Do Orthodox have more to “lose”?

For the first time, it occurred to me that Orthodox Christians have way more to “lose” in seeking reunion with the Catholic Church.

You see, I had the joy of attending an ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, focusing on our (currently imperfect) unity as Apostolic Churches. On the Catholic side, there was a bi-ritual Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest Fr Simon, and on the Orthodox side, a Coptic Orthodox priest Fr Antonios.

And it was fantastic.

I learnt so much, not least of which was that there even is an Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Neither it nor Coptic Orthodox are what you would automatically think of as your standard representatives of “East” and “West.” Both have their own fraught histories of schism and persecution, but also growing understanding and even reconciliation. Both apostolic churches are familiar with the difficulties – and the hard-won joys – of full, ecclesial communion.

Pope Benedict & Patriarch Bartholomew

Pope Benedict & Patriarch Bartholomew

I also noticed something I never had before, although it wasn’t brought up in our discussions. I could be wrong about this but I think Catholics are more “ok” with reunion than Orthodox are. By “ok”, I don’t mean that we’re keener at all, or work harder for it – quite the opposite! – just that we don’t instinctively see the barriers to unity as being as high.

I think this is because the Orthodox churches have more to “lose” by unity than Catholics do. I came up with four reasons for this. The first two are doctrinal, the second two are more cultural.

1. The Orthodox churches would have to “submit” (however we define that term) to the universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St Peter, for any full communion to take place. Catholics, however, wouldn’t because no patriarch makes the claims that the Bishop of Rome does. Potentially, the Catholic Pope would have authority over the Orthodox churches to decree doctrines on faith and morals, but not vice versa. Understandably, many Orthodox are very hesitant – if not downright opposed – to such a thing. For Catholics, nothing would really change.

2. The Orthodox churches would have to accept additional dogma. This is because the Catholic Church has continued to have (what she regards as) ecumenical councils and to infallibly define doctrines, such as the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, Papal Infallibility, Filioque etc. In contrast, Catholics are pretty much ok with everything the Orthodox do and teach because really, not that much has changed since the Early Church. (For example, Oriental Orthodox recognise 3 councils, Eastern Orthodox 7, and Catholics, 22. That’s quite a difference.) Again, it’s much less of an accommodation on the Catholic side.

3. The Orthodox churches tend to define themselves in contradistinction to Catholicism. How do you know you’re Orthodox? You’re not Catholic. But again, in contrast, the bete noir for Catholics is Protestantism (and vice versa), so it’s just not that much of a big deal for Catholics. We tend to far more concerned with “disproving” Protestantism than debating the virtues of Hesychastic prayer. We see our Orthodox brothers and sisters as potential allies and we want to get them on board! (On board St Peter’s barque, that is.)

4. The Orthodox churches, even when combined, are smaller than the one Catholic Church, and could easily exert a cultural dominance over the Orthodox churches. Leaving aside any “official” or doctrinal directions from Rome, there would (again understandably, I think) be the fear that the traditional patrimonies of each church would be swallowed out by that great, omnivorous beast of Rome, even if entirely unintended on Rome’s part.

Catholicism could be see as part and parcel with a growing globalised Western hegemony, exporting “Western” pews and statues along with Big Macs, materialism, and that apathetic pluralism that characterises so much of Western Catholicism. Just because of her size, there is no corresponding fear among Catholics about “Easternisation” or “Orientalisation”. If anything, we are so keen for that because a) we admire the richness and resilience of the Orthodox churches, and b) icons. (‘Nuff said.)

That’s my impression of why Catholics seem more “ok” with reunion than Orthodox, because we honestly have less to “lose”, and in another sense, more to “gain”.

Do you think that’s a fair assessment or am I completely off the mark? I’m terribly new to all this so please, correct me or berate me as you see fit! Love to hear your thoughts.

(Also, I’ve turned off the comment sign-in so you should just be able type in your name if you want to.)


