Dear Fr. Joe: Can Catholics be orthodox?

Q. Is there such a thing as an “orthodox” Catholic (as opposed to Greek Orthodox)? I gather it’s a term that implies people are “conservative” Catholics. I heard someone use this expression but I didn’t know there were different degrees or versions of Catholicism.

A. Great question – it’s funny how often we are not careful with our terminology or fail to explain it and, as a result, confusion and chaos ensue.

The Catholic Encyclopedia gives us a great explanation:

[Orthodox is] the technical name for the body of Christians who use the Byzantine Rite in various languages and are in union with the Patriarch of Constantinople but in schism with the Pope of Rome. The epithet Orthodox (orthodoxos), meaning “right believer,” is, naturally, claimed by people of every religion. It is almost exactly a Greek form of the official title of the chief enemies of the Greeks, i.e., the Muslims (mu’min, fidelis). The Monophysite Armenians called themselves ughapar, meaning exactly the same thing.

We’ll take this one step at a time.

Let’s start with councils. When we say the church had a council, we are referring to a large gathering of bishops that get together to resolve big issues of the day or big questions confronting Christianity. Vatican II, for example, is one of our councils. Now, when we talk about our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we are talking about a group that accepts the earliest councils in Christianity, but who separated from the church of Rome before later councils. I think it fair to say that, in most cases, our Orthodox brothers and sisters are with us on everything except where Jesus intended our authority to lie. For us Latin-Rite or Western Catholics, it lies with the pope of Rome. For the Orthodox, authority lies with the patriarch of a different place. We are, literally, out of communion with our Orthodox brothers and sisters in this case.

Why we broke apart has to do with cultural clashes as well as some religious disputes, such as the filioque, or line in the Nicene Creed that refers to the Holy Spirit: we say the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son; the Orthodox say he proceeded from the Father. Most would agree that the key and most tragic moment in all of this came with the sacking of Constantinople by Catholics in 1204. The division intensified that day and some feel the wounds will never be healed.

This, in a nutshell, is a description of Orthodox as a religious group.

On top of this, within Catholicism, you do find people who refer to themselves as either “orthodox” or striving to be so. I’m one of ‘em! What does this mean?

Well, again, if you look at the definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia, you see that orthodox literally means “right believer” or “pure worship.” In the Catholic world, this is a word some people use to describe how they follow the teachings of Christ.

As a general rule, those who are of a more traditional bent tend to use it to designate the degree with which they are in union with the church of Rome. In this case, the simple and short explanation is that a person using the word in this context is referring to their concern that they be obedient to what the church says in a literal sense.

Also, as a general rule, those of a more progressive bent tend to use it to designate the degree with which they are in union with what they perceive as the ideals behind the teachings from Rome. Again, the simple and short explanation is that a person who uses the term orthodox in this case is referring to his or her obedience to “the spirit of the word.”

In case you were wondering, we need both. I remember in seminary one of the bishops put it this way: “We’ve got people in left field and people in right field. I’m just happy they’re playin’ ball.”

I like that. We all should strive to follow Christ as best we can and ditch any prejudice against people who are striving as hard as we are but in a different way. I don’t mean that we passively sit back and allow people to make what we believe to be grievous errors, not at all. I mean that if we feel called to challenge a fellow believer in Christ about their theology, we do it in a spirit of love and humility.

Jesus gave us one commandment above all: Love one another.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!