection of articles I had built up; perhaps the most extensive set of critiques of Orthodoxy by a single Catholic online -- since mostly withdrawn), because I found that most of the (vocal) Orthodox on the Internet who are interested in that discussion were anti-Catholic or anti-Western or both. How representative they are of Orthodoxy as a whole, I don't know for sure, but I suspect that they are not, just as the anti-Catholic Protestants who dominate Protestant-Catholic discussion on the Internet are not representative of the best strains of Protestantism.

Secondly, I have felt that it is somewhat improper to engage in such wrangling when our Orthodox brothers and sisters are so close to us in spirit and doctrine (far more than most Protestant brethren in Christ). I believe it is much more important -- all things considered -- to find common ground with them. Nevertheless, I do continue to think that a comparison and contrast of the two outlooks is a valid undertaking, particularly for the sake of potential converts from Protestantism who are asking about the differences which exist. Obviously, I think Catholicism is the "better" option of the two, since I am a Catholic (and I could have just as well converted to Orthodoxy, and know formerly Protestant friends who did).

So my book will explain why I am Catholic rather than Orthodox, with no intended disrespect towards the latter. If we can't talk about our differences in a gentlemanly manner, then we won't advance Christian unity, because we will then merely be pretending that the differences don't exist, or that they do, but they don't matter. They certainly do matter. If they didn't, then the schism between East and West was even more tragic than it was, and unnecessary in any sense.


Orthodox Christianity possesses the seven sacraments, valid ordination, the Real Presence, a reverential understanding of Sacred Tradition, apostolic succession, a profound piety, a great history of contemplative and monastic spirituality, a robust veneration of Mary and the saints, and many other truly Christian attributes. Catholics (including myself) widely admire, in particular, the sense of the sacred and the beauty and grandeur of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy (which -- it should be noted -- is also present in the many Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church), as the great Catholic author Thomas Howard eloquently illustrates:

When I walk into an Orthodox Church . . . one is immediately aware that one has stepped into the presence of what St. Paul would call the whole family in heaven and earth. You have stepped into the precincts of heaven! . . . I love the Orthodox Church's spirit. I think the Orthodox Church many, many centuries ago, discovered a mode of music and worship which is timeless, which is quite apart from fashion, and which somehow answers to the mystery and the solemnity and the sacramental reality of the liturgy.

(1 "A Conversation With Thomas Howard and Frank Schaeffer," The Christian Activist, vol. 9, Fall/Winter 1996, 43)

In pointing out the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, no disrespect is intended towards my Eastern brethren in Christ; this is simply a "comparison and contrast" for the purpose of educating inquirers who are interested in both Christian communions. My Catholic bias will be evident and should not come as a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, I devoutly hope that I succeed in avoiding the shortcomings of triumphalism or lack of charity. And I certainly do not wish to misrepresent Orthodox views in any fashion.

Catholics must believe that Orthodoxy is a part of the universal Church (commensurate with the Second Vatican Council and many recent papal encyclicals on ecumenism in general or Orthodoxy in particular). That fact alone precludes the justification of any condescension, animosity, or hostility, which is especially sinful amongst Christians (Galatians 6:10).

[See: Ut Unum Sint -- That They May Be One, Orientale Lumen -- The Light of the East (encyclicals of Pope John Paul II), and Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I (29 June 1995) ]


The Nicene Creed, adhered to by most Christians, contains the phrase, "One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." From a Catholic ecclesiological perspective, Orthodoxy -- strictly speaking – is not "one" Church, but a conglomerate of at least seventeen, each with separate governance. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 edition, vol. 17, 867) states that, "Since the Russian Revolution there has been much turmoil and administrative conflict within the Orthodox Church." Although Orthodox theology is fairly homogeneous, nevertheless, a Catholic would respectfully reply that none of these "autocephalous" churches can speak with the doctrinal definitiveness which existed in the Church before 1054, and which indeed still resides in the papacy and magisterium of the Catholic Church.


