The Catholic Church And The Eastern Orthodox Church

This article covers theological differences between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been in a state of official schism from one another since the East-West Schism of 1054. This schism was caused by historical and linguistic developments and the ensuing theological differences between the Western and Eastern churches.

Main points of discontent for the Catholic Church are the papal primacy and the filioque clause. For Eastern Orthodox the main point of discontent is voiced by neo-Palamism, which sees the essence-energy distinction, and the experiential vision of God as attained in theoria and theosis, as the main point of divergence between East and West.

Although the 20th century saw a growth of anti-western sentiments with the rise of neo-Palamism, “the future of East–West rapprochement appears to be overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and neo-Palamism” Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has generally taken the approach that the schism is primarily ecclesiological in nature, that the doctrinal teachings of the Eastern Orthodox churches are generally sound, and that “the vision of the full communion to be sought is that of unity in legitimate diversity” as before the division.

The Altar of the Crucifixion, where the rock of Calvary is encased in protective glass, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Altar of the Crucifixion, where the rock of Calvary is encased in protective glass, Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Areas of doctrinal agreement

See also: Ecumenical Council

Both churches accept the decisions of the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church. These are:

There is therefore doctrinal agreement on:

Neither Church community subscribes to the Protestant teachings expressed in the five solae, especially regarding the teachings of salvation through faith alone (which the Protesant community understands as requiring no acts of love and charity) or of sola Scriptura (which they understand as excluding doctrinal teachings passed down through the Church from the apostles in the form of sacred tradition).

East–West Schism

Changes in extent of the Empire ruled from Constantinople. 476 End of the Western Empire; 550 Conquests of Justinian I; 717 Accession of Leo the Isaurian; 867 Accession of Basil I; 1025 Death of Basil II; 1095 Eve of the First Crusade; 1170 Under Manuel I; 1270 Under Michael VIII Palaiologos; 1400 Before the fall of Constantinople

Changes in extent of the Empire ruled from Constantinople.
476 End of the Western Empire; 550 Conquests of Justinian I; 717 Accession of Leo the Isaurian; 867 Accession of Basil I; 1025 Death of Basil II; 1095 Eve of the First Crusade; 1170 Under Manuel I; 1270 Under Michael VIII Palaiologos; 1400 Before the fall of Constantinople

The Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been in a state of official schism from one another since the East–West Schism of 1054. This schism was caused by historical and linguistic developments, and the ensuing theological differences between the Western and Eastern churches.

The Roman Empire was divided into a predominantly Greek speaking Eastern half and a Latin speaking Western half, resulting in a separation into two empires: The Western Empire and the Eastern Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium) with the passing of Theodosius I in AD 395. With the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD, the whole of what had been the western part of the empire was ruled by Germanic people. The subsequent mutual alienation of the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West led to increasing ignorance of the theological and ecclesiological developments of each tradition.

The Eastern Church and the Western Church used respectively Greek and Latin as its medium of communication. Translations did not always correspond exactly. This also led to misunderstandings.

Papal primacy

Main article: Papal primacy

Papal primacy, also known as the “primacy of the Bishop of Rome,” is an ecclesiastical doctrine concerning the respect and authority that is due to the pope from other bishops and their episcopal sees.

In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, some understand the primacy of the Bishop of Rome to be merely one of greater honour, regarding him as primus inter pares (“first among equals”), without effective power over other churches. Other Orthodox Christian theologians, however, view primacy as authoritative power: the expression, manifestation and realization in one bishop of the power of all the bishops and of the unity of the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church attributes to the primacy of the Pope “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered,” a power that it attributes also to the entire body of the bishops united with the pope. The power that it attributes to the pope’s primatial authority has limitations that are official, legal, dogmatic, and practical.

In the Ravenna Document, issued in 2007, representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church jointly stated that both East and West accept the fact of the Bishop of Rome’s primacy at the universal level, but that differences of understanding exist about how the primacy is to be exercised and about its scriptural and theological foundations.


Main article: Filioque

Differences over this doctrine and the question of papal primacy have been and remain primary causes of schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches. The term has been an ongoing source of conflict between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, contributing, in major part, to the East–West Schism of 1054 and proving to be an obstacle to attempts to reunify the two sides.

