Why do Orthodox churches have a valid celebration of the Eucharist?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

OSV Question Corner

Q: How is it possible that the Orthodox practice of the sacrament of the Eucharist would ever be considered as the true body and blood of Christ from the Catholic perspective simply because of an understanding of the unbroken chain of apostolic succession? (Georgia)

A: For context, let us review what we mean when we refer to the Eastern Orthodox churches. Historically, we believe that the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church was founded with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, shortly after Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven. As Jesus no longer physically walked the earth as he once had, he entrusted the continuance of his saving mission to the apostles.

The apostles, in turn, spread throughout the world founding local churches (in some ways, the rough precursor to our modern dioceses), and ordaining their successors (early bishops) to take their places in the shepherding of these local churches. Many of these local churches developed their own distinct liturgical traditions and other customs influenced by local needs and culture.

Initially, the universal church was one unified structure of local churches under the ultimate oversight of the pope in Rome, who is the successor to St. Peter as the leader of the apostles. But divisions and tensions began to arise even in the church’s first few centuries. Some of these tensions were at least officially resolved by the early ecumenical councils, which clarified disputed questions of Catholic doctrine. However, due to some complex religious and political conflicts, the year 1054 saw "the Great Schism," in which the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, the bishop-leader of the local churches in what had been the Eastern part of the Roman Empire -- with the patriarch in turn issuing his own excommunication against the pope.

The churches of the East which rejected the universal authority of the pope became known as the Orthodox churches. Doctrinal differences exist between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, and acceptance of the authority of the Holy Father remains a major obstacle to unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

We as Catholics believe that apostolic succession is so significant and meaningful that Eastern Orthodox churches have a valid celebration of the Eucharist. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: "The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all-by apostolic succession-the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy" (See CCC 1399). However, it is important to note that the Orthodox church does not permit its members to receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church and likewise, a Catholic may not receive the Eucharist in an Orthodox church. Significant differences in belief between Catholics and the Orthodox exist, including the Orthodox rejection of the Immaculate Conception and purgatory.

Keep in mind that the apostolic succession in the Orthodox churches goes hand-in-hand with our shared sacramental theology. That is, Catholics and Orthodox not only share belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but also a shared understanding of the sacrament of holy orders and thus the nature of the priesthood. This is in contrast to the various Western Christian communities we call "Protestant," because in addition to breaking communion with the Holy Father in Rome, the sacramental theology of Protestant denominations tends to be a fairly radical departure from what we believe as Catholics. Protestant denominations do not believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Similarly, there are other Catholic schismatic groups – with "schism" defined as a refusal to submit to the authority of the Holy Father, as noted in canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law – which nevertheless have a valid Eucharist due to apostolic succession, despite their ordinations and celebrations of the Eucharist being illicit (unlawful). One contemporary example of this would be the Society of St. Pius X.

But the Eastern Orthodox churches are not to be confused with the many Eastern Catholic churches. Eastern Catholics have different laws and a different liturgical tradition than Latin (aka "Roman") Catholics, but Eastern Catholics are in full communion with the Holy Father.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].