Whose Political Party, Which Church Faction

Confessional Protestants complain often about the way that partisan politics has driven the wedge between evangelicals and mainliners more than doctrinal or liturgical matters. That is why two-kingdom theology has some appeal. It prevents concerns for social-well being, which are legitimate, from undermining the identity and mission of the church (“let the church be the church”). The same problem of partisan politics driving church politics seems to afflict Roman Catholicism in the United States according to this (but not this):

Surveying the Catholic Church in the U.S. today, there is no doubt that the church is polarized over doctrinal and other ecclesial issues. What is particularly dismaying about this polarization, though, is how easily it has coalesced with political partisanship. In recent elections, the Catholic vote has closely tracked with the national vote, meaning there is no identifiable “Catholic vote.” In 2011, a survey by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that only sixteen percent of U.S. Catholics were even aware of the bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voting guide, and only three percent had read it. Of those who were aware of it, three quarters said that it had no influence on their vote in the 2010 elections, and a similar percentage of those who were not aware of it claimed that even if they had been, it would not have mattered. Clearly Catholic identity is not having a significant influence on politics. In fact, it seems rather that political identity has more influence on church life. We saw this with the protest of President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame in 2009, followed by that of House Speaker John Boehner at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Earlier this year nearly 90 faculty wrote a letter of protest when Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University because of his budgetary priorities, whereas only nine could be mustered to protest the selection of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as the commencement speaker, despite her radical views on abortion, not to mention her role in denying funding to the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and in the contraceptive mandate controversy. Catholics pick and choose elements of Catholic social teaching that fit their partisan agenda, leaving the rest to “prudential judgment.”

Yet the solution to this problem is not a more forceful statement that Catholic social teaching crosses partisan boundaries, or greater efforts to implement a more complete public policy agenda. This is because the root of the problem is the focus on the state as the primary locus of Christian witness. For two generations, the U.S. Catholic Church, including its bishops and leading intellectuals, have focused the church’s social energies on transforming the state, and I believe we are seeing signs of the impending failure of this approach. Despite his exaggerations, George Weigel has described the rise and fall of what he calls the “Bernardin Machine,” his term for the progressive American church of the 1970s to 1990s whose signature accomplishments were the two pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, and which Weigel believes was embodied in the person of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This is the church of Bryan Hehir and David Hollenbach, as well as the other social ethicists Michael Baxter has criticized for adopting a form of public discourse accommodated to the state. This progressive church largely failed, unable to fundamentally transform American political life and leaving behind an under-catechized church whose institutions, such as universities and hospitals, were in many cases largely indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. The progressive church has since ceded ground to a more conservative church, one set to restore the Catholic Church’s identity, in its institutions and social role. Cardinal Francis George declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project,” and proposed “simply Catholicism,” which, although avowedly neither liberal nor conservative, has certainly shown a conservative face, given its ecclesial preoccupations and political leanings.

If the folks at CTC think the situation is any better for conservative Roman Catholics in the United States, they should think again:

With its focus on Catholic identity, this new conservative Catholicism might have been expected to embody a more robust form of communal witness, but this has not proven to be the case. Although the causes are probably many, one has to be that the leading intellectual advocates of conservative American Catholicism are captive to the same state-dominated logic as the progressives. Both Weigel, and, despite his philosophical brilliance, Robert George, explain the reasonableness of the natural law in terms of its public accessibility. These conservatives differ from the progressives in affirming that the natural law can lead us to definite conclusions on controverted issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, but the claims about the natural law itself remain the same. “Catholic identity” becomes identified with adherence to natural law teachings with generally conservative political implications. As Peter Steinfels notes, although Weigel contrasts the supposed cultural accommodation of the progressive church with the “intense focus” on Catholic identity of the conservative church, he mentions no major initiatives concerning Catholic institutions, catechetics, or liturgy as evidence of this shift, jumping immediately to the realm of public policy. Again, the measure of the Church’s social witness is its influence on the state. Weigel sees this new church as being ascendant, but we are already seeing the beginnings of its collapse. Bishops in the mold idealized by Weigel, such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, have played a major role in discrediting the moral authority of the church through the sexual abuse scandal, despite Weigel’s attempts to blame the scandal on the progressives. This past summer the bishops attempted to convince Catholics that the erosion of conscience rights represented by the contraceptive mandate is a profound threat to the Church, but have no comparable plan to combat the much graver threat that Catholics do not want to freely exercise their religion in the way taught by the bishops, or in many cases at all.

