Is This A Good Way to Think about the Incarnation?

Is it true much less infallible?

What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?

The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature – the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.

He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes, indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.

Welcome to Protestant Land

William Oddie wonders about the state of Roman Catholicism in ways never conceived by Jason and the Callers:

What exactly is going on, when Bishops and parish priests can so radically differ about the most elementary issues of faith and morals—about teachings which are quite clearly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and when simultaneously one Cardinal describes such teachings as “crazy” and another simply expounds them as the immemorial teachings of the Church? Does nobody know what the Church believes any more?

In But Not of America (part two)

Sometimes politically conservative Roman Catholics can appeal to Americanism to show the flaws of the Democrats. George Weigel has done this:

[Leo XIII] was, in other words, warning against confusions and distortions that are manifestly in play in certain Catholic quarters today, whether or not they were widespread in Catholic circles in late-19th-century America.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has displayed many of these tendencies throughout her years in the national spotlight. Most recently, the House minority leader said that her Catholic faith “compels” her to “be against discrimination of any kind,” which is why she, as a Catholic, supports so-called “gay marriage.” That the teaching authority of the Church has made unmistakably clear on numerous occasions that there is and can be no such thing as “gay marriage” evidently makes not the slightest difference to Mrs. Pelosi, whose personal judgments are the magisterium she obeys.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is another whose approach to faith, judgment, and public policy would seem to vindicate Leo XIII’s concerns. Despite the efforts of the archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Joseph Naumann, to convince her otherwise, Sebelius, first as governor of the Sunflower State and now as chief health-care official in the Obama administration, has insisted on the most libertine possible abortion policy. She vetoed a bill prohibiting late-term abortions shortly before leaving the governor’s office in Topeka, and she has defended the HHS mandate’s diktat that religious institutions must provide coverage including abortifacient drugs as part of “preventive health services.” That several popes and the entire Catholic hierarchy of the United States have, on numerous occasions, declared such actions beyond the bounds of moral reason — not just the bounds of Catholic doctrine, but the bounds of moral reason itself — makes no discernible difference to Secretary Sebelius. Like Representative Pelosi, she is her own magisterium.

Leo’s concerns about confusions over the natural and supernatural virtues seem prescient when one looks around the U.S. Catholic scene today. E. J. Dionne Jr. regularly praises the Church for its social-service networks (as well he should). But amidst his many attempts to bolster the fading cause of Catholic progressivism, has Dionne ever written about the absolute centrality of the sacraments to Catholic identity and mission, linking the Church’s liturgical life to its work for justice, as the leaders of the mid-20th-century Liturgical Movement always did? I don’t doubt that Dionne believes that the celebration of the Eucharist is a stronger expression of the essence of Catholicism than what any bishop says about the Ryan budget; still, no one would learn that from any of his columns since January. And in this, of course, Dionne maintains his role as chief cheerleader for the Obama administration. For it was President Obama who, at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement, defined social-service Catholicism of a certain ideological hue as the real Catholicism — a theme to which Obama has returned in recent weeks, reminiscing about the halcyon days of his community organizing in Chicago.

Then there is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of sisters the Vatican is attempting to reform. That Vatican intervention took place not because many of these sisters supported Obamacare (pace E. J. Dionne), but because their approach to religious life embodies many of the difficulties against which Leo XIII cautioned: conscience understood as personal willfulness and set against ecclesial authority; religious obedience juxtaposed to human maturity; humility discarded for the sake of pride (in this case feminist pride). Many of the LCWR’s leaders seem to agree with Dionne that what really counts in the life of American sisters is their social service, not the vowed witness of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the midst of a culture dominated by the imperial autonomous Self. Leo XIII would have disagreed, and his prediction that any such secularist reduction of consecrated religious life would lead to its implosion has been borne out by the sad fact that the LCWR orders are dying from lack of new members.

Then there is Mario Cuomo, who in 1984 gave a distinctively Americanist speech, in Leo XIII’s sense of the term, at Notre Dame: a speech that paved the way for the national careers of Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, and Joe Biden, and that would have defined the curious Catholicism of the John Kerry administration, had things gone the other way in 2004. Cuomo recently told Maureen Dowd that “if the Church were my religion, I’d have given it up a long time ago. . . . All the terrible things the Church has done. Christ is my religion, the Church is not.” Yet the Church and its teachings, as Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Gibbons in his ornate style, come to us “from the same Author and Master, ‘the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father’ [John 1:18].”

