Eastern Catholicism

Pray for the Russian Church

Much to my surprise (and delight), the Wall Street Journal ran a story today covering the plight of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) and their ongoing synod in Italy which, among other things, is seeking greater recognition of their rights from Pope Francis. Here are some excerpts.

A group of Russian Catholics is demanding greater recognition from Pope Francis, saying the Vatican’s appeasement of Moscow threatens its very existence.

. . .

On the agenda is a longstanding request for their own bishop and resources for training their own clergy. Church leaders say the pope has ignored their appeals as he pursues closer ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is dominant in the country.

. . .

The complaints of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church echo those of other groups who feel Pope Francis is willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of other priorities.

Catholics in Ukraine accuse the pope of playing down Russian aggression toward their country in order to placate the Russian Orthodox Church, which has criticized Ukrainian Catholics’ opposition to Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated a close relationship with the Orthodox Church as part of a nationalist campaign.

Lamentably, Francis and Vatican hyper-ecumenists are not the only Catholics willing to overlook the plight of Greco-Catholics. As I have discussed elsewhere several times, far too many traditional Latin Catholics romanticize the Russian Orthodox Church and the secular Russian state on the belief that both represent twin pillars of Christian virtue. While the Russian Orthodox Church should be commended at times for its public witness against numerous liberal pathologies, no one should ignore the hard truth that many Russians remain nominally Orthodox and the Russian nation itself is steadily depopulating. Although the RGCC is small, it will never have any chance for ground-level growth unless it is given proper recognition and support from the Roman authorities. Now more than ever the RGCC needs the prayers of all of the faithful. With more and more Russians realizing that Orthodox Church has been compromised by secular politics, there is a moment of opportunity for the RGCC to bring souls into the Catholic fold. But will the Vatican let them?

How Not to Convert the Russian Orthodox

The following is an excerpt from a translated article by Fr. Sergey Golovanov, a Russian Greco-Catholic priest concerning the 1920 Jesuit mission to Istanbul, Turkey. The full text can be read over at the Holy Unia web-log here. (Thanks to Fr. Athanasius McVay for bringing it to my attention.)

In 1920, the superior general of the Society of Jesus ordered Fathers Baille, Jansseand, and Tyszkiewicz to go to Georgia. The war prevented the Jesuit missionaries from reaching their goal and stopped them in Istambul, where there were many thousands of Russian refugees. All Russians felt anxious and feared an attack by the Bolsheviks or extradition back to Soviet Russia. With the cooperation of the occupational administration of the Entente, the Jesuits organized relief action among Russians. Lois Baille, SJ, founded St. George’s Residential School for orphans. He appointed a Russian Latin-rite priest, Sipiagin, as director of the school. Sipiagin came from a family with mixed Russian-Polish origins. He was enthusiastic about the Latin rite and Western culture. Stanislas Tyszkiewicz, SJ, set up a hostel for Russian proselytes. He taught the Catholic Catechism. The proselytes passed an examination after several months, repudiated Orthodoxy, made a profession of Catholic faith and communicated at a Latin-rite Mass. The Jesuits stimulated the transit of Russians into the Latin rite. Tyszkiewicz enrolled paid secret informers among Russians to control the situation. He had many secret contacts with persons among the Orthodox intelligentsia and suggested making conversion to Catholicism a condition of any financial help. Many Russians angrily rejected the unbecoming proposals of Tyszkiewicz. Fr. Sergiy Bulgakov was disappointed in Catholicism after the meeting with Tyszkiewicz: the great universal idea of St. Peter’s ministry boiled down to mere proselytism. Tyszkiewicz was a Pole by origin and wrote many articles under the Russian pseudonym, Serge Bosforoff, where he called on Russians to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. He used the emigrants who received charitable help for his own purposes. He wrote a provocative «Open letter of the Thirty Russian Catholics to Orthodox Metropolitan Anastasiy Gribanovskiy», and used the names and signatures of those Russian people whom he had aided. This scandalous action compromised the idea of Catholicism among Russian intellectuals, who had sympathized with it earlier in the spirit of the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev.

In 1922, Fr. Gleb Verhovskiy came to Istanbul at the direction of the Oriental Congregation. He set himself at variance with Tyszkiewicz owing to such improper methods of missionary activity and urged the conservation of Byzantine-rite status for all Russian proselytes. The Jesuits made Fr. Verhovskiy’s situation very moral uncomfortable, and obliged him to leave Istanbul.

