Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A History of the Divide and Differences

Catholicism and Orthodoxy: A History of the Divide and Differences

Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants all belong to one great religion, namely Christianity. They worship the same God and rely on the same holy book - the Bible. However, this separation has not always existed. For more than a thousand years from its founding, Christianity remained indivisible, and its splits were caused in large part by political conflicts. The split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, also called the Great Schism, occurred in 1054 and was a sign of both the political rivalry between two cultural regions - Rome and Constantinople - and the deep theological differences between the two denominations that had been gradually building up over centuries. The Great Schism officially defined two church systems and two views of spiritual authority.

The term "Orthodox" comes from the Greek ortos, meaning right, just, and doxa, meaning faith. Thus, Orthodoxy means true faith and refers to Churches that have remained faithful to the faith of the early Councils. The Orthodox Church is in unbroken continuity with the early Church. The word "catholic" is also borrowed from the Greek language and literally translated means "universal." According to the interpretation of the Catholic Church, this name is justified by the fact that the Church claims to be "universal" and possessing the fullness of truth.

Differences in rituals and ceremonies

Although the Orthodox Church generally remains closer to the Christianity of its origin, over time the two churches have developed different traditions that are expressed in rituals, liturgy, and rules governing worship. When you enter an Orthodox church, you immediately feel the mystical atmosphere, combining the repetitive prayers, the play of light from candles and candelabras, and the symbolism of icons. Catholic churches, on the other hand, tend to be more restrained and refined.

The most noticeable differences are as follows:

  • During the liturgy, Orthodox Christians pray standing or kneeling, while Catholics pray mostly sitting and standing. In Catholic churches, rows of pews are usually arranged for this purpose.
  • Icons are at the heart of the Orthodox religion, and in Greek churches the faithful make pious gestures in their honor. These icons are symbols, not idols. Statues, on the other hand, are generally not allowed in Orthodox churches, unlike Catholic churches.
  • According to tradition, Orthodox use leavened bread for the Eucharist, while Catholics use unleavened bread.
  • In Orthodoxy it is customary to be baptized with three fingers of the right hand, touching the forehead, chest, right shoulder, and then the left shoulder. Catholics, on the other hand, have the practice of baptizing from left to right, usually with two fingers or an open palm.
  • While the Catholic Church prescribes celibacy (this rule was introduced in the eleventh century, though not originally a dogma), Orthodox priests may marry and start a family. However, they must be married prior to their ordination. Only bishops are required to be celibate. According to Orthodox rules, a priest must be a man of "one wife," and if he divorces, he becomes a layman.
  • The Catholic Church mainly practices baptism by dousing, while the Orthodox Church practices baptism by fully immersing the child's body in water.
  • While the Catholic Church mainly practices baptism by dousing the Orthodox Church baptizes by full body immersion. The Orthodox Church has remained faithful to the tradition dating back to the origins of the Gospel regarding this ritual, which symbolizes complete union with Christ.
  • The Catholic Church has used the Gregorian calendar since 1582, while the Julian calendar still prevails among some Orthodox Christians. Some Orthodox churches and some Eastern Rite Catholic churches celebrate Christmas on January 7 (according to the Julian calendar, which corresponds to December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar: a difference of 13 days).

Pope Paul VI with Athenagoras

What are the deep causes of the division?

The great schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches began in 1054, and only after the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1964 - the first meeting between the Primate of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches since 1439! - the dialog between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Constantinople was renewed. Things are moving forward thanks to Pope Francis, who has already met with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and other Orthodox patriarchs on several occasions. The deeper reasons for the length of the separation are theological in nature and may seem very difficult to understand.

Filioque and the Creed

For the Orthodox, according to Christ in the Gospel of John (15: 26), the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Catholics, on the other hand, say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, a Patre Filioque.

This addition to the Creed, introduced by Charlemagne, an ally of Rome, in the eighth century and ratified in the eleventh century, is rejected by the Orthodox Church, which considers it inconsistent with the words of Christ and alters the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, strengthening the role of Jesus to the detriment of the Holy Spirit.

Infallibility of the Pope

Another significant cause of the schism was the popes' desire to turn moral primacy into direct legal authority over the churches. In the eleventh century, the Gregorian Reform, in order to free the papacy from the Germanic emperors, attempted to subject bishops and kings directly to the pope (the two swords theory) and claimed the infallibility of the sovereign pontiff.
Orthodox churches consider the pope to be a patriarch. They recognize that he has an honorary primacy in the case of an ecumenical council, but not the place of the head of the Church, which belongs to Christ. They also do not accept the dogma of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

In the Orthodox world, the form of governance of the Church is based on the bishop and then, depending on the issues being addressed, on the Holy Synod (an assembly of bishops) and possibly an Ecumenical Council. This results in a decentralized organization and collegial decision-making, whereas Catholic organization is strictly vertical - all authority comes from the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.

Filioque issue

Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, not Jesus Christ, whose virgin and sinless conception is not in question. Orthodox and Catholics agree that Mary is immaculate when she conceives and gives birth to the Son of God, and that this is the result of the special grace of the Holy Spirit. The difference is that for Catholics, the Virgin Mary was conceived of ordinary parents, but by the will of the Holy Spirit, original sin did not pass upon her. This dogma is rejected by all other Protestant movements. It is important to note that the degree of veneration of the Mother of God among Catholics is much higher than among the Orthodox.

The view of free will

There is also a controversy that sheds light on how the two Churches view things: the controversy over grace and free will. In the fourth century, St. Augustine clarified the dogma of original sin, which everyone carries within him or her from the moment of conception. Based on this dogma, characteristic of the Western Church, human nature is predisposed to evil and cannot be saved from it without special grace.

In the Christian East this controversy has remained almost alien. Orthodoxy holds that man was created free. He was not, however, preserved from the inclination to evil. He glorified God spontaneously, not because he was directed toward good by special grace. Human nature is inclined toward the Good, and evil is external to it.

Thus, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have many differences between them, both external and deeply internal. Nevertheless, the Churches recognize their common faith in Jesus Christ, and mutually recognize some of the Church's sacraments. There is also a large-scale ideology of ecumenism, which advocates the rapprochement of all Christian Churches, especially the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.


Leave a review