Month: March 2017

Rod Dreher’s Striking Omission

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” (BenOp) is not novel, and the somewhat anticipated book-turned-bestseller regurgitating what Dreher has said on the BenOp over at his American Conservative web-log further confirms this truth. Ostensibly drawn from the closing section of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the BenOp has been castigated as being everything from class-based posturing to heartless retreatism. Given the confusion circulating in both the positive and negative receptions of the book, it’s clear that Dreher has not penned a manual for Christian action so much as a hastily gathered collection of negative observations on contemporary American society coupled with broad, but ill-defined, calls for Christians to form intentional communities to preserve Western civilization. While Dreher is often generally correct in many of his negative assessments, the Eastern Catholic theologian and blogger Adam DeVille is uncomfortable with Dreher “fixat[ing] on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree.” DeVille also joins a number of other critics in castigating Dreher for being tone-deaf to economic realities. Unlike Dreher, who lives comfortably off of popularizing derivative ideas, most Christians cannot afford to uproot and move to a paradisiacal Nowhere while planning their next oyster-and-wine vacation abroad.

Whatever one makes of these (and other) criticisms, the more constructive aspects of Dreher’s book sound remarkably similar to what the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditional priestly fraternity founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has been doing for nearly five decades. As noted, Dreher is calling for the establishment of serious and intentional Christian communities—which is exactly what the Society has been doing for decades. Locales such as Phoenix, Arizona, Post Falls, Idaho, and—perhaps most famously—St. Marys, Kansas are home to churches and educational institutions run by the SSPX which seek to preserve the Latin Catholic Church’s traditional doctrinal, theological, and liturgical patrimony. By being champions of the anti-liberal doctrines promulgated by the likes of Popes Pius IX (Syllabus Errorum), Leo XIII (Immortale Dei), and St. Pius X (E Supremi), the Society has never shied away from confronting the errors of liberalism, both within the Church and larger society. In relying on the time-honored wisdom of the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre and his fraternity foresaw the implosion of morals brought on by the banishment of Christ the King from public life and the persecutions that would befall Christians at the hands of secularists and Islamists alike. Rather than despair, Lefebvre and his spiritual children opted to fight. Despite repeated and unjustified sanctions by officials in Rome, not to mention an unyielding smear campaign kept up by liberal and so-called “conservative” Catholic writers, the SSPX continues to grow. Last fall, in rural Virginia, the Society opened a brand new seminary to house the influx of vocations pouring in—something which no Catholic diocese in America has been able to boast of in decades.

Beyond the aforementioned SSPX “strongholds,” the organization maintains a chain of chapels and schools across the United States (and, on a grander scale, around the world) that continue to thrive and expand by being serious and intentional Christian communities. More than serving as “Mass centers” for those tired of the banality of the Novus Ordo Missae, these foundations seek to instill true Catholic values in their attendees—values which the faithful are then expected to take out into the world with them. While the heart of the Society will always be the traditional Mass and full understanding of the sacramental priesthood, it is a heart that pumps the unadulterated Faith to an ever-expanding number of Catholics burnt-out on the false promises of liberalism. Even if some who regularly attend Society chapels may wish to maintain problematic fidelity to certain liberal outgrowths, there can be no denying that the message and mission of the SSPX points to an authentic horizon beyond liberalism, one where Christ the King reigns supreme and the final end of man is not earthly satisfaction but rather eternal beatitude with God.

Perhaps one reason Dreher omits discussing the SSPX in detail and acknowledging at length that it has long carried out the very thing he is proposing is because of the unfortunate (and ironic) anti-Catholic bias that Dreher still clings to. Dreher may have toned down the anti-Catholic polemics he became known for after defecting to Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, but he rarely misses an opportunity to openly discuss some Catholic scandal or another while sidestepping those which exist within his own communion. The irony of this lies in the fact that Dreher depends so havily on Catholic thinkers, institutions, and publications for his ideas, audience, and—well—paycheck. It is doubtful that the BenOp book would have generated as much attention as it has had Catholic outlets such as First Things not given Dreher several forums to air his thoughts and generate hype. And it is hype that Dreher seems to want more than anything else given how proud he was that a secular, liberal outlet like the New York Times chose to place his book high on their Nonfiction Bestsellers List.

