In his May 25 commentary, “East Meets West in Jerusalem,” James Hitchcock provided a reasonably accurate rendering of the division between the Eastern and Western Churches.
From an Orthodox Christian standpoint, however, he does not fully explain the Orthodox perspective on why, after almost 1,000 years, the two sister Churches are still out of communion with one another.
It’s true that the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches share genuine apostolic succession — they also have the seven sacraments and veneration of icons in common — but the fundamental bedrock of critical disagreement remains unchanged since the failed attempt at union during the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1437-39.
For the Orthodox, the Catholic doctrines on purgatory, procession of the Holy Spirit and papal primacy, as well as the use of unleavened bread for the sacrament of holy Communion, still demonstrate stark theological differences between the Church’s “two lungs,” as does the Catholic position on the Immaculate Conception (which will not be dealt with here).
For Catholic readers who might be interested in a more ample rendering of Orthodox teachings on these matters, here is the basic breakdown:
- For the Orthodox, the use of leavened, rather than unleavened, bread signifies the New Leaven, which is Christ. The New Leaven infuses the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8) with the new life of the resurrected Lord. The unleavened bread of sincerity and truth is also interpreted as the soul of one who is able to receive the leavening of Christ; being in an unleavened state, therefore, means that there is no obstruction to the reception of Christ in the mind of the receiver.
- Trinitarian Christians accept that the soul departs from the body at the time of physical death, but purgatory is an innovation that wasn’t fully and formally defined in the West until the Council of Trent in 1545-63. For the Orthodox, while there is an intermediate state for the souls of the dead upon separation of body and soul after death, it is a suspended state that is unknowable because its mystery ultimately cannot be adequately explained through rationalistic methods. Orthodox Christians pray for the souls of the dead, but the Orthodox Church is comfortable with unexplained mysteries and feels no sense of urgency to define what happens to a person’s soul after death, believing instead that the Lord will reveal what we need to know about all things in his own good time. Similarly, the Orthodox refrain from any philosophical speculation on transubstantiation. We believe that the bread and wine mystically transform into the actual body and blood of Christ after the consecration of the holy gifts during the Divine Liturgy, but we feel no need to set forth a definition of the process as inviolable doctrine or dogma. It is simply enough for us to have faith that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Our Lord.
- For the Orthodox, the filioque clause [in the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”] is an unnecessary interpolation that contradicts Scripture: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father — that is, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father — he will testify about me” (John 15:26). If we examine the original Greek text more closely, the Holy Spirit clearly proceeds from the Father alone, notwithstanding the Son’s ability to send the Spirit. The filioque also violates Canon 7 of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. Canon 7, which was also upheld by the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451, expressly forbids any addition to the Creed whatsoever. Cardinal Julian Cesarini’s attempts during the Council of Ferrara-Florence to justify the filioque’s addition to the Creed are inadequate precisely because his arguments were relentlessly rationalistic and therefore limited. In modern times, the fact that Pope John Paul II, recently canonized a saint of the Catholic Church, recited the Creed without the filioque speaks volumes against its sine qua non inclusion in the Creed. It was also a clear testament of his desire for Christian unity. If the new pope — or any pope, for that matter — would declare that it is simply no longer necessary for Catholic communicants to use the filioque when reciting the undivided Church’s original and only official confession of faith (i.e., the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed), that would be a major step toward restoring communion between East and West.
- For the Orthodox, papal primacy does not mean the bishop of Rome possesses sole supremacy over the entire Church. The pope is not supposed to dominate or impose his will on other sees. Irrespective of any pope’s individual level of benevolence, he should not be issuing Church-wide decrees without hierarchical consensus. But the Orthodox do accept the concept of papal primacy in a conciliar rather than absolutist sense. In the undivided Church, the bishop of Rome was primus inter pares (first among equals) with respect to all other bishops. While the Church of Rome enjoyed this immense privilege and honor — and would still today, should the Orthodox and Catholic Churches ever re-enter into communion with one another — the pope’s vote was still just one vote. He could not overrule all other bishops by himself, nor could he directly intervene in the administrative affairs of other geographic orbits. Ecclesiastical problems must be dealt with under conciliar terms. And just as St. Peter was not the only apostle, the pope cannot be the only vicar of Christ, because all 11 remaining disciples were charged with the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:16-20), as St. Paul was also charged to preach among the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15, Ephesians 3:8). Moreover, all bishops (and clergy) with true apostolic succession are vicars and living representatives of the Lord. The authority of St. Peter and his successors does not refer to St. Peter himself. An exegetical rendering of Matthew 16:15-18 in the original Greek clearly shows that the rock upon which Christ would build his Church was not the individual person of Peter — especially since Christ himself is the “chief cornerstone” (see Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17) — but, rather, refers to the stony confession of Peter’s faith in Christ: that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. Since the Great Schism of 1054, the burden of primus inter pares has, out of necessity, fallen in the East on the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople (aka New Rome), whose apostolic seat was founded in Byzantium by St. Andrew, the first-called apostle (and brother of St. Peter), and situated in the new imperial capital, which was relocated to Byzantium and renamed Constantinople by Constantine the Great, who was then-emperor of the whole Roman Empire, not just the eastern part of it. The last point is crucial: The authority of any bishop — to include that of the pope, who is himself a bishop — was not meant to be imperiously applied to any or all Church localities. When Hitchcock notes that “Constantinople has enormous prestige but little direct authority, except among the Greeks,” that statement also erroneously implies that the ecumenical patriarch’s prestige is not substantial enough to resolve matters of faith, though nothing could be farther from the truth: The bishop of New Rome (i.e., patriarch of Constantinople) still convokes all major inter-Orthodox councils; he still presides over those councils; other Orthodox bishops the world over still appeal to him in times of urgent ecclesiastical need; and he is still the acknowledged spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. So no ecclesiastical issues can be resolved without the ecumenical patriarch’s administrative participation. Again, the mantle of primus inter pares would be transferred back to the bishop of Rome should East and West re-enter into communion with one another and again partake of the common cup together. But this cannot take place unless consensus is reached on the above mentioned, as well as some additional, issues.
I bring these things to the fore not to indict James Hitchcock or the Church of Rome, but because I think it’s important for Catholic readers to understand Orthodox Christian perspectives from an Orthodox vantage point.
Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written about these matters over the centuries, and they continue to be discussed and debated among theologians on both sides well into the present day, so I can’t even pretend that my observations here settle anything. I just hope to help enhance a greater level of understanding among all people of faith and perhaps incite some of them to explore these issues a little more thoroughly.
Finally, please be assured that I have tremendous appreciation and respect for Pope Francis. I deeply admire him, in fact. The recent meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew was very important because it indicates the desire for full communion has not waned since Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras resumed dialogue between East and West 50 years ago, which, in turn, means there is still hope for all Christendom. The seeds of unity and reunification must continue to be sown, for he will ultimately draw all people unto himself (see John 12:32).
Editor’s note: Evan Lambrou is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston. He was also editor of the National Herald, the country’s oldest and largest Greek-American newspaper.