Painful Talking Points on Ecclesiology, Papacy, and Eastern Orthodoxy

Picture_of_John_Henry_Newman

John Henry Newman

I had a great conversation recently with another student of history on the matter of the Papacy, Catholicism, the current crisis, and all these against the backdrop of Eastern Orthodoxy and its claims. The conversation dipped into the weeds and roots behind larger categories and, often enough, the main nuggets of a robust historical discussion can be forgotten or lost. I’d like to put the expansive thoughts of this conversation into truncated points. This way, the ground which is covered has a documented reference. This also serves to aid against the loss of memory. So much of these topics are so complex, that the implications and sub-categories get touched, but scarcely get returned to just because they are so deep in the weeds. Whether my readers mind or not, I will document accordingly, at least for my sake. For those who enjoy the reading, please comment and share your own thoughts. But I should forewarn: We hit on some points which are more painful than comforting, but which present circumstances make necessary. If you are the type to be annoyed, easily frustrated, or are easily brought to despair on this subject, this may be a post you wish to ignore for the time being.


(1) Catholic Apologists have no problem exhorting Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc,etc. to put the foundations of their respective religious claims to the test of critical examination, and yet, when there comes the point where the Papist-paradigm is under threat of the same kind of critical examination, there are all sorts of withdrawals to do so on account of some esoteric sense of “Yes, such and such is happening….but the gates of hell will never prevail” (Etc,etc). Why are not Protestants and non-Catholics afforded the same excuse from having to follow through with the weaknesses of their respective positions, when put under the fire of critique? On the contrary, what should be happening right now in the Catholic-Apologetic blogosphere and social media (such as Catholic Answers, Word on Fire, Called to Communion, Taylor-n-Tim, etc,etc) is an embrace of the difficulty with which the Church is facing, and prove how her claims still prove true when it matters, i.e. when opposing forces are at their strongest. There should not be any discouragements to critical examination of our beliefs just because it might prove a hindrance to our faith. This is like saying we should not defend ourselves in battle because we might get hurt. Hello! An invading army will kill everyone if no one stands up to fight. Likewise, a rebuilding of our faith, and its exoneration from all the onlooking mocks, should be met by humble, gentle, and yet intellectually rigorous defenses.

(2) Without needlessly maximizing internal disputation amidst the Eastern churches, there should be given some due consideration to the fact that the Eastern doctrines themselves might fall victim to a disintegrated incoherence after we’ve finished wiping off the ashes of Papism from the surface of the table. There is also a danger of minimizing the potential of said disintegration for the East, on account of their beautiful liturgies, ascetical discipline, and alluring mystique (etc,etc). What we find in the mind of some Catholics is they operate with the following formula – “If not Rome, necessarily East”. This may, too, be ridden with hidden problems which should be inspected for. If people come to find Orthodoxy to pass the tests, then by all means I invite them to help and join the ongoing dialogue for those seeking the Truth.

(3) Many Radical traditionalists have been pounding sand for decades because of what it appears to them the destruction of Catholic tradition by the very authorities which are entrusted with its up-keeping, and this sand-pounding has been focused squarely on the post-Enlightenment philosophies which planted seeds outside the Church in the form of modernistic intellectuals but had sooner or later found root within the confines of Catholicism, culminating in the Reform of the Vatican Council Second, and which provides the platform of the Papacies of the post-Conciliar Popes. While not withholding credit where it is due in that regard, many of these RadTrads are implicitly pounding the sand over the 1st Vatican Council, and not so much the 2nd Vatican Council. It is as if they have too soon encased themselves in full body armor and plunged head-straight into battle flailing their swords at whatever they see in front of them. Only they think their enemy is Vatican II, but it is really Vatican I, and the preceding Papal theory of government. Quite a spectacle. After centuries of debate over Conciliarism vs Papalism, the latter would be solemnly sworn into the irreformable sculpture of Catholic dogma. The irony here is that, while centuries have gone by to produce the final product of an infallible Pope in order to furnish epistemological certainty on matters of faith, morals, and religious unity, we are now working tirelessly to revise perspectives so as to limit the freedom and capacity of said infallible Pope, particularly in light of its transparent potential to fail, at least momentarily, as seen in the Papacies following Vatican II. The possible catch 22 here is that by working to push said limits, we are, in some way, in collision with the stated purpose of God in creating the Papacy to begin with, and thus an reductio ab absurdum. *Please note* : I am not advocating for this, but I’m summarizing a talking point.

