If God So Loved the World, Why is The West So Special?

In his review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Rod Dreher makes his bracing claim:

any Christian or secular conservative who cares about the stability of Western civilization cannot be indifferent to the fate of the institution that, more than any other, created it. The Orthodox Church is alien to the West, and Protestantism has become far too fragmented and rootless to hold things together.

That is a big burden for Rome to bear. But it also represents a much bigger problem. For a church that ministers a gospel based on a person (and God) who never set foot in the West, your identification with the West may be the hugest (thanks Bernie!!) version of cultural Christianity eh-veh. (Imagine Mormonism without upstate New York and you have a speck of Rome’s burden.) I understand that many Protestants envy Rome’s cultural and historical footprint. Some even become Roman Catholic for the wide swath the communion appears to give.

But, non-Western lives matter too.

On the flip side, when you have your religious identity so bound up with a culture or civilization, you set yourself up for the kind of inevitable cultural adaptation that Protestant modernists created and embraced. You need to do this to keep up with the culture of which you are part since civilizations have never been one-way, top-down endeavors. Today it’s emperors, tomorrow it will be senates and republics. Today it’s Thomism, tomorrow its Kantianism. Today it’s Baroque, tomorrow it’s Bauhaus.

Even more of a problem: today it’s hell, tomorrow its annihilationism. So when Pope Francis flirts with denying the existence of hell, Michael Brendan Dougherty notices about today’s Vatican what fundamentalists used to observe about Protestant modernists:

Because, as I write on Maundy Thursday, his favorite Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is reporting his latest conversation with Francis. In his reconstruction of their conversation, Scalfari has the pope saying that souls who have not repented and therefore have not received God’s pardon simply scomparire — disappear, in English. In other words, there is no hell. The souls of the damned aren’t damned, they just are no more.

The Vatican promptly put out a statement that the interview is a reconstruction of their conversation, not a series of direct quotes. But the Vatican also pointedly issued no specific denial of any of the pope’s words. Amazing to say it, but that’s typical. In essence this constitutes an invitation to disbelieve whatever you want. Predictably, Catholic media who rely on the pope’s star power and the appearance of impeccability put out stories noting that the pope has often talked about hell in the past and that, by the way, Scalfari is an atheist and unreliable narrator. Frankly, I find the Vatican’s position revoltingly underhanded. It refuses to tell us whether the pope said these things, and encourages us to believe what we want. It incentivizes the pope’s defenders to defame Scalfari as a fraud and an underhanded atheist. What kind of game is this? It shouldn’t be hard to just tell the truth about this, yet it is.

This is the fifth interview the pope has done with Scalfari, and far from the first scandal to come out of it. It is impossible to believe that someone as earthy as Francis is still innocent of what’s happening here. Yes, he’s talked about hell as a reality before. But the whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak. Doctrines are proclaimed in creedal statements, and then their contents are emptied in theological essays, or given a completely opposite interpretation in “practical” application. I can’t possibly pretend any longer that Francis is immune from this culture of deception, including self-deception.

(more of) Show Me Jesus

To hear some of the recent commentary about Rome’s relationship to modern society, you might wonder about the significance of Jesus. The young journalist, Elizabeth Bruenig, whom Presbyterians baptized, Methodists discipled, and Jews educated (at Brandeis), explained her conversion as finding a refuge from modernity:

Yet the church remains firm, unmoved by this current in modernity. And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.

I don’t know. To say that the church remains unmoved while failing to mention the about-face involved in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors when Piux IX sneered at the church making any adjustment to modernity (does she really want that?) and the 1962 Second Vatican Council where John XXIII called the church to update its relationship to modern society is quite the claim. You might think a journalist would look a little more carefully at her sources.

Then there is praise from Anthony Annett at Commonweal for the Jesuit article that condemned U.S. evangelicals and Roman Catholics together for an “ecumenism of hate”:

the basic thesis is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism. (Commonweal’s editors commented on it here, and contributing editor Massimo Faggioli wrote on it here.) This world is a Calvinist world, manifesting politically in the twin ideas that the United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history, which gives rise to a dualistic outlook, and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism. This latter pathology comes in different levels, of course, the nadir being the appalling “prosperity gospel.”

Annett too fails to mention how a church that so resolutely opposes modernity (according to Bruenig) is so susceptible to its members doing back flips to join Calvinists in the public square. If you have all that history, authority, and tradition, what happened?

For example, at the church frequented by my in-laws in New Jersey, I’ve heard homilies glorifying the military, calling for higher military spending, criticizing Muslim immigrants, and comparing the hill of Calvary with the hill of Iwo Jima. Seriously. This is horrific, but the overwhelmingly white middle-class Mass-goers seem to lap it up. It’s no wonder that they find no contradiction between Catholicism and Trumpism. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump enjoys their support while the rest of the Catholic world views with him with askance and horror.

Clearly, episcopacy has some bugs that not even papal infallibility (determined just on the heels of the Syllabus of Errors) cannot fix.

In fact, as much as Annett and Bruenig believe that real Roman Catholicism is on the side of left-of-center politics, Matthew Schmitz agrees but also notices how out of step Rome’s liberalism is with Rome’s history. The ultramontanism that sustained Pius IX’s quest for papal infallibility also supported integralism, a form of church-state relations that conservatives and liberals in the United States might find a tad overwrought:

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

With Francis has come a different kind of integralism:

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without accountability to the age and freedom from tradition.

It is in this context that one must understand the Vatican’s recent sally against America in the unofficial papal organ La Civiltà Cattolica. Written by Fr Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, another papal confidant, the article is not merely an expression of anti-American spite or an attack on ecclesial enemies. It is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Sorry, but I’m just not seeing the unity or the authority that wow converts. Plus, did you notice that all of these opinions come from the laity. What would make Roman Catholicism from Protestantism is if lay members kept quiet and deferred to their ecclesiastical superiors. I wonder what that kind of pre-modern ecclesiastical order would do to those converts who find in Rome a horse that rides even higher than the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, do Roman Catholics actually worry about personal sins, God’s judgment, and whether they are going to purgatory?

Gnostic Audacity

The myth:

What I came to recognize, in other words, was that the Catholic position was in actuality the much more humble of the two. Indeed, it was downright self-effacing. For the Catholic position, paradoxically, was that it is precisely because mere men can claim no genuine spiritual authority that the successors of the apostles could claim it; and, in particular, it is precisely because no man can possibly be infallible that the bishop of Rome had to be.

The fundamental conviction here is really quite straightforward: Catholics think that we’d better not be left to our own devices, or else we’ll probably screw things up. When you get right down to the core of the thing, it isn’t that Catholics are misanthropes; they don’t think that human beings are just absolutely idiotic or irredeemably horrible. But they do have a lot of skepticism about man’s inherent capacity to get things right on his own; to see things straight for himself; to understand things clearly and objectively, apart from the potentially adverse influence of the cultural categories and presuppositions, the inherited traditions, through which he sees the world and understands the Bible – but which themselves usually remain unseen. They believe that owing to these inherent and historical limitations to which all men are subject, an individual person, even if he is a Christian indeed, cannot always rely upon himself – that his own internal “feelings” of certitude, or the inward confidence he has in his own views and in those of his tradition, do not necessarily come straight from the Holy Ghost and do not automatically mean he is right.

The reality:

The Vatican is not an organism that thinks only one thought at a time, it’s a bureaucracy. It’s staffed by human beings, each of whom has his or her own wants, fears, intentions, visions, hopes and dreams. There’s far less internal coordination than the mythology would suggest, meaning that often, diversity – at times, even border-line chaos – is the order of the day.

For every official inside the system who embodies whatever one thinks “the Vatican” said or did today, there are probably routinely a half-dozen who aren’t on the same page.

There are at least three reasons why: Structural, cultural and political.

Structurally, Vatican systems are set up in some ways to minimize interaction among different departments. There’s a strong emphasis on respecting the juridical “competence” of each, so that cardinals and their lower-level aides are often hesitant to intervene outside their area of authority.

Documents and policy decisions can be in the works in one department for months, in some cases years, before anyone else knows about them.

Although the atmosphere has loosened up somewhat, I recall distinctly when I first began covering the Vatican twenty years ago, if I were to go out to dinner with two officials from different offices and ask each what was bubbling in his shop, they’d get nervous – not so much about discussing it in front of me, but someone from a different outfit inside the system.

The bottom line is that there simply is no Vatican “war room” where officials hammer out a master plan on much of anything.

Culturally, the Vatican is an international milieu, home to people from a staggering variety of geographical points on the compass. What seems natural or obvious to one official in one office, therefore, will often seem puzzling, even objectionable, to others.

It’s almost always a mistake to assume, for instance, that if an American official in the Vatican says “x,” that view would be shared in precisely the same way by, say, the Italians, or the French. Similarly, if a Latin American head of a department makes a statement on some news story, one can’t presume that his German or Polish colleagues would see it the same way.

