Primer 2 – A

A Basic Primer of Orthodox Catholicism and its difference with the Roman Jurisdiction of the Catholic Church


The Papacy and Orthodoxy:

Along with the previously mentioned conditions faced by the Orthodox Church, we must, in all fairness, mention Rome’s proselytizing pressure. Evidence of this is appallingly plentiful. Rome prepared missionaries in special schools such as the College of St. Athanasius in Rome, which opened in 1577. They were then sent to the East in order to engage in direct proselytizing of the Orthodox.


This network of Roman propaganda also embraced the Orthodox Slavic world. The pressure of the Catholic Polish monarchy and the Jesuits in Poland and Lithuania on Orthodox canonically dependent on Constantinople is well known. The Uniat Ukrainian Church was, in part, the result of such pressure through the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596. Due to the historical situation that the Orthodox Church found itself in, there was little that they could do to counter this aggressive Romanization.


These were the humiliating conditions and restrictions which the Eastern Church was forced to live under until the early nineteenth century. The role played by the ecumenical patriarch in this and the preceding chapter of its history was decisive. This was due to the preeminent position of the city of Constantinople during the Byzantine period, when its bishop acquired a rank second only to Rome. But it was also the result of the schism with Rome. Rome’s defection left Constantinople with undisputed primacy among the other eastern patriarchates. This how Constantinople became the primary see of Orthodoxy. Finally, under the Ottoman ethnarchic system its geographic boundaries were enlarged, with the result that most of the Orthodox community came under its jurisdiction.  How the patriarch of Constantinople became the senior bishop in Orthodoxy is a major theme of Orthodox church history. Although the patriarch’s primatial status has never been in question – it is, and remains, the first see of Orthodoxy. Its geographical boundaries have since been greatly reduced due to the result of the struggle for freedom undertaken by the various Orthodox nationalities under Ottoman rule. The new independent nation states could not remain ecclesiastically under the jurisdiction of a patriarch who was still within the orbit of the foreign and hostile Ottoman state.


Constantinople and the Modern National Churches:

One of the first nations to be influenced by the French Revolution’s explosive ideas was Greece; It was the first to break the Turkish yoke, gaining its independence early in the century. It wasn’t long before a synod of bishops declared the Church of the new Kingdom of Greece autocephalous. The New Greek nation could not be headed by a patriarch. Instead, Greece’s autocephalous status, which was recognized by Constantinople in 1850, meant that it could elect its own head (kephale). The Orthodox Church of Greece is today governed by a Holy Synod presided over by the Archbishop of Athens. Mt. Athos and the semiautonomous Church of Crete alone remain under the Patriarch of Constantinople’s jurisdiction. The island of Cyprus, however, is independent of both Constantinople and Greece. Its autonomous state dates from the third ecumenical synod in 431 which accorded it this unique position. Up to that time it had been subject to the patriarchate of Antioch. Like Greece, this ancient Church is governed by a synod of bishops and a presiding archbishop.


The ethnarchic system introduced by the Ottoman Turks brought most of the autocephalous and patriarchal Slavic Churches under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Such a subjugation and loss of patriarchal status was understandably unpopular. As a result, several independent national Churches came into being once political freedom was gained. The Church of Serbia, which had lost its patriarchate during the Turkish period, became autocephalous in 1879, and its primate was recognized as patriarch by Constantinople in 1922. Romania the largest self-governing Church after Russia, was declared autocephalous in 1885 and became a patriarchate in 1925. The Church of Bulgaria declared itself autocephalous in 1860, but it was not until 1945 that Constantinople recognized it; its metropolitan in Sofia assumed the title of patriarch in 1953. Russia, which had remained outside the Turkish fold, was recognized as a patriarchate by Constantinople in 1589. Nevertheless, this also was eventually abolished, but not by Constantinople. Tsar Peter the Great replaced it by a governing Synod in 1721. This Synodal period lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution, when the patriarchate was once again restored in 1917. Today, Russia ranks fifth after the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.


The Ancient Patriarchates:

As a result of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the ancient sees of the Near East also achieved greater freedom as well. They two were often under the influence of Constantinople during the period of Turkish captivity. Despite the defection of the Church of Egypt in the fifth century, when it refused to accept the fourth ecumenical synod and created a national Coptic Church, the patriarchate of Alexandria continued to survive. The ancient title of the patriarch is still “pope and patriarch”, which is an eloquent illustration that the designation of “pope” was never the exclusive privilege of the bishop of Rome in the Church. Today, the patriarch and the clergy of this see are Greek. Its jurisdiction extends over all Orthodox on the African continent. A flourishing Orthodox Church now exists in Uganda. Antioch, which was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, now ranks third after Constantinople. It is made up of Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians living in Syria and Lebanon. Up until the late nineteenth century its patriarch and bishops were Greek, but since 1899 they have been Arabs. Jerusalem has been an independent patriarchate since the fifth century. Unlike Antioch, its patriarch is Greek although its faithful are for the most part Arabs. This venerable see is the guardian and protector of the Holy Places.


The Modern Structure:

From what we have read about nineteenth century developments that the authority enjoyed by Constantinople today is no longer based on any vast ecclesiastical jurisdiction.


Constantinople has been stripped both of its former territories and most of its flock, during the last century and a half. Greece and the Balkans are no longer under its jurisdiction.


Inside Turkey itself, moreover, the Orthodox Christian communities of Asia Minor have ceased to exist. The patriarch’s immediate flock today is made up of those Orthodox still living in Constantinople.


Therefore, the patriarch’s position rests on its primatial status rather than on any wide territorial jurisdiction. No less striking is the fact that world wide Orthodoxy, like the ancient Church, is a decentralized body consisting of four ancient patriarchates and many local or national Churches, most of which enjoy full self-governing status.


The Orthodox community of Churches is not a monolithic structure. Even though the Orthodox Church lacks a centralized authority, all members of this living body are bound together by a common canonical and liturgical tradition, by a single doctrinal and sacramental unity, and by a common faith stretching back  to the original Christian nucleus of Apostolic times. Within this historical reality lie the true Catholic and universal Church. In Christian history, catholicity has never been coextensive with organizational or institutional uniformity.


NEXT: A continuation of a Basic Primer on the differences of Orthodox Catholicism and the Roman Church