Should Biography Be So Important?

Ross Douthat’s article on Pope Francis reflects the smarts, insights, and courage that characterizes almost everything the columnist writes. His conclusion about a potential disruption of the church by the current pope is again refreshing, especially coming from a conservative, since most converts and apologists hum merrily the tune of “nothing changes, we have the magisterium.” Douthat recognizes that this ecclesiology makes it almost impossible for conservatives to stop a progressive-led disruption:

In the age of Francis, this progressive faith seems to rest on two assumptions. The first is that the changes conservatives are resisting are, in fact, necessary for missionary work in the post-sexual-revolution age, and that once they’re accomplished, the subsequent renewal will justify the means. The second is that because conservative Catholics are so invested in papal authority, a revolution from above can carry all before it: the conservatives’ very theology makes it impossible for them to effectively resist a liberalizing pope, and anyway they have no other place to go.

But the first assumption now has a certain amount of evidence against it, given how many of the Protestant churches that have already liberalized on sexual issues—again, often dividing in the process—are presently aging toward a comfortable extinction. (As is, of course, the Catholic Church in Germany, ground zero for Walter Kasper’s vision of reform.)

Contemporary progressive Catholicism has been stamped by the experience of the Second Vatican Council, when what was then a vital American Catholicism could be invoked as evidence that the Church should make its peace with liberalism as it was understood in 1960. But liberalism in 2015 means something rather different, and attempts to accommodate Christianity to its tenets have rarely produced the expected flourishing and growth. Instead, liberal Christianity’s recent victories have very often been associated with the decline or dissolution of its institutional expressions.

Which leaves the second assumption for liberals to fall back on—a kind of progressive ultramontanism, which assumes that papal power can remake the Church without dividing it, and that when Rome speaks, even disappointed conservatives will ultimately concede that the case is closed.

Aside from Douthat’s insights into the dynamics of the Francis papacy, his article also reveals the fundamental problem with episcopal church government. Most of the article is a review of three biographies in which Douthat tries to discern from the tea leaves of Francis’ life the direction of his papacy:

Yet several crucial issues—some raised explicitly by Ivereigh, some implicit in all three biographies—set Francis’s background and worldview apart. They help explain why his pontificate looks much more friendly to progressive strands within Catholicism than anyone expected from the successor to the previous two popes.

First, Jorge Bergoglio had a very different experience of globalization than Karol Wojtyła (who would become Pope John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger did in Europe, one shaped by disappointments particular to his country. For most of his life, his native Argentina was an economic loser, persistently underperforming and corruption-wracked. During the 1980s, inequality and the poverty rate increased in tandem; in the late ’90s and early 2000s, while Bergoglio was archbishop, Argentina endured a downturn and a depression. Where his predecessors’ skepticism of capitalism and consumerism was mainly intellectual and theoretical, for Bergoglio the critique became something more visceral and personal.

Second, in the course of his political experience in Argentina, he encountered very different balances of power—between the left and the right, between Church and state, and within global Catholicism—than either of the previous two popes confronted. As much as Bergoglio clashed with Marxist-influenced Jesuits, the Marxists in Argentina weren’t running the state (as they were in John Paul’s Poland, and in the eastern bloc of Benedict’s native Germany). They were being murdered by it. Likewise, the fact that the Church in Argentina was compromised during the Dirty War had theological implications: it meant that for Bergoglio, more-intense forms of traditionalist Catholicism were associated with fascism in a very specific, immediate way. And coming from the Church’s geographical periphery himself, Bergoglio had reasons to sympathize with the progressive argument that John Paul had centralized too much power in the Vatican, and that local churches needed more freedom to evolve.

Third, while highly intellectual in his own distinctive way, Francis is clearly a less systematic thinker than either of his predecessors, and especially than the academic-minded Benedict.

Douthat may not mean it this way, but why is it unfair to surmise that in the case of a bishop (even the one in Rome), the personal is truly political. Was this the way it was supposed to be, especially when the bishops were supposed to follow apostolic teaching? Where are the teaching of Scripture, the dogma of the church, or sacramental observance as decisive for Francis’ ministry? Why would his own personal experience be more important for setting the papacy’s agenda than the received traditions of the church?

The advantage of Presbyterianism, aside from its commitment to the antiquity of the prophets and the apostles, is that the rule by committee prevents any single bishop (read overseer or presbyter) from having his biography determine the assemblies or ministry of the church (unless you’re in the PCA in NYC). That may not be enough to crack the logic of Bryan’s noggin or turn Loser Ken’s head from all those trophies, but it’s something.

Even Michael Sean Winters thinks the bishops need more accountability (and who can blame him after what’s happened in Kansas City, but don’t forget about Pope Francis’ approval of what’s happening in Chile):

There are structural changes the Church can make that would serve to provide greater accountability. For much of the Church’s history, the decisions of a bishop could be appealed to his metropolitan archbishop, and the decisions of the metropolitans could be appealed to another metropolitan or to a national or regional body of metropolitans. The system was undone not by any decision the Church made but by the disruption in the Church’s life caused by Napoleon. In those tumultuous years, appeals to Rome became the norm. Today, the only vestige of the earlier system is that a bishop’s judicial decisions can be appealed to the metropolitan, and the decisions of a marriage tribunal are automatically reviewed by the metropolitan tribunal. But, only about ten percent of any bishop’s decisions are judicial. The other 90% are administrative, and if any appeal is sought from those, the appeal must be sent to Rome.

Just as the Holy Father has introduced a new body, the Council of Cardinals, to advise him, the Church could bring back the earlier system of appeal to metropolitans for all administrative decisions. How would that change things? If a bishop knew his decisions were open to expedited review by someone nearby, he might be more inclined to try and work things out amicably within his own diocese, or to consult with the other bishops about an especially problematic situation, in advance. It would not guarantee there would be no mistakes, but it would start to put flesh on the idea of episcopal collegiality articulated at Vatican II.

Hey, Mike, this is the kind of review that happens every single month when a consistory or session meets, or every four months when classis or presbytery meets, or every year when Synod or General Assembly meets. Face it, Reformed Protestantism put the reform in Reformation.

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23 thoughts on “Should Biography Be So Important?

  1. His conclusion about a potential disruption of the church by the current pope is again refreshing, especially coming from a conservative, since most converts and apologists hum merrily the tune of “nothing changes, we have the magisterium.” Douthat recognizes that this ecclesiology makes it almost impossible for conservatives to stop a progressive-led disruption:

    The only red meat here is that if the German bishops revolt and start giving Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, all hell will indeed break loose–but it won’t be Francis’s doing.

    The problem for Francis is that Kasper’s argument is not particularly persuasive. Describing Communion for the remarried as merely a pastoral change ignores its inevitable doctrinal implications. If people who are living as adulterers can receive Communion, if the Church can recognize their state of life as nonideal but somehow tolerable, then either the Church’s sacramental theology or its definition of sin has been effectively rewritten.

    And the ramifications of such a change are potentially sweeping. If ongoing adultery is forgivable, then why not other forms of loving, long-standing sexual commitment? Not only same-sex couples but cohabiting straight couples and even polygamous families (a particular concern among African cardinals) could make a plausible case that they deserve the same pastoral exception, rendering the very idea of objective sexual sin anachronistic in one swift march.

    This, then, is the place where Francis’s quest for balance could, through his own initiative, ultimately fall apart, bringing the very culture war he’s downplayed back to center stage.

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  2. Nat, but they weren’t my Presbyterians.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, prominent authors and activists fired up a movement that challenged and changed the nation. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring spread the word about the dangerous chemicals humans were putting into the natural world (and into us). David Brower led the Sierra Club to national prominence and political influence. Edward Abbey’s books like his bestselling Desert Solitaire railed against destruction of American wilderness. Ever since the days of John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) and Theodore Roosevelt (the “greenest” president in the nation’s history) over a century ago, popular figures like these had fought commercial interests to a standstill.

    Interestingly, these figures all had one common element in their backgrounds, one which helps explain their success as environmental leaders, but one which historians have not noticed. They all grew up in a Presbyterian church. Presbyterians a century ago were a more fervent breed than their mild middle-class descendants today. They were righteously indignant against the greed of private interests who would corrupt politics and injury the common good for private profit. An intense moral urgency drove them to stop those who selfishly destroyed natural places or hurt the weak and poor. They felt impelled to preach righteousness to an erring nation.

    What exactly does Presbyterianism have to do with it? Are you excluding Lutherans and Episcopalians?

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  3. It would be interesting if Douthat were to dig back even further than Bergoglio’s Argentina and the decimated cultural conditions there and explore the global thinking behind the collected cardinals who elected him pope in the first place. IOW, is it just Francis or is there more of a collective movement under way toward something more progressive under the Roman skies?

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  4. TVD,

    The only red meat here is that if the German bishops revolt and start giving Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, all hell will indeed break loose–but it won’t be Francis’s doing.

    Oops…

    Exasperated Vatican officials have tried to play down the significance of telephone calls made by Pope Francis to ordinary Catholics, a day after it was reported that he had told a woman “living in sin” with a divorcee that she should be allowed to take Holy Communion.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10785938/Pope-in-hot-water-over-private-phone-calls.html

    Douothat opines on that issue here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-popes-phone-call.html?ref=rossdouthat&_r=2

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  5. Brandon Addison
    Posted April 23, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink
    TVD,

    The only red meat here is that if the German bishops revolt and start giving Communion to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, all hell will indeed break loose–but it won’t be Francis’s doing.

    Oops…

    Exasperated Vatican officials have tried to play down the significance of telephone calls made by Pope Francis to ordinary Catholics, a day after it was reported that he had told a woman “living in sin” with a divorcee that she should be allowed to take Holy Communion.

    As they say, read the whole thing

    Douthat:

    This means that admitting to communion people the church considers to be in permanently adulterous relationships wouldn’t just look like a modest development in doctrine. It would look like a major about-face, a doctrinal self-contradiction.

    Which is why Pope Francis probably is not actually considering it.

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  6. Tom,

    Try

    blockquotes

    Bryan Cross is your main man here, so go to him for help.

    Oh, and don’t post comments in nefarious blogs, be on the lookout. Strangs things are afoot at the circle k..

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  7. TVD,

    She said the Pope told her: “A divorcee who takes communion is not doing anything wrong,” and that he remarked ruefully that “there are some priests who are more papist than the Pope.”

    Oh, but these are only pastoral calls and not the official doctrine of the church. Note the Vatican isn’t disputing that he said these things, but only that he said him in his private, pastoral capacity and not as the Vicar of Christ.

    Douthat winsomely retorts,

    This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in “private” conversation, the pope is, well, the pope, and this pontiff in particular is no naïf about either the media or human nature. Whatever was actually said, the idea that it never occurred to Francis that a pastoral call on such a fraught subject might get media attention seems … unlikely

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  8. Especially when it comes to Catholicism, I don’t believe everything I read in the papers.

    Or at Old Life. 😉

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  9. Interesting that Douthat points to Papa Frank as being a potential source of fracture for the Roman Church, while the indomitable Father Z, for all intents and purposes, seems to suggest that the fracture is already there when he tells a young seminarian to suck it up and “stand for Communion,” and “shut up and get ordained” already (dammit!).

    But I guess the indefatigable Father Z somewhat plays right in to Douthat and Hart’s (all about you) thesis: that the traditionalists/conservatives being hamstrung by the ecclesiology of Rome. He does that when he can rant about the absolute corruption within the Roman seminaries, and yet, at the end of the day, seems to just accept it as par for the course (that’s for you, AB). But he still has important battles to fight, such as making sure you don’t water down that Holy Water.

    Anyways, good stuff, D. Hart.

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  10. Right…because the OPC didn’t err in the Irons case.

    Besides, I don’t see how papal infallibility is much different that how the OPC treats preaching. I once attended a friend’s OPC church in Ohio. On that particular Sunday, the pastor claimed that when he spoke from behind the pulpit his words became the words of God. I asked the pastor about it after the service to make sure that I heard him correctly. He confirmed that the OPC believes that, when a pastor preaches, the Spirit so moves him that his words are rendered to be the infallible Word of God. I asked whether that means that a pastor cannot be disciplined for anything he says behind the pulpit. He mentioned that the GA’s actions can trump those of the pastor because the GA is so moved by the Sourit as to be entirely incapable of making an error.

    So, if the OPC has an absolutely infallible GA and pastors who are generally infallible, how is that much different from Catholicism?

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  11. Bobby,

    Try subsidiarity on for size (and looks whose nice face graces that comment box, you know who):

    What’s good for society is not so much for the church.

    Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny. It makes hierarchy more a matter of enabling those in the middle and bottom to carry on their lives than giving those at the top the power to plan out what is wanted and see to its achievement. It rejects the conception of social justice most common today, which emphasizes equality and universality and thus a comprehensive system of supervision and control. Instead, it stands for the Catholic and classical conception of social justice, a state of affairs in which each part of the social order receives its due so it can carry out its proper function.

    More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.

    It nonetheless accepts certain tendencies often identified as conservative or liberal. It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism. It favors neighborliness and an active civil society, which everyone says he likes, and maintenance of borders and limits on globalization, which our major parties along with the whole of our ruling class now reject.

    The life of the Church provides a concrete example of why subsidiarity makes sense and how it works. The point of the formal structure of the Church, her hierarchy, sacraments, disciplines, and subordinate bodies, is to help the faithful become what God intended them to be. That purpose can’t be legislated, administered, or forced on anyone, but it can be aided, and that is the point of what the Church does as an organized community. As the saying goes, salus animarum suprema lex (“the salvation of souls is the supreme law”).

    To that end, the aspects of the life of the Church that normally matter most—parish life, the availability of the sacraments, and the religious life of the believer and his network of family and friends—are necessarily local.

    I do not understand why papal supremacy and the centralization of church power in Rome fits neatly with such a subsidiarist outlook. The Reformation questioned the centralization of European church life. Protestants are inherently subsidiarist while Roman Catholics have to hedge.

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  12. Bobby, the point about preaching is in the Reformed tradition and finds expression in the Second Helvetic Confession (not Westminster). Believe it or not, the PCUSA confesses the Second Helvetic. That means it’s you who believes that preaching is the word of God.

    How do you like me now?

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  13. Bobby, it seems it has become your MO to come in here and support your arguments with your personal, unverifiable anecdotes. So now we’re supposed to decide if there is such a wing nut in the OPC, if Bobby misremembered, or some other alternative. I’m not choosing, just discounting it entirely.

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  14. Muddy,

    Unfortunately everything in life is anecdotal. If you remove the state and the denomination and that last detail about how much the Spirit infuses GA it describes a view that — anecdotally — prevails in Reformed churches.

    As someone who rejects the notion that God told me one day from the pulpit that “the science” supports there having once been fire-breathing dragons on the Earth, I don’t know many practical benefits to that view over the typical Catholic “deeply-flawed-but-human-local-parish-backed-by-an-infallible-but-irrelevant-magisterium” understanding. Fortunately for Protestants tempted to look elsewhere, said magisterium is flagrantly incompetent for much beyond covering its ass.

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  15. “everything in life is anecdotal.”

    You base your opinions on what anonymous people report about their unverifiable experiences? You must have quite a collection of opinions.

    “If you remove the state and the denomination and that last detail about how much the Spirit infuses GA it describes a view that — anecdotally — prevails in Reformed churches.”

    Pffft. If a minister-to-be were to say “his words are rendered to be the infallible Word of God” and
    “the GA is so moved by the Sourit as to be entirely incapable of making an error” in an OPC Presbytery examination he would get his tuchus handed to him without further ado.

    Wait, I’ve got it: one time I saw a licensure candidate say just that and he failed his exam. There – now you have two anecdotes for your collection.

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  16. @Muddy

    My point is that the OPC doesn’t believe itself to be any more capable of error than the RCC. So, criticizing Catholics over papal infallibility is like the pot calling the kettle black.

    Besides, I’ve had more of an interest in evangelical theology in recent years, which spurred by engagement here. I’ve left my PCUSA church for Willow Creek. I’ve been attending their Sunday evening fellowship for a while, and finally made the move. You and the Baylys have fun duking it out, demonstrating Christ’s love to the watching world.

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  17. I will immediately grab your rss feed as I can’t to find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service.

    Do you have any? Please allow me realize in order that I may
    just subscribe. Thanks.

    Like

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