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Church As Where You Take Your Stand

Some Christians are searching for a church or parish they can trust to stand firm. Is your house of worship a good place for them?
Church As Where You Take Your Stand

A Catholic reader writes about my “Pope Francis Is Queering The Catholic Church” post from the other day:

I think your commentary in your recent post is largely correct, but your knowledge of American Catholicism is becoming slightly dated.  My wife and I had similar experiences of an intellectually coherent faith mired in bland homilies, terrible music, and emotionally checked-out parishioners.  Of course there are exceptions, but it’s safe to say that most parishioners in most American parishes do not even know, much less actually follow, Church teaching on any subject at odds with the popular culture.
The Latin Mass crowd has exploded recent years, but if your only experience is based on the Very Online, you might think it was mainly a gathering of academic Latinists and nostalgic monarchists.  Trad Twitter is not an accurate representation of the Latin Mass crowd.  I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who cares about what is said on Trad Twitter, or who advocates for Integralism.
At this point, the Latin Mass has become a condensed symbol for resistance to the broader culture, both within and outside the Church.  Most parishioners know little Latin, but with a little practice, one can follow along easily enough with a bilingual missal.  The major attraction is being in a community of priests and laity who believe and strive to follow the full magisterial teaching of the Church.  Francis has been cracking down on the Latin Mass precisely because it is the segment of the Church most openly opposed to his project to turn the Church into a secular NGO.  Few things make a priest less popular in a typical chancery than saying the Latin Mass.  Given the state of typical chanceries (as stated in your second update), that’s a good endorsement.  Diocesan priests are usually constrained in what they can say publicly due to political pressures from their bishops, and that pressure does not entirely disappear entirely with the Latin Mass.  SSPX priests are in many ways far freer to preach the entirety of the faith because they do not need to curry favor with the bureaucracy of the Church.
Traditionalist priests are still capable of serious sin, like all of us.  Even then, it is generally a matter of secret sins being exposed, and not the denial of the very concept of sin, or sin defined down to exclude everything less than the Holocaust.  We have never needed a post-homily “what Father meant to say” clarification with our kids after a Latin Mass.
It’s pretty much the only place we’ve found where not giving your children smartphones is considered prudent instead of bizarre.  Modern obligatory Catholic fasting has been reduced to the equivalent of missing two meals per year, and moving dinner from Outback to Red Lobster for a few Fridays.  The traditional calendar has over seventy days of fasting, abstinence, or partial abstinence.  Much more time is spent kneeling.  Parishioners are quiet and prayerful before and after Mass.  Confession is offered regularly and the lines are long, not just a few people during the half hour on Saturday afternoons.
After we started going to the Latin Mass, my wife said it was like finding the Church we thought we were joining when we converted.  In a lot of ways, I think traditional Catholicism resembles your descriptions of convert-heavy Orthodox parishes more than the dreary beige Catholicism of your time in the Catholic Church.
I suspect he is right. My direct knowledge of Catholicism ended in 2006, when I became Orthodox. As you may recall, when I was a Catholic, I wasn’t part of a Latin mass community (I tried, but didn’t care for it), but if I were Catholic today, I would be likely to join one for the reasons the reader above said. Veteran Catholic journalist Phil Lawler, a conservative but never a trad, wrote the other day that he has started attending a Latin mass parish for more or less these reasons.
It makes sense. We live in revolutionary times. The Benedict Option concept, in its most general sense, is about finding (or creating) a community and a way of life that allows you and your family to remain faithful and resilient through this new Dark Age. As we see in the case of this reader, and Phil Lawler, the reality of the situation facing American Catholics is driving some of them to Latin mass parishes, simply because they want to live as faithful Catholics, in a time when the papacy appears to have a different agenda.
I’ve mentioned in this space that in our small Orthodox mission parish in Baton Rouge, we have welcomed over the past two years inquirers coming from Protestantism and, lately, Catholicism. One of the big reasons some of them say they turned up at an Orthodox parish was the conviction that persecution is coming (either soft or hard), and they want to be anchored in a Christian church that will be able and willing to stand its ground in the face of that persecution, which includes attempts from within ecclesial structures to change the faith to suit the world’s priorities. While I warn potential converts that there really is no entirely safe space to escape this revolution, and that they should not assume that all American Orthodox are morally and theologically conservative, they are generally correct that Orthodoxy has deep resources that they might not find in other churches.
(Of course I’m bracketing out the question of Truth here. Should you go to an Orthodox parish even if you don’t believe that Orthodoxy’s claims are all true? About twenty years ago, when we were still Catholic, my wife and I, with our then-baby, traveled from New York to suburban Baltimore to visit our friends the Mathewes-Greens. Father Gregory M-G was at the time the founding priest of Holy Cross, an Antiochian Orthodox parish in Linthicum. We were able to go to the first half hour of Orthodox liturgy there before we had to slip out to go up the street to the Catholic parish, to fulfill our Sunday obligation. The difference was stark. No, “stark” doesn’t begin to describe it. We Catholics walked out of an Orthodox parish where the liturgy was so rich, and entered a 1970s-style modernist church that looked like Our Lady of Pizza Hut, and were present for a totally dispirited and dispiriting mass. Altar girls, the Gather hymnal, all of it. The priest was retiring, and that day happened to be his last sermon. He preached about how much he was going to enjoy living in Florida. That was his farewell to his congregation.
I was both sad and angry, so much so that I asked my wife if we could leave, because I was in no condition to take communion. We walked out to the parking lot to go back to the Orthodox parish for coffee hour. We couldn’t even look at each other. My wife said, “Don’t say it.” I didn’t have to say anything. Five years later, we were Orthodox.
I bring this up not to proselytize here — I don’t use this blog for that — but to open a discussion up on the nature of religious truth in this liquid-modern moment. When I was walking out of Our Lady of Pizza Hut, carrying my baby boy, I wondered how on earth we were going to be able to raise him to be Catholic in a church (I’m speaking broadly of the US Catholic church) that didn’t seem to care about catechism or discipleship. It was easy for me to see why a kid raised in Holy Cross down the road would come to love Orthodoxy, and choose to live the faith as an adult. But the situation at OLOPH was just an exaggerated version of what I had seen in many ordinary Catholic parishes, which felt like sacrament factories. At the time, my wife and I believed that what the Catholic Church taught was true, and that meant that we should be Catholic, despite everything else. Eventually, as regular readers know, the situation in our own lives reached a breaking point, and we no longer had it within us to believe that Catholicism’s claims were true, at least not true in a way that had any binding effect on us.
For us — well, for me — a key moment was when my wife came to me one day after mass, in tears. She said that for the first time in her life, she felt that she was “losing Jesus.” She had converted to Catholicism from Evangelicalism of her own volition just before we married. Though I didn’t ask her to convert, she had done so because she met me, a Catholic, and afterward read herself into the Catholic Church. And now she was telling me, her husband, that because of that decision and all that followed, she was afraid that she was going to lose her faith entirely.
What would you have done if you were me, and your spouse said that? I understood well what she meant, too; my faith was in big trouble too. It compelled me to start thinking about the nature of Truth, and to understand for the first time the limits of propositional thinking. That is, I began thinking that it did not matter much if the Catholic Church [or any church] professed to believe a series of truthful propositions if the real-world experience within that church makes it difficult to know those truths in a concrete way. This eventually led us to Orthodoxy.
As I was working on this post, my Orthodox friend Frederica Mathewes-Green responded to the Pope Francis post, and the speculation about which churches and traditions will be able to stand firm, by e-mailing this to me:

Rod, I think there are a few reasons we can trust Orthodoxy will stand firm under the coming onslaught.

1. The first has to do with theology. My family left our mainline denomination when bishops started preaching strange things, like denying the Resurrection. We found in Orthodoxy a church where theology can’t be changed. I’ll explain why that’s so below.

But I want to be clear I’m not claiming it’s the perfect Church. The Orthodox Church is as susceptible as any other church to temptations of power. Our leaders aren’t infallible. But the main thing my husband and I were seeking was theology that won’t change, and we found it.

In the West, we think of theology as something that comes from theologians, kind of like milk comes from cows. They’re the experts who can rephrase an ancient faith for a new generation. The Catholic Church holds a vast treasury of stable, unchangeable written doctrine—but theologians are expected to ponder it, explore it, discover new ways of looking at things, and come up with the language to reconcile the old with the new.

As a Catholic child in the 1950s, for example, I was taught that no one could go to heaven without a Catholic baptism. It was a scary thought, and one that probably caused my Catholic ancestors some heartbreak over the centuries. But if the Church said it, it was true.

Today, if you pursue this question in the Catholic Church, you’re more likely to hear that wanting to know God is what’s important. That should be seen as faith like a mustard seed. It might be sufficient for salvation, even without faith in Jesus, even in a faith that explicitly rejects Jesus.

That idea will definitely go down more smoothly in modern times. But it’s not what small-o orthodox Christians have believed for the last couple of millennia. How could one thing be true then, but not true now?

This indicates a built-in problem with the system. Theologians, like all academics, have to keep coming up with original things to say. If you just kept repeating the words you received from your old professors, it would get you nowhere. What you need is fresh, even daring, new material. And that means theology will always be in flux.

A venerable Catholic theologian once told me, with great irritation, “Lay people don’t understand what theology is!” They think it’s set in stone, he said, but it’s always evolving and progressing. He seemed to think that theology was something lay people could never hope to keep up with. Their meddling was annoying. They should get out of the way, and wait for the professionals to tell them what the new thinking is.

Theology has a completely different basis in Orthodoxy. It doesn’t change, because it is the faith taught by the Apostles themselves; Orthodoxy is the unbroken continuation of the Church founded by Christ, and carried by the Apostles into the world. We do keep repeating the words we received from our teachers and elders in Christ. Orthodoxy doesn’t need updating, because it provides everything a person needs to be saturated with the presence of God (a process called “theosis”). It fits the needs of every human being like water and air do, no matter what culture or time.

And we have proof: there are men and women alive today, as in every age, who are so filled with the presence of Christ that they are wonder-workers. Those who persevere on this challenging road will do the works that Jesus did (John 14:12). Since we recognize these living saints in every time and place, we know that the theology of the Orthodox Church works.

(BTW, the various jurisdictions, like Greek or Antiochian Orthodox, practice the same faith and are in communion with each other. The different terms come from a century ago, with immigration from different homelands. Today most churches worship in English, and most congregations are an American-style mix of backgrounds.)

I think this idea, that theology “works,” just doesn’t occur in the West. We don’t think of theology as having practical, visible result; it’s a purely intellectual pursuit. But what we believe shapes us and guides us, whether we realize it or not. I asked a man who’d been Orthodox all his life what one word he would use to describe it. He said “Organic.” It’s a good one.

This different understanding of what “theology” is reveals the difficulty of reuniting the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. For Catholics, “unity” means that the Orthodox would acknowledge the headship of the pope, and would otherwise be allowed to follow their own worship and theology. But for Orthodox, “unity” means unity of belief; there can be no unity apart from coming into the unbroken stream of faith from the time of the Apostles.

The noted sociologist of religion Peter Berger observed that Orthodox and Catholic theologians had met and come up with statements both sides could accept—but it wouldn’t make any difference to church members. “The little old babushka who kisses the icon knows that what she does is different from the Catholics down the road.” He said, “In a nasty moment, I called many such negotiations ‘border negotiations between nonexistent countries.’”

2. Orthodox theology is taught through worship. Many of the early Christians were poor and illiterate, so the services are packed with Scripture, and go deep into history and theology. It’s all set to music, and important verses may be repeated two or three times. The whole interior of a church (ideally) serves as a picture bible, the walls and ceiling covered with paintings of the events and people of the Bible and church history. If you want to learn the Orthodox understanding of something, Christ’s Ascension maybe, you would wouldn’t consult a contemporary writer; you’d look up the prayers, hymns, and icons of the day.

This worship can’t be changed. Nobody has the authority to change it. Over the centuries this unchanging worship was carried everywhere by missionaries, and always translated into the local language (in 4th century Rome, translated into Latin). As a result, Orthodoxy is astonishingly consistent everywhere it is practiced. (I do mean practiced). It’s the same, no matter where you drop in, circling the world or spanning the centuries.

No Western church has such unity. In fact, nearly every Western church changed its worship in recent decades, shifting the focus from God to the needs of the worshiper. With that, authority disappeared.

3. What holds Orthodox people together is community memory—a memory of the faith continuous from the time of the Apostles. No one can go back in time and change that memory. Someone who tried would only demonstrate that he had left the community.

There’s a story that illustrates this. There was an Orthodox pastor in Brooklyn who, in 1893, went to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. While there he shared his opinion that all religions are equal, and it doesn’t matter which one you believe. When he got home, he put his key in the church door and it wouldn’t turn. His parishioners had already changed the locks on him.

In the West, theology is something lay people receive from the experts. But in Orthodoxy, preserving the common faith is everybody’s job. St. Basil (d. 379) told of Orthodox laity gathering for worship in snowy fields, when all the churches were pastored by heretics. That’s the spirit.

Of course, there are Orthodox people who write in support of one change or another (perhaps that of revised sexual morality—more on that below). It occurred to me recently that there was something that the authors of such pieces almost always have in common: they’re associated with a college or university. That’s a setting where new ideas chase each other down the halls.

Anyone’s free to write whatever he wants, of course, but the influence of such people doesn’t extend very far. You’re not going to convince Orthodox lay people that the Church has been wrong about something for 2000 years. We don’t need to defend the Church; the stability of the Church, in fact, surrounds and supports us. Those who want to argue can be treated with love, patiently answered, or (my favorite) ignored.

My husband and I, some 30 years ago, were looking for a church that would stand by the ancient faith. (“Have a Nicene day!” a friend’s t-shirt said.) We found what we were seeking. We can be confident that Orthodox theology will never change.

4. But the main controversy today regards sexual morality. The Orthodox Church always has, and always will, teach that everyone is called to chastity. That term means, in the case of the unmarried, celibacy; for the married (heterosexual only), chastity means being faithful, and treating each other with love and respect.

No matter what sexual desires are new topics of conversation, they are not new desires. Humans have always felt a variety of sexual desires, and the Orthodox Church has always guided them in one-to-one spiritual direction that is both private and personal. The Church’s teaching on sexuality is not mere theory, but practical wisdom gained from many centuries of experience in seeing what helps or hinders union with Christ.

The Catholic Church has some large organizations promoting the LGBT cause, like Dignity and New Ways Ministry. Pope Francis has written admiringly of New Ways. Orthodoxy has no such prospering, media-friendly organizations. The websites of Orthodox jurisdictions offer support for traditional morality, including clear statements from our bishops. (You might not hear about them; the media takes no notice.)

But a young person dealing with unwanted desires, and wondering how he should live as a faithful Christian, is not likely to look up the bishops’ official statements. The amount of time any of us spend in the Church’s teaching, or in worship, Scripture, and prayer, is far outweighed by the time we spend soaking in liquid modernity. We’re constantly being nudged toward seeing anything old-fashioned as narrow-minded and absurd. This persona is most likely to take his questions to his parish priest.

It’s a huge responsibility for a priest to bear. He may know clearly what he believes, but not know how to express it, not in terms that the world could understand. But if he can regularly communicate the principle of chastity to his flock in general, all the more-personal matters can be discussed in confession.

