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The Road to Rome, Part III: Why Not Eastern Orthodoxy?

This is the third of six articles relating the writer’s journey into the bosom of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Having succumbed to spiritual desolation following the rejection of his Adventist heritage, the young seeker investigates various Christian traditions, hoping to discover the Truth. Part I may be found here; Part II here.

Here I come to the most difficult part of my series, for I have a deep and abiding love of our eastern Christian brethren.

Firstly, I state at the outset that I consider the Eastern Orthodox as part of the Catholic Church, whether they consider themselves to be or not – much in the same way as Pope John Paul II described them as being one lung alongside the lung of the Western Church.  They have valid sacraments, apostolic succession, and all other manner of elements that make them a valid Church and not merely an “ecclesial community.”

However, and it grieves me to say, given my sympathies for the Orthodox, that they have certain serious problems that lead me to reject their authority in favor of the Catholic Church.  These problems I describe below in brief. Before we continue, however, I must admit my lack of extensive knowledge of the Orthodox Church. I speak only from my own experience.  Humbly, let us proceed.

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.

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.

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

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.

The Orthodox are part of the one Body of Christ, and are not separated brethren such as the Church holds the Protestants to be, though they are still held to be imperfectly united.  It is with ardent hope that I wish to live long enough to see the two churches unite once again.

A summation then as to the reasons I did not choose Eastern Orthodoxy:

  • 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.)

That said, I wish also to highlight overwhelming positive aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy:

  • The Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church may be separated, but this does not mean that Eastern Orthodoxy is not a full Church in the sense that the Catholic one is.  It has apostolic succession, valid sacraments, and the like.
  • The mystical tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is without compare – many of the saints venerated by the Orthodox are the most profound mystics one could ever come across.  Hesychasm, the mystical tradition of the East, runs throughout the writings of the Eastern saints, and is a kind of mysticism that simply must be studied more in depth by the West.  I read Theophan the Recluse in order to prepare myself for baptism, and often turn to the writings of Seraphim of Sarov for spiritual direction as well.  Additionally, the theology of the East is much more patristic in flavor, and provides an excellent complement to the scholasticism of the West.
  • The Eastern Orthodox have not succumbed in any way to the mind-numbingly awful influences of modernism.  Tradition and the aesthetic beauty of two-thousand years of Christianity are in full force to this day.  After having walked into an Orthodox Church, one’s own post-Vatican II cathedral can often look rather bare (and let me say, this is not the fault of Vatican II, but often a by-product of rampant “spirit of Vatican II” influences).  The iconographic art of the East has a beauty all its own (though I prefer the more lush and dimensional art of the West at the end of the day).  And I would be amiss if I did not make mention of the wonderful (and I confess, slightly superficial) lack of “sweater nuns” – religious always wear their habits with pride!
  • The emphasis on original sin is far more positively approached in the East.  Unlike in the West, where the Augustinian concept of original sin has taken much more precedence (and been taken even further by the Reformers, especially Calvin), the Eastern Orthodox approach original sin in the sense of the human race being tainted by it, but not totally depraved by it.  For an excellent and short commentary on this, I recommend the reading of Father Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way.

Jason Liske, who blogs under the name "The Idler," is a writer and poor sinner who converted to the Catholic faith from Seventh-Day Adventism.
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  • David

    As a former Russian Orthodox (OCA), someone who crossed the Bosporus, not the Tiber, because of the lack of unity within Eastern Orthodoxy here are my initial thoughts and response to these comments.

    The Road to Rome?

    • James Likoudis

      Itr is unfortunate that Jason distorts Catholic ecclesiology. The Catholic Church does not teach that the separated Orthodox are “part of the Catholic Church” and “are part of the one Body of Christ”.The Orthodox are indeed “linked to “and “joined to” the Catholic Church as stated by Vatican II, but their “imperfect communion” lacks an essential element of the Church’s hierarchical structure, namely, the Papacy as the Rock of the entire Episcopate. As St. Paul exclaimed, “is Christ divided?” As Christ is undivided, so is his earthly Church because the Papacy serves as the visible principle of a vsible Church’s undivided Unity.

