Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Active, Passive, and Actual Orthodoxy

March 9th, 2011, Promulgated by Gen

I hate labels. Whenever someone looks at me and says, “you seem like a conservative,” or “you seem like a traditionalist,” or “you seem orthodox,” I cringe. A Catholic ought to be nothing more than “Catholic.” This being said, he must be nothing less. And that’s where we run into problems. Sure, someone says, “I’m Catholic,” but are they really? Several “Catholics” I know are barely even Protestant. When you say you’re a Catholic, and yet persist in choosing what doctrines suit you, you cease to be Catholic. If someone calls herself a vegetarian, and yet delights in eating meat, guess what? She’s not a vegetarian, no matter how loudly she may protest that she is. In a reading from the Holy Gospel according to Joan Sobala, “it is what it is.”

But we have a problem with this. I myself see, among practicing Catholics, a broad spectrum of how orthodox Catholicism is lived out. Of course they’re all genuine forms of Catholicism – the only thing that changes from one to another is the tone. And tone is very important.

The first kind of orthodoxy is what can be called “Active Orthodoxy.” This doesn’t sound too bad, and, depending on how one reads it, may contain some Ignatian themes. I would strongly caution against equating this with dynamic orthodoxy. This “Active Orthodoxy” can best be described as a belligerent orthodoxy, an orthodoxy which, emboldened by its love for the Truth of Catholicism, forsakes things such as feelings, compassion, empathy, or understanding. Though certainly right in its focus and grasp of the Faith, this “Active Orthodoxy” has an approach which is altogether repugnant, in a social and a spiritual sense. By “active,” then, I mean “militant.” And not militant in a good way, i.e. “ecclesia militans.” No, this militancy is one which discourages people, rather than offer them edification. It holds the faithful at arm’s-length for the sake of following the letter of the law, neglecting totally the spirit thereof.

“Active Orthodoxy” is dangerous, almost as much so as the heresy we find in too many pulpits from diocese to diocese. Note the “almost,” folks. When someone engages in the unbending enforcement of the minutiae of churchiness, there is a great danger of igniting in the hearts of some individuals a sense of, “That’s not what Jesus wants.” This is where the over-used accusation comes into play, the charge of being “pharisaical.” This is something we are charged with almost perpetually here at Cleansing Fire. Let me point out that there is a massive difference between critiquing illicit or invalid Masses and criticizing a priest because his maniple is crooked. The former is advocated by Our Lord (Matthew 5:17-20). The latter is condemned by Him (Matthew 15:1-9). There is a clear and absolute respect offered by Our Lord to the Jewish religious and legal officials, but he adds that a truly just and holy man is one who, rather than focus solely on proper worship, focuses also on charitable living.

This brings us to the second kind of orthodoxy, “Passive Orthodoxy.” One of my biggest personal pet-peeves is the attitude of “let’s just pray about it.” Yes, pray, but don’t be a push-over. St. Benedict didn’t stop after “Ora.” He said, “Ora et labora.” Pray and labor. There is a massive difference between praying, and trusting in God, and simply avoiding controversy. Do not hide your orthodoxy – be proud of it as a mother is proud of her child! Yes, God is in control, and He, ultimately, determines what is best for us. But to adopt “Passive Orthodoxy” is to run the risk of losing one’s soul due to apathy. I’m not condemning anyone here, but I am telling you that if you know the Truth and do not defend it when it comes under attack, it’s just as if you yourself were attacking Truth Incarnate. The passively orthodox Catholic may be the person who diligently prays the Holy Rosary in church before Mass, but who shies away from defending Church teaching for fear of being labeled as “too intense” or “reactionary.” As St. Thomas More said, “We cannot get to Heaven in feather-beds.”

St. Thomas More - neither offensive nor cowardly in his orthodoxy

Of course, not everyone is called to such dynamic orthodoxy as being an apologist, a noble priest, or a faithful layperson. The main thing to note with “Passive Orthodoxy” is that we must not hide behind our piety in order to placate those around us. Yes, be pious and be faithful, but don’t be so concerned about your own reputation so as to stifle Truth. If we permit ourselves to become timid, and indirect in our fidelity to Christ and His Church, we become like the lukewarm souls Our Lord casts forth from His mouth. Tepidity disgusts God.

The middle ground in all of this is what we can call “Actual Orthodoxy.” Those who are “Actual-ly Orthodox” know what is right, and do their absolute best to pursue it. However, they stop short of insulting, offending, or causing spiritual harm. Whereas the “Active-ly Orthodox” are generally offensive and less-than-humble, the “Actual-ly Orthodox” ought to have a good sense of humor, being sensitive of other’s feelings yet being keenly aware  of where the line is. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of the liturgically-pharisaical, those who demonstrate “Actual Orthodoxy” focus on a healthy and Godly blend of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. In essence, these are those individuals who strive for beautiful liturgy, yet do not feel the need to reprimand in harsh terms those who may have wrinkled surplices, stale incense, crooked birettas, or tarnished candlesticks. Of course, it’s ideal to have such things as the liturgy as flawless and noble as possible, but such things cannot be pursued at the expense of charity. If a lay administrator is adamant in continuing his or her illicit homilies, it is entirely improper to resort to physical violence, slander, or mean-spirited persecution, no matter how angry one may be. However, unlike the “Passive-ly Orthodox,” the “Actual-ly Orthodox” proceed with directness and humility, documenting, educating, and exposing error for what it is.