Maureen Dowd’s anti-Church rants on the New York Times op-ed page would have brought an embarrassed blush to the face of a great man (and a devoted churchman) like Isaac Hecker. But in this instance, Dowd’s invitation gave Cuomo the opportunity to articulate with precision one facet of the down-market theology that shapes the new Americanism: the theology that sets Jesus (heavily edited down to a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount) against the Church. And when Jesus is juxtaposed to the Church rather them embraced as the Lord of the Church that is His Body in the world, the rest readily follows: Private judgment trumps authoritative Catholic teaching; the Church of social service is severed from, and then trumps, the Church of the sacraments; freedom is purely a matter of following conscience (no matter how ill-formed or erroneous that conscience may be); doctrine is an obstacle to witness; and Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic cabinet officer who has declared her administration at “war” with the Catholic Church, addresses a commencement ceremony at Georgetown University, a hub of the new Americanism and its distortion of Catholic identity and Catholic social doctrine.

This new form of Catholicism Lite, a not-so-phantom hash of ideas that poses real problems for the integrity of the Church and its evangelical mission, breathes deeply of two winds that have long blown through American Christianity: the ancient Pelagian wind, with its emphasis on the righteousness of our works and how they will win our salvation; and the Congregationalist wind, with its deep suspicion that Catholic authority is incompatible with American democracy. As for the older Americanist controversy, I think the classic historiographers of U.S. Catholicism were largely right: The “Americanism” of which Leo XIII warned in Testem Benevolentiae was far more a phantom concocted by fevered, ancien-régime European minds than a heresy that threatened Catholic faith in the United States. But the problems that Leo flagged are very much with us over a century later. They are at the root of the internal Catholic culture war that has intensified as religious freedom has come under concerted assault, and as the new Americanists, who form a coherent party in a way that Isaac Hecker and his friends never did, have either denied that assault — or abetted it.

And sometimes Roman Catholics can appeal to the popes to challenge politically (and market friendly) conservatives like Weigel. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Weigel’s reaction to Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work. And another Justice and Peace favorite – the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development – is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.)

If those burrowed into the intellectual and institutional woodwork at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace imagine Caritas in Veritate as reversing the rout they believe they suffered with Centesimus Annus, and if they further imagine Caritas in Veritate setting Catholic social doctrine on a completely new, Populorum Progressio-defined course (as one Justice and Peace consultor has already said), they are likely to be disappointed. The incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical is so deep, and the language in some cases so impenetrable, that what the defenders of Populorum Progresio may think to be a new sounding of the trumpet is far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo.

Perhaps it was criticism’s like this that prompted Weigel’s piece to go the route of the interweb’s lost and found:

Weigel celebrates Centesimus Annus which he claims “jettisoned the idea of a ‘Catholic third way’ that was somehow ‘between’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ capitalism and socialism – a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G.K.Chesterton to John A. Ryan to Ivan Illich.” Actually, both Centesimus and even more so Caritas in Veritate stress that the “Catholic way” must be prior to the claims of any economic theory, that the disposition for grace and communion must be part of the system, not a mere add-on, that unjust systems produce unjust results, and that a system that produces – at the same time – material wealth and spiritual poverty must be seen as morally and humanly suspect.

Weigel repeats the now common neo-con canard that capitalism is morally wholesome because it is driven not by greed but by human creativity. So, creative like Bernie Madoff or creative like Steve Jobs? Either way, Weigel fails to note that this celebration of wholesome capitalism is not found in the many pages of Caritas in Veritate. . . .

The gravest intellectual problem for Weigel is not his inability to see the validity of the influence of the good monsignori at Justice and Peace, nor that the Catholic social tradition permits several ways of approaching complicated economic and political issues. He claims some passages are “simply incomprehensible” and perhaps they are to him. But, the example he gives is telling. He writes that “the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a ‘necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.’ This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.” Gee. I don’t think it is that difficult to understand. It means that the stance of the Christian must be one of openness to the other, especially to the poor, and that we must create shares in the economic sphere for the poor, a share that sees them as a gift from God. We must see our relationship to the poor as one of communion not exploitation. And, does Weigel truly think Pope Benedict would write something “dumb”? Even if you disagree with Pope Benedict, he is never dumb.

Weigel not only misunderstands the relationship a Christian should have to the poor, he misunderstands the relationship a Catholic should have to a papal encyclical. I had thought that it was the Pope and the bishops who had the task of authoritatively interpreting the doctrine of the Church. Silly me. Mr. Weigel, with his gold and red pens, is the official arbiter of what passes as orthodoxy. He labels parts of the new encyclical “incomprehensible,” he charges the curia with “fideism” for advocating the necessity of transnational institutions, and he casts slurs upon Pope Paul VI for Populorum Progressio. Benedict is a “gentle soul” incapable of controlling a text that bears his name and he has been duped into signing on to foolishness.

