Inscribed into the stone of Agiou Pavlou Monastery is the message “If you die before you die, you will not die when you die.” Such strange paradoxes are part of the mystery of the Mount Athos peninsula, which is home to some twenty monasteries, one of only two places on earth where Byzantine time is kept, and one of the few remaining locales from which women are expressly bared. On any given day, the monks tend to their duties, most of which are devotional. Their black cassocks are symbols of death, in the sense that in becoming a monk,a man becomes dead to the world and “immerses” himself in eternity. He is in the world, and yet not of the world, as his ascetic existence testifies. I’ll return to this later.
The issue of religious authority has recently been making the rounds within Reactionary circles, with tentative declarations, responses, and counter-responses. This dialogue has largely concerned questions of Church authority vs. sovereign authority, but for a moment I want to address the question of Church authority in isolation, as my own uncertainty as to its exact nature was brought to my attention only recently.
Since the earliest times, the religion that owes its allegiance to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ has been entrusted to we the faithful, and yet in its application to our own lives, the state, etc. we do not have the firsthand source to dialogue with directly. In lieu of this, we must reach conclusions ourselves about how best to enter through the “narrow gate” in Matthew 7;13-14. For this, we must have some kind of religious authority.
There are three broad categories of authority which seem to divide Christians today into the largest respective camps. The authority of Scripture, as interpreted by the reader. The authority of a supreme papal office which holds a special authoritative station given by God. And finally, the authority of ‘Tradition’. Any of these could be the better source. There are strong arguments in favor of each, found in both the Bible and in theological argumentation throughout the centuries.Debates over such things can be left up to far better men than I.
But what of the practical merits of the three types of authorities?
The first form of authority, as advocated for by Protestants (though not, in some instances, by forms of ‘high church’ Protestantism) is one that unfortunately speaks to something of a leveling principle. There are thousands of Protestant denominations precisely because of the decentralization of Church power, and the end of respect for religious superiors (which was not without some justification at the time of the Reformation).
The Holy Bible is no simple text. No religious document ever is. To the disdain of the most ardent literalist, it must be acknowledged that the Bible is rich with poetry, testimony, prayer, symbolic literature, and parable, among other genres. If it was a simple story book, one would have no need for priests at all, but thankfully to unlock the true meaning of the Bible, we are given men who are born to serve in this regard, men of the highest ascetic virtue. Most saints are of this stock. Just as not every man is born to fight in an army, not every man is born to serve God directly in the role of student and mediator, but the Protestant approach to authority must necessarily disagree and instead declare that every man can understand Scripture correctly, and does not require its refraction through the lens of the priestly caste.
The problems with this approach are evident. Scripture alone somehow tells great thinkers like William Lane Craig to thirst for knowledge and dedicate time to the study of cosmology, mathematics, and abstract philosophy, while at the same time telling the Abecedarians that any education, even in the alphabet, would distract one from inner enlightenment inspired by the Holy Spirit. It seems clear then, that this kind of authority can provide no cohesion, so prospect of social uniformity. People, unequal as they are, each with their own psychological profile and background, will read a text like the Bible and come to completely different conclusions. Thus, Protestantism can scarcely even be applied as a state religion, without certain compromises, as the Anglicans and some early Lutherans made. The complex nature of Scripture itself, which only grows the more divorced we become from its original context, opens the door wide to relativism and total lack of doctrinal certainty. Because of this relativism, hostile religious influences such as Progressivism are very easy to disseminate. Resistance to them is neither organized nor particularly well thought out, so while one could certainly commend the American religious right for its strident resistance to certain societal changes within the last hundred years, the Protestant response to things like the theory of evolution, secularization, and the subject of religious freedom itself, have been ultimately self-defeating, even if they were for a time tenacious.
