Questions about the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

1054 Bull of Excommunication

In 1054, what were the reasons listed for the excommunication of the Eastern Orthodox Church?

The bull of excommunication only excommunicated Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch of Constantinople.  It was not intended to be a blanket excommunication of the entire Eastern Orthodox Church.

The “official” reasons listed on the bull of excommunication were:

1. Simony, the selling of Church offices, which was actually a major problem in the West at the time as well.

2. Rebaptizing Latins, which was a false charge.

3. Allowing priests to marry, which technically speaking, doesn’t happen in the Orthodox Church. Married men are ordained as priests, but once ordained priests cannot marry.

4. Removing the Filioque from the Nicene Creed… this charge is particularly incredible, as the papal legate Cardinal Humbert (who composed the bull) appears to have been unaware that the Filioque wasn’t in the original text of the Nicene Creed.

Unfortunately, when compiling this bull the Cardinal demonstrated a tragic ignorance of Eastern Christian customs, which resulted in a schism that has never been healed.

Zoghby Initiative

What was the Zoghby initiative? Why did it not work?

Archbishop Elias Zoghby proposed “dual communion,” in which the Melkite Church would simultaneously be in communion with Rome and the Antiochian Orthodox Church. This step was seen by both Rome and the Orthodox as being too radical – although there is significant historical precedent for it. Nonetheless, the Melkite Patriarch and his Synod have been overwhelmingly supportive of his ideas.

Double communion (which is also called dual communion) has been a historical reality from time to time. Well into the 17th century the Melkite Church had dual communion with both Rome and Constantinople. There are several other examples as well.

Today both Rome and Constantinople reject the option of dual communion. Their attitudes could change on this, but it isn’t likely.

Eastern Catholics Being Drawn to Orthodoxy

I’m Byzantine Catholic, but lately I’ve been feeling drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle between Rome and Constantinople, and am very uncomfortable. What should I do about this?

The fact that you are feeling drawn to Orthodoxy is a sign that you are becoming “one of us,” for real.

I experienced this draw myself several years ago, with great intensity. I was advised by a certain subdeacon that ALL Eastern Catholics should experience a draw toward Orthodoxy, or else something is wrong. Although we are in communion with Rome, the Orthodox Church is our mother Church, from which we came, and we are supposed to feel a longing for her.

At any rate, I made no hasty decisions and remained in Eastern Catholicism. Today I know that I belong exactly where I am, and have no plans to ever become Orthodox. Yet where I am is admittedly NOT comfortable. The draw toward Orthodoxy never vanishes, because it is in reality the draw toward the fulness of our Eastern Christian tradition.

Christianity is not supposed to be comfortable. It is possible for Roman Catholics to feel comfortable with their separation from Orthodoxy, for most of them aren’t even consciously aware that the Orthodox exist. Likewise, it is possible for Orthodox Christians to become comfortable with their separation from Rome. But for us Eastern Catholics, we must live day in and day out with the discomfort of being separated from our mother Church. And this discomfort is the work of God, for it compels us to work toward unity.

Being Eastern Catholic isn’t easy. It is full of frustration, disappointments, and hardship. But somewhere within this is the cross of Jesus Christ. We get to share in a taste of the pain that Christ feels over the disunity of his disciples.

Failed Attempts at Union

Even after the Fourth Crusade, the Council of Florence almost reestablished full communion between East and West. What went wrong then? Do you know any interesting details and personalities of that Council?

The Council of Florence was largely a missed opportunity. Most of the Orthodox participants at the Council were not there out of a burning desire for Christian unity, but because their empire was about to fall to the Muslims. The Byzantine Emperor hoped that by establishing reunion with the Catholic Church that the western nations would send military aid.

Thus, the reunion was one of political expedience. Because of this, the Orthodox representatives readily agreed to everything proposed by the Latin representatives. There was no real theological discussion, and no issues were resolved. Nor could there be, for most of the Latin representatives were schooled in scholastic theology, and addressed the Council in Latin, using scholastic terminology that the Orthodox were completely unfamiliar with. According to the accounts that I have read, the Orthodox delegates sat there in bewildered silence, completely unable to comprehend what the Latins were talking about.

The Council itself was really doomed from the very start. As soon as the Orthodox delegates arrived, they were greeted with a demand by Pope Eugene IV: the Patriarch of Constantinople had to get down on his knees and kiss the feet of the pope. This outraged the Orthodox Patriarch, who refused to comply. After a tense standoff Pope Eugene eventually relented, but from that point on things were sour.

