When the Fix is Broken

Papal infallibility looks good on paper, but not so much on the Interweb:

These criticisms of Pope Francis put progressive Catholics in an awkward position. Progressives are big fans of Francis, but it would be somewhat hypocritical of them to suddenly become papal absolutists when they clearly had disagreements with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. On the other hand, conservatives who are now critical of Francis accused progressives of being “cafeteria Catholics” when they disagreed with John Paul or Benedict.

All I can say is, “Welcome to the cafeteria.”

The truth is all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. Conservative Catholics were quite willing to ignore John Paul’s and Benedict’s strong statements on justice and peace, and progressive Catholics are happy to ignore Francis’ opposition to women priests.

Disagreeing with the pope was not welcomed during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. Bishops, priests, theologians, and Catholic publications were expected to unreservedly cheer any statement that came out of Rome. Priests were silenced, seminary professors were removed, and magazine editors were fired if they strayed from the party line. The open debate that occurred during the Second Vatican Council was closed down. Candidates for the episcopacy were chosen based on loyalty to Rome rather than on intelligence or pastoral abilities.

The atmosphere has changed under Francis. Bishops are being chosen because of their pastoral abilities and identification with the poor. Theologians are free to speak and write what they please. Catholic publications are not subject to censorship. And cardinals and theologians are publicly criticizing the pope, something that would never have been allowed in earlier papacies.

Francis can only blame himself for this. He asked for it. At the beginning of the 2016 synod on the family, he told the bishops to “Speak clearly. Let no one say, ‘This can’t be said, they will think this or that about me.’ Everything we feel must be said, with ‘parrhesia’ (boldness).”

Doesn’t mean that Protestantism is the fix, but for those thinking the other side of the Tiber has the fix, reconsider.

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Now, That’s Audacious

Ross Douthat takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the era of Francis:

In fact the conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church’s tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office. Indeed, when Professor Faggioli complains about a “Catholic social media that has completely bypassed” the way the “Catholic Church has worked for centuries,” he might just as easily be describing Pope Francis, whose personalized style has made the lines of authority within the church maddeningly unclear.

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal.

In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisers who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.

But even that kind of Kremlinology doesn’t completely clarify the pope’s intentions, which is why Francis’s liberalizing allies are frequently impatient with him and sometimes get out ahead of his intentions and find themselves reined in.

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty.

What does that kind of uncertainty do to the narrative of so many converts that you go to Rome for the authority and certainty of timeless truth? Part of what it does is expose that unity and certainty are good in theory, and then comes a specific pope with all the authority and charism of the theory (they did not go away when Francis became pope — they inhere in the office). Protestants at least are honest about our disagreements. Roman Catholics cannot be:

This is a situation calculated to make everyone feel self-righteous and self-justified, to complain about toxic rhetoric while flinging insults frequently themselves.

It also places Catholic institutions — schools and parishes and universities and diocesan shops — in a very difficult position. The temptation, already evident, will be to shy away from conflict, to self-segregate theologically (liberal speakers to liberal campuses and parishes, vice versa for conservatives) and avoid even acknowledging the conflict.

But this approach is foolish. When the Supreme Pontiff is allowing argument to flourish and public division to increase, it does no good for institutions to pretend that none of this is happening — as though the average Catholic will somehow not notice that the leaders of the church are increasingly opposed to one another. (The poison of online debate is itself partially a reaction to this public pretense of tranquillity.)

All the more reason for my contention that Roman Catholicism would be better off without the papacy.

This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Will it be the Bible or the magisterium? Massimo Faggioli worries that papal audacialists are turning into magisterial fundamentalists:

Now, four years into the pontificate of Francis, only the traditionalist wing still uses the hermeneutics of “continuity and reform” versus “discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II; Francis has never used it. But the damage is done, and not just in Rome or in the Vatican. For while on one side there is the minimizing of the role of critical thinking about Church history, on the other there is the cultural turn to an emphasis on identity studies. Even at those universities where a historical-critical approach to Church institutions and magisterial texts persists, things tend to gravitate around “religious studies” instead of theology.

