The Small Town and Its Defenders

The missus and I were glad to be in Jackson, Michigan, at the Grand River Brewery, for a set of presentations sponsored by The American Conservative. We heard Bill Kauffman, who is arguably conservatism’s funniest voice. Here’s an excerpt:

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

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The United States of Fear

I think I have the way to form a more perfect union in this place we call the USA. It is to recognize that all Americans share a sense of fear. Anxiety is what unites us in the U.S. Consider the following.

Andrew Sullivan writes respectfully about reactionary conservatism and even grants its plausibility:

Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.

If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.

And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.

Notice too that conservatives are not the only ones who are very, very afraid. It’s also feminist philosophers. But even they can’t claim privilege for their phobia:

I want to explore a much more general issue raised by this whole affair. This has to do with concept of harm, which keeps being raised. The main charge against Tuvel is that the very existence and availability of her paper causes harm to various groups, most specifically to members of the transgender community. This is a puzzling and contentious claim that deserves serious reflection.

The editorial board statement specifically refers to “the harm caused by the fact of the article’s publication.” As the concept of harm is standardly used in legal contexts, this would be a tough claim to defend. It is certainly possible for someone to suffer material or tangible loss, injury, or damage as a consequence of a 15-page article being published in an academic journal. The article might be libelous, for example. But there is no such charge here. The only individual mentioned by name besides Rachel Dolezal is Caitlyn Jenner, and it seems implausible to say that Tuvel has harmed Jenner by “deadnaming” her (i.e., using her birth name), given how public Jenner has been about her personal history.

The authors of the editorial board statement have nothing to say about how they understand harm. This already should give pause for thought. Philosophers, whatever their methodological orientation or training, usually pride themselves on sensitivity to how words and concepts are used. This makes it odd to see no attention being paid to how they are understanding this key concept of harm, which is central to many areas in legal and moral philosophy.

But the statement does clarify what the authors believe has caused the harm: “Perhaps most fundamentally, to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.”

And here I thought we were supposed to be afraid of Trump. Imagine the harm a POTUS can do. But in the United States of Fear, an academic paper poses a threat capable of generating the kind of fear that many endure with our incautious and vicious president.

The question is whether those with fears can recognize fear as a basis for personal identity. Can we go from the specific to the general and recognize fear is something that every American experiences? If so, then we may finally have a common point of reference for a shared existence. We are united in fear.

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.

Make America Sane

I won’t reveal how I voted. Nor can I claim to be happy about yesterday’s outcome (I married a woman who took it hard). But a piece of me thinks that a Donald Trump presidency may make it harder for certain sorts of outlooks or activities to be taken seriously.

The first is the grief counseling offered to students at U Mass Lowell:

Dear Students,

We at the Multicultural Affairs Office hope this email reaches you and you are doing ok. We know many of you stayed up waiting to hear of the election results. These are unprecedented times. The nation as well as our community is reacting in many different ways. We are reaching out to each of you because we know that this was an intense election and we are already hearing a number of reactions, feelings and emotions. This is a critical time to make sure that you, your friends, classmates, neighbors are doing ok and seeking the appropriate support especially if they need a place to process or work through what they’re feeling.

You may hear or notice reactions both immediate and in the coming weeks, some anticipated and many that may be difficult to articulate or be shared. While it may take some time to fully take in all the recent events, please also know that the OMA office is here for you. Our UMass Lowell community is here for you. Do not hesitate at all to come in or ask for support.

Today there is a Post-election self-care session from 12-4pm in Moloney. The event will include cookies, mandalas, stress reduction techniques and mindfulness activities. Counseling and Health Services will also be available. We have sent out messages through our Social Media sites as well as encouraging students to drop in all week. Above all, take good care and know that there is strength in our community that you can lean on.

Kind regards,
Office of Multicultural Affairs Staff

Do these people cower when reading accounts of the American founding for all of the self-actualized agency that colonists displayed in seeking self-determination and limited government? (Read: are they American?)

