A few years ago, I came across a series of posts by Jason Liske, a convert to Roman catholicism.
In one such post, he laid out a few reasons why he had chosen Rome over the Orthodox Church. (For those interested, the full post can be found here.)
Before I respond to some of Jason’s thoughts, I will provide a few disclaimers:
- There are likely millions of Roman catholics who are far more loving, charitable, and honorable people than I could ever hope to be. Because the Orthodox Church disagrees with them on a number of doctrinal issues does not mean I have no positive thoughts regarding people of the Roman faith.
- While ‘schism’ and ‘heresy’ are seen as insults in contemporary, Christian dialogue, this is not how the Orthodox Church uses them. These are words with important, historical meaning, centered around the Divine declarations of Ecumenical Councils.
- My father’s side of the family is Roman catholic. And every Sunday, during the Great Entrance, I pray for my grandfather when making intercessions for the reposed. (May his memory be eternal.)
- Following on that point, we can—and should—love people, even when we disagree with them. The differences between Rome and Orthodoxy are both serious and real, but they should not hinder our prayers for their health, peace, and salvation—as with all the world.
I will now interact briefly with a few of Jason’s points.
Expressing his love for “our eastern Christian brethren”—duly noted—Jason writes:
The first issue is the attitude of many Orthodox toward the Catholic Church, which in my experience can be described as reactionary and overly suspicious. While the West views the Eastern Orthodox in a very sympathetic and conciliatory fashion, the East seem to view the West much in the same way that hardline Protestants might – as a bastion of error, as “papists”, heretics, the antichrist, and the like. It is truly saddening, but in my experience, I have found it to be somewhat true. Catholic saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of the Cross are viewed as heretical figures overcome by imagination in their spiritual lives, and tainted by “Romanism”. A truly sad thing, as the West views many of the great saints of Eastern Orthodoxy with admiration and a willingness to learn from their teachings. While such figures as Photios and Gregory Palamas may still be viewed in a negative light, they are venerated in Eastern Catholic rites as saints. Seraphim of Sarov, a truly remarkable and saintly figure, has become an object of much veneration and love amongst Catholics, and Catholic scholars are starting to truly acknowledge the profound writings and thought of such Eastern Orthodox saints as Symeon the New Theologian, Theophan the Recluse, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Nectarios of Aegina, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Nicodemus the Hagiorite, and many others. But the East does not return the favor, instead acknowledging the greatest saints of the West to be, at best, in error and whose salvation is also at best uncertain.
I admit that there are Orthodox Christians excessive in their condemnation of ‘the West’ in general, and of the Roman church in particular. I cannot speak for everyone, nor should the entirety of the Orthodox Church be held responsible for extremists—no more than I would associate all Roman catholics with child molesters or clown masses.
However, the fact remains that there are heresies that separate the Orthodox Church from the Romans.
In mentioning Ss. Photius and Gregory Palamas, Jason is acknowledging that the Roman church, too, sees some of our revered saints “in a negative light.” Along with St. Mark of Ephesus, these three Saints have made it plain that certain errors of the Latin church are not only schism, but also heresy. It does us no good in ecumenism or interfaith dialogue to pretend this isn’t the case.
But in a more problematic (and inconsistent) sense, Jason’s church also receives a whole host of dioceses under the Eastern or Byzantine Rite, which also venerate these men—although any veneration of St. Mark of Ephesus would be mere lip service.
Secondly, their is a certain sense of insularity in terms of ethnocentrism within the Orthodox Church – simply take note of the titles of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, American Orthodox, and the like. Once, when I inquired of an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine why he did not go to just any Orthodox church, he replied matter-of-factly that “We go where the Russians go” (for he is Russian). But Catholics go where a Catholic Church is, whatever rite it may happen to fall under. In other words, the catholic (universal) nature of the Church is lacking in Eastern Orthodoxy.
I fear a lack of familiarity with the Orthodox Church has led Jason to this perspective.
The local (not ‘ethnic’) boundaries within the Orthodox Church are established for the sake of shepherding a Church throughout the world. After all, this is how there came to be a Church of Rome. But the Roman See and the now fourteen other, local Orthodox churches are now separated. These Orthodox churches are not ‘different churches’ or denominations, but are all part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This is how the Church functioned even in the first century.
While Jason’s friend is certainly wrong about his church-selection decision making—unless he lives in Russia, then it makes perfect sense—the Orthodox Church has condemned phyletism as heresy (Synod of Constantinople, A.D. 1872). Of course, Jason’s friend should not be taken as representative of the entirety of the Orthodox Church on this (or any) matter.
Despite his insistence, a Roman Christian will too go to their preferred church, if there are options available. The seemingly unstoppable revolution brought by Vatican II has only made this more and more necessary, I would imagine. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, there was a considerable amount of ‘ethnic divisions’ in the Roman church, as well. Irish people only went to the Irish church; French to the French; and so on.
It should also be noted that, according to Roman canons, one cannot simply transfer from one Rite to another within the Vatican communion. It is a far more complicated—and lengthy—process than in Orthodoxy, where a Baptized, Orthodox person is welcome in every canonical church at all times (throughout the world).
