A Plea Against Polemics Between Catholics & Orthodox
by Addison H. Hart
Both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have, during the past decade or so, received a growing number of converts from Protestantism, most notably Evangelicals searching for a “more authentic” form of Christianity. Not surprisingly, these converts tend to embrace their new Tradition with an enthusiasm and loyalty that is not generally the norm among those who were born and raised within that same Tradition.
The convert from Evangelicalism has usually thought long and hard before deciding in favor of Rome or Orthodoxy. He has probably read a good deal, discussed doctrinal concerns with priests and pastors and fellow travelers, weighed theological differences, and experimented with the various devotional and liturgical aspects of the prospective Church. Serious Evangelicals are inclined to investigate such matters rather thoroughly, and they don’t move precipitously. Converts from Evangelicalism also know what it is to be misunderstood by their Evangelical friends, to have relationships severed, even their salvation questioned and character distrusted by former friends if they opt for Catholicism or Orthodoxy. And, lastly, such a convert in search of the “more authentic” must choose between these two great claimants for the honor of being regarded as the original Church.
This last aspect of the quest is more difficult for some than for others; but here, too, there is a very definite choice to be made. If one heads Romeward, one will need to adopt a particular vision of the church’s shape and life; if one heads towards Orthodoxy, one will necessarily adopt a rather different vision of these same things. Both visions represent what is, in fact, the only surviving institution of the classical Western world; and by adopting one or the other expression of it, the convert has involved himself, like it or not, in an ecclesiological schism more historically deep-rooted than that of the Reformation (the latter presumably being more familiar to him, and providing him with his only experience of a division within Christianity).
It is commendable for the convert to have actually made the trek from Evangelicalism to either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, revealing a certain farsightedness and determination. Such things are often hard won. In light of that, one can perhaps understand and forgive the defensiveness a convert might develop regarding the Church he has joined. He may no longer be vulnerable to Evangelical arguments against his faith or its practices, and he may have learned how to engage in necessary apologetics when his Church comes under such fire (former Evangelicals often become adept at this sort of thing quickly and easily).
He may also find, on occasion, that he must defend his choice of Catholicism instead of Orthodoxy, or of Orthodoxy instead of Catholicism. And here, far too often, farsightedness begins to disappear, and a sort of mental myopia threatens to set in. More prominent converts write books, produce magazines, and set up websites for the sake of Catholic or Orthodox “apologetics,” and sometimes their guns are trained on that “other Church” which is also claiming (“falsely,” of course) “authenticity.” Having struggled hard and sacrificed much to join the “true Church,” the convert can all too easily find himself getting involved in attacking the claims of the Church he didn’t join, namely, “the pretender.” Some Evangelicals love a bit of a theological scrap anyway, and old habits die hard.
Without naming names, or going very deeply at all into the sorts of “Catholic versus Orthodox” polemics in which some converts have become embroiled, I will mention four fairly minor instances from my own experience.
One. A Catholic apologist and convert of my acquaintance says to me in passing about his efforts in apologetics: “We’ve been taking on the Fundamentalists almost exclusively, and we’ve been too nice to the Orthodox. We need to get tougher with them.”
Two. A Catholic publishing company, specializing in apologetics, proudly advertises a book about the claims of the papacy by stating in a blurb that this book is responsible for having led to the “conversion” of a large number of Orthodox priests to Catholicism.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.
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