Eschatology Matters

Neo-Calvinists share with theonomists a post-millennial outlook. David Koyzis illustrates:

Yet the call to holiness and to living for the kingdom is as extensive as creation itself. Farmers, manufacturers, labour union stewards, musicians, artists, journalists, electricians and sewage line workers are not obviously preaching the gospel or attempting social reform. Yet if they are in Christ, they are agents of his kingdom in every walk of life.

It is telling that the authors of the statement neglect the eschatological dimension of the faith. Eschatology, or the doctrine of the last things, is not a mere add-on to our Christian walk. Rather, it gives us direction for the future. At the end of the present age are we to be removed from this world to spend eternity in a blissful ethereal realm of floating spirits? Or will the whole creation be renewed when Christ returns? Perhaps the authors are not in agreement on this, which could account for their silence. Nevertheless, the Bible itself is not so reticent: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-24). “For in him [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Revelation 21:5, emphases mine).

We live in the hope of the resurrection of the dead in a renewed creation, which awaits its final fulfilment at Christ’s return. In the meantime we are heirs of this promise in everything we do in God’s world.

That quotation has the classic marks of neo-Calvinism, a view of the kingdom of God that blurs distinctions between holy and ordinary vocations, between church and secular matters, regards growth in holiness as something that applies to non-Christian affairs. Above all, the classic way of seeing continuity between this world and the world to come.

Neo-Calvinism is especially defective about the nature of the saeculum, which is the age between the advents of Christ. Greenbaggins invoked Vos to explain the peculiar character of the period when the ministry of word and sacrament defines the church, in the words of the Confession of Faith, as “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God” (which means the kingdom of Jesus is not Hollywood, New York City, Grand Rapids, or the Department of Health and Human Services:

Here is Vos (a Dutch Calvinist, mind you):

The significance of the unique organization of Israel can be rightly measured only by remembering that the theocracy typified nothing short of the perfected kingdom of god, the consummate state of Heaven. In this ideal state there will be no longer any place for the distinction between church and state. The former will have absorbed the latter.

Greenbaggins explains:

In other words, the present state of distinction between church and state is a parenthesis. One day in the future, a perfect theocracy (with no possibility of the people’s apostasy) will come into being in its fully ineradicable, eschatologically perfect state.

That parenthesis, the interadvental period, is the age of the secular. It is the time when church and state are distinct, when Christ’s reign as king is divided between ruling creation and reigning over the redeemed.

Those who deny that distinction, those who see a progression from Israel (good), to church (better), to glory (best) fail to acknowledge the difference that the interadvental period makes. It is a time when all efforts to immanentize the eschaton, either by bringing the past (Israel) into the present, or bringing the future (new heavens and new earth) into the now, are flawed because Jesus’ spiritual kingdom is not of this world.

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Putting the Loco in Logocentric

Rod Dreher reflects on the ways that even while denominational brands among Protestants are in free fall (and have been, I might add, since the Second Not-So-Good Awakening), the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox abide:

And yet, some borders still matter — as Berger notes — at the popular level. When you’re a Protestant and you walk into a Catholic church, you know that something very different is going on there, and vice versa (though given the postconciliar Protestantization of Catholic church architecture and interior design, this is much less obvious in some places than in others). Visit an Orthodox church, and the contrast is even more vivid — perhaps surprisingly so for Catholics, who might reasonably have thought that given the strong Marian piety of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox church was closer to their own faith than it actually is.

The vibe in a Protestant (especially confessional) church would be different in part because services feature, in contrast to the Roman and Eastern churches, the Bible read and preached.

So when you read Paul’s instruction to Timothy, Paul being an apostle and all and an author of an infallible set of books in Scripture, are you thinking of the atmosphere in a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant service?

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Don’t let them fool you. The model for Protestant ministry is as old as the church in Ephesus that Jesus founded by way of Paul.

