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The Trial Of Conservative Catholicism

A radical pope like Francis was supposed to be impossible. But there he is. Now what?

Well, Your Working Boy is back from Russia, and has mostly, but not completely, got his sleep chakras re-aligned, so blogging in this space will return to normal. Pretty much — as you can see, TAC underwent a redesign over the weekend, and like the brand-new terminal at the New Orleans airport, it’s going to take a bit to work out the kinks. (True story: my connecting flight from Miami landed just before midnight, but the captain told us that we would have to sit on the tarmac for a bit, because nobody at the airport thought to prepare a jet bridge for us.) Anyway, please bear with us as we get used to the new system. One important format change: on the old site, I would post the more minor entries of mine onto my blog alone, and not put them on the front page. That’s not possible with this new site; everything goes to the front page. That might not matter to your viewing experience, but in case it does, now you know.

So, let’s get back into things, shall we?

Yesterday, Ross Douthat published what amounts to crack for poor religious-news nerds like me, who can’t stop thinking about the meaning of the self-deconstruction of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. Douthat wrote a column about the plight of conservative Catholics under Francis, and supplemented it with a long interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’s chief opponent (though Burke understandably disputes some characterizations of their relationship).

Let’s start with the column. Douthat — who identifies as a conservative Catholic — writes that in the wake of the Amazon Synod, it has become clear that Francis is routing his opposition:

As conservative resistance to Francis has grown more intense, it has also grown more marginal, defined by symbolic gestures rather than practical strategies, burning ever-hotter on the internet even as resistance within the hierarchy has faded with retirements, firings, deaths.

In his interview with Cardinal Burke, the prelate lays out a case in which Burke and his allies are being faithful to the Catholic tradition, but the Pope is not. From what I can see as an ex-Catholic outsider, Burke is right about that … but in the real world, that is an irrelevant distinction. As Douthat writes:

But you can also see in my conversation with the cardinal how hard it is to sustain a Catholicism that is orthodox against the pope. For instance, Burke himself brought up a hypothetical scenario where Francis endorses a document that includes what the cardinal considers heresy. “People say if you don’t accept that, you’ll be in schism,” Burke said, when “my point would be the document is schismatic. I’m not.”

But this implies that, in effect, the pope could lead a schism, even though schism by definition involves breaking with the pope. This is an idea that several conservative Catholic theologians have brought up recently; it does not become more persuasive with elaboration. And Burke himself acknowledges as much: It would be a “total contradiction” with no precedent or explanation in church law.

Douthat goes on to lay out what he sees as the possible strategies open to conservative Catholics now. The first two are implausible, or at least deeply unsatisfying, and will require Olympic-class mental gymnastics to affirm. The final one — simply waiting, and suffering — seems to me to be the only reasonable one left to those Catholics who still want to remain in communion with Peter’s successor, which is core doctrine that defines the Roman Catholic Church.

Reading Douthat’s column, I think of a conservative Catholic friend of mine who came out on Saturday to see me speak on a panel at the Catholic center at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. We spoke briefly before my talk; I hadn’t seen him in ages. I asked him how he was doing with the chaos in the Catholic Church. “Man, I don’t pay attention to it,” he told me. “I’m just focused on my parish, and doing the best I can with the people around me.” I think this is a wise approach; it’s the approach I took to Orthodoxy after I burned out on Catholicism. But it was startling to me to hear this old friend, who used to be a fierce culture warrior within the Catholic Church, talk like this. I’m sure that neither of us ever imagined that the Catholic Church would find itself in this condition, not in our lifetimes. But then, we were both acculturated to Catholicism in the age of John Paul II and his great ally, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI.

For many of us, to become a Catholic in the Wojtyla years — me, as an adult convert; my Catholic-born friend, as a baptized Catholic who rediscovered his childhood faith in a passionate, born-again way in adulthood — was to be drawn to the Catholic Church as a solid rock standing firm in the raging river channel of liquid modernity. I recall my own initial moves toward Catholicism in my early twenties. I went to an Episcopal church for a little while, figuring that I could have the aesthetic parts of the Catholic liturgical tradition, which I liked, without the unpleasantly rigorous parts having to do with sex. I realized eventually that this was unsustainable, for several reasons. If I was willing to accept a rejection of Biblical teaching and longstanding tradition on sexual matters, because it suited what I preferred to believe, then where was it possible to draw a line? What possible barrier against radical innovation was there?

