Credo in…quid? Who is an orthodox Christian?

Pope Francis’s visit to American shores unleashed a storm of breathless reporting and commentary that transfixed the press in the United States for a full week. (I would link, but it’s hard to know where to begin.) Yet amidst the musings on issues both profound and mundane that his journey spawned, one thing was again very clear in the coverage of the pontifical progress: the media are generally flummoxed when they attempt to comprehend and articulate the nature of the factions and fractures within Christianity, particularly when it comes to understanding what an orthodox Christian might actually be.

Exhibit A was this New York Times piece, which begins by airing the views of a representative from the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church [bold emphasis mine]:

[Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller], a conservative German in black clerical clothing, said neither the pontiff, nor his church, cared whether “Obama says the pope is a very good man” or whether a “fallible” Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. And if papal proclamations of Catholic doctrine on core issues of family have eroded Francis’ global standing, so be it.

But Cardinal Müller is no objective papal observer. He is a leading voice in the orthodox wing of the Catholic Church that worries that outsize attention on Francis’ welcoming, pastoral style could distract from the church’s core beliefs.

He is one of many conservatives who, without challenging the immensely popular pope head-on, have sought to weather the so-called Francis effect by inculcating the next generation of faithful with their own priorities: church tradition, culture and rules.

Now they are parsing his comments this weekend in Philadelphia, where he arrived Saturday, for anything that would bolster their case as they head into next month’s synod of bishops in Rome focused on the family. Many of them have been looking to dampen any prospect of welcoming people in same-sex relationships or divorced and remarried Catholics back into the fold, or women into the priesthood.

Now, the reporter for this piece was almost surely using “orthodox” in the sense of “traditional,” which is a perfectly acceptable and generally applicable dictionary definition. But in the context of the church, the text in bold conflates what is simple religious traditionalism with Christian “orthodoxy,” and it assumes that the issues that Cardinal Müller and his cohorts are concerned with actually represent Catholic Christianity’s “core beliefs.” Neither of these things are true, and the passive acceptance of this terminology will do great damage to Christians attempting to discern a proper way forward for the church in the midst of  increasingly rapid technological and cultural transitions.

Admittedly, secular media outlets are often terrible at understanding religious institutions and people – including Francis and the Catholic Church – when they are not defined according to the spectrum of American politics. But news organizations are generally no stranger to the value-laden verbal formulations concocted and advocated by political interest groups. When covering political or policy topics, seasoned reporters are usually very savvy about having their writing gamed by biased formulations advanced by interested parties. Yet when dealing with church issues, political reporters in particular can easily fall prey to adopting inaccurate and partisan language about the church that they would never accept from political or industry groups pushing an agenda from inside the Beltway.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve been struck by how some Christian traditionalists and social conservatives have been trying to pass themselves off as the true representatives of “orthodox” Christianity. Christians who do not share their obsessions over the inexorable acceptance of gay equality, sexual liberation generally, changing gender and family structures and expectations, and a host of other rapidly evolving social issues, can simply be relegated to un-orthodoxy, without engaging in any true debate over how any of this relates to the theological essentials of the faith. But the observation that “things aren’t the way they were before” is not a theologically meaningful statement, and has little or nothing to do with orthodox Christianity.

More fights over who is a true orthodox Christian? I'll just be here then, thanks.

More fights over who is a true orthodox Christian? I’ll just be here then, thanks.

Being an “orthodox” Christian means some very specific things, but they revolve around assent to theological propositions rather than adherence to behavioral prescriptions. Basically, if you can recite the Nicene Creed without choking on your coffee, then congratulations! You’re an orthodox Christian. What you do with those theological statements – how they influence the way that you interact with the people around you, or how you incorporate (or don’t) the prevailing culture of your time and place into your life – is not the measure of orthodoxy. Nor are the church’s “core beliefs” defined by “church tradition, culture, and rules.” Adherence to these may be important aspects of one’s personal identity (they clearly are for Cardinal Müller and many other like-minded clerics and laity), but confusing them with the church’s “core beliefs” is a massive category error.

Of course, most people who regularly attend their local church have jobs, kids, and other things in their lives, and do not spend loads of time pondering the intricacies and appropriateness of  definitions bandied about by commentators on the church scene. So, when the weight of material that they do read suggests to them that maintaining an orthodox Christian position requires rejecting increasingly large swathes of their cultural environment, we shouldn’t be surprised when many of them decide to just abandon the faith, either deliberately or by simply fading away. Furthermore, we shouldn’t delude ourselves by a smug reassurance that they are leaving primarily because they find the church’s strictures too hard to accommodate in their lives, or because they are uncomfortable being out of accord with the social pressures emanating from their peers. Instead, we should feel ashamed that many are giving up the ecclesial ghost precisely because they are uninterested in a church that is – all claims of “love the sinner” aside – persecuting and diminishing those who are historically or currently outcast and marginalized in  society, all in the name of preserving a version of Christian “orthodoxy” that has nothing to do with that term.

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