Sunday Jottings on Conversion

It is not uncommon, either in person or via social media, for me to be asked how I went from Point A to B to C and so forth with respect to what I’ll call half-jokingly my “religious alignment.” Over the years I picked up quite a few dodgy answers, all of which are meant to indicate that I don’t feel like talking about it. I still don’t. Conversion stories are typically (though not always) a bore and the only one which people should spend any time meditating upon happened almost 2,000 years ago on a road to Damascus. The whole idea of conversion at this point in history strikes me as a bit silly, especially when it involves people going from, say, Catholicism to Orthodoxy (or vice versa) or, at the intra-ecclesial level, from “Novus Ordo Catholicism” to “Traditional Catholicism” or “New Calendar Orthodoxy” to “Old Calendar Orthodoxy,” etc. Never before have Christians had so many “options” (there’s that word again), and any “option” that is exercised typically comes from movements of the soul that have little, if anything, to do with “discovering the true Church” or “the truest part of the truest Church.” That’s not a new observation. Owen White—if I recall correctly—made it many moons ago and formulated it in terms far more powerful than any I have to offer. Not every movement of the soul is good, mind you. Some of mine certainly have not been. A lack of resolve coupled with a very personal—and highly subjective if not selfish—desire to live beyond the horizon of inter-ecclesial barking has driven more than a few of my choices over the years. A choice for Catholicism, in my estimation, should not be a choice against Orthodoxy, though anyone who has read my blogs and occasional articles over the years knows full well that I haven’t exactly lived that belief out day to day. Frankly, I struggle to live out my belief in the Credo (with or without filioque) day to day, which makes me the absolutely worst candidate to start-in about some epic ecclesiastical odyssey shot through with contradictions and missteps.

A couple of years ago my brother directed me to a book by Jaroslav Pelikan entitled Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj. This modestly sized volume, which is regrettably out of print, helped open my eyes to the uselessness of the East/West dichotomy—a dichotomy which, even if not fully false, is so riddled with problems that it is bound to drive anyone who holds to it into placing some bad bets. Cardinal—excuse me Patriarch—Slipyj was of course a man of the geographic east who believed without reserve in the unique destiny of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as both a beacon for the larger Catholic Church and a bridge to the Slavo-Byzantine patrimony held dear by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Slipyj read St. Gregory Palamas, but he also knew his St. Thomas Aquinas as well. I have to imagine that Slipyj found the “Thomists of the Strict Observance” school fairly noxious, and I would hope he’d feel the same about a certain brand of “Neo-Palamism” which has captured far too many contemporary Eastern Christian minds (Orthodox and Catholic). None of this is to say that there is an easy resolution to the genuine Thomistic disagreements with genuine Palamism. But such a resolution, if it can be attained, won’t come by each camp desperately battling to “purify” their respective tents of anything and everything that might suggest a problem with their thinker(s) of preference. I suspect the same could be said about so much East/West theological squabbling.

Having been shaped spiritually and liturgically by the Christian East at a young age, I never had much interest in Western modes of ecclesiastical being. I did, however, develop an intense interest in Ss. Augustine and Thomas, two pillars of Latin theology wrongly vilified by far too many folks who have never bothered to read them. And later on, when I improperly shed all connection to the Catholic Church, I found myself unable to fully invest in this-or-that Athonite elder or some questionable American monk whose books were alleged to hold the truth about “real Orthodoxy” in these ostensibly apocalyptic times. There was of course the great Greek and Syriac Fathers of the Church, but I quickly found the gulf between what they actually wrote and how snippets of their writings were put into theological play astonishing. A better man would have found a way to cut through the fog of false “mysticism” that shrouded the sermons of St. John Chrysostom, the high polemicism of St. Athanasius, or the orations of St. Gregory Nazianzus. I opted to stop paying attention to all of them, and my soul hasn’t been quite right since.

It is easy to believe that to be safely Catholic in this unsettling period means to brick oneself up with the Tridentine Mass and some questionable literature which romanticizes the days of Leave it to Beaver-style Catholicism. And even those who are not nearly that simplistic, but yet believe that the so-called “Novus Ordo Church” (and the “Neo-Catholics” which dominate it) have seriously imperiled both the health of the Corpus Mysticum and the ability of the Church to fully preach the Gospel, often risk turning their faith into an idol or, worse, an alienating force that pits them against their brothers and sisters in Christ. Barely a month goes by without some conservative or traditional Catholic pitching an argument in favor of clerical celibacy that isn’t grossly insulting to thousands upon thousands of married Eastern Christian clergy. On the level of liturgy it only gets worse. To read the rhetoric of some traditional Catholics, one would think the only legitimate rite in ecclesiastical history is the Roman and that the Christian East suffers from the same troubling liturgical defects as the Novus Ordo Missae. It’s only possible to stomach this form of pathological myopia for so long.

