Orthodox Christians and the Modern Church

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew

With the recent meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, and all Russia, it is important and helpful to remind ourselves of developments in the Church’s teachings regarding our Eastern brothers. This article explores how language used since Vatican II has reflected and fostered growth in this relationship.

Lumen Gentium, the first canonical document released by the Second Vatican Council, states in its opening paragraph that the purpose of that very council was to open up the great mysteries and gifts of the church in light of the modern world in continuation with the traditions of the past.1 As the council continued, it released the document Orientalium Ecclesiarum aimed at discussing the relation of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches within her. I believe this document tried to inspire the reunification of Eastern non-Catholic Churches and the Catholic Church through describing the relationship of the East and West through western law and philosophy.

Orientale Ecclesiarum begins with the relationship of different Rites within the Church:

Between these [rites] there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the whole mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place…[All churches are] entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They ae consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights…2

As the document continues, it lists off other rights and obligations the different Rites have in the Church; the obligation you have to the rules of your Rite,3 the right of Eastern Churches to govern themselves and nominate their own bishops, the obligation to follow the Roman Pontiff,4 the obligation to follow the rubrics of the liturgy,5 etc. For each rite there is an attached obligation. These obligations are natural qualifications to the rights established in the document. They reflect dogmas and teachings of the Catholic Church.

The document instructs how these churches should be governed6 and how they relate to one another.7 In essence, Patriarchs are to behave as diocesan bishops with the addition of some of the powers of a national council as well as having the ability to choose their own bishops (if the Pope approves). It also demands that the ancient customs of the Eastern Churches are to be preserved and retained in modern worship.8

The last sections of Orientalium Ecclesiarum relate specifically to the relationship of the East and West. It discussed three points in particular; the relationship of Eastern and Western Sacraments, the relationship to be had between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in regard to liturgy, and the roll of the Eastern Catholic Churches in the reunification of East and West.

When an Orthodox believer joins a Catholic Church, he does not need to be re-administered the Sacraments. This is due to the fact that Eastern clerics retain valid ordination and thereby can validly administer the sacraments. This is also true for the sacrament of Holy Orders.9 For the sake of peace in a family if an Orthodox and Catholic are to be married, the Church teaches that 10 all which is requisite for the marriage to be licit is for a Catholic sacred minister to be present.11

Due to the current state of schism, Orthodox and Catholic Churches have a unique relationship in regards to administering the Sacraments to members of each other’s churches. In general the Council taught that Catholic participation in Orthodox liturgy and vice versa is forbidden so as to not provoke indifferentism, acceptance of error, or even scandal.12 It does however give permission under certain circumstances. If an Orthodox believer has the right disposition, they can receive the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance, and Anointing of the Sick from any Catholic priest. Mirroring that with a slight modification, Catholics are permitted to receive those same sacraments from Orthodox ministers of those Sacraments.13

 The Eastern Churches in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome have a special duty of promotion the unity of all Christians, especially Eastern Christians… by prayer in the first place, and by the example of their lives, by religious fidelity to the ancient Eastern traditions, by a greater knowledge of each other, by collaboration and brotherly regard for objects and feelings.14

This “special duty” of the Eastern Churches is given because of their shared common tradition, their common languages, as well as their proximity to one another. This is a grave duty that they have and, as will be discussed in John Paul II’s Orientale Lumen, will help with ending our sorrowful separation with our brothers in the east.

Twenty years after the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II spoke to the Church with Slavorum Apostoli which praised the virtues of the Eastern Fathers Cyril and Methodius. In addition it also spoke of the virtues of the brothers, in making the great truths of the liturgy available to a new people, maintaining the universal nature of the Church while also preserving that which was good and unique to the Slavic culture, and the purification of what was improper to the Faith. In addition, John Paul II speaks not only on the Eastern fathers, but also on some of the most debated topics that are seen as barriers to the reunification of the Church, and how those same fathers responded to them.

The entirety of Slavorum Apostoli continually reinforces the singular idea that “perfect communion in love preserves the Church from all forms of particularism, ethnic exclusivism or racial prejudice, and from any nationalistic arrogance.”15 St. John Paul II says this repeatedly. This statement—while not directly aimed at the Orthodox directly—if read by a member of the Orthodox Church it is call to communion.

