In certain corners of the Internet, along with the half-dozen geographic locales where they are still thought to exist, certain Orthodox Christians are smiling bright over the troubling “first fruits” of the Catholic Church’s ongoing “Extraordinary Synod on the Family.” (If you want to peek into the rotten basket, go here.) They’re smiling because right now it appears as if the Church is on the cusp of contradicting itself, of falling into the chasm which opened up at the First Vatican Council when the dogma of Papal Infallibility was solemnly defined. Nothing could be further from the truth — and they know it.
Or perhaps they do not. Despite the close affinities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism on almost all substantive doctrinal points, some Orthodox — or maybe just the Internet-dox — remain deeply confused about their own tradition, mistaking conventions for hard-and-fast truths while wandering in the darkness of “oikonomia.” That is to say, some Orthodox (many Orthodox?) cannot separate out what is magisterial and what is not within their own borders; how can I, or any other faithful Catholic, expect them to sort out ours? It doesn’t help either that the Orthodox lack a clear, non-polemical, exposition of what the Catholic Church actually holds dear. It’s rare to find an Orthodox Christian who, when asked to present the “errors of Rome” in a fairminded manner, doesn’t fall into hysterics 30 seconds later. So it goes.
The funny thing is that there is nothing contained in yesterday’s document which the Orthodox themselves couldn’t accept. This is not to say they do accept it, and certainly they, like all faithful Catholics, should not accept it. But oikonomia covers all. That is what makes it so hard for some Orthodox to understand what is going on. Because the Catholic Church has a clearly defined magisterium with resources for experts and laity alike to know what those teachings are, it is actually possible for Catholics to cry foul when they witness their shepherds going astray. The Orthodox, in principle, can do this as well, but many seem content to follow the “magisterium of their priest” or, maybe, the “magisterium of their bishop.” As I discuss in an upcoming article in The Angelus, an Orthodox Christian who doesn’t like what his or her parish priest says about divorce, contraception, and so forth can drive across town for a “second opinion.” If the “Arctic Orthodox Church” issued and affirmed a statement like the synodal report, the “Antarctic Orthodox Church” could protest it, but there is no body, practically speaking, who can arbitrate between the two. The Orthodox faithful can take their pick without worry.
As I have been stating here and elsewhere for several weeks, the debacle that is the Synod does open the door to some Orthodox snickering. Fine. I don’t disagree that what is taking place in Rome is embarrassing, deflating, and erroneous. What I disagree with is that it in any way, shape, or form undermines the indefectibility of the Catholic Church. As hurtful as the Synod is and will likely continue to be, it is also shining light on the reality that the truth cannot be overcome with some madcap proposals inspired, in part, by a problematic reading of “the Christian East.” If the truth were subject to oikonomia or “pastoral discretion” or “the mystical experience I have after doing too many prostrations and self-canings on an empty stomach,” then there wouldn’t be much fuss at all. We, faithful Catholics, would fall into line with the marching orders of the moment without recourse to Sacred Scripture, Holy Tradition, or our God-given natural reason. Thank Heavens that is not the case.
The way through and past this Synod — a blip on the radar in the long, tumultuous, but ultimately triumphant history of the Church — won’t be easy. There are wolves loose in the Vatican. Artful seducers are trying to convince over a billion souls that white is now black. Most disturbing of all, Christ’s Vicar here on earth is, at best, silent.
And yet the Church will go on. So, too, will Eastern Orthodoxy. Both communions, torn apart by pride and misunderstanding, limp and wobble in a world that no longer remembers that it needs Christ. Souls, we are told, can save themselves through iPhones, microbrews, and great sex. If the Orthodox wish to cast stones at us now, let them. If our troubles can distract them for a few moments from their troubles, then perhaps we are inadvertently showing them some charity. Just don’t be fooled by the trite remarks of some and assume for a second they have the slightest idea of what they’re claiming to talk about.