Heaven Forbid

Given that every traditional argument for becoming a Catholic comes accompanied with an asterisk, I have suspended all efforts to kick-up any dirt over somebody choosing to join the Eastern Orthodox Church. What I mean is, it is difficult to expect a non-Catholic to easily embrace the “surety of Catholicism” and the “importance of the Papacy” during an unprecedented period of doctrinal chaos. Though it may be fashionable to look back into history and hold that today’s crisis “isn’t as bad” as the era of Arianism or the reign of Iconoclasm, the hard fact of the matter is that those tragic periods in Church history dealt primary with one central dogmatic issue (and then a host of peripheral theological ones). This time out, everything under the sun seems to be on the discussion table, with Catholic prelates all over the world sowing error on everything ranging from “same-sex marriage” to the historicity of the Resurrection. Maybe this could all be accounted for and endured if the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Francis, took affirmative steps to combat these problems, but he hasn’t—and nobody expects him to. Indeed, a mass of evidence has already accumulated that he knowingly contributes to the present crisis under a grossly distorted concept of “mercy.” Catholics of good will everywhere should, of course, give thanks to God that the Church still has good shepherds in her midst, but only after recognizing that those shepherds are few and far between. The hard reality today is that most Catholics are still lost in the wilderness.

As I have opined before, the Orthodox Church, by and large, has more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Catholicism does. (I should note here that it appears that all of the Eastern Catholic churches, by and large, have more doctrinally sound bishops, priests, and laity than contemporary Latin Catholicism does.) What I have meant—and still mean—by this is that on any given Sunday, one is less likely to hear raw nonsense, if not objective heresy, preached from the pulpit in an Orthodox temple compared to a Catholic parish. Although I have witnessed many an Orthodox priest struggle to mutter an intelligible homily, what often makes it out of their mouths are simple, everyday reminders of what the Gospel message means coupled with a bit of history (depending on the liturgical day). Maybe it’s not “profound,” and certainly at times the Orthodox fall prey to clouding up basic points with useless mystical jargon and ahistorical declarations, but all of that is much easier to swallow than a cleric who begins his sermon with, “Today’s reading concerns what the author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Jesus . . .”

This is not to say that Orthodoxy—particularly American Orthodoxy—is not without its troubles. Just the other week, the Greek Orthodox Church presented pro-abortion, pro-homosexualist New York Governor Andrew Cuomo with the “[Patriarch] Athenagoras Human Rights Award.” Why? Because he helped the Greeks get the permits necessary to rebuild St. Nicholas Church, which was destroyed on 9/11. As most should know by now, the Greek Orthodox in America, much like their estranged Catholic brethren, have a long history of cozying up to Democratic politicians. Maybe this was all fine and well during the days when “Democrat” meant “New Deal” and “New Deal” meant social safety nets and industrial restraints intended to help laborers and the under-privileged, but those days are long behind us. No less than many average American Catholics, the Greek Orthodox seem content with the “privately opposed/publicly accepting” dichotomy on most pressing moral issues and cannot be bothered to take a stand against the rising tide of secularism in America.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those Orthodox who seem to align politically with certain traditionalist Catholics in believing Donald Trump and the alt-right will save them. Most of these poor souls are infected with “Russophilia” and believe, contrary to all available evidence, that “Holy Russia 2.0” is upon us. (If anybody needs a sobering account of why “Holy Russia 1.0” was not all that and a bag of chips, please see about purchasing a copy of the late Metropolitan Evlogy’s two-volume memoirs from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.) For them, Kirill of Moscow is Pope, Vladimir Putin is Tsar, and the only crucial political issue of the day is, “How can we appease Russia?” Now, granted, many of these Orthodox have their instincts in the right place. There is, after all, no benefit in following Hillary Clinton’s plan of picking a war with Russia so that jihadists can control Syria, nor can any Christian be blamed for being leery of the Democratic Party after what it has done to help raze Middle Eastern Christianity over the past eight years. Still, it is unsettling how easily a noticeable segment of American Orthodoxy can have its political orientation steered by romanticism.

All of this is to say that while the choice to choose Orthodoxy over Catholicism makes sense on a certain level, particularly as far as “basic orthodoxy” is concerned, those wishing to acquire a “total package” of “pure Christianity” with an unbreakable moral compass may wish to take a few steps back. As confused as Catholic thinking is today on a great many issues, no one can seriously contend that the Catholic Church has not spoken—and spoken forcefully—on matters such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, just war, just wages, and so on and so forth. While Orthodoxy has exhibited moral clarity in the past, its confederate-style makeup coupled with (uncanonical?) jurisdictional overlap has created something of a free-for-all when it comes to moral choices. For instance, if a couple doesn’t care for what Fr. Barsanuphius has to say about the pill and rubbers, Fr. Panteleimon down the street can put their consciences at ease.

At the political level (the lowest level?), American Orthodoxy is weak—so weak as to be almost nonexistent. And that’s fine. Those faithful bands of Catholics truly dedicated to what the Church teaches regarding the common good are also weak numerically and materially. The vast majority of Christians living today, regardless of confessional adherence, have made their peace with liberalism; they have no use for a Gospel that still speaks literally of living in the world and not being of it. Orthodoxy, for all of its apparent “other-worldliness,” is just as susceptible to secularism as Catholicism. What is still unclear is that if Orthodoxy, in its modern American iteration, has the capacity to step outside of these times, to find that horizon beyond liberalism, and then push forth with the Great Commission in hand. Or, in the end, will its seemingly most faithful adherents retreat from the moment of decision to dwell in figurative caves where they might cry out to the sky to be saved from the absolute corruption into which they have been thrown? And will the Catholics join them? Heaven forbid.