The most scandalous action committed by Tyszkiewicz involved sending a group of Russian young people to study in France and Belgium with stipendiums from the Catholic Church. Tyszkiewicz came from a very aristocratic family, and normally tended to give excessive importance to other aristocrats. He appointed a former courtier and aristocrat, Nikolay Burdukov, as a curator of the group. All the Russian settlement in Istanbul was scandalized and moved to laughter by this appointment. Nikolay Burdukov was famous in high society as a sodomite with the telling alias «princess Mescherskaya.

I’m quoting this article excerpt on Opus Publicum for three reasons.

First, despite what the situation may be today, this debacle serves as an important illustration of just how poorly the Society of Jesus often handled its encounters with non-Catholic Eastern Christians, particularly the Orthodox. Rather than respect their traditional rites and spiritual patrimony, they frequently attempted to foist a particular brand of Latin Catholicism on their would-be proselytes, which did very little to win much sympathy toward unity with the Catholic Church. Compare this with the missionary efforts of Blessed Bishop Mykola Charnetsky and other Redemptorists working in Ukraine to bring the Orthodox back into the Catholic fold. Rather than attempt to equate “Latinism” with “Catholicism,” they adopted the form of the Byzantine Rite in use among the Russian Orthodox in the hopes of demonstrating that to be Catholic does not not mean sacrificing one’s authentic traditions.

Second, there was genuine interest among certain segments of late 19th/early 20th century Russian society for unity with Rome. After seeing how the Russian Orthodox Church had become little more than a handmaid of the Russian Imperial state, only Rome proved to be a truly independent ecclesiastical force working in the world; standing up to the onslaughts of liberalism; and refusing — at least until the 1960s — to forego the social rights of Christ the King in favor of a “safe compromise” with secular powers. Even Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who eventually became a fierce critic of certain Latin Catholic doctrines, was interested in joining the Catholic Church after his exile by the Soviets, though clearly that never came to pass.

Last, there are far too many (traditional and some conservative) Latin Catholics today who seem to think that the Church should approach the Orthodox in a manner not dissimilar from the Jesuits recounted above. Given the suspicion in which many of the Orthodox now hold the Catholic Church, coupled with the Latin Church’s demolition of its liturgical patrimony, that’s never going to work. Yes, some individual Orthodox priests and laity do choose to unite themselves with Rome, but often only after wading through a great deal of nonsense. (Those fortunate enough to have access to a Greco-Catholic parish tend to have an easier time of it.) This is why true ecumenical dialogue — understood as a necessary step toward re-unification — is neither a waste of time nor a betrayal of the Catholic Faith. Before unity can become a reality, centuries of misunderstandings and political animosity have to be swept away. While Catholics — Latin or Greek — should continue to witness  to their estranged Orthodox brethren and never compromise the Faith, they should do so with patience and charity. In other words, don’t follow the historic lead of the Jesuits.

Midweek Scribbling

As I scanned the Catholic news waves this morning, I found a great deal of chatter about the Sovereign Order of Malta and Pope Francis; some consternation over a liturgical directive in Rockford, Illinois; and a few words about an Anglican Use parish in Texas. What surprised me about all of this is not the fact the Roman Catholic Church continues to be in disarray, but how unmoved I am by it now. Two or three years ago, I would have been up in arms; now I can barely muster the energy to read these tales of woe from start to finish. Have I given up? Am I losing my faith? Do I actually believe that what is transpiring in the Church is “right” or, at the very least, “ok”? The answer to all of those questions is an unqualified, “No.” I do believe, however, that I have hit the burn-out point when it comes to “crisis porn”; one can only gawk at the carnage for so long before they start to feel like a pervert.

This is not to say that responsible pressmen shouldn’t report on what’s happening around the Corpus Mysticum, nor that all analytical commentary be ignored. There are, thankfully, two or three sober-minded voices out there, the sort who are willing to put the Church’s present problems into perspective without falling prey to pearl-clutching hysteria. Hysteria generates hits, and for more than one traditional Catholic website out there, that’s what seems to matter above all else. What, I wonder, would these folks do if their wildest dreams of Pope Pius XIII ascending the throne and cleaning up the house came true? What would they write about? Maybe at that moment all of the ire directed toward the Novus Ordo Missae will be rerouted toward, say, the Pian reforms of the Breviarium Romanum; there’s always something to be upset about, I suppose.

Speaking of hysteria and hits, I took time out to track my web-log traffic over the past year and compare it to the previous two. Not surprisingly, the less angry, bitter, perturbed, and resentful my posts became, the less interest began to be shown in Opus Publicum, particularly from the traditional Catholic community. Granted, that may be a coincidence, especially since an increasing number of posts started to focus on “things Eastern” which, as best as I can tell, is of little-to-no interest to a vast majority of Catholics out there, specifically those who enjoy magic prayers, ahistorical theology, and early-modern devotions that wantonly displace the liturgical patrimony of the Latin Church. And, naturally, a web-log penned by a dirty “Uniate” is unlikely to attract all that many Orthodox readers, though ironically I seem to have far more of those than I do of the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” types, that is, those who persist in promoting a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style ecclesiology.

The other day a veteran, long-single theologian who used to have some renown in the Catholic blogosphere sent out a social-media message that began, “I have been asked several times lately how I’ve managed to avoid fornication for all of these years.” Setting aside that this statement is one of the finest humble brags I have ever come across, I personally can’t imagine ever asking someone that question, particularly since it rests on the assumption that the individual being queried has, in fact, avoided the sin in question. Moreover, were I asked how I’ve avoided, say, defrauding large financial institutions millions of dollars or purchasing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, I wouldn’t go public with it. It just seems so, well, untoward to parade certain virtues or, more accurately, “things we’re supposed to be doing in the first place.”

Or maybe I missed something along the way. It’s happened before.

Some Brief Words on the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” Phenomenon

It’s probably not worth dwelling too much on the phenomenon known as “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” (OICWR), an initially well-intentioned reorientation of how Greek Catholics understand their relationship with Rome which has—at least in certain online forums—degenerated into a cafeteria ecclesiology. Although there are several variants of OICWR, the most extreme (and seemingly most vocal) wing takes the position that the Greek Catholic churches need not treat as ecumenical or binding any “Roman council” held between the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) and the Second Vatican Council. Not even Florence, which transpired with the participation of the Greek Church, is seen as binding due to its eventual repudiation by the Orthodox. By radical OICWR reckoning, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and Papal Infallibility are not settled dogmas for the universal Church but rather Latin doctrines that amount to little more than theological opinions which can, and perhaps ought to be, critiqued in the light of the Byzantine theological tradition. Instead of seeking a shared understanding on the perennial truths of the Catholic Faith, the OICWR extremists revel in the apparent divisions that allegedly separate East from West. And, like all good ideologies, these individuals are quick to disparage their critics, including their Greek Catholic critics, as “Latinized” or “Uniates.”

Needless to say, the OICWR—moderate and extreme alike—claim to take their bearings from the Vatican II declaration Orientalium Ecclesiarum despite the fact that no less an authority on things Orthodox than Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an observer at the Council, found the document unsatisfactory in certain respects. The extremists also point to the “sister churches” ecclesiology promoted by Vatican II, albeit in splendid isolation of the 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Note on the Expression Sister Churches.” Moreover, for reasons that remain vague and underdeveloped, the far reaches of the OICWR seem to believe that the perilous project of “reclaiming their tradition” (as if the historic Greek Church only had a single tradition) means imitating the theology, spirituality, and liturgy of the contemporary Orthodox Church, as if it that communion, both before and after the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D., was monolithic and without change. The pursuit of a “magic moment” of “purity” in the fog of history often results in pick-and-choose “reconstruction” which, in the end, bears little resemblance to how things ever were.

None of this is to say that the Greek Catholic churches (Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, etc.) shouldn’t take proper and prudent steps to remove accretions from their liturgy that undermine its integrity nor ignore the rich Eastern theological patrimony in favor of Thomism. Greek Catholics have been rightly encouraged to maintain their identity in recent decades. However, there is a wide gulf between maintaining one’s identity and taking up positions that are openly hostile to the Catholic Faith. It seems that the fringes of the OICWR movement are more interested in appeasing the worst circles of Orthodoxy rather than standing firm for true catholicity, that is, particularity within universality. No one today should seriously buy into the shopworn prejudice that “to be Catholic” is “to be Latin.” Still, that is not a warrant for rank doctrinal dissent and schism mongering.

