I have not made too many posts recently. That is mostly because of constraints with time and new responsibilities concerning family, my career, and other editorial projects. I wanted to make a brief post about something that is beginning to be brought up more and more and that is the idea that Catholics are having to deal with the possibility that the current Roman Pontiff, the head of the universal Church, the teacher of all Christians, and the vicar of Christ stands at bold variance with the Catholic faith as it has been handed down through the ages and generations of Christ’s mystical body. Many onlookers, particularly from the separated Eastern Churches, as well Protestant apologists, are looking at this situation as sort of clear falsification event. The Papal office is supposed to be the principle of ecclesiastical unity for the universal Church, and as such, the power of unification (i.e., the power to unify) must involve a certain indefectibility. Otherwise, if the Papal office is empowered to unify the whole Church into soul-destroying heresies, then the whole system turns into a fatality for the Catholic religion. This is the conceptual origin of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. If the Pope is authorized to bind all the baptized unconditionally to a certain doctrinal content, said content must be certainly without error, lest the Church capsize in the poison of heresy, and therefore incur eternal damnation.
And so on. Now, Catholic canonists ever since the 13th century have articulated certain conditions or capacities wherein the Papal office has the indefectible protection described above. Most canonists and theologians agreed that a Pope’s private opinions, that is, what he believes or teaches in a private capacity, has no guarantee of indefectible protection. That means a Pope can err in his private capacity, much like any baptized Catholic can. That should be dearly noted. On the other hand, when the Pope enacts to teach the universal Church on faith and morals in a binding manner, this has been understood throughout the centuries to be protected from error, and for the reasons already mentioned. These distinctions are rather important, since many of the statements about Papal authority in the Church Fathers throughout the 1st millennium tend to be far less refined, as if the Pope’s teaching in any capacity should be protected from error. It turns out, this isn’t the position the Church took after carefully discerning the matter as centuries of theological development took place.
Further distinctions are at work in recent history which supposes that even if the Pope is seeking to teach in his official capacity, he is not always protected from error. So now, we have an even further distinction being made. Initially, we saw a distinction between the private capacity of the Pope versus the official capacity of the Pope. Now, there is another distinction to be made within the category of the official capacity of the Pope. A distinction between fallible-official-Papal teaching versus infallible-official-Papal teaching. This is quite simply the only way to explain the situations of Pope Vigilius and Pope Honorius, and very possibly Pope Francis. Vigilius, as many know, enacted to enforce decrees of which the verity thereof depended on certain facts related to the persons of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrus, Ibas of Edessa, and a collection of their writings. Vigilius’s first decree, the judicatum, condemned these writings, then called the Three Heads, or Chapters. Hence, historical theological books call it the Three Chapters controversy. Thereafter, he published two constituta (constitutions) which contradicted the judicatum once and each other once. He flip-flopped a few times, and while he was not wavering on any Christological proposition, the truthfulness of his decrees were squarely dependent on being correct about certain theological facts, i.e. whether the Three Chapters were heretical or dogma-conforming to the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). He was clearly incorrect at least once.
Pope Honorius wrote a couple letters to Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople on the matter of Christ’s operations and wills, both of which are only arguably heretical by intention. He was defended against the accusation of heresy by his successor Pope John IV and by St. Maximus the Confessor. They saw him as being misunderstood, and thoroughly orthodox. While a good case can be made to defend Honorius (and I’m certain there is room for new development on his career by the magisterium), the 6th Ecumenical Council, which was confirmed by Pope Leo II, decided he was a heretic, and the kind that deserves public anathematization! Consequently, he was deemed punishable by the keys of the kingdom as held by one of the distant successors of Honorius, Pope Leo II, during his term in St. Peter’s chair. Honorius being a heretic (of some sort) should at least qualify as an instance that merits recalling in this discussion of heretical Popes. All this is said to point out that Vigilius and Honorius were not making decrees in their private capacity, but as the universal Pope of the Church. Vigilius made this the plainest since he referred to the authority of the Apostolic See in his decrees, i.e., St. Peter’s Cathedra. And yet, some of these decrees were in some kind of error. Vigilius even admitted he was wrong and appealed to the example of St. Augustine whose retractations include some corrections to his former positions. Thus, Popes can err in their official capacity, as well. I don’t see any escape from that claim, historically speaking.
