Neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy can save the West alone, and by “the West” I mean that civilizational accomplishment which began nearly three millennia ago and is rapidly decaying before our very eyes. Unlike what you might read on some other web-logs, or spouted during podcasts and coffee hour chats, the Orthodox Church is as much a part of the West as the Roman Catholic. Even those communities which still, barely, inhabit the far eastern borderlands of Orthodoxy are not somehow beyond the singular brilliance of the Western patrimony, a patrimony informed by both reason and revelation. To speak of east and west in geographic terms is in many ways sensible. To somehow hold, as some romantics do, that Orthodox thought, built strongly on the intellectual achievements of Byzantium and its pagan forebears, sits now, or has ever sat, outside of both the achievements and pathologies of (geographically) western thinking is pure nonsense. A brief perusal through Fr. Georges Florovsky’s magnum opus, The Ways of Russian Theology, should relieve any right-minded person of any such illusion. And anyone who has studied seriously the trajectory of modern Orthodoxy theology, before and after the Soviet Revolution, should know that it has never rested in splendid isolation from many of the academic currents which were, and to some extent still are, all the rage throughout continental Europe and on this side of the pond as well.
None of this should need mentioning by now, but sadly it does. By now one might assume that nearly a century of secular-liberal assaults against the last remnants of Christendom. There are those, Orthodox or otherwise, who look to contemporary Russia as a beacon of anti-liberalism, an eastern outpost of Christendom. Even if that were true (and there are good grounds for believing otherwise), what would mean in the concrete for us, “good American Christians” (or maybe I should extend this: “good Anglophone Christians”) who find it almost impossible to contemplate living in a society that doesn’t distract itself perpetually in rights-talk and freedom worship? Political dissatisfaction in this country is not enough to make a complex, wobbly, and arguably doomed former imperial power like Russia appear normatively attractive. Its resurgence at the global political level will ultimately be eroded by its steep demographic decline and unstable economic system.
Picking on Russia isn’t the point of this post, however. What we ought to be doing is picking on ourselves. No matter how self-satisfied any of us might be with our respective confession, the hard truth of the matter is that most of us are too busy tending to, or observing with horror, internal fires that consistently distract us from the larger reality. Retreatism isn’t the answer, or at least not the answer any more than subtle capitulation, the sort that often takes place in university hallways at ostensibly religious schools and has a nasty way of spilling over into the pedestrian thinking and second-grade rhetoric of religious pundits. Orthodox, whether they like it or not, really need to look to the Catholics on this one, for it has been the Catholic Church, or some noble remnants of it, that has been on the front lines against so much of the degradation which now surrounds us. At the same time, however, the Catholic Church has suffered terribly because of this same degradation, internalizing all sorts of maladies from which it struggles daily to recover. Orthodoxy isn’t exempt, but its comparatively small size in the (geographic) west and insularity abroad has kept it both safe and, distressingly, ineffective. Orthodox don’t like to speak much of this truth, for obvious reasons.
Reunion between two of the world’s great Apostolic communions would be preferable right now. The one little hiccup getting in the way is that it’s impossible, or rather impossible under present circumstances. Owen White once stated many moons ago that for Catholicism and Orthodoxy to (re)unite, one side would have to cease being what it is. My suspicion is that both sides will have to, and all for the greater glory of God. In the interim, which is likely to last well past my fleeting time on this good earth, might there not still be a way ahead for these two bodies? When Constantinople was on the brink of falling into the hands of Mehmet II and his army, Latin soldiers dispatched by Nicholas V stood bravely with the Greeks. Concelebrations were held on the altar of Hagia Sophia, all in the hope of preserving the greatest Christian city the world has ever known. As noble as that call to arms was, are we not now being asked to defend so much more against odds which dwarf those faced by Emperor Constantine XI and his army, one comprised of Christians from both the east and the west?