William of Ockham is the Least of Rome’s Apologists’ Worries

Historians and apologists for Rome heap a lot of blame on William of Ockham for philosophical and theological ideas that unleashed Protestantism and produced the West’s decadence and Walmart. Why Christendom itself doesn’t receive the blame for Ockham is one of those chicken-and-egg questions, I guess.

Now it turns out that Ockham was not the only one who challenged Aquinas, the theologian Jesus founded. Duns Scotus has his own explaining to do.

It turns out he may explain the Mass better than Aquinas because transubstantiation makes Christ’s presence dependent on the location of the bread (sort of like “bread presence” rather than “real presence”):

It concerns the claim of St. Thomas Aquinas that Christ’s body is present on the altar because something that was there before, the substance of bread, has been converted into that body. The “accidents” of the bread—for example, its whiteness and roundness—remain, but these do not belong to the body of Christ; otherwise that body would have to be white and round, which it is not. So far, so good.

Among the other accidents of the bread, however, is its location, there on the altar. For what a thing is, its substance, is no more the same as where it is than it is the same as how it looks (round and white). But in that case, how can we say that Christ’s body is there on the altar—since, ex hypothesi, it cannot get its “where” from the “where” of the consecrated bread? The doctrine of transubstantiation, as explained by Aquinas, thus fails to secure the real presence of Christ’s body on the altar. “I do not know of any satisfactory answer to this problem,” Kenny continued. “If I did, I would give it. Since I do not, I must leave it, as the writers of textbooks say, as an exercise for the reader” (A Path from Rome, 1986, 167–168).

These questions may seem abstruse, perhaps even improper, since the sacrament is rather to be adored than quibbled over. But the question of Christ’s presence now on the altar is a genuine one, and central to the consecration and adoration of the Eucharist. It is a question that many others besides Thomas Aquinas sought to answer, and a seriously inquiring intellect might rightly be disturbed, even scandalized, if forbidden to ask it. But for a long time Thomas’s answer was accepted just because it was his. This was an unnecessary constriction of Catholic thought. Unfortunately, some Catholic intellectuals seem still to be constricting themselves in this way. One might call their position “exclusivist Thomism.”

According to Scotus:

The subtle Scot distinguishes between presence and transubstantiation, claiming that one can exist without the other (Ordinatio IV d.10 q.1). Christ could be there on the altar now without transubstantiation, and the bread could be transubstantiated without Christ being there on the altar. Christ’s presence on the altar is not a matter of his appropriating the “where” of the transubstantiated bread, or of his retaining this particular accident and not others.

It turns out that Scotus also differed with Aquinas on the immaculate conception in ways that may make Roman Catholics and their nostalgia for Christendom perk up:

The most famous difference between Scotus and Thomas is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Scotus got right and Thomas got wrong. But surely, one might say, we no longer need Scotus to tell us about the Immaculate Conception. Didn’t Blessed Pius IX tell us all we need to know in his dogmatic pronouncement? Perhaps. Note, though, that Thomas was not alone in failing to defend the Immaculate Conception. Every Scholastic theologian before Scotus, including fellow Franciscans like St. Bonaventure, failed in the same way. None was able to give a defense of it that would avoid creating a serious theological problem somewhere else.

Consider in this regard one of the arguments that Thomas himself gives against the Immaculate Conception (Summa Theologica III q27 a2). If the Virgin Mary had in no way incurred the stain of sin, she would not have needed Christ as her savior and so Christ would not be the savior of all men and women. Scotus’s answer is that Christ is indeed Mary’s savior, for he saved her in advance of her incurring the original sin that, as a natural descendant of Adam, she would have incurred otherwise (Ordinatio III d.3 q.1). Christ is thus her savior, as he is the savior of everyone else. Moreover, he is her savior in the most excellent way possible, for he saved her from ever having had sin, including original sin, while everyone else is saved only after incurring at least original sin.

And then there’s Scotus’ view of pets which has some appeal in this corner of Christ’s spiritual kingdom:

Can animals go to heaven or be resurrected? Pope Francis was recently reported to have said that they can—but inaccurately, as it turns out. Still, the pope said enough in his encyclical Laudato si’ to suggest the thought that it’s at least possible. Section 243 of the encyclical reads: “At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God, and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude…. Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all” (emphasis added).

Does this remark mean that animals can or will be in heaven, not indeed as sharing the beatific vision, but as sharing resurrected life with beatified human beings? Thomists will say no because the sense-souls of animals, unlike the rational souls of humans, perish at death, and what has altogether perished cannot be brought back numerically the same. Scotus thinks this view false and argues, in his usual subtle and involved way, that the numerically same thing could in principle be recreated after having ceased to exist. He appeals in defense not only to divine omnipotence but to reported miracles of saints actually bringing animals back to life (Ordinatio IV d.44 q.1 n.19). Let those, then, who want to think of their pets being with them in heaven be consoled with Scotus, and perhaps with Pope Francis, for assuredly they cannot be consoled with Thomas. But then, if Thomas is not the unique measure of orthodoxy, there can be no harm or fear in leaving him for Scotus and Pope Francis—and one’s favorite pet.

