Holy Saturday

There is a tradition among secular media outlets and certain Christians who wish to appear down “with the times” to question the historicity of the Gospels, particularly the Resurrection of Christ. This sad spectacle prompts more faithful followers of our Lord to set forth arguments and evidence of mixed weight in favor of the Biblical account. I won’t restate them here; a quick Google search will direct you to a plethora of books, articles, and websites dealing with the matter. Not surprisingly, few skeptics are ever convinced by these apologetics. There’s too much at stake ideologically for them to give any credence that Christianity is true. As for Christians themselves, including Catholics, there remains a sense—perhaps even a strong sense—that while Christ’s death on the Cross “did something,” whatever happened on Holy Saturday and Pascha is of peripheral importance. Maybe Christ rose from the dead; but if he did not, then we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. What is “crucial,” what is “central,” is that by at least arising in the hearts of his closest followers, Jesus and the message of peace he (allegedly) came to spread lives on to this very day among those who call themselves Christians.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who, following the questionable thinking of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, profess that something really happened after the Crucifixion, namely Christ enduring radical suffering in hell. And although those who challenged Balthasar on this point were for many years subjected to derision and false accusations on the grounds that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar, Lyra Pitstick’s Christ’s Descent into Hell (Eerdmans 2016) demonstrates that Balthasar’s heterodoxy never met with papal approval. Where the desire for the tormented Christ comes from is anybody’s guess. However, it is not entirely surprising that those whose views cut along Balthasarian lines tend to lean Universalist as well, perhaps believing that the profundity of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the devil could only give rise to such a powerful explosion of grace that even the hardened unbeliever, the unrepentant sinner, and the far larger mass of humanity which has always been lukewarm will be saved. (Exceptions to this “rule” include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

For those orthodox souls who still hold to the traditional understanding of Holy Saturday, an opportunity is presented to meditate on not only Christ’s salvific work, but the present state of the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, the faithful have been forced to watch the passion of the Church, how she has been made to suffer terribly and almost seem to die in those lands which for over a millennium accepted her. Although this suffering may no longer be over, orthodox Catholics find themselves in the darkness of Holy Saturday and the confusion that accompanies witnessing the Church—which is of divine origin—decline and crumble like a mere human institution. While faith tells these Catholics that the Church can never truly die (“the gates of hell shall not prevail”), that she will ultimately overcome the present trials God has given her, there remains an understandable distress among the faithful over when she will rise up again. It is not surprising that this distress gives rise to certain eschatological expectations that may or may not be warranted.

Distress often gives way to despair, something that Catholics have no right to do. It is not possible to remain faithful to the deposit of faith and hold that the Church is coming to an end. This is why it is imperative to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love; without them there is no conceivable way a man can endure the ongoing crisis. Even if one is not inclined toward embracing the moral depravity that contemporary society has worked so hard to normalize, the temptation to abandon the narrow path to Heaven out of a belief that Catholicism no longer has anything to offer (or, rather, nothing “exclusive” to offer) still pulls at the hearts and minds of many. It is very hard to take seriously what so many in the Church no longer seem to care about, namely Salvation—“the one thing needful.” If eternal bliss or, absent that, metaphysical surety and mundane comfort, are to be found primarily in one’s “authentic life choices,” then what use is the Church? Is it not merely a cultural expression, a barely living artifact destined to go the way of the cult of Apollo or the Norse religion?

Heaven forbid that thought should enter the mind of any Catholic, but it does every day. Perhaps then on this Holy Saturday and certainly tomorrow’s Paschal celebration we should rejoice in Christ’s conquest over death while directing that joy into fervent prayer for God to illumine those tempted by the darkness of despair. A season of great joy is upon us; let us not celebrate selfishly in the confidence that we are not lost, but rather hope that the Paschal Mystery will be felt by those tempted to abandon the Faith altogether. For who knows what scandal, what false teaching, or poor example from a priest or prelate will rattle our commitment to the Church. And on that day, won’t our souls long for the grace to remain resolute so that we, too, may join the choirs of angels and saints in Heaven, singing praises before the Throne of God?

Lazarus Saturday

For those following the Byzantine Rite, today is Lazarus Saturday, which recalls the narrative of Christ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. It is a liturgical commemoration that rests between the sorrowful days of Great Lent and the joyful Resurrection of Our Lord while pointing beyond itself to the General Resurrection. This liturgical day, like the Gospel account which undergirds it, is unique insofar as it brings into sharp relief both the humanity (“Jesus wept”) and divinity (“Lazarus, come forth”) of Christ.

As with all things Byzantine, this day can be invested with all sorts of spiritual meaning, some less saccharine and more sober than others. Many Orthodox Christians in particular will likely recall the scene from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Sonya reads Raskolnikov the Lazarus pericope, perhaps compelling them to connect the death due to their own sinfulness with the need for Christ’s love to overcome it. Lazarus, who by virtue of his friendship with Our Lord, most likely lived a far less sinful life than you and I, and yet he was condemned to death—that gross interruption in God’s plan for us brought into the world by our first parents and perpetuated to this very day. Lazarus, a holy man, still perished; he suffered a death that only the command of Christ could overcome. It is the same death we are all doomed to suffer, without prior knowledge of when, where, or how it will occur. All that we know, all that we can know, is that it will be Christ alone who calls us forth from the tomb to eternal life, one spent either with Him in bliss or with Satan in eternal torment.

