Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Counterpoints to the Hieromonk’s Letter

My publication earlier this week of a letter written by a Greek Orthodox monk to a Benedictine monk concerning the plight of the Catholic Church was meant to stimulate thought and conversation. Dr. Pepino and I felt that this anonymous heir of the East made a number of valid points, eloquently and persuasively. We also saw that he indulged in some of the all-too-familiar Orthodox gibes and generalities that gloss over a much more complicated picture for the convenience of those who are settled in mind.

I posted the letter in the spirit of “if the shoe fits, wear it,” taking from the monk his good points — above all, that the West has a solemn obligation to reconnect with and restore its own tradition — and rolling eyes at his unfair points. But I see now that I should engage it in greater detail, indicating where I agree and where I disagree. Indeed, I must engage it, because at least one reader was prompted by the post to ask me: “Are you planning to convert to Orthodoxy?”

I will begin with two reactions that were sent to me privately, which I share here with permission, because I find them expressive of my own view:
There are three kinds of ecumenism.
       1. Stupid Ecumenism, which is what Roman Catholics do: all the worst of us compared to all the best of you.
       2. Mean Ecumenism, which is what Orthodox do: all the best of us compared to all the worst of you.
       3. Real Ecumenism, of which the sole known practitioner among Christian prelates was Pope Benedict XVI: the whole of us, the best, the worst, and everything in-between, compared to the whole of you, the best, the worst, and everything in-between.
       Our Orthodox monk friend from yesterday proved to be no exception to this assessment. “Your roots go no further back than the 12th century.” This is a gross and grotesque exaggeration, as if people like St Theresa of Jesus or St John of the Cross brought nothing to the table; as if the Orthodox had none of their own fashionable spiritual gurus; as if every word spoken by every Orthodox priest or monk were drawn straight and solely from the Holy Fathers; as if pure stasis in the 5th or 6th or 7th or 8th century would be a good thing, a guarantee of fidelity. It is painfully easy to point out that the West has its lunatics like Chardin and Rahner, as if there were none to be found in the East. It is painfully easy to point out that the West will tolerate any amount of heresy, but no schism, while ignoring the fact that the East will tolerate any amount of schism, but no heresy. The former is without question a very bad thing, but the latter is certainly not a sign of “a rather incredible period of spiritual renewal.” Both churches have beams in their eyes.
Another similar reaction, though more mildly stated:
Interesting letter from the Orthodox monk, but I am always a bit leery of their heavy-handed apologetics (which, to be fair, we can be guilty of, too). While a calm person can see that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, there is a certain kind of nervous Trad — beaten down for years by the establishment, reading too many sensationalist blogs, and sick of gay clergy — who wants to live in a holistically solid Church now rather than take the long, less rewarding task of building the blocks of reform. In other words, jump on board an apparently tidy trireme in the bright blue Aegean rather than bail water and repair sails on the barque of Peter. I’ve witnessed two defections in my time to Orthodoxy (though I have also sponsored two Orthodox to come into the Catholic Church), and in both cases they were highly discouraged Trads who weren’t interested in waiting things out past their own life times; of course there were other issues at hand (they lived in places where traditional Catholicism was more or less non-existent), but the highly distilled brand of Orthodoxy touted in the West — devoid of all their liturgical development, medieval and dogmatic theology, and history of caesaropapism by emperors and dictators — greatly appeals to these vulnerable people.
       Like you, I pray for the reunion of the Churches. I believe we are the answer to each other’s shortcomings and that we need to be honest with ourselves about what they are. I disabuse Catholics who speak ill of the Orthodox in public and happily rebuke Orthodox when they do the same to us. It’s an all-round sticky situation. We have until eternity to figure it out though.
Now for my own observations.

