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Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy Compared

Comparative Roman Catholic Anglo Catholic Evangelicalism

Introduction / Similarities and Differences / Terminology / The Sacraments / Ecclesiology / Scripture, Tradition and Reason / The Orthodox Catholic Faith / Beliefs in Common / Differences in Belief / Differences in Practice


Introduction - Orthodoxy, Catholicism Without the Pope?

You might be excused for thinking that this suggested title is fairly accurate, but it is not.  There are many similarities and indeed a common inheritance between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy but in other matters these two churches are radically different.*  You may recall that in the unit on Church History we considered a simplified diagram of what happened at the Great Schism in 1054 AD from an Orthodox point of view.  Simply speaking, in our view, Rome broke with Orthodoxy and continued along a long path of divergence from our common Tradition, a process which arguably had started some time before.  The causes of the Schism, grievous in Christian history, were many and complex and we cannot deal with these in this short essay.  We are more concerned here with comparing Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism today.  For this reason, we shall also not consider the history of relations between the two churches since the Great Schism.

[*Health Warning!  There are some Orthodox traditions that take a very negative view of Roman Catholicism and this is represented on some web sites.  I do not share such extreme positions as I do not believe that these constitute the mainstream Orthodox view and, moreover, they do not sit at all easily with my own heart, mind and conscience.  I am attempting here to represent that consensus middle ground that both recognises the great wealth of commonality between our churches without silently passing over the things that we regard as serious obstacles to unity by reason of being, we claim, extraneous to apostolic Christianity and, therefore for us, unacceptable, Fr. Gregory, your webmaster].

Similarities and Differences
Similarities in red, differences in green


Both churches share a common Tradition of life and Faith through the greater part of the First Millennium.  In this period, to mix the terms, the west was Orthodox.  The terminology is itself confusing since then and now the correct appellation for BOTH churches is the Orthodox Catholic Church, even the Roman Orthodox Catholic Church.  To this day the government of Turkey refers to the "Greek" Orthodox Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) as the Roman Patriarchate!  This conservative description emphasises the original unity of both churches in one Church, two centres of the Roman Empire in two great imperial cities both east and west.

The Sacraments

The Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches both claim to be the original New Testament Church in organic apostolic continuity with the same.  Both churches accept the technical validity of each others sacraments in the sense that they have more or less maintained their apostolic character and continuity in the estimation of both churches.  Sometimes, some Roman Catholic clergy give the impression that since our sacraments are mutually recognised and since Rome and Orthodoxy lifted the mutual anathemas made against each other in 1965, Holy Communion may be shared between our churches.  From an Orthodox point of view, this is not the case as we are not yet united and to share the sacrament of unity together (the Eucharist) would be premature.  There are exceptions to this rule but they mainly concern persons who are in danger of death and not able to receive the ministrations of their own priest or, in some Orthodox churches, Holy Communion is given to the Roman Catholic partner of a mixed marriage.

Concerning the sacraments themselves, we both agree that there are seven principle Mysteries or Sacraments, (Baptism, Confirmation / Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Ordination, Marriage, Unction [Healing]).  There are differences in the teaching of each sacrament but many in both churches would not regard these as true obstacles to unity.  We should perhaps classify these as tolerable or even welcome diversities of practice.  Some matters are more contentious amongst the Orthodox though, (and doubtless Roman Catholics make similar judgments about us ... which is to be expected and normal in our situations).  These contended matters include:-

  1. As to the sacraments in general, the tendency of the Roman Catholic Church to understand effectiveness and validity as conferred by a priest or bishop acting "in the person of Christ" whereas in the Orthodox Church such surety is granted by the Holy Spirit invoked by a canonical priest or bishop with also the prayers and assent of the people.

  2. The largely abandoned practice of baptism by immersion.  However, the canons do allow for the use of water running over the candidate and indeed many in the Serbian Orthodox Church baptise infants in the same way as in the west.

  3. The tendency to separate Baptism, Confirmation and first Holy Communion leading to the non-communication of infants and sometimes even the reception of Holy Communion before Confirmation.

