While I plan to devote several posts to aspects of Michael Petrowycz’s 2005 thesis, Bringing Back the Saints: The Contribution of the Roman Edition of the Ruthenian Liturgical Books to the Commemoration of Slavic Saints in the Ukrainian Catholic Church (available online for free from the University of Ottawa here), I did want to call attention to this important and fascinating work which serves a dual function as both a history of the (Slavic) Greek-Catholic reclamation of its authentic patrimony and a challenge to the Latin-dominated model of sainthood in the universal Church. As some are no doubt aware, recent decades have seen Greek Catholics of all stripes chipping away centuries-old layers of inorganic Latinizations and Roman-centric impositions in an effort to fulfill one of the central promises of the historic unia, namely the right to be both fully Eastern and fully Catholic. Part of that reclamation process has been to discard petty Western-based fears that drawing eastward in liturgy, spirituality, and theology meant a slide toward schism, though there is some distance to go. What Petrowycz’s thesis shows is that the origins of this project began well before the Second Vatican Council, when the Eastern Slavic churches, in concert with Roman authorities, sought to restore their traditions in full, including recognizing the heroic saints of the ancient Kyivan Church who, for largely political reasons, had been ejected from Greek-Catholic calendars beginning in the early 18th C.
It would be wrong to hold that the reign of Pope Francis affirms certain dogmatic objections against the Latin conception of the papacy, though it does serve as a disconcerting reminder when thousands, nay, millions of persons are desperate for surety. In modern times, the person holding the Petrine office, not the office itself, has served as a rickety “proof” that Catholicism possesses some comparative advantage over both Eastern Orthodoxy and the thousands of Protestant sects strewn across the globe. This might have seemed all well and good when John Paul II—a world-historical figure of great importance to the last century—was sitting on the throne; it seems like anything but now that a liberal Jesuit whose words are often as clumsy as they are misleading is actively trying to impose his will recklessly throughout the universal Church of Christ. This hard truth has not dissuaded the professional Catholic commentariat from either apologizing for, or covering over, Francis’s most scandalous words and deeds. Layer on top of that the reality that so many people’s faith is so rickety that it might indeed be taken down with too many harsh words against the Holy Father and what you have is an old-fashioned pickle. Traditional Catholics (and an increasing number of conservatives) may think they are doing the Church a great service by pointing out every misstep, mistake, and malicious act carried out by Francis, but what they seldom realize is that by impeaching the man on Peter’s Throne they are simultaneously undercutting one of the primary reasons people remain Catholic. If Catholics can’t trust the pope, who can they trust?
I try my best to refrain from commenting on the words and antics of Pope Francis. My weak heart can only take so much. Today’s breaking news (H/T Rorate Caeli) that Papa Frank will take part in a “common worship service” (whatever that means) in October to help kickoff a yearlong commemoration of the Reformation should be unsurprising to those who have bothered to pay attention to the ways and means of this pontificate. Whatever Francis is interested in, it has very little to do with the Catholic Faith, either as it was maintained and promoted before the Second Vatican Council or even what was popularly held by conservative Catholics up to the abdication of Benedict XVI. Some may cite John Paul II’s imprudent and scandalous Assisi gathering as the precedent for Francis’s upcoming actions, but I would argue that we are a long way from there. John Paul II and, to a greater extent Benedict XVI, “learned their lesson” from the first Assisi gathering, though their well-intentioned (albeit deeply misguided) pursuit of religious peace never allowed either to fully denounce such gatherings. In the case of Francis, it is becoming increasingly difficult to shake the notion that what he is after is not so much religious harmony but an eradication of all meaningful distinctions between the various Christian (and perhaps non-Christian) confessions out there. To be Catholic, to be Orthodox, to be Anglican, to be Lutheran, and so forth is all “fine” so long as one is “Christian” in some vague, open-ended sense. And, heck, even if one is not “Christian” in a vague, open-ended sense, you’re still “ok” as long as you “follow your conscience.” Truth be told, I can’t think of a more conscientious and committed religious movement on the planet than the Islamic State; their eternal reward will surely be great.
People who have followed my various blogs and social-media quips should know by now that I am a fan of the sport and art of professional wrestling. Even so, I have refrained from posting about wrestling on Opus Publicum since I hit the “reset button” in July 2014, mainly because I wanted to focus more specifically on religion and politics (the only two topics beyond pro-wrestling worth discussing). I don’t have any plans to change this “policy,” though I am going to use last night’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show, The Royal Rumble, and the current road to WrestleMania 32, to shamelessly indulge in some armchair commentary on the product; its strengths; and its ever-expanding list of weaknesses. If you have no interesting in wrestling, read no further, and if you truly detest wrestling, rest assured that I won’t be spending much time on it going forward; sometimes, however, I feel compelled to entertain myself.
A friend asked me the other day why Catholic social teaching (CST) isn’t taken more seriously. I replied with, “Because most of its loudmouth proponents are heterodox.” I was only half-joking, of course. However, it is hard to shake the sense that there is a contingent—even a very large contingent—of pro-CST types whose Christian horizon doesn’t expand much beyond their pet socialist sympathies or re-distributionist tendencies. That’s too bad, because it wasn’t always so. Crack open a copy of Fr. Edward Cahill’s The Framework of a Christian State or any book penned by Fr. Denis Fahey and you will quickly see that their rigorous promotion of CST is inextricably bound-up with strict doctrinal orthodoxy. They do not write “provocative” theological opinions or try to re-image Christ as some sort of social revolutionary, a man whose divinity is confirmed by His “political message” rather than the revelation He brings. While there are many Catholics today who acknowledge CST as an authentic expression of the Church’s magisterium without breaking from the Church’s other teachings, they are not as visible as they ought to be, or so I have found. That really is a shame, yet not the most shameful thing going on in the Church today. So it goes.
With Opus Publicum still in down-shift mode, let me suggest that you pay a visit to The Ochlophobist web-log where Mr. Owen White is hosting a series of posts from various contributors entitled, “Why I am…” (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.). The series has a very unique set of rules, which you can peruse here. While there are already many fascinating contributions posted, if you need a place to start, I heartily recommend Pater Edmund Waldstein’s “Why I am a Christian” and Bernard Brandt’s “Why I am an Eastern (Catholic) Christian.” Although I have been invited to contribute to the series, I am not sure at this point if I will be able to. Even so, just reading and reflecting on what has already been posted has been a very fruitful exercise.
Traditional Catholics have been weeping and gnashing their teeth since the appearance of Msgr. Charles Pope’s National Catholic Register blog post, “An Urgent Warning About the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass.” I confess I don’t know why. Though Pope relies largely on anecdotal evidence and some odd comparisons to the tragic decline of Catholic schools, his main point about the need for traditionalists to engage in more evangelization is sound. Joseph Shaw, the former head of the Latin Mass Society, disagrees. Writing over at Rorate Caeli, Shaw takes umbrage with Pope’s analysis, pointing out that the numbers don’t lie: the number of traditional Masses around the world is growing; traditional Catholic communities foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life; and traditional Catholics can’t be blamed for the fact their non-traditional brethren of the past two generations or so have been grossly under-catechized and are thus not in a position to truly experience – or have “fruitful participation” in – the Tridentine Mass. I don’t disagree necessarily with Shaw’s first two observations; the last comes a bit too close to cheap blame-shifting for my tastes. I always thought one of the central “points” of the traditional Catholic movement was to correct the catechetical problems introduced by bishops and priests over the past 50 years and that promoting the Tridentine Mass came hand-in-hand with delivering orthodoxy Catholicism. Why does Shaw seem to be disavowing this element of the traditionalist apostolate?
A reader recently e-mailed me about an article that appears on the polemical (if not hyperbolic) website Orthodox Information Center (OIC) entitled, “A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov.” Those familiar with OIC can already guess the piece’s two-part conclusion: (1) Orthodox/Byzantine good; (2) Catholic/Latin bad. Instead of engaging in a thoroughgoing analysis of St. Francis’s life and teachings, the article’s author—the vagante bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, California—looks for “soundbites” with which to indict Francis for not being, well, “Byzantine enough” in his piety and spirituality. The East, as the story goes, is shot through with “pure mysticism” and “humility,” while the West is mired in “carnality” and “sensuality,” owing—of all things—to the “error of papalism” (or something). People can read this sort of stuff if they desire, but I find it much better to go to the writings of Francis himself (or any other saint or mystic) before drawing any strong conclusions. Yes, there are certain passages his writings which can be cryptic and some of his poetical flourishes may take some off guard, but that can probably be said for most spiritual writings. It would not take much effort to comb through the pages of St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent or St. Isaac the Syrian’s Ascetical Homilies to find passages which make both men appear deranged. In fact, a great deal of Athonite spiritual writing can leave that impression if not taken in the right context or read with discernment and guidance.