24 responses to “Do Orthodox have more to “lose”?

  1. I think the problem is (having been part of such discussions myself) that whilst one of two individual bishops and priests (usually those involved in ecumenical dialogue) favour talks and some closer union, the ordinary Orthodox don’t. They don’t agree with Papal supremacy, purgatory or the filioque. I know quite a few ordinary Orthodox people and none of them have any desire to go anywhere near union with Rome. Any bishop who tried would find the monks of Athos turning out in force.

  2. I read a list of Orthodox “demands” a while back, stating what concessions Rome would have to make for such union to be possible. According to that source, Orthodoxy does not have more to lose, because Orthodoxy is *right*. Catholics would have to roll back doctrines like papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and Purgatory, or there’s no chance of reunion. They might also have to de-canonize St. Thomas, according to the more vitriolic Orthodox. Damn Reason, perverting the faith! (God bless ’em.)

    • Haha, yes, put that way, we do have more to lose! I can’t imagine losing Thomas. I mean, for one thing, my entire Catholic university would have to shut down… I don’t think my lectures know how to give a class without mentioning/praising Thomas. 😀

  3. Looks to me like the same spot as Catholics and Protestants actually, we all (more or less) like each other and are quite willing to support one another but, the differences are hardly won, and few are willing to give way on what can be fairly described as the “Faith of our Fathers”.

    Still, cooperation and support is a huge improvement in and of itself, Rome was neither built nor sacked in a day, and we will keep picking away at it, if we are wise.

    • I think it’s a bit different from the Catholic-Protestant dialogue, if only because Catholics and Orthodox are much closer doctrinally on what constitutes a church – e.g. apostolic succession, sacraments, priesthood etc. The structures at least are there for a viable reunion of the two. But you’re right that otherwise, they are very similar situations. People aren’t willing to give way on what they believed is true – and nor should they be! The challenge is always finding the balance between a principled ecumenism driven by love and a desire for godly unity… and thinking it’s all in our power to make the church what we want. 🙂

      • Likely you’re right. I keep forgetting that I’m a very conservative Protestant, and share more with you guys than most.

        i agree with you on the rest, especially the challenge you state 🙂

  4. I think there’s a lot to what you’ve said, Laura. While I’ve enjoyed good dialogue with a couple of Orthodox theology students here in Boston, it’s been my experience that Catholics are far more excited about the possibility of reunion, and far more open to JP2’s “breathing with both lungs.” Heck, a lot of Orthodox are even opposed to reunion with the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches, like the Coptics…. I know the monks on mt. Athos blew a gasket about an ecumenical dialogue that occurred with them a while back…it’s such a shame, because I really feel that we have so much to learn from each other. I personally love Orthodox liturgy, and have enjoy so many Orthodox writers, such as Schmemann and Metropolitan Ware. (Oh, and by the way, the Filioque hasn’t been infallibly declared…in fact, Eastern Rite Catholics such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholics don’t say it when they receive the Creed, and B16 omitted it when he said the creed with the Ecumenical Patriarch a few years back… So we’re willing to give a little in at least some areas 🙂 ).

    • Yes, we Catholics do seem more keen on unity in general, perhaps because we see unity in a very concrete – and thus achievable – way: union with the Bishop of Rome! 🙂 I’ve heard about the monks of Mt Athos and honestly, the impression I get isn’t a good one. How could you NOT love the Coptic Orthodox??

      Thanks for clarifying about the Filioque too. 🙂 To be honest, I wouldn’t mind at all dropping it. Not because it isn’t true – at least to some extent – but because it wasn’t part of the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Maybe an olive branch?

      • Oh, I couldn’t agree more about the Copts… I have a dear friend who is Coptic, and my heart breaks that we can’t take Communion together. Particularly over the last few years as Egyptian Christians have been through so much, I’ve wanted so badly to just be sacramental unity with them… * sigh *

        I also agree about the Filioque. I’m pretty convinced that its correct (though I’d probably be hard pressed to debate effectively against a well-informed Orthodox about it), but yeah, we shouldn’t have messed with the Creed…

  5. This is coming from a Protestant, but my observation is that other people are less enthusiastic about reunion with Rome than Rome is reunion with everyone else because of the differences in expectation. Rome’s expectation, in the public eye, is that reunion means everyone becomes just like Rome and Rome doesn’t change. Given that perception, I, too, would be worried about reunion with Rome.

    • Yes, that’s makes sense. I don’t think that’s actually what Rome wants – and I definitely don’t think it should be what she wants – but in the past, it often has been. Can I ask, in what sense do you see the unity of the church? Do you think it needs to be visible/institutional? 🙂

      • I think it needs to be visible, but I don’t think it needs to be institutional. This is why I favor the ecumenical approach, letting the churches remain separate and distinct, but encouraging visible signs of unity like the sharing of the Eucharist. Institutions are not bad and have very important roles to serve. But the bigger they get, the harder they are to maintain and the greater the central authority that is needed to maintain them. The institutional church is no different.

  6. I think your assessment is pretty spot on Laura! One of my favourite Orthodox theologians, David Bentley Hart, said that there’s an ‘essential asymmetry’ between the Orthodox and Catholic approaches to ecumenism: to put it crudely, Catholicism = Orthodoxy + (Uniquely Catholic Doctrines), so Catholics wouldn’t need to accept any new ideas in order to accept the Orthodox, but the Orthodox would have to come to terms with the Catholic beliefs that aren’t contained in Orthodoxy.

    I think that explains the presence of what looks like standoffishness from some (but certainly not all) on the Orthodox side. It might end up that the Catholic Church will have to accept the Orthodox without insisting that the Orthodox accept doctrines like the Immaculate Conception or Papal Infallibility. Even as an Orthodox who’s very much in support of Catholic-Orthodox unity, I feel that the Orthodox shouldn’t be required to accept these doctrines; mostly because they’re issues on which Fathers and Doctors of the Church have typically disagreed (especially the Immaculate Conception). That said, the Orthodox could still comfortably (theologically speaking at least) accept the Primacy of the Pope as successor of Peter. To my mind, as long as we can find a set of central DOGMAS which we can all agree are necessary and sufficient for being Christian, we can leave the less central questions of theology for theologians to deal with.

    You’re right that some Orthodox define themselves in contradistinction to Rome, but it’s a misguided strain of Orthodoxy I think. There are certainly differences in theological emphasis between East and West, but they’re nowhere near as drastic as the division-makers on both sides would have us believe. It wasn’t long ago that St. Thomas Aquinas’ works were used widely in the Orthodox East ( It was only recently (mostly in the 20th century) that Orthodoxy, particularly in Russia, began to emphasise some ancient differences in approach between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. As I understand it, those differences are real and important, but they’re not DOGMATIC and so can’t be used as an excuse to hold off communion. When those differences are magnified beyond their actual significance, both sides end up being maligned.

    Hart has an interesting article on these issues here if you’re interested: It’s a pretty good summary of where we’re at I think, and he’s also a joy to read.

    Also, the Coptic Pope Tawadros met with Pope Francis the day after our meeting! It was the first meeting of the Coptic and Catholic Popes in 40 years. How’s that for providence 🙂

    • Thanks Samuel. 🙂 I must admit, I read the article because I found it on your wall or something. It is really good! Hart is awesome. Plain and simple.

      Do you think there is a difference between “coming to terms with”/”accepting” and adopting certain doctrines? In my head at least, you can agree with the core truth and accept the formulation of that truth as valid within that context without necessarily adopting them as your own – or even agreeing that’s the best way to put it. Also, would you object to the Immaculate Conception because you disagree with original sin and/or the papacy’s right to define it as a doctrine or because you think Mary actually sinned? As I understand it, most Orthodox (at least Eastern) believe Mary is sinless?

