Sunday, September 14, 2008


Kudos to Peter Steinfels for a recent bit of religious-press criticism in the Times.  

He points out how confusing it is when reporters use the word orthodox, in sentences such as "Pope John Paul II interpreted Vatican II along more orthodox lines."  This is just a f'rinstance, but here's how it works:  Being a council, Vatican II was (at least in the thinking of the Roman Church which convened it) the arbiter of orthodoxy.  While its interpretation and the execution of its mandates matter very deeply, they cannot by definition be more or less orthodox.  Except, as Steinfels points out, by the definition of marginal groups (like the Lefebvrist schismatics, or Mel Gibson's father) who consider Vatican II (and sometimes Vatican I) to have been illegitimate, and the Roman See to have been vacant for forty or even 100-some years.

In other words, within Christianity and within any individual Christian community, there will always be groups that accuse one another of heterodoxy, and argue over the marks or orthodoxy.  It should not be reporter's job to take sides, even tacitly, in these internal disputes.  But that is just what happens when -- as seems often to be the case -- sloppy reporters use orthodox as a synonym for conservative.  

This has become especially frustrating of late, in reporting on the Great Anglican Schism.  Are the GAFCon bishops "orthodox," because they seek to prevent the ordination of non-celibate gays (and, in some cases, women)?  Or are the PECUSA bishops "orthodox," because they seek to maintain a traditional ecclesiology (reflected, for example, by not ordaining priests or bishops for another province)?  Cases can be made either way, but unless a reporter intends to write an opinion piece, and one that is especially well-informed in matters of doctrine and church history, it would seem wise not to impute orthodoxy to one sire or the other.

Incidentally, this is a nuance which seems to escape even the usually astute observers at  The site's editors and many of its commenters seem to have a very mild conservative bias, which makes it difficult for them to recognize the problem.  (We have tried).  It might help Christian readers to ask themselves whether, in an ostensibly objective article on the Middle East, they would be comfortable with a reporter who spoke easily of "orthodox" Shi'ia versus "heretical" Sunnis.

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