This estimate of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States should not lead to gloating. It should make all believers — Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews (Muslims likely already know this) — understand what happens to religious convictions when employed to better, transform, or even Christianize the modern social order. What happens is that the United States Americanizes the religious order. The other lesson is that Protestants tempted to look to Rome to solve Protestantism’s many ills are only going to find the same version of what has afflicted evangelicals and mainline Protestants since John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence.

20 thoughts on “Whose Political Party, Which Church Faction

  1. Darryl,

    The same problem of partisan politics driving church politics seems to afflict Roman Catholicism in the United States according to this (but not this):

    Your statement (in which you link to my article) seems to suggest that in my article I claim that partisan politics has no influence on “church politics” in the Catholic Church in the US. But in my article I make no claim or argument concerning the influence of partisan politics on the US Catholic Church or its “politics.” So your statement is misleading in that respect.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    Like

  2. Bryan, your use of the word ‘seems’ is unhelpful. Unless you can make an argument proving such an assertion your concluding statement that Darryl’s statement IS ‘misleading in that respect’ does not follow from your premise. Please work on your precision.

    In more important noteworthy RC news, Ratzinger confessed that the past 50 years since Vatican II has been a ‘virtual’ Vatican II and he believes we will now begin to see a roman catholicism more congruent to actual Vatican II documents going forward. Interesting for at least two reasons; JPII who largely championed Vatican II developments, is now deemed to have ruled over a ‘Virtual’ Vatican II, which according to Ratzinger, was largely a child of the media. Secondly, Ratzinger’s own views of collegiality and a more decentralized understanding of the church as the “body of believers”; to which he contributed greatly toward being formalized in Vat II documents, he now sees as being overly ambitious and given to distortion. This ‘developing of the deposit’ ain’t easy, even for the pope.

    Like

  3. Sorry broke off.

    The statement of Ratzinger of course BEGS THE QUESTION, which documents?! The documents he helped formalize promoting collegiality of bishops and a decentralized understanding of the church to include/recognize a much larger role for the movement of God amongst the laity AS the body of Christ, amongst many other recommendations. Or the documents he now says in certain regards, formally considered-no media spin, gives itself to distortion and diminishes the real need for a more prominent role of papal authority.

    Like

  4. Bryan,

    You claim in your post above that your article does not do what DGH suggests it does.

    Bryan – “But in my article I make no claim or argument concerning the influence of partisan politics on the US Catholic Church or its “politics.”

    Interestingly, you give no proof to your claim and expect it to be taken at face value. Your conclusion that DGH’s comment is “misleading” assumes a premise without any proof or evidence. As such you have committed a list of logical and philosophical fallacies that only you could present or interpret. In effect you have proved the point of many arguments you have so often attempted to reject.

    Congratulations! Based on your own logical fallacies I believe you have typed your way out of the catholic paradigm and are now in a completely different paradigm. Don’t worry, it is not the protestant paradigm by any stretch…the philosophical name I would ascribe is the Twilight Zone Paradigm 🙂

    Like

  5. All this makes one think that CTC should spend its time better catechizing their fellow Catholics before trying to win over Reformed Protestants.

    “Earlier this year nearly 90 faculty wrote a letter of protest when Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University because of his budgetary priorities, whereas only nine could be mustered to protest the selection of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as the commencement speaker, despite her radical views on abortion, not to mention her role in denying funding to the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and in the contraceptive mandate controversy.”

    Good grief.

    Like

  6. Part of joining a church is agreeing with how the members of the church live, not just what the church believes “on paper”. Not everyone in the URCNA get everything right, but as a whole I am much more comfortable with how these people live than liberal Catholics. I think the “range” of life and political choices is not as wide, anyway. If someone lives like hell in the URCNA they are at least disciplined when it comes to light. Do we see this in the Roman Catholic Church today?

    Like

  7. “Confessional Protestants complain often about the way that partisan politics has driven the wedge between evangelicals and mainliners more than doctrinal or liturgical matters.”

    With the PCUSA both the politics and the doctrine stinks. You should read “Seeking a Better Country”. Oh wait, you wrote it.

    Like

  8. Bryan, the way you speak about the church and society is remarkably similar to the way neo-Calvinists speak:

    The duties and obligations we have as humans, to our families and to the common good of society, are retained, not lost or revoked when we become Christians. Among these duties are the promotion and preservation of the common good through the establishment of just laws. Our obligation to establish and uphold just laws in our society belongs to us even apart from Christianity, and is not removed by becoming Christian. Nor does becoming a Christian restrict the legitimate means by which we are to establish justice in society only to evangelism or individual conversion. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explicitly appeals to natural law to argue that the Jim Crow laws must be changed. He did not think that becoming or being a Christian meant that we should no longer seek for our civil law to reflect and uphold the natural law. Otherwise, he would not have marched and protested against unjust civil laws. Similarly, William Wilberforce invested his whole life into a similar effort to establish laws against the grave injustice of slavery.