Weigel is wrong on the merits, but he is also wrong in his stance. This encyclical – all of it – bears the Pope’s signature and the respect due to all statements of the magisterium. Weigel’s arguments have long been tedious and are here tendentious. But, it is not only the intellectual dishonesty of this essay that rankles. Behind his knowing Vaticanology, Weigel betrays a disloyalty to Pope Benedict and to the memory of Pope Paul that surprised even me. I have long recognized a certain myopia and a pronounced hubris in Weigel’s writings but he has outdone himself. He should put his red and gold pens away and read the text in its entirety as an invitation to grow in discipleship. As I commented yesterday, Caritas in Veritate has something to challenge everyone.

These are squabbles you’ll never see mentioned by Jason and the Callers. Sure, dogma has not changed, though the stance that accompanies the dogmatic utterances sure has. But can anyone explain how these disputes, which hardly signify a united church, signify that the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption even matters?

Whatever Happened, It Deserves to be Mentioned

While Bryan Cross and others shrug their shoulders about Vatican 2’s significance, practically everywhere you go in other Roman Catholic venues you find acknowledgement that something changed in the church and it was disruptive. Bryan likens this line of attack to an accusation of bait and switch — such that when he blogs about the virtues of Rome he doesn’t mention the elephant in the room that Vatican 2 became for conservatives and traditionalists (but of course, according to Bryan, conservatives don’t exist — you’re either Roman Catholic or you’re not). Well, try as I might, I am having trouble finding other Roman Catholic apologists or scholars who are as reluctant at JATC (Jason and the Callers) are to talk turkey about Vatican 2.

So in the spirit of the season, here are a few servings:

It is hard, from these standpoints, not to stress the discontinuity, the experience of an event, of a break with routine. This is the common langauge used by participants and by observers at the time — the young Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections after each session, published in English as Theological Highlights of Vatican II, are a good example. It is from this perspective that James Hitchcock calls Vatican II “the most important event within the Church in the past four hundred years,” and the French historian-sociologist Emile Poulat points out that the Catholic Church changed more in the ten years after Vatican II than it did in the previous hundred years. Similar positions are held by people along the whole length of the ideological spectrum. Whether they regard what happened as good or bad, they all agree that something happened. (Joseph A Komonchak, “Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Vatican II,” 108)

I do find it odd that the very institution that is supposed to govern interpretations within the church — the papacy, the office that protects Rome against Protestantism’s opinions — can’t even control the interpretation of such a central feature in church life.

Then comes this from Eamon Duffy:

On every front, then, the Council redrew the boundaries of what had seemed to 1959 a fixed and immutable system. For some Catholics, these changes were the long-awaited harvest of the New Theology, the reward of years of patient endurance during the winter of Pius XII. For others, they were apostasy, the capitulation of the Church to the corrupt and worldly values of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, which the popes from Piux IX to Pius XII had rightly denounced. And for others, perhaps the majority, they were a bewildering stream of directives from above, to be obeyed as best they could. Many of the older clergy of the Catholic Church found themselves sleep-walking through the Conciliar and post-Conciliar years, loyal to an authority which called them to embrace attitudes which the same authority had once denounced as heresy. Pope John’s successor would have to do with all this. (Saints and Sinners, 274-75)

Bryan is wont to shrug at such quotations from historical works, but I’m not sure how he doesn’t feel the weight of the change of authority — the very authority that he uses to show Protestantism’s inferiority — that Duffy notes. He can hide behind the claim that no dogma changed at Vatican 2. Yet, the line between sin and heresy and dogma and discipline was never so clear that the priests Duffy mentions knew how to sort it out and instruct the faithful on what was no longer required and why it wasn’t even though it had been sinful before not to perform certain acts of obedience.

Even for those hopeful of a restoration of Rome’s conservative posture — hard to believe given stories about conservatives’ perceptions of Pope Francis — Vatican 2 was a ecclesiastical bowl of confusion:

Of course, the fact remains that none of the documents of Vatican II are taught ex cathedra. Therefore, none of the teachings of Vatican II are formally pronounced as dogmas by the Second Vatican Council itself. So, very strictly speaking, a person can dissent from Vatican II itself without being a formal heretic. However, to dissent from an ecumenical council is no small matter. To put it informally, one may avoid being a heretic, but still may be a “bad” Catholic.

How did this confusion take root? It can best be explained as rising from the concept of conciliar self-verification. In other words, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the fathers at an “ecumenical council” are teachers of faith and morals, and their “definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” The problem is, the ecumenical council making this statement is itself an ecumenical council—and, therefore, is making statements about itself and not making it with the highest authority, i.e., ex cathedra.

In other words, one might say this is the conciliar version of chasing one’s own theological tail. The fallout has been that, for several generations of Catholics, from academics and Church leaders to the laity in the pews, the lasting impression is, “Vatican II said it was okay to disagree with the Pope.”