The second is Damon Linker’s description of the cosmopolitan w-w that has dominated the Obama years (thanks to Rod Dreher):

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but ‘racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia’ — is the desire to delegitimise any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic… cosmopolitan liberals presume that all particularistic forms of solidarity must be superseded by a love of humanity in general, and indeed that these particularistic attachments will be superseded by humanitarianism before long, as part of the inevitable unfolding of human progress.

For those of us 2k Protestants who have managed to hyphenate ourselves, and found ways to recognize our multiple loyalties, the notion that all attachments to what Edmund Burke called little platoons block national progress is — well — unwelcoming. It’s also dumb. Were the Students for a Democratic Society wrong to exclude Young Americans for Freedom?

I don’t think President Trump will issue executive orders for colleges students to human-up or for Orthodox Presbyterians to sponsor OPC Pride Parades. But I do sense that he will not lend the support of the White House to the touchier and more ethereal sides of American character.

From Crisis to Crisis

If Ross Douthat thinks conservative Roman Catholics are having trouble with the current magisterium, he should remember how liberal Roman Catholics felt a little more than a decade ago in the last years of John Paul II’s papacy:

Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.

Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as “orthodox” Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.

But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.

Liberal Roman Catholicism, by the way, was not necessarily about liberal theology but about adjusting ecclesiology to the modern world of liberal politics:

Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

What I wonder is why a bright guy like Peter Steinfels only sees two options — Roman Catholicism or secular liberalism. Is he so parochial — he worked for the New York Times mind you — to identify Protestantism with secular liberalism? Sure a liberal Roman Catholic has gotten over the idea that liberal Roman Catholicism is the church that Jesus founded.

Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?

R2K

An excerpt from William F. Buckley, Jr.’s interview with himself on the 1965 New York City mayoral race. Notice how little attention this observant Roman Catholic pays to religion in his outlook or to the “heresy” of radical individualism:

Q. What is it that distinguishes you from these other candidates? Why should only great big brave you consent to run on a program that would really liberate New York, while the other candidates do not?
A. Because the other candidates feel they cannot cope with the legacy of New York politics. That legacy requires the satisfaction of voting blocs, with special attention given to the voting bloc or blocs most fractious at any given election period. But to satisfy voting blocs increasingly requires dissatisfying the constituent members of those same voting blocs in their private capacities. However, since it is more dangerous to dissatisfy organized blocs of voters than individual voters—even if they happen to be members of voting blocs—political candidates in New York address their appeals to the bloc rather than to the individual.

Q. Would you mind being specific?
A. As far as New York politicians are concerned, a New Yorker is an Irishman, an Italian, or a Negro; he is a union member or a white collar worker; a welfare recipient or a city employee; a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew; a taxi driver or a taxi owner; a merchant or a policeman. The problem is to weigh the voting strength of all the categories and formulate a program that least dissatisfies the least crowded and least powerful categories: and the victory is supposed to go to the most successful bloc Benthamite in the race.

