The Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue:
Light and Shadows

With the Second Vatican Council’s "Decree on Ecumenism" and "Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches", ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Churches and with Protestant confessions has proceeded apace – with various results, both disappointing and encouraging. As Cardinal Walter Kasper recently noted in an address commemorating Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism:

“There are problems and delusions and new challenges... such as doctrinal and ethical liberalism as well as an aggressive fundamentalism by both old and new sects... There is the real danger of relativism and indifferentism.”

Progress has been made, however, in the attempt to grasp the real doctrinal differences and the underlying outlook which keep Christians divided. The Fathers of Vatican II had stressed that:

"division [among Christians] openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages the most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature."
(Decree on Ecumenism, #1)

They also wisely noted that:

one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into those communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers.
(Ibid., #3)

It is this growing brotherly attitude overriding the “sins against unity” committed by both Catholics and Orthodox in the polemical atmosphere of the past which has prompted the Catholic Church for the sake of furthering the reunion of the dissident Eastern Churches to extend the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the sick to their people in spiritual need and if they are “in good faith, are rightly disposed, and make such request of their own accord” (Decree on Catholic Eastern Churches, #27). Unfortunately, the Eastern Orthodox churches have not reciprocated in kind to Catholics seeking the graces of those Sacraments and when “access to a Catholic priest is physically or morally impossible” (Ibid., #27).

There have been two promising steps forward resulting from the North American Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogues:

  1. the Eastern Orthodox signatories to a detailed study and “Consultation Statement” on the Filioque (October 25, 2003) are in agreement that the Filioque doctrine (i.e., the affirmation that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son [Filioque]) should no longer be stigmatized as “heretical”; and
  2. as a result of the Agreed Statement on “Baptism and ‘Sacramental Economy’” issued by the North American Orthodox Catholic Theological Consultation (June 3, 1999), the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I has been formally asked to withdraw the 1755 [patriarchal] decree denying the validity of Catholic baptisms!

In that “Agreed Statement” the Orthodox signatories joined in clearly repudiating the influential teaching of the Athonite monk Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain whose work, the "Pedalion" (1783), had reinforced the erroneous doctrine that had spread among many Orthodox that Catholic baptisms were invalid. As the “Agreed Statement” observed:

“In an atmosphere of heightened tension between Orthodoxy and Catholicism following the Melkite Union of 1724, and of intensified proselytism pursued by Catholic missionaries in the Near East and in Hapsburg-ruled Transylvania, the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril V issued a decree in 1755 requiring the baptism of Roman Catholics, Armenians, and all others presently outside the visible bounds of the Orthodox Church, when they seek full communion with it. This decree has never been formally rescinded, but subsequent rulings by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (e.g., in 1875, 1880, and 1888) did allow for the recognition of new communicants by chrismation rather than baptism. Nevertheless, these rulings left rebaptism as an option subject to ‘pastoral discretion’. In any case, by the late nineteenth century a comprehensive new sacramental theology had appeared in Greek-speaking Orthodoxy which provided a precise rationale for such pastoral discretion; for the source of this new rationale, we must examine the influential figure of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748-1809).

The Orthodox world owes an immense debt to this Athonite monk, who edited and published the "Philokalia" (1783), as well as numerous other works of a patristic, pastoral and liturgical nature. In the "Pedalion" (1800), his enormously influential edition of -and commentary on- canonical texts. Nicodemus gave form and substance to the requirement of rebaptism decreed by Cyril V. Thoroughly in sympathy with the decree of 1755, and moved by his attachment to a perceived golden age in the patristic past, he underscored the antiquity and hence priority of the African Councils and Apostolic Canons, and argued strenuously, in fact, for the first-century provenance of the latter. Nicodemus held up these documents, with their exclusivist ecclesiology, as the universal voice of the ancient Church. In so doing, he systematically reversed what had been the normative practice of the Eastern Church since at least the 4th century... [As a result of Nicodemus’ understanding of ‘sacramental economy’], much of Greek-speaking Orthodoxy [has justified] the rebaptism of Western Christians, or for their reception by chrismation or profession of faith, without in either case attributing to their baptism any reality in its own right”.

