Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy


I am probably a rather unusual convert to Catholicism, in that my spiritual journey to Rome involved both the other major world divisions of Christianity—Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As an undergraduate university student, guided by the rational logos of classical philosophy (which Pope Benedict famously insisted upon as an attribute of God in his 2006 Regensburg discourse), I came to see the essential logical incoherence in Reformation Christianity: Its fundamental sola scriptura principle itself nowhere appears in Scripture and so is self-referentially contradictory.

I was also becoming increasingly convinced that if there is to be any true and definitive revelation from God to humanity, then—given that God has plainly not decided to offer this revelation immediately and directly to each individual—he will need to establish a completely reliable intermediary, perennially accessible here on earth to ordinary people like you and me. In short, an infallible teaching authority. However, with further reading, I found myself confronted by the reality of two great communions—the two largest in Christendom, in fact—presenting themselves as rival claimants to the gift of infallibility. I had long known of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the divinely appointed authority endowed with this charism. But now—in 1971, that is—I discovered the similar claim of Eastern Orthodoxy. Constantinople now flashed onto my radar screen as a challenger to Rome. How was I to decide between them?

Not Quite "Catholic"

One reason for Orthodoxy’s attractiveness back then was simply that, for me, its image remained refreshingly untainted by the emotional anti-Catholic Calvinist prejudices which I had imbibed against "Romanism" during adolescence. Nobody, as far as I knew, was describing Istanbul as "Mystery Babylon." I had read no reports of a Scarlet Woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, sitting astride a ten-headed Bosporus Beast. And I saw no accusatory fingers pointing at Constantinople’s white-bearded patriarch as "that man of sin"—the Antichrist invading the temple of God and b.asphemously speaking "great things" against the Lord and his elect.

However, after a couple of tentative Sunday visits to Greek Orthodox liturgies in Sydney (I am an Australian), after which I attempted to converse with the local priest, obstacles of a very different sort soon began to swing the balance back in the other direction. Given the priest’s very limited knowledge of English, any serious discussion between us on doctrinal or theological matters proved to be impossible. Indeed, he seemed rather surprised that I, as an "Anglo," should even be interested in joining his denomination. All his other parishioners, even there in the center of a large and cosmopolitan city, were ethnically Greek.

I was running up against the rather obvious fact that Orthodoxy is, well, not exactly catholic. It lacks the cultural universality and openness, the capacity to provide a true and welcoming home for all the world’s tribes and nations, that is in fact one of the four marks of the true Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Every word of the liturgies I attended in Sydney—including the Scripture readings and preaching—was in Greek, of which I understood absolutely nothing. The thesis that Eastern Orthodoxy is the true religion was turning out to bear the practical corollary that, to share fully and fruitfully in the life of the Body of Christ, one would almost have to become a Greek. (Well, O.K., maybe a Russian, a Serb, a Syrian—but in any case the ethnic options would be very limited.) And this sort of very burdensome de facto addition to the Gospel was plainly foreign to the New Testament. On the contrary, its message stresses that in Christ there is no longer Jew, Gentile, Greek.

Does Orthodoxy Make Sense?

In short, Eastern Orthodoxy, as far as I could see at that stage of my journey, had certain strengths over against Catholicism, but also certain weaknesses. So I still felt far from certain as to where to go. Indeed, I felt confronted by another version of the same problem I had faced earlier in trying to decide whether Protestantism was true or false: the problem of having to negotiate mountains of erudition that could easily occupy a lifetime of study, if I was to have any hope of arriving at a definitive answer. If these detailed questions of theology, exegesis, and history had kept the rival Catholic and Orthodox experts in these fields interminably divided in spite of centuries of scholarly debate and oceans of spilled ink, who was I to presume the ability ever to reach any certainty as to which side was right? In this case the debate was mainly over the nature of the Petrine primacy, as revealed in Scripture and manifested in ancient church tradition. And that huge controversy looked very daunting—and the outcome very doubtful—for this not-very-erudite young amateur searching for a clear and certain answer.