Another reason is that the SSPX is perhaps “too hot” for Dreher, a writer who claims to critique contemporary liberal culture while remaining deeply embedded within it. His primary forum, The American Conservative, is, more often than not, a paleoconservative outlet of mixed value that still clings to American democratic principles (“rightly understood”) as the solution to our collective malaise. Where Dreher wishes to curry favor with media elites who will draw attention to his book or give him free airtime, the SSPX is concerned with the highest law of the Church, namely the salvation of souls. While Dreher pays lipservice to monasticism, asceticism, and prayer, the Society’s priests, with few belongings, zigzag the country weekly in an attempt to meet the expanding demand for—you guessed it—serious and intentional Christianity, the sort sustained by the Church’s sacraments and sound catechesis. That should be the sort of serious and intentional Christianity Dreher wants, not the secularized and part-time Christianity found throughout large swathes of both American Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Given how good the SSPX has been about anticipating and fulfilling Dreher’s serious and intentional vision decades before he ever proposed it, perhaps the Society has grounds to sue him for copyright infringement.

In closing, I have every expectation that the buzz Dreher has generated by the BenOp will steadily fade as the conversation around it grows dull and Dreher moves onto another money-making project to pay for those sumptuous meals he photographs for his web-log. The SSPX, along with a handful of other serious and intentional Catholic institutions and orders, will carry on the work “to restore all things in Christ” without seeking to profit from sloganeering. At the same time, the situation in America will grow even more dire. Few of those celebrating the relative reprieve offered by the ascendency of Donald Trump to the Oval Office will do anything to build-up fresh bulwarks against liberalism, and certainly nothing short of a spiritual revolution will defeat the culture of relativism, hedonism, and death that reigns over men in the place of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, only God can save us.

Feria Quarta infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

For those following the Julian Calendar, today is the Feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. As the story goes, 40 Roman soldiers who had professed Christianity were sentenced to die by being forced to stand naked in a freezing lake. One, however, apostatized and left the cold waters, only to be replaced by another Roman soldier who, moved by the sight of the other 39 soldiers’ heroic martyrdom, embraced Christianity. It is hard not to draw a parallel between this brave Roman soldier who entered the freezing waters voluntarily and Mathew Ayairga, a native of Chad and non-Christian who voluntarily accepted martyrdom at the hands of the Islamic State in February 2015 along with 20 Coptic Christians. Like Ruth of old, this young man confessed, “Their God is my God.”

Both acts of faith are difficult for contemporary minds to comprehend, even among Catholics. Religious liberalism, one of the hallmark dogmas of the modern age, destroys the sense that one ought to die for the truth rather than genuflect before error. Today, while hundreds of thousands of Christians are subjected to violence in the Middle East, there are Catholic bishops and priests who wish to promote the idea that the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the same as the false deity Allah. However, ask any Muslim who takes his religion seriously if this is true, and he will respond, “Allah had no son.” And he’s right. For only the Christian God, that is the true God, “came down from Heaven” and “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This truth, and all that flows from it, is what both the Martyrs of Sebaste and the New Coptic Martyrs gave their lives for. (And though the Copts remain estranged from the Catholic Church, they are—following the careful theological distinction of Pope Benedict XIV—martyrs coram Deo even if they cannot right now be considered martyrs coram Ecclesia.)