Now, in comes the modern situation of Pope Francis. By now, Nov. 1, 2020, a great deal of the conservative circles in Catholicism are greatly concerned that Pope Francis is in theological error, if not formal heresy. His official teachings which allegedly contain errors are Amoris Laetitia and the revision of the Catholic Catechism on the death penalty (paragraph 2667). Even conservative Catholics, however, range between interpreting these two documents as being either (1) explicitly contradictory to Catholic faith or (2) simply imprudently consistent with the plain Catholic faith, being explicitly ambiguous for the sake of reaching mercy’s limit or some other naïve (if not sinister) motive. The latter interpretation has it that there has not been, technically speaking, an explicit violation of dogma, but there has been a rather unimaginable stretch of reason to make room for exceptional situations. In addition to these, there have been numerous places where Pope Francis has been accused of error in his private capacity, such as during airplane interviews or in off-the-cuff remarks, and so on. The claims are quite egregious, and the explanations given by Catholic apologists heretofore have not really cleared the air of the problems that this Papal storm has created.
As grim as this all looks, the Pope has thankfully never taught anything with the full authority of his office, ex Cathedra, to bind the universal Church, which would require the assent of faith to catholic dogma (de fide). What the Pope says in his private capacity can be entirely disagreed with. Thus, his recent statements on the option for civil unions for same-sex couples, now seemingly shrouded in the ambiguity of the media, carries not a single crumb of authority over the heads of the baptized, and the latter can openly contradict it. Moreover, if one wanted to argue that the faithful are unconditionally obliged (this is a subject of debate) to give religious assent of mind and will to the non-infallible Papal magisterium, then there is at least some capacity to give both Amoris Laetitia and the Catechism (2667) orthodox interpretations. They seem to be conformable, if explained correctly, to the dogmatic tradition of Catholicism, albeit reaching towards heights of likely imprudence and practical absurdity.
But let’s just go out and just field the ground with the concession that Pope Francis has completely erred in all that has been alleged, both in private and official capacities, for the sake of argument. Even with this hypothetical concession, no one argues that Pope Francis has ever issued an ex cathedra decree during the entirety of his Pontificate hitherto. And if, as St. John Paul II taught in his audience of March 24, 1993 with regard to doctrinal infallibility, the Pope “does not possess it as if he could dispose of it or count it in every circumstance, but only ‘when he speaks from the chair‘,” then we can safely say that what Francis has taught thus far falls under the fallible-Papal-magisterium. Technically speaking, therefore, the Catholic teaching on the Papacy has not met its clearest manner of falsification. There are greater threats of this in Vigilius and the difficult history surrounding the Council of Constance with its Haec Sancta decree passing through Papal ratification. In fact, Pope Francis may be just a tad bit easier to work around to avoid this seemingly fatal exposure to falsification. The readers may consult Fr. Sergius Bulgokov’s The Vatican Dogma for an example of an Eastern Orthodox theologian’s field day with Haec Sancta. As for a Catholic rebuttal, I’ve not yet seen one that really resolves the identified problems. I don’t want to get carried away with the historical issues of the past, and so I’ll keep things from this point forward on a more theory-based trajectory. Onlookers from the Protestant and Orthodox circles, as well as anxiously concerned Catholics within the fold, should be careful enough to recognize that the doctrine of Papal Infallibility has not been falsified by the Pontificate of Pope Francis.
It is important to realize, however, that this growingly petty observation doesn’t really do much to salvage the Catholic Church from its dreadful position under Pope Francis, since theological error and ungodly leadership do not need to fulfill the conditions of ex cathedra infallibility for their damages to be applied to the body of Christ. Did Nestorius have to pronounce his heresy in some special highly specified ex cathedra modality before it produced damage to souls? No. In fact, heresies uttered from a private capacity, let alone semi-official, can do nearly just as much damage as if it were officially pronounced from the position of office. No Catholic, and no non-Catholic inquirer, can expect to brush the problems facing the Catholic Church today on the basis that Pope Francis has avoided invoking this highly specialized and complexed conditional ex cathedra mode of Papal teaching. People are rightly beginning to lose patience with this solution, as if it covers all the territory invaded by the Francis Pontificate.
