Apologetics, The Papacy,
And Eastern Orthodoxy

A sizeable religious literature in Apologetics has grown in past decades as the Catholic Church has continued to be attacked by those Protestants (Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and those belonging to minor sects) who remain influenced by the older Protestant polemics of the Reformation period filled with gross misunderstandings of Catholic doctrines. In an age which in large measure has appeared to have abandoned reason, it is desirable that Catholics restore the proper role of reason and to appeal to reason to establish the credibility of Christianity and the claims of the Catholic Church to be the visible embodiment in this world of the Church Christ Himself founded to be the "Pillar and Ground of the truth" (1Tim. 3:15).

In the opinion of this writer, much of the force of Catholic doctrinal debate with Protestants is rendered ineffective unless a major premise is established first - namely that the Church mentioned throughout the pages of the New Testament is a visible entity, a visible society, a visible body which can be clearly and without difficulty identified as the true Church established by the Savior. However, most Protestants do not, in fact, hold the "one Church and one Church only" (Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, 1) to be a visible body at all but to be invisible in nature - a Church of the elect, or of the predestined, or of the "saved" who are known only to God, or perhaps - according to some modern ecumenists - are made up of all the baptized who possess a sort of vague spiritual unity sufficient to identify them all as members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Consequently, unless the grace of God intervenes to make a Protestant realize that a visible authority (in the form of an authoritative Church) actually exists in this world to teach unerringly and to judge and settle religious disputes, there is no way to avoid the kind of religious anarchy we see manifested among the 28,000 Protestant denominations listed in religious encyclopedias. Protestantism ends in absolute religious subjectivism and in the tragic spread of religious indifferentism and skepticism. The great Catholic Counter-Reformation Apologists were quite perceptive in judging that Protestantism logically led to infidelity or unbelief.

The teaching of the 2nd Vatican Council with regards to the nature of the Church constitutes the most magnificent Magisterial expression of ecclesiology in the 2,000 years of Catholic Christianity. The central document of Vatican II, its "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (Lumen Gentium), set forth Catholic teaching on the nature of the Catholic Church as a visible social body built on the Rock of Peter which was at the same time the mysterious Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Its "Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches" noted that "The Holy Catholic Church, which IS the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government." And "Lumen Gentium" had indeed much to say concerning "the unity of the flock of Christ, in so far as it is assembled under one (visible) head"(L.G. 22) — namely the Roman Pontiff, the Successor of Peter. Concerning that "supreme authority" in the College of Bishops which was established by the historical Christ for His "one and only Church", Lumen Gentium noted, "The Holy Spirit preserves unfailingly that form of government which was set up by Christ the Lord in His Church." (L.G. 27)

The Primacy of supreme authority and universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff in the Church and the authority of the other Bishops who make up the College of Bishops are therefore both essential elements in the divine constitution of the Church, and this has been the verdict of ecclesiastical history during the Church's 2,000 years. The teaching on Catholic Unity found in Vatican I's "First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ" and Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" bear ample witness to this verdict.

It is to be emphasized that the position of the Eastern Orthodox churches (whose called-for-Unity with the Catholic Church is one of the highest priorities in Pope John Paul II's pontificate) is quite different than that of most Protestants. They believe that the Church is indeed visible and that their communion is, in fact, the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church" noted in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Primacy of the Pope as defined by the Councils of Florence, Vatican I and Vatican II is the "rock of contradiction" that now clearly serves as the biggest obstacle to the union of the Churches, though in the Middle Ages, curiously enough, it was the dogmatic issue of the Procession of the Holy Spirit and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist which identified for Byzantine dissidents the Pope and those in communion with him as "heretical".

The inability of Eastern Orthodox theologians and hierarchs to understand the proper relationship between Primacy and Collegiality (or Conciliarity) lies at the heart of their doctrinal resistance to the Papacy's Petrine Ministry. As some of them have said - in tune, interestingly enough, with some Protestants - the only Vicar of Christ is the Holy Spirit. In this statement lies the profound error concerning the visible government of the Church that has resulted in what we see among the 16 or so autocephalous (i.e., independent) churches making up the Eastern Orthodox communion - namely, a truncated hierarchy that cannot speak with one voice on doctrinal issues. A Catholic writer some years ago wrote beautifully that "From Christ the Apostles received the Holy Spirit who made them One". Concerning the episcopate in the Church (i.e., the corporate body of Bishops ruling the Church), he noted further :

"The Spirit of Christ present in the episcopal body is the source of its unity. It is He who assists the college in its teaching and prevents it from any substantial error in the matter of faith. He inspires, moves and helps the college in its activity. The one Holy Spirit is holding together the many members of the episcopal body.