  4. The tendency, (to be fair, prevalent in the west before the Schism), to adopt a legalistic attitude toward penance (confession / reconciliation)  with lists of sins and penalties rather than what it truly is, a healing of soul and body through repentance.  Such a legalistic approach, however, is not entirely absent from Orthodoxy and of late the Roman Catholic Church has moved toward a much more Orthodox understanding of confession as therapeutic repentance.

  5. The inability of the Roman Catholic Church to countenance under any circumstances ecclesiastical divorce with the consequent barring of remarried persons from Holy Communion.  In the Orthodox Church, divorce is also regarded as a a failure but remarriage is possible in church if blessed by the bishop and with a service recognising forgiveness in respect of the first union.

As to the areas of agreement, these happily are substantial.  We both agree that Christ is truly present in the Holy Mysteries and that they are grace bearing, transformative encounters with Him.  We both agree in baptismal regeneration and the necessity of confession before a priest.  We both believe in the charism and grace of ordination within the apostolic succession.  We both believe that the material world is a consecrated vehicle for the presence and work of the Holy Spirit and therefore the necessity of a rich sacramental life in the Church as God's provision for our need.


In the doctrine of the Church Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are similar save in one important respect, the evolved nature of the papacy.  Arguably this is the most significant obstacle to unity from the Orthodox side.  We agree that the Church is indefectible that is both capably and actually (through discernment and apostolic authority) free from error but we differ on how the Petrine primacy contributes toward that.  We are not opposed to this primacy per se; indeed in the first millennium Rome held that position after the eclipse of Jerusalem and before the ascendancy of Constantinople when the western Empire collapsed.  We do not contend that if Rome was Orthodox today she should hold that position in the person of her bishop, the Pope.  We readily concede and affirm his position as focus of unity and servant of the servants of God.  We accept, subject to conciliar assent (a very important qualification) the respect that should be accorded to his teaching authority in the Councils of the Church but we cannot agree to the following developments in papal authority and power that have accrued since the Hildebrandine "reforms" of the 11th century:-

  1. Universal Jurisdiction - The early Popes did not have the power to appoint and depose bishops.  For us the Pope is not a "super-bishop"; he is a senior bishop with precedence whose teaching and leadership should be received and respected by his brother bishops, but nothing more.
  2. Infallible Authority - Even when qualified in context and range this claim for Papal teaching and authority is illicit, even dangerous.  The Holy Spirit - from the time of the first Council of Jerusalem - acts through the Church in council with all her leaders as equal partners.  Of course deference to the precedence of senior bishops is some matters is not controversial, the supreme rule of one, is.
  3. Vicar of Christ - Linked to (2) is the title of the Pope as "Vicar of Christ" which means "in the place of Christ."  This seems extraordinary to us that a Church should consider a need for its most senior bishop to take the place of the teaching authority of the Risen Lord.  "Vicar of St. Peter" (and St. Paul as co-patrons of Rome) is certainly acceptable as it merely states the obvious in terms of apostolic succession.
In the Orthodox Church all bishops in their diocese are equal.  Beyond the diocese there is a proper recognition of seniority in administration and regional leadership (Archbishop or Metropolitan) or by virtue of the apostolic foundation of certain important sees.  The Church makes important decisions always in Council either through local synods or in more weighty matters affecting the whole Church, an ecumenical Council.  We observe that in the Roman Catholic Church the Councils have historically been eclipsed by the papacy.  This cannot be received by us under any circumstances.  We need a reformed papacy for a reunited Church of east and west.

Having said this there are weaknesses in the current practice of Orthodox ecclesiology, the principles of which are fine but the practice often poor.  It may well be that we have suffered historically through the lack of any unifying primacy in that we have allowed ethnic and national tensions to compromise the practical unity of the Church.  This ought to remind all Orthodox in a spirit of humility that we have as much to receive from Rome as to give.  What we must not countenance, however, is a sham disunity sustained by cultural, historical and political matters associated with those very weaknesses in our ecclesiological life for which we often show self righteousness rather than repentance before God.

