The Steel Trap of the Liberal Presbyterian Mind

Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.

A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:

A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.

Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:

We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)

That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:

In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)

Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.

Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”

So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.

Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)

The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.

Not the Priesthood Jesus Founded

It does look more and more like the Roman Catholicism that is supposed to be so much like the ancient church (and which needed to be modernized at arguably the worst time to do so –the 1960s) was much more a reaction to the reforms for which Protestants called. From an interview with Clare McGrath-Merkel at Crux:

Camosy: You’ve done a lot of work on the theology of the priesthood. Can you give us the short version of your central view or a couple central ideas that could give Crux readers some insight into how you are thinking about this topic?

McGrath-Merkle: My work has been focused mainly on the theology of the priesthood and its possible role, if any, in the crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up. The causes of the crisis are, of course, varied, but I have wanted to try to understand how this theology might have somehow contributed to a clerical identity prone to the abuse of power.

The understanding I’ve come to is that what we think of as the official theology of the priesthood is actually a 400-year-old revolutionary one, linked to clerical formation spirituality. Its underlying spiritual theology has influenced the training of seminarians up until Vatican II and has had a major resurgence since the 90’s. Interestingly, it hasn’t been of much interest to most systematic theologians.

This theology was proposed in the early 17th century by a little-known cardinal-Pierre de Bérulle, the founder of the French School of Spirituality, and is a rather psychologically and spiritually unhealthy one. Leading up to my research on the possible historical roots of the crisis as found in this theology, I explored some current serious psychosocial maladaptions in priestly identity in a 2010 article.

Arguably, Bérulle’s innovations have contributed to an unhealthy priestly identity and culture over centuries, principally through both an over-identification with Christ and an exaggerated sacrificial spirituality.

What was behind these innovations?

Bérulle wanted to form a new kind of priest during a time when clerical corruption was still rampant in France, a half century after the Council of Trent’s reforms. He particularly wanted to defend the Church against Protestant objections to the necessary role of the priest in the sacrifice of the Mass.

Interestingly, he made major departures from tradition when he tried to answer Protestant Reformers on their own ­­terms-who had rejected St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly his conceptualization of the sacramental character of the priesthood.

If I could boil it down to one central idea, Bérulle asserted that the priest is not just an instrument of Christ, as Aquinas asserted, but is somehow connected to Christ as a part of His Person. In fact, Bérulle proposed that priests pray constantly so that they could give over their person to Christ, the Incarnate Word, so that He could then replace His Person with theirs.

In terms of pious rhetoric today, the idea that the priest is in some kind of essentialist relation to Christ is defended by insisting there is an “ontological” difference between the priest and laity. [emphasis added] The word “ontological” merely points to something having to do with being. Many documents, books, and popular articles on both the theology of the priesthood and priestly spirituality are available today that refer to this “ontological” difference between priests and the laity. But, if it’s used to denote an essential difference, it’s metaphysically impossible, because if a priest’s essence changed, he would no longer be human.

Bérulle’s priestly identity is very different than the priestly identity proposed by Pope St. Gregory the Great-a more humble, service-oriented but still cultic vision of the priest, which I have also explored as one model for renewal in a 2011 article. Gregory’s pastoral manual served the Church for a thousand years before the Berullian priestly identity and spirituality took over.

Lots to see here. Stop. Consider.

What Must I (a Protestant) Do to be Saved?

In the fine print of church teaching (via the church’s lay apologists), being Protestant is inferior to being Roman Catholic. Jimmy Akin explains that Protestants are partial Christians:

the Catholic understanding is that Protestants are our brothers and sisters in Christ. So all Christians who profess faith in Christ and who are properly baptized are Christians and were put into a relationship with Jesus that Scripture describes in terms of being members of his Body. Different people have different degrees or forms of incorporation into His Body, though. And the goal is for everyone to be fully incorporated into Jesus, so we’re united with Him in the most ways possible. So that includes things like having the fullness of the Christian faith, understanding and accepting all of Jesus’s teachings. It also includes things like receiving all of the Sacraments that he would have us receive. Not just baptism, but the other Sacraments as well, and in the Catholic view there are seven sacraments.

