The Papal visit commemorative print-out-and-keep guide to the Eastern and Western Christian churches.
This week, after overcoming some minor technicalities, Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be visiting the Greek island of Lesvos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Athens, to show support for the refugees arriving on the island and the local people who have been helping them.
If you have ever wondered how the churches compare on a number of key indicators, here is a handy guide.
The two churches parted ways in the Great Schism of 1054, which marked the climax of series of disputes over issues as diverse as simple turf wars, through to who should pay whom their respects, and which bits of the Holy Trinity the Holy Spirit emanates from.
Labels are important. Orthodox (meaning “correct”) vs. Catholic (meaning “for all”) suggests that the former are more concerned with being righteous even at the risk of remaining a minority, whereas the latter are overtly gunning for world domination. Orthodox Christianity is for religion snobs, the kind who are fond of saying things like “I prefer their early stuff, before they went commercial, it’s a bit more challenging but…” (strokes beard, takes sip of real ale, continues in same vein).
Not since 1204, when the Fourth Crusade made a special detour on the way to Jerusalem to sack the Eastern church’s manor in Constantinople. In the last century there have been small steps towards reconciliation at the top level (mutual nullification of anathemas, to be specific) but in the ranks (especially on the Orthodox side) a particular brand of passive-aggressive anti-Papist propaganda remains a crowd-pleaser. Thus, an Athenian bishop announced that he was “praying for the Papal visit not to take place” (a known “activist bishop”, he was previously known for pronouncing the martial arts to be a gateway drug to the occult), while lurid warnings were issued from less official sources (this fringe news source warns of bad OMENS for Greece from the visit of the BEAST, noting for good measure that Pope Francis was anointed by the Rockefellers). Meanwhile, small snakes have started to appear in central Athens. Coincidence?
Pomp and circumstance
Neither church could be called “understated”. Both subscribe to the dogmas of “dress to impress”, “as big a gold cross as your neck can bear”, “no such thing as too much architectural gold leaf” and “more incense!”. The Pope has cool accessories, including his own patented “popemobile”. However, Orthodoxy has the edge here, for insisting on conducting its rituals exclusively in an archaic language. Much like Dylan going electric, one of the major signs of the Papists’ “selling out” was the introduction of guitars and modern-language mass. Points off for appearing both desperate and degenerate.
No contest. It is possible to look good in the crisp monochrome contrast of the Catholic nun’s habit. A condoning attitude towards self-flagellation adds spice to the nun fantasy. A substantial chunk of the Buñuel canon pays homage to the discreet charm of the Catholic nun, while honourable mention also goes to Ken Russell’s “The Devils”, the guilty pleasure of many an “art house” fan. (“Nons!” as the infirm Father Jack in the comedy series “Father Ted” would have it. “Drink! Feck!”). And it’s not just for guys. My Catholic friends who were regularly beaten by the “penguins” at an all-girl Catholic school held regular viewings of “Black Narcissus” in rotation with “The Sound of Music” well into adulthood. Orthodox nuns on the other hand seem to come pre-aged and swaddled in a dusty all-black habit that would blend in at the more conservative end of the ISIS dress code. Negative fantasy factor, unless you are a priest on a remote posting. Catholics win.
There is no Orthodox equivalent of Richard Chamberlain in “The Thornbirds”. Orthodox priests, sporting as they do the full beard and man bun, are destined to have only niche appeal. They tend to work better as postcard props posed against whitewashed walls or on donkeys, for the thrills of middle-aged German tourists. For a brief phase in the last decade, some younger specimens could have passed for that subspecies of hipster known as the lumbersexual, but soon it will be back to being mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. Catholics win, at least in fiction. And in case you’re wondering, ladies, rank and file Orthodox priests can marry. It’s a safe civil service job with a state pension – which counts for something in this environment.
Obviously, we both commit ritual cannibalism by imbibing the actual flesh and blood of Christ during Holy Communion. But while Catholics made it marginally more hygienic with the introduction of the dry communion wafer, we in the East have bread dunked in a petri dish of a chalice and administered on a shared spoon (incidentally, the dunking protocol is one of the finer points we fell out over back in 1054). Gross. The priest’s beard has been in there too. Orthodox win.
The Catholic church is very specific about what women can and can’t do with their bodies while they’re alive, strictly prohibiting birth control and abortion (aka. the “no soul left behind” policy). The Orthodox church catches you on your way out with a ban on cremation – but that’s for your surviving relatives to deal with. Catholics win for not waiting for the inevitable.
To see the Pope up close, you need to book months in advance, or use binoculars in St Peter’s Square. Koutofrangos and I were able to walk casually into the Patriarchal Church of St George in the old Greek district of Fanari/Fener in Istanbul a couple of years ago to see Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew perform in front of a small gathering. My easily-impressed lapsed Catholic partner was so taken with the Patriarch’s accessibility he nearly joined the queue to kiss his ring, until he realised this would pretty much guarantee an eternity spent burning in the abode of the damned. Not quite as impressive as bumping into Alan Rickman in the local Bayswater off-license, but kudos all the same.
Catholics win hands down. Both churches venerate preserved bits of the human anatomy, but the Catholics have catacombs full of them. Also, for gore you can’t beat the concept of the Sacred Heart, a bleeding disembodied human organ destined to adorn a gang member’s bicep, or St Sebastian, a half-naked boy posing as an archery target. Add to this the endless elaboration on the horrors of purgatory and babies in limbo, and you begin to see where Alfred Hitchcock was coming from.
Catholics win again, at least as far as exposure is concerned, by making their brand almost synonymous with pederasty. Although abuse is sporadically exposed in the Orthodox church, scandals are mostly confined to the church’s finances. They are either more virtuous, better at suppressing abuse stories, or perhaps it’s as simple as the ability to marry and the absence of altar boys, removes some of the more obvious temptations.
The Orthodox church (or at least some of its practitioners) are net producers of conspiracy theories (see above), whereas the Catholic church attracts them like flypaper. Dan Brown has been the main beneficiary of baroque plots featuring the Illuminati and Opus Dei, but somewhere deep in the bowels of the Orthodox-affiliated internet the Pope is sharing an aperitif of infant’s blood with the Freemasons and the Rothschilds after an energising session of hot yoga, in preparation for opening the floodgates to the Muslim hordes.
Tricky one this, as the churches do not comply with our earthly accounting standards. The budget of the Roman Catholic church in the United States alone is estimated to be in the same league as Apple Inc. The Church of Greece, on the other hand, is said to be close to bankruptcy. The Catholic church has been known to be more commercially-minded, pioneering one of the earliest innovations in financial engineering in the form of indulgences, which enabled them for the first time to monetise guilt. Regardless of size, however, neither church is a model of financial probity. The Vatican’s own bank is currently under investigation for money-laundering, while in Greece the Vatopedi affair revolved around a dodgy land swap, which implicated the abbot of a prestigious monastery and senior figures in government.
Catholic: 1,200 million; Orthodox: 225-300 million (based on own estimates, so all the usual warnings apply, but you get the picture).
Which bring us to…
A recent study estimated that by the middle of this century Islam will catch up with Christianity as the world’s most populous religion. Fellow smug secularists, atheists, agnostics and all-round fans of the Enlightenment, take note: it may feel like the march of Reason is unstoppable, but we will in fact “make up a declining share of the world’s population”.
Although both churches have voiced concern for the persecution of all refugees, they reserve particular concern for the suffering of Christians. When Pope Francis celebrated Holy Thursday demonstrating his humility by washing the feet of refugees, the ratio of Christians to other faiths was carefully calibrated at 8/4 – a bold symbolic gesture, but hardly representative of the fleeing populations. At the same time, it is not something one would imagine his predecessor doing. The Patriarch will also be taking the opportunity to celebrate the memory of “Papa Stratis”, a local priest who started a charity for refugees arriving on the island back in 2007.