omnibus omnia

The true Church: Catholicism or Orthodoxy? (updated)

In Bible, Catholicism, Christendom, Christianity, Church, Debate, Europe, Faith, God, History, Jesus, Medieval, Opinion, Orthodoxy, Religion, Theology, Tradition on February 23, 2008 at 08:06

… yet there is still only one Church, hence Pope John Paul II’s fervent wish that the Church breathe again with her two lungs…

(Updated from our November 17, 2007 post, for lack of material time to write anything new. To all, I apologize for the lack of more substantial updates, and I’ll try to rectify it when I have time.)

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 (with intercalated clarifications) 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. [See Note below.]

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 [effective] central jurisdiction from Emperor to Pope. This was resisted in both East and West, for it amounted to [canonical] 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.

After I had posted this, a reader named Mykhayl, whom I believe from his remarks to be either Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox, commented thus:

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…

In response to this justifiable assertion–for, indeed, I had seemed to generalize on Eastern Christendom without considering its diversity in liturgy and discipline–, I made the clarification that I should have given at the beginning:

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 your response.

Note: The developments in the formulation of the Faith always raise the question of propriety, for it is asked whether these formulae could or should be allowed to fence a Faith founded on salvation.

Such objections fail to note the role of these developments in the Christian life of grace. The Christological controversies of the 4th to 6th centuries were not mere debates on diphthongs as Gibbon uncomprehendingly sneered, but were battles over the very nature of Christianity itself. For whether Christ is both God and Man in one distinct Person determines whether by His life, death, and resurrection He saves all Who receive Him. If He’s not, then the ultimate logical conclusion is that salvation is for us to procure, in which case only the elite of the wise or good would be entitled to Paradise.

The authentic Church, then, had to re-affirm against the ancient modernists (yes, that was also the problem then) the original teachings on God and Christ to prevent a lapse into Gnostic elitism. For this, she required precise language, which only philosophy could provide, to prevent confusion or ambiguity.

A millennium later, when new questions on authority and criterion arose, scholars again defended the use of formulas as a deepening of the understanding of revelation in defense against error. It must be made clear that it was never believed that knowing the exact language of these formulas spelled the difference between an individual’s salvation and damnation. However, for those who were driven to inquiry in an increasingly sophisticated world, precision was needed to keep the intentions of faith authentically Christian.

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.

  1. I would just like to add some information about another division in the Christendom which was brough about in the 16th century by Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism.

    Luther used to be a Catholic theologian who didn’t believe in the catholic teachings on indulgences – you can give money to the church so that you will spend less time in purgatory/hell. He also wanted to publish the Bible in their own language rather than in Latin, so that more people would understand the good news.

    Luther’s ideas did not sit well with the Pope and his leaders and it created quite a controversy. In 1529, he was declared a heretic. But he already had followers then and they started the “Lutheran movement” which became today’s “born-again” Christians.


  2. Lester, thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I limited the discussion to Christian history up to the 11th century AD, or at most up to the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396(?), and hence did not discuss issues that arose in 16th century. In response, I’ll try to rectify it, as set out in this post. God bless.

  3. One major difference that you should dig into is wether shich one of the two synods in 869 or 879 that should be considered the eight synod. The orthodox claim that the latter abolished the decisions of the former and with the authority of all patriarchs including the roman pope John VIII. This synod is considered to bring a unity of the creed of both east and west and also ruled the question of jurisdiction in favour of orthodoxy.

  4. Thank you for the comment, sir, and indeed the synods figure in the dispute, particularly since there remains a dispute on its records. My own opinion is that it contributes to the 2 main issues of the dispute:

    First, may the development of Christian teaching (that is, the deepening of our understanding of divine revelation culminating in Christ) be said to have stopped at any fixed point in time (such as at the Council of Constantinople I), such that the statements of faith are henceforth irreformable? I think we cannot. The apostles in Jerusalem (AD 49) and throughout the New Testament appear to allow for continuing development even after the Logos ascended: such as, from the Synoptic understanding of Christ in Prophetic/Pharisaic terms to the Johannine understanding of His cosmological role as logos. If the ascension of the Word made Flesh couldn’t stop development, then why should the canons of His bishops? As I said, I fear that the Eastern bishops only favored development only when they led it, but not when others did.

    In relation to the Filioque, I think the polemics and politics around the synods hardened positions unnecessarily. It is one thing to propose on canonical bases that the creed as a Symbol or as a part of the Divine Liturgy should not include the clause, and quite another to declare that it is heretical, thus excluding it even from the parts of the Faith that are mandatory without being in the creed (the judgment against Monothelitism) or those theories that are merely permissible. On the strict data of revelation such radical exclusion is unwarranted unless we radically separate the texts on the life of Christ from those on His eternal divinity, which would run dangerously close to Nestorianism. I submit that the better approach is Rome’s constant search for an inclusive agreement or middle ground, possibly beginning in the 879 synod, and definitely manifest in the councils of Lyons and Florence, and today.

    Second issue, what is the final enforcement authority in the Church? I pointed out that the Fathers acknowledged that Rome had a pre-eminent role in the definition of doctrine, but they could not decide on the question of enforcement. The resulting question, then, is not primacy of jurisdiction vs. honor, nor collegiality vs. papacy, but legislative jurisdiction vs executive. If either Rome, or the 3/5 patriarchs, or a council decide a question, who punishes the dissenter? Whether we adhere to the Syrian 3-patriarch or the Constantinopolitan 5-patriarch theory, and whether we agree with the solution of St. Gregory VII, I note that executive power was always in flux, and will likely continue to do so, as we see in the “dissent” issue in the Latin Church and in the present controversy between Moscow and Byzantium.

    Re the synods, I have to study its impact on the jurisdictional issue further, but I’ll get back on that if and when I can. I’m afraid work has been hectic.

    May God bless you.

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