Politically, popes often like to appoint officials to Vatican jobs who don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, on the theory that what results can be a sort of “creative tension.”

During the John Paul II years, it was well known that Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, the Vatican’s top official for liturgy, and Archbishop Piero Marini, who organized the pope’s own liturgical celebrations, were on completely different planets – Medina a staunch conservative, Marini an ardent reformer.

Insiders knew not to take much of what either man might say on liturgical matters as a corporate Vatican line, but rather as part of an ongoing internal debate, until the pope officially pronounced one way or the other.

When will Bryan and the Jasons tell the truth that John Allen tells while actually covering real-life church officials in the Eternal City?

Same Only Different

Are these commentators talking about the same bishop (remember, it’s about office not the man)?

Here‘s an excerpt from a review of a biography of William Henry O’Connell, the archbishop of Boston for the better part of the first half of the twentieth century. Notice how authoritarian the papacy seems in 1992 (not 1492):

Even at the height of the papacy’s temporal power, when medieval and Renaissance popes deposed emperors, appointed kings, and divided the world among competing colonizers; even during the Reformation, when popes fought Protestants to the death and excommunicated half of Europe, the universal Church’s ancient claim to “inerrancy” in its mission of handing on the Gospel was not formally restricted to the person of the Bishop of Rome. The claim that the Pope, teaching ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, was exempt from the capacity for error was not solemnly made until 1870 — as an act of the fathers gathered at the First Vatican Council. They were moved to make this extraordinary proclamation as a kind of compensation for losing the last remaining temporal holdings of the papacy to King Victor Emmanuel II, in the same period. The Papal States had once stretched from coast to coast across Italy, but from then on the Pope’s worldly sway was to extend only to the hundred-odd acres of Vatican City. The fathers of the council saw to it that the spiritual sovereignty of Peter’s successor would be as absolute as possible — far more absolute than Peter’s authority had ever been.

The story of the Catholic Church from 1870 through the first half of the twentieth century, ending with Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, is the story of an efficient, ever extending spiritual imperialism under the banner of papal infallibility. That proposition has politicized — and parochialized — the New Testament notion of the Holy Spirit’s enduring presence in the Church. Future generations of Catholics will surely seek to explain away this astounding doctrine with ever more arcane redefinitions, much as this generation explains away the once solemn doctrine of no salvation outside the Church. The key to the papacy’s success in solidifying its hold over the soul of the Church was not the virtue of the men who held the office or the clarity of their moral vision but a far simpler thing: the Pope’s expanded authority to appoint bishops without regard for the preferences of local churches. The Pope controls dioceses and archdioceses around the world by making sure they are administered by men whose first loyalty is to him. Nothing demonstrates the significance of this power better than the career of Boston’s flamboyant Cardinal Archbishop William Henry O’Connell.

Now a recent word of encouragement to liberals in the church in relation to the current pope. Notice how open the church now is:

But culture’s about more than sex, and this pope is no less confrontational than his predecessors. In Laudato si’, he treats economic and environmental policy as moral and, yes, cultural issues, and he doesn’t seem to mind offending those who stand in the way of conversion and reform. Did you hear what he said to Congress about the arms trade? If Francis is a pope particularly committed to dialogue, he is also a pope who believes in plain-speaking.

So, if you are a Catholic who supports same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, or anything else about which this pope’s position cannot be described as liberal, you should feel perfectly free to share in the widespread enthusiasm for him. There are, after all, many reasons to admire Francis, and you don’t need anyone’s permission. You should also feel free not to admire him: there’s no obligation, not even for Catholics. But Catholics should at least respect him, and that means taking him at his word. All his words.

Arminians in the Southern Baptist Convention might think that their change of fortunes in the wake of the New Calvinism are just another day at the office compared to this makeover. And the apologists think that we don’t notice the lack of discipline and what goes with it, coherence? Shouldn’t office count for something?

Welcome to Protestant Land

William Oddie wonders about the state of Roman Catholicism in ways never conceived by Jason and the Callers:

What exactly is going on, when Bishops and parish priests can so radically differ about the most elementary issues of faith and morals—about teachings which are quite clearly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and when simultaneously one Cardinal describes such teachings as “crazy” and another simply expounds them as the immemorial teachings of the Church? Does nobody know what the Church believes any more?

Have I Got A Book for Ross Douthat?

