On one level, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have much in common. Our worship is formal and liturgical, and centers on a weekly celebration of the Eucharist. We are both conscious of the way of life of those who came before us in the faith, and their continuing power to intercede for us as a “cloud of witnesses” in Christ. And we are both hierarchical churches, with bishops, priests and deacons in positions of leadership and authority.
And yet, despite these similarities, our two churches have been divided for over a thousand years, and full communion continues to elude us to this day. Why? After all, aren’t the differences between Roman Catholic and Orthodox merely cultural, or simply a question of spiritual style?
The short answer to that question is “no.” As similar as the Roman Catholics and Orthodox are in many respects, there exists a fundamental disconnect in our understanding of that third quality ascribed to the Church in the Nicene Creed: that it is “catholic.”
Although applied to mean “the Roman Catholic Church,” the term “catholic” in fact has a wider meaning, being derived from the Greek word katholikos which means effectively, “whole” or “complete.”
Here already, though, we run into a problem. What does “whole” or “complete” mean? Does it mean “universal”? Or does it mean “lacking in nothing”? The difference between these two interpretations of “catholic” is one of the key points on which Roman Catholics and Orthodox disagree.
“But what’s the big deal?” you may wonder. “‘Universal’, or ‘lacking in nothing.’ I don’t see any contradiction there!”
To clarify, consider the difference between a bank and a credit union. When you go the local Royal Bank, you are in fact entering to a branch of the Royal Bank. The headquarters of the Royal Bank are elsewhere. The manager of the bank is appointed by the central administration. He or she has authority, but that authority derives from a distant source.
When you go to the Kootenay Savings Credit Union, on the other hand, you are not visiting a branch office. The KSCU is a complete entity constituted and administered by its members. The manager of the credit union derives his authority from a local source: the member-elected board.
To speak of the “whole” Royal Bank, you would have to consider all the Royal Bank branches under the authority of the central administration in the entire geographic area where Royal Banks are found. To speak of a “whole” credit union, you would simply point to a local credit union.
What is true of credit unions and banks is loosely true of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Your local Roman Catholic Church is not the “whole” of the Roman Catholic Church; rather, it is a local “branch” whose central administration is in Rome; it is one part of the universal whole.
By contrast, the local Orthodox Church is the “whole” Church in that it has everything it needs to be a Church. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in 110 A.D., declared, “Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” So as long as an Orthodox Church has a Bishop (or a priest appointed to serve on his behalf), and a congregation of baptized Christians, that Church is “whole” and therefore “Catholic.”
This distinction between catholic (meaning “universal”) and catholic (meaning “lacking in nothing”) has real repercussions for the life of the community. The leader of the local Roman Catholic Church (whether a Bishop or priest) is appointed to his position by the central administration in Rome. He has power and authority, but only as it is handed down to him from the Pope.
The leader of the local Orthodox Church is the Bishop, who (in theory at least) is elected by the people of the community and consecrated to his position by at least three other Bishops. The Bishop then may ordain and appoint a priest to serve a given congregation in his stead. In the Orthodox understanding of catholicity, then, authority is grass roots, deriving from the bottom up.
An Orthodox Bishop must answer to a council or synod of Bishops, which can discipline and even remove him from power. A hierarch in the Orthodox Church is not the head of the Church; that role is reserved for Jesus Christ alone. The Bishop is simply one of the “members of the household of God,” (Eph. 2:19) whom the Master has appointed to oversee the running of His household.
As in the analogy of the bank and the credit union, one cannot finally reconcile the Orthodox and Roman Catholic visions of catholicity. Either the local Church is a complete entity, lacking in nothing, or it is one “branch office” of a universal whole. Either the local Bishop is raised to his position by the people of God, or he is appointed to it by Rome.
For Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the basic questions of catholicity must first be answered before full reunion between them is possible: can the Church be complete—catholic—without Rome? Can authority exist in the Church without reference to the papal authority?
The rest of us are left with wider questions: what makes the Church complete, whole, catholic? For whom do our leaders really get their authority? If we were to choose between the spiritual bank or the spiritual credit union, which would we pick? These are not petty questions. They ultimately concern the Body of Christ, for whom He gave His life, that she might be His spotless Bride.