In the January 2009 issue of "The Word", publication of "The Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese" of North America, His Eminence Metropolitan Philip Saliba decried the sad divisions of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America into separate ethnic-national Churches. We have, he lamented, "more than fifteen jurisdictions based on ethnicity contrary to the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils." His important article reproduced the talk he gave at the Conference of the "Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius" which was held at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Scarsdale, NY, on June 4-8, 2008. There, he admitted canonical chaos that had resulted from the century-old grip of "Ethno-phyletism" on their Churches.

[N.B.:  Ethno-phyletism is the view that each ethnic or national group can have its own independent or autocephalous Church, resulting in multiple and rival hierarchies in the same territory.]

Metropolitan Philip declared:

"Our canons clearly state that we cannot have more than one bishop over the same territory, and one metropolitan over the same metropolis. I regret to tell you that we Orthodox are violating this important ecclesiological principle in North America, South America, Europe and Australia. In New York, for example, we have more than ten Orthodox bishops over the same city and the same territory. I can say the same thing about other cities and territories in North America... The same thing has happened in Paris, France. There are six co-existing Orthodox bishops with overlapping ecclesiological jurisdictions. In my opinion and in the opinion of Orthodox canonists, this is ecclesiological ethno-phyletism. This is heretical. How can we condemn ethno-phyletism as a heresy in 1872 and still practice the same thing in the twenty-first century in North America ?"

Metropolitan Philip further observed that:

"Ironically enough, when ethnic ecclesiology began to flourish and prosper in the nineteenth century, it was the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople itself that condemned ecclesiological ethno-phyletism as a heresy in 1872."

He noted the conflicts taking place among the different Eastern Orthodox churches over "the uncanonical situations in North America". Interestingly, the canonicity of his own OCA has been rejected from the beginning by several of the other Orthodox Churches. The Metropolitan himself has described his "obsession" in pleading for an "administratively united" Orthodox Church, that is, the establishment of an "American Orthodox Church" that would unite all the jurisdictions in one body and have its own Patriarch. This idea, however, has encountered resistance from mother-churches abroad, and especially from the patriarchate of Constantinople in the person of the Patriarch Bartholomew who would also find himself in conflict with the now-deceased Patriarch of Moscow Alexy II over administrative control of the Orthodox Churches in Estonia and Ukraine, as well as in the United States

Constantinople's claim to possess authority over Churches in the "diaspora" of Western Europe and North and South America has been based on its interpretation of the famous 28th canon of the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, a claim declared "completely fantastic" by another Orthodox Bishop, the canonist Peter d'Huillier in his book "The Church of the Ancient Councils". Yet another Orthodox churchman Archbishop Paul of Finland stated in a 1990 report to the Preparatory Synod for a long-awaited Great and Holy Council that:

"the Patriarchates of Antioch, Moscow and Romania strongly oppose the authority of Constantinople over the diaspora and maintain that the theory remains an anachronism as far from the modern age as the year 451 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is from the 20th century."

As was observed in my article in "The Wanderer", "The Power Struggle in Eastern Orthodoxy" (8/9/07) various bishops of the Moscow patriarchate did not hesitate, in their quarrel over the Estonian and Ukranian Churches, to accuse Constantinople of presuming to exercise a universal jurisdiction over all the Churches in the diaspora, and indeed hurled the damning charge of "Papism". In his own argument for the non-interference of Constantinople in American affairs, Metropolitan Philip stated that:

"the notion that this [28th] Canon extends the authority of Constantinople to all territories that are not part of one or another local church is a novelty and one not recognized by the Orthodox Church as a whole."

He also scored the failure to address the "non-canonical situations in North America such as the infringement of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in North America with the blessings of the Patriarchate of Constantinople".

Metropolitan Philip's article is of interest to Catholics with its candid observations regarding the sharp divisions among the Eastern Orthodox over who has the authority to interpret and apply the canons of ancient Councils with respect to serious modern problems. Repelling Constantinople's efforts to use the 28th canon of Chalcedon to extend its jurisdiction over other Churches in the "diaspora", Metropolitan Philip has responded that:

"the Church in North America is mature enough to take care of herself without any interference from outside."