Last week Douthat reflected on what is becoming obvious — the change (at least in tone) in the papacy under Francis, though conclusive assessments are still premature. Douthat also argued that this change could be good for conservative Roman Catholics:

. . . to the extent that conservative Catholics in the United States find themselves actively disagreeing with Pope Francis’s emphases, whether on political issues or matters internal to the church or both, it might help cure them/us of the recurring Catholic temptation toward papolatry.

This temptation was sharpened for many Catholics by John Paul II’s charisma and Cold War statesmanship and then Benedict’s distinctive intellectual gifts, and by their common role as ecumenical rallying points for orthodox belief in an age of heresy. But if the tendency is understandable, it’s also problematic, because the only thing that Catholics are supposed to rely on the papacy for is the protection of the deposit of faith, and on every other front — renewal, governance, holiness — it’s extremely important for believers to keep their expectations low.

At various points during the last two pontificates, of course, it’s been liberal and heterodox Catholics who have consoled themselves with precisely this perspective, and with the belief that (as the writer Paul Elie put it, in an Atlantic article on the election of Joseph Ratzinger) “much of what is best in the Catholic tradition has arisen in the shadow of an essentially negative papacy.” But conservative Catholics need not agree with the liberal theological program to recognize that there is truth to the underlying insight. The papal office has been occupied by many more incompetents than geniuses, and there’s a reason why so few occupants of the chair of Peter show up in the litany of the saints. Or at least until so few until now — and here I agree absolutely with this point from Michael Brendan Dougherty, in a piece about the overlooked aspects of Francis’s now-famous post-Brazil interview:

For one thing, Pope Francis not only touted the impending canonizations of Pope John XIII and Pope John Paul II, but also the “causes” of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Are we seriously to believe that every recent pope was a saint, even when the church has experienced unbelievable contraction and criminal scandal under their pontificates? Seems like the Church needs an “Advocatus Diaboli” again to point out the faults of candidates for sainthood …

So popes are not all saints, and the pope isn’t identical with the church — and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for conservative Catholics to reckon with this fact. Maybe this pontificate won’t be the time for that reckoning. But if the historical record is indicative, it won’t be permanently delayed.

Something that may also help conservative Roman Catholics find separation from the audacity of papal authority is Francis Oakley’s book, The Conciliarist Tradition (2003). That Douthat does not appeal to conciliarism, as if papalism is the only game in town, confirms Oakley’s thesis that conciliarism has been forgotten and that high-papalism is presumed to be the traditional view:

. . . it has been usual to concede that tattered remnants of that conciliar ecclesiology were to be found caught up in those provicincal, obscurely subversive, and usually statist ideologies that have gone down in history as Gallicanism, Richerism, Febronianism, and Josephinism. But those disparate, occluding, and (usually) ninetenth-century labels have themselves served, in fact, to conceal from us the prominence, tenacity, wide geographic spread, and essential continuity of that age-old tradition of conciliarist constitutionalism which, for long centuries, competed stubbornly for the allegiance of Catholics with the high-papalist or ultramontane vision of things so powerfully entrenched in Italy and at Rome. If the latter is so much more familiar to us today, it is so because it was destined after 1870 to become identified with Roman Catholic orthodoxy itself. And it is only, one cannot help suspecting, our very familiarity with that papalist outcome that has contrived to persuade us of the necessity of the process.

In the past, historians concerned with the conciliar movement clearly felt obliged to explain how it could be that the seeds of such a consitutionalist ecclesiology could have contrived to germinate in the stonily monarchical soil of the Latin Catholic Church. But in thus framing the issue, or so I will be suggesting, they were picking up the conceptual stick at the wrong end. Given the depth of its roots in the ecclesiological consciousness of Latin Christendom and the strength with which it endured on into the modern era and right across norther Europe, the real question for the historian at least may rather be how and why that constitutionalist ecclesiology perished and, in so doing, left so very little trace on our historical consciousness. For perish it certainly did . . . Vatican I’s definitions of papal primacy and infallibility had seemed to leave Catholic historians with little choice but to treat the concilar movement as nothing more than a revolutionary moment in the life of the Church, and Catholic theologians with no alternative but to regard the conciliar theory as a dead issue, an ecclesiological fossil, something lodged deep in the lower carboniferous of the dogmatic geology. (16-17)

Perhaps with folks like Jason and the Callers in mind, Oakley wrote this:

. . . . Theologians of non-historical bent may doubtless be content to explain why this had necessarily to be so. Historians on the other hand, may be forgiven for wanting to rescue from the shadows and return to the bright lights of centre stage the memory of a tradition of thought powerful enough, after all, to have endured in the Catholic consciousness for half a millennium and more. (18-19)

So when Jason and the Callers embraced the papacy, they believed they were only doing what Roman Catholics had always done. Turns out that conciliarism (especially if you rummage around in the Eastern Church) has deeper historical roots than papalism. In which case, Jason and the Callers confirm Oakley’s point about the forgetfulness of traditionalist Roman Catholics about tradition.

