Roman Catholic Critiques of Orthodoxy

Since my post Orthodoxy Versus Protestantism has finally replaced Fox News Foxes as my most popular post, I thought I’d address one of the comments on that post, which links to a Roman Catholic (or Latin church) critique of Orthodoxy.

I understand that the critique is not an exhaustive or complete set of arguments from that perspective, but nonetheless it is worthwhile examining.  So let’s look at what Mr Armstrong had to say:

The Nicene Creed, adhered to by most Christians, contains the phrase, “One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” From a Catholic ecclesiological perspective, Orthodoxy — strictly speaking – is not “one” Church, but a conglomerate of at least seventeen, each with separate governance. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 edition, vol. 17, 867) states that, “Since the Russian Revolution there has been much turmoil and administrative conflict within the Orthodox Church.” Although Orthodox theology is fairly homogeneous, nevertheless, a Catholic would respectfully reply that none of these “autocephalous” churches can speak with the doctrinal definitiveness which existed in the Church before 1054, and which indeed still resides in the papacy and magisterium of the Catholic Church.

This is basically a difference in definition of what “one” Church looks like.  Ultimately, for the Latin church, they can’t envisage the Church being One unless it has a Pope/single leader with ultimate authority.  Armstrong says there are “at least seventeen” churches, but this misunderstands how Orthodoxy works.  In Orthodoxy, Christ is the Head of the Church, and all His Bishops are equal in authority.  By extension of Armstrong’s logic, every diocesan Bishop in Orthodoxy heads a “separate” church.  No, the Oneness in Orthodoxy comes from the communion of the Bishops – that is, they are all agreed on dogma and the original faith of the Apostles.  They can run their diocese in different ways, but this does not separate them from the One Church.  It is only if they teach a different dogma.  And if one Bishop deviates from this dogma, it does not mean the Church is divided, but that that the Bishop has simply removed himself from the One Church.  This is actually the Bishop of Rome’s problem – since the 11th Century he has without exception been out of communion, not by his own decree or even Orthodox decree, but by teaching dogma that is at variance with the Church.  Initially, this was merely the filloque, but the list of false dogma has grown since.

There is no issue of “doctrinal definitiveness” in Orthodoxy.  All the Orthodox Bishops are of one mind and One Church, and they say the same thing.

Catholics assert that Orthodoxy’s rejection of the papacy is inconsistent with the nature of the Church through the centuries. No one denies the existence of the papacy in some form in the early period. Orthodoxy, however, regards the authority exercised by popes historically (or which should have been exercised) as simply that of a primacy of honor, rather than a supremacy of jurisdiction over all other bishops and regional churches. To counter that claim, Catholics point to biblical Petrine evidences and the actual wielding of authority by renowned popes such as St. Leo the Great (440-61) and St. Gregory the Great (590-604), honored as saints even by the Orthodox.

The papacy, according to Catholic Tradition, is a divinely-instituted office, not merely (as Orthodoxy considers the papacy and Roman supremacy) a political and historical happenstance. Rome was apostolic, and preeminent from the beginning of Christianity, whereas Constantinople (the seat of the Byzantine Empire) was not.

benedict-xvi-and-bartholomew-iiWhole books have been written on this topic, so I will try to be brief, but the Latin view of history is inconsistent with what actually happened.  No Ecumenical Council affirmed the modern Latin view of the Papacy.  Instead, the Orthodox view of the Bishop of Rome as “first among equals”, the “Chairman of the Board” as it were, is explicitly stated.  Without going into detail, the Bible verses the Latins cite “do not mean what they say they mean”, and if they did, then their Pope would be the current Bishop of Antioch (where we know Peter had diocesan authority), not the Bishop of Rome (where nothing other than tradition indicates he was the presiding Bishop there).

The role of the Bishop of Rome in the first millennium was indeed one of leadership of the worldwide faith, and it would return to that status should future Bishops of Rome return to Orthodoxy.  But there was no evidence of the Bishop of Rome possessing the authority of a modern Pope within the Latin church.

Orthodoxy (and Eastern Catholic Christianity, from roughly the second half of the first millennium) has been plagued with caesaropapism, which, in effect (in terms of exercised power and de facto jurisdiction, if not actual Orthodox doctrinal teaching), places the state above the church -– somewhat similar to early Lutheranism and Anglicanism.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, it is significantly easier to maintain the notion that the Church is regarded as above all states (which Orthodoxy also formally believes), and is their judge, as the carrier of God’s Law, which transcends and forms the basis of man’s law. The papacy is the bulwark and standard and symbol whereby this dichotomy is supported. Patriarchs — oftentimes — were put into power by the Emperors in the East according to their whim and fancy and were all too frequently little more than puppets or yes-men. Noble exceptions, such as a St. John Chrysostom or a St. Flavian, more often than not had to appeal to Rome in order to save their patriarchates or necks or both.

This argument is a joke and a slur – there’s no other way of putting it.  There was no Patriarch more beholden to temporal kings and rulers than the Papacy under the Franks, from Charlemagne onwards.  Inasmuch as it is possibly true of Orthodoxy (and it is not), the Latin Pope has even less claim in this regard.  Between the Harlotocracy of the 10th Century, the Borgias and the Medicis, there is nothing for Latins to brag about here.  They also forget that the Popes themselves were invariably appointed by the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor for several hundred years.  The truth is that the Church remains the Church regardless of the unworthiness/sinfulness or otherwise of a Bishop, or of their collaboration with temporal rulers.