Thus began the era of “taking sides.” It was as if the Catholic faith became no more than a grand game—Pope and established Church teachings versus the dissenters—and individual Catholics could simply pick which team to root for. Some called themselves liberals (the “left”) while others called themselves conservatives (the “right”). Each group dissented from Vatican II, but for different reasons.

Many liberal nuns in the U.S., for example, continue to sympathize with anti-life groups that claim they are helping the poor by promoting the poor’s right to funds for abortion and contraception. They claim to be supporting social justice by defending, or, at least, sympathizing with, the gay agenda. They are especially vocal in demanding that the Church ordain women to the priesthood—even after John Paul II informed them that the Church teaching on an all male priesthood is infallible and, therefore, cannot be changed.

On the other hand, the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, continues to err on the side of utter conservative rigidity. They reject the Second Vatican Council as a movement of the Holy Spirit, and cling to the minutiae of 500-year-old rituals as necessary, for their own sake. The change of the liturgy from Latin to English, or the vernacular of each particular country, is their most well-known objection.

Therefore, today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II, the misinterpretation of one of its most salient documents, Lumen Gentium, continues to drive a number of Catholics in the United States into one of two camps, the “right” or the “left.”

So the next time Bryan wants to call conservative Presbyterians to communion, he might want to go through the fine print with those he’s calling.

What Do Pope Francis and Russell Moore Have in Common?

With all the discussion of the piece on Russell Moore, few have seemed to notice the parallels between Moore, the newly installed director of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Pope Francis, compared to Richard Land, his predecessor at the Commission, and Benedict XVI. Moore and Francis, at least as journalists portray them, are backing away from the strictness and scolding of their predecessors, Land and Benedict. Granted, as Keith Miller observes, the problem could simply be with the journalists. They have a narrative and they are sticking to it — the old guy was mean, the new guy is nice.

Even so, journalists are not stupid and the parallels are striking. Consider the following with Francis and Benedict in mind:

“When Richard Land spoke to most issues, he was certain that Southern Baptists were behind him and he was their mouthpiece,” Mr. Mohler says. “Russ will need a deft touch to make sure that Southern Baptists stay behind him.” [me – okay, U.S. Roman Catholics have never lined up behind the Vatican, but please keep reading]

Mr. Moore is in no way a liberal. He equates abortion with the evils of slavery, considers homosexuality a sin, and insists the Southern Baptist Convention will never support gay marriage. At the same time, he emphasizes reconciliation and draws a traditional doctrinal distinction between the sinner and the sin. . . .

Mr. Moore would like the Southern Baptists to be able to hold on to people such as Sarah Parr. The 31-year-old social worker grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist family in southern Virginia. She graduated from Liberty University, founded in 1971 by the Falwell family. But she says she found herself increasingly less at home in the church, and left it altogether in her 20s.

She now attends a nondenominational church that meets in an old theater on Washington’s Capitol Hill. Politically, she describes herself “as a moderate at best, if I’m anything. But I don’t find myself in either party.”

When Mr. Moore took over in June as the Southern Baptists’ top public-policy advocate, he startled some in the church by declaring as dead and gone the entire concept of the Bible Belt as a potent mix of Jesus and American boosterism. “Good riddance,” he told thousands of the faithful at the group’s annual convention in Houston in June. “Let’s not seek to resuscitate it.”

In an essay for the conservative Christian magazine “First Things,” titled “Why Evangelicals Retreat,” he dinged the movement for “triumphalism and hucksterism” and lampooned a time when its leaders dispatched voter guides for the Christian position on “a line-item veto, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the proper funding levels for the Department of Education.”

Mr. Moore says there is no doctrinal daylight between him and his church, and he insists he isn’t seeking to return the Southern Baptists to a past in which it shunned politics entirely.

He travels almost weekly from his home in Nashville to Washington to meet with members of the Obama administration and with congressional leaders. He has allied with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups to make the case that overhauling the U.S. immigration system is a Christian goal. He is pushing the Pentagon to give religious chaplains in the military freer rein to preach, and has helped build a new coalition to fight a federal requirement that insurers provide contraception coverage.

His approach, however, is strikingly different from that of his predecessor Mr. Land, who for a quarter century served as the leading voice of the Southern Baptists. Like many evangelical leaders of his generation, Mr. Land, a Princeton-educated Texan, openly aligned himself with the Republican Party and popped up frequently in the Oval Office during the George W. Bush years.

Long before their divergent approaches on the gay-marriage issue, Messrs. Moore and Land split over the huge rally held by conservative talk-radio host Glenn Beck in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 2010. Mr. Land attended the rally as Mr. Beck’s guest, and later compared Mr. Beck to Billy Graham, calling him “a person in spiritual motion.”

