Eastern Orthodox Church

Unfair to Dreher?

Recently, over at that great forum of learned and calm disputation known as Facebook, my friend Conor Dugan posted a link to his recent review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for Catholic World Report. Although I disagree with some of Dugan’s comments on the book, I am not interested in critiquing it. In response to Dugan’s post, Dreher himself wrote the following: “I do not mind at all constructive criticism, or any kind of criticism, as long as it challenges what I actually wrote in the book. But so many of these reviews don’t even do that. It’s bizarre. I wonder why that is?” This prompted me to write the following reply (to which I expect no answer to):

Because, in all fairness, much of what you wrote is derivative and seems divorced from the intellectual moorings you wanted it to have. Also keep in mind that no matter how much time goes on, people won’t forget the manner in which you left the Catholic Church; besmirched the Catholic Church for years in your writings; and yet repair to Catholicism whenever you need to add some heft to your positions (heft which you apparently cannot find from the Orthodox).

As I have noted elsewhere, people have been doing what you are now marketing for years—decades even. It’s not new. It doesn’t require a catchy title. And unlike what you are proposing, these folks—particularly traditional Catholic communities such as the one found in St. Mary’s, Kansas — aren’t backing down or retreating from the world. They are working — to quote St. Pius X’s motto—”to restore all things in Christ.” There is very little of that restorationist spirit in your book.

Please understand that I am saying this in all honesty and charity. While I would agree that some criticisms of your book have been uncharitable, I think in your understandable desire to defend yourself, you are overlooking some of the “meta” issues surrounding your work.

Although an argument could be made that Dreher’s confessional leanings should not affect the reception of his work, the truth of the matter is that he does strike a lot of people, particularly Catholics, as an opportunist who leans heavily on the Catholic tradition (or, at least, his own interpretation of it) while simultaneously rejecting the Church which gave birth to it. Moreover, Dreher appears to be insensitive to the fact that there are those in the West—including Catholics—who oppose Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church not out of some naïve love for secular liberalism but because of Russia’s longstanding and ongoing history of aggression toward the Catholic Church.

For instance, Dreher is quick to defend Russia from its Western critics, but fails to take note of Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and east Ukraine, including backing the persecution of Greek Catholics in the region. While Dreher recently opined that he “bristle[s]… at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity,” he quickly writes this off as little more than an expression of his “Westernized view of how religion relates to society.” Now that Dreher is apparently cognizant of this, does that mean he now realizes that his “Westernized view” is wrong and that, as an Orthodox Christian, he should adopt the “Russian view”? That’s all fine and well if he does, but he should realize that by aligning with the ideology of the Russian state and its vassal church, Dreher places himself directly at odds with Catholicism—the very thing he needs above all else to advance his idea (or career).

There is more. As already noted above and elsewhere on this web-log, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” brand has been chided as derivative, incomplete, and retreatist. There are Catholic communities all over the world which have been living out what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option” for decades, and none of them saw fit to promote themselves through blogs, TV appearances, and book deals. They are simply working and living as they are supposed to be—in accordance with the timeless principles of the Catholic Church. And even those who find it impossible to relocate to an intentional Catholic community still find it possible to practice their faith without succumbing to the machinations of secular liberalism. And so it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Catholics might be put off that Dreher—an unapologetic rejecter of Catholicism—is hijacking their way of life in order to fill his bank account.

While some lines of criticism against The Benedict Option book do miss the mark (particularly those lines of criticism coming from liberal Christians), I do believe that in Dreher’s race to defend himself from all charges, he overlooks why so many Catholics are unsympathetic to his various projects. What can he do to correct that situation? One might hope, at the very least, that he publicly repents of the ways in which he has uncharitably attacked the Catholic Church since his departure more than a decade ago. I don’t see that happening, however, but with God all things are possible.

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.

The Problem of Staying Orthodox – Postscript

Responses to my previous post, “The Problem of Staying Orthodox,” were far more positive than I anticipated, particularly on social media. That did not stop some people from accusing me of everything from racism to ignoring the problems in the Catholic Church, however. Others suggested that I was attempting to pitch Catholicism as a paradisiacal ecclesiastical unit that has somehow escaped the contradictions, compromises, and capitulations found in Orthodoxy. Nonsense. I am quite aware, for instance, how depressingly few Catholics follow the Church’s infallible teaching on contraception; and when it comes to the contemporary annulment process, it’s not noticeably different in practice from the Orthodox Church’s willingness to allow second and third marriages. Catholicism, by virtue of being at least four times larger than Orthodoxy, is beset by far more visible problems than the Orthodox Church. When a scandal breaks out in the Catholic Church, it’s featured in the New York Times; when an equally revolting scandal afflicts the Orthodox, it’s a shock when any major news outlet makes mention of it at all. The closest Orthodoxy comes to getting “bad press” in the West is when the Russian Church is accused of directing state policy on matters such as abortion, homosexuality, and domestic abuse. Perhaps this is why certain Orthodox, particularly those living in the West, are especially sensitive to criticism of their confession; they’re just not used to it. Catholics on the other hand have grown accustomed to priest sex-abuse jokes on late night television.

Among those Orthodox Christians who happened to agree with much of what I wrote, a few asked if I would have more to say on the topic of trying to persevere as an Orthodox Christian, particularly in the United States. Speaking as someone who opted not to remain Orthodox but rather return to the confessional haunt of his childhood (Greek Catholicism), I don’t feel fit to give advice. Still, I imagine that staying Orthodox can be just as challenging as staying Greek Catholic, albeit for very different reasons. Although both are minority churches forced to get by outside of their historic environments, the Orthodox are often able to define themselves by negation: “not Catholic”; “not Western”; “not rationalistic”; etc. Greek Catholics, though “not Western” in the limited sense that their liturgy, spirituality, and theology emerged in the geographic East, must strike a balancing act between being true to their authentic patrimony while not discarding certain irrevocable tenets of the Faith which their estranged Orthodox brethren need not worry about (e.g., Purgatory, Papal Primacy, and the Immaculate Conception). At the same time, Greek Catholics are often compelled to “compete” with their not-so-estranged Latin Catholic brethren who continue to their own liturgy, spirituality, and theology as normative for the Universal Church. Even today, more than 50 years after Orientalium ecclesiarium, Eastern Catholics in general, and Greek Catholics in particular, are largely thought of in terms of ritual differences rather than ecclesiastic integrity.

Comparatively, the Orthodox are free to steer clear of Latin Catholicism altogether under the guise of promoting “pure Orthodoxy.” The problem is that there is no such thing as “pure Orthodoxy,” especially at this stage in history. “Pure Orthodoxy” is often little more than ideologically charged Orthodoxy which lacks both a sense of history and a universal vision. In the hands of ex-Protestant converts, for example, “pure Orthodoxy” looks astonishingly like American Evangelicalism, only with less guitars and more icons. And for those who came to Orthodoxy out of cultural disaffection, spiritual confusion, or intellectual vapidity, “pure Orthodoxy” is frighteningly nationalistic, insular, and apocalyptic. Not everyone buys into “pure Orthodoxy,” of course. There are those who hold to Orthodoxy because it has the luxury of being both sacramental and (apparently) non-magisterial; messy doctrinal questions such as universalism can be bypassed with the claim that the issue has never been “dogmatically defined.” This form of Orthodoxy, not surprisingly, often comes accompanied with a strong antinomian streak.

These problems—and more—are worth exploring in depth, but probably not here. Nothing I have touched on so far gets into the fraught territory of how a number of women experience Orthodoxy and, in surprising numbers, feel alienated if not abused by its male-dominated, pseudo-monastic culture. Because Orthodoxy is often promoted as being “more masculine” than other forms of Christianity, it’s not surprising that women should find it so inhospitable. However, given that I am not a woman, I feel that I would be doing a disservice to this concern by trying to speculate too much. I have heard enough horror stories in my time to know that this concern is a very genuine one which the Orthodox Church would do well to confront head-on sooner rather than later.

With that said, I am going to close the book on this topic for now by repeating my hope for the emergence of what Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. has called “self-critical Orthodoxy.” This self-critical Orthodoxy must not be merely an academic exercise but rather an open and public discussion carried out in charity and truth. It will no doubt be painful, but that is what makes it so necessary.

