Chapter 9: The Eastern Orthodox

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 9: The Eastern Orthodox

A great many people, including journalists and public officials, labor under the delusion that America has only three major religious faiths — Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish.

This popular misapprehension is a source of considerable irritation to Americans who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodoxy is a major faith by any criterion, with a world-wide following of more than 150 million persons, including some 6 million in the United States.

Any attempt to lump Orthodox Christians with Protestants or Catholics is an egregious affront to the Orthodox. They not only regard their Church as an entirely separate branch of Christianity; they also insist that it is the one, true, original Christian church, "the depository and true preserver of early Christian faith."

They cite impressive historical evidence in support of this claim. The Christian church was born at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and until it obtained a toe hold in the imperial capital of Rome, most of its apostolic activity was concentrated in that area. Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and Alexandria were great centers of Christian worship long before the Roman Christians emerged from the catacombs. The Roman church grew rapidly in size and importance after it won imperial favor in the fourth century. Meanwhile, the Eastern churches increasingly looked for leadership to Constantinople, the transplanted capital of the Roman Empire. By A.D. 500 Rome had become the center of Christianity in the West, with Constantinople its center in the East.

The two branches of Christendom maintained the same creeds and sacraments, and their bishops came together occasionally for Ecumenical Councils, at which they sought (and usually achieved) agreement on doctrines affecting the whole Church. But over the centuries, they drifted progressively further apart. The Western churches used Latin in their liturgy, the Eastern churches used Greek. There were differences in ritual, with the Eastern churches preferring longer, more elaborate ceremonies than Western taste found congenial. But the really serious cause of friction was the growing persistence with which the Bishop of Rome claimed supreme authority over the universal Church.

The Great Schism

This claim was hotly disputed, not only by the Patriarch of Constantinople, but by most of the other bishops of the Eastern churches. By the time the last Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church was held, in A.D. 787, the issue was clearly drawn. The church of Rome asserted that Christ had entrusted the rule of the Church to St. Peter, and that Peter’s authority descended by divine right to each man who succeeded him in the office of Bishop of Rome. The Eastern churches contended that Christ had never intended the Church to be under a centralized, monarchical government. On the contrary, they said, the early Christian churches founded in the Apostolic era all enjoyed a high degree of local autonomy. The Eastern churches were willing to extend a voluntary "primacy in honor" to the bishops of great metropolitan centers like Rome and Constantinople, but they declared that every bishop was equal in authority to every other bishop, and that only a synod, or council of all bishops, could presume to legislate for the entire Church.

In A.D. 1054 the estrangement was formalized by what historians have called "The Great Schism." The Roman Pope (Bishop of Rome) excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch excommunicated the Pope.

During the next century and a half, intermittent attempts were made to heal the breach. It is possible that some sort of accommodation might have been worked out. But in A.D. 1204 a contingent of Crusaders, en route from Italy to the Holy Land, stopped at Constantinople, sacked the city, pillaged its great Cathedral of St. Sophia, and installed a papal legatee on the Patriarch’s throne.

From that day to this, millions of Orthodox Christians have felt toward the Pope of Rome very much as Americans of the Deep South feel toward General William Tecumseh Sherman.

In recent years, mighty efforts were made by the late Pope John XXIII, and are still being made by Pope Paul VI, to overcome a millennium of distrust, and to pave the way for reunion of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Pope John offered the Orthodox bishops seats of honor at the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Paul exchanged the "kiss of peace" with the Patriarch of Constantinople in a dramatic personal meeting at Jerusalem. Some Orthodox leaders have responded warmly to these overtures, but others remain coolly suspicious. Even the most ecumenical-minded Orthodox say that reunion is out of the question until the Pope is prepared to accept the status of "first among equals." And there is no prospect of the Pope’s accepting that status any time soon — to put it mildly.

Orthodox and Catholic Similarities

Although they are poles apart on the question of papal authority, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are very close together on other doctrinal matters. The Orthodox Eucharist, known as the Divine Liturgy, is fundamentally similar to the Catholic Mass. The most conspicuous differences are that the Byzantine rites are much longer (sometimes running to three hours) and more colorful; the Orthodox use bread made with yeast for Communion, whereas Roman Catholics use a wafer made of unleavened flour and water; and the Orthodox laity receive Communion in both kinds — that is, they partake of the consecrated wine as well as the bread, while Catholics receive only the latter (except in very special circumstances). The Orthodox Church has for many centuries permitted use of vernacular languages in congregational worship — a reform that the Second Vatican Council decreed for Roman Catholic Churches in 1963.

