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Scott P. Richert

The Prospects for Catholic Unity With the Orthodox

By September 22, 2009

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Last week, Catholic blogs lit up with optimistic headlines such as "Is Catholic-Orthodox Unity in Sight?" They were prompted by two events: an interview given to Italy's Corriere della Sera by the Catholic archbishop of Moscow, Paolo Pezzi; and the first visit to Rome of Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the president of the Department for External Church Affairs of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow.

The interview with Archbishop Pezzi does indeed paint a rosy picture. According to the National Catholic Register, the archbishop declared that reunification "is possible, indeed it has never been so close," and he predicted that it "could happen soon, also within a few months."

Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches (particularly the Russian Orthodox Church) have greatly improved in recent years. The Orthodox view Pope Benedict XVI more favorably than they did Pope John Paul II for a variety of reasons, including his theological rigor and his attention to the liturgy. And the recent election of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I has placed a relatively young, and decidedly ecumenical, clergyman at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In fact, Patriarch Kirill previously held the position that Bishop Hilarion now holds, and, as the National Catholic Register notes, in that position "met Benedict on several occasions before and after he became Pope."

Still, despite all of these positive signs, there are reasons to doubt Archbishop Pezzi's assessment. The previous patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, had stated that the election of Pope Benedict opened up the possibility of cooperation between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches on moral and cultural questions, without first settling the question of unity.

During his visit to Rome from September 15 through September 20, 2009, Archbishop Hilarion echoed Patriarch Alexy, noting "the similarity between Catholic and Orthodox teaching on marriage and family life," which he contrasted with "Protestant communities which had pursued the liberalization of the Christian teaching."

In one important sense, however, Archbishop Hilarion went further than Patriarch Alexy ever had, stating that "We should clearly understand, that division is sin, tearing apart body of Church and weakening the power of Christian witness in secular world," and reminding his listeners that "Each of us, conscientiously fulfilling a task the Church has given him or her, is called to personally contribute in treasury of Christian sanctity and work to achieve God-commanded Christian unity."

Both Catholics and Orthodox agree that Christ's prayer that "they may be one, as You, Father, and I are One" requires that the Church be visibly united—not simply on moral and cultural matters, but ecclesiastically. But while we need to pray for unity with the East, we should not be surprised that a millennium of division will be hard to repair.

As one Catholic friend on Twitter remarked after I posted a link to a story about Archbishop Pezzi's interview, "If it takes years to fix the SSPX schism, I don't see how the Orthodox could be resolved in months." Indeed. Yet with the Holy Spirit, of course, all things are possible.

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September 22, 2009 at 1:08 pm
(1) Michael says:

Dear Scott,
For those readers who are puzzled about the split between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, kindly give a list of points on which they disagree.

God bless you for the great work you do.

September 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm
(2) Art Kelly says:

Can you imagine the Eastern Orthodox allowing the Pope to appoint their bishops?

Remember, the Catholic Church is mad at China over this very issue. The Chruch is not about to say, hey, it’s OK for the Eastern Orthodox churches (if they were in communion with Rome) to appoint their own bishops but not for the Patriotic Catholic Church in China.

Apart from the Papacy, there are a number of other significant theological differences between Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxers: Purgatory, the Eucharist (they don’t believe in transubstantiation per se and haven’t defined exactly what they believe), the Immaculate Conception, the origin of the Holy Spirit, and divorce and remarriage, to name just a few.

I don’t know if these issues have already been solved and we haven’t heard about it or if there is some way they can be solved.

But with God, all things are possible. (Gospel of St. Matthew 19:26)

September 22, 2009 at 2:50 pm
(3) Mary says:

What seems insurmountable to man is nothing of the sort to God. Jesus Christ prayed that His Church shall be One and He and the Father are One. No one knows how, when or who will be God’s instrument to bring this unity about. But God never lies. IT WILL HAPPEN AT HIS OWN GOOD TIME. Let us all just pray and endeavour to live our Christian Faith in fidelity with firm belief that God’s Will will be done.

September 22, 2009 at 11:31 pm
(4) Chris says:

Theological differences are not mathematical equations to be “solved.” These are serious and cannot simply be given lip service as an “agree to disagree” which many in the Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Kaspar, who has been responsible for much of the disinformation that suggests that unity is close at hand.

The only way union will occur is if, and only if, the papacy renounces the major heresies she has embraced which are found nowhere in the tradition of the Holy Church. These errors are but not limited to:

1) the filioque
2) papal supremacy and infallability as opposed to primal honor which is due to the Bishop of Rome
3) purgatory
4) married clergy
5) created grace vs energies of God
6) indulgences
7) eucharist under two species rather than the one
8) the body is leavened as opposed to unleavened
9) a bishop is a bishop is a bishop, not one person over all
10) Trinitarian depictions in icons
11) liturgy
12) limbo
13) baptism by immersion (3x)

There are many more, but these are some of the big ones. Union should be a priority, but never at the expense of compromising the faith.

