ASK FATHER: Can we have a more synodal church and married priests like the Eastern Orthodox?

From a reader…


While many pushing for “synodality” and married clergy have nefarious intentions, is it possible that moving in this direction might open the door for reunification with the Eastern Orthodox
churches? Is it possible to have a more synodal church and some
married Latin priests without denying Petrine primacy or celibacy as the ideal state?

The short answer to your question is “No”.

My suspicion is that the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not want reunification with Rome even if the theological obstacles could be overcome – which they cannot be.

From what I know, for Eastern Orthodox Churches the principal problem with reunification is political, not theological.   The patriarchs do not want to compromise their power.  The recognition of the Pope of Rome as “first among equals”, a title they are supposed to afford to the Patriarch of Constantinople, would weaken their power base. Thus, they prefer to be independent Churches.

I hope that Catholics will eventually come to realize that synods are just ecclesial power games under a different name. Historically, synods are “rigged”, gently or brutally.  For example, since Paul VI started calling Synods of Bishops, the Popes choose who gets to participate.  Those choices bend the outcome in a certain direction.  That was the case for John Paul II and Benedict XVI as it is for Francis.  Synods are “rigged” in Eastern Orthodoxy as well.

Any semblance of democratic procedure in a synod is a mirage.

The fix is always in, you just have to find it.

Now, as I switch on comment moderation, I’ll repeat the thought of St. Gregory of Nazianzus writing to Procopius in 382.

I am, if the truth be told, in such a tone of mind that I shun every assemblage of bishops, because I have never yet seen that any Synod had a good ending, or that the evils complained of were removed by them, but were rather multiplied….

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Bob says:

    I cannot understand why any cleric would agree to become a bishop. It seems to me as a very precarious position to occupy with all the worldly temptations that come with the job. From my view point it seems that bishops are more engaged in politics than saving souls. One foot in heaven and one in hell is not my idea of walking the path of faith.

  2. JustaSinner says:

    Why would the Holy Roman Catholic Church want to compromise to gain the Eastern Orthodox Church back? It’s going on A THOUSAND YEARS of schism…some things even time won’t heal.

  3. Benedict Joseph says:

    Thank you, Father, for cutting this tiring issue down to size. You provide a perfectly reasoned and flawless response. The plain simple truth.

  4. mlmc says:

    Since it’s very likely the FSB ( the KGB’s successor) has been as successful at infiltrating the Russian Orthodox church as it’s parent organization was, I don’t think reunification is a good idea at this point.

  5. JonPatrick says:

    It seems to me that with the Eastern Rite churches you already have a good compromise. They get to have married priests, have some degree of autonomy, can keep their wonderful liturgy, leave out the Filioque, etc. Just do what the Melkites did in the 17th century and swim the Tiber (or is it the Bosphorus?)

  6. Stuart Koehl says:

    I was quite disappointed by this post, which is in many ways filled with misinformation and provides a misleading caricature of the Orthodox Churches. More than that, it completely ignores the experience of the Greek Catholic Churches, which are truly synodal (and ordain married men to the presbyterate). It would seem that Father Z falls into the trap of considering that Latin Church to be the only true manifestation of the Catholic Church, which, of course, contradicts the Vatican II Decree on the Oriental Churches as well as the Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Church.

    As a Melkite Greek Catholic, I belong to a Patriarchal Church that is in communion with the Church of Rome, but which has a true synodal form of government, in which the bishops meet regularly to confer and deal with the issues facing the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch. In contrast to the so-called “synods” held by the Latin Church, the Holy Synod of the Melkite Church (and similar synods in other Patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches) has both legislative and disciplinary authority, which is exercised within our Church independently of any oversight from the Bishop of Rome. We elect our own bishops, and we can depose them as well (though the deposed bishop can appeal to the Church of Rome in accordance with the Canons of the Council of Sardica). We develop our own body of particular law and issue decrees dealing with theological and pastoral issues.

    The Second Vatican Council envisaged a conciliar governance for the Latin Church, but in the event, this was not implemented: the Episcopal Councils never developed into true synods, but had only an advisory function–in short, they devolved into BOBSATs (Bunch of Bishops Sitting Around a Table), where they could posture and bloviate to their hearts’ content, knowing that, in the end, Rome would tell them what to do.

    It would be a mistake, however, to superimpose the practice of the Latin Church on the Eastern Churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox, in regard to the “rigging” of synods. This became common in the Latin Church in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (beginning in earnest with the Council of Ferrara-Florence, and culminating with the First Vatican Council), because the Holy See had the money and temporal power needed to set the agenda in advance, limit the scope of debate, determine who would and would not speak, and to suppress unwanted interventions.

