Is Orthodoxy Immune from Modernism and Dissent?

Is Orthodoxy Immune from Modernism and Dissent? February 28, 2020

An Orthodox Christian wrote: “The Roman Catholic Church has changed a great deal in the past twenty years or so, and can hardly be considered the same Church it was in say, 1965 or before.”


1) What Catholic dogma was changed by Vatican II? Ecumenism and religious freedom do not have anything directly to do with sacraments (the subject at hand), if that is your answer. How would baptism in particular be affected?

2) At what point did the Catholic Church become a “different” Church than it was, and how? Your “say” clearly illustrates your difficulty.

3) When did our sacraments cease to be valid in your eyes, and why?

4) One can’t say that, for example, a woman is unpregnant at one point and pregnant at another, without recognizing (as unavoidable) some decisive point at which the essential change was achieved. Without such a moment in time in Catholic history, your certainty that we have “changed” is of little merit and substance. Why, then, make such a momentous charge without adequate grounds at all?

As for ecumenism, I have shown that it was increasingly emphasized by the Catholic Church long before 1962 (at least since 1900) — and can be shown indirectly to have been implied from the beginning (e.g., the Donatist controversy about baptism), and certainly in St. Thomas Aquinas. If you think we are now heretical to the extent that we have lost apostolic succession, what has happened since 1962 that offends Orthodox sensibilities any more than the papacy and the filioque did prior to 1962 — enough for us to lose our sacraments, and grace, etc.?

This whole anti-ecumenical minority Orthodox perspective is radically incoherent, and that is not one of the distinguishing marks of truth, let alone “fullness” or exclusivity of truth, my friend. Is Orthodoxy immune from theological liberalism, heterodoxy, nominalism, unbelief, and apostasy, and all the resulting absurdity, folly, confusion, sin, relativism, division, personal unfulfillment, and scandal resulting therefrom?

One of my primary arguments on this score would be that Orthodoxy has compromised historic Christian moral doctrine concerning contraception (which was strictly prohibited in the early Church and in Scripture) and divorce (also prohibited in the Bible and the early Church). This is very clear-cut and undeniable. So while Orthodox rail about all the admitted and scandalous nonsense which goes on in Catholic circles (as some sort of “proof” of their superiority), meanwhile they are — in effect — calling evil good (divorce, contraception), and going against either their own earlier Traditions, the pre-Schism early Church, or both. The bottom line is what any particular religious group teaches.

Let it be stated forcefully that all is not rosey in Orthodox circles, either. The oft-heard triumphalistic Orthodox criticisms of Catholic liberals and confusion come as rocks from within their own glass house. For example, I have heard or read about (from Orthodox themselves) the following problems in Orthodoxy. If we Catholics can be honest and straightforward about our problems, then so should Orthodox be. We’re all adults here: we can take it. Hopefully, we’re realists about frail and bumbling human nature:

1) Orthodox “unity” is merely a paper fiction (whereas ours resides in actual, institutional allegiance to the pope and conciliar dogma).

2) An unwillingness to confront the modern world and its social problems or philosophical questions on equal ground (which the pope — especially the current one — routinely and influentially does, and which Vatican II exemplified).

3) A tendency to refrain from asking forgiveness, while expecting apologies from Catholics and Protestants (I note the recent apology to the Jewish people by the Catholic Church; Orthodoxy has its own sordid history of anti-Semitism as well — well-observed in, e.g., Czarist Russia); and I have been told that there is a relative unconcern for historical or current misdeeds (e.g., Serbia; we hear about the sack of Constantinople in 1204 all the time, but little about corresponding Orthodox atrocities).

4) Inter-Orthodox schisms and excommunications when disagreements arise (including the denial of intercommunion to those of competing jurisdictions).

5) The Ecumenical Patriarch is either not respected or openly condemned.

6) “Russifying” or Hellenizing non-Orthodox populations before they are evangelized — if at all (the equivalent to the sometimes justified — charge of “latinizing” made against us all the time).

7) Ethnocentrism (Frank Schaeffer made a wisecrack about Orthodox spirituality being too often measured by how many pounds of baklava one can consume).

8) Caesaropapism (Solzhenitsyn — one of my heroes — has excoriated certain Russian Patriarchs on this score);

9) The majority of Orthodox (or many, anyway) are ecumenical. But ROCOR and similar groups consider this a rank heresy. So that fact alone shows that Orthodoxy suffers from radical disunity; this is also indicated by the related controversy of whether to baptize Catholic converts.

One can’t have it both ways: Orthodoxy can’t be both unified (with no liberals and a vague mystical overarching harmony known only to themselves), and split (ecumenist, westernized liberal vs. “traditionalist” and “exclusivist”), depending on the utility of either claim for a particular argument at hand (in polemical battle with the heretic westerners or “Latins”).

