56. Orthodoxy and Other Faiths: Roman Catholicism, Part Three – The Great Schism and What Followed

Results of the Great Schism in the West

Rome, cut off from the other four traditional Patriarchates, now saw herself as the One True Church. In isolation her authoritarian and legalistic tendencies were magnified. Some examples:

Purgatory, where after death peoples’ sins “are purged away through torment or ‘purifying’ punishments”. Catechism of Pope Paul VI, 1967.  It is reasonable to believe that after death we sinners need spiritual growth and purification as we approach the fullness of heavenly glory. “Further up and further in!” as C.S. Lewis put it. But “torment”? In the 1950s my Grandma Rosie was a kind, devout, loving woman who walked a mile to Mass on many Sunday mornings. As her death neared she was very afraid of torments ahead, because two of her adult children had “left the Catholic Church”. This is our God who “is good and loves mankind”?

Orthodox find Indulgences even stranger. These consist of saying certain prayers or performing certain good works in order to gain, for ourselves or for others, a specific number of days or years off Purgatory. Yes, pray for the living and the dead. But what is earthly time in the regions beyond earth? and who but God could possibly determine such things?

3 New legalistic theories of salvation: Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory of atonement said that Jesus Christ suffered crucifixion in substitution for human sin. “Justice” required God to send us to hell. However Christ with his infinite “merits” satisfied God’s wrath and atoned for our sins. Thus the emphasis on the sufferings of Christ while almost ignoring the Resurrection, which endures to this day. Note the popular devotion the “Stations of the Cross”, or Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ”. This is some other god than the One we Orthodox worship: the father of the Prodigal Son who without any reparation was eager to forgive. (We’ll consider our Orthodox understanding of the Cross in our Holy Friday article.)

We’ll talk about the infallible Papacy and other matters below. In a future article on classical Protestantism we’ll look at the medieval de-emphasis of the Holy Scriptures.

These developments and others caused the Protestant Reformation, which attempted to return the Roman Church to her Scriptural roots. When that was rejected, many left and formed new competing Protestant denominations.

The Counter-Reformation

This was the attempt by Rome to standardize doctrine and worship  and get everything under control. This over-reaction resulted in the dogmatic unbending Roman Catholicism that still existed when I was young. Of course, within this authoritarian system there were many good, kind, holy, loving people – think Bing Crosby and “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”! And Mother Teresa. And my Grandma Rosie.

Then in recent centuries the Roman Church, for reasons we Orthodox cannot grasp, added new dogmas, said to be “necessary for salvation”. 1 The  Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (1854) which says that she was  conceived without the “stain of original sin”.  Papal Infallibility (1870) declaring that, speaking from the throne on matters of faith and morals, the Pope cannot err.  3 The bodily Assumption of the Virgin into heaven (1950). Orthodox ask Why? We see no theological justification whatever for the first two. Probably most Orthodox believe in the Assumption, though I think it’s found in none of our documents or hymns. But why in the world should these non-Scriptural, non-patristic beliefs be made dogmas “necessary for salvation”? Is the Faith of the Fathers insufficient?

An extreme example of the legalism: A friend of mine has a turn-of-the-20th- century book, which seriously debates when the midnight Eucharistic fast begins: at the first bell of midnight or at the last bell? I forget what the answer is. Orthodox can only shake our heads…

The “Counter-Counter-Reformation”

Then came the reaction to this long period of “hard nose” Romanism. The Eucharistic fast is now one hour. (At a really long Mass could one eat up till about the Gospel reading?) Things which once were “mortal sins” are now optional practices. The Vatican II Council (1962-1965) met to set things straight. The Orthodox Churches had no formal reaction so far as I know. I think many documents of Vatican II are acceptable – but then interspersed were documents affirming the recent dogmas as well as indulgences and purgatory. I don’t understand.

Then soon after Vatican II everything let loose, as they often do after a period of suppression. Dear Pope John XXIII wanted to let fresh air in. I think a lot of vultures flew in too. Let me say that since Vatican II I’ve attended some Masses that were reverent and  “orthodox” in theology, even if lacking the old sense of holiness and mystery. However, without searching for the following, in the years since Vatican II I have heard first hand from former nuns of the things which went on in some convents, details of which I will spare you. I know personally of nuns in Milwaukee who worshipped “Wicca”, the mother goddess. I attended a Mass where the only “religious” hymn had the chorus “For God, love, rock and roll!” In order to find out what was going on in the liturgical world, I went to a Rock Mass; the offertory consisted of a congregational snake dance bearing raisin bread to the altar. I attended a wedding, which had a “comedy club” routine: the priest told jokes (some tasteless) throughout the service, which ended with non-Roman Catholics gathering around the altar to consecrate the Eucharist! I read that some nuns are still pushing hard for female priests. I listened in person to a Roman priest publicly deny the divinity of Christ. And more. I’m sure these are not the norm in Roman Churches, but they have been tolerated. I think the authorities have now got some of these things under control. Thank God.

But why ever were they tolerated? And is “control” the answer? We Orthodox, who are now very much a part of the same Western culture, have suffered none of these aberrations, and our authorities haven’t been needed to control them. Orthodox people just “know who we are”.

What we respect and love about the Roman Catholic Church

Thank God for all the good people in the Roman Church, their missionary zeal (which we Orthodox sometimes lack), their energy, their defense of the defenseless both born and unborn, their ability to critique all political systems (which we also sometimes lack), their many saints (I wish we could share Saint Francis of Assisi) and their multitude of good works. We certainly could use a chief Patriarch who was able to speak for us to the world. How can we not admire  all this? And their traditional music!

Salve Regina (Hail, O Queen), Gregorian chant sung at monastic Compline

Renaissance music from the Counter-Reformation

However traditional music is now often replaced with this kind of “contemporary” music. Actually it’s a style of pop music from about a generation or so ago, already outdated in “the world”. 

What we still have in common

Roman Catholics and Orthodox usually stress our differences – as I have here and will. Consider now all that we, at least officially, hold in common: God the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ as Incarnate Lord, the complete Holy Scriptures, 1000 years of shared history going back to the apostles, the Mother of God, most saints up to 1054, the Creed except for three words, the centrality of Church, worship, Sunday Eucharist, sacraments, the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, for the most part a common ecclesiastical vocabulary and liturgical calendar, many shared customs. Also many areas where we agree to disagree: Roman Catholics have no problem that we make the sign of the cross backwards; we don’t mind that they do it wrong.

We also share the scandal of disunity: Christ prayed that his disciples might be one, so that the world might believe. We all share in this failure. In 1965 for the first time in centuries, formal contact between Orthodox and Roman Catholics resumed, and anathemas were lifted.  Theological dialogs have continued ever since.

However, we are not in Communion. Roman Catholic law forbids non-Roman Catholics to receive Holy Communion except in very limited cases. When we visit, we should respect that, no matter what some Roman priests may say. (While we were still Anglican, our son David attended a Roman Catholic school for two years. One year he was allowed to receive Communion. Next year they said he could not!) We Orthodox have the same rule which I think is honored almost everywhere. Receiving Holy Communion together is a sign of full unity in the Faith, of being “in communion”, and we’re not there yet. Not receiving the Eucharist together is a painful sign of our disunity; it is intended to spur us on toward full unity.

What is keeping us from unity?

 The theological and ecclesiological differences, described above.

2 Roman Catholics need somehow to get their act together, so that statements of theological and liturgical committees are the same as the “reality” in parishes.

3 Hindering unity in eastern lands are Roman Catholic missions to try to convert Orthodox. These need to cease.

4 There is now another major hindrance. This is the elephant in the room, which non-Roman Catholics hesitate to mention out of respect for the vast majority of decent faithful Roman Catholics, some of whom are our friends and family. This is an issue which causes popular, often personal offense – rather like the sack of Constantinople. It needs to be talked about. So I will:

In what follows, in no way do I mean to deny Orthodox scandals, whether financial or sexual. (I could tell you some stories.) But, dear Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we Orthodox have experienced nothing like this, not of this kind and magnitude.