Evangelicals Have Been At This Longer than Woke Millennials

Eric Weinstein, of Intellectual Dark Web fame (Bret’s brother), recently tweeted how novel the ideas and language of social justice warriors are:

But for evangelicals, “social concern” has been around for almost forty-five years:

The Lausanne Congress, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, drew 2,700 peopple from around the globe — at the time the largest-ever gathering of evangelical Christian leaders.  The Assembled believers — ministers and lay people, racially diverse, the vast majority of them men — would be part of a singular moment in postwar evangelicalism.

Like all of the major presenters, [Rene] Padilla had pre-circulated a paper, a rather scholarly treatise on the centrality of repentance to Christian ethics. The audience was not surprise, then, to hear Padilla lecture his fellow participants at Lausanne on the sins of the evangelical church, and on its failure — their own failure  — to take seriously Jesus’s call to social action. What was remarkable was the controlled fury emanating from the stage. Padilla challenged the room to remember that Jesus had demanded that his followers confront the “darkness of the world”  But evangelicals, he pronounced, had focused so long on individual sin that they had forgotten that darkness included materialism, racism, class division, political abuses, and, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, “collective egoism.” (Melani McAlister, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, 85)

Of course, one way of looking at this is that evangelicals have been ever consistent in their call for social justice or social concern.

Another is that this is something that regularly repeats itself among Christians who want to immanentize the eschaton because they believe the gospel is not really relevant if it prepares someone for not the present but eternity.

And yet, if this social concern regularly repeats itself, from Walter Rauschenbusch to Rachel Held Evans, why has it accomplished so little (especially now that it has support from mainstream journalists, elite universities, and at least one of the major political parties — not to mention Silicon Valley)?

Luxury Denominations

Paul Helm took time to review/respond to On Being Reformed, the public debate between some Baptists (and others who aspire to be Reformed) Reformed Protestants who still hold either to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards (yes, with revisions about the magistrate ALREADY!). Along the way, Helm makes an observation that has something to do with differences between the US and the UK.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of ‘smelling the coffee’. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being ‘in Christ’. As already stated, it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like ironing sharpening iron. Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion, whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism. At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences. Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come.

As I understand it, in the UK, Calvinistic Protestants don’t have the luxury of forming separate denominations the way American Protestants do. Whether it stems from laws having to do with the established church and dissenting groups, or the small number of serious minded Protestants who regard John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen highly, British Protestantism has fewer possibilities and resources than Protestants in the land of the free and home of the brave. Here, despite the OPC’s tiny size (don’t snicker), the United States has made Christians (and other believers) wealthier and has provided structures (or lack of them) that makes easier the challenge of establishing new institutions (congregations, denominations, schools, colleges, seminaries).

That may not make America great, but it does indicate that the US is different from the UK and the old world.

The difference that the United States makes for religion is even evident among American Jews. The Pew Research Forum conducted a survey of Jews in the US and Israel that indicates some of the differences that place and nation make for religion. Consider the following:

American Jews are a highly educated and, on the whole, warmly regarded religious minority in a very large, Christian-majority country. Jews represent about 2% of the U.S. adult population of roughly 300 million people. Only about one-third of American Jews say that either “all” (5%) or “most” (27%) of their close friends are Jewish. A substantial proportion (44%) of U.S. Jews who are married say their spouse is not Jewish – including a majority of those who have gotten married since 2000.

By contrast, Jews make up about 80% of Israel’s adult population of 8 million. The vast majority of Israeli Jews say that either all (67%) or most (31%) of their close friends are Jewish, and nearly all married Jews in Israel have Jewish spouses. There’s also very little conversion between major religious groups in Israel, while in the United States, religious switching is remarkably common, including many U.S. adults who have drifted away from organized religion altogether. In our 2013 survey, one out of every five Jewish Americans said they do not identify with any religion, even though they also said they had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and they consider themselves Jewish in other ways aside from religion (such as culturally or ethnically). In Israel, by contrast, nearly all Jews say their religion is Judaism.