      • John

        I find it fascinating that the Roman Catholic church took.. what… 1000+ years to “decide” that the bishop residing in Rome was definitional of the true church, despite such an idea being absent from the new testament and absent from the early church fathers. Only after a thousand plus years of mulling over this, and conflating Peter with the Roman bishop and so forth, did this emerge. But how can they expect everyone to accept such a thing? It would have to be there from the beginning, otherwise it can’t be there at all. And in the beginning there wasn’t even a Roman bishop. I mean, we don’t even know for sure if Peter ever went to Rome or that he ended his life in Rome. The tradition of the Assyrian Church is that Peter preached and ultimately died in Babylon. I don’t see why the unity of the church is dependant on me being able to answer an unanswerable question like where Peter died, if he had some special charisma to pass on, and if so who he passed it to. If my salvation is materially affected by being able to weigh the claims of the Roman church versus the Assyrian church on where Peter died, then we’re all in trouble.

        • Jason Liske

          The Assyrian Church is also…Nestorian, is it? And many Church Fathers attest to St. Peter being in Rome.

          • John

            Well if the successor to Peter defines the true church, and if I happen to believe the Nestorian church’s story about Peter, that would make Nestorianism the true church, would it not?

            There is no consensus of the fathers about what it means to be a successor to Peter. Some fathers name Alexandria and Antioch as successors to Peter. Some name every bishop as successors to Peter. Some name every christian as successors to Peter.

            Even the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, which appears to be an Italian document, names the feast day of “The Chair of Saint Peter” as belonging to Antioch. “The Chair of Saint Peter at Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.”

            Theodoret says: “Dioscurus, however, refuses to abide by these decisions; he is turning the see of he blessed Mark upside down; and these things he does though he perfectly well knows that the Antiochean metropolis possesses the throne of the great Peter, who was the teacher of the blessed Mark, and first and coryphaeus of he apostles” — Theodoret, Epistle 86

      • Jason Liske

        James, I did not intend to distort anything, but thank you for pointing out the error. I should have put more thought into my writing.

        Humbly,
        Jason @ AMC

    • Jason Liske

      Hi David, I saw a lot of links, but couldn’t find your own thoughts on the issue…very interested to read them!

  • David

    Jason,
    There is an active discussion going on regarding your comments on the post below. I encourage folks to check it out.
    The Road to Rome? Why Eastern Orthodoxy Deserves a Second Look

  • John

    On the first point, the Orthodox church doesn’t have much official to say about things outside the church, including saints of the west. Many Orthodox have a great admiration of western saints, many don’t. I don’t see what it has to do with which church you would choose. Yes, Photius is venerated in Eastern Catholic churches, which is rather schizophrenic, to venerate as a saint someone instrumental in the east west split and instrumental in opposing the pope. The very reason he is venerated in the East in antithetical to being in communion with Rome.

    On the second point, again I don’t get it. At various points in my life I’ve been attending Greek and Russian churches depending on circumstance. When the Russian church has teaching lessons, Greek and Serbian priests and parishioners turn up. By the same token, I used to know a Melkite Catholic, and certainly he attended western rite when there was no choice, but he only really desired to attend Eastern rite when there was any choice in the matter. I don’t see how this situation is any different at all.

    On the point of various fathers, Chrysostom etc. I would agree there was one or two fathers who can be pressed successfully into service for Rome, but for the vast majority people make the mistake of conflating the role of Peter with the role of the Pope. Certainly Chrysostom spent the vast majority of his career OUT of communion with Rome, which never seemed to bother him. I think its a big mistake to assume that what the Fathers say about Peter can be overlayed on the Roman Pope. For example, take this quote:

    Wherefore though there are many apostles, yet with regard to the principality itself the See of the Prince of the apostles alone has grown strong in authority, which in three places is the See of one. For he himself exalted the See in which he deigned even to rest and end the present life [Rome]. He himself adorned the See to which he sent his disciple as evangelist [Alexandria]. He himself established the See in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years [Antioch]. Since then it is the See of one, and one See, over which by Divine authority three bishops now preside, whatever good I hear of you, this I impute to myself. (Gregory the Great, Book VII, Epistle XL)

    And who did Chrysostom say holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Peter? The Pope? Nope.

