Differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism

By Roman Catholic blogger Teófilo de Jesús OSB. Originally at Vivificat

Folks, Elizabeth Mahlou, my fellow blogger from Blest Atheist, asked me one of those “big questions” which necessitate its own blog post. Here is the question:

I am a Catholic who upon occasion attends Orthodox services because of my frequent travels in Eastern European countries. The differences in the masses are obvious, but I wonder what the differences in the theology are. I don’t see much. Is that something that you can elucidate?

I welcome this question because, as many of you know, I belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church for about four years and in many ways, I still am “Orthodox” (please, don’t ask me elucidate the seeming contradiction at this time, thank you). This question allows me to wear my “Orthodox hat” which still fits me, I think. If you are an Orthodox Christian and find error or lack of clarity in what I am about to say, feel free to add your own correction in the Comments Section.

Orthodox Christians consider the differences between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches as both substantial and substantive, and resent when Catholics trivialize them. Though they recognize that both communions share a common “Tradition” or Deposit of Faith, they will point out that the Roman Catholic Church has been more inconsistently faithful – or more consistently unfaithful – to Tradition than the Orthodox Church has been in 2000 years of Christian history. Generally, all Orthodox Christians would agree, with various nuances, with the following 12 differences between their Church and the Catholic Church. I want to limit them to 12 because of its symbolic character and also because it is convenient and brief:

