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No. 133 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program January 2008

  - Regarding Father Raymond Brown's form-critical approach to the Virginal Conception of Jesus  by John F. McCarthy
  - From Constantinople to Rome: Why I did not join the Eastern Orthodox Church  by Brian W. Harrison

Regarding Father Raymond Brown's form-critical approach to the Virginal Conception of Jesus

by John F. McCarthy

1. A highly characteristic feature of Catholic historical criticism today is its adherence to the method of form-criticism, whose most influential founder and proponent in the area of the Gospels has been Rudolf Bultmann. Most Catholic exegetes in these days practice it to one degree or another, always on a superficial level without having analyzed deeply the rationalistic and naturalistic presuppositions upon which it is based. Thus Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in an address given in 1988 and published in 19891, called for “a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma” and for self-criticism by exegetes of the historical-critical method. He said that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century “have virtually become academic dogmas,” especially due to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose “basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis,”2 and he saw the urgent need to challenge the fundamental ideas of this method.3 Classic form-criticism is rationalistic in that it does not admit Christian faith as one of its operative principles, and it is naturalistic in that it does not accept into its world of reality any divine interventions or supernatural happenings. The use of form-criticism by Catholics is wrong in the first place because it is a backwards approach to Sacred Scripture. The right approach is to accept what the Scriptures seem to say as historically true unless this is shown to be false, but the aim and purpose of form-criticism is to find errors and inconsistencies in the Sacred Writ, and it does so by assuming the Scriptures to be historically false wherever they cannot be proved to be true. In other words, it gives the benefit of the doubt to the criticism rather than to the inspired text.

2. Bultmann claimed to have discovered that the Gospels present a string of fantastic stories comparable in some ways to children’s stories. In fact, he believed that religious people in those days were like children who invented and believed marvelous tales about God and about Jesus, the God-Man. He said that the Gospels are compilations of short units that he classified according to a novel set of literary genres, such as myth, legend, saga, apophthegms, apocalyptic sayings, and prophecies after the event, and other so-called fiction-genres, such as angelic appearances, miracle stories, I-sayings of Jesus, dia­logue stories, Passion narratives, Resurrection of Jesus stories, and other forms of this kind. Bultmann was a complete Modernist, and he believed that modern man knows that the miracles of Jesus could not really have happened. In this he followed the theory of Émil Durkheim that primitive societies have a functional dependence upon religious fantasies, and for Bultmann the early Christian community was just such a primitive community. Among these primitive Christian fantasies he included the ideas of Heaven and Hell, of life after death, of benign spirits and evil spirits, and of any divine inter­ventions in the way of miracles and prophecies, and so it is easy to see how, with this presupposition but with no real proof, he could find so much of what is written in the Gospels to be imaginary.

3. In his widely circulated book, The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (herein VCBR),4 Father Raymond Brown, as a form-critical biblical scholar, concludes that the Gospels “are not simply factual reporting of what happened in Jesus’ ministry but are documents of faith written to show the significance of those events as seen with hindsight.” For instance, he says, “the fact that according to the Synoptic (first three) Gospels Jesus predicted his crucifixion and resurrection three times and in increasing detail does not necessarily mean that the historical Jesus had such exact knowledge of his future” (VCBR, p. 17). More specifically in reference to the arguments of this book he affirms that “the presence of the virginal conception in the infancy narratives of two Gospels carries no absolute guarantee of historicity” (VCBR, p. 32). The Catholic Church, of course, has always taught that the Sacred Scriptures are inerrant, but, he notes, the Second Vatican Council “reversed a tendency of applying inerrancy to almost every aspect of the Bible and applied it only in a very general way,” and he here questions whether the bodily virginity of Mary qualifies for biblical inerrancy according to the new definition of biblical inerrancy given by Vatican II, namely, as a truth “which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (quoting Dei Verbum 11). Brown readily admits that the humanity and the divine sonship of Jesus are “truths gleaned from the infancy narratives,” but he questions whether the bodily virginity of Mary is such a truth (pp. 32 and 19), considering that “modern Protestant and Catholic scholars are in surprising agreement on the generally figurative and non-historical character of the infancy narratives” (VCBR, p. 52).

4. From a neo-patristic perspective, Father Brown’s approach is problematic. The virginal conception of Jesus is a dogma of the Church (CCC 496, 510), based upon the conviction of the Church that its narration in the infancy narratives is historically true. As a believing Catholic, Brown accepts the virginal conception of Jesus as an object of faith, but, as a form-critic, he here (as quoted in the preceding paragraph) doubts its historical truth. The problem is that Catholic faith is an undoubting affirmation of the reality of the objects of faith, that is, of their historical truth, and it does not allow for a pluralism which negates the unity of truth or for a fideism that relegates the objects of faith to a non-real world of religious belief. This problem runs through the whole gamut of Catholic form-critical scholarship, in the sense that Catholic form-critics like Father Brown, while they do not deny the dogmas of faith, never address and resolve the deep undermining of the faith that is implicit in their form-critical reasoning, because they have not succeeded in establishing a truly Catholic form-critical approach. The Second Vatican Council did not water down the constant teaching of the Church that the Sacred Scriptures are wholly inerrant. Catholic historical critics, using their method of interpretation, have simply misrepresented the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on biblical inerrancy precisely where it says that “the books of Scripture are to be affirmed as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth as God wished it to be set down in Sacred Writings for the sake of our salvation” (Dei Verbum 11).5

5. According to “the modern analysis of how New Testament christology developed,” Brown avers that “New Testament christology developed backwards, from end to beginning” (VCBR, p. 43). This means that the idea that Jesus was the divine Son of God developed only later in the minds of believers and was then pushed back to earlier happenings. Thus, he says, in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the Christology has been moved back to the infancy of Jesus in the womb of Mary, since the Angel Gabriel is said to proclaim Him to be the Messiah and the Son of God (pp. 43-44). Brown thus characterizes the virginal conception of Jesus as “the idiom of a christological insight” (VCBR, p. 28), but this scholarly idea is merely a copying of Bultmann’s supposition that the divinity of Jesus reported in the Gospels began to be invented in the imagination of believers from the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What Brown calls an “insight” Bultmann calls a fantasy, and Brown nowhere refutes Bultmann by showing that this “insight” is not a fantasy.

6. Of course, the truth is that, contrary to this form-critical reasoning from false presuppositions, the Incarnation of God the Son in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary was an historical event. Brown’s “history of christology” was laid out earlier by Bultmann in his Theology of the New Testament, according to the following stages: the first (Palestinian) generation of Christians imagined Jesus as a merely human Messiah, while the second (Hellenistic) generation raised his image to the level of the divine.6 Actually, real historical facts cannot be moved forward or backward, but imaginary events can be so moved, and it is with this difference in mind that we should evaluate Brown’s statement concerning the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke that “inspiration does not turn fiction and parable into history” (VCBR, p. 19). Bultmann’s false but clear depiction of the infancy narratives as being pure myth and legend becomes confused and ambig­uous in Brown’s version of the same. Brown does oppose Bultmann’s presupposition that modern man cannot accept the idea of nature-miracles and that all of the miracles in the Gospels were, therefore, inserted later into the story of Jesus by Christian dreamers (VCBR, p. 30), but he beclouds his opposition to this false principle with his own observation that “a history studded with the miraculous is not the history we live in” (VCBR, p. 29), thus prejudicing his own approach to the extraordinary happenings recorded in the infancy narratives. Again, Bultmann considers the story of the Incarnation to be simply a myth borrowed from pagan mythology.7 Brown opposes this, but he also points out that, in hymns quoted in the Pauline epistles, Hebrews, and John, the christology is moved toward the pre-existence of Jesus, whereas previously his existence was thought to have begun in the womb of Mary, so that the later Church had to reconcile this conflict by determining that the pre-existent Word of God took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary (VCBR, p. 44). Now, Brown does not affirm that the idea of the pre-existent Word of God was invented by the Church to solve a problem, but Bultmann and his school had already affirmed this, and Brown, by making no effort to refute this implication, allows it to hang over his whole discourse.

7. Brown admits that “if the christology associated with virginal conception was known [by Jesus, by the Virgin Mary, and by others] from the first moments of Jesus’ earthly career, the whole critical theory falls apart” (VCBR, p. 53). Yes, and the sooner the better. In the meanwhile, Brown finds that “despite ingenious attempts at harmonization, the basic stories (in the two infancy narratives) are virtually irreconcilable,” and, therefore, “they cannot both be historical in toto” (pp. 53-54). The two infancy narratives have been scientifically reconciled in toto by Catholic writers of the past and by contemporary research as well for all who do not reject in advance every serious effort to reconcile them.8

8. Brown again subscribes to the premises of the form-critical school of Bultmann and Dibelius where he declares that the Old Testament writers did not foresee the life of Jesus of Nazareth except in the vaguest way, and that, therefore, “when the New Testament authors see prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, they are going beyond the vision of the Old Testament authors,” with the result that “the classic apologetic argument from prophecy has had to be reinterpreted in the light of modern biblical criticism“ (VCBR, p. 15). No, the apologetic argument from prophecy did not have to be reinter­preted; it remains part of the solemn teaching of the Church. What is lacking in Brown’s observation is that God has a role as the inspiring Author of the Old and New Testaments, a fact that classic form-criticism in no way recognizes, and, therefore, is unable to see that what the human writers of the Gospels saw by hindsight the divine Author of the Old Testament saw by foresight. Here Brown seems to be trapped in the naturalism of the form-critical school.

9. It is Brown’s opinion that Matthew’s infancy narrative “is redolent of the folkloric and imaginative,” while Luke’s narrative does not reflect “the atmosphere of purely historical reporting” (VCBR, p. 54). Again, this judgment is guided by the naturalism of the form-critical school. It is only on the basis of an a priori exclusion of real divine interventions that Matthew’s narrative seems folkloric and imaginative, and it is only on the basis of an a priori exclusion of divinely inspired writing that goes beyond the capabilities of contemporary human historians that Luke’s account does not seem to reflect “the atmosphere of purely historical reporting.” Regarding the virginal conception of Jesus, Brown does not deny the dogma, but it is his studied conclusion that “the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem” (VCBR, p. 66).9 This brings up a bigger unresolved problem. What is “scientific evidence,” and what is “purely historical reporting”? Catholic form-critics like to call their work “scientific,” but they do not work with an adequate concept of science. All science is organized around a unified concept of the real, but, in the pluralism of Catholic form-criticism, the objects of Catholic faith are left vaguely in a non-world of religious fantasy. Similarly, true historians deal with everything that has happened; they do not, like Bultmann and his school, presuppose that much of what is reported in the infancy narratives could not really have happened. The assumption that the perception of miraculous facts having a supernatural meaning has to be imaginary or folkloristic is contrary to the fundamental principles of historical science, for historical science knows that historical meaning, while is conceptually distinct from bare historical fact, is not separate from it. Brown’s separation of Gospel doctrine from the historical facts in which it is embedded is, therefore, unscientific. Hence, when he wonders how the Church’s connatural insight into divine revelation could apply to “a question of biological fact” (VCBR, p. 37), he is separating this dogma from historical fact and unscien­tifically reducing it to the level of a theolo­goumenon.

10. Father Brown doubts the historicity of the virginal conception reported by Matthew and Luke also on the ground that “we cannot be certain where they got their information” (VCBR, p. 31). But we can be certain where Brown got his presuppositions, and that is mainly from the writings of Rudolf Bultmann and others of the form-critical school. We know that Bultmann did not originate all of the assumptions that Brown utilizes in this book, but it was chiefly Bultmann who shaped the basic principles of the form-criticism of the Gospels into the imposing approach that Brown so uncritically uses. Brown’s approach is restrained somewhat by his feelings as a Catholic, but the exegetical tradition of the Church, from the Fathers to the twentieth century, is almost totally lacking, while principles and arguments that would block the tendency toward the extreme position of Bultmann are singularly absent. In other words, Brown inserts conclusions into his exposition without sufficiently addressing the problems and conflicts that they raise from the viewpoint of Catholic exegetical tradition. The greatest scientific evidence that the virginal conception of Jesus is historically true is that it is guaranteed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and witnessed by the Angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Actually, the burden of proof lies on those who question the historical truth of what these narratives say, but Brown shifts the burden of proof upon the evangelists and resorts to expressions like “modern scholars are in agreement,” or “many scholars are now convinced,” thus inviting his readers to give blind credence to the outrageous judgments that he and other form-critics make. His radical distinction between Church dogmas and possibly contrasting historical facts is set against the background of Bultmann’s finely elaborated distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, which Brown does not fully accept, but neither does he arm his readers against it. Brown’s acceptance of the “widely accepted critical theory of a gradual development of explicit New Testament christology” (VCBR, p. 53) is a modified rendition of Bultmann’s poorly reasoned conclusion that the literary form of the Gospel “has grown out of the immanent urge to develop­ment which lay in the tradition fashioned for various motives, and out of the Christ-myth and the Christ-cult of Hellenistic Christianity.”10 Brown does not affirm this, but neither does he present any distinct and convincing line of argument against it.

