In the combox to yesterday’s post, “A Comment on Synodality, East and West,” a reader by the name of Luke wrote the following:
That is a paradox that I still can’t wrap my head around: the Orthodox with a decentralized authority have no power to implement a Novus Ordo for example yet they have not turned in to Anglicanism East without a Pope. However, could you imagine the Catholic Church in the U.S without the intervention of JPII or BXVI?
Before I could type out a reply, Rod Dreher, over at The American Conservative, issued a similar query to his readers:
1. Why does the Orthodox Church, which lacks the centralized office of the papacy, and lacks magisterial offices, hold to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the Roman Catholic Church, which has these offices, and in theory ought to have a firmer hold on these things?
One can develop all sorts of sociological, historical, and psychological explanations for Catholic/Orthodox divergences, but they’re probably not terribly helpful. Certain Orthodox living in the (geographic) West enjoy grand narratives filled with Western philosophical-theological decadence and pristine Eastern mysticism, perhaps because it makes them feel like they have found a safe haven in Orthodoxy, free from the complications of (post)modernity. I have never had much patience for such “thinking,” as I have explained in various posts (see, e.g., “The Myth of Hart“). Whether Dreher buys into any of that stuff or not is difficult to say. Assuming he has read his Florovsky, Schmemann, and Meyendorff carefully, he knows full well that the Orthodox Church has never been isolated from intellectual developments and ideological upheavals which are, mistakenly, identified as exclusively “Western.” If there is anything distinctly “Eastern” in Orthodoxy, it is its occasionally obstinate refusal to be open, honest, and self-critical, particularly when it comes to its complicated, and sometimes tragic, relationship with both Roman and Greek Catholicism. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that Orthodoxy’s “closedness” has protected it from time to time against certain secular-liberal currents that have no business being imported into any Christian confession.
As for Dreher’s question specifically, it’s not even worth answering. It is not worth answering because it is formulated with the assumption that the institutional Orthodox Church “hold[s] to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the” institutional Roman Catholic Church. No Catholic in their right mind would accept that. What Catholics with eyes to see and ears to hear accept is that when it comes to priests and bishops — the body of individuals charged with preserving and passing on the Apostolic Faith — the Orthodox Church appears to have a relative advantage, at least at the global level. Anybody who has spent serious time around Orthodoxy in America knows that “exclusively Catholic problems” such as the so-called “Lavender Mafia,” clerical sexual abuse, lax discipline, moral and doctrinal confusion, and so on, and so forth, can all be found amidst the icons and incense, too. But American Orthodoxy is small and its representation in certain academic, ecumenical, and political circles is grossly disproportionate. Across the pond, ostensibly rigorous Orthodoxy has done no better job holding back cultural decline in Greece than allegedly lackadaisical Catholicism has done in Italy. Both countries are suffering from civilizational exhaustion. Then again, so is ours — and neither the Catholic nor Orthodox churches are doing a damn thing about it.