As the two oldest strains of Christianity, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have much in common. Much of what they share differs from Protestant Christianity, as well. One of the most significant doctrinal areas in which Catholic and Orthodox Christianity are unique is in their understanding of Mary, the mother of Jesus. While both Catholics and Orthodox venerate or honor Mary, their understanding of her role in salvation and her nature are distinct.
History of Beliefs
For the first thousand years of Christianity's existence, there was no official distinction between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Yet Eastern and Western Christians began to differ much earlier than that on certain beliefs, including some of those that impact their views of Mary.
Christians in the West began venerating Mary, praying to her and opening churches in her honor during the first four centuries of the church's existence. Meanwhile some Eastern theologians, such as St. John Chrysostom, were suggesting that Mary may not have lived a sinless life. While these differences weren't central to the split between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, they are still notable.
Differences in Mary's Nature
Perhaps the most distinct difference in how Orthodox and Catholic Christians understand and venerate the Virgin Mary has to do with the nature of sin. Catholics believe Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden burdened humanity with a sinful nature, a doctrine known as "original sin." They teach that Mary was, due to a special act of God, born without original sin, a doctrine known as the "immaculate conception." Orthodox Christians reject the doctrine of original sin and therefore reject the immaculate conception. However, the Orthodox do share a belief with Catholics that Mary lived a sinless life.
Rituals of Veneration
Catholics have many prayers and other rituals that serve to honor and venerate Mary. One of the most popular Catholic prayers, the Rosary, is centered on Mary. Catholics have a feast that celebrates their belief that Mary didn't die, but rather went directly to heaven: the Feast of the Assumption.
Orthodox have a prayer that uses a set of beads, but it is known as "The Jesus Prayer" and doesn't specifically venerate Mary. While many Orthodox do believe that Mary did not die but went directly to heaven, this belief isn't required by the church and there isn't a church holiday celebrating this event.
Role of Mary in Salvation
Catholics and Orthodox understand Mary's role in salvation differently. Catholics refer to Mary as "Co-Redemptrix" with Christ and as a mediator between humanity and God. Orthodox Christians refer to Mary as the "Theotokos," or "God-bearer." They see Mary's role as the mother of the savior.
This difference can be observed by comparing Orthodox depictions of Mary with Catholic depictions. In Orthodox depictions, Mary is almost always seen with Jesus, whereas the Catholic tradition often displays images of Mary without Jesus.
- Orthodox Church in America: Sinlessness of Mary
- EWTN: Mary's Immaculate Conception
- The Marian Library: Mary in the Orthodox Tradition
- Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America: The Holy Tradition and the Veneration of Mary and other Saints in the Orthodox Church
- Catholic Answers Magazine: Mary, Mother of Salvation
- Orthodox Church in America: The Rosary
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: The Fundamental Teachings of the Orthodox Church
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