Though members of Orthodox Churches essentially practice the same faith as those of the Roman Catholic Church, they remain separated because of an historic dispute over the supremacy of the Pope. Since the Eastern Orthodox Church refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, its members by definition cannot follow leadership from the Pope. There was once only one Christian church. Proclaimed “catholic,” which means universal, because it had a global reach, this institution split into eastern and western branches in 1054. The Pope leads the western Catholic Church, with its headquarters, Vatican City, located within Rome, Italy. Proclaimed the Vicar of Christ, or the human representative of Jesus, the Christian savior, the Pope assumes infallibility, or unquestioned authority, when making statements in an official capacity. Christians, such as Orthodox Catholics, that refuse to submit to the authority of the Pope are in a state of schism, or separation, from the Roman Catholic Church.

Two Branches of the Catholic Church

The official break between the Western, or Roman Church, with the Eastern, or Orthodox Church, began in the early 4th century. Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in A.D. 325 and relocated the empire to the Mediterranean city renamed Constantinople. The result was the establishment of two recognized centers of Christianity, one in Rome and another in Constantinople. For centuries, religious and political leaders jostled for control of the physically divided, yet spiritually united church.

The Schism of 1054

John IV, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church broke the balance of power in A.D. 553 by claiming to be the ecumenical patriarch, or supreme world religious leader. Hoping to reassert unequivocal control of the church, Pope Leo IX, in 1054, ordered all leaders of the Constantinople church to submit publicly to the authority of the Roman Church. The authorities in Constantinople denied the request because they saw the Pope as one in a large hierarchy of leaders. The Eastern Church establishes rules through councils headed by various patriarchs of the churches. Pope Leo IX summarily excommunicated, the Catholic legal term for banishment, the entire Eastern Orthodox Church. Still claiming their legitimacy as the real Catholic Church, the Eastern Church, in return, excommunicated all Roman Catholics.

Orthodox Catholics in Roman Catholic Churches

Vatican leaders lifted the orders of excommunication against the Eastern Church in 1965, despite the Eastern Church’s continued refusal to accept the supremacy of the Pope. Roman Catholic churches acknowledge the Eastern Orthodox as full members of the faith. Since Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches accept almost all the same religious tenets, Roman Catholics allow Orthodox to participate in all church functions, including the exclusive Holy Communion. Eastern Orthodox Catholics that do partake of communion in a Roman Catholic Church do so of their own will and may face penalties in their home church because the act implies submission to the Pope.

Different Traditions of the Same Faith

There are some differences in religious traditions between the East and West that have developed since the schism. Priests in the East may marry, while Roman Catholic priests maintain the discipline of celibacy. Divorce is part of Eastern tradition, while remaining abhorred by Roman Catholics. Last, the Roman Catholic teaching that souls unprepared to enter heaven spend time in a middle ground called purgatory is unknown in Eastern theology.