I have no dog in this fight other than reminding western Christians that the medieval church, let alone the ancient one, was hardly as unified and regulated as contemporary Roman Catholics make it seem. By the nineteenth century, Rome may have achieved the sort of market share in Roman Catholic dioceses that on the eve of Vatican II AT&T had in the phone business. But that consolidation and coherence took awhile and came with a price.

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If You Go Back to 33, Why Bother with 1776?

While John Fea has tried to live tweet David Barton’s claims about America’s Christian founding, Roman Catholics in the U.S. also feel the need to make America safe for faith. Which allows a repetition of a point: not integralism but Americanism is the default setting for Roman Catholics in the U.S. That is, American Roman Catholics, contrary to the worst anti-Catholics like Paul Blanshard, were never ambivalent about American exceptionalism or the need to modify aspects of church life to assimilate the church to American ways.

And so, Roman Catholic defenders of America have come out parading once again for July 4th. A little early to the festivities was Matthew Schmitz who used the approaching national holiday to vindicate Sohrab Ahmari over against David French:

David French of National Review said that Ahmari was forsaking America’s historical commitment to “neutral principles” such as free speech and due process. By insisting that governments should re-order the public square towards the common good, Ahmari was “forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”

But the idea that America was founded on “neutral principles” is a myth. From its beginnings, America has been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “intimate union of the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.” The Americans whose representatives drafted the Constitution did not seek to end this union, but to place it on a stable footing.

In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were … the general Principles of Christianity … and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.” The former are not neutral principles.

Every early administration except Jefferson’s summoned America to days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Americans were urged to “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life … and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” Is this neutrality?

…As these men show, the belief that politics should be ordered to the common good and the highest good is not only classical and Christian, but American. We need to reinvigorate this tradition, not by going back to colonial arrangements, but by pioneering new ways to unite the spirits of Christianity and liberty.

David Barton could not have said it better, though Schmitz’s praise may seem odd for a convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism if only because he fails to mention his examples all came from Protestants. Roman Catholics at the time (and down to Vatican II) were hostile to civil liberty, freedom of ideas, and free markets. That difference between medieval and modern is pesky for those who embrace one of the most modern nations on earth.

Then today at The American Conservative, the man who likely decided to run Schmitz’s piece, Michael Warren Davis, another convert, wrote positively about the Puritans’ settlement in North America and their influence on the founding. He quotes John Wintrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and then writes:

This is the high ideal that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding: not wealth or strength or freedom, but charity. This is the divine purpose for which America was founded: that we might love as ought to love.

Love her, too, while you’re at it. Love America the way we mortals can only love when we’ve grown old enough to accept that our mother is flawed, as we are. Love her all the more because she won’t be around forever.

From the woodlands of Maine to the mountains of Virginia, from the golden shores of California to the black sands of Hawaii, from the lakes of Michigan to the endless ranges of Kansas—every last one of us has a chance to be as wise as Greeks, as virtuous as Romans, as cultured as Englishmen, and as loving as Christians. That’s worth celebrating.

Again, what a great development to have Roman Catholics praising — of all people — Puritans on the occasion of America’s birthday. Might they also recommend the Puritans’ teaching and worship to anyone struggling with the way the bishops have been conducting their affairs during abuse scandal? If not, if Protestants still need to get right with the Vatican to have an awesome Christianity, then Davis should add that the bishops were also wrong for a long time about political liberty (as in “error has no rights,” a phrase used by top Vatican officials against John Courtney Murray as late as the 1950s).

But then comes a mild corrective from yet another convert, Chad Pecknold, again from the webpages of the Catholic Herald where Davis works. Pecknold is not so convinced that Puritans were a healthy influence on the United States’ political culture of liberty:

[Tocqueville] cites approvingly Cotton Mather’s discussion of “holy liberty” in Magnalia Christi Americana. Tocqueville is struck by how this “holy liberty” is freedom for goodness, for truth, for justice, for God. In this sense, what makes Puritan liberty different from the liberty of 1789 is precisely that it is not liberty “for secular purpose,” but for holy purpose. Where France divorced liberty from religion, the Puritans united “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

This seed, this germ, Tocqueville writes, is “the key to nearly the whole book.” So the Puritan seed was dispersed, fragmented, and scattered. Its children could favor different aspects of the originating spirit. It could combine with other species, if you will, and yet American diversity would always have this common root. Yet Tocqueville also sees something profoundly unstable in the Puritan seed — it is sectarian, and not “the whole.” The Puritan seed lacks a unifying principle, and cannot supply the American people with a stable, common creed.

In one of his more Catholic insights, Tocqueville believes the Puritan seed is made to be divided, to be diversified through a great plurality — yet moving in two directions. Tocqueville writes, “our descendants will increasingly divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.”

Tocqueville is no Augustine for America, but he does have an important insight into American polarization. In the end, he thinks one part of America will view liberty as the flight from Christianity, and the other will see that a culture of freedom requires its full embrace.

See what he did there? On the one hand, Pecknold thinks Tocqueville recognized that the Puritans provided an unstable foundation for a nation — to much sectarianism — though it is odd that when Puritans were more doctrinally sane as opposed to their Congregationalist successors, they supported the American founding with vigor. Of late, Congregationalists have been willing to live with Jeremiah Wright as one of their pastors in good standing.

On the other hand, Pecknold, by a magic trick only rivaled by Doug Henning, makes Roman Catholics, the ones with the “full embrace” of Christianity, as the true successors to the Puritans who united the “spirit of liberty with the spirit of religion.”

It seems fairly plausible to conclude that Roman Catholics ponder the American founding more than Matthew 16:18-19. On the upside, it sure beats running the Fourth of July through Abraham Lincoln.

The Missional Church in Free Fall?

It started well seemingly with Tim Keller:

what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.

That was 2001.

Then Kevin DeYoung raised objections even while trying not to offend the missionally minded:

(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

That was 2010.

Now comes Mark Galli with even more criticism (the fourth column in a series):

But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.

The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.

It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.

Galli adds that it is harder for a church to be simply a church than it is to be missional (even if the former is likely a lot less expensive):

But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.

Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.

What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?

You’d have thought Galli read Machen. You might have also thought that someone who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary had read Machen.

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Fascism and Modern Roman Catholic Societies

Can anyone point to an example of a society that went with the Protestant side of the Reformation producing a fascist government? Donald Trump does not count because the U.S. has yet to adopt a fascist government (that is, if you don’t read the paleo-conservatives on Abraham Lincoln).

This is not meant to tar Rome with the fascist brush (mainly), but it is to ponder what Michael Walzer wrote about liberalism and the “art of separation.” Peter Meilaender summarized it this way (from a golden oldie):

The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities…: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281). Lewis was not describing the spheres of society—family, work, church, state, and so on—but his point is analogous to Walzer’s. As he writes in the preface to The Great Divorce, “life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection” (Lewis 2001, viii). A new, richer, and redeemed form of community will one day arise—can arise—only as the outcome of that increasing process of differentiation.

Indeed, Christians are especially well placed to understand the characteristic forms of modernity not simply as examples of fragmentation and loss but rather of differentiation and enrichment, as a process in which the various spheres of society gradually become more and more themselves and less and less something else.

In contrast to differentiation and separation, Roman Catholics — perhaps thanks to the neo-medievalism that lurks in all nostalgia for Christendom — prefer integration, hence the current appeal of integralism. David Frum picked up on this in his poignant piece about D-Day. At the end of the war:

France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.

But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.

Frum then notices the anti-liberalism that lurked in those French who wanted a return to throne and altar (some differentiation but not the Anglo-American separation of powers):

The loss of the war against Germany enabled such people to launch a much more congenial culture war at home, to purge France of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of 1789, and establish in its place “work, family, fatherland,” the slogan of Vichy. Since 1905, France had been defined as a secular state. The Catholic Church had been reduced to one sect among others: Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim. (In 1920, the French government had subsidized the building of a grand mosque in thanks for the First World War service of Muslim troops. The great military cemetery near Verdun has a special section for Muslim soldiers, their graves angled away from the others in order to face Mecca.)

Vichy put an end to all that. The defeat of France by Germany was ideologically reinterpreted as a victory of “deep France” over a shallow liberal metropolitan veneer. Subjugation was reinterpreted by Vichy ideologues as redemption. Enmity was shifted from the occupying Germans to the liberal commercial “Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy propagandists produced cartoons in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Popeye were depicted dropping bombs on France at the behest of Jewish masters.

The point is not that DeGaulle but that the Roman Catholic urge for order and unity often manifests itself in a certain kind of anti-liberalism.

And so integralism returns (and don’t forget the appeal of integration to those neo-Calvinists who bang the gong hard for the Lordship of Christ over every square inch without thinking very hard about sphere sovereignty.

Back in the Day When Some Were Planting PCA Congregations in NYC (and others were joining the PCA)

It was not an innocent time. Robert Hughes, art critic for Time magazine, wrote a book about cultural antagonisms in the United States, The Culture of Complaint. David Denby, a movie critic for New York magazine, reviewed it for the New Republic. It doesn’t sound like much has changed (except that sensitivities have escalated):

For years liberal intellectuals in this country have sounded sickly and confused. half convinced that their privileged position has disqualified them from criticizing any less powerful group, afraid of asserting what might be seen as an advantage. Something like academic Afrocentrism may be largely nonsense, but how many have the stomach to attack it? How many have the courage to say that gay artists whose lives have become nightmarish from the fear of AIDS are not necessarily better painters or sculptors? Putting it in pragmatic terms: Is making such points worth the risk of sounding like Hilton Kramer? Even if you can avoid such a ghastly outcome, the task requires a relish for combat and a willingness to hit an open target—a sort of herculean insensitivity.

