10 Differences Between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches

differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches

The beliefs and practices of the Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West may seem similar on the surface, but in reality, they are quite different. In this post, we list some of the differences between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Please Note: this list is not exhaustive and only begins to skim the surface of this topic.

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

Areas of agreement

Before we dig into the meat of this post, let us start with a list of the things we have in common. Both churches accept:

  • The decisions of the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church
  • The divine and human natures of Jesus Christ
  • Apostolic succession
  • The ministries of deacons, priests, and bishops
  • The broad structure of the visible church
  • Invocation of the Saints
  • The sinless life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the honor due to her as Theotokos
  • Acceptance of the seven sacraments
  • Confession in the presence of a priest
  • Use of icons in worship (though the manner of icon differs, which we discuss a bit later)
  • Solemn celebration of the Eucharist and affirmation of its sacrificial nature as identical with the sacrifice of Christ
  • The Eucharistic bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ

Moreover, both churches reject many of the same novel Protestant doctrines like salvation through Faith Alone (because faith without charity and words is dead; James 2:14-26), and Sola Scriptura, which denies the authority of the Church, sacred Tradition and the consensus of the Church Fathers.

More differences than you’d think!

Imagine for a moment: an American travels to Europe and sees a European there. He looks at the European, and after assessing him for a moment, says to himself, “We are so similar”. But the European looks back at the American, studying him deeply, and thinks, “He could not be more different from me”. In this scenario, the European is the Eastern Orthodox and the American the Roman Catholic. What are we trying to say here? The differences between our churches are far more numerous from an Orthodox perspective than they are from a Catholic perspective.

Many Catholics believe our churches are closer in beliefs and practice. To an extent, this is true, because we certainly share more in common with one another than we do with the Protestant world. However, there are several differences between our churches, and those inquiring into either of them deserve to know what those differences are.

Differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches

Development of doctrine

Perhaps the most important difference between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches is their approach to doctrine itself. The Roman Catholic church believes that the Holy Spirit causes “the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of the faith is able to grow in the life of the Church” (CCC, 94). The Roman Catholic church takes this to mean that the Church progresses in its understanding and expression of doctrine, not that new dogmas are introduced. In other words, doctrine can develop over time, growing from the “seed” that existed in the days of the early Church.

However, the Orthodox Church asserts that Rome has indeed introduced new dogmas over the years and that Roman Catholicism is not “backwards compatible”. Dogmas appear in the catechism today that simply did not exist in previous centuries (the immaculate conception or papal infallibility, for example). The Roman Catholic catechism seems to suggest that this change is proper. This becomes problematic, though, because the language there suggests that simply because you were born further along the timeline of history, you can understand the faith better than those who came before you, including the Apostles themselves!

Development of doctrine in Orthodoxy

The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, practices the development of the expression of doctrine, but not of its meaning and substance, which are eternal and unchanging. Whenever Orthodoxy formulated or declared dogmas in the days of the early Church, it was specifically for the purpose of responding to heresy. It was not an opportunity to codify speculation or systematic imagination into doctrine, which is the common practice in Roman Catholicism. Orthodox dogma never claims to expound the whole truth about anything. Instead, it only delineates the borders of the mystery, which God Himself revealed to us in the way He chose to reveal it.

It is this primary (and often overlooked) difference between our churches that inevitably resulted in all the others that follow in this post.

Faith and reason

The Roman Catholic church places reason at a much higher level in the spiritual life of the Christian than the Orthodox Church. Pope John Paul II calls faith and reason “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. He goes on to say:

God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know Himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio

His language here is the reason the Orthodox view Roman Catholicism as rationalist, subjected to the demands and limits of human rationality. In Roman Catholicism, reason becomes the very criterion of Truth, not just a tool to help one ascertain Truth. (We certainly see the fruits of this thinking in the Protestant world.) This relationship between faith and reason is also why much of Roman Catholic spiritual life is legalist. Because spiritual life for Roman Catholics is more often concerned with satisfying requirements than healing spiritual illness.

In Orthodoxy, rational thought is a useful tool that helps us come to the knowledge of the truth. But reason is not a required element in Christian life. You can be intellectually disabled and still come to know God, because knowledge of God comes from the prayer of the heart, not from the mind.

Liturgical revision

At one time, liturgical worship in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches looked almost identical. But throughout the last 70-80 years, the Roman Catholic church has seen significant changes in its liturgical life. The Second Vatican Council introduced many contemporary revisions to the normal worship life of the average Roman Catholic. The structure and language of the mass changed, along with other parts of their worship lives. A “good Catholic” from the 1800s would no longer be considered a “good Catholic” in the current Roman Catholic church.

