My recent experience of Western Rite Orthodoxy got the gears turning on a question I have been receiving since our conversion. Why not Rome?
I remarked to one of the monastics last weekend how the Liturgy there felt very similar to a Lutheran liturgy. He agreed and said that if I was a Catholic it would’ve felt “very very similar” and if I was a good Episcopalian it would’ve felt “very very very similar”.
I have great love and admiration for my Roman Catholic friends and the good things that the Catholic Church does in so many areas. I long and hope for the day that the schism between Rome and the East is healed and genuine unity is restored.
A short disclaimer before I begin...
Because Roman Catholicism was not ever a serious contender, (I was very Lutheran, and I wasn't interested in converting to anything at all until I found what I did in Orthodoxy) I did not do as much research into the Catholic positions and situations that I'm discussing here. So if I’m incorrect in how I understand the Roman Church I certainly invite my Catholic friends to chime in. With that being said, here's my perspective.
As I reflect on my own journey, the reasons why I didn’t end up in the Roman Church boil down to two things: authority and liturgy. Initially one of the areas I found common ground with Orthodoxy on was the Pope. As a Lutheran I could certainly understand the Orthodox grievance that the Papacy claims more authority to itself than is right.
Beyond that, liturgical considerations are some of what made me look East in the first place. Things such as communion of all the baptized and unity in worship I saw being realized in their fullness in Orthodoxy, and it caused me to take a harder look at my own Lutheran Church and drove me to discover why we did not have that same fullness. But when I looked to Rome on these matters, I did not see fullness there any more than I saw it in the Lutheran Church. There are a few reasons why.
Other than the Papacy, which I saw as problematic, the liturgical life in Rome mirrored the LCMS in ways that troubled me. While it’s true that the Roman Mass is similar to the Lutheran Divine Service, that was not the problem. I loved the traditional Lutheran liturgy that I had grown up with - there were other issues.
The first of those was communion. As in the Lutheran Church, Rome does not commune all of her baptized members. Knowing that this was one of our problems with Lutheranism, and also that Lutherans inherited this problem from Rome, I saw no real reason to take a much deeper look into the Catholic Church.
The second similarity that I saw was an unhelpful diversity in the mass. A former Catholic explained to me recently that many younger Catholics want to return to a more traditional approach to Mass, but as it stands now there is great diversity in this area. Over the years I’ve heard this from many Catholics and I was already weary of going to Lutheran churches and wondering if I was really in a Lutheran Church. I wasn’t eager for more of the same.
And finally, my last reason for not investigating Rome more closely was their Eucharistic practices. Closed Communion is a shared position of the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism and the Missouri Synod Lutherans that I belonged to. However, only the Orthodox Church seems to adhere properly to this principle. While I know by experience both how and why it’s not enforced in Lutheranism, my knowledge of this problem in Rome is only anecdotal. However, in the discernment process I gathered that Rome was having issues with Open Communion, which became another red flag for me.
I agreed totally with the Missouri Synod’s position on paper that Closed Communion is the proper and right practice of the Church. However, Closed Communion had not been a reality in the Synod for quite some time and there seemed to be no indications on the horizon that the LCMS was willing to deal with that in any meaningful way. As far as I know the situation is similar in Rome.
Those were the three, main liturgical reasons why Rome seemed like a wash in comparison to the LCMS. I have great respect for my fellow recovering Protestants and Lutherans who went "home" to the Catholic Church after studying the theology and history more carefully. However, the particular issues in Lutheran doctrine and practice that God used to direct our family out of schism made Orthodoxy the viable option for us.
Rome is right in some areas where Lutheranism falls short, but the similar chaos in Rome seemed to highlight a shared theological heritage that, for all its goodness and beauty, had become inherently flawed. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick, an Orthodox priest and popular author, has talked about this much more helpfully and eloquently in his book Introduction to God.
He describes the Roman view as “The rule of men: authority as external office” and the attempt of the Reformation to fix the problem as “The rule of law: authority as external texts”. The Orthodox Christian approach is not external but rather internal. It is called Holy Tradition.
“…the internality of the Church’s authority is not primarily within the individual believer but rather within the body of the Church as a whole, expressed in what is called Holy Tradition.”
Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy all claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit. The difference in the Orthodox Church is that the leading takes place as a whole. Authority is in community, not in the hands of an individual, whether that individual be the Pope or the congregation or the believer. Authority belongs to the whole Body of Christ.
We should not allow the Pope alone to speak for Christ, but neither should we be so arrogant as to think we alone can speak for Christ. The Church speaks for Christ, and truly She is the only one who can.