Enter the bull in the shopping mall. Hughes was born in Australia but has lived in America and written art criticism for Time since 1970. He combines the curiosity and the ambitious learning of a scholar (he has written distinguished books on Australia and Barcelona) and the ready indignation and sense of timing of a great journalist. He is a controversialist, a public intellectual. The book, written in 1992, as the political tide was turning, is implicitly addressed to liberals: You are the conscience of a great country. Why be so frightened? Hughes offers a guide for the perplexed, a moral and intellectual compass for those who want to remain liberals in this culture without giving up their standards, their education, their sense of what matters. Brandishing bis sword, be charges in, laying about on all sides. He ridicules the American touchiness, the querulous tone of grievance. He talks tough to self-pitying artists, to academics, to black intellectuals and ideologues, to politicians.

So even when today it might seem like times were better just as Bill Clinton was coming into the White House, America was divided and Americans were sensitive. In New York City, Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins.

More Denby:

The widespread and unstoppable confusion of formal equality (which is obtainable through law) with equality of power and gifts (which is unobtainable) has led to a kind of Tocquevillian nightmare, a culture of self-pity and envious accusation. In the art world, for instance, the overproduction of artists caused by the runaway art market of the ’80s and the general lowering of standards leads anyone not actually celebrated by the media to designate himself an aggrieved party. “What are your ‘standards’ but further oppression?” the victim demands. The “you” that figures in so much paranoid-accusatory rhetoric is, of course, the white heterosexual male, whose “standards,” a mere construction, are assumed to be inherently corrupted by power. Second, the exacerbation of the differences among us, and the cynically calculated omission of what is held in common, leads to a grim spirit of intolerance—declarations of “cultural war” on the right and calls for separatism on the African-American left. Ideology annihilates the compromises necessary to keep the country going. . . .

Hughes fears no man or woman, but most liberals shrink from hurting anyone’s feelings. That is why James Wolcott was being disingenuous when, in the course of defending Rush Limbaugh recently in The New Yorker, he called on liberals to stop whining and “lean into the microphone.” In other words, get your own demagogues, bullies and wits. But as Wolcott surely knows. American liberals have committed themselves to abandoning the narcissism of the tribe; they are committed to respecting every group in the country. If conservatives have been making most of the jokes in recent years, that’s because it’s so much easier for them. For the liberal, everyone matters. That is the American glory and the American horror.

The point of this trip down memory lane is not to try to explain Trump, though with cultural conditions like this in the early 1990s, only a few years after Ronald Reagan helped a lot of Americans to see morning in America again, it is hard not to think that little emerged in the nation’s cultural, political, and religious institutions to offer some check on what Denby himself recognized as nonsense. The gatekeepers — universities, media, journalism — only seemed to guard the gates against those who thought it was impossible not to hurt someone’s feelings. Even Jesus did that.

Denby even received confirmation of Hughes’ observations when he returned to his alma mater, Columbia University:

The queasiness and prissy-mouthed grayness are often produced by the highest motives. During a year spent at Columbia attending classes with first- and second-year students, I saw many a promising discussion of social issues dry up at the border of genuine disagreement. As soon as a student actually said anything, he or she would be greeted with the comment (from another student), “That may be true from your point of view …,” the implication being that a point of view is not a strength but a weakness. Students quickly learn to stay away from anything that might betray a social judgment. The conservative students retreat into a grouchy silence and probably listen to Limbaugh in the dorms. The liberals take up a right-minded droning politeness; they learn that the only safe thing to do is to attack “power.”

They were, of course, only imitating their betters. The post-structuralist jargon, it turns out, serves all too well to reinforce liberal squeamishness. According to the recent academic orthodoxy (and Columbia is far less orthodox in these matters than many other schools), as soon as you write or speak you are in danger of allowing language, which encodes the structures of power, to do your thinking for you. In practice, any kind of vivid or concrete speech—any-thing personal, physical, evocative, active — “privileges” one point of view or another. (A graduate student in English upbraided me tor saying that a female student with long hair had long hair. Even though I was describing a specific student, the description was “a limiting stereotype.”)

Denby and Hughes also noticed that race-consciousness was pronounced, though an Afrocentrism that celebrated the continent seems to have found an outlet in affirmations of black pride:

After acknowledging the racism inherent in many nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of Africa, Hughes goes through the claims of Afrocentrism and dismisses them. And so with the Afrocentrist version of slavery. After insisting that no history of slavery written before about 1960 can be quite trusted to tell the truth about black cultural history, he shreds the Afrocentrist insistence that Europe was solely responsible for the slave trade, filling in the large role played before and after the European dominated slave trade by Muslim slave traders and by African tribes themselves. And he dispels the notion of an African Eden, either of the past or the present, to which African Americans can return.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Afrocentrism may strive without being fully believed. At Columbia, in the wake of a rampaging, nonsensical lecture by Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College, I noticed that even some of the brightest African-American students to whom I talked were unwilling to dismiss the stuff out of hand. They half-believed in it, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-respect. They may have been heading, most of them, into mainstream academic and professional careers, but by talking Afrocentrism they were not selling out to whitey. (“The Bull in the Shopping Mall,” The New Republic, May 10, 1993)

These discussions of cultural markers, race, and history were not present in NAPARC churches in 1993. But in ways that seem to contradict the logic of cultural transformation, the church is often downstream from universities and journalists.

Thinking Christianly or Thinking Historically

Sometimes w-w’s collide and this is a problem for neo-Calvinists who think that integrating faith and learning is possible. What makes it especially hard to integrate one’s personal religious convictions and professional expertise is that being an expert usually means putting aside personal beliefs as much as possible in order to achieve some level of impartiality. This is not simply a question of hiding one’s faith under a bushel but also trying not to be subject to racial, nationalist, class, and gender prejudices. Of course, it never happens perfectly. But the idea of science — even historical science — is to resist personal bias. A Christian’s plea, “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” is not exactly impartial.

John Fea recently has uncovered, though I think intentionally, the challenge of being a Christian and/or doing history. In the wake of the recent news that Gordon College is doing away with a history major, he wrote this:

The skills and ways of thinking that one learns from the study of history are not something that can happen in a few courses as part of an “integrated major” like Politics-Philosophy-History. In over two decades of teaching at Christian liberal arts institutions I can attest to the fact that a historical way of seeing the world–one informed by contextual thinking, the understanding of contingency, the complexity of the human experience, a grasp of causality and change over time–is something that is cultivated through a deep dive into the discipline. You can’t come to an interdisciplinary or “integrated” conversation without grounding in a discipline.

I can’t stress the formation piece here enough–especially at a Christian college in the liberal arts tradition. (I don’t care if it is evangelical, Catholic, mainline Protestant, etc.) Research universities and big regional public institutions are sometimes different animals since faculty do not often have the sustained engagement with undergraduates.

How are we forming our Christian students intellectually if we don’t give them the opportunity to dive into a particular discipline–a particular way of seeing the world with its own set of thinking skills?

Even if conducted at an evangelical institutions, the skills of thinking historically are different from thinking Christianly, and the same goes for other academic disciplines. That also means that simply being regenerate, or having a Christian w-w, does not guarantee a historical awareness. (Though, knowing the difference in redemptive history before and after Christ’s first advent is a start.) I am not certain that a student needs to major in history to think historically. Where I teach out two course history sequence in the core curriculum gives students some awareness of historical methods and sensibility — at least that is the design. Even so, a Christian historian like Fea senses that he has a higher loyalty (in the hyphenated world we inhabit) to history than to Christianity.

Or does he?

At other times, Fea has described himself as a Christian historian:

As a faculty member at a Christian college who tries to do good historical work and be a contributing member of my profession, I realize that my decision to devote the first half of my career to a place called “Messiah College” has raised red flags. I will never know how my work as a professor at a Christian college has influenced the ways the profession has received me or my work, but I have no doubt that it has and it does. I am sure that most of my historian colleagues do not have to explain as much as I do why they teach at the place where they teach. As much as I honor and respect the work of historians, and try to participate in that work when I can, I will never feel part of the historical profession nor do I think I will ever be fully accepted within it. This used to make me feel lonely, but the older I get the less I am bothered by it.

I am an evangelical Christian. That comes with certain beliefs and ways of understanding the world that make me different from other historians and even different from other Christians at my institution, especially those in the humanities who tend to gravitate toward other Christian traditions.

In this case, Fea senses that his Christian faith separates him from historians in the guild of professional history. This is not exactly a full-bore affirmation of the neo-Calvinist notion that faith changes the way we conduct our scholarship. Fea has actually registered some dissent to the neo-Calvinist understanding of history by saying that w-w has been “enormously fruitful” but is not where he lands as a self-consciously Christian historian. Instead, he prefers the notion of vocation as an organizing principle for Christian historians. And yet, Fea does think that faith makes him different from unbelieving historians.

One area where Christian and non-Christian historians agree, is this:

I am a faculty member who wants to defend the traditional liberal arts, the discipline of history and its patterns of thinking, and the pursuit of a humanities education that transcends political and social agendas. I am often criticized by those–many of whom teach humanities in my own institution–who see the goal of Christian college education differently. I find myself constantly fighting against those who perceive the Christian college classroom as a place to moralize and preach about social and political issues. I wonder about my place in the mix.

That was in May of 2017. Since then, as I have often argued, Fea has not been free from applying a political or moralistic outlook to his understanding of political and religious history.

I wonder what happened. I sure hope it isn’t that he got #woke for Jesus.

That’s How Bad Protestantism Is

From the file of why you’d never think of becoming Protestant even when Roman Catholicism has fallen so far. Rusty Reno keeps it real depressing for those not Called to Communion:

The present pontificate has sown confusion, division, and conflict. Francis is advancing a doctrinally suspect revision of the discipline for divorced and remarried Catholics. This affects a vanishingly small percentage of churchgoers. Yet he presses forward against objections, apparently because he wants to empower those who seek a wide-ranging concordat with the sexual revolution. Meanwhile, as he hails the inauguration of a more pastoral and inclusive Church, he spews invective and denounces critics. He seeks to influence the secular politics of capital punishment, immigration, and global warming while ignoring the theological poverty and spiritual corruption of the supernatural body of Christ. In all likelihood, Francis will precipitate a deep and destructive crisis in the Church. That’s been his modus operandi throughout his clerical career, evident during his tenure as Jesuit provincial in Argentina. Again, this is demoralizing.