And note that this particular disagreement (like #4 above) is one that has become institutionalized within Orthodoxy (it is one of the “planks” in ROCOR’s “platform”). That doesn’t happen in the Catholic Church. The liberals haven’t succeeded in subverting (i.e., changing) a single doctrine. If the Catholic Church wasn’t divinely protected from error, surely it would have caved on one itsy-bitsy little matter, say, on contraception — like practically every other Christian group (including Orthodoxy) has.

10) What four things particularly typify an American Catholic “liberal” or self-styled “progressive?”:

    • a) He defies papal authority;
    • b) He defies the Catholic prohibition of contraception;
    • c) He defies the Catholic prohibition of divorce, or else calls for more-easily obtainable annulments;
    • d) He favors a more or less autonomous (“autocephalous?”) American Catholic Church.

Orthodoxy agrees with all four of these goals! Why, then, are these things not considered “liberal” when an Orthodox believes them? I’ve been told that even such a major figure as Archbishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware (author of the ubiquitous The Orthodox Church: the first introduction to Orthodoxy for many) favors women priests!

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander . . .

In any event, stories and considerations such as these indicate to me that things are not all that different in Orthodoxy, compared to Catholicism. Nominalism is in all likelihood just as great (it’s hard to objectively measure). All Christian groups (even the Amish and the most fundamentalist Baptist) have to deal with the diabolical scourge of nominalism, liberalism, and unbelief. Orthodoxy tries to retreat from, and ignore modernism, as opposed to the Catholic effort of courageously confronting it, and applying the Pauline injunction “I have made myself all things to all people, so that by all means I may win some.”

So we would expect Orthodoxy to be a bit less affected by modernism; to have fewer casualties in the battle (since it sends out few to the front lines). But if anyone convinces himself that Orthodoxy is a “safe haven,” immune from all these difficulties, they are simply wallowing in self-delusion. The very “in-group” and oftentimes culturally isolated nature of Orthodoxy merely creates another set of unique problems equally troubling and serious.

Alas, Orthodox — like the rest of us — have to go to work, have friends and relatives of different religious and philosophical persuasions, and are likewise subjected to the usual biases of academia, the media, etc. There is no way to totally escape the age we find ourselves in, short of living in a cave in the desert.

My point in all this (which I hope no reader loses sight of) is that we should ultimately examine the books and official teaching of any group, and drop the inconsequential and evasive “argument from sin and scandal,” which proves only that hypocrites and dishonest liars can be found in all groups, and the universality of original and actual sin — truths and realities I would hope we all knew in the first place, without needing demonstrable proof.

Why can’t we dialogue about our common and differing beliefs on the basis of Holy Scripture and Holy Fathers, rather than endlessly trading horror stories and dusting-off each others’ closet skeletons for yet another needless and unfruitful exhibition? No one would love to see that more than myself.


The foregoing caused a storm of protest on my Internet discussion group, so I clarified it further:
Since some people (both privately and on the list) have nearly completely misunderstood the purpose, intent, and logic of the above, I respectfully ask that such people please pay very close attention to the following. I thought I made this clear in the post itself (especially at the end), but perhaps I didn’t, or else I didn’t do it in a strong-enough manner (I admit there is some subtlety to my approach on this):

1. Many Orthodox polemicists (mostly of the anti-ecumenical variety) conclude that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church is a different Church (or should I say, no Church at all?), based on the (freely admitted) scandalous presence of many heterodox Catholics and heterodox practices.

2. That being the case, I have “returned the favor” by pointing out some scandalous facts about current-day Orthodoxy, not in the sense that such things are necessarily officially sanctioned, but in order to show that no religious group is without its crackpots and heterodox buffoons and corresponding wrong beliefs. In order to do so I brought to the table some anecdotal evidence (never intended for a second as compelling arguments in and of themselves). These were brought to my attention in large part by Orthodox themselves, so this isn’t just my own idle, self-serving speculation.

3. If these criticisms about the Catholic Church supposedly prove that we have lost our apostolicity, then so do the same observations about Orthodoxy. Therefore, it is a wash — the two “arguments” cancel each other out. If sin and hypocrisy disprove apostolic succession, then there is no historic, divinely established Church at all on God’s green earth and we are all on our own (which is, of course, contrary to Holy Scripture).

4. This being established, I assert that what I call the “sin argument” proves nothing. Some Orthodox have vociferously objected to my critique of their corruptions in practice seemingly without grasping the whole point I was making in the first place. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Mine is an argument from analogy (which I am very fond of). Their very crying “foul” in no uncertain terms is strong proof that my analogy spectacularly succeeded. The trouble is, they didn’t know it was that sort of argument in the first place, so the point was lost on them.

5. The above being granted, we come back to what I called for at the end of my letter: I wish Orthodox and Catholics (and Protestants) on lists such as these (we are all amateur theologians as far as I can tell, not religious scholars per se) could discuss and dialogue about the Bible and the Fathers and interpretation of same much more often than we do. We all accept the Bible.

Anyone who places a premium on Christian history and continuity (if not apostolic succession and Sacred Tradition) respects the Fathers and acknowledges their great relevance in the determination of orthodox Christian doctrine and true Tradition. If we are to criticize another religious group, then I suggest that we cite its books (i.e., dogmas) and authoritative pronouncements, rather than point to hypocrites in its ranks.