The second form of authority, as advocated for by Roman Catholics, has great advantages over Protestantism in the form of centralizing command to a visible Church that gives dogmas to its faithful, whose orthodoxy is judged based on their adherence to these dogmas. This puts Roman Catholicism squarely in the camp of corporate religions, which are the most common and successful throughout history. Everything is very neatly defined, and the Church’s history is awash with highly intelligent men of God who dedicated their lives to understanding Christian doctrine, and passing on this understanding to the faithful. One need only look at the history of Europe to find that great stability and unification was achieved through the Catholic mode of authority. However, I find an inherent problem with its declaration of the Pope’s role as supreme arbiter of Church practice.
While the Western Church certainly has much more stability than the disorganized rabble that constitutes Protestantism, it is subject to some pretty dramatic changes at certain times in history. This is explained by Catholic theologians by way of attributing non-doctrinal status to that which has changed, and they have a point. The major changes we can think of that have taken place in how Catholicism is practiced both by the priesthood and the faithful have been either in areas deemed ‘disciplinary’, ‘clerical’, or ‘penitential’, or in areas that were not addressed by the original Ecumenical Councils, and thus occupy the gray territory of ‘non-formalized doctrine’ (think: doctrine of atonement). Some of these changes are superficial, and the kinds of things that all religions observe, but some are incredibly important. The roots of the bad practice of indulgences prior to the Reformation, in my opinion, lie in prior changes to the aforementioned theory of atonement, but they could not have been realized without a faux priest on the Holy See. I don’t mean to say those popes were antipopes or illegitimate, but that they were not of a priestly character. Pope Boniface IX correctly condemned indulgences, but by the time Pope Leo X came to power, boldly declaring, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”, it was clear that the merchant class somehow had one of their own in a position of absolute authority.
Catholics will explain that because the practice of indulgences did not directly concern Church doctrine, its abuse and later correction at the Council of Trent in no way de-legitimizes papal infallibility or Vatican authority. However if this authority can error on something so catastrophic (and the Reformation was indeed catastrophic), does that not speak to the flawed nature of the authority itself? The crux of the matter is that today’s Catholics rely too much on good men, good priests occupying the Papacy, and for most of history this has been the case. The selection process is nine times out of ten good at eliminating poor candidates for the job, but the realities of something like Vatican II, which is considered by most Traditionalists to be something of an abomination, tells us that the deference given to the bishop of Rome comes at a price, one that is being felt all too often today during the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Sedevacantists I have spoken to relate a Catholic faith that is in fact ‘dangerously’ close to the Orthodox position, rooted in the Magisterium, and denies that Popes can do the kinds of things that Pope Francis, or indeed the Vatican II proponents have been doing, without triggering a kind of automatic abdication (leaving the See ‘vacant’), but this position finds itself unfortunately out of step with the majority of the present Church who seem to think that while something like the virgin birth isn’t up for debate, the ordination of women is something worth talking about. I suspect I am guilty of ‘encouraging’ the former perspective among Roman Catholics in my works, when I state that the Church is ‘bigger’ than Pope Francis and the Vatican II Popes, but I genuinely think this is a superior understanding.That isn’t to say I think Sedevacantism is true or necessarily desirable, only that the perspective it offers is one that Catholics of a Traditionalist persuasion should consider when confronted by troubling and immediate Papal authority.
The last form of authority then, is that of ‘Tradition’. I am not using the term ‘Tradition’ here in the Evolian sense, as I often do, but in the Orthodox sense. Vincent Gabriel describes this form of authority as such:
“When we do speak of ideas or concepts, all teaching must be tested against both the scriptures and broader traditions of the Church—not vice versa. In other words, new insights that contradict holy Tradition should be treated with immediate and unreserved skepticism on the part of faithful Orthodox Christians. This responsibility to protect and preserve the faith unaltered falls upon both clergy and laity alike.”
The practice of doctrinal preservation then is said to come through both the laity and the priestly caste, but how exactly, if as we have already said, the laity are not of the caliber required to fully understand the Scriptures on their own, and priests (especially today) might fall into grave error? Put simply, we are here speaking of the authority of the dead, or to put it more bluntly, ‘necrocracy’. The people and the priests must never deviate from the faith of the great past heroes of the Church, her saints, her martyrs, her children, on issues of religious importance, doctrinal or not. Even if a council with all the majesty of the original seven Ecumenical Councils was held this year, it would be impossible for it to invalidate the previous seven in any way, because they are believed to be infallible, but similarly, on a so-called ‘non-doctrinal’ issue of great significance such as the ordination of women, even this would be practically impossible due to the weight of ‘Tradition’. Allow me to explain why.
In the early days of Christian statehood, the Church (this was before the schism) was assaulted by heresy, which for the caeserships of Constantius II and Valens, dominated the heartlands of the faith. Arianism had high-ranking proponents within the Church all over Anatolia, proving very usefully that there was danger in relying on the sole authority of any given emperor or indeed bishop. At this time, the Church was young, and by virtue of that youth, weak in her convictions. In short, the ‘Tradition’ was shallow, like a puddle that could be crossed quite safely by those who proposed heresy. As we all know, by the grace of God the heresies were for the most part extinguished, the forged books burnt, and the Bible as we read it today was formally recognized as canon. As time went on, the list of saints grew, the list of martyrs grew, and the list of those who died practicing the faith with its attendant beliefs grew exponentially. The puddle we spoke of previously begins to widen and deepen, until it is practically a lake. Deviations become ever more difficult as time passes, the boneyard mounts, the ossuaries fill with skulls, and the great books written in accordance with the old ways fill libraries.
Arianism, which abominably described Jesus as a created being, ruled in Constantinople for two successive ceaserships until 378 AD with the bulk of protest contained to irate clergy applying pressure from outside. And yet, Christian bodies did not line the streets in order to resist this challenge to orthodox teaching. 1275 years later, comparatively meaningless and superficial changes in the Russian Orthodox Church triggered an event known as ‘Raskol’, or ‘the Great Cleaving’ which saw thousands of ‘Old Believers’ sent to their deaths over things as trivial as how many fingers would be held up to make the sign of the cross. People believed the apocalypse was at hand. Why had resistance to change become so fierce? Because there was now a much larger history of Tradition to defend, and alterations in practice signified a retroactive condemnation of a greater number of prior Christians.
The result of this model is that despite having examples of countless bad priests, just as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism do, Eastern Orthodoxy has been marked by a religious stability through the ages. There is a cost to this approach of course. The Church is very slow in responding to new problems which arise due to the lack of a Papal figure, and it can lead to an unhealthy tendency to eschew even the most guarded dialogue with those outside the Church, though at present I am very glad the diffuse nature of the Church is providing roadblocks to the Ecumenical Patriarch whose motives today are questionable.
We often say within the Reactosphere that there is a spiritual darkening that has descended upon the Occident in particular, that men today do not see as clearly as they once did on matters spiritual. In light of this, it is of great comfort to know that the Church herself is guarded by the fallen and not just the living. This guardianship is propped up, in my estimation, by fear. Without a Papal authority that professes infallibility, and no solid ground for any Ecumenical Councils in the vein of the first seven, the Church has been terrified of losing its way due to bad priests, and thus holds fast to the graves of the best priests ever given to it. There is a sense of responsibility upon our shoulders not to compromise, and thus the faithful Orthodox Christian cannot break bread with Modernity, even if the Patriarch of Constantinople himself were to command it. If there were a rebellion of the faithful against the priestly authority, it would never be by their own volition, but by allegiance to the larger priesthood, of which those presently alive only represent a tiny faction.
To sum up, in Protestantism, the lone voice in the room belongs to you. In Roman Catholicism as currently practiced, the voice is loudest within the walls of the Vatican and echoes throughout the monumental architecture of its grand cathedrals. In Othodoxy, the voice that fills the air across entire nations like a howling wind finds its source in the graveyard, the mausoleum, the ossuary, the petrified eyes of the icons. The monks of Mt. Athos know that they will join this chorus one day, and that when they do they will provide a greater defense of Orthodoxy than they ever did as living men. Do not fear death. If you have already renounced the world, then when you die you will not die, but in fact be glorified in His name. The dead have a voice, and it is very loud indeed.