A Note on the Neo-Orthodox Attack on Catholic Sacraments

Since the book is getting a lot of attention in Eastern circles, I thought I would make mention of the recently translated neo-Orthodox polemic against the Second Vatican Council, Fr. John Heers’s newly translated The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II: An Orthodox Examination of Rome’s Ecumenical Theology Regarding Baptism and the Church from Uncut Mountain Press. Heers, for those who are unaware, is a vocal opponent of Catholic/Orthodox ecumenism and the intellectual heir of Greek-nationalist theologians such as Fr. John Romanides. To be clear: I have not read the book, though I am not against doing so at some point down the line. In the meantime I decided to check out an earlier paper by Heers, one which appears to summarize the “findings” contained in his book: “The Mystery of Baptism and the Unity of the Church: The Idea of ‘Baptismal Unity’ and its Acceptance by Orthodox Ecumenists.” The title effectively gives away the author’s conclusions. Heers wants the Orthodox Church to “return to strictness” when it comes to “heretical baptisms.” In other words, he wants all converts to be re-baptized and for Orthodoxy to go full Jansenist in declaring there is no grace to be found in non-Orthodox sacraments. Wonderful.

As most know, the push for re-baptism and grace-denial is of relatively recent vintage. In the centuries prior to the rise of Greek nationalism, the Greek Orthodox Church—like its Russian counterpart—accepted non-Orthodox (Catholic and Oriental) baptisms, and if chrismation or confirmation had already been administered, they were sometimes accepted as well. (I will leave to the side the various debates about this.) Further, Catholic priests who converted to Orthodoxy, whether from the Latin or one of the Eastern churches, were traditionally received through vesting, not re-ordination. Once the modern “Greek view” started to become normative, theories were developed about previous practice, with oikonomia being proposed as the “magic answer.” According to this line of thinking, it wasn’t that Orthodoxy accepted the validity of non-Orthodox baptisms; reception into the Orthodox Church retroactively filled the otherwise empty sacraments with grace.

It is ironic that Heers and his fellow travelers are so rabidly against the possibility that Orthodoxy could develop a broader and deeper sacramental theology which contemplates the validity of sacraments conferred by non-Orthodox ministers. None of them seem to have any problem with the development (some might argue degeneration) of Orthodox sacramental theology with respect to marriage, one which now allows for the dissolution of valid marriages and the possibility for an Orthodox layman to marry two additional times. When, I wonder, will the neo-Orthodox now calling for a “return to strictness” regarding baptism do the same regarding marriage? That’ll be the day.

A Closing Comment on the Meyendorff Posts

Contrary to what some have murmured about in other forums, the previous two posts on Fr. John Meyendorff’s views concerning Catholic marriage and contraception were not intended as cheap shots against the Eastern Orthodox, nor were they meant to be read as easygoing vindications of contemporary Catholic praxis. As I have stated before, the Catholic Church has little-to-no “moral high ground” on the Orthodox with respect to marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and sexual ethics as a whole. No one should triumphalistically wave the text of Humane Vitae in the air without first acknowledging that most Catholics ignore it. Similarly, the days of condescending digs at the Orthodox over marriage dissolutions should be over, particularly in light of the fact that Pope Francis has cleared a pathway for “Catholic divorce.” Although I believe that Fr. Meyendorff was mistaken on certain points of Catholic doctrine, and exhibited a strange lack of knowledge concerning the natural-law tradition, that hardly means I think less of him as a serious scholar. His works on classical Byzantine theology, St. Gregory Palamas, and East/West relations should be required reading for any serious student of Eastern Christianity.

All thinkers have faults of course, and Meyendroff was no exception. Fr. Peter Totleben, whose contributions to this blog are always welcome, had this to say in the combox to “Meyendorff on Roman Catholic Marriage“:

A typical pattern that you see in the works of Meyendorff (especially when he is critical of Western practices) is that he takes a term, a tag, or a catch-phrase that strikes him as odd, gives it his own meaning, and then criticizes it in terms of the meaning he has given it. So he can be a bit hard to engage.

There are also some problems with Meyendorff’s historical work. He’s usually invested in a particular “side” in the historical events that he investigates. And he doesn’t really take the positions of other sides seriously. He usually is too trusting of his own party’s evaluations of its opponents, and he uncritically repeats them as if they were objective summaries of the state of affairs. And he never really consults what the opponents of his side have to say.

So, reading Meyendorff can sometimes be like letting Rush Limbaugh explain democrats to you . . .

Meyendorff (and Orthodoxy) on Contraception

Yesterday’s brief post on Fr. John Meyendorff’s controversial remarks on Roman Catholic marriage prompted me to poke around a bit more in Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is what Meyendorff has to say on the contraception question.

Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the “artificial” means, such as the “pill.” But is there a real difference between the means called “artificial” and those considered “natural”? Is continence really “natural”? Is not any medical control of human functions “artificial”? Should it therefore be condemned as sinful? And finally, a serious theological question: is anything “natural” necessarily “good”? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to “burning.” Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health?

Straight condemnation of birth-control fails to give satisfactory answers to all these questions. It has never been endorsed by the Orthodox Church as a whole, even if, at times, local Church authorities may have issued statements on the matter identical to that of the Pope. In any case, it has never been the Church’s practice to give moral guidance by issuing standard formulas claiming universal validity on questions which actually require a personal act of conscience. There are forms of birth control which will be acceptable, and even unavoidable, for certain couples, while others will prefer avoiding them. This is particularly true of the “pill.”

Meyendorff on Roman Catholic Marriage

A Facebook friend of mine posted a controversial passage from Fr. John Meyendorff’s Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective. Here is the quote, along with some prefatory sentences he omitted.

Many confusions and misunderstandings concerning marriage in our contemporary Orthodox practice would be easily eliminated if the original connection between marriage and the Eucharist were restored. Theoretically, Orthodox sacramental theology, even in its scholastic, textbook form, has preserved this connection in affirming, in opposition to Roman Catholicism, that the priest is the ‘minister’ of marriage. Western medieval theology, on the contrary, has created a series of confusions by adopting, as in so many other points Roman legalism as the basis of sacramental theology: marriage, being a ‘contract’, is concluded by the husband and wife themselves, who are therefore the ‘ministers’ of the sacrament, the priest being only a witness. As a legal contract, marriage is dissolved by the death of one of the partners, but it is indissoluble as long as both are alive. Actually, indissolubility i.e., a legal concept taken as an absolute is the main, if not the only, contribution of Christianity to the Roman Catholic concept of marriage. Broken by death, assimilated with a human agreement, marriage, in the prevailing Western view, is only an earthly affair, concerned with the body, unworthy of entering the Kingdom of God. One can even wonder whether marriage, so understood, can still be called a sacrament. But, by affirming that the priest is the minister of the marriage, as he is also the minister of the Eucharist, the Orthodox Church implicitly integrates marriage in the eternal Mystery, where the boundaries between heaven and earth are broken and where human decision and action acquire an eternal dimension.

In the 40 years since Meyendorff penned those lines there have been various attempts within Catholicism to “correct” the idea of marriage-as-contract and adopt an ostensibly more Eastern take on the supernatural end of marriage rather than droning-on exclusively about the begetting and rearing of children. Even so, Latin “contractual theology” regarding marriage remains the prevailing view. It is so prevalent in fact that we have reached a point where a pope can (allegedly) say that more than half of Catholic marriages are invalid on the basis of the partners’ inability to form the proper intention to make a sacramental pact. Had Latin Catholicism adopted the Eastern view, whereby the priest is the minister of the sacrament, it would be far more difficult — if not impossible — to claim that any more than a relative handful of Catholic marriages are in fact invalid. Although Roman Catholics still enjoy lobbing stones at the Orthodox for allowing marriages to be dissolved, arguably the Eastern view of the sacrament better protects its integrity than the dominant Latin one. (And before anyone flies into a huff, I in no way, shape, or form reject fixed Catholic doctrine on marriage.)

Of course, one ought to take some of Meyendorff’s remarks with a grain of salt. As my aforementioned Facebook friend observed — and any Orthodox Christian can confirm — , Orthodox marriage ceremonies take place outside of the context of the Divine Liturgy all of the time. Reception of the Eucharist is not an “essential element” of the rite. Moreover, mixed marriages never include the non-Orthodox spouse receiving Communion. And as Meyendorff himself states elsewhere in the book, Roman Catholic marriages are typically celebrated with the Mass, which seems to splash at least a bit of cold water on Meyendorff’s hyper-contractualist retelling of Latin sacramental theology regarding marriage. Still, one can rightly speculate about the general effect the Latin view has had on the popular Catholic understanding of marriage and whether or not it may have something to do with the anthropocentric — rather than Christocentric — approach many couples take to the wedding ceremony itself. Contemporary Catholic weddings, by and large, have a great deal to do with the couple and very little to do with God.

The Last Thing Anyone Will Ever Write on the Douthat Affair

By now most Catholics online—and even many non-Catholics—are aware of the dust-up over New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s alleged “heresy hunting” piece. Left-wing Catholic academics penned an indignant letter; conservative writers ran to Douthat’s defense; and a Jesuit got upset. By this time next week the case will be closed and in a month few will remember the affair at all. The worst possible defense of Douthat’s actions is to claim he was exercising his “freedom of speech.” He’s Catholic; he has no freedom of speech. In fact, none of us do. To speak or write error is not a true exercise of freedom even if we live in a late-liberal society that is allegedly neutral toward the content of speech. I write “allegedly” because we all know by now that there is a growing list of taboo topics which can only be raised under the right circumstances and with due reverence. If a man wishes to pen a blasphemous screenplay mocking God, Christians, and traditional morality, then praise be. If another should point to the adverse outcomes of the so-called “sexual revolution” and gender politics, let him be drawn and quartered.

If Douthat wrote anything in his column that is slanderous, erroneous, or intentionally misleading, then I pray he has the humility to admit as much. In fact, I pray that a proper authority, be it his priest or bishop, would have a word with him about it. I am as confident that will happen as I am in the chance that other appropriate ecclesiastical authorities will use this matter as a launching-pad to investigate the “scholarship” of Douthat’s critics. Such an investigation need not concern whether they produce “good scholarship” or “bad scholarship.” These are professional academic theologians at American Catholic institutions of higher learning; of course their scholarship is bad. No, what the proper authorities need to do is what Douthat hasn’t actually done, namely root out heresy and publicly chastise those who fail to repent and amend their views. What a glorious day that will be.

Remarks on Taking Erik Peterson Seriously

In summarizing Erik Peterson’s provocative and still-timely 1937 essay, “Witness to the Truth,” Michael Hollerich writes that for Peterson “[a]ny regime that does not recognize Christ is ipso facto in the service of Christ’s enemy.” According to Hollerich, Peterson’s critique of the present age, one carried out through a penetrating reflection on martyrdom, is “orient[ed] . . . to the coming New Age rather than to a disappearing and irretrievable past[.]” Oddly, however, Hollerich remains uncertain what Peterson’s piece “has to say to those of us who live today with middling contentment, in the shambling structures of liberal democracy[.]” Hollerich recognizes “Witness to the Truth” to be “a powerful summons to resistance,” but for whom? It is at this point in his summary that Hollerich provides a list of potential audiences, editorializing on their relative worth at the same time before breaking off to allow readers to explore Peterson’s writing for themselves.

Erik Peterson on Liberalism, Politics, and Theology

The liberalism that asserts that theology and politics have nothing to do with one another, was the same liberalism that separated Church and State in politics and for which in theology the membership in the Body of Christ was only a matter of personal opinion and Christian dogma was only a mere subjective expression of opinion. It is clear that a privatization of faith, such as that carried out by liberalism, had to have a detrimental effect on every aspect of dogmatics. There God was stripped as far as was possible of his transcendent character so that he could be absorbed into a private religious relation. There the God become Man became a liberal bourgeois who in fact worked no miracles but made up for it by preaching humanity, whose blood was not in fact a mystery but died for his convictions, who in fact did not rise from the dead but lived on in the memory of those close to him, who in fact did not proclaim the end of the world and his Second Coming but taught us to see the beauty of the lilies in the countryside. There the Holy Spirit also was no longer honored as the third person of the Trinity but only related psychologically to the so-called religious experience of one’s own soul. The assertion that politics and religion have nothing to do with one another could therefore be implemented by liberalism only in such a way that the Christian faith was heretically distorted.

– Erik Peterson, Unpublished Manuscript (quoted in Heinrich Meier, The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Expanded Edition pg. 10, fn. 25)

Some Comments on Taft and Sister Churches

Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., retired professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and world-renowned liturgical scholar, continues to vex some Catholics (mainly of a traditionalist variety) with his promotion of what he perceives to be Roman Catholicism’s new “Sister Churches” eccesiology. Taft’s most recent restatement of this position, “Problems in Anaphoral Theology,” 57 St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (2013), runs like this:

The Catholic Church considers [the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches to be] “Sister Churches,” which despite their rejection of communion with Rome, are ancient Churches tracing their roots, like those of the Roman Communion, to Apostolic Christianity, and are recognized by Rome as possessing the full panoply of what makes them merit the title “Church” as Catholics understand it: a valid apostolic episcopate assuring their apostolic heritage of valid Baptism, Eucharist, and other sacraments and means of salvation to sanctify their flocks.

Note that this new “Sister Churches” designation describes not only how the Catholic Church views those Orthodox Churches. It also represents a startling revolution in how the Catholic Church views itself. Previously, the Catholic Church saw itself as the original one and only true Church of Christ from which all other Christians had separated for one reason or another in the course of history and held, simplistically, that the solution to divided Christendom consisted in all other Christians returning to her maternal bosom. But the Vatican II Council, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality.

Remarks on Dialogue, Engagement, and Aquinas

There is a certain line of contemporary Catholic apologetic, more superficial than substantive, which has become fashionable in recent decades and runs generally like this: Because the Fathers of the Church, and later medieval giants such as St. Thomas Aquinas, drank from the wells of pagan philosophy, it is permissible, indeed laudable, for today’s Catholics to “engage” or “dialogue” with non-Catholic—even non-Christian or secular—“thought.” I use the term “thought” here loosely because oftentimes the “engagement” or “dialogue” being encouraged has more to do with religious-cultural traditions rather than any product of natural reason. That fact alone is more than sufficient to distinguish what St. Thomas was doing with the Corpus Aristotelicum from what certain fashionable Catholics have tried to do with, say, Buddhism or Vodun. Sticking with the realm of thought for a moment, it is necessary to note that even up until relatively recent times the Catholic “engagement” (or one might say “critique”) with non-Catholic (atheistic) philosophy was carried out in defense of the Faith and the Catholic intellectual tradition rather than a questionable attempt to artificially graft on some “alien wisdom.” Fr. Erich Przywara’s complex, and still widely misunderstood (or perhaps just underappreciated), critical engagement with Martin Heidegger comes quickly to mind. The Scholastic pushback against Modernism, which at best is only superficially Christian, is another example.