11. The misleading character of Brown’s line of argument against the historicity of the infancy narratives is confirmed in his later book, The Birth of the Messiah (herein BM).11 For Brown “there is an a priori unlikelihood” that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the source of the material in Matthew’s infancy narrative, because it centers on Joseph and she is only a secondary figure. This reason ignores the humility of Mary and even the fact that a wife can tell a story about her husband without making herself the center of the description. Again, Brown reasons, Mary could not also have been the source of the infancy narrative in Luke while never mentioning the coming of the Magi and the flight into Egypt (BM, p. 35). Actually, this could easily have happened. As I have explained elsewhere, Blessed Mary could be the source of both infancy narratives. She could have remembered and told the episodes in Luke 1-2 during the earthly lifetime of Jesus, while carefully concealing the material in Matt 1-2 until after the crucifixion of Jesus in order to protect his life from the hostility of the civil authorities.12

12. Brown maintains that the appearances of an angel to Mary in Luke 1 and to Joseph in Matt 1 are mere literary forms developed to convey the underlying idea of a virginal conception (BM, pp. 521-522). This means that there were no real appearances of an angel and there were no historical annunciations at all, but the idea of a virginal conception did come to be, and this, he says, needs to be accounted for. He reasons that the idea was probably not derived from pagan religious beliefs or from Old Testament stories, but he fails to consider and refute the resultant implication that the early Christians could simply have made up the story on their own without any suggestion from other traditions. The error of this form-critical approach is in presupposing that the earliest Christians were such dependent and unoriginal thinkers that they could not have completely originated stories on their own, but had to have them suggested to them by some other tradition. There is actually no evidence that the angelic appearances to Mary and Joseph are imaginary stories, and there is, therefore, no need to seek a source for the idea of the event, but we can trace Brown’s need to search for a source back to Bultmann’s Sitz-im-Leben, which itself is based upon Durkheim’s idea of the primitive society.

13. Father Brown’s argument is set against an even more sinister background. Hermann Gunkel, Rudolf Bultmann, and many other promoters of form-criticism were thoroughgoing Modernists who believed that all religious dogmas and objects of faith well up from a primitive instinct and are entirely fanciful. This is the established position of mainline form-criticism, and it is a fatal error of Brown and other Catholic form-critics that they do not address this pervasive falsehood as they superficially carry out literary analyses that depend ultimately upon it.

14. Again, Brown holds that the conception of biblical prophecy as prediction of the distant future “has disappeared from most serious scholarship today,” to the extent that the Old Testament prophets did not foresee “a single detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth” (BM, p. 146). By “serious scholarship” he means form-critics like himself, to the exclusion of all of the serious scholars who do understand biblical prophecy as predictive of the future. His treatment in this book of the prophecy in Isa 7:14, which, he says, in no way predicts the virginal conception of Jesus, ignores the rich commentary on this verse in Catholic dogmatic and exegetical tradition. Brown’s contention that the sign offered by Isaiah was the imminent birth of a naturally conceived child makes no sense in the original text and is clearly contrary to its use by Matthew (BM, p. 148).

15. Brown points out that those who distinguish between the divine author and the human authors of Sacred Scripture sometimes posit a sensus plenior, that is, “a predictive sense of the words of the prophet” (BM, p. 148). Clearly so, and this is Catholic doctrine, but this “fuller sense” actually contains the entire spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture, typological, allegorical, moral, and final, all of which are out of sight to form-critics.

16. While Brown virtually admits that his and other form-critical speculations on earlier phases of the Gospels really don’t prove anything (BM, p. 119), he works hard at undermining the truth of the one text that we have. For instance, he claims that the idea for the fabrication of the pattern of false episodes narrated by Matthew from the virginal conception (Matt 1:18ff.) to the return of the Holy Family from Egypt (Matt 2:23) was basically suggested by adapting the story of Moses in Egypt as narrated in the Book of Exodus, with a couple of additional elements borrowed from the story of Joseph the Patriarch (BM, p. 138). The idea of Catholic exegetical tradition that these parallels between the Old Testament and the New Testament were made by the divine Author for typological and allegorical reasons gets no consideration at all in the form-critical thinking here. Brown has to follow the naturalistic presupposition of the form-critical method that these things could not really have happened, because, once one admits that they could really have happened, the whole form-critical method falls to pieces.

17. It seems to Father Brown that these so-called fictitious episodes in Matt 1-2 perfectly fit Matthew’s overall purpose in writing his narrative, because his use of the Moses and Patriarch Joseph motifs linked Jesus to the bondage of the ancient Jews in Egypt and their exodus from the same (BM, p. 163). Better said, many things in the spiritual sense of Matthew’s narrative link Jesus to the bondage and the exodus, but there is no “Moses motif” or “Exodus motif” in Matt 1-2. The basic overall purpose, the finis operis, of these two chapters is to display the facts as they really and historically took place, while the finis operantis of the human author is to narrate these facts for the spiritual value that they have. Finally, the finis operantis of the divine Author extends also to the whole spiritual sense that is in them.

18. Because Matthew is here relating facts and not fantasies, Brown’s analysis of the “christological reflection” enshrined in his infancy narrative does not ring true. In his reading, the concept of the virginal conception in Matthew and Luke is a derivative from earlier Christian beliefs that Jesus became the Son of God either at his resurrection from the dead or at his baptism in the Jordan. Only later, he says, Christian belief moved this idea back to the very conception of Jesus (BM, pp. 160-161). In Brown’s reasoning, the scenes about the virginal conception in Matthew and Luke are not basically intended as factual, historical reports, but rather as Christological affirmations about Jesus as the Son of God, while the speaking angel is just a fictitious device to convey this belief (BM pp. 528-529). So the divine conception of Jesus is a flashback beyond the “well established” belief of Christians by the last third of the first century “that Jesus was Son of God not only after the resurrection but already during his ministry” (BM, p. 135). The ambiguity here lies in the play on the object of Christian belief in the first century. Did Christians invent the idea that Jesus was and is the Son of God, or did they simply discover this fact gradually over a span of several decades? Was Jesus really conceived by a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit, or was this idea concocted by believers from the earlier fantasy that Jesus is the Son of God? Brown leaves open the possibility of historical fact in these objects of Catholic faith, but he does little to defend their historicity. Since Bultmann and other inventers of the method of form-criticism, which he is using here, plainly conclude that the divinity of Jesus is completely imaginary, making this the established form-critical position, in order to escape from implicitly affirming this established position, Brown is here obliged to defend the historical truth of the divinity of Jesus. But this he does not do. In maintaining that the idea of the virginal conception was derived from the idea that Jesus was the Son of God, without giving any arguments to show that his reasoning does not lead to the same conclusion as that of Bultmann, Brown is implicitly denying the historical truth of the virginal conception.

19. To say that Matthew and Luke “presuppose a biological virginity, but that is not the main point of their affirmation” (BM, p 529) appears to be a mistake in historical method. As regards the finis operis, the main point of Matthew and Luke is to record the historical facts. On the level of the divine authorship, the finis operis is to narrate the historical facts, but it also includes the entire spiritual sense contained beneath the words. Whatever Christological statement is made here pertains to the finis operantis either of the human authors or of the divine author.

