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I Left Eastern Orthodoxy for the Church Led by Pope Francis, and I Don’t Regret It

I converted from Eastern Orthodoxy to Catholicism shortly after Pope Francis was elected. I have never regretted this decision because I have seen what it is like to live without the Roman primacy, and I will never go back. The Eastern Orthodox route is a dead end for these reasons: the Roman primacy is instituted by God and is the safeguard for humility, while the Orthodox are hopelessly divided and afflicted with a pathology against charity.

  1. The Roman primacy is instituted by God

During my time as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I came to realize how much my view of Rome was obscured by my own pride. The central claim of many Orthodox — that Vatican I is a heresy of self-aggrandizement — does not hold up to scrutiny. Not only do the Orthodox Latin saints preach this doctrine over a span of centuries, but at one point, the entire Eastern hierarchy promised to be in agreement with the Holy See and confessed the Roman primacy. What Orthodox fail to see is that over the course of the 464 years from Constantine to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the eastern bishops were heretical and out of communion with Rome for at least 203 years [1]. Meanwhile, their Eastern saints who were orthodox confessed the Roman primacy: St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian, the Blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore of the Studium, et cetera.

Thus in order to assert, as Orthodox do, that the Roman primacy is a heresy, they need to admit that their own saints are heretics, or else claim — as they are forced to — that their saints were sycophant men given over to hyperbole and flattery.

Another reason these attacks fail is that the Orthodox do not give their own doctrines the same scrutiny they give Catholics’. It is true that although the saints have taught the Roman primacy, it is by no means clearly expressed across the Fathers. Yet the Orthodox are willing to confess many other doctrines like Iconodulism or the homoousios while explaining away (rightly) any lack of patristic clarity on these points. When it comes to the Roman primacy, any lack of clarity on this doctrine among the Fathers is exploited to deny Roman primacy altogether, instead of using the same clarity of mind with every other orthodox doctrine. Indeed, as Fr. Fortescue observes, one can find many instances of Trinitarian difficulties among the ante-Nicene Fathers [2].

What is crystal-clear from the Fathers is this: St. Peter is the Prince of the Apostles. Thus, it follows:

  1. Peter was instituted prince of the apostles.
  2. Every apostle was instituted as bishop.
  3. Therefore, Christ instituted a prince among bishops.

In the same way that Nicea’s homoousios was a conclusion from the Fathers, and Iconodulism was a result of St. John of Damascus’s impeccable proofs, the Roman primacy also follows from the divine deposit of revelation — and this was understood by the saints aforementioned. Thus, setting aside further nuances and questions that we will not treat here, let it be clear to every Catholic: the Roman primacy is instituted by God.

The truth is that the Roman primacy suffers not from a lack of documentary evidence or reasoning, but a lack of humility. It is Original Sin that darkens the intellect and inclines every man to reject the papacy. Without a special grace, it is impossible to be objective about the papacy.

  1. The Roman primacy is the safeguard for humility

St. Thomas shows that humility means conformity with the truth (S.T. II-II, q. 161). The Roman Church alone claims divine authority to speak infallibly and demand the humble obedience of every soul. The Roman Church takes the book of Acts as normative, whereby the Church has the apostolic, universal binding authority to go through the cities and hand down decreed dogmas for obedience (Acts 16:4) [3].

Among the Orthodox, lacking the Roman primacy, they are incapable of having a universal doctrine on virtually any matter newer than 787 [4]. There is no agreement among them on baptismal doctrine, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, contraception, or the status of every Roman doctrine (we will return to this below). When I was Orthodox, I had one faithful Orthodox priest tell me one thing and another faithful Orthodox priest tell me another. I was left to my own private judgment and pride to make up my own conclusions on all of these matters among the Orthodox. As Fortescue observed:

To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority. It is a far worse criterion for religion than the old Protestant idea of the Bible only. We say that it is impossible for a plain man to make up his own religion out of the seventy-three books … written at different times, and not specifically for his difficulties now. It is even more obviously impossible if to these you add about a hundred volumes of Migne [i.e., the Fathers]. All these methods of taking some early documents, whether the Bible or the Fathers, and making them your standard, mean simply a riot of private judgment[.] … Good and learned men … disagree as to what the early Fathers believed … as much as they disagree about the teachings of the Bible. The only possibly real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents. [5]

Once I know that the Roman primacy is instituted by God, I also see how it is necessary for doctrine and humility. It saves me from my own pride by claiming my obedience and demanding my humility. I am not left like a Protestant with my own judgment as the authority; the living authority of the Church cures my pride. Even in the midst of the Church crisis we are facing, I am not forced to become my own magisterium. As a Catholic, if I encounter divergent priests, I can compare these priests to the official pronouncements of the magisterium that Orthodoxy lacks. As Fr. Ripperger notes:

As a Catholic, in all matters of religion one must submit one’s judgment to the judgment of the Church unless the Church in no way has pronounced judgment on the topic. However, once the Church pronounces judgment on it in any way or if there has been a discussion of that topic somewhere in the tradition, we are bound to investigate and submit our judgment to those who are higher than us in the ecclesiastical order. [6]

If you are Orthodox, you have your saints and doctors to guide you — but there is no authoritative judgment among them to decide on most matters relevant to doctrine and morals today. There is no apostolic universality that binds all to humility, as we see in the book of Acts. When we see this, we can admit the next point.

  1. There is no Orthodox Church

What exists in the east is not a single church with a single doctrine, praxis, morals, and government, but fourteen Chalcedonian churches, six non-Chalcedonian churches, and one Assyrian church, in addition to millions of Old Believers, Old Calendarists, and other such groups. All of these churches disagree on doctrine, sacraments, government, and morals. Among the significant examples of this, the most salient is baptism, which marks the boundaries of the Church as the Body of Christ. If you have a Trinitarian baptism and go to Antioch, they will only confirm you. If you go to Moscow, they may give you an option to be re-baptized. If you go to Athos, they will reject your baptism and demand re-baptism. Thus, any Trinitarian Christian who converts to an Orthodox Church merely converts—on the sacramental level—to becoming Antiochian or Russian or Greek, not a member of “The Orthodox Church.” Orthodox Christians will try to convince you that this division is nonexistent by using a nebulous term called “oikonomia,” but even their best theologians dispute this concept and thus the division [7].

The largest group of churches among the East is the Chalcedonian Orthodox. Among them, there exists a division about the status of the non-Chalcedonians, whose saints were condemned by an ecumenical council. Many of them are willing to say the non-Chalcedonians have the same doctrine, whereas Athos and others vigorously contest this. This poses serious problems for the East. Only an ecumenical council (or the pope) can overcome this. But since all of the Orthodox churches further disagree on how an ecumenical council is called, they have been unsuccessful in calling one since the last one in which Rome participated (the eighth). How can there exist one Orthodox Church if there is no authority to define what the Orthodox Church is and is not?

Further, there exists a de facto schism between Moscow and Constantinople, which breaks out into formal schism from time to time. This is seen in the tension between the Sobor of 1551 with the Nikon synod of 1666, which led to the Old Believer schism. Since the tension was not resolved, it later led to the Bulgarian schism (1870–1945), Old Calendar schism (1924–present), Estonian schism (1996), and now the current Ukrainian schism (2018–present). Thus, the Orthodox churches continue to be divided into their individual churches and have no universal government.

Moving to doctrine, we see that although the Chalcedonians cannot agree on the Procession of the Holy Spirit in the doctrine of the Trinity, they can all agree that the Roman doctrine is wrong [8]. This is not a reasonable deduction from a unified, orthodox doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, but an irrational prejudice not based on truth. Thus, even though the Chalcedonians disagree about Chalcedon, they are much more tolerant of the non-Chalcedonians because they are not Roman. Finally, nearly any Western doctrine — from lay investiture to the Immaculate Conception — receives no universal Orthodox alternative.

On morals, the Orthodox churches are unclear on divorce. Non-Chalcedonian churches generally disallow remarriage, whereas the Chalcedonians — for some unknown reason — will allow three remarriages with all spouses living, but never four [9]. On the matter of contraception, the Chalcedonians seem to be moving with the times. In 1963, the indefatigable English work on Chalcedonian Orthodoxy was able to declare that “[c]ontraception is forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” But this statement later went through two revisions until 1993, when the same work stated on contraception that “differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church” [10]. This may be a reaction to the 1968 Roman encyclical, reflecting the pathology we will treat below.

Even during the current crisis, the Roman Church is united in potency — the pope has the real power to bind all in unity (besides the uniting power of prior magisterium). But without Rome, the Orthodox churches are incapable of having universal faith and morals on many important questions. You are then left to your own private judgment to decide as best as you can what is and is not Orthodoxy. In short, you will die and face judgment trusting in yourself and an imagined “Orthodox Church.”

  1. The pathology against charity

Mortal sin, the sin that causes damnation, is defined by St. Thomas as that which destroys charity in the soul (S.T. II-II, q. 24, a. 10). We see this in the words of our Lord: If you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences (Matt. 6:15). This is the reason why anyone who does not submit to Rome risks his eternal salvation: rejecting Rome is an objective denial of charity. What pervades the Orthodox churches is a pathology, a spirit of unforgiveness destroying charity, which darkens their intellects to reject the papacy and choose schism. They are afflicted by a woundedness that attacks anything Roman only because it is Roman, and they cannot see their own errors [11]. As a result, many Orthodox Christians simply believe in a fantasy wherein their churches are actually one church but without any actual evidence of this [12].

Let us consider one final example: “Our All-Holy, Immaculate, Most Blessed and Glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary” [13]. In considering the Immaculate Conception, the eminent Russian theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov states emphatically that “[t]he Orthodox Church does not accept the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin” [14]. What is meant by “The Church does not accept?” On what grounds? Was there a universal declaration about this dogma from the Orthodox Church? This statement is a fantasy.

The more objective Met. Kallistos Ware is able to admit that “in the past individual Orthodox have made statements which, if not definitely affirming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, at any rate approached close to it; but since 1854 [when Rome dogmatized it] the great majority of Orthodox have rejected the doctrine” [15]. A close look at the sources shows that some of Chalcedonians’ most revered saints — Photius and Palamas — in fact taught the Immaculate Conception [16]. Thus the anti-Roman pathology twists their doctrine to the point of even committing one of the blasphemies against the Immaculate Heart, for which we make reparation on the First Saturdays.

This evil does not stop there, but manipulates even the Protestant anti-Roman pathology to misrepresent the Orthodox churches using Protestant provocations and even promising universalism [17]. To those Catholics exhausted by the crisis, it promises a fantasy of imagined unity and orthodoxy.

The crisis in Catholicism is severe — perhaps the worst we have ever faced — but as with every other crisis in history, God is with us, has foretold it to us, and will again bring the liberty and exaltation of holy mother Church. Let us, then, with a sober mind, accept the cross of suffering given to us by Almighty God. Let us confess the one true faith, humbly submit to Rome, and live in charity with our brethren in communion with the Holy See. Let us live and die as all our fathers did — as Catholics.

[1] This observation seems to have first been made by Monsignor L. Duchesne, The Churches Separated from Rome (Kegan Paul, 1907), 109.

[2] Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon 451 (Ignatius: 2008).

[3]‘Ως δὲ διεπορεύοντο τὰς πόλεις, παρεδίδοσαν αὐτοῖς φυλάσσειν τὰ δόγματα τὰ κεκριμένα ὑπὸ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων τῶν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις.

[4] A notable exception to this includes Palamism among the Chalcedonians and the anti-Raskol sobor (1666), although these are not without their own difficulties.

[5] Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy, 22ff. and n. 2.

[6] Fr. Chad Ripperger, Magisterial Authority (2014), 46. This work is perhaps the best antidote to the malaise that is the post-conciliar magisterium. See also Topics on Traditions by the same author.

[7] “The ‘economic’ interpretation is not the teaching of the Church. It is only a private ‘theological opinion’, very late and very controversial, which arose in a period of theological confusion and decadence in a hasty endeavor to dissociate oneself as sharply as possible from Roman theology.” Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Limits of the Church,” Church Quarterly Review, 1933.

[8] Met. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin: 1993), 51.

[9] On the non-Chalcedonian practice, this is based on the author’s own experience living among the Copts of Egypt. The bizarre Chalcedonian moral teaching seems to have originated with the 10th-century controversy over the four marriages of Emperor Leo VI, as noted by Fr. Thomas Hopko. However, in each of these remarriages, the emperor’s spouse had died. I have yet to see a clear historical connection between these valid marriages and the current invalid remarriage practice, in which the Chalcedonians allow a man to divorce and remarry while his spouse is still living. It was this practice that inspired Cardinal Kasper to promote his ideas about communion for remarried Catholics.

[10] Ware, op. cit., 302. For a review of some of the Chalcedonian sources on this topic, see Dave Armstrong, Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison (3rd revised edition, 2015), 225ff.

[11] To be fair, there are some sober-minded Orthodox, such as Kallistos Ware quoted here, or others from the Pariso-Russian school such as Meyendorff and Gillet. The other English school is the ROCOR-Serbian, which is less than sober.

[12] The best treatment of this phenomenon is undoubtedly the Russian luminary Vladimir Soloviev in his Russia and the Universal Church.

[13] This is the conclusion of the litanies in the Chalcedonian liturgy: Τῆς Παναγίας, ἀχράντου, ὑπερευλογημένης, ἐνδόξου, Δεσποίνης ἡμῶν Θεοτόκου καὶ ἀειπαρθένου Μαρίας.

[14] Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (SVS Press: 1997), 117.

[15] Ware, op. cit., 259.

[16] See Orthodox Fr. Lev Gillet, “The Orthodox Church and the Immaculate Conception,” Chrysostom, Vol. VI, No. 5 [Spring 1983]: 151–159.

[17] See for example Fr. Peter Gilquist, Becoming Orthodox (3rd ed. 2010); Fr. A. James Bernstein Surprised by Christ (2008); or Mr. Clark Carlton, The Faith (1997). On universalism, see the Orthodox sources listed here.

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