Question from an Orthodox Reader: Why Am I Catholic?

Question from an Orthodox Reader: Why Am I Catholic? November 25, 2014

He writes:

Hi Mark –

I’ve read your blog (+ articles) for many years now, and actually sent you a donation a few years back … I’ve especially appreciated what you’ve written on creation/evolution, as this has cleared up some misunderstandings for me.


One query; I’m an Orthodox Christian, to which I converted from a vague college student-ish paganism (back in 2004); my love of philosophy/theology then led me to recently finish my Ph.D in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.  The historical arguments of the Orthodox Church seemed much stronger to me (and still do, for the most part, though I’m working through a lot of the literature on Orthodox/Catholic relations and debates, particularly the material that came out after Ut Unum Sint); for example, it seems beyond debate to me that the Catholic Church changed the Nicene Creed (filioque), that the understanding of the papacy in Vatican I goes against (at least in some of the rhetorical language used) the traditional understanding of the papal office, etc etc.

Given that you’re a very smart guy and a very good writer, and also had a conversion experience (to Catholicism), I was wondering if you had any insights on why you chose Catholicism over Orthodoxy?  Or was Orthodoxy not a living option (or familiar option) at the time of your conversion?

Hmmm… Deep waters.  And ones I’m reluctant to wade into because the main thing I have to say to my Orthodox friends is “We are friends” (something they typically acknowledge, though Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, has its crazy Reactionaries who live to exclude as many people as possible from the reach of grace, especially us papists.)  But since you sound like a reasonable man, here goes:

I basically never had any big issues with the papal claims.  It seems to me self-evident that papal primacy saturates the NT.  Peter is obviously seen, in all four gospels, as the head of the apostolic college.  He is clearly the spokesman for the group, asking all the dumb questions, singled out for all the big honors, chewed out for all the big sins.  Yes, the apostles are all given thrones and all given the power to bind and loose.  But Peter is the one on whom the Church is built, to whom the keys are given, who gets called Satan when he screws up, who alone in prayed for to strengthen the brethren, who alone is focused on as denying Christ, and who alone receives the threefold commission, “Feed my sheep”.  Likewise, it is through him that the epoch-making revelation comes that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works of the law (opening the gospel to the whole world).  And the early Church certainly seems to talk about the Petrine office at Rome in ways that reflect the belief that Peter’s charism has been given to it.  Irenaeus, though he is living in France, is fundamentally an Eastern Father, but for him, the succession worth focusing on is the succession from Peter.  Likewise, the key factor in so many conciliar moments in the early Church is the Petrine office (“Peter is speaking through Leo!” is the cry at the Council of Chalcedon.)

As to the Filioque: sure, it’s a development that happened without the Eastern Church (and so is understandably irritating to the East).  But I don’t think it’s an insuperable problem.  Neither did the eastern Churches from what I can see, since it was part of the Creed in the West for about two centuries and only retroactively seems to have become a rationale for remaining apart after the Schism.  Theologically, I can see nothing particularly problematic with it.  Ecclesially, Rome has shown itself willing to omit it and say the older form of the Creed in prayer with the Eastern Churches.  And the Eastern Churches, of course, have shown (in their agreement with Rome to modify the Nicene Creed to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) that, at least in the fourth century, they had no problem with the development of doctrine per se.  So I don’t buy that the Filioque is a deal breaker on the papacy.

Likewise, with Vatican I, I basically agree with Newman (who opposed formulating the dogma of papal infallibility till the Council overrode him) that it was a legitimate development of doctrine.  Newman didn’t think it false, so much as imprudent to compel assent to it.  But the Spirit, he concluded, thought otherwise.  I think the same.

Ultimately, it seems to me to come down to the question of the development of doctrine.  And I think a very strong case can be made that the Eastern Churches, in jettisoning the papacy, have found it impossible to do that since the Schism.  I think Fr. Barron lays out Newman’s case very well when he discusses Newman’s three criteria for a legitimate development of doctrine:

The first is what he calls preservation of type. A valid development preserves the essential form and structure of what came before. If that type is undermined, we are dealing with a corruption. Mind you, type can be maintained even through enormous superficial changes, as, to use Newman’s own example, “a butterfly is a development of the caterpillar but not in any sense its image.” And by the same token, superficialities can remain largely unchanged even as the type utterly morphs, as happened, say, in the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.

