This is the third of six articles relating the writer’s journey into the bosom of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Having succumbed to spiritual desolation following the rejection of his Adventist heritage, the young seeker investigates various Christian traditions, hoping to discover the Truth. Part I may be found here; Part II here.
Here I come to the most difficult part of my series, for I have a deep and abiding love of our eastern Christian brethren.
Firstly, I state at the outset that I consider the Eastern Orthodox as part of the Catholic Church, whether they consider themselves to be or not – much in the same way as Pope John Paul II described them as being one lung alongside the lung of the Western Church. They have valid sacraments, apostolic succession, and all other manner of elements that make them a valid Church and not merely an “ecclesial community.”
However, and it grieves me to say, given my sympathies for the Orthodox, that they have certain serious problems that lead me to reject their authority in favor of the Catholic Church. These problems I describe below in brief. Before we continue, however, I must admit my lack of extensive knowledge of the Orthodox Church. I speak only from my own experience. Humbly, let us proceed.
The first issue is the attitude of many Orthodox toward the Catholic Church, which in my experience can be described as reactionary and overly suspicious. While the West views the Eastern Orthodox in a very sympathetic and conciliatory fashion, the East seem to view the West much in the same way that hardline Protestants might – as a bastion of error, as “papists”, heretics, the antichrist, and the like. It is truly saddening, but in my experience, I have found it to be somewhat true. Catholic saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of the Cross are viewed as heretical figures overcome by imagination in their spiritual lives, and tainted by “Romanism”. A truly sad thing, as the West views many of the great saints of Eastern Orthodoxy with admiration and a willingness to learn from their teachings. While such figures as Photios and Gregory Palamas may still be viewed in a negative light, they are venerated in Eastern Catholic rites as saints. Seraphim of Sarov, a truly remarkable and saintly figure, has become an object of much veneration and love amongst Catholics, and Catholic scholars are starting to truly acknowledge the profound writings and thought of such Eastern Orthodox saints as Symeon the New Theologian, Theophan the Recluse, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Nectarios of Aegina, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Nicodemus the Hagiorite, and many others. But the East does not return the favor, instead acknowledging the greatest saints of the West to be, at best, in error and whose salvation is also at best uncertain.
Secondly, their is a certain sense of insularity in terms of ethnocentrism within the Orthodox Church – simply take note of the titles of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, American Orthodox, and the like. Once, when I inquired of an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine why he did not go to just any Orthodox church, he replied matter-of-factly that “We go where the Russians go” (for he is Russian). But Catholics go where a Catholic Church is, whatever rite it may happen to fall under. In other words, the catholic (universal) nature of the Church is lacking in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Thirdly, the objections against the papacy brought up by the Eastern Orthodox are incredibly difficult to overcome at first, for as I have noted, they too have apostolic succession. So, I endeavored to dig through the Fathers and the history of the Church to find out who in fact was right. I especially dug through the writings of the Eastern Fathers (the Cappadocians, St. John Chrysostom, St. Maximus the Confessor, and the like) to see what they in fact said. The answer was seemingly unanimous, and in agreement with the Catholic Church. This I could not ignore, despite any accusations of selective quote-mining that might occur from this point on. Even St. John Chrysostom’s understanding of Matthew 16:18, which I have treated earlier, is in accord with the Catholic understanding of the Papacy and the chair of St. Peter. I cannot ignore this. Even Gregory Palamas states that St. Peter is “the leader of the apostles and foundation stone of the Church”
Now, let me state here, somewhat controversially no doubt, that I consider the rift between the East and West to be based more in language, politics, and crimes on both sides, than on anything theological. The filioque controversy is not something that is hard to overcome, as the statements of “proceeds from the Father through the Son” and “proceeds from the Father and the Son” mean essentially the same thing. Though many disagree with me, I see no reason to separate the Body of Christ over this trifling semantic issue.
The Orthodox are part of the one Body of Christ, and are not separated brethren such as the Church holds the Protestants to be, though they are still held to be imperfectly united. It is with ardent hope that I wish to live long enough to see the two churches unite once again.
A summation then as to the reasons I did not choose Eastern Orthodoxy:
- A certain sense of suspicion held by the East towards the West, as well as what I note to be an uncharitable attitude by some towards the great saints and theologians of the Catholic Church. I found the Catholic understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy to be far more fair, conciliar, and loving. The West holds their saints in high regard, and they are venerated in many of the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church. Of course, this attitude has not always been held by the West – this is true. But I find the move by the Church towards unity with the Orthodox is by far the more charitable than the still current attitudes held by some in Orthodoxy towards Catholics.
- Concerning Orthodox and Catholic claims about the papacy, I found the evidence from both the Eastern and Western Fathers to be in support of the Catholic claim far more than the Eastern Orthodox claim.
- The sense of insularity and lack of catholicity in the Eastern Churches – here I speak of the varying groups of Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, American, Coptic, Oriental, etc.)
That said, I wish also to highlight overwhelming positive aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy:
- The Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church may be separated, but this does not mean that Eastern Orthodoxy is not a full Church in the sense that the Catholic one is. It has apostolic succession, valid sacraments, and the like.
- The mystical tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is without compare – many of the saints venerated by the Orthodox are the most profound mystics one could ever come across. Hesychasm, the mystical tradition of the East, runs throughout the writings of the Eastern saints, and is a kind of mysticism that simply must be studied more in depth by the West. I read Theophan the Recluse in order to prepare myself for baptism, and often turn to the writings of Seraphim of Sarov for spiritual direction as well. Additionally, the theology of the East is much more patristic in flavor, and provides an excellent complement to the scholasticism of the West.
- The Eastern Orthodox have not succumbed in any way to the mind-numbingly awful influences of modernism. Tradition and the aesthetic beauty of two-thousand years of Christianity are in full force to this day. After having walked into an Orthodox Church, one’s own post-Vatican II cathedral can often look rather bare (and let me say, this is not the fault of Vatican II, but often a by-product of rampant “spirit of Vatican II” influences). The iconographic art of the East has a beauty all its own (though I prefer the more lush and dimensional art of the West at the end of the day). And I would be amiss if I did not make mention of the wonderful (and I confess, slightly superficial) lack of “sweater nuns” – religious always wear their habits with pride!
- The emphasis on original sin is far more positively approached in the East. Unlike in the West, where the Augustinian concept of original sin has taken much more precedence (and been taken even further by the Reformers, especially Calvin), the Eastern Orthodox approach original sin in the sense of the human race being tainted by it, but not totally depraved by it. For an excellent and short commentary on this, I recommend the reading of Father Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way.