Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison Book Summary

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Title: Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison
Author: Dave Armstrong

TLDR: This book argues that the Catholic Church has maintained greater fidelity to apostolic tradition than Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly regarding the papacy, doctrinal development, and sexual morality. Armstrong defends Catholic teachings while critiquing Orthodox compromises with modernity.

Chapter One: The Basic Differences Summarized

This chapter begins with an appreciation of the many positive attributes of Orthodox Christianity: its seven sacraments, valid ordination, belief in the Real Presence, reverence for Sacred Tradition, apostolic succession, profound piety, rich history of monastic and contemplative spirituality, and veneration of Mary and the saints. However, Armstrong quickly transitions to outlining the fundamental differences separating Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Oneness and Ecclesiology (Church Government): Armstrong argues that Orthodoxy, with its seventeen autocephalous churches lacking a central governing authority, falls short of the “One Church” ideal articulated in the Nicene Creed. This decentralized structure, he claims, prevents Orthodoxy from speaking with the same doctrinal definitiveness as the Catholic Church, which maintains unity through the papacy and magisterium.

The Papacy: The chapter identifies the rejection of the papacy as a core difference. While acknowledging the papacy’s existence in the early Church, Orthodoxy views its authority as primarily honorary, not jurisdictional. Catholics counter this view by highlighting biblical evidence supporting Petrine preeminence, the historical exercise of papal authority by figures like St. Leo and St. Gregory, and the understanding of the papacy as a divinely instituted office.

Caesaropapism: Armstrong argues that Orthodoxy, due to its historical ties to the Byzantine Empire and later Eastern empires, has been susceptible to caesaropapism, a system where the state exerts undue influence over the Church. He contrasts this with Catholicism, where the papacy serves as a bulwark against such state interference, allowing for a clearer separation between Church and state.

Ecumenical Councils: The chapter points to Orthodoxy’s acceptance of only the first seven Ecumenical Councils as another point of divergence. This limited acceptance, Armstrong argues, seems arbitrary and undermines the vital role Councils played in Church governance throughout history. Catholicism, on the other hand, continues to recognize Ecumenical Councils as authoritative.

Doctrinal Development: Armstrong further argues that Orthodoxy, by limiting its acceptance of doctrinal development to the first eight centuries, implicitly denies the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church. He highlights disagreements on doctrines like the filioque, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption, suggesting that the Catholic Church’s recognition of these developments reflects a deeper understanding of the Church as a living, evolving entity.

Modernity: This chapter concludes by suggesting that Orthodoxy has struggled to effectively engage with the challenges of modernity. He contrasts this with the Catholic Church, which underwent a process of renewal at the Second Vatican Council, demonstrating a willingness to address contemporary issues while remaining faithful to tradition.

Contraception and Divorce: Armstrong identifies Orthodox acceptance of contraception and divorce as significant moral deviations from historical Christian teaching. He argues that these positions are concessions to modern secular values and represent a departure from the consistent witness of Scripture and early Church Fathers.

Chapter Two: A Response to Orthodox Critiques of Catholic Ecclesiological Preeminence

This chapter begins by highlighting the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Orientale Lumen, both of which express a profound appreciation for Eastern Orthodoxy and a desire for Christian unity. Despite this official stance, Armstrong addresses the anti-Catholic sentiment present within a vocal segment of the Orthodox community, particularly those influenced by converts from Protestantism or disillusioned former Catholics.

The Church of the First Millennium: The chapter delves into the question of Church unity prior to the 1054 schism. Catholics, according to Armstrong, view the papacy as the guarantor of unity, while the ecumenical Orthodox perspective posits a system of conciliarism with all bishops, including the pope, ultimately equal in authority. The anti-Catholic Orthodox faction, however, regards the Catholic Church as having departed from the true faith after 1054.

The Necessity of the Roman See for Doctrinal Orthodoxy: Armstrong argues that the Roman See played a crucial role in upholding doctrinal orthodoxy in the early Church. He provides evidence for this claim by highlighting several pre-1054 schisms where Eastern churches broke communion with Rome, only to later embrace the Roman position as orthodox. He argues that the East consistently needed the West and the papacy as a corrective force against heresy and schism.

Rome as Final Court of Appeal: The chapter further supports Rome’s crucial role by noting the numerous instances where prominent Eastern Church Fathers and Patriarchs, like St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, sought refuge and vindication in Rome after being persecuted or condemned in the East. Armstrong argues that this practice demonstrates the papacy’s function as the “supreme court” of the Church during this period.

