“Coping” with Being United to a Heretical Pope? Also, a Brief Response to Eastern Orthodoxy’s Invitation from its Aggressive Apologists

UPDATE (11/17/2020) – Recently, a certain “Nicholas” of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has published an article with a plea to traditional Roman Catholics to make an exodus out of Catholicism and into the Eastern Orthodox Church. In this article, he demonstrates falling into the same illusion that I described in the article below. He fits the description of the title of this article as an aggressive apologist for Orthodoxy to Roman Catholics. I appreciate his desire to spare Catholics of the painful situation that we are in right now with the current Pontificate of Pope Francis and his very left-leaning regime in the hierarchy, but Nicholas’s saving balm, namely, to join the Orthodox, is not proving to be a workable solution for Catholics who meditate in foresight of what being Orthodox would look like. Not only does he make some basic mistakes on Catholic theology (i.e. he thinks Catholics believe the Pope can change doctrine by his lawful use of authority), but he also tries to reinforce his apologia for the “indestructible” unity of the Orthodox Church by citing a certain Western rite Orthodox priest (a convert from Roman Catholicism) Fr. Victor Novak. Fr. Novak was considered an ardent defender of the Orthodox Church under the omophorion of Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, but is he still in good standing? His parish, Holy Cross, who presents its heritage as the “Celtic Church in Britain,” is no longer recognized on the official website for the Western rite parishes for RoCoR. I’ve contacted the proper authority and have received confirmation of Fr. Novak’s uncanonical status, but it seems altogether ironic how this “Nicholas” of GOA (under Archbishop Elpidophorus, who is closely tied to the man he accuses of “heresy,” Patriarch Bartholomew) is citing a Fr. Novak, a priest who seems to be unrecognized by even the Russian Orthodox Church. How does that help his message of triumph for the Orthodox Church’s unity and functioning status? Is it the case that the Orthodox find strength for the veracity of their communion by its ability to continually break off with a wider Church when the wider Church “goes off the rails?”

I have not made too many posts recently. That is mostly because of constraints with time and new responsibilities, especially family, Reason & Theology, and finishing a book. 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, if it is not a likelihood or even certainty already, that Pope Francis 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 of Pope Francis and traditional Catholicism as if what has been achieved is a sort of falsification moment. 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. Since God founded the Papal office, He is the subject protecting it.

And so on. Now, Catholic canonists ever since the13th century have articulated certain conditions or capacities wherein the Papal office has the indefectible protection described above. It would appear that the majority of 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 pretty much leaves the private capacity of the Pope just as able to be in error as any other baptized Catholic. That should be dearly noted. On the other hand, when the Pope enacts to teach the universal Church is a binding manner, on a matter of faith and morals, 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.

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. Vigilius, as many know, enacted to enforce decrees of which the verity thereof depended on certain facts related to Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrus, Ibas of Edessa, and a certain collection of their writings. Vigilius’s first decree, the judicatum, condemned these writings, then called the Three Heads, or Chapters. Thereafter, he published two constituta which contradicts the judicatum once and each other once. He flip-flopped quite 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 predecessor, and by St. Maximus the Confessor, as being misunderstood. As good a case that can be made, the 6th Ecumenical Council, confirmed by Pope Leo II, decided he was a formal heretic. Consequently, he was deemed punishable by the keys of the kingdom as held by Pope St. Leo II during his term in St. Peter’s chair. Honorius as a formal heretic 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 most plain since he referred to the authority of the Apostolic See, i.e. St. Peter’s Cathedra, in the publication of his decrees. And yet, they were both in theological 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. The blog Where Peter Is should take clear note of that.

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 in formal heresy. His official teachings which are suspect of errors are mainly Amoris Laetitia and the revision of the Catholic Catechism on the death penalty. Even conservative Catholics, however, range between interpreting these two documents as (1) being either explicitly contradictory to Catholic faith or (2) simply imprudently consistent with the raw content of Catholic faith, being explicitly ambiguous for the sake of reaching mercy’s limit or some other sinister motive. The 2nd 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 very exceptional situations. Some of us fear the matter is so unclear that toggling between (1) and (2) is a better description of how things are perceived. In addition to these, there have been numerous places where Pope Francis has been accused of error in his private capacity, such as during air plane interviews, or off-the-cuff remarks, and so on. The claims are quite egregious.

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 unconditionally, 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 no single crumb of authority over the heads of the baptized, and the latter can openly contradict it. That goes for all private comments, wisdom and prudence governing manner and expression. Moreover, if one wanted to argue that the faithful are unconditionally obliged to give religious assent of mind and will to the non-infallible Papal magisterium, both Amoris Laetitia and the revision of the Catechism on the death penalty seem to be conformable to the dogmatic tradition of Catholicism, albeit reaching unimaginable heights of 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 a good one.

Keeping things relevant, the 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 infallibility in order to apply damage 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, the Popes were still warning that a Papal heretic is possible. Pope Hadrian II made this claim during a Roman synod (869) when commenting on Pope Honorius. 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 theologians 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 as well as sitting clear in 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 of 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 the majority of the hierarchical communion of the Episcopal College think Pope Francis is orthodox, and thus worthy of Papal office! Practically, we might as well envision the Catholic Church being an aristocratic conciliarist Church or even a democratic Church, and the near unanimity of the Episcopate and the laity are in support of Pope Francis. For that matter, the issue of an absence of a canonical procedure for removing Pope Francis is more of a secondary problem than this first one of the Church’s positive acceptance of Francis. We would never see the day of Pope Francis on trial, in other words, even if we had the canonical procedure 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 the 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 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. Other than this, the traditional Catholic is simply stuck in communion with a Pope Francis, reciting his name at every Eucharist altar in the world, and there isn’t much else to do about it.

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 re-found the Church. 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 person reaches the human race. 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 disfunctionality 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, but they also have certain dogmatic attributes which, like the Protestant claims, make for some inconsistencies in light of 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 accomodation, these explanations exceed the sort of “mental gymnastic” that Catholics use to forge continuity through the technical conditions of the Magisterial office. 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 has to 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?

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 so 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 error 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.

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, similar to 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.” 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 “churches?” Ahem, the Russian Orthodox, accepting the Roman Catholic body as a church? Is that in the proper sense of the word? 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. 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. 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? Otherwise, I concede that point.

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 some truth to this. 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, 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!” True, but Catholics can dissent from all the Pope’s private errors, which make up 95% of them, and yet Orthodox are found pretending as if this makes a case against Catholicism in principle. Well, if Orthodoxy’s permitting dissent doesn’t falsify Orthodoxy in principle, the courtesy should go also to Catholics as well. Even so, Pope Francis’s revision on the death penalty is not a private matter, but was put into the books as official, though not infallibly. 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 held in opposition to their Orthodox hierarchs, but they are still in communion with Hierarchs who believe something that they deem worthy of making them heretics. And then you are left with a communion of heretics, if the logic is being followed. Now, this goes for sure with the OCA and perhaps the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, but you may be able to salvage yourself in another communion…. if it is exists near you. And that just reminds one of the loud silence of the Orthodox world on the preciousness of the truth. I am here indicting my own communion of the same probelm, and so please, dear Orthodox reader, do not take this as if I am pointing fingers..

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. 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. I have actually documented public record from the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Orthodox Church of America, and other well-known Orthodox theologians who all speak on the permissibility of contraception. I understand that there have been outspoken resistance to this from the voices of Fr. Patrick Reardon, 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? Why is it that if this were to occur in the Catholic Church, it might take 15 minutes for the media to be pushing out views by the thousands. How come such a reversal can actually be done in the Orthodox Church, and get absolutely no attention, but if the same thing were done by the Catholic Church, the media would be announcing the apocalypse. Could we imagine if the Vatican published what the Moscow Patriarchate said when it implied opening other methods of contraception that were not abortifacient? Hell would break lose, more than it already has!

The variance of the Church Fathers and the doctrine of the indissolubility of holy matrimony is also a bit alarming, even if that alarm is only a tad more loud than the Catholic Church’s abusive and liberal handing out of annulments, i.e. practical divorces. The difference I see here, however, is that the Catholic Church can make a U-Turn from abuse and disobedience to her doctrine by those members of the Church who fail, but if the Orthodox Church has effectively taught the dissolubility of marriage, the permissibility of re-marriage, and the use of contraception, then I am not sure how a U-Turn is possible given that her tradition is supposed to be marked by her practice, i.e. orthodoxy, or correct-glory. These are surely reasons for pause. “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 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. “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 the traditional liturgy, which is on the rise? 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? I think that can happen just the same, and so again, a set of reasoning that helps Orthodox fix their minds through the chaff is easily a courtesy to pay to the Catholic who seeks to do the very same thing, only in the Catholic communion.

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 recognizes the difference between the capacity of office versus the capacity of person, and further more, 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 with an orthodox 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. 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. The Catholic can make the best of this *stuck-ness* 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. In conclusion, If Christianity is a real thing, we know it isn’t Protestantism, and if the Chalcedonian-Orthodox is true Christianity, I will have to overcome the foregoing concerns, and many more, before I have any sense in clocking out of the Catholic Church. With that being said, let the conversation continue.

23 thoughts on ““Coping” with Being United to a Heretical Pope? Also, a Brief Response to Eastern Orthodoxy’s Invitation from its Aggressive Apologists

  1. This was a lovely and heartwarming read Erick. Thank you so much for pouring your heart out for us.

    Additionally, do you have any estimate for the release of your book? I’d love to give it a read over the Christmas. and new year holiday period!

  2. Dear Erick

    We dont follow the Pope like a cult leader hanging on his every word.

    Gay rights advocate ex priest Bernard Lynch said of the Francesco film.. only a repudiation of precious doctrine is valid and an anecdote from the Pope worthless.

    Never thought I would agree with Lynch

    God bless

    Robert Ian WilliMs..Wales in UK

  3. I have thought about this too Erick in terms of allowing the Pope space to be wrong.

    What if…what if quite simply the only “Catholic” faith is that faith common to all Churches with apostolic Succession? Assyrians, Copts, Russians and Latins?

    What if everyone quite simply is in partial error, and so God simply uses what is available to move the hearts of men on the directions he chooses?

    “The Gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

    What if this is way more simple than it seems- Hades and its confining power acting on the soul, is burst asunder by the profession of Peter’s faith?

    “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” is all the faith necessary to be made a beneficiary of the resurrection?

    What if the Church’s preservation of scripture over time is sufficient to render her faithful to the voice of her master?

    What if all of us are commonly errant, yet commonly used of God, who has preserved in all of us the essence of Peter’s faith in accord with the scriptures-

    And what if that’s all we need?

    • What if such views were never taught, dogmatized, or even heard of (save among Liberal Protestants) before you decided to advocate them?

      • InternetSecurity,

        Well, that view is obviously very tempting, but it suffers from enough criticism that it is worth absolutely nothing. Once you make these claims like wax, and can shape it in all kinds of ways, then even a Mormon or Jehovah Witness can say that the “Gates of hell never prevailed” ultimately because Joseph Smith or Charles Taze Russel restored the Apostleship. Where does it end? The wax, truly, is infinite in variety.

  4. Great post, Erick, I do think that you effectively showed that the Roman Catholic isn’t “coping” more than the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant, it seems that coping is part of our lot as sojourner in this fallen world.

    But I do think that you are too dismissive of the Protestant claim to truth and doesn’t give it a fair hearing, specially given your knowledge in Church history. I’m sure that you are familiar how in many aspects Magisterial Protestantism is especially closer to the Pre-Nicene Church than any of the so called “Apostolic Churches”, about how things like a second stream of revelation, monarchial episcopacy, apostolic succession, sacerdotal priesthood, Church as a political entity, iconic veneration, 7 sacraments are relatively early development rather than of apostolic origin.

    And I’m not hereby claiming that the Church apostatized or became corrupt Post-Nicea, in fact many of the changes that happened were venerable, what I’m saying is that these were de jure humano rather than de jure divino or part of the dominical institution.

    Nor am I denying the concept of development of doctrine, but rather about how the development of a doctrine should be judged, what standard should we use? The closed deposit of faith in Scripture? The Magisterium which turned from being an interpreter of the deposit of faith have turned into a source of revelation?

    • Steven,

      In my defense, I don’t think there is a case to be made for the pre-Nicene options that would render available some of the Protestant explanations. Rather than being dismissive of them, this post was not inviting to discuss those subjects seeing as how they are more than clearly falsified. Now, if I were writing an article specifically setting out to show why the Protestant options are unconvincing, then I would have spent more time going through all the revision stories.

  5. We need to be in communion with the Chair of St. Peter, not a particular “Pope” – as he must be in communion with the Church and all his predecessors.

