Why I’m Not an Orthodox Christian: Byzantinism


Byz15Continuing from Part I, I remain a Catholic and not an Orthodox Christian because the Catholic Church, at least at this point, is decidedly more catholic.  Both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not monolithic ecclesial institutions but rather communions of Churches united to each other in faith.  Unlike Catholicism, however, Orthodoxy suffers from a very unfortunate accident of history.  Since the birth of the Church at Pentecost the Church has suffered five major schisms*.  One was healed, one ceased to exist, and three remain alive and well.  By far the largest and most devastating to the life of the Church was the Great Schism or the East-West Schism, which split the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Despite its characterization as a split between Eastern and Western Christianity, the Catholic Church has always remained in communion with at least some Eastern Churches.  Even in the early middle ages, when the vast majority of Eastern Christians were in schism from Rome, the Latin Church maintained its communion with the Maronite Church of Antioch, the Italo-Albanian Church of Southern Italy, and arguably the Malabar Church.  As such, even when Eastern Christians were underrepresented at Church councils and overlooked by the Papacy and Western Europe, the Church Catholic still included Christians of each theological and liturgical tradition.  The Orthodox were not so lucky.

The other Pope

The other Pope

The schisms of the early Church have left what we now think of as the Eastern Orthodox Church isolated in a kind of Byzantine ghetto, in schism not only from the Latin West, but also from their Alexandrian, Syriac, and Armenian brethren in the so-called “Oriental” Orthodox Communion.  This has left them nearly 100% Byzantine, and as such their theology has somewhat ossified.  Many Orthodox Christians will disparage Christians of other traditions, not because they hold beliefs contrary to the Orthodox faith, but simply because other Christians do not observe the Byzantine rite.  In many ways Byzantine theology has come to be identified with Orthodoxy so strongly that other Christian traditions couldn’t become Orthodox if they wanted to without abandoning their millennial traditions.

Icons_PalosHills_Iconostasion-6When many Orthodox talk about other Christian traditions, especially Latin Catholicism, they hurl harsh and sometimes downright bizarre criticisms.  One of the strangest is accusations against the West of idolatry because it tends to use statues instead of icons.  They say it contradicts Nicea II, although the council never mentions statuary in the positive or the negative.  Some Orthodox are wildly intolerant of any spiritual tradition outside their own, claiming that the West is somehow in error because it did not stumble upon the prayer method of Hesychasm as taught by St. Gregory Palamas and other fathers of the eastern Church.  This kind of Byzantinism is the result of a lack of clear direction in the Orthodox Church.  Say what you want about the Pope over asserting his authority, but he has never been beholden to fringe movements within the Church.  As Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Jesuit priest Archimandrite Robert Taft has pointed out, many of the Orthodox bishops, including their Patriarchs, are controlled by extremist movements within their respective traditions.  A recent and totally ridiculous claim by the Patriarch of Moscow that Catholics in Ukraine want to see the extinction of Russian Orthodoxy should be evidence enough of this sad truth.  Similarly wacky and unhelpful statements have been made by Patriarch Kirill’s underling Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev.  The extremely reasonable ecumenical advances of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew are made null and void by the agitations of the looneys in the Russian Church, a problem the Pope in his supreme office does not have.


Byzantine Divine Liturgy celebrated facing the people. YUCK! STOP THIS NOW!

One may claim that at times the Catholic Church has been just as Latinistic in its approach as the Orthodox Church has been Byzantinistic, pointing to the heavy Latinizations in some of the Eastern Catholic Churches.  Though this may be a valid point about the Eastern Churches’ need to be true to their own traditions, most of these Western aberrations have been brought upon Eastern Catholics by themselves, not forced upon them by Rome.  The official policy of Rome is that the Eastern Churches strive to maintain their ancient customs as faithfully as possible, even if in practice this doesn’t always happen.  It would be nice if the Orthodox had a similar official policy, but as we all know the conciliarist structure of Orthodoxy does not allow for any official policies.

If you thought the last picture was bad . . .

If you thought the last picture was bad . . .

The problem of Byzantinism in Orthodoxy is not going away or getting better, either.  The only non-Byzantine Orthodox Churches are a few small groups in the ROCOR and Antiochian Churches calling themselves “Western” Orthodox.  For anyone who thinks the return of Eastern Churches to Catholicism was premature, these strange little Catholic-Orthodox hybrids are downright embarrassing**.  They are even less truly Western than the Eastern Catholics are truly Eastern, and the presence of Byzantine icons and censers on their lacy Baroque altars is an aesthetic nightmare.  No indeed, the Orthodox Church is stuck in a quagmire of second-millennial Byzantine isolationism, similar to the Catholic Church’s enslavement to neo-Scholasticism in the period between the first and second Vatican councils.  Maybe this isn’t a real reason for staying out of the Orthodox Church.  Lord knows the Catholic Church has attitude problems as well, but I never claimed to be consistent.  These are just my own personal reasons for remaining Catholic.  More to come in Part III.

* The way I count them, the schisms are, in chronological order:  The Nestorian schism, the monophysite schism which created the “Oriental” Communion, the Great East-West schism which resulted in the Orthodox Church, the Western schism or “Avignon” papacy, and the Anglican schism of the 16th-century.  The Western schism was resolved.  The Anglicans ceased to be a Church when their episcopate died out.
** The situation of the Western Orthodox is very different from that of the Uniate Churches.  These are not groups of Western Christians who came back in union with the Orthodox Churches.  They are simple parishes erected to serve the needs of Orthodox converts who still want to hang onto their Western traditions.  Even so, their Masses are atrocious hybrids of Western and Eastern tradition, their priests do not teach true Western theology, and their liturgical rites are almost all made-up or in some way compromised rites that merely look Western but are not in fact historical.
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