It also includes being fully united with His Church, because Jesus said, “I will build my Church–” singular, not plural– “and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” So Jesus established a Church in the first century, and it’s continued down to the present day. And we also know that that Church is a visible Church, because he gave it leaders, like Saint Peter and the other Apostles, and the other ministers that they appointed to lead the Church in their absence, and so there has been a single visible communion of believers in Jesus that’s existed all the way from the first century to today.

The fullness of Rome has a lot to do with history — the apostles, the apostles’ successors, and the apostles Christ founded.

Not even Protestantism’s benefits can measure up to Rome’s antiquity:

[Protestants] still share many elements of grace, and have many wonderful aspects about them; they they honor Scripture, they may have a slight difference about, you know, what some of the books of the Bible should be, but they still honor God’s Word, they believe in Jesus, they believe in the Holy Trinity, they have a valid Sacrament of Baptism, and they have a lot of elements of grace and sanctification.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, you know, there are some differences between Protestants and Catholics, and from a Catholic perspective, those differences aren’t a good thing, … “What if someone knowingly refuses to accept something that Jesus willed us to have?”

If someone knew that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus and that He wanted all of his followers to be united to it, and they said, “You know, I’m just not going to do that. I know Jesus wants me to do it, I know that he prayed for Christian unity on the night of the Last Supper, I know that’s a high on his priority list, but I’m just not going to do that,” well, then you’d have to question whether that person actually has a saving relationship with God, because he’s turning his back on something that’s fundamental and very important to Jesus, and therefore it looks, at least from outward appearances, like he’s cutting himself off from the means of grace that Jesus gave us. And so that person would be in spiritual jeopardy.

Is there salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church? The answer seems to be, yes, as long as either you don’t believe Rome is the church Jesus founded or you don’t know there’s no salvation outside the church. Knowledge (or ignorance) of the church is key as Akin claims:

You could have someone who, let’s say, was raised in a Protestant community, may have heard that Catholics believed Jesus founded the Catholic Church, but they don’t KNOW that; that hasn’t been proven to them, they haven’t seen sufficient evidence for that, and so through no fault of their own, they’ve never joined the Catholic Church–but they would if they knew that this was Jesus’s Church.

I know a lot of people who are in the Protestant community who would say, “Oh yeah, if I was convinced the Catholic Church was the one founded by Jesus, I would join it today.” Well, that person is not deliberately cutting himself off from from what Jesus would have him experience. He’s open to what Jesus would have him experience, and he’s already experiencing many elements of grace and sanctification. But he’s not deliberately refusing to do something he knows Jesus wants him to do. And so that person, even though they haven’t been fully incorporated into the Catholic Church, they’re still in a saving relationship with God. And so, if someone is not Catholic, through no fault of their own, but they’re otherwise responding to God’s grace, then they’ll be saved.

So the real question of salvation for Protestants is their knowledge of and degree of hostility to the Roman Catholic Church. A pious Protestant who hasn’t given much thought to Rome is apparently in a state of grace.

But if a person, whether they’re Catholic or not, refuses to do something of fundamental importance, like it could be not joining the Catholic Church, could be leaving, it could be any number of other grave things, like go out and commit murder or adultery; well, you’re deliberately defying the will of Christ in a fundamental matter there, and that will result in you being lost unless you repent. So everybody, both Protestant and Catholic, needs to be open to the grace that God wants us to have, and needs to be willing to respond to the call of Christ in all of these very fundamental matters.

The openness goes only one way though. Roman Catholics do not need to be open to the grace that is available in Protestant churches to be saved. For a Roman Catholic, salvation depends on the church. (Which is why a website can describe how to become Roman Catholic without ever mentioning Jesus Christ).

