A Fair Assesment of Catholic Church?


Over at the Eastern Christian Forum of CAF the following thread was started: Is St. Joseph an Obstacle? Therein an statement was made:

Responding only underlined portion of this post, another poster (who is a Russian Orthodox priestmonk) writes:

Is this a fair assesment?

It is a claim that is not exclusive to the east, and I felt it warranted its own discussion/thread. Apologetics seemed a much more appropriate forum.


I don’t think its that simple, the idea of infallibility is an important one and one that makes a lot of sense: if God wants to preserve the integrity of trhe fides quae, surely it is logical that he would protect it with some charism? It amounts to theology. The reasoned unfolding of revelation through time…Does it not?


The Orthodox priest, as I read your quote, states that, basically, Catholics have decrees and Orthodox have tradition.

That’s fine for him… until you disagree on an important part of tradition! Then what do you do as an Orthodox?

Catholics have tradition (as St. Paul uses the term, apparently to mean teachings that were orally taught but not written down at that time) AND the magisterium to interpret them. Dogmatic declarations only come about as needed to straighten out important arguments (usually between tradition and new theological hypothesizing).

St. Joseph is a pretty good example of this. Traditionally, he has been depicted as an older man, perhaps previously married and with children from that marriage. Since he already had been married and had children, the logic goes, he would’ve been willing to marry a young girl with a vow of perpetual virginity. This tradition would explain both why the Gospels refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters and why/how Mary would’ve stayed a virgin.

However, the “brothers and sisters” could also have been cousins, as Aramaic doesn’t make a distinction. A friend of mine even hypothesized that they could’ve been adopted (he came across an old sketch of “Charity” personified as a woman nursing many children of various races, apparently meaning to imply she had adopted these non-blood-relation children, and applied this idea to Mary). I think it was the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” that seemed to imply that the other members of the household were, in fact, apprentices to Joseph who he asks (as he is dying) to take care of Mary and the young Jesus.

There are also other ways to explain why Mary and Joseph would not have had sexual relations after she had carried the God-Man in her womb (think of the Ark, resting place of God’s presence; touching it, even accidentally, was a death sentence from God).

In short, popular tradition proposed a more detailed explanation of St. Joseph’s life than we have from Scripture. We just don’t know, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter to any doctrine whether or not St. Joseph was previously married or not. So, the Church has allowed the traditional speculations to remain, but they are not required belief.

The Catholic Church is generally more willing to say, “We don’t know,” than the Orthodox Church.

In the Orthodox basilica at Nazareth, there is a silver star that they claim marks the EXACT spot of Jesus’ birth. Why be so insistent on it? Unlike Christ’s tomb or the location of the Ascension, who would’ve marked such a spot? As a Catholic, I CAN believe that that is the exact spot… but I’m not required to. Two feet to the left or right doesn’t really worry me and I certainly wouldn’t consider it critical enough to make dogmatic statements about it.


I would also question this. The Gospel Infancy Narratives, and thus also Catholic Tradition, are pretty clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem even though knowing the exact location to the inch is not part of our Tradition.


Actually the star you speak of is in Bethlehem.

And it wasn’t the Orthodox who put it there, but the Latins, which actually started the Crimean War (France was claiming on behalf of the Latin church to have sovereignty over the Holy Land, including controld of shrines that the Orthodox possessed).


To sort of put the flip side of this argument, I’ll bring up the Orthodox objections to the proclamation of the Assumption, which basically can be summed up: why was it necessary? Was there some doubt or a rise of deniers that prompted it? What disagreement prompted it?

The Orthodox have unanimity in upholding the Tradition that she was assumed, and thus have no need of an infallibile decree. Why did the Latins need one?


I understand, and I could be incorrect, that the Church speaks to the infallibility of a doctrine only in the face of it being challenged or questioned…in other words, to protect what is understood and has always been understood to be Truth through both Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

I may not be stating this correctly - help please?


We are not limited to infallible decrees, as we’ve noted numerous times on this forum. Much of the discussion over Vatican II is because it altered Tradition not governed by such decrees. There would have been no outcry had Catholics not a considerable respect for Tradition.

And have not various Orthodox Churches had to make concessions to secular authorities throughout their long history? Is every practice in every Orthodox Church identical to practice in the 1st century Church in every way?


Do you feel that the criticism is a fair one?

I think that most people would agree that conflicting traditional (or apocryphal) stories about Biblical figures (such as the Holy Family) cannot all be correct. Yet they can be seen to teach (or support) all manner of ideas and values. For instance, depending upon what one believes about the life of Saint Joseph of Nazareth, the understanding might strengthen/weaken or neutrally influence the argument for clerical celibacy.