6. In other words (to sum up my summary), my whole post was a rhetorical (but absolutely serious and sincere) exercise of showing that the “sin argument”:

    • a) cuts both ways;
    • b) therefore proves nothing;
    • c) perpetuates strife and acrimony, gives offense, and accomplishes little.

Far from adopting such a method of critiquing Orthodoxy (as if it proved anything in and of itself), I was, rather, trying to show (by example, logic, rhetoric, and analogy) the utter futility of it.

The following critique actually came from a Reformed Christian (his words in blue):
As I mentioned in another post, I am a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and thus don’t really have much at stake in a debate between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics (and perhaps have no business being in it at all). So I’m not out to attack Catholics in general or Dave personally.

Granted. You kept to the subject (even though you have entirely misunderstood the nature and purpose of my post — read on).

(I like Dave, even though sometimes he seems to try to make it hard to do so… :) ).

:-) That works both ways, too! Maybe “making” oneself unpopular is an occupational hazard of the apologist. It is not something I relish, I can assure you. Yet we find that those who stand for something (whatever it is) are often controversial. Our task is to make sure such opposition is for the right reasons — not as a result of being truly objectionable on a personal or ethical level.

But some of the charges made against Orthodoxy by Dave seem to me to lack substance, at least as far as acting as an apologetic for Roman Catholicism (which is obviously the intent).

Only very indirectly. I have explained carefully how my intent was wildly misinterpreted by now at least three people, including yourself. I don’t claim that it was intentional . . .

As to the issue of divorce, historically the issue isn’t so clear cut, and it seems to this Protestant that offering a Kennedy with kids an annulment is hardly morally superior to an outright divorce.

I’ve been in dialogues about the improper comparison of Orthodox divorce with Catholic annulments several times, and have no wish to revisit it presently.

[My observation on Orthodox tendencies to overlook their own past and present sins] hardly tells us anything about the essence of Orthodoxy vs. the essence of Catholicism.

It wasn’t meant to at all, per my explanation above. These are very subjective and broad sociological observations, and difficult to measure, but I think the tendency is undeniable — enough for it to be considered a fault in practice.

From what I’ve heard, the hierarchy and monks of Serbia are quite clear in their condemnation of violence. But what does “relative unconcern” amount to?

I think the person who conveyed this to me had in mind an unfortunate tendency of too many Orthodox as a whole.

“The Ecumenical Patriarch is either not respected or openly condemned;”

By some he is, by some he isn’t.

I rest my case on this particular point! :-) I don’t have to absolutely prove all these examples I give, as the entire argument was one of analogy: the Catholic Church has problems / the Orthodox Church likewise has problems. This was not meant to be an airtight demonstration of each point. We can wrangle over the particulars and their magnitude till Kingdom Come, but to admit that Orthodoxy, too, has serious problems in its ranks is to tacitly acknowledge that the problem of liberalism in Catholicism proves little vis-a-vis relative credibility of Orthodoxy vs. Catholicism. That is my point. I hope I have made it abundantly clear by now. I may have done a lousy job in making that clear, but I know what I intended (and I did state it in the “objectionable” post as well).

I don’t see how the Orthodox could deny this as a problem [of ethnocentrism] in the U.S. But we should keep in mind that the immigration of the majority of Orthodox believers in the U.S. came within a century. In the 19th century, German, Irish, and French Catholics were at each others throats (literally, in some cases), with Irish churches refusing and forcing out French priests, etc. And I suspect that some of the ill-treatment shown to many Eastern rite Catholics today stems from ethnocentrism.

Again, establishing the same sort of problems in Catholicism doesn’t undermine my overall argument in the least, because it is an analogical argument.

Someone has already pointed out the incongruity in insisting that Catholicism is defined by what is officially taught while condemning Orthodoxy for “what I heard some guy say . . .”

I fully agree. In so doing he shows that he entirely misunderstood my reasoning. In fact, if you and he had read my concluding paragraph carefully, you would have understood the point I was trying to make, and all this would have been unnecessary. There I condemn precisely what you condemn here!

When the happy day comes in which Orthodox polemicists (particularly the non-ecumenical ones) cease attacking my Church by equating excess and corruption in practice with dogmatic and spiritual essence, then I will be utterly delighted and relieved to not have to write posts such as the one you critique. But until then it is my rather unsavory and unpleasant duty as a Catholic apologist. I wouldn’t be much of an “apologist” if I didn’t defend my Church against calumny and logically absurd “critiques,” now would I? It’s pretty silly to complain of crushed toes or a bruise on the shoulder when one’s opponent is contending against an attempted crushing of the head and heart of their religion.


See many related articles on my Eastern Orthodoxy web page.


(originally uploaded on 11-7-98)


Photo credit: Weroarnau (6-29-18): Saint Basil Cathedral in the Red Square in Moscow: built between 1555 and 1561 [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]



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