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A Wanderer Asks Questions about Church Membership

Above: Coptic iconography.

The following is based on a real email exchange.


Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,

I am a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church. I was born and raised a Novus Ordo Catholic, but only nominally so, and, as with the rest of my friends, Catholicism was irrelevant to us by the time we were old enough to think for ourselves.

In my twenties I started a long search for God in answer to a persistent call, and, apart from initial forays in Pentecostalism (not for me!), I was introduced to Orthodoxy. I became a Chanter at a Greek monastery and for a while was discerning a vocation as a monk.

Things fell apart. I had so many disagreements with the Greeks. I couldn’t understand their indifference to missions and evangelism, and their indifference to anyone not Orthodox. I was actively discouraged to do any missions or evangelism even—a thing I couldn’t wrap my head around. After a few years, I was planning to leave Orthodoxy and return to Catholicism, but as I was about to do this, I met a Coptic Christian who introduced me to the Coptic Church, and I loved it. They had a different spirit to the Greeks and I saw the Copts as a way for me to hold on to my Orthodoxy while being able to be involved in missions and evangelism.

But I struggled for a year and a half with the cultural barriers—the Arabic language, the feeling of alienation from my own culture, the feeling of isolation from wider Christendom. Frankly, the lack of universality in Oriental Orthodoxy is very obvious. As a result, I have been alternating between the Coptic Church and the Traditional Latin Mass for a while now. The TLM community is very strong and is growing rapidly (surprise, surprise!). There are over six hundred members in the parish and, at the last parish census, the average age was just over 33 years old. I have grown to love the Latin Mass and the Western patrimony. It has opened a whole world to me that was closed off in my Novus Ordo years. Though I have struggled with Catholic claims, I have slowly come closer and closer to Catholicism through writers and authors like Erick Ybarra, Timothy Flanders, and yourself.

All of this is a long preamble to my question for you. Given the current crisis in Catholicism—and given that, despite its faults, Orthodoxy, both Eastern and Oriental, still retains Apostolic Succession, valid sacraments, deep spirituality, and true sanctity in its saints—why should someone like me return to the Catholic Church, right in the midst of this crisis? I feel like I would be giving up a church (the Copts) known for its sanctity, holiness, and martyrdom, for a church (Rome) overrun by heresies, idol-worship, paganism, Charismaticism, Medjugorje, abusive priests, etc. True, I have found a small pocket of healthy Catholicism, but the point is, it’s a small pocket in a sea of heresy. In twenty years’ time, the Copts will still be producing saints. Will Catholicism be even recognizable by then? What should motivate me to take the final plunge and become officially Catholic again? I can’t break this impasse.

I apologise for the long message and look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Dear Coldfooted Catholic,

I understand your struggles: they are familiar to all of us who are trying to take historical, sacramental, liturgical, confessional Christianity seriously.

Some time ago at NLM, I published a translation of an Eastern Orthodox monk’s critique of the modern Latin Church. One may well sympathize with much that he says. But then I wrote a follow-up expressing reasons one might not find his account altogether persuasive. I am convinced that every confessional body of Christians today has serious issues, whether doctrinal, moral, or liturgical, and that there is no paradise or haven to be found. Beyond that, even if we maintained for the sake of argument that the Copts were the most vigorous local church, are we not supposed to belong to our own rite, our own tradition, and to perfect ourselves by its resources as well as to strengthen it by our fidelity? I see a great calling and a tremendous scope of activity for Roman Catholics to recover and restore the riches of their own Roman church, rather than peeling off to a foreign tradition, however appealing it may be.

When it comes to Catholicism today, there are two paths: the Catholicism of tradition, as we find it in the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Councils; and the Catholicism of modernity, as we find it expounded by the soft or hard modernists who emerged in the nineteenth century and have dictated so much of the agenda of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If the two paths were absolutely distinct and clearly marked out, our choice would be easy. The real difficulty, it seems to me, is that the two paths are often found crisscrossing in the same Church, in the same diocese, the same parish, the same priest or bishop—or pope. There are tendencies in Ratzinger (on, say, the Church’s mission to the Jews) that are contrary to unanimous Catholic tradition and even to definitive magisterial teaching. So, as Our Lord says about the wheat and the tares, or as St. Augustine says about sinners and saints in the Church, the two paths are somehow mingled together, and we must exercise discretion or discernment as we walk, to ensure that we are keeping to the right path.