Like the West, the East has its “black boxes” into which people are not supposed to look too closely, lest they find tensions, contradictions, reversals, laxities, and other odds and ends. Above all, their systematic theology and moral theology are a mess, because they have no authoritative framework for interpreting the Fathers. Their own version of scholasticism, a bit like Islam’s, imploded and fell apart, unlike the West’s, which with figures like Bonaventure and Thomas attained a rare perfection and magnificence. Above all, there is no one in the East who is as biblical, patristic, ecumenical, synthetic, broad-minded, and comprehensive as the Angelic Doctor. Aquinas makes frequent, sympathetic, incisive use of dozens of Western and Eastern Fathers — indeed, more Eastern authors than Western — so it’s a bit silly to say our theology starts in the 12th century. It would be just as silly to say that the theology of the East stops after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Moreover, what the hieromonk doesn’t seem to grasp, or perhaps doesn’t wish to acknowledge, is the many great spiritual figures the West has always had, and still has. He does not mention figures like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Bd. Charles de Foucauld, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Bd. Columba Marmion, let alone countless martyrs and saints of every state in life. He mentions St. Pio of Pietrelcina only to suggest that he was opposed by the Church, which is only partially true. The writings of Fr. Jacques Philippe are every bit the equal of many contemporary books published by the Orthodox. One might also take a look at the pre-Reformation volumes of the Classics of Western Spirituality series from Paulist Press to get a rough sense of the richness of our mystical tradition.

Perhaps it is felt on the Eastern side that elders or spiritual guides must be distinguished by the length of their beards. We have some impressive “graybeards” on our side, as well, as one can experience by visiting places in the West where the Catholic faith is still believed and lived in its integrity — places like Le Barroux, Fontgombault, Clear Creek, Silverstream, or Norcia. (I privilege Benedictine monasteries only because, as a Benedictine oblate, I know them well.) I have heard or spoken with monks at nearly all of these houses whose wisdom reminds me of the spirit I encounter when reading the lives of the desert fathers. Anyone from the East would fit right in, liturgically and spiritually.

Admittedly, the number of such islands of sanity, outposts of civilization, is not huge; but they do exist and are attracting vocations — they are not in danger of disappearing altogether. Yes, theoretically, popes can try to crush all of this under foot, but popes have limited lifespans, and so do their plans and projects. “Man proposes, God disposes.” The pope can stack the deck all he wants, but God will have the last laugh. There is no chance, for example, that the old Roman liturgy will ever disappear. There are still priests, more with each passing decade, who are willing to risk everything and suffer anything rather than give up the traditional rite. When you have a handful of people like this, you have permanence. Progressivism will die the first and the second death. It has no intrinsic principle of life; it lives as a parasite on the scraps of tradition it still retains.

Vetus Ordo
On the subject of liturgy: I have joyfully participated in many Byzantine Divine Liturgies celebrated by Greek Catholics — offered in Slavonic, Ukrainian, Romanian, German, and English. I learned to cantor and have done it frequently. I’ve prepared choirs to sing the congregational prayers in three-part harmony. I have studied and continue to study the Eastern Fathers, including Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Dionysius, and St. Maximus the Confessor. But . . . I am Roman to the core. There is nothing I love more than a solemn High Mass in the Roman Rite (obviously the Vetus Ordo — there is no other Roman rite worthy of the name, as the hieromonk recognizes). For sheer melodic beauty and variety, the Gregorian chant is a musical form unequaled by any chant in the East. On weekdays, I will take a quiet Low Mass at a side altar over any Divine Liturgy. Again, there is no doubt that the East has preserved its liturgical tradition well, whereas the West has squandered it like Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. But the West has a liturgical tradition that is profound and beautiful, and those of us who have delved deeply into it are nourished by it, “fed with the fat of wheat, and filled with honey out of the rock” (cf. Ps 80:17).

The most important and seductive error of proponents of Orthodoxy is their claim, which we may assume is made more in ignorance than in malice, to be believing and doing only what is ancient. A little study of history handily dispenses with that myth. While there isn’t as much theological diversification and liturgical pluralism, there is still a process of development over the centuries that continues past the first half-millennium, past the first millennium, down to the present. In fact, the almost hyperventilating insistence on “fidelity to the early Church” is more a feature of Orthodoxy from the early 20th century onwards, especially as one finds it among the Russian émigrés in Paris who gave us such dreadful pseudo-scholarship as Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, which is a masterpiece of imaginary polemics or polemical imagination.