Most of the Orthodox delegates wanted to just get the reunion over with as quickly as possible, so that they could secure help for their people. However, one Orthodox Bishop – Mark of Ephesus, wanted a real theological dialogue to take place. He believed that there were serious theological controversies that had to be discussed, and he was appalled that his fellow Orthodox bishops put political expedience over issues of faith. After the Council was over, and reunion was officially proclaimed, the Orthodox bishops returned home. Upon his return Mark of Ephesus wrote vehemently against the Council, calling it a “false union,” and he stirred up public opinion against it. However, the Orthodox leadership remained in full communion with Rome right up until Constantinople fell (the promised military aid from the West never materialized). When the Muslims took over the city, they appointed Orthodox bishops who were opposed to the union, and it was officially dissolved.

In my humble opinion, one of the major reasons that the union failed was that it was a union from the top down. The common folk were not supportive of it, and in many cases bitterly opposed it. For a genuine reconciliation to occur, it must be from the bottom up. When Orthodox and Catholic Christians come to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, they will be willing to work through the issues and reunite as one Church.

Orthodox Canon of Scripture

Is the presence of third and fourth Maccabees in Orthodox Bibles (as well as Ps.151) acceptable from a catholic standpoint? If a reuniting of some or all of the Eastern churches with the Catholic church were to take place, would these books have to go?

In dealing with Eastern Orthodox Christians, it is Vatican policy to place as few obstacles as possible in the path to reunion. Currently, the Catholic Church is seeking reunification with the Orthodox based on the model of the first millennium Church. Pope John Paul II, writing about an eventual Orthodox/Catholic reunion, says the following:

“In its historical survey the Council Decree Unitatis Redintegratio has in mind the unity which, in spite of everything, was experienced in the first millennium and in a certain sense now serves as a kind of model… If today at the end of the second millennium we are seeking to restore full communion, it is to that unity, thus structured, which we must look.” (Ut Unum Sint, no. 55)

In the first millenium the disagreement on the Old Testament Canon was not an obstacle to full communion. For that reason the Vatican does not consider it an obstacle today. There are much bigger fish to fry.

But I’ve also heard that there are different variations used among the Orthodox Churches themselves! If the Orthodox were the true church founded by Christ they would all use the same Bible and they don’t.

This is not a fair criteria. Yes, there are certain (minor) variations among the Orthodox Churches concerning the Old Testament canon. However, these same variations existed when they were in full communion with Rome, and were part of the Catholic Church! Does that mean that for the first thousand years the Catholic Church was not the true Church founded by Christ?

Orthodox View of Catholic Sacraments

According to a friend of mine, before she could officially be a member of the Orthodox Church she underwent Chrismation. What did she mean by this?

Orthodox priests traditionally chrismate (confirm) converts from Catholicism as a sign of reconciliation with the Church. This is not a denial of the efficacy of the Catholic sacrament of confirmation. Rather, this means something else.

In the Eastern Christian tradition the ritual for chrismation (confirmation) was not only used to seal people with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but it was also used to reconcile schismatics or heretics. These schismatics often were validly chrismateed, and no one denied that, but the ritual was used as a tangible sign of reconciliation. The Orthodox Churches officially consider Catholics to be in schism, so when a Catholic converts to Orthodoxy they are chrismated as a sign of reconciliation. It does not meant that the first confirmation was faulty or false.

Does the Eastern Orthodox Church consider Roman Catholic Sacraments as valid?

Because the Eastern Orthodox lack a tightly organized Magisterium, it is difficult for them to speak with a single authoritative voice on certain theological questions. One of these questions is the validity of Catholic sacraments.

As a general rule, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not speculate on grace outside of Orthodoxy. Hence, the validity of Catholic sacraments is an open question for them. However, the vast majority of Orthodox Christians and theologians believe in the validity of Catholic sacraments. But there are also many Orthodox who deny that our sacraments are valid, and there also many who are indifferent to the question.

Are the Orthodox Schismatics?

Aren’t Orthodox Christians schismatics since they refuse to submit to the Pope?