  1. The Orthodox Church of the East is the Church that Christ founded in 33 AD. She is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. All other churches are separated from by schism, heresy, or both, including the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Jesus Christ, as Son of God is divine by nature, as born of the Virgin Mary, True Man by nature, alone is the head of the Church. No hierarch, no bishop, no matter how exalted, is the earthly head of the Church, since Jesus Christ’s headship is enough.
  3. All bishops are equal in their power and jurisdiction. Precedence between bishops is a matter of canonical and therefore of human, not divine law. “Primacies” of honor or even jurisdiction of one bishop over many is a matter of ecclesiastical law, and dependent bishops need to give their consent to such subordination in synod assembled.
  4. The Church is a communion of churches conciliar in nature; it is not a “perfect society” arranged as a pyramid with a single monarchical hierarch on top. As such, the Orthodox Church gives priority to the first Seven Ecumenical Councils as having precedent in defining the nature of Christian belief, the nature and structure of the Church, and the relationship between the Church and secular government, as well as the continuation of synodal government throughout their churches to this day.
  5. Outside of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Orthodox Church receives with veneration various other regional synods and councils as authoritative, but these are all of various national churches, and always secondary in authority to the first seven. They do not hold the other 14 Western Councils as having ecumenical authority.
  6. Orthodox Christians do not define “authority” in quite the same way the Catholic Church would define it in terms of powers, jurisdictions, prerogatives and their interrelationships. Orthodox Christian would say that “authority” is inimical to Love and in this sense, only agape is the one firm criterion to delimit rights and responsibilities within the Church. Under this scheme, not even God himself is to be considered an “authority” even though, if there was a need of one, it would be that of God in Christ.
  7. The Orthodox Church holds an anthropology different from that of the Catholic Church. This is because the Orthodox Church does not hold a forensic view of Original Sin, that is, they hold that the sin of Adam did not transmit an intrinsic, “guilt” to his descendants. “Ancestral Sin,” as they would call it, transmitted what may be termed as a “genetic predisposition” to sin, but not a juridical declaration from God that such-a-one is “born in sin.” Hyper-Augustinianism, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed, is impossible in Orthodox anthropology because according to the Orthodox, man is still essentially good, despite his propensity to sin. By the way, even what Catholics would consider a “healthy Augustinianism” would be looked at with suspicion by most Orthodox authorities. Many trace “the fall” of the Latin Church to the adoption of St. Augustine as the West’s foremost theological authority for 1,000 years prior to St. Thomas Aquinas. The best evaluations of St. Augustine in the Orthodox Church see him as holy, well-meaning, but “heterodox” in many important details, starting with his anthropology.
  8. Since no “forensic guilt” is transmitted genetically through “Original Sin,” the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of our Blessed Mother is considered superfluous. She had no need for such an exception because there was nothing to exempt her from in the first place. Of course, Mary is Theotokos (“God-bearer”), Panagia (“All-Holy”) and proclaimed in every Liturgy as “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim,” but her sanctification is spoken about more in terms of a special, unique, total, and gratuitous bestowing and subsequent indwelling of the Spirit in her, without the need of “applying the merits of the atonement” of Christ to her at the moment of conception, in order to remove a non-existent forensic guilt from her soul, as the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception would have it. If pressed, Orthodox authorities would point at the Annunciation as the “moment” in which this utter experience of redemption and sanctification took place in the life of the Blessed Theotokos. Although the Orthodox believe in her Assumption, they deny that any individual hierarch has any power to singly and unilaterally define it as a dogma binding on the whole Church, and that only Councils would have such power if and when they were to proclaim it and its proclamations received as such by the entire Church.
  9. Although Orthodox Christians have at their disposal various institutions of learning such as schools, universities, and seminaries, and do hold “Sunday Schools,” at least in the USA, it is fair to say that the main catechetical vehicle for all Orthodox peoples is the Divine Liturgy. All the liturgical prayers are self-contained: they enshrine the history, the story, the meaning, and the practical application of what is celebrated every Sunday, major feast, and commemoration of angels, saints, and prophets. If one pays attention – and “Be attentive” is a common invitation made throughout the Divine Liturgy – the worshipper catches all that he or she needs to know and live the Orthodox faith without need for further specialized education. For this very reason, the Divine Liturgy, more than any other focus of “power and authority,” is the true locus of Orthodox unity and the principal explanation for Orthodox unity and resiliency throughout history.
  10. Since the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is overwhelmingly important and indispensable as the vehicle for True Christian Worship – one of the possible translations of “orthodoxy” is “True Worship – and as a teaching vehicle – since another possible translation of “orthodoxy” is “True Teaching” – all the ecclesiastical arts are aimed at sustaining the worthy celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Iconography in the Eastern Church is a mode of worship and a window into heaven; the canons governing this art are strict and quite unchanging and the use of two-dimensional iconography in temples and chapels is mandatory and often profuse. For them, church architecture exists to serve the Liturgy: you will not find in the East “modernistic” temples resembling auditoriums. Same thing applies to music which is either plain chant, or is organically derived from the tones found in plain chant. This allows for “national expressions” of church music that nevertheless do not stray too far away from the set conventions. Organ music exists but is rare; forget guitars or any other instrument for that matter.
  11. There are Seven Sacraments in the Orthodox Church, but that’s more a matter of informal consensus based on the perfection of the number “seven” than on a formal dogmatic declaration. Various Orthodox authorities would also argue that the tonsure of a monk or the consecration of an Emperor or other Orthodox secular monarch is also a sacramental act. Opinion in this instance is divided and the issue for them still open and susceptible to a final dogmatic definition in the future, if one is ever needed.
  12. The end of man in this life and the next is similar between the Orthodox and the Catholics but I believe the Orthodox “sing it in a higher key.” While Catholics would say that the “end of man is to serve God in this life to be reasonably happy in this life and completely happy in the next,” a rather succinct explanation of what being “holy” entails, the Orthodox Church would say that the end of man is “deification.” They will say that God became man so that man may become “god” in the order of grace, not of nature of course. Men – in the Greek the word for “man” still includes “womankind” – are called to partake fully of the divine nature. There is no “taxonomy” of grace in the Orthodox Church, no “quantification” between “Sanctifying Grace” and actual grace, enabling grace, etc. Every grace is “Sanctifying Grace,” who – in this Catholic and Orthodox agree – is a Person, rather than a created power or effect geared to our sanctification. Grace is a continuum, rather than a set of discreet episodes interspersed through a Christian’s life; for an Orthodox Christian, every Grace is Uncreated. The consequences of such a view are rich, unfathomable, and rarely studied by Catholic Christians.

I think this will do it for now. I invite my Orthodox Christian brethren to agree, disagree, or add your own. Without a doubt, – I am speaking as a Catholic again – what we have in common with the Orthodox Church is immense, but what keeps us apart is important, challenging, and not to be underestimated.

Thank you Elizabeth for motivating me to write these, and may the Lord continue to bless you richly.

– Please, also read this very important Clarification.