A Note on “Unia” and Latinizations and Myths

It seems to me that it seems to be a commonplace tale around the (online?) Eastern Catholic water cooler which goes something like this. Up until the late 16th Century, Eastern Orthodox living in the area of what is now Ukraine and Belarus were living fine and happy with their perfect Byzantine liturgy, apophatic theology, and mystical spirituality before the big, bad Jesuits stormed in; duped bishops and laity alike; and inaugurated one of the greatest ecclesiastical heists in history, the Union of Brest (followed 50 years later by the Union of Uzhhorod). The inevitable fruits of the “Unia” — so the story goes — was a loss of the “pure Byzantine tradition” coupled with the onset of forced Latinizations. Without getting into the messy history surrounding Brest (which, I should add, was not orchestrated by the Jesuits nor aimed at destroying the Byzantine Rite), I wish so many of these contemporary naysayers of the “Unia” who love to spend their free-time disparaging Latin devotions which they seem to know very little about would spend a few minutes with Fr. Peter Galadza’s excellent study, “Seventeenth-Century Liturgicons of the Kievan Metropolia and Several Lessons for Today,” 56 St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 73 (2012).

In an earlier post, “The Ways of Greek Catholicism in the West – Liturgy,” I discussed Fr. Galadza’s article in some detail, highlighting in particular the messy business of trying to restore certain Eastern liturgical practices after they had fallen out of memory. Another important lesson from this study — one which I didn’t focus on previously — is the fact that it took nearly a century after Brest for what some might call “liturgical deformation” to set in — a deformation inspired in no small part by the limited educational opportunities available to Eastern Catholic clergy coupled with the rise of the Basilian Order which, at the outset at least, was comprised of a significant number of Polish clergy whose knowledge of Church Slavonic was sorely lacking. There then followed some regrettable centuries where the “Uniates” were treated as second-class Catholics by their Latin brethren and subjected to forced conversion at the hands of the Russian Empire (a practice that would be repeated under the Soviets in 1946). By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the “Uniates” (now properly referred to as Greek Catholics) began a process of self-renewal in Galicia (western Ukraine), including reforming their liturgical practices in order to better reflect the form of the Byzantine Rite their forebears were familiar with. Was this a smooth and steady process? No. Political concerns during the time prompted certain suspicions towards those clergy who favored celebrating “like the Orthodox.” Moreover, many Greek Catholics had, by that point, grown accustomed to their “Latinized” rite; they weren’t interested in liturgical revisions which would make them feel less Catholic.

It is terribly easy to sit back today and scoff at such attitudes, as if the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived had ready-at-hand access to books, articles, and websites detailing the complexities of history and the numerous accidents that have occurred in the life of the Church (including her liturgical development). What is despicable about some of these ongoing discussions over a period of time which few today have any recollection of is their failure to account for the popular piety of the people who spent their whole lives immersed in an environment shaped (albeit haphazardly) by Western and Eastern ecclesiastical sensibilities. All of this has sadly given birth to a triumphalist myth whereby certain Eastern Catholics (or, really, Latin Catholics who stumbled onto Eastern Catholicism) proclaim their obvious superiority over those who have gone before simply because a century ago Greek Catholics prayed the Rosary rather than chased “uncreated light” with prayer ropes purchased off Mt. Athos. Distressingly little attention is paid to the reality that when Brest was consummated, the liturgical ethos of these reunified Catholics well reflected that of their estranged Orthodox brethren and that there is something admirable, indeed beautiful, about the fact that despite numerous obstacles, persecutions, and other hardships, these Eastern Christians found the road to Salvation. Even if we are now at a time when “Latinizations” are no longer taken a sign of Catholicity and our historical horizon has broadened far enough to recognize the Greek no less than the Latin tradition as part of the universal Church’s patrimony, there is no virtue in promoting the myth of a backwards and detestable past for the “Unia.” How much better we would all be if instead of sitting in judgment of past missteps, we find inspiration from the perseverance of our Greek-Catholic ancestors and the spirit of unity they fought so hard to preserve.

Sunday Notes on Traditionalism

Traditional Catholicism, a magical land that appears to be home to a growing number of the faithful, has once again come under attack from no less a prelate than the Ordinary of Rome, Francis the Merciful. The outrage is palpable. As those who have bothered to pay even a smidgen of attention to Francis’s oftentimes reckless reign knows, he harbors little-to-no love for the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) and finds traditional Catholics to be, well, weird—or, according to his most recent interview on the subject, rigid. To some extent, he’s right. Compared to the Modernist-inspired contemporary Catholic that Francis extols, any member of the Body of Christ who upholds the Church’s indefectible teachings has to come across as not only rigid, but extreme and fundamentalist. Francis, interestingly enough, has far less to say about conservative Catholics (or, as some prefer, neo-Catholics). Perhaps it’s because he knows that they are willing enough to play fast-and-loose with certain teachings to still be tolerable. Also, it doesn’t hurt that two of the central features of conservative Catholicism for the past 50+ years are defending the Novus Ordo Missae and the integrity of the Second Vatican Council. Sure, neo-Catholic fealty to the legacy of Pope John Paul II, specifically his teachings on family issues, might be a bit of annoyance, but it’s a small price to pay for winning the allegiance of quasi-universalists intoxicated with neo-ultramontanism.

