An Orthodox Argument against the Catholic Church Considered

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.

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6 Comments on “An Orthodox Argument against the Catholic Church Considered”


  1. Interesting post, Paul.

    Orthodox folks who would make such an argument are either monks or members of zealous convert communities. Spending a Lent in an American Greek parish would very quickly disabuse them of such notions.

    I’ve often thought that Mormonism often produces “better quality individuals” (clean cut, attractive, industrious, moral) than Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Zealous followers of Mohammed put ordinary Orthodox and Catholics to shame with their rule of prayer and ascetical practices. So what?

  2. phamilton Says:

    CathedraUnitatis,

    Unfortuately, I see such comments very frequently. However, since I don’t know too many Orthodox in real life, I always remain hopeful that the practitioners in real life were not so zealous as their internet brethren.

    In addition to the argument I wrote, what bewilders me most about the argument is that it betrays the triumphantalist’s pride. Those people are no different than the pharisee who thanked God for not being the tax collector. Shouldn’t the Christian thing be to just admit that we are all sinners? I just don’t understand how anyone can derive satisfaction (albeit in a roundabout way) from other people’s failings.

    In the production of this argument, my heart nearly sank when I saw that only 2% of Orthodox in Russia attend Liturgy every week. I would rather that those Orthodox had 100% of people going to Liturgy every week, and 100% of them practicing ascesis during Lent, no matter how bad that would make my communion look. I would rather that the current state of affairs in the Russian Church be entirely different–and therefore my argument would fail–than to know that there are so many sheep wandering astray.

  3. phamilton Says:

    And in response to Joe over at CathedraUnitatis’ blog:

    http://cathedraunitatis.wordpress.com/2007/03/25/hope-against-hope/#comments

    “This misses the point. The point is, ascesis is part of the prescribed Orthodox practice for both monastics and laypeople. It isn’t for Catholics, except for two days and Fridays in Lent. It’s that simple. Joe”

    Y’see, much of the argument that I wrote was in response to my Eastern brethren who were criticizing Latin Rite Catholics for legalistically imposing penances, while praising their own, “freer” approach. See the following threads (the first one is long, and you may have to wade through a lot of discussion to get to the sections I am talking about):

    http://haloscan.com/tb/michelangelo3/7672327875529002633

    The following is shorter, but the same point is given:

    https://www2.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=14247942&postID=3418742478153399046

    So is the Orthodox approach more free, or is it more strict? I just copied and pasted a lot of a post in the first of those two threads with minor edits, and put it into my article. No one thought I was misunderstanding the Orthodox practices of ascesis in that thread. Who’s word am I supposed to accept on this one?

    But even with that said, you seem to have missed the point I was making. Whether ascesis is mandatory in Orthodox praxis or not, the fact is that most Orthodox don’t practice ascesis. As I wrote in my article, 2% of Russians practice ascesis, and 80% of the population is Orthodox. That means that the large chunk of nominal Orthodox don’t practice ascesis. I’m not condemning the Orthodox at all. My argument is essentially a “tu quoque,” arguing that it is unreasonable to criticize Catholics when they aren’t doing much better.

  4. joe Says:

    paul:

    And my point is simply that, whether it’s observed or not, ascesis is part of the official practice of Orthodoxy, and (in my experience) it’s regularly preached. So those who don’t observe it, at least know they’re not observing something that’s considered integral to their faith. For myself, I feel I need the example and exhortation of those around me to help me with things like fasting. Joe

  5. phamilton Says:

    Joe,

    And ascesis is part of the official practice of the Catholic Church, and I’ve never been to a Mass during Lent where penitence and/or sacrifice has not been preached. We have our ascetical mystics as well, whose writings and deeds are held up as an exemplar for the entire Church to follow. But just like among the Orthodox, most people don’t practice what they hear, or they never bother listening in the first place. Therefore I find these arguments that somehow the lack of ascesis in the Catholic Church touches on her substance rather absurd.

    Y’see, it’s not that there is nothing to complain about in the Orthodox Church, or the Catholic Church. It’s just that a) I rarely if ever see Catholics running around pointing at these non-substantial failures of the Orthodox with great indignance, and b) in my experience practicing Catholics are very willing to acknowledge the problems in their own communion with great sorrow. I’m merely pointing out how petty, non-substantial, and hypocritical this Orthodox apologetic is. Therefore, why on earth does a large chunk of Orthodox on the Internet use it so often?

    I feel the need to be encouraged in my practices, too. So whenever I find a holy man or woman, I don’t let them slip away. There are good and holy Catholics out there who practice what the Catholic Church teaches regarding ascesis. What I’ve been surprised to find out is that there are a lot more of them than I thought there were. I just needed to learn where to look.

    If you want it, you may have the last word.

  6. Joel Says:

    What I found to be true in my own spiritual journey is the old saying, the proof is in the pudding. To whom does waking up early to pray a little extra, fasting, sleeping on the floor, avoiding the latest exciting movie release, foregoing that desired purchase to pick up some cans of food for the local shelter appeal? That sort of thing does not appeal to people now days, nor has it ever. I used to carry a romantic idea about the formation of ascetic practice and the devotion of the saints and thought all of Christianity was totally into ascesis until I read some of the writings of the church doctors. They were telling the flock to avoid the exact same things that plague America today! That was in the Third and Fourth Centuries! There is nothing new under the sun, Greek or Roman.

    Unfortunatly the grievences of the Orthodox Christians are far greater and deeper engrained than ascesis. The problem is that both churches claim the legitamacy of history and both stubornly refuse to acknowledge the legitamacy of the other. It is a sad state of affairs – the division of the East and West. And over what, semantics, the authority of the pope, the conception of the Holy Mother? How do those things truly affect the salvation of our souls? I do think we are in direct violation of Jesus’ commands when we keep our brothers at arms length because of semantics.


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