One friend publicly announced his departure from the Catholic Church. Another friend tells me he won’t go to Mass in a church that protects the likes of McCarrick. Many others wonder how they can persevere as faithful Catholics when it’s increasingly clear that this pope is ­unworthy of their loyalty and respect.

That is not much of a pitch for becoming Roman Catholic.

But it so far superior to Protestantism that Reno would never consider becoming Protestant (even though he was one once upon a time):

Catholicism is the font of nearly all Christian witness in our societies (Eastern Orthodoxy provides some exceptions). Some of that spiritual potency has spun out of the orbit of the Church of Rome, to be sure, but it carries her DNA. As John Henry Newman observed as an Anglican, Catholicism “has ­preoccupied the ground.”

When one is lost, it is wise to retrace one’s steps and return to the starting point and begin again. This is why we need always to return to Christ, who is the Alpha and Omega, and to the apostolic fellowship that stretches from his Resurrection to the present in the continuous life of his bride, the Church. The more disoriented we are, the more we need to return to the original source of our faith, which in the West means drawing closer to the Roman Church. These are difficult times. But for precisely this reason, Catholicism is for me more essential. It is the source of consolation and strength amid our collective failures.

My counsel, therefore, is simple. In this season of corruptions revealed and teachings betrayed, we must not underestimate the sheer fact of the Church: the unceasing prayers of the faithful, the witness of her saints, and the reality of Christ present in the sacrifice of the Mass. The corporate body of Christ sustains us, even amid clerical betrayals, even in the face of our own doubts, mediocrity, and sin.

In this understanding of Christianity, corporate and institutional expressions matter. You need that visible continuity from Peter to Francis to see where Christianity is, to be in fellowship with Christ. When Protestants merely talk about spiritual continuity or spiritual succession, I imagine you get snickers in the editorial offices at First Things.

Except, Rome’s institutional edifice came way way after Jesus. The patriarchate of Jerusalem makes a much better claim to institutional/formal continuity with Christ than Rome (and what of Mormons’ claim that Jesus came to North America and minister here for centuries?). Plus, the Bishop of Rome himself did not begin to consolidate Christianity in the West until the seventh or eighth centuries — hardly the church Jesus founded, unless you want to appeal to the spirit of Christ’s founding.

Wait.

The oddest part of Reno’s lament and apology is what he says implicitly about the evangelical and Protestant writers, readers, and staff of his magazine. Protestants are second-class believers compared to Roman Catholics who have all the rock of Peter bling. At what point do Protestants object to such patronizing dismissal?

Sexual Hangups, Reformed or Roman Catholic

Where would you be without “Calvinism” to bail you out? Michael Sean Winters blames Reformed Protestantism for U.S. Roman Catholics’ obsession with sex:

The focus on sexuality as the key indicator of Christian identity has always been one of the odd and remarkable hallmarks of Catholicism in America. Catholic cultures — Italy, Spain, France — are not known for any puritanical dispositions regarding human sexuality. But, in America, the ambient Calvinism of the religious culture combined with the Jansenistic impulses of Irish Catholicism to make a concern for sexual purity an obsession. The three Democrats discussing their faith are right to insist that any fair reading of the Gospels reveals that the Lord Jesus spent far more time urging his disciples to be generous to the poor, welcoming to the stranger, and treat people with dignity than he did discussing any sexual issues.

This is rich coming from a member of a communion which makes a common union (marriage) a sacrament, has authoritative teaching that minutely regulates legitimate sex, requires ordained officers to live celibate lives, and has bishops who need to cover up for priests who do not practice what the church preaches (actually only homilies).

The really rich aspect of Winter’s gripe with Calvinism’s mores is that Rome’s double-mindedness about sex goes way, way back, as Charlotte Allen explains:

In Peter Damian’s definition—a common one during the Middle Ages—the sin of “sodomy” encompassed “four classes of unnatural vice,” each described by him with startling explicitness and deemed more serious than the last, starting with masturbation and culminating with anal intercourse, the worst offense of all. All were forms of male homosexual activity (the other two consisted of the carnal touching of others’ private parts and intercourse between the thighs of someone of one’s own sex). Peter Damian was outraged, particularly because the superiors of clerics who committed such sins were, in effect, giving them a pass: exacting penances for monks and priests found to have committed the first three offenses but expelling from holy orders only those who had engaged in the fourth, anal intercourse.

Some of the offenders, Peter ­Damian said, had even chosen fellow homosexual offenders as their confessors so as to obtain slap-on-the-wrist treatment. “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.” He reserved his harshest condemnation for bishops who abused their underlings by engaging in homosexual acts with them: “What a vile deed, deserving a flood of bitter tears! If they who approve of these evildoers deserve to die, what condign punishment can be imagined for those who commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons?” Damian was not without pity for those sinners, however, begging them to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and reform their ways, but he asked Leo to expel from holy orders those who had committed any of the four categories of sodomy.