The filioque-clause

Filioque (literally “and [from] the Son” is a Latin term added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (commonly known as the Nicene Creed). The Latin term Filioque describes the procession of the Holy Spirit as double, and is translated into the English clause “and the Son” in that creed:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father ⟨and the Son⟩.
Who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.

or in Latin:

Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominium et vivificantem:
qui ex Patre ⟨Filioqueprocedit
Qui cum Patre, et Filio simul adoratur. et cum glorificatur

The clause has two different meanings to the East and the West. The Eastern Church uses the Greek version of the Nicene Creed and the Western Church uses the Latin version of the Nicene Creed. In the Greek version, the term “proceeds” in English is “ekporeusis” in Greek. The word “ekporeusis” in Greek indicates a primary cause or an ultimate cause. So, in Greek, if the Filioque clause is added, the Nicene Creed would state that the Spirit proceeds [has his ultimate cause from] the Father and the Son. However, in the Latin version, “proceeds” is taken to mean something different. In Latin, “proceeds” in English is “procedit” in Latin. The Latin word “procedit” indicates a procession but not from an ultimate cause. So to add the Filioque clause to the Latin version would cause the Nicene Creed to state that the Spirit proceeds [but not in the sense of coming from an ultimate cause or source] from both the Father and the Son. The two versions of the Nicene Creed, Greek and Latin, say two different but equally true things about the procession of the Spirit.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds as from an ultimate cause from both the Father and the Son has for a very long time been considered heresy by both the Eastern and Western Churches, and so to add the Filioque clause to the Greek version of the Creed would be considered heresy by both sides. It would not be considered heretical to add the clause to the Latin version of the Creed, however, because of the Latin understanding of the word “proceeds”, which is different from the Greek understanding. The controversy surrounding the Filioque clause is a problem of language, not a problem of theology.

Inclusion and rejection

The Filioque is included in the form of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed used in most Western Christian churches, first appearing in the 6th century. It was accepted by the popes only in 1014 and is rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches and Church of the East.


Whether that term Filioque is included, as well as how it is translated and understood, can have important implications for how one understands the central Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For some, the term implies a serious underestimation of the Father’s role in the Trinity; for others, denial of what it expresses implies a serious underestimation of the role of the Son in the Trinity. Over time, the term became a symbol of conflict between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity, although there have been attempts at resolving the conflict. Among the early attempts at harmonization are the works of Maximus the Confessor, who notably was canonised independently by both Eastern and Western churches.

Neo-Palamism: theoria and hesychasm


See also: History of Eastern Orthodox theology in the 20th century

The 20th century saw the rise of neo-Palamism, c.q. “Neo-Orthodox Movement,” in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to this point of view, which arose in defense of the Palamite distinction between essence and energia, western theology is dominated by rational philosophy, while Orthodox theology is based on the experiential vision of God and the highest truth. According to neo-Palamism, this is a main division between East and West.

Neo-Palamism has its roots in the Hesychast controversy or Palamite controversy (14th century), in which Gregory Palamas provided a theological justification for the centuries-old Orthodox practice of hesychasm. The hesychast controversy lead to a further distinction between East and West, giving a prominent place to the contemplative practice and theology in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The publication in 1782 of the Philokalia, which lead to a revival of hesychasm, accepted in particular by the Slav Orthodox churches. Together with the importance attached to it in the 20th century by the Paris school of Orthodox theology it has “led to hesychasm’s becoming definitive for modern Orthodox theology as never before,” with its Palamite Essence–energies distinction.

Rational and mystical theology

According to these modern Eastern Orthodox theologians, western theology depends too much on kataphatic theology. According to Steenberg, Eastern theologians assert that Christianity in essence is apodictic truth, in contrast to the dialectic, dianoia or rationalised knowledge which is the arrived at truth by way of philosophical speculation.

While Thomas Aquinas argued that kataphonic and apophatic theology need to balance each other, Vladimir Lossky argued, based on his reading of Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, that positive theology is always inferior to negative theology. According to Lossky mysticism, c.q. gnosiology, is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence, while positive theology is a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation. According to Lossky, the difference in East and West is due to the Catholic Church’s use of pagan metaphysical philosophy, and its outgrowth, scholasticism, rather than the mystical, actual experience of God called theoria, to validate the theological dogmas of Catholic Christianity. Lossky argues that therefore the Eastern Orthodox and Catholics have become “different men,” stating that “Revelation sets an abyss between the truth which it declares and the truths which can be discovered by philosophical speculation.”

