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A Candid Review of Dave Armstrong's Catholicism and Orthodoxy Essay

Dave Armstrong the Writer

I happen to like Dave Armstrong's writing a whole lot. He's got a very smooth writing style, and a very expressive and convincing way of presenting arguments. At the same time, however, his opening propositions are flawed, and his essay "Orthodoxy and Catholicism: A Comparison" is demonstrative of a beautiful piece of writing which is simply not, from an ecclesiological standpoint, defensible.

A Caveat

Mr. Armstrong (having had conversations with him over the Internet, I have a strong urge to simply call him "Dave" on the basis of personal fondness but for the sake of objectivity, I will do my best to be formal) begins the essay with an apology for any possible offense that may be garnered by the Orthodox reader. This is noble, to say the least, but really unnecessary. Orthodoxy does not fear historical truth, and on behalf of the Orthodox readers of Mr. Armstrong's page, it's okay to be blunt with us. To be completely fair to Mr. Armstrong, however, I should also apologize in advance to any reader of this review who happens to be offended.

Orthodox Whining, Catholic Whining, and the Issue At Hand

We Orthodox have a tendency to bring up sins of the people who have gone into schism from us. It's pretty common; "attacking the other guy" is always a useful way to make yourself feel better about your view. Not only that, some of the atrocities committed sound almost satanic (placing a prostitute on the throne of the highest authority of the Eastern Church just doesn't sound like normal Christian behavior.) For a couple of what I feel are good reasons, however, I refuse to succumb to such a view.

First: anyone can make excuses, and we have a number of sins on our side as well (whether they are the ones Mr. Armstrong brings up or not is irrelevant, but I think he's factually incorrect in a number of places there.) Second: the fact that we in the Orthodox Church have brought up the sack of 1204 and other atrocities has created in many a Catholic mindset that "all we need to do is say we're sorry." Since in a number of instances, the issue is completely a doctrinal one (placing canonical violations aside,) a well-informed Orthodox looks a bit mean spirited accepting a formal apology from a Catholic and then politely informing the Catholic that he's still not going to make a renunciation of "error". Yet that is precisely what we Orthodox do when we whine about the pain inflicted upon us. Granted, we have a lot to whine about. And whining is fun sometimes, and even a psychological release. But it is really about time we gave Catholics better answers than "look what you people did to us." What saint, what pillar of Orthodoxy would have ever held such a view? It misrepresents us as a bunch of terribly sensitive people who really are just mad at Rome. Mr. Armstrong is under that impression: "...Yet this incident was so tragic and has ever since been recalled with such pain and anger amongst Orthodox (and hence used as an "argument" against the Catholic Church) that it simply cannot be ignored even in the context of friendly ecumenical discussion." ("The Sack of 1204"). I wish to remove this issue from the table, partially because it's not an important issue, it doesn't deal with us today as people, and put simply, it has created such an impression in the mind of many Catholic apologists that it's all that needs to be dealt with—an impression that is just as dishonest to them as it is to us.

Unfortunately, then, this response can no longer be called a complete review; the removal of such an honestly pointless issue (since everyone involved is dead) strikes a rather large chunk of Mr. Armstrong's essay from the controversy.

Sadly, I found myself distancing myself from another of the issues for the exact same reason: the charge of "caesaropapism". A major reason for this is because Mr. Armstrong's definition of it (by no means complete: he defines it as that "which, in effect (in terms of exercised power and jurisdiction), places the state above the church") is exactly what the Russian Church Abroad condems as "Sergianism"—the imbalance of compromise with outside authority. I see no reason to play a devil's advocate to defend my Church.

To boot, the issue isn't even a doctrinal one. It's political. The Orthodox Church has never officially recognized the alleged "policy" Mr. Armstrong is referring to, and in many cases contradicted it in the face of its leaders. (St. Mark of Ephesus is the greatest such example—in an attempt to force Orthodoxy into union with Rome, the Emperor had the privilege of watching the saint tear up three years of his Imperial wrangling to a cheering crowd.) So I see no reason to deal with it. On to doctrinal issues.

