Just over 450 years ago, in the faraway land of Russia, a synod was held which, inter alia, upheld a series of far-reaching liturgical reforms which noticeably altered the articulation and practice of liturgical piety in the Russian Orthodox Church. More than a few marginal adjustments, the liturgical reforms instituted by Patriarch Nikon (who, ironically enough, was deposed at the 1666 synod in question) was immediately noticeable to clerics and laity alike, particularly during the penitential season of Great Lent which, arguably, the reforms hit the hardest. The synod also took the disconcerting step of flagrantly nullifying the decrees of an earlier gathering—the 1551 Stoglavy Synod—which had upheld the integrity and orthodoxy of Russia’s liturgical rite—a rite which differed in noticeable ways from Greek usage as it had solidified by the 17th Century. The rest, as they say, is history.

Within a decade or two, the Russian Orthodox Church was fractured into officially approved believers under the Moscow Patriarchate and so-called Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) who refused to acquiesce to the Patriarchate’s liturgical reforms, even though it meant losing the priesthood. The heavy hand of the Russian secular authorities ensured that no bishops joined the “Raskol” or schism, and many of the priests who held to the Russian Old Rite were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. While relations between Old Believers and the mainline Russian Church have improved over the past century to the point where both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia count Old Believers among their membership, the dark legacy of the Russian Church schism still hangs in the air, centuries later.

At the time of the schism, many Old Believers held to an apocalyptic view of the liturgical reform, arguing without irony that altering Slavonic grammar and the number of prostrations performed during the Prayer of St. Ephraim at Lent amounted to losing the Orthodox Faith. Even today, there are Old Believers who maintain that we are still living in the time of antichrist where God has deprived his followers of all of the sacraments save Baptism. Of course, the end of history has yet to come; Christ has not returned in glory; and life continues on. But still, the Old Believer air is thick with eschatological expectation or, at the very least, a powerful sense that God is not done exacting revenge on those who have apparently betrayed Him.

Maybe there is no perfect parallel in the Roman Catholic Church to this phenomenon, though that could change in a hurry. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are more than a few Catholics who believe that a moment of great reckoning is coming. Some, in fact, are longing for it, fed up as they have become with the authorities in Rome and the laxity rampant throughout the Universal Church. Others are holding to a more positive outlook. Instead of expecting impending destruction they hope that the Blessed Virgin’s promise, namely that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, shall be fulfilled. At that point a period of renewal will occur in the Church, with the troubling developments of the past 50 years being swept away so that the Church can once again fulfill her divine mission in the world.

It is easy to draw superficial comparisons between the upsetting developments which occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church during the 17th century and what the Catholic Church has had to endure during the 20th (and well on into the 21st). In fact, that’s what I just did above, albeit with a wee bit of discretion. What is more fascinating to consider is how different “these days” are from “those days.” Traditional Catholics, understandably upset by the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and doctrinal confusion, have opted to stand up against the prevailing chaos, though only to limited degrees. Getting some shade thrown at you for Tweeting against Mother Theresa’s canonization is a far cry from getting torched at the stake for refusing to change how you make the Sign of the Cross. While traditional Catholics are eager to speak of “persecution,” “injustice,” and “struggle,” very little of that is found during the present situation because even those who wish to eradicate tradition do so not with an axe, but a limp wrist. And for that, traditionalists should probably be grateful.

No Triumphalism, Only Persecution

I refrained from commenting on Msgr. Charles Pope’s much-discussed article from the National Catholic Register, “Comfort Catholicism Has To Go; It Is Time to Prepare for Persecution,” mainly because I didn’t think there was much I could constructively add to it. As most of you who have read me for some time know by now, I am fully convinced that, barring a miracle, my children will be compelled to choose between apostasy or persecution—up to and including martyrdom—in their respective lifetimes. I don’t say that flippantly; the very thought fills me with horror. It is one thing to expect and prepare for that great choice in one’s own life. It is something else altogether to contemplate those we love the most having to experience it. Should I be “off” in my timeline and the harsh persecution Msgr. Pope and many others see on the horizon arrives during my days on this earth, I pray that my fellow faithful and myself will have the fortitude to choose Christ above all of the temptations of this world, but that is not something anybody can predict. If the last 2,000 years provides any basis for predicting the future, the chances are painfully high that a great many Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—will depart from their Father’s house at the cost of their very souls.

Disappointing, then, that I should come across a statement on the Ad Orientem web-log where a commenter, an Orthodox Christian named Gregory Manning, could write the following:

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After Crete (or Whose Council? Which Orthodoxy?)

In the past few days several people have asked me for links on the recently concluded “Holy and Great Council” held by (part of) the Eastern Orthodox Church in Crete last month. My first instinct is to implore others to read the conciliar documents themselves. Unlike a lot of official document emanating from Rome over the past 50+ years, the Cretan statements are generally clear and concise even if they are far from perfect (and perhaps farther yet from representing world Orthodoxy’s actual views). For those interested, I have collected a sample of links on the Council below, including some preparatory material which may be helpful is understanding what was supposed to go on in Crete and what wasn’t. Please keep in mind that I do not necessarily endorse all of the views expressed below, and some are, in fact, quite at odds with my own thinking on “things Orthodox.” If you have additional links to add, please mention them in the combox.

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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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Fr. Patrick Reardon on Contraception

One of the most fraught questions confronting contemporary Orthodox moral theology is the issue of contraception. As I have detailed in both The Angelus magazine (“No Light from the Orthodox East on Christian Marriage“) and on this blog, the Eastern Orthodox Church steadily shifted away from prohibiting contraception absolutely to allowing it “under certain circumstances” during the course of the last century. Today, a majority of Orthodox prelates and priests (at least in the West) take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the matter, leaving it to married couples to decide for themselves whether or not to use contraception. (It should be noted, however, that chemical contraception, such as “the pill,” is still tacitly condemned by several Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church.) Speaking from personal experience, I can attest that one can go to any number of priests in a single city and get wildly divergent answers on what Orthodoxy’s “official stance” is regarding contraception, the ends of Christian marriage, the role of children in marriage, natural family planning, and so on and so forth.

Now comes Orthodox cleric Fr. Patrick Reardon (a man whose views on marriage and contraception I am very familiar with) to try and set the record straight on just Orthodoxy’s traditional stance on the matter, but all Christian confessions. A video of Fr. Reardon’s remarks is attached to this article on Lifesite News.

On the Pan-Orthodox Council – Followup

For reasons which should be obvious to most, the “Great and Holy Council,” which is currently underway in Crete, has been on my mind quite a bit. Last Friday, over at First Things, I gave a sobering account of where matters stood on the eve of the Council without wishing to get bogged down with predictions (most of which probably wouldn’t come to pass anyway).

On Sunday, Pope Francis sent out the following tweet.

No doubt the Holy Father meant well, but Catholics should not forget the extent to which anti-Catholic animus coupled with ecclesiastical chauvinism have conspired to derail the Council. Now with word getting out that the Council is considering a draft document which would, in effect, “elevate” four Orthodox councils/synods to “ecumenical” status, a new line is being drawn in the sand between East and West — and to what end? The Orthodox world is splintering in profound ways along national and ethnic lines. Some are even predicting an eventual schism between the Ecumenical and Moscow patriarchates. How does it make sense, at this late stage in the game, to go beating the anti-Scholastic/anti-Papal war drums? Or perhaps this is a necessary growing pain which both Catholics and Orthodox must endure on the fraught path to unity. Now may be a good time to wonder if the oft-derided project of “Uniatism” isn’t the way to proceed, at least with respect to those parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church who are willing to prioritize both unity and truth without fictitiously shrinking the Body of Christ down to a ghetto.

In closing, let me call your attention to a quote by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov which Pater Edmind Waldstein recently posted up on his web-log, Sancrucensis. Maybe this says it all?

Otherwise, if apart from Peter the universal Church can expressly declare the truth, how are we to explain the remarkable silence of the Eastern episcopate (notwithstanding that they have kept the apostolic succession) since their separation from the Chair of St. Peter? Can it be merely an accident? An accident lasting for a thousand years! To those anti-Catholics who will not see that their particularism cuts them off from the life of the universal Church, we have only one suggestion to make: Let them summon, without the concurrence of the successor of St. Peter, a council which they themselves can recognize as œcumenical! Then only will there be an opportunity of discovering whether they are right.

On the Pan-Orthodox Council

For those interested, my new piece on the forthcoming “Great and Holy Council” in Crete can be read over at First Things. Here’s an excerpt.

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s “Great and Holy Council,” which is set to begin in Crete on Sunday, June 19 (Eastern Pentecost), has been touted as Orthodoxy’s first “ecumenical council” in over a millennium. The facts on the ground are less grand. Despite nearly a century of on-and-off preparation, the Council has been at risk of derailment this month, as several members of Orthodoxy’s worldwide ecclesiastical confederacy have, for varying reasons, pulled out. The most striking defector is the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the world. But the absence of other historic churches, such as those of Antioch and Bulgaria, has left many asking whether the Council should proceed.

What is all the fuss about? There are several agenda items covering intra-Orthodox ecclesiastical governance that in theory should not be terribly concerning, but that nevertheless reveal deep divisions within Orthodoxy along ethnic and national lines.