Catholics assert that Orthodoxy's rejection of the papacy is inconsistent with the nature of the Church through the centuries. No one denies the existence of the papacy in some form in the early period. Orthodoxy, however, regards the authority exercised by popes historically (or which should have been exercised) as simply that of a primacy of honor, rather than a supremacy of jurisdiction over all other bishops and regional churches. To counter that claim, Catholics point to biblical Petrine evidences and the actual wielding of authority by renowned popes such as St. Leo the Great (440-61) and St. Gregory the Great (590-604), honored as saints even by the Orthodox.

The papacy, according to Catholic Tradition, is a divinely-instituted office, not merely (as Orthodoxy considers the papacy and Roman supremacy) a political and historical happenstance. Rome was apostolic, and preeminent from the beginning of Christianity, whereas Constantinople (the seat of the Byzantine Empire) was not.


Orthodoxy (and Eastern Catholic Christianity, from roughly the second half of the first millennium) has been plagued with caesaropapism, which, in effect (in terms of exercised power and de facto jurisdiction, if not actual Orthodox doctrinal teaching), places the state above the church -– somewhat similar to early Lutheranism and Anglicanism.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, it is significantly easier to maintain the notion that the Church is regarded as above all states (which Orthodoxy also formally believes), and is their judge, as the carrier of God's Law, which transcends and forms the basis of man's law. The papacy is the bulwark and standard and symbol whereby this dichotomy is supported. Patriarchs -- oftentimes -- were put into power by the Emperors in the East according to their whim and fancy and were all too frequently little more than puppets or yes-men. Noble exceptions, such as a St. John Chrysostom or a St. Flavian, more often than not had to appeal to Rome in order to save their patriarchates or necks or both.


Orthodoxy accepts the first seven ecumenical councils (up to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787), but no more. From a Catholic perspective, this appears incoherent and implausible. Why have an agreed-upon system in which Councils are central to the governance of the Church universal, and then all of a sudden they cease, and Orthodox Christians must do without them for 1200 years?


Likewise, Orthodoxy accepts the doctrinal development which occurred in the first eight centuries of the Church, but then allows little of any noteworthiness to take place thereafter. For instance, the filioque, i.e., the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, rather than from the Father alone (which the West added to the Nicene Creed), was rejected by the East, and has been considered by the Orthodox a major reason for the enduring schism, yet Catholics would reply that it was a straightforward development of trinitarian theology (one of many accepted by both East and West).

Aspects of doctrines such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and purgatory (not defined doctrine, although the Orthodox pray for the dead), which experienced a measure of development in the Middle Ages and after, are not recognized in Orthodoxy. For example, Orthodoxy doesn't define the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, but it should be noted that Orthodox individuals are free to believe these without being deemed "heretical." Catholics feel that Orthodoxy is implicitly denying the notion of the Church (past the eighth century) as the living, developing Body of Christ, continuously led into deeper truth by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13-15).


Catholics would argue that Orthodoxy has not come to grips with modernity and the new challenges to Christianity that it brings, in terms of how to effectively communicate the gospel to modern man. The Catholic Church renewed itself along these lines in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). One need not compromise doctrine in order to deal with the modern situation. Pope John Paul II does not do so in his stream of extremely relevant and cogent encyclicals on present-day issues such as moral theology, labor, the family, the role of women, the place of laypeople, etc.

Although, as a result of this undertaking (i.e., due to a corruption of the nature of the Council by ambitious heterodox Catholics), the Catholic Church suffers from a modernist crisis within its own ranks, this too will pass, and Orthodoxy is not altogether immune from such things. Signs of a revival of orthodoxy in the Catholic ranks are increasing, and the nonsense will fade away like all the other crises and heretical movements in the past. The long-term benefits of the strategy to confront the culture boldly and with fresh insight and innovation (within the bounds of traditional Catholic orthodoxy) will be evident in the years to come.