Rome and the New Testament Canon: Armstrong cites Protestant scholar Adolf Harnack’s observation that the Roman Church was central to the development of the New Testament canon. He suggests that this historical fact provides further evidence for the trustworthiness and authority of the Roman Church in matters of faith and tradition.

Early Eastern and Western Dealings with Heresies: The chapter provides a detailed analysis of early Christian heresies, noting that the Roman See consistently opposed them while various Eastern Sees, especially Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, frequently fell into heresy. He provides a chart listing heretical Eastern Patriarchs, highlighting the stark contrast between the consistent orthodoxy of Rome and the frequent heterodoxy of the East.

Indefectibility and the Claim of Apostolic Succession: Armstrong counters the anti-Catholic Orthodox claim to exclusive apostolic succession by arguing that the Church’s indefectibility, based on biblical and historical evidence, makes such a claim impossible. He draws parallels between this position and the Donatist heresy, noting that both share the rigorist view that sacraments administered by unworthy priests are invalid. He argues that since the Roman Church served as the center of orthodoxy for centuries, it must have possessed apostolic succession and valid sacraments, and that God’s promise of indefectibility means the Church could not have subsequently lost these essential marks.

The Robber Synod (449) and the Henoticon (482): Armstrong further challenges the notion of Eastern doctrinal superiority by discussing the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus (449) and the signing of the Monophysite Henoticon (482), both of which involved widespread acceptance of heresy within the Eastern Church. He argues that these events further undermine the anti-Catholic Orthodox claim to have consistently maintained apostolic tradition.

Chapter Three: Theological Opinions on the Papacy Prior to 1054 in Both Eastern and Western Christianity

This chapter explores the historical evidence for papal primacy in the early Church, both in the East and West. Armstrong begins by establishing St. Peter’s presence in Rome, citing biblical, historical, and archaeological evidence. He argues that Peter’s presence, coupled with his preeminence among the Apostles, strongly suggests his role as the first bishop of Rome.

The Primacy of the Church of Rome: Armstrong then traces the early prominence of the Roman Church, noting its apostolic origins, its role as a center for early Christian pilgrimage, and its reputation for orthodoxy and generosity. He cites several historians, including Adolf von Harnack and Jaroslav Pelikan, who acknowledge Rome’s historical importance and its role in upholding orthodox Christian teaching.

Western Church Fathers and the Papacy: The chapter then presents a comprehensive collection of statements from Western Church Fathers, including St. Clement of Rome, St. Irenaeus, St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, all of which affirm the primacy of the Roman See and the papacy. These statements, Armstrong argues, demonstrate the early and widespread acceptance of papal authority within the Western Church.

Eastern Church Fathers and the Papacy: The chapter then counters the Orthodox claim that papal primacy is a Western invention by highlighting statements from Eastern Church Fathers, including St. Ignatius of Antioch, Origen, St. Ephraim, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Maximus the Confessor. These Eastern Fathers, Armstrong argues, also acknowledged the preeminence of the Roman See and the role of the papacy in maintaining Church unity and doctrinal orthodoxy.

Ecumenical Councils and the Papacy: Armstrong then analyzes the relationship between the papacy and the first eight Ecumenical Councils, arguing that the popes played a crucial role in convening, presiding over, and confirming the decrees of these councils. He cites examples from the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople III to demonstrate the active involvement and authority of the popes in these conciliar gatherings.

The Tragic Failure of the Florentine Reunion (1439): This chapter concludes with a detailed account of the Council of Florence (1439), which briefly achieved a reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Armstrong describes the council’s deliberations, the agreements reached, and the subsequent rejection of those agreements by the Orthodox faithful, largely due to ingrained anti-Latin sentiment fueled by centuries of animosity and mistrust. He argues that this tragic failure, despite the best efforts of both sides, demonstrates the lasting damage done by the historical events like the sack of Constantinople (1204) and the enduring power of prejudice and cultural differences.

Chapter Four: Reflections on the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 and Lesser-Known Byzantine Atrocities

This chapter directly addresses the sack of Constantinople (1204) by the Latin Crusaders, a major source of tension and anti-Catholic sentiment within Orthodoxy. Armstrong acknowledges the horrific nature of this event, citing the widespread destruction, looting, and sacrilege perpetrated by the Crusaders.