The supernatural power of the Spirit is the common possession of the episcopal body, although the head and members do not share it in the same degree. The Successor of Peter posseses it in a way that makes him the principle of unity for the many members. The members possess it in a way that makes them able to act in a corporate manner when the head calls upon them to do so. The Spirit of Christ, says Lumen Gentium 'strengthens the organic structure of the college and its harmony'. The body, of course remains one : one theological subject of this mysterious power, of which the practical or legal manifestation is twofold - either through an act of the head of the college of bishops or through the action of the whole college [as in an Ecumenical Council]."

(Fr. Ladislas M. Orsy, S.J., "Collegiality: Its Meaning" in America, May 15, 1965)

Clarifying further the relation between the Pope and the Bishops of the Church, he observed :

"Peter remains the Rock on which the Church is built. On this Rock rests even the college of bishops - not as a foreign body added to it, but as a structure that God has united to the Rock to help carry the weight of the whole edifice of the Universal Church."

And what a weight and burden the Bishop of Rome as the Successor of the Rock-man carries in his Petrine Office as Primate of the Universal Church. This was noted by John of Salisbury in the 12th century writing in his famous political treatise "Policraticus" of Pope Hadrian IV :

"The Cathedra of the Roman Pontiff is a bed of thorns, his mantle, trimmed with the sharpest points all over, is so heavy that it weighs down, bruises, and crushes the strongest shoulders, and the tiara with its crown may well seem bright because it is made of fire."
(VI, 24)

Though the Pope no longer wears a tiara, he, as the Chief Bishop of the Church, continues to image his Crucified Master in that Way of the Cross which constitutes the Church's pilgrimage through history. G.K.Chesterton once referred to "the halo of hatred that surrounds the Church of God" in that pilgrimage. In the past centuries of violent Protestant and Eastern Orthodox polemics directed against the Papacy as an, if not the, "Antichrist", we can see, in fact, that "halo of hatred" most glaringly manifested. We may recall the words of that astute 19th c. Catholic thinker Joseph de Maistre who observed that "the hatred of Rome is the only but universal tie between all the separated Churches." (Du Pape, Book IV, Chapter I)

Though ecumenical dialogue and contacts have greatly softened the polemics of the past regarding the role of the Pope in the Church - and God is to be thanked for that -, serious difficulties remain with regards to both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox coming to a better understanding and appreciation of the role of the Pope in the Church. Moreover, with some Catholics defecting to the Eastern Orthodox communion because of the doctrinal and liturgical disorders of the post-conciliar period, Catholic Apologists can not ignore the renewed intransigence of some Eastern Orthodox towards the "heresy" of the Papacy.

The Eastern Orthodox continue to profess the ancient belief of the "undivided Church" that the Episcopacy continues the apostolic mission of the original Apostolic College. They fail to acknowledge, however, the illogicality of rejecting the communion of the one Bishop, who is the heir of the one Apostle chosen by Christ to be the Rock-foundation, Holder of the Keys of the Kingdom, Confirmer of the brethren, and Chief Pastor of the entire flock (cf. Matt. 16:18ff; Lk. 22:31; Jn. 21:15-17), and thereby given the awesome responsibility to safeguard the visible unity of the one Church Christ had founded for the salvation of all men. As Vatican I and Vatican II have insisted :

"In order that the episcopate itself, however, might be one and undivided, Christ put Peter at the head of the other Apostles, and in him He set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion."
(Lumen Gentium, 18)

Catholic tradition has always seen clearly that if the Gates of Hell (heresies, schisms, and persecutions, etc.) are not to prevail against the Church built on the Rock-foundation of Peter, Christ's authoritative Invisible headship of the Church must be reflected in the hierarchical order of the Church itself. It is the Primacy of Christ (1 Coloss.1:18) that is manifested in the Primacy of Peter's Successor in the hierarchy of the Church. It is Christ's headship that is reflected in the Bishop of Rome being constituted the. visible head and indivisible center of unity for all the local churches (East and West) making up the Catholic communion.

