Orthodox in Communion with Rome?

Some Eastern Catholics claim to be “Orthodox in Communion with Rome.”  How is this possible?  Don’t many Catholic doctrines (such as purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, etc.) directly contradict Orthodox theology?  To be Orthodox is to reject such beliefs.

To answer your question, I will first express my personal preference.  I have never been a fan of the term “Orthodox in communion with Rome.” Why? Primarily because it is potentially offensive to Orthodox Christians. It carries the implication that we are trying to replace them in the Catholic Church, or at least many Orthodox take it that way. Personally, I believe it is more appropriate to speak of the Eastern Catholic Churches as “Eastern Churches in communion with Rome.”

That being said, I understand the reasoning behind using this expression.  Eastern Catholics are bearers of the legacy of Orthodoxy within the Catholic communion.  And furthermore, the theological differences that you mention are not insurmountable.

If the will is there, common ground can be found. The root of most of these differences go back to the first millennium, during which communion was maintained in spite of these differences. Those voices that say that “we are too different” – on both sides – want to emphasize the difference. And usually the reason that they want to emphasize the difference isn’t really about theology, but something else.

Also, I have known many Eastern Orthodox Christians – including priests and theologians – who do not reject the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, Purgatory, etc. as being heretical. While they do not embrace these beliefs as part of their theology, they believe that they can be reconciled with Eastern Orthodoxy.

What I will say is this: if the will is there, it is possible to reconcile Eastern and Western beliefs. Both traditions grew out of the same deposit of faith. Also, the Western Catholic tradition recognizes the development of doctrine. The Latin Church is open to the exercise and understanding of the papacy being further refined, so that it is more consistent with the theology and praxis of the East throughout the first millennium. Numerous popes and magisterial documents have said as much.

But aren’t the theological, soteriological, and ontological differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism so profound that they cannot be easily reconciled?  It’s not possible to be both Orthodox and Catholic simultaneously while remaining intellectually honest.

Regarding the differences that you mention, I can see why they appear so problematic. But if both sides approach them with goodwill, and a willingness to consider the other viewpoints from a patristic perspective, they are far more compatible than they appear. I do understand your frustration, though. It takes a lot of work, prayers, and mutual humility to see through these differences to the common truth within.

I was always told that Eastern Catholics are Eastern in liturgy, but must be Catholic in dogma.  Saying that you are “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” contradicts that.

To say that Eastern Catholics are to be “Catholic in dogma,” and Eastern in liturgy, etc., is a gross oversimplification. Vatican II also calls us to be Eastern in theology. The liturgy, and everything that comes with it, is nonsensical without the Eastern theology that underpins it. And all of the dogmas of the Catholic Church can be interpreted and understood according to an Eastern theological lens. There is no conflict or contradiction.  It’s the reality of who we are, and what we are called to be.

There is no contradiction in being fully Orthodox, and in communion with Rome, unless someone defines Orthodoxy in opposition to Catholicism. Such a person makes opposition to papal primacy and rejection of western theology the defining feature of Orthodoxy. Such a position is a distortion of true Orthodoxy.

When I tell Latin Catholics that I’m “Orthodox in Communion with Rome,” I’m told that I must accept all Latin doctrines — as taught by the Catholic Church — or I am not truly Catholic.  How do I reconcile this?

I think that you are missing an important point of nuance. Being in communion means that we are united. It does not mean theological uniformity. There is a distinctive Eastern Christian theological tradition that Eastern Catholics have a duty to maintain. Vatican II emphasizes this.

As Eastern Catholics, we aren’t required to adopt Latin theological expressions as our own. In fact, we shouldn’t. At the same time, we should not outright reject Latin theological expressions simply because some Eastern Orthodox Christians do. There is a way to reconcile these Latin expressions with Orthodox theology, if one is willing to look for it. Since we are in communion with the Latin Church, we owe them the courtesy of demonstrating how their beliefs can be reconciled with ours. At the same time, we are doing a disservice to our Latin brothers and sisters if we simply reject their beliefs outright.

But Roman Catholics insist that I understand and embrace Latins Catholic doctrines exactly as they do, with the same language and terminology.  Otherwise, I am not really Catholic.

The Pope doesn’t feel this way. Neither do the vast majority of Latin bishops or priests. Now, if I were to get in their face, and say that these beliefs are FALSE, that would be problematic. But when I explain them in terms that are compatible with Eastern theology, and embrace the Eastern expression, reasonable Latins are perfectly fine with that.

This is confusing and frustrating.  I’m having a hard time reconciling being Orthodox and Catholic simultaneously.  Doesn’t one side or the other have to be right?

I understand and empathize. I take solace in the fact that God is a mystery that surpasses human understanding. We can only know so much. At some point, we have to come to terms with the mystery. This is an ongoing struggle for most of us.