Orthodox Churches, also named the Eastern, Greek, or Greco-Russian Churches, are a family of Churches situated mainly in Eastern Europe. Each of them is independent in its internal administration, but all share the same faith and are in communion with one another, acknowledging the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

At present, the Orthodox communion consists of the following self-governing or autocephalous Churches: (1) the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem; (2) five patriarchates of more recent origin: Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia; (3) the Orthodox Churches of Cyprus, Greece, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, Albania, and others of minor input. 

Historically, what is today known as the “Orthodox Church” developed from the Church of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The predominant cultural influence upon Orthodoxy has thus been that of Greece and the Nestorian schisms during the 5th and 6th centuries.

From the 9th century onwards there came an increasing estrangement between the two great sees of Rome and Constantine, and this has led to open and lasting schism to this day. This breach between Greek and Latin Christendom is usually assigned to the year 1054, but in fact the schism was a gradual and complicated process, and its beginning cannot be exactly dated.

The chief doctrinal points at issue between the two sides were the papal claims and the filioque. On the level of liturgical usage, great tension was caused by the question of bread (leavened and unleavened). 

A great missionary advance was inaugurated in the middle of the 9th century by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of the Slavs. Bulgaria, Serbia, and subsequently, Russia, were converted to the Christian faith.

Since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Church of Russia has been the largest and most influential member of the Orthodox communion, but the Ecumenical Patriarch continues to retain his honorary primacy. During the past five centuries Orthodoxy suffered severely from outward oppression and persecution, first under the Ottoman Empire, and more recently under communism. Thanks to the intervention of St. John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev terminated the atheistic Soviet regime. With its collapse in 1991, a new era of Church expansion began for the Orthodox religion there and in the rest of Eastern Europe. 

It is true that for centuries the archbishops of Constantinople could credibly claim to be the “Ecumenical Patriarch.” Their jurisdictional see was the “New Rome,” the centre of ecumenism. Today, their successor, Patriarch Bartholomew, faces many challenges. 

The renascent Church of Russia, thought to compromise more faithful than all the other Orthodox Churches combined, covets Constantinople’s leadership role. Styled “the Third Rome” since Tsarist times, Moscow believes it should be given more weight than Constantinople’s aura of the Byzantine past.

Father Mark Drew, who holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris, wrote: “Moscow has long sought to expose Bartholomew’s weakness, as when it tried to wreck the Pan-Orthodox Great and Holy Synod of 2016. The Russian and other Churches under their influence stayed away, greatly reducing the impact of the long-planned assembly where Constantinople had hoped to bolster its prestige.” (Catholic Herald, Sept. 28, 2018)

He speculates: “But perhaps Bartholomew now has an opportunity to strike back. Since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 two distinct groups have separated from the Moscow patriarchate, seeking to establish a distinctively Ukrainian Church. One of these groups has established a patriarchate based in Kiev, while the other group, older but much smaller, makes the less radical claim of being the autocephalous (self-governing) Church of Ukraine.”

“Bartholomew has announced his intention to recognize an autocephalous Ukrainian Church, uniting these groups into a single jurisdiction looking to Constantinople rather than Moscow as the Mother Church.

“Bartholomew’s bold move has provoked an outcry from Moscow and other Orthodox churches and theologians. Some see it as unwarranted interference within Moscow’s jurisdiction, fanning the flame of Ukrainian nationalism and undermining Orthodox unity. Others accuse Constantinople of seeking an unprecedented quasi-papal role in Orthodoxy.

“To understand these reactions, we need to revisit the basic notions of Orthodox ecclesiology that recognizes no head of the universal Church except Christ. Every bishop is for his diocese a successor of Peter, and supreme authority belongs to ecumenical councils. In antiquity five sees were recognized as patriarchs.” 

Catholics can be grateful to belong to a Church with a visible centre of unity in the Pope and clear decision-making structures. The papacy has been throughout history a providential means of avoiding excessive political nationalistic influences within local Churches.

We should pray for Orthodox unity to be preserved. Constantinople and its allies are generally more open to ecumenism than Moscow, but hopes for unity have nothing to gain from Orthodox divisions.