7 Differences Between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches

differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches

The beliefs 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 doctrine and theology of Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.

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

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

More differences than you’d think!

Imagine for a moment: a black American travels to Africa and sees a black African there. He looks at the African, and after assessing him for a moment, says to himself, “We are so similar.” But the black African looks back at the black American, studying him deeply, and thinks, “He could not be more different from me.” The differences between our churches are far more numerous from an Orthodox perspective than they are from a Catholic perspective.

Most Catholics (and quite a few Orthodox) are not aware of what makes us so different. Aside from the papacy, the other differences between our churches escape our notice. Let’s try to correct that, shall we? Here we go!

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.

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 doesn’t 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.

The Orthodox 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 the eternal procession of the Spirit belongs to both the Father and the Son, the Spirit is subordinated, because He does not possess something the other two Persons do. 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 that the essence of God (who He is in Himself) is identical to the attributes of God (what can be 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 (its primary substance), because any human being who attempts to get close enough would be 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 Catholicism does not understand God as both essence and energies, problems arise in its 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.

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 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 the coming of the Lord, we believe this purification instead took place at the Annunciation.

There is no support in Scripture or patristic writings for the IC. Moreover, the Orthodox recognize a fatal flaw within St. Augustine’s approach to original sin. Augustine 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 bestow upon her freedom from original sin, why did He not do so with everyone else? What need was there for Christ’s Incarnation in the first place?

The Orthodox maintain the approach of the Church Fathers re: sin, mainly viewing it as a spiritual illness in need of healing, not a condition of guilt requiring retribution. Thus, the IC is superfluous. 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? If she, without any effort, and without having any kind of impulse to sin, remained pure, then why is she crowned more than everyone else? There is no victory without an adversary.”


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, you must still make satisfaction for them after death.

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.

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 7 differences are some of the more noticeable, well-known ones.

Read More: Is There Grace Outside The Orthodox Church? >>

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15 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.

  2. Could you please explain the differences between all of the Orthodox Churches — such as Greek, Romanian, St. John the Evangelist, etc? Are they all Eastern Orthodoxy or different sects under it? Would they all present the Mass in the same way?
    As a Catholic concerned with where the Pope is taking the Church, and just my own research causing me to question some aspects of Catholicism, I keep coming back to the Orthodox Church in hopes that it is more adherent to the authentic Church of the Apostles. However, where I live it seems like the Orthodox Churches are all divided into countries of origin. Is someone not of that origin still welcome?

  3. TJ,

    Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your questions. The differences between the Eastern Orthodox Churches – Serbian, Greek, Romanian, Antiochian, etc. – is merely one of culture. The style of music might be slightly different, for example, or the style in which icons are “written”/painted. The content of the Divine Liturgy (read “Mass” in the Roman Catholic church) is essentially the same across jurisdictions, with only minor differences in translation of the text into English. So no matter which “type” of Eastern Orthodox Church you attend, the Divine Liturgy and its holy structure does not change. Depending on the demographic of the community, there may be some hymns or prayers said in Greek or Serbian; however, in many Antiochian, Russian, and Orthodox Church in America (OCA) parishes, the Liturgy is entirely in English.

    All people are welcome to attend the Divine Services in any Eastern Orthodox Church, regardless of its jurisdiction. One need not be of a particular ethnicity to be accepted by Our Lord and His Church! We wrote a post about the jurisdictions of the Church, which you may find beneficial. We hope this helps; if you have any more questions, please feel free to respond here.

    God bless!

    1. Thank you, I appreciate all of the information you have provided here. I just ordered the book “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” that you recommended to the gentleman who asked about learning more. I am looking forward to reading it. God Bless you.

  4. 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!

    1. Donna,

      Christ is in our midst! Thank you for your question. In most cases, one would not need to be baptized, only chrismated. Most priests will counsel anyone considering becoming part of the Orthodox Church (regardless of their former confession) to do through a period of catechesis during which you would learn about the Faith and what the Church believes. This is because during the chrismation, you would have to actively assent to believing in these teachings and rejecting the heresies you may have believed before. Ultimately, the priest at your local parish will decide what is best for you, depending on your situation. God bless!

  5. 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!

  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. 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!

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