If, like me, you have maintained the time honored tradition of having a bad Lent, one where the devil rides you hard and all of the spiritual commitments, sacrifices, and personal reforms you set out to accomplish go by the wayside before the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Lazarus Saturday holds out the hope of new life in the Lord. After being spiritually dead in the tomb of life’s distractions, petty trials, and fuss, Jesus still desires that we come forth to join him on Palm Sunday for his triumphant procession into Jerusalem and then to suffer by His side in Holy Week. We do not have to wait for the 11th hour; there is still time to labor for Christ, to pick up our cross and follow Him to Golgotha, to recollect ourselves in the anticipation of Holy Saturday, and rejoice with the Blessed Mother of God in the Resurrection of her Son on the third day. The only question that must be answered on this day is if we will respond to Jesus’ call and come forth, or opt instead to wallow in the darkness of our own sinfulness by refusing His love.

Trump, Syria, and Buyer’s Remorse

Many a man, particularly Christian ones, are suffering from buyer’s remorse today after news broke last night that President Donald Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime. There were concerns leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would needlessly involve the United States in a military conflict by enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. That move would have likely upset Russia, which has actively supported Assad’s campaign against rebel fighters (including the Islamic State) in the country. Trump, many believed, would be less hawkish than many mainline Republicans and find a way to build stronger ties with Russia as part of a united front against terrorism. Granted, last night’s “demonstration” was rather modest, and no one yet knows if Trump will authorize any further military action. However, as things currently stand, it appears that Trump’s foreign policy won’t cut along strictly anti-interventionist lines.

The situation in Syria is unique insofar as Assad’s regime remains one of the truly last secular governments in a Muslim-majority country in the Middle East. Moreover, Syria has failed to “play by the rules” of globalism over the years by maintaining a state-owned central bank; refusing to submit itself to the International Monetary Fund by taking out condition-heavy loans; and maintaining deep oil and gas reserves. Assad in particular balked at the idea of an “Arab Spring,” no doubt realizing that any attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East results in religious conflict, ethnic cleansing, and mass destabilization. Of course, none of this is to say that Assad is a “good man” by contemporary lights; the tactics of his military operation have been quite brutal, and it’s certainly not beyond the pale to suspect his regime of committing war crimes. However, the recent charge of using chemical weapons does ring strange considering that Assad had little-to-no reason to deploy them in the midst of a campaign his army was finally winning and that using such weapons opened the door wide for “justified” Western retaliation.

Or is this all a show? Some opine that Trump, Assad, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are all “in on it” with regard to last night’s attack. If the stories are true, the missile strike did almost no damage to Syria’s military and only served to bolster Trump’s national standing by appearing to “look tough” on an “evil regime.” Putin, for his part, gets to posture with moral outrage at the “illegal” American attack, thus currying favor with his own constituents while avoiding any direct confrontation with the United States. This theory will take on greater plausibility in the coming days and weeks if Trump avoids getting America further involved in the intra-Syrian conflict.

Regardless, Trump has shown himself as a leader not to be trusted—something both liberals and conservatives warned about over the past year. The worry is that, as in business, Trump will prove himself to be an opportunist in politics, making decisions not in line with campaign promises or a coherent policy framework, but rather in accordance with naked self-interest. This would not make Trump unique in recent political history, mind you. Remember that in the midst of a very public sex scandal and subsequent criminal investigation, Bill Clinton authorized air strikes against Iraq in order to improve his image, distract from the affair, or both. Trump, who has been on the ropes since taking office due to constant pushbacks from the judiciary, media, and within his own party, is staring down the barrel of ongoing accusations of colluding with the Russians in the run-up to his election. What better way to get some of the heat off his back than appearing to clash with Russian interests?

The primary cause for concern in Syria should remain the status of its ever-dwindling Christian population. Catholics and Orthodox alike have suffered terribly during the country’s civil war, and they will continue to suffer if the forces of militant Islam are not put down once and for all. Assad’s regime is their katechon, a restrainer holding back the lawlessness that would leave a river of Christian blood running through the country. To the extent that Trump and his allies take action that places Syria’s Christians further in harm’s way, they must be rejected, and rejected forcefully by American Catholics. Moral indecency does not get a free pass simply because it is carried out by one’s preferred candidate. While it is heartening to see some Christian supporters of Trump come around to this reality, it may take more than one betrayal for many others to realize that Trump’s ascendency is and will always be a “lesser of two evils,” but an evil nonetheless.

My Last Word on this “Benedict Option” Business

The cottage industry that sprung up around Rod Dreher’s proposal for a “Benedict Option” has exploded into a veritable industry now that his book with the same name has been published. Although there are many praising Dreher’s efforts, there seems to be just as many (if not more) criticizing them, sometimes thoughtlessly. Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, for instance, pulled the race card on Dreher in the pages of The Washington Post; others soon followed. A more compelling critique of Dreher concerns his apparent blindness to class. Is the “Benedict Option” only available to a privileged few?