The Organization of the Papacy....

The essay begins by quoting the Nicene Creed—mentioning the oneness of the Church--and pointing out that "From a Catholic ecclesiological perspective, Orthodoxy - strictly speaking - is not 'one' Church, but a conglomerate of at least seventeen, each with separate governance" ( "Oneness and Ecclesiology".) What is not mentioned, however, is the fact that Catholicism itself does not refer to itself as a singular organization all of the time; while every church in the Roman communion is under Rome's administrative umbrella (and most Catholic theologians would point out that Rome rarely interferes), every "Sui Iuris" Church is independently governed by its highest authority. (Well, that's how it looks on paper, anyway. Reference the Sui Iuris Church in the "Code of the Canons of the Eastern Churches", Rome, 1993). But Mr. Armstrong continues, after quoting an encyclopedia's assessment of Orthodoxy: "Although Orthodox theology is fairly homogeneous, nevertheless, a Catholic would respectfully reply that none of these 'autocephalous' churches can speak with the doctrinal definitiveness which existed in the Church before 1054, and which indeed still resides in the papacy and magisterium of the Catholic Church." Mr. Armstrong is apparently unaware that the Church before 1054 really didn't speak with very much clarity at all; doctrinal disputes were usually so difficult to settle that local councils could not stem their tide. The Ecumenical Council, historically, was held because the Orthodox view was being challenged; if we could ever have spoken with the Roman clarity Mr. Armstrong alludes to, it's safe to say a majority of the widespread heresies would have died almost instantly.

The author then attempts to "point to biblical Petrine evidences and the actual wielding of authority by renowned popes such as St. Leo the Great (440-61) and St. Gregory the Great (590-604), honored as saints even by the Orthodox" ("The Papacy") to defend his claims. Yet he does not provide evidence of any sort of "wielding of authority" on the part of these venerable Popes. The Petrine passages, which will probably be second only to the book of Revelation in Christian history in terms of dispute, were not universally understood to mean the Papacy (Chrysostom's Homilies on Matthew, Augustine, Cyprian, and even Pope St. Leo are clear witnesses to a number of divergent traditions concerning Mt 16:18, making it extremely difficult to pin down a clear interpretation of the passage.) Mr. Armstrong finishes his terribly short analysis of the Papacy: "The papacy, according to Catholic Tradition, is a divinely-instituted office, not merely (as Orthodoxy considers the papacy and Roman supremacy) a political and historical happenstance. Rome was apostolic, and preeminent from the beginning of Christianity, whereas Constantinople (the seat of the Byzantine Empire) was not." Oddly enough, even the term "papacy" was a historical happenstance; Rome was the only Apostolic Patriarchate in the West at the time. "Pope" was (and is) a common title for priests in the "Greek" Church. There seems to be a neglect for the collegiality of the Church in the aforementioned statement as well; Constantinople (allegedly NOT an "Apostolic See") remained (and remains) in communion with Alexandria and Antioch (two other Petrine sees.)

...And on Our Side?

Mr. Armstrong attacks the Orthodox doctrine of the pentarchy in a number of areas, resorting to listing heresies and Patriarchs associated with them (but of course, neglecting to mention that in a major instance—monothelitism—a Pope of Rome was, sadly, clearly involved), the statement that our system is "not grounded in Scripture - as Catholics affirm with regard to the papacy"--although I fail to see where Christ informed Peter he was "infallible" above the other Apostles, so I don't see this alleged Scriptural continuity. Actually, it seems Christ, for the most part, commissions His Apostles as a whole. So the idea of the Pentarchy is biblical, but its structure developed over time (as did Rome's prestige.)

Dave claims that Rome never "succumbed to heresy". While this statement is almost true, so much as one doctrinal failure negates the hypothesis. And there have been a couple, but Honorius is most notable in the first eight centuries. After that, a number of heretical Popes start taking the throne; but of course, that's precisely when the Orthodox Church "falls away".

