05 October 2015

Why Stay Catholic?

On Twitter (that many-headed beast, that hydra of abominations, that great harlot of the internet), my friend Gabriel Sanchez, of Opus Publicum asks:
It's a decent question.  Given Gabriel's own public struggle with the issue, I think he deserves an answer.  I intend to give a personal answer, and not an apologetical one.  While my thinking may come across as glib, and may not be terribly compelling, readers can at least be assured that it's sincere.

The most superficial reason I'm not flipping Orthodox, psychologically speaking, is mental inertia.  I am already Catholic, and I feel no strong impulse to leave the Church and join another.  When inertia is the answer to "Why are you where you are?", the next question is "How did you get to where you are now?" So I should start by running through some of those reasons.

Back in 2009 I met a number of times with an Orthodox convert from Lutheranism, who was very keen on bringing me and another potential convert into the fold.  The tradition I was presented with from the Orthodox side of things seemed much less robust than the tradition I had seen on the Catholic side of things.  This impression had a few dimensions: first there was the peculiar absence of ecumenical councils since the first seven recognized by the Orthodox.  Second, there was the apparent lack of a strong intellectual tradition among the Orthodox—not much interest in philosophy or the integration of revealed truth with human knowledge; hostility toward the more systematic elements of Church Fathers.  Third, there was the apparent insularity of the Orthodox Churches, which all seemed very much tied to their particular ethnic backgrounds, in a way that seemed contrary to the evangelical spirit of Christianity.  I didn't like Orthodox ecclesiology, and I found the lack of theological development a sign that the Orthodox Churches were stunted in their growth.

The Orthodox never had a Vatican II  (i.e. a synod of fuzzy wobbliness), but the lack of a "visible principle of unity in faith" (e.g. the Pope) to whom everyone was subject in their profession of faith, made it possible for various high-ranking Orthodox prelates to be all over the place on moral issues, without anyone to say they were wrong.  And at that time, whatever might be said about the behavior and beliefs of Catholics on the ground in the United States, the Papacy was still holding the line set down by Paul VI, and defending the existence of absolute moral truths against the tides of relativism.  This made the case for Roman orthodoxy stronger to me, and while I was ready to grant that the current state of things in Rome was imperfect, it seemed more integral somehow than Orthodoxy with its fragmentation.

So much for my reasons six years ago.

Given the state of things today, I'm not sure I would have been able to have all the same thoughts.  Francis has so devastatingly undercut the perceived doctrinal authority of the See of Peter over the past two years that I doubt it would have been possible for me, investigating the Church, to have looked at him as a figure of authority holding fast to ancient orthodoxy against the forces of modernity.  As time goes on, Francis has come to represent many of the characteristics of American Catholicism that most repulsed me as a Protestant: zeal for integration into all the hip liberal political projects, sentimentalization of religion, consistent refusal to clarify or stand behind the articles of faith, disdain for the "rigidity" of any sort of orthodoxy, regular condemnations of "pharisaical" moralism in people who want to uphold traditional moral beliefs...  It would have been hard for me, comparing Orthodoxy to Catholicism today, to instantly recognize Catholicism as the branch of the Church in possession of the Rock of unity and fidelity to the truth.  And I suspect, though I don't know, that if I were in that place again today, this fact would make the choice to convert more difficult. This weakness might have undercut my conviction that Orthodox ecclesiology was wrong, and caused the Roman case for its status as true representative of the Apostolic faith to crumble. (It's possible that, given how much more I know now than I did then, I am overestimating the extent to which I would have understood all this, and therefore exaggerating retroactively the impact Francis's pontificate would have had.  But these things are hard to judge.)

So why stay Catholic now, if the reasons that motivated you most then are not as compelling as they used to be?  After all, a large number of high ranking Catholic prelates publicly embrace moral heresies with impunity, and the Rock seems to have gone all wobbly.

Since converting, I've become a little more familiar with the vagaries of ecclesiastical history.  The papalatry common among new converts has faded, along with the Magisterial Positivism which mistakes pontifical decrees for acts of divine revelation.  I am a Thomist now, and have integrated my cynicism about progressive ("triumphalist") historical narratives on the left or the right into my understanding of Church History.  The current state of the Catholic hierarchy is tremendously depressing.  It makes me feel abandoned by the Church, both as an individual seeking to grow in holiness, and as a theologian trying to stand up for the deposit of faith.  How can you teach the truth, when the man everyone looks to as the visible icon of the Church's indefectibility has stopped teaching the truth?  It's difficult.  The traitors in the Church who slid back into the shadows under Benedict are now bold and enthusiastic in their calls for the further destruction of tradition.

But the state of the Church hierarchy has often been depressing.  And the Church has survived enough wicked and stupid popes for me to be confident that it will survive this pope.  Which brings me to the real reason I'm not interested in converting to Orthodoxy: I have faith that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church, established by Christ, which is indefectible, in which the fulness of faith resides, which is anchored visibly in the person of the Pope, who is a sign of continuity and who holds, in the place of Christ, the primacy of jurisdiction over the Church Militant.  And while Francis may, for all I know, apostatize and defect from his office, or abandon it by attempting to impose upon the Church what is contrary to the express words of Christ, I believe that the tradition passed down at Rome (even today!) is the true tradition, and I find in the monuments of that tradition—the great councils, the great decrees of the popes, the Roman liturgy, the works of great theologians and preaching of great saints—a clear and consistent commitment to revealed truth, and to God, above everything else in this life.

We are in the midst of a dark century for the Church.  Maybe this will be the end.  But while the officers of the Church squander their energy and authority on false dialogue, and vain innovations, and the glorification of humanity, the tradition remains clear.  And this, by the grace of God, is enough for me not to want to jump ship.

Anyway, the original question could be flipped on its head: why become Orthodox, when the Orthodox already have all the same problems, but worse, because they don't even have the resources in their tradition to diagnose them as problems?