My main concern with Dreher’s proposal, aside from the fact that it’s gimmicky and seems to ignore the fact that there have been serious and intentional Christian communities at work for decades, is that it has less to do with saving Western (Christian) civilization and more to do with preserving a certain lifestyle that is only available to those who have bought into a late-capitalist idea of what “success” and “happiness” looks like. And then there is the a-confessional nature of Dreher’s work. Despite one time being a professed Catholic, Dreher turned to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and yet rarely seems to take his own confession seriously when it comes to confronting secularism, liberalism, and capitalism. In many respects, Dreher remains a Catholic intellectually, and seems to wish for Catholics to join him in standing up against (post)modernity. But to what end? Why should Catholics, if they are serious and intentional about their faith, work toward providing a living space for Dreher, someone who has generated attention for himself by attacking Catholicism uncharitably despite clinging so strongly to the Catholic intellectual tradition?

Only Dreher can answer these questions, and I doubt he ever will. He knows as well as anyone that Eastern Orthodoxy in the West is little more than a backwater with an occasionally overinflated sense of its importance due to the willingness of both Catholics and Protestants to give them a prime seat at the discussion table. He likely realizes by now that there will be no serious and intentional Orthodox response to the problems plaguing America, not when the Orthodox have so many other things on their plate like recognizing each other’s sacraments and squabbling over who gets to claim Qatar’s remnant Christian population as part of their jurisdictional fold. That’s not to say I don’t wish things were otherwise. As heirs of Byzantine Christianity with a rich liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony, the Orthodox should be as well-poised as any Christian confession to both comprehend and respond to the contemporary world; but for a laundry list of historical and culture reasons I need not go into here, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and across the globe, remains beholden to an unsettling backwardness which stymies its growth and largely renders it incapable of achieving any higher “status” than being a handmaid of largely secularized states. On the imminent plane at least, Dreher knows Orthodoxy cannot save us.

Not that Catholicism is doing a much better job. While serious and intentional Catholic communities (and movements) certainly exist, Catholicism writ large has been wandering in the darkness of liberalism for more than half-a-century now with no immediate end in sight. These communities, it should be noted, are not the byproduct of a certain strand of academic posturing favored by certain “illiberal Catholic” types, but rather the outgrowth of authentic missionary work carried out by (a handful of) bishops, priests, and religious in concert with a growing body of laity who realize that they have been cutoff unjustly from their own heritage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle lying in the way of these Catholics fully realizing intentional and serious communities is economics. For while there are many critiques of capitalism available, the sad reality is that even so-called traditionalist Catholics are still beholden to the assumptions and benefits of capitalism. They associate, wrongly, a “free market” with the sort of prosperity envisioned by the Church, ignoring along the way the magisterial pronouncements of the Church on just wages, subsidiarity, solidarity, and so forth. In the end, they cannot avoid compromising with the world.

Sadly, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unlikely to set in motion the sort of soul searching necessary for Christians of any stripe to find a true horizon beyond liberalism. Even those who do not care for what Dreher has to say are, more often than not, looking to preserve their liberal-oriented way of life which they like to think of us “authentically Christian.” And for that reason perhaps above all others, Dreher won’t win himself many friends. He may be off the mark in some critical respects, but trying to do anything which may upset conventions, even the conventions of those who like to see themselves as heroically “on the margins,” is a perilous task. However, this may not bother Dreher that much in the long run. As the great sage and paragon of virtue, Eric Bischoff, says, “Controversy creates cash.”

Rod Dreher’s Striking Omission

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” (BenOp) is not novel, and the somewhat anticipated book-turned-bestseller regurgitating what Dreher has said on the BenOp over at his American Conservative web-log further confirms this truth. Ostensibly drawn from the closing section of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the BenOp has been castigated as being everything from class-based posturing to heartless retreatism. Given the confusion circulating in both the positive and negative receptions of the book, it’s clear that Dreher has not penned a manual for Christian action so much as a hastily gathered collection of negative observations on contemporary American society coupled with broad, but ill-defined, calls for Christians to form intentional communities to preserve Western civilization. While Dreher is often generally correct in many of his negative assessments, the Eastern Catholic theologian and blogger Adam DeVille is uncomfortable with Dreher “fixat[ing] on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree.” DeVille also joins a number of other critics in castigating Dreher for being tone-deaf to economic realities. Unlike Dreher, who lives comfortably off of popularizing derivative ideas, most Christians cannot afford to uproot and move to a paradisiacal Nowhere while planning their next oyster-and-wine vacation abroad.