(4) While the Eastern churches not in communion with Rome might be able to lean back a bit with cigar in hand, shiny gold chain surrounding the neck, and rockin a phat set of black shades, their own theories of continuity and Apostolic tradition are not invincible from the glaring eye of criticism. If only we could set aside the alluring beauty of their grand stature with regard to liturgical spirituality, one might be able to engage with their claims more fairly. For starters, Catholic apologists have rightly insisted on the clarity of evidence that, at least from the standpoint of the West, the doctrines of universal Papal jurisdiction and Papal infallibility were held even so far back as the beginning of the 5th-century, and thereafter persevering in all the successors to Peter’s throne until its own basic theory applied itself in a new way against the East in the 2nd-millennium. Today, the Orthodox would urge converts from Roman Catholicism to renounce such “heresies”. By doing so, the Orthodox clean off the entire Western heritage of the Christian faith, which, in turn, makes for a massive blow to their foundation of “consensus patrum”. After all, Popes such as St. Innocent, St. Celestine, St. Leo, St. Gelasius, St. Hormisdas, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Agatho are not, according to the Orthodox Churches, saints belonging properly to Roman Catholic calendars. These are “Eastern Orthodox” saints, born and nurtured in the bosom of Eastern Orthodoxy back in those early centuries. And yet, one would have to exclude their beliefs entirely as a basic and irreducible condition for becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian today. The inconsistency gets even worse when we compare the sheer volume of claims to Papal absolutism in the “Eastern Orthodox” Popes, which gets passed off as “mere private opinion” by the modern Orthodox, with the meager ambiguous statement of Pope Honorius in his letter to Sergius of Constantinople. The latter gets cataloged firmly beside the names of anathamtized bishops, while the former “Papists” get the honor and dignity of being praised through the Synodikon of Holy Orthodox Sunday. Lastly, if there is a question as to the intention of these Saints on the actual interpretation to be given to their Papal claims, one only needs to read the scholarly works of Edward Denny’s “Papalism” or Dr A. Ed Siecienski to see that they are, by and large, thoroughly contradictory to modern Eastern Orthodox polities on primacy and episcopacy. And if their objective scholarship is to be trusted on the Papacy itself, than these admissions should also be credited with the same reliability. Otherwise, to tarnish one is to necessarily tarnish the other.

(5)  The same reasoning applies to “Filioquist” saints of the West prior to the Schism, which are not, according to Eastern Orthodoxy, properly called “Roman Catholic Saints”, but are their own children, born and bred by the bosom of Eastern Orthodoxy. Saints Augustine, Leo, Gregory, Fulgentius, and many others could be called to the witness stand on this very point.

(6) The most recent revision of the Catechism (CCC 2267) by Pope Francis is a glaring threat to the unbroken beliefs held by the Judeo-Christian past, going back all the way to the days of the Patriarch Noah. If my fears are proven to become reality, then what we have here, if not already by the commissions of the 2nd Vatican Council (as well as Papal supremacy and Filioque from the Orthodox point of view), is a bold face negation of the Christian tradition by no less than the Apostolic See itself. The excuses being made by well-meaning Catholic apologists will not suffice, since the Pope has made it a mandatory part of the Church’s magisterium, and has pushed it as a development of “doctrine”, and not merely, as many high profile apologists insist, a “doubling-down” on disciplinary policy in light of modern circumstances. The only real hope here is two-fold. First,  to show that scholars such as Dr. Ed Feser wrong, and Dr. Christian Brugger right. Trust me, we will need all the help in a million worlds with that one. Second, if this sort of error can be accounted for by the already embraced position of potential Papal failure in the mode of the ordinary magisterium. If it can, it would still be, from the standpoint of Catholic lens, an unprecedented reality. Neither Popes Liberius, Vigilius, Honorius, Nicholas I, nor John XXII could be said to have come anywhere close to what Pope Francis has done, assuming the conditions above materialize. It would also mean that a validly reigning Pope could put the whole Church in the obligation towards doctrinal error, even if not by the power of an extraordinarily magisterial bind. The former is still binding, nonetheless. If this capacity is allowed into our paradigm of Papal authority, then what sort of “rock” are we dealing with here whose firm help could only be relied on twice in Church history, namely, at the pronouncements of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary? If one were to take the position that the Popes of tradition have uttered many more than two ex-cathedra statements, then we should get to work on just what those statements are, their nature, and their quality.

(7) Some articles I have written in the past which do not necessarily reflect, by word-for-word, my current attitude, but which I think any thinking Catholic-considering-Orthodoxy will have to weed through are the following:

Fr. Klaus Schatz on the Eastern reception of Papalism

Honorius of Rome, Achilles Heel of Catholicism?

On this Heretical Rock I will build my Church? 

Papal Infallibility and the Eastern Church : The Union of Hormisdas

St. Theodore of Studium on Papal Infallibility

St. Maximus the Confessor on Papal Supremacy

7 thoughts on “Painful Talking Points on Ecclesiology, Papacy, and Eastern Orthodoxy

  1. Good thoughts, Mr. Ybarra. I actually quite agree with most if not all of this.

    (1) We Catholics are often squeamish to subject ourselves to the same critiques of consistency which we put on Protestants and others.
    (2) We often simply write off difficulties, such as Francis’ revision of the catechism. This is a disservice to ourselves and others.
    Given your “two possible ways” to resolve this difficulty, I suppose only time will tell.

    I personally believe the fatal error we have made as Catholics is when it comes to the papal prerogatives, in front of those both without and within the Church, we concern ourselves with what the Pope is able to do according to raw power, and not what he should do in the principle of justice and love. St. Paul and St. Irenaeus, while not contesting the former, were certainly concerned with the latter. Canonical legitimacy is not the same thing as moral uprightness, yet we often treat the two as if they are the same. We have become so concerned with arguing before non-Catholics that the Pope has the authority to do x,y,z that we have forgotten to remind ourselves that this authority can be and has been abused and we can’t simply write it off and sweep it under the rug. It’s a mistake we’ve been making since Vatican I. We often no longer see Christ, or Peter, in the papacy, but a rock-star monarch who defines the Gospel rather than one who allows the Gospel to define him.

    Thanks for your honesty and integrity. Let’s pray.

  2. If I may propose a rule of thumb, a finger in the wind, as it were…
    1. go to any worship that is free and open to the public;
    2. listen to what those there jointly profess in full public view;
    3. go to other places of worship that are free and open to the public;
    4. listen to what those there jointly profess in full public view;
    5. note not just similarities and rough differences, but identical utterances and clear demarcations;
    6. go enough to reasonably determine consistency, or lack thereof, of shared utterances among all the places you visit.
    7. Create some framework to analyze the above, say a Venn diagram, or set of distribution curves.

    I would submit that you will find quite a bit of overlap. Now, it takes more digging to ensure that the words of the shared utterances mean the same thing to the people in all the places you visit. And then, of course, it would take more digging still to determine if what you hear today that is shared are the same utterances with the same understanding of the same words in your grandparents’ generation, and in their grandparents’ generation, and so forth, back to Christ and the Apostles.

    My point is, to require assent to one or more beliefs that are NOT publicly proclaimed on some regular basis by adherents strikes me the big fault line. How is one to know what is true? This is the beauty of St. Vincent of Lerins, the center of the Vincentian Venn diagram of right belief “by all people, at all times, everywhere”.

  3. To continue the thought (and please poke holes)…
    So then, the question that could be asked is, “How much of what is required of you to believe to be in communion with the others in a given communion is NOT to be found in regular, public worship?” 10%? 50%? 90%?
    Frankly, given all the history and canons and promulgated laws over time, those nominally active but ignored, those never formally made binding but seem to be nonetheless of high value, it’d be tough to find anything that is 0%. But I submit that getting closest to 0% is a good indicator; or as close to a 1:1 ratio of “what is publicly affirmed on a regular basis by a large number of co-religionists divided by what is required to be in communion with those co-relgionists”.

    • and finally, put yet another way, on your travels, can you ascertain clearly that these people here most definitely believe X, Y and Z? or is there a less clarity, a softening, over here about adherence to X, Y and Z? or maybe over there it’s more clearly A, B and C, with mild passing to X,Y and Z? or nothing to do with X, Y or Z at all.
      This to me is part of the value of liturgy, of public worship. We can first answer, “What exactly do you folks believe?” Once we know that, then we can ask, “Why do you believe it?”

  4. Given that we live in an age where respect for human life and dignity are everywhere under attack, I think forbidding resorting to the death penalty is well timed. St John Paul the Great already laid the foundation for abolishing use of the death penalty. Pope Francis is just making good on the saintly pope’s general teaching on the matter. The sanctity of human life is arguably one of the most appealing and humane Christian beliefs for practical life. When it’s contradicted or systemically violated or denied, we end up in Nazi Germanys or the Soviet Union.

  5. Mr. Ybarra, I am so impressed by your sincerity and honesty. I am looking forward to reading your new posts. God bless you.

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