    In the East, this was never really the case, especially prior to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (historians are now agreed that the so-called “Caesaropapism” of the Eastern Churches is an inaccurate cliche, one which never pertained to the Byzantine Church, and really only emerged in the Church of Moscow in the 16th-17th centuries). In Ottoman lands, Turkish control of the Great Church through the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch only concerned itself with the interface of Church and state, and not with ecclesiological or theological matters. In Russia, with the exception of the Nikonian Reforms of the 17th century, it was much the same, reaching a climax in the reign of Peter the Great, who made the Church of Moscow a branch of the Russian Imperial government.

    Today, the problem in the Orthodox Church is not too little conciliarity, or a false conciliarity, but too much conciliarity in the absence of any real primacy above the regional level. As anyone who studies the Orthodox Churches will affirm, getting Orthodox bishops to present a united front on any contentious issue is like herding cats. On the other hand, the Catholic Church suffers from hypertrophied primacy at the universal level, for which there is no biblical or historical precedent. Oddly enough, excessive primacy seems no more capable of bringing about unity than excessive conciliarity.

    Perhaps Father Z would have a better conception of how the two poles must be held in dynamic tension, if he read the Agreed Statements of the Joint International Orthodox-Catholic Theological Commission, particularly the two statements released recently from Ravenna and Chieti.

    I would also have to take issue with Father Z’s assertion that the Catholic Church should foreswear efforts to reconcile with the Orthodox Churches, [You falsely attribute to me a position I did not assert. I think that efforts to reunify should be ongoing. I just don’t believe that the same desire is shared on both sides of the divide.] which he describes as “schismatic”, [I didn’t describe them as schismatic in me post. However, it seems to me that Orthodox Churches still have schisms with each other, as in Ukraine. It’s a sad thing.] contrary to repeated statements of the Catholic Church going back to the Second Vatican Council. Christ himself prayed that all might be one, as He and the Father are One, and, as the Catholic Church has repeatedly stated since it issued the Vatican II Decree Unitatis redintegratio, ecumenism is not some incidental thing the Church does, but is central to the mission of the Church. Latin Catholics may not give it much thought, but it is always central in the mind of the Greek Catholics, who look to the Orthodox Churches, NOT the Church of Rome, as their “Mother Church”. [Hence, lack of unity with the Roman Pontiff. I understand, the Church understands, schism to be refusal to submit to the Roman Pontiff (can. 751) as well as refusal of unity with the members of the Catholic Church in union with the Pope (also can. 751).]

  7. Publius IIII says:

    It seems to me that Fr. Z’s brush is too broad and misses some important aspects of this issue. The diversity in the forms of the true Church is a mystery. Both East and West honor celibacy and virginity and recongnize it’s special relationship to the priesthood. Nonetheless, married Catholic priest serve in a holy manner in the East. [Who said they didn’t? That said, I stand with Card. Sarah and Benedict XVI on this one.]

    Also, the recognition of the validity of Orthodox sacraments and the respect due to those Churches is ancient teaching and not dependent on Vatican II documents. [A point not in dispute.]

    The criticism of synodality seems on point.

  8. Antonin says:

    @JonPatrick It seems to me that with the Eastern Rite churches you already have a good compromise. They get to have married priests, have some degree of autonomy, can keep their wonderful liturgy, leave out the Filioque, etc.


    I have recently moved to the Eastern rite completely and agree entirely with you in this point. For most all practical purposes, there is unity. The image of the Church breathing with two lungs is an apt one and the East needs to have its full tradition and my sense is they do in the Ukrainian rite. The east tends to lead spiritually and organically and the West is more juridical and more open to natural reason. I have never heard as much emphasis on leading a “sacramental life” in 40 years of being in the Latin rite than I have in the short time in the Eastern rite. By far much more concentrated in the interior even with heavy emphasis on icons (last Sunday was Icon Sunday) which also tends to lead to the interior where the Spirit moves and acts. Ultimately it will be the Holy Spirit that brings unification

  9. Stuart Koehl says:

    It’s interesting that, in your mind, Father Z, “communion” requires submission and subordination. But, if you were to ask an Eastern Christian theologian, whether Orthodox or Catholic, he would say that communion is modeled on the Holy Trinity, where there is hierarchy without subordination, but a deference of all to all, each in accordance with his gifts. Communion is always a mutual sharing. [I think you don’t quite get the relationship of persons in the Trinity.]

    Also, the Chieti Statement is quite explicit in stating that the Church of Rome never had any jurisdiction over the Churches of the East. The Roman Primacy is, whether you admit or understand it, [?!? This manner of addressing me has earned you a ticket to the perpetual moderation queue.] based on a system of honor, on the auctoritas inherent in the Church of Rome as the Church with priority, that “presides in love”. Auctoritas is a concept difficult for modern man to accept, since it is based not on contractual relationships, but precisely on the concept of honor. It goes well beyond our word “authority”, and comprises prestige, reputation and respect. As one classicist has put it, “Auctoritas is less than a command, yet more than a suggestion; it is a suggestion that cannot be easily ignored”.

    Auctoritas is totally disconnected from power (potestas), and, in fact, someone can have no potestas at all, yet stand first through his auctoritas. Thus, e.g., it was Ambrose of Milan, not Damasus of Rome, who was first man in the Western Church in the late fourth century. Conversely, the primacy of Rome was least challenged when the Pope made no claims to jurisdictional power at all, but relied entirely upon his auctoritas. Hence the Pope’s “primacy of honor” as “first among equals” is not some sort of honorific primacy, like being Lord Mayor and cutting ribbons at the opening of shopping malls, but has real teeth. The error of the Orthodox is thinking, just like the Latin Church, that primacy must, of course, involve jurisdictional power. But a close examination of the history shows the influence of the Pope was greatest when his jurisdictional claims were minimal. [You’ve confused moral authority with juridical authority.]

    Hence, the Melkite Synod stands by the confession of faith it made in 1996: “We believe all that the Orthodox Church believes and teaches, and are in communion with the Church of Rome, as that communion was understood and lived in the first millennium”. [And you think that the Bishop of Rome didn’t exercise juridiction in the 1st millenium.]

    Rome, for its part, has done nothing to condemn us, [So?] and the Pope (and his two predecessors) are very careful NOT to issue preemptory commands to the Patriarch of Antioch, but to make his wishes known, and leaving it up to the Patriarch and the Synod to determine whether and how to respond. [So?]

    For better or for worse, this is the direction in which the ecumenical dialogue is now moving, with increasing speed (especially as the influence of Moscow recedes). However the Latin Church decides to govern itself (which is entirely its own business, from the perspective of the Eastern Catholic Churches), the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, are not, and have never been, part of or subordinate to it, but in communion with it, and therefore are fully deserving of the mutual respect and honor that communion offers, to the Eastern Catholics today, and the Orthodox Churches tomorrow.

    It is good to remember that the Petrine Ministry is NOT synonymous with the Papal Primacy, but is exercised through the Papal Primacy; and when the definition and exercise of that primacy becomes an impediment to the Petrine Ministry to “strengthen the brethren in unity and faith”, then it is the definition of primacy that must change, for the Papacy exists to serve the Church, and not the Church to exalt the Papacy. As Pope John Paul II noted, in Ut Unum Sint, the current notion of Papal authority is the principal obstacle to Christian unity today, which is why he called on all Christians of good will to work with him to find a new definition that is compatible with truth and acceptable to all. In the future the Papacy will more closely resemble that of Leo and Gregory the Great, rather than Pius IX and XII, or even Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. [Perhaps. Until then, the definition of schism remains and the role of the Roman Pontiff remains as it is, not as it is imagined or predicted.]

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  11. khouri says:

    Most traditional Catholics are of the opinion that all Eastern Christians must “submit” to Rome. Preferably, these Churches, headed by their Patriarchs should grovel before the Roman throne. [Actually, it might be a good thing to return, eventually, to the kissing the papal foot during audiences. I have a list of individuals who will be dispensed when We are elected.] The Churches are to deny their legitimate organic development and become less “Apostolic” than Rome.
    Yes, Peter and Paul died in Rome. So what? [So what? Really?] Both established the Church earlier in Antioch. Therefore it is Apostolic.
    Before the deformation of the Roman Liturgy there was a feast of the “Chair of St. Peter in Antioch”. The Pauline rite dropped this feast. [We celebrate the Chair of Peter on its traditional day 22 Feb, which is associated historically with Antioch.]
    I have more hope of the union with the Orthodox than union with most pseudo Catholic traditionalists. [True Catholic traditionalists have the desire for unity that Christ spoke of.]
    Do the Orthodox have major problems? You bet. Their major problems are just different from the major problems of the Roman Church.
    Disagreements and land grabs have always been part of the Church. Just because Rome decides something doesn’t mean in practice the whole Roman Church agrees or follows.
    At least the Orthodox hold the same faith. Can the same be said of all who claim to be Roman? [Is there’s an Orthodox group now ordaining women to the diaconate?]
    BTW, Vatican I was the biggest rigged General Council of the Western Church ever, especially through the use of force and fear by Plus IX.