Whatever one makes of these (and other) criticisms, the more constructive aspects of Dreher’s book sound remarkably similar to what the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditional priestly fraternity founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has been doing for nearly five decades. As noted, Dreher is calling for the establishment of serious and intentional Christian communities—which is exactly what the Society has been doing for decades. Locales such as Phoenix, Arizona, Post Falls, Idaho, and—perhaps most famously—St. Marys, Kansas are home to churches and educational institutions run by the SSPX which seek to preserve the Latin Catholic Church’s traditional doctrinal, theological, and liturgical patrimony. By being champions of the anti-liberal doctrines promulgated by the likes of Popes Pius IX (Syllabus Errorum), Leo XIII (Immortale Dei), and St. Pius X (E Supremi), the Society has never shied away from confronting the errors of liberalism, both within the Church and larger society. In relying on the time-honored wisdom of the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre and his fraternity foresaw the implosion of morals brought on by the banishment of Christ the King from public life and the persecutions that would befall Christians at the hands of secularists and Islamists alike. Rather than despair, Lefebvre and his spiritual children opted to fight. Despite repeated and unjustified sanctions by officials in Rome, not to mention an unyielding smear campaign kept up by liberal and so-called “conservative” Catholic writers, the SSPX continues to grow. Last fall, in rural Virginia, the Society opened a brand new seminary to house the influx of vocations pouring in—something which no Catholic diocese in America has been able to boast of in decades.

Beyond the aforementioned SSPX “strongholds,” the organization maintains a chain of chapels and schools across the United States (and, on a grander scale, around the world) that continue to thrive and expand by being serious and intentional Christian communities. More than serving as “Mass centers” for those tired of the banality of the Novus Ordo Missae, these foundations seek to instill true Catholic values in their attendees—values which the faithful are then expected to take out into the world with them. While the heart of the Society will always be the traditional Mass and full understanding of the sacramental priesthood, it is a heart that pumps the unadulterated Faith to an ever-expanding number of Catholics burnt-out on the false promises of liberalism. Even if some who regularly attend Society chapels may wish to maintain problematic fidelity to certain liberal outgrowths, there can be no denying that the message and mission of the SSPX points to an authentic horizon beyond liberalism, one where Christ the King reigns supreme and the final end of man is not earthly satisfaction but rather eternal beatitude with God.

Perhaps one reason Dreher omits discussing the SSPX in detail and acknowledging at length that it has long carried out the very thing he is proposing is because of the unfortunate (and ironic) anti-Catholic bias that Dreher still clings to. Dreher may have toned down the anti-Catholic polemics he became known for after defecting to Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, but he rarely misses an opportunity to openly discuss some Catholic scandal or another while sidestepping those which exist within his own communion. The irony of this lies in the fact that Dreher depends so havily on Catholic thinkers, institutions, and publications for his ideas, audience, and—well—paycheck. It is doubtful that the BenOp book would have generated as much attention as it has had Catholic outlets such as First Things not given Dreher several forums to air his thoughts and generate hype. And it is hype that Dreher seems to want more than anything else given how proud he was that a secular, liberal outlet like the New York Times chose to place his book high on their Nonfiction Bestsellers List.

Another reason is that the SSPX is perhaps “too hot” for Dreher, a writer who claims to critique contemporary liberal culture while remaining deeply embedded within it. His primary forum, The American Conservative, is, more often than not, a paleoconservative outlet of mixed value that still clings to American democratic principles (“rightly understood”) as the solution to our collective malaise. Where Dreher wishes to curry favor with media elites who will draw attention to his book or give him free airtime, the SSPX is concerned with the highest law of the Church, namely the salvation of souls. While Dreher pays lipservice to monasticism, asceticism, and prayer, the Society’s priests, with few belongings, zigzag the country weekly in an attempt to meet the expanding demand for—you guessed it—serious and intentional Christianity, the sort sustained by the Church’s sacraments and sound catechesis. That should be the sort of serious and intentional Christianity Dreher wants, not the secularized and part-time Christianity found throughout large swathes of both American Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Given how good the SSPX has been about anticipating and fulfilling Dreher’s serious and intentional vision decades before he ever proposed it, perhaps the Society has grounds to sue him for copyright infringement.

In closing, I have every expectation that the buzz Dreher has generated by the BenOp will steadily fade as the conversation around it grows dull and Dreher moves onto another money-making project to pay for those sumptuous meals he photographs for his web-log. The SSPX, along with a handful of other serious and intentional Catholic institutions and orders, will carry on the work “to restore all things in Christ” without seeking to profit from sloganeering. At the same time, the situation in America will grow even more dire. Few of those celebrating the relative reprieve offered by the ascendency of Donald Trump to the Oval Office will do anything to build-up fresh bulwarks against liberalism, and certainly nothing short of a spiritual revolution will defeat the culture of relativism, hedonism, and death that reigns over men in the place of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, only God can save us.

Feria Quarta infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

For those following the Julian Calendar, today is the Feast of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. As the story goes, 40 Roman soldiers who had professed Christianity were sentenced to die by being forced to stand naked in a freezing lake. One, however, apostatized and left the cold waters, only to be replaced by another Roman soldier who, moved by the sight of the other 39 soldiers’ heroic martyrdom, embraced Christianity. It is hard not to draw a parallel between this brave Roman soldier who entered the freezing waters voluntarily and Mathew Ayairga, a native of Chad and non-Christian who voluntarily accepted martyrdom at the hands of the Islamic State in February 2015 along with 20 Coptic Christians. Like Ruth of old, this young man confessed, “Their God is my God.”

