Creeping, Sliding, Ignoring

Jessica M. Murdo, a professor of theology at Villanova University, has a timely article up over at First Things entitled “Creeping Infallibility.” In it, she attempts to set the record straight concerning the various magisterial “layers” one finds in the Church and pushes back against the trend whereby an increasing number of lower level papal documents are given undue weight. Arguably, this “pushback” has been going on for some time, though there is a great deal of disagreement out there over when and where that’s appropriate. For instance, traditional Catholics have been pushing back against the “creeping infallibility” of the Second Vatican Council for half-a-century; their neo-Catholic critics claim that this is beyond the pale. Neo-Catholics, particularly those enamored with political and economic liberalism (e.g., Acton Institute), regularly push back against the possibility that any papal document can speak authoritatively on socio-economic matters unless it first conforms to the tenets of “economic science” (whatever that means). When Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was issued, Fr. Robert Sirico — the head of Acton — was quick to remind everyone that exhortations carry less magisterial weight than encyclicals and that it’s not clear that Catholics need to follow the Holy Father when he speaks about things economic.

Truth be told, the on-the-ground reality in the Catholic Church is that most of the would-be faithful live by a “sliding-scale magisterium” where those parts they like are exalted and those they do not are belittled, if not ignored outright. Neo-Catholics who love ecumenism treat certain documents from Vatican II as sacrosanct but have absolutely no time for the long list of papal and ecclesial condemnations of heresies, schisms, and false religions. When pressed on this point, these Catholics will claim that doctrine “has developed,” as if “development” means a new theological outgrowth can fully cover, nay, replace the trunk from which it allegedly spawned. To be fair, one should not ignore the opposite tendency, championed in some sectors of the traditional Catholic world, to ignore in full the Church’s post-Vatican II magisterium or even much of what happened in the Universal Church prior to the Council of Trent. Traditionalists, for better or worse, have a tendency to absolutize the magisterium as articulated by the 19th and early 20th Century popes as if the Church began and ended there.

For Eastern Catholics, the situation is even more confusing. While it stands to reason that a majority of Eastern Catholics believe they hold to the Faith as articulated in, say, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, there exists a noticeable contingent — the so-called “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” — who have no problem playing de facto sedevacantist when it comes to the Roman Pontiff. That is, they blissfully ignore as authoritative almost everything the Pope says because he is not, according to them, “their bishop.” Moreover, this same crowd openly treats most post-1054 councils as “local councils of the Latin Church” which lack binding authority over Eastern Christians. Their vision of the Church is “Orthodox” insofar as they embrace the East’s confederate model of governance. The fact that the Catholic Church, as recently as both Vatican Councils, rejects this approach is of little-to-no consequence, and if one tells the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” otherwise, they will scream and howl that  they are being oppressed by “Latin innovations.”

From an outsider’s perspective, particularly an Eastern Orthodox one, this all must look terribly ironic. After all, one of the biggest charges Catholics have brought to bear against the Orthodox is that the latter lack doctrinal and governmental unity. While this is true, it’s equally true that the Catholic hierarchy, with their magisterial statements on faith and morals, has not done a particularly good job shepherding their flocks and leading them on the sure path to holiness. It is not difficult to see why certain Orthodox apologists call Catholicism to the carpet for “developing” ways out of its own teaching. The ongoing nonsense involving Amoris Laetitia is just one more in a long line of examples of Catholicism — by Orthodox lights — shifting gears while still claiming to maintain the Apostolic Faith.

Robinson on Staying Orthodox

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.

Annales Ecclesiae Ucrainae

I am painfully behind on updating the Links section to Opus Publicum. However, I wanted to bring to your attention the remarkable work of Fr. Athanasius McVay on his blog Annales Ecclesiae Ucrainae. Here is the blog’s description:

Annales Ecclesiae Ucrainae is a collection of articles pertaining to the history of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. It is inspired by great works of ecclesiastical history, such as Baronius’ Annales Ecclesiastici, Harasevych’s Annales Ecclesiae Ruthenae and Athanasius Welykyj’s Analecta OSBM.

Though Fr. Athanasius’s priestly and formal academic work makes finding time to update the site challenging, the posts already available contain a wealth of historical information on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), her clergy, and the experiences of her faithful. If you need a place to start, consider Father’s latest entry on the life of Fr. Petro Kametsky, a missionary to Canada’s Ukrainian immigrant population who was also interned as a prisoner of war. The account is fascinating and reveals some of the unique challenges facing the UGCC in the early 20th Century as an increasingly number of her faithful took up residence in the West.

Go East?