20. Summary and prospectus. Catholic form-criticism today is not independent of the naturalism of the Bultmannian School of Scriptural exegesis, as was eloquently pointed out by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1988 (no. 1 above). Father Raymond Brown’s observation that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke are not “simply factual reporting” but are “documents of faith” (no. 3 above) seems to indicate a lack of scientifically precise definitions of terms as well as the absence of a developed idea of the proper relationship between reason and the objects of faith. As an example in point, his questioning whether the biological fact of the virginal conception of Jesus is really attested to by Matthew and Luke does not seem adequately to take into account either the important scientific distinction between the finis operis and the finis operantis of historical writings or even the precise nature of “scientifically controllable evidence” (nos. 4 and 19 above). Furthermore, the lack of apologetic response characteristic of the pluralism of Catholic form-critics leaves by default the true objects of Catholic faith in the religious dream-world invented for the Gospels by liberal Protestant Scripture scholars (no. 9 above). Certainly, the Gospels, as divinely inspired histories, have unique features that no merely human history could have. One such feature is the quality of inerrancy, while another is the spiritual depth that becomes evident in the light of the method of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture. Unfortunately, Catholic form-critics have abandoned the precious insights of the Fathers of the Church in their somewhat unwitting use of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which so much inspires the method of form-criticism, a form of the wisdom of this world which can be flattering to the ego, but which leads nowhere. The time has come to return to the insights of the Fathers of the Church and of the great medieval theologians so as to produce a commentary on the Gospels that utilizes all of the techniques of contemporary historical science while bringing out first the true literal sense of the sacred text and then the three spiritual senses that lie behind it.


1 J. Card. Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in R. J. Neuhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1989), pp. 1-23 (orig­inally delivered as an Erasmus Lecture at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City on 27 January 1988).

2 Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” loc. cit., p. 9.

3 Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” loc. cit., pp. 10-16.

4 Raymond Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1973).

5 The English and other vernacular translations have tended to read the Latin “veritatem (the truth), quam Deus … voluit as “eam veritatem (that truth) quam Deus … voluit, that is, as a restrictive relative clause, which makes this sentence inconsistent with what is said immediately before in the Latin text. To make the non-restrictive nature of the relative clause more evident, I have translated it as “the truth as God wished it to be set down in Sacred Writings.” The discussion on the floor of the Council and the footnote references added to this sentence by the Council Fathers corroborate this non-restrictive translation. Cf. Brian W. Harrison, “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11” in Living Tradition 59 (July 1995).

6 Cf. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (trans. from the German by Kendrick Grobel: New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), p. 124.

7 Cf. R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (English trans. by John Marsh: Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), pp. 291-292).

8 To see how all of Brown’s “irreconcilable conflicts” have been reconciled, cf. J.F. McCarthy, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,” in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987); “The Historical Meaning of the Forty-two Generations in Matthew 1:17,” in Living Tradition 13 (September 1987); “Regarding the Background of Matthew 2,” in Living Tradition 86 (March 2000).

9 Brown affirms the doctrine where he says: “In Roman Catholic theology, according to the usual criteria, the virginal conception would be classified as a doctrine infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium,” but he questions the doctrine where he goes on to say: “The virginal conception under its creedal title of ‘virgin birth’ is not primarily a biological statement, and therefore one must make a judgment about the extent to which the creedal affirmation is inextricably attached to the biological presupposition” (Birth of the Messiah, p. 529).

10 Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 373.

11 Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).

12 See J.F. McCarthy, “Called by the Prophets a Nazorean (Matthew 2:23),” paragraph 14, in Living Tradition 84 (November 1999).

From Constantinople to Rome: Why I did not join the Eastern Orthodox Church

by Brian W. Harrison

NB: This article is a slightly edited version of a talk given at the Trialogos Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, on September 28, 2007. The previous day’s talk had been entitled “From Geneva to Constantinople” in which the author explained why he had become disillusioned with the Calvinistic Protestantism of his upbringing. It was in turn based on an earlier Living Tradition article, “Logic and the Foundations of Protestantism” (no. 18, July 1988).

In yesterday’s talk I spoke of my personal spiritual journey away from the Calvinism of my youth, guided by the λόγος of classical philosophy. Logic enabled me to cut through the mountains of erudition which for centuries have filled libraries with religious controversy, in order to detect a fatal weakness in the basic structure of Reformation Christianity. I came to see that it suffers irremediably from internal incoherence: its fundamental Sola Scriptura principle itself nowhere appears in Scripture, and so is self-referentially contradictory.

I also shared with you how I became increasingly convinced that if there is to be any true and definitive revelation from God to humanity, then – given that God has plainly not decided to offer this revelation immediately and directly to each individual – he will need to establish a completely reliable intermediary, perennially accessible here on earth to ordinary people like you and me. In short, an infallible teaching authority. My talk ended at that point in my story wherein I found myself confronted by the reality of two great communions – the two largest in Christendom, in fact – presenting themselves as rival claimants to the gift of infallibility. I had long known of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the divinely appointed authority endowed with this charism. But now I discovered the similar claim of Eastern Orthodoxy. Constantinople now flashed onto my radar screen as a challenger to Rome. How was I to decide between them?

At this point I need to open a parenthesis regarding another important aspect of my spiritual quest which I did not mention at all in yesterday’s lecture. We are talking now of the year 1971, in which the Catholic Church was still convulsed by the controversy that erupted three years earlier with the promulgation of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. The world at large – and indeed, many Catholics – had indignantly dissented from Pope Paul’s reiteration of the traditional Judaeo-Christian reprobation of all those unnatural, manipulative techniques of sexual intimacy which rob the marriage act of its power to beget new life. However, while the encyclical’s ‘hard saying’ alienated millions of moderns from orthodox Catholicism, it was starting to have quite the opposite effect on me. Pope Paul’s decision was beginning to look like a much wiser decision than I had thought it was at first – a further sign of the Church’s credibility, in fact!

Why was I changing my mind? Well, one needs to remember that the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were also those very years when the movement for ‘gay liberation’ (as it was then called) began to flex its muscles defiantly and to propagate itself like wildfire. This began in the U.S.A. and then spread rapidly throughout the remainder of the West. And I had to admit that one of the arguments the homosexual militants were using to justify their life-style at least had logic on its side. They were saying that once you accepted it as morally permissible for a man and a woman (or a solitary individual) to attain sexual orgasm with acts that by their very nature1 exclude any possibility of procreation, then you must, logically, permit homosexual acts as well. To an already permissive and unchaste Western society, the ‘gays’ were proclaiming from the housetops that if you allow condoms, diaphragms, pills, “withdrawal”, heterosexual oral and anal sex, and masturbation, then you can no longer consistently condemn same-sex sodomy as “unnatural”. For all those practices themselves are likewise “unnatural” in the same basic sense: that is, all of them are the kinds of actions that can never result in the primary biological function of genital activity – the reproduction of the species. (St. Thomas Aquinas, in his wisdom, classified all of them together as essentially the same sin, which he called “the sin against nature”.)

