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‘Institutionalism’ & the Church

A Catholic friend of the late Orthodox priest Matthew Baker’s writes with reference to the Archdiocese of New York problems post:

I noticed that a number of commentators took the opportunity to express their satisfaction that they left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy and so thereby avoid these kinds of problems. I appreciate your effort to rein in the enthusiasm – as noted the East has had its share of scandals, though never so great. I am reminded, however, of one of the last conversations I had with Fr. Matthew Baker before he died. In the course of the conversation we came to discuss the ills of the Catholic Church, which we both agreed was best labeled ‘Institutionalism’.

Now, ‘Institutionalism’ affects both traditional and progressive Catholics in equal measure. It is one might say – to borrow and misuse a term – the “structural sin” of Catholicism, living in its very bones, in seminaries, parish structures, canon law, etc. Institutionalism can be summarized as something like: ‘the excessive trust in institutional structures – including a complacent belief that the institution takes care of itself, an expectation that those vested with institutional authority can and will exercise sound if not perfect judgment, and finally, and most importantly, the conviction that all problems are institutional ones to be solved by ever-more refined rule-amending, making, or keeping’.

The most obvious manner in which institutionalism manifests itself is in attitudes toward the papacy and ‘creeping infallibility’ (in which the pope is assumed to be infallible even in his ordinary teaching). However, one can also see it among progressive Catholics and their attitude toward Vatican II as well as their oft- vocalized belief that we need a Vatican III to ‘address contemporary problems’ or that this or that rule needs to change. It is this obsession about the institution that makes mincemeat of both the tradition of faith (we need to adapt to the contemporary worldview or else no one will go to church anymore!), cover up evil (we cannot let anyone know about this or else no one will come to church anymore!), or place sole responsibility on Church institutions for failure (if it weren’t for those progressives at Vatican II, everyone would still be coming to church!).

Now, institutionalism is not the ‘structural sin’ of Orthodoxy – at least not today (there’s reason to suppose it was in the Byzantine period). And therefore, one shouldn’t really expect Orthodoxy to go awry in these institutional scandals, and certainly not compromise the tradition in order to adapt to the era (though I wouldn’t necessarily claim this as a intellectual or moral victory on the part of Orthodoxy – your experience of Western Modernity is in some respect much more as outsiders and late-comers).

As I discussed with Fr. Matthew, we concluded that the ‘structural sin’ of Orthodoxy today is probably something more like ethnocentrism, nationalism, or perhaps even chauvinism. The scandals here are often less intrusive to the daily life of Orthodox in the US but scandals they remain. One thinks of the number of Orthodox jurisdictions in major US cities. One thinks of the Russian Orthodox support of Putin at the expense of Ukrainian Orthodox (and Catholics, of course). One thinks of the general attitude of the Church of Greece to ecumenism, but also to the Ecumenical Patriarch. These are real scandals that have no parallel in the contemporary Catholic Church. It will be a scandal if the upcoming Orthodox Synod accomplishes virtually nothing because of intransigence and pride of only a few participants. Yes, that may mean the tradition is preserved, but is the Gospel?

None of this is to excuse the deep failures of the Catholic Church militant, nor is it to vilify Orthodoxy. The ‘structural sins’ of our churches are something to consider, however, in light of the efforts of the Benedict Option. How do we avoid exacerbating these tendencies as we turn inward and cultivate our small communities? How do we avoid developing a reactionary defensiveness of ‘our own’ in the face of external critique (and there will be much of it)?

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71 Comments To "‘Institutionalism’ & the Church"

#1 Comment By Fr. Frank On August 2, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

No, Anne. Not Cosimania n Orthodoxy. Just regular Apostolic Christian Orthodoxy. How about pick up a Bible, or if you don’t have one go borrow one from a protestant neighbor. John 8:24
Acts 3:19

Yes — we can die in our sins if we don’t really know or give a flip about Jesus, or think we have anything to repent of. Even if we show up for Mass and throw a fiver in the plate.

#2 Comment By Reinhold On August 2, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

This is rather helpful to me in understanding the claim about the NEED for the Benedict Option. I had commended Dreher for rejecting the external corruption narrative which is, to use this article’s phrase, the ‘structural sin’ of most conservative traditionalism––in this particular case, the narrative that American Christianity has been corrupted by external progressive forces. But then I had a suspicion that he’d simply traded one such narrative for another, namely the narrative that Christianity has been corrupted by America. My question to that would have been: if indeed Christianity has been corrupted, it is less important to look at external ‘corrupting influences’ than it is to look at what makes Christianity internally susceptible to corruption, i.e. what self-corrupts in Christianity? And this article to a significant extent answers my question in a thoughtful way: the institutionalism of Catholicism makes it susceptible to corruption, the national chauvinism of Orthodoxy makes it susceptible to corruption, &c. Dreher can sometimes sound like he thinks it’s just American culture which perverts and destroys an otherwise internally pure tradition, but whenever I hear someone––not always Christians (China and Russia have made a ‘Western corruption’ narrative quite popular)––blaming ‘corrupting influences,’ I smell an internal problem projecting itself onto some foreign bogeyman.

#3 Comment By Anne On August 2, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

Re apostolic succession, the Catholic church does put a lot of stock in being able to trace its leadership back to the apostles, esp. the bishop of Rome to Peter, of course. But then, the Orthodox do the same, sans Peter, who may or may not have been the ultimate authority in the early church (Paul certainly exercised his share, as did James in Jerusalem, the half brother of Jesus, and whichever apostles/bishops happened to rule over Constantinople and Alexandria). For supposedly humble guys, the apostles made a lot of claims to prominence — e.g., authority (Peter, Paul) and being the apostle Jesus loved (John of Zebedee, Mary Magdalene). I always wondered about that last claim. I mean, huh?

#4 Comment By Anne On August 2, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

Clarification: Yes, I know, neither Paul nor Mary Magdalene were technically one of the Twelve, but one (Mary) was apparently called so by at least some of the others and one (Paul) pulled his weight over Peter himself at the Council of Jerusalem. Surely that makes them honorary apostles, at least.

#5 Comment By dominic1955 On August 2, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

Erin Manning,

“A lay Catholic blogger I sometimes read wrote a column about how silly that sort of thing is–and she was chastised by a priest who showed up in her comment boxes to scold her for giving people the idea it’s okay to stay home from Mass any time you are sick–he ascribed to the “drag yourself to Mass at all costs and only stay home if you can’t physically get out of bed” theory of what “illness” means in the rules.”

I ascribe to that line of thinking, for myself at least. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not missing Sunday or Holy Day Mass for illness unless its serious enough that I’m stuck in bed and/or having to be within 10 feet of a bathroom. But, like I said, that’s for me. If someone asks my opinion, that’s basically what I’ll tell them but I figure they are the one’s that will have to answer for their missing of Mass someday and if their illness was really legit then I’m not going to bother worrying about it. Its really only someone’s conscience that is going to know if they were truly sick enough to miss Mass or if they were using that as an excuse to just not go.

The problem with “rules” is that some people simply cannot shift gears between “law” and “grace” in such a way that they don’t either lose faith because of the “obsession” with “rules” or they get hung up on the mint tithes and never really see the bigger picture. Their is a perfect balance between church laws and grace but unfortunately so few seem to be able to grasp that these days.

Anne,

“Re apostolic succession, the Catholic church does put a lot of stock in being able to trace its leadership back to the apostles, esp. the bishop of Rome to Peter, of course.”

No, not in the way you seem to understand it at least. Apostolic succession is important for Catholicism because its the way in which the sacramental system of the Church is continued and passed on. Its not just butts in seats, its men consecrated/ordained validly and with the proper jurisdiction that support the authority of the Church, not a mere lineage. Anyone can draw connections that stretch far back into history.

“But then, the Orthodox do the same, sans Peter, who may or may not have been the ultimate authority in the early church (Paul certainly exercised his share, as did James in Jerusalem, the half brother of Jesus, and whichever apostles/bishops happened to rule over Constantinople and Alexandria).”

They have a slightly different understanding from us, but its largely the same. Thus, they reverence St. Peter as well, they just thought he held a certain primacy of a first among equals and not the sort of universal jurisdiction we think of. BTW, Constantinople was not an apostolic see the only reason it rose to a position of prominence in the Eastern Church was because it became the seat of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire. It was Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria besides Rome that were the original Apostolic Sees.