Inevitably, in my prayers and studies, I began to wonder whether there was another quick, "silver bullet" argument like the one I had already found to be so fatal for Protestant theology? That is, could a clear answer perhaps appear from studying the internal logical coherence or incoherence of Orthodox claims, rather than from the attempt to accumulate, interpret, and evaluate endless masses of biblical and historical data? Eventually I found what I still believe to be that answer: I discovered a fatal flaw in Orthodoxy’s account of how we can know what God has revealed. In what follows I shall use a series of several simple propositions to argue that Eastern Orthodoxy’s account of how the Church transmits revelation is vitiated by a circular argument, and so cannot be true.

First, if God has given the gift of infallibility to his Church, there must be some identifiable authority or agent within her capable of exercising that gift. Now, Catholics believe that the College of Bishops—the successors of the apostles, led by the pope, the successor of St. Peter—constitute that authority. The bishops can exercise the gift in several ways (as explained by Vatican Council II in article 25 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). The whole group (the College of Bishops) can teach infallibly, either gathered together in councils that its leader, the pope, recognizes as "ecumenical" (that is, sufficiently representative of the whole Church), or even, under certain conditions, while remaining dispersed around the world. Finally, the pope, even when speaking alone, is guaranteed the charism of infallibility in his most formal (ex cathedra) pronouncements.

Now, what does the Eastern Orthodox communion see as the agent of the infallibility it claims for itself? In fact, it recognizes only one of those forms of teaching mentioned above. Let us highlight this answer:

Proposition 1: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of ecumenical councils.
However, does this mean that the Orthodox recognize the authority of all the same ecumenical councils that we Catholics recognize? Unfortunately not. While our separated Eastern brethren claim that, in principle, any ecumenical council between Pentecost and Judgment Day would enjoy the charism of being able to issue infallible dogmatic decrees, they recognize as ecumenical only the first seven councils: those that took place in the first Christian millennium, before the rupture between East and West. Indeed, even though they claim theirs is the true church, since that medieval split they have never attempted to convoke and celebrate any ecumenical council of their own. For they still recognize as a valid part of ancient tradition the role of the See of Peter as enjoying a certain primacy—at least of honor or precedence—over the other ancient centers of Christianity (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria).

Thus, mainstream Orthodox theologians, as I understand them, would say that for a thousand years we have had a situation of interrupted infallibility. The interruption, they would maintain, has been caused above all by the "ambition," "intransigence" or " hubris" of the bishops of the See of Peter, who are said to have overstepped the due limits of the modest primacy bestowed on them by Jesus. However (it is said), once the Roman pontiffs come to recognize this grave error and renounce their claims to personal infallibility and universal jurisdiction over all Christians, why, then the deplorable schism will at last be healed! The whole Church, with due representation for both East and West, will once again be able to hold infallible ecumenical councils.

An Insufficient Proposal

This position, however, turns out to involve serious problems. Our separated Eastern brethren acknowledge that any truly ecumenical council will need to include not only their own representatives, but also those of the bishop of Rome, whose confirmation of its decrees would in due course be needed, as it was in those first seven councils of antiquity. Well, so far so good. But does this mean the Orthodox acknowledge that the pope’s confirmation of a council in which they participate will not only be necessary, but also sufficient, as a condition for them to recognize it as ecumenical? Unfortunately, the answer here is again in the negative. And it is the Easterners’ own history which has, as we shall now see, reshaped their theology on this point during the last half-millennium.

After the East-West rupture that hardened as a result of the mutual excommunications of 1054 and the brutal sack of Constantinople by Latin crusaders in 1204, two ecumenical councils were convoked by Rome for the purpose of healing the breach. They were held at Lyons in 1274 and at Florence in 1439, with Eastern Christendom being duly represented at both councils by bishops and theologians sent from Constantinople. And in both cases these representatives ended up fully accepting, on behalf of the Eastern Church, the decrees, promulgated by these councils, that professed the true, divinely ordained jurisdiction of the successors of Peter over the universal Church of Christ—something much more than a mere primacy of honor. And these decrees were of course confirmed by the then-reigning popes.

