Questions about Eastern Catholic teaching and theology.

Theological Differences

Is it true that the Eastern Catholic Churches are allowed to have different theological exspressions? If so what does it involve?

This certainly is true. The Eastern Catholic Churches are not only “allowed” but are actively encouraged to cultivate their own distinctive theological expressions.

Eastern Catholics, while fully Catholic and in communion with the Pope, differ in more ways than just liturgy. We also possess a unique spiritual tradition, as well as a unique theological approach. While we agree with the Latin Church on fundamental matters of doctrine, we approach doctrine in a very different way – from the Eastern perspective. While the Western Church has traditionally formulated doctrine in terms of scholastic Latin theology, we rely almost exclusively on the theology of the Eastern Church Fathers. This difference, rather than rupturing the unity of the Church, further expresses the true UNIVERSIALITY of Christ’s Church.

This is authoritatively taught by the Second Vatican Council:

“All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in-their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth,” (UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO, no. 4).

“What has just been said about the lawful variety that can exist in the Church must also be taken to apply to the differences in theological expression of doctrine. In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God’s truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting. Where the authentic theological traditions of the Eastern Church are concerned, we must recognize the admirable way in which they have their roots in Holy Scripture, and how they are nurtured and given expression in the life of the liturgy. They derive their strength too from the living tradition of the apostles and from the works of the Fathers and spiritual writers of the Eastern Churches. Thus they promote the right ordering of Christian life and, indeed, pave the way to a full vision of Christian truth,” (ibid., no. 17).

Immaculate Conception

How do Eastern Catholics understand the dogma of the Immaculate Conception? Does it differ from the Western understanding?

Concerning the Eastern Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception, I will offer a very brief summary of the issue. First, the theological seeds of the Immaculate Conception originated in the East, and were later spread to the West. Since the earliest centuries the Eastern Churches have celebrated “St. Anne’s Conception of the Theotokos,” on December 9. Only later was this feast transplanted to the West, where it is celebrated on December 8.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches we have maintained much of the theological heritage of the Eastern Church Fathers. We try to be very Patristic in our theology, and generally model our theological approach after the great Eastern Fathers. In the West theology has developed somewhat differently. Beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a whole new style of theology developed, known as Scholasticism. Scholasticism utilized a great deal of philosophical terminology from the writings of Aristotle. It essentially created a whole new way to approach theological questions, and answered them with very specific philosophical terminology. Scholasticism was the dominant theological system in the Western Church until the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Being a good Western theologian, he used a great deal of scholastic terminology in the definition. Here it is, with the specifically scholastic terms emphasized by me:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the MERITS of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every STAIN of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

There are two terms used in the definition that are completely foreign to Eastern Christian theology: “merits” and “stain.” Both of these terms are of very late origin, and came to mean very specific things in the scholastic system. But to us Eastern Christians, who still use only the theological expressions of the Church Fathers, these terms are completely alien. So is this a problem, or isn’t it?

I don’t believe that this a problem at all. If something is written in a language that you can’t understand, you simply TRANSLATE it! With some very basic knowledge of scholastic theological terminology, what Pope Pius IX is saying becomes very obvious: From the very first momemnt of her existence, Mary was miraculously preserved from all sin. We Easterns would go even a step further: she wasn’t just preserved from sin, but was graced with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Also, the definition speaks of Mary being “free from every stain of original sin.” In the East we have always spoken of Mary’s perfect holiness. The language “free from every stain of original sin” is really a somewhat negative formulation in comparison. In fact, this definition speaks of Mary as being “absent of something (the stain of sin),” while we would prefer to speak of her as being “full of something (the Holy Spirit).” In this regard I think that the Eastern approach makes a marvelous contribution to the understanding of this dogma. So does Pope John Paul II:

“In fact, the negative formulation of the Marian privilege, which resulted from the earlier controversies about original sin that arose in the West, must always be complemented by the positive expression of Mary’s holiness more explicitly stressed in the Eastern tradition.” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience June 12, 1996)

So, the Holy Father agrees that the Eastern understanding of the Immaculate Conception actually helps to elucidate the meaning behind the definition.

I have a friend who is Serbian Orthodox and she said that the Orthodox Church believes Mary did have original sin, but she still never commited a sin. What do Eastern Catholics believe?

The dispute with the Orthodox over Mary’s immaculate conception is mostly about semantics. Traditionally Eastern and Western Christianity have arrived at very different definitions of “original sin,” which means that we approach Mary’s immaculate state from different perspectives. Both Orthodox and Catholic Christians readily admit that Mary never sinned, as you know from speaking with your friend. According to the Western definition original sin is a sinful nature, and anyone who has it is powerless to stop sinning. Because Mary was sinless, she must not have had original sin.

In contrast, the Eastern Fathers defined original sin first and foremost as the onset of mortality and death. Because (according to the Eastern Fathers) Mary died before her body was assumed into heaven, she must have had original sin… otherwise she would have not aged, and would have been immortal. Thus many Eastern Orthodox theologians have concluded that Mary must have had original sin – but remained sinless by God’s grace.

As you can see, this entire dispute goes back to how one chooses to define “original sin.” Because the Eastern Catholic Churches follow the guidance of the Pope of Rome, we believe that Mary was freed from original sin at the very first moment of her existence.

The Eastern Christian tradition holds that Mary died at the end of her life, prior to her body being assumed into heaven.  Eastern Christianity also teaches that death is the result of original sin.  Since Mary did die, doesn’t that mean that she did in fact have original sin?  Otherwise she would have been immortal.

