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Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A Comparison

Back Home Next

  1. An Appreciation of Orthodox Spirituality
  2. Oneness and Ecclesiology (Church Government)
  3. The Papacy
  4. The Pentarchy
  5. Caesaro-Papism
  6. Ecumenical Councils
  7. Doctrinal Development
  8. Reason and Philosophy
  9. Modernity
  10. Contraception
  11. Divorce
  12. The Sins Of Schism (The Sacking Of Constantinople, In 1204)




Orthodox Christianity possesses the seven sacraments; valid ordination, the Real Presence, a reverential understanding of Sacred Tradition, apostolic succession, a profound piety, a great history of contemplative monastic spirituality, a robust veneration of Mary and the saints, and many other truly Christian attributes. Catholics (including myself) widely admire, in particular, the sense of the sacred and the beauty and grandeur of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy (which - it should be noted - is also present in the many Byzantine or Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church), as Thomas Howard eloquently illustrates:

When I walk into an Orthodox Church ... one is immediately aware that one has stepped into the presence of what St. Paul would call the whole family in heaven and earth. You have stepped into the precincts of heaven! ... I love the Orthodox Church's spirit. I think the Orthodox Church many, many centuries ago, discovered a mode of music and worship which is timeless, which is quite apart from fashion, and which somehow answers to the mystery and the solemnity and the sacramental reality of the liturgy.

("A Conversation With Thomas Howard and Frank Schaeffer," The Christian Activist, Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 1996, p. 43)

In pointing out the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, no disrespect is intended towards my Eastern brethren in Christ; this is simply a "comparison and contrast" for the purpose of educating inquirers who are interested in both Christian communions. My Catholic bias will be evident and should not come as a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, I devoutly hope that I succeed in avoiding the shortcomings of triumphalism or lack of charity. And I certainly do not wish to misrepresent Orthodox views in any fashion. Catholics must believe that Orthodoxy is a part of the universal Church (commensurate with the Second Vatican Council and many recent papal encyclicals on ecumenism in general or Orthodoxy in particular). That fact alone precludes the justification of any condescension, animosity, or hostility, which is especially sinful amongst Christians (Galatians 6:10).


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 11985, v.17, p. 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.


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.


Orthodoxy holds to the doctrine of the pentarchy, whereby the government of the Church was to be maintained by means of the cooperation of five patriarchal sees: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (roughly in order of importance, but Constantinople took first place in the East). This system of ecclesiology is not grounded in Scripture - as Catholics affirm with regard to the papacy. A brief examination of the history of each of these churches is instructive:

Jerusalem was overrun by the Arab Moslems in 637, and was ruled by the Moslem Turks until World War I (except for 1099-1187 under the Latins).

Antioch was notorious for heresy, succumbing successively to Docetism, Modalism, Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism. After 451, it became increasingly Monophysite. It fell to the Persians in 538 and to the Arab Moslems in 637. Many bishops and a third of the people submitted to Rome in 1724 (Metkites).

Alexandria essentially plunged into Monophysitism after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Whatever little continuing impact it had on orthodox, Chalcedonian Christianity was pretty much swept away with the Moslem conquest of 642.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell prey to Arianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism, but later thrived as the center of the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodoxy. Its claim as "New Rome" and its place as the seat of Greek Christian culture vanished with its complete overthrow by the Turkish Moslems in 1453.

Rome never succumbed to heresy. It experienced barbarian invasions, periodic moral decadence, a few weak or immoral popes, the Protestant Revolt, the "Enlightenment," Modernism, etc., but always survived and rejuvenated itself. The papacy continues unabated to this day, with venerable power and prestige.


Orthodoxy (and Eastern Catholic Christianity in the first millennium) has been plagued from the beginning with caesaro-papism , which, in effect (in terms of exercised power and jurisdiction), places the state above the church - somewhat similar to early Lutheranism and Anglicanism. In Catholicism, on the other hand, the Church is regarded as above all states, and their judge, as the carrier of God's Law, which transcends and forms the basis of man's law. Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware (Orthodox), speaks of the situation which ensued after the fall of Constantinople, and which has been a problem ever since in Orthodoxy:

"The things of Caesar now became more closely associated with the things of God than they had ever been before." He admits that there is "a sad confusion between Orthodoxy and nationalism ... the effects of this confusion continue to the present day."

(The Orthodox Church , NY: Penguin Books, rev. 1980, p. 98)

Patriarchs were put into power by the Emperors in the East according to their whim and fancy and were too often 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. In Constantinople, under Turkish rule, this led to, according to Ware:

... the Church's higher administration being caught up in a degrading system of corruption and simony ... the bishops fell a prey to ambition and financial greed ... Patriarchs were removed and reinstated with kaleidoscopic rapidity ... The extreme insecurity of the Patriarch naturally gave rise to continual intrigues ... and the leaders of the Church were usually separated into bitterly hostile parties.

(Ware, ibid ., pp. 98-99)

This is but one example. The great Russian Orthodox literary figure and dissident Alexander Solzbenitsyn rebuked Patriarch Pimen of Russia in his Lenten Letter of 1972, for his compromises with the atheist Communists:

A study of Russian history of the last centuries convinces one that it would have proceeded incomparably more humanely and harmoniously had the Church not renounced its independence and had the people heeded the Church's voice, as for example occurred in Poland [a Catholic country] ... A Church ruled dictatorially by atheists - this is a spectacle unseen in two thousand years. Given over to the atheists' control is also the entirety of the operational management of the Church and the allocation of Church funds ... Do not let us suppose, do not make us think, that for the bishops of the Russian Church temporal power is higher than the heavenly one, that earthly responsibility is more awesome than accountability before God ... It was not easier in the early days of Christianity, which nevertheless prevailed and flourished. It showed us the way: sacrifice.


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?


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).


Orthodoxy deliberately places less emphasis than Catholicism on the use of reason within Christianity. There is some room for difference of opinion on this (which exist within the Catholic Church as well). But beyond that, many Orthodox greatly err, for example, in their misdirected implicit condemnations of the Scholastic theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic thinkers - who are viewed as manifestations of Catholic "overly- rationalistic" thought. St. Augustine also takes quite a beating in many Orthodox books, for being too analytical and logical (supposedly to the detriment of spirituality). Even a renowned Orthodox figure such as Bishop Ware falls into this unfortunate tendency:

Latin Scholastic theology, emphasizing as it does the essence at the expense of persons, comes near to turning God into an abstract idea. He becomes a remote and impersonal being,... a God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

(Ware, ibid., p. 222)

This is a crude caricature, which projects deistic and idealistic philosophical ideas of five or more centuries later back onto Scholasticism, which never held to such monstrous notions. Catholicism is accused by Orthodoxy of placing far too high of a premium on human reason in understanding God (Whom the Orthodox believe is essentially "beyond reason"). Catholicism replies that it is merely balancing the aspects of revelation and reason, which work together (the former being predominant), according to the Bible and the Fathers, and that Orthodoxy's relative neglect of reason has led to the East being prone to heresy again and again, while the West's more balanced view avoided this error.


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 11 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. Signs of this 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.


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 Orthodoxy has not even forbidden it.


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 reasons) that a valid sacramental marriage never existed. Orthodoxy accepts second and third marriages, with 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.


With reluctance, sadness, and regret, one final subject must be addressed: that of the sacking of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (hence the center of Orthodoxy), in 1204 by the Latin Crusaders. Ideally, the numerous historical sins which members of both sides have committed - given the mutual acknowledgement of wrongdoing - should be left, for the sake of unity and good will, for the historians to mull over. Yet this incident was so tragic and has ever since been recalled with such pain and anger amongst Orthodox (and hence used as an "argument" against the Catholic Church) that it simply cannot be ignored even in the context of friendly ecumenical discussion. Bishop Kallistos Ware comments:

Eastern Christendom has never forgotten those three appalling days of pillage ... What shocked the Greeks more than anything was the wanton and systematic sacrilege of the Crusaders. How could men who had specially dedicated themselves to God's service treat the things of God in such a way? As the Byzantines watched the Crusaders tear to pieces the altar and icon screen in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, and set prostitutes on the Patriarch's throne, they must have felt that those who did such things were not Christians in the same sense as themselves ...

Can we wonder if the Greeks after 1204 also looked on the Latins as Profani? Christians in the west still do not realize how deep is the disgust and how lasting the horror with which Orthodox regard actions such as the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders.

(Ware, ibid, p. 69)

One would be hard-pressed to find a Catholic historian (or any Catholic who learns the details) who would defend what took place in this abominable, reprehensible catastrophe. Warren Carroll, one of the best orthodox Catholic historians of our time, candidly admits in his major series of volumes, A History of Christendom :

The sack that followed was one of the worst in all of history ... No man, woman or child was safe from the ravagers. Robbery and rape were almost universal, mindless destruction widespread. Westerners ... killed indiscriminately, without mercy or restraint ... For this to have been done by crusaders - men actually wearing the Cross of Christ - was an ineffaceable disgrace ... The Greeks never forgot the sack of Constantinople in 1204; its memory, more than anything else, has prevented the healing of the Greek schism from that day to this, despite several major efforts at reunion.

(The Glory of Christendom , Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993, p. 157-158)

So the first thing to be noted is that this horrific event is morally indefensible , and that Catholics know and accept this. Secondly, and most importantly, the pope at the time, Pope Innocent 111, neither knew about nor sanctioned in the least this massacre and sacrilegious pillage. In fact, he had forbidden the Crusaders, on pain of excommunication , to attack Byzantium, instructing the leader, Boniface of Montferrat, that: "The crusade must not attack Christians, but should proceed as quickly as possible to the Holy Land." He only found out the full horror of what had happened more than eight months later, and wrote to Cardinal Peter Capuano, denouncing the sack in no uncertain terms:

These "soldiers of Christ" who should have turned their swords against the infidel have steeped them in Christian blood, sparing neither religion, nor age, nor sex ... They stripped the altars of silver, violated the sanctuaries, robbed icons and crosses and relies. . . The Latins have given example only of perversity and works of darkness. No wonder the Greeks call them dogs!"

