FAQ/Q&A

Things Catholics often don’t understand about Eastern Orthodoxy 


Written in early 2000; edited

‘Why aren’t you under the Pope?’ Orthodox believe the church in its fullness is present wherever the faithful are gathered around their bishop — a successor to the apostles holding the true faith — celebrating the Eucharist. (Priests in the thinking of the early church are ordained to stand in for the bishop at the local community’s offering of Christ’s sacrifice.) Therefore national or autocephalous (self-headed) churches (under their own patriarchs — some of these churches date back to the apostles) are each the church in its fullness. (The patriarch of Constantinople is not ‘the Orthodox Pope’ or ‘the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians’ as is often wrongly reported.) The word ‘church’ often is used in four ways: the one true church (the universal or Catholic Church) is made up of churches (particular autocephalous or autonomous churches) in communion with each other. These in turn are made up of local churches each gathered around a bishop, and these are made up of local congregations (including, for example, geographical parishes). 

Catholicism agrees with this Orthodox understanding, except it holds that communion with only one patriarch, the Pope of Rome (who indeed was pre-eminent in the preschism church), is necessary to be fully the church. He is regarded as both the patriarch of his particular church, the Roman one, and a kind of super-patriarch, the ‘vicar of Christ’, of the universal church, as the unique successor of St Peter. 

‘The Catholic Church has the Eastern rites. Why don’t you all just join those?’ Catholicism holds the Orthodox and other Eastern churches separated from it have real bishops and real sacraments and therefore that corporate reunion with the Orthodox as whole churches, not as individual converts, is possible. (This is not true of Protestants.) This in part makes the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches possible. But with the creation of the Byzantine Catholic churches from the late 1500s onwards rather than seeking corporate reunion, Catholics sought to gain individual conversions at the Orthodox’ expense, angering and hurting the Orthodox to this day. While Catholics (including the Popes) did not officially sanction ‘latinization’, they did view their Byzantine churches as some sort of substitute or replacement for the Orthodox: a strategy called ‘Uniatism’. Today, one of the few good outcomes of Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is that this approach to the Orthodox has been dropped, and again, corporate reunion — a restoration of communion between the churches, not the liquidation of the Orthodox — is the goal. Catholicism today defends the right of the present-day Eastern Catholics to exist in communion with Rome, but does not use these churches to solicit conversions from the Orthodox. Also, the Eastern Catholics are being told to remove latinizations and become as much like the Orthodox as possible to prepare for an eventual reconciliation.  

‘Is Russian Orthodoxy the same religion as Greek Orthodoxy, etc.?’ Russian Orthodoxy is the same religion as Greek, Antiochian (Arab), Romanian, Bulgarian and Serbian (etc.) Orthodoxy. Remember that in Orthodoxy, the church is a family of churches in communion with each other, and that these churches are independent of each other in government, even though they hold the same faith. So, in Europe and the Middle East, each country or ethnic group has its own church, usually geographical, that is communion with the rest of the Orthodox community worldwide.

‘If you’re all one religion, why are you in different churches in America?’ In America before 1917, all Orthodox of any ethnicity were under one church jurisdiction, the Russian mission, otherwise made up mostly of Slavic former Eastern Catholics from the Austro-Hungarian Empire reacting to the bad treatment they got from the Roman Catholic bishops in the US and some immigrants actually from Russia. But after the Russian Revolution, communication with the church in Russia became difficult and unreliable so the various ethnic groups started their own jurisdictions, asking the churches in their homelands for help. (The Russians themselves split into three groups to deal with this problem.) Today, the Orthodox in America recognize that their multiplicity of jurisdictions is an historical anomaly that is uncanonical and needs correction, especially since the original reason for the proliferation of separate church groups — Communism in Russia — no longer exists. (The apostolic ideal is one bishop per city; Americans live simultaneously in at least five Orthodox dioceses.) All of the divisions are superficial and temporary, and have nothing to do with the essence of Orthodoxy. All Orthodox can cross jurisdictions and receive the sacraments at other canonical Orthodox churches. 

‘Why are some of your priests married?’ In the early church, priests often were married, and the Orthodox have maintained this discipline, confirmed by the (non-ecumenical) Council of Trullo, which also ruled that bishops must be celibate (a discipline, not a doctrine). Orthodox bishops are either widowers or longtime monks. Except in places where Rome banned it, the Eastern Catholics also ordain married men. The rule is ‘a married man can become a priest but a priest can’t get married’. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are deacons and former Protestant ministers, now priests, who are married; these follow the same discipline as the Orthodox. They were married before ordination to major orders (starting with the diaconate) and when the wife dies they can’t marry again except by dispensation.