The Orthodox Church has never have experienced anything like this. Certainly both the Eastern and Western Church experienced liturgical change over the centuries, but typically those changes were very slow. If there were reforms, they were subtle things. It was nothing anywhere near what Catholics experienced in the late 1960’s and the early 70’s. For the Orthodox Christian, there’s very little difference between the spiritual lives of the early Christians and our spiritual lives today. The question instead becomes how much we actually participate in what is the normal Orthodox Christian life.

Papal Supremacy

Papal supremacy is the teaching that the Pope of Rome has immediate, supreme, universal jurisdiction over every Christian. In effect, he is the physical head of the Church. No one, not even an ecumenical council, can supposedly overturn the ruling of a pope. Rejection of this dogma endangers your salvation. In other words, if you do not submit to the pope, you will not be saved (Pastor aeternus, Vatican I, 1870).

This teaching stems from a certain view of Saint Peter. The Roman church claims the bishop of Rome is Peter’s sole successor, because Peter allegedly – there is very little evidence of this – served as bishop there and received the “keys” to the Kingdom of heaven to “bind” and “loose” (Matt. 16:19). Interestingly, the rest of the Apostles receive these same keys to bind and loose in John 20:23, and the Lord Himself says He is the One with the “keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:18). The Orthodox certainly acknowledge that Peter occupied a special place among the Apostles as the first among equals. But we do not acknowledge any claims of supremacy, because these claims have no basis in Scripture or in the writings of the Fathers.

The pope of the Roman Catholic church
The current pope of the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis.

Additionally, Scripture never refers to Peter as head of the Church in any sense. Rather, we see that Christ is the head of His Church (Eph. 1:22, 5:23; Col. 1:18) and thus has no need for a vicar. Peter never appeals to any supreme authority, and none of the other Apostles legitimize that authority. Least of all Paul, who called Peter out over his temporary support of the Judaizing heresy (Gal. 2:11).

Papal infallibility

Papal infallibility teaches that the pope cannot err in questions of faith and morals when speaking ex cathedra (“from the throne”; this does not make the pope sinless or perfect).

This dogma did not exist prior to the First Vatican Council (1870), which defines it as follows: “This see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples” (Pastor aeternus; emphasis added). It goes on to say that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, “he possesses […] that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy.” This “divine promise” refers to Luke 22:32, in which Christ tells Simon Peter that his faith would not fail. In other words, the Holy Spirit protects the pope from teaching heresy. While Catholicism uses Luke 22:32 as justification for papal infallibility, the Orthodox (and the Church Fathers) do not.

Curiously enough, there is no single, agreed-upon list of infallible statements made by the pope, or a list of criteria for what constitutes a statement made ex cathedra. The most obvious concern here is this: what do you do if the pope is a heretic? Can he be deposed? If so, who has the authority to do that? The Orthodox hierarchy need not trouble itself with these sorts of questions, since Orthodox clergymen (including ecumenical patriarchs) can and have been deposed on a number of occasions, without presupposing the collapse of the entire Christian Church.

The Filioque

The filioque (Latin: “and the Son”), is an addition to the Nicene Creed. This phrase changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s procession, stating that He proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, rather than from the Father only. Rome officially declared this doctrine at the Second Council of Lyons. We also see similar language in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (246). Despite Rome’s official position, many Catholics argue that the filioque refers to the Spirit’s temporal mission, not His eternal procession. The Orthodox can agree with this approach, though we ultimately reject the way the filioque was inserted into the Creed.

It goes without saying, but the Orthodox do not share Rome’s official position here. We object to the filioque for several reasons. First, it deliberately changes the words of Christ in John 15:26. Christ specifically says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, not the Father and the Son. Second, it violates the perfect balance of Trinitarian theology. In this balance, any particular attribute can belong either to the divine Nature (the Godhead) or to one Person (Father, Son, or Holy Spirit). If eternal procession belongs to the Father and the Son but not the Spirit, the Spirit is subordinated. And thirdly, the addition of the filioque was uncanonical. The Second Ecumenical Council ratified the Creed as it now stands. Its inviolability was confirmed by several popes anathematizing any changes to it. Therefore, Rome’s deliberate altering of the Creed without the consent of an Ecumenical Council spells conflict.

Absolute Divine Simplicity

Another difference between the Orthodox and Catholic understanding of God is absolute divine simplicity. This can get a bit complex, but we will try to simplify the differences here as much as possible.