Spiritual Real Presence

H. L. Mencken remarked that Calvinism was in his “cabinet of horrors” but little removed from cannibalism. If you are alphabetizing horrors and putting them on a shelf in alphabetical order, Mencken’s observation makes sense. What he did not mention is that alphabetizing items that scare means that Catholicism would also near cannibalism in Mencken’s cabinet. And here the connections are greater than mere spacial proximity. Roman Catholics regularly need to answer the charge that if the bread and wine in the Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus, then aren’t participants engaging in cannibalism?

Here’s one response:

The brilliant medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas examined the philosophical issues and conundrums elicited by the belief in transubstantiation. Most interestingly, Aquinas addressed the confession of an earlier theologian, Berengarius of Tours, who was forced to assert that Christ’s bones were truly crushed by teeth when laypeople received the consecrated host during Holy Communion. To this very literal interpretation, Aquinas responded that “Christ’s very body is not broken” but only “under the sacramental species.”

In other words, Christ’s presence is real and bodily, but this real and bodily presence is not to be understood as the same as Christ’s real and bodily presence as a historical being like you and me. Under the species of bread and wine, as Paul VI made clear, Christ “is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality,’ corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.” We Catholics aren’t cannibals – not exactly, anyway.

Since a bloodstained Eucharistic host would presumably be quite easy to fake, it’s more common to see the Catholic Church distance itself from such claims, rather than naively endorse them. But there is something about Christ’s real, bodily presence that Catholics see as particularly comforting in an age such as ours: Jesus might be hidden, but he is present among us nonetheless.

So Roman Catholics are not literal about Christ’s presence. It is not the actual body of the ascended Christ that is present in the Mass. It is a spiritual presence with some physical aspects.

Another author answered the question this way:

Many people miss the mark with regard to the faith because they make the mistake of applying terms in a human way to God who is infinite. We could speak of Mormons who claim God, the Father, has a physical body because the Scriptures speak of God’s “back parts,” in Exodus, or “the hand of Lord,” the “eyes of the Lord,” etc. You’ve probably heard the classic rejoinder to these Mormon claims: “Psalm 91 refers to God’s ‘feathers and wings’. Does this mean God is some sort of bird?”

The error here, of course, is rooted in interpreting texts that were not intended to be used in a strict, literal sense, as if they were. “Back parts” have to mean “back parts,” right?…

When it gets down to brass tacks, the nay-sayers who reject the Eucharist, and most specifically, those who accuse us Catholics of cannibalism because we say we “consume” the Lord in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul, and divinity, fail to understand what we actually mean by consuming the Lord. They end up objecting just as the unbelieving “Jews” of John 6:52, who said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

If you are thinking about a cannibalistic blood-meal, he can’t. But if you understand, as Jesus said, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail, the words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life,” then you understand. The Eucharist represents a miracle confected by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s presence in the Supper is essentially spiritual. Again, it is not the literal body and blood. That would be cannibalism. Instead, it is a spiritual body and blood.

How exactly is that different from Reformed Protestants who claim the real presence of Christ in the Supper?

Q. 96. What is the Lord’s supper?

A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. Headed toward the Roman Catholic Church?

Quotations from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” suggest he may have:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

After all, most roads in the West lead not merely to Rome but to Vatican City.

Number 11: Don’t Read One Corinthians

Dwight Longenecker tries to walk Roman Catholic converts back from overly high expectations for the Roman Catholic Church in the manner of Joe Carter (where Carter produces 9 points, Father Dwight adds a tenth). That is a tad rich given the way some conversion stories go. But at least Longenecker acknowledges that Protestants who become Roman Catholic are in for a rough ride.

At the same time, he perpetuates a series of caricatures about Protestantism that again reinforce the point that no matter how bad Rome is, Protestant churches are worse:

Protestant congregations don’t really get together along doctrinal lines. They get together along socio-economic lines. The good, upper middle class white folks who go to the local Presbyterian church are all from the professional, affluent class. The working class folks who go to the Assembly of God live in the same lower income bracket. This is why they have warm fellowship.