There has been a fair amount of chatter on social media concerning John Burger’s Aleteia piece, “Go East, Young Man.” In it, Burger discusses his reasons for switching from the Latin Church to Greek Catholicism, mooring his decision in primarily aesthetic and sentimental terms. That’s fine. Ask most people why they choose Eastern Orthodoxy and they will largely say the same thing, even if they feel compelled to dress-up their decision with some vague references to “the Fathers,” “Holy Tradition,” and “the Ancient Faith.” Burger, being Catholic already, didn’t need to undergo some half-baked quest for the “one true Church,” nor does it sound like he is trying to flee any troubling ecclesiastical developments in his former wing of the Catholic Church. He just really likes Byzantine Christianity generally and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom specifically. Good for him.

While I wish Burger all the best, I do sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with some of the factual errors contained in his article. For instance, the author seems unaware of how much the Divine Liturgy has changed since the days of Ss. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great; the idea that this liturgical form has remained static for over a millennium is patently ridiculous. Moreover, even a cursory glance at the various Eastern churches which use the Byzantine Rite reveals local variations and practices which cut against the notion that the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the same manner at all times and places. Like any liturgical rite, the Byzantine has developed considerably over the course of many centuries and has even undergone several top-down reforms which were anything but minor. To ignore this reality is to present a picture of the Byzantine Rite which happens to be overly-romantic and ultimately false.

With respect to Burger’s comments comparing the Byzantine and Roman rites, he also appears to be unaware of how the Novus Ordo Missae’s radical expansion of the lectionary represents a break with the once-shared tradition of both rites using a set lectionary for the liturgical year. Surely Burger should know how, particularly during Great Lent, the readings for each Sunday dovetail with the hymnography of Vespers and Matins. With respect to the traditional Roman Rite, the lectionary is intimately connected with each Sunday’s Propers; the readings, prayers, and chants make up an integral whole which guide the faithful through the liturgical year. And as for the idea of giving the faithful “more Scripture,” let’s be honest. Very few Catholics today attend Mass outside of Sundays and perhaps Holy Days of Obligation.

Now, some have expressed dismay that Burger left the Latins for the Greeks in the first place. For what it’s worth, I don’t begrudge a single soul who, through frequent attendance at an Eastern church and careful reflection, applies for a canonical transfer. This is not an innovation; it has been going on for centuries. (For example, the Servant of God Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was born a Latin Catholic and transferred to the Greek Church when pursuing his religious vocation.) My concern with Burger’s piece is that it turns the venerable Byzantine Rite into an aesthetic preference while failing to account for the larger theological and spiritual heritage of Greek Catholicism (be it Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, and so forth). Burger’s instincts may have been in the right place when he wrote the article, but his execution is noticeably off.

Review: Old Orthodox Prayer Book (3rd ed.)

Several months ago I made mention of the third edition of the Church Slavonic/English Old Orthodox Prayer Book published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity in Erie, PA. Having used the second edition of this excellent prayer book for the last decade, I was eager to see what, if anything, would be done differently with a new edition. Truth be told, with the exception of some minor corrections, nothing has changed regarding the text. The book still contains a full set of Morning and Evening prayers; all of the texts for the minor hours plus substantial portions of Vespers and Matins; a large sampling of troparia and kontakia; the usual run of canons and an akathist; and the longest pre-Communion prayer rule you will ever see. What has changed is the actual construction of the book. Gone is the thin, newsprint-like paper with small type; here to stay is much sturdier white paper with a noticeably enhanced font size and style for both the Slavonic and English text. The black cover of the last edition is out; a firmer red cover, with more substantial binding, is in. Like the second edition, this version only boasts a single marker ribbon, though that probably won’t be a bother to people unless they are using the book to recite a service with several moving parts, such as Vespers.

Now, there are some drawbacks to this edition. First, the third edition is noticeably thicker and heavier than the second edition, which makes it a bit less comfortable to hold and carry around. Second, while the larger font will no doubt be welcomed by more elderly users of the book, it comes at the cost of having less content on single page, which my annoy some people. Finally, an opportunity was missed to make some minor additions to the texts, such as including the rubrics and prayers for praying the small hours during Great Lent or including the daily prokeimena at Vespers (strangely the only “fixed” text from this service that is missing).

These are minor quibbles, however. Improving the quality of the paper and binding is a definite improvement, particularly since I have burned through three copies of this prayerbook over the past 10 years due to wear-and-tear. That shouldn’t be a problem with this edition.

