The subject crops up from time to time, however, partly because there are many more Orthodox parishes where I live now, and partly also because I have a friend who is Orthodox. A few years ago I wrote this blog piece on the subject. My friend had been under instruction to be received into the Catholic church, but at the last moment he took exception to Papal Infallibility and joined the Orthodox church instead. That led to the problem of which Orthodox church to join. He ended up in the Euphorbian Orthodox church, an expatriate group with a congregation of about twenty. He has to make a long journey across London every Sunday morning to attend their Liturgy. As a result of this contact, and because of the proximity of Orthodox parishes where I live, I sometimes attend an Orthodox liturgy, usually in the Serbian church. Contemporary Catholic liturgies, in comparison, are poor fare.
There are exceptions, of course. There are more or less traditionalist groups such as the Oratorians and the congregations committed to the Extraordinary Form. The Catholic church here in Sweden, and in particular, my own parish, is one such oasis; last night, we had a Tridentine Mass for Candlemas, a liturgy of great beauty and devotion. Parishes where this happens are growth points.
The bigger picture of the Catholic church in Europe and the English-speaking world, however, is of a crumbling structure. Ireland, for centuries a bastion of the faith, it has all but collapsed. In the USA, it is imploding. The situation in the UK, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands is little better. Vocations to the priesthood have all but vanished for the past four decades. The age profile of the present priests means that numbers are about to plummet, with many parishes needing to be closed.
Strange news, and often contradictory messages, have been coming from Rome ever since the resignation of Pope Benedict; that was itself a strange event. We are in for an interesting few years. For more than a century there has been tension in the church between modernisers and traditionalists. Are we now approaching rupture?
How Catholic is the contemporary Catholic church in reality? One sign of Catholicity is the presence, in congregations, of people from all the nations of the world. But because of the way the foreign chaplaincies operate, our own multi-national parish is split into a dozen different language groups, each with its own vernacular Mass, plus one in English for everyone else. The post-Vatican 2 adoption of the vernacular in the liturgy is un-Catholic; Latin was both a means and sign of the Catholicity of the church. Once it had been cast aside, what was left of the Catholicity?
This raises a disturbing question. The church has survived major shocks before. There is the precedent of the Arian heresy and the preservation of the orthodox faith by the remnant, followers of St Athanasius, who was sent to a remote place in the empire. But that was before the Orthodox/Catholic split. Already in the sixth century the Western church was starting to go its own way as the Papacy was beginning to evolve.
We have always assumed that the church, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, is the main branch of the tree, but this rests ultimately on an interpretation of Matthew 16:18. What if we have been wrong all along? What if the main stem is the churches of present nine Orthodox patriarchates? It is a disturbing thought.