Because I knew nothing about Orthodoxy back then, the only possible destination for me was within Catholicism. Besides, I wanted to be Catholic deep down; I was just scared of its demands. I had gone to see John Paul in the New Orleans Superdome in 1987, drawn by the charisma of that great man of God. He was the spiritual father that I longed for: morally and theologically serious, but compassionate and merciful. I thought that John Paul II was what Catholicism was. And I became Catholic in 1993.

There’s no need to repeat again in this space the process of my disillusion, which is familiar to regular readers. I will say, for purposes of this post, that unlike the situation with Francis, it had nothing to do with doctrine. I simply found myself overwhelmed by the evil of the abuse scandal, and the stubborn indifference of the corrupt Catholic hierarchy to the pain and injustice priests wreaked on children and families. I know, I know: the sins of the clergy do not negate the truth of the teachings. I told myself that too, over and over, and it kept me Catholic for a while. What I did not anticipate was something phenomenological about religious belief: that faith is not something that can be commanded as the inevitable consequence of a series of correct premises. I remember the hour I first disbelieved, when the dam I had built to hold back the mounting doubt, carried on a flood of rage, cracked and collapsed. Once that happens — and pray it doesn’t happen to you — there are no syllogisms that can recall the torrent.

I approached Orthodoxy from the beginning, and still do, with humility. I once thought of myself as the kind of Catholic whose faith was unshakable. I was intellectually prideful, and triumphalist, and God allowed me to be smashed on the rocks of my arrogance. I told this story to an Orthodox audience at a church in Moscow last Sunday, and warned them that this kind of thing could happen to any Christian, in any church. One great gift Orthodoxy has given me has been its focus on conversion of the heart. Orthodoxy certainly believes that the mind is important, and must also be converted. But first comes the heart. This is something I didn’t fully appreciate as a Catholic, and it allowed me to set myself up for a great fall, because I had such supreme confidence in Reason, and the intellect.

The Catholic Church did not teach me to be so triumphalistic; it was my fault, but it was a fault shared by a number of young, or young-ish, JP2 Catholics, all of us male. Once a professor told me that as a graduate student, he was drawn to the Catholic faith, but the arrogance of his Catholic friends kept him away. He explained that these young intellectuals were so certain of the correctness of Catholicism that they spoke of Christians in other traditions with barely-concealed disdain. I winced when I heard him say that, because I know that that was me once upon a time. Part of my disdain, I must confess, was thinking that the poor Protestants are so lost, without a Magisterium and a Pope to guard the teachings against the modern Zeitgeist.

Because of that, I know that even if my Catholic faith had survived the great trial by fire of the scandal, I would be facing a different severe test now, with the Francis papacy. The abuse scandal involved a radical betrayal by the clerical class of the Church’s teachings, but it did not entail a formal negation of those teachings. The Francis papacy does, or so it seems to me. What he is doing was supposed to be impossible, according to the things I believed as a conservative Catholic. This morning I’m thinking back on that restless seeker that I was in the early 1990s, and how much the stability of the Catholic Church appealed to me, and I’m wondering what I would have done had I been able to foresee a pope like Francis.

To be clear, I don’t think there is any “safe space” — an unbreachable fortress — from modernity in any church, though Orthodoxy is by far the strongest, in my experience. When I was Catholic, I used to wonder how Orthodoxy was going to stay so traditional, lacking laws and a clear teaching authority as well articulated as in Catholicism. Now, having been Orthodox for as long (13 years) as I was Catholic, I see that this is actually an advantage. Of course Orthodoxy is hierarchical, and has canon law, but the weight of tradition is monumental. Innovators within Orthodoxy lament how difficult it is to change anything major, given the requirement of an ecumenical council to make this happen (and we haven’t had one of those in over 1,000 years). But in liquid modernity, I think this is a vital safeguard. As a Catholic, it’s important to pay attention to your bishop, and to the Pope, because in modern times, they can change a lot, either by what the Church’s authorities choose to do, or what they choose not to do. As Cardinal Burke said in his interview with Douthat:

Douthat:How would you distill your critique of how the pope is handling the debates he’s opened?

Burke: I suppose it could be distilled in this way: There’s a breakdown of the central teaching authority of the Roman pontiff. The successor of St. Peter exercises an essential office of teaching and discipline, and Pope Francis, in many respects, has refused to exercise that office. For instance, the situation in Germany: The Catholic Church in Germany is on the way to becoming a national church with practices that are not in accord with the universal church.

Douthat:Which practices?

Burke: Calling for a special rite for people of the same sex who want to marry. Permitting the non-Catholic party in a mixed marriage to regularly receive the Holy Eucharist. These are very serious matters, and they’ve basically gone unchecked.

Douthat:But isn’t the decision of when to exercise authority inherent in the pope’s authority itself? Why isn’t it within his power to tolerate local experiments?

Burke: He really doesn’t have a choice in the matter if it’s a question of something contrary to the church’s teaching. The teaching has always been that the pope has the fullness of power necessary to defend the faith and to promote it. So he can’t say, “This form of power gives me the authority to not defend the faith and to not promote it.”

I would say that Cardinal Burke is correct … but that it doesn’t matter. This is not something we Orthodox have to worry about — truly, I would not be able to recognize my bishop if I passed him on the street — because we can have confidence that the teaching is not going to change.

But! If you had asked me in 1993, as a new Catholic, if the Catholic Church’s teachings were going to change, in the way Francis is changing them, I would have dismissed it as an absurd question. Yet here the Catholic Church is, in 2019. I think it is a very, very bad idea for any Christians, no matter what their confession, to be complacent. As someone — Peter Maurin? — once said, it is impossible to create a system so perfect that man does not have to be good. It is impossible to create an ecclesial system so perfect that striving for personal holiness is anything but at the core of the church’s mission.

I mentioned the other day that in Russia, I was blessed to discover father-and-son saints, the priests Alexei and Sergei Mechev, who served in the same Moscow parish. In 1931, Father Sergei sent this letter to his parishioners, after the Bolsheviks closed down their church.  In the 1931 letter, Father Sergei recalled the 19th century prophecies of Orthodox holy men, who warned that the spiritual rot inside the Russian Orthodox church was calling down a severe judgment from God:

The judgement of God is taking place upon the Russian Church. It is not by coincidence that the external aspect of Christianity is being taken away from us. The Lord is punishing us for our sins, and thereby is leading us towards a cleansing. What is happening is unexpected and incomprehensible for those living by the standards of the world. Even now they still strive to bring everything down to an external level, attributing everything to causes which lie outside the Church. Yet, those who live for God have had everything revealed to them long beforehand. Many Russian ascetics not only foresaw these dreadful times, but also witnessed about them.

Not in the external aspect did they see a danger for the Church. They saw that true piety is abandoning even the monastic centers; that the spirit of Christianity is departing in an undetectable way; that the most terrible famine is upon us—famine for the Word of God; that those who possess the keys to unlock this knowledge are not letting others enter; and that with the seemingly abundant monastic prosperity, Christianity is at the last breath of life. Abandoned is the path of experience and activity, by which the ancient fathers lived and which they passed on in their writings. There is no mystery of the interior life, for “the venerable ones have departed, and the truth has left the sons of mankind.” From the outside there has begun a persecution of the Church, and the present reminds us of the first centuries of the Christian era. The Blessed Hierarch Philaret of Moscow, more than once in his talks with those close to him in spirit, pointed out that the time is long overdue for Russia to be in the same position as the ancient Christianity of the first centuries. He wept for the children who are to behold even worse things. The revelation about our time is especially well expressed by two hierarchs who have studied diligently the Word of God: Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk [+1783] and Bishop Ignatius Brianchininov [+1867].

“At present true piety has almost vanished, and we are left with only hypocrisy,” said Saint Tikhon about the state of the Church in his time. He predicted the vanishing of Christianity in an unseen way due to the people’s indifference to it. He warned that Christianity—being life, mystery and spirit—should not perish unnoticed from those who do not value this priceless gift of God. A century after him, Bishop Ignatius Brianchininov spoke of monasticism and the Church and defined their state: “We are living in turbulent times—the venerable ones have left the earth, and truth has become scarce amidst the sons of mankind. A famine for the Word of God has arrived; the keys to unlock this knowledge are in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees and they are themselves not entering and not letting others enter. Christianity and monasticism are at their last breath. The image of Christian piety is at best being kept only in a hypocritical way. All strength for true piety has left, people have given up; one must weep and be silent” (Letters, 15).

Seeing in monasticism the barometer of the spiritual life of the entire Church, Bishop Ignatius claims the following about its condition: “One can admit that the consummation of the witness of the Orthodox Faith is coming to a final unwinding. The fall of monasticism is significant, and what will happen is unavoidable. Only the mercy of God can stop the morally corrupting epidemic. Perhaps it will stop it only for a short time, for the prophecies of the Scriptures must be fulfilled” (Letters, 245).

