Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Dreher Looks East

In a post heard round the world (or at least around the small world of Catholic/Conservative blogdom) Rod Dreher has announced that he is struggling with the question of whether to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy -- in great part because (quoting with approval a friend of his who converted to Orthodoxy):

Over and over again, I have seen the magnificent teaching and witness of John Paul II and the Catholic tradition undermined and even rejected at the parish level. I honestly don't know if I could keep my kids Catholic in the American church -- or even Christian.
Having run into Rod in the comments sections of various Catholic blogs over the last few years, there's a sense in which I simply find myself thinking, "Well, that's not much of a surprise." As a result of covering the sex abuse scandals, Rod has become incredibly (one might almost say insanely) bitter about the institutional Church. And this, he says, has led to his main motivation for considering leaving the Church:

What moved us to consider Orthodoxy? It's a long story, but to cut to the chase, there were two things. The most acute was complete burnout over the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. I have always kept squarely in front of me the crucial point made by Father Andrew Greeley, who said that even if the Catholic church was run by psychopathic tyrants, that has nothing whatever to do with whether or not the Catholic faith is true. He is correct. That insight kept me solidly Catholic despite all the horrible things I was learning about church corruption and abuse of children. Nevertheless, the constant fear and anger I couldn't shake off began to eat away at me. Without my realizing it, my faith had become a cerebral thing.... Is it possible to live an authentic life of faith based only on cerebrality, on intellectual/doctrinal conviction? And if not, what do you do on Sunday morning?
What Rod chooses to do is very much a matter between him, his eternal soul, and God. To loosely paraphrase Man For All Seasons, when you hold your eternal soul in your hands, you should be pretty careful not to let it slip through your fingers. But his description of his dilemma brought to mind several things.

The Road Not Taken
There are a number of real and important differences between Catholicism and Orthodox (petrine supremacy being one of the most important, it seems to me) but there is a certain sense in which modern Eastern Orthodoxy (both in its strengths and weaknesses) shows us something of where Roman Catholicism might have headed without Vatican II. The ancient splendor of the EO liturgy remains virtually unchanged over the last few hundred years. Countries with majority Orthodox populations have seen church attendence and belief plummet, but at the same time a new wave of dynamism have arisen from a tide of converts and cradle Orthodox rediscovering their faiths.

In some ways, the Roman Catholic bishops saw a similar world approaching when Vatican II convened. Belief and church attendence were already falling in countries like France, Italy and Spain in the 60s, although the 20th century had seen a number of intellectual converts and a theological and liturgical re-awakening that gave many great hope for the future. The fathers of the council hoped that by re-presenting the teachings of the Church to the modern world, they could stem the tide of un-belief.

In this sense, the experience of the Orthodox perhaps suggests that the collapse in belief and practice by Catholics around the world over the last forty years cannot simply be laid on Vatican II's doorstep. Rising prosperity and the triumph of the ideal of a pluralistic society has reduced the incentive for unbelieving Catholics to go through the motions. And the increased material comfort in our lives and the comparative low profile of suffering and death have made it easier to believe that "this is all there is -- and it's pretty good at that."

But given that with or without at Vatican II, the late 20th century was probably doomed to see a massive falling away from the faith, what was the advantage of the council? Or was it an unmitigated ill?

I think the Vatican II documents themselves did indeed achieve their objective of clarifying and representing the ancient faith to the modern world. And yet, the mere fact that there was a reform movement going on within the Church during the late sixties and early seventies opened the door to a torrent of abuses, the results of which we live with today. If there had been no Vatican II, there would have been no convenient hook to hang all the claims that rode under the 'Spirit of Vatican II' banner on -- and so I think it's true that we would have seen less chaos in Catholic liturgy and school rooms.

What would, I think, have happened, is that people would have increasingly seen Catholic belief and practice as a charming and old-fashioned window dressing to apply to major life events such as weddings and funerals, but not something that understood in any sense the modern world. The mass would have remained relatively stable, though perhaps over the last forty years changes would gradually have built up until we ended up with something rather like the 1965 Missal: Readings in the vernacular, but everything else in Latin, a few accretions such as the final gospel stripped away, but otherwise very much the same mass as was in the 1962 Missal which is currently considered 'traditional'.

We certainly wouldn't have seen the mass exodus of priests and nuns from the religious life had there been no Vatican II, but I think we would probably have seen vocations fall off rather steeply. And although we wouldn't have had some of the idiocy that passed for seminary formation in the 70s and 80s, we would probably have seen a continuation and perhaps even a worsening of the excessive mediocrity which plagued some seminaries in the 50s and early 60s, with seminarians reading second and third-hand schoolboy Latin summaries of what the Doctors and Fathers of the Church wrote rather than reading the true depth and breadth of our Catholic heritage. (Raymond Hedin, an ex-Catholic seminary drop-out, describes the pre-Vatican II education he received at the Diocese of Cleveland seminary in Married To The Church, a book which makes it rather easier to understand who the priests ordained before Vatican II could have gone so far wrong, so quickly after the council.)

We would have been spared the excesses of the Sr. Chitisters and Fr. McBrians of the world, but we probably would see today a great deal more strife and uncertainty between those trying to be orthodox. On the topic of religious freedom, there was strong and genuine disagreement between loyal Catholics before Vatican II as to whether the ideas put forth by John Courtney Murray (or, come to that, Karol Wojtyla) in the early 1960s were heretical. There was also real disagreement as to whether Wojtyla's ideas about human sexuality and the language of the body (as expressed in the 1960 Love & Responsibility) were indeed a sound explication of Catholic teaching on sexuality, or instead a dangerously 'modernist' approach -- utilizing as it did elements of phenomenology and personalist philosophy. In a Catholicism without Vatican II, it would be rather less clear whether Ratzinger and Wojtyla or Bishop Williamson represented a truer vision of Catholicism.

The Dangers of Excessive Ecumenism
There's been a great deal of emphasis on the hope of reunion with the various Orthodox churches in recent years, and certainly, we must all as Christians hope for the day in which the Great Schism will be healed. And yet, some of the more excessive statements one hears in connection with the ecumenical effort come far too close to indifferentism. While it is true that the Catholic Church regards the Orthodox churches as possessing valid sacraments and apostolic success, and as being in schism rather than heresy, this does not mean it is a mere matter of preference to leave Catholicism for Orthodoxy. After all, the SSPX has apostolic succession and valid sacraments, yet I would hope any good Catholic parent would be much concerned if his or her child left the Church for the SSPX.

The difficulty is further exacerbated in that while we consider the Orthodox to have valid sacraments and non-heretical (though not as developed) theology, many among the Orthodox do not consider Catholic sacraments to be valid, and consider Catholic doctrine to be heretical. Essentially, Catholics consider the Orthodox not to be heretics for the same reason that we do not consider Aquinas to be a heretic -- one can hardly expect the Angelic Doctor to have affirmed beliefs that were not definatively taught by the Church when he lived. And similarly, the Orthodox can hardly be expected to affirm doctrines that have been defined since the schism.

However, if someone who was previously a professed Roman Catholic leaves Catholicism for Orthodoxy, he is thus clearly rejecting Catholic doctrine, and so he is a heretic, even if someone born into Orthodoxy is not.

There Is No City of God on Earth
By his own description, one of the reasons why Dreher is currently finding it so hard to be Catholic is that initially, after his conversion, he expected so very, very much of it. It's tempting to think that Catholicism, or some little portion of it, is very near to perfect. And seeing as the institution Church is made up of humans, it clearly isn't.

Perhaps it's easier to see this as both a cradle Catholic and a student of history, but it's always seemed to me that the proof of God's divine guidance is not that the Church is so sinless, but rather that she has remained wholly true to the deposit of faith despite being populated and occasionally run by some exceedingly sinful people.