Or this:

Most American Jews are part of organized Jewish denominations or “streams,” which include the relatively large Reform and Conservative movements as well as Orthodox Judaism. In Israel, only about 5% of Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative. Instead, Jews in Israel generally place themselves into one of four informal categories of Jewish religious identity. These labels – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular) – are not connected to formal Jewish organizations or denominations, but instead are loose identity groups (similar, for example, to an American Christian calling herself an “evangelical” rather than a “Southern Baptist”).

Even better, watch part of the short interview with the Israeli woman who married an American Orthodox rabbi.

America is weird and that means we have the luxury of reading the confessions in ways that other Protestants do not or cannot.

How Did the Laity React to the Council of Nicea?

Surrounding the news and criticism of Roman Catholic bishops in their responses to instances of sexual abuse by priests (and other officials) are calls for the bishops to be as holy as they should be and for the laity to be included in some mechanisms of accountability. What is strange about these arguments — especially by Roman Catholic laity — is what questioning of the bishops does to the entire justification for Roman Catholicism. Critics of the bishops seem to assume that in the case of the current scandal, the bishops have behaved badly and acted unwisely. But if bishops can show such deficiency now, couldn’t they also have been unwise, acted out of self-preservation, or outright erred when deliberating about liturgy, the creed, or the beatification of exceptional believers? I mean, once you start to question the bishops’ judgment on this one matter, you can question almost any part of Roman Catholic history going all the way back to the church that Jesus founded (not in Rome but in Jerusalem).

Michael Sean Winters does not seem to be aware of how his reaction to the recent meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore could also be applied to the gathering of bishops at Nicea almost 1800 years ago:

On Nov. 12, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the conference, expressed his disappointment when he announced the Vatican’s decision to delay any votes on concrete proposals to confront the clergy sex abuse crisis. At the coffee break, bishops were fuming, complaining that Rome had pulled the rug out from under them. Even those bishops who are most enthusiastic about Pope Francis were distressed, worried that he did not understand the media spotlight under which the bishops were laboring.

But, when the bishops began discussing the proposals on Nov. 13, it quickly became obvious that the proposals were ill-conceived and would have fallen apart on their own, without any help from Rome. Erecting a national oversight commission, at considerable expense and with additional bureaucracy, to monitor 200 bishops, very few of them likely to have broken their vows of celibacy, didn’t seem very practical once they began discussing it. The proposed commission would report allegations to the nuncio but that happens now and no one had bothered to ask the nuncio if he wanted a commission to help him in his work. The Standards of Conduct seemed poorly framed and vague. The whole thing seemed amateurish.

Were the proposals at Nicea ill-conceived? Was the use of Greek philosophical terminology to explain the relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit amateurish?

By the way, who is a Michael Sean Winters to judge his bishops? After all, even when Vatican II affirmed the laity as the “people of God” in Lumen Gentium, the bishops were quick to remind readers who remained in charge of the church (Jesus founded):

27. Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant. This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful. In virtue of this power, bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate.

The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates,” heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.

If Winters is within his rights as a church member to take swings at the bishops or if he is right about the lack of discernment by the bishops themselves, the Roman Catholic Church is in a crisis of jaw dropping proportions.

Audacity Gives, Audacity Takes Away

While Bryan and the Jasons are still mulling over the merits of conversion, others are wondering about the state of affairs in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Jonathan V. Last, at the Weekly Standard, lays out the problems of leaning hard on papal audacity (notice that the link is now dead and the article at Called to Communion has been removed):

The Catholic church is unlike any other earthly institution. It is strictly hierarchical, with its ultimate power derived from the son of God. The head of the church—the successor of Peter—is elected to a lifetime appointment by his peers, and his authority over them is total. He can allow them to carry on sexual affairs in broad daylight, as Francis did with Father Krzysztof Charamsa, a priest who worked for years in the Vatican curia while living openly with his gay lover. Or he can drive them from the church, as Francis did with Father Charamsa after the priest made his situation public in the Italian media in 2015. He can make either of these choices—or any choice in between—for any reason he likes. Or none at all. Such is the supreme power of the vicar of Christ.

