"On Some Questions Regarding Aspects of The Doctrine of The Church"


Of ecumenical interest to Catholic readers is the article "An Orthodox Response to the Recent Roman Catholic Declaration on the Nature of the Church" (that of the CDF, June 29, 2007) by Fr. John Morris which appeared in the October 2007 issue of "The Word" magazine. Fr. Morriss is a member of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, one of over 16 Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions. He rightly rejected "the Protestant doctrine of the ‘invisible Church’ because it destroys the reality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church identified by the Creed".

Understandably, he also took issue with Catholic doctrine on the Petrine Primacy but added: "It is really amazing that anyone is surprised that Pope Benedict XVI is a Catholic and teaches traditional Roman Catholic doctrine." His exposition of that doctrine, however, is not exempt from his own serious misconceptions. For example, he states, mistakenly, that the famous Bull "Unam Sanctam" (1302 A.D.) of Pope Boniface VIII "not only demanded spiritual obedience to the Bishop of Rome as head of the Church, but claimed authority over all secular governments." He thus quotes Pope Boniface VIII:

"We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

But here the Pope only reaffirmed and defined traditional Catholic doctrine that all must give the due religious obedience to the Pope to be members of the Church Christ established for the salvation of mankind. He did not define that obedience to the Pope is necessary in purely temporal matters, and the Catholic Church (excepting a few theologians) has never taught the doctrine that temporal princes or rulers are in secular matters directly subject to the Pope. The general theme of the Bull was that there is but one Church of Christ, a single unitary ecclesiastical body with but one head, Christ and His own Vicar, Peter first and then Peter’s successor. It was God Himself who so constituted the hierarchical structure of His Church.

In rejecting the Roman Primacy, Fr. Morris stated his conviction shared by his co-religionists that "The Orthodox Church is, according to Apostolic Succession, successor and heir to the old undivided Church." Catholics assuredly agree with Fr. Morriss that Christ established but one visible Church. This belief reflects an aspect of Apostolic Tradition that has been retained by Eastern Orthodox from their Catholic past. Catholics, however, would deny that it is the 16 or so autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches deprived of visible unity which constitute that one visible Church. It is curious that Fr. Morriss failed to give the words of the Pope in the same Bull which quote John 21: 17 and refer to the existence of the Byzantine Greek Schism:

"Whether, therefore, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to Peter and his successors, they must needs confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ; as Our Lord says in the Gospel of John: One fold and one Shepherd."

As historian Philip Hughes noted in his "A History of the Church", Vol. III, "The Bull ‘Unam Sanctam' is a document which contains a definition of the Pope’s Primacy as head of the Church." It does emphasize the superiority of the spiritual power over the temporal but only touches on the Church’s divinely-given authority "to correct the sins which kings commit as kings. The Bull does not set out this right in detail." (p.83) Pope Boniface VIII’s definition, moreover, is not a statement declaring those in "invincible ignorance" or lacking sufficient knowledge of the divine truth of Papal supremacy cannot be saved, but is rather a truthful assertion that Christians owe fidelity to the Pope as having supreme authority in the Church from God as the legitimate successor of St. Peter, to whom Our Lord gave the Keys of the Kingdom.

Fr. Morriss wrote further that "the [CDF] document states that the Catholic Church ‘subsists’ in the Church of Rome." This is not accurate, as the document makes no reference whatsoever to "the Church of Rome" but states rather that "the one Church subsists in the Catholic Church." The Church of Rome or the Roman Church indeed presides over all the Churches of the Catholic communion with a visible headship but it is quite misleading to suggest that the particular Church of Rome constitutes the entire Catholic Church. The Catholic Church cannot be confined to the Church of Rome or to its Roman liturgical rite. As to the term "Roman Catholic Church" used by Fr. Morriss, it is significant that Vatican II never uses the term "Roman Catholic Church" but always "the Catholic Church" to describe the true Church of Jesus Christ. Historically, the term "Catholic" is exclusive to the Catholic Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome who is the successor of the Apostle Peter.

Fr. Morriss asserts further that: "By recognizing that salvation is possible for those who reject the authority of Rome, the new document is much more tolerant than previous statements by the Vatican." His judgment that the CDF document "is much more tolerant than previous statements by the Vatican" is exaggerated since CDF merely repeated what had been already taught in Vatican II’s "Decree on Ecumenism" (#3) regarding the salvation of non-Catholics. His view is based on a misunderstanding of the language of previous Church documents dealing with the subject of "Nulla Salus extra Ecclesiam" ("Outside the Church there is no Salvation").

It is in accordance with ancient Tradition that the Catholic Church taught in Vatican II that:

"They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it."
(Lumen Gentium, #14)

The ancient Fathers of the Church held that deliberate schism and heresy are grave sins against the Unity of the Church and endanger one’s salvation, and the Catholic Church today does not teach differently. The traditional axiom "Outside the Church there is no Salvation", therefore, must be properly understood. To avoid both laxism and rigorism the Church felt the need to clarify once again in Vatican II and other official documents that:

"Those who through no fault of their own, do not know Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - these too may achieve eternal salvation."
(Lumen Gentium, #16; Catechism of the Catholic Church, #847)

It is, therefore, somewhat misleading for Fr. Morriss to allege that "the new [CDF document] is much more tolerant than previous statements by the Vatican". Rather, the CDF document is in perfect conformity with previous magisterial teachings. It would have been instructive if Fr. Morriss had noted how some of his fellow Orthodox condemn the "heresy of ecumenism" and have revived the error of St. Cyprian which held that outside the visible boundaries of the Church there are not valid sacraments, that Catholic sacraments are "without grace", and that, consequently, Catholics cannot be saved !