The Ecumenical Council

Mr. Armstrong's commentary on our view of the Ecumenical Councils is so startling I am quoting it in full: "Orthodoxy accepts the first seven Ecumenical Councils (up to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787), but no more. From a Catholic perspective, this appears incoherent and implausible. Why have an agreed-upon system in which Councils are central to the governance of the Church universal, and then all of a sudden they cease, and Orthodox Christians must do without them for 1200 years?"

If councils were "central" to the government of the Church universal, the Roman Catholic Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence would never had existed. If councils were "central" to the government of Mr. Armstrong's church, the Gallicans would have been right in the 1870's. But according to Pope Pius IX, they were not.

The concept of the Ecumenical Council implied that the Church throughout the world was assembling. When East and West split, the Orthodox Church continued to hold councils, but they were certainly not worldwide, and did not refer to them as such. To boot, some of the alleged "Ecumenical Councils" in the West weren't recognized as such until much later. At the "ecumenical" council of Florence introduced itself as the "eighth" council, even though there were other councils between the "Eastern Schism" and Florence now recognized as "Ecumenical".

Ultimately, for these reasons, such a bizzare charge against Orthodoxy falls flat. The synods in Constantinople and Jerusalem offer significant proof that the conciliar spirit, nor the nature of authority in the Church, had not diminished in the least after Rome's departure.

...And Development?

Orthodoxy, by its nature, does not allow for development that is alien to the Church of ages past to take hold of the Church today. Mr. Armstrong's claim that "Orthodoxy accepts the doctrinal development which occurred in the first eight centuries of the Church, but then allows little of any noteworthiness to take place thereafter" is unfair and demonstrates a rather closed mind toward development that did not occur under Rome. A number of doctrinal developments took place, but they took place within the framework of the Church of previous generations, as did the first few centuries of doctrinal development.

A good example is the Palamite controversy. St. Gregory Palamas' assertion that God is fully present in both His essence and His energies sounded completely revolutionary at the time; yet, the radical theology was easily defended in the Cappadocian Fathers without being so clearly stated. The controversy raged over a number of years, and ultimately ended in Palamas' vindication.

All this, four hundred years after Orthodoxy goes into doctrinal hibernation!

Faith and Reason

Mr. Armstrong makes the claim that "Orthodoxy deliberately places less emphasis than Catholicism on the use of reason within Christianity." ("Reason and Philosophy"). After citing the irritation of some Orthodox thinkers with Aquinas and other Scholastics, he cites a neglect of reason on the part of Orthodoxy. While he qualifies his statement by stating that "there is some room for difference of opinion on this (which exist within the Catholic Church as well)" , he presents the "anti-reason" view as the norm.

The essayist takes a moment to refer to "implicit condemnations" of early scholastic philosophy ("implicitly" equating this philosophy with a proper use of reason.) Oddly enough, he quotes Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia to support his claim that what Orthodox rightly see as a humanization of religious concepts is simply an exagerration. Apparently our author has never been asked "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" This idiotic question was a product of the time of the "great Scholastics" to which he refers. At the Roman Council of Florence, when the Greek delegates was giving direct responses to the Scholastics concerning temporal fire (questions related to Purgatory), they were asked if they knew the precise substance of hellfire. The Imperial officer Jagaris, a simple man, found the question so pointless that he responded sharply for the bishops: "The inquirer will receive a satisfactory answer when he experiences the nature of that fire personally!"

Mr. Armstrong makes the subtle claim that since God himself is above reason, Orthodoxy condemns reason. As I demonstrated above, Orthodoxy doesn't condemn reason per se—it condemns its misuse. Few would argue that Fr. John Romanides or Professor Vladimir Lossky, both faithful sons of Orthodoxy, condemned reason. What they condemned was a tendency in Latin Scholasticism not to explain what God has revealed to us, but what God actually is—which most Orthodox (and, I hope, most Catholics) would condemn as impious.

