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Difference Between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches

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In the East-West Schism of 1054, numerous disputes between Latin West and Greek East Christianity churches resulted in a formal split. The Greek East broke away to form the Eastern Orthodox Church, while the West grew into the Roman Catholic Church. 

How is the Catholic Church different from the Orthodox Church? 

The main difference between the Catholic and Orthodox churches originates from a disagreement on papal primacy and the interpretation of a segment of the Nicene Creed known as the filioque. In general, the two churches hold conflicting views on Christian theology and how the Christian Church should be organized and governed.

What is the Catholic Church?

vatican city
Vatican City, home of the Roman Catholic Church

The Catholic Church currently comprises the largest branch of Christians, with roughly 1.34 billion Catholics worldwide.

Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity of one God in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They also believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

For Catholics, Jesus provided seven sacraments to the Church, which people can observe to receive the Grace of God. These sacraments include the Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, joining the holy orders, baptism, reconciliation and the anointing of the sick. 

The Catholic Church’s highest authority is centralized in the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – based at the Holy See in Vatican City. Catholics hold that the Pope communicates directly with God to fulfill his will on Earth.

What is the Orthodox Church?

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra
Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, a historic Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery

The Eastern Orthodox Church – simply known as the Orthodox Church – is the second-largest unified body of Christians in the world, with around 250 million followers.

They share many aspects with the Catholic Church, including the acceptance of the seven sacraments, the belief in the Holy Trinity, and celebration with the Eucharist.

Orthodox Christians congregate in self-governing (autonomous) churches, each with their own leader (autocephalous). The Church believes that their patriarchs are still liable to commit errors because they are human. Thus, they reject the Catholic dogma of the Pope’s infallibility and supremacy over other patriarchs. 

Adherents of Orthodox Christianity highly value personal prayer, the importance of fasting, and the use of sacred icons to worship God.

The Patriarch of Constantinople, also called the Ecumenical Patriarch, is considered the equivalent of the Catholic Pope. He is “primus inter pares” or first among equals with his fellow patriarchs.

Differences between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church

Papal Primacy

The Catholics consider the Pope as the supreme authority of the Church, with power over the rest of the clergy. 

Orthodox Christians recognize that the Bishop of Rome should be afforded greater honor, but believe that he should only be the first among equals – meaning that he holds no actual power over other bishops and their churches.

In Orthodox Christianity, the “primus inter pares” designation is applied to the Ecumenical Patriarch.


In 1014 AD, Pope Benedict VIII added the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. This clause stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, rather than the Father alone as was stated in the original version.

The Roman Catholic Church accepts this clause due to their belief in the Pope’s infallibility, while the Orthodox Church does not recognize it.

Immaculate Conception

Catholic doctrine states that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived, or born without original sin, enabling her to assent to the coming of Christ. They also contend that Mary was sinless and remained a virgin for life.

The Orthodox faith rejects this dogma, although they do believe that the Theotokos – the “birth-giver” of God – had remained a lifelong virgin.

Papal Infallibility

In 1870, centuries after the Great Schism, Catholics formalized the dogma that the Bishop of Rome was always correct in matters of the faith, and morals when he was speaking ex cathedra, or in his official capacity as the Pope. 

Orthodox Christians believe that their Priesthood, being made of imperfect human beings, is liable to commit errors.

Divine Simplicity

The Catholic Church contends that God, in philosophical terms, is a simple, transcendental substance that exhibits no distinct aspects or parts.

With the revival of St. Palamas’ teachings in the 20th century, Orthodox Christians have come to view God as made of essence and energies. God Himself is composed of an unknowable essence, while his energies are knowable.

A common analogy uses the Sun – its essence, or primary substance, is unknowable in the sense that a human is not equipped to personally experience contact with the Sun itself. However, humans can interact with the energies of the Sun through its heat and light.


All Christians believe in grace as God’s divine and unmerited favor in the salvation of humans as unworthy and sinful people. The differences in the Catholic and Orthodox views of grace are slight and subtle.

The Orthodox Church understands grace as the uncreated energies of God. Although they retain their human nature, people enter a union with God by partaking in his divine energies.

Catholics are taught about both uncreated grace in forms such as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in people, and created grace – in which God communicates directly through effects such as the Beatific Vision.


Only Catholics believe in purgatory. According to their dogma, the souls of the dead “wait” in purgatory to be cleansed and satisfactorily punished for their sins to be perfectly purified before going to heaven.

Orthodox Christians do not believe that God exacts punishment on a soul after their sins are forgiven. Souls must simply wait for the Final Judgment, in which they are either ultimately saved or punished.

Both branches posit that while all souls enter eternity, many will experience it differently. The truly just and holy, and the innocent who had suffered greatly in life, go directly to heaven, while most must be purified, and the truly evil are subject to remorse and agony.


The Pope is the highest central authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Senior, influential clergymen known as Cardinals are directly below him, and they are responsible for electing a new Pope, often from among their ranks.

Ranked lower in the hierarchy are bishops, who are entrusted with authority over their own diocese. Archbishops are higher-ranked bishops that additionally preside over an ecclesiastical province.

Following bishops are priests, deacons, and finally the laity – ordinary people.

The Orthodox Church currently has sixteen autocephalous churches, with the Primate (or Patriarch) acting as the highest-ranking bishop of each Church. All primates are equal, although the Patriarch of Constantinople holds greater honor.

Orthodox Metropolitans are roughly equivalent to Archbishops. Apart from small naming differences, the Orthodox structure is mostly similar to the Catholic model.


Catholic priests make a vow to abstain from marriage and any sexual relations. In contrast, Orthodox clergymen are allowed to marry or remain celibate.


Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, which has a thirteen-day lag behind the Gregorian calendar. Consequently, Christmas is celebrated on 7 January.

Years start on 1 September and end on 31 August. Each day celebrates a different saint.

Roman Catholics simply use the Gregorian calendar, observing Christmas on 25 December.

Comparison Chart: Catholic Church Vs Orthodox Church

AreasCatholic ChurchOrthodox Church
Papal PrimacyPope has the highest authorityEcumenical Patriarch is primus inter pares with other patriarchs
FilioqueHoly Spirit proceeds from the Father and the SonHoly Spirit proceeds from the Father alone
Immaculate ConceptionAcceptsDenies
Papal InfallibilityAcceptsDenies
Divine SimplicityGod as a substanceGod as both essence and energies
GraceCreated and uncreated graceUncreated grace only
PurgatoryBelieves in purgatoryDoes not believe in purgatory
HierarchyPope above cardinals and archbishops; bishops, deacons and laypeopleCoequal Patriarchs, archbishops or metropolitans, bishops, deacons and laypeople
CelibacyAll priests are celibatePriests can marry or stay celibate
CalendarGregorianJulian, 13 days behind

How are the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church similar? 

Despite their differences, both churches agree on several fundamental aspects of the Christian faith. 

Catholics and Orthodox Christians both view the Bible as the authoritative text containing God’s word and message.

They hold similar beliefs on the Trinity and Jesus’ nature as fully Man and fully God, as well as his resurrection and Second Coming. Adherents also value the Seven Sacraments, confess their sins to a priest, and believe that bread and wine during the Eucharist are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.


Why do people light candles as they enter an Orthodox church?

Upon entering an Orthodox church, it is customary to light a candle on the sandbox or sand dish as a small gesture of sacrifice to God. 

Before lighting each candle, a person makes an offering. They pay respects to the particular icon standing guard over the sandbox and dedicate the candle to their sick or deceased loved ones, or anyone for whom they wish to pray. 

Devotees say a small prayer known as the Jesus Prayer, commonly shortened to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

This custom embodies many Orthodox values, such as the importance of prayers and venerating icons.

Why do Catholics make the Sign of the Cross?

The tradition of the Sign of the Cross came from the Apostles, although its current form is attributed to Pope Leo IV’s instruction in the 9th century.

As a prayer in itself, the Sign of the Cross is an invocation of God’s name and power and a request for support and defense against evil. It is considered a mark of one’s faith and belief in the Holy Trinity and salvation through Christ.

Beginning a prayer with this gesture serves to open one’s heart to God, while ending with the Sign of the Cross indicates that you will go forth with him and for him. 


Despite agreeing on many of the fundamental aspects of Christianity, there are many differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. 

Orthodox Christians reject the dogmas of Immaculate Conception, divine simplicity, purgatory existence, and the Filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, while the Catholics accept them.

The Catholics hold the Pope as the supreme central authority of the Church and consider him infallible in matters of the doctrine’s theology and morals. In contrast, the Orthodox Church views the Patriarch of Constantinople only as primus inter pares with his fellow Patriarchs.

Catholic priests are celibate, while Orthodox clergymen can either be celibate or marry.

Lastly, the Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which follows 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used by the Catholics.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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