CAN YOU BE ORTHODOX IN COMMUNION WITH ROME? by Brian A. Butcher, Liam Farrer, and Kevin Basil Fritts

This is the second article in our Dialogical Series. The growing trend among some Eastern Catholics to identify as “Orthodox in communion with Rome” raises the present question. Our respondents are, respectively, Ukrainian Greco-Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.


~ Brian A. Butcher ~

I would like to begin by reversing the question, though it may seem like an oxymoron: “Can you be Orthodox and not in communion with the Orthodox?” I think this way of putting things will prove its usefulness as we proceed.

Whom, exactly, does the moniker “Orthodox” include? Conventionally, it refers to the members of the Eastern Orthodox Churches—often referred to in the singular as the Orthodox Church. But here we encounter the first discrepancy, because the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Churches today construe themselves as a singularity is largely due to their liturgical homogeneity, i.e., their nearly exclusive usage of the Byzantine Rite. This risks implying that unity in faith requires, or naturally equates to, uniformity in worship. To the contrary, however, it is well known that in the first millennium there was intercommunion among the Chalcedonian Churches, despite their diverse liturgical traditions. 

Based on the first millennium’s example, Churches that do not share a common liturgical tradition may still be in communion with each other. The Chalcedonian patriarchates of the East, for instance, suffered a centuries-long period of byzantinization during which they only gradually discarded their indigenous Liturgies. But this pluralism begs the question, how do we know whether someone is in fact Orthodox? To wit, if today, among Eastern Orthodox, the dominant meaning of the descriptor “orthodox” is that of “right worship”—the only translation, after all, for the Slavonic pravoslavie—even though right worship cannot be said, historically, to be the sole property of the Byzantine Rite currently ubiquitous within Eastern Orthodoxy, one is forced to conclude that right worship may exist elsewhere. 

The Oriental Orthodox Churches claim exactly this, preserving among themselves a diversity of Eastern apostolic Rites. In the liturgical sense, at least, these Oriental Churches are indubitably “Orthodox” despite their lack of communion with Constantinople, Moscow (or Rome, for that matter). But perhaps “Orthodoxy” is not to be uniquely defined as “right worship?”

The other sense attaching to our term is “right belief.” But here too an ecclesiological conundrum appears. When “Orthodoxy” is defined dogmatically as, for instance, adherence to the “Seven Ecumenical Councils”—a common criterion—we find this same adherence shared with Roman Catholics. Whatever Eastern Orthodox ambivalence may be toward the Western Rite, one must recognize Latin acceptance of a conciliar “right belief,” in this respect—the chequered history of East-West relations in the second millennium notwithstanding. At the risk of redundancy: the Oriental Orthodox (and Assyrian Church of the East) have Orthodox liturgies; the Catholics, meanwhile, accept all the Councils. Thus it seems you can be Orthodox in one sense or the other, while out of communion with the Eastern Orthodox.

At this point, I might be accused of disingenuousness. If the non-Byzantine Rites were once liturgically Orthodox, have they not been tainted in that their respective Churches have either not accepted dogmatic Orthodoxy in its full form—or worse, presumed to add to it?  Are not “liturgical Orthodoxy” and “dogmatic Orthodoxy” a package deal? 

If so, I then ask the following: Is it possible that someone having both forms of Orthodoxy might even then still not be in communion with the Orthodox? Well, yes; consider the Greek or Romanian Old Calendarists, or the Russian Old Believers, or the portion of ROCOR which has not accepted reunion with Moscow. All of these Churches are both Byzantine-Rite, and marked by exclusive adherence to the Ecumenical Councils—and even (unlike Roman Catholics) the subsequent heritage of the Chalcedonian East. Such Churches are Orthodox in both senses, and still lack communion with the self-identified “canonical” Orthodox. (Naturally, the Churches mentioned consider themselves to be fully canonical in their own right—and Rite!).

 It is thus clearly possible to be Orthodox and not in communion with “the Orthodox”—at least not all of them. One is at pains to demonstrate that “being Orthodox” as such requires communion with anyone in particular; even such pre-eminent sees as Constantinople and Moscow went out of communion with each other in 1996, over the matter of jurisdiction in Estonia. 

With this perspective, we are finally ready to consider the situation of Eastern Catholics, such as Greco-Catholics, as fellow Chalcedonians possessing even a shared Byzantine “liturgical Orthodoxy”—though regrettably out of communion (at present) with their fellow Orthodox. Since no Orthodox council has ever defined Orthodoxy as “the state of not being in communion with ‘X,’” it would seem impossible to determine conclusively that someone is not Orthodox merely in virtue of their communion with a given Church. After all, the Church of Serbia has historically been in communion with both ROCOR and Moscow, even while these two were not in communion with each other. Neither “communion with ‘x’”—nor, conversely, “lack of communion with ‘x’”—is therefore an adequate arbiter of Orthodoxy. 