    The gospel does not present us with an either/or regarding grace and nature, but a both/and. This is why becoming a Christian does not negate our responsibility as Christians to work to change unjust laws, whether they be about abortion, euthanasia, torture, racism, child sex trade, even laws that fail to give marriage its due protection, and are in that respect unjust. If abandoning the culture war means letting unjust laws or practices prevail, then calls to abandon the culture war are calls to cowardice, apathy, and indifference. That’s not what any generation needs. Our obligation not just as Christians, but first as human persons, to establish and defend social justice depends neither on our prospects for success, nor on the youth being enamored or ‘turned off’ by our efforts. It depends only on the goodness of justice, and the evil of injustice…

    …The Church’s mission is neither entirely other-worldly, nor entirely directed to this world. Social justice is not the entirety of the gospel, but it is “an essential part of the Christian message,” because grace does not destroy nature, but preserves and perfects it. Repentance is a turning away from, and repudiation of injustice. In this way the call to justice, addressed both to individuals and societies, is an inseparable part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the Church’s proclamation of the gospel calls individuals to repentance, so she calls nations to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24.) This justice to which the Church calls the nations includes the legal recognition and protection of the marriage institution.

    And the way neo-Calvinists speak is remarkably similar to the way evangelicals speak, which may explain why Catholics and Evangelicals are Together. And despite your suggestion, it’s all similar to the way the Protestant liberals spoke and the Religious Right. And, like the rest, you suggest that those who don’t speak this way and would rather signal caution when it comes to culture war are guilty of cowardice, apathy, and indifference. But have you considered that war is the exact opposite way of preserving cultural fabric and social order, and that perhaps those skeptical of it as a premise are skeptical precisely because they affirm the very goodness of the created order? Maybe it’s not so much a matter of cowardice, etc. but a recognition that proximate justice is the more sober and realistic expectation for society and that politics and legislation really aren’t quite as powerful as the Catholic, evangelical, neo-Calvinist and liberal warriors assume. Maybe politics and legislation are simply God’s gifts to help preserve the social order already established and maintained by families, neighborhoods, civic societies. Maybe you win some and you lose some, but most importantly when you lose the point is to exercise patience and learn to come back another day and try to persuade. The curious thing is the warrior paradigm, by its very nature, never seems to have any category for loss. All it ever seems to do is suggest that those who see that patience is a virtue, and that patience can only be cultivated in loss and never in victory, are addled by the vices of cowardice, apathy, and indifference.

    Like

  9. Interestingly, you give no proof to your claim and expect it to be taken at face value. Your conclusion that DGH’s comment is “misleading” assumes a premise without any proof or evidence.

    B, I think the performative term you are looking for is “handwaving”. A certain B (no relation to be sure) many times accuses those who object to his paradigm of practicing the same.

    But if No. 1 resigned and Patrick McGoohan is still No. 6, B. is still pretty far down the pecking order, though a prisoner just the same.

    Like

  10. From Zrim: “… The curious thing is the warrior paradigm, by its very nature, never seems to have any category for loss. All it ever seems to do is suggest that those who see that patience is a virtue, and that patience can only be cultivated in loss and never in victory, are addled by the vices of cowardice, apathy, and indifference …”

    Now, for the first time after having been puzzled whenever I’ve heard it over the years, I understand where evangelicals are coming from when they describe someone as a “prayer warrior.” Thanks for clarifying this.

    Like

  11. Brian, thanks for that. It won’t be the last time I’m sure. You should see me at happy hour; tripping the light fantastic. Regardless of my idiocy however, I think it’s relevant to quote Ratzinger on documents he helped formulate, and his reflection on them 50 years later.

    Like

  12. @BC I don’t follow your comment. DGH writes that “…partisan politics driving church politics seems to afflict Roman Catholicism in the United States…”. He points to a source that indicates this is indeed a problem. He points to your post as a counterpoint to this statement. I would take it that he infers from your writing that partisan politics driving church politics does not seem to afflict RC in the US. It doesn’t follow from his link to your post that “…partisan politics has no influence on “church politics” in the Catholic Church in the US…”

    Your article defends political involvement by Christians engaged in anti-abortion advocacy and anti-gay marriage advocacy by an appeal to Natural Law. You say that since natural law is not derived from divine revelation, bans on abortion and gay marriage are not the imposition of one’s religious beliefs on others. So far so good.