Colin Donovan, EWTN’s Vice President for Theology, addressed this issue in his FAQ on Heresy and Schism:

It was thus common in the past to speak of the schismatic Orthodox Churches who broke with Rome in 1054. As with heresy, we no longer assume the moral culpability of those who belong to Churches in schism from Rome, and thus no long refer to them as schismatics.

This is confirmed by Catholic canon law, which is clear that Orthodox Churches do not fall under the category of “schismatic.”

In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is followed by the Latin Church, schismatics incur the penalty of excommunication (see Can. 1364 §1).  This means that schismatics cannot receive communion in the Catholic Church.

However, the very same Code of Canon Law explicitly states that members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches CAN receive communion in the Catholic Church:

Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches (Can. 844 §3).

This means that — according to Catholic canon law — Orthodox Christians are NOT “schismatic.”

Canonical perspective aside, there are other reasons not to label the Orthodox Churches as “schismatic.”  As the Catholic Church actively works for reconciliation with these Churches, labeling them as “schismatic” is harmful.  It undermines what the Catholic Church is trying to do, which is to end the division.

Instead, it is best to follow the current teaching of the Magisterium and the example of our popes.  St. John Paul II, for instance, spent a considerable amount of energy working towards reconciliation with the Orthodox Churches, and never once denounced them as “schismatics” or “heretics.” For us to begin hurling such derogatory names would be counterproductive, and on a large scale would sabotage the efforts of that pope and his successors.

If we are indeed faithful to the papacy, we should follow the example of every pope in our lifetime, and address our Orthodox brothers and sisters with love and respect.

Ecclesiastical Divorces

Do Eastern Orthodox Churches issue annulments? Are these annulments considered valid by the Catholic Church?

The Eastern Orthodox have a different understanding of marriage and divorce than Catholics do. For starters, Eastern Orthodox Churches do not issue “annulments.” Instead, they issue “ecclesiastical divorces.” In practice these are similar to annulments, and require an investigation of the relationship. Ecclesiastical divorces, unlike annulments, acknowledge that a marriage was actually present, and then fell apart. Annulments, in contrast, decree that a marriage was never truly present. An ecclesiastical divorce is only granted for good reason, after investigation. Interestingly enough, this is a difference that predates the schism of 1054.

The reason for this difference is because of the Eastern theology of marriage. In the West, the sacrament of Marriage is administered by the couple, with the priest serving as a witness. In the East, the sacrament of Marriage is conferred by the priest to the couple through crowning. Hence, in traditional Eastern theology, every marriage celebrated by a priest was considered valid.

Today Eastern Catholic Churches also issue annulments instead of ecclesiastical divorces.

I am not sure how one would reconcile the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage in the Roman Catholic Church with the practice of ecclesial divorce in the Eastern Churches since the fourth century, because as you know there was union between the Churches at that time. Unless it was the case that the Roman Catholic Church may have had a more lenient view of divorce in the sixth century.

The system of annulments has been one that evolved in the life of the Church. Prior to the evolution of this system, there were differing opinions as to how to deal with divorced and remarried Christians. The Eastern system of ecclesiastical divorces was one such attempt to deal with this problem.

Ecclesiastic divorces were rare, and were only granted after investigations. They were not an everyday occurrence. During the first millennium, the Eastern ecclesiastical divorce system was not considered an obstacle to unity. Of course, the theological understanding of the Catholic Church has developed considerably since the first millennium.

In the event of a Catholic/Orthodox reunion, this issue will have to be worked through. Although the theology is different, in practice an ecclesiastical divorce is similar to  an annulment. But it is the underlying theological difference that is the problem.

Is it correct to conclude that the teaching of the Catholic Church has changed on ecclesiastical divorces?

I wouldn’t conclude that “the teaching has changed,” but rather that the praxis has evolved. When the Christian religion was first legalized in the fourth century, there was no uniform way to deal with divorced Christians. The mind of the Church has always held that divorce is objectively evil, but the pastoral dilemma of how to deal with these people is a different matter.

Ecclesiastical divorces were one attempt to handle the problem in a firm yet sensitive manner. The annulment system was another attempt, which didn’t actually evolve into its present form until later. In both cases the Church taught the objective evil of divorce, but was searching for a way to pastorally re-integrate the victims of divorce into the life of the Church. In the end the annulment system won the day. The Eastern Orthodox Church ceased being in communion with the Catholic Church in 1054 AD, so they are still using the previous system that dominated in the East.