There is genuine growth in doctrine, liturgy, and devotion, for all Churches that remain alive. We see this across the entire Christian spectrum, East and West. There should be growth, amplification, variation, as long as it is not deviation or corruption. How do we know the difference? Not by a mathematical formula, that’s for sure, or a Geiger counter. It will often end up being a messy question of how something is received, perceived, accepted. Sometimes devotions come in and they are taken up right away with joy; other times, things sputter out and disappear. History is not tidy, but it’s not completely chaotic, either. There are patterns. One can see the difference between wheat and weeds if one has enough distance and perspective. On this point, the East will have to say the same thing as the West: much of what we do is not from the apostolic period, or even from the patristic golden age, but from the Middle Ages, or in the case of the Slavic tradition, even later.

Female acolytes: an example of corruption entering into the East
At the NLM post last week, there was an interesting exchange along these lines. One commenter objected that “the current Eastern iconostasis (or ‘holy wall’) . . . is not very traditional.” A hieromonk responded:
The point of tradition is that it develops and praxis changes over the centuries. We do not indulge in liturgical archeology, but are part of a continuum as the Holy Spirit guides the Church (though Catholic and Orthodox renovationists love doing this in a Protestant critical manner, believing they are scraping away centuries of accretion to find a somehow pristine and pure practice — of their own making!)
       In the early Church, communion was given in the hands and the Holy Gifts reserved in domestic settings. As Byzantines, we do not do this today, nor do we seek to do so, as tradition has developed so that things are now done differently.
       The services have grown in richness and solemnity as tradition unfolds. The development of Byzantine hymnography has brought new textual layers and features to the Liturgy and offices; the musical tradition has also seen great growth, with new genres of hymns over the millenia; the development of iconography has seen the portrayal of new themes and the development of the ikonstas; the arrangement of the temple has developed to what we see and know today.
       So... we need to be cautious about saying things are not traditional if they were not earlier practices.
He is right. We are not antiquarians, but at the same time, we will not assume that any and every possible change will be a good one. Growth is inevitable, as Newman says, but we still have to compare any new practice or idea against the background out of which it emerged to ensure that it is moving in a straight line rather than off at some bizarre angle. Plenty of examples come to mind, such as we discuss here regularly at NLM. To take only a most obvious one: communion on the tongue to people kneeling is a development that comes straight out of increasing awareness of the adorable mystery of Our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist and of the special consecration of His ministers at the altar. It is just not hard to see that this development is a deepening expression of what the Church already believed, but of which it had not yet found the fullest or most emphatic expression. Many more examples can be given in the realms of clerical vestments, church architecture, and liturgical hymns and orations. And then there will be simply issues of pluralism: some churches give the sacraments of initiation all at once to infants, while others spread them out in acknowledgment of the role of reason and free will. Is one necessarily right and the other wrong? Couldn’t they both be right, because they’re looking from different legitimate angles?

Thus, it stretches credulity for any Orthodox to claim “we’re doing things just like they were done in the ancient Church.” No, you’re not. All legitimate living churches show development; indeed, all must struggle with and against corruption — liturgical, theological, ethical, political, or what have you. All must welcome reform movements and distinguish them from revolutions. All must pray for conversion, personal and institutional. The moment we stop doing these things, on any side, in any community, we have truly give up the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost has not abandoned any of the apostolic-sacramental churches, since all of them give abundant evidence of the operations of the Spirit: faith, hope, charity, the gifts and fruits, miracles. But I do think that (1) there has been a widespread deliberate rejection of charismatic graces on the part of the Church’s hierarchy; (2) God in His Providence has permitted this period of hard and soft apostasy to test, purify, and animate us, without reneging on His promise that the gates of hell will not prevail; (3) we will see either a dramatic restoration of Catholicism or the end of the world — one or the other.

Of all apocalyptic fiction I have read, the most convincing to me is the “Short Story of the Antichrist” by Vladimir Soloviev. At the end of time, in the face of mass defection of Christians, the last pope, the last patriarch, and the last pastor come together in the Catholic Church to face the enemy and to welcome the King.

Let us pray and pray often for the reunion of the churches in truth and in charity.

“Holy Father, I know you want to breathe with both lungs, but surely…”
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