Sunday, November 05, 2006

What is Rome to Orthodoxy?

From a comment in the below “Sailing to Byzantium.”

I agree with you also. But how do you deal with Bernadette of Lourdes, whose body is incorrupt? And with the many attested miracles associated with Lourdes? Yet that apparition styled herself as "the immaculate conception", which I gather is not accepted by Orthodox Christians. And how do you deal with the events of Fatima, in which 70,000 rain-soaked people were instantly dried after the miracle of the sun...yet that apparition refers to "the conversion of Russia" and "the reign of Pius XI"? And finally how do you deal with personages like Padre Pio, whose whole life and ministry center around obedience including reverence for the pope of Rome?

Those are the things--however slender they may seem--that give me pause.

In a few lines you have posed a question that volumes could be written in reply to and not be adequate. A proper reply is certainly beyond the scope of a comment here. And very likely it is beyond my poor abilities. But I will try to give you the short version of my limited thoughts on the matter. Orthodoxy focuses on what it knows and not what it does not know. Herein lays a major difference between Rome and Orthodoxy. Rome generally believes there are answers for everything and it looks for them. In Orthodoxy we simply accept that some things are. And we also accept that some things are outside our realm of knowledge and we don’t tend to worry a lot about them. This can be quite maddening to Western Christians. And as a former Roman I absolutely feel that frustration sometimes. One of the areas that is a bit gray for us is the question of the boundaries of The Church and what goes on outside them.

We know where The Church is (canonical Orthodoxy). And in some cases we can state with a fair degree of certainty where it is not (all of your various Protestant sects). And while it is true that we Orthodox have ever held that true sacramental grace belongs solely to God’s Church since the Holy Mysteries are confected in cooperation with the entire Church and the Holy Spirit, we do not claim to know with certainty where the exact bounds of The Church lie, on the one side of which are the grace of True Mysteries, and on the other side of which that grace is lacking. Nor do we claim to know what goes on outside of God’s Church.

Orthodoxy does not put limits on God’s mercy. Nor do we limit where the uncreated energies of His grace can flow or what they can do (save in the matter of sacramental grace). Even where the sacraments are concerned, we don’t claim that heterodox sacraments are completely without merit. Again we don’t know what God may choose to do or not do. We only hold that non-Orthodox sacraments do not do what the Church does. What the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church is to The Church has never been clearly defined. If asked for an opinion my guess is you will get a wide variation of answers. Indeed this is a pretty hot topic of discussion in some quarters.

Some (more than a few) will tell you that Rome is flatly heretical and has no connection to Orthodoxy and that her sacraments are without grace. Others will tell you that Rome is separated from The Church but that her heresy is not of a nature that would impede the grace of her sacraments. And still others will tell you they don’t know.

I fall mainly into the latter category but I do lean towards accepting that Rome retains the grace of true sacraments. Among the items which have moved me in that direction was Florovksy’s essay on The Limits of the Church. I intend to post that in the coming days. Another item which caused me to lean in that direction is the clear number of saints produced by the Latin Church. This last statement will be controversial among some of my Orthodox brothers and sisters, not a few of whom might take vigorous exception to my acknowledging the possibility of non Orthodox saints. Oh well. I will deal with it. Also it has been the tradition of the Russian Church when accepting converts from the Roman clergy that after Chrismation and profession of faith they were simply vested.

St John of San Francisco (my patron) once explained his view of Rome this way. Rome, he said, is like a very old and beautiful house. All of its wiring is still intact and in good order. But it’s not connected to the city power station. The policy of the Russian Church regarding the reception of Roman priests does seem to affirm that the wiring is still there in the minds of the Holy Synod. This is certainly not done for Protestants. Yet other Orthodox jurisdictions require Roman converts to be baptized. The bottom line I think here, is that there is no bottom line… yet. We are back to “I don’t know.”

As for the particulars you mentioned, mostly that also falls into the realm of I don’t know. Incorrupt saints exist in both the East and the West. I knew of many Catholic saints that were incorrupt before I swam the Bosphoros. We have them too. The incorrupt relics of my patron St. John of San Francisco lie not two hours from where I am typing. I also know the basics of some of the Marian apparitions in the western tradition. We have our own. And St. Seraphim of Sarov prophesized about the ordeal awaiting Russia long ago.

It is recorded that before he died he wrote a letter to be given to the Czar on the date of his glorification. On the day when he was canonized that letter was presented to the Holy Royal Passion Bearer Czar Nicholas II. No one knows with certainty what was in it. But Nicholas was shaken and paled after reading it. It is almost universally believed that it was a forewarning of the terrible cross that awaited the Emperor and his family. The Emperor and Empress were also warned by the Holy Fool for Christ Blessed Pasha (Parasceva) of their fate and Russia’s terrible ordeal that lay ahead. She also foretold the birth of the tragic Tsarevitch, Blessed Alexei. Of Padre Pio, he was doubtless a great and holy man. But there are many Orthodox saints who did not center their lives on the Pope. What of them?