This is the scancal: The hindrance is the sexual abuse of youth by more than a few Roman Catholic priests, and the failure of too many bishops to deal with it.

Let me just speak for myself. I am not a violent man, but when someone abuses children… well, I feel like punching them out. And when priests do this, abusing not only children but also the sanctity of their office, I can’t find words to describe my revulsion. Early in the 20th century my father, an altar boy, was abused by a priest, and for fifty years after was hostile to any kind of Christianity. Recently I saw the movie “The Globe”.  By the end I was almost out of control. I was crying. I shouted at my poor wife. She had to drive me home. After the recent scandals became public, I hesitated for a while to wear clerical garb on the streets. And, sure enough, one time a well-dressed, well-spoken man came up shouting at me because I was a child-abuser. I was afraid he was going to beat me up. As a pastor and confessor I have heard too many stories from people who have been abused and what it has done to them.

This is a real hindrance to reunion. No matter how many theological agreements we reach, the Roman Church needs to clean up this moral mess, and keep it clean for a long time before many of us can accept reunion.

What is required for re-union with Orthodoxy?

Roman Catholics need to get their house in order theologically and liturgically and morally, and keep it that way. Ten years ago Pope Benedict tried to do so regarding doctrine, by exerting his authority. But Papal authority is not acceptable to Orthodox. Today Pope Francis is giving a friendly, loving human face to the Roman Church, but can he remove the dogmas that divide us? Can an infallible Pope infallibly declare that he is no longer infallible?

I wish I were optimistic about unity in the near future. We’ve made some progress, but we should not be overly-optimistic. It took us 1000 years to get into this mess. Don’t think we’re going to get out of it quickly. The path ahead is to ground ourselves in the things we share: the Scriptures, the Fathers, traditional worship and prayer. And then wait and pray, and trust the Holy Spirit someday to guide us back to the unity we once had, then forward together towards the unity we may have again in God’s good time.

So now, back to the original question:

Is the Pope Catholic?

In what follows, I use the word “Pope” in a collective sense.

In the Roman Catholic view, of course he is. As the Roman Church understands it, being under his authority is the chief definition of what Catholic is – accompanied, of course, by accepting the doctrines and dogmas of that Church.

The Orthodox Church emphasizes “Catholic” to mean “wholeness” (see Article 1 of this 3-part series), accepting the “whole Faith” of the ancient undivided Catholic Church: the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers, the Creed, the Councils. The Pope does this. But he has also added the Filioque to the Creed, which according to the Third Ecumenical Council means he is “anathematized”. (See Article 2 of this series.) Plus he has added a bunch of other dogmas.

With us Orthodox “Catholic” means not only holding to certain doctrines. It means also a manifestation of the “wholeness” of the Faith. Roman Catholics have diminished this by adding doctrines and dogmas. Look at it like this: If a man were married, and then unlawfully added a second wife and a third, would he still legally be married to the first wife? Yes, but the “wholeness” of his first marriage would be diminished, maybe destroyed. It would no longer manifest the fullness of what marriage is. Something like that.

We Orthodox believe that in Jesus Christ the “the faith was once for all delivered to the saints”. Jude 3 That Faith was delivered in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in the Scriptures, defended by the Fathers, clarified in the Creed and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It is to be held without addition or diminution.  That is the “whole” Faith. There is nothing more to add. That’s it. This is the Church’s “first marriage”, so to speak. Any required doctrines added after that diminish the “fullness”, the “catholicity” of a Church. No second or third “wives”, please.