Orthodoxy, although praiseworthy in its generally traditional stand for Christian morality, differs from Catholicism over the question of the propriety and morality of contraception, which was universally condemned by all branches of Christianity until 1930. Thus, Catholics feel that they (almost alone today) are more in accord with apostolic Christian Tradition on this point, and that an acceptance of contraception is a giving in to humanistic sexual ethics. Catholics regard it as a mortal sin, whereas much of Orthodoxy does not even forbid it. To be fair, it is true that some of the more "conservative" or "traditional" branches of Orthodoxy have retained the traditional view, but the very fact of plurality in such a grave moral issue is highly troubling.


Catholics also believe that Jesus and the apostles, and ancient Christian Tradition, considered a valid sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians as absolutely indissoluble. An annulment is essentially different from a divorce in that it is the determination (based on a variety of possible reasons) that a valid sacramental marriage never existed. Orthodoxy accepts second and third marriages, with, however, a measure of penitential sadness commensurate with a falling short of the Christian ideal, and feels that this is a tragic pastoral necessity, in light of the fallen human condition.


Mackenzie said...

Dave, I’m a new member to the “Coming Home” forum and have yet to actually post. I have been communicating with one of the other members privately (and I love her). I found this essay while reading today. Although I’m not at all interested in conflicts that do nothing but leave feelings hurt or in “trolling” for debate. I have been trying for awhile to figure out the “meat” of what separates Catholics and Orthodox for awhile. A good friend of mine and I were both members of evangelical churches to varying degrees when we were younger. Over the course of time, I have converted to Catholicism and she to Orthodoxy. She and I have no trouble communicating and in fact agree on, well it seems, everything with mutual respect for what seems like the hair splitting issues that we disagree on. She has visited my church and I, hers. Here is where it got difficult. My priest has always indicated that what separates us is very little and she and her family are welcome in the Church with open arms, not to take Eucharist, but with everything else. I did not feel the same in the Orthodox church. Although I loved the beautiful liturgy, tangible worship with all my senses and the icons; the priest seemed to, like many protestant churches I attended in the past, spend his time telling his congregation why they were not Catholic. It was uncomfortable at best. Now, my son is taking his First Communion and I invited her and she told me her husband had decided that it was not something they could support since it was not an “Orthodox” first communion.

I guess I just wonder if this mistrust and misunderstanding between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is really as one sided as I’ve experienced or if I’ve just had a bad experience?

Thanks for your insight.


Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Mackenzie,

Nice to "meet" you.

Sadly, I (and many others) have also experienced this sort of anti-Catholicism or "contra-Catholicism" in Orthodox circles. It varies widely, but it is a definite motif than can be observed.

I went to an Orthodox Bible study once with friends who had become Orthodox and I was berated for a half-hour outside the door about all the horrors of "Catholism" (as he called it). Even my friends started to assume a sour tone and a few months afterward they decided to no longer be friends with us.

On the whole, I think Catholics are far more ecumenical. We accept Orthodox sacraments and consider them the other "lung" of the Church. Oftentimes, they deny that our sacraments are valid, and even that grace can be obtained in Catholicism.

Like I said, many exceptions, but that is a tendency often observed. I've seen it personally many times online and offline.

Maroun said...

Hi Mackenzie
I hope that you dont mind if i also try to tell you something about the relation between catholics and orthodox?
I am originaly from Lebanon , and in Lebanon ,as a catholic i can have the eucharist in an orthodox church and the orthodox can and do have the eucharist in the catholic church.
So as Dave told you,it varies widely.For example in Russia,we are called heretics by many orthodox priests and so on.
It`s very sad,that this is hapening between brothers and sisters in the Lord,but we cannot deny that it is hapening,and most of the times or very often,it`s not at all about dogmas,but just for historical and political and other reasons.
Keep on praying for your friend,and try as peacfully as you can to share and discuss things with her about the things which unite us and also about what she thinks divides us . And also ask her,how come in the middle east and in Egypt , and elswhere they do not doubt at all that our communion is a real communion ( eucharist ).
Are they like Russian or Bulgarian orthodox?

Mackenzie said...

Being a convert from evangelical non-denominational churches, I have had my fill of argument and debate. Mind you, I’m always open for discussion, but it seems that most “conversations” deteriorate quickly into hurt feelings and animosity. One of the things that really attracted me to the Catholic Church was the peace emanating from the leadership. I realize that this is not the same everywhere, but I personally have never heard a priest “badmouth” non-Catholics while preaching or counseling. This is very different from my experience with evangelicalism where it seemed like we were desperately trying to define ourselves as “different” from Catholics, or Lutherans, or anyone else. The Catholic Church, in contrast, was always there, never faltering, sure of itself, not engaging in hurtful debate and continuing to do what it has done for thousands of years. I found more peace in this solidarity than I ever thought possible.

I assume my friends converted to Orthodoxy with similar feelings. They are ex-youth ministers. I never considered Orthodoxy because I married a Catholic. One of the things I love about the Orthodox Church is its traditional worship style. Unless you’ve been to one, it’s impossible to explain except to say (and I quote this from someone else), “You will find God here.” By the time I had discovered this rich and beautiful tradition, I was ingrained enough in the Catholic Church to believe in the Apostolic succession of Pope through Peter so it seemed to me that even considering “conversion” to Orthodoxy would be going backwards. No matter how beautiful the services are, the Catholic Church IS the Church Christ established through Peter. Not to mention what it would do to my family. Nevertheless, when I mentioned it to my friends, they immediately latched onto the idea that I should convert. I kind of laughed it off saying that then we would certainly have to move because the only Orthodox Church in my neck of the woods is 80 miles away. They looked at me and nodded and said very solemnly, “We all have to do what is necessary when the truth calls,” or something like that. I changed the subject. (This was the same service in which “why we aren’t Catholic” was discussed. I STILL don’t understand why the filioque issue is so hot and if you can accept the Pope as a “First Among Equals” or “Bishop of the West” which I understand some Orthodox do, what is so divisive and impossible to overcome? I probably didn’t handle it as well as I could have because I hate debating with people who just want to tell you why you’re wrong and they are right so I dropped it.

I thought that was the end of it, but then I invited her to my son’s First Communion and the invitation was refused with the explanation that our Communion is “real”. I have to admit, I was very hurt. I wish they would have just made an excuse. Honestly, my first thought was, “How very Protestant of you,” then I felt horrible for having such a judgmental thought. I believe in my heart that the comment was meant to “push” me towards considering conversion. It’s a hold-over from their evangelical days when “converting” people was the best form of devotion and Christian could show to Christ.

I don’t know what kind of Orthodox they are. Honestly, where we live, there isn’t really much choice. My town doesn’t even have an Orthodox Church and hers has one for a 100 mile radius (which is why they live where they do.)

Anyway, once again I have written way more than I intended. I appreciate both of your responses. I do continue to pray for the situation because she is my friend and probably has a better understanding of my journey than anyone else I’m close to. Most of what I’ve learned I’ve done on my own through lots of reading and praying. I only recently started to reach out so I don’t have a lot of kindred souls yet.

Thanks for listening.


Dave Armstrong said...

Thanks for sharing your story again. You can get a lot of personal and moral support at CHNI too, if you post there. There are many wonderful prayer warriors.

I think part of the problem here is that every belief-system obviously believes itself to be true, and has to have a viewpoint that explains others who differ. They can either be demonized as "all bad" (the separatist, fundamentalist, exclusivist route), thought to be equally as good, regardless of the differences (liberal relativism), or (the Catholic view) in possession of many true teachings, mixed with some erroneous ones, and able to be respected insofar as they teach truth and have sincere members in good faith.

Some Orthodox are of the latter mindset, but others are "fundamentalist." People make their choice of which one to be. I think the Catholic approach is the most sensible, rational, charitable, and biblical.

Mackenzie said...