This is not a minor question. The issue of the relationship of the Roman Church to Orthodoxy is a serious one. There are theological discussions now going on between the two churches. Are they proceeding from the perspective that Rome is a schismatic part of The Church still retaining the grace of the mysteries? Or are they proceeding from the point of view that Rome is heretical and has departed too far to retain any such grace? Or are they proceeding like me from the point of view of “I don’t know” and hoping to find out as they go along?

I am aware that the above thoughts are horribly inadequate to such a weighty question. And so I will open this up to others, Catholic or Orthodox, who may stumble onto this post. I would particularly appreciate the thoughts of some of my Orthodox brothers and sisters on this subject. Fr. Stephen Freeman, Daniel (Photius) Jones, the Ochlophobist and any others who would care to opine are invited to do so. I will ask that any discussion here please remain civil even if the topic might be one that naturally lends itself to polemics.

Under the mercy,
Ad Orientem


Mike L said...


Honest and illuminating. Thanks.

As a Catholic, I have no time for Orthodox who simply deny the reality of exemplary and authentic sanctity among Catholics. Neither do I have time for Catholics who deny that non-Catholics can attain sanctity (these days, they're far less numerous than Catholics who believe it doesn't matter at all what your religion is, but that's another topic.) Your post shows your open-mindedness, which you maintain without denying anything to which Orthodoxy is dogmatically committed. I welcome that.

As the Ochlophobist and certain other Orthodox bloggers know, the Catholic Church has a more developed ecclesiology than the Orthodox and is accordingly clearer about the relation of Orthodoxy to that Church of Christ which is said to "subsist" in the Catholic Church. Thus we see the Orthodox communion not as a set of well-wired houses that are disconnected from "the power station," but as ones who don't draw quite everything needed from the station, which is the Catholic Church. That's one of the things that made me decide for Catholicism after my college flirtation with Orthodoxy. But that only takes one so far.

While there may or may not be "answers for everything," Rome has far fewer answers than many want and expect her to have. That the Catholic Church doesn't have an Official Position on every question of importance makes some people, including some Catholics, as impatient as you sometimes feel with Orthodoxy. So I don't think it quite fair to draw the reason/mystery contrast as sharply as you do.


Stephen said...

At the moment I'm neither Catholic nor Orthodox, though seriously looking at Orthodoxy. I would say from the little I know and have experienced that the Orthodox church contains the fullest expression of Christianity that I have found, though it is isn't perfect. That said, I do believe that God works outside the Orthodox church as well. I say this because I am a missionary kid, having grown up as Evangelical in Taiwan. My parents are still in Taiwan serving God. My parents say that God called them to Taiwan as missionaries, and I believe them. From my own experiences in Taiwan in the missionary community, and seeing what God was doing, and hearing other missionaries talk about what God was doing in their work, and even now I talk with my parents regularly and they keep me up to date on all that is happening, and from all of this I have to conclude that God is working in Taiwan and is saving people through the Prostestants. Even myself, if it wasn't through the example and prayers of my parents and other godly missionaries I probably wouldn't be a Christian today.

So to sum up, I would point to the Orthodox church as having kept the fullness of Christianity. I don't know much about the Catholic church, so no comment there. But I don't think Christ limits himself to just the Orthodox Church, or just the Catholic Church. I believe that Christ is actively seeking people out, and that he will use what and who he can to do that. Hopefully one day all who profess Christ will be part of one visible church, but until then God will use what he has got, even if it isn't perfect. Peace.

Visibilium said...

This is a fine post, and I look forward to your future thoughts on this and other subjects.

Certainly, there are holy folks within Romanism, Anglicanism, Protestantism, and probably Islam and Wicca, and one hopes that God exercises some economia for them.

The essential question, however, is: Do the mysteries exist outside of the Orthodox Church? The answer is no. The fullness of grace exists in the Orthodox Church and nowhere else.

The holy folks mentioned above have made their salvation more difficult by being outside the Church.

Vesting clergy and receiving converts by Chrismation is economia, wherein the fullness of grace within Christ's Church overcomes the defects of heterodox sacraments. The invalidity of heterodox sacraments isn't made problematic by the exercise of economia.

As to the apparition that predicted the conversion of Russia: Nice try, but Russia was converted in 988.

Seraph said...


Thanks for your thoughts on economia. As for my question about the conversion of Russia, I think that phrase could be understood in two ways: A. Russians becoming Catholics; or B. Russians returning home to Orthodoxy. Perhaps B. would suit Orthodox better. While it is of course true that Russia was initially converted in 988, I don't think many could look at that nation overrun by abortion and pornography and the mob and say that it was converted today in any meaningful sense. Of course, I wouldn't say Italy, France or the United States were converted in any meaningful sense today, either.

Ad Orientem and others:

But what about those miracles associated with "immaculate conception", along with Bernadette's body -- are they diabolical in nature then? Or is there a way of reinterpreting "immaculate conception" that would prove acceptable to Orthodox believers, such as, "all-holy from conception" or "filled with the Spirit from conception"? I have heard that many Orthodox think St. John was holy from the beginnings of life also.

Anonymous said...

Orthodoxy rejects inherited guilt along with the soteriology it presupposes and implies and therefore the Immaculate Conception is simply a problematic predestinarian answer to a question no one asked. Mary's lack of inherited guilt is the reason that Mary's death is theologically incomprehensible (denied or kept hush-hush) in Catholicism. Since no one is born with inherited guilt, then I suppose one could say in that since that everyone is "immaculately conceived," but I don't think that is the answer that you were looking for.

I do not wish to start a debate with anyone so I will stop here.

Mike L said...


I'd be interested in learning whether the invalidity of Catholic sacraments is a definitive teaching of the Orthodox Church or simply a common opinion among Orthodox. There does seem to be a certain asymmetry. Thus, although the Catholic Church understands herself as "the" Church, she still recognizes the validity of Orthodox sacraments (albeit not Anglican sacraments) and the Orthodox churches as "true, particular churches." I wonder whether a reciprocal view of the Roman communion is an acceptable opinion in Orthodoxy.

seraph and anonymous:

"Immaculate Conception" is logically equivalent to "all-holy from conception." Moreover, the Catholic Church has never definitively taught the commonly held Augustinian view that original sin in inherited guilt, and in fact has officially repudiated it. See CCC 405.


Anonymous said...

If Adam lost original holiness and justice for me, didn't he incur guilt for me? If infants are "non-holy" and "non-just" by virtue of Adam's sin, are they not guilty?

Visibilium said...


Christ's Church exists in Russia and has existed in Russia since her conversion in 988. Further examining the term "conversion" in light of actual practices like pornography and abortion may be an interesting subject.


I was careful in the point I made about the absence of mysteries outside Orthodoxy. This reflects Orthodox belief. I wanted to be concise and not get caught up in whether grace exists in Romanism--and if so, of what quality and in what quantity. Let's just charitably say that reasonable Orthodox believers opine about whether grace exists in Rome.

I'm not sure that I can answer your question about "definitive teaching" because that phrase reflects a Roman mindset--we simply don't think of things in such terms. Since you've probably talked to a lot of Orthodox, I can sympathize with your frustration in trying to pin us down on such points.

Second, I am aware that Rome accepts our "sacraments" as valid, but we don't reciprocate. There have been some sporatic local deviations regarding both Roman and Anglican sacraments, but Orthodoxy rejects such reciprocity.

Wordsmyth said...

I'm neither Orthodox nor Catholic, but I think about these issues often. I've been asking clergy questions for the past few years. One of them (a fellow Detroiter) recently sparked quite a bit of online conversation by resigning as pastor of a Lutheran parish, and stating his conviction that the true Church is the Orthodox Church. I find myself somewhere between the East and the West, the proximity to Rome or Constantinople depending on when you ask. I wonder ... how do Roman Catholics who convert to Orthodoxy see St. Francis of Assisi? How do Protestants who convert to either Catholicism or Orthodoxy think of the ever-virgin Mary? Do they see her as essentially a different Mary?

Stephen said...


"The holy folks mentioned above have made their salvation more difficult by being outside the Church."

I agree that salvation is harder outside the Church, but as far as I know most of those people have never even heard of the Orthodox church, and as they sought out God, God pointed them towards the mission field, and not towards Orthodoxy. Why? I don't know. I'm sure God knows though, and if he is the one directing I'm sure he'll grant salvation.

Also, the Orthodox either have no presence, or a very small present in much of the world, including Taiwan. Hence if people are going to hear about Christ, it will most likely be through the Prostestants, and possibly Catholics as well. Okay, so probably what is being taught doesn't contain the fulless of grace, but the Holy Spirit is still active in those places, and until the Orthodox can mobilize themselves to get to those places, then what God is doing through the Prostestants there is so far the best thing going. Its better than nothing, and I believe that if God is behind it, he will honor it, Orthodox or not.