“With a sorrowful heart I behold the unstoppable fall of monasticism, which is the sign of the end of Christiani­ty” (Letters, 251).

“The more time that passes, the more turbulent it is for Christianity as spirit, which in a way unseen by the vain and worldly masses—but clearly revealed to the one who struggles in himself—is departing from the heart of mankind, leaving everything ready for its destruction. —Those who are in Judea must run for the mountains” (Let­ters, 118).

Many of the ascetics of the 18th and 19th centuries looked upon the time of their lives as a period of calm be­fore the storm for the Church of Christ. We must not for­get that all this was said by them in times of complete ex­ternal prosperity. Monasteries not only existed, but were well endowed; new monastic communities were constantly being formed; new churches were built; ancient ones were restored, renovated and rebuilt; and the relics of saints were revealed. The Russian people were praised as guardians of purity in Orthodox faith and genuine piety. No one could have ever perceived that the Church was in a critical state and the end was not beyond the hills. Only those who had come to the knowledge of the Kingdom of God, possessing it in their hearts, could perceive otherwise. With a heavy heart they beheld all that went on around them and, not finding the life given by Christ in what they saw, they predicted a final catastrophe.

“Only a special mercy of God can stop such a thing for a short time,” said Bishop Ignatius Brianchinininov.

Within a decade, faithful Father Sergei was sent to the gulag, where he perished. A few years back, he was canonized as a martyr.

Though I look at the agonies my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church are suffering now, I don’t in any way take comfort in the fact that Orthodoxy is immune, or largely immune, from that kind of thing. For one thing, I have lived through how fast things can change, in ways that faithful believers cannot anticipate. For another, as St. Sergei reminds us Orthodox, God does not reward us for having preserved a structure of orthodoxy; he rewards, or punishes, us for the condition of our hearts.

It’s strange, but in Russia, I had kind of expected to have conversations with informed Christians about what was going on in the Western churches, especially with the Pachamama Synod having just concluded in Rome. I met not a single Orthodox Christian who had any real idea what was happening in the West. We are as foreign to them as they are to us. They are preoccupied with the schism between Moscow and Constantinople, and the ecclesial mess in Ukraine. That, and what I heard from some Orthodox laymen is frustration with the institutional church’s worldliness, and inability to reach the younger generations, who have become cynical about the Church as an apparatus of state power.

I want to be very clear here: I am so, so grateful for the gift of Orthodoxy! Especially after this recent trip to Russia, I am overwhelmed by God’s mercy to me by rescuing me from the miry pit, and restoring me to himself in Orthodox Christianity. The severe mercy God gave me, though, was to purge me of the temptation to spiritual pride in things of the Church. Not one confession on the face of the earth today is without serious problems. Orthodox triumphalism is no more warranted today than my Catholic triumphalism was in the 1990s. (And, if you’re an Evangelical or some other kind of Protestant tempted to triumphalism, you are living in a bubble.) I’ve recently discovered the blog of an unidentified Orthodox Christian woman who converted out of Catholicism. She used to be quite liberal, but now accepts the teachings of the Orthodox Church (and, apparently, had come to accept traditional Christian teaching on sexuality while still a Catholic). She writes in a post titled “The Sane Traditionalist”:

I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, and came to Catholicism from a Southern Baptist upbringing with a very long detour through modern paganism. By the time I was confirmed a Catholic I had made peace with orthodox Christian social teaching: the sanctity of marriage, the unique gifts of men and women respectively, the sanctity of life, and the sacredness of sexuality. For someone who used to describe herself as a sex-positive, pro-abortion LGBTQI ally, this was not a small thing and required a lot of soul searching and prayer.

In this process of awakening and self-discovery I was determined not to shun my progressive, gay, lesbian, and transgender friends, but I needn’t have worried. They abandoned me, with the exception of the few who felt that telling me my faith in Christ was despicable was their duty.

Finding a home in Eastern Orthodoxy hasn’t exactly solved all of these issues. The church, like the culture, is full of progressives and traditionalists. And while Orthodoxy is thoughtful and beautiful and merciful, these politicized issues can still feel like a sports rivalry rather than a matter of spiritual discernment. And remaining in a place of love and compassion is no easier here than in any other faith tradition.