Following Francis

If the pope is unwilling to pass judgment on others, why haven’t Jason and the Callers adopted the same stance? They might want to consider this:

Francis’ emphasis on mercy is nearly ubiquitous. In a recent essay for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Enzo Bianchi, founder of the celebrated ecumenical monastery of Bose, offered a statistical analysis of the words used most frequently by Francis since his election. He found that the single most commonly used term was “joy,” more than a hundred times, followed closely by “mercy,” which the pope has used almost a hundred times.

This conviction that we are living in a kairos of mercy makes sense of everything else the pope said on the plane and, for that matter, most of what he’s said and done since his election in March.

It explains his unwillingness to pass judgment on gays, and it also explains his refusal to be drawn into a political diatribe when a Brazilian journalist asked him about recent laws in the country liberalizing abortion and permitting same-sex marriage. Asked why he didn’t address those issues during his trip, the pope said, “It wasn’t necessary to speak of them, but of the positive things that get young people going. Anyway, young people know perfectly well what the position of the church is.”

Pressed for his personal conviction, Francis didn’t duck: “That of the church. … I’m a son of the church.”

There you have it in a nutshell. Francis is no doctrinal radical, and there will likely be no substantive upheaval of the church’s positions on issues of gender and sex or anything else. On the one specific question Francis fielded along these lines, women’s ordination, he reaffirmed “that door is closed.”

The revolution under Francis is not one of content, but of tone. He believes it’s time for the church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the harsh and unforgiving temper of the times. This is a pope who will look for every chance to express compassion, steering clear of finger-wagging unless it’s absolutely necessary.

I Want A Church In Which I Can Feel Influential (not about me)

In a follow up to yesterday’s plaint about the plight of Reformed Protestantism comes a jumble of comments about what people are looking for in a church. One of the problems that Reformed Protestants face is that their provisions are so meager, more cheeze-wiz than brie. Paul did seem to be on to this in his first epistle to those saints in Corinth who wanted a glorious church. Preaching is folly, both its content and form. And these days, the ministry of the Word cannot sustain the show that would-be ministries can. “You preach the Bible and your services are full of Scripture?” “Great, but what about Trayvon Martin and the Muslim Brotherhood?” “You don’t get out much, do you?”

So what will millennials who think biblical instruction so 1990s find if they follow Rachel Held Evans?

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Well, she could find some of this in a confessional Reformed church minus the bits on sex and welfare, but I’m not holding my breath that Ms. Evans will be joining even the PCA soon.

Jake Meador, whom I assume to be a millennial, thinks Evans is bluffing (or worse):

It’s true that the younger evangelicals doing their Chicken Little routine are completely ignoring what happened to the last generation to insist that “Christianity must change or die.” But the far more amusing thing is not the historical ignorance on display in such comments, but the ecclesiastical arrogance of such declarations. Hearing it, one can’t help being reminded of the late George Carlin’s rant about environmentalists intent on “saving the planet”:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

Meanwhile, Anthony Bradley calls Evans bluff and ask why she doesn’t find the United Methodist Church to be the communion millennials are looking for:

The UMC is outside of the culture wars. It has no conflicts with science and faith and clearly teaches what they are for instead of against. The UMC is a place where LGBT friends are welcomed. Moreover, if anyone knows anything about Wesleyanism, you know that Methodists have a deep emphasis on personal holiness and social action. Again, the Jesus that Evans wants to find is waiting for her and her followers in the UMC.

Again, herein lies the core question: Why doesn’t Evans, and others who embrace her critique of “the church,” simply encourage Millennials, who do not believe Jesus “is found” in their churches, to join churches like the UMC? If someone is passionate about Jesus and is truly looking for him, but doesn’t find him in one church, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a genuine search would lead that person to another church where it is believed Jesus actually is? It makes me wonder if the Evans critique is not about something else.