None of this is to say that I am in any way whatsoever opposed to the liturgical restoration of the Roman Rite or believe that the Roman Church should abandon the time-honored discipline of clerical celibacy. I am not even against the traditional Catholic movement per se, though I do wish it could find a way to be less hostile and more open to a much broader understanding of tradition. Much to the chagrin of some, I continue to pray for and support the good work of the Society of St. Pius X despite harboring some marginal disagreements with a few of its positions. When it comes to tradition, a friend of mine opined, the Church must breathe with both lungs. I couldn’t agree more.

As for Orthodox/Catholic relations, I remain steadfast in my belief that we need each other. As Fr. Robert Taft has pointed out consistently, neither side has clean hands. Both communions are too often beholden to the sin of pride. I know I am, just as I know that pride has frequently led me to elevate erroneous assumptions and half-cooked opinions to the level of personal dogma. That’s no way to live, and for those of you who have already come to realize as much, I can only hope that God continues to bless you with that insight and pray that it lays down deep roots in me “before I go hence and be no more.”

12 comments

  1. Thomism. Palamism. All that is for you smart intellectual types. But for me and the other doofuses in the cheap seats: I don’t care. What’s more, there are a lot of other people, both Orthodox and Catholic, who don’t care either.

    For a long time after the so-called split, which was never authorized by anyone, Orthodox/Catholic people attended mass/liturgy in each others’ churches. In fact, if my information is correct, this still goes on in the Middle East.

    Yes, we need each other, because we are supposed to be together. The only reason we are not is because of the effete among us who have an ax to grind over issues that are barely comprehensible to the Christian in the street. We could be reunited tomorrow if they would just simply stop it.

    And let me tell you, the times are grave. Before beheading a Christian members of ISIS don’t stop to ask them if they believe in the filioque clause.

    This really needs to end.

    Great article!

    1. Jack Quirk, if that’s your attitude why believe in anything? The differences between Rome and the Church are profound and, in my view, irreconcilable. A reunited Christian Church would therefore entail one side condemning the bulk of its tradition, saints, liturgical books and doctrine. And I can’t see that ever happening, whatever your feelings about the possibility and desirability of reunion to-morrow.

        1. Which part is ridiculous? I’ll concede that condemnation of whichever patrimony is highly unlikely in the hodgepodge of the reunited Christian Church (itself a castle in the air), but what’s the alternative? An Anglican-style confederacy of autocephalous churches, with the pope as some kind of president, in which you’re all allowed as much license in doctrine as in liturgy? That seems more like Babylon to me than Christ’s Church.

          I share your pious hope of the reconciliation of all Christians into one fold but it just won’t happen. Not under the sun of this fallen world.

      1. I’d like to see a list of those profound and irreconcilable differences. I’ll just bet that they are issues that are only of interest to academics. And I hate to burst the bubble of said academics, but they are not the heart of the Church or her mission.

        1. Mr Quirk,

          It’s my understanding that the universal ordinary jurisdiction of the Pope is a matter of dogma for Catholics (on pain of anathema per Vatican I). That is a profound and irreconcilable difference, and one that has practical consequences for ordinary Catholics. That is, it’s not of interest only to academics.

          If other matters of difference between Orthodox and Catholic seem to be of interest only to academics — matters such as purgatory, the merits of the saints, of created grace vs. uncreated grace — that is perhaps because some aspects of the fulness of the faith are not vigorously taught and are no longer fully alive in the practical, day-to-day piety of Catholics.

          1. Chris,

            As a cradle Catholic, I probably don’t have the insight that those on the outside looking in might. That said, I still don’t see how the examples you mention set the east and west as far apart as you think they do.

            For example, the pope’s universal ordinary jurisdiction really doesn’t have practical implications for regular Catholics. We go to mass, say our prayers, etc. The pope doesn’t really play into that, at least not in any ways that immediately come to mind. Hypothetically, the pope could step in and move Saturday afternoon confession at the local parish from 3:00 – 3:30 to 3:30 – 4:00, yes, but that doesn’t happen.

            I think it’s such with the other examples you mention as well, though I’m certainly amenable to being corrected. Do you have examples of specific historical devotional practices in mind? Even a really uniquely Catholic devotion like that to the Poorest Soul in Purgatory probably isn’t all that offensive to a run-of-the-mill Russian or Greek of the peasant classes.

            Maybe I’m all wet. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

            1. I could not disagree more, Mr Smith. The Pope’s universal ordinary jurisdiction affects everything about the ordinary Catholic’s life in the Church. The liturgy celebrated in every Catholic parish was promulgated by the Pope; the canon law of the Church (which affects things like how the Church’s marriage discipline is administered) is legislated directly by the Pope; the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is an authoritative expression, in great detail, of the faith that is to be believed by every Catholic, was published by the authority of the Pope; almost every bishop (certainly every bishop in the United States) is appointed directly by the Pope, and the Pope has the authority to depose any bishop (though I think when he sacks one of them, it is customary for the bishop to be allowed to resign). Universal ordinary jurisdiction is what allows the Pope to run the Church in a very centralized manner.