      Sorry about all the questions, just very interested to know. 🙂 And so happy that the two popes got to meet. Definitely providential, I’d say!

      • “Do you think there is a difference between “coming to terms with”/”accepting” and adopting certain doctrines?”

        Yes! I certainly do. Every potentially divisive doctrine in Catholicism (with the exception of Papal Infallibility) has some sort of Orthodox counterpart, somewhere in history. Hart makes the really helpful distinction between DOGMA and THEOLOGY – there have always been Church Fathers venerated by the Orthodox who held to ideas very like purgatory (here’s an interesting Coptic example:, and the sinlessness of Mary. So I think it’d be easy enough for us to ‘accept’ that the Catholics believe such things, without necessarily requiring every Orthodox to ADOPT those beliefs themselves.

        “Also, would you object to the Immaculate Conception because you disagree with original sin and/or the papacy’s right to define it as a doctrine or because you think Mary actually sinned?”

        I don’t know a lot about the Immaculate Conception, but I personally don’t embrace it mostly because I feel that it defines St. Mary in terms that make her beyond human; as though she were miraculously exempted from the fallenness and darkness to which the human race had fallen prey. I haven’t found a satisfying response to that objection yet, but I haven’t looked very hard for one either, because I don’t feel as though it’s a genuinely divisive issue. There are other Orthodox who’d be quite comfortable with the immaculate conception. I’d still be interested to discuss it though – I don’t know enough about it to have properly informed opinion.

        I don’t know many Orthodox who believe Mary was sinless; in fact I THINK St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil both thought she had sinned.

        For most Orthodox I think, the fact that the Pope infallibly declared the Immaculate Conception casts more doubt on papal infallibility itself than anything else. Even though some Orthodox are okay with the Immaculate Conception, most aren’t, and that makes it a lot harder for us to feel that Papal Infallibility ‘works’.

        But if we could reach an agreement where the Orthodox could accept the immaculate conception without adopting it, like you said, that would remove most of the difficulty. But I’d be interested to know, as you understand it, does the fact that the Pope infallibly declared the Immaculate Conception mean that the Orthodox probably would have to ADOPT it? Or could there be a middle ground?

  7. Yes the meeting of Francis and Tawadros came as a real surprise to me, I wonder when the last Coptic pope visited the Vatican. Did Shenouda? It can only be good

    • Pope Shenouda visited exactly 40 years ago, when the Pope of Rome was Paul VI. And apparently that was the first visit in centuries, probably since Chalcedon way back in 451 CE.

      • Wow! That is a while, isn’t it? 🙂 I love how we have such a rich history – even if it is a difficult one at times!

  8. We Orthodox seek reunion in a different way than it seems you are describing & that it seems the Roman Catholic approach is generally. I think the Roman Catholic approach is that Orthodox doctrine is Catholic also (we ARE officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, i.e. the right-worshiping, having-the-fullness-of-the-Apostolic-Faith & also universal-or-for-the-whole-world Church) & generally can be accepted by Rome, which is why groups such as Byzantine Catholic churches have been accepted into your communion, but that we are only (stubbornly?) not submitting to the rightful Patriarch of the world, or really universe, the Pope.

