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‘Institutionalism’ & the Church

Reader calls it 'the structural sin of Catholicism,' says Orthodoxy has its own particular structural sins

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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