Pondering the Orthodox Church…

As I mentioned in a previous post (it has been a while!), I am very much attracted to Eastern Christianity.  Eastern Christianity emphasizes the “otherworldliness” of Christianity, the reality that the Church extends outside of this world, and is eternal as Jesus Christ, our Savior, is.  The Divine Liturgy is truly a wonderful experience, and while I love the Mass of Paul VI (the “Novus Ordo”) and the Tridentine Mass of the West, the Divine Liturgy captures certain realities of the ancient Faith in a way that speaks to the soul.

So what is one to do if they are Catholic and attracted to Eastern spirituality?  There are 2-3 options: attend an Eastern Catholic parish, convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, or convert to Oriental Orthodoxy.  I will briefly address the first two.

Becoming Eastern Catholic would be the easiest option for me, as I maintain communion with the Bishop of Rome, and participate in all of the liturgics found in the East.  There are many Eastern Catholic churches.  As mentioned in a previous article of mine, we must remember that the Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, is actually composed of a number of “particular churches”, such as the Roman Catholic church (the largest), the Ukrainian Catholic church, the Melkite Catholic church, the Ethiopian Catholic church, etc.  Most of the Eastern Catholic churches also have Orthodox counterparts.  So in theory, you get all of the benefits of Orthodoxy, and you are still in union with the Pope.

But it is this idea, of being “Orthodox in communion with Rome” that causes a number of problems that I have noticed in conversing with many Eastern Catholics.  For example, there is the issue of the post-schism (remember that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church split in 1054 AD in the “Great Schism”) Ecumenical Councils.  The Orthodox Church believes in Seven Ecumenical Councils, and has not held one since the Schism.  In contrast, the Catholic Church reveres 21 Ecumenical Councils, and has obviously held numerous ones after the last that the Orthodox recognize.  Various doctrinal developments have occurred in the West since the Schism, with doctrines such as Papal Infallibility, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Treasury of Merits, etc.  So if many of these unique doctrines came from Ecumenical Councils held post-schism, how do Eastern Catholics deal with these non-Orthodox doctrines?

This is where the confusion (at least to me) begins to show.  Some Eastern Catholics will claim that these doctrines must stay in the West (Roman Catholic), since they are called to remain fully Orthodox, yet maintaining communion with Rome.  Since ideas like Papal Infallibility, Immaculate Conception, and Purgatory are strictly Western doctrines, Eastern Catholics do not have to hold them.  The problem with this is that some of these doctrines came from Ecumenical Councils!  The question is: how is it possible for Eastern Catholic churches to maintain union with Rome and deny doctrines from Ecumenical Councils?  Both East and West recognize Ecumenical Councils as binding on the entire Church.  It does not make sense to me that part of the Church can deny that certain Councils were Ecumenical (and not just local councils), while the rest of it says that these councils were indeed Ecumenical.  The Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton has what seems to be a Sunday School quiz on its website.  Here are two sample questions:

How many Ecumenical Councils were held?-Seven Ecumenical Councils”

“Was the Vatican Council an Ecumenical Council?  Why or why not?-The Vatican Council was not an Ecumenical Council-no participation from the Orthodox”

Keep in mind that this is an Eastern Catholic diocese in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  And here, it is stating that there were only Seven Ecumenical Councils, when the Roman Catholic church, which it is in communion with, claims that there were 21.  It is this sort of confusion that one would have to sort out if they decided to become Eastern Catholic.  While I believe that the East has maintained a “purity” in doctrine and liturgy, it makes no sense to become Eastern Catholic if there isn’t really a unity in the Faith in the entire Church.  One part of the Church says that there were 21 Ecumenical Councils while another says that there were 7.  Even if the Eastern Catholics accept all 21, they do not seem to accept the doctrinal developments resulting from them, though they accept the doctrinal developments of the first 7.

It is from this point of confusion that one, including myself, begins to look into the Orthodox Church.  With the Orthodox Church, this is not a problem.  All of the churches of the Orthodox Church, whether the Antiochian Orthodox, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox, the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox, etc. all accept Seven Ecumenical Councils.  They all proclaim the same Faith.  And the East has preserved the fullness of the Faith pre-schism, and has preserved the most ancient liturgies.

So where do I see myself at this point?  That is a complex question.  Firstly, I love the Catholic Church.  I love that it is large.  I love that I can walk into any parish in my area and just sit and pray.  I love that people pay attention to it, for better or for worse.  I love the network of Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals, elementary and secondary schools, charities, shelters, etc.  The Catholic Church really has a profound effect on society worldwide.  I love the sheer volume of books on Catholicism, on anything you could imagine, ranging from history, apologetics, inspirational, doctrine, etc., for readers of all types.  I love that services are in English, and I can understand what is being said (though of course this wasn’t always the case).

On the other hand, it seems as if the Orthodox Church has maintained the Faith in a way that cannot be said in the West.  But one big question is: when does doctrinal development end?  We all accept the doctrinal development from the first 7 Ecumenical Councils.  Should there be more?  Is the doctrinal development in the West valid?  For example, we all agree that the Bishop of Rome had primacy pre-schism.  But he did not function in the same way that the current Pope does.  But does this matter?  If we accept the current role of the Pope as an extension of doctrinal development, then one doesn’t have to be worried that there is a difference between the pre and post-schism Papacy.  The problem is when Catholics try to say that “this is the way it has always been”, when it is clear that it isn’t.  Doctrines such as Purgatory and the Treasury of Merits are not found pre-schism.  There was prayer for the dead, and the Orthodox do this, however there was no concept of Purgatory, or a place where one is cleansed of temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven.  The Biblical verses cited in support of Purgatory and the Treasury of Merits don’t really apply to either, and at most refer to prayer for the dead in the case of Purgatory.

So, with much prayer and study, I hope to find where God is leading me.  Perhaps it is the Orthodox Church.  Perhaps it is Eastern Catholicism.  Perhaps I will see that the Early Church Fathers did have the beginnings of the unique Roman Catholic doctrines.  Important issues for a Catholic to consider in this endeavor are 1)doctrinal development 2)Purgatory 3)Ecclesiology-specifically the office and role of the Bishop of Rome.


~ by onecatholic on December 10, 2009.

3 Responses to “Pondering the Orthodox Church…”

  1. Keep up the good work.

    • thank you! I love theology, and hope to go for a theological masters (including study of Biblical Hebrew and Greek) in the future to help in my amateur apologist hobby.

  2. go Orthodox 🙂
    we did

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