Both acts of faith are difficult for contemporary minds to comprehend, even among Catholics. Religious liberalism, one of the hallmark dogmas of the modern age, destroys the sense that one ought to die for the truth rather than genuflect before error. Today, while hundreds of thousands of Christians are subjected to violence in the Middle East, there are Catholic bishops and priests who wish to promote the idea that the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the same as the false deity Allah. However, ask any Muslim who takes his religion seriously if this is true, and he will respond, “Allah had no son.” And he’s right. For only the Christian God, that is the true God, “came down from Heaven” and “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This truth, and all that flows from it, is what both the Martyrs of Sebaste and the New Coptic Martyrs gave their lives for. (And though the Copts remain estranged from the Catholic Church, they are—following the careful theological distinction of Pope Benedict XIV—martyrs coram Deo even if they cannot right now be considered martyrs coram Ecclesia.)

There may have been, some 50 years ago, a misguided sense among some in the Church that religious liberalism, rather than breeding indifferentism, might be pressed into the cause for peace across the world. These misguided souls bought into the liberal myth of progress and the notion that integrating cultures, economies, and political structures across the globe would compel people to set aside their differences. These men misunderstood the power of religion, specifically the power that the search for certainty and truth can have over men’s souls. For 1,400 years the peoples of the Middle East and beyond have been poisoned with mistruth; their certainty, borne out of fideism and fanaticism, has been a scourge on human history. “Free markets” and “open elections” were never going to eradicate that. For the Muslim, unlike far too many Christians, has not lost his sense of the transcendent, of the higher things that stir the soul—sometimes to great evil.

If 39 men stood in a frozen lake for refusing to renounce the Faith, I have to imagine that a good many Catholics would shake their heads in disbelief. They would then laugh at the man who strips down to join them, “knowing” as they do that all one has to do to get to Heaven is “follow your heart.” What, I wonder, would Pope Francis say about such a thing? Would he call it a waste of life? An act of religious fanaticism fueled by needless rigidity? Or, upon hearing of their deaths, would he make mention of it during one of his off-the-cuff interviews, choosing to focus on the intolerance of the persecutors rather than the heroism of those who would die rather than deny the truth. It is hard to imagine that the Holy Father (or most of the world’s bishops) would point to such men and proclaim, “Here! Here are your examples! This is what the Faith means! This is what we must be ready and willing to do for Jesus Christ!” He died for us, but the idea of us dying for Him is now anathema.

Many Catholics today speak of a crisis in the Church or, at the very least, of “serious problems” in the Church. Comparatively few write on the shallowness of our faith, on how distorted and worldly our collective outlook has become. No doubt that is due to the fact that no one wants to admit openly the weakness of their own faith, nor acknowledge that when push comes to shove, they would rather flee the garden of Gethsemane rather than face death, nay, even an ill-word from a coworker or friend. If we really looked hard at how fragile our faith is, we wouldn’t dare call ourselves Christians. Christians, by definition, are those who take up their cross and follow Christ. We today would prefer to follow our hearts and assume God’s approval and understanding, even if the path we have taken is manifestly contrary to natural and divine law.

Who do we blame for this? Because that’s what we like to do: we like to blame. Do we blame Pope Francis? Do we blame our local ordinary? Do we blame our parish priest? Granted, all three might have something to do with sowing the seeds of confusion in the Church today, but what about ourselves? What have we lost (or failed to gain) in this “journey on life’s way”? Those who are aware of the crisis in the Church and the falsehoods that circulate daily within her cannot plead ignorance. Our first reckoning should not be with the “authorities in Rome” or Fr. Bob down the street; it should with ourselves. And yet look how far away we are from doing just that.

Feria Tertia infra Hebdomadam III in Quadragesima

In one of his many talks on Catholic/Eastern Orthodox relations, the sometimes irascible Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. declared that if you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, look it up; it’s all written down (somewhere). Fr. Taft was responding in part to the tendency of some Orthodox to fudge on, if not fabricate, the Catholic Church’s position on any number of matters, ranging from Purgatory to the Papacy. Granted, it certainly doesn’t help that many Catholics themselves are less-than-clear on what the Church professes about these and many other things. With respect to Purgatory, for instance, the dogma itself is a lot less “grandiose” than many assume. In an article I wrote for The Angelus last December, “Latins and Greeks on Purgatory,” I pointed out the distinct (but ultimately unified) approaches of the Latin West and Greek East to praying for the dead, noting throughout that the dogma allows for several different emphases and opinions. The same can be sad as well of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God; Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition artfully avoids declaring whether or not Our Lady endured a bodily death before joining her Son in Heaven.

Reading is not only essential to learning what the Catholic Church professes; it also goes a long way toward understanding what her various members hold to as well. And so, when Latin Catholics or Eastern Orthodox begin going off about what the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church may or may not teach or emphasize based on its Byzantine patrimony, it would behoove both to consult that church’s recently translated catechism, Christ Our Pascha. Or, when it comes to the pending regularization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), those wishing to know what the SSPX has to say on certain teachings from Vatican II, the Novus Ordo Missae, or the tumultuous pontificate of Pope Francis can click over to the SSPX’s U.S. District Website or pick-up one of the Society’s many publications. It’s not difficult. In fact, it’s really easy, especially in the “information age.” Then why, I wonder, is there so much misinformation being spread, not by word-of-mouth gossip in the pews, but in online forums! If one knows how to navigate to “Holier Than Thou Super Traddie News,” then surely they can type in s s p x dot o r g.

