Peter Steinfels writes a weekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times. His piece on orthodoxy, published on Sept. 13 was particularly insightful.
The real thrust of his column was directed at colleagues in the news media for making themselves “the arbiter of who is, say, an orthodox Roman Catholic or an orthodox Buddhist and who is not.”
He cited, by way of example, a recent article on religion and the current presidential race in The New Yorker magazine in which Catholics who welcome the changes in the church brought about by the Second Vatican Council were contrasted with Catholics “who hewed to orthodoxy.”
“Does this mean,” Steinfels asked, “that the Catholics who rallied enthusiastically around Vatican II, and the popes who preceded John Paul II in interpreting it, and a majority of the bishops who had been steering the American church for two decades, were not orthodox? Were they all, knowingly or unknowingly, unorthodox — or even heretical?”
Steinfels acknowledges that there are Catholics on the far right who believe exactly this to be the case, but the “real question” is, “Why should The New Yorker decide?”
At the same time, Peter Steinfels does not want to single out The New Yorker. The tendency to misuse the theological word “orthodoxy” is all too common within the news media today.
To be sure, in its uppercase form the word Orthodoxy has a legitimate usage within the media as well as the church. It pertains to a particular branch of Christianity that is distinguished by its liturgical, theological and spiritual traditions, with origins in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire.
“Lowercase orthodoxy is quite another matter,” Steinfels writes. In the lowercase sense, orthodoxy “suggests a sharp boundary between those who properly belong and those who are properly excluded, the way that ‘patriotic’ can suggest a boundary between loyal citizens and something verging on traitors.
“Religious leaders have a hard enough time wrestling with such matters. Journalists should not get in their way.”
Peter Steinfels’s column sent me back to the electronic archives of my own weekly column, published in the diocesan press since early July 1966. I found that there have been 133 columns since then that have touched on the topic of orthodoxy in its lowercase sense. This will be the 134th.
As early as April 1975, I was exploring the “outer limits” of orthodoxy. I had made the point then, and several times since, that there are, in fact, boundaries beyond which the Christian and the Catholic Christian in particular cannot go — without leaving the church.
Although our faith is not so clear-cut that it cannot be interpreted differently by Christians of good will, neither is it so loose and vaporous that we can make it up as we go along.
“The conservative critic,” I wrote more than 30 years ago, “is right about the question of limits, but often wrong, it seems to me, about the question of their precise location.”
Almost exactly four years later I returned to the topic of limits, this time using Christology as the point of reference. The church flatly rejected Arianism at the Council of Nicaea (325), Nestorianism at the Council of Ephesus (431) and Monophysitism at the Council of Chalcedon (451).
In doing so, the church marked a dogmatic path down the middle, between those on the extreme right (the Gnostics and the Monophysites) who exaggerated the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, and those on the extreme left (the Arians and the Nestorians) who exaggerated the humanity of Christ at the expense of his divinity.
But the church never said where the exact center was to be found. It insisted only that the extremes of right and left are incompatible with that broadly orthodox middle ground.
In early 1996 I returned once again to the topic of limits, this time in response to a Catholic commentator on the right who charged that there are Catholic theologians who “see no limits.”
I repeated my point that there are limits to Catholic orthodoxy and that I knew of no Catholic theologian who would disagree. I proceeded to list 14 examples of beliefs that would violate the limits of Catholic orthodoxy, among which is the denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
In January 2004 I wrote about the so-called “new orthodoxy,” taking an approach not unlike Peter Steinfels’s in his recent “Beliefs” column.
The bishops of Vatican II were “solidly ‘orthodox’ and their program of renewal and reform was unhesitatingly approved by the two popes who presided over the council between 1962 and 1965.”
Is it “orthodox,” then, to oppose Vatican II?
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.