September 23, 2009 at 10:17 pm
(5) eugenio santiago jr says:

I am with Mary (#3)on her comment and outlook. As a lay person, my understanding of our belief/insight is as good as another, but it boils down to the truth that only God’s will will be done.

September 24, 2009 at 12:08 pm
(6) John says:

It seems that the Catholic side always paints a rosier picture than the reality we Orthodox see. As Chris points out, there are major theological issues at stake. Many of these issues seem trivial to those who don’t understand Eastern theology and how everything is so tightly interconnected.

The positive thing is, Catholics never seem to think these are very big issues, so it will not be difficult for Rome to give them up for the sake of unity. ;-)

January 3, 2010 at 4:56 am
(7) Michael Ezzo says:

I believe that the Orthodox will be reunited to the Catholic Church when the pope and the bishops in communion with him, publicly and solemnly consecrate Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, which Our Lady requested, but has yet to be done. When that happens, then we will have unity. And it WILL happen because Our Lady promised that it would, although it will be late. The only question is : when? The current pope? The next one? Pray for it!

January 26, 2010 at 10:08 pm

“What Christ has joined together, no one should separate!” HTTP://SLAVXRIST.ORG

June 7, 2010 at 7:51 pm
(9) Miles Patrick says:

To Chris,

Your points illustrates your misunderstanding of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Please consider reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, both roman and byzantine or any of our eastern rites you would understand us better. Christos Anesti!

1. Filioque-the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son-Theologically based on Tradition from the Church fathers and scripture you should agree so long as the Holy Spirit is not subordinated. We agree. Not three Gods, but one God in three persons with one will or action. The filioque helped defeat Arianism in the West, while the Greeks used “Christ is God” in the Liturgy to handle Arian heresy.

2. No such thing as Papal Supremacy unless you are a anti-catholic or anti-petrine ministry. Peter always had final binding and losing authority and was the leader of the Apostles, and while all bishops receive the keys, Christ chose Peter as the Chief Shepherd-see , Mt 16:18, Is 22 and Jn 21:17. The Pope has final binding and losing authority. Infallibility is promised by Christ to His Church. His church is the Catholic Church, so therefore the Pope and those Bishops in communion with him are infallible. Moreover, even you agree that Holy Synods and the first 7 councils were infallible. You just fail to see that the church continued in the Catholic Church and we’ve had other ecumenical councils and you have not, because you need the Bishop of Rome to have one to make it valid.

3. Orthodox and Catholics both believe in purification for those who will be saved. Latin-Catholics defined it as Purgatory within our ancient apostolic tradition, but the Greeks did not choose to define it. So, we actually both believe in a type of purification after death since nothing defiled shall enter heaven. Tomato or TomAhto.

4.We have both married and celibate Priests. Married in our eastern rites and mostly celibate in the Latin. Both are acceptable and honorable and apostolic Paul was celibate, Peter was married then celibate. Celibacy is a practice not a doctrine.

5. It is “Infused Grace” by the Sacraments which you may call differently, but the Greek understanding of what the Sacraments do is exactly the same as us and we have the same 7 Sacraments.

6. We have the power to bind and lose, so we may by apostolic authority utilize indulgences. Orthodox are more into mystery and rarely define much, while Catholics have philosophy and metaphysics and define everything.

7&8. Actually, both Catholic and Orthodox serve either both bread and wine or just the bread. Both the wine and the bread have the full body blood soul and divinity of Christ, so it is complete. Unleavened or leavened? Unleavened at the passover meal, leavened because Christ is risen. Not important at all, and we should honor both western and eastern apostolic tradition as long as they both become the true presence of Christ. We have both in the Catholic Church, unleavened in the west and leavened in the east. We accept both.

8. All bishops are equal, until not all bishops agree then there is one bishop who has primacy of honor to make the final decision and this my friend is the Bishop of Rome. This is why the Orthodox have not held and ecumenical council in 1000 years. You see, without the Pope, your council would be invalid. This is why you can only hold Synods and even these Synods you say are infallible.
The Bishop of Rome, attested by Scripture and Holy Tradition of the Fathers shows the Pope having final binding losing authority. This primacy of honor was practiced by Peter, Linus, Clement, etc, etc.

10. Icons are wonderful and icons that can mysteriously express the trinity are amazing tools to teach the faithful. Again, these are mysteries and art is imperfect, but then again so is the greek and latin languages at describing the fullness of God but we do our best. I love Icons and statues!

11. We both have beautiful, holy and apostolic liturgy. They all follow the earliest apostolic traditions; see Didache.
12. Limbo is not a doctrine of the Catholic Church. Didn’t you get the Memo? :)
13. Baptism can be done by immersion or by pouring water over the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy need to be one and it is shameful that we are not when we, despite our cultural and linguistic differences, do agree on 92% of the faith. The final 8% will be overcome by the Holy Spirit bringing the children together so that people will believe that CHRIST IS WHO HE SAYS HE IS.

For more info:


July 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm
(10) weus says:

Church unity and world peace will come when we UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER. Jesus has been asking the Church for more than 2 decades to have ONE EASTER DATE.

“I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor 1:10 RSV)

“Every Easter season I must drink of the cup of your division since this cup is forced on Me… the more time passes for them to unite the dates of Easter, the more severe their sentence this generation will receive.” (May 31, 1994 TLIG)


Dialogues, rationalism and intellectualism will not bring about unity. Unity begins not with a signed treaty, but in the heart. All is possible with God and prayer is our contact with Him. Let us ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to truly repent, for the fruit of repentance is humility and love. “It is not just through words that unity among brothers will come, but through the action of the Holy Spirit” (Sep 30, 1993 TLIG).

We need to allow the Holy Spirit to invade our minds and hearts so that He is able to direct us towards complete unity and peace. Until we UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER, we hinder the Holy Spirit’s action to come upon us in full force to give us the next step to take. We must UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER first.

Let us pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to inflame our hearts with obedience and love to UNIFY THE DATES OF EASTER.

December 12, 2010 at 12:18 am
(11) John says:

John says to Miles Patrick:

I am sorry but you are mistakely wrong. You need to pray that the Holy Spirit will lead you to the truth and this is the Eastern Orthodox Church. Which is true in all aspects and has never changed it’s teachings or doctrine since the Church Began with Jesus and his Apostles.

The first Divine Liturgy was with Jesus and his Apostles.

If you go back to the Council of Nicea of 325 AD, It was all of the Bishops of the Church, including Rome that decide that:

“The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father”

It was never the Father and the Son, and this will never be accepted by true Believers of the Orthodox Faith.

I am sorry but you are also wrong about the idea that communion can be either Bread only or Bread and Wine.

The Holy Mystery of Eucharist is always and and only be Bread and Wine. The Bishops, priests, or decons always ssay, “The servant or Handmaiden of God receives the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the remissions of Sins and life everlasting. Amen.

I pray that God will lead you to see the truth. The ememy is always at work to blind those to really see the truth.

April 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm
(12) MJC says:

Thank you Miles Patrick for your time in noting the points in dispute. Much welcomed.

John, I respect your commentary but add: “Never say never”.

Our Holy Father is a good man and we must continue to pray for unity.

God bless.

January 17, 2014 at 5:07 pm
(13) Patricia Olson says:

Miles Patrick and John: You are both devout men of faith and I enjoyed your commentaries that are enlightening and is not the give and take of debate the formation of understanding our faith? God unites us all, in spirit if not in our definitions of faith practice.
Enjoyed reading the give and take and the spirit in which it is shared.
The Son and The Father are one and the same, that is the divine mystery that I am in love with, and the Spirit is of the Father, from the Father and sent by the Father…Three in One…absolutely!
I also believe in the Body and the Blood as it was given to the disciples at the Last Supper by Christ soon to be our Crucified Christ…given by Him as His Body and His Blood, given for us. We should always receive both and picture the Last Supper and Hear His Words as we prepare to receive him. The Holy Essence of Mass.

January 25, 2014 at 10:26 am
(14) Tim Murphy says:

I have enjoyed the respectful dialogue. I suggest that all participants consult the various documents produced by the Joint Orthodox-Catholic theological commissions. The focus of these commissions have centered recently on church governance in the first millennium because the theological issues really aren’t issues at all. There has been a consensus that much of the misunderstandings in theological were grounded in faulty translations of various commentators, or in the case of the Filioque , a perception that the words contained a substantive meaning beyond the creed that it does not. Eucharistic liturgies were always different between the west and the east, and that includes the variance in practice regarding leavened bread and receipt under one species. Those who look at every difference as a crippling distinction are ignoring the actual historical practices and differences that existed at the time of the schism. The schism occurred primarily because of political…not theological…issues. Unfortunately, differing practices were given theological significance in order to justify the political division…but it is a testament to Gods desire for a unified church that even after 1000 years of separation, the fundamental theological beliefs, practices and was they are made manifest in the world remain the same. It was the recognition that the papacy served as the final impediment to unity that lead John Paul II to seek dialogue on a new way of exercising the Petrine ministry, the fruits of which we see in Pope Francis’ recent emphasis on collegiality. We are the same faith…just not the same church, yet.

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