“For supposedly humble guys, the apostles made a lot of claims to prominence — e.g., authority (Peter, Paul) and being the apostle Jesus loved (John of Zebedee, Mary Magdalene). I always wondered about that last claim. I mean, huh?”

Humility subsists in recognizing precisely what you are-no more but also no less. We revere Ss. Peter and Paul as both being authoritative. We recognize St. Peter as being the first Pope but we also used to always recognize St. Paul in any feasts of St. Peter and vice versa. We also recognize a good amount of the New Testament as having been written by St. Paul.

#6 Comment By Fr. Frank On August 2, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

Anne — I got caught in the combox backup. Please disregard my snarky last statement! I thought you were snarking, but you werent, so I retract the snark that I mistakenly sent to respond to your snark — which actually wasn’t snark at all. I’m so thankful there was no Internet at the time of the 1st thru 7th Ecumenical Councils! I’m a 58 year-old Suthron redneck, who is also a Catholic priest. Please pray that I may finally grow up into a real man before I see my God face to face. And pray for my people. I love them with all my heart. They deserve nothing but the very best. That’s not me! God bless and keep you!

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 2, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

(I recall one searcher posted something about how the DOT in their area had issued a bulletin saying people should avoid all non-emergency travel, but this person was still worried about “sinning” by missing Mass that day!

And here a bit of modernity intrudes on the spiritual calculus… Once upon a time, most people lived within walking distance of their job and their church… which is one reason there are so MANY old church buildings in inner city neighborhoods. But one price of modern suburban living, or even urban living, is that you may live ten miles from your church, or more. Now you depend on being able to drive a motor vehicle (or reliable access to a bus route) in order to get there at 30-60 mph. Even after a winter snow storm, an adult might have walked five blocks through snow drifts, or a pater familias might tread down the snow for his delicate wife and tender little ones… but now you depend on whether the local municipal maintenance crews have plowed the snow, put down sand and salt, and plowed open the piled in the side streets along the main arterials… if they haven’t it is genuinely unsafe to travel the way we travel now.

Way back when, many families, especially rural ones, had sleighs to travel to church in — and those are only reliable if the streets are NOT plowed, so nobody has one any more.

All of which needs to be considered in the calculus of how good a reason exists to miss church. (I say that with all due respect to the fact that many consider it a matter of serious import to the state of their soul whether they made the effort or not.)

#8 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 2, 2015 @ 11:30 pm

” Still, I thought telling them they’ll be free to repent or “die in your sins” was almost worthy of Cosmanian Orthodoxy. Almost.”

If they were truly Cosimanian Orthodox they would know better than to worry about spiritual wrongdoing in the first place so there would be nothing to repent of.

#9 Comment By JonF On August 3, 2015 @ 6:05 am

Re: But one price of modern suburban living, or even urban living, is that you may live ten miles from your church, or more.

Even in the suburbs people used to often live within walking distance of their churches. We were five blocks from my childhood Catholic church, and often walked to it as long as the weather wasn’t bad and my mother didn’t have stuff to bring.
Orthodox churches are thin on the ground so it’s not so easy to live close to one. Mine is four miles from me across town. Biking distance at least– which may come in handy since my car was stolen over the weekend and I’m not sure whether I will get it back, or when I would get a new one.,

#10 Comment By JonF On August 3, 2015 @ 6:07 am

Re: It was Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria besides Rome that were the original Apostolic Sees.

Not even Jerusalem, which was a later addition. Just Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.

#11 Comment By Liam On August 3, 2015 @ 7:11 am

Dominic1955

You should also include in your calculus as a matter of basic charity the likelihood of your giving bacterial or viral illnesses to others in the congregation, especially people with weak immune systems.

#12 Comment By Liam On August 3, 2015 @ 7:14 am

PS: for people inclined to scrupulosity about the preceptual obligation, they can always call their pastor to request a dispensation, which pastors normally have faculties to grant in this regard.

#13 Comment By Anne On August 3, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

@Charles Cosimano,

I see your point. In any case, I was referring the likeness in spirit, not letter.

#14 Comment By Anne On August 3, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

Fr. Frank:
Thank you for your gracious apology. I’m just glad you realize no snark was intended. The internet does indeed pose special communications challenges, especially when one’s emoticoms are disabled, which apparently mine are. Thank the Lord we’ve both lived to tell. (Smiley face goes here.)

#15 Comment By Anne On August 3, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

@Dominic,
You are absolutely right about Constantinople. A moment after I typed it (no mean task in itself), and then posted, I realized there,was something wrong. And yes, Antioch is correct.

We”re really talking about different things anyway. You’re referring to the official apostolic sees, which weren’t named until the Council of Nicea in 325. (And JonF is right, they were Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.) I was talking about the earliest centers of Christian authority, in which Jerusalem definitely took prominence, along with Alexandria and then Antioch and/or Rome. The Jerusalem church lost a lot with the martyrdom of James and, of course, the wholesale sacking of the city in 70 AD. But before that, it certainly seems the apostles deferred to Jerusalem, where the first real church council was held. And even after, church communities throughout the empire sent alms to the church in Jerusalem and prayed it would rise again.

The Catholic Church’s sacramental system is tied to the way it has officially counted apostolic succession since 325. I was thinking of authority as it was exercised in Christian churches for three centuries before that as well.

#16 Comment By Anne On August 3, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

PS to Dominic,
Constantinople was named for the Constantines, which clearly postdated the time when the Twelve originally walked the earth. Just another reason why naming it was so wrong on my part. Because again, I was thinkng about the way authority was exercised in the very earliest days of the churches. To trace authority back to the apostles would seem to require going there. Yet for the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession, that’s technically not the case.

#17 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 3, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

“Even in the suburbs people used to often live within walking distance of their churches. We were five blocks from my childhood Catholic church, and often walked to it as long as the weather wasn’t bad and my mother didn’t have stuff to bring.”

I’ve got you beat. The Protestant church I grew up in was about a block away and we always walked. Of course if the weather was bad we stayed home and read the newspaper like civilized people.

#18 Comment By dominic1955 On August 4, 2015 @ 12:37 am

JonF,

“Not even Jerusalem, which was a later addition. Just Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.”

True, I threw Jerusalem in there without much thought but I think you are correct.

Liam,

“You should also include in your calculus as a matter of basic charity the likelihood of your giving bacterial or viral illnesses to others in the congregation, especially people with weak immune systems.”

I don’t. I prefer to go out in crowds during cold season so I can hopefully get it and get it out of the way because it seems that I get one in the winter and one in the summer, like clockwork. Plus I get other things once in a while. I figure your average illnesses have probably already spread all over and you were probably spreading it all over even before your really felt its effects. If I have the cold or a flu or some other minor illness, I go about my daily business as usual because half the time I don’t even know what I have and write it off as a cold. If I’m recovering from something truly dangerous, then yes, I’m quarantining myself off from the public-and not just at church but I’ve never really had anything dangerous at least that I knew of.

People with that weak of immune systems that they cannot handle going out in public probably don’t go out in public and shouldn’t be going out in public. Honestly, everything out there is covered in all sorts of germs. You yourself are covered in E. Coli. I really don’t think I can justify skipping Sunday Mass because I have a cough or a sore throat.

Were that the case, that I would be staying home if I had the inkling I was coming down with some sort of non-terminal illness I’d be missing a whole lot more Mass and work than I do now (which is basically none).

#19 Comment By dominic1955 On August 4, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

Anne,

“The Catholic Church’s sacramental system is tied to the way it has officially counted apostolic succession since 325. I was thinking of authority as it was exercised in Christian churches for three centuries before that as well.”

There is no distinction between the two.

#20 Comment By TB On August 5, 2015 @ 10:21 am

Christianity had a chance to avoid any trace of institutional sin had it gone the way the Gnostics wanted. But had that happened, Christianity itself would likely be little more a curiosity confined to a few spots in the Mediterranean basin.

#21 Comment By JonF On August 6, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

Re: Christianity had a chance to avoid any trace of institutional sin had it gone the way the Gnostics wanted.

Huh? Had Constantine on that bridge seen a vision of Holy Wisdom dancing, do you really think the Gnostics would have resisted the temptation to follow the same road the Christian church trod? Power and wealth are power and wealth– and Gnostic poobahs would have fallen to their allure as well.