Closing Comments (For Now) on Orthodoxy and Catholicism

A single sentence in my earlier post, “A Brief Comment on Rod Dreher, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism,” has caused discomfort among a few readers on Facebook, some of whom appear to be converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. This is the offending line: “If there is anything distinctly ‘Eastern’ in Orthodoxy, it is its occasionally obstinate refusal to be open, honest, and self-critical, particularly when it comes to its complicated, and sometimes tragic, relationship with both Roman and Greek Catholicism.” Admittedly, the statement could use some unpacking and refinement in the light of both Remi Brague’s work on the (arguably unique) cultural openness of what we common refer to as “the West” and Fr. Robert Taft’s repeated calls for self-critical Orthodoxy. To say that openness and, later, self-criticism have eluded the Orthodox East over the centuries should not be a controversial statement unless, of course, one naively buys into the “pure East/degenerate West” rhetoric that is commonplace in certain Orthodox circles. As recent scholarship has shown, it wasn’t always so, though there seems to be a very long road left to travel before that finding becomes common knowledge.

A Brief Comment on Rod Dreher, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism

In the combox to yesterday’s post, “A Comment on Synodality, East and West,” a reader by the name of Luke wrote the following:

That is a paradox that I still can’t wrap my head around: the Orthodox with a decentralized authority have no power to implement a Novus Ordo for example yet they have not turned in to Anglicanism East without a Pope. However, could you imagine the Catholic Church in the U.S without the intervention of JPII or BXVI?

Before I could type out a reply, Rod Dreher, over at The American Conservative, issued a similar query to his readers:

1. Why does the Orthodox Church, which lacks the centralized office of the papacy, and lacks magisterial offices, hold to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the Roman Catholic Church, which has these offices, and in theory ought to have a firmer hold on these things?

One can develop all sorts of sociological, historical, and psychological explanations for Catholic/Orthodox divergences, but they’re probably not terribly helpful. Certain Orthodox living in the (geographic) West enjoy grand narratives filled with Western philosophical-theological decadence and pristine Eastern mysticism, perhaps because it makes them feel like they have found a safe haven in Orthodoxy, free from the complications of (post)modernity. I have never had much patience for such “thinking,” as I have explained in various posts (see, e.g., “The Myth of Hart“). Whether Dreher buys into any of that stuff or not is difficult to say. Assuming he has read his Florovsky, Schmemann, and Meyendorff carefully, he knows full well that the Orthodox Church has never been isolated from intellectual developments and ideological upheavals which are, mistakenly, identified as exclusively “Western.” If there is anything distinctly “Eastern” in Orthodoxy, it is its occasionally obstinate refusal to be open, honest, and self-critical, particularly when it comes to its complicated, and sometimes tragic, relationship with both Roman and Greek Catholicism. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that Orthodoxy’s “closedness” has protected it from time to time against certain secular-liberal currents that have no business being imported into any Christian confession.

As for Dreher’s question specifically, it’s not even worth answering. It is not worth answering because it is formulated with the assumption that the institutional Orthodox Church “hold[s] to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the” institutional Roman Catholic Church. No Catholic in their right mind would accept that. What Catholics with eyes to see and ears to hear accept is that when it comes to priests and bishops — the body of individuals charged with preserving and passing on the Apostolic Faith — the Orthodox Church appears to have a relative advantage, at least at the global level. Anybody who has spent serious time around Orthodoxy in America knows that “exclusively Catholic problems” such as the so-called “Lavender Mafia,” clerical sexual abuse, lax discipline, moral and doctrinal confusion, and so on, and so forth, can all be found amidst the icons and incense, too. But American Orthodoxy is small and its representation in certain academic, ecumenical, and political circles is grossly disproportionate. Across the pond, ostensibly rigorous Orthodoxy has done no better job holding back cultural decline in Greece than allegedly lackadaisical Catholicism has done in Italy. Both countries are suffering from civilizational exhaustion. Then again, so is ours — and neither the Catholic nor Orthodox churches are doing a damn thing about it.

A Comment on Synodality, East and West

There has been a lot of clamor (panic?) over Pope Francis’s alleged plan (or at least desire) to see the emergence of a “synodal church” where decisionmaking, including judgements concerning doctrine, devolve to the local or regional level. Edward Pentin, over at the National Catholic Register, offers a brief analysis of the Pope’s recent speech discussing this new structure, along with a working translation of the speech. Although Francis-speak, with its rambling references and clumsy formulations, is notoriously difficult to interpret, it does seem as if the Holy Father wants to inaugurate a radical change in ecclesiastical governance that could have far-reaching consequences for the Church. As Rorate Caeli notes, Francis already signaled this desire back in 2013 with his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a ponderous document with debatable doctrinal heft. Indeed, the signal was strong enough that I felt compelled to pen a few critical words about the synodal model as it plays out among the Eastern Orthodox for Crisis. My position on the matter has, admittedly, softened over the past year (see, for example, here and here), though not to the point where I believe that Roman Catholicism (as opposed to the Eastern Catholic churches) is in any way, shape, or form prepared for a revolutionary upheaval which will likely affect all aspects of her life.