The logic with which this appallingly permissive conclusion followed from its premise (which, we may add, also logically paves the way for approving other still more obviously perverse practices such as bestiality, sado-masochism and sundry pathological ‘philias’) helped me to realize that something must in fact be wrong with that premise. It was one that I and most other ‘modern’ and ‘respectable’ folks had been accepting much too uncritically: namely, the premise that unnatural contraceptive techniques can sometimes be morally acceptable for married couples in the interests of spacing children. The fact that Rome – almost alone – was holding firm on this foundational principle of chastity, undaunted by the scorn and rejection of an increasingly impure world and the Church’s own rebellious children, now appeared to me as confirming her credibility as God’s true messenger on earth.

Why has this parenthesis about the birth control controversy been relevant to the main theme of today’s talk – my choice between ‘Rome’ and ‘Constantinople’? Simply because I quickly discovered that reprobation of unnatural contraceptive practices was another point on which these two great claimants to infallibility were in agreement. Or so it seemed back then.2 My main source of information about Eastern orthodox doctrine was The Orthodox Church, a book written in the 1960s by an English convert to Orthodoxy, Timothy Ware (who later became a Greek Orthodox archbishop). It was widely considered an authoritative source. Now, Ware declared categorically in his book that the Orthodox Church does not allow such practices. Hence, given the recent evolution in my own thinking on this subject, this firmness in the face of worldly impurity was another factor, along with Orthodoxy’s claim to infallibility that reinforced its credibility in my eyes as a rival to Roman Catholicism.

Another feature of Orthodoxy’s attractiveness back in 1971 was simply that, for me, it remained refreshingly untainted by the emotional anti-Catholic Calvinist prejudices which I had imbibed during adolescence. These were still strong enough to deter me from getting any closer than necessary to that great “mystery of iniquity” – that alleged mountain of subtle diabolical deceit masquerading as holiness – which I had for so long been sternly warned about under the dread title of “Romanism”. By way of contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy conjured up no such phobias from the depths of my inner ‘hard disk’. Nobody, as far as I knew, was describing Istanbul as “Mystery Babylon”. I had read no reports of a Scarlet Woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, sitting astride a ten-headed Bosporus Beast. And I saw no accusatory fingers pointing to Constantinople’s white-bearded patriarch as “that man of sin” – the Antichrist invading the temple of God and blasphemously speaking “great things” against the Lord and his elect.

Indeed, the truth of the matter is that some of the darker episodes in history that have fed these flames of hatred against the “intolerant” and “dictatorial” Church of Rome find no close parallel in the history of Eastern Orthodoxy. How many modern Catholic apologists, if we are to be honest, would not heave a sigh of relief were it only possible to undo the past and so, for instance, eliminate from our historical ‘baggage’ practices such as the Inquisition’s use of torture and the burning of heretics? Would it not lighten our apologetic load to be relieved of the perennial necessity of explaining afresh to every new interlocutor why, contrary to appearances, such extreme harshness – for which Pope John Paul II publicly apologized on Ash Wednesday of the Jubilee year 2000 – does not in fact militate against the Church’s claim carefully circumscribed to infallibility?

However, after a couple of tentative Sunday visits to Greek Orthodox liturgies in Sydney (I am an Australian), after which I attempted to converse with the local priest, obstacles of a very different sort soon began to swing the balance back in the other direction. Given the priest’s very limited knowledge of English, any serious discussion between us on doctrinal or theological matters proved to be impossible. Indeed, he seemed rather surprised that I, as an ‘Anglo’, should even be interested in joining his denomination. All his other parishioners, even there in the center of a large and cosmopolitan city, were ethnically Greek.

In fact, my very theoretical, bookish search for the true brand of Christianity – understood almost as a kind of abstract philosophy or set of correct doctrinal beliefs – was now being brought down to earth by a cold splash of practical reality: the sort of reality that God, in his wisdom, realizes is going to carry even more weight for the vast, non-scholarly bulk of mankind than for academics like myself. I was running up against the rather obvious fact that Orthodoxy is, well, not exactly catholic. I mean, not in the original sense of that word. It lacks the cultural universality and openness, the capacity to provide a true and welcoming home for all the world’s tribes and nations that is in fact one of those four marks of the true Church that most mainline Christian denominations include in their Nicene profession of faith: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. I know that these days, in some big cities in non-oriental lands, one can find Orthodox churches that cater for those coming from Western backgrounds and so offer services at least partly in English and other local vernaculars. But such churches are rather few and far between. And in 1971 they did not exist at all in Australia (nor, I suspect, anywhere else in the southern half of this planet). Every single word of the liturgies I attended in Sydney – including the Scripture readings and preaching – was in Greek, of which I understood absolutely nothing. So, insofar as Christianity is a lived, communal reality, and not just a set of doctrines, the thesis that Eastern Orthodoxy is the true religion was turning out to bear the practical corollary that, for the vast majority of mankind, becoming a true Christian would pretty much require a kind of spiritual ghetto-ization: alienation from each one’s own language and culture in precisely the most important aspect of one’s life. To share fully and fruitfully in the life of the Body of Christ, one would almost have to become a Greek. (Well, O.K., maybe a Russian, a Serb, a Syrian, or whatever – but in any case the ethnic options would be very limited.). And this sort of very burdensome de facto addition to the Gospel was plainly foreign to the New Testament. On the contrary, its message stresses that in Christ there is no longer, Jew, Gentile, Greek, etc. So was it possible, I was forced to ask myself, that after two thousand years God in his Providence had not yet succeeded in providing his own true Church with anything like that geographical and cultural universality that so manifestly characterizes her main rival (whose very name, paradoxically, includes that of a quite specific Italian city)?

In short, Eastern Orthodoxy, as far as I could see at this stage of my journey, had certain strengths over against Catholicism, but also certain weaknesses. So I still felt far from certain as to where to go. Indeed, I felt confronted by another version of the same problem I had faced earlier in trying to decide whether Protestantism was true or false: the problem of having to negotiate mountains of erudition that could easily occupy a lifetime of study, if I was to have any hope of arriving at a definitive answer. If these detailed questions of theology, exegesis, and history had kept the rival Catholic and Orthodox experts in these fields interminably divided in spite of centuries of scholarly debate and oceans of spilled ink, who was I to presume the ability ever to reach any certainty as to which side was right? In this case the debate was mainly over the nature of the Petrine primacy, as revealed in Scripture and manifested in ancient church tradition. The Orthodox countered the standard Catholic reading of the New Testament’s Petrine texts with interpretations similar to those of Protestant scholars. And when it came to the witness of history, they claimed that Eastern recognition of the Bishop of Rome’s universal jurisdiction over all the local churches in the first thousand years was a reflection only of Rome’s high political status and human ecclesiastical law, rather than (as Catholics claim) a disposition of divine law issuing from Christ himself. Modern Orthodox apologists, of course, also made much of the fact that papal infallibility was not itself defined by the Roman Church until 1870. Catholics then countered the claim that this definition was an unwarranted novelty by appealing to the principle of “development” in doctrine that had so occupied the great Cardinal Newman. And so the debate went on – and on, and on. It all looked very daunting – and the outcome very doubtful – for this not very erudite young amateur searching for a clear and certain answer.