Lossky had a strong influence on 20th century Orthodox theology, and influenced John Romanides, himself also an influential theologian on his own. Romanides saw a strong dichotomy between Orthodox and western views, arguing that the influence of the Franks, and western acceptance of Augustine’s theology, is the starting point of western rational theology, and the dichotomy between east and west.

This same sentiment was also expressed by the early Slavophile movements (19th century) in the works of Ivan Kireevsky and Aleksey Khomyakov. The Slavophiles sought reconciliation with all various forms of Christianity, as can be seen in the works of its most famous proponent Vladimir Solovyov.


Main articles: HesychasmTheosis (Eastern Orthodox theology)Christian contemplation, and Mysticism

Hesychasm, “to keep stillness,” is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which already existed in the fourth century CE with the Desert Fathers. Its aim is theosis, deification obtained through the practice of contemplative prayer, the first stage of theoria, leading to the “vision of God”. It consists of three stages, namely catharsis, theoria, and completion of deification, c.q. theosis.

The knowledge of God is attained by theoria, “the vision of God.” This is also referred to as experiencing the uncreated light of God, the light of Tabor of Christ’s Transfiguration as was seen by the apostles at Mount Tabor.

Hesychast controversy

Main articles: Essence–energies distinction and Hesychast controversy

The Hesychast controversy was a theological dispute in the Byzantine Empire during the 14th century between supporters and opponents of Gregory Palamas. Gregory Palamas of Thessaloniki (1296-1359), provided a theological justification for the practice of hesychasm. Palamas stated that there is a distinction between the essence (ousia) and the energies (energeia) of God. While God in his essence is unknowable and indeterminible, the vision of God can be attained when his energy is seen with the eyes as the Uncreated Light. Palamas formulated his ideas on this distinction as part of his defense of the Athonite monastic practice of hesychasmos against the charge of heresy brought by the humanist scholar and theologian Barlaam of Calabria.

Orthodox theologians generally regard this distinction as a real distinction, and not just a conceptual distinction. Historically, Western Christian thought has tended to reject the essence-energies distinction as real in the case of God, characterizing the view as a heretical introduction of an unacceptable division in the Trinity and suggestive of polytheism.

Catholic views on Hesychasm

The later 20th century saw a change in the attitude of Roman Catholic theologians to Palamas. While some Western theologians see the theology of Palamas as introducing an inadmissible division within God, others have incorporated his theology into their own thinking, maintaining that there is no conflict between his teaching and Roman Catholic thought.

Sergey S. Horujy states that “hesychast studies may provide fresh look at some old interconfessional divisions, disclosing unexpected points of resemblance”, and Jeffrey D. Finch says that “the future of East-West rapprochement appears to be overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and neo-Palamism”.

Pope John Paul II repeatedly emphasized his respect for Eastern theology as an enrichment for the whole Church. While from a Catholic viewpoint there have been tensions concerning some developments of the practice of hesychasm, the Pope said, there is no denying the goodness of the intention that inspired its defence.

Future directions

Jeffrey D. Finch claims that “the future of East–West rapprochement appears to be overcoming the modern polemics of neo-scholasticism and neo-Palamism”.

The Catholic Church considers that the differences between Eastern and Western theology are complementary rather than contradictory, as stated in the decree Unitatis redintegratio of the Second Vatican Council, which declared:

In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God’s truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting. Where the authentic theological traditions of the Eastern Church are concerned, we must recognize the admirable way in which they have their roots in Holy Scripture, and how they are nurtured and given expression in the life of the liturgy. They derive their strength too from the living tradition of the apostles and from the works of the Fathers and spiritual writers of the Eastern Churches. Thus they promote the right ordering of Christian life and, indeed, pave the way to a full vision of Christian truth.

The Catholic Church’s attitude was also expressed by Pope John Paul II in the image of the Church “breathing with her two lungs”. He meant that there should be a combination of the more rational, juridical, organization-minded “Latin” temperament with the intuitive, mystical and contemplative spirit found in the east.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing documents of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI, states:

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honoured by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter” (Lumen gentium 15). Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (Unitatis redintegratio 3). With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fulness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist” (Paul VI, Discourse, 14 December 1975; cf. Unitatis redintegratio 13-18).

On 10 July 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document, approved by Pope Benedict XVI, that stated that the Eastern churches are separated from Rome (the member churches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East) and for that very reason “lack something in their condition as particular churches”, and that the division also means that “the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.”

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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