Those Orthodox who have denied the validity of baptism in non-Orthodox Churches (whose sacraments outside Eastern Orthodoxy are regarded as devoid of grace) are sharply taken to task in the “Agreed Statement”:

“The Nicodemean interpretation is still promoted in important theological and monastic circles. Although these voices in the Orthodox world are significant ones, we do not believe that they represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church on the subject of baptism... It is rather an eighteenth century innovation motivated by the particular historical circumstances operative in those times. It is not the teaching of Scripture, of most of the Fathers, or of later Byzantine canonists, nor is it the majority position of the Orthodox churches today.”

Regardless of the above “Agreed Statement” acknowledging the validity of Catholic baptisms (which Catholics can only welcome), the fact remains that significant numbers of Eastern Orthodox, including the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) and those of the “uncanonical” Old Calendarist Churches in Greece, Bulgaria, and Rumania are at odds with the official Orthodox establishments in their countries. Numbering millions, they adhere strictly to the Nicodemean understanding of the sacraments as exclusively “orthodox”. The “Agreed Statement” fails to mention that such “Orthodox” groups (adhering to an heretical Donatist view of the sacraments) not only reject the validity of Catholic baptisms but also the other sacraments of the Catholic Church!

Also revealed in the “Agreed Statement on Baptism and ‘Sacramental Economy’” is an erroneous Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation). In the instances where the baptisms of Catholics are admitted, such converts find themselves received into Eastern Orthodoxy by Chrismation even though such persons had also been previously confirmed in the Catholic Church. Here there is clear rejection of Catholic doctrine that the Sacrament of Confirmation (Chrismation) imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark and thus the sacrament of Chrismation cannot be repeated. There may be individual Orthodox theologians who say that the anointing with chrism is not a repetition of the Sacrament of Chrismation but other theologians have no hesitancy in asserting that it is the Sacrament of Chrismation that is administered in the reception of converts from Catholicism.

In his “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”, Ludwig Ott noted:

The Orthodox Church denies the existence of the [indelible] character in Confirmation.
(p. 367)

It has become clearer that there remains a regrettable confusion among the Eastern Orthodox with respect to a doctrine of “sacramental economy” (“oikonomia”) which results in invalid sacraments becoming valid by “pastoral discretion”. As the authors of the “Agreed Statement on Baptism and ‘Sacramental economy’” candidly declared:

“This interpretation of “oikonomia” endows the hierarchy with a virtually infinite power, capable as it were, of creating ‘validity’ and bestowing grace where it was absent before. This new understanding of ‘economy’ does not, however, enjoy universal recognition in the Orthodox Church. We have already noted that the East Slavic Orthodox churches remain committed to the earlier understanding and practice of the Byzantine era which does not imply the possibility of making valid what is invalid, or invalid what is valid. Even within Greek-speaking Orthodoxy, ‘sacramental economy’ in the full Nicodemean interpretation does not command universal acceptance. As a result, within world Orthodoxy, the issue of ‘sacramental economy’ remains the subject of intense debate”.

That the validity of Catholic sacraments is denied by significant numbers of Eastern Orthodox who do not accept that there can be grace-bearing sacraments outside the Eastern Orthodox communion (for them the Pope has not been baptized!) and who still adhere to an untenable view of “sacramental economy” highlights the serious doctrinal divisions actually existing among the Eastern Orthodox – divisions that appear without the possibility of authoritative resolution. It may be recalled here that the celebrated William Palmer, Fellow of Magdalen College, who had gone to Russia in 1840-1841 in the hopes of a recognition of the "Branch-Theory" of the Church held by Anglicans like himself and who therefore sought access to Greco-Russian sacraments, found himself with a Russian Orthodox Church that recognized the validity of his baptism while the Greek Orthodox Church did not. He eventually resolved the matter by becoming a Catholic.