This isn't just something to keep in mind for generalities, however. There's also a danger in investing too much of one's belief in specific individuals and institutions. I always wonder a little when people gush about "I've never known such a holy priest. He really sums up for me the ideal of what the priesthood should be." I've been blessed to know some great priests, and may well even have one in the family eventually, as MrsDarwin's brother is currently in seminary. But people, no matter how good, are people -- not ideals. It's usually not good either for us or the object of our respect to think of someone as an ideal, whether it's the ideal priest, the ideal mother, the ideal business man or the ideal politician.

It Takes a Family -- Not a Parish
I grew up in Los Angeles Archdiocese, in two rather mediocre parishes. My wife went to CCD in the Diocese of Richmond, before moving to somewhat safer ground in Cincinnati. In both our cases, we have our families to thank for the fact that we were given a good education in the Catholic faith, not our parishes, schools or diocese. But even if we'd grown up in one of the conservative Catholic meccas like the Diocese of Lincoln, it's still our families that we'd primarily have to thank. Having a great, solid parish can certainly help, but children are formed in the home, not the parish. (Goodness knows, if the sudden collapse of our apparently solid catechesis after Vatican II taught us anything, it's that you cannot simply assume that exposing children to good liturgy and good nuns will automatically make them knowledgable and fervent Catholics.)

Nor need living in a run-of-the-mill suburban parish in the United States necessarily be a life of constant war and suffering for a good Catholic family. To be sure, it's harder than it ought to be. You may need to examine several different local churches to find a 'don't add anything' priest. But one must also decide what's worth hating and fighting over, and what's not. I wish we had a Novus Ordo (or indult) Latin mass at our parish. I wish we had a real organ. I wish we didn't occasionally sing Amazing Grace or southern spirituals. But at the same time, I know I need to keep in mind that the parish we found and settled in is in most essentials a good parish, and getting better rather than worse.

There's a temptation for many of us who love the Church dearly and want to see her historic wonders better reflected in daily parish life to become so critical as to be unsatisfied with anything. Somewhere out there is a person who watched John Paul II's funeral mass and fumed over a couple perceived (or real) liturgical abuses. Or how about the people who complain that the pastor of every parish near them is disgustingly effeminate? Now, I'm sure things are far worse in some parts of the country than the dioceses of Los Angeles, Steubenville and Austin where I've lived. But honestly, if you insist every single priest you meet is effeminate, is it the priests or is it you?

To provide a good Catholic formation for your children, it's necessary, I think, to provide two things. First of all, a solid grounding in Catholic doctrine and practice. Know the bible; know the catechism; read the lives of the saints; pray the rosary or the divine office; make sure your children are exposed to real Catholic art and architecture (even if you have to travel to do so); give your children a good grounding in the history of the Church and the writings of the saints and Fathers. But also, make sure that you don't become so uptight in your search for the right expression of Catholicism that your children's experience of Catholicism becomes poisoned with your bitterness. This may mean 'shopping' for a parish or even moving to a better diocese. But it also means being prepared to sweat the small stuff and appreciate the good as well as the bad. (I always admired the pastor of my parents' old parish for fighting and winning a knock-down-drag-out battled with the diocese to keep the tabernacle in the center of the church when it was renovated after the Northridge earthquake. And yet he drove us nuts by saying 'and became flesh' instead of 'and became man' in the creed.)

I have a very strong tendency to get political and factional about everything, yet I know I don't want my kids to think of Catholicism as 'one of those political things Daddy fights about', so I try to remain outside of parish politics and look on the bright side whenever possible. (And head for another parish if the bad side becomes too big to ignore.)


John Farrell said...

Excellent post, Brendan. I feel for Rod, and yet, I think there is a great deal to the point Gilbert Meilander made in his First Things review of Rod's book. There is a certain spiritual snobbery one must guard against, and I'm not sure that--after a few years--we won't see Rod finding new faults with Orthodoxy. And then where will he go?

Ironically he himself once said it best. The Church is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And yet his leaving strikes me as precisely because he's gotten caught up in some grand idea of what the end in itself is supposed to be.

I hope he reconsiders.

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Truthfully, I hadn't heard much about Dreher's flirtation with Orthodoxy. Heck, I hadn't a clue he converted to Catholicism.

Commenter John Farrell (above) warns of the danger of spiritual snobbery. It is a danger that all too many of us can fall prey to. Sometimes, this tone comes out in some of the St. Blogs "faithful." It can rear its ugly head in many ways, including liturgical snobbery or doctrinal snobbery.

We forget much too easily the parable our Lord told about the man who sowed good seed in his field. (Matt 13:24-30; 36-43) We must remember that these weeds will be here with us until the end.

Anonymous said...

Well said. It's an extraordinarily difficult issue that I for one would like to see addressed more frequently.

Julie D. said...

I exchanged a couple of emails with Rod Dreher when he was in the process of leaving our parish ... he spoke of his anger with our priest's "happy, clappy" homilies. However, those homilies are not what Dreher called them (certainly not to us and we are critical enough of homilies as my husband can tell you). True, they were not fire and brimstone sermons and that seemed to be what he wanted to hear ... which I think goes supports what you sensed and wrote in this post. My reasoning that the Church tells us to work within our parish to improve it, certainly one that is fairly solid as ours is, did not sit well and he moved on soon after that.

I, too, hope that he is able to discern where he is meant to be because otherwise he will be continually on the move looking for that place ... and that seems a miserable fate.

Fred said...

In his most recent blog entry, RD said this: "I think I would find it a lot easier to live with the beauty absent the morality. I could supply the morality, but I find it hard to relate to God and to feel His presence absent sensuality." (Crunchy)

Now, I'm certainly sympathetic to those who hunger to encounter God through the senses (how could I not be!), but even so, God may not make Himself present according to preconceived notions.

Many rejected Jesus precisely because He was very historically and sesorily available to them (can any good come out of Nazareth?). Now, Jesus is present through the Church, but many still reject Him because He makes Himself known through His fallible and often tasteless members.

I'm also concerned that RD manages to discuss beauty and goodness without bringing up truth . . .

Fred said...

er, "sesorily" should be "sensorily"

Tom McKenna said...

If he leaves, chalk up another lost soul attributable to the revolution unleashed by Church leaders after the Council. Whether the Council intended the revolution or not is an interesting historical question, but really irrelevant, since a revolution is what we got.

It helps not to disdain our fathers ("well, the preconciliar Church was pretty stultifying/rigid/incomprehensible") or the old Mass (the Last Gospel an "accretion?" Now who's becoming a little mini-magisterium, passing judgment on the wisdom of centuries of Catholic usage... and exactly what is so unappealing to modernity about that particular "accretion," anyway?); the fault for the revolution resides not with either our fathers or with the old Mass, it rests with the revolutionaries themselves.

They are the ones who have made a wilderness of our parishes and have driven so many people, like the misguided Rod, away.

Darwin said...

It helps not to disdain our fathers ("well, the preconciliar Church was pretty stultifying/rigid/incomprehensible")
I certainly apologize if I came off as disdaining the fathers. Indeed, far from it. Indeed, if I was asked to name a single spiritual and doctrinal influence outside of the scriptures and documents of the Church, I would name Dante's Comedia, which was completed some 200 years before the Council of Trent. Nor would I consider anything written in the 20th century to approach the insights of Augustine and Aquinas.

However, one need not reject Vatican II to revere the past. Nor, at least in my personal opinion, were many in the church circa 1850-1950 as in touch with their historical roots as one might have wished. Look at all the suspicion of Blessed John Newman.

or the old Mass (the Last Gospel an "accretion?" Now who's becoming a little mini-magisterium, passing judgment on the wisdom of centuries of Catholic usage... and exactly what is so unappealing to modernity about that particular "accretion," anyway?);
I can't help you on Modernity, since I tend to be more Medieval than Modern in many ways. Nor do I have a problem with accretion per se. (I was using the term factually, not derisively.) That said, I think the difficulty with what was (if I recall correctly) originally intended to be an after-mass devotion becoming part of the mass itself, is that it somewhat breaks the symbolic arc of the liturgy to have the closing blessing and then go on to have other parts of the mass itself after that final blessing. It is in that sense it seems to me that it would have made sense to either clarify the final gospel as an after mass devotion rather than a part of the mass, move the final blessing to after the final gospel, or drop the final gospel.

the fault for the revolution resides not with either our fathers or with the old Mass, it rests with the revolutionaries themselves.

They are the ones who have made a wilderness of our parishes and have driven so many people, like the misguided Rod, away.

I would hesitate to call Vatican II a 'revolution' any more than Vatican I or Trent or any other major council. I'm certainly willing to agree that there could have been few worse times to allow large changes in appearance of the mass than during the turmoils of the 60s and 70s, especially given that the catechesis of the average Catholic in the pews proved not to be nearly as good as one might have hoped.

There were groups who used the occurance of the council to try to pull the Church off course, to their own ends. That was wrong, and resulted in untold suffering among the faithful. But there was also clearly much that did need reform and 'rebirth' in the Church in order for things to go so badly. I seem to recall SSPX bishop Williamson (hardly a Vatican II apologist) writing that the solidity of the 1950s church was a fraud and illusion, as proved by what happened in the 60s and 70s. I wouldn't go that far. During numerous times in the history of our Church heresies and the tenor of the moment have led great numbers of the faithful away, when if we had provided better catechesis such things should not have happened. How else, after all, could half of Europe have embraced the Protestant heresies so quickly? How did more than half the faithful fall into Arianism (including the majority of the sees) despite the teachings of councils and great saints?

As a human institution, the Church is always vulnerable to the weakness of her members. But as a divine institution, we must believe that the Holy Spirit is at the helm and will not allow the barque of Peter to be broken upon the rocks.

Dorian Speed said...

Excellent, charitable post.

mrsdarwin said...


Well, Darwin has left a comment or so on Rod's blog, and Julie D. (see fifth comment above) has corresponded with him, so I'm not sure what else you would suggest. I haven't seen anyone calling Rod a "moron", but do feel free to quote any passages from the post or commentary that you think trend that way so that the author can clarify.

Anonymous said...

I mean no disrepect to either Rod (whom I consider a friend) or Orthodoxy but it seems to me that Orthodoxy is attractive to many people precisely because it is a kind of idealized blank slate. I know that makes no sense so allow me to clarify: It's the option of folks for whom the contradictions, disappointments, and annoyances of religion-as-actually-lived-and-practiced are hard to take. (As I tell my friends, the comparison is nearly always between the most insipid parish priest you've ever met and a monk living on a mountaintop in Bulgaria.) The prospective convert's take is "untainted" by the perspective of the Greek or Bulgarian who has actually experienced Orthodoxy-as-lived. For the convert, it can always be 987 A.D. precisely because they are not living in a Greek village but, rather, a modern city. Their religion will never disappoint them because they get to define their relationship to it in a way that a Catholic can never define his relationship to the Church. That relationship is part aesthetic, part esoteric. This kind of religion can never stink because it doesn't sweat.

I hope that this makes some sense.

Darwin said...


It sounds like a phenominon similar to but more extreme than the "I obey the pope but no one else" attitude that some Catholics take. After all, one is unlikely to ever meet the pope, must less have to deal with his personal idiosyncrasies. (Not to say that there aren't specific situations in which one is justified in ignoring your priest, or even your bishop.) Sometimes is it easy to love something which is distant, thus letting you off loving anything nearby.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you all sure use a lot of big words. Here's MY story, for what it's worth (read Part I-- it's a doosey):

God bless!

Anonymous said...

>wouldn't sing Amazing Grace or southern spirituals...

I reply: To each his own. Personally I wouldn't mind at all it would be light years better than "Gather Us In" or "You & I are the Bread of Life". God I hate those songs with the fire of tenthousand suns.