It does not require a doctorate or the privilege of private revelation to see that there are massive tensions (at least) and contradictions (at worst) between earlier magisterial teaching and that which is being propounded in recent decades. Somehow we have got to try to understand the whys and wherefores, instead of, Stephen-Walford-like, crawling into a shell of “the pope knows best.” Does he? If that were so, there could never have been problems earlier in history with corrupt or wayward popes. Granted, our situation is on a far greater scale, but the idea that a pope can go astray or that a council can fail in its avowed purpose is not something to jump away from in fright, as if it undermines the Church’s claims.

For example, the ecumenical council that closed on the eve of the Protestant revolt (Lateran V, 1512–1517) was, all historians agree, a wash-out. It failed to do what needed to be done. At the very least, it is hard to dispute that Vatican II misread the signs of the times and failed to engage modernity critically, from a superior rather than supine vantage. What was needed was a courageous, clear-sighted, and convincing refutation of the errors of the modern world and a restatement of how Catholic truth remains true, liberating, and beautiful. The drafts of the documents prepared before the Council took just this form, and John XXIII allowed them to be cast into the rubbish bins. Subsequent popes have tried to “square the circle” by following Vatican II but continually tweaking and augmenting its message in a more orthodox direction, as if to close off one by one the ambiguities that the progressivists laced into the documents.

The Catholic traditionalist claims that our current modern situation is unprecedented: something is happening in modern times—above all since 1968—that is unique in Church history. We can see Pius X recognizing it when he calls Modernism “the collector of all heresies.” That is an expression no one had ever used before. We can see it in many statements of pontiffs from the past 150 years who speak in apocalyptic terms about the rebellion against Christ and His Church. We see it in approved Marian revelations, such as Quito, Akita, and Fatima, that speak of bishops ranged against bishops and cardinals against cardinals, of chastisements the likes of which have never been seen before. We can see it in the truly unprecedented situation of two “Roman rites” in simultaneous existence; speaking truthfully, there are, in the same ritual sphere, two separate rites where there should be one. Is this bizarre? Yes, as bizarre as a body with two heads or two hearts. Has this happened before in the 2,000-year history of the Church? No.[1] Should we be extremely thoughtful about the significance of it all? Indeed we should. We have to take seriously the peculiar quality and magnitude of the Church crisis, which, as I implied before, touches all Christians, whether they realize it or not. What happens in the Church of Rome sets the agenda.[2]

Let’s pull way back and look at Church history in general. The popes had to intervene from time to time, but the Christian world was not looking to them to know the content of the Catholic Faith. This content existed already; it pre-existed, one might say, and the papacy’s role was to defend it against all enemies and compromises. The pope has a crucial but limited role; he is not the one who defines for us what Catholicism is and isn’t, but rather the one who is the last court of appeals where there is a controversy that no one else can solve. This is why Amoris Laetitia is anti-papal to its core: instead of clarifying and resolving, it obscures, darkens, and confuses. It does precisely the opposite of what a pope is supposed to do. Something similar can be said of the Novus Ordo: it is a poor instrument for divine worship, and no pope should have given away the treasures of the Roman rite for an inferior substitute.

Does this amount to “private judgment,” as some people would object? No; it simply amounts to that use of reason and free will that is expected and required of every human being who reaches maturity. There will never be a catechism so comprehensive that it rules out all exercise of interpretation or prudence; there will never be a way to “outsource” one’s decision-making to another person, no matter how mantled he is with authority. This extends to the basic act by which we recognize the truth of the Catholic Faith and recognize what is consistent or inconsistent with it by the sensus fidelium, by the instinct of faith, by the lights God has given us when we are well-catechized, well-intentioned, and seeking His will. If a pope comes along and says: “Catholics who are living with someone not their spouse may go ahead and receive Communion,” we say: “No way. This is contrary to the Gospel and contrary to everything that has ever been taught before. You are wrong and we would rather die than deny the truth.”

We are in a time of heroism again. It is a hard heroism, because it seems to set us against the present for the sake of the past, or against ecclesiastical leaders for the sake of inner consistency. Yet the tradition of the Church is not “past,” it is always present; and ecclesiastical leaders themselves are required, even more solemnly than are the laity, to seek that inner consistency, which, by an abuse of their freedom, they may also freely abandon, as St. John Fisher’s episcopal colleagues abandoned the faith at the time of King Henry VIII. Our work is to know the Faith from its authentic traditional sources and to hold fast to it, come what may.

The various aberrations and horrors we are seeing among churchmen in the West are precisely that: aberrations and horrors, which we can easily judge to be such. Our faith is not based on priests, bishops, and popes, but on the eternal and inerrant Word of God, the witness of tradition, and the authoritative teaching already in place, which even illiterate peasants could know with sufficient clarity and certainty to achieve their eternal salvation. Roman Catholicism is going through a major crisis on earth at this time, but we must remember that the Church Militant is only one small part of the Church. The Church Triumphant, with its millions of souls and angels, and the Church Suffering, with its untold members longing for the beatific vision, are already saved and permanently beyond reach of ignorance, error, or sin. We touch and unite with this heavenly kingdom in our worship, be it the traditional Roman Mass or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or any other venerable rite.

All the same, there are particular advantages in the West that the East has not had to the same extent, such as a resounding clarity of moral teaching, the powerful witness of clerical celibacy, enormous missionary vitality, and intellectual fertility. These goods are in eclipse now, but we must not forget how glorious they have been and how they may thrive again by God’s favor.

I do not think there is any absolutely decisive and unobjectionable “proof” that one must be in union with the Catholic Church centered in Rome, such that it would be impossible to resist it with counterarguments or contrary experiences that point in another direction; but, for the same reasons, neither is such a proof available for any Church of the East. If anything, the arguments of the East for its autocephalous status are far weaker than the arguments for the papacy as a center of unity. What we do have, in any case, are many converging signs that the Latin and Greek churches have preserved their sacramental-liturgical-dogmatic identities (in spite of individual deviants who cause scandal) and that each has, with God’s grace, preserved certain truths or features better than the other has done.

My sense from reading your account is that you are most at home in the Latin tradition and that you are called to commit to it and bring to it your faith, your energy, your striving for holiness—but, at the same time, that you will always feel torn about this and will always cherish a (legitimate!) love for the East. And that’s okay. We are not supposed to have tunnel-vision or to be narrow-minded, as if belonging to one tradition requires trampling on or blocking out another. Instead, we should take such conflicting feelings in our breast as a divinely-given incentive to implore the Lord to reunite the Eastern and Western churches into the one breathing organism of catholic Christianity they are meant to be.[3]

To return to the larger question: Why has God permitted such desolation to engulf His Church on earth? We cannot peer into His mind and say exactly why, nor can we know for how long this affliction will last, although He has told us repeatedly in Scripture the reasons why He punishes His people and assures us that He will never abandon those who trust in Him. But by the same token we can ask why the Father permitted His beloved Son to be engulfed by desolation in the Garden of Gethsemane and by dereliction on the Cross. These are mysteries too profound to be explained; they can only be contemplated, loved, and experienced. Even so, Christ’s human soul, at its pinnacle, was also always bathed in the glory of the beatifying vision of God. One might dare to say, by a kind of analogy, that the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem—the immaculate Bride of Christ in all her splendor—never ceases to shine into the souls of Catholics on earth who remain faithful to their Lord, adhere to His divine teaching, and make use of the rich traditions He has bestowed upon His Church throughout history.

In short: as long as Christ lives, the Church will live, and as long as she lives, the traditional law of prayer, law of faith, and law of life will somewhere and somehow continue. We will be able to find out about this triple law and live by it. The traditionalist movement in this sense is nothing other than the evidence of the continuity of the one Church of Christ within the sphere of the Latin rite. To be a traditionalist (whether one cares to use the term or not) is simply to be a Roman Catholic in the fullest sense. For those who are hesitating about converting or reverting, this must be kept squarely in view: “mainstream Catholicism” is a dilution and a deviation—no doubt, having elements of truth and sanctification, but partly severed and partly paralyzed. It is no surprise that what speaks to you so powerfully is not the liturgy at St. Typical’s, but the Roman Rite in its Tridentine fullness.

Yours in the Sacred Heart of Jesus,

Dr. Kwasniewski


[1] Obviously there have always been many different rites and uses within the Catholic Church as a whole, but in any given area or jurisdiction, within a certain local church or sphere of influence, there is one rite that everyone uses, with its own books and rubrics. I cannot go into more detail here, but those who are interested should look at my book The Once and Future Roman Rite.

[2] Thus we have recently seen female “ministries” begin to enter Eastern churches as well.

[3] I am by no means questioning the teaching of Pius XI in Mortalium Animos that Christ conferred on His Church the note of unity not as something to be achieved in the future but as a property already truly possessed and incapable of amission (a technical term for deprivation or loss). At the same time, the Church has always recognized apostolic succession and valid sacraments in the Churches of the East, and this fundamental bond in divine realities brings those Churches into some actual, albeit imperfect, relationship with the Catholic Church to which they once belonged in full. There is an objective woundedness to the empirical Church on earth by the lack of the Eastern provinces. We pray for the healing of this wound, which deprives the West and the East of the mutual fellowship they are meant to enjoy by Divine Providence.

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