“Actual Orthodoxy” is what we should all strive for, an orthodoxy which is compassionate, yet strong, principled, yet temperate in its implementation of norms and regulations. The spirit in which orthodoxy is lived is just as important as whether or not it even is lived. If a “progressive Catholic” is humble, obedient, and charitable, this is more desirable than being orthodox or traditional in practice, yet living with a hostile attitude towards those who deviate even slightly from what is perfect. In like manner, if a liberal Catholic persists in disobedience, and desires to knowingly spread this in his or her parish, this is infinitely worse than a solid Catholic who does her best to live a holy life, yet fails to remember a chapel veil, or forgets to genuflect while passing before the tabernacle. The spirit of Catholicism is one which is gentle, but unwavering, unassuming, yet majestic in its timeless beauty. Its beauty and serenity cannot be upheld in apathy or in militancy. It can only be upheld in “Actual Orthodoxy.”

In essence, don’t be a Pharisee, but don’t be a pushover either. Live your faith, don’t hide it or use it as a weapon. Defend your Church – don’t hide behind Her or use Her as a means to personal glorification. Humble, firm, unwavering orthodoxy is what the Church is built on.

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9 Responses to “Active, Passive, and Actual Orthodoxy”

  1. Ben Anderson says:

    great post, Gen. A similar article by Fr. Paul Scalia appeared in “This Rock” a couple years ago:
    The Church Militant or the Church Belligerent?
    (How Fighting for the Faith Can Destroy Charity)

    a few more resources I compiled here:

    I’m still at a loss as to where the term “Taliban Catholic” fits.

  2. John F. Kennedy says:


    I generally agree with you but……..

    Who decides what label we wear? Because I actually want the Mass, as handed to us by the Church and her Saints, and not liturgical abuses (as defined by the Church) I will be labeled an “active orthodox.” I will be labeled that by the heretics (mostly) who refuse to judge anything by any standards except when they condemn what the Church teaches and those who defend Her. While I don’t hurl curses and profanity, I do get quite loud and upset. It upset me to hear the Mass ad libbed. It upsets me when I hear priests refuse to say Father. It upsets me to hear the words of Consecration changed. I think God and HIS Church deserves to be defended and since so often no one defends Her, I will.

  3. Norm Tanck says:

    The only way to ensure objective labeling is to ask me. I am always fair.

  4. Christopher says:

    Good thoughts Gen, defending the church is a skill which is honed and it isn’t easy. Practice and meditating on how we can better defend the truth is always important as well. Learning from failure is important….for instance I’ll tell you a story about something that happened to me today…

    A fellow Catholic coworker and I received a comment at work today from someone as I was walking out of the building to the effect of “you got some dirt on your foreheads” in a jeering manner. Now I must admit I was a bit tired and cranky cause it was the end of the day and I was rushing out to get to an appointment (running late). Anyways, since I know the guy who was saying it to me (and I understood he was joking about it), I took a rather crass approach saying, “You know first of all, we are still on Xerox property and I have every right to call the Xerox ethics committee on your comment and second, if I was a radical Muslim, would you have made the same comment?”

    He didn’t answer and nervously smiled still trying to play it off as a joke while one of his co-workers next to him sort of deflected by saying “Ya know, if you go on our floor at work and you ask every Catholic to raise their hand, probably 90% of them would…yet none of them really goto church beyond Easter and Christmas like me…”. To which I replied, “That’s a shame…” and at that point we parted ways going opposite directions to our cars.

    Anyways, the point is, the three non-Catholics probably thought I was an over sensitive jerk afterward rather than humble and charitable in my defense. In addition, I didn’t try to keep the conversation going because I was late to my appointment (which wasn’t as important as educating this fellow). So maybe in some cases, if your going to act like a lazy jerk like me (or when you feel your going to give an emotional less than charitable response) and push people further away from the Church it could be best to just suck it up and pray for them.

    Anyone experience any “ash Wednesday” verbal denigration today? How’d you handle it? What was the person’s response.

    On a final note, this was not the first person I talked to today about the ashes and I was successful in my previous attempts at being a nice educating Christian (overall it was a good day of evangelizing with people challenging me with the initial questions for once about the faith). 🙂

  5. Gen says:

    John – I don’t picture you being hateful or hurtful in your defense of the Church. It’s this lack of charity I’m talking about. I’m focusing more on people who criticize people without any sense of compassion, i.e. complaining just for complaining’s sake.

  6. “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Pope John XXIII

  7. Matt says:

    While I appreciate the quote from Ad Petri Cathedram, it is not a quote from Bl. John XXIII, but rather a common saying he quotes…more often than not it is (ironically) thought to be of Protestant origin.

  8. annonymouse says:

    Ad Petri, good quotation. The problem, in a nutshell, seems to be what constitutes “essentials” and who decides?

  9. vernon argont says:

    Everyone labels everyone else. We can’t hate properly without doing it.

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