There is also serious confusion among the Eastern Orthodox with regards to the "Filioque" doctrine which has been the major dogmatic difference between the Catholic Church and dissident Byzantines for centuries - till in more recent centuries Papal supremacy and infallibility have replaced the centuries-old dispute over the Procession of the Holy Spirit as the major obstacle to the Reunion of the Churches. Though Catholic theologians will find satisfactory the 2003 “Agreed Statement on the Filioque” recommending that the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son should not be regarded as heretical, it is hardly likely that the Catholic Church can accept the Statement’s corollary that the traditional Eastern Orthodox teaching on the Holy Spirit which, in fact, excludes the Eternal Son from the Procession of the Holy Spirit – is not to be regarded as heretical.

It was the 9th century Patriarch Photius who held in a rigid manner that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeded from the Father alone (excluding completely any participation by the Son in the eternal procession). Moreover, it was Photius’s doctrine that most medieval Byzantines adhered to in opposition to Catholic affirmation of the doctrine embodied in the "Filioque" formulation which was, accordingly, repeatedly denounced as “heretical”.

There is a clear effort in the “Agreed Statement“ by the signatories (both Catholic and Orthodox) to declare Photius’s doctrine as “representative of the Orthodox tradition” and identical with that of the entire Greek patristic tradition (which is not the case). Glossed over, moreover, are some real differences between Photius’ doctrine concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit and that of such later Byzantine theologians as the 13th c. patriarch Gregory II of Constantinople and the 14th c. Archbishop of Thessalonika, Gregory Palamas. These attempted to defend Photius’ teaching with inadequate formulations of an “eternal manifestation” of the Spirit through the Son but such still cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the famous Council of Florence (1439) which defined Catholic doctrine on the procession. Catholic doctrine affirms the Spirit’s possessing His very hypostatic existence from the Father and (or through) the Son but this is an essential truth which is not conceded in the above Byzantines’ “eternal manifestation” theory.

Neither is it acceptable for the Catholic signatories to agree to a rejection of the dogmatic condemnation by the 1274 Council of Lyons of those “who presume to deny the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.” It is puzzling that they would also conclude that “the manner of the Spirit’s origin... still awaits full and final ecumenical resolution”, when the Ecumenical Council of Florence after exhaustive study of the controversy regarding the Spirit’s procession resolved the question with a dogmatic definition declaring that:

The Holy Spirit exists eternally of the Father and the Son and so existing has His own essence and being alike from the Father and the Son, and eternally proceeds from both as from one principle and a single spiration”.

The same Council took care to safeguard the title of the Father as the sole cause in the Trinity (a truth cherished by the Eastern dogmatic tradition) but clarified that the Son receives from the Father the power to be joined to the Father as the one principle of the Holy Spirit. It would have been desirable for the Catholic members of the Dialogue to have filed an "Appendix to the Statement" explaining how the teaching of the Council of Florence on the Spirit’s procession was in conformity with the whole patristic tradition of the Church, both Western and Eastern, instead of bringing into question the "Filioque’s" essential equivalence to the Eastern Fathers’ formulation of the Spirit’s existing or proceeding “through the Son”.

It is a pity that the “Agreed Statement on the Filioque” makes no reference to the impressive catechesis on the "Filioque" which Pope John Paul II gave in a General Audience on November 7, 1990, wherein he explained the true meaning of the formula as set forth in the two Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439) whose status as Ecumenical Councils he affirmed.