    The Orthodox however recognize the five original patriarchates (& other patriarchates that have since been needed to be established), only one of which is Rome. Each patriarch has jurisdiction over his own patriarchate, but not any other, because each other one has its own patriarch. And so just as the (Orthodox) Patriarch of Moscow or Constantinople or America doesn’t have jurisdiction in Rome, the Patriarch of Rome, the Pope, doesn’t have jurisdiction outside of Rome & ecclesiastical dependencies she has had traditionally. There is no precedent for such extra jurisdiction (for example, very soon after St. Peter is addressed in possibly the most favorite verse of Roman Catholicism, Mt. 16:18, he is called by Christ ‘Satan’ & a ‘scandal’ or ‘offense’ unto Him for savoring not the things of God—obviously fallible & not a single rock to found the Church on!—also, the foundation of the Church is Christ & all the Apostles & Prophets: Eph. 2:20, 1 Cor. 3:11, being thus thoroughly stable; certainly no one of us modern people could claim to be better than any of the Apostles & so not a scandal or offense); there is no need for it because each Orthodox patriarchate has been governed competently & needs no one else over it besides Christ, & from the Orthodox perspective, except for doctrinal development, Rome has been governed competently also; & it is dangerous, since one person other than the perfect Christ, instead a sinner like the rest of us, controlling all of Christianity could easily lead it into error. The Orthodox patriarchs, including the Pope when he was Orthodox, have always acted as checks & balances against each other, so if one falls into error, the others, not having yet fallen, still proclaim the true faith & the heresy is easily recognized by all. Also the people are not powerless in Orthodoxy, shown for example by how the findings of an ecumenical council can be rejected by the people as inconsistent with the faith, & how saints are canonized not by decree but by recognition of popular devotion.

    Furthermore, since ‘Orthodoxy’ means ‘right worship’, to join with those who are not Orthodox is to say either that right worship is not actually right worship or to say that what we now call heterodox, or different worship from the right worship, is also right worship. But we cannot accept that. It would be to consider right an enormous number of things we consider wrong, not just the Filioque, but the infamous ‘clown masses’, ‘circus masses’, & ‘Halloween masses’ (we consider Halloween to be a glorification of evil), the Protestantizing effect of the Novus Ordo, total clerical celibacy, the understanding of Original Sin that includes inherited guilt & as a result the Immaculate Conception (we believe the Theotokos could have sinned but CHOSE to never do so, meaning I think we understand her to be in a sense even holier than Roman Catholics do because she was perfect in sinlessness of even her own volition & desire), other doctrinal development (our doctrine is that of the Apostles, nothing else—the ecumenical councils have added nothing to it, only clarified it when heresies arose), baptism done normally in a way we can accept only when ordinary baptism is impossible, indulgences, anonymous confession, stigmata & reenactments of the crucifixion & other attention-drawing & thus dehumilifying acts, unleavened host, believing the transubstantiation (& that word even puts too narrow a definition on the occurrence—we try to use apophasis instead) will occur without epiclesis, nullification of marriage, ‘Natural Family Planning’…of course there is a lot more. Orthodoxy is very particular on what is allowed. Our wide variations are all cultural, & our faith is one faith, always unchanged.

    What Rome has to lose by uniting under Orthodox terms: doctrinal developments & their offshoots; what it has to gain or regain: its original faith, 7 patriarch brothers, 7 patriarchate sister churches, 12 more sister churches of other nations, & unity with the second largest communion in the world, all we true Christians in communion as Christ intended. What Orthodoxy has to lose by uniting under Orthodox terms: nothing; what it has to regain by uniting under Orthodox terms: our First Among Equals Patriarch restored, & unity with the largest communion in the world, all we true Christians in communion as Christ intended. What Rome has to lose by uniting under Roman terms: nothing; to gain: more power, unity in division of faith. What Orthodoxy has to gain by uniting under Roman terms or any compromise: nothing; what it has to lose by uniting under Roman terms: conception of Orthodoxy itself, & thus, the Apostolic faith & existence as itself.

    So, the thing we require for Rome to reunite with us is that Rome discard any doctrinal development, probably through a council of some sort, & re-accept the place of First Among Equals, a head speaker for all Christianity, patriarchates East & West, but never dictator. If Rome were to do this, she would become again Western-Rite Orthodox—what she was until 1054, more or less—& be yet again a patriarchate of the Orthodox Catholic Church. She would still have her Roman customs, culture, & milieu though! Sorry this is not the most pleasant thing to contemplate, but I still wanted to explain our perspective, which is often misunderstood, & I’m trying to say it in the most loving way I can. By the way, here is some information on the Western Rite:

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