There remains the fact, however, that in the words of a recent OCA theologian Fr. Laurent A. Cleenewerck (cf. his recent volume "His Broken Body"):

"Eastern Orthodoxy is plagued by excessive nationalism, liturgical decay, and doctrinal fluctuations – all factors which have crippled its Apostolic energies."

There is no indication, moreover, that the on-going fragmentation of the Eastern Orthodox communion into conflicting "autocephalous" (independent) Churches based on strong ethno-centric and nationalistic tendencies (stigmatized as "heretical" by Metropolitan Philip) can be reversed at all in the absence of a universal Primate whose authority is not from any Council or majority vote of his fellow Bishops but is derived from Christ Himself.

For his part, Fr. Cleenewerck goes far in his admission of the need to have a universal Primate in the Church since:

"the universal vocation of the Church is connected to a universal primacy that should neither be absolute nor empty... History shows that the Churches need some kind of international center or mechanism of unity and arbitration."

Like some other Orthodox writers, he is willing to support the Pope as the universal Primate in the Church and as "connected with the Petrine origins of the Church of Rome" but not, it should be noted, as possessing supremacy over the other bishops or having doctrinal infallibility. The Eastern Orthodox Communion would accept "the formulation of a primacy that is based on conciliar agreement and well-defined in scope". However, such overtures (found also in the October 2007 Ravenna document of the Joint International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission) fall far short of the dogmatic teaching of the Church concerning the Roman Primacy embodied in the decrees of Vatican I and II. They also fall short of the witness of the Council of Chalcedon itself to the Roman Primacy enshrined in its Acts.

Contrary to Metropolitan Philip, this Fourth Ecumenical Council said absolutely nothing about "Old Rome" being the "first among equals". Pope Leo I was far more than the "first of equals" in exercising his supreme authority in the Church to reject the 28th Canon proposed by 84 of the 630 Fathers at the Council to extend the jurisdiction of Constantinople, thereby infringing on the traditional rights of Alexandria and Antioch. He acted to "dismiss it as without legal effect... By the authority of the Blessed Apostle Peter we quash it utterly by a general sentence." It was the same Pope Leo about whom the Fathers of the Council declared "Peter has spoken through Leo." The same Bishop of Rome was acclaimed during the proceedings as:

  • "head of all the Churches",
  • "ecumenical archbishop",
  • "ecumenical patriarch",
  • "archbishop of all the Churches",
  • the "most apostolic bishop who is the ruler of the whole Church",
  • and "who presided over the Council as head over the members"
  • and "appointed for all men the interpreter of the voice of Blessed Peter".

The Council witnessed the sentence of Pope Leo pronounced against the second most important bishop in the Church, Dioscorus of Alexandria, who had dared to excommunicate the Pope. The Roman legate Paschasinus gave voice to the belief of the Council Fathers in the Petrine origin of Papal power when he declared:

"Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us and through this most holy Council, together with the thrice blessed and all glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the Rock and support of the Catholic Church and the Foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of the episcopal and all priestly dignity."

Here was a striking example of Primacy acting and Collegiality following in concert.

It ought to be recalled that if Canon 28, as Metropolitan Philip states, "gave the city of Constantinople certain rights as the New Rome for secular, political reasons because it was the seat of the Emperor", it did not, in fact, deny the divine and Petrine origin of the Roman Primacy. The Canon had actually been drawn up for the Pope's acceptance. The Pope did not annul the Canon because he saw it as denying his supremacy in the Church but because it attempted to extend the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Constantinople on a temporal instead of a spiritual and apostolic basis in contradiction to the sixth canon of Nicea (the first Ecumenical Council). As Fr. Cleenewerck frankly admitted:

"Orthodox would almost like to forget that their [liturgical] calendar and theology is replete with 'Popes of Rome' whose teachings about their own authority is better left unmentioned."

Metropolitan Philip's article makes Catholics mindful of the need for renewed prayer to restore Unity between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It also serves notice concerning the timely nature of Pope Benedict XVI's recent words welcoming the election of the new Catholic Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians, His Beatitude Ignace Youssiff III Younan, by the Synod of Bishops of the Syriac Catholic Church:

"Communion with the Bishop of Rome, Peter's Successor, established by the Lord as the visible foundation of unity in faith and charity, guarantees the bond with Christ the Pastor and introduces the particular [and Patriarchal] Churches into the mystery of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church."

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:  jlikoudis@cuf.org, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage