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Roman fever and so on

This is over a week old now, but this is the first chance I’ve really had to say anything about it.

Please refresh your memory on what I have said before regarding Orthodoxy and anti-Catholicism.

With that in mind, consider this posting, plus all the comments, over at Cathedra Unitatis.

Personal engagement of one’s faith is a really tricky thing. We are well past the days, for good or ill, when you simply were whatever your family was when you were born and you could count on your parents being the same thing, at least nominally, because they would have to be in order to get married. I would never have been born under such a societal expectation, because my parents have wildly divergent religious beliefs, and neither of my parents really are exactly what they were raised. Mom was raised Lutheran and left that in her 30s for Evangelical shores; Dad was raised nothing exactly, but my grandfather apparently believed in God at some level, and Dad, well, doesn’t. Mom had me baptized Lutheran, we were both baptized again by the non-denominational congregation she chose when I was seven, we drifted through Baptist waters briefly when I was a teenager, I received adult confirmation as an Episcopalian, and was received into Orthodox Christianity by chrismation. Call it “church shopping” if you want, for me, or Mom, or Dad. I call it doing the work of figuring out what you believe and taking it seriously. My father is an atheist because he takes very seriously his beliefs about the nature of the universe, and those beliefs make God irrelevant at best, assuming He even exists. My mother became an Evangelical because she became committed to the things which are distinctive to Evangelicals. I was confirmed as an Episcopalian because I found myself having to take seriously the concept of being in continuity with the Christianity of history when it was manifestly obvious to me that mainline American Christianity did not care about that continuity; I left the ECUSA because it was clear to me the ECUSA as a body was no longer actively interested in maintaining that continuity or even passively allowing for it.

Truth be told, however, I suspect a lot of people, if they were honest about it, would ask, “Why bother?” I’ve read opinions before from people who say that apologetics and convert stories are inherently unconvincing to Joe Average because they’re written from a point of view which already takes this stuff far more seriously than most people ever will. It’s extremely unusual, so the argument goes, for the average person to actually engage faith on such a level–more often than not, people will just fall away rather than attempt to go deeper. Maybe that’s true; I don’t know. So, sure–“why bother?” I can’t really speak for either of my parents, but I bother because my belief that Christianity is true compels me to engage it and take it seriously. It is, as I like to say, that simple and that complicated.

Still, it’s all well and good to say, as I have elsewhere, that I became an Orthodox Christian because I believe it is true (or as Fr. Stephen Freeman likes to say, it is the truth in its fullness). That doesn’t alter the cultural reality that the questions I had are, in this country, far more easily and readily answered by Roman Catholicism, or the personal reality that I was already quite far along on my path to Rome before a couple of chance occurrences redirected my steps towards Constantinople. At the time I realized I couldn’t remain an Episcopalian, Orthodoxy wasn’t even a blip on my radar, and all sights were set on the Vatican. Save for a couple of chance occurrences, I could very well have attended Mass at the various churches I visited in Europe last summer as a communicant. (Yes, yes, I know that as far as Rome is concerned, I still can. As far as the bishop under whose jurisdiction I fall is concerned, however, that’s not the case.) People far wiser than myself have chosen to swim the Tiber; others, also far wiser than myself, have chosen to swim the Bosphorus. I cannot argue with or judge either choice, because various factors make it difficult and painful either way. Whenever somebody suggests that Orthodox converts are inherently anti-Catholic or people who just ultimately couldn’t set aside a cultural anti-Catholicism or people who didn’t consider the evidence with enough faith, I want to both laugh and cry.

I said something about a cultural reality in the last paragraph. I have an Orthodox friend who has periodic bouts of what he terms “Roman fever.” He spent a number of years examining the arguments on the Catholic and Orthodox sides, and ultimately found the Catholic argument unconvincing. He spent a bit longer evaluating the Rome vs. Constantinople case than it really took for him to be convinced because, as he says, he didn’t want there to be any historical or theological “gotchas” that could take him by surprise later–and there haven’t been. What there have been, however, are spiritual and cultural “gotchas,” and those have been much harder to deal with. As he says, it gets hardest around the Nativity Fast and Christmas–it occurs to him, as he’s at the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity listening to texts and music that bear zero relation to anything which has been familiar to him, that just down the street at the Roman Catholic parish is a Christmas service that is using the prayers and carols he knows as somebody who is culturally Western, and he begins to wonder if Orthodoxy isn’t, in practice, really some kind of society for the preservation of Byzantine culture. How in the world does the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom have anything to do with the modern world, the here and now? What impact on our culture can these alien externals of icons, incense, chanting, vestments, and so on actually have when it seems like we’re basically ignored by most people as “an ethnic thing”, and converts can go off the deep end in terms of embracing ethnic customs that aren’t really theirs in any kind of an organic sense? The history and theology keep my friend where he is, but not without significant and ongoing cultural pain.

