The Reformation Didn’t Work Out So Well

Like the Counter-Reformation did?

Give Casey Chalk credit. He used his conversion from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism to land a writing gig that takes him regularly to The American Conservative, Crisis, and other outlets. (He hasn’t posted at Called to Communion for two years.) Was this the career for which Jason Stellman was hoping? What some converts don’t seem to understand, which Chalk does, is that debating theology is not nearly as appealing as talking about Western civilization and societal decay. The conservative intellectual world is populated with lots of Roman Catholics who are eager to hear about the defense of the West. Chalk made that connection.

But.

The problem is that the history that converts tell, which typically sees all the flaws of modernity as bi-products of the Reformation, ignores how poorly the church to which they converted is faring.

Here’s what Chalk recently wrote about Geneva (the city):

a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.

At least Chalk concedes that Geneva “was once a spiritually vibrant city.” There may still be hope that Protestants are saved.

The question remains, though, why when Roman Catholics control an institution that may be much more manageable than a city, they have as much trouble as the Reformed church in Geneva did. Two professors at Villanova recently complained to readers of the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall — but we can’t get one in Texas!):

Last fall we were notified by the Villanova administration that new “diversity and inclusion” questions would be added to the course and teaching evaluations that students fill out each semester. In addition to the standard questions about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction, students are now being asked heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated “cultural awareness” or created an “environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”

… For many decades, Villanova’s mission as a Catholic university has been to initiate students into the life of the mind, encouraging them to seek the good, the true and the beautiful even as they are challenged beyond our walls to pursue justice and the common good in the service of “charity in truth.” The adoption of the new dogma of mandatory “diversity and inclusion” places that entire undertaking in danger. As professors dedicated to liberal education, we consider it essential to challenge our students to subject their ideas as well as the predominant opinions of our time to critical examination—however difficult and uncomfortable this may be. We urge our own university as well as other liberal-arts institutions to reject such ideological policing and recommit themselves to the principles of liberal education.

In which case, Roman Catholicism is no more a fix for modernity than Protestantism. What may matter is what you believe about Jesus. That would require Chalk to go back to Called to Communion. But who wants to read about that?

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How We Could Have Avoided Christendom

We could have dared to be a Daniel:

Again, Daniel gained the esteem of his irreligious superiors, the Persian king Darius, who determined to make him prime minister of the realm. Members of the Persian royal court were jealous of Daniel, and sought some justification to attack his character—yet none could be found “because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him.” Since there was no impugning Daniel’s character, it was again the Jewish religion that became the focal point of the problem. Daniel refused to stop giving thanks to God despite a royal decree that the Persian king must be worshipped. He practiced his religion quietly in the upper chamber of his house to avoid conflict. Still, his detractors discovered him and used his piety as a pretext for destroying him. Despite Darius’s best efforts to reverse his royal edict, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den. We all know how that turns out.

Thing is, this was not how certain bishops in THE eternal city viewed civil authority:

If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquillity, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent. Men will see in their king or in their rulers men like themselves, perhaps unworthy or open to criticism, but they will not on that account refuse obedience if they see reflected in them the authority of Christ God and Man. Peace and harmony, too, will result; for with the spread and the universal extent of the kingdom of Christ men will become more and more conscious of the link that binds them together, and thus many conflicts will be either prevented entirely or at least their bitterness will be diminished.(Pius XI, Quas Primas)

The long history of the papacy up until John XXIII was one of daring to be a prince who could play power politics and maintain Christendom. Work with the Ottomans and dare to be a Daniel? Are you kidding me?

Charism vs. Expertise, Hierarchy vs. Democracy

When the Second Vatican Council opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world, it may have bitten off more than it could chew. Not only would the late 1960s make the modern world look not so great (radical terrorists and sexual liberation) and so once again raise questions about the bishops’ discernment. But the modern world is one that is at odds with deferring to elites because of the latter’s authority, and with receiving the teaching of bishops simply by virtue of their office. When the church teaches something that collides with the views of a majority in the church or with the expertise of lay Roman Catholics, can church members and clergy simply expect conformity to church beliefs because the laity is supposed to pay, pray, and obey? In a pre-Vatican II world (more like a pre-1789) that might have been plausible. Rome’s episcopal and Vatican structures are more medieval than modern. But now that the church wants to come along side the modern world, that means accepting modern ideas like majority rule and authority based not on office but knowledge, learning, and study.

One of Bryan and the Jason’s contributors does not like what he sees in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.:

American Catholicism is certainly unique. A majority of American Catholics buck the global Catholic trend on capital punishment in their support the death penalty, according to the Washington Post. Yet it would be good for us to remember that we are but one, relatively small part of a global body of Catholics — about 6 percent.

We may be wealthier than Catholics in other parts of the world. We may even be better-educated than the average Catholic worldwide. But that doesn’t make us necessarily better Catholics, nor does it mean we have some outsized claim on commenting on church decisions. Indeed, a truer “conservative Catholicism” would be one that exemplifies humility and self-restraint, rather than self-importance and bluster.

Commentators in the coming weeks and months will continue to debate whether the pronouncement is a “legitimate development,” as one article termed it, or a “reversal,” as other commentators are labeling it. I’m uninterested in raising that debate here (although two of my favorite commentaries, demonstrating a more nuanced, reflective, and unemotive analyses of the decision, can be found here and here). Far more important, I offer, is the manner in which Catholics debate and analyze the Holy Father and the remainder of his pontificate.

One solution to the problem would be for popes and bishops to speak less and narrow their teaching to those matters related to the Creed. But since bishops continue to think they can teach about a whole range of issues and policies (thus substituting the temporality of the church for its spirituality), the church hierarchy will continue to run up against lay church members who may actually know more about banking or climate change or capital punishment than the pope.

And yet, the converts choose to double-down on papal audacity, when? When other church members have lost confidence in the bishops on matters of holiness and church discipline:

We are also angry. We are angry over the “credible and substantiated” report of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of a minor. We are angry over the numerous allegations of his abuse of seminarians and young priests. We are angry that “everybody knew” about these crimes, that so few people did anything about them, and that those who spoke out were ignored.

In addition, we have heard reports of networks of sexually active priests who promote each other and threaten those who do not join in their activities; of young priests and seminarians having their vocations endangered because they refused to have sex with their superiors or spoke out about sexual impropriety; and of drug-fueled orgies in Vatican apartments.

As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.

Wouldn’t Pope Francis be better off trying to remedy another sex scandal than to “develop” church teaching in a way that makes most nineteenth-century popes guilty of mortal sin (because they ran a state that executed criminals)?

He Really Went There?

Casey Chalk, formerly a regular contributor to Called to Communion, is increasingly at home writing for The American Conservative. His latest is a case for deporting John Oliver. Chalk tries to distinguish good from bad criticism of the U.S. by ferners internationals:

The reason Hitchens, Scruton, and others like them are effective is because they are indefatigably modest, restrained, and courteous. If they did nothing but scold, they would quickly become tiresome. And when they do criticize, they do so with charity and respect for a country not their own. I was under the impression these were traits that Brits prided themselves as possessing. Not so for Mr. Oliver. His program is filled with caustic insults directed at a panoply of American individuals and institutions. His coverage of the 2016 presidential election was particularly scornful of the American political process. The content is also typically boorish—of all the episodes seen, narry one misses an opportunity to make a joke about sex with animals. Are such things suddenly funny if offered with an English accent?

Since arguments that Roman Catholics did not make for the best citizens or residents of the U.S., I was surprised to see Chalk list Oliver’s anti-Catholicism as a reason for sending him home:

His vitriol against the Catholic Church—still the largest religious institution in the United States—is especially antagonistic: Oliver has suggested that Pope Francis’s opposition to gay marriage demonstrates that the pontiff has “lost touch with reality.” He’s labeled the Church a “vast criminal enterprise,” and sarcastically accused it of “victories for humanity” like the Crusades, forced adoptions, and an “international pedophile exchange program.”

Once the objects of discrimination, Roman Catholics might want to avoid returning the favor.

But the coup de grace was Chalk’s appeal to Patrick Deneen, whose book, Why Liberalism Failed, has become the equivalent to Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? for traditionalist conservatives. Instead of conceding as Deneen does that thanks to liberalism, western societies have no core identity, Chalk rejects Oliver as someone who undermines American traditions (in ways similar to Protestant anti-Catholicism):

The America of Oliver and his audience is not one of interdependent communities and time-proven customs, but of “increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” This is perhaps no surprise, given that Oliver broadcasts from New York City, the epicenter of technocratic snobbery and what Charles Murray calls “superzips,” or zip codes with tremendous concentrations of people with high educational attainment and income.

As Deneen observes, “much of what today passes for culture—with or without the adjective ‘popular’—consists of mocking sarcasm and irony.” This is certainly the case with Oliver, who snidely labels many Americans bigoted and backward and pursues a policy of damnatio memoriae that condemns any American tradition that fails to correlate with his anemic, progressivist vision for our nation’s future. Yet as much as Oliver has shone his spotlight on many targets worthy of reproach (e.g. Infowars, unverified scientific studies, multi-level marketing), his larger, self-referential project undermines core elements of American identity, ones we should be most wary of losing in this time of socio-cultural distemper.

To recap:

Chalk thinks that outsiders should be careful in their criticisms of the U.S. unless they go too far and show disloyalty. Protestants accused Roman Catholics of disloyalty by virtue of their obedience to a foreign prince.

Chalk appeals to Deneen to defend American customs and identity. Deneen thinks such coherence and stability is a sham after Hobbes and Locke.

Maybe it’s time for Mr. Chalk to write for Bryan and the Jasons again.

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.