We’ve been hearing it a lot: “Should I just quit paying attention to the apparent collapse of the Catholic institution and become Orthodox?”
I’d like to start with the unequivocal assertion that this is a temptation to the grave sin of schism. Don’t do it.
Also, as we will see below, it’s a bit of climbing out of the frying pan and into the flames.
In an email I received a while ago, a distressed Catholic said her entire understanding of the Faith — indeed, her whole understanding of life, the universe, and everything — was being called into question by the actions of this pope. Her story will be familiar to many: born after Vatican II, this person had never known the “old Church.” Her return to the practice of Catholicism was based on the prompting from her admiration for the last two popes. She “read her way” back to Catholicism and returned to the Faith just in time to see the current occupant of the Chair of Peter, the vicar of Christ, apparently tearing it all down.
She said that before 2013 she had been mainly focused on her prayer life, and she loved the early Fathers of Christianity, those great spiritual writers of the first centuries of undivided Christendom. She asked me, simply, why should she not just become Orthodox if the pope could not be trusted to love or defend or hand on the Faith? She even cited the rhetoric of recent popes, especially John Paul II, that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox schismatics are “sister Churches” or “two lungs” of the same body.
The modern Church’s obsessions with false “ecumenism” and “inter-religious dialogue” has eroded the faithful’s understanding of ecclesiology. Catholics are simply no longer aware that the Orthodox are in schism and that schism is a bad thing — as though there used to be warning signs along the schism-cliff that the hierarchy of the recent past have removed.
I promised my correspondent I would consult and get back to her with as thorough an answer as I could manage, but I told her: “You don’t need to ‘go Ortho’ because everything the Orthodox have, all the things you love, we have too — are in fact already ours.”
If you love Eastern liturgy, you can find it in the Catholic Church. The Byzantine liturgical and spiritual heritage is yours. John Chrysostom, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, John of Damascus, Irenaeus are all your saints. All their writing is addressed to us; all the greatness and security of their path to sanctification are the treasures of our own Church. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers, the Apophthegmata, the Philokalia, are every bit yours as a Catholic. Macarius the Great, Dorotheos of Gaza, Abba Poemon, St. Moses the Black, St. Mary of Egypt, Pachomius and Anthony of the Desert are all Catholic saints, your saints, your friends. If you want to pursue the Christian goal of sanctification, evocatively called “divinization” in the East, all these helps are yours to appropriate.
Orthodoxy seems more authentic since Vatican II, the New Mass, and all that followed.
Orthodoxy undeniably has a huge appeal on the surface: the exotic aesthetic of the mysterious East, the apostolic antiquity, the manly Patristic path to holiness, the chants, the icons and architecture, the appearance of their priests, archetypal father figures, bearded in their black robes, dispensing ancient wisdom. Who wouldn’t find it fascinating and appealing? Their emphasis on the doctrines and spirituality of the earliest centuries of Christianity feels safe and protected; it feels like a clean cut through the impossible toxic knot of our modern malaise.
People are attracted to Orthodoxy because it appears to have retained some or all of the rigor, substance, transcendent meaning, and vigor that has been abandoned in the Latin Church. And in our time, the appeal of such an authentic Christianity that does not require paying attention to the incredible scenes going on in Rome right now is somewhat understandable.
One of the problems of modern, post-conciliar, “mainstream” Catholicism is that it asks nothing. Or at least, it asks nothing that the secular world does not also ask. If “catechesis” consists entirely of “be nice” and similar platitudinous nonsense, what is to distinguish us as Catholics from the rest of the unbelieving world? Orthodoxy has the reputation of being a demanding, even exacting religion, an idea that certainly appeals to us rootless, fatherless postmoderns.
But Fr. Michael Mary Sim, the founder and superior of the traditionalist Transalpine Redemptorists, the iron-tough, Orkney island–dwelling order, says Orthodoxy is far from as exacting as its reputation, far less than Catholicism, particularly in what we are required to hold in matters of doctrine. Their attraction to Catholics in these times “comes from a superficial assessment of the Eastern Orthodox religion,” a case of grass-is-greener.
“The Eastern Orthodox religion makes fewer demands than the Catholic Church,” he said. “It requires less adherence to sound doctrine or participation in a set of external moral and liturgical norms.”
Some Catholics fed up with the current crisis might think Orthodoxy is merely “Catholicism without the pope,” but Father Michael Mary points out the absurdity of Catholics abandoning the Barque of Peter for a schismatic church because they fear that the pope is steering toward a schism. It is the papacy that is the guarantor not only of doctrine according to the dogma of Infallibility, but of the union of the Christian and Christ. The Church teaches that deliberate schism is a form of spiritual suicide, one that severs the faithful from his ties to the Mystical Body of Christ.
While he agrees that the liturgical norms are “strict, mystical and of great beauty,” Father Michael Mary said the rest of Orthodoxy’s doctrinal and even practical rigor is a mirage. In fact, Orthodoxy is quite different in doctrine, and there are rock-solid reasons a Catholic who really believes the things the Church teaches — even about basic items like the divine nature of Christ and like Our Lady — would simply find it impossible to become Orthodox.
Since the Orthodox schism had already occurred by 1054, they never addressed the later questions in the Middle Ages — and are forcefully contemptuous of medieval Scholasticism. They have no tradition of precise and accurate formulation of doctrine, and they rejected the principle of final authority. For this reason, much of their doctrine remains in a fuzzy, gray area of quasi-“optional” beliefs and expressions.
Fr. Michael Mary explains, “The members of the Orthodox Church are not required on pain of sin to believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary nor in the necessity of unity with the Successor of St. Peter for salvation, which beliefs are required of Catholics and which, objectively speaking, are necessary dogmas that may not be denied in order to be saved.”
Among various Orthodox communities there is disunity on many key topics in the moral realm. The Orthodox Church in America tolerates non-abortifacient contraception in marriage, whereas more strict Orthodox bodies hold it to be a grave sin. Chillingly, Father adds, “the seal of Confession is not as secure for the penitent nor as demanding for the priest in the Orthodox church if we compare it to the Catholic Church.”
Faithful and tradition-minded Catholics tempted to flee east who object to Pope Francis fuzzification of the Catholic laws on divorce, remarriage, and reception of Holy Communion will also be disappointed; he got the idea from the Orthodox. “As for the adherence to external moral norms, again this is not as strict in the Eastern Orthodox religion as it is in the Catholic Church, they accept divorce and remarriage as well as the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried,” Father said.
It might not be very widely remembered that Pope Francis was already dropping hints early in his pontificate that the Catholic teaching was about to be changed, and that, specifically, it was Orthodoxy’s compromise in remarriage that was being suggested as a model. On the plane on the way home from World Youth Day in Rio in July 2013, the new pope was asked (in a nakedly pre-arranged propaganda move) by Corriere della Sera’s Gianguido Vecchi:
Holy Father, during this visit too, you have frequently spoken of mercy. With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church’s discipline? That these sacraments might be an opportunity to bring these people closer, rather than a barrier dividing them from the other faithful?
The pope replied:
… I believe that we need to look at this within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage. And so it is a problem. But also — a parenthesis — the Orthodox have a different practice. They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it. But I believe that this problem — and here I close the parenthesis — must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.
Orthodoxy isn’t just “Catholicism without the pope,” and it’s not possible to be a Catholic-Orthodox hybrid. Converting to Orthodoxy requires giving up a host of teachings and even historical realities that for believing Catholics shape their universal worldview. The argument over the Filioque — literally ancient history to Catholics — is still a pressing issue in some Orthodox communities. The Orthodox certainly do venerate Our Lady, but not at all in the same way we do. Doctrines we have that they don’t include the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady’s Assumption, and Purgatory.
They don’t like us.
A person joining would be expected not only to become Orthodox, but to repudiate much of Catholicism’s central doctrine. Let’s not be coy about the reception a believing Catholic might get in many of the Orthodox communities if he said he wanted to stay “mostly Catholic” but just didn’t like the pope. To the Orthodox, we are simply in the wrong and have been for a thousand years. And to many, not only are we wrong, but we are the ones who have wronged them. Historical and political memory runs deep among Orthodox Christians, and in many cases, centuries-old grudges are taken as current realities. In short, they don’t like us. To them, Catholics are heretics, but much more importantly, we are political oppressors and invaders.
Moreover, as the video above indicates, without a bi-millennial tradition of universality (“catholicism”) transcending national and linguistic boundaries, Orthodoxy does remain highly nationalistic. Russian, Greek, and Coptic Orthodoxy are all deeply divided and equally deeply involved in the current political questions of those countries.
This raises the question: “Which Orthodox church would you propose to join?” A person of Irish, British, German, Italian, or Spanish descent would have a difficult time, perhaps, figuring out which branch of Orthodoxy he belongs to. After eleven years living in a foreign country where my own language is not often heard, I can testify that the feeling of alienation and isolation is never entirely dispelled. Imagine that kind of cultural disaffection becoming the main principle of your spiritual life.
Stefanie Nicholas, a writer and recent convert to Catholicism from Orthodoxy — right in the midst of our papal crisis — said the “underdog mentality” that is much a part of the Orthodox worldview created a sense of camaraderie, but at the same time, it veiled the reality that it was Catholicism that was most often persecuted. Orthodox in the United States would often make common cause with Protestants in their anti-Catholicism.
“I’ve had Protestants bash Catholic Marian devotion in front of me as a teenager,” she said, “entirely ignorant of the fact that I believed nearly the very same things about the Mother of God! Sadly, I think some less honest Orthodox folks in search of converts today tend to play into the Protestant animus towards Catholics.”
Stefanie also touched on the nationalist aspect of Orthodoxy — what she calls “a strong ethnic connection to their faith which helps in living it out as something ‘separate from the world.’”
Out of the Catholic Neo-modernist frying pan, into the schismatic fire
The theory that we are just a smidgen more Latin than they are and all else is the same is almost entirely a construction of the very doctrinal wateriness such a person is rejecting and fleeing in the post-conciliar Catholic Church. Stefanie warns against an attraction to Orthodoxy for its exoticism: “North Americans enjoy novelty, it seems, and we see this with the mass fascination society has with Eastern ‘spirituality,’ the New Age, yoga, and similar things.”
“Orthodoxy has the same novel appeal for those who want to believe in — or continue believing in — Jesus Christ,” she said.
Joining the Orthodox schism to escape the modern deterioration of Catholic discipline is inherently contradictory, Stefanie said. The blurring of the boundaries between Catholicism and Orthodoxy comes from the same deterioration of clarity on all the Church’s other doctrines.
“I think the wishy-washy view on hell and sin that the human element of the Catholic Church has taken up in recent days is directly linked to the blurred boundaries of the new ecumenism,” Stefanie said.
“Vatican II–ism has pridefully denied the need for man to take his first steps toward God, so it’s really no wonder that we find problems when he starts running — in this case, right for the schism cliff. If there’s no hell worth actually fearing, why would the sin of schism be a big deal?”
The language used in recent decades, even by popes, has helped to create this confusion: “If the Orthodox Church is no longer a schismatic sect, but only a flagging ‘lung,’ the faithful have nothing to fear by forgoing their Sunday guitar Mass for a beautiful Divine Liturgy. So the logic goes: in fact, becoming Orthodox might actually be a good act in service of unity…”
So how should we handle this crisis?
By loving Christ, and striving to be closer to Him. If Eastern liturgy, ancient Patristic writing, and the spirituality of the Desert Fathers helps, do that. Prayer, fasting, frequent reception of the sacraments, study of Scripture and doctrine. Pursuing friendship and closeness with God. In any age, of peace or turbulence, the answer to the question, “What should we do?” will be the same. These are not only the things the Christian life is about, but the things human life is for.
Catholics may well be in the midst of the worst crisis since the 3rd century, but the origin of it, the underlying idea behind it, is that we must know the truth about God. There can be no ambiguity, blurring, or fuzzing. And if it is necessary for our salvation that we know this truth unequivocally, clearly and formulated in an unambiguous manner, then a pope is a necessity also. Right now there is a mighty struggle going on within the Church over what is and is not true, but the reason for the struggle is that we know that something must be true, that there must be an answer that can be found, articulated, and understood.
In contrast to this, it is impossible even to talk about what “the Orthodox” believe. In many cases, our ideas of doctrinal certainty and clarity are just not a thing in Orthodoxy. Ambiguity and open-endedness are a normal part of their ecclesial life, a condition that a formed intellect must reject. Exactly as we reject Bergoglian aspirations to ambiguity, so we reject those of Orthodoxy.
Stefanie offers a quote from Isaiah: “As many have been astonished at thee, so shall his visage be inglorious among men, and his form among the sons of men.” She adds, “Whether or not Jesus was recognizable to human eyes as the Son of God does not change the fact that He was, and is, that Person. The same is true for His Body the Church. Saint Peter’s actions as the Passion took place also bring me a certain comfort when I look at the actions of his successor today.”
After two dream-like years living in Norcia, the cradle of Western Monasticism, Hilary moved unexpectedly with her three cats to the area near Perugia, where she gardens a great deal and tries not to worry too much.