There may have been, some 50 years ago, a misguided sense among some in the Church that religious liberalism, rather than breeding indifferentism, might be pressed into the cause for peace across the world. These misguided souls bought into the liberal myth of progress and the notion that integrating cultures, economies, and political structures across the globe would compel people to set aside their differences. These men misunderstood the power of religion, specifically the power that the search for certainty and truth can have over men’s souls. For 1,400 years the peoples of the Middle East and beyond have been poisoned with mistruth; their certainty, borne out of fideism and fanaticism, has been a scourge on human history. “Free markets” and “open elections” were never going to eradicate that. For the Muslim, unlike far too many Christians, has not lost his sense of the transcendent, of the higher things that stir the soul—sometimes to great evil.

If 39 men stood in a frozen lake for refusing to renounce the Faith, I have to imagine that a good many Catholics would shake their heads in disbelief. They would then laugh at the man who strips down to join them, “knowing” as they do that all one has to do to get to Heaven is “follow your heart.” What, I wonder, would Pope Francis say about such a thing? Would he call it a waste of life? An act of religious fanaticism fueled by needless rigidity? Or, upon hearing of their deaths, would he make mention of it during one of his off-the-cuff interviews, choosing to focus on the intolerance of the persecutors rather than the heroism of those who would die rather than deny the truth. It is hard to imagine that the Holy Father (or most of the world’s bishops) would point to such men and proclaim, “Here! Here are your examples! This is what the Faith means! This is what we must be ready and willing to do for Jesus Christ!” He died for us, but the idea of us dying for Him is now anathema.

Many Catholics today speak of a crisis in the Church or, at the very least, of “serious problems” in the Church. Comparatively few write on the shallowness of our faith, on how distorted and worldly our collective outlook has become. No doubt that is due to the fact that no one wants to admit openly the weakness of their own faith, nor acknowledge that when push comes to shove, they would rather flee the garden of Gethsemane rather than face death, nay, even an ill-word from a coworker or friend. If we really looked hard at how fragile our faith is, we wouldn’t dare call ourselves Christians. Christians, by definition, are those who take up their cross and follow Christ. We today would prefer to follow our hearts and assume God’s approval and understanding, even if the path we have taken is manifestly contrary to natural and divine law.

Who do we blame for this? Because that’s what we like to do: we like to blame. Do we blame Pope Francis? Do we blame our local ordinary? Do we blame our parish priest? Granted, all three might have something to do with sowing the seeds of confusion in the Church today, but what about ourselves? What have we lost (or failed to gain) in this “journey on life’s way”? Those who are aware of the crisis in the Church and the falsehoods that circulate daily within her cannot plead ignorance. Our first reckoning should not be with the “authorities in Rome” or Fr. Bob down the street; it should with ourselves. And yet look how far away we are from doing just that.

Feria Tertia infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

In one of his many talks on Catholic/Eastern Orthodox relations, the sometimes irascible Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. declared that if you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, look it up; it’s all written down (somewhere). Fr. Taft was responding in part to the tendency of some Orthodox to fudge on, if not fabricate, the Catholic Church’s position on any number of matters, ranging from Purgatory to the Papacy. Granted, it certainly doesn’t help that many Catholics themselves are less-than-clear on what the Church professes about these and many other things. With respect to Purgatory, for instance, the dogma itself is a lot less “grandiose” than many assume. In an article I wrote for The Angelus last December, “Latins and Greeks on Purgatory,” I pointed out the distinct (but ultimately unified) approaches of the Latin West and Greek East to praying for the dead, noting throughout that the dogma allows for several different emphases and opinions. The same can be sad as well of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God; Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition artfully avoids declaring whether or not Our Lady endured a bodily death before joining her Son in Heaven.

Reading is not only essential to learning what the Catholic Church professes; it also goes a long way toward understanding what her various members hold to as well. And so, when Latin Catholics or Eastern Orthodox begin going off about what the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church may or may not teach or emphasize based on its Byzantine patrimony, it would behoove both to consult that church’s recently translated catechism, Christ Our Pascha. Or, when it comes to the pending regularization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), those wishing to know what the SSPX has to say on certain teachings from Vatican II, the Novus Ordo Missae, or the tumultuous pontificate of Pope Francis can click over to the SSPX’s U.S. District Website or pick-up one of the Society’s many publications. It’s not difficult. In fact, it’s really easy, especially in the “information age.” Then why, I wonder, is there so much misinformation being spread, not by word-of-mouth gossip in the pews, but in online forums! If one knows how to navigate to “Holier Than Thou Super Traddie News,” then surely they can type in s s p x dot o r g.

There are times when I am almost forced to believe that people remain willfully ignorant in order to perpetuate half-truths or outright fabrications that bolster their private narratives of how the world, and the Church, “really is.” Make no mistake about it. The potential regularization of the SSPX will splash cold water on the persistent neo-Catholic narrative of Vatican II being not just a “dogmatic council,” but the beginning of a “New Springtime” or “New Pentecost” in the Church. Similarly, those who have virulently defended the New Mass from any and all criticism emanating from traditionalist circles will have to come to grips with the fact that the classic Roman Rite as preserved by the SSPX and the various Ecclesia Dei groups has a right to exist not as “an exception,” but the norm. These two developments are probably even more revolutionary than the regularization of the Society itself. And so it is little wonder then that neo-Catholics and liberals avoid learning why the SSPX professes what it professes; it’s so much easier to spread misinformation under the banner of willful ignorance than to actually engage with positions and ideas one happens not to like. So much for the pursuit of truth.

I am sometimes asked by my secular friends, “Why are you Catholic?” Aside from the fact that Salvation can only be found through the Church, I try to emphasize that she is also “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I like to further go on that her teachings are clear, available, and flow from both reason and revelation. But then I find myself stuttering a bit as I explain that despite the clarity of the Faith, there are many out there who actively seek to distort Church teaching in order to advance their ideological agendas. I have to explain, for example, how the Acton Institute can be run primarily by Catholics; actively promote their publications and lectures to Catholics; and insists on professing ideas that are unambiguously contra fide. At that point I realize how difficult it is to tell the “man on the street” to sit down with Leo XIII and Pius XI when ostensibly more learned men can’t seem to be bothered to do that very thing. It’s not that the great encyclicals condemning social, political, and economic liberalism are too “heady” or labyrinthine”; it’s that they disrupt a certain narrative of how the Church is supposed to relate to secular democracy, including secular democracy’s preferred economic system: capitalism.

Of course, from the beginning the Church has wrestled with misunderstandings, dissent, and heterodox teachings. As time has marched on, some of these misunderstandings have come to be seen as culturally or linguistically driven rather than clear instances of formal, obstinate heresy. Today, however, Catholics have the advantage of ready-at-hand access to what the Church teaches in full, along with theological explanations calibrated to a number of learning levels. And yet, distressingly enough, so few seem to care. They approach Church teaching in the same way the Clinton Administration approached homosexuals in the military: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” As such, they can cozy up to their personalized narratives of what Catholicism allegedly is without letting the truth get in the way. Whatever comfort this irresponsible approach to Catholicism provides here on earth surely won’t be there in the next life. If any truth can penetrate the hearts of such persons, I pray it’s at least that one.

A Reflection Unrelated to St. Patrick’s Day

In an earlier post on this web-log, I remarked that a portion of American Orthodoxy comes down to LARPing, especially among converts. What I did not get into were the possible reasons for this, the most likely being that putting on the appearance of a Russian peasant, Athonite monastic, etc. helps those living in a decidedly postmodern, geographically western environment to feel “connected” with an iteration of Christianity which, for many centuries, has survived as a particular ethnic-cultural expression with obvious, but fading, ties to the glory days of the Byzantine Empire. As amusing as this phenomenon is from the outside, I must confess that I can sympathize with the desire to feel rooted in something concrete, particularly in America where fluidity and superficiality reign supreme. Still, in the long run, such posturing won’t do much for American Orthodoxy except make it appear even more as a museum piece than it already is. The possibility of a living, breathing, and vibrant Orthodoxy—the hope and dream of some of American Orthodoxy’s brightest lights—appears to be on hold at the moment while the national mother churches of America’s overlapping jurisdictions battle it out over trivial slights and ecclesiological innovations.

