What Does It Mean To Leave Rome For Orthodoxy?

Here’s an interesting claim. I’ll start with where I first saw it: on Michael Brendan Dougherty’s tweet:

I really don’t think I can do this. But if the Roman Church’s position on the papacy really is that the Pope exclusively defines Tradition, such that he could legitimately abrogate all previous Roman Missals in favor of singing John Lennon’s Imagine- then Catholicism is… https://t.co/Ntng2UoRh3

— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) March 1, 2023

It’s an interesting question, one I don’t have the answer to: what are the limits of the Pope’s power? Could this or any pope legitimately abrogate all previous Roman missals?

In trying to find an answer, I ran across this explanatory essay from Catholic Culture, concerning Pastor Aeternus, the First Vatican Council document about the powers of the papacy. The original appeared in the venerable journal Homiletic And Pastoral Review. Excerpts:

Chapter III of Pastor Aeternus is entitled “On the Power and Nature of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff.” The heart of its teaching is contained in the following paragraph:

Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff, which is truly Episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation.

This is an astounding teaching, and one about which most Catholics are abysmally ignorant. Every Catholic must submit to the Pope in his government and discipline of the Church. This is a dogma of the Catholic Church, the denial of which is a heresy and entails loss of salvation.

The Pope’s juridical primacy covers the entire “work” of the Church. He is the supreme administrator, legislator, and judge of all the faithful. Pastor Aeternus declares the supreme independence of this power in the following passage:

And since, by the divine right of Apostolic primacy, one Roman pontiff is placed over the universal Church, We further teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of all the faithful, and that in all causes the decision of which belongs to the Church recourse may be had to his tribunal, but that none may reopen the judgment of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor can any lawfully review its judgment. Wherefore they err from the right path of truth who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman pontiff.

The Pope’s juridical Primacy does not convey any right upon the papacy to violate any man’s conscience or to coerce into sin. It is simply the supreme power of the Pope over all the workof the Church (including such things as the regulating of everything to do with the Church’s sacramental life, the establishment of religious orders or other apostolic movements and organizations within the Church, the consecration of bishops and ordination of priests, the discipline and punishment of the faithful, and the excommunicating of those who prove incorrigible). The man who would insist upon his right of engaging in some type of apostolic work against a papal mandate is guilty of doctrinal error and possibly schism. He may also be guilty of a terrible conceit, or of an equally terrible despair regarding Christ’s promise to be with his Church and his Vicar until the end of time.

Well, if this interpretation of Pastor Aeternus is correct, it seems that the Pope can legitimately abrogate all previous Roman missals. It probably never occurred to most Vatican Council I fathers that the Catholic Church would one day be led by a man like Jorge Bergoglio. But here we are.

Now, to the thread that really interests me:

Leaving the Roman Church for Orthodoxy due to policies of the current Pope is a deeper thing than many understand.

You are essentially rejecting the “West” and it’s doings since 1054AD on a pretty fundamental level.

Joining a different civilization.

— Adam Van Buskirk (@Empty_America) March 1, 2023


This is mostly wrong. Not wholly wrong, but mostly. I say this as someone born Protestant, who converted to Catholicism at age 26 (1993), and to Orthodoxy at age 39 (2006).

What’s right about it? Well, though I wasn’t raised in any strong sense of religion, my forebears had nevertheless been Protestant for centuries. It didn’t mean much to my folks, I guess, because we weren’t big churchgoers. It only mattered to my dad when I told him I was leaving the ancestral faith (“But the Drehers have always been Methodist,” he said, puzzled). I told him then, and I still believe it, that it’s silly to adhere to a religion, or a form of a religion, that you don’t believe is true, solely because your ancestors did. That amounts to ancestor worship.

Nevertheless, it is true that when I became Catholic, I felt in some stronger sense connected to the long heritage of the Church, going back to the apostolic era — this, in a way I did not and likely would not have been able to as an engaged Protestant. I think this means something. It is true that culture alone will not save you, but this immersion in all the eras of the Church’s past, especially of the first millennium, helped me to understand better what it meant to be saved (i.e., it was not just a matter of what happened to you after death). It gave me a stronger sense of formation. It is undeniably true, at least in my case, that I had a much stronger sense of the connection between the historical form of the Christian faith, within the West, and the structures of Western civilization. That counted for something.

I became Orthodox in 2006 following a prolonged and extreme spiritual and personal crisis. I loved most things about being Catholic, but the torment over the scandal corroded my ability to believe in the authority of the Catholic Church. I could not then and could not now affirm Pastor Aeternus, or that my eternal salvation depended on being in communion with the See of Peter. I can tell you that Adam van Buskirk is correct that to become Orthodox is, in some felt sense, to step away from the West. Obviously we still live in the West, even if we’re Orthodox, and this is why I want Catholic and Protestant churches, who account for almost all of the Christian churches in the West, to be strong. I’d rather everybody convert to Orthodoxy, for sure! But given how unlikely that is, it serves the common good for all Christian churches to be strong. In any case, it would be incorrect to say that there is no meaningful felt difference between West and East when one moves from Catholicism (or Protestantism) to Orthodoxy. There is.

But what he gets wrong is that he massively overstates the difference. You are not “rejecting the West” or “joining a different civilization.” I am firmly rooted now in Orthodoxy, but don’t feel Russian, any more than I felt Italian when I became Catholic. True, I probably felt more at home in Russia than most American travelers there, because of all the Orthodox churches, and because I “got” many of the signs and symbols that non-Orthodox wouldn’t pick up. But I am deeply Western, and that’s not going to change. That’s one of the most interesting things you get when traveling abroad: that no matter how much you, as an American, love the country you’re visiting and its people, you will have more in common with the fellow American you bump into at the foreign bar than you will with any local in the same place, no matter how different you and the American may be. That’s just how it is.

A couple of summers ago, visiting Vienna with my son, I saw a heavyset black man walking down the street near the terrace where we were drinking beer. He was wearing a New Orleans Saints jersey. I gave him the “Who dat?” chant, to signal that I was from Louisiana, and we had a great talk. It was funny to think, after he left, that the black man from New Orleans and the white guy from St. Francisville are so much more alike than anyone either of us will meet in the Austrian capital.

It’s the same with being a Western who becomes Orthodox. And you know, I guarantee you that most Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Serbs, Romanians, and other Orthodox raised in the West are a lot more Western in their ways of thinking than their co-religionists and co-ethnics in the Old Country. And as much as Russian Orthodox and Russian Baptists have historically been at odds, I’d bet cash money that the Baptist from Moscow has more in common with his Orthodox neighbor than he does with a Baptist from Fort Worth.

I don’t want to downplay this too much, because there really is a sense that by becoming Orthodox, you are setting your descendants, if they keep the faith, on a very different faith trajectory (but then, I did that when I became Catholic, as do Catholics who become Evangelicals). That is no reason not to do it, if you come to believe that you can worship Christ in greater truth within another tradition. I became Orthodox after Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, and wept — literally — to leave him behind, because I loved him so much. Nevertheless, I was convinced by that time that my faith in Christ was on the line — and therefore my salvation — because I was far, far too broken to keep faith with Jesus within Catholicism.

I really and truly love being Orthodox. It has made a better Christian of me. But I am a man of the West, by birth and by formation, and always will be. I don’t apologize for it, or feel like less of an Orthodox Christian because of it. And the thing is — I really noticed this when in rural Ireland — we were all one church until 1054. The Christians of the Greek East worshiped in different ways than the ones of the Latin West, but we still had ecclesial unity. When I went to pray in the cave of St. Colman, the 7th century Irish hermit, I was in the lair of a saint who was both Catholic and Orthodox. I love to think of the Church that way. Strangely, because the ordinary life in the Orthodox imaginary is so rooted in the patristic era, I learned way, way more about the Fathers of the Church, and the saints of the early Church — holy men and women who are considered saints by the Roman Catholics too — than I ever did as a Catholic. Those saints are often Eastern, but they are part of the West’s heritage as well. I find that when I became Orthodox, I didn’t really “lose” Western saints (though it’s certainly true that the farther the Catholic Church gets from 1054, the less natural affinity an Orthodox Christian of the West has for its canonized saints), as much as I gained a greater appreciation for the breadth of the Church’s catholicity.