Ultimately, Mr. Armstrong's argument concerning reason concludes "...that Orthodoxy's relative neglect of reason has led to the East being prone to heresy again and again, while the West's more balanced view avoided this error." This is just plain old falsehood. Apparently, Mr. Armstrong's "historical analysis" ends at the tenth century. No major heresies were produced in the East after the schism of Rome (nor any major schisms) yet in the West we continue to see heresies and schisms crop up in every single century up until our time (and the Lefevbrite schism occured within my own lifetime!) So his closing statement leaves me in shock. I am still trying to figure out how he came to these conclusions, especially with such a varied diet of books for a bibliography.

"Get me to the Church on time"

The author proceeds to discuss our need to "modernize". Since this charge, in this pundit's opinion, is not only against everything Orthodoxy stands for, but really not a charge but a desperate I can only respond with an old adage: "Misery loves company." The modern world has not brought Orthodoxy any challenges that it hasn't handled before, except in a few areas of science (and even these advances are not yet cause for concern) and so Orthodoxy has no need to advance along the lines of the recent Vatican Council. That advance cost the simple faith of millions of people, caused thousands of priests to leave the ministry, and left countless Catholic confused on their beliefs on simple issues.

Mr. Armstrong has not given one reason as to why we should actually embark on the same path. He says things are stabilizing. Stabilizing, however, into what? Most commentators would point that the Roman Catholic Church does not even look the same as it did thirty years ago! We refused union with them, for many reasons (some of which were cited here.) Now that we can't even figure out where they stand on their own Christianity, we are asked to modernize with them and "let bygones be bygones." I think I speak for many Orthodox when I say: No thanks.

Contraception and Divorce

Two issues are touched on which are of particular importance to the people of the world today. The Orthodox Church's stand on divorce has been attacked for a very long time by the Roman Church, although it was certainly not an issue at the time of the schism. Basically Orthodoxy allows for a divorce on two grounds: Adultery and a non-believing spouse. Both of these have biblical grounds (see Mt 19:9, and 2 Cor 6:12-18) and the tradition of the Church shows that divorces were allowed. There was no history of a clarification of separation with the Roman idea that "a marriage never existed."

Likewise, the Orthodox stance on contraception has been unclear. This is mostly because it is a pastoral issue; it belongs in the hands of the priest who can directly affect the lives of the couples using it. While not as "across-the-board" in its condemnations as Roman Catholicism, it has made clear its opposition, the personal opinions of well-educated Orthodox professors notwithstanding. They are not the voice of the Church. And the CHURCH teaches that contraception, wrong in and of itself, is a completely pastoral issue. Mr. Armstrong, it's just not your Pope's business.

A Closing Remark

To put this review to rest, I would just have to be clear that Orthodoxy is simply not as clear-cut as a lucid writer can make it out to be. It's a complex faith to an intellectual; it's just Church to an uneducated peasant. But it simply does not mix. An intelligent person like Dave Armstrong giving such a simple analysis of Orthodoxy demonstrates, yet again, that Orthodoxy is simply misunderstood by the outsider who just doesn't know what to do with her—a failure garnered by intellectuals since the Gnostics. So I cannot, in conscience, give approbation to such an analysis of my Church. Without the necessary submission, no one can understand Orthodoxy, and Orthodox can't even understand themselves. So my review, sadly and with regret, is negative—an analysis has to match the facts, and while Orthodoxy is clouded by the presuppositions of its viewers, the facts remain the same. Analyses of clouds go up in smoke.

For Further Reading:

1) Khomiakov, Alexey. "The Church is One." New edition published by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)—contact information on

2) Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). "Way Apart: What is the Difference between Orthodoxy and Western Confessions?" Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY.

3) Lossky, Vladimir. "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church", SVS Press, NY.

4) "The Lives of the Pillars Of Orthodoxy", Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, CO.

5) Kailomiros, Alexander. "Against False Union," Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, MA.

6) Fr. Alexey Young. "The Rush to Embrace." New Sarov Monastery, Blanco, TX.

7) Fr. Vladimir (Abbe' Guetee'). "The Papacy." New Sarov Monastery, Blanco, TX.

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