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Catholic Church vs. Orthodox Church: The Main Differences

Christ Pantokrator
Byzantine-style mosaic of Christ Pantokrator in the Cefalù Cathedral, erected by Roger II in 1131. Credit: Gun Powder Ma / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.382 billion followers across the globe. However, the Church is hardly a unified body and there exist several Christian denominations with diverse practices, beliefs, and doctrines.

One of the most prominent divisions is between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, also often referred to as the Western and Eastern Churches. Catholic and Orthodox Christians have remained distinct denominations since the Great Schism in 1054.

Today, Catholic and Orthodox Christians can be distinguished for their differing views on theology, aesthetics, religious practices, and doctrines. Even within these denominations there is a broad spectrum of different approaches to Christianity, further widening the diversity of the practice of the Christian faith.

The Great Schism

The theological divide between Orthodox and Catholic Christians has its roots in the Great Schism, also known as the East-West Schism, which tore apart the Christian Church in 1054. There were several causes for this split, which had been compounding over the centuries.

One of the foremost reasons for the Great Schism was the increasingly entrenched theological disagreements between the Eastern and Western Churches. The clergy disagreed over beliefs surrounding the Filioque, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the role of icons in worship, and the proper role of the pope.

Concerning that latter point, the question of the papal supremacy was as much a point of political disagreement as it was theological. It concerned not only the power structures within the Church, but also impacted the wider international political environment, since Medieval European rulers derived a significant degree of authority and legitimacy from their relationship with the Church.

The Filioque Controversy

The Filioque Controversy is a major point of disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, which has contributed to the schism between them since the 11th century.

The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (Filioque), as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as it is used in the Latin Church. This doctrine was first included in the Creed by the Third Council of Toledo in 589 AD, and it was later officially adopted by the Western Church in the 11th century. The Catholic Church justifies this addition by arguing that it clarifies the relationship between the Trinity’s persons, showing that the Son is fully divine and equal to the Father.

On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, as expressed in the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Eastern Church claims that the Filioque addition was made without the approval of the Eastern Church, and it violates the principle of the consensual decision-making that should guide the Church’s doctrine.

From an Orthodox perspective, the addition of the Filioque clause was a unilateral act by the Western Church that departed from the original faith of the undivided Church. Orthodox theologians argue that the filioque clause implies that the Son has a separate identity and power, which undermines the Trinitarian doctrine of the unity and equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

Some Catholic theologians argue that the Filioque does not actually contradict the Orthodox belief in the Father’s role as the source of the Holy Spirit, and that it only emphasizes the unity and equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. However, the Orthodox Church insists that the addition of the Filioque has created a theological obstacle to the reunion of the two Churches.


Another point of difference between Orthodox and Catholic theology is the belief in purgatory. Catholics believe that purgatory is a place or state of being where sinful but repentant souls are cleansed and purified before entering heaven; further purification can be granted by the prayers and offerings of the living.

During a meeting between Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox clergymen in the 15th century, the Catholic Bishop Julian described purgatory to his Orthodox peers thus: “The souls of those who after their baptism have sinned, but have afterwards sincerely repented and confessed their sins, though unable to perform the epitimia laid upon them by their spiritual father, or bring forth fruits of repentance sufficient to atone for their sins, these souls are purified by the fire of purgatory, some sooner, others slower, according to their sins; and then, after their purification, depart for the land of eternal bliss. The prayers of the priest, liturgies, and deeds of charity conduce much to their purification.”

Orthodox Christians do not believe in purgatory. There is heaven and hell, as in the Catholic faith, but there is no space in-between dedicated to the purification of sinful souls.

Beliefs about the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Although both Orthodox and Catholic Christians hold Mary, the mother of Jesus, in high esteem, their beliefs about the Virgin Mother diverge in a number of areas.

