On orthodoxy

By Msgr. Michael Heintz 

Orthodoxy is a multivalent term. It can refer in a more restricted or special sense to our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches, and is often associated with particular national groups: the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian or Macedonian Orthodox, for example. Many of these wonderful Christian men and women live and work and pray in our diocese, and in terms of our ecumenical efforts, they have a special closeness to us as Catholics: They share with us both sacramental life and apostolic succession.

But orthodoxy is also a broader term used to refer to beliefs, teachings or ideas that are in accord with the established teaching of the community that is the church. And it is in this sense that the term is occasionally misused. Not infrequently one hears it said, “that individual is more orthodox” or “so-and-so is less orthodox” — the term being used rather loosely, and in fact often meaning nothing more than that the person in question happens to share the same opinions and world-view of the speaker (and so is “more orthodox”) or has a difference of opinion from the speaker (and is thus “less orthodox”).

To use the term in this way, however, is to misunderstand orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is like pregnancy: You either are or you aren’t. No one is ever “more” or “less” pregnant, and likewise, no one is “more” or “less” orthodox. In terms of Catholic orthodoxy, there are no degrees or levels: you either are or you aren’t. Orthodoxy means within the parameters established by the authority of the church and in accord with its public and defined teaching. If one’s teaching or belief is in accord with the established teaching of the church and within the parameters established by the magisterium for “right belief,” one cannot be considered anything but simply “orthodox,” not “more” or “less” so.

Some individuals from time to time employ the language of “more” or “less” orthodox in order to praise those who share their views or to criticize their opponents — those who may or may not share the same emphases, devotions, interests or ecclesiastical aesthetic within the surprisingly broad and expansive intellectual horizon that is the Catholic Tradition. Sometimes, those who invoke “tradition” have only one small slice of “the tradition” in view, a “freeze-dried moment” or mere “snapshot” of a Tradition which is more broad — and far more interesting — than they might imagine. Unless it can be demonstrated that someone holds a view or belief that is clearly at variance with the established belief of the church, he or she cannot be considered anything but simply “orthodox.”

Catholic orthodoxy is a rich, complex and beautiful thing; it is not narrow, constrained or rigid. Rather, as Chesterton came to recognize, it is a “romance” fit for an “adventurer.”

Msgr. Michael Heintz is on the faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.

Posted on February 14, 2017, to: