A Different Kind of Social Justice (or African Theology)

In today’s class on religion in the U.S., students and I discussed Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ book Doctrine and Race. Aside from lots of evidence of how pervasive racism was among the leaders of the fundamentalist movement (William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and J. Frank Norris — no mention of Machen), Matthews’ book is very illuminating about how conservative and conventional African-American Baptists and Methodists were. Consider the following:

Those loose morals had many causes, including dances, movies, and gambling, all of which shared a common denominator — they were usually performed outside of churches and thus away from the moral guidance of pastors, elders, and other God-fearing people…. “What is the danger of these [non-church activities]?” Baptist J. C. Austin asked the assembled National Sunday School and Baptist Young Peoples Union Congress in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935. His response was simple: “It is cheating, lying, gambling, a loss of temper, a waste of time, being eaten up with a seal for [worldly pastimes], and the disposition to fight and murder about them. (100)

[W. J. Walls} carefully noted that “we do not hold that dancing itself sends anybody’s soul to hell, but we do know from all observation (for we have never danced), that it is one of the contributing causes to the weakness of the race, the dissipation of religious influence, and therefore the downfall of character. . . We must preach a whole gospel for the salvation of the individual: — body, mind, and soul. There is no perfect character that is not built upon this basis.” (104)

[According to Cameron C. Alleyne] divorces “rob so many children of complete parent bond. Something must be balanced in this parenthood. The mother is given to pampering. It is hers to comfort the child with tender words. The father is given to the sterner qualities of discipline now”. . . Divorce mean “substituting calories for character and vitamins for virtue,” with women supplying the calories and vitamins and men the character and virtue. (108)

[William H. Davenport wrote] “nowhere in Holy Writ is there a hint or suggestion about birth control, or regulating the size of families.” For him, the doctrine of sola scriptura had primacy. argued that to “put the imprimatur of the Church upon the immoral practice of arresting the orderly process of nature is hostile to Christian doctrine, and subversive of the welfare of society”(110)

The lesson: some social gospels are more social than others.

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How to Achieve Unity

I detect something of a breakthrough among Roman Catholics in reaction to Pope Francis’ comments about contraception and the Zika. Christopher Kaczor does his best to help out the pope (even if it is way above his pay grade):

During Pope Francis’ flight from Mexico to Rome, a Spanish reporter posed this question: “Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of ‘the lesser of two evils?’”

In his answer, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned abortion, saying, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. [The nuns were in constant danger of getting raped and therefore of pregnancy.] Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself with abortion. … [A]s with every human evil, each killing is condemned. On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI , it was clear.”

The first part of the pope’s answer does not raise many questions, as it is a straightforward and unequivocal application of Catholic teaching that intentional killing of innocent human beings is seriously wrong. But what about the Bishop of Rome’s statements on contraception? Do his remarks indicate that using contraception is ethically permissible if the circumstances are dire? . . .

In his interview, Pope Francis could be understood as endorsing the view that the use of contraceptives such as a condom could be permissible in order to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus, which may be transmitted through sexual activity. On the other hand, his remarks are also open to the interpretation that forms of contraception, such as the pill, would be permissible in order to render sexual acts nonprocreative with the motivation that a child not be born with microcephaly. Given that Pope Francis is, in the very same interview, at pains to praise and show his agreement with Paul VI, the first interpretation is the more plausible one.

But other Roman Catholics from the left and right are not buying this and so are showing remarkable unity. Edward Peters finds the Pope’s construction of church teaching dubious:

No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.

So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).

Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.

So does Peter Steinfels:

The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch. Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur. He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another. He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy.

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that. He respects it. He admires its author. He looks for the truth in it. But he doesn’t buy it.

But that’s pure guess on my part. The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.

This is unity, but it’s not the kind we’re supposed to notice.

Speaking of Using History

Peter Leithart comments on the way that American Protestants have immanentized the eschaton:

In the introduction to What Hath God Wrought, his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, Daniel Walker Howe quotes an 1850 Methodist women’s magazine’s ecstasies over the telegraph: “This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this might influence. . . .” The magazine continued:

The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian. . . . Wars will cease from the earth. . . . Then shall come to pass the millennium.

Americans never change. A century and a half from now, historians will be able to dredge up quotations very like this from our own day, banging the same drums: The conflation of Christianity with civilization, specifically American republican civilization, and the corresponding hint that the rest of the world is divided into barbarians and semi-barbarians; the enthusiasm for “spreading democracy” (here republicanism); the faith in technology, which could be a plug for the World Wide Web; the religious tenor of the whole statement, reminiscent of Bush’s abortive “Operation Absolute Justice” campaign or the Obamessianism of 2008; the prediction of a technology-driven American globalization.

Problem is, isn’t this what Eusebius — ahem — did with Constantine?

But lest the neo-Puritans take too much glee, just remember what a mixed bag the Puritans can be for making us feel comfortable with ourselves:

Puritan attitudes were almost maniacally hostile to what they regarded as unnatural sex. More than other religious groups, they had genuine horror of sexual perversion. Masturbation was made a capital crime in the colony of New Haven. Bestiality was punished by death, and that sentences was sometimes executed in circumstances so bizarre as to tell us much about the sex ways of New England. One such case in New Haven involved a one-eyed servant named George Spencer, who had often been on the wrong side of the law, and was suspected of many depravities by his neighbors. When a sow gave birth to a deformed pig which also had one eye, the unfortunate man was accused of bestiality. . . .

[The Puritans] found a clear rule in Genesis 38, where Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground” in an effort to prevent conception and the Lord slew him. In Massachusetts, seed-spilling in general was known as the “hideous sin of Onanism.” A Puritan could not practice coitus interruptus and keep his faith. Every demographic test of contraception within marriage yields negative results in Puritan Massachusetts. . . . Samuel Sewall, at the age of 49, recorded the birth of his fourteenth child, and added a prayer, “It may be my dear wife may now leave off bearing.” So she did, but only by reaching the age of menopause. (David Hackett Fischer, Albions Seed, 91, 93)