Is it possible that the American neo-Orthodox attack on Catholic sacraments is simply a manifestation of the same inferiority complex which has haunted other parts of world Orthodoxy for centuries? That question was proposed to me in a recent chat and I was simply unsure how to answer. It is important always to bear in mind how many Anglophone neo-Orthodox polemicists are either converts or, now, the children of converts. Having drunk the dregs of Protestantism for many years, many of these folks still can’t shake the idea that Rome is the “Great Satan” which has arbitrarily imposed its will on Western Christendom for a millennium, distorting doctrine and obscuring truth all along the way. Of course, these are the same folk who believe that the “Uniates” represent a class of duped-and-deluded wannabes who kneel before their king on the Tiber while liturgically play-acting with stolen rites. Far be it for the neo-Orthodox to take a frank look at history—including their own tumultuous history—before drawing radical conclusions about the spiritual state of millions of fellow Christians.
Catholics should keep in mind that the neo-Orthodox do not represent world Orthodoxy. In fact, they do not even represent American Orthodoxy despite the latter’s annoying penchant for repacking shopworn Protestant polemics and calling them “apologias” for the East. Some of the neo-Orthodox will parade about claiming that their “theological critiques” of, say, Roman ecclesiology or Latin sacramental theology have “never been answered.” The truth is that they are largely ignored. Why? Because all of this “stuff” has already been hashed out in respectable theological circles. Moreover, neo-Orthodox ignorance of what the Catholic Church actually believes and professes can be downright painful. As Fr. Robert Taft has stated numerous times, if you want to know what the Catholic Church actually holds to, Google it. The Catholic Church does not hide its doctrines or praxis; they are contained in numerous documentary sources for all to read. I know some Orthodox have an exaggerated interest in “mystery.” Well, I hate to break it to them, but Catholic teaching is not mysterious; it is right there, out there, and in the open for all to see, if they are so inclined.
This doesn’t mean that Catholicism is not riddled with its fair amount of theological disputes and hermeneutical quarrels. Drop by Google Scholar sometime and type in “Second Vatican Council” or, heck, “Dignitatis humanae” and you will quickly find yourself drowning in a sea of scholarship. What is wonderful today is how many of these disputes are carried out with an “Eastern perspective” as well. It is simply not possible to make absolute statements on what the Church has “always believed” without incorporating what the Eastern churches have also “always believed.” Is it neat and clean? No. Is it messy and divisive? Sometimes. But is it necessary? Absolutely. If the neo-Orthodox think for one second that the Catholic Church and her theologians have not seriously considered the Eastern perspective on sacraments, ecclesiology, liturgy, and spirituality, they are simply kidding themselves (or are woefully ignorant). Maybe the neo-Orthodox won’t always be pleased with the conclusions Catholic theologians draw, but those conclusions are not produced in ignorance of the Church’s universal intellectual patrimony. In other words, the neo-Orthodox are not sitting on a legitimate treasure chest of “secret knowledge” (Patristic consensus!) into which they can freely dip to trump Catholic doctrinal claims.
There’s always room for improvement, of course. Although the last half-century of Catholic thought has been something of a mixed bag, the introduction of Eastern sources, including contemporary Eastern theologians, into Catholicism’s theological discussion has been a great boon for the Church. I see no reason why Catholics should not take Orthodox claims seriously, at least so long as those claims are coming from individuals who are interested in doing more than grinding axes and spouting triumphalist rhetoric. As I have stated many times before, the Orthodox Church does not possess a greener pasture for any Christian to run to. Orthodoxy does have certain comparative advantages over present-day Catholicism, but it is also riddled with internal problems (not to mention doctrinal confusion) that no Catholic should envy (or mock for that matter). Most are well aware of Catholicism’s problems. They are advertised daily. Orthodoxy, for better or worse, skates by criticism in the West because it is largely an unknown quantity. That is its triumph and its tragedy.