Sep 15, 2001

Are Icons Catholic?

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001 

Are Icons Catholic?

In the May issue of the Adoremus Bulletin, we printed an icon of the Eucharist, "The Mystical Supper" by Monsignor Anthony LaFemina, along with his commentary explaining its meaning. Several readers requested copies of this striking image. But we also received a letter from a member of the Orthodox church objecting to Catholics’ use of icons. The writer extended his criticism to the Catholic practice of kneeling. We invited Monsignor LaFemina to respond.

We think readers will find this exchange enlightening. Both letters are printed in their entirety below.

— Editor


I am an Orthodox Christian who neither subscribes to nor regularly reads your publication. However the image on the back page of May 2001 caught my eye, because it is done in the style of a Byzantine icon.

There is a disturbing trend in contemporary Roman Catholicism to consider itself overly congruous with the doctrine and worship of the Holy Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy, it is suggested, is essentially "Catholicism without the Pope", and it can offer Western Christianity its "deep traditions", such as iconography. The problem with this attitude is a simple one: it is not true.

The differences between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are profound and far-reaching, and they are more often mutually exclusive than complementary. Everything in Orthodoxy, including its traditional forms of artistic expression, is inherently connected to the Orthodox understanding of man’s salvation: deification (theosis in Greek).

The image in May 2001 takes Byzantine iconography out of its Orthodox context for the propagation of Roman Catholic theological concepts totally foreign to the Orthodox mindset. This action evinces a characteristically Western theological attitude devoid of the deep Orthodox experience of the interconnectedness of all aspects of Church life and theology.

The iconographer may object that his depiction was contained in a mandorla, thereby indicating that the depiction is not an historical event. This does not exonerate him. The mandorla is never used as an excuse for iconographic innovation, especially innovations forbidden by Orthodox synods (e.g. the Council of Moscow, 1666-1667).

If modern Western Christians wish truly to have the deep experience of Orthodoxy I mentioned above, I suggest complete and humble acceptance of the fullness of Orthodox Tradition. To pick and choose that which seems appealing is to be deficient in spiritual sobriety.

A similar problem is evident in the lack of obedience to the First Council of Nicea among "traditional" Roman Catholics. As is well known, this Council forbids kneeling and prostrations on Sundays and during Paschaltide. Yet such kneeling considered rebellious and innovative when encountered in the Orthodox Church has become a traditionalist battle cry among modern Roman Catholics.

Philip Majkrzak
Princeton, New Jersey


Monsignor LaFemina responds:

Your letter presents many issues. You lament "a disturbing trend in contemporary Roman Catholicism" that easily dismisses "the differences between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism [that] are profound and far-reaching, and they are more often mutually exclusive than complementary". Such a trend might well exist among the uninformed, but there has existed already for some years the International Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

This Commission’s existence indicates that the Churches involved are well aware of the need to examine their differences together. You mention that the Orthodox understanding of man’s salvation is his deification. The Catholic Church teaches that men being called to "share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity" (cf. Roman Missal) are saved precisely by becoming, and continuing to live as, "sons in the Son" (GS, n. 22).

You assert that the icon in the May 2001 issue "takes Byzantine iconography out of its Orthodox context for the propagation of Roman Catholic theological concepts totally foreign to the Orthodox mindset".

In response, history itself testifies that Byzantine iconography could never be the exclusive property of the Orthodox Church since it was born into the Catholic Church long before the most unfortunate schism of 1054. Byzantine iconography has thus been legitimately maintained within the Catholic Church as an art form to illustrate her teachings.

The icon in question strives to present graphically the supernatural realities of the "Mystical Supper" during which the New Covenant was established through the Eucharistic action. By this action the Son revealed His Father as Father of His members, branches of the True Vine.

Regarding the Orthodox Council of Moscow (1666-1667) about the portrayal of the Holy Trinity in iconography, it would be well to consult Vladimir Moss’s article, which may be found at

Though that Council’s tenets obviously cannot bind Catholics, there is even serious disagreement among the Orthodox as to their validity. Relying on the work of the Athonite zealots, Moss advances the argument that the Council of Moscow (along with that of Constantinople in 1780) "cannot be accepted as expressing the Tradition of the Church if they contradict the Seventh Ecumenical Council as well as the constant practice of the Church since Roman times".

Finally, Canon XX of the First Council of Nicea (325) directs, not for doctrinal reasons but solely for greater harmony, that on Sundays and during the Paschal season prayers should be said standing. This liturgical norm, therefore, is clearly subject to possible modification by competent authority.

To sum up, in our lives as followers of Christ we should strive for that unity expressly willed by our Savior by seeking unanimity in those essential matters that Sacred Tradition teaches instead of making issues over human traditions. To attain such unity and unanimity, it would be well for all Christians without exception to carefully heed the holy wisdom and orthodox belief of Saint Theodore, Abbot of the Studium monastery at Constantinople (d. 826).

On the occasion of the violent controversy over the cult of images that cost the Church in the East the lives of many of her children and the loss of inestimable treasures, he wrote: "Whatever novelty is brought into the Church by those who wander from the truth must certainly be referred to Peter or to his successor. Save us, chief pastor of the Church under heaven" (Ep. i, 33, P.G., XCIX, 1018).

Monsignor Anthony LaFemina



The Editors