The following is based on a real email exchange.
Dear Dr. Kwasniewski,
I am a convert to the Coptic Orthodox Church. I was born and raised a Novus Ordo Catholic, but only nominally so, and, as with the rest of my friends, Catholicism was irrelevant to us by the time we were old enough to think for ourselves.
In my twenties I started a long search for God in answer to a persistent call, and, apart from initial forays in Pentecostalism (not for me!), I was introduced to Orthodoxy. I became a Chanter at a Greek monastery and for a while was discerning a vocation as a monk.
Things fell apart. I had so many disagreements with the Greeks. I couldn’t understand their indifference to missions and evangelism, and their indifference to anyone not Orthodox. I was actively discouraged to do any missions or evangelism even—a thing I couldn’t wrap my head around. After a few years, I was planning to leave Orthodoxy and return to Catholicism, but as I was about to do this, I met a Coptic Christian who introduced me to the Coptic Church, and I loved it. They had a different spirit to the Greeks and I saw the Copts as a way for me to hold on to my Orthodoxy while being able to be involved in missions and evangelism.
But I struggled for a year and a half with the cultural barriers—the Arabic language, the feeling of alienation from my own culture, the feeling of isolation from wider Christendom. Frankly, the lack of universality in Oriental Orthodoxy is very obvious. As a result, I have been alternating between the Coptic Church and the Traditional Latin Mass for a while now. The TLM community is very strong and is growing rapidly (surprise, surprise!). There are over six hundred members in the parish and, at the last parish census, the average age was just over 33 years old. I have grown to love the Latin Mass and the Western patrimony. It has opened a whole world to me that was closed off in my Novus Ordo years. Though I have struggled with Catholic claims, I have slowly come closer and closer to Catholicism through writers and authors like Erick Ybarra, Timothy Flanders, and yourself.
All of this is a long preamble to my question for you. Given the current crisis in Catholicism—and given that, despite its faults, Orthodoxy, both Eastern and Oriental, still retains Apostolic Succession, valid sacraments, deep spirituality, and true sanctity in its saints—why should someone like me return to the Catholic Church, right in the midst of this crisis? I feel like I would be giving up a church (the Copts) known for its sanctity, holiness, and martyrdom, for a church (Rome) overrun by heresies, idol-worship, paganism, Charismaticism, Medjugorje, abusive priests, etc. True, I have found a small pocket of healthy Catholicism, but the point is, it’s a small pocket in a sea of heresy. In twenty years’ time, the Copts will still be producing saints. Will Catholicism be even recognizable by then? What should motivate me to take the final plunge and become officially Catholic again? I can’t break this impasse.
I apologise for the long message and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Dear Coldfooted Catholic,
I understand your struggles: they are familiar to all of us who are trying to take historical, sacramental, liturgical, confessional Christianity seriously.
Some time ago at NLM, I published a translation of an Eastern Orthodox monk’s critique of the modern Latin Church. One may well sympathize with much that he says. But then I wrote a follow-up expressing reasons one might not find his account altogether persuasive. I am convinced that every confessional body of Christians today has serious issues, whether doctrinal, moral, or liturgical, and that there is no paradise or haven to be found. Beyond that, even if we maintained for the sake of argument that the Copts were the most vigorous local church, are we not supposed to belong to our own rite, our own tradition, and to perfect ourselves by its resources as well as to strengthen it by our fidelity? I see a great calling and a tremendous scope of activity for Roman Catholics to recover and restore the riches of their own Roman church, rather than peeling off to a foreign tradition, however appealing it may be.
When it comes to Catholicism today, there are two paths: the Catholicism of tradition, as we find it in the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Councils; and the Catholicism of modernity, as we find it expounded by the soft or hard modernists who emerged in the nineteenth century and have dictated so much of the agenda of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If the two paths were absolutely distinct and clearly marked out, our choice would be easy. The real difficulty, it seems to me, is that the two paths are often found crisscrossing in the same Church, in the same diocese, the same parish, the same priest or bishop—or pope. There are tendencies in Ratzinger (on, say, the Church’s mission to the Jews) that are contrary to unanimous Catholic tradition and even to definitive magisterial teaching. So, as Our Lord says about the wheat and the tares, or as St. Augustine says about sinners and saints in the Church, the two paths are somehow mingled together, and we must exercise discretion or discernment as we walk, to ensure that we are keeping to the right path.
It does not require a doctorate or the privilege of private revelation to see that there are massive tensions (at least) and contradictions (at worst) between earlier magisterial teaching and that which is being propounded in recent decades. Somehow we have got to try to understand the whys and wherefores, instead of, Stephen-Walford-like, crawling into a shell of “the pope knows best.” Does he? If that were so, there could never have been problems earlier in history with corrupt or wayward popes. Granted, our situation is on a far greater scale, but the idea that a pope can go astray or that a council can fail in its avowed purpose is not something to jump away from in fright, as if it undermines the Church’s claims.
For example, the ecumenical council that closed on the eve of the Protestant revolt (Lateran V, 1512–1517) was, all historians agree, a wash-out. It failed to do what needed to be done. At the very least, it is hard to dispute that Vatican II misread the signs of the times and failed to engage modernity critically, from a superior rather than supine vantage. What was needed was a courageous, clear-sighted, and convincing refutation of the errors of the modern world and a restatement of how Catholic truth remains true, liberating, and beautiful. The drafts of the documents prepared before the Council took just this form, and John XXIII allowed them to be cast into the rubbish bins. Subsequent popes have tried to “square the circle” by following Vatican II but continually tweaking and augmenting its message in a more orthodox direction, as if to close off one by one the ambiguities that the progressivists laced into the documents.
The Catholic traditionalist claims that our current modern situation is unprecedented: something is happening in modern times—above all since 1968—that is unique in Church history. We can see Pius X recognizing it when he calls Modernism “the collector of all heresies.” That is an expression no one had ever used before. We can see it in many statements of pontiffs from the past 150 years who speak in apocalyptic terms about the rebellion against Christ and His Church. We see it in approved Marian revelations, such as Quito, Akita, and Fatima, that speak of bishops ranged against bishops and cardinals against cardinals, of chastisements the likes of which have never been seen before. We can see it in the truly unprecedented situation of two “Roman rites” in simultaneous existence; speaking truthfully, there are, in the same ritual sphere, two separate rites where there should be one. Is this bizarre? Yes, as bizarre as a body with two heads or two hearts. Has this happened before in the 2,000-year history of the Church? No. Should we be extremely thoughtful about the significance of it all? Indeed we should. We have to take seriously the peculiar quality and magnitude of the Church crisis, which, as I implied before, touches all Christians, whether they realize it or not. What happens in the Church of Rome sets the agenda.