Theological Notebook: Picking a Parish as a Move in the 'Orthodoxy Game'
I thought that I would transplant this over here, because I think I put things reasonably well. A friend (specifics have been blurred to protect the innocent!) wrote:
One of these days, I have to figure out how easy it is to find a "good" priest out in the Real World, because I have absolutely no clue what percent of parishes in normal-sized cities are orthodox. (E.g., my hometown is about 120,000 and has 6 parishes.) With Protestants, it's a little easier to guess, because denomination-selecting makes it easier, but I'd say that less than 10% of Protestant churches teach something sufficiently orthodox to keep my parents happy. (This used to be a good guess at numbers for me, too, although it got smaller and smaller of course as I got more and more sacramental.) Are the numbers that small in Catholicism?
I wrote back (here, slightly amended):
Eh, I wonder what kind of answer you'd be given at [your school]: just the question of "whether the priest/parish is orthodox" tends to be a "traditionalist's" question in American Catholicism. Then the question has to be asked, "Whose 'orthodoxy'?" The Vatican's? The American Traditionalists'? (I don't assume that those are the same.) The list goes on.
And what referent are we using to define orthodoxy? Is it a liturgical one? That's often the most common. Then whose liturgical tastes are we canonizing? For I would argue that it is far more often a matter of aesthetics and taste--all protests to the contrary--that is at issue rather than a matter of merely following liturgical rubrics. I've cited your complaint about the vanishing of the English Mass at [your school] more than once on that point, in fact. Or is the referent for orthodoxy the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed? (My personal favourite.) Well, if something so pedestrian as that is the standard, it seems that most everyone might be orthodox! (Not nearly so much fun.) Or shall the standard of orthodoxy be a visible commitment to social justice issues? Are most American parishes on the level of the Vatican as that? I mean, those Catholic guys in their dresses are more to the political left on lots of these issues than any Democrat in Congress! Oh my!
Myself, I would go with the Creed as the test of orthodoxy. And, since you'll find lots of parish priests who go into the priesthood for love of people, ministry, service, liturgy, or something on those lines, and go through what theology and philosophy that they have to in order to accomplish their truer vocational calling, you might find that you are more educated in matters of credal orthodoxy than they are. Certainly that's been the case with me, and I've long since gotten used to explaining the faith to priests and even bishops--it took me some time to realize that that wasn't their calling. It's mine, though, and my service to the Church.
Here's my dangerous, wild advice: attend the parish in which you live. Lots of American Catholics who have gotten a little swept up in the "orthodoxy game" will talk about searching around for "the right parish" for them, and one can see the logic in what they are getting at. But I think that there is more than a little importing of American Protestantism going on in that mentality, with Protestantism's tendency to fracture. I might go so far as to say that an "orthodox Catholic parish" is one that does not give into the temptation to fracture. It is not the orthodoxy of the parish that is really at stake: it is the orthodoxy of Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church is orthodox: parishes are local expressions of that orthodoxy, and by "local" I naturally mean "diverse," "different," "gifted," and "particular." It's all in 1 Corinthians 12, you know: all the particular giftedness of the local churches--whether in liturgy, the service of social justice, the power of theological depth and expression--these are not matters to set parishes against one another. That's the Protestant temptation. These are opportunities for affirming catholicity, and any Catholic who tells you differently isn't being terribly ... well, you know. :-)
So I'd go with your local parish. If you see something lacking, you offer your gifts to fill the void. I'm a theologian, so I better get in there to teach and catechize. I can sing, too. Judging their lack--or judging the conflicts you might have with the particular personality of a priest--as a question of "orthodoxy" is usually more a game than a substantial issue. If there's a real question of orthodoxy, that's for the bishop, or the theologians, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy in the American Catholic Church--as has frequently happened in American Evangelicalism, too--often tend to blur American politics and social mores with true orthodoxy questions. Otherwise, they would never be so sloppy as to undermine the orthodox notions of the Communion of the Saints (the whole group of believers) and that the diverse, differently-gifted parishes are expressions of a one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.