Fr. Morriss observed that both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox lay claim to be the visible Church founded by Christ. After acknowledging Catholic teaching concerning the Primacy of the Pope in the structure and life of the Church of the First Millennium, he proceeded to repeat the usual Orthodox position that the Papacy and its development constitute an unwarranted innovation, actually a usurpation of power which did not exist in the ancient "undivided Church". His arguments for rejection of the supreme authority of the successor of Peter over the entire Church constitute standard Protestant and Orthodox polemic and are without scientific merit as being fundamentally anti-historical. This is freely acknowledged by various Protestant and Orthodox writers who have conceded that certainly by the time of Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century and long before the Byzantine Greek Schism began in 1054 A.D., the Papacy was "alive and well" with its universal jurisdiction stated in the fullest terms by such Popes as Leo the Great, Gelasius, Hormisdas, Gregory the Great, Hadrian I, Agatho - all acknowledged as Saints by the Orthodox. Great Eastern Saints similarly asserted the Popes’ authority to be grounded in the special powers and prerogatives granted Peter, the Chief and Head of the Apostles, by Christ Himself (cf. Matt. 16: 18-19; Lk. 22: 31-32; Jn. 21: 15-17).

Such vigorous assertions of the supreme authority of the See of Peter over the Churches of East and West were precisely those of the "undivided Church". The Papal claims of ancient Popes were expressed in terms basically identical to those stated by Vatican I and II and presently set forth by Pope Benedict XVI. The most astute Orthodox candidly admit the logic of the matter : If the Church is admitted to be infallible (not able to err in faith and morals), surely its supreme teaching authority in the person of its Chief Pastor and as the voice of the entire Church must be infallible. In fact, as Catholics have long held, the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils, and indeed that of the Church itself, cannot be sustained without the infallibility of the Pope as the supreme teacher in faith and morals.

Fr. Morriss’ article is important to Catholics for manifesting once more the inadequacy and fatal contradictions found in Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology. He fails to mention that his understanding of the nature of the Church as a "federation of autocephalous or independent local Churches" is not shared by other Orthodox prelates and theologians. A "federation" is one where each Church would "subordinate its power to that of a central authority"(Dictionary). However the Eastern Orthodox communion has no "central authority" and specifically rejects any such, and especially in the Papacy! Contrast Fr. Morriss’s view with that of Pope Benedict XVI who declared in his Homily for Pentecost (May 11, 2008), that:

"The Catholic Church is not a federation of Churches, but a single reality : The Universal Church has ontological priority."

Here the Pope emphasized an essential aspect of Catholic teaching on "communio", namely, that the Church Christ founded is not a mere plurality or aggregate of particular Churches each of which can be considered self-sufficient and does not need to be in organic unity with the Church’s living and visible center of unity. The Catholic Church with its living and visible center constitutes:

"a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church... and gives birth to particular Churches as her daughters. She expresses herself in them. She is the mother and not the offspring of the particular Churches." (See the CDF Letter to the Bishops on the Church as Communion, May 28, 1992).

Fr. Morriss repeatedly refers to the "Orthodox Church" (many Catholic writers are seen to use the same expression uncritically), whereas the reality is that of an assemblage of local particular Eastern Churches with no visible Unity. His view of the magisterium of Ecumenical Councils is also at odds with other Eastern Orthodox theologians (Russians, Serbs, and Greeks) who now reject the infallibility of the visible Church’s hierarchy, and, following the lead of the 19th c. Russian Orthodox lay theologian Alexei Khomiakov, declare the Church’s infallibility as diffused equally through the entire membership of the Church. This position amounts to a real denial of the Church’s infallibility long upheld by the more traditionally-minded theologians. This modern insistence by some Orthodox that the consent of the faithful is an absolute requirement for the Unity and Infallibility of the Church must be said to be in direct contradiction to the tradition of the "undivided Church" which saw in Peter’s See at Rome its visible head and center of Unity and the voice of its Infallibility (with or without Ecumenical Councils).

No repeated denials of the Roman primacy across the centuries of the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism can overcome the common sense judgment that a visible Church demands a visible head - a visible head that can speak with the authority of the God-man Himself on questions of disputed faith and morals. Patriarchs and bishops separated from the visible head of the Church have no guarantee from the Holy Spirit of infallibility in teaching. Theologically and historically, that visible head of the Church Militant with the charism of infallibility can only be the Bishop of Rome who sits on the Cathedra of the Prince of the Apostles as the very Rock of the teaching Episcopate.

Fr. Morriss has written a calm and dispassionate examination of the CDF document, but what is most interesting concerning his article is his complete avoidance of the confusing, discordant, and contradictory views concerning the nature of the Church and its hierarchy that presently exist between traditionalist and modernist theologians in the Pan-Orthodox world.

The above article was published in the June 5, 2008, issue of the national Catholic newspaper "The Wanderer" (201 Ohio St., St. Paul MN 55107).

James Likoudis is well known as a Catholic writer and has authored three books dealing with Eastern Orthodox theology and ecclesiology. For other articles of interest visit:   James Likoudis' Homepage