You can find Orthodox Christians who want to throw down with the West over the papacy, and any number of things. I’m not one of them. I’m grateful for what I gained of Christ as a Protestant and as a Catholic, and I’m grateful for what the Holy Spirit has done for me within Orthodoxy. Often I’ll talk with Orthodox converts from the West, and we will observe how impossible it would be to go back from whence we came after experiencing the richness of the spiritual treasures in Orthodoxy. That said, when I pray in Gothic cathedrals in France, for example, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is there, and I give thanks for that fact.

So, look, when Adam van Buskirk says that “if you leave, they win by default” — meaning those Catholics who are busy radically reforming their Church — I have to ask, “What do you lose by staying in a Church that no longer believes in itself?” That was the question that eventually pushed me out — and I am sure that a lot of faithful Catholics are feeling very anxious now that Pope Francis is showing how shaky things really can be when a Pope makes use of his unparalleled authority (the Orthodox have no figure like him) to change the Church. Amid my own crisis, I realized, at last, that I was only staying Catholic because I was afraid not to be. Mass was little more than an occasion of anxiety and anger, over the scandal — and the sure knowledge that if there was anything else there to hold on to, I probably could have borne the suffering. But there wasn’t, except the Eucharist … which the Orthodox have too (according to Catholic teaching), as well as an incomparably rich liturgy and devotional life that has drawn me to Christ in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I first entered the Orthodox Church.

Had I stayed Catholic, I might not have been Christian now, and if I were, I would have been extremely bitter, cynical, and angry, all the time. I would have held on to my Catholicism, but the heart of the faith would have been hollowed out within me by my anger and fear. This is not an argument for you, reader, becoming Orthodox; it’s just my answer to Van Buskirk’s “if you leave, they win by default”. If I had stayed, I would have lost Jesus, in any real sense, because of my own brokenness, and the brokenness within Catholicism. So what in the world would it mean to “win”?

It profits a man nothing to own the Church libs, but to lose his own soul.

You don’t become a Russian, a Greek, an Arab, a Serb, a Romanian, or any other nationality when you join the Orthodox Church. If that’s what stops you, let me assure you that it’s not a thing. For three years as Catholics, my wife and I worshiped at a Maronite Catholic parish in Brooklyn. Were the Lebanese Catholics, who were 100 percent in unity with the Pope, somehow Westerners? I guess, in a way, as they were Catholic. But their culture was very strongly Eastern. Superficially, it felt “Eastern” once we started attending there, but after we got used to the Arabic melodies, and the use of some Aramaic in certain liturgical prayers, we realized that this is what it meant to be Catholic, both big-C and little-c (meaning “universal”). The Orthodox Church also claims Catholicity. It’s not just the Greeks, the Russians, and so forth, at prayer.

Last point: my dad was not a regular churchgoer. He had lots of grudges against his Methodist church. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what they all were, or whether he had any legitimate grievances at all. The way it was in my family, your felt grievances were self-justifying. Over the decades, I encouraged him to find a church where he can worship in peace, because staying away from church was not good for his soul. He refused, saying over and over, “I’m not going to be run out of my own church.”

But haven’t you been? I would say. You hardly ever go!

To him, the fact that he was still on the membership rolls meant somehow that he had not been run out of his own church, and therefore the forces and the people he didn’t like within it had not defeated him.

He was so stubborn that he even refused a church funeral. He went to his grave not being run out of his own church, I guess — so much so that he wouldn’t even have a pastor at his graveside burial service. This is what I have in mind when I hear people talk about sticking around in a particular church so the people who are destroying it, and that you can’t stop from tearing it up, don’t “win”.

(Hey readers, it’s here that I remind you again that I will be leaving this space after March 10, concluding a twelve-year run at TAC. Please subscribe to my paid Substack, Rod Dreher’s Diary, for daily commentary on faith, politics, culture, media, and all the usual Dreher stuff, plus the return of a robust comments section where people of all faiths, and no faith at all, can engage in respectful conversation. It’s five dollars per month — only 20 cents per day — or one year for fifty dollars.)

The post What Does It Mean To Leave Rome For Orthodoxy? appeared first on The American Conservative.

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