The Main Differences Between Catholic and Orthodox Christians

Orthodox Christians and Catholics share a common history that dates back almost 937 years ago. However, this history was unceremoniously interrupted by a single document in the year 1054, which proposed the immediate ex-communication of the then Bishop of Constantinople. Scholars in religious studies agree that this single act of expelling the Patriarch of Constantinople bred a rebellion that led to the Great Schism and the rift between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.  

The main differences between the Orthodox and Catholic faiths are their positions on the role of the Pope, the manner in which humans inherit original sin, and the existence of Purgatory. The relative importance of priests and monks within the two differs as well, clergy regulations reflect this.

The East-West schism that followed was a culmination of the brewing theological and political differences that were no longer suppressible. Today, the global catholic believers total close to 1.329 billion. While Christians who ascribe to the orthodoxy faith globally are close to 260 million. Over the years, the two splinter religions have adopted varying practices and beliefs based on their fundamental theological principles. 

The difference between catholic and orthodox Christians is indeed a fascinating area of study for any religious scholar. Here is a closer look at the critical points of divergence between orthodoxy and Catholicism.    

Where It All Began 

Until the Great Schism, the only true head of the Church was the Pope. The Papal primacy was believed to have been a direct succession from St. Peter, one of Jesus’ trusted disciples. This primacy often represented the Church’s freedom of Religion in the years before the discordance started to develop within the Church. 

The complex mix of religious and political discordance among the top brass of the leadership in the Church would reach fever pitch by the year 1054. Top of the list of points of contention was the use of icons in the Church and the use of unleavened bread for communion. The Roman Catholic Church under the Pope was keen on enforcing a status quo in the everyday operations of the Church.

On the other hand, another faction led by Patriarch Michael 1 Cerularius had grown tired of the norms and practices within the Church. However, despite the liturgical disputes, the Church had been intact until the Great Schism in 1054.  

It’s reported that one summer afternoon in the year 1085, Cardinal Humbert, the Pope’s representative presented a document on the altar of Hagia, Sophia’s principal place of worship. The presentation of the ex-communication declaration followed an apparent disagreement between the Pope’s representative and the then Patriarch of Constantinople. 

The document detailed the Pope’s decision to punish those seen to think and act contra to the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic Church. But rather than the Patriarch of Constantinople bowing to the pressure, he rallied other like-minded leaders to commandeer a fallout. The first step was to close all the Latin churches in Constantinople. 

By ordering the close of all Latin churches, the Great Schism commenced, leaving the Catholic Church on one end and the orthodoxy wing on the other. But what key differences existed and still exist between the catholic and the orthodox Christian faiths? 

The Primacy of Honor vs. the Primacy of Authority

One fundamental difference between catholic and orthodox Christians is the place of authority within the church context. At the time of the Great Schism, the Patriarch of Constantinople championed for a primacy of honor in the Church. Ideally, the Roman Catholic Church had adopted a primacy of authority in the handling and management of the Church from the onset. 

The primacy of authority seemed oppressive and somewhat tyrannical. Perhaps this was so given the absolutism bestowed on the Pope. When the Great Schism commenced, one of the main goals was to re-establish the approach to governance based on honor and collegiality. The rebellion encouraged the idea of Papacy as a position of honor as opposed to that of authority. 

As such, ever since the Great Schism, there has been a conspicuous difference between the Western Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, specifically in establishing the leadership structure. The primary difference is in the existence of the position of the Pope. 

  • The Papacy  

The catholic doctrine premises on the role of the Pope as a direct successor of Saint Peter. The Pope’s position ever since the reformation papacy to the Baroque Papacy has always held the Pope’s primacy as that of authority as opposed to a place of honor. 

The Pontiff’s existence as a symbol of authority and power became a significant point of contention in the run-up to the West and East schism. While Catholicism views the Pope as the protos in his role as the Bishop of Rome, the Orthodox Church opposes the idea of supremacy when it comes to church leadership. 

As such, by the time of the Great Schism, the splinter group argued in favor of a pope’s role from the point of collegiality.  The principal interprets the role of the bishops from a perspective of collective decision-making. However, the Catholic Church insists on the position of the Pope and his supremacy on decision-making as infallible. 

Based on this difference, the Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize the position of a Pope from a primacy of authority perceptive. The divergence informs the absence of a Pope amongst Orthodox Christians. In contrast, the Pope is the protos within the Catholic context. The current Papal authority within the catholic rests in the hands of Pope Francis. 