Let’s say, then, for the sake of argument, that Pope Francis is, at this very moment, a formal heretic. It would mean, quite simply, that he has forfeited the Papal office. However, it would take some measure of sufficient recognition on the part of the hierarchy, or the College of Cardinals, to validate that fact. That a Pope can be judged or deposed, somehow, is an ancient fact stretching back to the early centuries of the Church. Even during the zenith of Papal power in the 11th century the Popes themselves were still, curiously, warning that a Papal heretic was a possibility. I mentioned the 6th council which condemned Honorius and was ratified by Leo II, but I didn’t mention that this Council also taught that the Apostolic See of Peter is divinely protected by God from error from the martyrdom of Peter all the way unto the end of time. How that claim can be squared with the council’s own anathema to Honorius is simply not resolved within the confines of the council’s Acta, and it would be left for later theologians and canonists to make sense of. Pope Hadrian II (869) made what seems to be the first claim during a Roman synod (869) when commenting on Pope Honorius by saying that the prelate of the first see cannot be judged unless said prelate was found to be in heresy, a condition which he said enables inferiors to dissent from their superiors. However, even there he seems to suggest that the judgment of the Apostolic See would be required in the assessment of a heretical Pope. Pope Innocent III, another occupant during the Papacy’s apex of power, admitted that a Pope could, if he deviated from the faith, be recognized as having forfeited himself from Papal office, and thus somehow judged by the Church. Even so far as the 15th century anti-Conciliarist champion of Papal authority, Juan de Torquemada, he understood that a Pope could be judged for heresy by loss of office. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), when writing his Tracts against the Genevan Calvinists, made it clear that a Pope can become a heretic, at which point he loses his office and is recognized by the Church as such, making the Papal seat vacant for a fresh election. No one in the conservative Catholic world needs to be reminded that St. Robert Bellarmine spoke of the consequences if there were to be a formally heretical Pope. The famous Jesuit theologian Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) stated:
“If the pope becomes an unrepentant heretic, after having passed on him the declaratory sentence of this crime by legitimate ecclesiastical jurisdiction, he ceases to be pope. This is the common doctrine of the doctors… The reason for this is that it is a very grave harm for the Church to have such a shepherd and that she cannot undergo such grave danger. Furthermore, it is against the dignity of the Church to remain subject to a heretical pope without being able to remove him.”
(De fide theologica, Disputatio X de Summo Pontifice, sectio VI (Opera Omnia, Paris 1858) 12, 317; citation from Hans Küng, Structures of the Church, translated from German by Salvator Attanasio (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons,1964) 261-62).
We can see, therefore, that even throughout the 2nd millennium, where the dictum “The First See is Judged by None” was axiomatic and nestled clear in the text of canon law, the idea of a Papal heretic and consequent deposition was never precluded as an impossibility. Up unto this very day, this is widely held as possible, as evidenced by Dr. Ed Peters, canon lawyer in the United States.
And yet, neither in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, nor the revision in 1983, is there any clear canonical program for the process of a deposition of the Pope in the case of the crime of heresy. That is extremely interesting, but it should *not* lead people to think that a non-mention is equal to a denial thereof. It has never been rejected as a possibility, despite the claims made recently by Archbishop Athanasius Schneider to the contrary. The potential for a certain canonical legislation on this remains, therefore, and hopefully this gets treated soon enough. With that said, even if we had a current day canonical procedure for yanking a heretical Pope out of office, it really would remain a dead letter in today’s circumstances, because only a handful of Bishops have voiced opposition to Pope Francis. That means most of the clerics in the hierarchical communion of the Episcopal College think Pope Francis is orthodox, and thus worthy of Papal office! For that matter, the problem of not having a canonical procedure for removing Pope Francis is more of a secondary problem than this first one of the Episcopal hierarchy’s acceptance of Francis. We would never see the day of Pope Francis on trial, in other words, even if we had the canonical procedure to do so in the books.
What does this add up to for the traditional Catholic who wonders if this whole system is one big house of cards? Or, as the late R.C. Sproul once put it, what if Rome suffers from a sort of theological hemophilia, “scratch her and she bleeds to death”? In other words, all this claim to doctrinal security, infallible protection, outward visible unity, and all the lofty claims made about a perpetual consistency with the never-changing faith of the Apostles… and yet it only takes a slight itch (i.e., a mention of Vigilius, Honorius, Vatican II, or now Francis), and her skin breaks, and she bleeds out. The answer to this is that there is no math to it. Either God protects the threshold from being crossed, or we are faced with a falsification moment. The veracity of the Catholic religion, so far as the Papacy is concerned, is reaching its compelling limits in a person such as Pope Francis. Some people have been convinced the threshold has already been crossed and are now scoping out alternative forms of Christian faith and practice (not without difficulty!). But the simple fact of the matter is this, the promises of Papal Infallibility have as its object the highest form of official teaching from St. Peter’s chair, which hasn’t happened at all with Francis. Catholics have only this assurance, while being left to face the storm of the great evils that providence allows for the Hierarchy’s private capacity qua persons, of either Pope or Bishops, or the Pope’s non-infallible magisterial capacity. There is no other solution other than for a divine intervention to disallow the crossing of the threshold of what it means for Hell’s gates to prevail, in a situation where both Pope is left uncontrolled and with an Episcopal College that is aloof to its problem (they are being part of the problem). The Catholic can simply repeat that the Pope, per the promise of Christ to St. Peter, will not bind the Church unconditionally to error, and that the whole faithful can openly disagree with the erroneous private statements of the Pope, while trying their best to interpret his official magisterial teaching in line with the Catholic faith. Other than this, the traditional Catholic is simply forced to remain in communion with Pope Francis, reciting his name at every Eucharist altar in the world, and there isn’t much else to do about it.
Onlookers from the outside might not buy this. With all this re-defining, re-conditioning, re-qualifying, and piling up distinctions, all this can appear as absurd as the following example. Imagine I take a 20-question multiple choice question test, and then get told afterwards that I got 19 questions wrong, and only 1 question right. Then, let’s say a certain authority came in and qualified the test by attributing 99% of the test’s weight to the one multiple choice question I got right, and %0.05 weight to each of the 19 questions I got wrong, leaving me with almost an A+ on the test (99%). No one would take such a feat seriously. However, with the manner and extent that some Catholic apologists go to explain the errors of the past, and the Papal errors in particular, one can almost get this sense. Surely, this must be avoided. If we can’t muster a better presentation, then we might as well withdraw from the field of debate until we can. Perhaps this should cause the Catholic apologist who thinks the “Ah, well that wasn’t ex cathedra” is the quick solution to every puzzle should rethink that. After all, if the Pope is simply protected from error in his ex cathedra teaching mode, and if such a mode is so narrow that it’s never clear whether it’s happened more than twice, then this model allows for the Popes, from St. Peter to Francis, to perpetually teach errors in their magisterial teaching as long as it is a hair-less than the force of ex cathedra. How does that fit with Vatican 1’s teaching that the successor of St. Peter is the rock of the Church and its perpetual principle of unity. If the erroneous teachings of the Patriarchs of the East, all which were disseminated in modes that would be less than ex cathedra, were so devastating to their flocks that their Patriarchates often entered the poison of error as a result, then why is it that only ex cathedra teachings of the Roman Patriarch is thought to carry the same damage vis-a-vis the universal Church? These are important questions to answer.
Is this not enough, asks the Protestant, to show that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the English Reformers were on to something when they broke away from Rome? Or better yet, is this not enough, asks the Orthodox, to show that the Patriarchs were on to something when they removed the Pope’s name from the diptychs? First, I’ll answer the Protestant question.
No, it doesn’t show the Protestants were on to something because the Protestant reform, as shown by St. Francis de Sales, requires a new apostleship from heaven to make a fresh foundation of the Church of which the Protestant could only rationally believe was deteriorated by the heresy of the 2nd century Christianity and forward to the Reformation. When Christ established the Church, He gave to it the ontological requirements to make a visible priesthood, able to replenish itself through the sacrament of holy orders, and the authority to teach, sanctify, and govern the flock of Jesus Christ. These powers were not picked up by the Apostles through mere intuition. Christ the Lord ordained them, breathed upon them, and marked a visible spot of Spiritual ordination at the day of Pentecost, in order to signify that the Apostolic Office would be the vehicle through which Christ’s salvation reaches the world. One cannot hit the reset button on all of this through intense Bible study and one’s own inner prompting to know and speak truth. As Fr. Ratzinger taught so well in the 20th century, God never supplied the Word of Truth without the Witness of Truth, and the Witness of Truth is never equipped without an Office of Witness. Ergo, the Word, the Witness, and the Office work together, and never can they be isolated to one or two. As such, the Protestant has no means to restart and reconstruct the Messianic priesthood and the Church already founded in the 1st century. Unless, of course, he can manage to show supernaturally that Christ is doing another selection of Apostles and another Pentecostal intervention. None of the Protestants, however, claimed this theory of reconstructionism. They simply resorted to the idea that a man can study the Bible, throw on a pair of blue jeans and a shirt, walk into the market place, preach the Bible, and begin assuming to himself the rights and privileges of the keys of the kingdom and the right to discipline, teach, rebuke, and all the other sacred rights of ecclesial office (note, I don’t have the space to treat the minority view of the Westminster divines who maintained some sort of tactile succession as pre-requisite to the Christian ministry, but their scarcity proves its dysfunctionality anyhow). To be deep in history, said St. John H. Newman, is to cease being a Protestant. That is, whatever obscurity there was to be found in the Patristic documents, said St. Newman, there was at least one clear certainty, and that is the religion of the Fathers was not the religion of the Protestants. Jesus said to his Apostles, who received the Holy Spirit, “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Christ is found in His witnesses, this side of the cross. And yet, not a single witness to Protestantism until 15 centuries after the day of Pentecost. This is not just an absurdity of improbability; it entails a failed prophecy from the mouth of Christ.
How about the Eastern Orthodox?
Here, the case only appears better since they have all the foundational aspects of the priesthood, apostolic succession, the liturgy, etc., etc., but they also have certain dogmatic attributes which, like the Protestant claims, make for some inconsistencies considering other facts. For starters, the divine institution of the Papal office is testified to in at least three of the 7 Ecumenical Councils, without revision by the pen of the Greeks. De facto, the Papal office is in the bloodstream of the Orthodox patrimony. But, since the schism, they have treated the Papal office as if it is external to the Church, only a useful help from antiquity, which can come or go without changing the fundamental essence of Christ’s constitutional government. In such a flip flop, the change in belief penetrates to the trustworthiness of the Orthodox testimony, making it incoherent. As much as the contemporary Orthodox apologist wishes to argue that they can either (1) clean the books of an essential Papacy or (2) re-interpret it as an external disciplinary institution through political accommodation, these explanations exceed the sort of “mental gymnastics” that Catholics use to forge continuity through the technical conditions of the Magisterial office (described above). To surgically go into the Church’s organism and edit the Petrinological DNA out of the strand is more than enough proof of a substantial change. The tradition must judge us, not we the tradition. If anything, the Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopic Orthodox Churches have a “cleaner” career of Papal acquiescence than do the Byzantines, and so if the Papacy is that much of a poison, maybe attention should be given to them before the Chalcedonians? And yet, at least here in America, only the Byzantine Orthodox are given the first consideration as an alternative to Catholicism. That instinct seems to me one of the most unfounded presumptions of American Catholics who gravitate Eastward.
Secondly, it is widely known by scholars today that the Latin Fathers clearly held to the Filioque position of the Council of Lyons and Florence, and by men who are cherished as Saints and Doctors of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This is a bit of a problem, since the Church was always careful so as to purge her ancestry of heretics even posthumosly (c.f. Three Chapters). Honorius was dug out of the grave, along with other “Monothelites”, to be hit with anathema. Consistency, it seems, requires Sts. Augustine, Optatus, Jerome, Leo, Innocent, Zosimus, Gelasius, Hormisdas, Agatho, Gregory the Great, Leo III, Paulinus of Aquileia, and Abbo of Fleury to become candidates for anathema. All of these Saints, and many more, are guilty of espousing a divine institution to the Papal office and/or the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. Not to mention their testimonies on post-mortem purgatorial suffering, divine simplicity, the beatific vision, the use of azymes in Holy Mass, and many other Catholic practices which are seen as a debilitating errors by many Orthodox today. Can the Orthodox Church afford to purge its Calendar of Saints for these heresies? If Honorius, Origen, Sergius, Theodore… why not them? Of course, Photius of Constantinople realized he would have to come up with a slight explanation and conceded to a Patristic fallibility which stands alone in Byzantine thought. How could the Fathers, indwelt by one and the same Spirit, be at such a variance of faith? Such a thing, says St. John Damascene, is impossible to conceive. It is far too overwhelming to try and conceive that half the 1st millennium tree of the true Church was already rotten with heresy. On the other hand, the Catholic Church can merge with the Byzantine tradition of the 1st millennium on the Spirit’s procession. Can such a thing be done by the post-schism Orthodox?
Additionally, the Orthodox Churches historically have spoken a great deal about the authority of Ecumenical Councils but have had to revise what they mean by this. Much like the Catholic West has had to acknowledge certain elements of a change in perception towards the reformability vs. irreformability of Papal teaching, so also the Greek East has had to suppose that Ecumenical Councils are not, a priori , authoritative enough to pronounce their own irreformability. Otherwise, the one Council which, if ever, truly qualified to be an “Ecumenical” Council of both East and West, that is, the one held in Florence (15th century), should be deemed an irreformable law by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Alas, it was repudiated within decades, like the Council of Lyons (1274). Anti-unionist efforts won the day. What then, is an Ecumenical Council today but a test run held at the risk of error? That seems to characterize the modern conception of a Pan-Orthodox Council, which requires consensus before the Synod can even be deemed a floating boat, let alone a binding event on the whole Church.
The seeming conciliar paralysis of this sine qua non for consensus also casts a shadow as to how the Orthodox Church is going to handle the fact that, like much of the Catholic hierarchy, the Orthodox hierarchy has sat back and tolerated the adventures of ecumenism in the 20th century up to this time. Where goes the many canons that speak against this? The canons which require deposition for praying with heretics? And so on. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has long been in close relations with the Pope of Rome, even in joint prayer services, and without penalty of law. While it is true that the Patriarch of Moscow has yanked Bartholomew off the diptychs in his Patriarchate, it was well after ecumenism had been a clear “infection.” Moscow ran into conflict with Constantinople over the territorial dispute in Ukraine, not for its ecumenical ventures with other religions. In fact, Patriarch Kirill himself endorsed Pope Francis’s book on spiritual prayer, adding his own foreword to it. Just yesterday Catholic media was in uproar over Bishop Barron’s endorsement of Fr. James Martin’s book on prayer, and yet who knew that Kirill did this on behalf of the one many refer to as the “Hippie Pope?” This, not to mention Bartholomew’s foreword to Pope Francis’s book on “Mother Earth,” yet another publication on environmentalism (I’m not trying to say that is a bad thing). Now, I’m sure Kirill is much more conservative to his tradition than Pope Francis is to his, but I still only see questions mounting from such a move. And I am sure Bartholomew would deny any worship to a blood-thirsty Pachamamma idol (heck, Francis denies that, too!), but the same mounting questions apply.