Inevitably, in my prayers and studies during 1971, I began to wonder whether there was another quick, ‘silver bullet’ argument like the one I had already found to be so fatal for Protestant theology? That is, could there perhaps be an heuristic procedure which, by emphasizing pure logic rather than the endless attempt to accumulate and evaluate biblical and historical data, would penetrate straight through this mass of tangled scholarly undergrowth in order to reveal a hidden internal inconsistency – a fatal, credibility-destroying incoherence – in the fundamental structure of either Catholicism or Orthodoxy?

Eventually I found what I believed – and still believe to this day – to be that silver-bullet. It gave me a certainty that I don’t think I could ever have arrived at solely on the basis of further research into exegesis and church history. It revealed a fatal flaw in Orthodoxy’s account of how we can know what God has revealed. As with my explanation yesterday as to why Protestantism’s basic doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” is incoherent, I shall use a series of several simple propositions to argue that Eastern Orthodoxy’s account of church infallibility is vitiated by a circular argument, and so cannot be true.

You will remember that my spiritual search had by this time led me to the conviction that a genuine Christian revelation directed to the whole of humanity would require the existence of a stable institution of some sort, endowed permanently with the charism of infallibility. The purpose of this gift would be, quite simply, to enable Christians to distinguish with certainty true doctrine from false doctrine (heresy) Now, clearly, if God has given the gift of infallibility to his Church, there must be some identifiable authority or agent within her capable of exercising that gift – of putting it to work, so to speak. And Catholics, as is well known, believe that the ‘college of bishops’ – the successors of the Apostles, led by the Pope, the successor of St. Peter – constitute that authority. They can exercise the gift in several ways (as explained by Vatican Council II in article 25 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). The whole group (the ‘college of bishops’) can teach infallibly, either gathered together in Councils that their leader, the Pope, recognizes as “ecumenical” (that is, sufficiently representative of the whole Church), or even, under certain conditions, while remaining dispersed around the world. Finally, the Pope even when speaking alone is guaranteed the charism of infallibility in his most formal (ex cathedra) pronouncements.

Now, what does the Eastern Orthodox communion see as the agent of the infallibility it claims for itself? In fact, it recognizes only one of those forms of teaching mentioned above. Let us highlight this answer:

Proposition 1: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of ecumenical councils.

However, does this mean that the Orthodox recognize the authority of all the same ecumenical councils that we Catholics recognize? Unfortunately not. While our separated Eastern brethren claim that, in principle, any ecumenical council between Pentecost and Judgment Day would enjoy the charism of being able to issue infallible dogmatic decrees, they in fact recognize as ecumenical only the first seven councils: those that took place in the first Christian millennium, before the rupture between East and West. Indeed, even though they claim theirs is the true Church, they have never, since that medieval split, attempted to convoke and celebrate any ecumenical council of their own. For they still recognize as a valid part of ancient tradition the role of the See of Peter as enjoying a certain primacy – at least of honor or precedence – over the other ancient centers of Christianity (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria). After all, the first-millennium historical evidence is abundantly clear to practically all historians that confirmation (not necessarily convocation) by the Bishop of Rome was seen by both Eastern and Western Christians as essential in order for a council to qualify as being truly ecumenical.

Does this mean, then, that the Orthodox theology falls into the same illogical trap which we discussed yesterday in connection with certain Protestant and Anglican theories, namely, the absurd postulation of a merely temporary church infallibility? Not quite. For mainstream Orthodox theologians, as I understand them, would prefer to say, rather, that for a thousand years we have had a situation of interrupted infallibility. The interruption, they would maintain, has been caused above all by the ‘ambition’, ‘intransigence’ or ‘hubris’ of the bishops of the See of Peter, who are said to have gradually exaggerated their privileges to the point of seriously overstepping the due limits of the very modest primacy bestowed on them by Jesus. However (it is said), once the papacy comes to recognize this grave error and so renounces its claims to personal infallibility and universal jurisdiction over all Christians – ‘novel’ doctrines solemnly defined only as recently as 1870 – why, then the deplorable schism will at last be healed and the whole Church, with due representation for both East and West, will once again be able to hold ecumenical councils. As such, these will be endowed, as before, with the capacity to issue infallible dogmatic decrees.

Now, while this position might seem plausible at first sight, or at least, not obviously unreasonable, it involves serious problems. Our separated Eastern brethren are acknowledging that any truly ecumenical council will need to include not only their own representatives, but also those of the Bishop of Rome, whose confirmation of its decrees would in due course be needed, as it was in those first seven councils of antiquity. Well, so far so good. But does this mean the Orthodox acknowledge that the Pope’s confirmation of a council in which they participate will not only be necessary, but also sufficient, as a condition for their own recognition of it as ecumenical and infallible? Unfortunately, the answer here is again in the negative. And it is the Easterners’ own history which has, as we shall now see, re-shaped their theology on this point during the last half-millennium.

After the East-West rupture that hardened as a result of the mutual excommunications of 1054 and the brutal sack of Constantinople itself by Latin crusaders in 1204, two ecumenical councils were convoked by Rome for the purpose of healing the breach. They were held, respectively, at Lyons in 1274 and at Florence in 1439, with Eastern Christendom being duly represented at both councils by bishops and theologians sent from Constantinople. And in both cases these representatives ended up fully accepting, on behalf of the Eastern Church, the decrees, promulgated by these councils, that professed the true, divinely ordained jurisdiction of the Successors of Peter over the universal Church of Christ – something much more than a mere primacy of honor. And these decrees were of course confirmed by the then reigning popes.

Why, then, did neither of these two councils effectively put an end to the tragic and long-standing schism? Basically because the Eastern delegations to Lyons and Florence, upon returning to their own constituency, were unable to make the newly decreed union ‘stick’ and take practical effect. At Constantinople, the nerve-center of the Byzantine Empire, deep suspicion and even passionate hostility toward the Latin ‘enemies’ were still very strongly ingrained in the hearts and minds of many citizens – great and small alike. The result was that politics and public opinion trumped the conciliar agreements. The Eastern Christians as a whole simply refused to acquiesce in the idea of allowing that man – the widely feared and detested Bishop of Rome – to hold any kind of real jurisdiction over their spiritual and ecclesiastical affairs.