I remain firm in my conviction that this is hands-down the best Orthodox prayerbook available in English, one that can be used profitably by Greek Catholics as well. Most of the translations are less clunky than those found in, say, the Jordanville Prayer Book and the structure of the morning and evening prayer rules is more sensible as well. Those disinclined to adopt some of the particular aspects of the Russian Old Rite, such as the double (rather than triple) Alleluia or minor variants in the Creed, can easily bypass them. While used copies of the second edition are still fairly easy to come by, those looking for a prayerbook that will hold up over the long haul would do well to invest in this new third edition.

So, Eastern V2 Didn’t Happen

The “Holy and Great Council” of the Orthodox Church is over. You can read all of the conciliar documents, including the gathering’s encyclical, here. I am going to refrain from in-depth commentary for the time being since I am committed to writing about the Council and its fallout elsewhere. However, as even a cursory run through these documents make clear, the Council was anything but Orthodoxy’s “Vatican II moment.” Nothing substantial concerning canon law, the liturgy, moral theology, or ecclesiology was touched (though some peripheral matters were certainly clarified). The ostensible “ecumaniacal” document on relations between Orthodoxy and world Christianity is pretty flat, though it does include two paragraphs which ought to rile-up the Eastern fundamentalists.

22. The Orthodox Church considers all efforts to break the unity of the Church, undertaken by individuals or groups under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy, as being worthy of condemnation. As evidenced throughout the life of the Orthodox Church, the preservation of the true Orthodox faith is ensured only through the conciliar system, which has always represented the highest authority in the Church on matters of faith and canonical decrees. (Canon 6 2nd Ecumenical Council)

23. The Orthodox Church has a common awareness of the necessity for conducting inter-Christian theological dialogue. It therefore believes that this dialogue should always be accompanied by witness to the world through acts expressing mutual understanding and love, which express the “ineffable joy” of the Gospel (1 Pt 1:8), eschewing every act of proselytism, uniatism, or other provocative act of inter-confessional competition. In this spirit, the Orthodox Church deems it important for all Christians, inspired by common fundamental principles of the Gospel, to attempt to offer with eagerness and solidarity a response to the thorny problems of the contemporary world, based on the prototype of the new man in Christ.

The swipe at “uniatism” in paragraph 23 is, more likely than not, directed at the Moscow Patriarch, which for centuries has attempted to forcibly bring Greek Catholics into its fold. (It should be noted that the Romanian Patriarch signed-off on these provisions, thus signaling a retreat from its own history of force-converting Greek Catholics.) All in all, however, the Council did little to advance the work of reunifying Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church and, arguably, spent too much time worrying about its relationship with the World Council of Churches.

As for the rest of the documents, they’re a mixed bag. The document on marriage, for instance, contains some noticeable tensions, such as affirming the indissolubility of marriage while sidestepping the sad truth that the Orthodox dissolve sacramental marriages all of the time. Moreover, the document speaks forcefully on the crisis surrounding marriage and the family in the modern world and yet says nothing direct about contraception.

Clearly the biggest point of interest now is seeing how the local churches which opted not to attend the Council (e.g., Moscow, Antioch, and Bulgaria) “receive” (or not) the conciliar documents. Needless to say, the “Holy and Great Council” came up short in broadcasting an image of Orthodox unity to the world.

A Few Comments on “Life in the Orthodox Church”

V., the anonymous writer who runs the Perceptio web-log, has finally followed through on the time-honored tradition of Orthodox converts writing about . . . their conversion. In a post entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky One to Rocky Three (Life in the Orthodox Church),” V. provides his own spiritual-psychological account of why other people enter Orthodoxy before briefly touching on his own reasons (theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and so on and so forth). It’s not particularly persuasive, at least not when it comes to accounting for the myriad of reasons people leave some form of Protestantism (and occasionally Catholicism) for the Eastern Orthodox Church. With respect to ex-Catholics, while it is true that some are looking for a safe haven from the turmoils of contemporary Catholicism (heck, even Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, is rumored to have entertained becoming Greek Orthodox following the Second Vatican Council), a good number of ex-Catholic Orthodox I have met over the years either married into Orthodoxy or weren’t strong churchgoers prior to finding the Christian East. Of course some certainly made their choice for concrete intellectual and/or aesthetic reasons, but they were not “traditionalists” in any strong sense of the word. Most traditional Catholics, for better or worse, take a fairly low view of the Orthodox, regarding them as “schismatics” or “heretics”; they are not inclined to convert, no matter how rotten things get in Rome. The few exceptions I have known to this rule (all priests and monks) did wind up in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), but less out of a desire for “exclusivism” and more because ROCOR, when compared to some other Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, is relatively “safe” in its conservatism. (Also, if you happen to appreciate the Byzantine-Slavic liturgy done well, there’s no better place to go than a ROCOR parish.)

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