Sitting on the fence: painful but necessary

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

-GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Maintaining orthodoxy is never easy, especially in an age where it seems like there is a heretic around every corner; or, rather, in an age where the heretics exclaim that there is no such thing as heresy. Liberalism is tricky to defend against, because it refuses to take a stand except to say that there is no stand to take. But, we must, and it is my purpose in this short essay to muse on how we should go about tackling the problem of liberals in our Church, and more importantly, how we should not go about combating them.

As GK Chesterton suggests in the lengthy quote above, the Church has ‘swerved to left and right’ throughout history to avoid heresies. These heresies have come in all sorts of flavors, from the proto-charismatic Montanists to the Arians seeking to make Jesus just a particularly powerful Creature. What seems to be a trend, though, is that in seeking to combat one heresy or corruption, some groups have gone too far in the other direction. Take, for example, the Donatists, who were initially upset that the Church was too lenient in allowing those who had denied the Faith to return, and ended up forming a shadow church, more rigorous and ultimately, less orthodox. Justly concerned about the riches and corruption in the Church, St. Francis formed the Order of Friars Minor to live out a life of poverty and charity. But, groups derived from the Minorites like the Fraticelli took this corrective too far, ending up condemning anything other than poverty, declaring popes ‘heretics’ in the process. There are countless other examples throughout history, but there is one shining thread that unites them all: emphasizing one or more Christian virtues against all others, or perhaps, an inability to admit paradox.

Today, we have liberalism to fight against, but what we mustn’t do is close ourselves up into a Catholic ghetto, hopelessly seeking after a past that never was. Because liberals have captured the idea of progress, we shudder to look forward. I myself am sorely tempted to flee reality in this direction, but upon further contemplation, I cannot. Others, in a manner to which I am not prone, react to the excessive rationalism inherent in liberalism by exalting the experiential above all else, producing the ‘Charismatic Renewal.’ Since liberalism is a so-called universal heresy, it seems to me that the reaction against it is far different from one individual to another. Traditionalists and charismatics are odd bedfellows indeed, and both are right to react against the acid eating away at our Church, but both go too far. Both exceed the bounds of orthodoxy because they ultimately lose respect for authority.

That is a harsh statement I know, but everything I have seen and read leads me to believe that it is true. Witness the dismissal of authority when it conflicts with the inner experience of Charismatics–Medjugorje being a prime example. Witness the disregard of authority when it suggests that the Tridentine Mass is no longer the norm by some (not all) traditionalists. The Internet, it its pernicious tendency to further accentuate extremes, is filled with websites by folks who deny the authority of the Pope because he doesn’t affirm their marginalizing tendencies. Charismaticism is good insofar as it promotes the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church; traditionalism is worthy insofar as it reminds us of traditions that ought not to be lightly discarded. But, both movements must acknowledge that there is more to the Church than them.

So, how should we respond to liberalism, if going to extremes is not the answer? I think, despite all I’ve written so far, that we must go to an extreme, but in a way that is different from the above tendencies. I call it the “extreme center.” We must see all the heretical tendencies in liberalism: a hyperrationality combined with a disregard for history and irrational faith in human progress–and strive to fight back them all. To do so requires an ability to hold seemingly disparate ideas in one’s head at the same time–an appreciation for paradox. The faith is at once rational and suprarational; the Holy Spirit can lead the Church to newer expressions of doctrines grounded at the same time in Tradition; Man was created good, and still has good within him despite being fallen. A faith centered on the absurd notion of Three in One surely can hold these less challenging positions in tension as well. Such a healthy appreciation for the richness of our Faith is what GK Chesterton calls ‘orthodoxy.’


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