Q. What’s the matter with that?
A. What is the matter with it is that New York is reaching the point where it faces the marginal disutility of bloc satisfaction. The race to satisfy the bloc finally ends in dissatisfying even the individual members of that same bloc. If, for instance, you give taxi owners the right to limit the number of taxis available in the city, people who need taxis to get from where they are to where they want to go can’t find taxis when they most want them. If you allow truck drivers to double-park because it is convenient to them and to the merchants whose goods they are unloading, traffic is snarled and taxi drivers can’t move fast enough to make a decent living. When the traffic is snarled, people stay away from the city and the merchants lose money. If the merchants lose money they want to automate in order to save costs. If the unions don’t let them automate they leave the city. When they leave the city there are fewer people to pay taxes to city officials and to the unemployed. (The unemployed aren’t allowed to drive taxis because the taxi owners share a monopoly.) Taxes have to go up because there are fewer people to pay taxes. The unemployed grow restless, and breed children and crime. The children drop out of school because there isn’t anyone at home to tell them to go to school. Some of the children who go to school make school life intolerable for other children in school, and they leave and go to private schools. The teachers are told they mustn’t discourage the schoolchildren or they will leave the schools and commit crime and unemployment. The unions don’t want the unemployed hired because they will work for less money, or because they are Negroes and Puerto Ricans and obviously can’t lay bricks or wire buildings like white people can, so they are supposed to go off somewhere and just live, and stay out of the way. But they can’t live except in houses, and houses are built by plumbers and electricians who get eight, ten, twelve dollars an hour, which means that people can’t afford to buy houses, or rent apartments, at rates the city can afford to pay its unemployed, so the federal government has to build housing projects. But there aren’t enough housing projects, so there is overcrowding, and family life disintegrates. Some people turn to crime, others to ideology. You can’t walk from one end of New York to another without standing a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole of the United States to become like New York.

Q. What would you do, if you became Mayor of New York?
A. I would treat people as individuals. By depriving the voting blocs of their corporate advantages, I would liberate individual members of those voting blocs.

Imagine that. Treating people as individuals, not as if their identity is bound up with a religion, race, gender, or sex bloc.

Was Buckley the conservative channeling John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first Roman Catholic president, who said that as a public official he would not be beholden to his faith?

What Would Happen if the PCUSA and OPC Started Ecumenical Dialogue?

If the OPC began to enter into ecumenical discussions with the PCUSA would someone be justified in thinking that the OPC had changed its estimate of the PCUSA? And would this change indicate a shift within the OPC itself to the point that you might plausibly argue that the denomination’s teaching had changed? In other words, what would it take for the OPC to recognize the PCUSA at least as a conversation partner?

On the matter of confessional statements, the OPC would have to get around the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967. That’s enough to end the conversation.

On matters of practice and discipline, the OPC would have to overlook the ordination of women, the ordination of homosexuals, and the recognition of gay marriage. In questions about worship, the OPC would have to come to terms with a PCUSA hymnal that has some clunkers and that took the stuffing out of good hymns.

So with all these reservations, if the OPC went ahead and opened up discussions with the PCUSA, onlookers might well think that the OPC had lost its way, that the doctrine and practice that had once characterized the communion were no longer important, and that the OPC’s understanding of Reformed Protestantism had changed?

So now as folks like Ross Douthat wonder if changes surrounding sex and marriage will change not just discipline but the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, why don’t those same folks wonder about what Vatican II did in reclassifying Protestants as separated brethren? Sixteenth-century bishops only knew those outside the church as infidels, schismatics or heretics. Separated brethren did not become part of episcopal language until the 1960s. And this came at a time when the Protestant churches were liberal (at least from the perspective of communions like the OPC). Sure, they weren’t in the ballpark of going soft on homosexuality and marriage. But the Protestants the bishops had in mind were not in communions like the OPC but were in denominations like the PCUSA where Reformed orthodoxy was hardly firm.

What would allow the bishops to change that understanding of Protestantism? And isn’t this indicative of a change in doctrine — not technically in the language of the catechisms or papal documents? Doesn’t this reflect a change in the understanding of the doctrine that defined Roman Catholicism or the degree to which doctrine or liturgy matter? If folks who were once in error and whose views needed to be anathematized now look like Christians who are worthy of dialogue, hasn’t something changed?

Why Reform Won't Ever Happen

Old institutions are hard to change. They have their own culture. Big administrations are even harder to change. They have their own culture. Which is why I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church will ever become reformed. It’s too big, too top-heavy (and that’s why this announcement is important). But it’s also clear that the laity and the bishops don’t really want church life to change.

Consider the following:

“It’s an outrage,” Peter Saunders told the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis appointed Juan Barros–a man accused of covering up and witnessing a priest’s acts of sexual abuse–bishop of Osorno, Chile. (Barros denies both allegations.) “That man should be removed as a bishop because he has a very, very dubious history–corroborated by more than one person,” according to Saunders, a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors, and a clergy-abuse victim. Saunders went so far as to say that he would consider resigning if he doesn’t get an explanation. He wasn’t the only commission member who was shocked by the pope’s decision. “As a survivor, I’m very surprised at the appointment in Chile because it seems to go against…what the Holy Father has been saying about not wanting anyone in positions of trust in the church who don’t have an absolutely 100 percent record of child protection,” said Marie Collins. On March 31 the Holy See announced that the Congregation for Bishops had found no “objective reasons to preclude the appointment.”

That did not sit well with Saunders, Collins, and two other members of the commission (there are seventeen in total). So they flew to Rome last weekend for an unscheduled meeting with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the body. What a difference a day makes. “The meeting went very well and the cardinal is going to take our concerns to the Holy Father,” Collins told NCR on Sunday. . . . Cardinal O’Malley agreed to present the concerns of the subcommittee to the Holy Father.” That’s quite a bit different from decrying the appointment as an outrage. Did Cardinal O’Malley bring them back from the brink simply by listening? What’s going to happen after he shares their concerns with Pope Francis?

Tough to say. It’s not as though the pope is left with any good options. Leave Barros in, watch the Diocese of Osorno burn, and risk blowing up the sex-abuse commission. Remove him and earn the ire of the world’s bishops for giving in to the mob. (I wouldn’t downplay that worry; it would be widely viewed as a dangerous precedent.) Should the appointment have been made in the first place? I don’t think so. But it’s been made. And now that the Congregation for Bishops has announced that there is no objective reason not to have appointed Barros, the pope’s hands are pretty well tied. Do commission members appreciate that bind? I hope so. Because this already confounding case won’t be clarified any time soon. This may not be the hill they want to die on.

All that power, all that scandal, all that public outrage, and the liberal editors at Commonweal shrug? The pope’s in a hard place? Who said being vicar of Christ was easy?

But sure, condemn the Turks.

Update: since writing the above David Mills tries to cut through the seemingly endless defense of the papacy. Like a lot of former Protestants who have doctrine on their minds, he distinguishes between the popes’ offhand comments (and perhaps even weightier statements) and the catechism, which may help with the spiritual gas that attends the bloating that follows episcopal overreach:

The pope didn’t say that even atheists get to heaven by doing good deeds. Catholic Vote has a good explanation with links to others. He only said, quoting Brian Kelly, “there can be, and is, goodness, or natural virtue, outside the Church. And that Christ’s death on the Cross redeemed all men. He paid the price so that every man could come to God and be saved.”

And if he had said something like what my friend thought he’d said, he would have been saying only what the Church teaches in sections 846-848 of the Catechism. More to the point, given my friend’s allegiances, he would only have been saying what C. S. Lewis, a writer my friend admires, said at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan explains why a warrior who had worshipped a false god was found in heaven (the passage is found here ). That’s not dumb, even if one disagrees with it. The Catholic wouldn’t need to twist himself into a pretzel to explain that idea, had the pope said it.

The Catholic Church isn’t that hard to understand. The Church herself has created a huge paper trail of authoritative documents designed to declare and to teach.

But this view of the church doesn’t take into account all those gestures and even instances where acts say more than words. What does it say that Francis appoints Juan Barros in Chile? What does it say that the pope is willing to condemn the Turks but not homosexuals? What does it say that worries about mortal sin don’t seem to come from the bishops’ lips while they are willing to pontificate (see what I did there?) on the environment, immigration, or Indiana? Does bloated come to mind?

And to top it off, David says that any political conservative should have a certain admiration for papal authority:

Of course, the Catholic will feel hesitant to criticize the Holy Father in public, as one would hesitate to criticize one’s own father in public. The Catholic will also first ask himself what the pope has to say to us that we need to hear, even if he said it badly. He will give the pope the benefit of the doubt. He will generally say, with regard to the Holy Father’s statements, “Who am I to judge?”

This is a disposition to authority my friend, a political and cultural conservative, would admire. And I think that if he weren’t talking about the Catholic Church he’d recognize it as such. Respect and deference are very different from being forced to twist yourself into knots trying to rewrite the pope’s statements. The people who might do that (were it needed) might do it from a natural sense of filial protectiveness, of the Church and her pope. That also my friend should admire.

Maybe for a Tory but not an American conservative. The founding was not about respect for monarchical kinds of authority — hello. It was about putting limits on government — checks and balances — and its instinct is a healthy distrust of people in power. Why? Because of sin and the tendency to abuse power. And this is why it is so baffling that Roman Catholics in the U.S. would become defenders of American government unless they want to go all 2k on us. Suspicion of government is something that so many Roman Catholics find difficult to fathom when it comes to the magisterium — which may also explain why so many of the Protestant converts are so little engaged in discussions about politics (except for the bits about sex) or why the Protestant converts who do do politics don’t seem to say much about the church.

David Mills may have an effective strategy for Protestants who don’t follow all the news that Roman Catholics create — just keep it to the doctrine and the worship the way good Protestants do. But the Roman Catholic church’s footprint is hardly doctrinal and liturgical. If that’s all it were, I might have more sympathy for David’s point. But has David ever wondered why the Vatican is about so much more than doctrine or worship or why Roman Catholics write so much in defense of every single thing the papacy does, such as:

Pope Francis’ comments on the extermination of Armenian Christians in early 20th-century Turkey prompted a strongly worded criticism from the Turkish Foreign Ministry and led to the withdrawal of Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See. But what’s the full story?

As the April 24 centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide approaches, tensions between Turkey and Armenia run high. Despite this, Pope Francis remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian people during his April 12 Mass at the Vatican.

The Turkish government criticized the Pope and an Armenian representative in a Sunday statement, focusing on the use of the word “genocide.”

Most non-Turkish scholars consider the mass killings of 1915-1916 to be a genocide in which the Ottoman Empire systematically exterminated its minority Armenian population, who were predominantly Christian. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians — men, women and children — lost their lives in ways ranging from executions into mass graves to meticulous torture.

Turkey has repeatedly denied that the slaughter was a genocide, saying that the number of deaths was much smaller and came as a result of conflict surrounding World War I. The country holds that many ethnic Turks also lost their lives in the event.

Pope Francis’ comments on Sunday set off a firestorm of criticism among Turkish leaders, prompting the removal of the country’s Vatican ambassador.

What could be lesser known, however, is that the Pope’s introductory remarks included a precise quote of the joint text that St. John Paul II and Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church issued on Sept. 27, 2001, during a papal visit to Armenia.

Lots of words and gestures, so little time for interpretation. So let the paying, praying and obeying interpreters interpret. Let them do to the teaching and actions of the magisterium what Protestants allegedly do with the Bible. Spin and spin and spin and spin away.

All About My Hyphenated Self

Since we have multiple callings that require us to juggle our various identities — I relate to my wife differently when wearing my hat as elder compared to when wearing my pajamas as husband — I was glad to see that I am also conflicted when it comes to politics. Time has a personality quiz that yielded the following results:

Liberal Qualities

You like cats more than dogs
You prefer documentaries over action movies
You use a modern browser
You prefer the Met to Times Square
You’re not completely proud of your country’s history

Conservative Qualities

You think kids should respect authority
You like a neat desk
You think self-control trumps self-expression
You’re not wild about fusion cuisine
You think the government should treat the lives of its citizens as much more valuable than those of other countries
You don’t think your partner should be looking at porn alone
You think the world benefits from nations and borders

That makes me 79 percent conservative and 21 percent liberal. And to think that some so-called conservative Protestants think 2kers are not only liberal but radical. Whom are you going to believe?