Ha, I guess I am repeating myself. My apologies. I love the CHNI forum and will be posting (did so this morning). Many years of training on “framing the issue” have taken their toll. I agree that each individual situation is different and just want you to have as much information as I can fit into the space. I made my peace with Protestantism a long time ago, but apparently have work to do with regard Orthodoxy. I have said it before but I hate mean spirited debate. What I’m honestly looking for is somebody to do like you are, write about it without malicious intent or to “persuade” me one way or another. I’m persuaded, I’m Catholic, but I want to understand and appreciate other things as well.

I truly appreciate your patience.


Dave Armstrong said...

You're not "repeating" yourself! :-) That's not what I meant by the word "again." I meant "thanks for posting again and giving more detail about your personal story." I think you write well and express valid concerns, and I always appreciate that.

You're welcome to post here anytime. Sometimes I miss a comment if I'm real busy or there are a lot of comments in a short span of time, but I try to make some reply if I have any thoughts that I think might possibly be helpful.

God bless!

Maroun said...

Hi again Mackenzie.
Have you ever checked the catholic encyclopedia New Advent?If you havent,then please do,i am sure that you will find some exstraodinary things and many valid informations.And also in the same encyclopedia you could check church fathers and check many od their writings.My favorite of course is st Augustine...

ecclesiaprimus said...

Dear Dave:
I have recently had a contact with an Orthodox abbot of Russian Orthodoxy backgroung. Just as you have said I regarded him as a brother, not yet in full communion. But, I was not prepared for the strong anti-Catholic spirit, that it seems like an end of our communication. However, I do hope I could have a nice, decent conversation without the need of a fight.
Anyhow, I just read your very interesting comparison you made in your article.
Well, since I don't have any way to communicate with you, as before, I am wondering if you could allow me to publish that excellent article, in our blog
God bless you,
Robert Nicodemo
Splendor Veritatis Missio
Miami, Florida
Corpus Christi Parish

Lora said...

Dave, please don't shy away from publishing a book about the differences between Catholicism & Orthodoxy. I'm a cradle Catholic, the 11th child of devout parents, Catholic-school educated (post-Vatican II) who THOUGHT I knew my religion. Yet when Orthodox friends told me half-truths about my faith, I believed them and came very close to converting to Orthodoxy. (I would have been one of several former Catholics in their church.) It was only the grace of God and the Holy Spirit "nagging me" to study Catholicism as seriously as I was studying Orthodoxy that not only brought me back to the Catholic faith, but made me fall in love with the Bride of Christ and be willing to die for her. If I could have found a book that outlined the differences (and the reasons for them) between Catholicism & Orthodoxy, perhaps I would not have come so close to converting, and maybe I could have kept at least one other Catholic from leaving the Catholic faith for Orthodoxy.

By the way, the feeling I get from talking to my friends in the Orthodox Church is that while they recognize that Catholicism is closer to their belief system than Protestantism, they lump Protestants and Catholics together in the "Western Christian" category (they don't talk about Eastern Rite Catholics as if they don't exist), and have no more real respect for Catholics than they do for Protestants. They (the ones I know, anyway) send their kids to a Lutheran school even though there are Catholic schools available (no Orthodox schools in our state). My friends' church is the only Orthodox church within a couple hundred miles, and it is an OCA. There are some Greeks, some Russians, some Syrians, and many converts from Protestantism and Catholicism (including the priest & his wife). Their attitude really seems to be as Mackenzie described to be her friend's attitudes toward Catholicism.

P.S. - What is CHNI?

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Lora,

I did write a book about Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

The Orthodox are a mixed bag just as Catholics are. They run the whole gamut in their views of us.

CHNI = Coming Home Network International, headed by Marcus Grodi. They help people who want to become Catholics or return to the faith.

Lora said...

Thanks, Dave.

After I posted, I realized that you had written that book -- several years ago! I'm going to ask my local bookstore to order a copy for me; hopefully they'll order a few copies and others will buy it, too!

As an aside, I looked through your list of books and realized that I already own a few of them. God bless you for all your great work!