Innocent III’s Condemnation of the Sack: He then highlights Pope Innocent III’s role in condemning these actions, noting that the pope expressly forbade attacks on Constantinople and excoriated the Crusaders for their atrocities. This emphasizes that the sack was not sanctioned by the papacy and does not reflect official Catholic teaching or practice.

Byzantine Atrocities Against Latins: To provide historical context and demonstrate that sin and violence were not limited to one side, Armstrong then describes several lesser-known atrocities committed by the Byzantines against Latins prior to the 1204 sack. He recounts the massacre of westerners in Constantinople in 1182, the persecution of Venetians in 1171, and the treachery of Emperor Isaac II Angelus against Frederick Barbarossa’s crusade in 1188. He argues that these events, often overlooked or downplayed in Orthodox accounts, demonstrate that both sides were capable of sin and violence, and that attributing moral superiority to one side over the other is unwarranted.

Moral Equivalency: Armstrong concludes by emphasizing that the purpose of recounting these lesser-known Byzantine atrocities is not to minimize the horror of the 1204 sack but rather to provide a balanced historical perspective and move beyond assigning blame based on an oversimplified “good guys vs. bad guys” narrative. He argues that acknowledging the sin and failings of both sides is essential for fostering mutual understanding and pursuing Christian unity.

Chapter Five: The Tendency Towards Caesaropapism in the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodoxy

This chapter explores the concept of caesaropapism, a system where the state exerts undue control over the Church. Armstrong argues that Eastern Christianity, both in the Byzantine period and later in Orthodox history, has been particularly susceptible to this tendency, while the Catholic Church, due to the papacy’s independence from secular authority, has been better able to resist it.

Definitions and Historical Background: The chapter begins by providing several definitions of caesaropapism from reputable dictionaries and encyclopedias, establishing the concept’s historical usage and its association with the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodoxy. He then traces the historical development of this tendency, starting with Constantine’s intervention in Church affairs and culminating in Justinian’s attempts to assert imperial authority over doctrine and Church governance.

Evidence from Historians: Armstrong then cites numerous historians, both secular and Orthodox, who document the presence of caesaropapism in the East. These historians highlight the Byzantine emperors’ role in appointing patriarchs, influencing doctrinal debates, and using the Church as an instrument of state policy. They also note the continuation of this tendency in later Orthodox history, particularly in Russia under rulers like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

The Weakness of the Eastern Church: Armstrong argues that the weakness of the Eastern Church in resisting caesaropapism was not merely a matter of external pressure but also reflected an “inner, organic weakness” and a tendency to prioritize imperial authority over Church independence. He cites the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, who criticizes the Eastern Church for its “psychological” merging with the empire and its failure to assert its spiritual freedom.

Catholicism’s Resistance to Caesaropapism: Armstrong contrasts this with the Catholic Church, arguing that the papacy, as an independent institution with universal jurisdiction, has historically served as a bulwark against caesaropapism. He acknowledges that the West has also experienced periods of political interference in Church affairs, but argues that the papacy’s distinct authority and its role in upholding the separation of Church and state has generally allowed for a greater degree of ecclesiastical freedom.

Chapter Six: Development of Doctrine in Orthodoxy and Catholicism: Different in Essence?

This chapter challenges the Orthodox claim that Eastern doctrinal development differs fundamentally from the Catholic understanding. Armstrong argues that both traditions recognize the legitimacy of doctrinal development, although they may differ in their approach and scope.

St. Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm: He illustrates his point by examining the development of hesychasm, a mystical prayer tradition within Orthodoxy, and its theological articulation by St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century. He argues that the development of hesychasm, involving the introduction of new theological categories like the distinction between God’s essence and energies, demonstrates that Orthodoxy is not immune to doctrinal development.

Comparison to Catholic Developments: Armstrong then compares the development of hesychasm to Catholic developments like transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception, arguing that all three doctrines evolved over time, drawing upon earlier patristic insights and utilizing philosophical tools to articulate their theological significance. He concludes that the supposed difference between Eastern and Western development is largely illusory, with both traditions accepting the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit in deepening the Church’s understanding of revealed truth.

Chapter Seven: Do St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Other Catholic Thinkers Adopt an Unbiblical “Rationalism” Leading to a “Remote” or “Impersonal” God?