Hasn’t Longenecker been reading Redeemer City to City Newsletter?

Or this:

Protestants are used to unity within their congregation. This is because Protestant churches are sects. They’ve split away from others for some doctrinal or moral teaching. Therefore there is an underlying unity of viewpoint. When this is combined with the socio economic factor that unity is a powerful and attractive force.

And Father Dwight just happened to go from Bob Jones and Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism for matters other than doctrine or morality? The music?

He does also say some revealing things about Roman Catholics that make you wonder what the difference is between them and mainline Protestants:

People blame “the church” for poor catechesis, and that is no doubt a problem, but the other half of the problem is that now we have a slew of excellent materials, resources, speakers, study course, books, videos, conferences and programs to catechize, encourage and assist, but the vast bulk of Catholics simply stay away. They can’t be bothered. If they practice the faith at all it looks like the Democratic party at prayer. Step around them and work with the people who do want to know more and love the faith.

But the most striking point in Longenecker’s list is the one about discipline or reform:

The really big problem for converts to the Catholic faith is to come to grips with the fact that in the Catholic Church the sinners and saints are all tumbled in together. The glorious church may be without spot or wrinkle in the final reckoning, but here and now, in human terms, it is spotty and wrinkled. It is dirty and soiled with sin. The heretics and the faithful sit side by side. The biggest problem many converts face is that the Catholic Church is soiled with sin. We want to purify the church. We want to weed the garden. We want to get rid of the rot. We want to clean the ship, patch the leaks and sail on with confidence and strength. The servants in the story of the wheat and tares wanted to do the same thing. Check out Matthew 13:24-30. Jesus says the wheat and tares grow together in the same field. The enemy has planted the weeds among the wheat. Live with it. God will sort it out in the end. That tension is uncomfortable.

Why do we want to sort out the weeds from the wheat? Because we long for the certainty and security of belonging to a pure religious sect. It’s human nature to want to belong to a group that is pure and has all the right answers and has everything all neat and tidy and in place. But that’s simply not the nature of Christ’s kingdom. That’s not the nature of reality.

So on Rome goes with whiskey priests, mafia dons, and even lecherous cardinals. What can you do? You certainly can’t play judgment day.

But there is church action somewhere between should-shrugging and bowdlerizing the saints (and the Vatican does not seem to be bashful about revealing the saints). This is actually a recurring theme in conversations with Roman Catholics about the waywardness that afflicts the communion (from renegade nuns to Roman Catholic universities that are hardly Wyoming Catholic College). Interlocutors repeatedly tell me that to hold church members to moral standards, with threats of discipline is Puritan or fundamentalist.

Is is Puritan or fundamentalist to punish a child for not coming home on time? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist to require spouses to be faithful to each other? Is it Puritan or fundamentalist for Roman Catholic politicians to use the church’s social teaching in pursuit of the “common good” or “human flourishing”?

Roman Catholics do lots of things to try to prod sinful humans to behave. They seem to think that society would work better if people actually followed church teaching.

But when it comes to priests and bishops’ sinfulness, Father Dwight says there’s nothing you can do because of the way wheat grows (he ignores what you do with dead branches on fruit trees)?

Such passivity would appear to be at odds with Paul’s instructions in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the church at Corinth.

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Imagine a church that did not associate with sexually immoral people. So Pauline. So fundamentalist.

Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

That Sound You Heard Was Paul Blanshard’s Head Exploding

Paul Blanshard, for those born after Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern, was a lapsed Congregationalist (redundant?) who wrote the last best-selling work of anti-Catholicism. American Freedom and Catholic Power was perhaps the last gasp of Protestant bigotry, but it was still sufficiently forceful and plausible into the 1950s that Blanshard did not get cancelled for expressing hurtful thoughts.