Greek Catholics living in the geographic west, by and large, cannot escape their environment with fanciful appeals to the alleged ways and means of the “old country.” Nor, for that matter, can they deny that their Eastern patrimony has had to find a way to survive in a primarily Latin environment. Although some Greek Catholics may exercise the LARPing option or, worse, exempt themselves from Catholic teachings they don’t like under the banner of being “Orthodox in Communion with Rome,” most desire to retain their particular identity without denying that they live in a liturgical, theological, and spiritual tension between East and West. It is a tension that has existed since the days of the “Unia,” one that made Greek Catholics out to be the second-class citizens of the “Roman Church” before the slow, and often interrupted, process of self-assertion and reclamation began. And as often as Greek Catholics today may speak of being true to themselves and their Byzantine-based heritage, part of that truth includes the reality that for centuries their forebears connected with, adopted, and internalized aspects of Latin Christianity that helped draw them closer to Christ.

Having come of age during a time when the Greek Catholics of Eastern Europe were beginning to breathe freely again, I can recall praying and worshipping in a still heavily Latinized Greek Catholic environment; it would take some time before the higher level theories of “authenticity” being discussed in certain academic circles would begin to trickle down to the parish level. Even today my tiny, perhaps even unremarkable, parish retains several Western-style icons and an Infant of Prague statue all the while serving the Divine Liturgy in a manner indistinguishable from how one might find it served in the Orthodox Church in America or the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. There are still pews, though most people today stand throughout the entire service except, perhaps, at the anaphora where a few still kneel. Some still cling to Rosaries, others to prayer ropes. Mnohaya lita is sung at the end of the liturgy in honor of birthdays and anniversaries, followed by reciting the Latin recensions of the Pater, Ave, and Gloria for the intentions of the parish. I don’t know what “purists” would think of all of this, but I don’t really care either. My parish, like so many others, does what it can to be true to itself, to what has been handed down and kept alive over the decades. If that doesn’t fit within a LARPing vision of what “pure Greek Catholicism” ought to be, then all the better.

Speaking only for myself, having been back in the Catholic fold now for some six years, I have found living ecclesiastically between East and West to be…refreshing. Having had little exposure to the Roman Rite growing up outside of banal, if not ridiculous, Novus Ordo liturgies that I was compelled to attend from time to time, I found great profit in immersing myself in the Tridentine Mass and setting aside my Horologion in favor of the Roman Breviary. I do not want to say that I was “on vacation” from the Byzantine Rite that I had known for many years, but in a way I was. The last thing I wanted to maintain was a ghetto mentality, and when I saw that I was developing a new one through an over-exuberant embrace of traditional Latin Catholicism, I did what I could to take a few steps back; survey the terrain; and recommit myself ecclesiastically to where I had come from. This choice, though by no means easy, has done more to sustain my faith through some extremely trying times than hiding out in a liturgical shack somewhere. It has also refreshed my sense that what is truly good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity transcends peculiar historical developments—and those developments must be judged by whether or not they continue to convey what is good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity.

Unity Is Not Always Good

In the Gospel Commentary translated and published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity, which contains sermons attributed to St. John Chrysostom that are appointed to be read at Matins throughout the Russo-Byzantine liturgical year, one can find this arresting reflection on Matt. 10:34-36 for the Sunday of All Saints:

Unity is not always good; it sometimes happens that division is good. Nor is every sort of peace worthy of praise; it often happens that peace is harmful, and drives out men far from divine love. If we made peace with the destruction of truth, it is most sinful and inappropriate. Christ did not come to bring such a peace, but rather its opposite. He wishes us to separate from one another when it is for the sake of a good cause. Not all peace and unity is good; there are occasions when contention and separation are great and divine deeds. Thus, one should not be joined in love with the wicked or be at peace with them. Even if father or mother, child or brother be found in opposition to the law of Christ, we should resist them as enemies of truth.