What a challenge we have in this moment in time, to hold onto the traditional, orthodox teachings of our religious culture when the world perceives those teachings as despicable. When some of our brothers and sisters in faith see them as obsolete and abhorrent. When some who worship with us use sacred and holy things to bludgeon, taunt, and mock their more progressive spiritual family.

So how can you be a sane traditionalist in a world gone crazy? I try to hold onto the idea that Orthodoxy is a way of living where tradition is tempered by mercy, and I cling to the idea that of all sinners I am first. I am the worst sinner I know because I am the sinner I know best. It makes for a delicate dance: to love, respect, and have compassion for people with beliefs you are convicted are wrong, and yet stand firm in the hard-won and time-tested values of your ancestors.

There is wisdom in that for all of us conservative/traditionalist types in this time of decadence. We should also remember, per St. Sergei’s citation of the 19th century fathers, that even the past, when things were more solid on the surface, were times of turmoil and falling-away. Maybe St. Sergei’s father, St. Alexei, is a good saint for all faithful anti-modernist Christians in the present moment. Here’s a biography of him. He was a priest in the little parish on Maroseyka Street in Moscow, and did not meet with success at first:

Fr. Alexey’s success did not blossom overnight. Describing the early years of his pastorate he said:

“For eight years I served the Liturgy daily in an empty church. One archpriest said to me: ‘No matter when I pass by your church, the bells are always ringing. Once I went in–nobody. Nothing will come of it. You’re ringing in vain.” But Fr. Alexey steadfastly continued serving–and the people began to come, many people. He would tell this story when asked how to establish a parish. The answer was always the same: “Pray.”

Eventually, his parish would be bursting, and long lines of people would stretch down Maroseyka Street, with spiritually hungry people seeking a crust of divine bread from the batiushka (little father). God granted Father Alexei a gift of clairvoyance, allowing him to read the hearts of those who came to him for guidance. He developed the reputation of a staretz (great spiritual elder). He managed the difficult trick of being strictly Orthodox in his knowledge, but making the faith accessible to all people. From the biography:

Many people, particularly intellectuals, had difficulty understanding and accepting Fr. Alexey’s approach because, quite simply, they didn’t understand the essence of Christianity. This is well illustrated by the case of Vladimir S.:

“I became acquainted with Batiushka soon after the February Revolution of 1917. I remember that when I

St. Alexei Mechev of Moscow

first went to the church on Maroseyka, there was a lot there that bothered me. It was, in fact, a real conflict between the mind and the heart, between adherence to the law on the one hand, and a profound love–covering and fulfilling the law–on the other hand … I was bothered because my love for God was weak, because I saw religion simply as a path towards satisfying a thirsty and curious intellect. I liked the strict, well-ordered and harmonious system of dogmas, I delighted in the beauty and universal conformity of the ecclesiastical rites. I believed in God, I was devoted to the Church, but I had little love for the Lord. And this cold, rational attitude towards religion subsequently ruined me, and even led me to leave Batiushka …

“When I came to Maroseyka … I saw the following: a priest of small stature, with a lined face and tangled beard, was serving together with an old deacon. The priest wore a faded, violet kamilavka [clerical hat]; he served somehow hurriedly and, it seemed, carelessly: he was forever coming out of the altar to give confession at the cliros [part of the church reserved for the choir]; sometimes he talked or searched for someone with his eyes; he himself carried out and distributed the prosphora [blessed bread, but not Holy Communion].

“All this–and especially the confession during Liturgy–had an irritating effect on me. And the fact that a woman read the Epistle, and that there were too many communicants, and the uncalled-for Blessing of the Water [after Liturgy] … None of this agreed with my conviction that conformity in church rites was absolutely essential. /…/

“[But gradually] I became involuntarily attached to Maroseyka; I became accustomed to the church services, and their deviations from the Typicon [book of church services] no longer bothered me. On the contrary, nowhere could I pray so fervently as at Maroseyka. Here one sensed that the walls were permeated by prayer, one sensed a contagious prayerful atmosphere which one didn’t find in other churches. Some people, whether by tradition or out of desire to hear a deacon and choir, go to wealthy and renowned churches; here people came for one reason alone–to pray …

“It happened that one would come to Father Alexey with some complex dogmatic problem. He would say with a smile: ‘Why are you asking me; I’m an ignoramus’ … ‘You’re forever wanting to live through your mind; you should try to live as I do–through the heart.’ This ‘life through the heart’ explained many of the deviations in church service which Batiushka permitted. When reason said that it was necessary to observe the prescriptions of the Typicon–not to confess during Liturgy, not to take out prosphora after the Cherubic Hymn, not to communicate late-comers at the north door after Liturgy, etc., etc.–Batiushka’s heart, burning and overflowing with love, caused him to disregard reason.

