The other day somebody asked me about the initial divide and the principle differences between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I began to answer, only to realize that I couldn’t answer. Aside from the role of the Pope, I didn’t know. Nobody else knew either. The resulting curiosity led to more tabs open on my computer screen at once than at any previous time (we’re talking 30 tabs, and that’s on a 12-inch computer). Following sufficient amounts of confusion and substantial amounts of reading, I’ve began to figure some things out.
This is an attempt to explain it to you in 30 seconds (though in reality it will be much more than that), so that you can save 30 tabs and 30 minutes per tab from your life.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest church in the world, with 225-300 million adherents. It is the religious denomination of the majority of people in Russia, as well as most countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The Roman Catholic Church, more generically referred to as the Catholic Church, is the world’s largest church, with 1.2 billion followers worldwide. Both churches, in addition to numerous other Christian churches around the world, refer to their church as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostle Church”. It goes without saying that each church considers itself to be the one true church, and that all other Christian religious establishments are schismatic, heretical and/or just plain wrong.
Per the above declaration, each church traces its roots back to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles. Following the Orthodox view, the Assyrians and Orientals left the church in the first few centuries after Christ, and the Catholics became the largest group to leave the church in 1054, in what is known as the East-West Schism. The term ‘Eastern’ distinguishes the church from Western Christendom and indicates that its sphere of influence is largely in the eastern part of the Christian world. The Greek term ‘Orthodox’, meaning a ‘true belief’, was adopted by the church to distinguish itself from the growing body of non-orthodox Christians. ‘Catholic’, originally derived from Greek, means universal.
In 313 A.D. Constantine adopted Christianity as Constantinople’s official religion and in 380 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before addressing the Great Schism that occurred between the Greek and Latin branches of the church, it is worth taking into account the Chalcedonian Schism regarding the nature of Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. is considered to have been the 4th Ecumenical Council. Those that rejected the following Chalcedonian Christology formed a body of churches known as Oriental Orthodox (not to be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy). According to the Chalcedonian understanding (which both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches accept), humanity and divinity are exemplified as two natures and Jesus perfectly exists within both of those two natures. This also may be referred to as Nestorianism, or the theological term ‘dyophysite’. (The term ‘dyophysite’ comes from Greek and literally translates as ‘two natures’.) The Chalcedonian’s emphasize the complete and perfect unity of the two natures in one hypostasis – Jesus. Those that reject the conclusion of the Council of Chalcedon hold the position of miaphysitism: that in the one person of Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity are united in one nature – the two being united without confusion and without separation. Chalcedonian’s criticize this position as monophysite, that is that Jesus has only a single nature – divine or human, but such labeling is rejected by Oriental churches.
This is confusing and subject to misinterpretation and probably an issue of semantics more than an issue of any basic doctrinal or theological differences. Regardless, the crucial point here is that the Catholic church essentially became two at this juncture in history – Oriental Orthodox and Chalcedonian Christianity.
In the 11th century what has become known as the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople. The principle doctrinal issues involved were the filioque clause and the authority of the Roman Pope, though these were exacerbated by political factors between church and state as well as cultural and linguistic differences between Latins and Greeks. For example, in leu of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, individuals who spoke both Greek and Latin began to disappear, which logically made communication between East and West substantially more difficult. Following the dissolution of linguistic unity, cultural unity began to crumble as well.
The filioque clause, found in most Western Christian churches but not present in any Orthodox churches, states only that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the father and the son”. It was originally proposed to stress the relationship between the Son and the Spirit more clearly. There are two separate issues in the filioque controversy. The first deals with the veracity of the phrase itself, and the second is with regards to the legitimacy of the interpolation of the phrase into the Nicene Creed. These two issues became linked when the pope in Rome approved the insertion of the phrase in the 11th century. The debate then evolved from merely the orthodoxy of the doctrine into whether or not the pope had the ultimate authority to decide what was and what wasn’t orthodox.
The Eastern denial of the filioque cause was condemned by the West as a denial of the consubstantiality (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as one being) of the Father and the Son. As for the East, they viewed the Western interpolation of the phrase as an indication that the West was teaching a “substantially different faith”.
The primacy of the Bishop of Rome, known more commonly as the Pope, is the other principle point of contention between the two entities. The Eastern Orthodox Church understands the position of the Pope to be one of great honor, but without effective power over other churches. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, asserts that the power that the Pope holds over the church as “full, supreme and universal”. Even though those differences have been somewhat neutralized today (the Greek Patriarchy of Rome attended the inauguration of the new Pope Frances in an important symbolic gesture) there still exists controversy regarding the scriptural and theological foundations of the church and how the primacy is to be exercised.
The Great Schism reached its threshold with the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Latin Crusaders of Western Europe invaded and sacked the Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople. Following the many horrors, atrocities, rappings, lootings and pillages committed by the Latin crusaders, the Great Schism was officially complete. Historians have gone on to call this extremely controversial event as “one of the greatest crimes against humanity”. In the past few years numerous attempts at reconciliation between the two churches have been made. Pope John Paul II addressed the matter of the 4th Crusade twice during his papacy, and in 2004 a formal apology was accepted by Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople.
There are numerous differences between the two churches that exist today, though many of these deal more with culture and practices that theological beliefs.
The Orthodox Church considers Jesus Christ to be the head of the Church and the Church to be his body. There is not one leader or bishop at the head of the Orthodox Church – i.e. they do not have the equivalent of the pope in Rome. Popular opinion that the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarch) is comparable to the pope is misplaced. It is clearly stated that he is one bishop among many, though he is ‘first among equals’ in the sense that he sits as organization head of a council of equals. He presides over any council of Orthodox bishops and serves as the primary spokesman for the Orthodox Communion, but he has no jurisdiction over the other patriarchs of Orthodox Churches (each bishop has a territory over which he governs). Had the East-West schism not occurred, the pope in Rome would still have honorary primacy over Orthodox Churches. Following the schism, however, the Orthodox no longer recognized the primacy of the pope.
In Eastern Orthodoxy Priests are allowed to marry, though once married they cannot become Bishops. The Roman Catholic Church places great emphasise on the idolization of Christ, while the Orthodox Church uses only paintings to remember him. The key word here is ‘remember’, such pictures, in other words, are not considered holy. Orthodox Churches use empty crosses while Roman Catholic churches use crosses ‘adorned’ with Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church places Mary above all other saints, but in Greek Orthodoxy all saints are regarding equal. In making the sign of the cross, Orthodox Christians go top to bottom, as the Catholics do, but then do the horizontal part by going first to the right, and then to the left. The final, principally theological difference, worth noting is the issue of purgatory – the state or place of temporary purification or punishment immediately following death and before eternal heaven. The Orthodox Church generally does not use the word ‘purgatory’ and believes in offering prayers to God on behalf of the dead and believes that these prayers can help the recently deceased reach heaven.