A Challenge for Orthodoxy

An article for Koinonia News by Michael Callahan, presiding bishop, the Apostolic Western Orthodox Church (AWOC) <https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=1297377787872894&set=a.938748917069118>

The papacy of Pope Francis has ignited a firestorm of debate, particularly among Orthodox believing Christians, concerning its apparent embrace of religious relativism. This philosophy, centered on the notion that all religions possess equal truth, directly clashes with the Orthodox understanding of the Church as the sole custodian of divinely revealed truth and the exclusive pathway to salvation. This article explores the key concerns surrounding Pope Francis’ approach and its implications from the perspective of the Apostolic Western Orthodox Church.

Blurring Lines with Protestantism:

Pope Francis’ gestures towards Protestant denominations have stoked anxieties. Notably, in 2016, he participated in a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with Lutheran leaders in Sweden. This act, viewed by some as a tacit endorsement of the Reformation’s theological innovations, sparked criticism within the Orthodox community. As Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church remarked, “This event contradicts the historical truth and undermines the very foundations of Christian teaching” (https://wadiocese.org/documents_diocesan_life.html). Such actions, from an Orthodox perspective, pose a significant threat, blurring the lines between true and false doctrines and undermining the unique salvific role of the Orthodox Church.

Interfaith Dialogue and the Erosion of Christian Witness:

While open dialogue with other faiths holds merit, Pope Francis’ approach has raised concerns about its potential to undermine core Christian tenets. His statements suggesting that the diversity of religions reflects God’s will, coupled with his praise for Islam and meetings with prominent Islamic leaders, have left some Orthodox Christians wary. This stance, according to Father Peter Heers of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, “risks eroding the Church’s fundamental missionary purpose and its witness to Christ as the sole path to salvation” (https://ost2022.substack.com/p/condemning-an-abstraction). By downplaying the intrinsic differences between Christianity and other religions, Pope Francis’ approach, from the Orthodox perspective, weakens the urgency of conversion and risks relegating Christianity to one path among many, a dangerous concession to prevailing cultural trends of relativism. This distinctly contradicts Jesus’ insistence upon a “Narrow way” to salvation, which few would find.”

Marginalization of Tradition:

Perhaps most concerning for traditionalist Catholics, and by extension, the Apostolic Western Orthodox Church, are Pope Francis’ actions perceived as marginalizing traditional expressions of faith within his jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. His interventions in certain traditional religious orders, criticism of traditional clerical attire, and severe restrictions imposed on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass through the 2021 document “Traditionis Custodes” are viewed by many as a deliberate disenfranchisement of those who seek to safeguard the Church’s heritage. This alienation, according to Father Patrick Henry of the Society of Saint Pius X, “demonstrates a hostility towards those who seek to safeguard the Church’s sacred traditions” (https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/sspx-horror-trial-superior-knew-kept-predator-in-ministry). This approach, from the Orthodox perspective, weakens the Catholic Church from within and poses a threat to the preservation of authentic Christian tradition which both traditions hold dear.

Challenges to Traditional Doctrine?

Pope Francis’ statements and gestures have, at times, appeared to challenge certain long-held positions within Catholic doctrine. For example, his comments on same-sex relationships and divorced Catholics have been interpreted by some as signaling a shift towards greater acceptance and a potential change in doctrine. Traditionalists perceive this as a move towards relativism, weakening the Church’s commitment to absolute moral values. In contrast, proponents argue that Francis prioritizes pastoral care and inclusivity over rigid adherence to doctrine. They see his approach as a nuanced attempt to navigate the complexities of modern life while remaining faithful to the essence of the Catholic message.

Confusing the Message: Distinguishing Proselytization from Evangelization

Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned “proselytism,” stating it’s a “solemn nonsense” and doesn’t reflect the true spirit of evangelization. This has led to confusion and concern, as critics argue it contradicts Jesus’s command to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

The Perceived Tension with Evangelization

While Pope Francis’ strong emphasis on inter Religious outreach has led some to question its compatibility with Jesus’s command to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), others argue that respectful dialogue and cooperation on shared societal concerns can create a more receptive environment for sharing the Gospel at the appropriate time, demonstrating Christian values in action. This understanding views dialogue and evangelization as potentially complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

The Challenge for Orthodoxy

According to bishop Michael Callahan, “the rise of relativism within the greater Catholic Church under Pope Francis presents a significant challenge for the Orthodoxy. In the face of this perceived erosion of core Christian principles, the Apostolic Western Orthodox Church is called to…


The seeming embrace of religious relativism under Pope Francis presents a complex challenge to the Christian faith. For the Apostolic Western Orthodox Church, this era demands renewed conviction, a commitment to safeguarding the Truth, and compassionate witness to those who seek the fullness of faith found solely in Christ’s Holy Church. While acknowledging the complexity of this issue and the diversity of perspectives within Catholicism, this article highlights the concerns held by a significant portion of the Orthodox community regarding the direction of the Roman jurisdiction under Pope Francis’ leadership.

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