Orthodoxy accepts the first seven ecumenical councils (up to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787), but no more. From a Catholic perspective, this appears incoherent and implausible. Why have an agreed-upon system in which Councils are central to the governance of the Church universal, and then all of a sudden they cease, and Orthodox Christians must do without them for 1200 years?

Either ignorance or dishonesty is in evidence here. Just because an Ecumenical Council has not been held, doesn’t mean one couldn’t be held in future.  The Great Schism in itself has not helped matters in this regard.  But it is not clear why this “appears incoherent and implausible”.  It would be stupid to think that the Church cannot govern itself without regular Ecumenical Councils, which were called mainly in response to significantly threatening heresies.  It comes back to whether one thinks a Pope can override councils of the Whole Church.  The Latin church believes he can – Orthodox do not.

Likewise, Orthodoxy accepts the doctrinal development which occurred in the first eight centuries of the Church, but then allows little of any noteworthiness to take place thereafter. For instance, the filioque, i.e., the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, rather than from the Father alone (which the West added to the Nicene Creed), was rejected by the East, and has been considered by the Orthodox a major reason for the enduring schism, yet Catholics would reply that it was a straightforward development of trinitarian theology (one of many accepted by both East and West).

Aspects of doctrines such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and purgatory (not defined doctrine, although the Orthodox pray for the dead), which experienced a measure of development in the Middle Ages and after, are not recognized in Orthodoxy. For example, Orthodoxy doesn’t define the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, but it should be noted that Orthodox individuals are free to believe these without being deemed “heretical.” Catholics feel that Orthodoxy is implicitly denying the notion of the Church (past the eighth century) as the living, developing Body of Christ, continuously led into deeper truth by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13-15).

This argument is simply wrong.  Firstly, there is no such thing as doctrinal “development” in the Church, only doctrinal clarification.  This is motivated solely by responding to innovative heresies.  This has continued ever since the Ecumenical Councils – the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas (13th Century) are a prominent example.  Right up until the modern day Orthodoxy continues to develop and deepen their understanding of the faith.  What the writer is really saying is that Orthodoxy does not innovate, and that is the point of Orthodoxy!

Catholics would argue that Orthodoxy has not come to grips with modernity and the new challenges to Christianity that it brings, in terms of how to effectively communicate the gospel to modern man. The Catholic Church renewed itself along these lines in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). One need not compromise doctrine in order to deal with the modern situation. Pope John Paul II does not do so in his stream of extremely relevant and cogent encyclicals on present-day issues such as moral theology, labor, the family, the role of women, the place of laypeople, etc.

Although, as a result of this undertaking (i.e., due to a corruption of the nature of the Council by ambitious heterodox Catholics), the Catholic Church suffers from a modernist crisis within its own ranks, this too will pass, and Orthodoxy is not altogether immune from such things. Signs of a revival of orthodoxy in the Catholic ranks are increasing, and the nonsense will fade away like all the other crises and heretical movements in the past. The long-term benefits of the strategy to confront the culture boldly and with fresh insight and innovation (within the bounds of traditional Catholic orthodoxy) will be evident in the years to come.

I’m not even sure I understand what Armstrong is trying to say here.  Until 1970, Roman Catholics worshiped in Latin, whereas Orthodoxy has always sought to translate its liturgies into the local vernacular.  As for relevance, Orthodoxy is currently the fastest-growing tradition of Christianity, well ahead of Catholicism and Protestantism, both of which are receding in places.  “Modernity” is a failing strategy for both Protestant churches and Roman Catholic ones.

Orthodoxy, although praiseworthy in its generally traditional stand for Christian morality, differs from Catholicism over the question of the propriety and morality of contraception, which was universally condemned by all branches of Christianity until 1930. Thus, Catholics feel that they (almost alone today) are more in accord with apostolic Christian Tradition on this point, and that an acceptance of contraception is a giving in to humanistic sexual ethics. Catholics regard it as a mortal sin, whereas much of Orthodoxy does not even forbid it. To be fair, it is true that some of the more “conservative” or “traditional” branches of Orthodoxy have retained the traditional view, but the very fact of plurality in such a grave moral issue is highly troubling.

Given the argument that Orthodoxy has supposedly not adapted to the modern world, to follow it up with this is amusing!  I’m not qualified to say what is right or wrong on this issue, but only that it is the discretion of the Bishop – it is not a question of dogma.  So your Bishop (of Rome) is tougher than mine?  Whoopdeshit…

Catholics also believe that Jesus and the apostles, and ancient Christian Tradition, considered a valid sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians as absolutely indissoluble. An annulment is essentially different from a divorce in that it is the determination (based on a variety of possible reasons) that a valid sacramental marriage never existed. Orthodoxy accepts second and third marriages, with, however, a measure of penitential sadness commensurate with a falling short of the Christian ideal, and feels that this is a tragic pastoral necessity, in light of the fallen human condition.

Again with the “my Bishop is more badass than yours” schtick.  There doesn’t seem to be any real argument being made here.  But I will say that refusing communion to divorced people forever is pretty stupid.  Divorce is a sin, but sometimes it is not your sin, and sometimes it is improper, or even impossible despite all human effort, to reconcile.  Orthodox Bishops rightly consider that in such situations, the divorcee has discharged his or her moral responsibilities, and should be allowed to receive the healing medicine of the Eucharist.

A lot of this stuff seems to deliberately distort history.  But ultimately it is not a matter of accepting the Pope or not.  Orthodoxy accepts that the Bishop of Rome is the greatest of the Bishops.  But only if he is Orthodox, and right now the Bishop of Rome is not Orthodox, and therefore not actually a Bishop of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

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