The OCA and the Academy

Several months ago at their 20th All-American Council, in response to the request of the faithful the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America issued an encyclical entitled Statement on Same-sex Relationships and Sexual Identity. Within the historical context of the Christian faith, the only thing even remotely remarkable about this encyclical is the fact that anyone felt the need to issue it at all (sadly, however, such a need is only too real). It consists merely of a simple and calm reaffirmation of “the unchanging teaching of Christ the Savior” regarding sexual identity and morality, a repeated emphasis that such teaching proceeds solely out of “love and out of sincere care for souls,” and finally an exhortation to the faithful not to publicly contradict or undermine the teaching of the Church in these matters.

The totally unremarkable content of this encyclical notwithstanding, it was not exactly surprising that the usual suspects immediately began to scream bloody murder. The ghost of Ezekiel Bulver1 busily began making the rounds on social media, everywhere declaiming that the Holy Synod had produced such a document because was in the grips of (take your pick) authoritarian mania, ideological possession, irrational fear, or — incredibly — an unnatural obsession with sex (to assert, within the context of 21st-century America, that it is bishops who are inordinately fixated upon sex all but beggars belief). There was, of course, little-to-no discussion as to whether the Holy Synod was actually correct in its affirmation of universal Church teaching — indeed, such an approach would doubtless have proved considerably more difficult for the agitators than their attempt to cast the hierarchs as nothing more than a group of fearful, backward, power-hungry old white men.

I will, however, admit that I was a bit surprised by the tactic which the dissenters seized upon almost immediately: with one voice, they began to assert that the Holy Synod was abusively attempting to destroy academic freedom. To its detractors, the most offensive passage of the encyclical was the following:

We call upon all clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church in America never to contradict these teachings by preaching or teaching against the Church’s clear moral position; by publishing books, magazines, and articles which do the same; or producing or publishing similar content online.

In other words, their (purported) objection was not so much to the Holy Synod’s reaffirmation of universal Church doctrine itself, but rather to the fact that they dared expect their flock to actually take that doctrine seriously. Apparently the Holy Synod might have the right to pontificate into the wind as much as it likes, but the moment it begins to call upon the faithful to refrain from publicly advocating soul-destroying teachings and practices, it has crossed the line into some sort of repressive totalitarian dictatorship.

But let me put this in another light: if the Holy Synod had instead issued an encyclical reaffirming the universal Christian teaching that God exists, and called upon communing members of the Church not to publicly teach that God is merely a figment of the Synod’s imagination, would any Orthodox Christian have batted an eyelash at anything other than the fact that something so obvious needed to be committed to paper? Of course not. Obviously the existence of God is well within the purview of Christian hierarchs, and to require that the faithful believe in God in order to commune is a perfectly reasonable matter of Church discipline and practice. So it seems clear that the real position underlying all of the agitprop is actually this: sexual morality is simply none of the Church’s business. It is not part of the Church’s legitimate province, and so the Church’s expectation that the faithful give heed to its precepts must therefore be illegitimate, repressive, and deplorable.

But if sexual morality somehow no longer belongs to the province of religion, then in what province does it lay instead? Conveniently for these academics, it apparently turns out that sexual morality belongs to the province of the academy. And thus their rather perplexing claim that the Holy Synod is intent upon destroying academic freedom finally becomes clear. So, too, does the source of their outrage: they feel that that Holy Synod is attempting to take away something that fundamentally belongs to them. It is they who have both the right and the competence to tell the Church what She ought and ought not teach regarding sexual morality — not the other way around.

To elucidate my point, I will put to you another thought experiment: if the Synod had instead issued an encyclical agreeing with these academics on the topic of sexual morality, and enjoining the faithful never to publicly teach that same-sex relationships or gender fluidity are morally wrong (on the grounds that judgment is sinful and Christianity is love), would we have heard the same outcry from the same quarters? Would we have heard the same impassioned defense of the “academic freedom” of Christians to deny such a doctrine… or would we have heard instead that the bigoted and backward ought to give heed to the path of love shown to them by their hierarchs?

Perhaps I am wrong. But perhaps, in addition to the voice of Ezekiel Bulver, we are hearing also the voice of Henry Ford echoing in the halls of academia: “the Orthodox Church is free to publicly proclaim and internally enforce any teaching it likes… as long as it’s ours.”

Of course, the dissenters maintain (and no doubt believe) that they are concerned simply with defending a human right to freedom of conscience: the freedom to believe what one decides to believe. But surreptitiously they are attempting to do something far different. After all, the plain fact is that everyone has precisely the same freedom to believe whatever they choose as they did before the Synod published its encyclical (the hierarchs of the OCA are not exactly beating down the doors of Fordham University and dragging away anyone who says something they don’t like). What the dissenters are objecting to so strongly is, in fact, nothing other than the Church spiritually guiding the very people who freely come to Her for spiritual guidance.

The Church proclaims what She has always proclaimed: the path to salvation. And the choice now before us is the same as it has ever been: will we freely choose to walk that path or not? In its encyclical, the Holy Synod of the OCA admirably emphasized

its pastoral concern and paternal love for all who desire to come to Christ and who struggle with their passions, temptations, and besetting sins, whatever those might be. The Church is a hospital for the sick; Our Lord has come as a physician to heal those who are ailing. Imitating our Savior, who stretched his arms wide on the Cross, we welcome with open arms all who desire the life of repentance in Christ.

The doors of the Church — the doors of Paradise itself — are open to one and to all. What is needed to walk through those doors is the same for one and for all. And the clergy of Christ’s Church (sinners though we be) stand ever ready to do what we can to strengthen each and every person to walk the “straight and narrow path” that leads unfailingly to eternal life and unending joy in the Kingdom of God.

But what we absolutely refuse to do is to pretend that sickness is health, that bondage is freedom, that the road to perdition is the road to paradise. And — to answer the charges brought by Bulver — the reason we refuse to do so has nothing to do with power or with politics, with judgment or with fear. The true reason is twofold: our pastoral love and care for each and every child of God, yoked together with our firm and unyielding faith that “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth“ (1 Tim. 3:15) can be trusted implicitly to lead all of us safely home.

Finally, all things considered I am glad that these academics have put the matter to us so plainly. We truly are being faced today with a choice: to listen either to the voice of the culture or the voice of the Church. Each one of us, of course, has absolute freedom to decide which to choose. But in considering our choice, let us carefully give heed to the words which Christ once spoke to us: “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mat. 7:20).

The Church has brought us the saints. Our culture has brought us Twitter mobs and reality TV.

For myself, I do not have any trouble at all deciding which is more worthy to follow.

1C. S. Lewis once wrote the following regarding the omnipresent fallacy which he named “Bulverism”:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—”Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment”, E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.


  1. Amen and amen.
    In the first excerpt you quoted, there’s an important phrase: “within the Orthodox Church in America.” That is, those clerics, laymen, etc. within the Church are not to contradict the Church’s teaching. The idea that this is limiting academic freedom is, of course, nonsense. Any of those so heretically inclined is free to publish their heresies, but they cannot do so from within the Church. Let them vote with their feet.

  2. They have to frame this strategically within an academic argument because to negotiate with (trample upon) Tradition means putting any issue you wish to change in a realm of knowledge acquisition that is always changing and never has lasting authority. “We know today” has to forever be on the table while rejecting “Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever.” Just smells like invalid Doctrinal Deveopment to me.

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