On Apologists Who Concede Nothing

Meteora monastery in Greece

We had a big Orthodox discussion this week and last here on the blog. Overall, I learned a lot, both about Orthodoxy but perhaps even more the arguments Orthodox apologists make. In the end, I had to take the unfortunate step of closing the comments and also warning two Orthodox apologists about their comments.

Am I afraid of dialogue?

Am I afraid of being “proven” wrong?
No. I am open to the truth, wherever it is found.

But warning flags started going up as the comments started stacking up. Because these Orthodox apologists saw nothing good in the Catholic Church, in spite of the fact that our Churches’ beliefs are so similar. Further, they conceded no points, even when they were shown to be factually incorrect on certain statements they made. Finally, in their reading of history, the Orthodox guys were always blameless and the Catholics always prideful and ignorant.

History doesn’t work like that. In many places its ambiguous and hard to really know what someone’s motivations were, which were the “good” guys and which the “bad” (or whether it was a mixed bag on both sides). Beware the apologist who paints a picture that is so lopsided.

Luther had good reason to protest and complain.
Pride sometimes influenced men on both sides of the East-West divide in 1054 AD.

A similarity I saw here between certain Protestant and Orthodox apologists was in how dogmatically they viewed their opinions on interpreting the Scriptures and interpreting the historical data, respectively.

For some Protestants, their interpretation of Scripture is what the Scriptures say.
For some Orthodox, their interpretation of the historical data is the true history.

And no nuance or alternative interpretation can be admitted.

To get a more balanced understanding of the complex history in the time periods we were covering in our dialogue, I recommend Warren Carroll’s History of Christendom series of books, and for a bit more of a theologically focused work, Fr. Aidan Nichols’ Rome and the Eastern Churches.

These are Catholic guys, but they don’t hesitate to reveal the sins and pride of Catholics when it is warranted. Carroll’s history is readable, engaging, fascinating, and astounding. Nichols strives to remain balanced in examining the schisms (both Oriental Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox).

While ultimately the Orthodox have to disagree that the bishop of Rome has the kind of primacy Catholics claim, the overwhelming evidence for there being something special about the bishop Rome is undeniable. Admitting that doesn’t “prove” Catholicism’s claims, but it does show that you have some objectivity and are not blinded by bias.

For discussions to be fruitful, both sides have to be desiring reunion and the healing of the schism. If that good will is not present, then there’s no use dialoguing with someone. Nonetheless, I think the dialogue was interesting and hopefully helpful to people.

God bless, and may Christ heal all schisms and bring us to unity in the truth!

47 thoughts on “On Apologists Who Concede Nothing”

  1. Yep, exactly why I only skimmed through the comments and didn’t leave any trace. I’ve seen this on other sites (Called to communion and Eirenikon primarily) even in intra-Orthodox debates I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an Orthodox apologist back away from a point. Also, I’ve talked with some men who have become actual good personal friends who happen to be Orthodox. Even with a few years of friendship and mutual understanding the possibility that of any nuance or softening of an Orthodox position seems to be impossible.

    Actually it isn’t that much different from talking to certain committed SSPXers. There seems to me to be a hardening of schism. Quite scary actually. BXVI and JPII have been providentially cautious in the reform of the reform. We want the Austrian Bishops and the other flaming “Spirit of VII” nuts to fade out through attrition and not charge off in schism and start ordaining ill prepared ideologues who will perpetuate another schism.

    1. Paul, good to hear your experience as well. I’ve seen the same intransigence with the SSPX. Every olive branch extended is trampled on with extreme prejudice. At some point, you wonder what else the Pope can do to reconcile them back to full communion.

    2. Paul, please don’t judge all Orthodox by a few bad eggs. Please look at the Q & A videos in the second half of this page:

      The typical Orthodox, like the typical Catholic, has no clue why Catholic and Orthodox are separated, since they are so similar, and has a great deal of sympathy for the other side and marriages between Orthodox and Catholics are quite common, share a common history, and share a common belief in the sacraments.