A recent polemic that is worth the atttention of Catholic Apologists is that of Mr. Clark Carlton, a former Southern Baptist minister who has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. In his "The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church" (Regina Orthodox Press, 1999; 270 pp.), he purports to give a "theological analysis of the differences between Rome and Orthodoxy, not a critique of the reforms of Vatican II". This does not keep him from alleging that "the Roman Catholic Church has become highly protestantized in the wake of Vatican II" and from attempting to dissuade "Evangelical Protestants who are considering converting to the Roman Catholic Church" (pages 8-9). He devotes an entire Chapter to criticize especially Catholic convert Scott Hahn for his "appalling ignorance of history", particularly with regards to the crippling influence of the Byzantine Greek and Russian Emperors who dominated the life of the dissident Greco-Slav churches for centuries. Following the lead of the Russian Orthodox Jean Meyendorff, Clark's attempt to discount a "caesaropapism which did not in fact exist" is not convincing.

Interestingly, Mr. Carlton earned an M.A. in Early Christian Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His recent book attacking the Catholic Church and the Papacy represents the sorry revival of the worst kind of polemics launched by dissident Byzantines before and after the Reunion Council of Florence (1439). This is evidenced by the author's inclusion of documents expressive of the bitterness and violent invectives often hurled against "heretical Rome":

  • the 1285 Tome against the "Filioque" of the Council of Blachernae;
  • the 1848 Encyclical Reply by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem to Pius IX's invitation to them to attend Vatican I;
  • the 1993 Letter of Mt. Athos Monks taking to task the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, for his ecumenical overtures to "the Pope, the man-god and idol of Western humanism".

Mr. Carlton will have no part of Eastern Orthodox ecumenical efforts. [To him] Ecumenism is simply another "heresy". In fact, [he states that:]

  • "the Orthodox Church considers the Roman Catholic Church to be in heresy" (page 9)...
  • The doctrine of the papacy...is heresy", as representing a radical departure from the ecclesiology of the early Church (page 18).
  • "The Orthodox [have] rejected the 'Filioque' [i.e., the words "and the Son" added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the Latin Church] because it was heretical" (page 62).
  • "It must be recognized as a heresy and formally repudiated" (page 75).
  • "Orthodoxy" rejects Roman Catholic doctrines such as: "Papal supremacy and infallibility"; "changing the Creed (the 'Filioque')"; "worrying about going to a non-existent place (purgatory), paying money to stay out of said non-existent place (indulgences)"; and "the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception".

This last doctrine is accused of "turning the Virgin Mary into some sort of super-human" (an immaculately conceived Co-redemptrix).

For Mr. Carlton, "Orthodoxy" also rejects the Catholic doctrine of salvation based upon concepts of satisfaction and merit. "To put it bluntly", he pontificates, Eastern Orthodoxy "knows a different Christ from that of the Roman Catholic Church" (page 187). "We simply do not confess the same faith".

Space does not permit here to deal adequately with the many doctrinal misconceptions, erroneous theological arguments, and distortions of historical fact found in this anti-ecumenical work. Its familiar charges and allegations have often been refuted by Catholic scholars, and are very similar in nature and import to another recent book published by the same Press (Michael Whelton's "Two Paths: Papal Monarchy or Collegiality") which is similarly directed against the "heretical" Papacy. Not surprisingly, both of these books clearly evidence the results of schism from the See of Peter, namely, doctrinal variations and contradictions among the Eastern Orthodox and consequent confusion as to what (in the absence of any Ecumenical Council since the 8th c.) constitutes their "official teaching".

