It’s something of an open secret that my wife and I were married by Fr. Patrick Reardon, the pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago and senior editor of Touchstone magazine. When my wife was accepted to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, we relocated to the Hyde Park neighborhood and left the parish. Being a foolish young man of 24-25, I didn’t appreciate everything Reardon taught me. In fact, in a foolish pursuit of “pure Orthodoxy” untainted by “Western thinking,” I can say quite honestly that I shelved a great deal of what I learned at All Saints . . . until I returned to the Catholic Church.
I have joked—and continue to joke—that All Saints is an Orthodox parish where a Catholic priest ministers to Protestants. (I mean that in the best way.) While Reardon is probably best known for his deep knowledge of the Scriptures, theology, and history, he is one of the few Orthodox clerics in the Anglophone world who vigorously upholds his communion’s longstanding—now widely ignored—teaching on contraception. Moreover, Reardon remains steadfast on bioethical questions, including the immorality of in vitro fertilization and sterilization. Most who go through All Saints at some time or another leave with sound knowledge of fundamental Christian morality. From what I have gathered, however, those teachings go straight out the window when convenience and cleric-shopping take center stage. Remember: In Orthodoxy, if Fr. Cosmas says the pill is off limits, Fr. Damian down the street is there to give you the exact opposite answer.
The reason I make mention of this is not to jump down anyone’s throat or open up another useless debate about Orthodox moral catechesis, but rather to express openly a debt of gratitude to Reardon and other Orthodox clerics who, in various ways, taught me that a Christian life, whether Orthodox or Catholic, is replete with moral hardships that no man has a right to ignore. Mind you, knowing that and living it out are two very different things, and I cannot in any way, shape, or form claim that I have lived my life according to the full precepts of the Church. And here I should also thank Reardon for helping me see that Confession is reconciliation with Christ, the one who died an ignoble death on the Cross for the salvation of the world, rather than a rapid-fire listing of sins divided into the neat categories of “venial” and “mortal.” It would take a decade for that to really sink-in, however.
There are those out there who, for reasons both good and bad, believe that I am anti-Orthodox. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am, of course, critical of certain currents in contemporary Orthodoxy, though far less so than I am of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. There are times when I am more than a bit envious of Orthodoxy’s confederate structure if only because it provides ample opportunities to run and hide from this-or-that jurisdiction’s internal problems. (How many Catholics today wish they could look over their shoulders at Francis and declare, “Well, he’s not my Patriarch!”?)
With that said, I cannot and will not ever encourage anyone to convert to, or stay, Orthodox. Lately, I have been thinking of those past acquaintances and friends who have opted to walk a dark road out of convenience in flagrant disregard for natural and revealed law. If they had not been Orthodox, that is, had they come to the Catholic Church where, despite dissenting clerics and laity, the truth of things is articulated clearly, would that have chosen to forego sterilization and in vitro fertilization by accepting the cross Christ gave them to bear? I’ll never know the answer to that; but I imagine that question will haunt me for a good long while.
Let me close by affirming, without hesitation, that I am the chief among sinners and in no way, shape, or form believe myself to be more moral, more holy, or more Christlike than my estranged Orthodox brethren. I am as bereft of virtue now as a Catholic as I was as an Orthodox Christian, only thankfully more aware of that fact. Any tempering of my character which has occurred over the past 15 years is due only to the grace of God; my individualized efforts to be a better man by sheer force of will have all ended in failure. As 2017 begins, my dear readers, I ask you to pray for me as I, in my own weak way, will pray for you.