Some years ago an online acquaintance of mine suggested that one of the attractions of Roman Catholicism for converts is that it provided something like “philosophical certainty” in a radically uncertain world. In short, if you can’t handle the soft nihilism of mass consumer culture or the more full-throated nihilism embedded in any number of mainline academic disciplines, then the Church is the place for you. I was Orthodox at the time he pitched this idea to me, but even then I thought he was probably onto something. I don’t think Eastern Orthodoxy enjoys such an “exalted” status. Without trying to pass over all of the genuinely good things Orthodoxy provides to those who enter her doorway, I think it’s safe to say that “philosophical certainty” isn’t one of them. In many respects, Orthodoxy, whether it intends to or not, merely reaffirms the popular fideism which runs through large currents of conservative American Christianity. The suspicion of reason which, if pressed far enough, becomes the denigration of thought, plays nicely into certain myths about what an “authentic Christianity” ought to look like. For more “sophisticated” types, intoxicated with the ways and means of postmodern thought and positively indignant toward the idea that unaided human reason can tell us much of anything, the “mysticism” of Orthodoxy provides something resembling stability. In other words, it makes one’s religious solipsism look grounded.
Catholicism, of course, is a mess. Those pursuing “philosophical certainty” within her walls are bound to come up disappointed unless they have the intelligence and drive to tether themselves to an orientation of Catholic thinking which is today considered to be “old hat.” It doesn’t take much looking to discover that one can adopt the garb of a new-age spiritualist, a quasi-Eastern monastic, or an ironically detached smartass and find “their place” in Catholicism. Some say that’s Catholicism’s virtue, but only because they don’t see any real virtue in Catholicism at all. A Catholicism of one’s own making is as silly as a “life of one’s own making” or a “philosophy of one’s own making.” If people have entered the Church to escape all of that, then surly they are having ye olde buyer’s remorse right about now.
Some neo-Catholics will, naturally, poo-poo this observation. Instead, they will triumphantly proclaim that new souls enter the Corpus Mysticum because it’s true. And then, from that truth, people can find all kinds of healing, medicine, good feelings, joy, etc. That is to say, instead of finding some sort of “mere mental stability” or “epistemological surety” in the Church, they instead get to undergo a spiritual-emotional (more emotional than spiritual) transformation which, if the payoff is right, will make them into “better human beings.” The Church becomes a gigantic psychotherapy mill that churns out healthier and happier human beings who have learned to love more, forgive more, feel more, and “be more” in their personal and professional lives. Worldly success becomes a sign of grace and the ability to cast one’s eyes away from concrete crises and frightening dilemmas is both the proper indicia of spiritual transformation, but also evidence that one is a “good Catholic.” “Good Catholics,” as the story now goes, are faithful and obedient Catholics—faith and obedient to whatever the marching orders of the moment are out of Rome or in their diocese or what they hear during the last five minutes of Catholic Answers on EWTN.
Some Orthodox will snicker at this, and rightly so. I snicker at it when I am not fretting about it. (But at least if I am fretting about it, I am still a few steps back from the pit of despair.) I shouldn’t fret, but not because the neo-Catholics say I shouldn’t. When they tell me not to fret or to cause myself undue spiritual harm, what they mean to say is don’t let the word out that the prices have joined the emperor in not wearing any clothes. “Keep your mouth shut, and a thousand around you shall be saved.” (My apologies to Seraphim of Sarov.)
No, I should not fret because regardless of what happens, it will still be the Church. Or, I should say, there will still be a Church. I actually know nothing of the future of this “it” of which I speak. That “it,” the idolatrous “it” which confines the Church to a place and an appearance, strikes me as a very frail foundation. However, I have to remind myself constantly that for some, perhaps for many, it is the only foundation they have left. No, the Church is not now nor shall ever be “invisible”; that’s a heresy and a lie. A visible Church, however, is not made “more true” or “more right” by the trappings which attend to that visibility. There is much, much more which could be said about what is eternal and why that must remain visible as well.