A Few Comments on “Life in the Orthodox Church”

V., the anonymous writer who runs the Perceptio web-log, has finally followed through on the time-honored tradition of Orthodox converts writing about . . . their conversion. In a post entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky One to Rocky Three (Life in the Orthodox Church),” V. provides his own spiritual-psychological account of why other people enter Orthodoxy before briefly touching on his own reasons (theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and so on and so forth). It’s not particularly persuasive, at least not when it comes to accounting for the myriad of reasons people leave some form of Protestantism (and occasionally Catholicism) for the Eastern Orthodox Church. With respect to ex-Catholics, while it is true that some are looking for a safe haven from the turmoils of contemporary Catholicism (heck, even Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, is rumored to have entertained becoming Greek Orthodox following the Second Vatican Council), a good number of ex-Catholic Orthodox I have met over the years either married into Orthodoxy or weren’t strong churchgoers prior to finding the Christian East. Of course some certainly made their choice for concrete intellectual and/or aesthetic reasons, but they were not “traditionalists” in any strong sense of the word. Most traditional Catholics, for better or worse, take a fairly low view of the Orthodox, regarding them as “schismatics” or “heretics”; they are not inclined to convert, no matter how rotten things get in Rome. The few exceptions I have known to this rule (all priests and monks) did wind up in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), but less out of a desire for “exclusivism” and more because ROCOR, when compared to some other Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, is relatively “safe” in its conservatism. (Also, if you happen to appreciate the Byzantine-Slavic liturgy done well, there’s no better place to go than a ROCOR parish.)

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On the Pan-Orthodox Council – Followup

For reasons which should be obvious to most, the “Great and Holy Council,” which is currently underway in Crete, has been on my mind quite a bit. Last Friday, over at First Things, I gave a sobering account of where matters stood on the eve of the Council without wishing to get bogged down with predictions (most of which probably wouldn’t come to pass anyway).

On Sunday, Pope Francis sent out the following tweet.

No doubt the Holy Father meant well, but Catholics should not forget the extent to which anti-Catholic animus coupled with ecclesiastical chauvinism have conspired to derail the Council. Now with word getting out that the Council is considering a draft document which would, in effect, “elevate” four Orthodox councils/synods to “ecumenical” status, a new line is being drawn in the sand between East and West — and to what end? The Orthodox world is splintering in profound ways along national and ethnic lines. Some are even predicting an eventual schism between the Ecumenical and Moscow patriarchates. How does it make sense, at this late stage in the game, to go beating the anti-Scholastic/anti-Papal war drums? Or perhaps this is a necessary growing pain which both Catholics and Orthodox must endure on the fraught path to unity. Now may be a good time to wonder if the oft-derided project of “Uniatism” isn’t the way to proceed, at least with respect to those parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church who are willing to prioritize both unity and truth without fictitiously shrinking the Body of Christ down to a ghetto.

In closing, let me call your attention to a quote by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov which Pater Edmind Waldstein recently posted up on his web-log, Sancrucensis. Maybe this says it all?

Otherwise, if apart from Peter the universal Church can expressly declare the truth, how are we to explain the remarkable silence of the Eastern episcopate (notwithstanding that they have kept the apostolic succession) since their separation from the Chair of St. Peter? Can it be merely an accident? An accident lasting for a thousand years! To those anti-Catholics who will not see that their particularism cuts them off from the life of the universal Church, we have only one suggestion to make: Let them summon, without the concurrence of the successor of St. Peter, a council which they themselves can recognize as œcumenical! Then only will there be an opportunity of discovering whether they are right.

Ways Toward Renewal

Reinhard Hutter, a professor at Duke Divinity School and a leading light of “ressourcement Thomism,” penned a piece for First Things several years ago entitled “The Ruins of Disconunity.” It is an essay I have returned to many times and recommended relentlessly to anyone interested in the state of Catholic theology following the Second Vatican Council.

Lewis Ayres, a professor of historical and Catholic theology at Durham, has since penned a lengthy response to Hutter, one which was only brought to my attention today. Entitled “The Memory of Tradition: Post-Conciliar Renewal and One Recent Thomism,” Ayres calls into question some of the critical points advanced in Hutter’s essay, particularly his commitment to a “ressourcement Thomism” which is inextricably linked to the high point of the Church’s Scholastic tradition. Various duties will likely keep me from commenting on Ayres’s reply in depth for some time, but out of fairness to those interested in the direction of Catholic theology and renewal in general (whether traditional or not), I wanted to bring it to your attention.

As always, combox thoughts are most welcome.

A Remark on Traditionalists and Collegiality

Rorate Caeli ran an odd post (for a traditionalist website) on Saturday decrying “false collegiality.” Why? Because the Holy See is now demanding that it must be consulted in advance of bishops establishing new institutes of consecrated life with their respective dioceses. While this move—which could have negative consequences for conservative and traditional institutes—does indeed appear to be a slap in the face to the idea of collegiality in the Church, since when have traditional Latin Catholics cared about such a thing? For nearly fifty years traditionalists have been attacking the very idea of collegiality since the promulgation of Lumen Gentium at the Second Vatican Council. Generally stated, traditionalists worry that collegiality undermines the authority of the pope by disrupting its inherent monarchical structure (assuming the Church has ever truly had such a structure as many traditionalists conceive of it today). Even during the days of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when my traditionalists felt alienated from the Church and unhappy with various decrees emanating from the Vatican, they continued to call for an end to collegiality, or at least a reformulation of the concept along papal-monarchical lines. So what has changed? Has Francis’s pontificate become so nauseating to their ecclesiastical tastes that they are now willing to flip on collegiality, desiring for its full return rather than suffer from the apparent horrors of centralization?

Granted, there is plenty of room offered up by this recent move concerning institutes of consecrated life to wonder about the intentions and motives of Pope Francis. Francis, who has never been shy about speaking on the need for great collegiality and doctrinal decentralization in the Church, doesn’t seem to be following his own mind, at least not on this matter. Moreover, there have been plenty of points during Francis’s pontificate where it appears that he wants his own personal form of piety and idiosyncratic understandings of Catholic teaching to become normative for the universal Church without regard to the Church’s rich history of diversity. And he has certainly had no problem preempting the heads of particular churches in dealing with non-Catholic Christians, such as failing to invite Patriarch Sviatoslav of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (or any official UGCC representatives) to his historic meeting with Moscow Patriarch Kirill.

As I have written about elsewhere, there is a concerning inconsistently among some traditional Catholics when it comes to how the Church should be organized and governed. During this period of crisis when it seems that many popes and bishops have failed in their duty toward Christ and the Church, traditionalists long for decentralization, autonomy, and the right to follow their own consciences. But assuming things take a turn for the traditional, then many of these Catholics will no doubt agitate for a return to a strict monarchical model where the pope behaves more like the President of the United States and less like the Supreme Court. If anything now is the time for traditionalists, in concert with other serious Catholic thinkers, to reflect long and hard about the nature of the papacy, particularly as that nature is distorted or enhanced by the era of the “celebrity pope” and the ubiquity of modern media. If traditionalists desire neither collegiality nor centralization

Cons and Trads

Fr. Chad Ripperger (formerly) of the Fraternity of St. Peter has an excellent article up over at Faithful Answers discussing the differences between traditional and conservative (or what he calls “neoconservative”) Catholics. Here’s an excerpt:

Furthermore, neoconservatives’ very love for the Church and strong emotional attachment to the Magisterium cause them to find it unimaginable that the Church could ever falter, even with regard to matters of discipline. Like the father who loves his daughter and therefore has a hard time imagining her doing anything wrong, neoconservatives have a hard time conceiving that the Holy Ghost does not guarantee infallibility in matters of discipline or non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching. Traditionalists, confronted by a Church in crisis, know that something has gone wrong somewhere. As a result, they are, I believe, more sober in assessing whether or not the Church exercises infallibility in a given case. That, allied to their looking at the present through the eyes of the past, helps traditionalists to see that the onus is on the present, not the past, to justify itself.

The only quibble I have with Fr. Ripperger’s piece — and it is a minor one — is that it doesn’t account for the experiences of Eastern Catholics, most of whom do not fit neatly into either the traditionalist or conservative category. While there is what I would call a “natural conservatism” among the Eastern churches, centuries of living in a de facto ecclesiastical ghetto coupled with various influxes of “Latinization” have compelled contemporary Easterners to recover their respective traditions. This is all fine and good, but as most Latins know by now, the process of “recovery” is often fraught with difficulties and subject to being hijacked by renovationists.

A Remark on Patheos, Natura Pura, Not Knowing What You’re Talking About

Vapidity is never in short supply over at Patheos, particularly when Artur Rosman is at the helm as a writer, “channel manager,” or facilitator of guest blog posts. Though the entry is nearly a year old, an online acquaintance recently called my attention to Michael Martin’s guest post on Rosman’s Cosmos in the Lost web-log. The post claims, inter alia, that Pope Francis’s 2015 encylical Laudato Si “counters the theology of natura pura that has poisoned some quarters of Catholic theology since at least the seventeenth century[.]” There are several problems with this brief, triumphalist, assertion, not the least of which being the fact that it is highly contestable that the theology of natura pura is an early-modern innovation rather than a continuation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s own intellectual project. Martin doesn’t discuss this, of course; instead he quickly cites John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle, a book which has been subjected to withering criticism from numerous Thomists, including Reinhard Hutter in his 2012 tour de force Dust Bound for Heaven. Joining Hutter in refreshing the theological discussion surrounding  the topic are the likes of Steven A. Long and Lawrence Feingold, both of whom have penned substantial treatments of the subject which cast serious doubt on the commonplace criticisms of natura pura. Martin fails to mention them, or even bother to discuss how Laudato Si in any way, shape, or form upsets the theology of natura pura.

Maybe Martin is enchanted by the myth that embracing natura pura means embracing a modern, non-teleological and non-theonomic conception of nature which paved the way for both scientism and materialism. If so, he really ought to read Long’s Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace. In it, Long shows that those who defend natura pura work with a decidedly premodern and teleological conception of nature which has not lost its theonomic structure. While it is still possible to reject natura pura or to argue that it is not theologically necessary to preserve a thick doctrine of grace, Long — and others — show that natura pura‘s proponents are not responsible for ushering in secular modernity or belittling God’s action in the world. Unfortunately, no reader of Martin’s post would have any idea about this, perhaps because Martin himself remains beholden to a theological legend of recent vintage which has only served to silence natura pura‘s proponents rather than clear the way for a frank and thoroughgoing investigation of the subject.

To conclude on a positive note, let me stress that it is possible to be critical of natura pura while being both charitable and intellectually honest. Take, for instance, Aaron Riches’s freshly pressed work, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Eerdmans 2016). As an aside on pgs. 13 and 14, Riches suggests an affinity between natura pura and what he calls “quasi-Nestorian logic,” though he also stresses that classical proponents of natura pura, particularly of the Thomistic school, always retained “a robust Cyrillian doctrine of the hypostatic union[.]” Riches further notes that those seeking to overcome the theology of natura pura ought to first reckon with Long and Feingold’s work, something which most contemporary theologians have simply failed to do.

Cardinal Burke on Amoris Laetitia

I am still not commenting on Amoris Laetitia (AL) — I’m just helpfully directing your eyes, dear readers, to some of those who have. Today, Cardinal Raymond Burke weighs-in on the exhortation for the National Catholic Register. Here is a snippet of what he has to say:

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops.

. . . .

In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops, and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.

What is more, as noted above, a document which is the fruit of the Synod of Bishops must always be read in the light of the purpose of the Synod itself, namely, to safeguard and foster what the Church has always taught and practiced in accord with her teaching.

In other words, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.

Beyond the controversy surrounding AL, Cardinal Burke’s words warrant careful attention from all Catholics, many of whom remain confused about the magisterial status of various papal documents and public statements (e.g., interviews given at 30,000 feet). In this unfortunate era of the celebrity pope and neo-ultramontanism, it is all too easy for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to view the pope not as the Vicar of Christ but the Oracle of God. Moreover, simply because a document is “official” and gets released with all sorts of bells and whistles attached does not mean that it automatically binds the faithful in conscience. Given the free-roaming nature of not just Francis’s writings but certain writings of his predecessors, it can be difficult, even painful, for the faithful to discern just exactly what they are supposed to believe and profess. Of course, even though Burke is correct about the non-magisterial nature of AL, that doesn’t mean its contents — or the contents of many statements made by this pope — can’t undermine settled Church teaching. This is exactly what conservative and traditional Catholics have been worrying about for some time now, and it seems that their worries are well-placed.

The Last Thing I’m Going to Say About Amoris Laetitia

By now everyone and their sister, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, has had a chance to weigh-in on Amoris Laetitia (AL), Pope Francis the Merciful’s ponderous exhortation which may, or may not, have altered Church teaching on marriage forever; reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine with beauty and profundity; or accomplished nothing at all. Where one comes down on those options (or a plethora of others which lie somewhere between them) probably says a lot more about their religious orientation than anything else. For what it’s worth, I’m leaning toward “accomplished nothing at all,” not because I believe everything is hunky-dory in the Church (no, no, no, not that) but because Catholic doctrine on marriage, the family, and sexuality has been a mess for more than half-a-century already; AL doesn’t add to it in any significant way. What it does do, however, is bring out into the open what all of those with eyes to see already knew, namely that “individual conscience” rather than the Gospel shapes the decisions of millions of Catholics regarding remarriage, contraception, and the moral status of any number of sexual practices and proclivities. Those who already cut conservative-to-traditional, for the most part, still affirm traditional doctrine in these areas; nothing in AL will now prompt them to start divorcing en masse or approaching the sacraments unworthily. Catholics on the other end of the ideological spectrum will keep doing what they’ve always been doing, though perhaps they’ll be a tad bit bolder about it. No one, however, should even attempt to claim that AL did a single thing to relieve the great moral and doctrinal crisis afflicting the Corpus Mysticum. That’s just a bridge too far.

I see no reason to comment in-depth on AL or, for that matter, much of anything else the Holy Father in Rome has to say. When it comes specifically to the issue of marriage, his credibility was shot the second he imprudently reformed the annulment process last year. At that moment “Catholic divorce” became a sure-fire reality and all claims that the Catholic Church’s approach to broken marriages differed substantially from the Orthodox approach were rendered implausible. In fact, given the nature of Francis’s annulment reforms and the easy-going manner in which many annulments can now be attained, there is a powerful argument to be made that the Orthodox (at least in the Russian tradition) have a much more demanding process in place for marriage dissolutions. Does that make the Orthodox approach “right”? Probably not, though they deserve credit for being honest about what they are doing even if it emerged as something of a late-Byzantine historical accident. And while nobody wants to mutter this too loudly, let’s not forget that until the late 19th/early 20th Century, a number of Greek Catholic churches followed Ortho-praxis regarding second and third marriages. If Rome is serious about the Eastern Catholics reclaiming their authentic traditions, shouldn’t that be back on the table, too?

But I digress. It’s well above my paygrade to pontificate on how the Greek Catholic churches ought to handle marriages and divorces. Besides, Rome has been telling them what to do (in contradictory fashion) for decades now. Imagine, though, if the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) were to adopt contemporary Russian Orthodox practice regarding marriage dissolutions. What that would mean is that the UGCC would be more thorough about the dissolution issue than the Latins are about annulments. Would that be such a bad thing? Yes, I know many conservative and traditional Latins would scoff at that possibility just as they scoff about the idea of married Eastern clergy, but so what? If the Latin Catholic Church wishes to play coy about how they handle marriage and divorce with nary a mention of the myriad of contradictions which attend to that handling, why not let the Greek Catholics join their separated Orthodox brethren in being perfectly frank about what is going on? Just think of the ecumenical implications! (Ok, maybe there aren’t any; Greek Catholics are still “accursed Uniates” and “bandits” according to some luminaries in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches.)

With all that said, let me close by promising that I will never speak of AL on Opus Publicum ever again. I do reserve the right to make mention of it in other forums, however, should the need arise. I will leave it to those far more invested in apologizing for/damning Francis, the post-Vatican II magisterium, and the deplorable leadership in the Latin Church to unpack this-or-that murky passage in AL or project what some footnote could mean for the future of Holy Mother Church. I have popcorn to make.