              The Orthodox take a very dim view of this. If the Western Church wants to run its affairs in a centralized manner, that’s OK with them; but Catholics claim that the Pope does so by divine right, and that this right is part of the Apostolic deposit of faith. That is not OK with the Orthodox. It is a dogmatic difference. The Orthodox — even (especially) ordinary lay believers — have a fierce loyalty to their Tradition, and would not sit still for any bishop or patriarch who started monkeying with their liturgy the way Pope Paul VI did after Vatican II. Any bishop who tried would have a rebellion on his hands in his own flock and would be excommunicated by his brother bishops.

              As for the other matters of difference, back in the day Purgatory figured largely in popular Catholic piety (I get the idea that this isn’t as much the case, but I don’t really know). If the whole notion of Purgatory were dropped for the sake of reunion with the Orthodox (who have no such concept), I think ordinary Catholics — not just academics — would certainly notice.

              I suppose indulgences aren’t as live an issue in popular Catholic piety as they used to be, but the Church still grants them (though thankfully they aren’t for sale anymore), and again I think ordinary Catholics would notice if the whole concept was simply dropped.

              In the interest of fairness and full disclosure I suppose I should mention that I am neither Catholic nor Orthodox — I am a Lutheran, and I was Orthodox for about ten years. I can’t speak about Catholic piety from experience (though I can about Orthodox). I think I understand the “official” teachings of Catholicism pretty well, but not perhaps the popular piety. So I am open to correction.

            2. Chris,

              Thank you for the reply. Since our exchange has taken two different tacks (first, the pope’s universal ordinary jurisdiction and second, the popular piety of the west being inimical to Orthodox Christians), I’ll make a general reply to each rather than pulling quotes from what you’ve said.

              You say that the pope’s universal ordinary jurisdiction affects “everything” about the average Catholic’s daily life in the Church. Regarding the liturgical norms, for many years now I’ve attended the old Latin mass usually, the Byzantine churches often, and the Novus Ordo almost never — so perhaps the liturgical point you make is a bit lost on me. I’ll grant that your average Novus Ordo parishioner is sitting through something that 1960s-era popes created more or less ex nihilo. (Though I’ll add that the codification of the Western liturgy was made necessary only because you darned Lutherans started mucking around with the tradition in the first place ; ) (That was a tongue-in-cheek comment — no offense intended.)

              On the other hand, though, the particulars of Orthodox liturgies are also regulated by ecclesiastical bodies — isn’t the typikon used in most Greek parishes one authorized and published by the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 19th century? And in Slavic parishes, one could point to the top-down reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century — there was a rebellion there, like you mention, and Old Believers probably represent a similar percentage of total Orthodox as do SSPX and other traditionalist people in the west. (Although I’ll admit that that’s merely a surmise and I may be wrong.)

              But back to the main point, in the mind of the ordinary peasant-level person in either the East or the West, I don’t really see what the difference is — your liturgy is either regulated by a guy in Rome or a guy in Moscow or Constantinople. Whether the ordinary jurisdiction is “universal” or not doesn’t really have a practical implication.

              You also cite canon law, but I think the same thing applies. In the west, the pope makes the rules when it comes to annulment. In the east, the bishop makes the rules when it comes to economia. In both cases, a distant authority tells you whether or not it’s okay to re-marry, and makes that decision based on the traditional teachings of the church. In the minds of the faithful, it’s really not all that different.

              Likewise with the Catechism you mention. Either a bunch of bishops sitting in Council centuries ago lay down stuff which you have to believe or a bunch of bishops sitting in Rome in the 80s do likewise. In both cases, each party says it’s just expressing the ancient and traditional faith in terms intended to demarcate truth from error.

              Turning to the questions about popular piety, I’ll agree that there’s been a decline in devotions related to purgatory, indulgences, and other uniquely Catholic things. But I think that that’s related to the general malaise and lack of vigor in modern Catholic practice more than anything else. Devout folks, at least, would indeed notice if purgatory and indulgences were ditched. That said, I think the point I was trying to get at — and I think this is where I’m furthest out on a limb — had more to do with the fact that I don’t think that really Catholic devotions would be all that inimical to regular Orthodox Christians. Walking around churches while reciting rote prayers on beads or knotted cords, making bows and genuflections, kissing relics, anointing oneself with oil emitted from the tear ducts of a picture of Our Lady, etc… it’s just sometimes done with the idea of getting Grandma into Heaven a little quicker. The good old Catholic stuff just doesn’t seem like it’d be all that weird to a traditional Orthodox Christian.

              That said, you certainly can speak from the Orthodox viewpoint far better than I can.

              Anyway, I’d really like to hear your continued thoughts, though I know we’re probably getting off topic here.

  2. “As for Orthodox/Catholic relations, I remain steadfast in my belief that we need each other.”
    Mine is a trite observation, but it’s better to remain steadfast knowing that we have each other.

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