      I’m Catholic, not Orthodox, but I do feel great sympathy for the Orthodox since I almost became one.

      IMO, a lot of the antagonism you see from some Orthodox has more to do with ethnicity than theology. I’ve seen far more bitterness flung between Orthodox of a different patriarchates than I have often seen by Orthodox apologists towards Catholics. (e.g. do a google search on the “Voices from Russia” and OCA if you want a taste of this)

      Also, we must keep things in perspective. We cannot compare our most sincere apologists with their most close-minded apologists. Catholics have our share of apologists who will not concede who can be quite nasty.

      mea culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa

  2. That is so sad. I think about how passionate JPII was about reaching out for reconciliation with the Orthodox churches, and how the Orthodox I have interacted with have no such desire for reconciliation. When I talk with curious Catholics or Protestants about the relationship between Catholics and the Orthodox, I have to tell them they will find much hostility. But it’s almost always hostility coming from the Orthodox side against the Catholic side. Very sad, but very consistent.

    1. Leila, I think that is often the case. But one cool thing is, I’ve met three Orthodox Christians recently who truly desire reunion and realize that there were errors and sins on both sides that caused the schism. So that is a hopeful sign–I think that this positive faction will increase in Orthodoxy as they begin intermingling with Catholics, especially here in the West.

      1. Devin, that is hopeful!!

        My own parents currently members of the Melkite Catholic Church, which of course “left and came back” so to speak. East and West can certainly reconcile, and the Eastern Catholic churches are proof of that.

  3. I will probably disagree with others on this, but I don’t think Catholics should seek ecumenism as such with those who flat out consider us heretics. Why would we? Would Catholics seek such with Protestants who maintain that the Pope is the AntiChrist? I should hope not. If they themselves want ecumenical relations and cooperation on some level, as some Protestants did even before the Second Vatican Council, in other words, only if it is mutually agreed upon, then we can have it with them too.

    If they just want to convert us, then we should just focus on dismantling their objections and leave it at that. Same with the SSPX or anyone else. I wouldn’t presume to judge culpability, though.

    1. In the words of St. Ignatius to St. Polycarp…

      “If you love the good disciples, you are due no thanks. Rather, in gentleness seek to subdue the more troublesome. Every kind of wound is not healed with the same remedy. Mitigate violent attacks of disease by gentle applications. Be in all things wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove.”

      1. I’m sorry, but I genuinely do not understand. I do not mean at all that we should be uncharitable or filled with bitterness. God forbid.

        What I mean is that we should not be too eager to seek a form of communion with those who are clearly and plainly telling us that they do not want it. Would you disagree? Am I missing something?

        Don’t get me wrong, I think ecumenism is great, and no one is happier than me if Christians from different theological traditions get along well. I just don’t know why we should claim to share our Faith in any measure with those who consider us heretics or followers of AntiChrist.

          1. Tito and Nicholas,

            I would say, we don’t know if Islam was divine retribution against the Orthodox schism. I would hesitate to say so because I just don’t know.

          2. Devin,

            I don’t think it is, but I do think it is in God’s plan.

            Before the schism, the Western Church was almost wiped out. Now the Eastern Church has had to contend with Islam and Communism (though that’s greatly diminished).

            Both invasions had a huge effect on the East and West in purifying different aspects of our faith.
            Please do not rejoice in the death of anyone. Such an attitude turns us a little more like devils each day we harbor it. Also please remember that Catholics also suffer bitter persecution under Islam and recently in some countries, all Catholic Churches have been wiped out.

          3. Islam also wiped out the fount of Latin theology, North Africa and Spain, home to St. Augustine of Hippo and the first Latin bishop of Rome.

            So, perhaps one should be cautious before going all Pat Robertson on historical calamities.

    1. This seems an entirely inappropriate remark. As if the church facing persecution was a sign of its illegitimacy. What will you explain the conquest of Rome by the pagans as I wonder?

        1. Really?


          Papal States? Borgias? The necessity of forging the donation of Constantine? Holy Roman Empire?

          Come on.

          Devin, this ain’t hostile. This is just the internet. You can either have Rachel’s blog, where everyone is emergent PC, or you can hope for some wit in the midst of polemical debates.

          Our ancestors beating each other up in the agora had it a lot worse. 😉

          1. …this ain’t hostile. This is just the internet.

            Methinks you might be on to something here. The things people say to eachother in comboxes, on any website, you would NEVER say to people face-to-face; lest you have a few teeth loosened for your trouble.

  4. We seek a resumption of Communion because it is something called for by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is the ONLY reason that Orthodox hierarchs would risk schism to move in that direction in bi-lateral talks. If that is the case then what arrogance it would be to withdraw.


  5. Out of curiosity, how would you answer the following (say with a top 5 list for each):
    A) What are the points Protestants should concede?
    B) What are the points Orthodox should concede?
    C) What are the points Catholics should concede?

    1. I’ll list a few:

      1. The Five “Solas”
      2. Memorialist understanding of the Sacraments
      3. Dogmatization of (pseudo)science
      4. Various heresies (modalism, nestorianism, docetism, monophysitism, gnosticism, montanism, etc.)
      5. Crap like Liturgical Flag worship (that one’s gotta go, especially)

      1. Pastor Aeternus
      2. Quasi-Modalistic understandings of God (Filioque, Actus Purus, Shield of the Trinity) and various heresies
      3. Fix the mass (already underway)
      4. Iconographic reform
      5. Crazy saints and weird devotions

      1. Imperial Roman paraphernalia
      2. Primus Inter Pares of Constantinople
      3. Excesses in “Western Captivity” theory
      4. Western Rite experiments
      5. Post-Turkokratia nationalism

    2. I would love to see other’s list’s, but here is mine.
      The following are things that I have personally argued AT LENGTH about with each group which should have been easily conceded (at least for sake of argument).
      1. Perpetual virginity of Mary. (Luther and Calvin believed it for goodness sake!)
      2. Catholics did not remove a commandment/don’t worship statues
      3. The western schism does not destroy apostolic succession. (there can only be one pope at a time)
      4. The whole faith/works debate is FAR more complex than usually implied by Protestants, and they often have not taken seriously passages in scripture about falling away from the faith and having faith which “works in love”. Basically, they should conceede that Catholics have some good points.
      5. Most protestant complaints (selling indulgences, naughty popes, evil done by the Church) do not disprove papal infallibility, yet protestants continue to use those things as proofs. Conceede them.

      1. Catholics can be just as spiritual as Orthodox, and are not rational cyborgs who want to use a calculator to pray. Their forms of prayer and devotion are valid and can be beautiful.
      2. There are many issues that the Orthodox should be willing to concede such as teaching on divorce and contraception, not getting down on the latin rite for celibacy, cremation, liturgy.
      3. There is a papal primacy of some type. Perhaps not as Rome sees it, but it is in Tradition, and it is a necessary part of the Church.
      4. There has been pride and sin on both sides of the schism.
      5. The sacking of Constantinople has been apologized for, and is in the past, and does not hinder reconciliation.
      (6) Filioque. I am sorry guys. But all the hand wringing about this over the top. It just aint that big a deal. Lets reunite first, and talk about it second. Not saying it should be “conceeded”, im just saying that if Eastern Catholics can be in communion with Rome and they dont say it, then you can be in communion and not say it. Can we put it on the back burner for now?

