February 14, 2016

Orthodox-Catholic Summit


Orthodox-Catholic Summit
Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul, fresco, Anastasis, Harrowing of Hell and Resurrection

This week, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met in the Havana airport. The ignominious settting belied the event's historic significance. This was the first-ever meeting of the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, and the meeting had been in the works for some time.

Why is this a big deal? 

  1. Because the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Eastern Orthodox church, with some 150 million members and 30,000 priests (out of an estimate 260 million EO members).
  2. Because the Russian Orthodox Church is closely aligned with the Kremlin which, in the midst of economic crisis and international ostracism, is looking for friends wherever it can find them.
  3. Both churches are united in their alarm about the situation of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
  4. Because, since the ROC was officially founded in 1589, this has never happened before. Why? Read on... 

What is the Orthodox/Catholic split all about?

That requires a bit of history.

In 476, Rome fell to the Barbarians and the Roman emperor and Catholic Church was moved east, to Constantinople. That worked for about  300 years. Then, in 800, Pope Leo III decided to crown Charlemagne (the Frankish king) the Holy Roman Emperor. This made the imperial government in Constantinople rather superfluous; two hundred years of bitter relations followed.

Meanwhile, in 988, Kievan Rus accepted Christianity (or at least its leadership did), adopting rites from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Things came to a head in 1054. In that year Pope Leo IX's emmisaries excommunicated Patriarch Michael and his church (interestingly, Leo had died since they left Rome), and Patriarch Michael returned the favor. (It was not entirely about theology, the Pope was also seeking the Patriarch's help in repelling attacks by the Normans on southern Italy. The Patriarch refused.)

Since that time, the churches have not been "in communion," meaning Catholics are not allowed to receive communion in Orthodox Churches and visa-versa. This, despite near-miss attempts to reconcile in 1274 and 1439, and, more recently, the 1965 reforms of Vatican II, whereby Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople rescinded their mutual excommnications.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Russian Church began a rise in prominence and power; in 1589 its independence (or autocephaly) was officially accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, making Moscow one of the five Patriarchates. This led eventually to the promulgation of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome.

So how different are the two churches?

There are myriad differences that have existed and evolved over a millenium, and the list could be very very long. Here are some of the more obvious and apparent variations:

  • The Catholic Church has Latin roots, the Eastern Orthodox Church has Greek roots.
  • The Catholic Church adheres to the idea of primacy of the Pontiff, who is the last word on doctrine and practice in the church, while the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the idea that there is no bishop who is the earthly head of the Christian Church; all bishops are equal in their power and jurisdiction.
  • Catholics tend not to see Eastern Orthodox as heretical; the Eastern Orthodox Church sees itself as the Church founded by Jesus in 33 AD, and all other churches are separated from it by schism, heresy, or both.
  • A dicey theological/lexicological dispute called the filoque predates the Great Schism, to the late sixth century, when some Latin-speaking churches began adding "and the Son" to part of the Nicene Creed as indicated below. The Eastern Orthodox argued that this was a heretical addition, and translators and churches have been divided over it ever since.

And 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.

  • The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian one (due to the fact that the astronomical year is a few minutes shorter than 365.25 days, which the Julian calendar is based on and which the Gregorian corrects), now in use throughout the world. As a result of this and other calculations, Eastern Orthodox Easter (and Christmas) are typically celebrated on different Sundays, though in some years they do coincide (Christmas never does, as that is a fixed holiday).
  • The two churches have subtley different views on original sin, purgatory, damnation, the manner of making the sign of the cross, communion and many other issues related to ritual and theology.
  • The Catholic Church uses unleavened bread in Communion; the Eastern Orthodox Church uses leavened bread.
  • Catholics kneel during church services, Orthodox do not. 
  • Orthodox monks do not have different "orders," as is the case with Catholic monks.
  • Orthodox clergy may marry if they do so before ordination; Catholic clergy are celibate.
  • Orthodox worship facing East; this is not necessarily true of Catholics.
  • Catholics have "Stations of The Cross;" Orthodox do not.
  • Orthodox priests let their beards grow out. Catholic priests are generally beardless.

Photo at top of post: Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul, fresco, Anastasis, Harrowing of Hell and Resurrection [Public Domain]

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