While six middle-aged men continue to receive their comeuppance for challenging the soundness of rap and hip-hop, the imbroglio over whether Mark Driscoll plagiarized Peter Jones continues. (I don’t know why people are not debating whether Driscoll should even be writing books.) Miles Mullin writes a gloomy assessment of evangelicalism thanks to the structural problems that the Driscoll affair reveals:
Because of the personality-driven leadership inherent in contemporary evangelicalism, the tribalism it nurtures, and the reality that most of American evangelicalism subsists in some variation of the free church tradition, the final outcome of this story is clear. There is no authority that can adjudicate this matter other than the authority upon which both Driscoll and Mefferd have built their ministries: evangelical popular opinion. . . . Thus, regardless of whether or not Mark Driscoll truly plagiarized in A Call to Resurgence(and other books) or whether Janet Mefferd lied about Driscoll hanging up, their tribes will defend them to the end.
This is the troubling reality of the personality-based leadership that encompasses much of American evangelicalism. Often, charisma and dynamic communication skills trump character and integrity as popular appeal wins the day. And for those of us who wish it were otherwise, there is no court of appeal with the authority to hear our case.
I am not sure about the distinction between charisma and dynamic communication on the one side and character and integrity on the other. In the world of mass media no one has the kind of personal knowledge that allows us to tell whether a figure has any more character and integrity than he does charisma and rhetorical skills. Someone who actually holds an office of authority could function as an umpire in such a dispute. And said office-holder would have authority no matter what his gifts or integrity (unless of course he broke the rules that pertained to his office). In other words, an ecclesiastical officer could decide this matter (as well as an officer of the court) if Driscoll were part of a church overseen by officers who assented to church authority.
Now I can see where some might think this takes me, right in the direction of Jason and the Callers’ boy-have-we-got-a-solution-for-you appeal to papal supremacy. And that is exactly where I’d like to go since it seems to (all about) me that without temporal authority the pope’s spiritual office has descended to the levels of charisma, rhetorical skills, integrity, and character. Before Vatican 2 the papacy could claim greater authority and generally commanded it. But since the 1950s with the greater prosperity of Roman Catholics in the U.S. and greater academic accomplishments by Roman Catholic scholars, even papal supremacy does not command the conformity that it once did when the people prayed, paid, and obeyed. For instance, the Vatican’s power to police Roman Catholic universities has arguably never been weaker (despite Ex Corde Ecclesiae).
Here is one recent story where Roman Catholic professors are appealing to Pope Francis’ off the cuff remarks to challenge their administrations:
Pope Francis surprised many last month following the publication of his first full-length interview, in which he offered a less doctrinaire stance on issues such as homosexuality and abortion than any of his predecessors.
“I am no one to judge,” he said in response a question about gay people, echoing previous comments he’d made to media on the topic this summer and signaling to some that the Vatican was becoming more moderate. Somewhat similarly, the pope said that the church has grown “obsessed” with doctrine — at the expense of larger spiritual matters.
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”
But within days of the publication of the Vatican-approved interview, which appeared in the U.S. in the Jesuit magazine America, several American Roman Catholic institutions took a harder line on those exact issues.
The apparent disconnect led some faculty members at Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount Universities, which recently dropped coverage for elective abortions from their standard health insurance plans, and Providence College, which banned a gay marriage advocate from speaking on campus, to wonder whether their administrations had gotten the message.
Meanwhile, the theologians whom John Paul II tried to make more accountable through Ex Corde Ecclesiae are raising questions of their own:
An international group of prominent Catholic theologians have called the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality “incomprehensible” and are asking bishops around the world to take seriously the expertise of lay people in their preparations for a global meeting of the prelates at the Vatican next year.
Church teaching on issues like contraception and same-sex marriage, the theologians write, are based on “abstract notions of natural law and [are] outdated, or at the very least scientifically uninformed” and “are for the most part incomprehensible to the majority of the faithful.”
Addressing next year’s meeting of church leaders, known as a Synod of Bishops, they say that previous such meetings involved “only carefully hand-picked members of the laity.”
Those meetings, they write, “offered no critical voice and ignored abundant evidence that the teaching of the church on marriage and sexuality was not serving the needs of the faithful.”
Of course, an apologist could say that this changes nothing. The pope is still in charge. Which of course is true in a sense. But his being-in-chargedness is not exactly evident in large sectors of the church, any more than Protestants have some way to adjudicate the Driscoll affair. And if we recall how popular Francis is compared to Benedict XVI, the categories of charisma and character turn out to be as crucial for a pope’s clout in the modern church as it is for celebrity pastors among Protestants.
Which is just one way of saying that in the modern world where churches are “merely” spiritual institutions, without backup from the state — the real power in contemporary affairs, Roman Catholics and Protestants are both shooting blanks. (Eastern Orthodox may be different when you can have titles like this one — His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch.) And that may explain why so many popes, now regarded as being products of time and place, the ones who oversaw Inquisitions, abducted Jewish boys, and condemned all aspects of modern social life, had a point. If they were going to retain their power, it needed to be powerfully palpable and visible.