  12. TonyO says:

    In contrast to the so-called “synods” held by the Latin Church, the Holy Synod of the Melkite Church (and similar synods in other Patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches) has both legislative and disciplinary authority, which is exercised within our Church independently of any oversight from the Bishop of Rome.

    I am not sure of this, but it seems to me that the above comment by Stuart Koehl is likely to lead to misunderstanding by many. To preface my comment on it, I would offer first a clarification. As I understand it, the capacity of the Church to speak bindingly is typically divided into distinct categories: one is doctrinal, the other is legislative and juridical. For the doctrinal, the authority has the power to say “believe X” and “assent to Y” in a binding way. For the second, the authority has the power to say “do Z” and “Bishop K is the ordinary of city M” in a binding way. Clearly, the Melkite and other Eastern Catholic Churches can have a very different set of legislative rules and such without having the Pope approve each of them, or (more or less) any of them.

    The main point I would make is that because the Pope, Bishop of Rome, holds an essential primacy of teaching that is not held comparably by any other patriarch, he has the authority and jurisdiction to overturn any Melkite (or other Eastern Catholic Churches) rule, law, or determination that is in conflict with proper Christian doctrine. Hence, while Eastern Catholic Churches may operate with a remarkable (to us Latins) degree of juridical autonomy, they cannot claim a right to operate absolutely “independently of any oversight” from the Bishop of Rome, even on matters legislative and jurisdictional. Saying so seems (to me, at least) to amount to an assertion that those Churches need not submit to the primacy of Peter on doctrinal matters (because doctrinal matters can have a direct bearing on legislative and juridical matters), which clearly would be a MAJOR problem with saying they are in Communion with the Bishop of Rome.

    For decades as an adult (I grew up mostly after VII) I thought that the main problem with reunification with the Orthodox Churches is really ALL about the matter of accepting the primacy of Peter. But in the last few years, doing theology research, I have come up against more and more practices that spring out of theological disagreements or at least matters of great tension. And I don’t just mean married priests, which is rather minor compared to others (at least, the Latin Church has always had a few exceptions too). The issue of divorce and remarriage, for one. What ontologically occurs in confession (whether the priest is necessary as such, or not). The nature of original sin. Various concerns about Mary. Ultimately, an understanding of grace, (I think, though I might be over-reading on that one). I fear (though I don’t have enough history to verify this) that much of the tension in matters like the ones listed have come up MUCH more commonly in the last century or three, i.e. that before the 1600s there was actually considerably more theological unity and it is going downhill – rapidly, now.

    Nothing would please me better than to have a reunification of the two lungs of the Church – but not at the cost of making even more messy and obscure the doctrinal truths that we have worked so hard to achieve over the centuries.

  13. TonyO says:

    Oh, and you can go back and read some of the accounts of synods well before the schism of the East from the West, and you will see evidence of political-type chicanery all over the place. Maybe it wasn’t every single synod, but it sure happened a lot. It happened both in the East and in the West. Assertions that it’s a corruption peculiar to the Latin Church are pretty silly.

  14. yychay says:

    lol the naivety of the orthodox sympathisers here is hilarious. the history of the first millennium of christianity showed practically every single council and synod being rigged by particular groups of bishops trying to push a certain agenda by inviting only their buddies and weak willed colleagues. The Arian, miaphysite, iconoclast crap was promoted precisely by this method: ESPECIALLY THE EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE (who was it who said that it was a Russian thing?) The next thing you know, their rivals convene an opposing council/synod and then you have a schism for the next 15 centuries. the filioque was inserted by who? western synods. condemned by who? eastern synods. who should the flock follow? their bishops, who basically get to do whatever they want, and kick every subordinate who disagrees so the next bishop will be elected by his cronies. the same issue as the Roman problem but just add a few thousand schisms

  15. dallenl says:

    For those not fully aware of the politization of some aspects of some Eastern Churches might remember Serbian Orthodox clerics blessing the troops before they set off to commit their well documented atrocities. On the other side of the coin we have the failure of ordinaries in Western Churches failing to bestir themselves to vocally condemn political parties who advocate for legalized murder through abortion and euthanasia. Father Z is quite correct when something can be desirable and hoped for but none the less quite unlikely.

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