Why, then, did neither of these two councils effectively put an end to the tragic and long-standing schism? Basically because the Eastern delegations to Lyons and Florence, upon returning to their own constituency, were unable to make the newly decreed union take practical effect. At Constantinople, the nerve-center of the Byzantine Empire, an attitude of deep suspicion and even passionate hostility toward the Latin "enemies" was still strongly ingrained in the hearts and minds of many citizens—great and small alike. The result was that politics and public opinion trumped the conciliar agreements. The Eastern Christians as a whole simply refused to acquiesce in the idea of allowing that man—the widely feared and detested bishop of Rome—to hold any kind of real jurisdiction over their spiritual and ecclesiastical affairs.

As a result, in order to justify their continued separation from Rome, the Orthodox have had to nuance their position on the infallibility of ecumenical councils. They have had to maintain that the participation in a given council of bishops representing the whole Church and the confirmation of their decrees by the pope, while undoubtedly necessary, is still not sufficient to guarantee the true ecumenical status of that council. For over and above the fulfillment of those conditions, it is also necessary (so they have told us in recent centuries) for the faithful as a whole in both East and West—not just the pope and bishops or even the entire clergy—to accept that council’s decrees as expressing the true faith. So the simple Proposition 1 set out above is now modified as follows:

Proposition 2: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of those councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole Church.
In the post-Enlightenment Western world, wherein opposition to clericalism (real or imagined), and the ideas of democracy and popular sovereignty have long enjoyed great popularity, this Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, with its emphasis on the role of the laity, will naturally sound attractive to many. But on further examination a fatal logical flaw in the Orthodox theory comes to light.

Let’s take a closer look here. If the crucial factor in deciding whether a given council’s teaching is infallible or not depends on how it is received by the rank-and-file membership of "the whole Church," then it becomes critically important to know who, precisely, constitutes "the whole Church." How are her members to be identified? Who has voting rights, as it were, in this monumental communal decision?

A Murky Question of Membership

In answer to this question, our Eastern friends cannot (and do not) say that for these purposes the whole Church consists of all who profess faith in Christ, or all the baptized. For on that basis the Orthodox would rule out as "un-ecumenical" (and thus, non-infallible) not only the second-millennium councils recognized by Rome and the Catholic Church, but also the seven great councils of the first millennium which they themselves recognize in common with Catholics! For each one of those councils was rejected by significant minorities of baptized persons (Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians, etc.) who professed faith in Christ.

It is equally clear that the Orthodox cannot define the whole Church as Catholics do, namely, as consisting of all those Christians who are in communion with Rome, the See of Peter, the "Rock." For they themselves have not been in communion with Rome since medieval times. Could they perhaps try to define the whole Church in terms of communion with their own patriarchal See of Constantinople? No way. As far as I know, no Orthodox theologian has ever dared to claim that the need for union with Constantinople is part of revelation or divine law. For not only was this see itself in heresy at certain periods of antiquity, it did not even exist for several centuries after revelation was completed in the apostolic age.

In short, any Orthodox attempt to define the whole Church in terms of some empirically verifiable criterion will land our Eastern brethren in impossible absurdities. So the only other course open to them, logically, is the one they have now in fact adopted: They attempt to define the whole Church in terms of an empirically unverifiable criterion, namely, adherence to true, orthodox doctrine. Unlike cities, sayings, and sacraments, doctrinal orthodoxy cannot be recognized as such by any of the five senses. It cannot, as such, be seen, touched, or heard—only discerned in the mind and heart. Thus, if we ask the Orthodox why do they not recognize as constituent parts of the whole Church those baptized, Christ-professing Aryans, Nestorians, etc., who rejected one or more of the seven first-millennium councils, they will respond, "Why, because they were unorthodox, of course! They lapsed into heresy while we—and up till that time the Latin Church under Rome as well—maintained the true faith."

Now that the Orthodox position regarding infallibility and ecumenical councils has been further specified, we can reformulate it a third time, replacing the expression "the whole Church" at the end of Proposition 2 with another which clarifies what is meant by those three words:

Proposition 3: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of those councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole community of those Christians who adhere to true doctrine.
But here, I am afraid, we come face to face with the fundamental logical flaw in the whole Eastern Orthodox account of how we can know what—if anything—God has revealed to mankind. Since Christ founded his Church on earth to be a visible community, we cannot define her in terms of an invisible criterion—possession of doctrinal truth—without falling into absurdity. The flaw this involves is that of a circular argument—including the term to be defined within the definition itself. This results in a mere tautology: a repetitive proposition that provides no information at all.