As a result, in order to justify this continued separation from Rome, the Orthodox have had to nuance their position on the infallibility of ecumenical councils. They have had to maintain that the participation in a given council of bishops representing the whole Church and the confirmation of their decrees by the Pope, while undoubtedly necessary, is still not sufficient to guarantee the true ecumenical status and infallibility of that council. For over and above the fulfilment of those conditions, it is also necessary (according to standard Orthodox ecclesiology of recent centuries) for the faithful as a whole in both East and West – not just the pope and bishops or even the entire clergy – to accept that council’s decrees as expressing the true faith.3 So the simple Proposition 1 set out above now becomes:

Proposition 2: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of those Councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole Church.

In the post-Enlightenment Western world wherein opposition to ‘clericalism’ (real or imagined), and the ideas of democracy and popular sovereignty have long enjoyed great political popularity, this Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology, with its emphasis on the role of the laity, will inevitably sound attractive to many. Indeed, some neo-modernist, dissident Catholic advocates of ‘liberation theology’ and a ‘People’s Church’ have in recent decades been advocating some such ‘democratization’ of church structures and procedures as a remedy for so-called ‘Roman centralism’. But on closer inspection a fatal logical flaw in the Orthodox theory comes to light. For if the crucial factor in deciding whether a given council’s teaching is infallible or not depends on how it is received by the rank-and-file membership of “the whole Church”, then it becomes critically important to know who, precisely, constitutes “the whole Church”. How are her members to be identified? Who has ‘voting’ rights, as it were, in this monumental communal decision whether to accept or reject a given council’s doctrinal decrees?

In answer to this question, our Eastern friends certainly cannot say that for these purposes “the whole Church” consists of all who profess faith in Christ, or all the baptized. For on that basis the Orthodox would rule out as ‘un-ecumenical’ (and thus, non-infallible) not only the second-millennium councils recognized by Rome and the Western Church, but also the seven great councils of the first millennium which they themselves recognize in common with Catholics! For each one of those councils was rejected by significant minorities of baptized persons (Arians, Monophysites, Nestorians, etc.) who professed Christianity. It is equally clear that they cannot define “the whole Church” as Catholics do, namely, as consisting of all those Christians who are in communion with Rome, the See of Peter, Prince of the Apostles. For on that basis the Orthodox would disqualify themselves as being part of “the whole Church”, given that they have not been in communion with Rome for the best part of a thousand years. Could they perhaps try to define “the whole Church” in terms of communion with their own present patriarchal See of Constantinople? As far as I know, no Orthodox theologians themselves would dare to go that far, not only because they cannot deny that this See was itself in heresy at certain periods of antiquity, but above all because it did not even exist for three centuries after Christ was on earth. So it could not possibly claim – and never has claimed – any privileged status at the level of revelation and divine law. (The Orthodox agree with Catholics, and with nearly all other professing Christians except the Mormons, that revelation was completed in the first century A.D., at the time of Christ and the Apostles.)

In short, any Orthodox attempt to formulate a theological definition of “the whole Church” in terms of any empirically verifiable criterion – for instance, as the community of those who have undergone the visible, audible and tangible sacrament of baptism, or of those who visibly and audibly call themselves Christians, or of those who visibly and audibly profess their communion with certain publicly identifiable prelates who in turn hold ecclesiastical office at some fixed, highly visible and publicly identified city – any such attempt will land our Eastern brethren in impossible absurdities. So the only other course open to them, logically, is to attempt to define “the whole Church” in terms of an empirically unverifiable criterion, namely, adherence to true, orthodox doctrine. Unlike cities, sayings and sacraments, doctrinal orthodoxy cannot be recognized as such by any of the five senses. It cannot, as such, be seen, touched or heard, only discerned in the mind and heart.

Having inevitably resorted to this seemingly reasonable criterion – trying to define the true Church as that which teaches true doctrine – it is no accident that the main body of Eastern Christians began to call their communion the “Orthodox” Church after their rupture with Rome. Why do they not recognize as constituent parts of the “whole Church” those baptized, Christ-professing Aryans, Nestorians, etc., who rejected one or more of the seven first-millennium councils? The answer is deceptively simple: “Why, because they were unorthodox, of course! They lapsed into heresy while we – and up till that time the Latin Church under Rome as well – maintained the true faith.”

Now that the Orthodox position regarding infallibility and ecumenical councils has been further specified, we can reformulate it a third time, replacing the expression “the whole Church” at the end of Proposition 2 with another which clarifies what is meant by those three words:

Proposition 3: Infallibility is to be recognized in the solemn doctrinal decisions of those Councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole community of those Christians who adhere to true doctrine.

But here, I am afraid, we come face to face with the fundamental logical flaw in the whole Eastern Orthodox account of how we can know what – if anything – God has revealed to mankind. Since Christ founded his Church on earth to be a visible community, we cannot define her in terms of an invisible criterion – possession of doctrinal truth – without falling into absurdity. The flaw this involves is that of a circular argument – or, if you like, including the term to be defined within the definition itself. This results in a mere tautology: a self-repeating affirmation that provides no information at all.

We can see this more clearly if we recall once again the basic purpose of all the above three Eastern Orthodox propositions in bold type: they aim to identify and point out to us the organ of that infallible church teaching which needs to exist – and to be clearly recognizable – if there is to be any credible public divine revelation. For the very concept of divine revelation implies the communication of clear and certain knowledge of something (even if that ‘something’ is itself – like the Trinity and the Incarnation – profoundly mysterious and not fully comprehensible to our finite minds). But suppose the Supreme Being were to “reveal” some message to humanity in general through the agency of avowedly fallible messengers – modest prophets who could announce their message to us (whether in speech or in writing) only in something like the following terms: “Well, I think God has said and done such-and-such, and I’m personally pretty confident that such-and-such is what he means by what he has said; but, mind you, I could be wrong”. In that case, of course, the rest of us could have no clear and certain knowledge at all of the divine mind and intention. God would in fact be revealing to us nothing at all – certainly nothing which we could accept with that firm, unconditional faith which the Scriptures take for granted as the appropriate response of Christians to God’s Word.

Keeping in mind, then, that the whole purpose of an infallible church authority is simply to enable Christians to distinguish revealed truth clearly and certainly from falsehood and heresy, we can formulate once again the Eastern Orthodox proposition, rewording Proposition 3 above so as to ‘unpack’ the word “infallible”, spelling out its epistemological import:

Proposition 4: Christians can come to know with certainty what is true doctrine by recognizing the solemn doctrinal decisions of those Councils which are not only papally confirmed as ecumenical, but which are also subsequently accepted as such by the whole community of those Christians who adhere to true doctrine.

The words italicized above lay bare the underlying circularity – the tautology – that vitiates the logical coherence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, therefore destroying its rational credibility. We want to know how to identify true Christian doctrine with certainty; but the proffered answer to our problem assumes we already know the very thing we are seeking to discover! We are being told, “To discover what is true Christian doctrine, you must pay heed to the teaching of those who adhere to true Christian doctrine”!