There are times when I am almost forced to believe that people remain willfully ignorant in order to perpetuate half-truths or outright fabrications that bolster their private narratives of how the world, and the Church, “really is.” Make no mistake about it. The potential regularization of the SSPX will splash cold water on the persistent neo-Catholic narrative of Vatican II being not just a “dogmatic council,” but the beginning of a “New Springtime” or “New Pentecost” in the Church. Similarly, those who have virulently defended the New Mass from any and all criticism emanating from traditionalist circles will have to come to grips with the fact that the classic Roman Rite as preserved by the SSPX and the various Ecclesia Dei groups has a right to exist not as “an exception,” but the norm. These two developments are probably even more revolutionary than the regularization of the Society itself. And so it is little wonder then that neo-Catholics and liberals avoid learning why the SSPX professes what it professes; it’s so much easier to spread misinformation under the banner of willful ignorance than to actually engage with positions and ideas one happens not to like. So much for the pursuit of truth.

I am sometimes asked by my secular friends, “Why are you Catholic?” Aside from the fact that Salvation can only be found through the Church, I try to emphasize that she is also “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I like to further go on that her teachings are clear, available, and flow from both reason and revelation. But then I find myself stuttering a bit as I explain that despite the clarity of the Faith, there are many out there who actively seek to distort Church teaching in order to advance their ideological agendas. I have to explain, for example, how the Acton Institute can be run primarily by Catholics; actively promote their publications and lectures to Catholics; and insists on professing ideas that are unambiguously contra fide. At that point I realize how difficult it is to tell the “man on the street” to sit down with Leo XIII and Pius XI when ostensibly more learned men can’t seem to be bothered to do that very thing. It’s not that the great encyclicals condemning social, political, and economic liberalism are too “heady” or labyrinthine”; it’s that they disrupt a certain narrative of how the Church is supposed to relate to secular democracy, including secular democracy’s preferred economic system: capitalism.

Of course, from the beginning the Church has wrestled with misunderstandings, dissent, and heterodox teachings. As time has marched on, some of these misunderstandings have come to be seen as culturally or linguistically driven rather than clear instances of formal, obstinate heresy. Today, however, Catholics have the advantage of ready-at-hand access to what the Church teaches in full, along with theological explanations calibrated to a number of learning levels. And yet, distressingly enough, so few seem to care. They approach Church teaching in the same way the Clinton Administration approached homosexuals in the military: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” As such, they can cozy up to their personalized narratives of what Catholicism allegedly is without letting the truth get in the way. Whatever comfort this irresponsible approach to Catholicism provides here on earth surely won’t be there in the next life. If any truth can penetrate the hearts of such persons, I pray it’s at least that one.

A Reflection Unrelated to St. Patrick’s Day

In an earlier post on this web-log, I remarked that a portion of American Orthodoxy comes down to LARPing, especially among converts. What I did not get into were the possible reasons for this, the most likely being that putting on the appearance of a Russian peasant, Athonite monastic, etc. helps those living in a decidedly postmodern, geographically western environment to feel “connected” with an iteration of Christianity which, for many centuries, has survived as a particular ethnic-cultural expression with obvious, but fading, ties to the glory days of the Byzantine Empire. As amusing as this phenomenon is from the outside, I must confess that I can sympathize with the desire to feel rooted in something concrete, particularly in America where fluidity and superficiality reign supreme. Still, in the long run, such posturing won’t do much for American Orthodoxy except make it appear even more as a museum piece than it already is. The possibility of a living, breathing, and vibrant Orthodoxy—the hope and dream of some of American Orthodoxy’s brightest lights—appears to be on hold at the moment while the national mother churches of America’s overlapping jurisdictions battle it out over trivial slights and ecclesiological innovations.

Greek Catholics living in the geographic west, by and large, cannot escape their environment with fanciful appeals to the alleged ways and means of the “old country.” Nor, for that matter, can they deny that their Eastern patrimony has had to find a way to survive in a primarily Latin environment. Although some Greek Catholics may exercise the LARPing option or, worse, exempt themselves from Catholic teachings they don’t like under the banner of being “Orthodox in Communion with Rome,” most desire to retain their particular identity without denying that they live in a liturgical, theological, and spiritual tension between East and West. It is a tension that has existed since the days of the “Unia,” one that made Greek Catholics out to be the second-class citizens of the “Roman Church” before the slow, and often interrupted, process of self-assertion and reclamation began. And as often as Greek Catholics today may speak of being true to themselves and their Byzantine-based heritage, part of that truth includes the reality that for centuries their forebears connected with, adopted, and internalized aspects of Latin Christianity that helped draw them closer to Christ.

Having come of age during a time when the Greek Catholics of Eastern Europe were beginning to breathe freely again, I can recall praying and worshipping in a still heavily Latinized Greek Catholic environment; it would take some time before the higher level theories of “authenticity” being discussed in certain academic circles would begin to trickle down to the parish level. Even today my tiny, perhaps even unremarkable, parish retains several Western-style icons and an Infant of Prague statue all the while serving the Divine Liturgy in a manner indistinguishable from how one might find it served in the Orthodox Church in America or the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese. There are still pews, though most people today stand throughout the entire service except, perhaps, at the anaphora where a few still kneel. Some still cling to Rosaries, others to prayer ropes. Mnohaya lita is sung at the end of the liturgy in honor of birthdays and anniversaries, followed by reciting the Latin recensions of the Pater, Ave, and Gloria for the intentions of the parish. I don’t know what “purists” would think of all of this, but I don’t really care either. My parish, like so many others, does what it can to be true to itself, to what has been handed down and kept alive over the decades. If that doesn’t fit within a LARPing vision of what “pure Greek Catholicism” ought to be, then all the better.

Speaking only for myself, having been back in the Catholic fold now for some six years, I have found living ecclesiastically between East and West to be…refreshing. Having had little exposure to the Roman Rite growing up outside of banal, if not ridiculous, Novus Ordo liturgies that I was compelled to attend from time to time, I found great profit in immersing myself in the Tridentine Mass and setting aside my Horologion in favor of the Roman Breviary. I do not want to say that I was “on vacation” from the Byzantine Rite that I had known for many years, but in a way I was. The last thing I wanted to maintain was a ghetto mentality, and when I saw that I was developing a new one through an over-exuberant embrace of traditional Latin Catholicism, I did what I could to take a few steps back; survey the terrain; and recommit myself ecclesiastically to where I had come from. This choice, though by no means easy, has done more to sustain my faith through some extremely trying times than hiding out in a liturgical shack somewhere. It has also refreshed my sense that what is truly good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity transcends peculiar historical developments—and those developments must be judged by whether or not they continue to convey what is good, beautiful, and pure in Christianity.

Unity Is Not Always Good

In the Gospel Commentary translated and published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity, which contains sermons attributed to St. John Chrysostom that are appointed to be read at Matins throughout the Russo-Byzantine liturgical year, one can find this arresting reflection on Matt. 10:34-36 for the Sunday of All Saints:

Unity is not always good; it sometimes happens that division is good. Nor is every sort of peace worthy of praise; it often happens that peace is harmful, and drives out men far from divine love. If we made peace with the destruction of truth, it is most sinful and inappropriate. Christ did not come to bring such a peace, but rather its opposite. He wishes us to separate from one another when it is for the sake of a good cause. Not all peace and unity is good; there are occasions when contention and separation are great and divine deeds. Thus, one should not be joined in love with the wicked or be at peace with them. Even if father or mother, child or brother be found in opposition to the law of Christ, we should resist them as enemies of truth.

It is almost impossible to read these words without reflecting on the present situation in the Catholic Church where unity is encouraged perpetually, even with “enemies of truth.” Indeed, to even say that there are today “enemies of truth” within the Catholic fold is looked upon as not simply intolerant, but quasi-heretical. For there is a line of thought—quite pernicious—that holds that priests, bishops, and even the head of the Universal Church are unwavering founts of orthodoxy; to suspect otherwise places oneself under suspicion of being “crypto-Protestant” or “quasi-schismatic.” Those twin charges (and others) have often been directed at traditional Latin Catholics by both liberals and conservatives alike. And though some conservatives today may acknowledge that “enemies of truth” are actively attempting to rot the Mystical Body of Christ from the inside out, their first instinct is not to separate themselves from such enemies, but rather to pen long apologias for why such persons are not “true enemies” but only “apparent enemies.” Truth, as a general matter, is often not considered at all.

But let’s not forget that the message of St. John’s message can be abused. Consider, for instance, the relative ease with which autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches will break communion with one another over perceived ecclesiastical slights. Among the Latins, sedevacantists, too, feel justified in rupturing unity with the Universal Church on the grounds that they have privately judged popes, bishops, and priests to be formal heretics. To their credit, they see that there are “enemies of truth” within the Church; to their discredit, they rely on archaic manuals twisted into novel theories in order to justify themselves without much in the way of self-criticism. It is not that they are wrong in seeing certain figures and ideas within the Church as dangerous, but perhaps the choice for separation ought to be made with greater care.

Still, is it not possible to separate oneself from those “enemies of truth” without undertaking a formal act of breaking communion? Arguably, Catholics do so all of the time when they choose to go to Parish X rather than Parish Y; X houses orthodox sermons, sound catechesis, and a solemn liturgy whereas Y is completely off the rails, as they say. On a slightly grander scale, traditional Catholics have sought refuge in traditional chapels and churches run by institutes such as the Society of Saint Pius X or those fraternities that fall under the guardianship of Ecclesia Dei. These Catholics, too, have separated themselves from the “enemies of truth,” though without exiting the Catholic Church (despite what their detractors may say). Some of these folks worry that drawing too close to the institutional Church in the name will lead to a “sort of peace [not] worthy of praise.” It will be a peace predicated on compromise. Are they correct? It’s impossible to say in advance, though the fear and pessimism which sometimes animates such genuine concerns are not Christian virtues.

