What to Do With the Filioque

The filioque debate has been mentioned on PrayTell several times, e.g. here, here, and here.

A brief explanation for those who are not familiar with this ecumenical issue:

The Western church inserted the phrase and the Son (Latin: filioque) into the Nicene (or Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed as we know it today: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.

To avoid confusion: The phrase who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified belongs to the original text as confirmed by the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). But the words and the Son in the phrase who proceeds from the Father and the Son do not belong to the original text. The filioque came into use only in the Western world. Most scholars are convinced that it was meant to stress Christ’s divine nature against the so-called Arianism (whatever that exactly was apart from an often used swear word). Arianism was quite prominent in Spain in the middle of the first millennium.

The filioque became a major topic in the Frankish-Carolingian era. Beginning in the late 8th century Emperor Charlemagne and his successors – who were largely affected by the fight against Arianism – had the most influence in the Western church. In 809 Pope Leo III confirmed the filioque as a legitimate insertion into the Creed, but he refused Charlemagne’s request to prescribe the filioque for the Creed in general. This took some strength, since Frankish theologians even blamed the East for having removed the filioque from the Nicene Creed – a quite bizarre allegation which some Eastern theologians still today consider a typical sign of Western high-handedness. Some 200 years later Pope Benedict VIII officially introduced the filioque into the Creed in 1014. The Council of Florence (1439) declared the filioque a legitimate and reasonable (but not necessary) addition, a decision which was not adopted by the Eastern churches.

Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has rediscovered the original and ecumenical version of the Nicene Creed. It is used in ecumenical services, it is even used by the popes themselves when they celebrate together with Eastern fellow Christians.

As the Western church caused all the trouble, it is our obligation to make an offer for a viable ecumenical solution. This is one of the cases where the Western church should offer as much as possible and expect as little as possible from the ecumenical partner. So here comes my offer.

At this point, I must mention that there are Eastern theologians who consider the filioque itself a heretical phrase. In this case there is not much we can do except have fundamental discussions on the Trinity. My hope is we can establish that the difference between the Creed with filioque and the Creed without is nothing but a terminological difference concerning the word proceed: In a certain sense the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, in a different sense it proceeds from the Father and the Son.

But what about those who refuse the filioque because they generally refuse unilateral variations of ecumenical decisions? This is a very serious opinion which reminds the Catholic Church of its obligation to do whatever possible to eliminate ecumenical barriers.

In my eyes the Catholic Church should do the following:

  1. We should restore the Nicene Creed without filioque as our regular Creed in liturgy, catechisms, schoolbooks, lectures, etc.
  2. New musical versions of the Creed with filioque should no longer be approved for liturgical use.
  3. With regard to a millennial tradition, older musical compositions containing the filioque (from Gregorian Chant to contemporary composers) should be permitted to remain in use, but they should not be entitled Nicene Creed without any further clarification.
  4. In order to explain this continuous tradition, the words and the Son could be added e.g. in hymnals to the Nicene Creed as a footnote with a short explanation. In chant books with older compositions (such as the Graduale for Gregorian Chant) the filioque should be printed in italics with an explanatory footnote as well.
  5. All we should ask from the Eastern churches is that they accept the filioque as a true expression of Christian faith (legitimate in the sense of theology of the Trinity). At the same time the Catholic Church should declare that the way that the filioque was introduced was irregular (in the sense of an ecumenical ecclesiology) and must not be regarded as a model for the papacy of the future.


  1. I agree 100% with these recommendations.

    But I fear it’s not possible just now for the Roman Church to be brave and decisive – we have too many uninformed folks who are paranoid about heresy, seeing it where it isn’t, and they would go crazy.


    1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
      Thanks, Anthony! Maybe I should add my fear that many Orthodox would not accept my recommendations for not going far enough. But my post only deals with the Catholic Church, not with the hypothetical reactions of other churches.
      By the way: As far as I can see, several Anglican and Old Catholic churches have already done quite similar to what I recommend here. And in Germany and Austria my idea would be virtually without consequences for the liturgy, because the Nicene Creed is almost never used (always the Apostles’ Creed or a hymn that more or less – often less – paraphrases the Creed).

    2. While your recommendations are sensible Liborius, I do fear that a phase-out of the filioque will further marginalize the chant and polyphonic heritage of the Roman rite. This is why I am convinced that the filioque must be handled with great sensitivity for the sake of our musical heritage. Your suggestions Liborius do set aside a special sensitivity for these concerns. Still, I am not at ease. Perhaps my trepidation is unfounded. Yet, Catholicism cannot survive today without its past.

      As Fr. Anthony notes in #1, a move towards the original Nicene formula might trouble the wary and less educated faithful. Even if the transition takes fifty years, it is better to move as slowly (but as purposefully) as possible rather than move for reform in five of ten years. This may risk another far-right quasi-schismatic movement within Catholicism.

  2. Don’t forget about us Lutherans! I know the ELCA allows for a sans filioque Creed, but our LCMS Lutheran Service Book makes no such allowances….not that anyone cares, or anything….

  3. I really believe that your recommendations are correct.

    However, I do not think the Church concerns itself right now with Ecumenism. After the collaboration among Christian denominations for prayers of the liturgy through ICEL and the Catholic Church re-translating them all without regard for other Christian denominations, who were left behind feeling that the Roman Catholic Church suddenly left them behind because they were more sophisticated than they.

    I feel we can be united without deciphering from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. My guess is that the average person in the pews would not know the difference, anyway.

  4. It is interesting that the CDF’s much criticised Dominus Iesus (2000) – drafted by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by JPII – starts off by saying “the fundamental contents of the profession of the Christian faith are expressed thus” and then quotes the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed without the filioque clause, citing Denzinger as its source. No explanation is given for this, but it is difficult to imagine that it was an oversight. The official thinking of the Church of Rome may be more flexible than we imagine.

  5. While disputes and debates go into overdrive, the recommendation that we should be using only the Apostles’ Creed (even though they had little to do with it!), It is a liturgical credal formula, whereas the Nicaean version is not a liturgcal document, nor intended to be one. It is a conciliar document to test the orthodoxy of the Council Fathers. It reftes heresies which have long since become irrelevant. One is reminded of the 1960s book by Robert Adolfs OSA, ‘het graaf van god’, or ‘The Grave of God: the Church’ with her amazing ability to fossilize and to horde.

  6. “3.With regard to a millennial tradition, older musical compositions containing the filioque (from Gregorian Chant to contemporary composers) should be permitted to remain in use,”

    With regard to Gregorian chant, it is surely not beyond the wit of man to adjust the chant for the words “Qui ex Patre [Filióque] procédit” or “who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]”?

    A blessed New Year

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