Like Catholics, the Orthodox observe seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. Baptism is administered by triple immersion, and is followed immediately by the rite of confirmation, which is called Holy Chrismation.

The Orthodox Church ordains married men to the priesthood, but once ordained a priest may not marry. Only celibates are eligible for consecration as bishops. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Eastern Orthodox priestly orders, and a Catholic who is near death and unable to find a Catholic priest may make his confession to and receive extreme unction from an Orthodox priest. Orthodox priests are addressed as "Father."

For Orthodox, as for Catholics, every Friday is a day of abstinence from meat, in commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The Orthodox Church observes substantially the same holy days as the Catholic Church, but because of an ancient and complicated difference in the method of calculating the date of Easter, the Orthodox celebration of that festival, and of all the other liturgical holidays that are tied to it, often differs by as much as two or three weeks from the calendar of Western churches.

Orthodox worship has a strong mystical bent. One of its distinctive aspects is the widespread use in churches and homes of sacred images of Christ and the saints. These images — they may be paintings or mosaics — are called icons. Their purpose is to emphasize the living reality of the persons they depict. Praying before an icon, an Orthodox Christian is reminded that Jesus is not an empty name, nor an abstract concept, but one who was incarnate (embodied in human flesh and blood), and who still lives and reigns as Lord among his people. "There is in the Orthodox Church a strong feeling of the reality of the supernatural," says one of its scholars. "There is no death, but life, whether upon the earth or beyond it."

Orthodox Christians venerate all saints, and they rival Catholics in their devotion to the Virgin Mary. They regard Mary as the holiest of human beings, but do not subscribe to the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was preserved from the taint of original sin from the moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb. The Orthodox also reject the Catholic belief in purgatory, for which they find no warrant either in Scripture or in sacred tradition as it was defined by the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church.

It is a matter of fundamental importance to Orthodoxy neither to add to nor subtract from the "original Christianity" that the Apostles taught, and which the early Church sought to express both in in Scriptures and its creeds, sacraments, and liturgies. Indeed, that is what the term Orthodox means; it is compounded of two Greek words meaning "right faith."

"The Orthodox Church today teaches exactly the same message which was taught by the undivided Church for a thousand years," says the Reverend Demetrious J. Constantelos, a prominent American Orthodox scholar. "Nothing has been added, and nothing has been deleted following the Great Schism. In the twentieth century, the Orthodox Church remains :he original depository and true preserver of early Christian faith, culture and life, which were universally accepted and attested to in the early centuries of our era."

Orthodox theologians feel that the Roman Catholic Church has distorted the original Christian faith by adding to it, and that Protestant denominations have gone astray by deleting essential doctrines.

Although their adamant claim to be the one true Church makes the Orthodox somewhat difficult to get along with in ecumenical gatherings, they have shown a willingness in recent years to cooperate with major Protestant bodies in practical matters, and at least to discuss doctrinal questions with them. The major Orthodox bodies are members of the National Council of Churches in the United States, and of the World Council of Churches.

Although Orthodox Christians are bound together by a common spiritual heritage, they have no central organizational structure. The Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a "primacy of honor," but he has no real authority outside of his own severely shrunken patriarchate in the city that is now known as Istanbul. Applying to modern geography the principle of autonomy, which it has always upheld, the Orthodox Communion is composed today of a dozen self-governing ("autocephalous") national churches. The largest of these is found in Russia, where Orthodoxy was the state religion under the czars, and where it still claims some 50 million adherents after two generations of persecution by the Communist regime.

There also are large Orthodox churches in several other Iron Curtain countries, including Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Albania.

Greece is now the only country in which the Orthodox Church enjoys the status of official state religion. The Greek Orthodox Church has about 9 million members.

The Orthodox in America

The Orthodox faith came to America with immigrants from many countries of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. The first Orthodox Church on what is now American soil was built by Russian monks at Kodiak, Alaska, in 1792. Before Alaska passed into United States hands, the Russian monks won many converts among the Eskimos, and built a cathedral that is still in use in Sitka.

Since each group of immigrants brought with them their particular national expression of Orthodoxy, America by the start of the twentieth century had a bewildering variety of Orthodox churches — Russian, Greek, Serbian, Syrian, Polish, Romanian, and so on. At first they had relatively little to do with one another. In recent years, however, they have begun to draw together, and some leaders believe that the time is rapidly approaching when they will merge into a single American Orthodox Church.