I say then, that these ‘stories’ can carry a lot of important weight in the teaching and governance of the church. Would it not, for the sake of accuracy, be important to adhere closely to the oldest and most venerable traditions?

Secondly, what role do you see religious tales and pious fiction play in the formation of a Roman Catholic outlook and value system?


There’s a hiearchy of truths. Denying some separates one from communion. Others not so. What we would call infallible definitions, like that of the First Council of Nicea that Jesus is God or that of Pius XII, that Mary was Assumed, are those truths that must be believeed to remain in the communion of the faithful.

This does not mean such decrees are the only truths–just that there is liberality or “economy” in whether or not other commonly held beliefs are a requirement of remaining in the unity of faith.

If someone denied the divinty of Jesus, both Catholics and Orthodox would consider him separated from the community of the faithful.

On the other hand, if someone denied that Joseph was previously married, they would not be cast out of the Catholic communion. Would they be cast out of the Orthodox communion? I don’t think so either, but maybe that is a dogmatic truth for them.

Likewise, for Catholics, the Assumption is something that must be believed in order to remain Catholic. I have been told by Orthodox that, while they believe it to be true, denying it would not separate one from communion. Is this true?


The concept of tradition covers a broad range of ‘types’ of knowledge.
*]Scripture is actually a part of tradition, not separate from it. It reflects and validates early orthodox catholic Christian Faith.
*]There is the Deposit of Faith, which happens to be what Christ taught, or allowed the disciples believe about God and what He expects of us.
*]There is the incidental material…stories outside of canonized scripture which reflects what early Christians knew, or learned from their predecessors in the Faith.
*]There is custom, often having to do with styles of worship, musical prayer accompanying worship, the use of sacramentals and the functional gear used by the church (cruets for oil, vestments of various types, pyxes, kneeling for communion…that sort of thing).[/LIST]The original question had to do with tradition of the third type listed here. Not nearly as critically important as the first two, but highly influential in how we frame our thinking.

For instance:
*]Was Saint Joseph an older man when he married Mary the Virgin or not?
*]Did Saint Mary die before she was assumed or not?[/LIST]The answers to these two questions and many more are embodied in the tradition of the church, and are not really the kinds of things that should require much debate at all.

But it seems that the western church has forgotten that, for some reason some people want to believe the oldest traditions about these subjects and some want to believe something else, even relying on the visions and dreams of post-Apostolic people.

Why is that? How could it be?

I don’t get the relevance of this comment at all, sorry.


Thank you to the posters who so helpfully pointed out my typo of substituting “Nazareth” for “Bethlehem” while ignoring the rest of what I wrote…


No. I don’t think it is a fair assessment. Infallible decrees are important to both Catholics and Orthodox. They both recognize the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils that were made when the Churches were in communion with each other to be infallible decrees.

Tradition is also important to both Catholics and Orthodox. However, there are two types of tradition: Apostolic Tradition and pious traditions of merely human origin. Since their separation from communion with the Church of Rome, the Orthodox no longer have an infallible way of distinguishing between the two types of tradition. Consequently, the Orthodox must now hold to all traditions, even those pious ones of merely human origin, lest they error and throw the baby (Apostolic Tradition) out with the bathwater (pious traditions of merely human origin). On the other hand, the Church of Rome and those Churches in communion with it do not suffer from this defect. They can and sometimes do infallibly distinguish between the two types of tradition, separating the wheat (Apostolic Tradition) from the chaff (pious traditions of merely human origin).


Getting down to issues, the Church is not going to pronounce on something about which there is no way of arriving at certainty.


That is not the point.

In Holy Orthodoxy the matters are settled…no pronouncement needed or desired.

In Roman Catholicism there is this concept of “wiggle room” which is very disturbing. It basically says: “if you want to make up your own story, go right ahead!” And many do.

It’s like…“pick a card, any card! If you don’t like it pick another one!” Orthodox do not pick and choose their religious traditional stories, they accept the early ones and are formed by them. Orthodox Catholic Christianity is reinforced by the liturgy and prayers (which really do reflect Orthodox beliefs), the iconography (which does not admit to multiple alternative stories) and a healthy dose of scepticism over novel ideas and claims.

Now Holy Orthodoxy has no Supreme Pontiff, and never had one…but it is far more consistent in holding tradition than the west has been. (In fact, most of these same traditions still held by the Orthodox concerning these topics were well known in the west as well as the east before the western church admitted new options). It seems to me apparent what the reason for this is, but too many RC are unwilling to address this as an issue.