  6. I don’t understand the nuances of how exactly Roman Catholics determine how to weight different papal utterances and proclamations. Is it from the Chair? Is it done at midnight during a full moon? Does it not count, or does it count less, if said to a newspaper reporter or to a member of the Curia? Who is to judge if it whatever is said is 100% aligned with Tradition? It seems you indulge in some fairly nimble mental gymnastics to land in whatever space spot each individual person feels they need to be; but your faith says the Pope has immediate, supreme and universal jurisdiction. What exactly does that mean? With such a faith requirement as this from Pastor Aeternus, what wriggle room do Roman Catholics have at all do dispute, question or object to anything that a Pope says without contradicting yourselves?

      • Indeed I do not, thank you. Like much in the Church, there are a lot of moving targets, and it’s tough to nail down many things. For example, where exactly do Roman Catholics pray ANYTHING publicly about the Pope or the Papacy? Precious little, and what does is totally aligned with Orthodox thinking. That Roman Catholics place much more emphasis on faith requirements which are NOT to be found in communal prayer life creates a greater opportunity for variance and capriciousness than in Orthodoxy; this, along with the greater centralization in the West, contributes to bigger swings around a mean.

  7. Erick, thank you for this very valuable presentation. As a long-time Orthodox (convert from Anglicanism over twenty years ago) I can say from the inside that your observations and concerns about Orthodoxy are fair, perceptive, and unnervingly accurate.
    And I’d like to augment your comments with the following:

    1. Catholics considering Orthodoxy must realize that they would be entering a church that not only defines itself by anti-Papalism but also by anti-Westernism. Despite pockets of philo-Western sympathy here and there, on the whole Orthodoxy’s very identity and self-justification requires that it distance itself in ways big and small from Catholicism. Many details of Orthodox piety, theology, sanctity, prayer, iconography, etc. are taught and discussed through the lens of differentiation from the Western equivalents. For anyone who loves and has been spiritually nourished and intellectually formed by Western culture and Western Christianity, this stance—after the novelty has worn off—is existentially aggravating and draining. Often it is really an offense against charity, and almost always it’s an offense against truth, since many of the Orthodox anti-Western apologists (which would include almost every American seminary graduate) don’t really know what they’re talking about. Many Orthodox clergy were Protestants with an anti-Catholic bias who then became Orthodox—and brought their anti-Catholic bias with them.

    2. This is a greater problem than just a Westerner’s comfort level within Orthodoxy. It’s a deeper problem because it inhibits the Orthodox Church’s ability to be a clear and strong witness of truth within the context of the Western cultural suicide we now find ourselves in. There’s a reason why an American millennial who thinks Buddhism and all things Japanese are profound and “authentic” will likely find Orthodoxy more appealing than Catholicism. All the enemies of truth, of reason, of sound morals—all the enemies of traditional Christianity—*hate* the West. The only voice that can strongly combat this is the voice of traditional Western Christianity—i.e., the voice that *built* the West and that defines all that is true and good and beautiful in the West. The Eastern Church is not really interested. The Russian Church would come the closest, since the Russians have always had a different and closer relationship with the West than have the Greeks. But by and large they are much more concerned with their own local problems and to a large extent they expect and depend upon the Catholic Church to take care of the West.

    3. And it seems to me that that’s exactly what’s happening. To the extent that traditional Christianity remains alive in the West, it is largely thanks to Catholicism. Orthodoxy makes valuable contributions, certainly. But the lion’s share of the work of maintaining the Faith in the West is carried on by faithful Catholics. A concrete example: I was in Manhattan the other night and visited a Catholic parish run by Dominicans. On this weeknight they had rosary, sung Vespers, Mass, and Holy Hour with eucharistic adoration. At the Mass (novus ordo, English, but reverent and prayerful) there were over fifty people present, including a long line for confession. Mostly young people. And I’m sure there were several other options for evening Masses in the City that night. But if you wanted to attend an *Orthodox* service on a weeknight in Manhattan, there’s only one option I can think of, and it would probably not be in English, and there would be only a handful of people there. The Orthodox jurisdictions in America—especially the ones traditional Catholics would find most attractive—are mostly tiny. Post-virus they’re going to be even tinier. If they’re not already, they’ll be entering institutional survival-mode, and that’s not the kind of circumstances conducive to bold and outspoken preaching of unpopular truths.

    Just some thoughts from someone inside Orthodoxy viewing Catholicism from the outside, for what it’s worth.

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