So You’re Not Catholic?

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As I promised last week, today we’ll tackle another really common question you probably get asked on campus:

So you’re sort of like Catholic? What’s the difference?

Image from Nemo on Pixabay

Talking about Orthodox-Catholic relations and history is no easy task. Don’t get me wrong, there are volumes and volumes on the subject, but not a whole lot that you can share palatably to the guy across the table from you in the dining hall. Let’s just say Facebook knows our relationship status best: It’s complicated. 

You have to remember that, although 1054 is the date everyone throws around as our official break up date, the Great Schism was anything but a clean break which started long before the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople that happened in 1054 and lingered on into at least the 15th century. Even today, you’ll get all sorts of versions of how things happened and how they are going depending on who you ask.

So when someone drops this question in your lap, what can you say without: a) a degree in theology and Church history; b) being polemical and harsh; and c) making the inquirer regret asking?

Here are three things that are real theological issues on which we as Orthodox do not see eye to eye with our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Reminder: Get to know who you are talking to–it definitely matters in this conversation if the person to whom you are speaking is Catholic themselves or not!

The Trinity

You’ve probably heard of the filioque, but if you’re like me, you’re never quite sure what it really means. The word filioque translates from Latin to mean “and the Son” which is a Latin addition to the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite at every Liturgy. Specifically, here’s the difference:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

Historically, the filioque was added at a local council in Spain in an attempt to combat Arianism (the denial that Christ was fully God). It was not accepted as a valid addition ever in the East, and only much later in the West (even Pope Leo III forbade its usage in the 9th century). So besides its addition being novel and not accepted by the entirety of the Church, what does it actually mean and why don’t the Orthodox accept it?

Well, there are many reasons that have been drawn up by Orthodox theologians and saints over the centuries, but here are the two that I think are most compelling:

  1. This line in the Creed is specifically quoting John 15:26: “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.” So the addition of the filioque does not have the strength of the Scriptures behind it.
  2. Orthodox theology holds that the three Persons of the Trinity are one in essence and share all the attributes of that essence, and that they differ only in their relationship to each other–their personhood. Furthermore, there is no divine nature apart from the Persons of the Trinity, and the Father is the source of that divinity (in other words, there is no “god-ness” without the Father). This matters because it protects the
    In Rublev's Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    In Rublev’s Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    complete freedom of God–the Trinity is not a logical necessity of God’s existence, but an expression of His love and desire for communion. Thus, the Father is the Father in that He is the source of divinity for the Son and the Spirit, the Son is the Son in that He is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. You can probably see how the addition of the filioque skews this understanding of the Persons and the nature of God so that the Spirit either becomes subordinate to the Father and the Son (perhaps even becomes “less god”) or the Father no longer becomes the one source of divine nature. Ok, I’m turning it over to the saints here:

You ask what is the procession of the Holy Spirit? Do you tell me first what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.
— Saint Gregory the Theologian

The Papacy

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the Bishop of Rome was once in communion with the Bishops of the East, too. We do not dispute the validity of the See of Rome or its founding by Peter or even its original preeminence among its brother patriarchates. Here’s where we diverge:

  1. The universal jurisdiction of the pope: In other words, we don’t think any bishop has jurisdiction over  the entire Church, but rather that every bishop is the pastor for his own geographically-specific flock and comes  together with the other bishops (as well as the people) to affirm the Orthodox faith when called upon to do so. The claim of universal jurisdiction by the Pope of Rome was originally largely based of a forged document known as the Donation of Constantine which Pope Leo IX (in 1054), not knowing of its spurious origins, cited to Patriarch Michael I causing all sorts of problems.
  2. The infallibility of the pope: Not officially a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican I, the idea that the pope is incapable of error when he is defining doctrine concerning faith and morals is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. In fact, we don’t think anyone is infallible in their theological statements, even the saints. Orthodox theology holds that the whole Church, gathered in council and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making these decisions.

The Original Sin

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Although it seems in its most recent catechism, the Catholic Church has softened its language to reflect a more Orthodox understanding of original sin, historically the understanding of original sin has varied greatly between the two churches causing a number of divergent doctrines as a result. Namely, the Catholic Church has traditionally held that we inherit not only the consequences of the first sin of Adam and Eve, but also bear the

guilt of that sin as if we committed it ourselves. The Orthodox understanding of the fall is that all of humanity–indeed, all of creation–was broken and distorted by the ancestral sin and left all future generations with its consequences, most importantly death, but that we do not bear the guilt of that sin. Sin is a distortion within a person, but does not change his being. This distinction is important primarily because over the years, a number of other doctrines have been articulated in the Catholic tradition based on this understanding of original sin which are not present in Orthodox theology. For example: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was conceived by her parents without the stain of original sin. For a really great article on original sin and its theological implications, try Original and Ancestral Sin: A Brief Comparison.

It’s important to understand that these theological differences have grown from complex historical, theological, and practical roots, and that no casual conversation will explicate or solve our differences. And really, talking about who we’re not is not nearly as engaging and lovely as talking about who we are, but nonetheless, at times we are called upon to answer this particular question, and I hope that this post has helped you feel more prepared if and when that question is posed to you.

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