That was 15 years before the end of Vatican II (roughly), when Rome still on paper and through political channels was skeptical about the kind of freedoms embodied in American political norms. In 1950 the church still insisted that “error has no rights,” a position that ran into something of a hurdle with the United States’ Bill of Rights which guaranteed rights for all sorts of groups who held erroneous views (even Roman Catholics).

But Vatican II sort of kind of ended all that and Rome changed its mind about freedom for false religions. That explains this post, an argument that assumes Roman Catholicism and freedom go hand in hand. That Americanist position is receiving push back from integralists (among others). So imagine writing advice about liberal democratic institutions with Roman Catholic integralists as the ones defenders of civil liberties need to fear:

I think the recent intra-conservative French-Ahmari debate can be partially resolved by determining the extent to which secular progressives integralists can be trusted to protect robust freedom of religion for religious traditionalists with conservative views about human sexuality.

If secular progressives integralists are trustworthy, at least by and large, then French’s strategy of working within liberal democratic institutions makes sense. Conservatives should hold secular progressives integralists to a constitutional order that they accept in general, but chafe at in certain cases. Secular progressives Integralists cannot always be trusted to uphold robust freedom of religion, but they’re trustworthy enough not to fundamentally undermine Christianity in the United States. They will obey liberal democratic norms on the whole; conservatives just have to fight to keep them honest.*

However, if secular progressives integralists aren’t trustworthy, then Ahmari’s approach starts ceases to make sense. Secular progressives Integralists will tend to undermine robust protections for freedom of religion in a systematic way, and so ignore constitutional constraints whenever they can get away with it. In that case, politics is war regarding freedom of religion, and conservatives may be permitted to respond in kind. Perhaps the liberal legal settlement is therefore unstable because the left cannot be trusted to uphold it, and so the only truly feasible arrangement is cultural and political victory in the fight against the left. There’s no peace and no middle ground because the other side isn’t trustworthy, and so can’t be trusted to keep a liberal democratic peace.

Actually, I’m not sure if more sentences need to be changed to maintain the parallels. Either way, secular progressives are not the only ones about which to worry. They would likely let Presbyterians worship (and other groups). That was not an option in Roman Catholic societies.

What’s Context for the Goose dot dot dot

A conventional move to undercut your ecclesiastical opponents is to attribute their concerns to “the times.” Their convictions are not timeless truths, the argument goes, but spring from the either unwholesome or ordinary concerns of the here and now. Short-sighted is one way to put it.

Massimo Faggioli employs this tactic to conservatives or traditionalists or critics of Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic world:

The growing neo-traditionalist movement in U.S. Catholicism in some ways echoes the development of the SSPX. There is a similar rejection of Vatican II, for instance, which has also manifested in radical theological dissent against Pope Francis. And just as the 1985 Synod seemed to be a trigger for Lefebvre, the 2014–2015 Synod (along with Amoris laetitia) seemed to trigger contemporary traditionalists. And both movements have seized on interreligious dialogue and religious liberty as key issues. But the context has changed significantly since the 1970s and ’80s. Catholic media and social media have helped in amplifying oppositional voices and weakening the sense of unity in the church. These “para-schismatic” voices have effectively been mainstreamed and globalized, harnessed politically against Pope Francis and the Catholicism emerging from the Global South in an effort to undermine the church’s influence on issues like the environment and migration.

The intra-ecclesial context has also changed. A feature of contemporary Catholic neo-traditionalism today is concern over teaching on the family and marriage, and over the rise of the LGBT movement in the church—something that simply was not there in decades past. If Lefebvre’s movement cannot be understood outside the context of French Catholicism, the French Revolution, and laïcité, the U.S. neo-traditionalist movement is incomprehensible outside the history of the American culture wars. A growing media ecosystem of cable TV outlets, internet channels, and bloggers acting as self-appointed watchdogs has helped nurture the movement, while acting in almost guerilla fashion against Pope Francis.