Catholicism claims the essence of God (who He is in Himself) is identical to the attributes of God (what is said about Him). Absolute divine simplicity classifies God philosophically as a “substance,” and it insists that God’s oneness is an undifferentiated singularity, with no facets, aspects, or distinctions. This makes the Catholic version of God far less approachable or near to us, because He is only Himself. We cannot experience Him in any tangible, realistic way.

The Orthodox faith, on the other hand, teaches that God is both unknowable essence and knowable energies, following the teachings of Gregory Palamas and the ancient Church Fathers (i.e. St. Basil the Great). While being both unknowable essence and knowable energies, God is still Himself, One God in Three Persons, undivided. Imagine the sun. The sun is unknowable in its essence/primary substance, because any human being who attempts to get close enough is destroyed. Yet as human beings, we can interact with the sun through its energies, the heat it radiates, the light it provides, and the energy it gives off to feed plants, which in turn provide oxygen for us to breathe). The same is true of God. We will never know Him in His essence, but we can know Him through His energies, most particularly Grace.

Ultimately, this doctrine betrays Rome’s desire to define God’s nature rather than to simply experience God as He revealed Himself to us. We experience God concretely as Three Persons, not as a nature.

Created Grace

Because of Catholicism’s doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, problems arise in the understanding of both the presence of God in the believer and the effects that occur because of His presence. Unlike the Orthodox, who believe grace is uncreated, Catholics believe grace is both uncreated and created. (Note: this is not a dogmatic teaching. As such this is one difference between the Orthodox and Catholic churches that could be worked out more easily.)

Roman Catholic theology teaches both uncreated grace (God) and created grace, which, when granted or conferred upon the believer, gives him “merit”. In other words, created grace is an effect. It is only understood by analogy to God’s work, and is therefore not really grace at all. Instead it is another way of describing the state of the believer under the influence of God’s uncreated grace.

Related: Is There Grace Outside The Church?

In Orthodox doctrine, divine grace is uncreated and therefore represents God Himself – His energies. The believer is sanctified through synergy with God and His energies. If the grace the believer experiences is simply an “effect,” then he remains separate from God. Naturally, true communion with God is impossible if we remain separate from Him.

The Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception (IC) is a Catholic dogma that says the Theotokos was conceived without the stain of original sin (per St. Augustine). This, therefore, is what made it possible for her to assent to Christ’s Incarnation. While the Orthodox agree Mary’s womb was sanctified to prepare for Christ, we believe this took place at the Annunciation.

There is a fatal flaw within St. Augustine’s approach to sin. The Orthodox maintain the approach of the Church Fathers, viewing sin as an illness in need of healing, not a condition of guilt requiring retribution. Augustine thus believed the guilt of Adam’s sin, which all are born with, deserves a sentence of condemnation and separation from God. Unless that stain is removed (via baptism after Christ), every man is in a condition of gracelessness and damnation. Mary came before Christ, yet she was holy and blameless before God. To maintain consistency, the Virgin must somehow be conceived without original sin to be a pure vessel for the Christ. But, if God could do this for her, why not for everyone else? What need was there for Christ’s Incarnation in the first place?

In the eyes of the Orthodox, this dogma actually demeans the Theotokos. As St. John Maximovitch wrote, “This teaching […] denies all her virtues. After all, if Mary, even in the womb of her mother, when she could not even desire anything good or evil, was preserved by God’s grace from every impurity, and then by that grace was preserved from sin even after her birth, then in what does her merit consist? […] then for what did God glorify her? […] There is no victory without an adversary.”

Purgatory

The final difference between the Orthodox and Catholic churches we’ll discuss here is about what happens when we die. According to Catholicism, the “saved” go to purgatory when they depart this life. In the most basic terms, purgatory is a place of temporal punishment, which allows those who “die in God’s grace and friendship” to “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC, 1030). In other words, even after you are saved and God has forgiven your sins, after death you must still make satisfaction for them.

The Orthodox Church does not believe in purgatory. While we agree with the idea that we experience a “waiting time” between now and the Final Judgment, we object to the Catholic satisfaction model, which states that God requires payment even after He forgives our sins. Within the Orthodox theological paradigm, there is either forgiveness or punishment, not both.

Keep Reading: The Truth About Heaven And Hell

Some Church Fathers believed in purification after death. However, the character of this purification is never clarified, and it seems there is no true distinction between heaven, hell and “purgatory”. In other words, all souls partake in the same eternity, but experience it differently depending on their spiritual state: bliss for those who are in communion with Him; purification for those in the process of being deified; and remorse/agony for those who hated God during their earthly lives.

Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism could not be more different!

We could write books upon books explaining the differences between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But suffice it to say that these ten differences are some of the more noticeable, well-known ones.

Read More: 10 Misconceptions About The Eastern Orthodox Church

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17 Responses

  1. Thank you for this posting. I am still too new to the Orthodox Faith to understand very much, even though I am a senior citizen, but your explanations sure clarify a lot of points for me, and I thank God that you have shared all this.

      1. Thank you. The Orthodox Church is indeed a home, a shelter, and a banquet to which even I—having come at the eleventh hour after far too much sinful struggle—have been welcomed, and comforted, and given a hope and joy for which I do not have sufficient words to describe.

        1. Thank you for this article. It concisely addresses such important differences. At one time we believe the same but the Catholic Church deviated from the Truth. Orthodoxy has maintained the faith that delivered once for all into the saints. As we say in the Liturgy, We have found the true Faith. I was baptized three years ago and have no doubt that this is Christ’s true body. Thank you Lord for all your gifts and graces!

  2. Thank you for this simple presentation. I believe I may have found the answer to the agonizing search/struggle I have been engaged in as I seek to join a faith community. Raised RC and educated in RC schools, left as agnostic in teen years, returned to faith in Christ as adult through evangelical Protestantism, now, trying SO HARD to reconcile with the RC church because of Eucharist and preservation of early church (pre-Gutenberg) tradition but just cannot accept with integrity some of the differences you have outlined here. I am so excited and hopeful I may have found a church home. Thank you!

    1. Jen,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for sharing your experience – we are so thankful to God that He has led you home. We highly recommend visiting a nearby Eastern Orthodox parish and speaking with the priest there. He can help address any questions you may have about the Church and about making it your permanent spiritual home. God bless you!

  3. Hello, I have been an Atheist for my entire life (I’m 19) but my conscience has been urging me to become a Christian. I have been researching different denominations and I have narrowed my choices to Catholic or Orthodox. I feel kind of stuck because there are elements of both traditions that resonate with me. I have some Catholic friends who have taught me about their faith but the biggest issue I am facing is the Papal Supremacy and Infallibility. This is causing me to lean towards the Orthodox Church but I was wondering if you know of some resources that I can use to educate myself so that I can make in informed decision. Thank you and God bless!

  4. Hello,

    Are there any books that talk about the theology of the Orthodox Church that you may recommend? I am not familiar with the theological works of the Doctors of the Orthodox Church, if I am being honest, especially beyond the 10th century.

    I am a Roman Catholic and a graduate student studying Theology. Unfortunately, in the Latin Church, the Fathers are underappreciated. In fact, we barely read the Fathers in my program, the same issue in seminaries, as well. However, I love reading the Fathers because we received the faith through them, so I invest a lot of my time reading the treasures that they have left us. While I have been reading their works, I have noticed the Roman Church’s departure from both Scripture and Tradition. And, of course, our addition of the filioque to the original Creed while at the same time accusing the Eastern Church of omission. It saddens me to say this, but our actions betrayed our brotherhood…While I would love for us to be One Church again, I do not desire a superficial unity based on obedience to papal power. I pray that one day we will be United in all aspects of the faith in Christ, in particular theologically. Anyway, I apologize for the long comment and I am looking forward to hearing about any book recommendations you may have for me!

    God Bless,
    Ahmed Fadil

    1. Ahmed,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for sharing your experience – there are many not unlike yourself who have had similar experiences and epiphanies as it relates to the Roman Catholic church and her departure from the deposit of Faith imparted to us. There are many books out there about Orthodox theology, depending on your current level of familiarity with Orthodoxy. As a graduate student, you may find Discerning the Mystery by Andrew Louth particularly edifying. We would also highly recommend any books in the Popular Patristics series. Other books we recommend are For The Life Of The World by Fr. Alexander Schmemann and The Mountain Of Silence by Kyriacos C. Markides. Naturally, there are dozens of others out there, but we hope this helps you as a starting point.

      Also, you can find many writings of the early Church Fathers here, if there are some among them you have yet to read. God bless you!

  5. If the Spirit can only proceed from God, why did Christ state that after he ascended he would send his spirit? I see this more in line with proceeding from the father AND the son

    1. Karen,

      Christ is in our midst. The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father, through the Son. He does not derive His existence (via procession) from both the Father and the Son, but only from the Source of the Godhead, the Father. We hope this helps clarify things a bit – it can get quite complex! God bless!