Jason then writes:
Thirdly, the objections against the papacy brought up by the Eastern Orthodox are incredibly difficult to overcome at first, for as I have noted, they too have apostolic succession. So, I endeavored to dig through the Fathers and the history of the Church to find out who in fact was right. I especially dug through the writings of the Eastern Fathers (the Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, and the like) to see what they in fact said. The answer was seemingly unanimous, and in agreement with the Catholic Church. This I could not ignore, despite any accusations of selective quote-mining that might occur from this point on. Even St. John Chrysostom’s understanding of Matthew 16:18, which I have treated earlier, is in accord with the Catholic understanding of the Papacy and the chair of St. Peter. I cannot ignore this. Even Gregory Palamas states that St. Peter is ‘the leader of the apostles and foundation stone of the Church.’
There is obviously a lot of material both in print and online on this issue. But the Ecumenical Councils—when discussing both Old and New Rome (Constantinople)—never mention the apostle Peter as a point of discussion. What they mention, rather, is that Constantinople was “the Imperial City.”
And yet, no one in the Orthodox Church would dispute the importance of Peter in the foundations of the apostolic Church, nor would we make light of apostolic succession and its importance. Both Antioch and Alexandria also claim Petrine foundations, and the greatest Pope in the history of the Roman church—St. Gregory the Great—claims himself that the chair of Peter is in three places: Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Peter (and Paul) laid the foundations for the Antiochian Church decades before his martyrdom in Rome.
Now, let me state here, somewhat controversially no doubt, that I consider the rift between the East and West to be based more in language, politics, and crimes on both sides, than on anything theological. The filioque controversy is not something that is hard to overcome, as the statements of ‘proceeds from the Father through the Son’ and ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ mean essentially the same thing. Though many disagree with me, I see no reason to separate the Body of Christ over this trifling semantic issue.
This is another topic that has been discussed at length over the centuries. It is also one of the reasons Saints such as Mark of Ephesus have called the ‘Latins’ heretics.
However, Jason must clarify that while “proceeds from the Father through the Son” is a potentially orthodox description, the Latin Filioque is not. In recent statements, the Roman church has backtracked and even softened their perspective on this debate, conceding a considerable amount of ground to the East.
We must also remember that they include within their communion millions of Eastern Rite Christians who refuse to confess the Creed with the Filioque. So any honest ‘Roman catholic’ stance on this issue must also take them into consideration.
Jason’s historical revisions here also contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church (246), where it makes plain the ‘eternal’ nature of the Holy Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son in the Roman view:
The Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).”
The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: “The Holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son; He has his nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration… And, since the Father has through generation given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being the Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.” —Council of Florence : DS 1300-1301
Certainly language and other political barriers led to a number of schisms between the East and West during the late Middle Ages, but that does not explain the entirety of our continued division. Rather, a continuation in heresy, an abundance of innovations, and the addition of new dogmas must be our real focus in meaningful East-West dialogue; we can’t blame politics, the Franks, and historical circumstances for everything.
Jason concludes his article with a summation of his main arguments:
- A certain sense of suspicion held by the East towards the West, as well as what I note to be an uncharitable attitude by some towards the great saints and theologians of the Catholic Church. I found the Catholic understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy to be far more fair, conciliar, and loving. The West holds their saints in high regard, and they are venerated in many of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, this attitude has not always been held by the West – this is true. But I find the move by the Church towards unity with the Orthodox is by far the more charitable than the still current attitudes held by some in Orthodoxy towards Catholics.
- Concerning Orthodox and Catholic claims about the papacy, I found the evidence from both the Eastern and Western Fathers to be in support of the Catholic claim far more than the Eastern Orthodox claim.
- The sense of insularity and lack of catholicity in the Eastern Churches – here I speak of the varying groups of Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, American, Coptic, Oriental, etc.)
And here are my (summarized) thoughts in response:
- Jason—and other Roman catholics—must understand that we do not find joy in the reality of our schism, but remain faithful in our beliefs as Orthodox Christians. This is not an affront to unity, but is rather the only means by which it can truly come about: mutual agreement on key, doctrinal issues, not pretense towards ‘understanding’ or contrived concessions. Pretending that there are no differences, or that there is no real schism, accomplishes nothing.
- Apostolic succession is central to Orthodox ecclesiology (and Christology). However, the later beliefs of Rome regarding their patriarch and archbishop are neither tenable nor acceptable. Even the greatest Pope of all time agrees. Peter was foundational, but he was foundational for three different Sees—not Rome alone.
- I believe that Jason—and other Roman catholics—misunderstand the historical use of the term ‘catholic.’ They also misunderstand how the organization of the Orthodox Church really works, ignoring too their own ethnic divisions of recent memory.
He also lists a few positive things (from his perspective) regarding the Orthodox Church, and this is appreciated.
I have no doubt that Jason is a devoted and serious person, seeking to find rest in Christ’s one, true Church. I only wish that he (and others) would give the Orthodox Church a second look before ‘swimming the Tiber,’ as I believe many of his primary concerns are both confused and groundless.
Also, many of Jason’s concerns are ‘pastoral’ and have no real bearing on whether or not the Roman church is the one, true Church—or whether the Orthodox Church is wrong on specific, historical, and doctrinal issues. Many of his concerns (misguided or not) are such that they can be changed or improved over time, wherever warranted.
On the other hand, the errors within the Roman church—e.g. the Filioque and papal supremacy—are so foundational to Roman dogma, expecting reform or correction on these long-standing errors seems to me a taller order.