Monday, August 21, 2006

Sparing the Rod

According to Orthodox writer/lecturer Frederica Mathews-Green, "The Catholic blogosphere is inflamed" that Rod Dreher, columnist for the Dallas News and contributor to Beliefnet, "is seriously considering Orthodoxy."

Inflamed? Who, MOI???

While it's true I have followed this so-called story for awhile now, I've hesitated to say much, mostly because I was waiting to do justice to this whole "crunchy con" kick that he'd started. The original piece in the National Review referred to the phenomenon as "granola conservatism," and I can't imagine what possessed him to give that up for such a ridiculous title as "crunchy." From what I've been able to observe, the choice has managed to trivialize an otherwise significant cultural movement.

But, more about that later. Back to Rod and this whole Orthodox thing.

I have to confess that in the last fifteen years, I've flirted with the idea of converting to Orthodoxy at least twice. At one point -- and it was very brief, I might add -- I was even worshipping regularly at an Orthodox parish. And yet, beneath the emphasis on tradition and so on, the lack of a central teaching authority (what Catholics call the "magisterium") is cause for some confusion in belief.

I'll give you an example with contraception. The "official" Orthodox teaching, what you can find of it, does not approve it outright, but leaves the decision to the conscience of the individual couple. The trouble is, you won't find that position in any of the writings of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, from whom I'm always hearing Orthodox writers say their Faith continually draws its inspiration. They (or some more than others, for all the hell I know) appear to have made an exception, as does most of Protestantism. So, what's the diff?

We are led to believe that this sojourn of faith has been insprired in large part by what he calls "complete burnout over the Catholic sex-abuse scandal." (Join the club, Rod. Did you think this was the first time this ever happened?) None of the idiots responsible for the current mess are the reason yours truly is still a Catholic. Nor are they sufficient reason to be anything else. Now, if I was important enough for Rod to ever answer my e-mails over the years, I'd invite him to dinner next time he was in town and attempt to reason with him. Failing that, we'd have a great time talking about life being "crunchy."

But hey, that's just me.


At 8/21/2006 01:10:00 PM, Blogger The young fogey said...

Good points regarding the wrongness of changing 'granola' to 'crunchy' (made worse by shortening 'conservative' to 'con' like 'con game') and the mess about contraception among the Orthodox. I recently got a lotta comments by blogging on that.

But for argument's sake, what about this?

At 8/21/2006 01:36:00 PM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Bishop Kallistos was the main source for my remarks about contraception. Everything else I've read since then is consistent with that. As to the second matter, Serge makes a claim, then contradicts himself in the same short paragraph. Not a way to convince the uncommitted, at least not in my book.

At 8/21/2006 02:01:00 PM, Blogger Huw Raphael said...

When Rod "came out" (eep, I hate that term) I emailed him and said, basically, "Dude: we got our own scandals - including sex - so don't come looking for The Pure Church over this way." I mean, one bishop molests a woman in a bar... and gets assigned to another diocese as punishment? Monks molest kids and they get sent out into autonomy instead of getting closed down adn sent to jail. Then there's the embezzlement scandal, and the real numbers scandal (of Church Membership)...

Of course, Orthodox go the other way, as well. (I won't name anyone in particular, but I can think of one Choir director and his wife from Atlanta and am aware of others) I don't think there's much to talk about.

The Authority issue, btw, drives me right up the wall.

Yours in prayerful consideration.

At 8/21/2006 06:54:00 PM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Huw, on the matter of authority, would you care to elaborate?

At 8/21/2006 08:36:00 PM, Blogger Huw Raphael said...

I've been blogging for a while on the question of "Authority" although I've asked, "How do we know when the Church has spoken?"

There is, seemingly, no way to know, at least among the Orthodox. Some seem to think it is only the Ecumenical Councils - you may or may not agree that they stopped at 7. Some seem to say it is the Patriarchs. Some seem to imply that the Church doesn't speak, as such, but rather "just knows" and goes on. Some told me "we don't need an Authority external to God". Some seem to think I've entered schism (or heresy) just by asking.

The one clearly American Convert Answer I've gotten is "the Church can not err. If something or someone is in error, they are not the Church." coupled with "the Saints know what the Church teaches, you're not a saint, so shut up."

The other version of that is "Obey your priest in all things. If he's wrong, God will make him answer for it - not you." Which promptly leads to 45 minute confessions if you vote the "wrong" way on the parish council.

At 8/22/2006 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

comment 11 under the following blog sums it up nicely, and hilariously:

At 8/22/2006 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...

I, too, have considered conversion to Orthodoxy. I've almost made my mind up to go through with it. Now onto the issue with authority in Orthodoxy . . .

The Orthodox Church teaches that the fullness of the Faith was given by Christ to the Apostles. Orthodoxy also affirms that the apostles and their successors were given the ability to interpret and teach this Tradition fully, so that every generation would know and live the fullness of truth.

An Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox tradition is seen as fortifying and protecting the truth, not a vehicle for finding the truth, making it obligatory, or altering the "catholic" patrimony. This rules out any "development of doctrine", as understood in the sense of finding the Faith given to the saints "once for all" (Jude 3).

In regards to the widespread confusion on the point of contraception, we need to remember the times during the first millennium when the clarity of the Faith got blurred, by both those inside and outside the Church. The answer didn't come in the form of a papal encyclical or an ex cathedra statement of the Roman Pontiff. It was often resolved in a very messy manner. The ideas where laid out and through disputes, debates, and even some physical fights (cf. St. Nicholas and the Arius slap), the truth was maintained.

This is foreign to Catholicism, where everything is very organized and supreme power resides in the person of one bishop. But however messy and disorganized the early Church looks in how it responded to doctrinal assaults, it is the earliest model of preserving the Faith, and is the model that the Orthodox Church operates on to this day.

Ergo, the disputes on contraception will have to be resolved by appealing to the common Tradition by bishops, priests, and everyday lay people. I'm sorry that the problem won't be solved overnight through an infallible bishop, but neither was Gnosticism. Just as St. Irenaeus had to defend the truth against the Gnostics, faithful Orthodox must uphold the Tradition regarding contraception against those who would rather take a Protestant position. For, you see, in Orthodoxy the Faith and its preservation and defense is the duty of all, not one bishop.

At 8/22/2006 08:48:00 PM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...

I'm sure you're asking, "Well, what does Holy Tradition say regarding the use of contraception?"

I was once disturbed by the liberalism of many Orthodox in the Western world on this point (several Orthodox theologians have said that all non-abortifacient birth control is all right so long as some children are allowed to be born, and/or that it is a private matter entirely). I had suspicions that this wasn’t the authentic Orthodox Tradition on the matter. Fr. Patrick Reardon later confirmed to me that the Orthodox Church condemns the use of birth control and these theologians are in dissent from Holy Tradition.

The Church Fathers are quite clear that all forms of birth control are wrong. It is an objective evil to deliberately render the marital act barren. While it is true that many forms of contraception were (still are, actually) abortifacient in the ancient world, the Fathers clearly expressed a rejection of any attempts to avoid responsibility in sexual relations.

However, does this mean that no contraception (including NFP, which renders sexual relations barren also), should never be used? This is a problem. On one hand, these forms of non-abortifacient birth control should never be used. On the other hand, the lack of their use could result in the greater evils of divorce, fornication and the inability to provide for our children. What do we do?

Reviewing how the Church has traditionally faced the dilemma of going to war may help us resolve this issue. It is clear from Scripture and Tradition through and the writings of the Fathers, that it is never right to kill another human being, even if that person be evil and seeks to harm us. Now, we also know that the Church has never advocated that we refuse to defend ourselves, our family, or our country. Wars are definitely allowed to be fought (with certain bounds, of course). However, this doesn't mean that the said war is "holy" or ever blameless. It is a sinful action, albeit mitigated by circumstances of our fallen world.

The same can be said of any use of non-abortifacient birth control by Orthodox Christians. In cases where our fallen nature renders self-control in the marriage bed (the course of action we should take when we cannot take responsibility for sex) impossible or less likely, the Church may give a dispensation to use contraception. It's a sad dispensation given to avoid a greater evil, much like allowing wars to be fought. One using contraception should desire to not do so for long, and accompany their act with repentance. The same would apply to one fighting in a war. Both are a lesser of two evils, rendered necessary through the fallenness of our human nature.

Now, I may be wrong, and an exception for contraception simply cannot exist. However, I have a hard time accepting that the killing of another human being may be permitted in necessary wars, but rendering the marital act barren for a time, is not allowed. Killing another person seems to be objectively worse than lack of self-control in the marriage bed. But if indeed the Orthodox who share this position are wrong, this is a problem with our concept of Church discipline, not doctrine, per se. The majority of Orthodox in the world believe contraception is a sin and if it is to be used at all, it is merely a dispensation to our weakness that we should repent of.

At 8/22/2006 09:56:00 PM, Blogger Huw Raphael said...

"it is the earliest model of preserving the Faith, and is the model that the Orthodox Church operates on to this day. "

I beg to differ with the final point - that is *one* way the Orthodox churches function today.

At 8/23/2006 09:06:00 AM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Mr Barnette, thou hast writ:

"The Church Fathers are quite clear that all forms of birth control are wrong."

"In cases where our fallen nature renders self-control in the marriage bed (the course of action we should take when we cannot take responsibility for sex) impossible or less likely, the Church may give a dispensation to use contraception."

The Church Fathers were "quite clear" because it was a matter of Divine Law. No human authority, including that of the Church, can "dispense" from a Divine Law. These two statements, therefore, cannot be reconciled.

At 8/23/2006 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...

"I beg to differ with the final point - that is *one* way the Orthodox churches function today."

Ok. Which others ways are available (beyond that of the Ecumenical Council)?

At 8/23/2006 11:11:00 AM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...

"The Church Fathers were 'quite clear' because it was a matter of Divine Law. No human authority, including that of the Church, can 'dispense' from a Divine Law. These two statements, therefore, cannot be reconciled."

Well, an exercise of economy doesn't render the Divine Law moot. The law remains in place, it is only the guilt that is mitigated due to certain circumstances. When we say a "dispensation" has been granted, we are simply saying that permission is granted to do something otherwise off-limits. The dispensation neithers makes the action right nor the norm, it is simply permitting something in cases of true necessity. Those under economy should still ask for God's mercy for what they're doing, for they are still missing the perfection of the kingdom.

You may ask why should we have a dispensation in the first place? It is given so that the Church can remove some (not all) of the guilt involved in an otherwise entirely guilty action. It's kind of hard to explain. One has to experience it before one really understands it (so I've heard).

Since you deny that a Divine Law can be dispensed with in certain cases, I have some questions for you.

Is killing another person against the Divine Law?

If so, then why it is sometimes permitted in the just war tradition?

Is this not an example of the "dispensation" I mentioned above?

At 8/25/2006 05:20:00 AM, Blogger Huw Raphael said...

Which others ways are available (beyond that of the Ecumenical Council)?

It's not that Orthodoxy is not functioning... but there is no monolithic way in which it functions. That was my only quibble with your point.

Inside Orthodoxy today - in America, at least, which is a pretty small fishbowl, I'll grant - you'll find clerical autocracy, presbyterianism, congregationalism and episcopal collegiality functioning. You'll find priests who quote the rules from the Rudder like the best Roman Catholic Doctors of Canon Law. You will find entire congregations who grow misty over the concept of "holy tradition" functioning with no visible means of support.

You will find several debates about how many ecumenical councils there were.

You will find about 3 different (and mutually exclusive) definitions of what makes an ecumenical council. One of the most commonly accepted definitions (that the next council approves the last) totally invalidates the idea of there only being 7 - or else that the 7th is not even yet binding.

At 8/26/2006 04:00:00 PM, Blogger David L Alexander said...

Mr Barnette, thou hast writ:

"Is killing another person against the Divine Law? If so, then why it is sometimes permitted in the just war tradition? Is this not an example of the 'dispensation' I mentioned above?"

What is against divine law is murder; that is to say, the willful taking of innocent human life. Society has a right to self-defense in the case of heinous crimes such as murder, so capital punishment has been traditionally deemed morally acceptable as a last resort. A "just war" takes into account the right of man to defend his home, but not at the expense of innocent civilians or non-combatants. It is not a matter so much of a "dispensation" as it is the nature of the intention.

That's the short answer anyway.

At 8/31/2006 08:21:00 PM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...


Thanks for your response. This aberration of Orthodox Christians in America is unfortunate, but it is more an issue of a doctrinal fogginess that has invaded the faithful, than a problem in Orthodoxy, per se. Orthodoxy will never be properly manifested so long as the faithful seek to imitate Roman or Protestant practices. The Holy Tradition, the Holy Church, remains firm and unchangeable. We, however, are not that solid. And Holy Tradition is clear that the model for Church government is for the faithful to be in communion with their local bishop. All other roles such as metropolitans and Patriarchs are to serve this essential unity of faithful with their bishop. It isn’t Orthodox (capital and lower case versions) for these roles to be mistaken as additional power structures, in and of themselves. Other views may be held in practice by those in the Church, but I’m not aware of anybody teaching these views. Nobody (that I know of) in the Orthodox Church teaches that the leadership of the Church isn’t in the episcopate, and that the highest expression of this leadership isn't in the bishop. Once again, we’re looking at a problem of expressing the faith, not of teaching it.

That said, it would be helpful to have an universal Patriarch to guide and encourage us in holding to the authentic Orthodox patrimony. This is why we need the Pope of Rome to return to Holy Orthodoxy. He would be very helpful in keeping us accountable, IMO. However, I don't believe his role is essential for the Church, only helpful in better manifesting what we already are through baptism/chrismation - followers of the Orthodox Tradition.

As for the Ecumenical Councils, I had always thought that Orthodoxy accepts those Councils as Ecumenical which the majority of the faithful (the faithful, not those who had previously left the Faith such as the Monophysites) accepted as such after the Council ends. This would make the number of Ecumenical Councils as seven, not eight or above, as the majority affirm only seven. I believe that this was how the early Church affirmed Ecumenical Councils also - via the "sensus fidelium."


At 8/31/2006 08:40:00 PM, Blogger Adam Barnette said...


Thanks for your response.



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