The Crucifixion of St. Peter, etching, 1685 by Jan Luyken
There are so many reasons why a Protestant would consider becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I nearly did myself. My own journey into the Catholic Church included searching in various directions, but mostly in the direction of history and mystery, which led me to Orthodoxy, but also in the direction of authority and unity, which finally led to Catholicism.
I am no theologian or Church historian. My mind works more like a poet than a philosopher. I am not a logician nor am I a stickler for the minutiae of dogmatic disputes. Nonetheless, Truth (capital T truth) is important to me. And loving Christ, obeying His commandments, seeking holiness and perfection and theosis is everything to me — all things I am sorely bad at doing. My journey, and the decisions I have made along the way, are not criticisms of dear friends who have made different decisions. The best I can do is try to reasonably do my homework, be as humble as I can, and trust God. I believe I am right, or I wouldn’t believe what I believe, but I also know how easy it is to be wrong. And so I humbly offer here my reasons for becoming Catholic rather than Orthodox. I do not claim wisdom, only that by God’s grace did I find the true Church.
I’ve written many posts on this blog about my journey. You can find them by searching some of the topics and tags on the sidebar. One described my visiting a local Orthodox church; a visit that truly inspired me and moved my heart. I have friends that are members at that church. I also found the writings of some Eastern Orthodox authors amazing, especially those of Alexander Schmemann, and especially his book “For the Life of the World.” And I wrote about my struggles with Protestantism and my seeking something far more rooted in tradition than the anemic Evangelical culture I experienced. Finally, being a bit of a cinephile, my favorite filmmaker is the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, an artist deeply influenced by the Christian faith of Russia Orthodoxy. His aesthetic and artistic philosophy comes from that faith, it resonates deeply in my soul. Consequently, I was drawn very much to the Orthodox Church.
Eastern Orthodoxy offers a powerful antidote to some of our western culture’s religious ills. But, in the end, I could not make the leap. I had, instead, to first deal with Catholicism head-on. I realized that a key attraction of Orthodoxy for me was that I could get an ancient liturgy, the Church fathers, all the smells and bells, icons, mystery, penance, history, and on and on, and I could still fundamentally be Protestant. In other words, I could get most everything I was seeking (or thought I was seeking) without having to submit to the Pope. I had to confront this and find out what the Catholic Church taught, and if it was the better choice than Eastern Orthodoxy.
I was raised within and formed by a very anti-Catholic culture. I had a lot of fears of even getting slightly close to Catholicism. But I also realized that every negative thing I ever heard about the Church came from enemies of the Church. How would I feel if someone refused to give me a chance to defend myself against slander, claiming they already heard everything they needed to hear from my enemies? I felt convicted that I was being unfair. Even more so, I came to see that the final step was not the logic of an argument, rather it was the attitude of my heart. I began to see that I first must submit to God in all humility before I could sort through the various claims. In short, I realized the fundamental issue, the very crux itself, was whether I was willing to submit or whether I was going to continue to demand my own authority. The last thing I wanted to do was to continue to define and demarcate my faith, based on my own authority, as disunity with other Christians. I needed something transcending my own person to hold me accountable. I also realized I was no longer “protesting,” and therefore I found it absurd to be a Protestant. Rather, I had to turn to God and ask Him to lead me, even in a direction that scared me. My will, not my rationality, was the problem — a problem of the heart forged within me by the Protestant (and American) culture that made me.
In the end, the Catholic Church won me over. In fact, I believe it was God, through Mary, who led me to the Church in spite of my many worries, fears, and struggles. I am not an apologist. As I stated earlier, I am no theologian or logician. I’m a relatively bright guy, but my reasons for becoming Catholic are probably more poetic than apologetic. Catholicism began to form a kind of song in my soul, a resonance that called me home. The question I had to answer was if I willing to hear that tune and follow it. But I had to be clear to myself why I could not settle for Eastern Orthodoxy when it offered so much of what I was looking for, and when so many of my friends found a home there.
