Most people, even many Roman Catholics, are not aware that the Roman Catholic Church is made up of not only the Latin Church of Rome, but also several eastern churches as well. These churches are the Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, Byzantine, Melkite, Maronite, Chaldean, and Syro-Malabar Catholic churches. Each of these churches has its own liturgical rites, theology, hierarchy, and they all claim to be in “full communion” with the Pope of Rome. The purpose of this post isn’t to go over all of the historical circumstances under which each of the eastern Catholic churches came about, rather it’s to examine a key theological issue that comes about when we consider the fact that many of these churches venerate as saints, people whom the Roman Catholic Church infallibly teaches cannot possibly be in heaven. And not only does the Latin Church do nothing to stop this, but they implicitly endorse it.
However, before proving that this is the case, I think it’s first necessary to explain why venerating people who cannot be in heaven is not only just a “scandalous” thing to do, but is in fact idolatry. To do this, we have to turn back to the dogmatic foundations that allow us to venerate saints without it being idolatry, those being the writings of St. John Damascene and the decrees of the 7th Ecumenical Council. According to St. John, the reason why we venerate the saints is because “the saints constitute the Lord’s army”, they are “the friends of God”, and the saints “in their lifetime were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they are no more, His grace abides with their spirits and with their bodies in their tombs, and also with their likenesses and holy images, not by nature, but by grace and divine power” (Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images). Thus, the reason it’s acceptable to venerate saints is because when we venerate who they are by nature, created human beings, we are in fact worshiping what they are by grace, the uncreated God. So saint veneration is actually a form of divine worship, because God is glorified in those whom He glorifies. This really is the thrust of Orthodoxy’s apologia against iconoclasm: the Incarnation has made it so that the saints are by grace what God is by nature. They are no longer mere creations, but they can rightly be called gods who manifest God’s uncreated Light, and that’s why it’s not only okay to honor them, but also necessary. This is also reflected by the 7th Ecumenical Council, which decreed: “To those who do not diligently teach all the Christ-loving people to venerate and salute the venerable and sacred and honourable images of all the Saints who pleased God in their several generations, anathema!” The veneration of saints is always tied with the fact that they are well pleasing to God, and thus fully divinized by His grace. Once this is understood, it should be pretty obvious why venerating those who not only are not saints, but are indeed heretics, can be considered idolatry: if the creation we are honoring does not manifest God’s grace, but rather explicitly rejects it (as heretics do), then the object of our worship in veneration is not God, but rather creation. Thus, we end up honoring, and worshiping creation for its own sake, rather than God’s, and this is the very definition of idolatry. It is, in fact, even worse to venerate heretics than it is to just straight up venerate other created things such as the animals, stars, moon, etc., because at least these things do not willfully reject God.
Hopefully, after all that has been said above, it should become very clear why even just tolerating the veneration of heretics is such a serious matter: tolerating this is essentially no different from tolerating pagan rituals, given both constitute the same sin of idolatry. This is why there’s no possible excuse for it, all invocations of heretic veneration being allowed for the sake of “ekonomia”, so that non-orthodox Churches can more easily come back into communion with the Church, can be tossed out the window. If we wouldn’t let pagans keep their gods and rituals for the sake of “ekonomia”, then we likewise cannot do the same for non-orthodox Christians. So now that all of this has been said, let’s get into proving that this not only takes place in the churches Rome claims to hold communion with, but is in fact, implicitly endorsed by Rome.
Chaldean and Syro-Malabar “Catholic churches”
To begin with, let’s take a look at the former-Nestorian churches that decided to re-enter communion with the Roman See. Now, I will say from the beginning that reliable information about these churches and their practices is extremely hard to come by, and so I’m relying on testimonies I’ve seen online for what I’m claiming here, and so I am open to correction in this matter. From observing what Chaldean and Syro-Malabar Catholics have shared online about their faith, it seems that Nestorius, a heresiarch from the 4th century who was condemned by St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Celestine of Rome, and the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, is allowed to be commemorated during liturgical services in these eastern Catholic Churches (with titles of honor such as “Mar”, just one stop short of “Saint”), and many of the faithful of these Churches have private devotions to him. And, given the decrees of the Second Vatican Council that stated each Eastern Catholic church should “retain its traditions whole and entire” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2), it seems that Rome has absolutely no intention to stop the veneration (whether public or private) of someone whom Rome herself considers to be an “insane”, “heretical”, “blasphemous”, and “impious”, false teacher, listed among such heretics as Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, and Apollinaris by the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Ecumenical Councils. Thus, by tolerating these “private devotions”, and “traditional liturgical customs” that speak favorably of Nestorius, the Latin Church is implicitly endorsing the veneration of someone who is an infamous heretic, and most definitely not a saint, and thus they are supporting idolatry.
Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Armenian “Catholic churches”
The problem of venerating heretics is also present among these former-Monophysite churches that re-entered Roman communion. Although once again, information regarding these churches is extremely hard to come by (and it’s uncertain how reliable some of it is), from observing online discourse (see here, here, and here) about the topic, it seems that these churches are permitted to, or at least not condemned for, commemorating Dioscorus of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch as saints, and it appears that private devotion to them is widespread among the faithful. These heretics, like Nestorius, were condemned by numerous Fathers (Sts. Leo of Rome, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene, etc.) and the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Ecumenical Councils as “impious blasphemers”, along with the likes of Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius. Thus, by not condemning their veneration, and in fact endorsing it along with the other “ancestral traditions” of the former-Monophysites (OE, 6), the Latin Church is implicitly supporting idolatry and leading their own faithful astray.
Byzantine and Melkite “Catholic churches”
These eastern churches are the ones I actually have the most reliable information on, as I personally know many people who were formally members of these churches, and I myself attended a Byzantine Catholic church for some time. Also there is much discussion online that confirms what I’m going to say (see here and here). In the Melkite Catholic church, Sts. Photius, Gregory Palamas, and Mark of Ephesus are all commemorated as saints and pillars of Orthodoxy both privately and liturgically. In the other Byzantine churches, I know for a fact that St. Gregory Palamas is liturgically commemorated as a saint, and I have heard that devotion to Sts. Photius and Mark of Ephesus is widespread. What makes this such a big problem for Rome is that the reason why these men are commemorated as saints, is because of their opposition to Latin heresies such as the Filioque and Papism (which are dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church). Even if it could be argued that St. Photius died in communion with Rome (even though Rome later reversed its decision and accepted as Ecumenical the council that condemned him), he certainly died condemning things Rome believes to be necessary for salvation. And the same is true of Sts. Gregory Palamas and Mark of Ephesus, both of whom also died refusing submission to the Roman Pontiff. St. Mark, in fact, is a saint because he was the only one who refused to sign the re-union agreement between Rome and the Orthodox Church at the Council of Florence, and it’s ultimately because of him that the union attempt failed. Thus, according to Roman Catholic dogma, there’s no way St. Mark could possibly be a saint, given “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Pope Boniface VIII, “Unam Sanctum“), and so by allowing him to be venerated, one of two things must be true:
- St. Mark of Ephesus is really a saint in heaven. If this is the case, then all of the dogmatic statements made by Rome through the Middle Ages up until very recently, that claimed subjection to the Pope is necessary for salvation, were actually not infallible, and thus the Roman Church erred on a matter of the faith.
- St. Mark of Ephesus is not a saint, he is in hell, and by allowing him to be venerated, the Roman Church is promoting idolatry among its faithful.
This dilemma shows up not only for St. Mark of Ephesus, but also St. Gregory Palamas who, as mentioned earlier, also died out of communion with Rome. But what’s more, is that St. Gregory Palamas’ theology and spirituality are directly contradictory to those advocated by Rome, and this topic would require a post of its own, but this summary by one Melkite Catholic church should be sufficient for our purposes here:
Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”. In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm. (Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, Melkite.org)
Furthermore, there is also widespread devotion to post-schsim Orthodox saints such as Sts. Seraphim of Sarov, Silouan of Athos, and many more, among the Byzantine Catholic faithful. Even modern Roman Catholic apologists justify this by saying “when churches come back into communion with Rome they often bring [post-schsim] saints with them”, and they claim that this veneration is acceptable because “veneration doesn’t require canonization.” However, the problem with these lines of reasoning is the same problem that came up above with regard to Sts. Mark and Gregory, namely: if it is okay to venerate people who died outside of communion with the Pope, then either the Roman Church was wrong when she “infallibly” declared that submission to the Pope is necessary for salvation, or the Roman Church is promoting its faithful to commit idolatry by venerating heretics. As far as the traditional Roman Catholic dogmatic tradition is concerned, there really is no way around this dilemma.