For more information on the Petrine primacy from an Orthodox point of view, please read this

Scripture, Tradition and Reason

Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are in large agreement as to the authority of Scripture and its context within the life of the Church.  We are less agreed about the relationship of Tradition and Reason to Scripture and this can generate significant divergence within the understanding of the Faith.  Doctrinal comparisons will be undertaken in the next section.  Here we shall examine the infrastructure of that believing.

The Roman Catholic understanding of Tradition is of a separate and parallel stream of revelation not enshrined in the canonical writings of Scripture.  This Tradition is mediated by the teaching authority or magisterium of the Church.  In the Orthodox Church, however, there is but one stream of revelation, Tradition which INCLUDES Scripture as it normative core and does not run parallel to it.  The "magisterium" of Orthodoxy is not institutional but is to be found in the inspired writings and lives of the fathers and the saints, ancient and modern, and which has no ecclesiastical centre (as in Rome). 

The curious irony of this is that the magisterium of Rome makes the Roman Catholic Church more susceptible of change, development and reform than that of the Orthodox east, for that it is the logic of its centralised command structure.  Before the 19th century much of Catholicism believed that all the faith as it was then held and practised was revealed in its entirety from the beginning but that not all of this revelation was in common possession or articulated fully.  Perhaps a more historical sense of the Church as an institution and an opening up of her life to critical inspection enabled Cardinal Newman's ideas about the "Development of Doctrine" to gain a foothold in the Roman Catholic Church.  Today Rome commonly teaches that doctrine does indeed develop and that she has both the power and the right under God to develop it.  This had fed into the understanding of Tradition and has made Rome even more apt to define new dogmas unilaterally.  Most notable amongst these of course have been the Marian dogmas of the Assumption in 1950 (a belief in Orthodoxy but not a dogma or formally promulged truth) and the Immaculate Conception in 1854 (not a belief about Mary in Orthodoxy).

From an Orthodox point of view this power to define new dogmas unilaterally is predicated on a view of Tradition and the authority of the magisterium and the papacy that is not Orthodox.  We are alarmed at the prospect of where these new powers, emerging since the 19th century will take the Roman Catholic Church next.

Reason is also a problematic notion as handled by the Catholic West since the Middle Ages in the Orthodox view.  It is thought by Rome that reason aided by grace, although unable to determine the content of revelation, certainly can be both applied to revelation to make that accessible to unbelievers and also be used to advance a soul to a better understanding of religious belief generally and the existence of God in particular.  Reason was the great mother of the scholastic movement that sought to harness reason and pagan philosophy in the service of the gospel.  It's foremost architect was St. Thomas Aquinas and in particular his use of Aristotle.  Nonetheless at the end of his life St. Thomas declared his great "Summa" to be mere "straw,"  which Orthodoxy takes to be a fair comment on scholasticism's attempt to make Christianity systematic and rational from a philosophical point of view.

The difficulty Orthodoxy has with reason used in this way is the danger of sacrificing truth for plausibility, of trying to make worldly wisdom serve gospel mysteries that are perhaps better served by poets than logicians.  The Latin mind (for want of a better word) always wants to define, make clear, resolve apparent paradox.  The Greek mind (for want of a better word) always wants to worship, to leave an aspect of mystery, to leave apparently contrary truths in a creative synthesis.  Reason may serve the "Latins" but for all its worth in expression and pedagogy cannot serve the "Greeks."  I don't want to sound disrespectful but for the Orthodox there is something strangely funny about St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God.  We wouldn't ever dream of embarking on such an endeavour.  "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."  (Blaise Pascal - a Jansenist, but right on this one from our point of view).

The Orthodox Catholic Faith

The differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are variously judged by commentators to be either legitimate diversities of interpretation or unsubstantiated distortions or even falsehoods.  There isn't the scope here in this essay to consider the issues in depth.  The reader must judge where truth lies as he or she assesses the claims of both churches in the previous two sections.  First, in order to be positive, let us celebrate what both Churches hold in common!

Beliefs In Common

  1. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and attested to in the other sacred, inspired, biblical writings.

  2. The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium together with their creeds and definitions, most notably the revised creed of Nicaea (without the 'filioque' clause later inserted by Rome, see below) and the Chalcedonian christological definition.