      1. Many popes have really sucked and caused much havoc and evil.
      2. The Church of the middle ages had lots of abuses, which men like Luther were rightly incensed about.
      3. Certain aspects of the papacy are perhaps not required by Tradition and could be given up in a reunited Church. (appointing/demoting bishops at will?, a more “concilar” excercising of the Popes right as supreme pastor?) Let’s talk about a “new situation” as JP2 put it.
      4. The great schism was our fault, we are sorry.
      5. For sake of argument, Catholics should concede that the crusades and inquisition and child abuse scandal were the worst atrocities in human history. (they weren’t, but even if they were, the Catholic Church would still be what she says she is)

      For an example of how silly some of these non-consessions are, let me say that I have argued about the perpetual virginity more than any other topic with Protestants since becoming Catholic. This is outrageous. They should just skip it as unimportant (relatively). It just simply is not something that seperates us as far as they are concerned, and it IS something that seperates us as far as Catholics are concerned. Therefore, why press the issue?

      1. David,

        Unfortunately, I doubt any Orthodox will be moved by your remark that the Filioque is not a “big deal.” Rome thinks it is a big deal enough to retain it. If it is not a big deal, then drop it.

        Second, you are only partially right that Eastern Catholics do not have to say it. Aremenians do have to say it. Second, all Eastern Rite Catholics are obligated to believe it whether they say it or not. Thirdly, whether they have to say it or not is a papal perogative. It isn’t written in stone and Popes have and cna change that at will.

        Third, the 1204 Crusade Sack of Constantinople isn’t primarily what the Orthodox have a beef about. It was the 70 year papal subjugation and treatment as heterodox that really pissed the Orthodox off.

  6. Devin,

    Good topic considering the tone of the last couple of discussions, I dislike the vast majority of Apologist for exactly the reasons your stating. There is a thought process that says if I retract even a little, or have any concessions then I have somehow failed. And every position I put forward is %100 airtight, there can be no variance.

    But I’ve heard some pretty weak Apologetics, even on popular Catholic radio talk shows, that have made my toes curl. While converting to the Catholic faith, the biggest hurdle I had was the attempts of noted Apologist who tried to explain an ironclad view of Church doctrine. I inherently distrust anyone who claims to be %100 right in their claims, and seems to always agree with every single thing the Church teaches.

    I call those people confused 🙂

    I love the Catholic church, but I think we have gotten some stuff wrong (changes to the liturgy for instance). And I don’t understand Catholics who get upset when you don’t just fall into line. Francis Beckwith is his book on his conversion to Catholicism (called Return To Rome), talks about struggling with some aspects of the Catholic faith. But his research showed the core to be true, and if they got that right, then the rest would fall into place.

    We cannot heal many of the wounds that the body has, until we can start being honest, and come out of our little theological foxholes. Converting from the protestant faith, I can tell you that the majority of the understanding was because no ever explained what praying to the saints actually means. The context is different for each side, and until someone explained that, it was a hard thing to swallow 😉

    Good topic…

    Good Topic…

  7. So any misfortune that befalls the Orthodox is evidence of divine retribution for failing to submit to the Pope, but when the Catholic Church is torn apart by the destruction of their liturgy with clown masses etc, and the pedophilia scandal with the attendant cover up, then that is evidence of divine favor because the devil would not attack the Catholic Church if it were not true!

    1. It could be that the Catholic Church will suffer for the evils that her members have done, whether terrible ones like abuse of young people or less egregious ones like banal liturgies (though I would say, clown Masses are their own punishment).

      Could happen to the United States, too, for the evils we have allowed in our country. But how would we know that X was retribution for Y, short of a private divine revelation, I don’t know.

  8. Actually this is my second visit to your blog, and this is only the second article I have read here. When I first read the original EO/RC discussion I thought it quite illuminating and worthwhile. It has at this point, however, degenerated into something shameful and disgusting, IMO.

    /QUOTE=DEVIN/in their reading of history, the Orthodox guys were always blameless and the Catholics always prideful and ignorant./QUOTE/

    What a fabulous example of ecumenicism on your part! “Why can’t those silly folks just admit they are blameworthy in their interpretation of history!”

    Devin, are you willing to admit your take on the Roman Catholic reading of history is “blameworthy” in that discussion, or is it only prideful that the Orthodox participants failed to concede *their* reading of history was “blameworthy”?

    /QUOTE=DEVIN/they conceded no points, even when they were shown to be factually incorrect/QUOTE/

    Devin, what on earth does your closing prayer mean in this context when you write “may Christ heal all schisms and bring us to unity”? I.e. God, make them stop denying the “plain facts”?

    From my own reading of the thread your replies (I’m speaking of your personal contributions rather than the Roman Catholic position per se) and arguments were quite outclassed in comparison to the scholarly contributions of the Orthodox participants. Again I’m comparing the participants rather than the positions they represent in this assessment. But to simply imply the participants were “prideful” because they won’t admit their reading of history is “blameworthy” sounds like something straight from Romans 2:1 to this observer. You’ll now probably accuse my own reading of the discussion as “blameworthy” and “prideful,” and on and on it will go. The original discussion was interesting; it is now more on the level of heat (and stench) than light, and most unworthy of the gravity of the issues at hand.

    1. Firsttime visitor,

      I just barely let this comment go through moderation. And if this thread also gets negative, I will close the comments. If anyone else replies to him, respond in charity.

      You read my post wrong in several ways. Firstly, I am willing to concede that pride and sin existed on the part of Catholics leading up to the schism and at later dates. Two of the Orthodox commenters (not all of them) were not willing to concede anything similar on the Orthodox side. So your criticism on this point is unfounded.

      Note I am talking about a few of the Orthodox commenters. Not all of them. I have since learned they have a reputation for going around to other blogs and forums and arguing in this manner. Many other Orthodox, including others who have commented here, have acted in more generous ways.

      My prayer was just what it said. May the schism be healed and may we be restored to unity. The corrections that they received were to relatively minor factual issues, which a Catholic interlocutor corrected them on, but their response was one of sharpness rather than humbly admitting they made an error. It was just a small example. I’ve done this too–gotten something wrong and been corrected, and I know it can be hard to admit a mistake, but it’s important to, to show humility.

      I don’t accuse you of anything. And I barely responded to the comments at all–that was part of my goal in this series was to _listen_ and to _learn_ rather than seek to rebut. I’ve engaged these same issues on other blogs with at least two of the Orthodox commenters here (neither of the two more rigidly minded ones I am speaking of), and we’ve gone back and forth on the questions.

      Let me tell ya, it’s easy to learn how to try to do the gotcha game with people. There are some Protestant apologists–a small subset, like this small number of Orthodox–whose goal in life is to sink Catholicism. They may appear scholarly, and certainly they’ve done a lot of reading to figure out ways of seeming to rebut Catholic (and Orthodox for that matter) arguments. It’s like the debate phenomenon: someone can appear to win a debate through stronger use of rhetoric, cleverness, and appealing to something esoteric (like a certain Greek translation of a phrase that may or may not be accurate).

      I tried to make clear that I was seeking to listen and learn, even while participating here and there in the discussion, but what became clear after a while was that a few of the Orthodox guys were unwilling to concede anything good or true about Catholicism, in spite of the vast majority of beliefs we share in common.

      Again, I want this discussion to be a positive one. Let’s seek to be conciliatory. Obviously you read my statements in a negative light. While I did constructively criticize a few Orthodox commenters, the main point is that we can be wary of such kinds of arguers, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or atheist, while we seek relationships to build bridges with their more ecumenical brothers and sisters.

  9. There is, I believe, a relatively small number of Orthodox who are on the front-lines of intransigence vis-a-vis the Catholic Church. They tend mainly to be the so-called “Traditionalists” who are not even in communion with most of the rest of Orthodoxy, let alone the Catholic Church, and an even smaller number of self-righteous “Netodox” (not my term, by the way). They do not speak for Orthodoxy just as the SSPX folks do not speak for the whole Catholic Church, but they are vociferous and verbose and they pop up in many places demanding attention and adherence to what they unerringly know to be true. Sad really.

    Anyway, this thread and discussion I found very interesting. Thanks!

      1. JM,

        I beg to differ. The Ecumenical Patriarchate speaks of Rome as being “ontologically different.” he isn’t part of some fringe. Last I checked he is in communion with all the other canonical bodies.

  10. When I had a Jesuit spiritual Director, he counseled me about the Ignatian concept of The Presupposition; found in The Spiritual Exercises:

    “In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”

    Whether the goal be apologetics, ecumenism, or inter religious dialogue, I think this has to be the foundation of the conversation. Otherwise, it’s just a verbal snowball fight.

    That being said, I know my own shortcomings (I chose Jerome for my patron saint, as he, like me, suffered from “foot in mouth disease”), and know that I cannot readily take my own medicine.

    Devin, I’ve said this before, your approach to apologetics would Make the old Basque saint proud.

    If it is any consolation, after the hullabaloo that took place, I did some poking around on the web to see if there were other Catholic/Orthodox posts that had a different tenor. They too (for good or ill) tend to devolve into intransigence as well (whether warranted or not is up to the reader). This one, discussing a George Weigel article on the Orthodox/Catholic Hatfield/McCoy phenomenon sounded quite similar to what transpired here: http://merecomments.typepad.com/merecomments/2007/04/weigel_on_catho.html

    1. Thanks Peter, and interesting thread over there. Hatfield and McCoy indeed, I do think we look that way. A Protestant friend, in reading the discussions we had, said “sheesh, there’s more differences of belief and teaching within my own single Protestant church than between Catholicism and Orthodoxy!”

  11. The Warren Carroll books recommended are excellent. He does a fair job mentioning that that Latins committed horrible and indefensible acts against the Greeks in Constantinople. He also points out that, as is less well known, similar incidents on the Greek side against the Latins also occurred. It is always good to concede what should be conceded and Catholics, at least for our part, should not hesitate to do it.

    On the other hand, as Pope John Paul II has written extensively, we must not hesitate to keep dialogue to mere formal niceties,

    “It should be repeated that, on the part of the Church and her members, dialogue, whatever form it takes (and these forms can be and are very diverse, since the very concept of dialogue has an analogical value) can never begin from an attitude of indifference to the truth. On the contrary, it must begin from a presentation of the truth, offered in a calm way, with respect for the intelligence and consciences of others.”

    If we believe we know the truth, that very fact should lead us to encourage open, free and fair dialogue and discussion between both sides.

    1. Nishant,

      Great points. Yes, we believe that we are following the truth in its fullness, and so we do not seek to compromise that for the sake of a false unity. But at the same time we 1) humbly realize that we may be wrong, in big or small ways, and are are open to always learning, listening, studying, and praying, and 2) realize that not everything is dogma and that some things can be flexible, and that we can learn much from our brothers and sisters (whether in Orthodoxy or Protestantism).

      God bless!

      1. “Beware the apologist who paints a picture that is so lopsided.” Great quotation. I really like this post and the humility behind it. I still think non-Protestants must (at the very least) concede that Martin Luther was the first person to ever invent the gospel (c’mon let’s give him his props!). Really all I would like to see non-Protestants concede is that Protestants are right (at least when it comes to two things: theological and non-theological stuff)! LoL!

        No seriously, I really appreciate this post and am wondering what spiritual deficiencies are implied in the “answer-for-everything without conceding anything” approach to apologetics. I worry, however, that it tends to be an unfortunate corollary to the “apologetics” culture in America with the “competition” of ideas and the proliferation of professional apologetics. It’s not just pride, but also a bit of “supply and demand.” That is, people who want to “know” they are right (instead of just having personal reasons why one faith is more compelling to them) have to have answers for every possible crack in their epistemology or ideology.


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