Originally at: Vivificat Blog (Teófilo de Jesús) / CC BY-ND 3.0

Note: This article was posted on Teófilo’s blog Vivificat several years ago (August 2009). His invitation to comment or correct is, of course, referring to that blog posting; he won’t see anything that gets posted here. And, of course, over the intervening years, plenty of responses, arguments, and hairsplititng comments have already been posted to the article, which ought not to distract the reader from his simple summary above.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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  1. Thanks for posting this. At the risk of ‘hair-splitting’, here goes…
    Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with the principle in Point 9 that we are catechised within through and by the Services of the Church, I would respectfully challenge Point 9, which I believe, as written, reveals a way of thinking which is not fully Orthodox.

    We need the hymnody of the whole body of Divine Services – not just the Divine Liturgy. An Orthodox Christian who limits themselves to the Divine Liturgy will expose themselves to the barest minimum needed to ‘survive’. It is through the hymnody and Canons of Matins, for example, that we learn and develop a spritual understanding of the Trinity, the Theotokos, and the lives of the celebrated Saints.(To say nothing of absorbing the Psalms through regular repetition.)

    If limited solely to Divine Liturgy, we see the ‘bullet-point summary’ version via the Creed and one or two Troparia.

    I would further suggest that the focus on Divine Liturgy alone potentially criples the Orthodox Christian, if it leads to the mindset of ‘no priest, no church’. The whole body of Divine Services (apart from the Divine Liturgy) can and do stand alone, and help the Orthodox Christian to do likewise. Of course we need our clergy! But we can (should) learn, practice and grow in our faith on a daily basis, within the Services, regardless of clergy.

    Of course, this pre-supposes that one is participating in the Services in one’s own language, or at least one that they readily understand. For those who are only able to access the Services in an ancient liturgical language, or the language of their grand-parents’ homeland, supplementary activities may be a practical way for the devout person to progress.

    The problem for all of us though, is that it takes big commitments of time to fully participate in the Divine Services. I certainly don’t. Only those who withdraw from the world are able to do so. However, I don’t think it changes the truth of the proposition, that one fully find and learns the Faith within those Services.

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  2. I’m saddened after reading his clarifications and further blog posts after the article above. It seems to me a very easy thing to track the historical progression of the Church. I wonder why it is so hard for people to just look and see? Perhaps they should take a path similar to mine. I cast off everything and started from scratch, investigating everything from Buddhism to Paganism. Maybe that’s it – maybe preconceived notions have to be cast off before you look, or you’ll blind yourself with your own opinions and misconceptions. Regardless sometimes I am saddened and in despair when I see things like this. So close to truth, and yet so far.

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    • I appreciate your sentiments. I just want to state that I’m not “far” from the truth but, in all humility and knowing my littleness and unworthiness, i am *in the Truth.* Thank you kindly.


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  3. Although if you read his updates, further blog posts, and the comments in those posts you will see a lot of has to do with our current fractured state.

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    • He also writes that he became Orthodox largely because he felt like the Roman Catholics were holding him back unfairly from ordination. He loved a lot about Orthodox Christianity, but felt he’d converted for wrong reasons; together with some disillusionment about the [very] imperfect Orthodox Church, that moved him to return to his home in Catholicism. I’m not sure any of those are good reasons for converting to anything, but how many of us ever act from unmixed motives :-\ May God grant him grace on his journey.

      I do think his list is a good summary of some things OrthoFolks see as significant, substantive issues dividing Roman Catholicism from the Church, either in dogma or in approach and mindset.

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  4. Thank you for the quote, the credits, and the link.

    I just want to clarify that I am not Fr. Nicolas Schwizer, a Catholic priest associated with the Schoenstatt Apostolic movement, whose reflections I post periodically on my blog.


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    • Oops! I saw your article quoted on a mailing list a while ago under that name – I assumed those must be two names for the same guy. I’ve updated the byline. Thanks :-)

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  5. My disquiet with #9 is that, while true to point, does not go far enough. A great deal of living out the grace and life of the Holy Spirit imparted during the communal services is the futher private disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance and almsgiving. That is where the ‘specialized education’ occurs.

    Certainly the list is a sincere effort to state the major differences dispassionately and not polemically. That we need and I am grateful for his effort.

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