Ephemera VIII

Adam DeVille, over at his Eastern Christian Books blog, posted an interview last month with Will Cohen, author of The Concept of “Sister Churches” in Catholic-Orthodox Relations Since Vatican II. Although I have not yet had a chance to read Cohen’s book, my suspicion is that the title alone will lead to some knee-jerk reactions from both sides of the ecclesiastical divide. So it goes. As for the interview itself, I am intrigued by Cohen’s observation “that the East-West schism wasn’t so much something that happened as something that was and still is in process of happening[.]” I think that’s accurate, at least to the extent that we know by now that the rupture in Christendom wasn’t a “big bang” moment in 1054 A.D. and that East/West relations were, at points, cordial up until after the Council of Florence. By the close of the 18th Century, however, it seems that one can say that the schism became more severe, what with the rise of hyper-nationalism in Greece and the imperial ambitions of Russia. Somewhat ironically, only when Orthodoxy was driven West due in large part to the Soviet Revolution and its aftermath did a truly separationaist mindset fully set-in, one which has bequeathed us a strange legacy of historical revisionism, conspiracy theorizing, and incoherent ecclesiologies. Despite all of this, Cohen thinks there is hope for the future — and I certainly hope he’s right.

Speaking of DeVille, be sure to check out his latest piece on primacy and synodality over at Catholic World Report. In reflecting on the recent Catholic/Orthodox joint statement on the topic, DeVille suggests that one of the impediments to East/West reconciliation is not so much doctrinal as it is canonical. Specifically, DeVille looks to the 1917 and 1983 codes of canon law (along with the 1990 Eastern code) to track how papal authority is framed in the light of the two Vatican councils and what might be done about it in order to bring Church governance closer to a first-millennium model. To be clear, DeVille does not ignore the dogmatic statements concerning primacy contained in Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus; he simply rejects the idea that this document serves as an insurmountable wall between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Of course, changing some canons probably won’t get all of the work done. Given that we live now in the era of the “celebrity pope” where papalotry runs wild, it will take some time to ween Catholics — including many conservative Catholics — that the papacy is akin to the U.S. presidency, where meaningful limits on the exercise of power are more illusory than real and “the executive” can and should micromanage the government. That is not the historic role of the pope in the Universal Church, and it shouldn’t be his role today.

It’s taken a little bit, but The Josias is starting to come back to life, especially in the wake of the Tradinista nonsense. Now that Elliot Milco has channeled Matt Hardy and finally deleted the Tradinistas, hopefully more work will be put into The Josias‘s work of trying to “articulate an authentically Catholic political stance from which to approach the present order of society.” If you have not yet visited the site and perused the archives, please do. There you will find a treasure chest of fresh commentaries, original translations, and reflections on topics such as the common good, Catholic Action, integralism, the American Founding, and history. It is a wonderful resource and one that I encourage all thoughtful and faithful Catholics to consider contributing to.

Finally, the Major League Baseball postseason is now well underway and I couldn’t be more disappointed with the results thus far. After my Detroit Tigers failed to secure a Wild Card spot, I have been forced to watch two lackluster and tilted American League Division Series while also recoiling in horror over the possibility that this year might actually be the Chicago Cubs’ year (Heaven forbid). At this point I don’t see how the Cubs won’t be in the World Series at the end of October. As for the American League, while I believe the Toronto Blue Jays have a stronger ball club overall than injury-plagued Cleveland, I won’t sell short Terry Francona’s ability to lead the Indians to victory. And so I am going to go with Cleveland over Toronto in six and then do my best to believe that they can eventually overcome the Chicago juggernaut.

Ephemera VII

The Byzantine Texas web-log is not always known for its edifying discussions, but sometimes they can turn interesting. Take, for instance, the ongoing back-and-forth between “Jake” and “Peregrinus” (and others) concerning Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s recent remarks that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “a fully Orthodox Church with Orthodox theology, liturgics, spirituality, and canonical Tradition, which strives to live this Orthodoxy in the spirit of first-Millennium Christianity — that is, communion with Rome.” After all of the theological, ecclesiastical, and metaphysical dust settles, it seems to me that the real issue here is who has a “right” to use the term “Orthodox”? By conservative Orthodox lights, the Greek Catholics are misappropriating the term, even though the use of “Orthodox” as an exclusively confessional designation is of rather recent vintage. To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic kicks up much dust that Eastern Orthodox liturgical and theological texts still use the word “Catholic.” It is fairly plain to see that when Patriarch Sviatoslav and other members of the UGCC refer to themselves as “Orthodox,” they do so because they see themselves as the authentic continuation of Byzantine-Slavic Christianity which emerged in Kyivan-Rus’ at the close of the first millennium. Of course the Eastern Orthodox don’t accept this, but why should that matter? The UGCC, as a sui iurius patriarchal church in communion with Rome, needn’t seek the approval of the Orthodox when defining itself or carrying forth the Gospel in lands still reeling from the devastating aftereffects of atheistic communism.

The ongoing young-Catholic fascination with Marxism reminds me of the larger young-Christian fascination with the works of Giorgio Agamben a few years back. Without bothering to pay much attention to what Agamben was up to, Christians of various stripes were citing him left and right simply because he happened to write about Christian themes, including St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. None of this is to say that people shouldn’t read Agamben, though it seems to me that there are diminishing returns in doing so. Had 9/11 never happened and Carl Schmitt never became vogue, Agamben’s notoriety and influence in Anglophone circles would probably have remained modest. As for the self-professed “Catholic socialists” who embrace Marx, I have to wonder how many of them have read Marx or later Marxist thinkers and what insights do they believe this ideology has for Catholicism today? It’s easy to lift a handful of Marxist terminology from one’s Philosophy 101 notes; it’s exceedingly more difficult to apply those concepts in an intellectually rigorous manner. Then again, maybe the Marxist rhetoric in play among the “Catholic socialists” right now is just that: rhetoric. But wouldn’t that mean this whole “Catholic socialism” thing is little more than posturing? In other words, could it really be that primarily white, Ivy League priv-kids are co-opting something they really don’t understand in order to feel self-important? That’s never happened before, has it?

A friend of mine sometimes asks me about points concerning Byzantine liturgy, either among the Orthodox or the Greek Catholics. I feel like my answer is always, “It depends.” Despite the myth of uniformity that some Orthodox like to promote, the on-the-ground reality is that most Orthodox parishes, depending on jurisdiction, are hardly uniform. In fact, it’s not even that surprising to see parishes within the same jurisdiction or diocese (e.g., Orthodox Church of America’s (OCA) Diocese of the Midwest) do things slightly different based on the particular parish’s history, the priest’s training and temperament, and the desires of the faithful. I have been to OCA services conducted in the exact same manner as a UGCC service and OCA services which are quite consciously trying to ape the high Synodal practice found in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Most local variants are pretty harmless and unnoticeable to untrained eyes, though some aren’t. Greek Catholics in America have struggled mightily for decades to correct a whole host of liturgical abuses that crept in both before and after the Second Vatican Council. Still, for reasons I don’t fully understand, there remains a desperate, and ultimately silly, pursuit of “purity” among far too many Eastern Christians (Catholic or Orthodox), as if there was ever a time in ecclesiastical history where the liturgy was codified and practiced perfectly.

In closing, let me just note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the East. Most readers know by now my general position on the “liturgical wars” that rage among Latin Catholics concerning changes made to the Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum from the mid-1950s until the early 60s. To me, that seems so secondary compared to the prevalence of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “low-Mass mentality.” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a majority (or at least roughly half) of all Sunday Tridentine Masses are low, i.e. they are not sung. Accompanying this unfortunate development is the near-total eradication of the Divine Office from Latin parish life. Although this process began long before Vatican II, it is regrettable that the fight to maintain liturgical orthodoxy within the Latin Rite has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous fight to restore this rite to its full splendor. Some will likely argue — with justification — that the deplorable state of the Roman Church in the 1970s and 80s made it extremely difficult for Catholics to find the Tridentine Mass at all; prudence dictated that matters of liturgical solemnity should be put on hold. Well, while things are far, far from optimal in the Roman Church today, there now exists numerous resources for priests and laity alike to begin celebrating the traditional Roman Rite as it was meant to be. So what’s stopping them?

Review: To Build the City of God

Writing as a Catholic and lawyer who once tried his hand at academia, I must say that Brian M. McCall is something of a marvel. Prior to becoming a full professor and academic dean at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, McCall was a highly successful international commercial and antitrust attorney with an enviable educational pedigree. He is also a traditional Catholic who has written for The RemnantThe Angelus, and Latin Mass Magazine and published a series of books discussing the authentic social teaching of the Catholic Church. To Build the City of God (Angelico Press 2014) is both a critique of liberal modernity in the light of the Church’s perennial teaching and a practical guidebook for Christians looking to negotiate the secular age. More than a romantic call to the past, McCall intelligently and insightfully breaks apart the liberal-secularist narrative of contemporary life while calling fellow Catholic to the carpet for trying to fuse liberalism with the Faith.

After briefly reviewing the doctrine of Christ’s social kingship, McCall’s book starts logically with the family, which is the foundation of both political and economic society. Although some may find McCall’s critical thoughts on women wearing pants and the loss of cursive among children to be a tad bit “fuddy-duddy,” these remarks are bound up with a much more significant points, namely the loss of proper order in the household and the surrender of the family’s proper authority to the spirit of the times. For those familiar with the writings of John Senior, none of this will come across as particularly shocking or new, though that’s not what McCall is up to here. What McCall wants to do is paint a clear picture of just how distorted contemporary family life has become due to the barrage of false ideas and images that we are inundated with on a daily basis. Even those who have foresworn television and limit their Internet access to edifying material alone (such as the Opus Publicum web-log) cannot escape the routine broadcasting of dominant cultural assumptions concerning sexuality, equality between the sexes, and the independence of children; to build up a bulwark against such errors is no easy task, but it must be done.

Where To Build the City of God really shines is in McCall’s discussion of economic life. Over the course of several sections, McCall submits the economic ideology of libertarianism to a withering critique by reminding readers of one inescapable fact: all economic activity involves human choice. Contrary to the propaganda spread by the Acton Institute and full-throated libertarians like Thomas Woods, the “science” of economics is not about “hard laws”; nothing is determined in advance absolutely, not even the so-called “law of supply and demand.” When supply shrinks, a choice is made to raise prices; it is not inevitable. And as for the classic argument that keeping prices low while supplies are short leads to a waste of scarce resources (an argument Woods is fond to repeat), McCall highlights that raising prices only favors the wealthy; it doesn’t mean that those who truly value the scarce resources the most will acquire them. Additionally, a wealthy person may be more inclined to waste resources because he can. For instance, a man living alone making a million dollars a year could afford to buy 10 EpiPens even though he only needs one, simply because he wants to keep one in his numerous cars and rooms. Meanwhile, a family of six with a father making $50,000/year will struggle to purchase just one even though they have a child whose life could depend on the device. Does the family of six value the EpiPen any less than the millionaire or do they simply lack the means available to the millionaire?

As the book progresses, McCall offers up some practical advice for his fellow faithful. While he has some rightly harsh words for usurers, McCall’s treatment of the topic is both charitable and nuanced. As he makes clear, not all loans — even loans with interest — are necessarily usurious, though many are. McCall also clears the air about bankruptcy brought on by such lending and other social conditions; although we have an obligation to pay our debts, there are legitimate circumstances where bankruptcy is necessary and the shame associated with the option is bound up with Protestant economic ideology rather than authentic Catholic teaching. Equally powerful is McCall’s discussion of tithing, a practice promoted by Protestants and even many Eastern Orthodox, but which has no authentic basis in the Gospel. It’s not that McCall is calling on Catholics to not support the Church; that duty can be found even in the natural law. Rather, McCall rejects the pernicious idea that the Church demands a flat 10% “tax” from the faithful while also discussing how the modern state and the current liberal economic ordo fleeces people of their rightful wages before they even have a chance to give to the Church.

My choice to finally pick up To Build the City of God is fortuitous given the recent break-out of an old error, namely the “Catholic socialism” of the self-proclaimed “Tradinista Collective” (see here and here). Although McCall spends the bulk of his work attacking the errors of political, social, and economic liberalism, implicit in his argument is a powerful rejection of the socialist temptation to seek-out a top-down “solution” to our present woes. Unlike the Tradinistas, McCall recognizes the proper role of hierarchy and subsidiarity in a just society. Above all, by demonstrating consistent fidelity to the Church’s social magisterium and her centuries-long tradition of confronting socio-economic realities in the light of both natural and divine law, McCall offers up a truly Catholic alternative to the liberal order. If only others were brave enough to follow in his suit.

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.

Ephemera IV

I know I sound like a broken record, but every time I come across a “1954 v. 1962” liturgical books squabble among traditional Latin Catholics, I want to cry (with laughter). Nobody in their right mind has ever claimed that the “1962 books” are superior to those which were normative in 1954 or earlier; they have merely defended them from the accusation that they are “corrupt” or “harmful” or “theologically dangerous,” etc. What amuses me is how certain “pro-1954” folk speak of the great integrity of the Byzantine Rite to help bolster their claim that the abbreviations instituted first by Pope Pius XII and then by John XXIII are abominations in the eyes of the Lord. Step into any Orthodox or Greek Catholic parish in the world and all you will find are services which have been abbreviated (sometimes rather clumsily and arbitrarily). Even monastic usage contains cuts here n’ there to offices such as Matins or the All-Night Vigil. Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t elements of the “1962 books” which should be reconsidered and revised. Some of the abbreviations instituted make little sense, and the “new” Holy Week Rite is atrocious compared with the original. All things in due course.

Have you watched the video Anointed, produced by the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer (F.SS.R.) in honor of one of the congregation’s founders, Fr. Anthony Mary, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood? If not, you should. For those unaware, the F.SS.R. (sometimes referred to as the Transalpine Redemptorists) is a traditional order of priests living a semi-monastic life on the isle of Papa Stronsay in northern Scotland. As their name indicates, they are spiritually descended from the Redemptorist tradition established by St. Alphonus Liguori in the 18th Century and carried forth by such great saints of the Church as Gerhard Majella, John Neumann, Clement Hofbauer, and Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky. Whether you are of Western or Eastern persuasion, the video is well worth spending some time with.

I don’t often go to the movies, but several weeks ago my brother and I went to see Hell or High Water, the heist film which is generating overwhelmingly positive reviews. Some, however, have criticized the movie for glorifying robbery and making bankers out to be a cadre of predators seeking to rob honest, hard-working people of their property and livelihood. The latter charge doesn’t really strike me as too far from the mark, and besides the movie sets this form of legalized theft against the backdrop of the even greater acts of theft which secured the West for America’s white citizenry well more than a century ago. While it may be cliché to speak of a film containing “shades of grey,” this one certainly does. If there is a true hero to be found amidst the desperation and panic that drives Hell or High Water, it is Jeff Bridges’s Texas Ranger, and even by the end he is tempted by lawlessness as a means to do right in an unforgiving, morally indifferent world.

Dylan Pahman, the Acton Institute’s resident Orthodox apologist for free-market capitalism, is back preaching that old-time liberal religion in his most recent article for Public Orthodoxy, “Orthodox Theology and Economic Reality.” Like many of Pahman’s pieces, this one is shot through with a number of strange assertions, the most startling being his claim that the Orthodox “lack any serious engagement with the insights of modern economic science.” Whatever does Pahman mean by “economic science”? A brief perusal through Acton’s archives—and Pahman’s own writings—reveals that “economic science” actually means the heterodox claims of the so-called “Austrian School,” a marginalized economic ideology that eschews empiricism and falsifiability. Nowhere does Pahman make mention that the Russian Orthodox Church has spoken forcefully on economic matters—including condemning global capitalism—as recently as a few months ago. It’s a shame that the real failure evident in Pahman’s writings is his unwillingness to engage honestly and openly with his own ecclesiastic tradition.

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.

Go East?

There has been a fair amount of chatter on social media concerning John Burger’s Aleteia piece, “Go East, Young Man.” In it, Burger discusses his reasons for switching from the Latin Church to Greek Catholicism, mooring his decision in primarily aesthetic and sentimental terms. That’s fine. Ask most people why they choose Eastern Orthodoxy and they will largely say the same thing, even if they feel compelled to dress-up their decision with some vague references to “the Fathers,” “Holy Tradition,” and “the Ancient Faith.” Burger, being Catholic already, didn’t need to undergo some half-baked quest for the “one true Church,” nor does it sound like he is trying to flee any troubling ecclesiastical developments in his former wing of the Catholic Church. He just really likes Byzantine Christianity generally and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom specifically. Good for him.

While I wish Burger all the best, I do sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with some of the factual errors contained in his article. For instance, the author seems unaware of how much the Divine Liturgy has changed since the days of Ss. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great; the idea that this liturgical form has remained static for over a millennium is patently ridiculous. Moreover, even a cursory glance at the various Eastern churches which use the Byzantine Rite reveals local variations and practices which cut against the notion that the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the same manner at all times and places. Like any liturgical rite, the Byzantine has developed considerably over the course of many centuries and has even undergone several top-down reforms which were anything but minor. To ignore this reality is to present a picture of the Byzantine Rite which happens to be overly-romantic and ultimately false.

With respect to Burger’s comments comparing the Byzantine and Roman rites, he also appears to be unaware of how the Novus Ordo Missae’s radical expansion of the lectionary represents a break with the once-shared tradition of both rites using a set lectionary for the liturgical year. Surely Burger should know how, particularly during Great Lent, the readings for each Sunday dovetail with the hymnography of Vespers and Matins. With respect to the traditional Roman Rite, the lectionary is intimately connected with each Sunday’s Propers; the readings, prayers, and chants make up an integral whole which guide the faithful through the liturgical year. And as for the idea of giving the faithful “more Scripture,” let’s be honest. Very few Catholics today attend Mass outside of Sundays and perhaps Holy Days of Obligation.

Now, some have expressed dismay that Burger left the Latins for the Greeks in the first place. For what it’s worth, I don’t begrudge a single soul who, through frequent attendance at an Eastern church and careful reflection, applies for a canonical transfer. This is not an innovation; it has been going on for centuries. (For example, the Servant of God Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was born a Latin Catholic and transferred to the Greek Church when pursuing his religious vocation.) My concern with Burger’s piece is that it turns the venerable Byzantine Rite into an aesthetic preference while failing to account for the larger theological and spiritual heritage of Greek Catholicism (be it Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, and so forth). Burger’s instincts may have been in the right place when he wrote the article, but his execution is noticeably off.