According to the Eastern Christian tradition, Adam and Eve’s sin ushered death into the world. Original Sin (which the East prefers to call Ancestral Sin) is the consequence of that, which is our inclination to sin. The image of God in humanity is tarnished, and therefore we behave in ways that are immoral.

Mary was freed from this Ancestral Sin, so she did not have the inclination to sin. God’s image in her was never tarnished. Yet she was still subject to death, for it remained an established reality in the world.

The same held true for Jesus. He had no inclination to sin, and the image of God in him was untarnished, for he was in fact God. Yet he was still subject to death.  He hungered, he thirsted, he became physically exhausted, and he died.  When he took on human nature, he took on the burden of mortality, with all that it entails.  Only at the Resurrection was he no longer subject to death.

Original Sin

I have heard that the Greek biblical texts of Rom. 5:12 do not contain the phrase “in whom all have sinned” relating to Adam’s sin. Consequently, I gather that the Eastern churches’ doctrine of original sin developed differently than that of the Western churches. Is this correct?

The Greek biblical text of Romans 5:12 does contain the phrase “eph’ho pantes hemarton.” The Western Church has traditionally translated this as “in whom all have sinned.

In contrast, the Eastern Fathers understood the word “eph’ho” to modify the preceeding word “thanatos,” which means “death.” Therefore the Eastern Church translates the phrase in question as “because of which (death) all have sinned.” Both are legitimate translations of the text. However, this difference in translation changes the meaning of the entire verse.

Thus, the Western Church has traditionally translated the entirety of Romans 5:12 as such:

“Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned,” (Douay-Rheims Version).

The Eastern Fathers translated the second part of Romans 5:12 as follows:

“…and so death passed upon all men, because of which all have sinned.”

In part because of this difference the Eastern Christian teaching on original sin developed differently. In our traditon, the primary effect of original sin is not a “stain,” passed on from generation to generation. Rather, it is death. Because “death passed upon all men,” all of us now sin. It is death itself that causes us to sin.

Do you view death itself as the “stain” or original sin, and if so, how does death cause us to sin?

Yes, perhaps one could say that in a certain sense death itself is the “stain” of original sin. Because of the certainty of physical death, we try to evade the inevitable. This leads us to try and cheat death, which results in sin. We store more food than we need (gluttony), we horde wealth and resources (avarice), we use our reproductive potential wantonly (lechery), etc… In the quest to cheat death we distort natural God-given gifts. Thus, death causes us to sin.

Can you explain the difference in the way the East views Original Sin?

I’ll try to briefly summarize the issue, but I can’t do it justice in so little space.

In the East: The primary consequence of Original Sin is death. The reality of death causes people to desire that which can distract them from the realitiy of their impending death. Hence, people turn to sex, money, and power as a way to forget about death. In this way, death leads to sin.

In the West: The primary consequence of Original Sin is a “stain” of guilt. People are born with a guilt that needs to be washed away as soon as possible.

Both the East and the West agree that original sin causes an ABSENCE of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, the Holy Spirit can again dwell within man.

It should be noted that the Catholic Church has adopted a much more Eastern understanding in recent years. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is very Eastern in its approach to original sin.


Could you please explain the differences among Latin theology concerning the Dogma of Purgatory and that of the various Eastern Churches?

As a general rule, all Eastern Christians do not use the word “Purgatory.” This includes both Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The word “Purgatory” is specific to the Latin tradition, and carries some specific historical baggage that makes Eastern Christians uncomfortable.

In the Medieval West, many popular theologians defined Purgatory as a specific place, where people essentially sat around and sufferred. Some theologians went so far as to imply that a literal fire burns those who suffer in Purgatory. It was also popular to tally periods of time that people spent in purgatory for various offences. It is worth noting that contemporary Roman Catholic theology has (thankfully) moved beyond this approach, to a more Patristic understanding of Purgatory.

In the Catholic understanding, only two points are necessary dogma concerning “purgatory”: 1) There is a state of transition/transformation for those en-route to Heaven, and 2) prayer is efficacious for the dead who are in this state.

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches agree with the Latin Church fully on both of these points. In practice, we routinely celebrate Divine Liturgies for the dead, and offer numerous prayers on their behalf. We would not do so if we did not agree with the above two dogmatic points.

But again, we do not use the word “Purgatory” for two reasons. First, it is a Latin word first used in the Medieval West, and we use Greek words to describe our theology. Second, the word “Purgatory” still carries specific Medieval baggage that we aren’t comfortable with.

It is noteworthy that the Byzantine Catholic Church has never been required to use the word Purgatory. Our act of reunion with Rome, “The Treaty of Brest,” which was formally accepted by Pope Clement VIII, does not require us to accept the Western understanding of Purgatory.

Article V of the Treaty of Brest states “We shall not debate about purgatory…” implying that both sides can agree to disagree on the specifics of what the West calls “Purgatory.”

In the East, we tend to have a much more positive view of the transition from death to Heaven. Rather than seeing this as a place to “sit and suffer,” the Eastern Fathers of the Church described it as being a journey. While this journey can entail hardships, there are also powerful glimpses of joy.

Although we do not use the same words, Eastern Catholics and Latin Catholics do essentially believe the same thing on this important point.

Dormition of Mary

How do the doctrine of the Assumption and the doctrine of the Dormition differ? And, if they differ, how can two Churches united in faith belief differing doctrines?

There really is no difference between the “Dormition” and the “Assumption.” If there is a difference, it is entirely in emphasis. The Latin feast of the Assumption tends to emphasize Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. The Eastern feast of the Dormition, as depicted in iconography, emphasizes Mary falling asleep, and her body later being taken to heaven. But from a doctrinal standpoint, there is no conflict.