‘Why do your churches have those paintings and not statues? Why don’t you have Stations of the Cross?’ Byzantine Rite churches — most Orthodox and some Catholic churches — are full of special paintings called icons, which are more than decoration, teaching tools — though a lot of theology is behind their designs, and they do teach theology — or devotional aids. They are more like a sacrament. The person shown in the icon is mystically present. However, icons are not idols — the prayer passes through the icon to the person represented and so the wood and paint aren’t literally worshipped or adored. Icons aren’t meant to be lifelike or realistic, but instead are painted following strict rules, an elaborate language of colors and symbols. They are blessed by a priest before being used in church or at home. Early and medieval Western religious paintings, before the Renaissance, resembled icons. Also, using paintings instead of statues is partly cultural. In the early church there was controversy over whether one could use images in worship — the Jews say it violates the First Commandment and the Muslims have adopted this position. For about 100 years, enforced by the Byzantine emperor, the anti-images faction in the church, called iconoclasts (Greek for ‘image-smashers’) won. But then the whole church had a council, the second Council of Nicaea, which restored the use of images — the fact that God has become man means we can show His face in figural art. But in the East there was and still is a compromise: instead of statues, which look like the figures of Greek and Roman gods in pagan temples, Christian images are flat, or at most bas-relief. Every year, on the first Sunday of Great Lent (the fasting period before Easter), called ‘the Sunday of Orthodoxy’, the Byzantine Rite celebrates the church’s teaching on icons.

The Stations of the Cross is a medieval devotion spread in the Roman Catholic Church by the Franciscans, who based it on the route Jesus took on the way to His crucifixion. Because the Byzantine Rite evolved separately from the Roman Rite, there are no Stations in Orthodox churches. Also, Orthodox devotion tends to emphasize the glorified, transfigured, risen Christ more than His earthly sufferings, but the latter are not ignored. Orthodox use and venerate the crucifix. 

‘Why don’t you pray the rosary?’ The Byzantine Rite used by Orthodox and some Catholic churches has its own devotions to Mary including its own version of the Hail Mary: ‘Rejoice, O virgin Mother of God, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou has borne the Saviour of our souls.’ There are long litany-like akathists and canons. There is also the prayer rope counting the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, but unlike the Roman rosary it's not a lay devotion at home and in the parishes but a monastic practice. Like the Stations of the Cross, the rosary developed in the Roman Church after the split. St Dominic introduced it.

‘Why do you cross yourselves backwards?’ Why do you? :) Those who follow American football might remember Bernie Kosar, who played for the Cleveland Browns and would cross himself the Orthodox way on the field. (He is a Byzantine Catholic.) Actually, some think the way people make the sign of the cross in the Byzantine Rite used by the Orthodox and some Catholic churches — using the fingers of the right hand, touching the forehead, below the chest, right shoulder, then left shoulder (actually a bigger, fuller gesture than what’s done in the Roman Rite) — is the original way of doing it. But non-Byzantine Eastern churches do it left to right like the West. The Byzantine way also uses the fingers symbolically, holding the thumb, index and ring fingers together to stand for the Trinity, and the third and little finger folded against the palm to stand for the two natures, human and divine, of Christ. Sometime in the 11th century, starting in Italy, Roman Catholics began touching the left shoulder first. Nobody really knows why. 

‘Why do some of your crosses have extra bars like the slanted one on the bottom?’ The top bar is the sign placed on the cross that said ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. The bottom bar is the piece of wood to which Jesus’ feet were nailed. (On Byzantine crucifixes, the feet are side by side, each with a nail through it; on Roman ones they are crossed, with one nail going through both.) There are several stories to explain why the bottom bar is often slanted. One identifies it with the X-shaped cross on which St Andrew later was killed. (St Andrew the apostle is a patron saint of Byzantine churches — legend has it he visited Scythia, which later became Ukraine.) Another is a legend that says the bar tilted like a scale to show the good thief crucified next to Jesus, St Dismas, joined Him in paradise while the thief who mocked Him was lost. Still another explanation simply says Jesus was in such pain He tried to move His legs, causing the bottom board to shift. Most often identified with the Orthodox and particularly with the Russian Church, the three-bar cross pre-dates the conversion of the Russians in 988. In Byzantine iconography it has been used as a symbol of martyrdom.

