It may seem hard to believe, but my reception into Eastern Orthodoxy put me on a path to communion with the Catholic Church. Perhaps some will say this is an exaggeration, but in fact, it is true.
This path to Catholicism began with the reception ceremony, where I was required to make a profession of faith, along with a promise to abide by the doctrines laid out in the first seven ecumenical councils. As I studied these councils in depth, I was startled to discover that the council fathers affirmed the Catholic position about the papacy. This is strikingly evident in three of the seven: Ephesus (431), Constantinople III (680-681) and Nicaea II (787). Let’s examine them to see how they affirm Catholic doctrines.
In the fifth century, a major theological controversy arose over the Marian title Mother of God. Some were concerned this made the Virgin Mary the origin of the one, true God, while others insisted that it was an affirmation that the child she gave birth to was fully divine. The Council of Ephesus was called in the year 431 to put an end to the controversy.
Whereas it is often noted that the council fathers defended the title Mother of God their implicit affirmation of the Catholic position on the papacy is not as well known. What exactly did the council fathers maintain? Philip, a legate who represented the pope at the council, openly stated before the council fathers in the second session:
We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members by our [or your] holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations.
He later added in the third session:
There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the Faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the savior and redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place.
From these two quotes, three points are noteworthy. First, the pope is identified as the head of the council. Second, the pope is claimed to be the successor of St. Peter, who authoritatively acts in his successors. Third, this succession of leadership will endure in the office of the papacy “forever.” How did the council fathers react to these words? Not even one council father protested such bold affirmations of the papal claims.
Fast-forwarding several centuries, the Council of Constantinople III (681) was called to address the Monothelite heresy, which claimed that Jesus had only one will, not two wills, divine and human. Openly read before the council fathers was the letter of Pope Agatho to the emperor, which stated:
For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Savior himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, Peter, Peter, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that (your) faith fail not. And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.
It is considerable that the pope unequivocally stated the church of Rome had never erred in apostolic tradition because of a divine promise to remain “undefiled unto the end.” The council fathers received this letter joyfully and wrote back to the pope expressing their appreciation and approval of his words, which they claimed were “divinely written as by the chief of the apostles.”
Lastly, in order to quench the raging fires of the heresy of iconoclasm, Pope Hadrian appeals to the Roman tradition of the veneration of images, which he maintained was unable to err, according to the divine promise of Christ. His letter, read before the council fathers, states:
For the blessed Peter prince of the apostles, who was the first to preside over the apostolic see, left the primacy of his apostolate and pastoral responsibility to his successors, who are to sit in his most sacred see forever. The power of authority, as it had been granted to him by the Lord God our savior, he in his turn conferred and transmitted by divine command to the pontiffs who succeeded him, in whose tradition we venerate the sacred effigy of Christ and the images of his holy mother, the apostles and all the saints.
How did the council fathers react to the claims that the Roman see is unable to err in a matter of doctrine because of a divine promise and that the Roman see will always have a successor to Peter? In response, they categorically approved his words, stating: “We follow, accept and approve them.”
After learning that the council fathers affirmed the Catholic claims about the papacy in these councils, and in other places, I could no longer remain separated from the Catholic Church. If I were going to make good on my promise to adhere to the first seven ecumenical councils, I had to maintain the same faith they did, which was that the pope is and will always be the successor to Peter, and that he cannot fail in matters of faith, according to the divine promise of Christ. This led me to communion with the Catholic Church . . . so I can truly say that my reception into Eastern Orthodoxy led me to communion with Catholicism.