Or how about Patriarch Kirill’s joint declaration with Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba, where both recognized each other as true “churches?” Ahem, the Russian Orthodox, accepting the Roman Catholic body as a church? Is that in the proper sense of the word? In the same document, Kirill agrees that proselytism should not be tolerated. Does this mean that he believes the Orthodox should not be trying to convert Catholics? If we give an orthodox interpretation of the word “proselytize”, then that same orthodox meaning should exonerate past statements of Francis himself. In any case, the joint declaration is nothing short of jaw dropping for the oft-understood conservatism of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Kirill received a scathing accusation of having “turned aside the Orthodox Tradition” from Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos.
Are we also forgetting that almost all the 14 Autocephalous Churches participated in the Assisi prayer meeting in 1986? If something like that took place in the 6th century, Bishops would be on a hunt for all the names of every Eastern Orthodox cleric who made it to partake in that ceremony and would make sure either they (even if posthumously) or the Hierarchs who permitted it, should be called to account, or even removed from holy memory. And I say this with the same force towards my own communion in Catholicism. Some of these people are still alive, and no one has thought to pronounce anathema to Assisi. In fact, the Autocephalous Churches sent more delegates to Assisi 2002!
There is also the issue of a schism on a massive scale between Moscow and Constantinople, which has invited other Autocephalous Churches to pick sides. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, who always supported the Ecumenical Patriarch, has now declared the Russian Orthodox Church to have committed schismatic acts in African eparchies. A Pan-Orthodox Synod might resolve this, but what hope of a Synod can be had when the First See, Constantinople, thinks Crete (2016) is binding on the whole Church, and no one else does? Some theoretical reworking has to be done there before everyone is on the same page. But even then, who calls this Synod? One Orthodox acquaintance recently said, “When the Emperor returns”. Forgive me, but really? As the late Orthodox theologian Fr. Nicholas Affanasieff said, after the Greek and Latin schism “there were no more ecumenical councils. All attempts to convoke a pan-Orthodox council in our own age have not succeeded, and it is rather unlikely that such a council could ever be convoked. This is due to the absence of a primacy capable of commanding recognition by all the Orthodox churches. There is no pan-Orthodox head of the Church, consequently any convocation of a council is a practical impossibility”, (The Primacy of Peter, Meyendorff, p. 102).
Nevertheless, many Orthodox can say that Patriarchs vs. Patriarchs is dime a dozen in Church History and is simply a feature of the Church’s life. “We eat schisms for breakfast!” I guess we’ll see how the Orthodox Churches manage with these miniature, half-medium, partial schisms as the decades move forward? How far and long do these last before they begin inflicting spiritual harm to at least one side? Meanwhile, the Patriarch of Moscow and his chief spokesmen, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, have said that the Ecumenical Patriarch has fallen into schism and the heresy of papism. What does that entail for everyone who supports the Ecumenical Patriarch and is in altar communion with him? Does it not at least entail they, too, are supporting schism and heresy?
Some Orthodox hand wave all of this and insist that their ecclesiological principles allow the sort of breathing space needed to endure this kind of toleration of wickedness and holiness co-mixed, whereas the Roman Catholic, due to the extremity and sensitivity of the whole body to the Papal office, is more easily collapsed. There is certainly something here for which we can pause and consider. The Protestant ecclesiologies also allow for constantly new formations of Churches that can detach from infections here or there. But the Orthodox speak too hastily here. Throughout the 1st millennium, the Bishops argued that they would need to remove from their commemoration the names of wayward Bishops in order to cleanse themselves of the guilt of said waywardness. In other words, the Church of the 1st millennium was so careful to define what it meant to be in communion, that even a failure to cease commemorating a wayward Patriarch or Hierarch was sufficient in itself to prove a schismatic sect. Of course, exceptions factor in. But the exception proves the rule.
Therefore, given the plummeting of the Orthodox world into certain modernistic and ecumenistic ventures, particularly in the most blatant and visual persons such as the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Moscow, and the Archbishops and Metropolitans of the other Autocephalous bodies that have tolerated the same, this goes to show that a jump from Catholicism to Orthodoxy lands me in a very similar predicament. What predicament? That, despite the potential to cleanse the altars of the Church of unholy and unworthy names, the Episcopate at large simply will not take action. The Orthodox might speak of potentialities until the cows come home, but evidence of that would be required to make a compelling case for a Catholic to dismiss his baptismal vow in the Catholic communion and join the Orthodox where the same kind of explanations for outward toleration of evil communion will have to be defended.
This reminds me of one Orthodox acquaintance I have (I try to remain friendly with any and all Orthodox) who said that the Pope’s revision on the death penalty is what made him leave. I was curious to know if this man knew what the Orthodox hierarchies have said about capital punishment. If, as should be, this American Catholic should join the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), he should be made aware that the official website of the OCA condemns capital punishment as contrary to the gospel and to life. In fact, the OCA condemned capital punishment at its first All America Council in St. Louis in 1989. Other official statements exist on the record. Just recently, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke in agreement with Pope Francis on Capital Punishment. Now, what gain is there to flee from Pope Francis to fall into communions which have a similar “heresy”? One might say, “Yea, but at least as an orthodox I can dissent from it!” I think the problem still remains in light of the communion principle. A person leaving Catholicism because of the revision on the death penalty just to join a communion that condemns the death penalty in even stronger terms seems quite odd, to say the least. The Orthodox might say he/she has their own beliefs rightfully held in opposition to their own Orthodox hierarchs, but the problem doesn’t go away because they are still in communion with Hierarchs who believe something that they deem worthy of making them “heretics”. And then they are left with a communion of heretics, if the logic is being followed. Now, this typically holds true (in the Traditional Orthodox perspective) with the OCA and perhaps the (GOA) Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, but one persistent Orthodox interlocutor may try to salvage themselves in another communion… if they can find one within 100 miles.
I hesitate to bring this up since the Catholic Church is rampant with priests who support the reliance on conscience as a justification for the use of artificial birth control, and because there is little to no enforcement of the Catholic Church’s doctrine on her members in this regard, but the Orthodox Church has done something a bit more egregious even than this in the realm of doctrinal development with regard to the bioethics of human reproduction. On the Orthodox Church of America’s website, the clergy have been content to refer to a variety of ways the married couples can practice voluntary birth control. We can point to a documented public record from the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (a largely underestimated scholar who bears witness to Orthodox belief in the English speaking world as a foremost representative), the (GOA) Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, (OCA) Orthodox Church of America, and other well-known Orthodox theologians who all speak on the permissibility of manual contraception. I understand that there has been outspoken resistance to this from the likes of the wonderful Fr. Patrick Reardon, the zealous Fr. Josiah Trenham, and many others. But both of these priests are still under Hierarchs who have not ceased commemoration of other Hierarchs who support these aberrations. Could we just imagine if the Catholic Church was caught conducting a full reversal on a fundamental question of morality? Could we just imagine the level of media splurge would exist with headlines on how the Catholic Church has reversed its view on contraception, making her look ridiculous? Why hasn’t the same media been made about the Orthodox Church? Could we imagine if the Vatican published what the Moscow Patriarchate said when it implied opening other methods of contraception that were not abortifacient?
There is more.
The level to which the Orthodox have become at variance from the Scripture and the Church Fathers on the doctrine of the indissolubility of holy matrimony is also a bit alarming, even if that alarm is only a tad louder than the Catholic Church’s abusive and liberal handing out of annulments, i.e. practical divorces in many cases. The difference I see here, however, is that the Catholic Church can make a U-turn from the leadership who are in disobedience to official teaching whereas the Orthodox have embedded the dissolubility of marriage and the sanctity of remarriage into their official beliefs, making it a matter which dictates the essence of Orthodoxy’s integrity. The Orthodox cannot simply overturn this doctrinal aberration on holy matrimony or human reproduction and retain its status as the true infallible household of God, the Church.
“Oh Erick, but if you found a nice parish in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (RoCoR), you can eliminate having to deal with associating with public and flagrant toleration of the aforesaid errors.” That is certainly true, and there are many who find solace in that. However, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA) who didn’t go along with the decision of many of her members to join Eucharistic communion with the Moscow Patriarchate would simply charge RoCoR with the very thing I am outlining here, namely, communion with “liberal” Moscow who has been in the Ecumenical movement, and thus a communion of “heretics” (according to the dictates of the “traditional” Orthodox who remain united with World Orthodoxy).