It is almost impossible to read these words without reflecting on the present situation in the Catholic Church where unity is encouraged perpetually, even with “enemies of truth.” Indeed, to even say that there are today “enemies of truth” within the Catholic fold is looked upon as not simply intolerant, but quasi-heretical. For there is a line of thought—quite pernicious—that holds that priests, bishops, and even the head of the Universal Church are unwavering founts of orthodoxy; to suspect otherwise places oneself under suspicion of being “crypto-Protestant” or “quasi-schismatic.” Those twin charges (and others) have often been directed at traditional Latin Catholics by both liberals and conservatives alike. And though some conservatives today may acknowledge that “enemies of truth” are actively attempting to rot the Mystical Body of Christ from the inside out, their first instinct is not to separate themselves from such enemies, but rather to pen long apologias for why such persons are not “true enemies” but only “apparent enemies.” Truth, as a general matter, is often not considered at all.

But let’s not forget that the message of St. John’s message can be abused. Consider, for instance, the relative ease with which autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches will break communion with one another over perceived ecclesiastical slights. Among the Latins, sedevacantists, too, feel justified in rupturing unity with the Universal Church on the grounds that they have privately judged popes, bishops, and priests to be formal heretics. To their credit, they see that there are “enemies of truth” within the Church; to their discredit, they rely on archaic manuals twisted into novel theories in order to justify themselves without much in the way of self-criticism. It is not that they are wrong in seeing certain figures and ideas within the Church as dangerous, but perhaps the choice for separation ought to be made with greater care.

Still, is it not possible to separate oneself from those “enemies of truth” without undertaking a formal act of breaking communion? Arguably, Catholics do so all of the time when they choose to go to Parish X rather than Parish Y; X houses orthodox sermons, sound catechesis, and a solemn liturgy whereas Y is completely off the rails, as they say. On a slightly grander scale, traditional Catholics have sought refuge in traditional chapels and churches run by institutes such as the Society of Saint Pius X or those fraternities that fall under the guardianship of Ecclesia Dei. These Catholics, too, have separated themselves from the “enemies of truth,” though without exiting the Catholic Church (despite what their detractors may say). Some of these folks worry that drawing too close to the institutional Church in the name will lead to a “sort of peace [not] worthy of praise.” It will be a peace predicated on compromise. Are they correct? It’s impossible to say in advance, though the fear and pessimism which sometimes animates such genuine concerns are not Christian virtues.

Of course, when speaking of “enemies of truth” it is, sadly, not possible to limit the list to just those high-ranking officials who, for instance, seek to subvert the Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings related to marriage and the sacraments. There are those “everyday Catholics,” both clerical and lay, who subvert the Church’s social magisterium regularly by offering up selective readings of key papal documents and ignoring altogether the precepts of the natural law when they purportedly conflict with infallible “economic science.” These “enemies of truth,” by internalizing the tenets of social, political, and economic liberalism, are happy to trade worldly success for fidelity to the law of Christ. In ages past, there was still a risk that such promoters of injustice would find themselves separated from the Church; today it may behoove Catholics to separate themselves from these “enemies of the truth,” these individuals and the institutions or businesses they operate which are carried out in service to mammon, not God.

Christ, as St. John reminds us, did not come to bring peace with this world, particularly a world beholden to the ideology of liberalism. Separation therefore is not always evil, just as unity is not always good. Fraternal correction, given in charity and truth, remains above all else necessary. However, when the corrections have been made, when the arguments and evidence have been presented, and still many persist in error, then what must come next? Suspend the final decision forever or make the hard choice, not in the name of pride or emptyheaded judgmentalism, but in the Name of Jesus our King?