Rod Dreher is just getting around to Carl Trueman’s review of Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, a book featured here in a series of posts. The quotations are juicy in a no rocks, peaty, neat sort of way. Both authors observe the singular defect in Roman Catholic apologists — the denial of glaring realities out of commitment to theory or logic or sense of having found it.
The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer. One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Trueman points out that it’s simply not true that Catholicism today offers a unified doctrinal front in the face of Protestant disarray. That really is true, and something that Protestants who despair of the messes in their own churches don’t see when they idealize Rome. As Trueman points out, the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, and contains within it believers — even priests and theologians — who believe and teach things completely opposed to each other, and even to authoritative Catholic teaching. I have spoken to Catholics in Catholic educational institutions who are afraid to voice public support for Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality for fear of being punished by the Roman Catholic authorities who run those institutions. The institution of the papacy has done little or nothing to arrest this. Maybe there’s not much it can do. The point is, though, that having a Catechism and having a Magisterium presided over by a Pope is no guarantee that your church won’t fall into de facto disarray. Roman Catholicism on the ground in the United States is effectively a Mainline Protestant church.
That is not an argument against Catholic ecclesiology, strictly speaking. But it’s something that Catholics who defend it against Protestantism must account for. And it’s fair to ask why it is that having such a strong hierarchical and doctrinal system has produced at least two generations of American Catholics who don’t know their faith, and who are no different from non-Evangelical Protestants, or non-believers.
Back to Carl for one more shot:
Dr. Gregory sets out to prove that Protestantism is the source of all, or at least many, of the modern world’s ills; but what he actually does is demonstrate in painstaking and compelling detail that medieval Catholicism and the Papacy with which it was inextricably bound up were ultimately inadequate to the task which they set – which they claimed! – for themselves. Reformation Protestantism, if I can use the singular, was one response to this failure, as conciliarism had been a hundred years before. One can dispute the adequacy of such responses; but only by an act of historical denial can one dispute the fact that it was the Papacy which failed.
Thanks to the death of medieval Christendom and to the havoc caused by the Reformation and beyond, Dr Gregory is today free to believe (or not) that Protestantism is an utter failure. Thanks to the printing press, he is also free to express this in a public form. Thanks to the modern world which grew as a response to the failure of Roman Catholicism, he is also free to choose his own solution to the problems of modernity without fear of rack or rope. Yet, having said all that, I for one find it strange indeed that someone would choose as the solution that which was actually the problem in the first place.
When you think about it, denying the mess of history is odd for folks who say Protestants are docetic in their ecclesiology (as in we deny its visibility or physicality). As much as we may spiritualize communion, Protestants have no trouble admitting the errors of our churches. Where we draw the line is with our nations.