One of the topics that causes the most tension between the East and the West is the subject of Papal Authority. Cyril and Methodius recognized the work of the Roman Church in the Slavic region, and so went to Rome for their ordination before going to work there converting the Slavs.16 After beginning to bring Christianity to the Slavic states, and being accused of heresy, they went to Rome and Constantinople. At this point both sees were unified under the Roman Pontiff. Upon arriving in each city, they received recognition of Orthodoxy from both the head of their own Rite, and that of their adopted Rite respectively.17 Cyril and Methodius recognized the legitimacy of both the heads and wanted to gain approval from both, not because they needed it from both, but because they wanted to do things in unity with the whole Church.

One of the great fears of the Eastern Church is that the Western Church does not appreciate their tradition, the differences in Rite, nor the importance for them to retain it. This is addressed specifically in many different paragraphs; they speak on the topics of language, 18 of the universal nature of the mass no matter what Rite or language it is performed in,19 and of the adaptation of the liturgy to a new culture to bring their faith to fruition.20 These themes find themselves culminating in one of the final paragraphs; “Unity is a meeting of truth and love granted us by the spirit… [that] unity which… is neither absorption nor fusion… For full catholicity, every nation, every culture has its own part to play in the universal plan of salvation.”21

Ten years later on the 100th anniversary of Orientalium Dignitas,22 John Paul II wrote the apostolic letter Orientale Lumen to appeal to the need for unity of the West with the East. He also shared his profound desire for unity that the Church be whole once again for the greater glorification of God, the salvation of souls, and the interior well-being of all the faithful.

Orientale Lumen opens with an exhortation on Jesus as the Light from the East, who all Christians revere as the Christ and redeemer of the world. He continues by stating that this same Light inspired Pope Leo XIII to write Orientalium Dignitas. This is Saint John Paul II’s stepping off point for the rest of the document. He states:

The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must… be fully acquainted with this treasure [of the Oriental tradition] and thus feel, with the Pope, 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 position to another; and 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.23

This is the hermeneutic to read the rest of the text by. Each paragraph reviews and praises Eastern spiritual theology. This is a document written for the purposes of showing the East that the West appreciates the mystical approach through which the Eastern Church encounters Christ. In this appreciation there is a recognition of the need for our complete reunification, as “the sin of our separation is very serious.”24

Saint John Paul II states that monasticism is the soul of Eastern Churches, and as the soul it is the basis for the lives of all the baptized.25 This expresses itself in every aspect of Eastern spiritual theology. Monasticism is stated as being “suspended by two poles,” that of the Eucharist and the word of God. Christ as the word of God, revealed through scripture and meditation, inspires obedience to the Father. The Eucharist reveals the very nature of the Church. 26

Apophatism is one of the foundational beliefs of the Eastern Church- it is the mystery that the more one understands God, the more one knows he cannot understand Him fully. Recognition of our inability to understand God fully leads to humility. This humility in turn leads to silence before God; the very silence needed so desperately by the modern man so that he may recognize his need for God.27

We are called to be in the “icon of the Icon,” that is to say we are called to be transformed through love by Christ to become like Christ. Christ as the way, the truth, and the life shows us how theology and spirituality (moral and spiritual theology) are united in Christ. 28 All believers in Christ through common reception of his grace are much closer than they could imagine.29 We must identify with the whole of Christ by contemplating him in all things.30 In fact, “How can we be fully credible if we stand divided before the Eucharist, if we cannot live our sharing in the same Lord whom we are called to proclaim to the world?”31

We have deprived the world of a joint witness that could, perhaps, have avoided the so many tragedies ad even changed the course of history. We are painfully aware that we cannot yet share the same Eucharist… The words of the West need the words of the East, so that God’s word may ever more clearly reveal its unfathomable riches… Thus shall we offer ourselves to God with the pure hands of reconciliation, and the people of the world with have one more well-founded reason to believe and to hope.32

With this, Saint John Paul II ends the document, exhorting the East and West to unite for their own mutual good, as well as for the mutual good of all the nations.

Each of these documents approached the same topic through different facets and through different means of communication. Orientalium Ecclesiarum encountered the East in a western manner that was legalistic, precise, and often literarily dry. While all things stated in this document are true and philosophically beautiful, it is not sensitive to the Eastern approach. The sensitive and ecumenical approach requires one to remember the culture, the methodology for their theology, and our great fraternal love for all other Christian churches, especially our Eastern brothers.

First, the question is, what is the Eastern spiritual theology, and how does that effect the rest of their theology? As mentioned above, apophatism is a great mystery in the East; in fact, John Paul II calls it “the attitude of prayer and the theological method which the East prefers…”33 This being the case, it is through this method that John Paul II saw we needed to approach the East. He did this throughout his documents in every single subject matter addressed, taking time to affirm that tradition and mystery were treated with the same reverence in the West, that was given to them in the East. Because of the sheer number of examples of this in his works, I am going to elaborate only on several examples in this article to make this point.

One thing Orientalium Ecclesiarum spoke of, was the uniting mission that the whole church shared. “Each individual Church or Rite… [is] under the same obligations… in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.”34 This is the universal mission of the whole Church given to her at the Great Commission. While Orientalium Ecclesiarum recognizes this for both the East and West, it sates it in a manner that makes spreading the Gospel just an obligation, not an act of love, nor sensitive to the papal issue at hand.

Slavorum Apostoli also addresses this same issue. “The truth and power of [Cyril and Methodius’s] missionary mandate came from the depths of the mystery of redemption, and their evangelizing work among the Slav peoples was to constitute an important link in the mission entrusted by the Savior to the Church.”35 Now we are getting somewhere! Here we have a reference to the mystery of redemption, and a valuation of tradition as the ‘link’ spoken of above. John Paul II is speaking to the East in a manner to which they can better relate.

John Paul II over the next 10 years further develops his methodology when speaking to the East: “The cry of men and women today seeking meaning for their lives reaches all the churches of the East and of the West. In this cry, we perceive the invocation of those who seek the Father whom they have forgotten and lost… from [the Father] we must learn the loving gaze with which he reconciled men with the Father and with themselves, communication to them that power which alone is able to heal the whole person.”36 This is our mission, but it is not stated in any way like it was in Orientalium Ecclesiarum. Instead, this is the way the East communicates, in a spiritual sense that emphasizes the longing for Christ universal to the human heart that shows the loving gaze, and shows the mystery in that. They both reflect the same truth, our call to evangelize, but John Paul II relates it in a way that causes unity instead of strife.

Another important development was the way diversity in the various Rites was addressed. At Vatican II it was stated that “the variety within the Church in no way harms it’s unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.”37 This is like saying ‘you all keep doing what you are doing’ after someone asks what you think. While not intended as insulting, it doesn’t show an appreciation for the other Rites.

In his earlier document, when John Paul II addressed an appreciation of Eastern Rites, he spoke of the role of individual people and cultures in the role of salvation history.38 There was also a great appreciation of the good found in each culture.39 Now Eastern Churches and Rites can feel appreciated by the Latin Rite, the Rite that in the past has maybe had a little too much of a superiority complex. But this is not the completion of John Paul II’s development on this subject.

In Orientale Lumen John Paul II quotes Unitatis Redintegratio:

In the study of revealed truth East and West have used different methods and approaches in understanding and confessing divine things. It is hardly surprising, then, if sometimes one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed them better. In such cases, these various theological formulations are often to be considered complementary rather than conflicting.40

This quote implies not just an appreciation of one another’s theology, but the great assistance that this alternative approach to theology is. John Paul II draws that out when he says:

Conversion is required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire Catholic communion; that she may show concretely, far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realizations of the Church’s universality.41

How beautiful this sentiment is from John Paul II! While this quote is specifically referencing the Eastern Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches share many of the same spiritual treasures, tradition, and spiritual contributions. In making known to the world the great esteem that the Latin Church has for these spiritual treasures, it makes the East not only feel accepted, but valued. Without the East feeling valued for their traditions, there is no way there will ever be union in the Church.

The biggest and most important development I saw throughout these documents was development in the manner in which the need for unity between the East and West is expressed. Orientalium Ecclesiarum asks the faithful to pray “fervently and assiduously, nay, indeed daily”42 for the reunification of the Church. This is nice, and it shows a desire for the church to be reunited, but it doesn’t promise action, just hopeful prayer. Where is the charity?

Slavorum Apostoli takes it up a notch, and calls for us to pray and dialogue. In addition, John Paul II tells us that “unity is a meeting in truth and love, granted us by the Spirit.”43 So, we have truth, love, the Spirit, prayer, and dialogue. What more can we need?

Yet again, John Paul II develops his thought even farther in Orientale Lumen. He states; “The sin of our separation is very serious: I feel the need to increase our common openness to the spirit who calls us to conversion to accept and recognize others with fraternal respect, to make fresh, courageous gestures, able to dispel any temptation to turn back.”44 I find this extraordinarily beautiful and deep. He faces this great sadness and names it for what it is a sin! This is the truth of our unfortunate separation. In bringing this to the surface of the discussion, as well as encouraging fortitude in our discussions, John Paul II displays his ardent desire, fervor, and love for the Eastern Church. As stated in Slavorum Apostoli, we need love, primarily love, in our encounters with our brothers and sister that have fallen away from the faith.

While neither Benedict XVI nor Francis’ writings are discussed here, they, too, show a continued movement towards understanding and more complete unity. And this movement is clearly being embraced by Orthodox leaders. For instance, Pope Francis recently addressed a letter to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The response from a Serbian Orthodox dignitary is astounding: “I thanked the episcope of Rome and said that such a letter seems as if it was written not in the second millennium of the history of Christianity, but in the first millennium, when we were one Church.”45 Here again, Catholic sensitivity and magnanimity in the language used to address our Orthodox brethren is proving itself an effective means of fostering unity.

The one action mentioned in all of these documents that is not being fulfilled or worked on adequately, is an education of Latin theologians and priests in the Eastern Liturgy and Eastern theology. I ardently believe that many of the “theological issues” that arise between he East and the West are due not to issues in belief, but rather due to difference in approach and spiritual theology. If we can come to an understanding of that which the East holds dear, and prove John Paul II right when he says we care and desire for that which the East has to offer, it will show that we do not come to the table asking for them to relinquish their identity, but rather with for them to join their identity to the whole Catholic Church, that She might grow and prosper and “the people of the world will have one more well-founded reason to believe and to hope.”46

  1. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gensium, 1
  2. Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, Orientale Ecclesiarum, 2-3 henceforth to be referred to in the references as “OE”.
  3. Ibid. 4
  4. Ibid. 5 and 9
  5. Ibid. 6
  6. Ibid. 12,16,17,19,23
  7. Ibid. 8,14,16,20,21
  8. See footnotes 6 and 7.
  9. Ibid. 25.
  10. For Orthodox, unlike Catholics, the matter necessary is a priest as well as the couple, whereas for Catholics the matter necessary is the couple and the priest just officiates the marriage.
  11. Ibid. 18.
  12. Ibid. 26.
  13. Ibid. 27.
  14. Ibid. 24.
  15. John Paul II, Papal Encyclical Slavorum Apostoli Jume 2, 1985, 11 henceforth to be refered to in the references as “SA”.
  16. Ibid. 5.
  17. Ibid. 6.
  18. Ibid. 10, 12, 17.
  19. Ibid. 17.
  20. Ibid. 13.
  21. Ibid. 27.
  22. Apostolic letter written by Pope Leo XIII to “safeguard the significance of Eastern traditions for the whole Church.” (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen May 2, 1995, 1 henceforth to be reffered to in the references as “OL”.)
  23. OL, 1.
  24. Ibid. 17.
  25. Ibid. 9.
  26. Ibid. 10.
  27. Ibid. 16.
  28. Ibid. 15.
  29. Ibid. 17.
  30. Ibid. 12.
  31. Ibid. 19.
  32. Ibid. 28.
  33. Ibid. 16.
  34. OE, 3.
  35. SA, 9.
  36. OL, 4.
  37. OE, 2.
  38. SA, 19.
  39. Ibid. 13.
  40. OL, 5.
  41. OL, 21.
  42. OE, 30.
  43. SA, 27.
  44. OL, 17.
  45. “Pope Interested in Resolving Stepinac Canonization Issue” PravoSlavie. January 19, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2016. pravoslavie.ru/english/89834.htm.
  46. OL, 28.
John Madigan About John Madigan

John Madigan is a law student at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, MI. He graduated from Benedictine College in 2017 with bachelor degrees in theology and philosophy, and in 2018 with a master's degree in business. He is currently researching the relationship between law and ethics in business.


  1. Avatar Jennifer Madigan says:

    Thank you John. This topic was very important to St. John Paul II. Wonderful!

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Mr Madigan for a complete history of the eastern orthodox church which retains the priesthood and ordinary episcopal magisterium It is a also a theology study of church

  3. Avatar Neil Kane says:

    Thanks, John, for calling to attention the importance of Eastern Christianity !