Mr. Moore, in an essay posted after the rally, said the event illustrated how far astray many conservative Christians had wandered in pursuit of “populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads.”

In an interview, Mr. Land said the Southern Baptist leadership is divided into those who think the culture war is lost; those who are weary and want it over; and those who think they are losing the war but feel victory is still possible. He declined to say where he puts Mr. Moore, but said he counts himself among the latter. “We are like where Britain was in 1940, under heavy attack but still not defeated,” he said.

Asked to respond, Mr. Beck in a written statement applauded Mr. Land and said, “In times like these, we need to find common ground.”

At the very least, readers might reasonably conclude that Francis and Moore are saying they each need to reconsider their predecessor’s approach to the culture wars.

But one important difference does exist. While Francis, whose pay grade is to interpret the church’s teaching, relies on a bevy of interpreters to make sense of his quips to the press, Russell Moore does actually interpret what he means.

The recent profile in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a generational change in terms of the way evangelicals approach cultural and political engagement: toward a gospel-centered approach that doesn’t back down on issues of importance, but sees our ultimate mission as one that applies the blood of Christ to the questions of the day.

The headline, as is often the case with headlines, is awfully misleading. I am not calling, at all, for a “pullback” from politics or engagement.

If anything, I’m calling for more engagement in the worlds of politics, culture, art, labor and so on. It’s just that this is a different sort of engagement. It’s not a matter of pullback, but of priority.

What I’m calling for in our approach to political engagement is what we’re already doing in one area: the pro-life movement. Evangelicals in the abortion debate have demonstrated convictional kindness in a holistic ethic of caring both for vulnerable unborn children and for the women who are damaged by abortion. The pro-life movement has engaged in a multi-pronged strategy that addresses, simultaneously, the need for laws to outlaw abortion, care for women in crisis pregnancies, adoption and foster care for children who need families, ministry to women (and men) who’ve been scarred by abortion, cultivating a culture that persuades others about why we ought to value human life, and the proclamation of the gospel to those whose consciences bear the guilt of abortion. . . .

We teach our people that their vote for President of the United States is crucially important. They’ll be held accountable at Judgment for whomever they hand the Romans 13 sword to. But we teach them that their vote on the membership of their churches is even more important. A church that loses the gospel is a losing church, no matter how many political victories it wins. A church that is right on public convictions but wrong on the gospel is a powerless church, no matter how powerful it seems.

That does sound like the old Christian Right, an elevation of matters temporal to the level of things eternal — voting having redemptive consequences. Even so, whether Moore did this simply to silence critics, or to avoid showing disrespect to Richard Land, at least he did respond. Francis still hasn’t. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you.)

Do Jason and the Callers Think Much about Wadi al-Kharrar?

Recent discussion of John Paul II’s beatification resurrected parts of the pope’s career that I had completely forgotten, such as his 2000 trip to the place of Jesus’ baptism (Wadi-al-Kharrar). On that trip the pope said, “May Saint John Baptist protect Islam and all the people of Jordan, and all who partecipated in this celebration, a memorable celebration. I’m very grateful to all of you.” This was a year after John Paul II kissed the Qur’an during a visit to Rome by a delegation of Muslim leaders.

For some Roman Catholics like Robert Spencer, Islam and Christianity are fundamentally at odds and Islam is a threat to the United States. Others believe that John Paul II should never have been as friendly to other religions of the world:

I am an Orthodox Catholic (I do not consider myself ultra-conservative) and I cannot get beyond the incident at Assisi where the statue of Buddha was placed on top of the tabernacle (in the very presence of His Holiness), an act which Arch-Bishop Lefebvre called “diabolical.” Nor can I get the picture out of my mind of JPII kissing the Quran. And what about the joint prayer services with the pagans?

And then, of course, there is the condition of the Church under his watch. Need I say more?

Of all the popes- saints before JPII, would any of these things have happened under their watches? Does it preclude his sainthood? Should it? I don’t know the answers. But these are valid questions that cannot summarily be dismissed as “ultra-conservative” as Mr. Weigel attempts to do.

Then again, the reporters who cover the Vatican provide useful insights into what may drive Vatican policy (though it does not appear to be informed by Peter’s warnings about false teachers). This is from an old story about Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit to the Land many call “holy”:

When Benedict XVI lands in Jordan on May 8, it will be his first visit to an Arab nation and his first to a predominantly Muslim country since Turkey in late November/early December 2006. As it turned out, the Turkey trip became a kiss-and-make-up exercise in the wake of the pope’s famous September 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, which inflamed sentiment across the Muslim world because of its incendiary citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor with some nasty things to say about Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The iconic image from Turkey was Benedict XVI standing inside the Blue Mosque, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, for a moment of silent prayer in the direction of Mecca.

Because the Turkey trip was hijacked by damage control, Jordan offers Benedict his first real opportunity to lay out his vision of Catholic/Muslim relations while on Islamic turf. That vision goes under the heading of “inter-cultural dialogue,” and it boils down to this: Benedict XVI believes the real clash of civilizations in the world today runs not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief. In that struggle, he believes Christians and Muslims should be natural allies. As a result, he has deemphasized the fine points of theological exchange – how Christians and Muslims each understand atonement, for example, or scripture. Instead, his priority is a grand partnership with Muslims in defense of a robust role for religion in public affairs, as well as shared values such as the family and the sanctity of life. (Among other things, that means joint efforts against abortion and gay marriage.)

The price of admission to that partnership, Benedict believes, is for Islam to denounce violence and to accept the legitimacy of religious freedom. In that sense, he sees himself as a friend of Islam, promoting reform from within a shared space of religious and moral commitment. To date, however, he has not found an argot for making that pitch successfully to the Muslim “street.”

All of this, and you can find a lot more about the Vatican’s relations with Muslims, adds up to a relationship between Roman Catholicism and Islam that is decidedly contested, with popes doing damage control and pursuing inter-religious dialogue in ways that would have made liberal Protestants proud, and some laity incredulous that the Vatican could be so indifferent to the claims of church dogma, with others willing to bless the popes in ways that John Paul II wanted John the Baptist to bless Islam.

But one additional item caught my eye while trying to take the pulse of Vatican-Muslim relations. It was a comment on the proper way to conduct inter-religious dialogue:

I am all for dialogue between Muslims and Christians when it is honest and not based on false pretenses. There doesn’t seem to be any use to dialogue that ignores difficulties and points of disagreement rather than confronting them. . . . One thing that must be recognized is that for many Muslim spokesmen and leaders, dialogue with adherents of other religions is simply a proselytizing mechanism designed to convert the “dialogue” partner to Islam, as the Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb explained: “The chasm between Islam and Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] is great, and a bridge is not to be built across it so that the people on the two sides may mix with each other, but only so that the people of Jahiliyyah may come over to Islam.”

In line with this, 138 Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, inviting him to dialogue. The title of the document they sent to him was A Common Word Between Us and You. Reading the entire Qur’anic verse from which the phrase “a common word between us and you” was taken makes the Common Word initiative’s agenda clear: “Say: ‘People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’ And if they turn their backs, say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:64). Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims. Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals.

Which brings us back to Jason and the Callers. What kind of ecumenical dialogue do they encourage when some think it is really a form of proselytizing? And what kind of conversation do they facilitate when the Protestant paradigm is off limits? Rhetorical questions, perhaps. But given the way they call others to communion, one suspects they can’t be all that pleased with the recent popes’ outreach to Islam. (Or maybe they are.)

Can You Imagine a Commentary on Peter's Epistles Written this Way?

I am suspicious of folks who draw up lists of things I need to know. Joe Carter does it for Protestants. Now in reporting on the new encyclical, Jimmy Aikin does it for Roman Catholics.

Aside from this annoyance, the striking aspect of Aikin’s post is the notion that an officer, the pope, who is supposed to resolve the confusions of the faithful (and even put an end to private opinions), actually increases speculation and the public expression of private opinion:

4. Does Lumen Fidei acknowledge Pope Benedict’s role in its composition?
Yes. In it, Pope Francis writes:

These considerations on faith — in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue — are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. [LF 7].

5. Does Lumen Fidei sound like Pope Benedict?
Much of it does. It includes many of the characteristic touches and themes of his writings.

For example, it contains many references to history, including early Christian history, Jewish history, and pagan history. It contains references to the thought of historical figures, including the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. It also refers to the thought of recent intellectual figures, including the Catholic thinker Romano Guardini, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the agnostic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

6. Do particular passages sound like Pope Francis?
This is harder to judge. He is mostly known for his speaking style, and his own voice for a document of this nature may take time to emerge. One touch that is distinctly Pope Francis, though, is the way he signs the encyclical. Normally popes give their name in Latin, followed by “PP” (a Latin abbreviation for “pope”) and followed by their number. Pope Benedict, for example, signed Spe Salvi by writing “Benedictus PP XVI.” Pope Francis, being the first pope to use this name, does not have a number, so you wouldn’t expect that in his signature. He does, however, seem to prefer not to use the title “pope,” preferring “bishop of Rome,” instead. Thus he leaves out the “PP” in his signature and simply signs the encyclical Franciscus.”

Aikens also tries to read the tea leaves of Vatican politics:

14. Does this encyclical tell us much about how Pope Francis will govern the Church?
Not as much as you might think. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, it does not appear to lay out a blueprint for his entire pontificate. This is largely due to the fact that he inherited an almost complete first draft of the encyclical from Pope Benedict. Thus Pope Francis’s second encyclical may actually shed more light on the agenda for his own pontificate. It does, however, contain some intriguing clues, including the emphasis on the role of faith in society, the allusion to marriage as the union of man and woman, and his own personal style, as illustrated by his signature.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a free country and Christian communions since the formation of free countries have had all sorts of trouble reigning in the flock, imposing uniformity, and achieving coherence. Roman Catholics in the U.S. have to try to make sense of their relationship with the Vatican just as Orthodox Presbyterians need to reckon with doings in the PCA and the Free Church Continuing.

But when Jason and the Callers are lauding the papacy as the balm to heal all Protestant wounds, they need to think how this sounds to anyone who is actually following what happens in the Roman Catholic press. (BTW, I wonder if Bryan has been avoiding Oldlife because I gave Jason top billing.)

Postscript: a way to out Jimmy-Aikin Jimmy Aikin is to speculate on Peter’s motives in writing of Paul’s letters that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Was this payback for Paul’s rebuke of Peter? Was it an expression of jealousy for Luke following Paul rather than Peter? Was it a form of writer’s envy? Who asks these questions?

Sometimes the "Bar" Eats You

Lest readers think Old Life is a lone voice in evaluating how far Called to Communion’s view of Rome is from the rest of the world, here are a few recent takes on the Church in the light of Benedict’s abdication. First, Ross Douthat:

The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.

This transformation suggests that we may have reached the end of a distinctive “Catholic moment” (to repurpose a phrase from the late Catholic priest-intellectual Richard John Neuhaus) in American politics, one that began in the 1980s after John Paul’s ascension to the papacy and the migration of many Catholic “Reagan Democrats” into the Republican Party.

This was hardly the first era when Catholic ideas shaped American debates. (New Deal-era liberalism, for instance, owed a major debt to Catholic social thought.) But it was the first era when the Catholic vote was both frequently decisive and genuinely up for grabs, and it was an era when Catholic debates and personalities filled the vacuum left by the decline of the Protestant mainline.

Then Rod Dreher (on Douthat):

. . . there never was a possibility for a Catholic moment in America. Not even American Catholics agree on what it means to be Catholic, and what is required of them as Catholics. From the outside, Catholicism looks unitary, but from the inside, Catholicism (in America, at least) is just about as fragmented as Protestantism. This is why you have the spectacle of Garry Wills denying the sacramental priesthood and the Real Presence, but still presenting himself as a Catholic, and being received by many Catholics as Catholic. Catholicism in this country has lost its distinctives, because many, probably most, actual Catholics have no sense that the faith they profess calls them to accept and to live by a set of theological and moral precepts that they may struggle to accept, but must accept because God revealed them authoritatively through His church.

One may say this is a good thing, this Protestantization of Catholicism, or one may decry it as a bad thing. But I don’t see how one can credibly say that it doesn’t exist. Catholicism, understood on its own terms, is radically opposed to American culture, and to the essence of modernity. Catholicism, as understood by most American Catholics, is not. There’s the problem with the Catholic moment, and why it was never going to happen. Of course, the behavior of the bishops in the abuse crisis didn’t help, but ultimately it was beside the point.

Yet, Called to Communion, ever paradigmatic, continues with ‘s’all good, infallible even.

Before the Expiration Date Runs Out

In my efforts to try to place Benedict XVI within contemporary Roman Catholic thought, I have been also trying to get a read on the Communio theologians and their affinities with Radical Orthodoxy. What apparently unites these different schools of theology is a fundamental critique of modernity. In her chapter on “Modernity and the Politics of the West” in Ratzinger’s Faith, Tracey Rowland describes Benedict’s brief against Martin Luther (not so much for leading souls astray with his doctrine of justification) for departing from the “classical-theistic idea of creation”:

While Bruno and Galileo represent a return to a pre-Christian, Greek, and pagan world, Luther went in the extreme opposite direction. He wanted to purge Christian thought of its Greek heritage, and the Greek element he found most objectionable was the concept of the cosmos in the question of being, and therefore in the area of the doctrine of creation. For Luther, redemption sets humans free from the curse of the existing creation and thus grace exists in radical opposition to creation. Developing an argument taken from Angelo Scola and Rocco Buttiglione, Ratzinger concluded that “without the mystery of redemptive love, which is also creative love, the world inevitably becomes dualistic: by nature, it becomes geometry: as history, it becomes the drama of evil. (109)

I am not all that sure what “the mystery of redemptive love” is, or whether Angelo or Rocco also have ties to the Italian mafia who bank with the Vatican, but I do think I’ll stand with Luther on this one, especially when he writes in the following manner (from a sermon from 1535):

The radiant sun, the loveliest of the creatures, gives only a little of its service to the saints. While it shines on one saint it must shine on thousands and thousands of rogues, and it must give them light in spite of all their godlessness and evil, and so it must permit its loveliest and purest service to the most unworthy, the wickedest and loosest knaves.

It is our Lord God’s good creature, and would much rather serve devout people; but the noble creature must bear it and serve the evil world unwillingly. Yet it hopes that that service shall at long last have an end, and does it in obedience to God who has thus ordained it, that He may be known as a merciful God and Father, who (as Christ teaches), “maketh His sun to rise on the veil and on the good” (Matt v. 45) For this reason the noble sun serves vanity and renders its good service in vain. But in His own time our Lord and God will find out those who have abused the noble sun and His other creatures, and He will reward the creatures abundantly. Thus the good St. Paul shows the holy cross in all creation, in that heaven and earth and all the creatures therein suffer with us and bear the dear treasured cross. Therefore we must not weep and moan so piteously when we fall on evil days, but must patiently wait for the redemption of the body and for the glory which shall be revealed in us; the more so as we know that the whole creation groans with anxious longing as a woman in travail, and sighs for the manifestation of the sons of God, for then the whole creation will also be redeemed. It will no longer be subject to vanity, to serve vanity, but it will serve only the children of God, and that willingly and joyfully.

For an account of the created world that takes the fall seriously, Luther should have much to say to both Roman Catholics and neo-Calvinists who may believe either in the glories of the pre-modern West or the successes of culture redeemed. If sin is in view, which it should be for the Protestants who put the T in TULIP, Luther’s interpretation of the world, not to mention his reading of Romans 8, makes a lot of sense.

Called to Call the Mother of God

No news for anyone on line who is using more than Comcast’s news updates (all about cleavages at the Grammy’s, I’m afraid) that Benedict XVI has resigned the office of pope, effective February 28, 2013. What may be news, however, is the last paragraph of his resignation:

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

It is an odd phenomenon for Protestants to think of praying (i.e., “implore) to Mary. For a recent convert like Christian Smith, Protestant discomfort is simply a symptom of evangelicals’ “allergy” to Mary. He goes on to write (How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic):

Evangelicals trust in the Bible, on which they say they base their beliefs. But, when it comes to things even only remotely and by association “too Catholic,” like Mary, the verses are read over and past and ignored. It is like Mary hardly matters, as if the verses were not in the Bible, as if Mary deserves no theological reflection. (48)

Never mind that Smith never cites any verses associated with Mary, or shows the theological reflection of the apostles (like Peter and Paul’s epistles) on the mother of Jesus. (He does get a lot of mileage in his case for Mary — wow! — out of the discovery that “Faith of Our Fathers” was a Roman Catholic hymn.) Never mind as well that even the Catholic Encyclopedia says of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, “No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture.”

Still, the allergy, if that’s what we want to call it, is the idea of praying to Mary. Praying to Mary is not something that should be surprising to Protestant observers. For instance, this is how Pius IX concluded Nullis Certe Verbis:

And so that God may incline His ear to Our prayers and yours and those of all the faithful, We ask first the recommendation of the Virgin Mary, who is our most beloved mother and most trustworthy hope and ever present guardian of the Church. Nothing is more powerful with God than her patronage. We also implore the support of Peter, then of his co-apostle Paul, and of all the heavenly citizens who reign with Christ in heaven. We do not doubt that in the light of your outstanding religion and priestly zeal, you will obey these Our prayers and petitions. Meanwhile as a pledge of Our burning charity toward you, from Our deepest heart and with a wish for all every true happiness, We lovingly impart Our Apostolic Blessing to you yourselves and all the clergy, and faithful laity committed to each of your vigilance.

And when Pius XI wrote an encyclical (Ad Caeli Reginam) which asserted the queenship of Mary over all other creatures, he closed with this:

Earnestly desiring that the Queen and Mother of Christendom may hear these Our prayers, and by her peace make happy a world shaken by hate, and may, after this exile show unto us all Jesus, Who will be our eternal peace and joy, to you, Venerable Brothers, and to your flocks, as a promise of God’s divine help and a pledge of Our love, from Our heart We impart the Apostolic Benediction.

But since Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God the Father (as in the Lord’s Prayer), the idea of praying to Mary is odd. I know apologists like Smith try to distinguish veneration from worship of saints. I also know that the CTCers have made their peace with Mary as Co-Redemptrix. But I am still wondering how praying to someone doesn’t give the impression that the entity to whom the prayer is being directed is anything less than divine. I also don’t understand why you wouldn’t simply pray directly to Christ, whose work as priest now is to intercede at God’s right hand. Is he too busy to hear?