The argument is not an important one in the grand scheme of things, but I see it thrown around so much that I think it’s time somebody said something about it. The argument goes like this: Orthodox churches have better liturgy, and a good community life. All people who attend Orthodox liturgies are faithful to the Traditions of their Church, and all of them practice ascesis on a regular basis. Catholics, on the other hand, have a mixed bag of liturgies, a mix community life, and have catechetical problems while simultaneously having few church-goers practice ascesis with a proper degree of severity. Orthodoxy seems like it has less problems than the Catholic Church, and while the number of people who go to Liturgies is small, the people who go are very faithful. Catholicism cannot make that claim, and it’s liturgical, doctrinal, and ascetic life are a mess.
At first, it seems like a pretty powerful argument: Orthodoxy seems to be a better saint producing machine than Catholicism. Still others claim that it shows that the Catholic Church is slowly going down the toilet, whereas the Orthodox Church, free from doctrinal dissent, is held up as a model of Truth in all its splendor. And yet, the picture is not so rosy as it first seems.
First, for the smaller points regarding ascesis. In America, the Orthodox have the advantage of being able to complain more: large communions of people tend to be less tight-knit than smaller groups. It’s just a brute sociological fact that smaller communities are closer communities. There is a good reason why the early Church was able to be so successful in having such a large percentage of her members live a full, Christian life. In addition, the faults of larger groups are much more readily apparent to the public eye than private ones. If the Orthodox in America had massive, fish frys (which sometimes seem to defeat the purpose of meatless Fridays of penance) or other practices which seem to miss the point of Lent, I wouldn’t know about them because I don’t see many Orthodox parishes. Consequently, all of the Orthodox in America can get on their soapbox and complain about how terrible their larger group of cousins behave.
And yet, is the Orthodox Church any better in Russia, where the number of Orthodox practictioners is much greater? Is the Orthodox Church making a large number of saints out of the 80% of the population that calls themselves Orthodox? Certainly not: the masses of people who claim to be Orthodox in heavily Orthodox areas are just as lazy and lukewarm in their faith as lukewarm Catholics in America. Greater emphasis on ascesis among the Orthodox? In some ways, yes; in others, no. Whenever a church is heavily based on converts entering into already small communions like the Orthodox communion is in the United States, of course the ascetic practices of its members are going to be greater. On the other hand, no matter what the Orthodox may stress, a large chunk of any large population will ignore the requests of priests to perform self-sacrifices, or fail to push themselves as hard as they should. And there just aren’t enough priests around to be looking over everyone’s shoulders to gently nudge his people to take their penances further, or study the lives of the saints more frequently, etc. There will be more on this in the following paragraphs.
Next, the complaint is that America is having doctrinal problems. Let’s go back to Russia for a minute. Last time I looked at the statistics, 2% of the population goes to church every Sunday, and 2% of the population practices ascesis (I generously interpret those stats to mean that 100% of that 2% are faithful, practicing Orthodox). And yet, 80% of the people in Russia call themselves Orthodox. In America, we have the same percentage of nominal Catholics and practicing Catholics, but more people going to Mass every week: 30% of our people go to Mass every week, and, while I don’t have numbers on who practices ascesis, 5-10% of Catholics oppose birth control (which seems like a pretty decent indicator of who is faithful and obedient to the Church and who is not). So really, both sides are producing the same number of faithful Christians (percentage wise), which is outstanding giving the respective anti-Christian societies that Russia and America have. But if both Churches have such a small percentage of their flock that actually heed and obey the teachings of their Churches, why is it such a bad thing for Catholics to also have so many of those lukewarm sheep coming to Mass every Sunday? At least we have 30% of the population going to Mass on Sundays.
Many people in the pews are uneducated in regards to the faith, granted; but as I think I’ve indicated–and I have no doubt further research would confirm–the Orthodox have just as many people who claim to be Orthodox, and yet are uneducated and lukewarm. Why does no one accuse them of having doctrinal problems? Don’t they have the same percentage of lukewarm adherents? The only difference between the Catholic unfaithful and the Orthodox unfaithful is that a large chunk of Catholic unfaithful go to Mass every Sunday. So…why is that such a bad thing? If a small Orthodox parish suddenly has 300 lukewarm, sinful, fallen sheep come to their parish every Sunday for Mass, would they not be happy at this chance to evangelize? Would the Orthodox prefer them not to come to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday because these lost sheep did not yet practice the Orthodox praxis to the fullest of their abilities?
Unfortunately, educated Catholic laymen and priests are not doing enough to educate their lost sheep, a situation which must be rectified; however, we have that golden opportunity to get people involved, an opportunity which the Orthodox in both Russia and America do not have. The very fact that we have a bunch of near-pagan butts in the pews means we have a harvest of near-pagans ready to be harvested by Jesus. In my large home parish of 2500 families, I’ve seen many-a lukewarm Catholic come back to a fuller faith because they were invited to do so and were taught how to practice the faith. The very fact that they are present at Mass gives faithful, holy men and women a chance to show them the love of Christ.
So in conclusion: I think it is a bad argument to say that the Orthodox are producing better quality individuals than the Catholic Church. I also think that it is unfair to accuse Catholics of having doctrinal, ascesis, etc problems. As far as I can tell, the Orthodox in Russia have just as big of a doctrinal and ascetic problem as we do: it just so happens that a large chunk of our fallen away Catholics go to Mass every Sunday. While this may create some liturgical problems (which have a) improved greatly the further away from VII we get, and b) fewer liturgical abuses now that the tumultuous past decades have subsided), I am at a loss as to why this somehow lends ammo to Orthodoxy’s cannons. If the Orthodox want to boast because our sinners are more visible than their sinners because ours are at Mass every week, they may want to find a better hobby.