As much as I appreciate Faggioli’s push back against the anti-liberals and integralists now sprouting up among conservatives who are Roman Catholic, I also know the Villanova University professor is a good enough historian to understand that Roman Catholicism would not be what it is without context. As opposed to the notion that this is the church Jesus founded, you don’t have the power of bishops without the establishment of Christianity under Constantine, or the supremacy of the papacy without the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, or Tridentine faith without Protestantism.

In fact, Faggioli’s own preference for Vatican II Roman Catholicism, hardly the church for all time, is the product of a church that decided modernity — finally — was good and the church needed to catch up. You certainly don’t see that desire for relevance in the apostles, monastic reformers, or pope’s who aspired to divine right monarchy.

In which case, Faggioli’s charge of historicism is not in good faith.

Mary, Queen not of the Scots but the Universe?

That at least is the claim by Roman Catholics, who last week celebrated the Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

As was the custom in Israel, Mary was predestined to be the Queen Mother of Jesus. Since Jesus was to be King of all creation, his mother Mary — in dependence on Jesus — was to be his Queen. Since Jesus took his earthly flesh from his mother Mary, it was only fitting that her flesh, too, should have been preserved from the stain of original sin.

Mary was acting in her role of Queen Mother when, at the wedding feast at Cana, she turned to her Son for help — and then when she instructed the steward, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Protestants don’t think so, at least the Scot James Orr took a different view on the wholesomeness of queen mothers in the Old Testament:

It stands to reason that among a people whose rulers are polygamists the mother of the new king or chief at once becomes a person of great consequence. The records of the Books of Kings prove it. The gebhirah, or queen mother, occupied a position of high social and political importance; she took rank almost with the king. When Bath-sheba, the mother of Solomon, desired “to speak unto him for Adonijah,” her son “rose up to meet her, and bowed himself unto her, and sat down on his throne, and caused a throne to be set for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right hand” (1 Ki 2:19). And again, in 2 Ki 24:15, it is expressly stated that Nebuchadnezzar carried away the king’s mother into captivity; Jeremiah calls her gebhirah (29:2). The king was Jehoiachin (Jeconiah, Jer 29:2), and his mother’s name was Nehushta (2 Ki 24:8). This was the royal pair whose impending doom the prophet was told to forecast (Jer 13:18). Here again the queen mother is mentioned with the king, thus emphasizing her exalted position. Now we understand why Asa removed Maacah his (grand?)mother from being queen (queen mother), as we are told in 1 Ki 15:13 (compare 2 Ch 15:16). She had used her powerful influence to further the cause of idolatry. In this connection Athaliah’s coup d’etat may be briefly mentioned. After the violent death of her son Ahaziah (2 Ki 9:27), she usurped the royal power and reigned for some time in her own name (2 Ki 11:3; compare 2 Ch 22:12). This was, of course, a revolutionary undertaking, being a radical departure from the usual traditions.

Not the best model for Mary.

And then we have the perspective of Judaism. In addition to Michal and Bathsheba, perhaps not the best of precedents, we have Ataliah:

The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (or else of Omri), wife of Jehoram of Judah, and sole reigning queen of Judah. Like her husband, she murdered all familial rivals upon her accession to the throne. Only her grandson Joash escaped her clutches thanks to his aunt Jehosheva (Ataliah’s daughter). Ataliah fostered the idolatrous worship of Baal-Melqart, and her reign was odious to the Judahites. She received condign punishment when her son-in-law, the stalwart high priest Jehoiada, proclaimed her grandson Joash as king in a coronation ceremony in the Temple. The despairing Ataliah tore her clothes and protested the act of treason, then was promptly led off and summarily executed at the horse gate of the royal palace. In the aftermath of Ataliah’s demise, the temple of Baal was destroyed and its priest Mattan slain.

But if you can look at queen mothers in the Old Testament as the institutional model for Mary’s status in the Christian faith, you might have no trouble believing the New York Times about slavery in America.