The varying view on the position of the Pope in both contexts forms the basis of the other divergences between the Catholic and the Orthodox faith on the leadership of the Church. 

  • Bishops 

Bishops have the prime role of supervising the clergy within the diocese in the Catholic context. They also have the right to confirm and ordain members of the clergy at the diocese level. The archbishop position is the highest rank among bishops. 

In the Orthodox faith, the position of the bishop exemplifies the custodian of faith. A bishop is the highest rank in the hierarchical order. The Patriarch of Constantinople remains the head of the Orthodox Church in his capacity as bishop. Bartholomew 1 currently holds the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. 

However, unlike in the Pope’s case among Catholics, the Ecumenical Patriarch is the first among equals. This implies the element of collective decision-making among the bishops. While the Patriarch acts as the head of the Church, the system is decentralized so that every Presbyter takes charge of the jurisdictive issues related to the Church they head. 
    
The other positions, including those of deacons and priests, exist in both faiths. These are the lowest ranks of service in both Catholic and Orthodox churches. When considering the difference between catholic and Orthodox Christians, the issue of primacy or authority vs. primacy of honor stands out.

Divergent Beliefs 

If you are a staunch Catholic, what you consider fundamental beliefs differs from what mainstream Orthodoxia stands for. The Roman Catholic Church has a single-volume document known as the catechism. The document stipulates four critical elements that make up the catholic belief. 

The parts include the Apostle’s creed, the sacred liturgy, the life in Christ, and the Christian prayer. The main goal of having the catechism in place is to ensure that the catholic holy traditions remain intact. 

The Orthodox Church also has the Catechism of St. Philaret. The document in the orthodoxy context is a reformed version of the original Catholic catechism. However, in both faiths, the catechism is important because it guides the journey of faith from childhood to adulthood. The only difference is the contents of the documents and how they affect the absorption and practice of the respective religions.  

  •  Trinity vs. Triune 

Both Catholics and orthodox faiths believe in one true God. Understanding God as the father and the supreme deity underscores the early United Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs. However, Catholics adopt a different view from Orthodoxia regarding Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

According to the Catholic faith, the Holy Trinity comprises the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine holds that there’s one God who exists in the three coeternal forms. The two are Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The idea of Trinity within the Catholic teaching assumes that God existed first, then came Jesus, then the Holy Spirit in that order. 

Within the Orthodox faith, the concept of Triune is salient. At the same time, the faith recognizes God as the supreme being. However, the Orthodoxy faith understands God as one person in two nurtures. The triune underscores that God is fully divine yet fully human in the form of Christ. The view downplays the belief among Catholics that the Holy Trinity is three-in-one. 

According to the Orthodoxia view of hypostases, the three are distinct divine powers that exist separately but share one divine essence. While the idea of Orthodox Faith acknowledges monotheism, it also recognizes the trinitarian view of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but as separate beings. 

Perhaps the point of divergence is that God is the ground of unity and the originator of distinction. Even then, the Orthodoxia suggests the need to look at the Trinity as a divine mystery instead of an attempt to unravel the place of the three beings concerning the Christian Faith. 

Based on this view, the Orthodoxia views Jesus Christ as the head of the Church in his capacity as God in human form. The separation of Jesus from God underscores the besottedness of Jesus as having originated from God. The catholic faith, on the contrary, argues that from the beginning, the Holy Trinity existed in its impassible and immortal nature. 

The assumption of a pre-eternal son, begotten of the father from an Orthodoxia perspective, exalts the role of God as above the two other beings in the Trinity. 

  • The Immaculate Conception

The reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus within the Catholic faith, is a divine connection. The catechism states that Mary is the first dwelling place of God the Father. When interpreted, this implies that humanity’s communion with Jesus was made possible through Mary. 

The view of Mary in the Catholic context reveals the concept of immaculate conception. According to this perspective, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was free of original sin from conception. Catholicism assumes that from the moment of Mary’s conception, in her mother’s womb, she was free from the original sin. 

Scholars interpret this to mean that from the start, Mary was filled with sanctifying grace. Ordinarily, such class is only conferrable at baptism among orthodoxia faithful. The Marian dogma further proposes the concept of perpetual virginity. 

Based on this concept of immaculate conception, Catholics further believe in Mary’s assumption of heaven. The fundamentals behind the immaculate conception have been the subject of sharp differences between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. 

