The ongoing dispute among traditionalist Roman Catholics concerning the background of one Bishop Ambrose Moran (see here, here, and here) has brought back into the open how little some (perhaps many) traditionalists understand the Christian East—Catholic or Orthodox. While some traditionalists revel in referring to the Orthodox as “schismatics,” it is worth noting that no official papal decree, at least from the time of Blessed Pius IX’s 1846 letter to the Eastern Christians to the present day, uses that expression. Moreover, anyone with at least cursory knowledge of East/West relations since 1054 knows—or ought to know—that the “Great Schism” was not a singular event which neatly split the Church of Christ in two. For centuries following the Schism, Catholics and Orthodox continued to intercommune in various parts of the world up to the point when Constantinople fell to the Turks. And even after that cataclysmic event, “on the ground” cooperation and intercommunion continued in parts of the Middle East. The past century of strife in Eastern Europe, starting with the Soviet Revolution and continuing with the present crisis in Ukraine, Catholics and Orthodox have found themselves ministered to by each other’s clergy. Although none of this obviates the sad fact that Catholics and Orthodox are not in visible communion, this history is worth keeping in mind before proceeding to speak “authoritatively” on the status of Orthodoxy, the nature of its disagreements with Rome, and the disposition of the Orthodox faithful.
Assuming there are more than a few traditionalist Catholics who are reading this, allow me to mention a brutal truth few are willing to acknowledge. Orthodox bishops and clergy, by and large, are more grounded in the Apostolic Faith than contemporary Roman Catholic bishops and clergy. Orthodox clergy, by and large, are not prone to preach heresy from the pulpit; turn a blind eye to concrete moral issues; or deny the supernatural nature of the Church and its mission in the world. This is not to say that Orthodox clergy are better educated or holier than their estranged Catholic clerical brethren; but the culture of the Orthodox East is rigidly conservative to the point where it has been able to successfully trade off a certain healthy degree of openness and centralization in exchange for fidelity to the dogmas of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. That may not seem like much at first blush, but spend six months in a typical Orthodox parish; listen to the hymnography and the homilies; and then try and come back and say that the Christian Faith is conveyed with such power and precision in a typical Roman Catholic parish.
None of this is to say that Orthodoxy is some safe haven to which Roman Catholics ought to flee. There is no “greener pasture” on this side of the eschaton. However, it would behoove at least some traditional Roman Catholics to reflect, in an open and detached manner, on how and why the Orthodox have been so much better (generally speaking) at preserving the truth than Catholics have been. Oh sure, Orthodoxy is, at a certain level, riddled with theological confusion over secondary, even tertiary, matters, and some of its moral doctrines have been upended in recent decades (albeit unofficially), but all of that stuff is fairly small potatoes when compared to the top-level attempts by Princes of the Catholic Church to effectively destroy core tenets of the Faith. Some Catholics still chide the Orthodox for lacking a central authority figure, but in light of what is going on under the current reign of Pope Francis, does that really seem like such a bad thing anymore? I mention this not to challenge the legitimate authority of the Roman Pontiff, but to remind certain readers that the existence of the papacy is not, in and of itself, a guarantee of doctrinal surety and steadfastness in the face of modern errors.
Again, the “lesson to be learned” from all of this is not to run and join the Orthodox Church (though it is hardly my place to counsel anyone on their respective spiritual journeys). Traditional Catholics, particularly those scandalized by the present state of Catholic ecclesiastical affairs, can still look to the experience of the Orthodox for some positive lessons and, more crucially, embrace the living faith of the Eastern Catholic churches, many of which have been forced to find a home in the West. On the level of liturgy, spirituality, and theology, there is much traditional Catholics can learn. Latin is a wonderful language; the Rosary a beautiful devotion; and Scholasticism a precise method of passing down the Faith, but there is a wider tradition available to all of the faithful. Embracing it does mean setting aside a good number of prejudices and petty triumphalist narratives, but believe me it’s worth it.