At some point, many people considering the Catholic Church face this question: “Why become Catholic, and not Eastern Orthodox?”
After all, Orthodoxy can look mighty appealing. You get a lot of the things that are desirable in Catholicism — Apostolic Succession, visible authority, ecclesial unity, Tradition, beautiful Liturgy — without having to accept the pope or some of the Marian dogmas. Sure, the Orthodox aren’t quite in full communion with the Catholic Church, but they’re close enough that, in the past, we’ve celebrated in the same churches.
From a Catholic perspective, converting from Protestantism to Orthodoxy is a move deeper into full Catholic union, in a way that converting from one Protestant denomination to another is not. For that reason, I’ve been a bit hesitant to answer the “why not Orthodox?” question, for fear of making the perfect the enemy of the good. As far as I can tell, we affirm everything that they affirm. We just affirm more, and often in different language. So let’s look at a few of the things that the Orthodox affirm, and what the means for the question of being Catholic.
These are points that I’ve seen broadly conceded. Because Orthodoxy is significantly less cohesive than Catholicism, I can’t guarantee that a given Orthodox believer will affirm these. But here goes:
Constantinople claims Apostolic Succession through the Apostle Andrew. Rome has Apostolic Succession through both the Apostles Peter and Paul. Both the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church acknowledge each other’s Apostolic origins, and express this in a particularly beautiful tradition. As Cardinal Seán O’Malley explains:
Duccio’s Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew (c. 1310)The patriarch [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the highest ranking member of the Eastern Orthodox Church] is very, very supportive of the cause of Christian unity. Each year he sends representatives to Rome for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. In addition, he receives the pope’s representatives on the Feast of St. Andrew. The brothers Sts. Peter and Andrew represent the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Today’s celebration is an invitation extended to both our Churches to the unity of the Cross. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ stretched out his arms upon the cross, uniting all that was formerly divided, so also his apostle, in imitation of his Master, stretched out his arms, gathering us all today and calling us to stretch out our arms upon the cross spiritually in order to achieve the unity that we desire.Elder Rome has the foremost St. Peter as its apostle and patron. New Rome, Constantinople, has the brother of St. Peter, the first-called of the apostles, Andrew. Both invite us to the fraternal unity that they shared with each other and that can only be acquired when the cross becomes our point of reference and experience of approach.
Let us, therefore, beseech these two brothers and greatest of apostles that they may grant peace to the world and lead everyone to unity, in accordance with the particularly timely troparion (hymn) today of St. Symeon Metaphrastes, Archbishop of Thessalonika:
“You, Andrew, were first-called of the apostles;Peter was supremely honored among the apostles.“Both of you endured the cross of Christ,Proving imitators of your Lord and Master,And one in mind and soul. Therefore, with him,As brothers, grant peace to us.
The Ecumenical Patriarch’s recognition of his own See, Constantinople, as New Rome, leads to my second point.
The four original Patriarchal Sees were all Petrine. Jerusalem is where Peter first preached on Pentecost (Acts 2). He then established the Church at Antioch. He then established the Church at Rome, along with St. Paul. His disciple, the Evangelist Mark, founded the Church at Alexandria. Constantinople was added as a fifth Patriarchate, a controversial move initially opposed by the pope (but eventually accepted). From Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople in 381:
Let the Bishop of Constantinople, however, have the priorities of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because of its being New Rome.
But in the controversy over adding a fifth Patriarchate (and above Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria at that), one thing was clear. Rome was number one. Canon 3 only reaffirms this. Constantinople leap-frogs over Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, but it is explicitly second to Rome. And its claim to fame for being one of the Patriarchates at all is because of its connection to Rome. As the Protestant scholar Phillip Schaff noted:
It should be remembered that the change effected by this canon did not affect Rome directly in any way, but did seriously affect Alexandria and Antioch, which till then had ranked next after the see of Rome. When the pope refused to acknowledge the authority of this canon, he was in reality defending the principle laid down in the canon of Nice, that in such matters the ancient customs should continue. Even the last clause, it would seem, could give no offence to the most sensitive on the papal claims, for it implies a wonderful power in the rank of Old Rome, if a see is to rank next to it because it happens to be “New Rome.” Of course these remarks only refer to the wording of the canon which is carefully guarded; the intention doubtless was to exalt the see of Constantinople, the chief see of the East, to a position of as near equality as possible with the chief see of the West.
Both Catholics and Orthodox understand the laity as the sheep to be led by God’s shepherds. The job of the laity isn’t to settle all the world’s theological disputes, but to have faith in what the Church teaches. But which shepherd do the sheep follow if they start going in different directions? I see three possible ways of determining an answer:
- Option 1: Follow your local bishop
- Option 2: Resolve each dispute on your own
- Option 3: Follow the See of Rome
Options 1 and 2 are very problematic. And all three of these point towards the Catholic Church.
With Option 1, if the Orthodox bishops of Australia and New Zealand broke off communion, accusing each other of schism or heresy, the Orthodox believers of those countries would divide along nationalist lines.
This is problematic for two reasons. First, regardless of which side was right, this approach would require laity on one of the two sides to embrace schism or heresy. Second, Pope Benedict is Patriarch of the West. So if you want to follow Option A, and you live in the West, go with the pope.
There are two problems. First, it’s fundamentally inconsistent with the ecclesiology proclaimed by either the Orthodox or Catholic Church. In neither Church is the laity left as the final authority on theological disputes. This creates an immediate problem. If you should only follow the episcopacy if they’re right, and it’s up to you to determine they’re right, who’s leading who? If the laity are going to be left to figure theology out on their own, much of the purpose of the visible Church is thwarted.
If the Roman view is to be believed, it is interesting to note that when the disciples disputed among themselves as to who would be the greatest, (Lk. 22:24-27), they seemed unaware that Christ had already picked Peter.
But look at the part Fr. Maxwell cites, in the broader context of Lk. 22:24-32:
A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
“You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you [plural], that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you [singular] that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.“
This looks very much like Peter was given a ministry to the other Apostles. In fact, Jesus essentially says as much, using the language of commission. So Peter had a special place that wasn’t merely honorary, but an additional commission. That’s the Catholic argument.
Additionally, Peter has the ability to speak on behalf of the Twelve, as he did in Acts 2, and Matthew 16:15-16, and so forth. In fact, I did a five part series on Peter’s role in the early Church (starting here, with the passage I just quoted). So I think Catholics can makes a very compelling case for Peter’s eclessial headship. In other words, I think option 2 points towards the Catholic Church, too.
If the Orthodox are right that Peter is the first of the Apostles (in some sense), that Peter founded and was the patron saint of the Church of Rome, and right that Rome was the first of the Churches (again, in some sense), then it would seem logical that if there was a dispute, believers should follow Rome.
This is also the only option that doesn’t guarantee Schism. Let me be more clear on that:
St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost
- Under Option 1, any time a bishop or group of bishops goes into schism, the laity are dragged along. The Body of Christ is torn apart, along juridical lines, into large chunks (which, of course, is exactly what happened with the Nestorian Schism and the East-West Schism).
- Under Option 2, the whims of each Christian justify schism, so the Body of Christ is torn apart, along individual lines, into really tiny chunks (which, of course, is exactly what happened in the aftermath of the Reformation)
- Under Option 3, the whole Church stays together, holding to the faith of Rome.