Catholic doctrine teaches that Mary was conceived without original sin and remained sinless throughout her life. This doctrine is known as the Immaculate Conception and was made an official dogma of the Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

In contrast, the Orthodox Church rejects this dogma, and instead asserts that only Christ was born without sin. Although the Theotokos (Mother of the Lord) is the most revered saint in the Orthodox cannon, Orthodox Christians believe that she was conceived and born in a state of sin since she is a human being.

The two denominations also differ on their beliefs on the nature of Mary’s passing.

Catholic theology teaches that Mary was assumed into heaven because of her unique role in the salvation of humanity as the Mother of God. As a result, Mary’s assumption is seen as a confirmation of her role as the New Eve, who through her obedience to God’s will, helped to undo the effects of the fall of the first Eve.

In contrast, Orthodox Christianity teaches the Dormition of the Theotokos, which is the belief that Mary fell asleep in the Lord and was then was bodily assumed into heaven by her Son. The term “dormition” means “falling asleep” and emphasizes the peaceful and natural death of Mary, which is seen as a contrast to the death of sin that all humans experience.

Papal supremacy

The role of the Pope is another significant theological difference between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. While the Catholic Church recognizes the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and the head of the Church, the Orthodox Church rejects the primacy of the Pope and emphasizes the conciliar nature of the Church, where all bishops are equal in authority.

According to Catholic doctrine, the Pope is the successor of Saint Peter and has supreme authority over the universal Church, including the power to define doctrine and make infallible statements on matters of faith and morals. In contrast, the Orthodox Church sees the Pope as a bishop with a primacy of honor, but not of jurisdiction. Instead, the Orthodox Church is organized around a network of autocephalous (self-governing) churches, each with its own bishops and councils, but united in faith and doctrine.

From an Orthodox perspective, the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Pope’s authority is a departure from the Church’s traditional model of conciliarity, where decisions are made by councils of bishops rather than by a single authority figure. Orthodox theologians argue that the Pope’s authority as defined by the Catholic Church undermines the collegiality of bishops and the unity of the Church. Additionally, Orthodox theologians see the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction as an obstacle to reunion between the two Churches.

Catholic theologians, on the other hand, argue that the Pope’s authority is grounded in the primacy of Peter, as recognized by the early Church. They contend that the Pope’s role as a unifying figure and the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals is necessary for maintaining the unity of the Church.

Iconography, statues, and aesthetics

The Orthodox Church sees the veneration of icons as a continuation of the biblical and apostolic tradition of honoring holy figures and sacred objects. Orthodox theology views icons as windows into the spiritual realm, allowing the faithful to connect with the divine and the saints. Icons are believed to be imbued with divine grace and power, and the veneration of icons is seen as an act of worship, not idolatry.

In contrast, the Catholic Church has historically been more cautious about the use of images in worship, particularly in the aftermath of the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. While the Catholic Church recognizes the importance of religious images in fostering devotion, it also emphasizes the importance of avoiding any hint of idolatry or superstitious practices. The Catholic Church does not encourage the veneration of icons in the same way as the Orthodox Church, although it does allow for the use of images in worship.

Regarding the use of statues and sculptures in churches, the reverse is generally true, with the Catholic Church having a greater preference for this type of artistic expression than the Orthodox Church.

Statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints are often placed in Catholic churches and chapels, and are used as focal points for prayer and meditation. Catholics draw an important distinction between the worship of statues, which is forbidden and viewed as idolatry, versus the use of statuary in a broader religious context, which Catholic theologians say is actually commanded by God.

The Eucharist

The Eucharist, often referred to as the Divine Liturgy by the Orthodox Church and as the Holy Communion by the Catholic Church, is an importance practice for both denominations. However, there are notable differences in their approaches to the Eucharist.

In the Catholic Church, the bread used in the Eucharist is typically unleavened, and is consecrated by the priest during the Mass using a specific set of prayers and rituals. The Catholic Church also teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that during the consecration, the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.