‘How can I possibly refuse someone confession,’ he would say. ‘Perhaps this confession is the person’s last hope, perhaps by turning him away I may cause the ruin of his soul. Christ didn’t refuse anyone. He said to everyone: “Come unto Me …” You say, What about the law? But where there is no love, the law does not work unto salvation; true love, however, is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).'”

Vladimir’s comments may leave the impression that Fr. Alexey didn’t particularly care or wasn’t well-versed in the Church service rules. This isn’t true:

“A first-rate expert on the Typicon and the services, he noticed everything, saw everything, all the mistakes and omissions in the service, especially with those young people with whom he served in his latter years (and he loved serving with them). But he left the impression that he saw nothing, noticed nothing. After some time had passed, at a convenient and appropriate moment, he’d bring up the matter and correct it. The more glaring errors–or the ones which had some bearing on the service–he’d correct himself in a manner so discreet that it passed unnoticed by the server who had erred, much less by the congregation: he himself would start to sing in the proper manner, or would do something that someone else was supposed to have done. This is a very rare quality among the clergy.”

Notice that Father Alexei did not negate the forms of Orthodoxy, but he bent them to conform to the essence of Christianity, and to save souls. I think there is an important distinction to be made here between St. Alexei’s approach, and that of Pope Francis. As far as I can tell, Pope Francis really is changing the substance of magisterial Catholicism, but he’s doing so under the veil of mercy. That’s not what St. Alexei was doing with Orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, when I read this story about the rigid parishioner Vladimir, and St. Alexei’s counsel to him, I see tendencies in myself from my Catholic days, tendencies which still remain with me to a certain extent as an Orthodox. (‘You’re forever wanting to live through your mind; you should try to live as I do–through the heart.’) I am sure that I will have to do combat with this tendency within myself for the rest of my life. And for my conservative Catholic brothers and sisters, maybe the trial that is Pope Francis is a call to repentance in the same way St. Alexei called to Vladimir. To be clear, I don’t for one second buy Francis’s steady rebukes of anybody to the right of himself as “rigid.” Far too often these accusations are hurled by people, including clergy, who wish to overthrow orthodoxy in the name of mercy.

Nevertheless, I think it is worth all of us who are more or less on the theological and moral right within our own confessions to consider whether or not there is merit in these accusations. We are often so eager to defend orthodoxies against modernists that we fail to recognize that our critics might have something of a point.

Anyway, let’s end with Douthat’s prescription to his fellow conservative Catholics: to wait. Think of the little Batiushka of Maroseyka Street, saying the liturgy all alone in his tiny church (which I visited) for nine years, keeping the faith with no assurance that the people would come. And come they eventually did! Think of all the souls saved because of Father Alexei’s quiet, unseen fidelity. Father Alexei did not save the world. In fact, as I’ve said above, his son, who took over the parish after he passed in 1923, presided over the closure of the parish by the Bolsheviks, and his own martyrdom. And yet, the Church remembers them today as saints in glory. In the eyes of God, they succeeded.

Only in Christianity is defeat possible to be reified as success. But it’s true. Ours is a paradoxical religion.

Reading Douthat’s interview with Cardinal Burke, and his analysis of it, I find it impossible to reconcile what conservative Catholics profess to believe about the papacy, certainly since the first Vatican Council, with sustained opposition to Pope Francis. But like I said, Christianity is a religion of paradox. Some traditional Catholics, having concluded that they were mistaken about the papacy, will find their way into Orthodoxy. If this is you, welcome — but be aware that you are coming into a Church with its own problems, and that you will need to commit yourself not one bit less to personal holiness, and all it entails.

I suspect that most conservative and traditional Catholics, at least for the foreseeable future, will do as Douthat prescribes, and wait to see what God does with their church. I think now of my conservative Catholic friend, a former culture warrior within the Catholic Church, who is now overwhelmed by the messes Francis has made. As I wrote, he is now devoting himself to trying to build up the parish where he worships. There is deep wisdom in that, and not just for faithful Catholics.

Icon of St. Alexei Mechev (left) and his son St. Sergei Mechev, with the church on Maroseyka Street between them




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