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Mysteries of Religious Authority

Recent discussions here, and in the news, raise three questions for me. I don’t know the answers, but I bet some of you have informed theories. I’m going to toss the questions out there and see what you have to say:

1. Why does the Orthodox Church, which lacks the centralized office of the papacy, and lacks magisterial offices, hold to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the Roman Catholic Church, which has these offices, and in theory ought to have a firmer hold on these things?

2. Why do the Evangelical churches in America, which have no set form of worship, and no authoritative teaching office, do a better job of holding on to many of the moral teachings of normative, historical Christianity than Catholic churches in America? That is, why is a Catholic who believes in the Roman church’s moral teaching more likely to find Christians who agree with him in the average Evangelical church than in the average Catholic parish?

3. What do these facts tell us about culture and the nature of religious authority?

Thoughts?

UPDATE: People, please do not get your backs up here. I am not attacking Catholicism. I welcome you questioning the premises of my queries above, and teasing out these thoughts. It’s helpful to me; if I had the answers to these questions, I would have written them down here. According to my way of viewing the world, Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) are supposed to work better than Evangelicalism does at resisting liberalizing morality. But they don’t, not really. (It’s hard to say with Orthodoxy, because there are so few of us.) Also, according to my way of seeing the world, Catholicism should work better at holding on to the Christian tradition than Orthodoxy, because it is centralized, and has lots of explicit rules. But this (very generally) isn’t the case. Why not?

Irenist, below, a Catholic, says that it’s more a matter of the Catholic Church, as the Church in the West, endured the shocks of modernity, which spared the Christian East. That makes sense to me. That’s the kind of comments that are helpful. Please make them, and make them without assuming the worst about me.

UPDATE.2: Gabriel Sanchez makes what I think is a fair statement:

As for Dreher’s question specifically, it’s not even worth answering. It is not worth answering because it is formulated with the assumption that the institutional Orthodox Church “hold[s] to historical, orthodox Christianity better than the” institutional Roman Catholic Church. No Catholic in their right mind would accept that. What Catholics with eyes to see and ears to hear accept is that when it comes to priests and bishops — the body of individuals charged with preserving and passing on the Apostolic Faith — the Orthodox Church appears to have a relative advantage, at least at the global level. Anybody who has spent serious time around Orthodoxy in America knows that allegedly “Catholic problems” such as the so-called “Lavender Mafia,” clerical sexual abuse, lax discipline, moral and doctrinal confusion, and so on, and so forth, can all be found amidst the icons and incense, too. But American Orthodoxy is small and its representation in certain academic, ecumenical, and political circles is grossly disproportionate. Across the pond, ostensibly rigorous Orthodoxy has done no better job holding back cultural decline in Greece than allegedly lackadaisical Catholicism has done in Italy. Both countries are suffering from civilizational exhaustion. Then again, so is ours — and neither the Catholic nor Orthodox churches are doing a damn thing about it.

Again, I think that’s probably a fair critique. My question, and the observation undergirding it, may have been naive, but that’s how things look to me. I appreciate any correction.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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