Mr. Carlton says he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy rather than to the Catholic Church because he saw in the former's theology and life "a pure witness" to the religion of the early Church. Yet he is forced to acknowledge with the monks of Mt. Athos an "already disunited body of Orthodoxy"- one racked with the heresy of "phyletism" (a heresy condemned as such in an l872 Council at Constantinople). Phyletism is defined as "the theory that the Church should be organized according to ethnic make-up rather than according to territorial dioceses"- an innovation quite contrary to the ancient canons. The sorry result has been - in the words of the Mt. Athos monks - "ensuing chaos", now strikingly manifest in multiple Orthodox jurisdictions, a number of which are declared "uncanonical" by some and "schismatical" or "heretical" by others. Whereas Carlton insists that each of his "national churches" professes "one and the same Orthodox faith", he fails to see the flagrant contradictions into which he falls. The Church's ecclesiology, he declares, is "not subject to change". Yet he admits that Rome's claims to a primacy of universal jurisdiction is already found in the 5th century when the Orthodox Eastern churches were in full communion with Rome. The 'Filioque", he charges 'ad nauseam' is "heretical", but he admits the doctrine of the Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from (or through) the Son was already widespread in the Western Church since the 5th century (and when the orthodox Eastern churches were in full communion with it). In claiming that the Eastern Orthodox profess "one and the same Orthodox faith", he ignores the brute fact that theologians (both past and present) are found who believe that the 'Filioque' is not heretical; who have expressed belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God so venerated among them; who believe in a "purification or cleansing of the soul" in the after-life (with its pains and torments) - a teaching practically indistinguishable from our Catholic doctrine of purgatory; and who believe that Papal supremacy has deep historical roots in the early Church being clearly admitted in the East long before the 11th century estrangement between Rome and Constantinople.

Fortunately, Mr. Carlton does not speak for all Eastern Orthodox bishops, theologians, and laity; some will surely find his views quite extremist and strident, and will be embarrassed by his and fellow zealots' denunciation of ecumenism as "heresy". Also, readers of his book may find quite questionable his elevating the 14th century theologian Gregory Palamas' controversial teaching on the essence and energies of God to the status of dogma (and this without benefit of an Ecumenical Council !). Nor do his views on the nature of the Church find approval with a writer of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

Reviewing an earlier book by Mr. Carlton ("The Faith : Understanding Orthodox Christianity - An Orthodox Catechism", 1997), Fr.Alexey Young (himself a former Catholic) observed:

"The author says that: 'the Orthodox Church has faithfully maintained the apostolic faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), neither adding to nor subtracting from it.' A fine statement, but one which is, in this context, at best an optimistic generalization, for some Orthodox jurisdictions have in fact departed significantly from the Faith 'once delivered to the saints', as even a cursory study will reveal."
("Orthodox America", 1997)

Mr. Carlton must also be said to live in quite another theological world than that of the late Panteleimon, Metropolitan of Chios, who observed many years ago (in words that have been echoed by other Eastern Orthodox prelates) that:

"Between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, it is fanaticism alone, that has emphasized the insignificant differences, differences that were never serious, that existed in former times without bringing on a schism."
(Le Monde, January 26, 1952)

Then, too, it can be perceived that behind many of the author's erroneous statements lies a residue of centuries of old Protestant prejudices and fanatical animus against "Romanism" and "Mariolatry". A number of Eastern Orthodox theologians he quotes (such as the 19th c. lay theologian Khomjakov) were undeniably influenced by Protestant negations of Catholic doctrines.

In conclusion, Mr. Carlton has rehashed old doctrinal grievances and complaints against the Catholic Church by Byzantine dissidents who have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Tradition of their own Eastern Fathers on those dogmatic matters where they choose to find themselves at odds with Catholic teaching. Ironically, his book has served to highlight the irreconcilable doctrinal divisions, disputes, and schisms currently found in the 16 or so autocephalous (jurisdictionally independent) churches making up the Eastern Orthodox communion.

Though by the grace of God, the Eastern Orthodox have kept in almost complete measure the Catholic faith as defined in the first seven Ecumenical Councils, they have departed from the fullness of that faith in sadly separating themselves from the communion of the Rock-foundation of the Church, Peter and his successors, the Roman Pontiffs. Readers will recall Cardinal Newman's famous aphorism : "To go deep into history is to cease to be a Protestant".

It is also true that for those who seek integral orthodoxy, love the Catholic unity of the Church, and meditate seriously upon the role of the Papacy in the First Millenium, "To go deep into history is to cease to be Eastern Orthodox."

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