Following are some of my reasons. Needless to say, these are very personal reasons. I say this because I know each of us is on a journey and the big decisions we make in life, though often of a universal nature (Truth, Faith, Religion, etc.), are also uniquely played in each of our lives. Therefore, I can only speak for myself and not for anyone else.
In Protestantism, there is no true authority. As anyone who has taken a critical look at Protestantism knows, Sola Scriptura can only, finally, mean that an individual’s opinion is authoritative, which of course it is not. Every Protestant pastor establishes himself or herself as the authority, offering their interpretations and “applications” of scripture, and church members shop churches like consumers search for restaurants — some search for cheap drive-throughs and others for fine dining, but they all are merely searching according to their preferred tastes and immediate interests. Christianity in America, and much of the world, has become a kind of marketplace complete with producers and consumer, sellers and buyers. It’s a free market economy driven by marketing and business plans. But the Catholic Church has the magisterium, with its Pope and Bishops, handing on and defending the faith. Because it is a hierarchy based on a monarchy it demands submission to its authority which it claims is given by Christ our King. The Catholic argument for the primacy of Peter makes a great deal of sense to me, especially since it seems so clearly based on scripture. Doesn’t the Catholic Church’s interpretation of those scriptures, elevating Peter to the position of primacy, seem best? Individual Catholic churches will have small differences, and many bishops argue with each other over various topics, but they are all in communion with Rome. Every aspect of this is radically foreign to the Protestant’s heart and mind. Both Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism hold to Holy Scripture and Tradition as the sources of Truth and Revelation, but Eastern Orthodoxy, while demanding more authority for itself than any Protestant church, has no true living magisterium, or teaching authority that can supersede and arbitrate between reasonable but different positions on faith and morals, and continue to do so as history unfolds itself. Only the Catholic Church has the living magisterium. Any former Protestant will certainly experience a stronger sense of institutional authority within Eastern Orthodoxy than he did within Protestantism. And that might feel like more than enough; I’m sure for many that was already a tough pill to swallow and I don’t want to downplay that experience. Eastern Orthodoxy certainly has more substantive guardrails than the local Bible church on the corner, but the Orthodox Church is still, at best, a loosely unified church, and at worst a church falsely claiming unity, and perhaps self-deceived in that regard. This is the problem with not having a living magisterium. I came to realize that the question of authority was a huge issue for me personally; bigger than I ever imagined. God was calling me to submit to the authority of His Church on earth. Eastern Orthodoxy was attractive to me precisely because I wouldn’t have to submit in such a total way, perhaps not unless I wanted to become a deacon(?), but even then it would only be submission on a local and/or ethnic/national church level; just another particular church, not the universal Church. I could continue to avoid the pope. Some might take issue with this position, but it seemed clear to me then, and it seems clear to me now that there is no final source of authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, merely submission to one of the self-headed churches and their traditions and interpretations of scripture (however unified they can seem to someone from Protestantland).
To sum this up, because I realize I could be misrepresenting the Eastern Orthodox view (perhaps challenging its self-view) of authority, the real crux of the issue for me was my pride. I was wrapped up in my pride and the Catholic Church more than the Orthodox church confronted me on my pride. I need to be radically humbled and the Catholic Church does that for me. This fact I took as a key piece of evidence.
