omnibus omnia

Of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Which is the true Church?

In Catholicism, Christendom, Christianity, Church, Faith, God, History, Jesus, Medieval, Orthodoxy, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Theology, Tradition on November 17, 2007 at 17:28

Both sides share the blame for the separation; and yet there is still only one Church, hence Pope John Paul II’s fervent wish that the Church breathe again with her two lungs…

I’m just sharing a short essay I wrote on Yahoo! Answers, where an inquirer named David recently asked whether Catholicism or Orthodoxy represented the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” founded by Christ. Briefly stating the differences, especially as to Papal authority and the filioque, he said: “I want to know what Catholics, Orthodox and I guess Protestants think about this. Who abandoned whom?”

My reply was as follows:

The answer is somewhat complicated, so this’ll be long…

It’s true that the early Church always believed in the existence of a single universal Church composed of a set of particular churches. According to Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180 AD), the “credentials” of [the] Church [as Church] could be verified through a twofold test: (a) Apostolic succession through the bishops, of which the main illustration he used was the Roman succession from the Apostle Peter, which would then guarantee (b) the faithful transmission of Apostolic tradition (see also 2 Thess 2:15).

However, the traditionalism of the 2nd element did not mean mechanical repetition, but an organic development of the Faith as its understanding was deepened through the centuries (cf. the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lerins). By the time of the early Councils, this meant the use of both old & new philosophical terminology (e.g., homoousios, hypostasis) to define what Christians believed on the nature of God, Christ, and salvation; hence the progressively modified formulations of the ancient creeds (or “symbols”), as new questions and disputes arose.

Herein lies the 1st major Catholic-Orthodox difference, for by the mid-1st millenium, Western thinkers came to see a major, even fatal problem in the early theology of the Trinity: Given that the Divine Persons have one being and substance, so that they are distinguished only by their relations (the Father begets the Son, the Son is begotten by the Father, etc.), then how are the Son and the Spirit to be distinguished if both of them directly come from the Father alone? Also, if the Son is equal to the Father in Godhead, how can He not share the power to generate the Spirit?

When the western churches (and lastly, Rome) incorporated this insight… into the Creed of Constantinople, the eastern churches viewed this as a corruption of the Faith of the Eastern Councils. This was strange, in view of the frank innovations made in those same Councils (one thinks that the East stopped favoring development when the West started doing the developing), but understandable if we remember how lowly the half-barbarian West and its theology was viewed by the civilized East. In fact, even before this doctrinal controversy had erupted, the East had declared canonical war on the West when, in the Quinisext Council under the East Roman Emperor, it condemned Western customs of prayer that differed from the Eastern and [the Emperor] even sent an army to compel the Pope to submit.

This leads to the 2nd major Catholic-Orthodox difference: on the role of the Papacy. In the early Church, Rome was accorded a passive primacy (i.e., in “soft” power); hence Irenaeus’ dictum that the whole Church must agree with Rome–“which presides in charity”, according to Ignatius of Antioch. Active primacy (i.e., in “hard” power), however, was another matter; for while Eastern patriarchs like John Chrysostom, Athanasius, etc. would appeal to, and be championed by, Rome when beleaguered by secular and ecclesiastical politics, they would often resist Papal authority in other times. In practice, real control was held by the Emperor, who thus presided over the disagreeing bishops; and Rome, though given “primacy of honor”, was a spare tire when it came to “primacy of jurisdiction”.

The major break came when, in the Reform of the 11th century, the Church in the West attempted to break free of the State control that had characterized both East and West for centuries, which attempt meant, among others, a shift in central jurisdiction from Emperor to Pope. This was resisted in both East and West, for it amounted to revolution, and the established bishops didn’t take kindly to the confrontational tactics of Reformers like Hildebrand and Silva-Candida. The East-West estrangement was formalized as a result, and the attempted unions of succeeding centuries failed because of Eastern hostility and Western stupidity–though the West would still send an army to help the East against Muslim attack as late as 1396.

In short, both sides share the blame for the separation; and yet, based on the foregoing, I’m of the opinion that there is still only one Church, with its main body centered on the Roman See, but with its particular churches jurisdictionally divided into several pieces; for Roman doctrine is more consistent with the tradition-development and faith-reason pattern of the early Church, and with its recognition of Papal primacy, of which universal jurisdiction is an organic but historically-influenced development. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the value of the conservatism of the East, which helps anchor the Church in times of intellectual ferment; hence Pope John Paul II’s fervent wish that the Church breathe [again] with her two lungs.

Sorry for the length, but I do hope it helps. For further discussion, you could email me if you like, but in any case, God bless you.

C’est tout, and, if you were also asking about these or similar matters, Dear Reader, I hope this illuminates the subject somewhat. Deus vobiscum.

(N.B., This was republished with some revisions as The true Church: Catholicism or Orthodoxy?.)

  1. You speak of the East as if it was one, it has two Romes and a battler zone in-between with three fronts. Like the IRA they are funded from North America where their unity is diversity. Saints Cyril and Methodius are looked upon as tartars by the second Rome not even given the dignity of sainthood, the third tolerating them as a necessary hindrance while those between laud them as patron apostles of free will. If interested check out the in-between at and if you want more there is a Byzantine maze of links at the bottom of the page under if you wish the story to meander. A common enemy does not even unit them except from within.

  2. My apologies. I should have clarified that my short essay focused on the issues that marked the formative period of inter-patriarchal relations–that is, from the time of the Apostolic Fathers to the Hildebrandine Reformation–, and did not deal with what happened afterwards. Hence, as you correctly noted, my failure to mention the Slavic churches, whose rise to geopolitical importance came later.

    Nor am I denying the heterogenous cultural and political structure of Eastern Christendom. In the context of a Yahoo!Answers post, however, I had to focus on the threshold issues dividing East and West, which intent required that I be silent, for the moment, on the intricate relations among and within the Eastern patriarchates. It was for the same reason that I omitted mention of the interrelations among the Celtic, Visigothic, and other traditions within Western Christendom. Perhaps I can write a more complete post when I have time.

    God bless, and thank you for response.

  3. Very good synopsis. Thanks, this was a good read.

  4. Thanks for the benediction and glad you appreciate my perspective.
    If true is Benedict XIV now cleaning up after Nicholas I who agreed with Constantinople in fearing Saints (a title absent in the Greek Church to this day) Cyril and Methodius?
    Is the Celtic and Visigothic a guiding force in Western Christendom today?
    Followed by
    Thanks for your tolerance…

  5. wow, that’s a solid insight into everything.

  6. […] another read worthy essay from Scriptorium – On Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Which one’s […]

  7. Thanks all for the comments and pingbacks.

    Re Mykhayl’s comment, the Church recognizes the sanctity and achievements of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, and she even terms them Co-Patrons of Europe. Re the Visigoths and Celts, the subsequent importance of Spanish and Irish Christianity prove quite solidly just how vital were the various traditions of the western Church. More anon when I can.

  8. Indignus,
    Thank you for your concern. Although we believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the orthodox Faith there are different perspectives. When I was referring to the Church not recognizing Saints Cyril and Methodius sanctity I was speaking of the Orthodox Church in Greece and their appendages. When I was asking about the Celtic and Visigoth Rights as a force in Western Christendom I was interested if there was a pre-suppressed expressions organically developing today, not today’s post Vatican II melting pot where their witness use to be. I apologize for my lack of clarity.

  9. […] of truth that his apparent error on the procession of Holy Spirit (see our very brief summary here on the filioque/per filium controversy) cannot diminish his name. We also remember St. Barbara and […]

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