Not so bright photo cutline

Trust me, I have the greatest of sympathies for general-assignment reporters who find themselves forced to wade into the complex details of doctrine, rite and history that are frequently served up by day-to-day events that transpire on the religion beat.

This is true in religious movements ancient and new.

How is anyone supposed to make sense out of the whirling world of emerging, post-evangelical, neo-charismatic, nondenominational, free-church Protestantism, where there is often no legal or doctrinal authority higher than the pastor (ordained by who knows who) and the board of deacons-elders-presbyters-directors who hires him?

And in the ancient world, there are various forms of Orthodoxy to consider that overlap in the same regions with the competing claims of Rome. Which patriarch is on first? Who’s on second? Is the man in robes on third old calendar or new, is he oriental Orthodox or canonical? Really, says who?

So pity the copy editor who drafted the following photo caption for Reuters:

Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl

A Palestinian Roman Orthodox Christian girl looks at candles as they are lit inside an old cave which residents say is used as a church, in the West Bank village of Aboud near Ramallah, ahead of Christmas December, 16, 2010.

A veteran GetReligion reader was both confused and amused by this unique reference, writing: “The picture shows Palestinians lighting candles in a cave in Ramalla, but IDs them as ‘Roman Orthodox’? What is Roman Orthodoxy?”

Good question.

It is possible, of course, that these Palestinian Christians were simply Eastern Orthodox, most likely linked to the ancient — to say the least — Church of Jerusalem. Then again, they may have been Eastern Rite Catholics, part of a flock that is loyal to the pope of Rome, yet one uses rites that are almost identical to those used by the Eastern Orthodox.

Then again, the photographer or reporter at the scene may have heard a spokesperson for the church use a very ancient name that sometimes appears in Eastern Orthodox rites. Consider these few lines from the Chrismation rite used when converts enter the church:

Bishop: Hast thou renounced all ancient and modern heresies and false doctrines which are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?

Answer: I have.

Bishop: Dost thou desire to be united unto the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Eastern Church?

Answer: I desire it with all my heart.

Like I said, this is complex territory. It’s easy to make mistakes, even when doing one’s best not to.

Then again, there is always a chance that we are dealing with journalists who, when they see candles and people making the sign of the cross, immediately think of Rome — no matter what.

Be careful out there, folks.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joel

    Are there Western Rite Orthodox in the Holy Land? I could see mixing “Roman,” “Latin” and “Western” up easily enough.

  • Jeff

    Don’t forget:

    “In the Middle East, Orthodox Christians have also been often referred as Roman (or Rum) Orthodox, because of their historical connection with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.[10]”

    From Wikipedia:

  • James

    In Turkey, Christians are assumed to be Greek and Greeks are called “Romans.” Perhaps this is the same in Palestine. In English, locally, the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem are called “Greek Orthodox.” Perhaps in Arabic they are called “Roman Orthodox.”

  • Jeff

    Although I do believe that the term is more often used by Muslims in reference to Orthodox. Part of this is likely due to the fact that separation of church and state is somewhat contrary to their belief system, so to be Roman means to have the faith of the Roman empire which was defeated in the 15th century.

  • bob

    This isn’t an incorrect usage, it just isn’t very typical. And recall, nobody knows WHAT to call an Orthodox Christian, anywhere, period. Take that for granted in or out of print.

    Around 20 years ago I met someone new to my workplace. She was from the middle east, had a slight accent and wore a cross. I am Orthodox Christian, then in a parish under the Patriarch of Antioch. I asked if she was Orthodox? She looked a little confused til I mentioned Antioch. Then she said, “Ah, yes you are Rum Orthodox!” Well, that’s true; it’s the way “Roman” is said under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, and it indicates the Orthodox Christians there who were conquered by the Muslims. A Roman wasn’t bounded by Italy, the Empire was all the way through what we call Turkey. I figure I’m more accurately “Roman” than I ever was “Antioch-ian” (A term less than 40 years old). In the article quoted it’s very reasonable, but unless explained it sounds automatically like an Eastern Catholic under Rome (IE Roman Catholic). Next explain what an Eastern Catholic is to a reading audience….

  • Jerry

    people making the sign of the cross, immediately think of Rome

    I wonder if there’s a theological reason for the two basic differences for making the sign of the cross or if it’s basically historically based?

  • Julia

    A Roman wasn’t bounded by Italy, the Empire was all the way through what we call Turkey.

    Another reason why Roman Catholic is very bad terminology.

    People often think it has to do with Italy or the old Roman Empire, which included the Greek-speaking world. “Catholic” means “universal” – indicating the church in union with the Pope wherever the adherents are found.

    If people insist on adjectives, Latin and Greek are much better modifiers and better linked to the historical split – for the vast majority of Catholics and Orthodox; there are exceptions.

    Eastern Catholics are descendants of long-ago converts (some were never separated from the Pope) who retained their original liturgies, much like the plan for the Anglican converts – the difference being that Eastern Catholic groups are stand-alone churches.

    The Western-Rite Orthodox and some other newer groupings don’t follow this plan. So it is getting much more complicated to explain to people.

    We refer to Muslims as a bloc; and the East often refers to Christians as a bloc. Christians of whatever stripe are blamed for the actions of folks who may have no connection to them. The same happens with Muslims.

  • Hector

    I’m curious whether ‘Roman Orthodox’ is used to distinguish Catholic/Orthodox Christians from the non-Chalcedonian Christian groups (Jacobites, Armenians, Assyrians and Copts) that are centered in that part of the world.

    The heartlands of non-Chalcedonian Christianity were, from fairly early on, lost to the Roman/Byzantine Empire, so it could be said that the non-Chalcedonians were separated from Rome politically as well as theologically.

    Does anyone know how Muslims Arabs and/or Turks refer to Armenian or Syrian Christians?

  • palestinian

    Most Arab Orthodox are with Greek Orthodox Church, which we either say just Orthodox, or we just say we are Arab Orthodox, sometimes Rum Orthodox. Armenians say they are Armenians, and everyone implies this to mean Armenian Orthodox. Syrian Christians either say that they are Syrian Orthodox or Syrian Catholic. Some non-Arab Syrians, who call themselves as Syriacs, will just say that they are Syriac.

    But I never heard like “Roman” Orthodox in that way, it is not typical to be used..