Scholars have debated whether homosexual activity among clerics was quite such a widespread “festering disease” during the eleventh century. It is indisputable, however, that the tenth and eleventh centuries were the most scandal-plagued that the Western Church had endured, and that the moral and sexual integrity of the clergy was at the heart of the issue. Hildebrand, the Tuscan Benedictine monk who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, had to institute the “­Gregorian Reform” movement attacking simony (the buying and selling of holy offices), lay investiture (the control of bishoprics by powerful secular lords), and gross violations of the Western Church’s longtime requirement of priestly celibacy. That rule had been in place since at least the early fourth century, but by the eleventh, priests and even bishops all over Western Europe were living openly with wives and children, often passing down their churches by inheritance to their priest-sons. Some took concubines.

How does that saying go? Those in glass houses dot dot dot

Was Calvin’s Return to Geneva in 1541 a Miracle?

How much do Protestants associate the greatest hits of their churches’ history with anything like what Roman Catholics sometimes teach and believe about the House of Loreto. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Since the fifteenth century, and possibly even earlier, the “Holy House” of Loreto has been numbered among the most famous shrines of Italy. Loreto is a small town a few miles south of Ancona and near the sea. … this building is honoured by Christians as the veritable cottage at Nazareth in which the Holy Family lived, and the Word became incarnate. … Angels conveyed this House from Palestine to the town Tersato in Illyria in the year of salvation 1291 in the pontificate of Nicholas IV. Three years later, in the beginning of the pontificate of Boniface VIII, it was carried again by the ministry of angels and placed in a wood near this hill, in the vicinity of Recanati, in the March of Ancona; where having changed its station thrice in the course of a year, at length, by the will of God, it took up its permanent position on this spot [six] hundred years ago. Ever since that time, both the extraordinary nature of the event having called forth the admiring wonder of the neighbouring people and the fame of the miracles wrought in this sanctuary having spread far and wide, this Holy House, whose walls do not rest on any foundation and yet remain solid and uninjured after so many centuries, has been held in reverence by all nations.”

Got that? The house where Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth is now in Italy. No construction company performed the move. No, angels did. They moved the house not once but three — COUNT ‘EM THREE!! — times (or is it four?).

Are these miracles merely the outworking of local traditions and pious cults in southern Italy? No. Popes have approved these stories as true.

More than forty-seven popes have in various ways rendered honour to the shrine, and an immense number of Bulls and Briefs proclaim without qualification the identity of the Santa Casa di Loreto with the Holy House of Nazareth. As lately as 1894 Leo XIII, in a Brief conceding various spiritual favours for the sixth centenary of the translation of the Santa Casa to Loreto, summed up its history in these words: “The happy House of Nazareth is justly regarded and honoured as one of the most sacred monuments of the Christian Faith; and this is made clear by the many diplomas and acts, gifts and privileges accorded by Our predecessors. No sooner was it, as the annals of the Church bear witness, miraculously translated to Italy and exposed to the veneration of the faithful on the hills of Loreto than it drew to itself the fervent devotion and pious aspiration of all, and as the ages rolled on, it maintained this devotion ever ardent.”

Then the Catholic Encyclopedia’s authors go on to list the reasons for the authenticity of these miracles:

(1) The reiterated approval of the tradition by many different popes from Julius II in 1511 down to the present day. This approval was emphasized liturgically by an insertion in the Roman Martyrologium in 1669 and the concession of a proper Office and Mass in 1699, and it has been ratified by the deep veneration paid to the shrine by such holy men as St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and many other servants of God.

(2) Loreto has been for centuries the scene of numerous miraculous cures. Even the skeptical Montaigne in 1582 professed himself a believer in the reality of these (Waters, “Journal of Montaigne’s Travels”, II, 197-207).

(3) The stone on which the original walls of the Santa Casa are built and the mortar used in their construction are not such as are known in the neighbourhood of Loreto. But both stone and mortar are, it is alleged, chemically identical with the materials most commonly found in Nazareth.

(4) The Santa Casa does not rest and has never rested upon foundations sunk into the earth where it now stands. The point was formally investigated in 1751 under Benedict XIV. What was then found is therefore fully in accord with the tradition of a building transferred bodily from some more primitive site.