The Problem of Staying Orthodox

Over at the old Opus Publicum site, I wrote a brief commentary on Steve Robinson’s Ancient Faith Radio podcast episode about his decision to stay in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here’s what I had to say.

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.

Despite frequent requests to do so, I have largely refrained from discussing publicly why I left the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2011 to rejoin Catholicism. My reasons for this are twofold. First, I have little-to-no interest whatsoever into turning my blog into a repository for Catholic/Orthodox polemics. Some years ago, when I opted to start writing critically on certain trends in the Orthodox Church, I found my combox flooded with angry rants, accusations, and all sorts of unedifying statements. Since then, people have either grown tired of fighting or, I hope, accepted the fact that my frank discussions of Orthodoxy are not intended to be triumphalistic. As I have maintained and still maintain, my love for the Eastern Orthodox Church runs deep; and though I cannot, in good conscience, profess adherence to Orthodoxy while it remains outside of communion with Rome, I do not wish ill on her or her followers. Like many Catholics, I hope and pray for the day when Catholics and Orthodox will come together, united by Christ in the Eucharist and professing the fullness of the Apostolic Faith.

Second, I don’t think my “conversion story” is all that interesting.

What is interesting, however, is reading and listening to others account for why they have decided to stay Orthodox despite the many difficulties they face in doing so. Orthodoxy, particularly in America, is often “sold” as a safe haven from the problems of (post)modernity; it also has the benefit of retaining a valid hierarchy and sacraments without the socio-cultural baggage associated with Catholicism. Liturgically speaking, Orthodoxy has a leg up on Catholicism and for those who don’t care for “pelvic matters,” its moral instruction is loose enough to allow for behaviors once condemned by all Christians, everywhere. On the flipside, American Orthodoxy is beset by poor oversight and leadership due to a limited resource pool for bishops; many of its priests lack the education and discipline to properly pastor a parish; a significant number of parishes, if not entire jurisdictions, remain ethnic ghettos or cultural centers; Orthodoxy’s “magisterium” extends no further than the church building’s front door; and the wave of conversions that have occurred since the 1990s has infected certain segments of American Orthodoxy with a Protestant mindset. Moreover, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and throughout the world, often lacks the capacity for self-criticism, resulting in alarming streaks of anti-intellectualism, chauvinism, and triumphalism.

While many who choose to remain Orthodox are cognizant of these realities, a noticeable number either are not or choose to ignore them. How long they can maintain this ignorance is an open question. For those who stay Orthodox with their eyes open, it seems that they have found a way to reconcile their faith with where they are at concretely. That is to say, instead of “escaping to Byzantium” or LARPing a Russian peasant from a Dostoevsky novel, they embrace Eastern Christianity within their decidedly Western context. Not content with pious myths about Orthodoxy’s “glorious past” or the belief that Greece or Russia represents a “Holy Mothership” where Orthodoxy flows free and pure, these Orthodox Christians recognize the contradictions, compromises, and capitulations found within their communion. In short, they know that the Orthodox Church is both a divine and all too human institution that must come to terms with its own past if it wishes to be anything more than a museum in the present.

At the same time, I suspect that more than a few Orthodox decide to remain where they are because the other options are less-than-appealing. For instance, I have conversed with several Orthodox Christians at length who have long considered uniting themselves with Rome only to be turned off by the ongoing and very public crisis which has gripped the Catholic Church for more than 50 years. While some were heartened by the liturgical decisions taken by Pope Benedict XVI, they view Francis’s pontificate with deep suspicion. Like many traditional Catholics, these Orthodox do not see Papa Frank as a beacon of humility, but rather an unhinged autocrat whose rhetorical excesses and meddling confirm their worst fears about the papacy. And though Orthodox converts to Catholicism are not, by the terms of canon law, Latin Catholics under the Church of Rome, the relative scarcity of Greek Catholic parishes in the West means that they will have to get by in a predominantly Latin environment. What this means is that outside of traditional or “reform of the reform” parishes, they will be exposed to banal (if not sacrilegious) liturgies, poor catechesis, and heterodoxy from pew to pulpit.

None of this is to say that I believe anyone should stay Orthodox; but I do understand and sympathize with many Orthodox Christians who believe they cannot “go Rome” at this time. One of the great failures of American Catholicism, starting in the 19th century, was its refusal to open its arms and embrace Eastern Christian emigres. Today, American Catholicism falters by refusing to reach out openly and honestly to the Orthodox while continuing to treat Eastern Catholics as second-class citizens. Although it’s impossible to know how many might leave Orthodoxy for Catholicism were conditions better, the sheer size and scope of the Catholic Church, coupled with her immense resources, would likely draw more than a few into her fold. In the meantime, for those committed to Orthodoxy, the road is rough and uncertain. What that means for American Orthodoxy’s demographic future remains to be seen.

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.

Death to Death to the World

Things slow down this time of year. If you don’t believe me, then click over to the pop-culture website The Outline which ran a story last week on Death to the World (DTW), the Orthodox zine that comically blends superficial Eastern Christian content with a hardcore-punk aesthetic. Started in 1994 in association with the then-schismatic St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, the zine’s name, which in substance means detachment from “all earthly cares,” is meant to appeal to angry, disenfranchised, and largely uneducated young men for whom “death to the world” means a nihilistic disdain for all humanity. More grotesque still is the zine’s frequent use of skulls, graves, and other dark imagery not for the purposes of memento mori, but simply to look “cool.” In many ways DTW’s cheap antics are similar to numerous anarcho-punk and crust bands using pictures of war crimes and other atrocities on their 7” sleeves, ostensibly to “send a message.”

Missing from The Outline’s overview of the zine is any mention of the numerous problems associated with St. Herman’s, not the least of which being its willingness to shield its abbot Gleb “Fr. Herman” Podmoshensky from accusations of sexual impropriety. St. Herman’s and DTW are also shameless propagandists for Fr. Seraphim Rose, a homosexual Eastern spiritualist-turned-Orthodox monk who is best known for penning a series of intellectually fraudulent books on everything from UFOs to a literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Rose, more than any other Orthodox crackpot writing in English, is responsible for anti-Catholic prejudices among American Orthodoxy’s convert culture and the cult of worship that surrounds him still has frustrated any sincere inquiries into his alleged holiness. It is telling that Rose’s home jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has yet to canonize him despite the circulation of icons, akathists, and other pious practices in his honor.

As for DTW itself, despite failing to attract many subscribers in the 1990s, it now enjoys a second life as a web-zine while peddling clothing clearly meant to imitate the attire of black-bloc anarchists. How much of an impact DTW still has is difficult to measure. American Orthodoxy has a time-honored tradition of artificially inflating its numbers even though it is missing an entire generation of adherents due to intermarriage or apathy. While noble efforts have been made over the past several decades to turn Orthodoxy away from being a boutique religion for bored white people and/or an ethnic social club, the sad fact remains that Orthodoxy in America remains splintered along cradle/convert and nationalistic lines. As for giving Orthodoxy some intellectual gravitas in the Anglophone world, it should come as little surprise that the scholarly efforts of the late Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are often held in contempt by those associated with DTW and its followers. For them, Orthodoxy is a pseudo-rebellious religious posture with candles and exotic pictures; nothing further need be known.

Instead of being the subject of a positive news article, DTW ought to be derided by serious Orthodox Christians who have no interest in having their religion reduced to a fad. Those who find their way to Orthodoxy through DTW and other similar resources are likely to enter with a woefully incomplete and despicably inaccurate picture of what the Orthodox Church is. This is not what Orthodoxy needs, particularly in the United States where fervent religiosity often takes the shape of barking-mad hysterics. Of course, Orthodoxy is not alone in suffering through attempts to blend its character and traditions with disposable convictions and self-important posturing. I used to listen to Pedro the Lion after all.

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.

Any Given Sunday

Somewhere in the world a Tridentine Mass was said without the servers reciting the second Confiteor and a Divine Liturgy served without the second antiphon. Millions of complacent Christians did their weekly duty of showing up to church, pretended to pray, and silently judged the proceedings with thoughts of football, fornication, or just about anything else besides Christ on their minds. And then, in the ancient city of Cairo, dozens of Coptic Christians—mainly women and children—were torn to shreds as a giant explosion ripped through St. Mark’s Cathedral.

As honest as the Western media may want to be when it comes to the state of Egyptian politics in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the religious significance of the attack is all but lost on them. The Islamists who no doubt carried out this strike are already being referred to as “extremists” and the Copts themselves defined in terms of politics rather than religion. Lost is any sincere acknowledgment that from the days of the false prophet Muhammad, whose tragic birth is celebrated this day, millions of Christians have perished under the crescent moon.

Eastern Christians are, unsurprisingly, much more sensitive to this reality than their Western brethren. For while Latin Catholics may still give passing notice to events such as Lepanto or the Battle of Vienna, Easterners are forced to recall the fall of their ancient patriarchal sees, not to mention historical defeats at Constantinople, Kosovo, and many more. Regardless of local church affiliation or rite, the Eastern liturgical year commemorates numerous incidences of grotesque Muslim violence against the Christians of the East. It is hoped that the prayers of these holy martyrs will sustain what’s left of Christianity in the Middle East, though right now those prayers must feel unanswered.

Without discounting the deleterious effect secular liberalism has had on the West for two centuries, it is difficult at times like this to take the persecution narrative of certain Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all that seriously. The day may come when the liberal order finally seeks to violently rid itself of the last remnants of Christendom, but that still seems a long way off when compared to the more immediate and savage violence that Islam continues to perpetrate all over the world against the followers of Jesus Christ. Western political leaders will, naturally, express some condolences before returning to business-as-usual, that is, ignoring the plight of the Middle East’s dwindling Christian population.

And what will the Church say? Should we expect an outcry followed by an outpouring of prayers for the deceased and wounded or some highly qualified statements meant to ensure everyone that the attack in Cairo, like the numerous attacks which preceded it in the past few years, was the work of “extremists,” a “fringe” not representative of Muslims generally? Shall we be scolded into accepting the lie that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Heaven help us all.

If He Is Not Your King…

Over the course of the past few months I have been going in chronological order through the archived sermons of Fr. Patrick Reardon over at Ancient Faith Radio (AFR). The archive, which dates back over a decade, may be the most impressive audio collection of Eastern Orthodox homilies in existence. For though some have not always seen eye-to-eye with Reardon on certain subjects (e.g. the nature of Orthodox theology, liturgics, the role of the Old Testament in the life of the Church, sexual ethics, etc.), no serious person can deny that Reardon is one of the most learned Orthodox churchmen in the West and maybe the most Scripturally sound Eastern cleric in the world.

In a brief 2005 homily, simply entitled “Melchizedek,” Fr. Patrick makes the point that just as Melchizedek’s kingship cannot be separated from his priesthood, neither can Christ’s. And if we, as Christians, will not have the Lord Jesus as our king, neither can we have him as our priest. This is an unsettling lesson for modern man, being that we are so accustomed to rejecting both the need for a mediator and authority. Today, even those of us (Orthodox and Catholic) who are willing to accept the idea of a mediator tend to do so on our own terms; that is, in a largely private and circumscribed manner. Is it any wonder then that we see this play out as well with regard to Christ’s kingship? In the privacy of our homes and the silence of the pew, we may pay private homage to Christ the King, but not in public. In public we live as the world expects. Perhaps we try to be “nicer” than others, or take the Lord’s name in vain a tad bit less, but that is not enough. God does not call men to love and worship Him on their own terms; He calls us to total obedience, even unto death. How quickly we forget that.

If we live our lives as Christians, that is, in obedience to God, we will be rejected by the world. We will not “get along,” either in the workplace or at school or even among friends. This is a a truth that Reardon stresses — a truth most of us would rather not be reminded of. Look today at how Christians, specifically Catholics, are so eager to adopt the garments of capitalism or communism in order to win worldly approval and benefits while paying no mind to the divine teachings entrusted to the Church. See how Catholics chase after secular political leaders to be their kings or queens without paying any mind to Christ. We reject His Kingship and still believe we are entitled to his priesthood. We want His Grace, but not His Law. In the end, we love to be in the world and long to be of it.