I imagine the reason traditional Catholicism has been on my mind today is because I opted to skip the Divine Liturgy this week in favor of attending traditional sung Mass at St. Mary’s in Kalamazoo, MI (a parish I am wholly unfamiliar with). It occurred to me that it may have been only the second TLM I have been to this year that wasn’t low. Regardless, on the long, gorgeous drive home through rural Michigan under an unseasonably cloudless, sunny sky, I was bothered by small but noticeable sense that despite the advances made in expanding access to the TLM since 2007, it could all be taken away in an instant—and most Catholics would go along with it. That is to say, if Ecclesia Dei was abolished tomorrow, Summorum Pontificum repealed, and all talks with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) halted, traditional Catholicism would largely disappear. Those who claim to love the old Mass and only the old Mass would seek out the least-worst new Mass available in their diocese. Some might poke their heads into an Eastern Catholic parish or two (assuming there are any near by), but really that would be that. Traditional Catholicism outside of the confines of the SSPX and a few pockets of (clandestine) diocesan resistance, would be effectively dead.

Some might object here and say that traditional Catholicism is more than the TLM and they’re right. It is. The problem, however, is that many attached to the TLM aren’t deeply invested in messy doctrinal matters. Dignitatis Humanae, for example, may not be consonant with tradition, but who cares? The Catholic state is never coming back and besides, if it wasn’t for religious liberty, wouldn’t Catholics living in an increasingly secular West be the ones to suffer? Similarly, while the Novus Ordo Missae may be abused, banal, and lacking the same doctrinal depth as the TLM, it’s valid. Why get worked up over “licety? I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Speaking personally, I feel quite divorced from this potential disaster and yet quite concerned. I believe Greek Catholics—indeed all Eastern Catholics—should hope and pray for the Latin Church to uphold her tradition in toto, even if it may not seem to be in our immediate best interest. Because while traditional Latin Catholicism is a mansion with many rooms and innumerable treasures, it also tends to store more than a fair amount of junk in the attic. Latin chauvinism has had a deleterious effect on the life, integrity, and mission of the Eastern Catholic churches for centuries, and it is largely thanks to certain mid-20th Century historical, theological, and doctrinal trends that Eastern Catholics have found sufficient room to be themselves in a Latin-dominated ecclesiastical environment. (To be fair, many of these trends have thoroughly traditional roots; they just took on a certain intensity after Vatican II.) Add to this a fairly nauseating tendency for certain traditional Latin Catholics to absolutize their tradition over all others and what you have is a certain, but resolvable, tension between Latins and Easterners.

I say “resolvable” because in the end there are more convergences than divergences between traditional Latin Catholics and faithful Eastern Catholics. There is also a lot of room open for mutual understanding and enrichment, not to the extent of blindly (mis)appropriating one tradition and trying to fuse it with another, but rather gaining a fuller understanding of what it means to be Catholic. To say that most of us have lost this understanding would be a gross understatement.

Hunwicke on the New Coptic Martyrs

Last year, I wrote several posts on those 21 brave Coptic souls who gave their lives for Christ in Libya at the hands of the so-called “Islamic State.” You can find the first one here, and the follow-ups here and here. Not everyone agreed with what I wrote at the time. Certain traditional Catholics, armed with their fortress ecclesiology, could not contemplate a heavenly reward for any individual who died outside of visible communion with the See of St. Peter.

Now comes Fr. John Hunwicke with a renewed take on the matter. The blog entry is short, and so I will quote it in full below. If you have any questions or concerns about the content of the piece, I would suggest you take it up with him in his web-log’s combox.

In the fine CDF documents Communionis notio and Dominus Iesus, the Church’s Magisterium clarified the position of those Christian bodies which possess true ministry and Sacraments. This does clarification most certainly not imply, as some people have foolishly argued, that “the Orthodox Church” is a “sister Church” of “the Catholic Church”. Nor does it mean that “the Moskow Patriarchate” is “a sister Church” of the “Latin Church”.