Yet the pope’s immediate subordinates—the cardinals and bishops—function like feudal lords in their own right. The bishop can preach in contravention of the teachings of the church, as Cardinal Walter Kasper does on the subject of marriage and infidelity. He can forbid the offering of both species of the Eucharist, as Bishop Michael Burbidge does in Northern Virginia. He can punish and reward priests under his care either because of merit or caprice—because the deacons and priests all swear a vow of obedience to the bishop (or cardinal) himself.

All of which is the long way of saying that there is no mechanism for a man such as Donald Wuerl to be dealt with by his peers. The bishop of Madison can fulminate against Wuerl all he wants to, as Bishop Robert Morlino did in late August. His fellow bishops have no power over him. The only man Wuerl is accountable to is the pope. And the structure of the church has no remedy when a pope is foolish or wicked.

In the weeks after the Viganò letter was published, Francis preached a homily in which he declared, “with people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction” the best response is “silence” and “prayer.” If this sounds like Francis believes the real villains in this mess are Archbishop Viganò and people who want to know what the bishops knew, and when they knew it, well, yes.

In another homily on September 11, Francis went further, saying that not only was Viganò the real villain, but the bishops were the real victims: They were being persecuted by the devil: “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” Francis preached. And Satan “tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.” (The Father of Lies—as he is referred to in the Bible—has not traditionally been regarded as the revealer of sins in Catholic thought, but this pope has never been known for having a supple mind.) Francis then offered counsel for his poor, suffering brother bishops: “The Great Accuser, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse.’ A bishop’s strength against the Great Accuser is prayer.”

Roman Catholicism lives and dies with the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops. If Roman Catholics want to claim that their faith represents the truth, the Gospel, Jesus, or the Mass, they don’t have any of those Christian goods without the mediation of the hierarchy.

That is why this is a crisis on the order of 1517. And what did we learn last year during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Did anyone notice that the reformers reformed church government so that the ministry of word and sacrament was no longer under control of the Vatican?

Last thinks schism is possible. Only in 2018 are people beginning to understand (only implicitly) what was at stake in 1517.

Machen, Golden State, and Social Justice

What binds these three items together? Warrior, as in Machen’s Warrior Children, Golden State Warriors, and Social Justice Warriors.

The average American (unless you are LeBron James) thinks positively of the NBA franchise. If that American is under 30, she likely adds Social Justice to Golden State since both are very popular.

Your average Presbyterian in one of the NAPARC communions, you might think, would add Machen happily to the Golden State Warriors since J. Gresham Machen was arguably the greatest defender of historic Presbyterianism during the twentieth century. And if you are a conservative Presbyterian under 30 you might also want to add Social Justice to Machen and the Golden State team because Social Justice and Golden State are very popular.

But what does the PCA do? It embraces Social Justice and disdains Machen — Golden State is probably agreeable.

Consider that two of the more prominent figures in the PCA during the last twenty years are John Frame, who coined the phrase, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and Tim Keller. Almost everyone knows Frame’s opposition to Machen’s spiritual offspring. Keller less so. Here is part of his take on twentieth-century conservative Presbyterianism:

A more normal result of church splits is the pruning off of branches in a way that both wounds and yet, ironically, does not last. Something of this pattern, I think, can be seen in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Early in its history, after the death of J. Gresham Machen, the OPC went through a split in which its New Side/New School branch left, led by J.Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College and Carl T. McIntire. But, no surprise, by the 1970s the OPC had grown a new ‘pietist/revivalist’ wing under the influence of Jack Miller. The New Life Churches and their Sonship course was classic revivalism, and it did not fit well with the more doctrinalist cast of the OPC. While not a formal split, like that of 1937, the New Life churches were made to feel unwelcome and nearly all left in the early 90s to swell the pietist ranks of the PCA.

Whenever a Reformed church purifies itself by purging itself of one of its impulses, it finds that within a generation or two, its younger leaders are starting to at look in a friendly way toward the lost parts.

With that kind of suspicion about Machen’s Warriors, the liturgy at the PCA’s General Assembly this week was notable:

Notice that last line, the contrast between social justice warriors and servants of the gospel.  The idea that social justice is an extension of critical race theory was one that the curmudgeon, Bill Smith, proposed. Curiously enough, Sean Lucas accused Bill Smith of the genetic fallacy.