This chapter addresses the frequent Orthodox critique of Catholic thought as “hyper-rationalistic,” focusing on St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas as examples. Armstrong argues that this critique is based on a misunderstanding of the Catholic approach to faith and reason, which seeks to employ reason as a tool for understanding and defending revealed truth, not as a replacement for faith or a means of diminishing God’s mystery.

St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument: He analyzes St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument for God’s existence, presented in his Proslogion, arguing that Anselm’s aim was not to prove God’s existence through reason alone but rather to use reason to deepen his understanding of what he already believed by faith. He emphasizes the work’s subtitle, “Faith Seeking Understanding,” which clarifies Anselm’s intent.

St. Paul and the Use of Reason: Armstrong then defends the use of reason in Christian apologetics by citing St. Paul’s example in Acts 17 and Romans 1, where the apostle employs philosophical arguments and appeals to natural revelation to engage his pagan audiences. He argues that just as Paul adapted his approach to reach those “without the Law” or “without Scripture,” so too can Christian apologists utilize reason to engage those who lack faith or a Christian background.

Bishop Ware’s Critique of Scholastic Theology: Armstrong addresses Bishop Ware’s criticism that Latin Scholastic theology, with its emphasis on God’s essence, portrays God as a “remote and impersonal being.” He argues that Ware’s critique misrepresents Scholastic thought, which fully affirms God’s Personhood and does not reduce God to an abstract idea. He suggests that Ware’s criticism may be more accurately applied to later deist thinkers who rejected Christian revelation altogether, not to Catholic theologians who sought to harmonize faith and reason.

St. Thomas Aquinas and the Harmony of Faith and Reason: The chapter concludes by defending St. Thomas Aquinas against the charge of “hyper-rationalism.” Armstrong argues that Aquinas, while emphasizing the role of reason in theology, also possessed a deep devotion to God, wrote beautiful prayers, and experienced profound mystical experiences. He emphasizes that the Catholic understanding allows for a harmonious synthesis of faith and reason, recognizing the importance of both intellectual rigor and spiritual piety.

Chapter Eight: Orthodoxy, Apologetics, and Ecumenism

This chapter explores the relationship between apologetics and ecumenism, addressing the Orthodox critique that Armstrong’s apologetic writings are at odds with the official ecumenical stance of the Catholic Church. He argues that apologetics and ecumenism are distinct but complementary endeavors, both essential for pursuing Christian unity.

The Role of the Pope in Ecumenism: Armstrong acknowledges that the pope, in his official pronouncements and ecumenical dialogues, focuses on finding common ground and building bridges with other Christian traditions. He argues that this diplomatic approach is appropriate for the pope’s unique role as a leader in the ecumenical movement.

The Role of Lay Apologists: However, he also argues that lay apologists like himself have a different role to play. They must address criticisms and misrepresentations of the Catholic faith, even when these criticisms come from other Christian communities. He emphasizes that this apologetic task does not contradict the spirit of ecumenism but rather serves to clarify misunderstandings and promote honest dialogue.

Sister Churches and Legitimate Disagreement: Armstrong argues that the concept of “Sister Churches” does not imply a complete equivalence between Catholicism and Orthodoxy but rather acknowledges a substantial unity that allows for legitimate disagreement on certain doctrinal and ecclesiological matters. He suggests that just as Protestants engage in vigorous debate among themselves despite their shared commitment to core Christian doctrines, so too can Catholics and Orthodox engage in apologetic dialogue while acknowledging their shared baptismal bond and their common Christian heritage.

Chapter Nine: Is Orthodoxy Immune From Dissent, Modernism, and Scandal?

This chapter challenges the Orthodox notion that their tradition is somehow immune to the problems of dissent, modernism, and scandal that plague other Christian communities, particularly the Catholic Church. Armstrong argues that Orthodoxy, despite its claims to preserve ancient Christian tradition, also struggles with these challenges, although they may manifest themselves in different ways.

Problems within Orthodoxy: He highlights several problematic realities within contemporary Orthodoxy:

  • Lack of true unity: The seventeen autocephalous churches lack a unifying authority like the papacy, leading to doctrinal and jurisdictional disputes.
  • Reluctance to engage with modernity: Orthodoxy often takes a retreating stance, seeking to preserve tradition by avoiding engagement with contemporary issues and intellectual challenges.
  • Unwillingness to acknowledge past wrongs: While expecting apologies from Catholics, Orthodoxy often fails to acknowledge its own historical failings and current sins.
  • Schisms and excommunications: Disagreements within Orthodoxy often lead to divisions and the denial of intercommunion, demonstrating a lack of unity and a tendency towards sectarianism.
  • Disrespect for the Ecumenical Patriarch: The Patriarch of Constantinople, traditionally regarded as “first among equals,” is often disregarded or even condemned by other Orthodox jurisdictions.
  • Ethnocentrism: Orthodoxy often conflates its faith with a particular ethnic or national identity, leading to a tendency to prioritize cultural conformity over genuine evangelism.
  • Caesaropapism: The historical tendency towards state control of the Church continues to plague Orthodoxy in some instances.

The Universality of Sin and Scandal: Armstrong concludes by arguing that the “sin argument,” which criticizes a religious group based on the actions of its members, is ultimately pointless and unproductive. He suggests that hypocrites and sinners can be found in all Christian communities and that focusing on these shortcomings obscures the real theological and ecclesiological issues at stake.

Chapter Ten: Orthodox Compromise on Divorce

This chapter examines the Orthodox position on divorce, arguing that its acceptance of remarriage after divorce constitutes a compromise with sin and a departure from the consistent witness of Scripture and early Church Fathers.

Indissolubility of Marriage: Armstrong begins by outlining the Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, citing biblical evidence from Jesus’ teachings and the traditional understanding that a validly consummated sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved by any earthly power. He argues that the Catholic Church upholds this teaching by refusing to sanction remarriage after divorce, while allowing for annulments in cases where a valid marriage never existed in the first place.

Orthodox Teaching and Practice: He then contrasts this with the Orthodox position, which regards remarriage after divorce as sinful yet allows for it in certain circumstances, effectively sanctioning what it considers to be a sin. Armstrong traces the historical development of this practice, noting its origins in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian, who asserted imperial authority over marriage laws in defiance of Rome. He highlights the expansion of acceptable grounds for divorce in modern Orthodox practice, allowing for remarriage for reasons beyond adultery, a position that deviates significantly from traditional Christian teaching.

Biblical and Patristic Evidence: To support his critique, Armstrong presents a comprehensive collection of biblical passages and patristic statements affirming the indissolubility of marriage and condemning remarriage after divorce as adultery. He argues that this consistent witness, ignored or reinterpreted by Eastern Christianity, demonstrates the Catholic Church’s fidelity to apostolic tradition on this crucial moral issue.

Chapter Eleven: Orthodox Sanctioning of Contraception

This final chapter addresses the Orthodox stance on contraception, arguing that its acceptance of artificial birth control represents another departure from traditional Christian teaching and a concession to modern secular values.

Historical Development of Orthodox Teaching: Armstrong begins by demonstrating the shift in Orthodox teaching on contraception, citing statements from Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Church, which transitioned from a clear condemnation of contraception in 1963 to a more permissive stance in later revisions. He then provides evidence from Orthodox scholars and historical sources documenting the traditional prohibition of contraception within Orthodoxy, based on the understanding that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation and that any attempt to deliberately frustrate this purpose is sinful.

The “Natural Law” vs. “Sacramental” View: Armstrong analyzes Fr. Stanley Harakas’ presentation of the Orthodox position in his book The Orthodox Church: 455 Questions and Answers. He criticizes Harakas’ attempt to justify contraception by appealing to a “Sacramental View” of marriage, which emphasizes the unitive aspect of sex while downplaying its procreative purpose. He argues that this approach represents a distortion of Church history and a capitulation to the secular understanding of sexuality promoted by the sexual revolution.

The Catholic View: Armstrong contrasts this with the Catholic teaching, which continues to uphold the traditional prohibition of artificial contraception based on the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative aspects of marital love. He argues that this consistent stance reflects the Church’s fidelity to natural law, revealed truth, and the witness of Scripture and tradition.

Conclusion: Throughout this book, Armstrong consistently argues that the Catholic Church, despite its well-documented failings and historical struggles, has maintained a greater degree of fidelity to apostolic tradition than Eastern Orthodoxy. He contends that the papacy, as a divinely instituted office with universal jurisdiction, has played a vital role in upholding doctrinal orthodoxy, resisting caesaropapism, and preserving the integrity of Christian moral teaching. While acknowledging the many positive aspects of Orthodoxy, he encourages Orthodox Christians to reconsider their criticisms of Catholicism and to pursue a deeper understanding of the historical and theological claims of the Catholic Church.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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