Why Convert? Stability

Ross Douthat reproduced Damon Linker’s reasons for converting to Roman Catholicism. Since Jesus has little appeal, this seems like one of the better expressions of cultural or philosophical Christianity (neo-Calvinists beware):

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

Douthat responds by describing the way conservative Roman Catholics acknowledge change without admitting discontinuity:

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations.

What I don’t understand is how a change like the one on religious liberty at Vatican II is not crucial. It was clearly a big deal to Pius IX who abducted Edgardo Mortara, wrote a Syllabus of Errors to condemn most aspects of the modern world as then understood, and how eventually responded to the crisis of losing the papal states by doubling down with papal infallibility as infallible dogma.

In light of Pius’ conservatism compared to Vatican II, the idea that the pope might have been correct about Mortara led one elite Roman Catholic historian to write:

it was a fallible papal decision, and a pope’s stiff-necked refusal to honor the natural law, not God’s decrees, that are at stake here. No divine command decrees that a child be circumcised or baptized against the will of the child’s parents. Aquinas recognized this; too bad Reno [ed. the editor of First Things] does not. Moreover, no thoughtful Christian doubts that our natural moral affections might, in certain circumstances, be in tension with the revealed will of God; it should not have taken Cessario’s [ed. the author of a review of Mortara’s memoirs] mistaken reasoning to awaken this possibility in the veteran Catholic theologian Reno’s mind.

Is it just I, or is the Roman hierarchy really set up for lay Roman Catholics to challenge popes and bishops? It sure looks to me like something pretty crucial is at stake if a Council embraces teachings that then give Roman Catholics the power to condemn popes, and especially one that declared an infallible dogma.

Interpreting Vatican II in continuity with the church may be reassuring to conservative Roman Catholics (trads apparently understand how difficult that interpretive feat is and opt for discontinuity. But looking for matters essential (kernel) compared to ones ephemeral (husk) is right out of not the conservatives but the modernists playbook.

To Douthat’s credit, he did acknowledge that conservatives are confused.

Be Worried, Be (okay) Sort of Worried

Our game-show champion who wears a mullet doesn’t seem to be much concerned about the state of his communion. But others in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome are:

Last Tuesday Paul Baumann posted “An unbroken tradition?”—an analysis of an article by Ross Douthat in The Atlantic. Paul’s post drew almost a hundred comments. Some expressed indignation that anyone claiming intellectual credibility might say anything positive about Mr. Douthat. Others advanced to a lengthy and very substantial discussion of Catholic teaching on marriage. All too belatedly I reintroduced one of the main points of Paul’s original post. By that time, of course, virtually everyone had moved on. Allow me to try again:

Having admitted that Garry Wills is an “outlier” among progressive Catholics, Douthat nonetheless stated that what most progressives share with Wills is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.”

Paul indicated that he shared some of Douthat’s worries “about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA.”

“The problem,” he immediately added, “is determining what is essential and what isn’t.”

Well, maybe other modernists can help, such as those Presbyterians who distinguished between fact and theory to tell what’s essential to Christianity and to vindicate their — get this — orthodoxy.

The General Assembly of 1923 expressed the opinion concerning five doctrinal statements that each one “is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards.” On the constitutional ground which we have before described, we are opposed to any attempt to elevate these five doctrinal statements, or any of them, to the position of tests for ordination or for good standing in our church.

Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ. We hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our everliving Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost. Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.

Again, progressives that Protestants are, have already found debates over what’s essential to be quite liberating. Welcome Roman Catholics to the modern world (remember aggiornamento?).

Update: More Reasons to Worry

You thought the Western Schism produce three rival popes, well you haven’t seen what Francis has unleashed: now we have the Pope, the media pontificate, and the curial pontificate:

The media pontificate portends an ongoing revolution: the Church finally strips itself of its structures, goes out to the existential peripheries, enhances the power of national Bishops conferences, puts into effect the Gospel of mercy and gets rid of any idea of condemnation. The media pontificate portrays Pope Francis as a champion of social issues and at a same time as one who is able to approach pragmatically human life issues, such as abortion, which are deemed secondary. Conservatives are scared by the media pontificate. They fear – for example – that the naive approach of Pope Francis will lead to an endorsement of birth control in the upcoming encyclical on ecology, as birth control is sponsored by one of the consultants for the encyclical, the economist Jeffrey Sachs. They also fear that the encyclical may contain a certain opening to sustainable development, in the “new age” sense.

But there is a real pontificate that is never discussed. This real pontificate is well known by the “hidden Vatican,” which – in the face of talk about revolution – has faithfully and silently carried on its work, advancing the Vatican reforms that for some time had already been under way. This real pontificate demonstrates that Pope Francis defends the natural family and attacks gender ideology. The media pontificate broadcasts that Pope Francis has opened up to homosexuals, saying “Who am I to judge?” The real pontificate clarifies that, with this sentence, Pope Francis nailed the coffin shut on the issue: if gays live the life of the Church, he is no one to judge them; if they do not, he is still not going to judge them, but they are outside of the Church. Full stop. Any additional word would be superfluous.

Wouldn’t you think Pope Francis could straighten this out? No one seemed to wonder what his comments on the Armenian Genocide meant.

And if this is not enough to keep you reaching for sleeping pills before going to bed, perhaps the report from the German bishops will send you to Walgreens for Ambien:

4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

a) Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

The statements from the dioceses are unanimous in maintaining that “pre-marital unions” are not only a relevant pastoral reality, but one which is almost universal. Almost all couples who wish to marry in Church have already been living together, frequently for several years (estimates are between 90% and 100%). A recent demoscopic survey has shown that a similarly large proportion of Catholics as in the overall population consider this to be acceptable. Weddings between couples who already have children are becoming increasingly common. Here, cohabitation is regarded less as an “experiment”, and more as a generally-customary preliminary stage to marriage which is entered into intending to cement the relationship by these means and to marry later if the partnership proves to be stable. In view of the ultimate binding nature of marriage, and in an awareness that a failed marriage means a profound life crisis, many in fact consider it irresponsible to marry without living together beforehand.

b) Do unions which are not recognised either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

De facto unions which are not recognised either religiously or civilly are a growing phenomenon. 87% of the heterosexual couples living together in a household in Germany in 2012 (20.693 million) were married (17.993 million) and 13% were non-marital unions (2.693 million). The shift can be made clear by showing another figure: 180,311 children were born to Catholic mothers in Germany in 2012. The mothers of 128,455 of these children were married, but 51,856 were not. This means that 71.8% of all children who were born to Catholic mothers in 2012 were born in wedlock and 28.8% were born to an unmarried mother. This means that, taking society as a whole, the share of children born out of wedlock in the new Federal Länder which make up the former GDR form a definite majority (in 2011: 61.7 % in the new Federal Länder; 29 % in the old Federal Länder). Even the birth of children today is thus no longer an absolute reason to marry. Catholics in Germany accept unmarried couples living together without any major reservations. Only three percent adopt a strictly negative position in this regard.

Is it spiteful to notice what the apologists ignore?

Worried about the Gospel?

Ross Douthat identifies the three groups of Roman Catholic conservatives who are critical of Pope Francis (I don’t think Jason and the Callers made the list — no mention of logic or motives of credibility):

1. Traditionalists. These are Catholics defined by their preference/zeal for the Tridentine Rite Mass and their rejection of (or at least doubts about) various reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Some attend mainstream parishes that offer the mass in Latin, others are affiliated with orders specifically organized around the old rite, others are connected to parishes run by the (arguably; it’s a long argument) schismatic Society of Saint Pius X. There’s lots of variation within traditionalist ranks (my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty, cited by Bruenig, is a “trad” of a different sort than, say, this fellow), but the important things to emphasize are first, that their numbers (in the American context and otherwise) are quite small; second, that their concerns are not usually the same as those of the typical John Paul II-admiring conservative Catholic (traditionalists were often not admirers of the Polish pope); and third, that their skepticism of Pope Francis was probably inevitable and pretty clearly mutual. . . .

2. Catholics who are economic conservatives or libertarians. These are Catholic writers and personalities who have publicly disagreed with the pope’s statements on the economy, capitalism and (pre-emptively, regarding his looming encyclical) the environment; in its crudest form, their criticism proceeds from the same premises as the (not-at-all Catholic) Rush Limbaugh’s famous suggestion that Francis is “preaching Marxism” when he critiques the global economy’s rapacious side. But it’s noteworthy, I think, that the loudest voices here are not usually figures particularly known for their Catholicism. . . .

3. Doctrinal conservatives. These are conservative American Catholics whose Francis-era anxieties center around the issues raised during last fall’s synod on the family, and particularly around Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to admit Catholics in second marriages (which the church does not recognize as marriages at all) to communion — an issue I may have written about from time to time. Many of them are also economic conservatives and likely Republican voters, but not all, and notwithstanding that overlap they mostly regard the stakes in the Kasper/divorce debates as much more theologically significant than the stakes in, say, the pope’s forthcoming environmental encyclical. As with the economic debate, the more prominent the commentator, the more circumspect they tend to be in directly criticizing Francis on these issues: The tendency, instead, is almost always to separate the pope from the Kasper faction, critiquing that faction vigorously while reassuring readers that no doctrinal change is in the offing. (My own approach here is distinctive, and perhaps imprudent.) But at the same time, the pattern in which the debate has proceeded, I think, leaves little doubt that if Francis were to adopt Kasper’s proposals or others like them there would necessarily be much more open opposition from this group.

One way of interpreting this is to say that conservative Roman Catholics are concerned about the language of the liturgy, the economy, or the family. Where, Protestants may wonder, among these criticisms of the pope is a concern about mortal sin and protecting the church as a means of grace for freeing believers from guilt and condemnation? To be fair, Douthat himself as one of the doctrinal conservatives has raised the issue of mortal sin and whether the church could conceivably turn a blind eye to it if it tolerates people on second marriages, or gay couples to take communion.

But it is striking to this observer how little concern there seems to be for defending and maintaining the gospel as set forth by the Council of Trent or even John Paul II’s catechism. It could be that these are settled matters that need no more attention. But if you have ever studied the history of Protestantism, such silence about the most important teachings of the church are likely an indication not of confidence but of indifference.

By the way, I wonder if Jason and the Callers have noticed how small the conservative presence is within the U.S.?

Earlier this month, the Pew Forum released the results of its latest survey of American Catholic opinion about Pope Francis. The headline was that he’s basically as popular as Pope John Paul II at his peak, but the truly interesting nugget comes when American Catholics are asked to identify themselves politically.

Francis has an 89 percent approval rating among Catholic Republicans, almost identical to his 90 percent mark among Democrats. Among self-described “conservatives” he gets a 94 percent thumbs-up, which is actually seven points higher than his 87 percent approval among Catholics who call themselves “moderates/liberals.”

Perhaps what the conservatives have figured out is that Francis may be all about compassion and mercy in implementation of doctrine, but he’s hardly Che Guevara in a cassock. If there’s a “Francis revolution” underway, it appears to be more about the pastoral application of teaching rather than revisions to it.

As the dust settles, the Catholic Church is still saying “no” to women priests, gay marriage, and contraception, even if it’s trending softer in terms of how those positions are communicated and enforced. It’s an agenda that plays well with moderates, but leaves many liberals disappointed.