This post is going to be a reply to a short clip from an interview that Matt Fradd did with the pop-apologist for Roman Catholicism (RC), Steve Ray. This critique isn’t so much leveled against Steve Ray in particular (I won’t be addressing points he’s made in his books) but rather against the specific arguments he uses in this video. The reason I’m writing this is because I think that in this short video, Steve Ray highlights pretty much all of the weakest talking points that RCs use against Orthodoxy. And so I’m hoping that this post will serve as a guide to RCs who are engaging with Orthodoxy, so as to help them avoid making very bad arguments. So, let’s begin!
“There is no such thing as ‘The Orthodox Church’ but there are only ‘Orthodox Churches’ due to ethnic divides!”
Starting at around the 2:10 mark Steve Ray begins to make what I think is quite frankly the absolute worst possible argument you could ever make against Orthodoxy as a RC. He claims that “the Orthodox Church” does not actually exist, but rather there are only Orthodox Churches that are separated along ethnic lines due to “cesaropapism.” This is the beginning of a theme that stretches throughout the course of this entire video: all of the criticisms that Steve Ray makes against Orthodoxy could just as easily be made against the undivided Church of the first millennium. He claims that we’re not one Church because we have Churches “divided” by ethnicity? Well then I guess the first millennium Church was not one Church because they also had Churches divided by ethnicity. The concept of a “national Church” was standardized at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, when the threefold hierarchy of Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria was established. And as UbiPetrus points out in his excellent video “Why Roman Catholicism is Wrong on Church History,” the Church before the schism was not “united under the Chair of Peter” in the sense that Steve Ray insinuates, but rather only ever attributed an appellate primacy to the bishop of Rome, wherein he acted as the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Church (and this same authority now lies with the Ecumenical Patriarch). The dictum of the Fathers was “one faith, one Lord, one baptism,” as being the foundation of unity in the Church (not “one supreme visible head” as modern RC would have it), and this is exactly how the Orthodox Church justifies Her oneness: because we all share one faith, one Lord (at the Eucharist), and one baptism. As Seraphim Hamilton states in his great article “The Eucharist and the Catholicity of the Church“:
“The catholicity of the Church entails its wholeness precisely in its distinctness. Just as the entire divine nature subsists perfectly in each divine Person- with the communion with the other Two being intrinsic to each person’s mode of natural subsistence, so also does the entirety of the Church Catholic subsist in each local Church. In the same way, communion with other local Churches of apostolic faith belongs to the internal character of every local Church […] The Catholic Church thus becomes entirely present in each local Church, but it becomes present according to its distinctness. The whole of catholicity is present the Church of Alexandria, but it is present in a way which implies its communion with the other local Churches and distinguishes it from the Church of Moscow. As communion refers to the mutual indwelling of operations and as operations are signified by words (thus, those operations which are the principles of created natures are called the logoi), the major local Churches which are the centers of communion for the universal Church commemorate verbally the heads of other patriarchal Churches. This commemoration is in the context of the Eucharistic Liturgy. All the Churches are brought together in the one messianic table which binds Heaven and Earth together in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the Incarnate Word. But the human family which is gathered collectively into the Church as its Table is gathered according to its existence as a family of many nations.”
Our theology of the Church is Eucharistic and Trinitarian to the core, because the “one Body” that becomes present to us at the Liturgy is the very same “one Body” that we all gather into as the Church, and it is the same “one Body” that is taken on by the Son, seated at the right hand of the Father, by the power of the Spirit. Our communion as one Church in Orthodoxy is visibly seen and heard during the Eucharistic liturgy, when we all partake of one chalice, and commemorate the heads of our Church. Regular parish priests commemorate their Bishops and Metropolitans, Bishops commemorate their Metropolitans, Metropolitans commemorate their Patriarchs, and Patriarchs commemorate their brother Patriarchs. This is why, in the first millennium, the excommunication of a Patriarch or Bishop was realized when their name was removed from the diptychs (i.e. they were no longer commemorated by the Churches during the liturgy), and they were barred from communion. This is what visible unity means: being able to see and hear who exactly you are in communion with at the Eucharistic liturgy; and this is why Orthodoxy is one Church, despite existing in a multiplicity of cultural expressions.
“Orthodoxy can’t call Ecumenical Councils!”
This is a very common claim by mainstream RC apologists (more educated apologists will avoid these kinds of arguments, or at least modify them) and Steve Ray begins to make it around the 3:10 mark, by claiming that “there is no authority in Orthodoxy that can call Ecumenical Councils.” This argument further solidifies the pattern that was mentioned above, namely that all of the criticisms that Steve Ray levels against Orthodoxy could easily be leveled against the early Church. The primary reason why Orthodoxy hasn’t had Ecumenical Councils since the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire is because, traditionally, Emperors were the only authorities who ever called these Councils, and there aren’t any left today. In the Church of the first millennium, all Seven Ecumenical Councils were called by the Emperors (not the Popes) summoning the bishops together in Council to deliberate a matter that was causing division in the Empire, and then (oftentimes) legislating the canons of these Councils into civil law. This is perfectly seen by the fact that, for the first 300 years of the Church, there were no Ecumenical Councils, but only local councils. It wasn’t until the Roman Emperor became a practicing Christian that the concept of “Ecumenical Councils” entered the Church, and so it makes perfect sense that, in the absence of these Emperors, we would also find an absence of these Councils. You can cry “cesaropapism” all you’d like, but this is a criticism that you would have to make not only against Orthodoxy, but also against the undivided Church of the first millennium.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that, in the undivided Church, there was actually a Pope who tried to call an Ecumenical Council without the approval of the Emperor, and this was the Lateran Council of 649. Both St. Maximus and Pope Theodore held this council to be “in the nature of a general or ecumenical council,” and Maximus went even further by writing that it was the “sixth synod, which through the divine inspiration of God set forth with all pure piety the doctrines of the holy Fathers.” This all sounds well and good, until one realizes that this council is neither listed by Orthodoxy among the Seven Councils, nor is it listed by RC among the 21 Councils that they hold to be ecumenical. So what we’re left with is a Pope and a saint who called a council, which they intended to be ecumenical, but was never actually received as such, in part due to the lack of ratification by the Emperor. This is a direct falsification of the popular RC “papal ratification” theory, and this fact lends itself to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the importance of the Emperor in calling Ecumenical Councils. For more on why RC fails the test of history on this question, and what the Orthodox position really is, see Seraphim Hamilton’s excellent article “What is an Ecumenical Council?”
“Orthodox Bishops are always disagreeing and excommunicating each other!”
As you can expect, this argument, which is made around 3:30, is once again something that could easily be leveled against the pre-schism Church. I mean, we could go down the list of all of the excommunications that took place in the early Church, but I think two are particularly worth bringing up. First, the Second Ecumenical Council (convoked by Emperor St. Theodosius I) was held under the presidency of St. Meletius, the Bishop of Antioch. At the time, his episcopal throne was being challenged by the Bishop Paulinus, who was the Bishop that both the Roman and Alexandrian Sees believed should rightfully reign over the Antiochian Church. Because of this, Rome and Alexandria did not attend the Second Ecumenical Council, and initially refused to accept it as such due to them not recognizing St. Meletius’ authority (the Council wouldn’t be accepted by Rome until the 5th century), and this in itself signified a break in communion. According to modern day RC canon law, St. Meletius would have incurred a “latae senteniae” excommunication because of his refusal to accept the authority of the Apostolic See in convoking the Council of Constantinople without the Pope’s mandate; and yet, he not only remained in communion with the vast majority of the Eastern Bishops (including Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa), but his actions were actually deemed praiseworthy, and he is today venerated as a saint in the RCC. This demonstrates that temporary breaks in communion between Patriarchates (in this case, Rome and Alexandria breaking communion with Antioch) were a thing in the early Church, and Rome did not always end up on the right side of these disputes.
The second case that’s worth considering is the events leading up to the 5th century Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. To simplify a bit, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, was beginning to promote a heresy within the Church that denied the oneness of the Person of Christ. When the Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril, found out about this, he issued his famous 12 anathemas against Nestorius, refuting his heretical views, and he also excommunicated Nestorius from the Church of Alexandria by removing his name from the diptychs. Despite St. Cyril doing this, he still remained in communion with the Churches that were also in communion with Nestorius at the time (which included Rome and Antioch). So the situation we have, then, is that the Church of Alexandria was out of communion with the Church of Constantinople, and yet was in communion with the Churches of Rome and Antioch, the latter of which remained in communion with Constantinople until the end of the Council of Ephesus. All of this to say: if you’re going to criticize Orthodoxy for having messy situations with regards to Patriarchs excommunicating each other, you’re also going to have to criticize the undivided Church for this same reason.
“Orthodoxy doesn’t take a strong stand on modern issues!”
This is an argument, made around 3:40, which is essentially criticizing the fact that the Orthodox Church does not have a “living magisterium” to address issues as they come up. To this argument, as with all of the previous ones, I can simply say: the early Church was the same way. Whenever disputes came up in the first millennium, there was never anybody who ever said “well let’s just see what the Church of Rome believes and that’s the right answer,” no! A heretic was never refuted by someone pointing out that the Pope of Rome happened to disagree with them. Rather, these disputes were always dealt with by appealing to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, normally in accordance with the canon of St. Vincent of Lerins who taught us how to settle these kinds of disputes:
What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty. But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in various times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation.