    The sociological question is whether appeals to natural law (or Christians seeking “to establish and maintain just civil laws ordered to the common good of society”) are effectively non-partisan. Your article seems to imply that you likely think this is the case. If so, then it seems that you wouldn’t be concerned that partisan politics are driving church politics within your sect. Other more politically liberal RCs disagree. Do you believe that partisan politics are driving church politics in your denomination?

    Like

  13. Curiously enough, Rod Dreher just posted a comment on David Bentley Hart’s essay on the inefficacy of natural law arguments to persuade. It’s only tangentially related to the point made here, but worth considering.

    One line particularly jumped out to me in light of the previous thread on authority. Rod writes, “You have to believe so that you may understand, Hart argues, following St. Anselm. Anything else is question-begging.”

    Like

  14. And Beer suggests that Schindler isn’t quite as taken as Cross by the usefulness of culture war and the primacy of politics:

    Schindler certainly agrees that abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the like are evils. However, unlike our partisan “realists” he does not regard these as corruptions of a liberal worldview otherwise rightly ordered but as the ironic fruit of liberalism’s unwitting metaphysics. By showing how the achievements of America and liberalism in general are grounded in the same intellectual foundations as their failings, and by showing how virtually all parties in the public square embrace the same metaphysical misconceptions, he turns down the apocalyptic culture-wars heat while putting the ephemera of electoral politics in their proper context.

    The gospel does not present us with an either/or regarding grace and nature, but a both/and. This is why becoming a Christian does not negate our responsibility as Christians to work to change unjust laws, whether they be about abortion, euthanasia, torture, racism, child sex trade, even laws that fail to give marriage its due protection, and are in that respect unjust. If abandoning the culture war means letting unjust laws or practices prevail, then calls to abandon the culture war are calls to cowardice, apathy, and indifference.

    Looks like not all Catholics are on the same page as Cross.

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/philosopher-of-love-587/

    Like

  15. Was browsing a recent “Modern Reformation” this morning. The issue was devoted to the notions of celebrity pastors and tendency for evangelicals to always be looking for “the next big thing”. An article had the following graphic:

    Shifting Authority From Church to Mind to Heart

    Reformation Faith
    Church
    Collective Belief & Creedal Standards

    Enlightenment
    Mind
    Shift From the Church to the Mind of the Individual

    Pietism & Romanticism
    Heart
    Shift from the Mind of the Individual to the Experience of the Individual, Where Ultimate Authority Lies

    The article references Gary Wills (honorary Old Life Roman Catholic correspondent) book “Head & Heart – American Christianities”, of which Amazon says:

    “A landmark examination of Christianity’s place in American life across the broad sweep of this country’s history, from the Puritans to the presidential administration of George W. Bush.
    The struggle within American Christianity, Garry Wills argues, now and throughout our country’s history, is between the head and the heart: between reason and emotion, Enlightenment and Evangelism. Why has this been so? How has the tension between the two poles played out, and with what consequences, over the past 400 years? How “Christian” is America, after all? Garry Wills brings a lifetime’s worth of thought about these questions to bear on a magnificent historical reckoning that offers much needed perspective on some of the most contentious issues of our time.

    A religious revolution occurred in America in the 18th century, one that saw the emergence of an Enlightenment religious culture whose hallmarks were tolerance for other faiths and a belief that religion was a matter best divorced from political institutions-the proverbial “separation of church and state.” Wills shows us just how incredibly radical a departure this separation was: there was simply no precedent for it. To put this leap in perspective, Wills provides a grounding in the pre-Enlightenment religion that preceded it, beginning with the early Puritans. He then provides a thrillingly clear unpacking of the steps, particularly Madison’s and Jefferson’s, by which church-state separation was enshrined in the Constitution, and reveals the great irony of the efforts of today’s Religious Right to blur the lines between the two. In fact, it is precisely that separation that has allowed religion in America to flourish since the disestablishment of religion created a free market, as it were, and competition for souls led to the profusion of denominations across the length and breadth of the land.

    As Wills examines the key movements and personalities that have transformed America’s religious landscape, we see again and again the same pattern emerge: a cooling of popular religious fervor followed by a grassroots explosion in evangelical activity, generally at a time of great social transformation and anxiety. But such forces inevitably go too far, provoking a backlash as is happening right now with the forces of Creationism and the anti-abortion fundamentalists.

    Garry Wills closes with a penetrating dissection of the Religious Right’s current machinations and the threat they pose to the enlightened religion that has proved to be such a fertile and enduring force throughout American history. But in the end, Wills’s abiding message is to be vigilant against the triumph of emotions over reason, but to know that the tension between the two is in fact necessary, inevitable, and unending.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.