The Orthodox faith does not recognize nor subscribe to the concept of immaculate conception. According to this conflicting view, Mary’s sinful condition is similar to that of any other human being. While her state of being a virgin exonerates her and presents her as pure, she inherited sin due to Adam’s act of rebellion in the garden of Eden. 

The Orthodoxia concludes that the only way to get the sanctifying grace is through baptism. Even then, every mortal being still carries the burden of the original sin. While both Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe in Mary as the Theotokos, there are sharp differences in the view of the Virgin Mary beyond her role of life-giving to the savior of the world. 

As such, while Catholics pray through the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, the Orthodox believe in Praying to the one true God. From a liturgical point of view, the Orthodox Christians disagree with of worship of Mary as a promotion of her standard to a being supreme than God. 

  • Apostolic Succession 

The fact that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Christians have salient differences in their view of the head of the Church also introduces notable divergences in how the mantle is passed. The two faiths also have deviations in their view of the origins of the successive authority or honor. 

According to the Orthodoxia view, the position of Patriarch of Constantinople originated from the twelve disciples that Jesus had during his ministry on earth. The history of the Orthodox places St. Andrew at the center of the apostolic succession. The Church has been keen to maintain this ecclesial order throughout the ages.  

Within the five apostolic sees of the Pentarchy lies the final electing college of the Orthodox Patriarch. Ever since the Great Schism, the new Patriarch is elected through the 15 Prelates of Constantinople. The final choice of the Patriarch is often between the list of Bishops or Patriarchs.  According to Turkish Laws, the Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen for him to head the over 250 million believers. 

Today, there’re 5 Patriarchal jurisdictions under the five prominent patriarchs. They Include the Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. In recent times, the Turkish government has extended citizenship rights to bishops who may qualify to take over the current role of Patriarch. However, the position of Patriarch is not an honorary title. 

The succession dynamics in the Catholic context are different. First, the Catholic doctrine believes that St. Peters is the first head of the Church. The notion basis the argument that Peter was the rock on which the Church was built.  Ever since the first Pope, St. Peter, every successive Papacy is based on a rigorous succession process. 

Pope Saint Linus was the second bishop of Rome taking authority before Pope St. Clement 1. The two Pontiffs have special mention in the New Testament. The difference in the assumed original story of Papal succession between Orthodox and Catholics has continued to play out in Roman Catholics’ Pope’s choice. 

Unlike when choosing a Patriarch where only 15 Prelates of Constantinople take up the voting process, the selection of a Pope is much more intricate. Only the highest-ranking Cardinals in the Catholic ranks can choose the Pope. Up until the shocking resignation by Pope Benedict XVI, all previous Papal successions had been necessitated by death.  

The Conclave, an assembly of the college of 203 Cardinals, has the ultimate role of electing the new Pope. Only cardinals below the age of 80 have the eligibility to take part in the Pope’s election. Upon election, only death or resignation, like in the case of Benedict, can end such a Papal reign. The fact that Popes enjoy the primacy of authority sets them apart from any probable recall. 

What Caused the Great Schism?

Now that we understand the difference between modern Catholics and Orthodox, it’s essential to understand the cause of the Great Schism. Beyond the doctrinal difference, the great Schism also had everything to do with political differences. There had been emerging concerns regarding the morphing of Rome into a robust political base. The authority of the Pope was a specific concern. 

The rival factions also had religious disagreements regarding the use of unleavened bread for sacrament or communion. The West was in support of Unleavened bread, while the East was opposed to this option. To date, the Canon Law of the Latin Rite of Roman Catholic stipulates the use of unleavened bread for communion. 

The Question of Marriage

Marriage and celibacy were the other main reasons for the split between the West and the East. From the start, the Western block believed in the Nicene Creed and the call for priests to remain celibate. However, Orthodoxia viewed the idea of celibacy as inconsequential. Today, Orthodox priests have the liberty to marry as long as they do so before ordination, not after. 

Over the years, there has been a conscious move towards easing the extremity that led to the Great Schism. The recent visit by the Pope and the Patriarch Bartholomew 1 that ended in a shared meal further proves this move towards brotherhood.

Most Orthodox clergies see no reason for restrictions between Catholics and Orthodox Christians regarding marital ties. Even then, Catholic churches only allow marriage between the Catholic faithful and Orthodox Christians if the resident bishop agrees.

In the end, its fascinating that these two factions that initially abided by agreed upon primary canon laws, ended up leading two uniquely divergent christian groups. 
 

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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