Rod Dreher has posted an account of his conversion from the Catholic Church to Orthodoxy that consists, sadly, of non-reasons for converting, non-reasons that are, I fear, simply setups for further heartache in the future, not to mention unpersuasive.
For instance, I don’t believe that the personal charisma—or lack thereof–of a bishop is sufficient reason to leave the Catholic Church, just as I don’t believe the sins of bishops and priests somehow de-legitimate the nature of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church any more than Judas’ or Peter’s did.
Like Rod, I converted to the Catholic Church as an adult. Like Rod, I was grieved and appalled by the sex scandals. Yet despite the despicable acts of Catholic priests and their episcopal defenders that have been uncovered in recent years, I don’t buy the proposition that my children are in continual mortal danger from predator-priests and that the only way to protect them is to leave the church. The chances of any individual child’s encountering an abusive minister in the Catholic Church are about the same in any Christian communion: which is to say remote. The notion that going to Mass or Sunday school is an act analogous to throwing your child into a pit of ravening wolves or sending him on a forced march through a spiritual desert is much closer to hysteria than to reality. Indeed, we Sheas have found the Church to be a rich fountain of living water–and in the highly troubled and frequently heterodox Archdiocese of Seattle no less!
Likewise, I never thought Rod was realistic to demand, as he did in an op-ed essay a few years ago for the Wall Street Journal, that the pope remove and replace a huge portion of the American episcopacy “with the stroke of a pen,” or to declare himself “let down” when the late John Paul II did not comply. If Rod had really listened to the author of Ut Unum Sint, John Paul’s encyclical on the role of the papacy in the life of the Church, he would have realized he was talking about a pope who had a more “Eastern” conception of his office than any pope in a thousand years: one who took seriously the notion that bishops are not just disposable middle management for the Vatican. In this, Orthodoxy fully concurs, which is why I don’t see the sense of demanding an impossibility from the Holy Father and then joining an Orthodox communion that would have condemned the Holy Father for acting “unilaterally” if he had met Dreher’s demands.
Finally, when Rod wonders if his revised view of the papacy—that the pope can never speak infallibly—is just an ex post facto justification for a choice made mostly on emotional grounds, I have to say, “Yeah.” Because I don’t buy Rod’s notion that something about Catholic teaching has suddenly been shown to be false. The fact is, the overwhelming bulk of Rod’s testimony regarding his Catholic-to-Orthodox conversion is not about his questions regarding the truth or falsity of Catholic teaching, but about ringing changes on how the sins and “self-satisfied” average-ness of Catholics drove him and his family to distraction and how the various comforts and beauties of Orthodoxy made them feel.
These are but some of the reasons I fear that the Orthodox communion will not, in the end, provide permanent sanctuary for Rod. For in the end, what Rod cites as unbearable in Catholicism is also true of Orthodoxy. For instance, he suddenly discovers that he cannot believe in Vatican I’s dogma of papal infallibility because of the ecclesiastical politicking that led to the formulation of that dogma. Nevertheless, he accepts as sacrosanct the dogmas of the first seven councils of the early church (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and so forth)–all of which settled crucial issues of faith and doctrine concerning Christ’s divinity and humanity, and all of which are accepted by the Orthodox as well as Catholics. This betrays a historical naiveté that leaves him open to some unpleasant surprises when he learns how the sausage was made at those historic councils. Likewise, when Rod discovers the history of Orthodox sins that rival anything in the history of Catholic sins—such as a long habit of being in the pocket of the state to such a degree that many clergy and even some bishops in the Soviet Union were on the KGB payroll and routinely reported the contents of confessions to the Stalinist police–what will he do? When he discovers that the Orthodox have their own struggles with priestly abuse and episcopal cover-ups, how shall he find purity then? Will he content himself with the fact that his own particular parish is beyond reproach, so it doesn’t matter what happens in the larger Orthodox communion? If so, how is that different from the Protestant sectarianism he left when he became Catholic?
Catholics and Orthodox both know God writes straight with crooked lines. It is still unclear what Rod will make of that reality.
I have been a defender of Rod’s Crunchy Con notions. As a devotee of G.K. Chesterton, I have a natural empathy with “small is beautiful” thinking. Nonetheless, there was one passage in Gilbert Meilander’s review of Rod’s book in First Things whose accuracy I could not deny:
Still, even as a Lutheran, I would never say (as Dreher does), that “if the only contact a typical American Catholic has with Catholic teaching and thought is what he hears at Mass, he will remain a self-satisfied ignoramus.”
It is this impatience with the ordinary, this assumption that the average person is a “self-satisfied ignoramus” that, I fear, has more than a little to do with Rod’s choice, since I cannot credit any of the non-reasons he has actually given. Such impatience is, I think, the blessing and the curse of a Protestant outlook (I’m a former Protestant), but it will make Rod as unhappy in Orthodoxy as he was in the Catholic communion if he does not abandon it. For the great insight of both Catholic and Orthodox faith is that sin and mediocrity in the church are appalling, but not shocking. Why should they be? I’m in the church, after all. And if a loser like me can be a member in good standing, how can I be surprised that it’s filled with other pathetic oddballs, factory rejects, jerks, schemers, and dolts? As is Orthodoxy—something that, sooner or later, Rod will have to face.
Orthodoxy, like Catholicism, and like the rest of humanity, teems with sinners and mediocrities living ordinary and even profoundly wicked lives. That’s life outside the Garden of Eden. When the Orthodox reveal themselves to be remarkably like human beings, and just as prone to self-satisfied ignorance, not to mention corruption and wickedness to match any pedophile priest and episcopal enabler, what then?
My prayer is that Rod and his family will not continue to build on the sand of presumed human goodness, but will trust that the church is holy only because of the mercy of her head, not because of the goodness of her members. For I hope, in Christ, to see them all on that day when the one who reconciles all things in himself will unite us in the truth and love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.