In contrast, the Orthodox Church typically uses leavened bread in the Eucharist, and the preparation and consecration of the elements are accompanied by specific prayers and rituals that are somewhat different from those used in the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church also rejects the doctrine of transubstantiation, and instead teaches the doctrine of trans-elementation or metousiosis, which holds that the bread and wine are transformed in a mysterious way into the body and blood of Christ, while retaining their outward form.


Both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches view baptism as the first important milestone in a Christian’s life. However, there are some differences in the ceremonial proceedings.

The most visible difference between Orthodox and Catholic baptisms is the mode of baptism. The Orthodox Church generally baptizes by full immersion in water, while the Catholic Church usually baptizes by pouring water over the head of the person being baptized.

Both Orthodox and Catholic baptisms involve the use of holy oil, or chrism, which is blessed by the bishop. However, the way in which chrism is used differs between the two traditions. In the Orthodox Church, chrism is applied to the whole body of the person being baptized, as a sign of their incorporation into the Church. In the Catholic Church, chrism is usually applied only to the forehead, as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit.

The role of saints

Saints play an important role in the religious practices of both churches. However, yet again, there are important differences and distinctions. Regarding the relationship between a believer and the saints, Orthodox believers emphasize synergy, whereas Catholics favor intercession.

In Orthodox Christianity, the concept of synergy is central to the idea of the works and dignity of the saints. Synergy means that the individual believer cooperates with the grace of God, and works in partnership with the saint to achieve spiritual growth. This idea of synergy emphasizes the active role of the believer in the process of spiritual growth, and sees the saint as a partner rather than a mediator.

For example, in Orthodox Christianity, when a believer asks a saint for intercession, it is not simply a matter of asking the saint to pray for them, but also of seeking to imitate the saint’s virtues and learn from their example. The believer is called to participate actively in the life and works of the saint, striving to emulate their virtues and attain spiritual growth.

In contrast, in Catholic Christianity, the emphasis is more on the idea of intercession, in which the saint is seen as a mediator between the individual believer and God. While Catholics also recognize the importance of imitating the virtues of the saints, the idea of synergy is not as prominent in Catholic theology.

Differences in appearance between Catholic and Orthodox priests

One very noticeable difference between the denominations is in the appearance of the priests. Specifically, Orthodox priests wear long hair and beards, whereas Catholic clergymen tend to be cleanshaven with shorter hair.

There are several reasons for this differentiation in appearance and there are passages in the Bible which have received different interpretations on the matter of long hair and beards.

For example, the New Testament passage in which Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, urges followers “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? (I Cor. 11:14), which would seemingly support the Catholic preference for shorter hair.

On the other hand, the Orthodox preference for a beard and long hair appears to be supported by a passage in the Book of Leviticus, which states “And ye shall not shave your head for the dead (a pagan practice) with a baldness on the top; and they shall not shave their beard… (Leviticus 21:5), and to all men in general, Ye shall not make a round cutting of the hair of your head, nor disfigure your beard (Lev. 19:27).

Priesthood and marriage

Another interesting area of difference between Orthodox and Catholic doctrine concerns the permissibility of marriage within the priesthood.

The Orthodox Church generally allows for married men to be ordained as deacons and priests. However, Bishops are chosen from the monastic ranks and must remain unmarried and celibate. The marriage of priests who have already been ordained is also not allowed.

The Catholic position is generally much stricter. Although certain exemptions exist, all Catholic priests are expected to be celibate and unmarried.

Could the Orthodox and Catholic Churches ever unite?

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to reunite the two Churches, although these have ultimately all failed.

The main issue is that of papal primacy. The Orthodox Church is unlikely to accept the authority of the Pope, as this would be seen as a compromise of their beliefs. Similarly, the Catholic Church is unlikely to give up the authority of the Pope, as this is a fundamental part of their doctrine.

Nevertheless, this has not prevented friendly bilateral relations between the two Churches. For example, Pope Francis recently donated three fragments of the Parthenon from the Vatican Museums to Greece, as a gesture of goodwill towards Ieronymos II, the Archbishop of Athens.

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