When I read this, all I can think is…How Ironic.

Holy Orthodoxy has all the same tools to determine traditional Truth as the Holy church has always had. The bishops of Roma were not in the business of distinguishing which “lesser traditions” were true or not in the first millennium. Those just circulated in the church from the earliest times as the Apostolic Tradition, the received wisdom. And today the RC church has simply abandoned the concept, pretending to be uncertain so that certain visions and claims could be introduced as believable.

A good example is the “young Joseph” hypothesis! Very handy when trying to teach chastity to young adults in their prime, but historically incorrect, and a dishonest distortion regardless of the motivation.



Wishful thinking. The Orthodox have done plenty of shifting of wheat from chaff (Synod of Jerusalem, Council of Iasi, etc.). The idea of holding on to all traditions is belied by the unfortunate Old Ritualist schism. If the need arose, we could have an ecumenical council. Such a need just hasn’t presented itself.

We don’t miss Rome as much as Rome wants us to miss her. We do quite well upholding the Apostolic tradition, without dogmas (IC, Assumption, etc) being multinplied.


Actually, it is you who is engaging in wishful thinking. Neither of the Councils you listed are ecumenical in that the consciences of Orthodox everywhere are bound by their decrees. In terms of the need for such a council, is it not a primary function of such councils to decry heresy and thereby define for the faithful what is the true doctrine of the Church? How do you explain the failure of the Orthodox communion to do this with respect to the Catholic understanding of the papacy? Despite being the central issue to separation between Catholics and Orthodox, the EO seem entirely incapable of holding an ecumenical council to clear up this doctrinal dispute. Yet the number of Christian faithful who identify themselves as Catholics dwarf the number of Orthodox believers.

It isn’t a question of need then. The need clearly exists if the Orthodox are correct on the issue of the papacy. It is a question of whether the Orthodox can have a valid ecumenical council without Rome’s approval. And their action (or more appropriately, inaction) answers this question. They won’t because they know they can’t.


I did not claim they are Ecumenical: they are pan-Orthodox and served the limited purposes (sort out the mess coming from the West’s Reformation-Counter-Reformation fights).

As the Orthodox are not confused about the papacy’s claims, why would we have a council to tell what we already know?

I’m not sure what part the number game plays in your argument. The Latins are four times+ the number of Orthodox now, in the past that was not the case, nor is there any guarentee in the future.

The Latins are already excommunicated over the filioque, which, by the way, distorts the Creed of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which was held without any input nor ratification by the pope of Rome. Why have a council to excommunicate the excommunicated?


What makes one Orthodox? I suppose you could say that those who believed in Arianism or Nestorianism or Monophysitism were not Orthodox either. It was the heresy that had infiltrated Christianity that the Church was interested in quashing in an Ecumenical council that clarified the matter and held all of the consciences of Christianity to account.

I’m not sure what part the number game plays in your argument. The Latins are four times+ the number of Orthodox now, in the past that was not the case, nor is there any guarentee in the future.

It plays a huge part. Your number doesn’t even include the Eastern Catholics. Here we have many times the number of EO who have fallen into the alleged heresy of the papacy, yet the Orthodox see no need to convene an ecumenical council to correct the error and define the true doctrine for these sheep who have fallen away. Astonishing. To not do so is either one of the greatest acts of negligence that Church has ever committed, or it is that the Orthodox know they do not have the ability to hold an ecumenical council. The “no need” argument doesn’t fly.

The Latins are already excommunicated over the filioque, which, by the way, distorts the Creed of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which was held without any input nor ratification by the pope of Rome. Why have a council to excommunicate the excommunicated?

My understanding is that the mutual excommunications over the filioque were lifted by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope. Furthermore, who precisely do you believe was excommunicated? It is quite unusual to excommunicate all of the Christian laity for all time who might hold to a particular doctrinal definition. And Constantinople I was ratified by Pope Gregory I and later Pontiffs, and even earlier than that through the Council of Chalcedon. It is doubtful that Constantinople I was held as ecumenical by most of the Eastern Church until Chalcedon, as Gregory of Nazianzus publicly censured it.

No - the excommunications that came out of the filioque do not excuse the EO from defining the alleged heresy of the papacy in an ecumenical council, especially in light of the Eastern Catholics many of whom have never held to the filioque but do assent to papal primacy. I have to say, I’m a little bit surprised that you asserted that the Orthodox could hold such a council considering some of the other posts I’ve read of yours.

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