We can see this more clearly if we remember that the whole purpose of an infallible church authority is simply to enable Christians to distinguish revealed truth clearly and certainly from falsehood and heresy. Keeping this in mind, we can formulate once again the Eastern Orthodox proposition, rewording Proposition 3 above so as to unpack the word infallible, spelling out its meaning and function:

Proposition 4: Christians can come to know with certainty what is true doctrine by recognizing the solemn doctrinal decisions of those councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole community of those Christians who adhere to true doctrine.
The words italicized above lay bare the underlying circularity—the tautology—that vitiates the logical coherence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. We want to know how to identify true Christian doctrine with certainty, but the proffered solution to our problem assumes we already know the very thing we are seeking to discover. We are being told, "To discover what is true Christian doctrine, you must pay heed the teaching of those who adhere to true Christian doctrine"!

Not long after I came to the firm conclusion that Eastern Orthodoxy was illogical, so that its claim to infallibility could not be sustained, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Mass of the Easter Vigil in 1972.

A Problem at the Root

It remains only to add that, in the 36 years since I returned to full communion with the one Church founded by Christ, my conviction as a Catholic has only become stronger. For the Orthodox church today is by no means in the same condition as it was then. The very features which had most attracted me to it back then have now largely faded into a twilight of doubt and confusion. For some centuries the tenacity of the Orthodox in adhering strictly to their ancient, stable liturgical traditions, together with their relative isolation from the post-Enlightenment West, combined to act as a quite powerful antidote, in practice, to the effects of the ingrained virus of illogicality that we have just exposed. But in recent decades, with more extensive cultural and ecumenical contacts, and with an increasingly large and active Eastern d.aspora in Western countries, Orthodoxy’s underlying vulnerability to the same liberal and secularizing tendencies in faith, morals, and worship that have devastated the West is becoming more apparent. That virus—an inevitable result of breaking communion with the visible rock of truth and unity constituted by the See of Peter—is now inexorably prodding Orthodoxy toward doctrinal pluralism and disintegration.

A traditionally minded Orthodox apologist might reply, of course, that confusion and dissent on these and many other matters are also rampant within Roman Catholicism, and indeed, to a great extent have spread to Orthodoxy as a result of powerful liberal and neo-modernist influences going largely unchecked in our own communion since Vatican Council II. This objection, unfortunately, is all too well founded as far as it goes. But it misses the vital point for present purposes, which is that the admittedly grave confusion in contemporary Catholicism is not due to its own underlying structure—its own fundamental theology of revelation. It is due rather to what many of us Catholics would see as a temporary weakness at the practical level: the level of Church discipline and government. We have witnessed a failure of many bishops, and arguably even recent popes, at times, to guard and enforce with sufficient resolve that doctrine which remains coherently and infallibly taught in theory and in principle by the Catholic magisterium. A solution to the present problems will not require the reversal of any Catholic doctrine; on the contrary, it will involve the more resolute insistence, in theory and in practice, on our existing doctrines. (This insistence, it is true, may need to include further authoritative papal interpretations of certain Vatican II texts whose ambiguity or lack of clarity betray something of the conflicting pastoral, philosophical, and theological tendencies that were apparent among the Council Fathers themselves.)

In Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, the currently growing problem of internal confusion and division goes down to a deeper level. It is rooted in unsound principle, not just defective practice. It is a problem involving the essential defining feature of the Orthodox communion over against Catholicism, namely, its fateful medieval decision to repudiate the full primacy and authority of that rock established by Christ in the person of Peter and his successors in the See of Rome. Perhaps, if more of our Orthodox brethren can come to recognize the underlying logical flaw in their ecclesiology that I have tried to pinpoint and explain in this article, we shall see more fruitful ecumenical progress toward the restoration of full communion.


Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S., is an emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico who is now based at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 8.