  3. The teachings of the fathers and saints of the first millennium within Holy Tradition throughout this period.

  4. Orthodox Catholic piety in relation to the saints and their invocation, pilgrimages, relics, iconography and, more widely, the Christian patronage of the arts and sciences.

  5. Mary as Ever Virgin and Theotokos (Bearer or Mother of God) and her role in the salvation wrought by her Son.  She is the Mother of Church and provides the most exalted model of what a Christian should be.

  6. The Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Mysteries and the efficacy of sacramental grace.

"Isn't that enough?!" you might say.  Well, there are other important matters that either contribute to an inclusive diversity or that divide us.  These are summarised as follows and set out in tabulated form for comparison's sake.

Differences in Belief

Note:  These are emphases in each tradition, not exclusive or single beliefs.  I have not included differences in piety, eg., statues compared with icons.  Some of these other differences are collected together in the final section.

Belief Roman Catholic Belief   Orthodox Belief
Reason can show that God exists and that his attributes may be logically inferred.   Knowledge of God (acknowledged or not) is planted in human nature.  Reason cannot go further than this.
  In the Age to come, the righteous will behold with their intellects and assisted by grace the essence of God, the Beatific Vision.   No one can ever or will ever see God in Himself.  We are creatures of the Creator.  There is an absolute distinction in being here such that communion with God is with his energies, not his essence or nature.
  Grace and the Light of Transfiguration are created realities.  These are not themselves manifestations of God.  Only the essence / substance of God constitutes his substantive being.   The aforementioned energies of God are no less than God himself who makes Himself immediately perceptible as he infuses creation with Himself.  The essence of God (also being God) is foreclosed to all creatures and unknowable.
  The Spirit proceeds from the Father AND the Son, ('filioque' clause added to the Nicene Creed).   The Spirit proceeds from the Father only.  The original Ecumenical version of the Nicene Creed is used.  (Consideration of the Filioque)
Christ God became Man because only God, in the Person of Christ, could offer the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world on the Cross thereby satisfying the demands of divine justice.  The resurrection is the hope of eternal life for the saved, (St. Anselm).   God became Man to heal humanity. By taking our humanity to Himself in the Incarnation he entered a process of redemption which culminated in the resurrection, death being destroyed and the reign of sin ended, (St. Irenaeus).  The goal of salvation is deification, union with God.
After Death
After death, the saved are not yet ready to inherit eternal life but must first experience a period of purgation to fit them for Paradise in a place or state called Purgatory.  Our Lord and the saints produce an excess of grace which may be transferred to these souls through the prayers of the faithful.  The human soul is generally held to be naturally immortal (after the scholastics).  At the second coming the unrepentant experience the wrath of God, the redeemed the bliss of heaven.  Divine justice is satisfied, (St. Augustine). After death the soul is in Hades but has no natural immortality.  Eternal life is sustained solely by the grace and resurrection of Christ,  The soul awaits** the coming again of Christ and its resurrection to immortality in heaven or or to hell where it suffers the consequences of unrepented sin.  God does not punish those in hell.  Hell is how the unrepentant experience the love of God.  The saints have often prayed that hell might be empty, having confidence in the power of the Love of God.  (**Since heaven is in the eternity of God the saints are already part of the New Creation and it is only we who must wait for that coming Kingdom).
Humanity Humans are made in the image and likeness of God.  The Fall did not destroy human nature but disabled its ability to relate to God.  Grace perfects nature and restores that relationship. 

The sin of Adam and Eve is transmitted along with the guilt and shame of that (original sin) through the concupiscence of generational reproduction, (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas). 

Baptism washes away the taint and power of original sin.  Sanctification, which leads to salvation, involves both restoring this baptismal purity through confession and becoming more Christ-like through the acquisition of the virtues.

Orthodoxy agrees that humans are made in the image and likeness of God and that Fall did not destroy human nature but rather disabled its ability to relate to God. 

Orthodoxy adds that the state of humans in Eden was immature, like a child, (St. Irenaeus).  Salvation enables humans to grow once again into their true potential by deification.  This is achieved by a struggle in grace against the passions. 

This is made possible by the destruction of death in the resurrection of Christ and the ending of its corrupting influence in human life, (ancestral sin). 

Humans may attain the full stature of Christ through repentance, ascesis and faithful obedience to God.

Ever Virgin Mary
Since all humans are born with the full consequences and power of the sin of Adam and Eve through reproduction, Mary must have been conceived immaculately without this burden of sin in order to be obedient to God by grace and to become the Mother of God in the Incarnation, (the dogma of the Immaculate Conception). Since the Orthodox Church does not believe that Adam and Eve's actual sin and guilt is transmitted sexually, the Virgin Mary did not need to be immaculately conceived to surrender herself to God in the Incarnation.  She inherited the mortality that comes to all on account of the Fall but was then filled with divine grace to deal with this through actual obedience to God's Word.


Differences in Practice

Item Roman Catholic   Orthodox


Although icons are used in some Roman Catholic Churches and their appreciation in the west has grown enormously they are still not generally venerated but seen as visual aids to piety.  The use of statues is still more common and these are used in a similar way.  Such religious art has no mandatory compositional canon and often reflects the prevailing cultural norms and tastes.   Icons are venerated as "windows into heaven," the love or respect accorded to the iconic image passing directly to the person or event represented.  The icons are preferred as two dimensional art with a rigorous theological symbolism and in no way affecting any kind of naturalism or cultural absorption.  The aim is to convey a spiritual sense of the New Creation which is the Kingdom of God and its glory.


Although the liturgical texts are governed by more objective criteria of composition and tradition, the ethos of Roman Catholic worship reflects very much the prevailing culture.  So, in an age of minimalism the tendency toward bare simplicity is manifest also in the churches.  The aim is to keep people relatively speaking in a preferred "comfort zone."  Transitions from one style and practice to another can therefore prove somewhat difficult.   The ethos of Orthodox worship is only mildly influenced by prevailing cultural norms, usually in the aspect of musical styles.  The prevailing ethos is heavily influenced by the text itself, hence a fairly uniform aesthetic and arrangement of the temple together with the use of unaccompanied chant.  The aim is not relevance but the continuity of praise offered to God in hallowed forms.


The sacramental elements are cold wine and unleavened bread before consecration emphasising the Passover legacy of the Christian Eucharist, (Synoptic Gospels timing, not that of St. John).   The Holy Gifts before consecration are leavened bread and warm wine emphasising the Resurrection context of the Christian Eucharist, (cf. Luke 24).  (The elements like Christ which they convey are risen / warm).


Starting with the Council of Trent but especially since the Second Vatican Council the requirements concerning weekly fasting and fasting before Holy Communion have been considerably relaxed, (some might say almost abandoned).   The Orthodox Church still practices fasting and feasting in relation to the Calendar and the Eucharist unchanged from the earliest times.


All clergy except deacons must be celibate.  Certain exceptions are made (but not uniformly) for clergy of the Eastern Rite where some priests can marry. 

Roman Catholic clergy are frequently clean shaven. 

Women may not be admitted to the diaconate or any other clerical order.

  Priests and deacons may marry before ordination but not after.  Bishops must be celibates or widowers. 

Orthodox clergy are usually bearded (but not always in every culture).  This is a mark of vocational consecration. 

Women may be deaconesses but at the moment the order is not active.  This may change since there is ample precedent for this in the history of the Church, albeit that women were never ordained priests.


Monasticism in the Roman Catholic Church is organised in orders with rules and vocational patterns designed for and by each.  There is considerable diversity of monastic profession and ethos in the Church.   Orthodox monasticism follows the traditional modes of hermit, groups and communities in common with the west but there are no monastic orders whatsoever. 

All monks and nuns follow the same Rule and variations in the monastic typicon are slight and do not impart a different character to the  monasteries concerned.


Only natural forms of contraception are permissible, notably the Rhythm Method. Any form of contraception that does not abort the foetus may be used to plan a family provided that such forms are not used to prevent a family entirely or against the wishes of one partner.

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