By “particular Church”, what is meant is a Church constituted organically with a Bishop, his presbyterate, his diaconate, and all the holy People of God. That is a true Church by divine right, and, incidentally, this is why from time to time it becomes necessary to remind everybody that Catholic ecclesiology has no place for “national Churches”; and views with justified suspicion any movements towards giving Episcopal Conferences anything other than minmal and practical functions. As Cardinal Mueller once wisely said, we must never think of the Chairpersons of Episcopal Conferences as any sort of vice-popes. Nor, as he made clear, must Conferences and their bureaucracies come between the Diocesan Bishop and the Bishop of Rome, each of whom (unlike the Conferences) is iure divino.

What this definition of “Particular Church” means is, for example, that the Diocese of S Petersburg, and the diocese of Brentwood, are true sister Churches; it being understood that the Diocese of S Petersburg is a true particular Church but “wounded” by its separation from the See of S Peter; and the Diocese of Brentwood is wounded by the schism which hinders the Catholic Chuch from realising and manifesting the complete fulfillment of her universality in history.

This, I think, is why we need have no hesitation in recognising those Coptic peasants who, murmuring the Name of their Redeemer, had their throats cut on that Mediterranean beach as “our” martyrs.

Creeping, Sliding, Ignoring

Jessica M. Murdo, a professor of theology at Villanova University, has a timely article up over at First Things entitled “Creeping Infallibility.” In it, she attempts to set the record straight concerning the various magisterial “layers” one finds in the Church and pushes back against the trend whereby an increasing number of lower level papal documents are given undue weight. Arguably, this “pushback” has been going on for some time, though there is a great deal of disagreement out there over when and where that’s appropriate. For instance, traditional Catholics have been pushing back against the “creeping infallibility” of the Second Vatican Council for half-a-century; their neo-Catholic critics claim that this is beyond the pale. Neo-Catholics, particularly those enamored with political and economic liberalism (e.g., Acton Institute), regularly push back against the possibility that any papal document can speak authoritatively on socio-economic matters unless it first conforms to the tenets of “economic science” (whatever that means). When Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was issued, Fr. Robert Sirico — the head of Acton — was quick to remind everyone that exhortations carry less magisterial weight than encyclicals and that it’s not clear that Catholics need to follow the Holy Father when he speaks about things economic.

Truth be told, the on-the-ground reality in the Catholic Church is that most of the would-be faithful live by a “sliding-scale magisterium” where those parts they like are exalted and those they do not are belittled, if not ignored outright. Neo-Catholics who love ecumenism treat certain documents from Vatican II as sacrosanct but have absolutely no time for the long list of papal and ecclesial condemnations of heresies, schisms, and false religions. When pressed on this point, these Catholics will claim that doctrine “has developed,” as if “development” means a new theological outgrowth can fully cover, nay, replace the trunk from which it allegedly spawned. To be fair, one should not ignore the opposite tendency, championed in some sectors of the traditional Catholic world, to ignore in full the Church’s post-Vatican II magisterium or even much of what happened in the Universal Church prior to the Council of Trent. Traditionalists, for better or worse, have a tendency to absolutize the magisterium as articulated by the 19th and early 20th Century popes as if the Church began and ended there.

For Eastern Catholics, the situation is even more confusing. While it stands to reason that a majority of Eastern Catholics believe they hold to the Faith as articulated in, say, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, there exists a noticeable contingent — the so-called “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” — who have no problem playing de facto sedevacantist when it comes to the Roman Pontiff. That is, they blissfully ignore as authoritative almost everything the Pope says because he is not, according to them, “their bishop.” Moreover, this same crowd openly treats most post-1054 councils as “local councils of the Latin Church” which lack binding authority over Eastern Christians. Their vision of the Church is “Orthodox” insofar as they embrace the East’s confederate model of governance. The fact that the Catholic Church, as recently as both Vatican Councils, rejects this approach is of little-to-no consequence, and if one tells the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” otherwise, they will scream and howl that  they are being oppressed by “Latin innovations.”

From an outsider’s perspective, particularly an Eastern Orthodox one, this all must look terribly ironic. After all, one of the biggest charges Catholics have brought to bear against the Orthodox is that the latter lack doctrinal and governmental unity. While this is true, it’s equally true that the Catholic hierarchy, with their magisterial statements on faith and morals, has not done a particularly good job shepherding their flocks and leading them on the sure path to holiness. It is not difficult to see why certain Orthodox apologists call Catholicism to the carpet for “developing” ways out of its own teaching. The ongoing nonsense involving Amoris Laetitia is just one more in a long line of examples of Catholicism — by Orthodox lights — shifting gears while still claiming to maintain the Apostolic Faith.

Robinson on Staying Orthodox

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.