Why Don’t Eastern Catholics Just Become Orthodox?

As an Eastern Catholic, I am sometimes asked this question: why don’t you just become Orthodox?

Many people have asked me this over the years, and I understand their reasoning. After all, being Eastern Catholic can be challenging and messy. It’s an existence fraught with tension, hovering between two worlds.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, with whom we share almost everything in common, often regard us as “traitors,” who sold out the true faith for the benefits of union with Rome. I heard a variation of this accusation just last week.

Conversely, Roman Catholics — with whom we share full communion — usually don’t know that we exist. Those who do know about us frequently misunderstand us, or look at us with suspicion.

In truth, leaving Catholicism and embracing Eastern Orthodoxy would — for many Eastern Catholics — lead to a simpler and neater existence.

Maintaining our Eastern Christian traditions and theology, while being in union with the exponentially larger Latin Church, is sometimes difficult. Over the centuries many Eastern Catholic Churches have muddled their liturgies and identities, and the struggle to restore both is ongoing. The temptation to make a clean break from the messiness of our existence, and to embrace “pure, undiluted Orthodoxy” is understandable — albeit naive.

So why haven’t I, personally, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy? Here are my reasons:

Living the Life Already

As an Eastern Catholic, I am already living out the spiritual life of an Orthodox Christian. My life and spirituality are no different than those of my Orthodox friends. I don’t see how breaking communion with Rome would enhance that in a meaningful way.

Of course, I am aware that many Eastern Catholic parishes do not offer weekly Vespers or Matins. These services are an important part of the Eastern Christian liturgical life, and are a powerful source of spiritual and theological wisdom. Far too many Eastern Catholic parishes have adopted the mindset that all that matters is the Eucharistic Liturgy, and have largely abandoned other services. This is tragic, although there is a movement to reverse this.

Still, I don’t accept the premise that the public praying of Matins and Vespers is the defining attribute of Eastern Christian spirituality. While those services are wonderful and important, I don’t believe that a parish is illegitimate and should be written off because they are (presently) missing. I hope and pray that one day every Eastern Catholic parish will restore those services. But in the interim, I don’t believe that it is necessary for those Eastern Catholics who wants to live an authentic spiritual life to abandon their parishes.

Communion with Family

Most of my family members (both nuclear and extended) are Catholic. Breaking ecclesial communion with Rome would, by extension, entail breaking ecclesial communion with my family. Thus, becoming Orthodox would make the East-West schism a real, tangible presence within my personal life.

I don’t want the schism — which for me has been largely theoretical — to become a disruptive force in my family life.

Of course, if I was convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church was the one true Church, nothing would stop me from converting.

Catholic Sacraments are Real

I believe that God has worked in my life through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Many Orthodox Christians would deny that, saying that Catholic sacraments are devoid of grace!

While not all Orthodox Christians would make such a claim, denying the efficacy of Catholic sacraments is an acceptable position to hold within Orthodoxy. In fact, this is the predominant opinion among hyper-zealous converts to Orthodoxy, who are now the majority in many parishes and across the internet. In becoming Eastern Orthodox, I would join an ecclesial body where it is a legitimate position to disparage the Catholic sacraments. In doing so, I would be complicit in the denial of something that I know to be true: that God’s grace works through Catholic sacraments.

God’s Plan for the Church

I believe that the papacy is part of God’s plan for the Church. I reject papal “supremacy,” whatever that is. But I believe that the papal office is necessary for the health of the Church, as a focal point of unity.

Yes, the papal ministry hasn’t always been exercised properly. But my study of scripture and church history has convinced me that the papal ministry is divinely instituted, and that Jesus put it in place for a reason. Therefore, I consider breaking communion with Rome to be a very serious thing, which I don’t take lightly. I don’t judge those Catholics who made the decision to break with Rome, but for me to do so would violate my conscience.

God is With Us

I love the Roman Catholic Church. I believe that it’s in rough shape in some places, though. What it needs is a dose of Eastern Christian spirit — and love for tradition — to revitalize it.

A strong, healthy Eastern Christian presence within Catholicism is what is needed to heal and strengthen Roman Catholicism. The theology, liturgy, and discipline of the East can act as correctives to some of the problems ailing the western Church.

My conviction is this: by building up the Eastern Catholic Churches, we Eastern Catholics are ultimately bringing about a renewal in the Latin Church. This may seem counter-intuitive, and our impact is often imperceptible. But I have seen our efforts bear fruit, albeit in small ways. I know that God is with us in the midst of our struggles, and that he works through us — no matter how messy and “inauthentic” our existence may be.