Catholic Classroom: Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic

Question: Why aren’t the Orthodox and Roman Churches in full communion?

Catholic Classroom: Why aren't the Orthodox & Roman Churches in communion?

Not long before his Passion, Jesus prayed for his disciples, saying, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). Sadly, in the two millennia since the Church began, there have been divisions that have kept all Christians from being one. One of the oldest divisions is between the Churches in the East (Orthodox) and the West (Roman). This division became stark in the mid-eleventh century, when a great deal of mistrust was sown between the Churches. Today, though the Orthodox and Roman Churches hold many of the same beliefs, they are not in full communion with each other.

The good news is that both sides are working toward reconciling and becoming a united Church that respects individual traditions. Instead of ill will and hostility, there is now respect between Orthodox and Catholic leaders. Conversations and meetings have been ongoing to resolve the remaining issues.

If there is a desire for unity on both sides, why aren’t the Churches in communion? Over the years, as traditions developed even after the initial schism, theological differences have come up. Before full communion can be a reality, both sides are discussing and working through these differences. Here are some of the biggest differences between the Churches:

1. The role of the pope

This is the oldest and biggest issue dividing the Roman and Orthodox Churches. Roman Catholics recognize the primacy of the pope (the bishop of Rome), meaning that his authority is greater than that of the other bishops. The Orthodox Church does not recognize the authority of the bishop of Rome as greater than that of other bishops, nor do they believe in papal infallibility. Instead, they recognize equal leaders of five patriarchates.

2. The Immaculate Conception of Mary

While Catholics recognize the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and believe that Mary was conceived without original sin, the Orthodox have a different understanding of original sin. They do believe that Mary was sinless, but not that she was born without original sin.

3. Purgatory

The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have different understandings of purgatory. While the Orthodox Church does not have an officially defined doctrine about purgatory, Roman Catholics define purgatory as a purification process for those who have died in a state of grace, but in need of further purification to go to heaven. However, the Orthodox usually do acknowledge a similar purification process and still pray for the dead.

4. Marriage

In the Roman Catholic Church, a married man may not become a priest (except in specific, rare cases when certain married Protestant clergy convert), nor may a priest get married. In the Orthodox Church, priests may not get married, but a man who is already married may become a priest.

As we work toward holy discernment for these issues, we pray for unity and peace among all Christians.


Catholic Classroom: Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic