V., the anonymous writer who runs the Perceptio web-log, has finally followed through on the time-honored tradition of Orthodox converts writing about . . . their conversion. In a post entitled “Lessons Learned from Rocky One to Rocky Three (Life in the Orthodox Church),” V. provides his own spiritual-psychological account of why other people enter Orthodoxy before briefly touching on his own reasons (theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and so on and so forth). It’s not particularly persuasive, at least not when it comes to accounting for the myriad of reasons people leave some form of Protestantism (and occasionally Catholicism) for the Eastern Orthodox Church. With respect to ex-Catholics, while it is true that some are looking for a safe haven from the turmoils of contemporary Catholicism (heck, even Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, is rumored to have entertained becoming Greek Orthodox following the Second Vatican Council), a good number of ex-Catholic Orthodox I have met over the years either married into Orthodoxy or weren’t strong churchgoers prior to finding the Christian East. Of course some certainly made their choice for concrete intellectual and/or aesthetic reasons, but they were not “traditionalists” in any strong sense of the word. Most traditional Catholics, for better or worse, take a fairly low view of the Orthodox, regarding them as “schismatics” or “heretics”; they are not inclined to convert, no matter how rotten things get in Rome. The few exceptions I have known to this rule (all priests and monks) did wind up in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), but less out of a desire for “exclusivism” and more because ROCOR, when compared to some other Orthodox jurisdictions in North America, is relatively “safe” in its conservatism. (Also, if you happen to appreciate the Byzantine-Slavic liturgy done well, there’s no better place to go than a ROCOR parish.)
As for ex-Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, a good number of their reasons for swimming the Bosporus rather than the Tiber come down to some form of anti-Catholic animus left over from their “Shine Jesus Shine” days. It’s not very surprising that so-called “Orthodox apologetics” contra Catholicism are just rehashes of Protestant polemics and that some of the very things these writings accuse Catholics of doing are present in the Orthodox Church (e.g., “Mary worship,” depicting God the Father in images, a too-low Christology, a too-high Christology, clericalism, Scholasticism, etc.). One of the most amusing things I heard Orthodox priests tell Protestant inquirers over and over is that the Orthodox (unlike the Catholics!) don’t “worship” or “venerate” saints; they merely ask saints to pray for them, like a friend. Similarly, Protestants are often given a very incomplete account of the role of icons in Orthodoxy and the degree of veneration owed to them (particularly miraculous ones). (The next time someone gives you a “modest” account of the role of icons in Orthodoxy, take them to your nearest ROCOR parish when the Kursk Root Icon is on display for veneration.) Sadly, ex-Protestant converts to Orthodoxy have something of a stranglehold on Anglophone Orthodox media, resulting in a rather distorted presentation of the Orthodox Faith to inquirers and the converted alike. While a great deal of anti-Catholicism in world Orthodoxy can be chalked up to national, ethnic, and historic tensions, much of the anti-Catholicism running through North American Orthodoxy is centered on intellectual gripes, many of which have already been dealt with by Catholic theologians and apologists well-versed in the actual disagreements which exist between East and West. The relative absence of Catholic apologetics contra Orthodoxy is largely due to most Catholics finding Orthodox concerns (genuine or not) to be non-issues, or at least issues that have already been covered. Why reinvent the wheel?
Returning to V.’s piece, I agree with him that in Orthodoxy there is “something for everyone.” I would argue, however, that Catholicism can make the same claim and do so with more force and conviction. (Neither claim, by the way, vindicates one side or the other with respect to where the “true church” is to be found.) Without trying to irk my Orthodox readers, it behooves me to remind everyone that there are more Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago than there are Orthodox in the United States. Unless you happen to live in a major metropolitan area like Chicago or New York, your chances of finding more than one or two Orthodox parish options are slim. And so it seems to me that those who choose to become Orthodox or desire to remain Orthodox must do so for reasons other than finding their own little “niche”; it probably won’t happen. (As a side note, this leads me to wonder how many people leave Orthodoxy because they can’t find their niche — but I’ll table that for the moment.) American Catholicism, on the other hand, has a bit of everything (including “Byzantium,” if you happen to live in the Rust Belt). Moreover, Catholicism has a much better spiritual, intellectual, and social infrastructure than Orthodoxy, which is perhaps why Catholicism continues to draw in a large number of converts while the “Orthodox Century” predicted by certain American Christian writers a few years ago remains on hold for the time being.