"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, July 23, 2007

Damned either way

One of the reasons I decided in college to remain Catholic is that many of the criticisms of the Church, from both non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians, seemed to me to be of the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't variety. I always and instinctively sympathize with the object of any such criticism, even when the criticism turns out to be correct. Today the genre seems as robust as ever.

A case in point lately is one reaction from an Orthodox Christian blogger, the Ochlophobist, to Summorum Pontificum, the new papal motu proprio granting a universal indult for the Tridentine Mass. Refreshingly, he openly recognizes that his criticism is of the variety in question; regrettably, he thinks that exposes a problem with the Church, not with his criticism. I don't agree with him because, as a cradle Catholic, I am convinced that his prognostications about the future effects of the indult on the liturgical culture of the Church are too idiosyncratically pessimistic. But his pessimism about the Catholic Church is not always idiosyncratic. For instance, in more than one combox on this blog, the Ochlophobist has complained that the papacy reduces its credibility by failing to excommunicate more heretics and depose more bad bishops. He is far from alone in making that criticism; in my time, I've heard it from many quarters, including some Catholic ones. But as emotionally satisfying as I might find a massive housecleaning, I remain deeply skeptical. For if the papacy were to undertake what the critics want in that regard, many of them would join the ensuing media chorus denouncing the new Reign of Terror, the return of the bad old days of papal absolutism and the Inquisition. The more sophisticated critics would cite the issue as telling evidence that the Catholic Church is not the Church; for if she were, so the argument would go, she would not have to choose between anarchy and tyranny. Indeed, I've noticed that that is already a somewhat popular criticism of the Church in the Orthodox blogosphere.

The ironic thing, though, is that much of what restrains the papacy from attacking imagined anarchy with real tyranny are features of Catholic ecclesiology that many Orthodox complain are honored more in the breach than in the observance. Such Orthodox complain that, in the Catholic Church, there is only one bishop with many auxiliaries; but historically as well as today, Rome has exerted much less de facto authority over local ordinaries than popular notions of papal supremacy would suggest; and given her official ecclesiology, that is as it should be. The applicable considerations are well explained in an article by Fr. Robert Johansen. I wish I had seen it sooner. It's not just the Orthodox who need to hear it; the truths he expounds are lost on many loyal Catholics too.
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