Vatican II clarified Rome’s approbation of all the Eastern Churches. As Unitatis Redintegratio has it: the Orthodox “possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are linked with [the Catholic Churches] in closest intimacy” (15). Thus we may perhaps adapt the classic Anglican adage concerning the Sacrament of Confession: in regard to  communion with Rome, Eastern Catholics believe in good conscience that “none must,” although “all may,” and “some should”—specifically those who feel with Pope St. John Paul II “a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other…that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West” (Orientale Lumen, 1).           

If I have established that one can be (a kind of) Orthodox in communion with Rome, I have hardly yet explained why one might want to become (or remain) such. But that is a topic for another blogpost….

~ Liam Farrer ~

While I understand, appreciate, and even encourage Eastern Catholics to promote their own liturgical-theological identities, distinct from my own Latin Rite, and while I pray for the full realization of St. John Paul II’s hope for a Church that breathes with both lungs, I nevertheless remain opposed to the phrase “Orthodox in communion with Rome.” I believe the terminology used within it to be inaccurate. I cannot, in such a short space, expand on this as fully as I would like; therefore, I will limit myself to a discussion of the four most pressing issues with the phrase.

  1. Historically, the Eastern liturgical traditions were never the exclusive property of Orthodoxy:

This point may seem contentious but I should explain. There can be no denial that, following the Great Schism, the Orthodox Churches did the yeoman’s share of preserving the heritage of the Christian East. However, this heritage extends past the Great Schism of 1054, and was not exclusively Orthodox after the Schism. Both the Italo-Albanian Greek Catholic and Maronite Catholic Churches preserved this Eastern heritage while being in communion with Rome, as did the Melkites who were originally in dual communion with the Catholic and Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. The place of the continued Eastern tradition in Catholicism after the Schism is noted by the hierarchs of Kiev in The Union of Brest who require that the Church in Rome allow them to continue to celebrate their Divine Liturgies, as well as the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, noting “in Rome these same services are kept within the obedience of the Supreme Pontiff.”

2. It encourages latinization:

When one discusses the history of the Eastern Catholic Churches after the Union of Brest and prior to the Second Vatican Council, it’s hard to see much good due there being a clear elephant in the room. Latinization! From the Union of Brest to the Second Vatican Council, the latinization of the Eastern Catholic Churches was not only rather explicit, but ran much deeper than the use of rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and Adoration. One only need peruse the Liturgicon used by Byzantine Catholic Churches at the turn of the last century to understand what I’m talking about. While the concept of a “Read Divine Liturgy” might seem non-threatening enough, the rubric’s call to replace the entrances with the priest carrying the vessels to the altar at the start of the service, in the same way the Latin priest does at the start of a “Low Mass,” is extremely theologically problematic. Latinizations such as this will not be undone, however, by declaring an Eastern Church to be “Orthodox in communion with Rome.” If Eastern Catholics identify as Orthodox instead of embracing the relationship between universality and particularity, Latin Catholics will no doubt respond—as they have in the past—by either attempting to force Latin devotionals on the Eastern Churches (a violation of the Treaty of Brest) to get them to appear more “Catholic,” or by attempting to shame them into adopting such practices by challenging their Catholic status in the first place. On the other hand, if we teach ALL Catholics about the treasure of particularity that exists within the Church’s universality we will all not only grow in appreciation for the unique spiritual practices of the East, but will come to see these practices as being fully Catholic, in addition to fully Orthodox. This, I believe, will ultimately help our Churches bridge the chasm between them.

3. It is ecumenically problematic:

As much as we like to pretend that full communion between our Churches is on the horizon, the fact remains that there is a fundamental difference in what it means for a Church to be Catholic and what it means to be Orthodox. A Church cannot be Catholic, as Lumen Gentium puts it, if it does not “profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or [has] not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” A Church cannot be Orthodox if its status as an Orthodox Church is not recognized as canonical by the other Orthodox Churches. Thus the use of the term Orthodox to describe a Catholic Church is ecumenically problematic, given that they are not only not recognized as canonical Churches by the Eastern Orthodox Church, they cannot be as long as they are in communion with the Holy See. According to Orthodox theology one can either be Orthodox or one can be in communion with Rome (or any other non-Orthodox Church). One cannot be both. For the Catholic Church to suggest otherwise would create an ecumenical problem.

4. It can lead to negative ecclesiological repercussions for Eastern Catholics:

There is an old saying, “We become what we contemplate.” If one contemplates oneself as an Orthodox one may start to think of one’s Church’s relationship with the Papacy from an Orthodox point of view, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the first among equals amongst the various heads of the other Sui Juris Catholic Churches—much like a Catholic Ecumenical Patriarch. This can lead to confusion, as it may cause one to think that certain actions such as the issuing of an encyclical or an apostolic exhortation are limited to the Latin Church as opposed to the Church Universal. This error not only prevents Eastern Catholics from fully engaging with the universal aspect of their own tradition, but it can lead to a kind of negative tension between Western and Eastern Catholics, which often leads to disassociation where there should be communion.

The phrase “Orthodox in communion with Rome” is problematic, but more important is the problem that it identifies. Too often we identify ourselves by our particular, Sui Juris identity first, and as Catholic second.

