The Doctor of Theology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Sotirios Kollias, told us about his research on the abbot of the Orthodox Monastery of Casole in Otranto, Apulia, and ecclesiastical writer Nikolaos of Otranto (1150-1235). The teaching of this important author comes from a manuscript of the 13th century that has not yet been published and that Sotirios Kollias found in the Vatican Apostolic Library.
As Kollias points out, this manuscript testifies to the most important points of contention between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, such as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (also known as ‘Filioque’), the use of leavened or unleavened bread during the Divine Eucharist, the Sabbath fast, the obligation of the clergy in the Latin tradition to practice celibacy, the beards of the clergy, the way of honoring the sacred icons, the entrance of the women in the sacred altar, etc.
Western Church and clerical marriage
We asked Kollias to clarify why the Western Church has opposed clerical marriage. He explained to us, “As early as the 4th century, the Western and the Eastern Church gradually differentiated on this issue. The Eastern Church maintained the freedom of choice, with the sole exception of the celibacy of its bishops, because, on the one hand, they traditionally came from the bosom of monasticism and had decided to follow virginity anyway, and, on the other hand, because of their increased spiritual and pastoral duties, which would not allow them to devote themselves to their family. The western tradition imposed obligatory celibacy on all ranks of the clergy, supporting this custom in the verse of the Apostle Paul, who says: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs -how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world —how he can please his wife.” However, Saint Paul never proposes general and obligatory celibacy. Especially when he advises deacons, elders and bishops – who were married in the ancient Church – to live an honest life with their wives.
First reactions to maintaining uncut beard and sanctity of the icons
When asked why Roman Catholic clergy do not have a beard while Orthodox are obligated to, Sotiris Kollias replied: “We, Orthodox, observe the Jewish tradition regarding beards according to the special hierarchical order: “and they shall not shave their beard” (Leviticus 21:5). In the Eastern Church, the custom of maintaining uncut the beard of the clergy prevailed, according to the model of Christ and the Apostles as well.
In the western clergy, however, no firm stance has been taken on this issue. During the first years of the coexistence of Christianity, the tradition was common. We know from papal illustrations that they had a beard. In the 8th century, however, the first reactions against maintaining uncut the beard in the clergy began. And a little later, in the 12th century, the Western Church finally opposed wearing beards with the following argument: Beards must be cut in memory of the martyrdom of the Apostle Peter, who before being crucified suffered the humiliating cut of his beard by the Romans. And because the Catholics believe that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, therefore, every pope automatically becomes his successor, so they consider it necessary to follow in all the footsteps of the Apostle in order to properly observe the faith.
Holiness of persons
We considered it good to have him explain to us why the Roman Catholics do not honor sacred icons in their temples, and he replied that “although our Church with the Seventh Ecumenical Council (aka Second Council of Nicaea), which took place on AD 787, has ruled in favor of the sacred icons, the Latins did not recognize the council. As soon as the decisions of the Council became known in the Frankish state under Charlemagne, he convened a meeting in Frankfurt in 794, attended by papal representatives. This meeting rejected the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on the sanctity of icons and argued that they were mere adornments of the temples. Thus, Western artists used human models to paint a holy face (Renaissance), as they were not interested in the theological and spiritual significance of the icon and believed that they must have beautiful faces in order to delight our senses. In this way, however, the iconic tradition is circumvented, which in its orthodox perspective, expresses the saving work of the Church, since it has, as its head, the face of Christ. The sacred icons are intended to remind us of the holiness of the depicted persons and to help us mentally and spiritually return to their heavenly originals with the ultimate goal of resembling their works and glorious lives.
*The text was originally published in the newspaper “Orthodoxi Alitheia”