Does that mean we think the Pope is not Catholic? I think we wouldn’t go at it that way. In such matters Orthodox usually don’t like to talk in absolutes. We don’t judge things as absolutely “valid” or “invalid”. Those are Roman Catholic categories. We judge things by the measure of the “fullness”, the “catholicity”. For example, Roman Catholics, if asked, would say Baptist Communions are absolutely invalid. Orthodox, judging by the fullness of what the Eucharist should be, say “in some ways, yes, in many ways, no”. Having bread and wine and believing inJesus certainly takes them part way to Catholicity.

C.S. Lewis used something like this analogy: If 100 is the correct answer to a sum, 90 is closer than 30, but both are still incorrect. I’d add that 150 also is incorrect.

So Is the Pope Catholic? The Orthodox answer: “In some ways. yes. Indeed in many ways, yes.” But by adding all these new doctrines and dogmas, he has diminished his “catholicity”, so “In some ways, definitely “no.”

What would it take for the Roman Church to become fully Catholic again? Get rid of your new “wives”. You can still be friends with them but not married. Give yourself fully to your First Love. So out with the Filioque. Out with Papal Infallibility. Purgatory, Indulgences, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption – these must be options. Return to the Faith of the Fathers without addition or diminution. Make the Pope of Rome what he once was: chief bishop among equals, spokesman for the Church, who “presides in love”, not by ecclesiastical authority. We Orthodox could accept that.

In a word, the Pope needs to become Orthodox. Russian? no. Greek? no. But in theology and in his view of the Church, yes, the Pope needs to become Orthodox again. For we Orthodox genuinely believe that we hold to the original authentic unchanged Faith, that we are the Catholic Church of the Fathers.

Pray that if this comes to pass, we Orthodox may give up our prejudices and our pride and accept the Pope back again as our Father in God, “presiding in love” – and that we may all be one again.

Forgive me for going on so long today, but I thought this subject needed to be concluded. 

Next Week: Erin go Bragh! Saint Patrick: Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican 



6 thoughts on “56. Orthodoxy and Other Faiths: Roman Catholicism, Part Three – The Great Schism and What Followed

    1. Matthew: That’s a good and fair question. I am just a blogger. I am not the world’s foremost authority on Orthodoxy or on anything. So I asked my wife, whom Father Peter Gillquist once described as a “Shi-ite Orthodox”. (Yes, I know it should be “Shia”, but that’s what he said.) She responded, “Nothing”. I think that would be the typical Orthodox answer:”Theologically, nothing.” Though I can certainly think of many things we Orthodox could do a lot better than we do. I just listened to some live Byzantine chanting on my computer; that’s one of them. As far as impediments to reunion I can think of 2 practical matters: 1) Some Orthodox hold a lot of hard feelings towards Roman Catholicism, both ancient and modern, which we need to get past before we are ready for reunion. I was more open to it 25 years ago than I am now. As I said in the blog, that’s going to take a while. 2) Unless we can arrange to have a genuine “ecumenical” Council of all Orthodox, who is to speak for all Orthodox regarding reunion? – or anything else for that matter. The Ecumenical Patriarch has no jurisdiction outside his own Archdiocese. So reunion would have to take place jurisdiction by jurisdiction by jurisdiction. I can think of 8 right off the top of my head [P.S. Make it 11. I think.] – many of whom find it hard to agree about anything except Faith, worship and morals. What if some accepted it and some did not? What would that do to Orthodox unity? How to handle this one? I have no idea.

  1. Abraham. Matthew 7:3.
    Plenty of heros & villians amoung Christians of every stripe during WWII. Let’s not play that game.
    Both Orthodox & Catholic nations staged pogroms.
    Both had Bishops who served as enablers to wicked regimes and both had Bishops die as Martyrs in defience of wicked regimes.
    Both you and I are in communion with great saints & great sinners.

    It would be more charitable if you listed all the sins of the Orthodox hierchy. I’ll be happy to confess the sins of my Church’s hierchy.
    Even so, the Catholic Church & the Orthodox Church are a blessing to the world. Their great goodness to feed, clothe, & teach far surpasses the sins that people like me commit that bring Her shame.

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