Truth be told, while I haven’t had the same issues adapting to the Byzantine Rite, I’m not unsympathetic to any of this. Those of us in the West who convert to Orthodox Christianity are culturally Western; there is no getting around this, and I don’t agree with those Orthodox who would take a stance which amounts to “all things Western are of the devil.” Despite the differences, Western and Eastern Christianity grew from the same seed, and that common origin is more than evident. (See Fr. Stephen Freeman’s excellent posts which relate to this here, here, and here.) It is the various Western liturgies and chant repertoires which are, even from an Orthodox point of view, the spiritual patrimony of pre-schismatic Western Christendom, not the Byzantine; one can go on and on. From this standpoint, I’m very much in favor of the use of the Gregorian Mass by Western Rite parishes. If you take a look at my CD collection, I’ve got recordings from the St. Gregory Society, Westminster Cathedral, and so on. I’ve got books by the current pope from when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I have my own copy of the Liber Usualis. If I can ever get my blogroll to display again, you’ll see I link to many Catholic blogs, all of which I read regularly. Images, incense, chant, and vestments, up until the last generation or two, were universal throughout what I might call “catholic minded” communions–Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, even Lutheran. (In fact, the first time I ever experienced incense in church was at an LCMS service.) That which seems “Byzantine” now perhaps seems so largely because it’s far more rare than it used to be (although it is to be hoped that Summorum Pontificum will in the long run make this less the case).

The truth of the matter is, at the level of externals, traditional Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren’t all that dissimilar–with the subsequent irony that this makes the differences which seem minor all the more serious. I’ve got a Roman Catholic friend who has made the comment, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Catholic,” to which I’ve replied, “I have to keep reminding myself you’re not Orthodox.” Nonetheless, when he visited my parish, while saying the Divine Liturgy was basically the same as a High Mass, he did not genuflect at the altar; I understood why, and I didn’t expect him to. I don’t genuflect at a Roman Catholic altar, either–not out of spite, not out of any kind of inherent anti-Catholicism, but because whatever anybody else may say, we’re not in communion. I do not claim Rome is “utterly devoid of grace” as some do, but neither can I positively affirm Rome’s Mysteries, any more than I would expect my Roman Catholic friend to affirm ours. That isn’t anti-anything; that’s acknowledging the truth, however painful, of the state that exists between the Patriarchate of Rome and the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, Moscow, and so on. If we all believe what we say we believe about Holy Communion (Orthodox and Catholic alike), it can hardly be otherwise. It’s not hostility, it is the tragic reality which must be respected until the reality changes.

So, to relate this back to Cathedra Unitatis’ update, the comments, and my own earlier post…

As with the friend I mentioned earlier (and for all I know, my friend is Cathedra Unitatis, since CU is thus far anonymous), I am sympathetic to the journey he has taken over the last year in the hard task of personally engaging his beliefs, and I find that I would have been unable to judge him either way he went. Do I think CU made the right choice? Yes, I’m Orthodox, so of course I do, but this whole business in the comments of it now becoming an issue of “whose ox is gored” is absurd. There is, apparently, an unfortunate double standard among some on both sides–if you argue in favor of your position, you are being hostile towards my position; if I argue in favor of my position, I am only doing what is my unquestionable duty, and you disagreeing with that only shows how hostile you really are. Maybe that’s unavoidable, and a symptom of how deep the issues actually go; I don’t know, but I know I don’t want to contribute to the problem, and I would hope that none of my fellow Orthodox would either.

I support CU’s current focus on trying to play his own small part in building Christian unity, which is something we should all be doing–with the caveat that unity cannot be based on false pretenses, on a “wishing away” of the genuine differences and issues which need to be worked out. An ecumenism which is based on a wink and a nudge or a papering over of problems is a false ecumenism, and false ecumenism is a cure which is ultimately going to be worse than the disease. Let us embrace each other as brothers, let us mourn together the fact that we may not gather around the same altar at the present moment, let us talk and work together to solve the problems which divide us, but let us not simply pretend those problems don’t exist, and let us not assume our brother wishes us ill because conscience will not let them cross a line–charity demands better of us. There are, without question, Orthodox who are nastily anti-Catholic, and there are also, without question, Catholics who are nastily anti-Orthodox; it is our job to not let those people control the conversation–but it is also our job to be discerning about what is hostility and what is an honest sticking to one’s guns.

The paradox is this–as laypeople, we have to be obedient to our bishops, and as such, we can’t just take it upon ourselves to ignore the question of with whom we are and are not in communion. However, neither can our bishops impose Christian unity from the top down if it is to mean anything–they can only formally recognize a unity which already exists in the hearts of the laypeople. The Council of Florence should have taught us all that. As I’ve said before, I think the key here is to set aside concerns of concelebration and communion and forget about “dialogue”–those are all things about which our bishops need to be doing the worrying. The focus of those of us on the ground should be on cooperation and conversation–the “beer and pizza rule,” as Rod Dreher likes to put it, implying a willingness to lay aside the assumption that the other party intends for us the worst.

Judging each other harshly is a big part of why Christian disunity exists. Let’s not be in the business of repeating the same mistakes.

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2 Responses to “Roman fever and so on”


  1. 1 eirenikon 24 January 2008 at 6:21 pm

    Many thanks for your kind words here.

    – The artist formerly known as “CU”.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 24 January 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Most certainly!


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