Remarks on Taking Erik Peterson Seriously

In summarizing Erik Peterson’s provocative and still-timely 1937 essay, “Witness to the Truth,” Michael Hollerich writes that for Peterson “[a]ny regime that does not recognize Christ is ipso facto in the service of Christ’s enemy.” According to Hollerich, Peterson’s critique of the present age, one carried out through a penetrating reflection on martyrdom, is “orient[ed] . . . to the coming New Age rather than to a disappearing and irretrievable past[.]” Oddly, however, Hollerich remains uncertain what Peterson’s piece “has to say to those of us who live today with middling contentment, in the shambling structures of liberal democracy[.]” Hollerich recognizes “Witness to the Truth” to be “a powerful summons to resistance,” but for whom? It is at this point in his summary that Hollerich provides a list of potential audiences, editorializing on their relative worth at the same time before breaking off to allow readers to explore Peterson’s writing for themselves.

Today Capitulation

A friend of mine opined not long ago that the current behavior of most contemporary Catholics when it comes to the Church’s present state feeds directly into the secular narrative that Christians, if not all religious persons, are fundamentally irrational. At some level many Catholics probably know that their beliefs are out-of-step with the world. Desiring to not seem too out-of-step, that is too “wacky” or “backwards,” they project an image of the Church as a mighty city, impenetrable to contradictions, corruption, and chaos. And if word has gotten out about this-or-that abuse, betrayal, or deception, then it is quickly written off as an “aberration.” When it comes to intra-Catholic debate over, say, the state of the liturgy, it is downright astonishing how quickly Catholics will defend or, rather, excuse the existence of two dozen banal (if not sacrilegious) liturgies because one parish in the diocese “does it right.” Unfortunately, “doing it right” typically means little more than not turning the Mass into an atrocious, man-centered spectacle. Anything more than this, such as a bit of Latin or some polyphony from the choir, is just a bonus.

Liturgy won’t save the Church, though sometimes it can help cover up deeper problems. No doubt there are many examples in the United States and across the world where otherwise orthodox faithful are willing to set aside certain doctrinal questions in exchange for a pretty Mass. That these parishes are likely bourgeois to the extreme shouldn’t be surprising. They provide a momentary escape from reality—a flight from the truth even—before the faithful, wittingly or not, return to their everyday lives of being in the world and of it. 90 minutes on a Sunday is more than enough to convince them that they are “good Catholics,” meaning they toss the requisite amount of money into the wicker basket each week and engage in some obligatory post-service chatter about “churchly things.” And yes, sometimes that includes a bit of whispering about just how awful things have become. The only condition is that this whispering can’t leave the front steps and make its way out into the wider world where those with eyes to see and ears to hear have already concluded that the Catholic Church is the longest running joke in human history.

This is not to say that I believe the Catholic Church is a joke. It is, rather, the most serious institution ever put on this good earth. That is why it is so terribly depressing to witness those charged with her care, and the care of over a billion souls, treat it poorly. In fact, they treat it so poorly that the Church at times looks like the worst-run NGO on the planet with an intramundane, conventional moralist at the helm. It is little wonder that most Catholics living today have lost sight of the Church’s eschatological horizon and treat the Church’s intellectual patrimony as little more than a rickety bulwark against the rank nihilism which dominates contemporary culture. What else is Catholicism “for”? A once-a-week aesthetic experience; some fleeting guilt over looking too long at Internet pornography or using condoms and the pop psychological chat-in-the-box to rectify it; and a momentary flash of metaphysical superiority that is quickly tucked away by time Monday morning rolls around—that is not what Catholicism truly is; but it is what it has become after more than half-of-century of capitulation to the ways and means of liberalism. What comes next is almost too horrible to contemplate.

Erik Peterson on Liberalism, Politics, and Theology

The liberalism that asserts that theology and politics have nothing to do with one another, was the same liberalism that separated Church and State in politics and for which in theology the membership in the Body of Christ was only a matter of personal opinion and Christian dogma was only a mere subjective expression of opinion. It is clear that a privatization of faith, such as that carried out by liberalism, had to have a detrimental effect on every aspect of dogmatics. There God was stripped as far as was possible of his transcendent character so that he could be absorbed into a private religious relation. There the God become Man became a liberal bourgeois who in fact worked no miracles but made up for it by preaching humanity, whose blood was not in fact a mystery but died for his convictions, who in fact did not rise from the dead but lived on in the memory of those close to him, who in fact did not proclaim the end of the world and his Second Coming but taught us to see the beauty of the lilies in the countryside. There the Holy Spirit also was no longer honored as the third person of the Trinity but only related psychologically to the so-called religious experience of one’s own soul. The assertion that politics and religion have nothing to do with one another could therefore be implemented by liberalism only in such a way that the Christian faith was heretically distorted.

– Erik Peterson, Unpublished Manuscript (quoted in Heinrich Meier, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Expanded Edition pg. 10, fn. 25)

The Traditional Roman Liturgy Question and Eastern Liturgics

By now most Latin Catholics with an interest in liturgical matters know the complaint: The so-called 1962 books (Missale Romanum, Breviarium Romanum, etc.) which are approved for official Church use are inferior to those in use up until around 1954. The litany of changes instituted by Popes Pius XII and John XIII were imprudent, sloppy, and, in the case of Holy Week, revolutionary. However, as I have argued many times before, the average Catholic in the pew would hardly know the difference. The primary difference between a Sunday Tridentine Mass served according to the 1962 Missal and one served according to a 1954 (or earlier) Missal is the absence of commemorations. The third Confiteor was technically eliminated too, though many traditional groups, including the Society of St. Pius X, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius continue to recite it. A noticeable number of diocesan clergy appear to as well. Where the 1955-62 liturgical changes are most noticeable is in the breviary, though due to the accidents of ecclesiastical history, the Divine Office is almost exclusively confined to the clergy. Public recitation has all but disappeared.