Not long after I came to the firm conclusion that Eastern Orthodoxy was illogical, so that its claim to infallibility could not be sustained, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church at the Mass of the Easter Vigil in 1972. My long journey had been completed, something for which I continue daily to give thanks to God.

It remains only to add that, in the thirty-five years since I returned to full communion with the one Church founded by Christ, my conviction as a Catholic has only become stronger. For the Orthodox Church today is by no means in the same condition as it was then. The very features which had most attracted me to it back then have now largely faded into a twilight of doubt and confusion. For some centuries the tenacity of the Orthodox in adhering strictly to their ancient, stable liturgical traditions, together with their relative isolation from the post-Enlightenment West, combined to act as a quite powerful antidote, in practice, to the effects of the ingrained ‘virus’ of illogicality that we have just exposed. But in recent decades, with more extensive cultural and ecumenical contacts, and with an increasingly large and active Eastern diaspora in Western countries, Orthodoxy’s underlying vulnerability to the same liberal and secularizing tendencies in faith, morals and worship that have devastated the West is becoming more apparent. That virus – an inevitable result of breaking communion with the visible ‘Rock’ of truth and unity constituted by the See of Peter – is now inexorably prodding Orthodoxy toward doctrinal pluralism and disintegration.

From my reading on Eastern church affairs in recent years, I have the impression that many Orthodox theologians and bishops have now severely qualified or even surrendered any serious claim to infallibility on the part of their Church. Also, there is no longer any unity, any identifiable “official” position of Orthodoxy as such, in regard to unnatural methods of birth control. Some authorities continue to reprobate these practices, while others – probably the majority by now – condone them. Increasingly, Orthodox married couples are advised just to follow their own conscience on this issue – in dialogue, if possible, with a priest who is trusted as ‘spiritual father’.4

A traditionally-minded Orthodox apologist might reply, of course, that confusion and dissent on these and many other matters are also rampant within Roman Catholicism, and indeed, to a large extent have spread to Orthodoxy as a result of powerful liberal and neo-modernist influences going virtually unchecked in our own communion, especially since Vatican Council II. This objection, unfortunately, is all too well-founded as far as it goes. But it misses the vital point for present purposes, which is that the admittedly grave confusion in contemporary Catholicism is not due to its own underlying epistemic structure – its own fundamental theology of revelation. It is due rather to what many of us Catholics would see as a temporary weakness at the practical level: the level of Church discipline and government. We have witnessed a failure of many bishops, and arguably even recent popes, at times, to guard and enforce with sufficient resolve that doctrine which remains coherently and infallibly taught in theory and in principle by the Catholic magisterium. A solution to the present problems will not require the reversal of any Catholic doctrine; on the contrary, it will involve the more resolute insistence, in theory and in practice, on our existing doctrines. (This insistence, it is true, will probably need to include further authoritative papal interpretations of certain Vatican II texts whose ambiguity or lack of clarity betray something of the conflicting pastoral, philosophical and theological tendencies that were all too apparent among the Council Fathers themselves.)

In Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, the currently growing problem of internal confusion and division goes down to a deeper level. It is rooted in unsound principle, not just defective practice. It is a problem involving the essential defining feature of the Orthodox communion over against Catholicism, namely, its fateful medieval decision to repudiate the full primacy and authority of that ‘Rock’ established by Christ in the person of Blessed Peter and his successors in the See of Rome. Perhaps, if more of our Orthodox brethren can come to recognize the underlying logical flaw in their ecclesiology that I have tried to pinpoint and explain in this talk, we shall see more fruitful ecumenical progress toward the restoration of full communion.


1 I stress the words “by their very nature” to counter the common argument that since procreation is equally impossible as a result of normal marital acts carried out when one or both spouses are temporarily or permanently infertile, the Catholic Church’s doctrine is logically inconsistent, and hence rationally untenable. We are often told that, in order to be consistent with her own ‘ban’ on unnatural sex acts, the Church should not only forbid the use of periodic continence to avoid pregnancy (Natural Family Planning), but should also prohibit marriage itself in cases where the woman has already passed the menopause, or if either partner is for any other reason permanently sterile.

In fact, there is no inconsistency here on the part of Catholic doctrine. For the impossibility of procreation in these conjugal acts which the Church permits is due not to the kind or type of sexual act carried out by the spouses, but to the biological condition of one or both of them at the time of intercourse. This condition is something designed by the Creator himself when it is a normal and healthy one, and at least permitted by his Providence when it is not. In either case the infertility of the acts in question is not itself caused by any human decision or initiative. The act itself – by which semen is deposited in the vagina – remains a procreative-type act even though no procreation can occur. By way of contrast, in the case of those sexual sins condemned by the Church as contra naturam (“against nature”), it is the essential character of the freely chosen act itself, and not the biological condition of the agent, that renders procreation impossible. Regardless of whether or not the agent is choosing such acts for the conscious, subjective purpose of preventing offspring, those acts are immoral because by their own essential structure they objectively express an inversion of the true order of values. Using a perverse ‘language of the body’, they insult the value and nobility of new human life as such. (That is the basic reason why, reacting to the thought of masturbation, ejaculating into condoms, oral and anal intercourse, lesbian devices, etc., every pure-hearted person who understands our human anatomy intuitively sees, senses and appreciates that “our bodies are not made for that!”) Indeed, such actions usurp the Creator’s sovereignty over human life. The man or woman who seeks orgasm in these ways eliminates the possible creation by God of a new human being through his/her act for the sake of something far inferior in value: the physical and/or emotional gratification it produces.

2 See the further discussion of this point below on p. 13.

3 A standard textbook of Orthodox dogmatic teaching puts it thus: “True Councils – those which express Orthodox faith – are accepted by the Church’s catholic [i.e., universal] consciousness; false councils – those which teach heresy or reject some aspect of the Church’s Tradition – are rejected by the same Catholic consciousness. The Orthodox Church is the Church not of ‘councils’ as such, but only of the true councils, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which conform to the Church’s catholic consciousness” (M. Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology: A Concise Exposition, 3rd edition (Platina California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005), p. 41, n. 21. Pomazansky does not use the word “infallibility” here in connection with “true councils”, but that charism is clearly implied in different terminology when he asserts that they are “inspired by the Holy Spirit”. Notice, however, that even while he ascribes this awesome divine privilege to “true councils”, Pomazansky offers no criterion whatever for deciding which Christians are to be counted as belonging to “the Church”. Yet this is an absolutely crucial question, given that if it is answered incorrectly, the resulting “consciousness” of those consulted may, according to the Orthodox theory itself, reflect Satan-inspired heresy instead of Spirit-inspired truth.

4 Cf. J. Likoudis, Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter (Waite Park, Minnesota: Park Press, 2006), pp. 87-99, “Contraception and Eastern Orthodoxy”).

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