To their credit, the authors also acknowledge that this historical whopper of a story has not held up to scrutiny even from Roman Catholic historians:

It must be acknowledged, however, that recent historical criticism has shown that in other directions the Lauretan tradition is beset with difficulties of the gravest kind. These have been skilfully presented in the much-discussed work of Canon Chevalier, “Notre Dame de Lorette” (Paris, 1906). …The general contention of the work may be summarized under five heads: (1) From the accounts left by pilgrims and others it appears that before the time of the first translation (1291) there was no little cottage venerated at Nazareth which could correspond in any satisfactory way with the present Santa Casa at Loreto. … (2) Oriental chronicles and similar accounts of pilgrims are absolutely silent as to any change which took place in 1291. There is no word of the disappearance at Nazareth of a shrine formerly held in veneration there. … (3) There are charters and other contemporary documents which prove that a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin already existed at Loreto in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that is to say, before the epoch of the supposed translation. (4) When we eliminate certain documents commonly appealed to as early testimonies to the tradition, but demonstrably spurious, we find that no writer can be shown to have heard of the miraculous translation of the Holy House before 1472, i.e., 180 years after the event is supposed to have taken place. … (5) If the papal confirmations of the Loreto tradition are more closely scrutinized it will be perceived that not only are they relatively late (the first Bull mentioning the translation is that of Julius II in 1507), but that they are at first very guarded in expression, for Julius introduces the clause “ut pie creditur et fama est”, while they are obviously dependent upon the extravagant leaflet compiled about 1472 by Teramano.

It is clearly impossible to review here at any length the discussions to which Canon Chevalier’s book has given rise….the balance of recent Catholic opinion, as represented by the more learned Catholic periodicals, is strongly in his favour.

And yet, over one hundred years later, popes still use the site of the house to inspire the faithful and stories from journalists include explanations like this:

The Basilica of the Holy House in Loreto contains the walls of what tradition holds to be the house in which the Virgin Mary lived when the Angel Gabriel announced that she was to give birth to Jesus.

Which of course raises several questions:

1) Isn’t belief in the virgin birth hard enough? Why add a unit of angels with “Wide Load” banners attached below their wings?

2) If Popes can lead the laity astray on historical details like this, are they all that trustworthy on wayward priests, at the low end, or on what Jesus said (by way of oral tradition), at the high end?

3) But let’s not blame the hierarchy entirely. Why are Roman Catholic laity so willing to go along with such myths, legends, and fabrications?

Instances like this make plausible lines like the following from Lyman Beecher, a (trigger warning) New School Presbyterian who was not sure how Roman Catholics would do in a republic:

If [Roman Catholics] could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thralldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds. If the pope and potentates of Europe held no dominion over ecclesiastics here, we might trust to time and circumstances to mitigate their ascendance and produce assimilation. But for conscience sake and patronage, the are dependent on the powers that be across the deep, by whom they are sustained and nurtured; and receive and organize all who come, and retain all who are born, while by argument, and a Catholic education, they beguile the children of credulous unsuspecting protestants into their own communion. (Lyman Beecher, Plea for the West, 1834)

Historians’ Lanes and When to Change Them

John Fea declares he is not going to believe William Barr’s evaluation of the Mueller report until he sees it for himself. Why? Because John is a historian:

Why? Because Barr’s letter is a secondary source. It is his own interpretation of the complete Mueller report. I have no idea if Barr’s summary is accurate until I read the entire Mueller’s entire report. This is how historians work. We go to the source. (Of course, future historians will also need to examine Mueller’s sources as well).

At this point, we know that Barr wrote the letter. One of the first things historians do when they read a document is “source” it. In other words, we take into consideration the author of the document.

We know, for example, that Barr is the Attorney General of the United States. This gives him some degree of authority. On the other hand, Barr is a Donald Trump appointee. This should also factor-in to how we interpret the document.

Barr quotes Mueller’s report in the document, but we do not know the larger context from which he pulled the quotes. (For example, some outlets are reporting that Barr did not quote an entire sentence from the Mueller report). This is just like when pseudo-historians like David Barton quote John Adams out of context and conclude that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Again, until I can read the document and do my best to interpret for myself (perhaps with the help of the writings of experts) I do not trust it. Check back with me later.

The problem here is that Fea’s identity does not go all the way down. He regularly links to journalists‘ and op-ed writers’ pieces without ever checking the sources that these other writers used. In which case, using the Barr summary to teach a lesson about the ways historians work seems like a way to avoid revealing political loyalty.

Other times, John has seemed to do history the way moralizers moralize. That was particularly the case in a recent post by Marie Griffith about the responsibilities of scholars at a university department dedicated to the study (not advocacy) of religion and politics:

At Religion & Politics, we have repeatedly pointed out that white supremacist and anti-Muslim ideologies are being energized by the speech and actions of Trump, along with the highest levels of his administration. It is not simply that Trump is hateful or seems worrisomely unwell, as many commentators have pointed out; it’s that the form of hatred he emboldens is deadly. . . .

Observers who deplore the violence will perhaps do small but important things, like donate money to fundraising efforts for the victims’ families or vow to help Muslims in their local communities feel safe. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. Having been through things like this so many times before, many despair that anything will change.

Pursuing big goals, however, is a marathon, not a sprint; and there will be no finish line in the race to end hate in the world. If the long history of clashes, collusions, and other interactions between religion and politics teaches us anything, it’s that. Once more, we grieve; once more, we resolve to do what we can—all that we can—to quell the fires of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim bigotry that burn ferociously today.

Those are undoubtedly worthwhile goals but they sound more like the work of a humanitarian NGO than the task of the university.

Let the historical profession be historical.