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An East and West Divide: Religion

Image: (CNS/Paul Haring)
Image: (CNS/Paul Haring)


Last week Pope Francis completed a six-day Apostolic Journey to Cyprus and Greece. The trip was a significant one for Greeks, who saw his visit as a message for Christian unity with a Catholic minority and an Orthodox majority.

The pope met with a delegation from the Greek Orthodox Church, in which he recalled the metaphor of the age-old olive tree present in Greece, comparing their deep and sustaining roots to the shared apostolic roots of Christianity which have endured over the centuries.

He also met privately with the Orthodox Primate, Iieronymor II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, who paid him a courtesy visit at the Apostolic Nunciature on the eve of his departure back to Rome.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian body in the world.  The word Catholic in Greek means universal. Around 200 million people around the world follow the Orthodox tradition.  Its followers live mainly in the Balkans, the Middle East, and former Soviet countries.

The word orthodox has its roots in the Greek word orthos (‘right’) and doxa (‘belief’) thus meaning ‘right believing’.  Their form of worshipping God is what was followed from the very beginnings of Christianity.  Greek Orthodox churches are made up of several self-governing Churches that are sometimes ‘autocephalous’ (having their head) or ‘autonomous’ (self-governing).

Grounds for Division

For 1,000 years, the Churches of east and west were in communion with one another, holding seven ecumenical councils between 325 and 787 to define Christian belief.  But over time, the cultures of the Latin-speaking west and Greek-speaking east grew more and more estranged, and there was increasing distrust and hostility between them.

Occasional schisms (splits or divisions) occurred but were healed.  However, in 1054, a papal delegation to the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the patriarch and were in turn excommunicate by him.   Although this split was as much a matter of personal animosity and misunderstanding as anything else, the division was never healed as the earlier schisms had been.

At least as important as the Schism of 1054 was the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.  Crusaders from the West, who were supposed to have continued on to Jerusalem to release it from Muslim control, instead spent days looting and vandalizing the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  The sack cemented eastern distrust of and resentment towards the west, preventing any healing of the schism. Pope Innocent III, the man who had first called for the Crusade, bitterly lamented the spilling of ‘blood on Christian swords that should have been used on pagans.’

Main Differences

The foremost theological-ecclesiological division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism is the role of the Pope, or Bishop of Rome.  In the west, Church unity was expressed through being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of Saint Peter.  The Pope is not only supreme, which is to say, he has immediate jurisdiction in every Church in the whole world, but he is also infallible under certain circumstances when speaking about faith and morals.

The Orthodox Church does not agree with either of these teachings.  For them, all bishops are fundamentally equal, even if some might have a little more positional authority than others.

Next to the issue of papal primacy, another obstacle to reunion between the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox is the filioque clause – “and the Son,” which was added to the text of Niceno-Constantinople Creed in the west to describe the procession of the Holy Spirit.

The text of the creed was agreed upon at the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople in 325 and 381 respectively, saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. But the Catholic Church in Spain added to the creed in the sixth century, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, as a way to combat latent Arianism. (In essence, Arianism was a heresy that played down the divinity of Christ.

The addition of the filioque was slowly adopted throughout the west but was seen in the east as an innovation that was unnecessary at best and heretical at worst.

Other Points of Departure.

Conflict also exists over the Immaculate Conception and purgatory.  Eastern churches rejected the latter which originated in the churches of the west.  The east also rejected the rules about celibacy among priests and the use of unleavened bread during the celebration of the Eucharist.

Of particular importance in recent times is the disagreement about the indissolubility of marriage.   The Catholic Church believes that a sacramental marriage that has been consummated can be dissolved only by death, whereas while the Eastern Orthodox recognize indissolubility as a characteristic of marriage and an ideal at which to aim, they generally accept that divorce-and-remarriage can occur.

While it is a requirement of the Catholic Priesthood to remain celibate, Orthodox priests can marry before ordination although not afterwards.  Catholics tend to kneel for prayer while Orthodox worshippers usually stand.

Orthodox babies are fully engaged in the church from the beginning and there is a greater emphasis on fasting in the Orthodox churches.

The theologian, Nikos Zachaopoules has said that “despite the discordant voices…the Greek Orthodox Church, its clergy and its laity want to reinforce links with Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism.

This is also the wish of Pope Francis.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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