We all go to confession. We all sin and struggle. We fall and we get up, we fall and we get up, over and over. In Orthodoxy, awareness of yourself as a sinner is the key to gratitude and joy, because God forgives us freely, and loved us so much that he gave his Son.

What someone tells the priest in confession is nobody else’s business. As we say about fasting, “Keep your eyes on your own plate.” A priest can make his own job easier by preaching and teaching what the Church knows by experience: that chastity is beautiful, and charged with spiritual power. Chastity is worth struggling for.

5. Orthodoxy in America is enjoying an advantage that’s simply a feature of the times. While there are some Orthodox parishes where the congregation is shrinking (and aging), in others it is growing, due to an influx of converts. And there are a lot of them. These statistics aren’t recent, but they roughly hold true: converts make up around 50% of the membership in the Greek Orthodox and Orthodox Church in America (Russian roots) jurisdictions, and in the Antiochian jurisdiction, 73% of the clergy are converts.

In the churches they join, converts will meet the other 50%, who have been practicing the Orthodox faith all their lives. These experienced ones can pass on the things converts can’t get out of books, and show them how to put their new faith into practice.

What converts bring is passion and dedication, which revitalizes any church. There’s also a curious phenomenon, that the majority of inquirers are men (with a surge during covid, pastors say), and they’re looking for structure, deep tradition, and a challenge. Converts are likely to be well-read, and have a good understanding of the Church’s theology and history. They’re an asset to any church.

Orthodoxy in America is in revival, and that makes it a lively place to be. In other times and places revival has been a temporary state, so it can’t be expected to last forever. At the moment, though, it’s a great time to become Orthodox.

Again, I’m not trying to proselytize here. Since writing The Benedict Option, I have aimed my work at “small-o orthodox Christians” — what Touchstone magazine calls “mere Christians” — because I genuinely care about them, and because the survival of us Orthodox Christians, a tiny minority in America, depends on the health of Catholicism and Protestantism. This might sound paradoxical, given that we are receiving inquirers and converts from the weaknesses of Catholicism and Protestantism, but overall, small-o orthodox Christians sink or swim together in this country. The days of triumphalism are over.
I would like to hear from readers of any Christian church, and from Jewish and Islamic readers, about whether 1) you think it is necessary now to find a “safe place of worship” to make your and your family’s stand as believers, and if so, 2) what have you done about it?  Have events of the past few years changed your mind? If so, how? What would you tell a seeker who turned up at your church, seeking a safe place, in the sense that I mean (that is, a place that is a dynamic community committed to steadfast orthodoxy)? Would you welcome them, or would you tell them to find another place?

UPDATE: Hoo boy, in the coming Integralist state, the Catholic bishops sure are going to be harsh taskmasters:

Go to the tweet and read the responses. Those Catholics are not having this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism stuff from the bishops.

UPDATE.2: A Catholic friend wrote earlier tonight with a rather sensible response to all this. I don’t have permission to quote him directly (I’m writing this in the middle of the night, and like all sensible people, he’s probably asleep), so I’ll paraphrase.

He says the key to any form of Christianity, or any traditional religion, standing against the tide of modern culture has less to do with theology and more to do with whether or not a group of believers are able to carve out distinct religious identities, such that religion is a countercultural way of life, not a hobby. It’s not that theology is unimportant, but that’s not the deciding factor, he says. The deciding factor is whether or not you believe in the faith strong enough to bear the costs of living it in a hostile culture. It’s not coincidence, he says, that Catholics were able to preserve their faith when they were struggling against a majority Protestant culture, only to watch is crumble shortly after they were fully assimilated. Today, he warns, if you seek to be assimilated into the elite class in American society, you are going to have to abandon traditional Christianity, or tie yourself up in knots with ketman [camouflage strategies] and rationalizations.



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