Question: Something I don’t know much about, and probably a lot of other people don’t is: what are some of the concrete differences and similarities between, say the Russian Orthodox Church and, say, the Roman Catholic Church with regard to different doctrines and ideas, like about the Trinity or whether priests marry or not – all those million and one little differences.
Fr. Seraphim: There are a lot of little differences. There is one main difference, I think; and I would explain it precisely in connection with the Holy Spirit. The Church of Christ is that which gives grace to people; and in the West, when Rome broke off from this Church, this grace was actually lost (maybe people individually found it here and there, but from their whole Church the grace was cut off). I look at modern Roman Catholicism as an attempt to substitute, by human ingenuity, the grace which is lost. Therefore, it makes the Pope “infallible”, having to give an answer to the question of “where is truth?”
There are some who look at our Orthodox Church and say, “It’s impossible for people to find truth there. You say you don’t believe in any one pope or bishop, and thus there is no guarantee; you don’t believe in the Scriptures like a Protestant might and say that they are the absolutely ‘infallible’ word. If you have a controversy, where is the final word?” And we say that the Holy Spirit will reveal Himself. This happens especially when bishops come together in council, but even then there can be a false council. One might then say, “There’s no hope!” But we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and therefore He will not be false to the Church. If you haven’t got the feeling that this is so, then you devise things like making the Bible infallible, making the Pope infallible. Also, you make Orthodox things – as the Roman Catholics did – into some kind of “law”, so that everything is nicely defined: if you break this law you go your confessor, get such-and-such a penance, and you’re all “set” again. Orthodoxy does not believe; from this came the whole idea of indulgences, which is a totally legalistic perversion of the idea of repentance. If you repent, like the thief on the cross, you can be saved at that moment.
Orthodoxy always emphasizes this spiritual aspect of the relationship of one’s own soul to God; and all the sacraments and discipline of the Church are only a means of getting one’s soul right with God: this is the whole of our Faith. In the Roman Church until very recently when things began to dissolve, the emphasis was rather on obeying a whole set of laws and thereby getting “right” with God in a legalistic sense, which is a substitute for the Holy Spirit. (God’s Revelation to the Human Heart: Questions and Answers, pg 48)