By the time I decided to convert to Catholicism, my experience of Christianity had been almost entirely Western, either in Catholicism or in Protestantism. Between the two the arguments seemed easy and the choice obvious – one was true the other was not. Simple, easy to remember. But as my Baptism loomed on the distant horizon I was nagged by the fact that I had never considered Christianity’s third major branch, the very Eastern, very foreign Orthodox Church, as anything more than a weird little break-away from the real Church Catholic of which I would presently be a member. The oversight was irksome to me, but I fear it is one many converts from Protestantism make, dismissing the Orthodox Church as simply Catholicism sans Papa, leaving their understanding of the Christian tradition not a little myopic. The truth is far more complex.
Orthodoxy being a historical religion and not an invention of the early modern era, it did not crumble quite so easily as the newer and less mature Christianities whence I came. It has bishops and tradition and ancient apostolic sees and an equal if not greater antipathy towards the Protestant doctrines of Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. The differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism are far more subtle and difficult issues which require much thought and care. They are not the stuff of polarization, nor do they demand binary assent or dissent. For this reason discussion on the internet regarding Orthodoxy from the Catholic position is rare and feeble-minded. Also, as Eastern Christians in communion with the Pope of Rome, Byzantine Catholics are frequently interrogated by both Latin Catholics and Orthodox Christians as to why they don’t simply become Orthodox when it would be so much easier to live out their Orthodox traditions in union with a larger body of Christians which shares their theology and praxis. I offer this, probably insignificant and irrelevant post, as an apology for why I, at least, remain Catholic in spite of everything.
Distinctions without Differences
The reasons Byzantine Catholics might give for quibbling with the Orthodox tend to be very different from those given by Latin Catholics. One particularly hilarious article from Catholic Answers called “Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy” cites several weaknesses in Orthodoxy (the existence of ethnic Churches, the confusion surrounding the definition of an Ecumenical Council, etc.) almost all of which are, unbeknownst to the author, just as true of the Catholic Church*. Though honestly I could come up with lots of specific reasons not to be Orthodox, I’ve decided to narrow them down to three (sort of).
One common theme throughout much Orthodox anti-Catholic polemics is an insistence upon the Catholic Church’s supposed heterodoxy, or unfaithfulness to the faith. They claim the Catholic Church has invented numerous heretical doctrines which either contradict or are not found in Orthodoxy including, but not limited to, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, the Filioque clause**, and Original Sin. On the surface this claim seems to be true. The Eastern Church never mentions Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception didn’t become a dogma of the Church until the 1850s, the Filioque was not included in the original Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and Original Sin is what Protestants use to justify their wicked doctrine of Total Depravity. The truth is, at least as far as I can tell, that most of these “problems” are really just red herrings made up by the Orthodox to justify their entirely political schism from Rome.
It is true that the Eastern Church does not mention Purgatory, but not because it does not affirm this doctrine. Purgatory is of course a Latin word, and Latin terms are few and far between in Churches which did the greater part of their theologizing in Greek. The fact remains that though the Latin doctrine of Purgatory retains some scholastic baggage (the metaphor of burning in fire, for example, or the focus on making expiation to God for unconfessed venial sins), the essence of the dogma defined by the Council of Trent, that a state of being between death and the ultimate glory of God in Heaven and “that the souls there detained are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and chiefly by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar” (Session XXV, Decree Concerning Purgatory) is amenable to both the Latins’ obsession with justice and the Eastern Church’s notion of deification, or becoming like God. Some Eastern Catholics have called Purgatory “the final theosis”, since it is a place where souls continue to be deified after death. If your Church says prayers for the dead and believes salvation to be a process rather than an act of Divine fiat, both of which the Orthodox Church does, you believe in Purgatory, regardless of what you want to call it.
Along the same lines Orthodox object to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but again they confuse the Western devotion surrounding the doctrine with the doctrine itself. Few Orthodox would say that the Theotokos was an ordinary sinful woman. If they believe that indeed she was sinless, as the Divine Liturgy definitely implies when it call her “our all-holy, Immaculate, most highly blessed and glorious Lady”, they must affirm as Catholics do that she was kept this way by the grace of God, for to claim that she was sinless by her own merits is Pelagianism and a heresy recognized as such by both Churches. Orthodox objections to such doctrines as Purgatory or the Immaculate Conception are born more from a suspicion of Catholicism and the West, rather than any actual disagreement of substance.
Another tactic the Orthodox use to distance themselves from Catholics involves misrepresenting Catholic beliefs. Nowhere is this dishonesty more egregious than regarding the Catholic dogma of Original Sin, which the Orthodox claim to reject. Time and time again we are attacked for holding the hyper-Augustinian belief that human beings inherit actual guilt from Adam that therefore needs to be cleansed by Baptism. This is an annoying parody of Catholic doctrine and a confusion of Original Sin with the teaching of the Reformers called Total Depravity. The Catholic Church has nothing to do with this notion of inherited guilt. No one is guilty for any sin but their own. The Catholic Church does affirm, as does the Orthodox Church, that all of humankind can and does inherit the effects of Adams sin, the difference between East and West being that the West focuses more on the inheritance of a moral flaw (concupiscence) and the East focuses on physical death. Again, the Orthodox’ persistent misrepresentation of Original Sin is not born of an actual difference in belief, but in a dislike of Rome and a mistrust of the West’s most influential theologian Augustin of Hippo***.
Similar things can be said about the Filioque clause and pretty much any of the theological differences put forth by the Orthodox as reason for their separation from the Catholic Church. Fortunately some Orthodox thinkers are starting to recognize this and cry havoc (specifically David Bentley Hart’s wonderful article “The Myth of Schism“). In summary, the Orthodox Church does not hold beliefs different enough from Catholicism to be considered a truly different faith, regardless of there protestations to the contrary. More to come in Part II.