    For [John] the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master’s bosom with much confidence, this man comes forward to us now. By this Apostle stand the powers from above, marveling at the beauty of his soul, and his understanding, and the bloom of that virtue by which he drew unto him Christ Himself, and obtained the grace of the Spirit. (St. John Chrysostom, First Homily on the Gospel of St. John).

    Who ruled the church according to Chrysostom? Peter? Nope, actually James.

    There was no arrogance in the Church. After Peter Paul speaks, and none silences him: James waits patiently, not starts up (for the next word). Great the orderliness (of the proceedings). No word speaks John here, no word the other Apostles, but held their peace, for James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. “And after that they had held their peace, James answered,” etc. (v. 13.) Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part.~Upon the Acts of the Apostles, 33d Homily.

    Which apostle had the gift of infallibility according to Chrysostom? Peter? Nope, John:

    “Were John about to converse with us, and to say to us words of his own, we needs must describe his family, his country, and his education. But since it is not he, but God by him, that speaks to mankind, it seems to me superfluous and distracting to enquire into these matters. And yet even thus it is not superfluous, but even very necessary. For when you have learned who he was, and from whence, who his parents, and what his character, and then hear his voice and all his heavenly wisdom, then you shall know right well that these doctrines belong not to him, but to the Divine power stirring his soul. Not so this fisherman; for all he saith is INFALLIBLE; and standing as it were upon a rock, he never shifts his ground. For since he has been thought worthy to be in the most secret places, and has the Lord of all speaking within him, he is subject to nothing that is human.”~ St. John Chrysostom, Second Homily on the Gospel of St. John

  • John

    Regarding the filioque, I think the problem is that there are two completely different concepts that are discussed: eternal procession, and temporal sending. It’s pretty obvious that the creed was meant to discuss eternal procession, and while the western creed can be interpreted in an orthodox manner as referring to temporal sending of the Spirit, that’s not what it was meant to be about, so the changes to the creed stop it being a creed that unites Christendom, since we are no longer talking about the same thing, even if we are charitable to say that it can be interpreted in an orthodox way.

  • David

    Jason,
    Christ is in our midst!
    Here are just a few of my thoughts and questions that I encourage our Eastern Orthodox friends to answer.
    The Road to Rome? Part II
    Follow Mr. James Likoudis

  • David

    To read further thoughts/comments of mine please go here – The Road to Rome? Part III.

  • David

    Here are some further comments for your judment.
    The Road to Rome? Part III

  • David

    Additional thoughts and links can be found here – Eastern Catholics – Are They “Orthodox”?

  • Luke

    From the very beginning, Eastern and as well as the Latin Father perceive the bishop of Roman as having a honorary and first among equal status among other four ancient great patriarchate. It is due to the historical factors that many heresies rose up from the East but not the West that many appeal to the bishop of Roman. However, the universal Church in the beginning did not perceive the Pope of Roman as having universal justricatinary power over all churches. The Church is both conciliatory and hierarchical. I believe the Eastern Orthodox Communions (Churches) have maintained this apostolic mode of Church governance. Another reason why I did not convert to Roman Catholicism is the rapture that has created since Vatican II from patristic tradition. HOLY EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCH HAS BEST PRESERVED THE FAITH OF APOSTLES AND FATHERS OF THE CHURCH IF ONE STUDIES HISTORICAL THEOLOGY. THE LATIN CHURCH HAS GONE OFF THE COURSE FROM 9TH CENTURY ; THE SEEDS OF HERESIES WAS PLANTED THEN AND THE FLOWERING OF THE HERETICAL SEEDS ARE MANIFESTED IN COUNCIL OF FLOERNCE, PERIOD OF SCHOLASTICISM AND THE FINAL BLOSSOM VATICAN COUNCIL I.