'Orthodox' Catholics

I was saddened by a couple of recent conversations with Catholics who call themselves ‘orthodox’. By ‘orthodox’ they appear to mean that they follow the straight and true path of exemplary Catholicism.

It seems to me that proponents of the new ‘orthodoxy’ are frequently selective. They will insist on a particular way of purifying the communion vessels, or lament the use of a carafe or glass chalice, but ignore the requirement of giving the people Holy Communion from the altar and not from the tabernacle, or the desirability of offering people communion from the cup.  For them it is fine if the priest omits a weekday homily or the general intercessions, but to omit the washing of the fingers is apparently a hanging offence.

For such ‘orthodox’ Catholics every liturgical lapse is an equally grave offence: for the priest to offer a sign of peace to a few people in the front seat is just as bad as making up your own Eucharistic Prayer. Despite having been present at the sacrifice of the cross, re-presented on the altar, all that stands out in their minds is where the priest stood or whether he used every word in his script.

What concerns me most is that adopting the label ‘orthodox’ carries with it an implied judgement on the rest of the Church. If something is orthodox, anyone who differs is condemned as unorthodox.  It does not matter if it is a bishop, priest or religious who has dedicated their entire life to the Church – if they are not deemed to be ‘orthodox’, they are blithely consigned to the path to perdition.

Orthodoxy is all-embracing, for that is the meaning of ‘Catholic’. It is not threatened by variety in rubric or practice. The Second Vatican Council was clear on this point. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. (SC 37).

The Council here is talking about adapting the liturgy to various cultures and traditions. It is not advocating a free-for-all of indiscriminate changes to the liturgy, but it clearly presumes that a wide measure of variety is compatible with the ‘substantial unity of the Roman Rite’ and therefore with Catholic orthodoxy.

Unity is not uniformity. Having an entire library of Roman liturgical books with their Latin texts and rubrics is a blessing for the Roman Catholic Church because it forms the core of our unity with the tradition of all times and places.  But it is not, and should never be used as, a straight-jacket.

A well-known motto that originated in the religious conflicts of seventeenth-century Germany and has been very widely used by Protestants and Catholics alike could be the catch-cry for all in the Church whether they consider themselves ‘orthodox’ or not: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.


Elizabeth Harrington