A Commentary on Eastern Orthodoxy

July 05, 2016
Source: District of the USA

A response to the question asked by a prominent Catholic news organization last week: What do Catholics and Orthodox disagree about anyway?

On June 30, Catholic News Agency ran a story by Carl Bunderson covering the doctrinal and theological disagreements which continue to divide Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. The piece, which comes on the heels of the “Holy and Great Council” held by the Orthodox in Crete last week, focuses primarily on Orthodox objections to Papal Primacy. Here is an excerpt.

The foremost theological-ecclesiological division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism is the role of the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope. In the west, Church unity was expressed through being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter. Petrine primary among the apostles was a cornerstone in the west, whereas the east regarded St. Peter and his successors as Bishop of Rome as 'first among equals.'

"Papal primacy was defined for the Catholic Church at the First Vatican Council, held in 1870. That council, held to be ecumenical by Catholics, taught that the Bishop of Rome has immediate and direct jurisdiction over the whole Church, and that when he speaks ex cathedra he possesses infallibility.

"The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, have a conciliar model of the Church. For them, unity is through the common faith and communion in the sacraments, rather than a centralized authority. They do not recognize the authority of the Bishop of Rome over all Christians, but rather consider him equal to other bishops, though with a primacy of honor."

It is important not to overstate the effectiveness of Orthodoxy’s “conciliar model.” With regard to the aforementioned Orthodox Council, jurisdictional disagreements coupled with national interests led to several local Orthodox churches skipping the Council (Antioch, Bulgaria, and Moscow), meaning that less than half of world Orthodoxy was represented at the meeting. (The Patriarch of Moscow alone is responsible for the care of nearly two-thirds of all Orthodox Christians.) Moreover, the Moscow Patriarchate has been at public odds with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) for years, leading some to wonder if a schism between the two bodies is on the horizon. At the same time, several smaller Orthodox churches are formally out-of-communion with one another, including the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem. With no clearly defined and accepted doctrine of primacy, the Orthodox often struggle to find a way to resolve inter-ecclesial disputes or even hold official gatherings.

Beyond Papal Primacy, Bunderson quickly reviews a number of other contentious topics, including Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, the nature of Original Sin, and the Latin Catholic inclusion of the filioque (“. . . and from the Son”) in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. (For the record, Greek Catholics, that is Eastern Catholics following the Byzantine Rite, have never been obligated to include the filioque in their respective recensions of the Creed.) How critical these matters are to keeping Catholics and Orthodox separated is a matter of debate. Several Catholic scholars, including Frs. Aidan Nichols, O.P. and Christiaan Kappes, along with Professor Adam DeVille, have helped clarify in recent years the extent to which cultural and historical misunderstandings between East and West may be at the root of ecclesiastical estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox. While this is not to say that there are not sincere and concrete disagreements (or misunderstandings) which need to be overcome, the degree of theological and doctrinal separation between two communions may not be as large as some think.

More impacting on the future of Catholic/Orthodox relations is the role of geopolitics; for when men do not submit to the authority divinely given to them, they often become more dependent on earthly powers, even in spiritual matters. Ever since the loss of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 (and arguably earlier), the Orthodox have been beholden to an ethnic-national model of church governance which is bound up with the secular state. Today, for example, it is difficult to separate the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church from the global interests of the Russian state itself. Russian incursions into Ukraine have gone hand-in-hand with renewed Orthodox persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) in Crimea and eastern parts of the country. Following the recent meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Havana, Cuba, many Ukrainian Catholics, including their leader, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, expressed dismay that the Holy Father was apparently more interested in placating Moscow than defending the rights of the UGCC.

While it is undoubtedly true that the rift between Catholics and Orthodox represents a great wound to Christianity, it is crucial that Latin Catholics and the authorities in Rome do not prioritize ecumenical relations with the Orthodox over the protection and flourishing of the 23 sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches already in full communion with Rome. The great work of healing the schism will require more than just theological dialogue; prayer, especially to our Lady who has manifested so much interest for Russia in her apparition at Fatima, will be required to drive out the demons of division that have left Christendom fractured for nearly a millennium.