This poses a problem for history and religious studies as disciplines: trying to understand the past lives of Christians without a theological line of credit open toward the faith of those Christians limits the ability of the historians to understand the lives of those Christians. But it’s an even bigger problem for theology. The historical-critical method is facing some pushback today even when it comes to biblical studies, as seen recently in overblown reactions to what the new general of the Jesuits said about the interpretation of the Gospel a few weeks ago. Paradoxically it seems more acceptable in today’s Catholic Church to bring the historical-critical method to bear on Scripture than to documents of the magisterium; it’s become more acceptable to critique divinely inspired authors of Scripture than a pope writing on sexual morality. A creeping magisterial fundamentalism toward the encyclicals of this last century is part of the “biopolitical” problem of Catholicism. This is clearly visible in the debate over Amoris Laetitia. But it would also be worth exploring how naively and uncritically Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is sometimes used (or misused) in the U.S. church to make arguments about Catholic social teaching.

But with a reduced papacy, what separates Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism? And without the audacity of the papacy, how do you argue for Rome’s superiority to Geneva?

Does POTUS Define US?

Of course, not. The federal government has two other branches and the United States is way more than its government. McDonalds? Hollywood? Caitlyn? Harvard? The military? Heck, we don’t even pledge allegiance to the White House.

But what’s true for a nation is not true for a church like Roman Catholicism. There the papacy does define Roman Catholicism. And Ross Douthat explains why investing all that power and identity in a single office is a mistake, or why Pope Francis is more of a threat than President Trump:

Friendly media coverage casts the pontiff as a man of the center, an ecclesiastical equivalent of Angela Merkel or Barack Obama or David Cameron, menaced by authoritarians to his right. But he is no such thing, and not only because his politics are much more radical and apocalyptic than any Western technocrat. In the context of the papacy, in his style as a ruler of the church, Francis is flagrantly Trumpian: a shatterer of norms, a disregarder of traditions, an insult-heavy rhetorician, a pontiff impatient with the strictures of church law and inclined to govern by decree when existing rules and structures resist his will.

His admirers believe that all these aggressive moves, from his high-stakes push to change church discipline on remarriage and divorce to his recent annexation of the Knights of Malta, are justified by the ossification of the church and the need for rapid change. Which is to say, they regard the unhappiness of Vatican bureaucrats, the doubts of theologians, the confusion of bishops and the despair of canon lawyers the way Trump supporters regard the anxiety of D.C. insiders and policy experts and journalists — as a sign that their hero’s moves are working, that he’s finally draining the Roman swamp.

Meanwhile the church’s institutionalists are divided along roughly the same lines as mainstream politicians in the face of Trump’s ascent.

There is a faction that has thrown in with Francis completely, some out of theological conviction, some out of opportunism, some out of simple loyalty to the papal office. (The analogy would be to the mix of populists, opportunists and institutionalists who smoothed Trump’s progress to the Republican nomination.)

There is a group that is simply silent or deeply cautious — note how few of the world’s bishops have taken any position on the controversy over divorce and remarriage — in the hopes that things will simply return to normal without their having to put anything at risk. (The analogy would be to most Republican elected officials, and a few red-state Democrats as well.)

There is a group that is relatively open in criticism of the pope’s agenda but also unwilling to cross the line into norm-smashing of its own. (The analogy would be to the American center-right and center-left, from John McCain to Hillary Clinton.)

This last group’s sheer diversity is one reason the Bannon-versus-Francis theory fails. The ranks of papal skeptics are filled with Africans and Latin Americans as well as North Americans and Europeans, with prelates and theologians and laypeople of diverse economic and political perspectives. Most are not traditionalists like Burke; they are simply conservatives, comfortable with the Pope John Paul II model of Catholicism, with its fusion of the traditional and modern, its attempt to maintain doctrinal conservatism while embracing the Second Vatican Council’s reforms.

But because this larger group is cautious, its members have been overshadowed by the more forthright, combative and, yes, reactionary Cardinal Burke, whose interventions might as well come with the hashtag #TheResistance.

Which places him in the same position, relative to Francis, that a Bernie Sanders occupies relative to Trump — or that Jeremy Corbyn occupies relative to Brexit. He’s a figure from the fringe whose ideas gain influence because the other fringe is suddenly in power; a reactionary critic of a radical pope just as Sanders or Corbyn are radical critics of a suddenly empowered spirit of reaction.

So the story of Catholicism right now has less to do with reaction alone and more to do with what happens generally when an institution’s center doesn’t hold.

You don’t hear Bryan and the Jasons saying much about church politics. It’s like reading the Federalist Papers and ignoring the 2016 presidential campaign. And yet, ideas do have consequences and the theory of chief and infallible interpreter of the faith is not simply an idea. It is a way of life. At least the federalists left behind a Constitution. What enumerated powers did papal supremacists leave behind?

Root Root Root for the Home Team

A return to Called to Communion led me to a review of Rodney Stark’s book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History. Surprise, surprise, Casey Chalk finds the book valuable (even if his encouragement leans more heavily on faith than reason):

I have examined only two of the ten topics Stark addresses in this review of the historical data regarding a number of contentious issues pertaining to Catholic history. Readers will likely find all the chapters worthy of attention, including those on anti-Semitism (think “Hitler’s Pope”), the Dark Ages (did the Church seek to limit intellectual development?), slavery (how complicit was the Church in New World chattel slavery?), and Protestant Modernity (Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis mentioned above). Stark has done the Catholic Church a great service in presenting a thorough dismantling of many anti-Catholic narratives, as well as offering analysis as to how and why this happened (the answer, in Stark’s review of the history of historians, is overt anti-Catholic bigotry). Even those outside the parameters of the Catholic Church should welcome this study, as it enables us to move beyond the usual sniping characteristic of so many church history debates, and pursue a more thorough, historically faithful ecumenical dialogue.

Have historians engaged in excess? Sure. But pointing that out does not right the wrongs committed by the Roman Catholic Church or its followers. As Eric Smith pointed out in his blog post/review, apologists like Chalk still have some ‘splainin’ to do:

Stark’s argument in many of them can be summarized as “it wasn’t as bad as you think.” Chapter 4: The dark ages weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 5: The Crusades weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 6: The Inquisition wasn’t as bad as you think. Chapter 7: The church’s anti-science views weren’t as bad as you think. Chapter 8: Slavery wasn’t as bad as you think. Even when Stark has good points to make (“dark ages” is a misleading and unhelpful category, the Inquisition wasn’t insatiably bloodthirsty always and everywhere, and the church opposed slavery at many points), the reader finds himself disagreeing with Stark, because of the questionable assumptions and poor evidence he brings to the table. He starts most chapters by building a straw man. He presents what he imagines is commonly held knowledge, and then proceeds to poke holes in the poor scarecrow. This is a compelling literary device, since it draws the reader into Stark’s indignation. “Everyone believes that the Catholic church loves slavery!” (I’m paraphrasing). “But it turns out that the Catholic church doesn’t love slavery! This is satisfying as an organizational structure, but it leaves out and excuses many instances in which the church was complicit, was turning the other way, was not keeping its hands clean. It obscures the actions of a few rogue individuals, which Stark almost always concedes while claiming that they didn’t stand for “official” church policy. This structure makes Stark read like an apologist for colonialism, slavery, violence, and ignorance–things I doubt he would claim for himself. And ultimately this book makes Stark read like an apologist for conservatism broadly construed, since somehow, the true enemy almost always seems to turn out to be liberals. (And Voltaire…Stark hates Voltaire). Examples of questionable claims could be multiplied from later chapters–Protestantism is most properly characterized by Max Weber’s work on capitalism, witches who were actually practicing magic probably had it coming, and the church was an innocent victim of the French Revolution–but this review is already too long.

All of which goes to the frequent claim made on behalf of Roman Catholicism by the apologists. It’s the oldest, most historic, church that Jesus founded. History is good! But when historical inquiry reveals aspects of church life less wholesome, then it’s the bias of historians. Is that anti-intellectual, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Protestant, anti-anti-Catholic? Whichever anti it is, it’s just as much a bias as anti-Catholicism is made out to be.

One way around the problem of church errors is to chalk them up to the limits of time and place. Did Roman Catholic officials treat Jews well in the thirteenth century? Not really, but who did? Given the possibilities of human imagination available at the time, to expect 13th-century Roman Catholics to think like moderns is anachronistic. They were creatures of their context and hard pressed to do any better.

But there’s the rub for the proponents of papal audacity. Isn’t the teaching of the magisterium about papal authority as much the creation of historical circumstance — the need for the Bishop of Rome to assert autonomy against European kings, or the collusion of European princes with the Bishop of Rome to outmaneuver a political rival — as the Fourth Lateran Council’s directives about Jews?

All the help of Aristotle’s logic or Aquinas’s scholasticism will not free Bryan and the Jasons from that riddle.

What A Call with Integrity Sounds Like

If Bryan and the Jasons had truly been conservative Presbyterians, they would have carried suspicions of liberalism into the Roman Catholic Church with them. But that they continue to insist that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism represent two distinct paradigms while not recognizing the two paradigms that exist on both sides of the Tiber — one anti-modernist and one indifferent to modernism and its effects — they miss the central dynamic of modern Christianity.

Boniface at Unam Sanctum lays out that dynamic well. It is the relationship between the church and the world. Conservative Presbyterians after the 1920s were and still are on the look out for compromises with the world. So was the Roman Catholic Church. But since Vatican 2, Roman Catholic wariness has disappeared. Boniface explains:

The goal of the Christian life if holiness. Yet what is holiness? What does it meant to be holy? We understand that we are called to be loving, forgiving, etc. But what does it mean to be “holy”? Is holiness a mere sum of all other natural and supernatural virtues? And what about God? God is love, power, forgiveness, justice and so on. But what does it mean when the angels cry that God is “holy, holy, holy?”

The fundamental definition of holiness is separation. The Latin word for holiness is sanctitas, from whence sanctity. Holiness denotes separation or consecration unto God. When the angels cry “holy, holy, holy” it is because God is so far separate and distinct from all created things that awe is the only appropriate response in his presence. “Between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them”, the Fourth Lateran Council taught (cap. 3, “On Heretics”). St. Thomas defines holiness as a firm separation of created things which are translated from profane use to use in the service of God (STh II-II Q. 81 art. 8). This is why Holy Water, Holy Cards, Holy Candles, Holy Oil, etc. have the adjective “holy” – once they are consecrated, they are “set apart” for divine worship exclusively. To use Holy Oil for cooking for Holy Water for common washing would be sacrilegious. Their consecration is what makes them “holy”, and hence set apart for divine use exclusively.

Of course, a person is holy in a different sense than an object, but the fundamental reality that holiness means separation remains. A man with Holy Orders is set apart for the service of God. A holy person is one whose life is separated from worldly concerns and activities and who already lives, even in the flesh, in contemplation of heavenly things. Holiness is separation; separation from worldly uses and a setting apart unto God, “who is above all, through all, and in all” (Eph. 4:6).

* * * * *

With the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church adopted a posture of “openness” to the world. Pope John XXIII harbored great hopes for a kind of reconciliation between the Church and the world that would lead to the mutual building up of both; what he called a “new order of human relations”, while also condemning those “prophets of gloom” who only saw the modern world in a negative light. This led to a massive paradigm shift in the post-Conciliar Church, a pivot towards the world. It matters not whether the Council documents ever called for this pivot; the essential weakness of the conservative response to the Council has been a narrow focus on the Council documents’ language and a failure to comprehend the Council as an event (see, USC, “Book Review: Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story”, Aug. 2013). The pivot happened and it must be acknowledged as a fact.

The result of this pivot was a blurring of distinction between the Church and world, between merely natural goods and supernatural goods. Worldly concerns seemed to be become the Church’s concerns. It started innocently enough with “world peace,” but then moved on to all sorts of other issues, occupying bigger and bigger parts of the Church’s canvas until the Church appeared as little more than an NGO concerned with worldly problems like climate change and youth unemployment. Not that the Church has no concern with temporal evils that offend God; but as the Church shifted its focus more and more towards merely natural goods, it began to address them with increasingly little reference to man’s supernatural ends.

The results were a spiritually deadening and embarrassingly banal Church that gives us such gems as “Driver’s Ten Commandments”, documents about immigration reform, and of course, encyclicals on global warming.

Boniface even detects such banality in the Pope Emeritus’ recent letter:

Perhaps this all expresses the tension in modern Catholicism – once one has opened up to the world, what is the overlap between one’s duties to the Church and to the world? What happens when they are in contradiction? Can they be in contradiction? In traditional Catholicism the answer was clear: the Church and the world were in a fundamental state of opposition. But once we have pivoted towards the world, what now?

Case in point: Consider Pope Benedict XVI’s recent letter in which the Pope Emeritus states that the Church’s pastors should be “shepherds for the whole world.” Benedict wrote:

“The service of a shepherd cannot be only limited only to the Church [even though] in the first place, we are entrusted with the care of the faithful and of those who are directly seeking faith. [The Church] is part of the world, and therefore it can properly play its service only if it takes care of the world in its entirety.”

What is a Catholic to make of these words? It is certainly true, in one sense, that since the mission of Christ was to redeem the whole human race, the Church can never concern herself solely with matters entirely internal. She must always be considering her mission ad gentes; God wills all men to be saved, and so we must labor for all men to be so.

This is nothing new. But is that the sense in which Benedict means it? He goes on to say that the Church “must be involved in the efforts that humanity and society put into action” to address “the questions of our times.”

The fundamental question is this: Is he envisioning the Church reaching out to make the world think about heavenly things, or the Church focusing more of its attention on worldly things? Does he want the Church to call the world to remember man’s supernatural ends, or is he proposing the Church help to world attain its merely natural ends? Is this a call of the world to the Church or a capitulation of the Church to the world? The problem is both philosophies can be read into Benedict’s words, depending on one’s predisposition.

Let me help Boniface out here by mentioning Pope Francis’ recent promotion of the “new evangelism.” Social gospel alert.

“We must not have fear to make the times of great challenges ours,” he continued.

Francis then said that people today are waiting on the church, “that it may know to walk with them, offering the company of the witness of faith that offers support with all, in particular with the most alone and marginalized.”

“How many poor people are waiting for the Gospel that frees!” the pope said. “How many men and women, in the existential peripheries generated by the consumer society, wait for our closeness and our solidarity!”

“The new evangelization therefore is this: to take awareness of the merciful love of the Father to truly become ourselves instruments of salvation for our brothers,” he said.

The term “new evangelization” was used frequently by Pope Benedict XVI, who created the pontifical council on the issue in 2010 and held a global meeting of bishops in Rome to discuss the matter in 2012. The exact meaning of the term and directive for the council have, however, remained a bit unclear.

Francis’ redefinition of the term seems to place the emphasis on evangelizing by example and in showing mercy and care for the poorest in society.

Touching on the process of catechesis later in his talk Friday, the pontiff said the question of how to educate the faithful “is not rhetorical but essential.”

Of course, the tension between the church and the world is not the dynamic merely of recent church history. When Tertullian asked about the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, he was invoking the conflict between belief and unbelief. But since the late nineteenth century when Christians of various stripes wanted to do away (anti-dualism) with distinctions between nature and grace, special and general revelation, church and society, sacred and secular, the fundamental dilemma for western Christians (at least) has been whether to insist on such distinctions or whether to do away with them by making the kingdom of God a reality so much larger than the church (either bloated or itty-bitty).

If Bryan and the Jasons had picked this up while in Presbyterian circles, their call would sound different. And Bryan himself might be embarrassed by his alma mater’s decision to embrace diversity over evangelism:

Saint Louis University has removed a statue on its campus depicting a famous Jesuit missionary priest praying over American Indians after a cohort of students and faculty continued to complain the sculpture symbolized white supremacy, racism and colonialism.

Formerly placed outside the university’s Fusz Hall in the center of the private Catholic university, the statue will go to the university’s art museum, a building just north of the bustling urban campus.

The statue features famous Jesuit Missionary Pierre-Jean De Smet S.J. praying over two American Indians dressed in traditional clothing. Last Monday, just two days after graduation, it was removed from the location it has called home on campus for decades. . . .

The statue’s removal comes just months after controversy broke out at the Jesuit campus over a proposed statue to commemorate a six-night sit in that served as an extension of protests in nearby Ferguson.

After donors threatened to pull donations over the proposed statue, the university walked back the original intent of the statue, saying it would instead highlight the university’s values of diversity and inclusion.

If Bryan and the Jasons really want to reach the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed demographic, they really do need to find their anti-modernist selves.