Back in my homeland for Thanksgiving break, I am surrounded by both the continuity and the ruins of German Catholic life. Throughout Cincinnati, there are abandoned monasteries and other religious institutions that have suffered from the Latin developments after the Second Vatican Council. I do not expect the forthcoming collapse of Rome, but I cannot help but think that her communion has become gravely ill.
I suppose that it is natural to concern myself with the ancestral religion. In my moments of fantasy, I even wonder what could be saved from the Western religious tradition if its flock ever turned en masse toward the Orthodox faith. I do not believe that such an unlikely event would occur—Western societies are more likely to become part of the Dar al-Islam than to return to the Orthodox faith of their distant ancestors. Yet, I am sometimes given to escapist meanderings of the mind—it is a coping mechanism that allows me to live in a civilization towards which a good deal of my soul holds contempt. So, I wonder what would it mean for the West to return to the Church.
Now, allow me to delve into my personal heresy here as I assert my agnosticism toward the ecclessiological status of the Latins. I do not claim to speak for the Church, and I do not think that there is any value in my private opinions on the matter, but I just cannot confidently dismiss the Latins. I definitely believe that they have developed some false and destructive doctrines. However, they have generally held fast to the apostolic faith, and their communion has borne much fruit during the last millennium. I am inclined to think of them as schismatics with cancerous ideas, but with the cancer relatively managed.
The West is complicated, as we should expect of a civilization and its religion. I think that all the Orthodox, Catholic elements are present in the Western tradition—the blood of the Church, to continue my anatomical metaphor—but these vital humors coexist with poisons. One can easily see this in ecumenical discussions between the Latins and us; for they are quick to affirm our positions with, “But we believe that, too.” For them, the great divide is only over papal authority and the filioque, which is why they tend to be optimistic about overcoming the schism. I suspect, however, that issues such as papal supremacy and the filioque are symptomatic of a much larger separation. As the Greek theologians say, the Western phronoma, or mindset, has abandoned the faith and whored among the heathen, having adopted an alien mentality in her lascivious exploits . . . I could not resist a reference to the Reformers’ pet image of Babylon. Anyway, the presence of the poison, or of an alien world view that has spawned for us the post-Christian world, does not exclude the presence of the apostolic life in the West, and this is the point that interests me. What can be saved from Western Christianity?
The Western rite has attempted to salvage the West’s religious patrimony, but it remains highly controversial after its one century in existence. Only two Orthodox Churches—Antioch and Russia—allow the Western rite. Moreover, there is no shortage of critics who denounce the Western rite as liturgical archaeology, reverse Uniatism, and a Trojan horse of occidental follies. You can read some of this criticism by priests Alexander Schmemann and Michael Johnson. I agree with the lex orandi, lex credendi principle, and we should carefully consider what the West has begotten. Should we allow the cancer to spread?
Of course, I do not pretend to know the best course to steer, but I am partial to allowing such seeking sheep to keep their customs, though my opinion is likely more founded on my esteem for tradition and hatred of loss and waste than on theological principles. Moreover, I have visited a few Western rite parishes, and the people, mostly converts from Anglicanism, are kind, pious Christian folk. Does their edifice have to be destroyed completely, or couldn’t we simply knock out and rebuild a few walls?
Over time, I think that the two liturgical traditions here might cross-pollinate into something more organically Western Orthodox—this process might even happen without the Western rite, as more and more people over the generations convert to Orthodoxy and as the Orthodox in Western lands absorb, digest, and transform the pre-existing religious culture.
So, what could or should be retained that is distinctive in Western Christianity? Please add your thoughts. Here are some of mine:
What about the Roman Easter candle? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have this candle be the one first lit on Pascha in the altar and then brought out to light the people’s candles?
Russians have already largely adopted Roman liturgical colors; I think that bright red Pentecost vestments make more sense than green vestments. The red can be a different shade than the red vestments associated with other feasts.
The Greeks have already started using stained glass. I do not think that stained glass should replace mosaics or wall iconography, of course, but I think that stained glass windows could complement them.
This is more controversial, but in addition to our indispensable monastic culture, there may be room for something like the West’s religious orders. I do not know if the Orthodox would ever consider Francis or Dominic as saints, but something like the Franciscan and Dominican communities, but under the authority of the local bishop, would contribute something to Orthodox life. If we ever establish schools, hospitals, and orphanages as they are needed in Western lands, such committed workers for Christ would help immensely.