Is it licit for a Catholic (east or west) to receive the Eucharist in an Orthodox Church, and vice-versa? Can a Catholic fufill their Sunday obligation at an Orthodox Church?

The situation concerning intercommunion between Orthodox and Catholics is tricky. Following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI lifted all excommunications against the Eastern Orthodox. Likewise, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople lifted all excommunications against Catholics. So, judging by this action, it would seem that we should be back in communion. But we aren’t. If we aren’t excommunicated from one another, but aren’t in communion, then what the heck is the status of our relationship?

As the matter now stands, Eastern Orthodox bishops do not allow Catholics to receive the Eucharist. We should respect their discipline, and refrain from doing so. When there is no Catholic Church nearby, you can fulfill your Sunday obligation by attending an Eastern Orthodox Church without receiving the Eucharist.

In contrast, Eastern Orthodox Christians are welcome to receive the Eucharist in any Catholic parish, but only if their bishop allows them to do so.


One of the original issues that divided the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was the “Filioque.” Is it still the major point of contention between East and West that it once was?

Concerning the infamous conflict over the Filioque, it doesn’t appear to be the stumbling block that it once was. In 1995 the Holy Father asked the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to reconsider the issue. At his request, they issued a marvelous document entitled: “The Father as the Source of the Whole Trinity – the Procession of the Holy Spirit in Greek and Latin Traditions.”

This document acknowledged the Eastern understanding of the Father as the source of the Trinity as being definitive for the Catholic Church. The Orthodox were concerned that Catholics claimed that the Father and Son BOTH were the source of the Trinity. This document puts that fear to rest.

In fact, this document goes so far as to state that the Creed WITHOUT the Filioque is the normative form of the Creed for the entire Catholic Church. It says:

“The Catholic Church acknowledges the conciliar, ecumenical, normative, and irrevocable value, as expression of the one common faith of the Church and of all Christians, of the Symbol professed in Greek at Constantinople in 381 by the Second Ecumenical Council. No profession of faith peculiar to a particular liturgical tradition can contradict this expression of the faith taught by the undivided Church,” (paragraph no. 2).

The Holy Father has warmly embraced this document, and has implemented it himself. Whenever concelebrating with Eastern bishops, or during ecumenical prayer services, the Holy Father always celebrates the Creed minus the Filioque.

Why don’t Roman Catholics go back to reciting the Creed in its original form? If a western Church like the Anglican returns to using the Creed without Filioque, then it seems to imply that many Western Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) are professing the “wrong” Creed.

To say that the version of the Creed with the Filioque is the “wrong” creed would be incorrect. It is a legitimate variation of the same Creed that is particular to the Latin liturgical tradition.

When properly understood, the Filioque clause does not compromise the monarchy of the Father – the notion that the Father is the original source of the Son and the Spirit. Indeed, the Latin theological tradition has tended to emphasis the role of Son in the spiration of the Spirit while maintaining the Father’s monarchy. The Filioque clause expresses this Latin theological tradition, which is part of the heritage of the Latin Church. Many Roman Catholic theologians believe that to remove the Filioque from the Creed of the Latin Church would be to abandon an important part of the Latin theological patrimony.

Who started the fight over the filioque? Did Charlemagne really add it to the creed?

Concerning your question, it has been established that the Filioque was inserted into the Nicene Creed at the request of Charlemagne, over the vocal objection of the reinging Pope. It had previously been recited in parts of Gaul and Spain, but it achieved widespread use in the West through the efforts of Charlemagne. Numerous Popes opposed this addition, and attempted to maintain the original version of the creed for several centuries. Indeed, not a single Pope recited the Filioque until Pope Benedict VIII (1014-15).

Thus, when St. Photius protested the recitation of the Filioque in the Creed, he believed himself to be following in the footsteps of the numerous Popes who also opposed this addition.

I should also mention that some historians believe that Charlemagne added the Filioque to the Creed precisely in order to have an excuse for accusing the Byzantine Emperor of heresy. Since the Byzantine Emperor refused to recite the Filioque, he could be accused of heresy and therefore was not to be regarded as a legitimate Emperor by Charlemagne. This meant that Charlemagne alone was the sole true Emperor of the Christian world. Of course, since the Pope at this time also refused to recite the Filioque, this would also mean that he was a heretic by Charlemagne’s standards, wouldn’t it? Thus, Charlemagne painted himself into a sticky theological corner.

In any case, this issue appears to have been largely resolved in recent years. I will be very thankful when this fight is finally consigned to the dustbin of history.

Do Eastern Catholics have to believe in the filioque?

Rome does not ask Eastern Catholics to abandon our unique theological tradition. In fact, Vatican II has asked us to preserve our theological traditions, which are part of the wealth of the entire Catholic Church. Therefore, Eastern Catholics are to maintain their traditional Eastern theology of the Trinity, which emphasizes the monarchy of the Father.

The filioque is part of the Latin theological tradition. Since we are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholics believe that the filioque is a legitimate understanding of the Trinity, particular to the Latin tradition. In other words, it is a true understanding of the Trinity, equal and complementary with the Eastern understanding. While we do not express our understanding of the Trinity in this way, it is perfectly legitimate for the Latin Church to do so. The Eastern and Western understandings of the Trinity are different but complementary. So when push comes to shove, we believe that the filioque is true, but it is not how we express the mystery.

There is an interesting history behind this. In all of its dealings with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church has never asked the Orthodox to embrace the filioque as their understanding of the faith. On the contrary, Rome has only asked the Orthodox to acknowledge that it is not heretical. Unfortunately, for many centuries the Orthodox were unwilling to concede this. Some Orthodox Christians still remain so.

Coptic Orthodox Church

Has the Church been trying to bring the Coptic Church into the Catholic Church? How many people are in the Coptic rite of the Catholic Church?

Indeed, Pope John Paul II has made much effort to bring about a reconcilation between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. One of the greatest triumphs in this effort has been in the area of Christology. Originally, the Coptic Orthodox Church split over the issue of Christ’s nature. Does Christ have one nature or two? The Catholic Church has taught that Christ has two natures, one human and one divine. The Coptic Orthodox have traditionally held that Christ has only one nature, composed of the human and divine, but emphasizing the divine. This was called Monophysitism. Through much dialogue, it has been determined that the Coptic Orthodox no longer hold to the Monophysite heresy. In fact, it appears to some that the original dispute had more to do with language differences and political motivations. Pope John Paul is on excellent terms with Pope Shenouda, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Today, there also exists a smaller Coptic Catholic Church. It has a total membership of approximately 210,000.

Papal Primacy

How can the Orthodox deny the clear scriptural evidence for Papal primacy?

Concerning the Orthodox view of the Papacy, it is far more complicated than it appears. Concerning the scriptural passages that you mentioned, the Orthodox actually believe in Papal primacy. They believe that Christ called Peter to be the first among the Apostles, and that his successor in Rome was gifted with a special charism of leadership. The Eastern Orthodox believe, however, that the Papacy began to misuse this power in the eleventh century. By claiming universal jurisdiction, they believe that the Papacy overstepped the primacy given to it by Christ. Of course, I think that this is really a smokescreen for even deeper issues.

German Roman Catholics were having numerous squabbles with the Eastern Churches during this period in history. Because the Germans had much easier access to the Pope’s ear due to geography, it appeared that the Popes favored the Germans over the Easterners. The situation reached an apex when Cardinal Humbert, a papl nuncio who was defending German interests, excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople without the knowledge of the Pope. In fact, the Papal throne was vacant when this happened. Nonetheless, the Eastern Orthodox felt betrayed by Rome, and became very suspicious of Papal authority. This was a very tragic event in Church history, and it is my hope that this terrible rift will soon be healed.

Would the Catholic Church agree that a key to ending the schism with the Orthodox is making clear that the Pope’s role as Vicar of Christ, as head of the Universal or Catholic Church, is different and completely separate from his role as patriarch of the Latin Church?

While not explicitly stating the seperation of roles, this seems to be the direction that the Catholic Church is moving in. This is clear from the fact that the Catholic Church has been vigorously reaffirming the traditional rights and privileges of the Eastern Patriarchs. In the past fifty years we have been blessed to see the role of the Patriarch appreciated in the Catholic Church once again.

First, Vatican II proclaimed that that the Churches of the East “have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful and better adapted to foster the good of souls” (Unitatis redintegratio, n. 16; cf. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, n. 9). The Council went on to solemnly decree the following:

“By the most ancient tradition of the Church the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches are to be accorded special honor, seeing that each is set over his patriarchate as father and head. This Sacred Council, therefore, determines that their rights and privileges should be re-established in accordance with the ancient tradition of each of the Churches and the decrees of the ecumenical councils.” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum no. 9)

It seems that the Catholic Church is now exalting the role of the Patriarchs as heads of self-governing Churches, and is emphasizing the role of the Pope as one of assistance to the Patriarchs in preserving the unity of the Church. Only recently Pope John Paul II said the following to the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs:

“In their own territories and in the diaspora, the Eastern Catholic Churches offer their particular liturgical, spiritual, theological and canonical riches. You, who are their heads, have received from the Holy Spirit the vocation and mission to preserve and enhance this specific patrimony, so that the Gospel may be given in ever greater abundance to the Church and to the world. And it is the duty of the Successor of Peter to assist and help you in this mission.” (We Extend Our Arms in Brotherhood, no. 2)

The role of the Pope, as head of the universal Church, is first and foremost to assure the unity of the Churches. Pope John Paul explains that “With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity,” (Ut Unum Sint, no. 94). The Pope has authority from Christ. However, this authority is not so that he can reign as a dictator or monarch, as non-Catholics sometimes think. Instead, this authority is given so that he can assure unity. As the Holy Father explains, it would be impossible to assure the unity of the Churches without possessing the necessary authority.

This new ecclesiology really isn’t new at all. In fact, this is the ecclesiology of the early Church. I believe that a strong emphasis on the rights of the Patriarchs, coupled with a proper understanding of the Papal ministry, will eventually end the schism. All in all, things are moving in a very good direction. I am especially grateful to Pope John Paul II, who has gone out of his way to make this happen. The man is truly a living saint.

How do you reconcile Papal Infallibility with Byzantine theology?

Regarding the Papacy, it is a profound blessing from God. Unfortunately, WE Catholics sometimes present it in the worst light possible. Allow me to give you an example:

A year or so ago I was eating dinner with a fellow Catholic. We were discussing matters of religion, and an Asian gentleman heard the conversation. He politely introduced himself, and wanted to learn what Catholicism was. He was a recent immigrant from Asia, and was nominally Buddhist. He asked us what Catholics believe. Before I had a chance, my friend answered:

“We believe in the Pope! Everyone must obey him in order to be saved.”

This line of conversation went on for several minutes, with my friend emphasizing the necessity of “submission to Rome.” There was no mention of Jesus or the Gospel message. This Asian man was noticably disturbed, and quickly excused himself before I could get more than a word in. That was a lost opportunity.

In stark contrast, Pope John Paul has been striving to present the Papacy in a positive light. He has been working hard to explain the Papacy in the context of the Gospel message. Frankly, the Papacy only makes sense when understood in this context. Of all the exalted Papal titles, Pope John Paul prefers to be called “The Servant of the Servants of God.”

This issue is at the very heart of the Orthodox / Catholic split. Eastern Orthodox Christians erroneously think of the Papacy in terms of “submission” to an earthly power. It doesn’t help when some of us call them heretics and demand that they “grovel before the mighty throne of Peter.” Orthodox Christians find this approach to be very distasteful, and it keeps them very wary of reunion with Rome.

The fact of the matter is that the Papacy is a magnificient gift for the benefit of the Church. The Papacy does not exist for its own benefit, but for the health and well-being of the entire Catholic Church. Pope John Paul has been stressing this in all of his contacts with the Orthodox world. When understood in this light, the Papacy actually becomes appealing to Eastern Orthodox Christians. In fact, I personally know of at least one former Orthodox priest who joined the Byzantine Catholic Church because of this positive understanding of the Papacy.

Likewise, the great authority of the Pope only makes sense when understood in light of the Pope’s role as servant. This authority was not bestowed for the Pope’s own glory. Rather, this authority was given by Christ as a tool to be used for the benefit of the Church.

In my work in this forum, I am striving to follow the example of Pope John Paul II and present an attractive and accurate understanding of the Papal ministry. I know as a fact that many Eastern Orthodox Christians are reading this forum, and I want them to understand that the Papacy is a blessing, not a curse. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul we have been blessed to witness the Papacy at its very best. His papacy clearly demonstrates that the Papal ministry is one of service.

For a better understanding of the Papacy, and it’s past and present relationship with the Eastern Patriarchs, I would highly recommend reading “Rome and the Eastern Churches” by Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP. Father Nichols is a Roman Catholic priest, and a theologian highly respected in both the East and the West. Unfortunately this book is now out of print, but you can order it from interlibrary loan.

Why are the Orthodox unwilling to accept papal authority?

In theory most Orthodox theologians accept the notion of papal primacy, but there is much debate over how it should be exercised. Pope John Paul II explicitly mentioned this in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” and stated that he is open to a “new situation” with regards to how the papacy would function in a reunited Church.

I tend to think that many Orthodox Christians are wary of what papal primacy would mean to them. Because of historical injustices, some Orthodox Christians are suspicious that papal primacy would be used as a tool to eliminate their traditions and impose latin theology, spirituality, and discipline on them. The (sometimes troubled) history of certain Eastern Catholic Churches only confirms this suspicion. It is necessary for the Catholic Church to demonstrate a real and tangible respect for Eastern Christianity, which has been happening more and more during the past century. When the Orthodox are truly convinced that the Catholic Church values and respects them and their traditions, many of the obstacles to reunion will melt away.

Orthodox Claims of Superiority

I have recently visited a local Russian Orthodox monastery and attended one of their prayer services. They do insist that it is the Western Church that split from them in 1054. Which is the true Church?

You raise a very interesting question. According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church split from them in 1054 AD. This is because, from an Orthodox perspective, the Pope of Rome began to make claims to universal jurisdiction, which the Orthodox interpreted as a departure from the faith of the Apostles.

This is a complicated issue. You see, the Catholic Church believes in doctrinal development – that doctrines can grow and mature, expressing themselves in new ways. The Orthodox tend to reject doctrinal development, choosing to express the faith only in the language of the early Church Fathers. The Catholic awareness of Papal universal jurisdiction is a case of doctrinal development. In the early Church there were signs of this belief, but it was not clearly understood until later. When the Catholic Church became aware of Papal universal jurisdiction, the Orthodox were turned off by it. This is largely due to how it was presented to them.

For an excellent treatment of these issues, I would urge you to read “Rome and the Eastern Churches,” by Fr. Aidan Nichols. It is available in many libraries, and is a fun read. It also explains the history of the Eastern Catholic Churches in great detail.

The Catholic church has added so many new doctrines that were not even thought of in the early church such as the immaculate conception, papal infalliblity, idulgences, purgatory and others. Who is right? It seems the orthodox church is the original church.

You need understand the Catholic belief in “doctrinal development.” The Catholic Churches teaches that our understanding of the deposit of faith deepens over time, and in time new doctrines may be defined as a result. These newly defined doctrines are not discovered or invented, but rather are gleaned from the apostolic tradition. Thus, our understanding of the mysteries of the faith has advanced significantly since the tenth century.

Thus, throughout the first millinium there was no clearly defined doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, etc. But the seeds of these doctrines were present. The Orthodox Church, in contrast, does not adhere to a theory of doctrinal development. Therefore, they have a difficult time accepting any doctrines that have been defined by the Catholic Church since the schism. You cannot conclude from this lack of doctrinal development that “the Orthodox Church is the original Church.” Such an outlook is too simplistic.

I was once Roman Catholic, but have since discovered the true Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy teaches it is the true Church established by Jesus Christ and that the Pope and his bishops broke away from the true Church. Therefore according to Orthodox teaching the Catholic Church is not the true Church and it is not half of the true Church, it is a Church who has seperated itself from Christ’s Church.

It is necessary to remember that it is possible to look at the same facts from different perspectives. Often our own personal experiences colour the way that we interpret the facts at hand. As someone who left Catholicism for Orthodoxy, your perspective tends to focus on those things that separate and differentiate us. As someone who has never been Orthodox, but interacts with Orthodox friends and neighbors on a constant basis, my perspective tends to focus on those elements that compel us toward unity.

You write the following:

“Orthodoxy teaches it is the true Church established by Jesus Christ and that the Pope and his bishops broke away from the true Church.”

Believe it or not, I see in this statement a sign of great hope. The FACT that Orthodoxy believes that Christ established only one Church, and that it is the true Church, is really a sign of just how close we are. The Catholic Church believes the very same thing about itself. The Protestant denominations, in contrast, have a vague notion of the true Church being divided among tens of thousands of different branches. In reality, they don’t believe in a single, visible, hierarchical Church. The fact that our two Churches share such a belief is a testament to our deep common roots.