What we see is that, in order to discern the true faith according to St. Vincent, the first place we go to is the consent of the fathers, which he designates as “cleaving to antiquity.” If there is no consent to be found, then we are to seek out the decrees of an Ecumenical Council. If no such decrees exist, then we are to interrogate the opinions of the fathers and approved authorities and exercise our own wisdom in order to discern the mind of the Church. Notice that there’s no mention of appealing to Papal encyclicals or documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as modern RCs would do in a situation wherein they’re looking to find the answer to some doctrinal question. In the beautiful words of Seraphim Hamilton in his article “Scripture and Tradition According to St. Vincent of Lerins“:
Tradition should not be understood as a collection of acts of magisterial fiat. All of Christian tradition is found in the Holy Scriptures. Tradition is rather the expression of the perennial teaching of the Church as inspired by the Holy Spirit, and as we dig into tradition and actively study the Church’s self-expression in history, our minds are illumined and enabled to study the Scriptures and understand its meaning. Just as the Holy Spirit eternally expresses the Son, so also tradition is a perpetual expression of Scripture. The Father loves the Son and passes His love to the Son in the Holy Spirit- the Son receives this love in the Spirit and reciprocates the love to the Father by that same Spirit. This is an eternal dynamic, called by the Council of Blachernae the energetic procession of the Spirit from Father and Son (distinguished from the Catholic teaching of a hypostatic procession). Likewise, the Spirit inspired the biblical authors, manifesting and revealing the Son in the pages of Scripture. We receive the Spirit in reading Scripture, and the Church’s history of speaking back in love to God through tradition is our reciprocation of the Son’s self-revelation in the Bible. This is how St. Athanasius refuted the errors of Arius- he demonstrated that the eternal deity of the Son is evident in the pages of Scripture, and he pointed to the fact that the Divine Liturgy and Mass of the church in previous ages and the contemporary world worshiped Jesus Christ as the Divine Son. Scripture is received in light of the Church’s perennial teaching.
It is according to this understanding that we as faithful Orthodox Christians navigate modern questions concerning homosexual marriage, abortion, contraception, etc., and how we can arrive at the conclusion that all of these things are absolutely contrary to God’s law: because all of these things are out of harmony with the Church’s vision of marriage, life, and sex as revealed through the Holy Scriptures and Tradition of the Church; a conclusion firmly accepted by the Orthodox Church (explicitly so by the Russian Church).
“Orthodoxy allows divorce and remarriage, and you can do it three times!”
This argument, made around 3:42, follows the pattern I’ve been mentioning throughout this post: so did the early Church! As UbiPetrus demonstrates very clearly in his article “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Fathers and Patristic Era Writers (Florilegium)” there was no consensus in the early Church on the question of whether or not divorce and remarriage was possible. You had fathers like St. Athenagoras of Athens who believed that the marital bond was never broken and so remarriage wasn’t possible even after the death of the spouse, Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom who believed that the marital bond was broken upon death and remarriage was an option thereafter, and Sts. Basil, Epiphanius, Cyril, and Theodore of Canterbury who believed that there were things that could break the marital bond before death (mainly adultery) and thus allow for remarriage while both spouses are alive. In addition to this, there were no Ecumenical Councils that definitively settled this question, and local councils were also a mixed bag, with some forbidding divorce and remarriage and others allowing it (even in the West). Obviously, the East went one way and the West went another. However, I think it’s worth bringing up the fact that the issue of divorce and remarriage was never a point of contention between East and West during the time of the schism (represented by the debates had at the Councils of II Lyons and Florence), despite the fact that allowing divorce and remarriage became pretty standard in the East during the 11th century. This clues us in to the fact that RC’s development of “annulments” was a later innovation, and something they didn’t care about during the schism. Also, the RC tradition really has no explanation for the command of the Lord on this question:
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)
Where is the special exception that RC has in the case of sexual immorality? There is none to be found, because their teachings do not align with our Lord’s. I’ve never seen a RC apologist explain away this exception clause to the prohibition of divorce, some going even so far as to claim that this was a later addition to the text! The most simple reading is that, just as death can dissolve the bond of marriage, so too can sexual immorality, and this is precisely the teaching of the Orthodox Church (despite abuses by some people, even hierarchs and Synods), as well as the teaching of many of the above cited fathers and early councils. This teaching is summarized particularly well by St. Cyril of Alexandria: “It is not the letters of divorce that dissolve the marriage in relation to God, but the errant behavior [of the spouses],” as well as canon 5 of the Synod of Hertford, held under the presidency of St. Theodore of Canterbury: “If a man’s wife commits fornication, he may dismiss her and marry another… She, if she is willing to do penance for her sins, after five years may marry another husband.”
That remarriage can only happen three times is simply a matter of canonical discipline: the Church will not canonically perform more than three marriages for an individual out of prudence. This is not a statement about the ontology of marriage, but rather an example of the distinction between “doctrine and discipline” that exists within Orthodoxy: that divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality is possible is a doctrine, that the Church only permits three marriages is a discipline (and thus subject to change over time).
Those are all of the major points that Steve Ray drives home against Orthodoxy and, as I hope this post has demonstrated, they are all subject to the same flaw: all of these criticisms against modern day Orthodoxy could just as easily be leveled against the undivided Church of the first millennium. Given this established fact, it makes one wonder why this is the case. The only reasonable answer I think you can come away with is this: modern Orthodoxy and the early Church are subject to the same criticisms, because they are the same Church. Thanks for reading.