The reason I make mention of this is not to stage a meta-defense of Latin mysticism and asceticism, but to remind readers of something a certain Eastern Orthodox priest said to me on numerous occasions, namely to steer clear of “spiritual literature” if your takeaway is anything other than a desire for true repentance or a feeling of authentic consolation. I am not, and have never been, a big advocate of “spiritual reading” outside of the Bible, and even then I am inclined to read most Biblical books with the guidance of a well-grounded commentary (e.g., St. John Chrysostom on Romans, St. Ambrose of Milan on the Gospel of Luke, and so forth). Moreover, I believe a great deal of spiritual fruit can come from reading certain theological works, such as St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or St. Augustine’s City of God, but to each their own. Perhaps some will accuse me of excess morbidity, but I am much more at home with St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Preparation for Death than I am with contemporary Eastern monastic literature that goes on about canes, getting stepped on by fellow monks, and whatnot. As important as it is to never believe oneself to be “advanced” or “ahead of others” in the spiritual life, the despair I have heard pour out of people’s mouths after they read stuff by Elder Joseph the Hesychast or his followers is positively ghastly.
If I may be so bold as to close these ephemeral thoughts with a recommendation for the Lenten season (which will be here quicker than we expect), let me strongly suggest sitting down with a book of meditations composed by St. Alphonsus, not because Redemptorist spirituality is the “best spirituality,” but because I find its emphasis on the Cross, the Crib, and Communion particularly important at a time of year when—to quote another Orthodox priest I knew—the devil rides us extra hard. There is such a thing as a healthy fear of damnation, though most of live with a sickened sense that such a possibility is no longer relevant to our lives. The Byzantine Rite still captures this healthy sense a tad bit better than the Latin Rite, which is perhaps why the Redemptorists had more than a bit of success adapting their simple but direct piety to the East a century ago. But that’s a topic for another day.
Some people have no doubt heard the expression “traddie sins,” which usually refers to the tendency of some (perhaps many) traditional Catholics to believe that their localized iteration of traditionalism is the pure expression of traditionalism at the expense of every other. “I go to a Society of St. Pius X chapel, not those of compromised groups like the Fraternity of St. Peter…”; “I attend a church run by the Institute of Christ the King and have nothing to do with quasi-schismatics like the SSPX…”; “The garage my vagante bishop says Mass in once every third month uses the 1954 Missal…;” etc. There are others, of course, ranging from uncharitable judgmentalism toward so-called “Novus Ordo Catholics” to a chauvinistic attitude toward the Christian East. Ah, but the list grows. A fairly new, and rather pernicious, tradide sin is the tendency to assume that if a priest, bishop, or pope supports a socio-political position connected in some way with the platform of the American Democratic Party, then then such a position is not only evil, but the espouser has fallen into some deep abyss of doctrinal error and must be renounced immediately.
Upon returning to his childhood faith, Fr. Robert Sirico could have opted for a quiet life of peace and piety with nary a soul knowing. Instead he opted to found the Acton Institute, an international think tank committed to promoting liberal economic ideology largely at odds with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church. Rather than commit himself solely to a life of humble service in the Church he renounced in his youth, Sirico spends his time courting high-level donors for Acton while using the platform the institute gives him to water-down Catholic social teaching and “correct” the Pope for his “economic errors.” As a liturgical conservative, Sirico has managed to draw an impressive following to his parish in Grand Rapids, believing—rightly—that most people are willing to dial-down demands for strict doctrinal orthodoxy in exchange for a pretty Mass and a semblance of communal stability. (It’s hard to argue with this compromise given the number of priests in the diocese who openly reject core tenets of the Catholic Faith.) Some folks in these parts murmur against those who choose, out of conviction, to bypass Sirico’s parish in favor of the chapel established by the Society of St. Pius X on the outskirts of town, never once stopping to consider that consistency and coherency are principles some people can’t let go of. As numerous individuals have expressed to me over the years, it’s not that Sirico espouses bald heresy from the pulpit or lacks good pastoral sense; it’s that they cannot bring themselves to support a parish with priests and laity who believe it is their right to dissent from the Catholic Church when it does not comport with economic—and sometimes social and religious—liberalism.