And that raises a question of whether Pastor Lucas himself has committed the liturgical fallacy. Does simply praying that Social Justice Warriors need to be celebrated as “servants of the gospel” measure up to the rigors of logic? Simply praying it doesn’t make it so.

But it does seem safe to say that Bill Smith is in Sean Lucas’ head.

Transforming New York City Was Always Going to be a Slog

Kyle B. Roberts explains:

Evangelical New Yorkers did nothing less than make the city between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Their systematic strategy of aggressively building in new opening neighborhoods put them on the forward edge of urban development. . . . Asylums, bethels, book concerns, missions, and orphanages supported by lay voluntary associations and denominations expanded that presence. In time, immigrant Roman Catholics and Jews proved more formidable opponents than High Church Protestant Episcopalians, but a community is more than its churches and societies; it is, fundamentally, it’s people. Fifteen percent of the city’s adult population identified as evangelical and joined a city church by the middle of the nineteenth century. That might not sound like much, but it was five times what it had been at the close of the American Revolution. Given the high bar evangelical churches set by making conversion a criteria for membership, the number of spouses, children, cousins, and neighbors still hopefully waiting for conversion was undoutedly much higher.

This massive emotional, financial, and spiritual investment in the city came at a cost. The principles at the core of evangelical belief and practice–individual conversion and community-focused social activism–exist in continual tension. They provided the rational for aggressive interventions in the city, hope to the hopeless, friends for the friendless, and homes for the homeless, but just as easily supplied an excuse for withdrawal, into meeting-houses, parlors, and even their own spiritual selves at moments when their presences was most needed. . . . every worshiper at the John Street church had to decide for her or himself whether to join the exodus of middle-class Protestants up the island or to stay put, even as nearly every other evangelical meeting-house shuttered. These choices were not limited to the antebellum period; Evangelical Gotham always had been and always would be a profoundly ambivalent place. (255-56)

Why Convert? Stability

Ross Douthat reproduced Damon Linker’s reasons for converting to Roman Catholicism. Since Jesus has little appeal, this seems like one of the better expressions of cultural or philosophical Christianity (neo-Calvinists beware):

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

Douthat responds by describing the way conservative Roman Catholics acknowledge change without admitting discontinuity:

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations.

What I don’t understand is how a change like the one on religious liberty at Vatican II is not crucial. It was clearly a big deal to Pius IX who abducted Edgardo Mortara, wrote a Syllabus of Errors to condemn most aspects of the modern world as then understood, and how eventually responded to the crisis of losing the papal states by doubling down with papal infallibility as infallible dogma.

In light of Pius’ conservatism compared to Vatican II, the idea that the pope might have been correct about Mortara led one elite Roman Catholic historian to write:

it was a fallible papal decision, and a pope’s stiff-necked refusal to honor the natural law, not God’s decrees, that are at stake here. No divine command decrees that a child be circumcised or baptized against the will of the child’s parents. Aquinas recognized this; too bad Reno [ed. the editor of First Things] does not. Moreover, no thoughtful Christian doubts that our natural moral affections might, in certain circumstances, be in tension with the revealed will of God; it should not have taken Cessario’s [ed. the author of a review of Mortara’s memoirs] mistaken reasoning to awaken this possibility in the veteran Catholic theologian Reno’s mind.

Is it just I, or is the Roman hierarchy really set up for lay Roman Catholics to challenge popes and bishops? It sure looks to me like something pretty crucial is at stake if a Council embraces teachings that then give Roman Catholics the power to condemn popes, and especially one that declared an infallible dogma.

Interpreting Vatican II in continuity with the church may be reassuring to conservative Roman Catholics (trads apparently understand how difficult that interpretive feat is and opt for discontinuity. But looking for matters essential (kernel) compared to ones ephemeral (husk) is right out of not the conservatives but the modernists playbook.

To Douthat’s credit, he did acknowledge that conservatives are confused.