We must do the opposite. Only by beginning to think of ourselves as Catholic first, and as one particular expression of that Catholicism second, will we truly be able to breathe with both lungs.

~ Kevin Basil Fritts ~

Is it possible to be Orthodox in communion with Rome? I will examine the question from the perspective of the Orthodox not in communion with Rome. This is not a judgment on the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches or their justification in self-identifying as “Orthodox in communion with Rome.” Rather, it is simply analyzing the question, “Is it possible to be Orthodox in communion with Rome?” from the perspective of the Orthodox Church which continues to answer, “No.” I will address the following dividing issues:

  • The insertion of the word filioque into the Latin text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (hereafter, “the Creed”);
  • The exercise of Roman primacy;
  • The proclamation by Vatican I of papal infallibility;
  • The pastoral practice of the East, dependent on the distinction between God’s transcendent essence and His activity in the created world; and finally,
  • Orthodox desire for union.

The insertion into the Creed of the word filioque, meaning “and from the Son,” was ostensibly the issue over which the schism between the two Churches took place. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, many of the theological issues surrounding the filioque have been resolved. The Roman Catholic Magisterium, as I am told by Roman Catholic colleagues, has resolved that the filioque applies only to the economy of the Holy Trinity and not the essential relations of the hypostases among themselves. That is to say, filioque only affirms that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Son’s role in procession is to send the Holy Spirit into the world.

The remaining problem is twofold: Does it belong in the Creed? Who would say so? To the first part, the Orthodox continue to say, unequivocally, “No.” This negative response is due both to their response to the second part—that only an ecumenical council could do such a thing—and because the addition of the word filioque to the Creed destroys the link to the scriptural, dominical saying: “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, He will testify to me” (Jn 15.26 NABRE).

But much more important is why the filioque divided us: the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, inserted it on his own authority as primus inter pares. This authority has never been relinquished by Rome; indeed, the First Vatican Council introduced a major stumbling block into the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church by proclaiming that the Roman pontiff has the authority to speak infallibly when, exercising his papal office (speaking ex cathedra) and teaching on a matter of faith and morals, he defines a doctrine to be held by the universal Church. The Orthodox reply that such infallibility inheres within the Church as a whole, and only when the doctrine so defined has been held “always, everywhere, and by all,” as St Vincent of Lérins teaches. Papal infallibility, when rooted in the personal exercise of the papal office without regard for universality, antiquity, and consent of the whole Church—past, present, and future—can never be acceptable to the Orthodox. There must be limits on the exercise of such an office.

For the Orthodox to accept primacy, its exercise would need to be in accord with Apostolic Canon 34: “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.” That he “who is first among them,” that is, “the bishops of every nation,” must not “do anything without the consent of all,” is the complement to primacy in Orthodox ecclesiology.

An often overlooked point is pastoral: The goal of the life in Christ is union with the Holy Trinity. The possibility of union with God was defended by St. Gregory Palamas (commemorated annually on the Second Sunday of Lent as a “Second Triumph of Orthodoxy”)—even if they cannot explain Palamas’ distinction between God’s essence and His operations (ενεργεία). This distinction is the root of the very different pastoral practices between West and East: sin is not a legal problem, it is the sickness of addiction to all that impedes our union with the Holy Trinity. The solution, then, cannot be forensic; it must be therapeutic. Virtue is not the means of salvation but the fruit of it. The only way to renew the fallen image lies in union with the Model, becoming Christ-like by virtue of union with Christ.

However, perhaps the biggest impediment to communion with Rome comes not from Rome but from the Orthodox. Father Thomas Hopko was asked what would be required of the Orthodox to be in communion with Rome. His answer boils down to this: They must desire union—and first of all among themselves. The recent breakdown of the Council of Crete (which had been in preparation for nearly six decades) demonstrates that Hopko was right.

Of all these issues, the ones that usually get the most press are, in some ways, the most easily resolved. Pope St. John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint already made the major gambit of acknowledging that, in order for union to occur, the exercise of papal primacy will need to be re-evaluated. Theological issues surrounding the filioque have largely been addressed, though its continued appearance in the Creed tends to gall the Orthodox, even if they would not be required to recite it subsequent to a future union. The most difficult issues will be the significant differences in pastoral practice (based on different understandings of God’s transcendence and the goal and means of salvation) and whether the Orthodox will ever desire Christ’s final prayer: that we all be one.


See also Father Alexander Schmemann’s 1966 “A Response to the Vatican II Decree on Eastern Churches” and the Wikipedia article on Eastern Catholic Churches for additional context.

Brian A. Butcher holds a PhD in Theology from St. Paul University/University of Ottawa. He is a Lecturer and Research Fellow in Eastern Christian Studies at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. His Liturgical Theology after Schmemann: An Orthodox Reading of Paul Ricoeur is scheduled for an early February release.

Liam Farrer is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Regis College, University of Toronto, and a junior scholar at the Lonergan Research Institute. His dissertation will focus on the relationship between sacraments and eschatology in medieval theology.

Kevin Basil Fritts is a PhD student in theology at the Catholic University of America. He holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and a ThM from St. John’s University in Collegeville MN. 

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