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.