Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A Comparison

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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 Byzantine or Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church), as Thomas Howard eloquently illustrates:

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 links:
Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church (Pope John Paul II)
Ut Unum Sint - That They May Be One (Pope John Paul II)
Orientale Lumen - The Light of the East (Pope John Paul II)
The Balamand Report
The Balamand Statement
St. Maximus Society
Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I (6-29-95)
Baptism and "Sacramental Economy" (Ecumenical Statement)

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, v.17, p. 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. See links:

That They May All Be One: Imperatives and Prospects of Christian Unity (Edward Idris Cassidy)
Ecumenism, God's Will (Dave Keene)
Basic Steps Towards Christian Unity (Mark Cote)
We Cannot Remain Separated (Pope John Paul II)

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. See links:

50 New Testament Proofs for Petrine Primacy and the Papacy (Dave Armstrong)
The Development of the Papacy (John Henry Cardinal Newman)
Pope St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461) and Papal Supremacy
Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) and the Universal Papacy (Dave Armstrong)
Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue on Papal Infallibility (Dave Armstrong)
Dialogue on Papal Jurisdiction (Dave Armstrong)
Peter the Rock - A Discussion on the Views of the Early Church Fathers (Martin Beckman)
The Eastern Church Defends Petrine Primacy and the Papacy! (Fathers; compiled by Antoine Valentim)

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. Why this difference? The following papers explore this complex historical and sociopolitical (as opposed to formal doctrinal) question in much more depth:


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? See links:

Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Councils, and Development of Doctrine (Dave Armstrong)
On the Papacy and Councils (John Henry Cardinal Newman)
Pope Silvester and the Council of Nicaea (Dave Armstrong)

Likewise, Orthodoxy accepts the doctrinal development which occurred in the first eight centuries of the Church, but then allows little of any noteworthiness (with some notable exceptions: see first link below) 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). See links:

Development of Doctrine in Orthodoxy and Catholicism: Different in Essence? (Dave Armstrong)
Dialogue: The East and Development of Doctrine (particularly with regard to papal infallibility) (Dave Armstrong)
A Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue on Filioque (William Klimon)
Clarification on the Filioque (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity)
The Spirit of Truth and of Life: Greek and Latin Pneumatology: Are They Conflicting or Complementary? (Irenee Dalmais)
Filioque Page (Gerard Serafin)
Filioque (Church Fathers)
Filioque(Church Fathers; ed. Joe Gallegos)
Catholic Encyclopedia: FILIOQUE
On the Trinity (and the Filioque) (Matthias Scheeben)
St. John Damascene and St. Thomas Aquinas on the Eternal Procession of the Holy Spirit (Michael D. Torre)

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 immune from such things altogether (see link below). 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. See:

Dialogue: Is Orthodoxy Immune From Dissent, Modernism, and Scandal? (Dave Armstrong)
Why Do Catholics Become Orthodox? (Dave Armstrong)

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. See links:

Contraception: Early Church vs. Eastern Orthodoxy (William Klimon)
Dialogue on Contraception (Dave Armstrong)

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. See links:

Divorce: Early Church vs. Eastern Orthodoxy (Dave Armstrong)
Dialogue: Annulment vs. Divorce (Dave Armstrong and William Klimon)

With reluctance, sadness, and regret, one final subject must be addressed: that of the sacking of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (hence the center of Orthodoxy), in 1204 by the Latin Crusaders. Ideally, the numerous historical sins which members of both sides have committed - given the mutual acknowledgement of wrongdoing - should be left, for the sake of unity and good will, for the historians to mull over. Yet this incident was so tragic and has ever since been recalled with such pain and anger amongst Orthodox (and hence used as an "argument" against the Catholic Church) that it simply cannot be ignored even in the context of friendly ecumenical discussion. Bishop Kallistos Ware comments:

One would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic historian (or any Catholic who learns the details) who would defend what took place in this abominable, reprehensible catastrophe. Warren Carroll, one of the best orthodox Catholic historians of our time, candidly admits in his major series of volumes, A History of Christendom: So the first thing to be noted is that this horrific event is morally indefensible, and that Catholics know and accept this. Secondly, and most importantly, the pope at the time, Pope Innocent III, neither knew about nor sanctioned in the least this massacre and sacrilegious pillage. In fact, he had forbidden the Crusaders, on pain of excommunication, to attack Byzantium, instructing the leader, Boniface of Montferrat, that: "The crusade must not attack Christians, but should proceed as quickly as possible to the Holy Land." He only found out the full horror of what had happened more than eight months later, and wrote to Cardinal Peter Capuano, denouncing the sack in no uncertain terms: Yet there had been several similar scandalous atrocities or unsavory, treacherous incidents which occurred before the sack, on the part of the Byzantines, which have not received their due attention. For the sake of fairness and historical objectivity (not polemics and controversy), we will review some of these. Warren Carroll notes: Bishop Ware also honorably writes about the Orthodox share of the blame in these massacres: Catholic historian Warren Carroll recalls two other lamentable Byzantine incidents: In conclusion, it is altogether to be expected that certain adherents (real or supposed) of both parties in any massive, long-running dispute such as that between Eastern and Western Christianity, will be guilty of serious sin. It has been established that the indefensible sacking of Constantinople was not without previous precipitating events on the part of the Byzantines, scarcely any less evil or immoral. Thus, the "sin" or "corruption" argument (as with Catholicism and Protestantism) cuts both ways (as is always the case). As such, it ought to be discarded, and ecumenical discussions profitably confined to matters of theology, liturgy, ecclesiology and moral theology.

In any event, the sacking of Constantinople in no wise disproves Catholic theological or ecclesiological claims, especially in light of the fact that the pope at the time, Innocent III, forbade such military travesties against fellow Christians on pain of excommunication, and excoriated the perpetrators for their abominations. These renegade "crusaders" were simply not acting as Catholics, neither in the sense of Catholic moral teaching, nor in terms of any sanction of papal authority. To draw a modern analogy, if some nominally Orthodox Serbian soldiers had wantonly massacred or raped Bosnian Muslims (as indeed occurred), it would not be at all fair for Catholics to say that this reflects ill upon Orthodoxy per se. See:

Reflections on the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 and Lesser-Known Byzantine Atrocities (Dave Armstrong)
I'd be happy to discuss any Orthodox counter-arguments in a spirit of respectful Christian ecumenical fellowship, and sincerely ask forgiveness from my Orthodox friends and fellow Christians for any lack of charity, sensitivity, understanding, or humility in this or any of my previous papers and online dialogues.

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Copyright 1997, 2000 by Dave Armstrong. Revised on 22 January 2000. All rights reserved.