 What Orthodox often don’t understand about Catholicism 

‘The churches split in 1054.’ False. What happened in 1054 was the result of political rivalry between the Western ‘Holy Roman’ empire (started when the Pope crowned Charlemagne) and the Byzantine or eastern Roman Empire (the continuation of the Roman Empire). Papal legates excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople and vice versa in 1054, but neither church at the time saw this as a permanent break. In fact, the Slavic Byzantine churches remained in communion with Rome after that year, which is why the Russians commemorate the moving of St Nicholas’ body to Bari, Italy, and the Greeks don’t: it happened after 1054. The schism was a gradual estrangement in the Middle Ages, exacerbated by the rise of Islamic power in the Middle East, which cut off contact between Latin Christian western Europe and the Greek Christian Byzantines, and by the sacking of Constantinople by soldiers of the Latin Fourth Crusade in 1204, and narrowed with attempts at reconciliation (the councils of Lyons and of Ferrara-Florence). Some Orthodox sees, like the metropolitanate of Kiev in Rus’ (now Ukraine) and the patriarchate of Antioch in Syria, tried at times to maintain communion with both Rome and Constantinople during the medieval years. The reunion effected at Florence was broken in 1473 after the Turks destroyed the Byzantine Empire (conquering Constantinople in 1453). Some say the schism wasn’t final until the creation of the Eastern Catholic churches by Rome outraged the Orthodox. 

‘Catholics believe the Pope isn’t a sinner... they believe he is automatically a saint.’ (Actual quotations from eastern European Orthodox.) False. Papal infallibility isn’t nearly as broad in its powers as non-Catholics think! Catholicism teaches that this dogma (defined in 1870) is a specific application of church infallibility, something both sides believe in. It says the Pope can at times act as a one-man ecumenical council to defend and interpret Holy Tradition, not invent new dogmas that contradict Tradition. It is a function of the Pope’s office, not a personal power of the man. In his opinions as a man the Pope is as fallible as everybody else (he can’t predict the weather, for example) and can even be a private heretic (which takes care of Pope Honorius, condemned posthumously for heresy). St Robert Bellarmine explained that if a Pope tried to teach heresy in his function of infallibility, he ipso facto wouldn’t be Pope anymore, because by so doing he would have put himself outside the church: ‘The manifestly heretical Pope ceases per se to be Pope and head as he ceases per se to be a Christian and member of the church, and therefore he can be judged and punished by the church. This is the teaching of all the early Fathers’ — De Romano Pontifice (Milan, 1857), vol. II, chap. 30, p. 420. (Orthodox may rightly ask why only the patriarch of the West is blessed with this gift.) John Paul II was said to go to confession often, so obviously he didn’t think he wasn’t a sinner! 

‘What about the filioque?’ To refute the heresy of Arianism, which teaches Jesus is less than God, Latin theologians starting in Spain began to add the word filioque — Latin for ‘and the Son’ — to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (‘... and in the Holy Spirit... who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]’) adopted by the church at ecumenical councils. (An idea found in the writings of some of the church Fathers, who individually were, of course, fallible.) By this the West did not teach that there is a double procession, or two Holy Spirits, one from the Father, the other from the Son! Still, the Creed shouldn’t have been altered (one of the Popes at the time agreed!), except by another ecumenical council. At the medieval reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence, it was agreed that filioque means that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. 

‘And the Immaculate Conception?’ First of all, the Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth of Christ. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold that Mary is sinless, and indeed the Byzantine Rite calls her ‘immaculate’. The postschism (1854) Roman definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (the concept dates back to John Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages and even before him to Paschasius Radbertus in the 800s) refers to Our Lady being free from original sin from the moment of her conception. Some object that this rules out her redemption by her Son, but since Jesus is God, His acts aren’t bound by time or space. So by ‘prevenient grace’ she was, retroactively if you will, redeemed by Him. The thinking behind this definition is very bound up in Western Catholic thought about original sin. Since the East doesn’t use this theological framework to describe the faith, perhaps the wording of the Immaculate Conception isn’t necessary for the Orthodox to describe the purity of Our Lady. 

‘Doesn’t Orthodoxy teach that Catholicism is heretical or without grace?’ Yes but only as an opinion. Catholicism does not teach that postschism Orthodox are heretics. The Orthodox dogmatically hold that Orthodoxy is the church and has grace in its sacraments: the church is one, her mysteries (sacraments) are one. Orthodox doctrine is the first seven councils of Catholic doctrine. The rest is a matter of opinion. Some Orthodox, like the late Archbishop Vsevolod in Chicago, hold a view that reciprocates Catholicism’s toward Orthodoxy; others, like the late Fr Seraphim (Rose), hold the opinion that only Orthodoxy has grace. Both positions are allowable as Orthodox, but neither are what Orthodoxy definitively teaches. In fact, the 19th-century Russian thinker Vladimir Soloviev took this to an unusual extreme, holding that since Russia never formally had broken communion with Rome and because Orthodoxy never had condemned postschism Catholicism in an ecumenical council, one could hold everything Catholicism teaches yet remain in the Russian Orthodox Church! Such views are very rare, however. Most Orthodox simply don’t speculate about grace outside Orthodoxy.