(cited in Carroll, ibid., p. 158; from Mann, Popes of the Middle Ages , vol. 12, pp. 266-267)

Yet there had been several similar scandalous atrocities or unsavory, treacherous incidents which occurred before the sack, on the part of the Byzantines, which have not received their due attention. For the sake of fairness and historical objectivity (not polemics and controversy), we will review some of these. Warren Carroll notes:

Horrible and utterly indefensible as the sack was, it should in justice be remembered that it was not totally unprovoked; more than once (as in the massacre of 1182) the Greeks of Constantinople had treated the Latins there as they were now being treated ... Historians who wax eloquent and indignant - with considerable reason - about the sack of Constantinople ... rarely if ever mention the massacre of the Westerners in Constantinople in 1182 ... a nightmarish massacre of thousands [about 2000 Greeks were killed in Constantinople in 1204, according to secular historian Will Durant].... in which the slaughterers spared neither women nor children, neither old nor sick, neither priest nor monk. Cardinal John, the Pope's representative, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog; children were cut out of their mother's wombs; bodies of dead Westerners were exhumed and abused; some 4,000 who escaped death were sold into slavery to the Turks.

(Carroll, ibid ., pp. 157,131)

Bishop Ware also honorably writes about the Orthodox share of the blame in these massacres:

Each ... must look back at the past with sorrow and repentance. Both sides must in honesty acknowledge that they could and should have done more to prevent the schism. Both sides were guilty of mistakes on the human level. Orthodox, for example, must blame themselves for the pride and contempt with which during the Byzantine period they regarded the west; they must blame themselves for incidents such as the riot of 1182, when many Latin residents at Constantinople were massacred by the Byzantine populace.

(Ware, ibid. , p. 70)

Catholic historian Warren Carroll recalls two other lamentable Byzantine incidents:

In 1171, on the orders or at least with the tacit approval of the Byzantine government, thousands of Venetians in the Eastern empire had been killed, mutilated, or arrested and held for years in prison.

(Carroll, ibid. , p. 150)

[In 1188] Frederick Barbarossa ... requested permission of the Eastern Emperor, Isaac 11 Angelus, for passage of his army through Byzantine dominions on the way to the Holy Land, and for the right to purchase food for his troops within them. Isaac said he agreed . . . but in fact Isaac was resolved to oppose the passage of the crusaders, and made contact with Saladin [the Muslim commander] to concert plans "to delay and destroy the German army." About this "Byzantine treachery" there is no doubt; even the many modern Western historians sympathetic to Byzantium and hostile to the Crusades have to admit it [e.g., Emperor Isaac, in 1187, had written Saladin to congratulate him for his great achievement of re-taking Jerusalem from the Latin crusaders] ...

[Frederick's envoys, imprisoned for a time] returned to Frederick... with infuriating (and accurate) reports of the Byzantine alliance with Saladin, plans to destroy the crusading army as it crossed the Dardanelles, and the violent anti-Western attitude of Patriarch Dositheus of Constantinople, who had offered unconditional absolution to any Greek killing a Westerner. Frederick passed on this information to his son Henry.... to ask the Pope's approval for a crusade against the Eastern Empire because of its treachery and dealings with the enemy. No Papal approval was given and Frederick soon thought better of the idea ... Though a war against Christians was indubitably a perversion of the crusading ideal, Emperor Isaac's acts against the crusaders had clearly been acts of war ...

Everything that the Fourth Crusade later did to Christendom's discredit, Frederick Barbarossa refused to do, though he was directly provoked as the leaders of the Fourth Crusade never were. The extent of Byzantine provocation of the Third Crusade is obvious from the sequence of events. It would be a long time before anyone in the West would trust them again.

(Carroll, ibid. , pp. 130,132-133)

In conclusion, it is altogether to be expected that certain adherents (real or supposed) of both parties in any massive, long-running dispute such as that between Eastern and Western Christianity, will be guilty of serious sin. It has been established that the indefensible sacking of Constantinople was not without previous precipitating events on the part of the Byzantines, scarcely any less evil or immoral. Thus, the "sin" or "corruption" argument (as with Catholicism and Protestantism) cuts both ways (as is always the case). As such, it ought to be discarded, and ecumenical discussions profitably confined to matters of theology, liturgy, ecelesiology and moral theology.

In any event, the sacking of Constantinople in no wise disproves Catholic theological or ecelesiological claims, especially in light of the fact that the pope at the time, Innocent 111, forbade such military travesties against fellow Christians on pain of excommunication, and excoriated the perpetrators for their abominations. These renegade "crusaders" were simply not acting as Catholics , neither in the sense of Catholic moral teaching, nor in terms of any sanction of papal authority. To draw a modern analogy, if some nominally Orthodox Serbian soldiers had wantonly massacred or raped Bosnian Muslims (as indeed occurred), it would not be at all fair for Catholics to say that this reflects ill upon Orthodoxy per se.

Copyright 1997 by Dave Armstrong. All rights reserved.