A Serbian Orthodox View of the Catholic Church

An interesting article on the Catholic Church appeared in the Serbian "Encyclopedia of Orthodoxy" which was published in Belgrade in 2002. Thanks to the translation of the article recently provided by a Serbian Orthodox priest, Catholics are able to better assess the view of the Catholic Church held by some influential Serbian Orthodox and the consequent difficulties encountered by Catholics involved in the ecumenical dialogue with the various Eastern Orthodox national autocephalous churches. However, as our translator rightly observed, there is need for caution in assessing such an apparently reliable source:

"The Encyclopedia was printed with the blessing of His Holiness Serbian Patriarch Pavel. You probably should not take that to mean that it was carefully vetted in advance by the Patriarchate, or that the Patriarch or the Serbian Orthodox Church necessarily agrees with everything in it."

The note of caution is in order, considering the view of questionable historical and theological assertions found in the article. For example:

  • the Schism is declared to have been "finalized" at the time of the mutual excommunications between Cardinal Humbert and the Patriarch Michael Cerularius in 1054 A.D., a view no longer held by modern historians who acknowledge that some parts of the East remained in communion with Rome for some time afterwards;
  • The assertion that "the immediate cause of the schism was the papal suppression of Greek liturgical practices in southern Italy" appears unfounded;
  • It mistakenly states that "theologian Albert Magnus (+1280) wrote his theological Summae, which dominated official Roman Catholic theology to the second half of the 20th century" when it is St. Thomas Aquinas who is obviously meant;
  • The article appears to deny the possibility of the development of dogma in the Church admitted by some Eastern Orthodox theologians by claiming that "the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that the holy Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils have completely defined dogmatic teaching".

The article notes "the dogmatic disagreements over the procession of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist and predestination" but neglects to clarify the nature of the latter two "disagreements". It is strange to see the Roman Catholic Church blamed for its teaching on concomitance (whereby Christ is contained whole and entire under the species of bread and whole and entire under the species of wine) and which has justified the practice of Communion under only one species. The Encyclopedia writer criticizes the latter practice, despite its existence in the early Church, the maintenance of Communion under two species in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, and Vatican II’s change encouraging Communion under both forms. He rather continues (like his medieval ancestors) to maintain a jaundiced view of the use of unleavened bread in the Roman Liturgy. Similar objection is made to the use of "instrumental music (organs)" which also "appears elevated" to the doctrinal level. More serious are the objections to:

"the treasury of excess merits of the saints, from which flowed the teaching on indulgences, which goes completely against the spirit and teaching of the Orthodox Church; then, the teaching on purgatory, as well as the teaching on the assumption of the Virgin Mary."

This medley of doctrinal objections reflects the unfortunate influence of Protestant negations on Eastern Orthodox theology since the 17th century. The denial of Purgatory flies in the face of the offering of prayers, alms, and the Unbloody Sacrifice for the dead that characterize Orthodox liturgical life. The Serbian writer ignores that an indulgence (the Latin word for ‘pardon’ of the temporal punishment due sin) has its roots in the belief of the ancient Church that ecclesiastical authority has the power to determine the penance or good work which will expiate the punishment and cleansing due after death. The major Byzantine Feast of the Dormition/Assumption celebrating the Mother of God’s glorious entrance into heaven (body and soul) has existed since the 8th century. It would appear, however, that the Serbian Orthodox object more to the Catholic Church’s definition of the dogma of the Assumption than to its doctrinal truth.

The final paragraph of the article concludes with the charges that:

  • "the Roman Catholic Church" had "fallen into heresy";
  • and having "abandoned the saving faith" as expressed in the "Divine Tradition of the writings of the holy Fathers";
  • [and] It has "lost the fullness of apostolic succession... [and] been left without episcopal government and grace."

The various Eastern Orthodox theologians involved in theological dialogues with the Catholic Church clearly do not accept the extreme conclusion held by the most rigid and fanatical Orthodox that Catholics have "been left without episcopal government and grace", and would need to be baptized upon their restoration to "Orthodoxy".

The Serbian Orthodox priest who translated the article took the opportunity to disassociate himself from such extremist views which was clearly shared by some of the Greeks who vociferously protested Pope John Paul II’s trip to Athens. The same anti-Western animus may be said to underlie the doctrinal objections made by both Serbian and Greek Orthodox. Before Pope John Paul II visited Athens, Fr. James Spiteris, OFM.Cap. (now the Catholic Archbishop of Corfu, Zante, and Cefalonia, and a renowned specialist on Greek Orthodoxy) explained the main problems at the theological level inhibiting the Reunion of the Churches while also noting the political factors at work:

"During the Balkan war, the Greek Orthodox supported Serbia. Milosevic has property and money in Greece. They even accused the Pope of supplying arms to ‘fight our Serb brothers’. Greece has always felt persecuted by the West. In theology the most serious difficulty is that Orthodox bishops and theologians do not recognize Catholic sacraments as valid, whereas the Catholic Church does recognize those of the Orthodox... For the Orthodox, unless the Church believes in the ‘full truth of faith’, its sacraments cannot be valid. The [Orthodox] bishop of Corfu says the Church of Rome is a ‘worldly organization’. Other problems are the ‘filioque’... the primacy of the Pope, Marian dogmas of the second Millennium... These historical and theological problems could be overcome if the Greek Orthodox Church were not divided and polluted by fundamentalism. Radicals refuse ecumenism, dialogue, the sister-Church concept, they see the Pope as the root of all evil. Many Orthodox bishops think they are more Orthodox if they are more anti-Catholic... Catholics in Greece are considered second-rate citizens. We do not have the same rights as the Orthodox; we suffer discrimination, despite the constitution... [To the Greek mentality] Greeks are always Orthodox. Catholics are ‘foreigners’. Religion is identified with nationality. This is why the Orthodox Church has insisted that religion should remain on identity papers. This linking of the state with religion is a legacy from Byzantine times. The empire was seen as an exterior form of the Church, the emperor was the vicar of Christ".
(Interview with ZENIT, April 20, 2001)

Serbian Orthodoxy betrays the same nationalistic and anti-Catholic mentality as can be seen in modern Greek Orthodoxy. It is the fruit of centuries of political rivalries (especially with the Catholic Croats), seven wars involving the Serbian people during the 20th century, and theological misconceptions and errors by individual prelates and theologians who confuse their own views with that of pan-Orthodoxy. As an American Orthodox writer has noted:

"Anyone familiar with the Eastern Christian world knows that the Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious melange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement, and unreasonable dread."
(David B. Hart in "First Things", March 2001; p. 34)

Since the appearance of the Serbian "Encyclopedia of Orthodoxy", the May 2001 historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Greece has done much to mellow attitudes towards the Pope and the Papacy. In February 2003, there occurred an important visit to Rome by a delegation of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church which conveyed the cordial greetings of Patriarch Pavel to the Pope. Earlier in May, 2002, Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity had visited the Patriarch Pavel where both emphasized the need to eliminate misunderstandings and false views.

The teaching found in the "Encyclopedia of Orthodoxy" declaring the Catholic Church devoid of apostolic succession and grace represents a most serious doctrinal aberration, shared, as Archbishop Spiteris previously noted, by a number of prelates in Greece. It is also shared by other Orthodox prelates and churches revealing an absolutely critical doctrinal division among today’s Eastern Orthodox. It discloses a lack of unity of faith essential to the one infallible visible Church established by Christ.

For those converts to Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism (especially disenchanted Anglicans) who claim that the "Orthodox world enjoys so profound a unity of faith, worship, spirituality, and ecclesiology", the "Encyclopedia" article might well turn their attention to that world-wide Church which contains the fullness of faith and unity which Christ has bestowed on the Church in communion with the infallible See of Peter.

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