It should also be pointed out that with respect to this 2003 "North American Agreed Statement on the Filioque", the Catholic parties provided far less Patristic support for the Catholic position than the 1995 document “The Procession of the Holy Spirit in the Greek and Latin Traditions” issued by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

As to the final recommendation in the "North American Statement on the Filioque" that “The Catholic Church as a consequence of the normative and irrevocable dogmatic value of the Creed of 381, use the Greek text alone in making translations of that Creed for catechetical and liturgical use”, one may well question the catechetical wisdom in Latin-rite Catholics seeing the Filioque removed in the Roman liturgy after a thousand years usage. After all, the Council of Florence:

“defined that it was for the purpose of declaring the truth and under stress of necessity that those words ‘and the Son’ (Filioque) were added to the Creed by way of explanation, both lawfully and with good reason”.

There is no problem in Latin rite Catholics meeting in liturgical celebrations with their Eastern rite brethren and reciting the Creed without the "Filioque" (the Pope himself has so recited it in services in St. Peter’s Basilica), but then it is understood that the Creed with the Filioque and the Creed without the Filioque express the same doctrinal truth concerning the procession of the Spirit. Catholic theologians have long explained that the Creed in the original Greek implicitly contains the Filioque.

How the various “Agreed Statements on Baptism and Sacramental Economy” and on the "Filioque" will be received by other Orthodox themselves remains to be seen. One reaction to the Filioque Statement by George Karras of the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Poimen is unsparing in its opposition:

“We have read [it] and were appalled by how easily the Orthodox representatives of this consultation accepted a watered-down (at its best) and a sell-out (at its worst) of the 1,200 year old Orthodox position on Filioque... Are we reading this Statement correctly in that there is now an effort to re-define the Holy Trinity? The needed ‘ecumenical resolution’ only exists in the minds of those Orthodox theologians who wish to either appease their Latin counterparts or compromise the teachings of the Holy Fathers. For any Orthodox theologian to pursue new definition(s) would most likely lead them into the heresy of the Latins... It is a great error to separate the primacy and Filioque issues. The official insertion of the Filioque was by papal decree. It is impossible to separate them and in trying to do so is to attempt to force the Orthodox to accept it in seemingly-acceptable pieces. One cannot possibly receive one without the other. Once again, this is a gigantic setback to the Orthodox cause and the Orthodox position... Why should we Orthodox, whose Holy Tradition has passed on to us vaults of spiritual treasures be in need of looking into the spiritually bankrupt meetings of the Latins? What exactly is there to be gained by us?... So one wonders, what is next? Acceptance of the Latins’ Mass?... Who has appointed and empowered these ‘North American Orthodox-Catholic consultation’ individuals to speak on behalf of all of us Orthodox in America on key theological issues such as the Filioque? Where is our traditional hierarchy as these positions are adopted and disseminated to Orthodox across America? Are they not alarmed? Do they not care?... A final note, this is not the oecumenism we desire but rather another sign of the 20th century heresy of ecumenism. Adoption of the agreed upon statement by the Orthodox members of the consultation group constitutes betrayal of our Faith.”
(See "Orthodox News Service", Volume 6, no. 1; January 19, 2004)

A question that continually arises in any doctrinal discussions with the Eastern Orthodox is:

In the absence of any definitive Magisterium among them, Who can be said to really speak for the “Orthodox”?

It is evident that recent theological dialogues between Catholics and Orthodox have had both positive and negative results. In the two “Agreed Statements” considered above, doctrinal disagreements and divisions among the Eastern Orthodox have been glaringly revealed which demand authoritative resolution (but how without union with Rome and the exercise of the Petrine office by the Bishop of Rome?). Moreover, there is the spectacle of some weak and ambiguous theological commentary being made by Catholic ecumenists. Fortunately, serious theological discussions are in process concerning the question of Authority in the Church and the role of the Papacy. In the “Agreed Statement on the Filioque” there is a welcome admission by both Catholics and Orthodox signatories that “undoubtedly Papal primacy, with all its implications, remains the root issue behind all the questions of theology and practice that continue to divide our communions”.

May Christ the Invisible Head of the Church enlighten the participants in future theological dialogues between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to study and document the manner in which the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome has been a reality in the history of the Church from its beginnings.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage