The Byzantine Texas web-log is not always known for its edifying discussions, but sometimes they can turn interesting. Take, for instance, the ongoing back-and-forth between “Jake” and “Peregrinus” (and others) concerning Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s recent remarks that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “a fully Orthodox Church with Orthodox theology, liturgics, spirituality, and canonical Tradition, which strives to live this Orthodoxy in the spirit of first-Millennium Christianity — that is, communion with Rome.” After all of the theological, ecclesiastical, and metaphysical dust settles, it seems to me that the real issue here is who has a “right” to use the term “Orthodox”? By conservative Orthodox lights, the Greek Catholics are misappropriating the term, even though the use of “Orthodox” as an exclusively confessional designation is of rather recent vintage. To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic kicks up much dust that Eastern Orthodox liturgical and theological texts still use the word “Catholic.” It is fairly plain to see that when Patriarch Sviatoslav and other members of the UGCC refer to themselves as “Orthodox,” they do so because they see themselves as the authentic continuation of Byzantine-Slavic Christianity which emerged in Kyivan-Rus’ at the close of the first millennium. Of course the Eastern Orthodox don’t accept this, but why should that matter? The UGCC, as a sui iurius patriarchal church in communion with Rome, needn’t seek the approval of the Orthodox when defining itself or carrying forth the Gospel in lands still reeling from the devastating aftereffects of atheistic communism.
The ongoing young-Catholic fascination with Marxism reminds me of the larger young-Christian fascination with the works of Giorgio Agamben a few years back. Without bothering to pay much attention to what Agamben was up to, Christians of various stripes were citing him left and right simply because he happened to write about Christian themes, including St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. None of this is to say that people shouldn’t read Agamben, though it seems to me that there are diminishing returns in doing so. Had 9/11 never happened and Carl Schmitt never became vogue, Agamben’s notoriety and influence in Anglophone circles would probably have remained modest. As for the self-professed “Catholic socialists” who embrace Marx, I have to wonder how many of them have read Marx or later Marxist thinkers and what insights do they believe this ideology has for Catholicism today? It’s easy to lift a handful of Marxist terminology from one’s Philosophy 101 notes; it’s exceedingly more difficult to apply those concepts in an intellectually rigorous manner. Then again, maybe the Marxist rhetoric in play among the “Catholic socialists” right now is just that: rhetoric. But wouldn’t that mean this whole “Catholic socialism” thing is little more than posturing? In other words, could it really be that primarily white, Ivy League priv-kids are co-opting something they really don’t understand in order to feel self-important? That’s never happened before, has it?
A friend of mine sometimes asks me about points concerning Byzantine liturgy, either among the Orthodox or the Greek Catholics. I feel like my answer is always, “It depends.” Despite the myth of uniformity that some Orthodox like to promote, the on-the-ground reality is that most Orthodox parishes, depending on jurisdiction, are hardly uniform. In fact, it’s not even that surprising to see parishes within the same jurisdiction or diocese (e.g., Orthodox Church of America’s (OCA) Diocese of the Midwest) do things slightly different based on the particular parish’s history, the priest’s training and temperament, and the desires of the faithful. I have been to OCA services conducted in the exact same manner as a UGCC service and OCA services which are quite consciously trying to ape the high Synodal practice found in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Most local variants are pretty harmless and unnoticeable to untrained eyes, though some aren’t. Greek Catholics in America have struggled mightily for decades to correct a whole host of liturgical abuses that crept in both before and after the Second Vatican Council. Still, for reasons I don’t fully understand, there remains a desperate, and ultimately silly, pursuit of “purity” among far too many Eastern Christians (Catholic or Orthodox), as if there was ever a time in ecclesiastical history where the liturgy was codified and practiced perfectly.
In closing, let me just note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the East. Most readers know by now my general position on the “liturgical wars” that rage among Latin Catholics concerning changes made to the Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum from the mid-1950s until the early 60s. To me, that seems so secondary compared to the prevalence of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “low-Mass mentality.” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a majority (or at least roughly half) of all Sunday Tridentine Masses are low, i.e. they are not sung. Accompanying this unfortunate development is the near-total eradication of the Divine Office from Latin parish life. Although this process began long before Vatican II, it is regrettable that the fight to maintain liturgical orthodoxy within the Latin Rite has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous fight to restore this rite to its full splendor. Some will likely argue — with justification — that the deplorable state of the Roman Church in the 1970s and 80s made it extremely difficult for Catholics to find the Tridentine Mass at all; prudence dictated that matters of liturgical solemnity should be put on hold. Well, while things are far, far from optimal in the Roman Church today, there now exists numerous resources for priests and laity alike to begin celebrating the traditional Roman Rite as it was meant to be. So what’s stopping them?