The question of authority, as stated above, is inextricably linked with unity. Although some try to claim that Eastern Orthodoxy is unified, it is not. In fact, it is quite fragmented and has been for centuries. Eastern Orthodoxy has divided along numerous ethnic and nationalistic lines; different but also similar to Protestant denominations. In my own town, I was faced with whether I would join the local Serbian Orthodox church or the local Greek Orthodox church. They are different churches, not merely different parishes. As a Protestant, I was used to having such decisions before me, but my soul was longing for something else. As a Protestant, Eastern Orthodoxy offered more unity (or seemed to) than I was familiar with, and therefore it attracted me, but in the end I wanted even greater unity. I couldn’t settle for partial unity. I didn’t believe the Holy Spirit would abandon the body of Christ to so much disunity for so long on such a scale. (Of course, I could be terribly wrong.) I didn’t want to sort through the battles between Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox. I didn’t want to accept the αὐτοκεφαλία of a hydra-headed animal as a work of the Holy Spirit. I realized that Protestantism had trained me to accept disunity as a “natural” way of the Church, and I absolutely wanted no part of it. I felt the need to flee from disunity. Perhaps I was oversensitive, but I wanted a Church that could contain various rites and expressions of the faith, but was still in total unity with itself, transcending and judging national and ethnic boundaries, structurally bound together by a visible Vicar of Christ. I just found Eastern Orthodoxy far less unified than some try to present it (see the video below for more details). Of course, Catholicism has a lot of issues, a ton of internal squabbles, and many Catholics do not get along, but we are in communion nonetheless. We share in the table of our Lord, in His body and blood, and in our shared creed and dogmas regardless of the many other ways we can find ourselves struggling to be in unity. I also realized that most Catholic liturgical rites are, in fact, much like, or even exactly like those of the Eastern Orthodox churches. If I wanted, I could go to a church not too far away, pastored by a friend of mine, that uses the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It is an Eastern Rite Catholic church in full communion with the Pope. It’s possible to have something quite “eastern” within the Catholic Church if that’s one’s preference.
Although many Catholics today, including many churchmen, take a very lax view of divorce, remarriage, and receiving Holy Communion while in a state of grave sin, the Catholic Church does, in fact, officially teach that divorce and remarriage is forbidden, and that receiving Holy Communion in such a state is a mortal sin. The Orthodox Church, however, officially has a less strict position. It’s not uncommon to say the Orthodox Church blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth. I have come to believe this position contradicts the direct teaching of Christ. I do not mean to speak lightly of the real struggles many couples have in marriage, but I believe the official position of the Catholic Church is far superior to that of the Eastern Orthodox; it is, in fact, orthodox while the Orthodox position is not. In fact, there are even different positions within Easter Orthodoxy given the lack of magisterial unity. But marriage may just be the defining issue of our age. Attacking marriage and the priesthood have become, I am convinced, the number one targets in the overall game plan of the Evil One to destroy the Church. Marriage was instituted by God as the means by which He educates mankind about His relationship with us. Marriage is fundamental to the story of salvation. God is the ultimate educator and marriage is His great analogical example for us. In this light, it is the Catholic Church that has the best chance to be the bulwark against these attacks of the Devil. There are many faithful Christians within the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, but institutionally it is the Catholic Church that is the primary instrument on earth in Christ’s hands to do battle against the principalities of darkness and evil. It is also the one institution most clearly under attack on every front, including from within. This alone should be a testament to the primacy of the Catholic Church, and was one of the clear and visible signs that finally drew me through its doors.
Authority, unity, and the profound issue of divorce and remarriage stand as primary touchstones for why I didn’t jump into Eastern Orthodoxy. But there are other reasons. The Catholic Church is truly catholic and global, it is also western in western countries. I am a child of so-called western culture. There is a fascinating and mysterious element to Eastern Orthodoxy that I find attractive because of its foreignness. But there is a kind of false fit with who I am. I felt my curiosity with Eastern Orthodoxy was due, in large part, because it felt extra mysterious to this west-coast white-toast American, and thus it felt radically non-Protestant. That attracted me, but I needed more substance than feelings. The Catholic Church has been more readily able to culturally adapt as it has spread around the world than Eastern Orthodoxy. This means I can be in unity with Catholics around the world, sharing in the same liturgy with them any day of the week, and yet find an appropriate cultural fit between the cult and the culture in which God placed me, and they with theirs.
Also, the Catholic Church more fully and properly venerates the Mother of our Lord. Mary has become an increasingly important person in my faith, drawing me closer to her Son. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to see Catholics as taking this devotion too far. I disagree. Catholic teaching on Mary is the clearest, most biblical, and most meaningful to the lives of the faithful than any other teaching.
Another issue that seems to come up is the filioque. This is a theological and historical issue having to do with the creed, and it’s easy to find overviews of the issue online if you’re curious. In looking into it for myself, I found it not only thin in substance but it strikes me as a rather cheap excuse for any Eastern Orthodox Christian to cling to as a reason for not becoming Catholic.
And then I found interesting that whenever people think of the “Church” they think of Catholicism. If our society has issues with Christianity, with its positions on marriage, sexuality, gender, etc, it always looks to the Catholic Church to see what it says. Our world so desperately wants the Catholic Church to change its positions on nearly every dogma and doctrine. For the most part, our society doesn’t care about what the Eastern Orthodox think, on any topic really. And few Protestants care all that much if another of their fold converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, perhaps they slightly tilt their head in confusion, but they practically foam at the mouth if that conversion is to Catholicism. This says a lot, strongly implying that in the grand design, and deep within the hearts of even the most unrepentant men, it is the Catholic Church that stands as the visible body of Christ in the world, even to those who deny every one of its claims, and the world knows it has to deal with that. If they hated Christ first, they will hate His followers even more, and they hate the Catholic Church more than any other institution on earth.
Finally, if I am honest, I did not choose the Catholic Church. Rather, and not to be trite, but it chose me. I was called, impelled, and even compelled into it. If I had chosen Eastern Orthodoxy I would have been merely fleeing Protestantism. I no longer wanted to be a heretic. Yes, I wanted a truly apostolic Church, and I do see the Eastern Orthodox churches descending from the apostolic tradition, but this longing within me wouldn’t let me settle for second best. In the end, my choice was no choice but to become Catholic. And continuing in honesty, it has not been easy. The Catholic Church is filled with sinners (me included) and has been ravaged by modernism, wicked bishops, unfaithful priests, sexual abuse and institutional coverups, financial corruption, rank idiocy, and numerous devious attacks by the Evil One, but this has only convinced me that the Catholic Church is the true body of Christ, for these hard facts merely confirm her core teachings through and through. We are truly sinners in need of a savior. We are a wayward bride continually being called back from harlotry to the all-loving bridegroom. More than any other church, and more than any institution on earth, the Catholic Church relentlessly experiences the most persecution from without as well as from within. This can only come from the Devil who wants to destroy the Church. And only this level of attack, combined with the Church’s resilient survival, could be part of God’s ultimate plan of salvation, presented to us in the prophetic words of scripture and the words of Our Lady. The Catholic Church is both the earthly means of our salvation and stands as the greatest visible example of why we so desperately need salvation from our sin, the world, and the Devil.
Do all these reasons for why I personally chose the Catholic Church over Eastern Orthodoxy mean all Eastern Orthodox Christians are wrong? I can’t say. Or I don’t want to say. I’m sure some are wrong, but perhaps not all. Each person’s journey is different, and where God has them is His prerogative. For many converts it was a huge personal decision to leave Protestantism and enter the Orthodox Church. I certainly do not doubt their faith. I would just say to former Protestants who made the big move to Orthodoxy that you might want to consider if you have truly moved far enough. Could it be that you changed the form without actually changing some core Protestant positions? Did you get history and mystery but are avoiding authority? Are you holding on to a desire for your own authority and wanting, perhaps subconsciously, to retain the “right” to your own biblical interpretations? Was the move to Orthodoxy the easier choice than Catholicism? If yes, why? Are you still clinging to your own authority, or perhaps to more of an aesthetic change, or now you don’t want to give up your community, or could it be you’re still basing your decision on that funny inner feeling so common to Protestants? I am not judging but seriously asking because all these reasons I had to wrestle with myself. And I realize any kind of change, especially this kind of change, is extremely difficult, complex, and fraught with all sorts of issues.
And I ask for forgiveness if I have misrepresented the Orthodox Church. I do realize there is far more complexity than I am able or willing to deal with in this post. Although, at this point in my own journey of faith, I have no interest in arguing about it. I’ll leave that to others. I am working too hard, and failing too often, at just becoming a good Catholic.
May God bless you.
Lastly, this post was sparked, in part, by this video below. It’s well worth taking the time to listen.