Of course, when speaking of “enemies of truth” it is, sadly, not possible to limit the list to just those high-ranking officials who, for instance, seek to subvert the Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings related to marriage and the sacraments. There are those “everyday Catholics,” both clerical and lay, who subvert the Church’s social magisterium regularly by offering up selective readings of key papal documents and ignoring altogether the precepts of the natural law when they purportedly conflict with infallible “economic science.” These “enemies of truth,” by internalizing the tenets of social, political, and economic liberalism, are happy to trade worldly success for fidelity to the law of Christ. In ages past, there was still a risk that such promoters of injustice would find themselves separated from the Church; today it may behoove Catholics to separate themselves from these “enemies of the truth,” these individuals and the institutions or businesses they operate which are carried out in service to mammon, not God.

Christ, as St. John reminds us, did not come to bring peace with this world, particularly a world beholden to the ideology of liberalism. Separation therefore is not always evil, just as unity is not always good. Fraternal correction, given in charity and truth, remains above all else necessary. However, when the corrections have been made, when the arguments and evidence have been presented, and still many persist in error, then what must come next? Suspend the final decision forever or make the hard choice, not in the name of pride or emptyheaded judgmentalism, but in the Name of Jesus our King?

The Spiritual Emptiness of the New Nationalists

Michael Brendan Dougherty has penned a thoughtful piece for The Week on those he calls the “new nationalists.” It’s a broad category that presumably encompasses not just nationalists in the United States and Europe, but also that loose confederation of reactionary, racists, and Internet trolls known as the alt-right. If anything unifies the new nationalists, according to Dougherty, it is their “biting critique of globalism,” that is, those “elites…[who are] committed to the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people” while also being for the further integration of a global political class.” One of the core problems the new nationalists have with the globalists is that the latter’s “goals are all promoted in an anti-democratic spirit.” However, when compared to the globalists, Dougherty finds “the new nationalists’ ambitions more inscrutable”; they “lack…a forward-driving vision[.]”

Maybe, or perhaps the simple truth is that the new nationalists neither desire nor need a unified ideology. They thrive on disaffection and any attempt to unify them under a single banner or set of transnational policy goals would erode the heterogeneity they strive for. Keeping democratic legitimacy alive is secondary to preserving national and cultural identity; the pushback against homogenizing trade deals and other international agreements emanates from the perennial desire to preserve “one’s way of life,” whatever that happens to be. The new nationalists, by and large, do not subscribe to the progressive view of history that animated the so-called “Washington Consensus” after 1989—the belief that integrated markets and legal cultures was the only way to go in a post-communist world. Sure, many believe in particular national progress, which may or may not come at the expense of others. But the idea of a glorious future shared-in all by all peoples in all places and for all time going forward is anathema.

In the end, Dougherty is concerned that he doesn’t see where the new nationalists are going, and maybe the new nationalists don’t even know themselves. That is probably true at the international level, but the international level really isn’t the focus of the new nationalists. The new nationalists may cheer each other on, but only because nationalist victories in the United Kingdom, then the United States, and maybe next in France, etc. are bad for globalism. This isn’t to say that the new nationalists don’t pick-and-choose favorites. Witness, for example, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The clash between “European” Ukraine and “Eurasian” Russia is a clash of competing and mutually exclusive nationalist visions. A victory for Ukraine is a loss for Russia and vice versa. When the Maidan broke out, perhaps there was some hope that the globalists would step-in to save Ukraine; perhaps that is why so many Western media sources are alarmed to find powerful nationalist (right wring) forces at the forefront of Ukraine’s battle against Russia. It’s “not supposed to be that way” in the globalist narrative peace, love, and internationally managed “self-determination.”

The critical problem with the new nationalists has little to do with the future and almost everything to do with the new-absence of an authentic spiritual center. In the U.S. and Europe, conservative Christians have rallied behind the new nationalists in the hopes of achieving certain concrete policy goals, but there is little evidence that most new nationalist organizations, political platforms, and candidates are meaningfully Christian. Catholics (and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox) have some say in the direction of certain right-wing political groups across the pond, particularly when it comes to social matters and remembering Europe’s Christian identity, but the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church prevents it from filling the moral void at the center of contemporary popular politics. In the U.S., which has never been Catholic, the Church has next-to-nothing to say except, embarrassingly, repeating a handful of mainly globalist platitudes dressed up with passages lifting from the Bible.

This does not mean that the new nationalists ought to remain walled-off from the tried and true social, political, and economic principles of the Catholic Church. Trade deals, and indeed economic policy as a whole, should be scrutinized in the light of what Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI taught. It is not enough to speak about the family being the foundation of any healthy society; policies must be enacted to ensure that a husband can support his wife and children; that corporations do not dictate the timing and nature of holidays; and that social structures are put in place to assist the least well-off. Dismantling international agreements and institutions that are deleterious to national life is only the first step toward orienting that life toward the common good. The new nationalists needn’t adopt a wholly uniform vision as applicable in the U.S. as it is in Ukraine, but they cannot be exempted from adhering to the Kingship of Christ. That the new nationalists may, in some parts of the world, be closer to abiding by that kingship than the globalists is certainly true; that does not justify, however, accepting half-measures.