A second criterion is what Newman refers to as “conservative action upon its past.” An evolution that simply reverses or contradicts what came before it is necessarily a corruption and not a development. In Newman’s own words, an authentic development “is an addition that illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects the body of thought from which it proceeds.” In accord with this idea, Christianity could be seen as the development of Judaism, since it preserves the essential teachings and practices of that faith, even as it moves beyond them. Cardinal George Pell alluded to this principle when he said, during the recent Synod debates, “the Church does not do back-flips on doctrine.” So, for example, if a proposal were put forth at the Extraordinary Synod that simply contradicted the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio or Paul VI in Humanae vitae, it would certainly reflect a corruption.

A third criterion that Newman puts forward is what he calls “the power of assimilation.” Just as a healthy organism can take in what it can from its environment, even as it resists what it must, so a sane and lively idea can take to itself what is best in the intellectual atmosphere, even as it throws off what is noxious. Both total accommodation to the culture and total resistance to it are usually signs of intellectual sickness.

If the problem facing some sectors of the Catholic Church is “total accommodation to the culture” (and this has always been the struggle for all of Christianity, beginning with the Christians who wanted to totally accommodate the Judaizers and continuing to those who wanted to accommodate the gnostics, the Christological heretics, and on down through history–including both liberalism in the West and Caesaropapism in the East even when Stalin was the Caesar being accommodated), then it seems to me the challenge the East faces is “total resistance to the culture” here in the West and a certain brittleness in dealing with bearing witness to post-modernity.  It has resulted in a heavily ethnicized Church that often appears not to know what to do with the gung ho (and sometimes overbearingly triumphalist) converts who come from American Evangelicalism or from angry Reactionary Catholicism. That’s not saying, of course, the most converts are like that (we have dear friends who are Orthodox converts).  But it is to say that people like Frank Schaeffer (and he is not alone) often enter Orthodoxy, not as a positive step, but walking in with their backs to the iconostasis as they lift up  their middle fingers unto the rest of the Church, whence cometh their rage.  Such “conversions” are, of course, also a huge problem for the Catholic communion, since many Reactionaries are people who became Catholic as a way of expressing their fury at whatever they left.

Beyond this, Orthodoxy appears to me to not know how to “test everything and hold fast to what is good” as history marches on since the Schism. Its attempt to engage with the West at Florence was crushed from within.  Likewise, its hostility to the West since V2 seems to me to leave it powerless to oppose the onslaught of postmodernity. It seems to me, in short, to lack the “power of assimilation” Newman speaks of.  So the overtures for reconciliation and the legitimate theological creativity seem to me to come almost entirely from Catholic communion and are often treated with suspicion.  As the son of a Canadian mother, it reminds me of the way Americans cheerily say to Canadians, “Hey!  We have so much in common!  Let’s be friends!” only to meet with (to them) inexplicable hostility from our neighbors to the North.

Obviously, there is a lot of history behind this and the Catholic Church is not without blame.  But it’s weird to extend the hand of friendship to an Orthodox convert (as I once did) only to receive an angry diatribe about the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.  There’s Tradition, and then there is clinging to old grievances. 🙂  I don’t even hold a grudge against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.  It’s hard to be held responsible for the lions at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

I want to emphasize again that this is not the *main* thing I think about Orthodoxy.  The main thing I think is that it is the vitally needed “other lung” of the Church and that the Catholic communion is wounded (as is Orthodoxy) until the Schism is healed. The Orthodox have a way of seeing that Catholics badly need to recover, just as the Catholic tradition at its best has gifts the Orthodox need.  So my main response to Orthodoxy is gratitude, not the difficulties I list above.  But in the end, I think the office of Peter remains what it is clearly portrayed as in the NT: the Rock upon which the Church is founded.

Hope this helps!

Browse Our Archives