It looks like both Catholics and Orthodox are in a similar situation here of an outward toleration of ecclesiastical waywardness. Does the Orthodox ecclesiology give the breathing room that it promises despite this fact? I am not convinced it does. Ability to endure more heresy isn’t, in my estimation, a feature to create “breathing room.” It sounds like a whole bit of the same nausea Catholics are suffering right now.
“Oh, but Erick, you need to just realize that you can ignore the outward situation and focus upon the divine mysteries, holy hesychia, and the gorgeous beauty of the liturgy will overcome those anxieties.” I always thought that the problems in Roman Catholicism were all on its face, but the problems in Orthodoxy are felt only during indigestion. Even a beautiful liturgy will be ineffective when, afterwards, you meet the Orthodox priest whose favorite theologian is Pope Benedict XVI. Or, that the woman’s bible study is reading a book on Bio Ethics which allow for certain forms of birth control. Or, that the priest of the next Orthodox Church down the road hosted a city festival, giving the microphone to a long friend to open the event who happens to be your own Catholic Bishop! Or how about a parish council whose concerns are with Greek festivals only? Not all of this is based on experience, but a mixture of experience and what one might reasonably expect in the current situation. To say the least, there is a good amount of nausea that one can expect from either their time in Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
“But Erick, you are focusing on chaff…look at the wheat!” Excuse me, could not the Roman Catholic also bypass the “chaff” and look to reverent Masses? The Anglican Ordinariate? The Eastern Catholic rituals? Could not the Roman Catholic look to the mystical tradition of the West? Could not the Catholic ignore the “tares” and absorb themselves in the honey of the Western Apostolic tradition?
Before I get duped twice by an empty sale of the so-called “True Church” with the Byzantine claims, presuming I’ve already been “duped” once by the Catholic claims, I will have to be fair in giving an equal criticism to Orthodoxy as I would give to Rome. Thus far, I’m not seeing the compelling reason to jump ship. I do not want to join the Orthodox Church just because Catholicism is false. Rather, I would like to join Orthodoxy only because it is true. And in saying that, I afford the opportunity in reminding the reader that I am eager to develop more friends and relevant discussions with charitable Orthodox believers on this matter. Please do not take anything said thus far as a positive attack against Orthodoxy. I am simply giving a defense of what many are calling the “cope” as a Catholic who isn’t jumping into Orthodoxy. Think of this post as a response to those Orthodox who aggressively evangelize Catholics. I do think that Catholics should begin opening the conversation, however, of what might become a clearer reality, namely, what if they have been duped? I see nothing wrong in this kind of conversation, given one’s spiritual maturity to do so. In the meantime, the Catholic “copes” with the situation by recognizing the difference between the capacity of office versus the capacity of person, and furthermore, the capacity of fallible office versus infallible office, and then buckles up for the nasty storm that the Divine Author seems pleased to allow happen. Communion with the Pope when and if he proves to be erroneous or even formally heretical is a necessary evil in order to avoid the presence of schisms, at least until the matter can be handled in a non-schismatic way. Now, this “necessary evil” does not entail a fatal collapse of hereticalizing the whole Church since the Catholic, may he hope, holds out that it can never happen that the Church’s voice, via Pope or Council, will require a member to subscribe to heresy. With that promise, if it be true, the Catholic can go on enjoying the beautiful sap of the truth of the Catholic religion without having to violate those principles. So, like the Orthodox, the Catholic can navigate the tradition with a healthy compass, awaiting further intervention on the part of Christ to do what He will with His Church. It is His to punish, sanctify, or prune, after all. In the meantime, there is, I’m afraid, this avenue of “coping” and we Catholics best stand by it. And to those onlookers, from all corners of the Christian horizon, who stand to criticize should also learn to re-evaluate their claims in fairness. Catholics don’t have a monopoly on this coping, as is clear from the foregoing. The goal of this article was simply to show that I am intellectually stuck as a Catholic since without Catholicism, I can’t imagine Christianity a real thing anymore; and secondly, I have a far greater sense of the implausibility of the Protestant “reconstruction” (as Fr. Ray Ryland used to call it), and furthermore the next-to-equal fatality, nay greater, of being in open communion with Eastern Orthodox synods that have openly subscribed to violations of Apostolic tradition. Open denials of the divine primacy of the Roman Pontiff, the insistent condemnation of the biblical doctrine of the Filioque, the revision on holy matrimony, and the reversal on the sanctity of traditional bioethics have all been chief examples which prove that, for whatever short punctures to the lungs exist in Catholicism (plenty as they are), they only come after spearing straight through Eastern Orthodoxy. On the other hand, I am under no allusions as to the difficulty facing the Catholic who can only make the best of this “coping” by recognizing the he will never be asked to subscribe, de fide, to a heretical doctrine. At least, that is what we hope, and it has worked thus far.