  6. Phoenix,

    Christ is in our midst! We are thankful that God has begun to lead you home to His Church. In terms of resources, there are many fabulous talks you can access online in which Orthodox priests engage Catholic apologists on the papacy. One debate we particularly enjoyed, featured Father Patrick Ramsey. There are also many books, including Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, that can help you learn more about the differences between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. Ultimately, the best way to make an informed decision is to commit to visiting an Orthodox parish near you to experience the services and speak to the priest there. We will pray for you in your journey for the Truth. God bless!

  7. I am a Catholic interested in learning about Orthodoxy. This was extremely informative and well written. There is some confusion I must point out, though. We do know when the pope speaks in ex cathedra. He has twice: during The Assumption and The IC.
    Even though we describe God as being his attributes, we believe Jesus became man so we could understand God through him.

    We are all born with Original Sin because all of us eventually do as Adam did, and the effects of our sins transcend time. If Mary did no wrong, and was not guilty of voluntarily committing any sins in her time, then giving her Original Sin at the beginning is frankly unfair.

    Also, the Purgatory thing. Catholics believe we are composite beings, both spiritual and physical. God forgives all sins, but outward expression, in this case, purifying fire, is part of our penance just as much as our emotions of guilt.

    The arguments for Catholics believing The Spirit proceeds from The Son can be found here. https://www.catholic.com/qa/how-can-we-use-scripture-to-show-the-holy-spirit-proceeds-from-the-father-and-the-son

    Our believes are a lot more similar than I thought, though, and I do like a lot of The Orthodox beliefs.

    1. Grace,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your comment. Allow us to address your points here. Many Roman Catholics would disagree with you and claim that the pope has spoken ex cathedra far more than twice. However, when asked how this is determined, there is no mechanism of which they are aware. And regardless of how many times he has done so, as a Roman Catholic you are bound by *all* of the pope’s teachings and declarations, not just those that are ex cathedra.

      Your understanding of original sin unfortunately feels a bit simplistic. We all are capable of doing as Adam did, and most of us end up doing just that; but it isn’t because of original sin. It is because we refuse to do the will of God and work in synergy with Him toward holiness. We are indeed capable, through synergy with God, of living a sinless life. Many of us choose not to do this; the Theotokos, however, did. Were she born without original sin, she would not experience death, because death is the natural consequence of original sin. And yet, she died. She was in need of a savior, just like the rest of us. The Theotokos having original sin isn’t unfair; it is the greatest of all glories to her!

      The Orthodox likewise believe in the metaphysical nature of mankind and our existence as both soul and body. What you describe as “purifying fire” in your comment again does not mesh with the official teachings of your church, which teachings of a time of penance after your death. During our lifetimes, we have the opportunity to repent for our sins. That is when our penance takes place, not after we repose. Penance implies working through a punishment. And if God has forgiven your sins, there is no need for such punishment. As a side note, guilt is not a consistent sign of a repentant heart. One can feel guilt for a particular sin and yet continue in that sin.

      Yes, we are aware that many Roman Catholics lean on that particular explanation of the filioque. However, once again, that is not the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church. Even if it were, the fact remains that the original teaching as set forth by the ecumenical councils was that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The filioque was a change to the original (and an erroneous one that was done against the will even of other popes!), and history compels us to honesty in that regard.

      God bless!

      1. Who wrote this summary of the differences between Catholic and eastern orthodox beliefs? It’s not very good, selective quotes taken from the catechism, self-serving replies to comments etc. You really need to redo it and have it reviewed by a catholic bishop or theologian for accuracy. The two churches actually have more in common than differences, but whoever wrote this ignores that fact. The eastern orthodox clergy at this church need to educate themselves and learn about the ongoing work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, among others, as well as all of the Eastern rite Catholic churches who have the same beliefs and practices as the eastern orthodox as well as full union with the Catholic church.

        1. Anonymous,

          Christ is in our midst! This article was written with the input of several Orthodox priests, who have indeed interviewed and spoken with Roman Catholic hierarchs. We approve all comments that are submitted to our site that are respectful. The fact that they all support what is written should tell you something. We have not ignored the commonalities between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; however, the differences are far too important to overlook in conversations moving toward unification of the churches. Such unification cannot occur until the Roman Catholic church rejects the heresies it has taught since its separation from the Church. Eastern Catholic churches do not have the same beliefs and practices as the Eastern Orthodox. For if they did, they would understand that union for the sake of union is not union at all. Common dogma is what creates communion, not submission to the pope of Rome. God bless.

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