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
Differences between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches
- Areas of agreement
- More differences than you’d think!
- Differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches
- Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism could not be more different!
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.
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 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 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 (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.
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.”
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.