One reason Evans may not join the UMC is that she might find there another version of the culture wars, one that goes on under the old name, Social Gospel. Here, for instance, is a description of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod (John Winthrop and John Williamson Nevin are turning in their graves, though in opposite rotations):

Earnest discussion and debate focused on the status of women in society, tax reform, immigration reform, financial support for seminary students (backed up with a synod offering), mountaintop removal coal mining, racism, discrimination, and denominational restructure. An outdoor rally in celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA affirmed the church’s position on gay marriage. Delegates and speakers lamented the ruling on voting rights.

Deep commitment to advocacy and justice matters was and is inspiring. I hope for critical thinking about gospel justice and advocacy at any RCA General Synod. In Long Beach, as discussions wound up and down, I marveled at the impassioned advocacy. Yet, my RCA yen for a solid biblical foundation kicked in. Sometimes I yearned to hear a word of scripture or more of the theological premise behind a passionate speech.

Worries about the Social Gospel even exist among Protestant converts to Rome, where the Social Teaching of the Church has become one of the top items on the list indicating the Vatican’s superiority and which Francis appears to be stretching in ways that call upon various and sundry lay Roman Catholics to explain what the Holy Father is up to. Here is one worried priest:

The social gospel is a heresy, and like every heresy, it is not completely wrong. It is only half right. We are supposed to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick and work for justice and peace, but this is the fruit of our faith in Christ. It is the result of our redemption, not the primary point of our faith. The first objective is the salvation of our souls, and from this faith in Christ we are transformed into his likeness, and as we are transformed into his likeness we begin to do his work in the world. If we jump straight to the good works, then we are guilty of the old heresy of Pelagianism: trying to be good enough under our own steam.

The reason I say this is a problem for the new pope is not because I think he teaches the social gospel, but because it will be perceived and promoted that he does. I am convinced (despite the worries of some of my friends) that Pope Francis is God’s man for the church today. I’m convinced that he is fully orthodox, and that he will not compromise the Catholic faith at all, but instead will build up Christ’s church and be a wonderful global evangelist.

What concerns me is that the man and his message will be hi jacked by the worldly powers who would love nothing more than to emasculate the message of Jesus Christ and reduce the whole of the Catholic faith to an nice system of inspiring people to be nicer to one another. The stupid worldly powers try to persecute and obliterate the church. The really smart ones embrace the church and use it for their own ends. Henry VIII, for example, was one of the smart ones. He did not seek to abolish the Catholic Church. He simply stole it and turned it into an instrument of English nationalism and a force for consolidating his power over the English people.

Likewise the really smart worldly powers of today would like nothing better than to co-opt the Catholic Church into a one world system of bringing about peace, justice and niceness for all. If the Christian gospel can be reduced to a message of good will and kindliness, and if the Christian religion can be reduced to a network of soup kitchens and homeless hostels, the worldly powers will be happy.

We have seen the capitulation of most Christian groups in the developed world to this agenda already. The mainstream liberal Protestant denominations adopted the social gospel long ago, and are now not much more than a group of peace and justice campaigners who meet on Sunday for strategy sessions. The hip Evangelicals have gone a different, but similar route. Increasingly their message is one of self help, success strategies, rehab therapies, good parenting and how to manage your money. The cross of Christ and the need for repentance and redemption is quietly downplayed, diluted and discarded.

Pope Francis’ admirable emphasis on simplicity, ministry to the poor and justice for the marginalized will play into this tendency in our modern world. That’s why he is, at least at present, such a media darling. The mainstream media will play up his social gospel appearance and quietly ignore everything he says about true Catholicism. They will ignore any call for repentance and the need for forgiveness. They will ignore the cross where Christ the Lord was sacrificed for the sins of mankind. They will ignore everything he says about the Mass, the communion of the saints, the reality of heaven and hell and the need for the salvation of souls.

Meanwhile, for millenials thinking that the High Church traditions may hold the solution, consider this (thanks to Jeff Polet). Maybe I should say no thanks since not even the feline factor can redeem such blasphemy.

All of this makes me very thankful (all about me) for a local church where the pastor proclaims the word and administers the Supper every Sunday. It’s not very flashy. Then again, neither was manna in the wilderness.

Jamie Smith Gives, and Jamie Smith Takes Away

Erik has already commented that neo-Calvinists could learn from the Vatican, but the affinities between neo-Calvinism and Rome were even more striking in Jamie Smith’s recent post about Lumen Fidei. His remarks suggest that the real gateway drug for Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism is the sort of comprehensive Christianity that fuels every-square-inch transformationalism. Part of what makes neo-Calvinism appealing to evangelical Protestantism is that it offers so much MORE than salvation from sin and the need to evangelize daily. It talks about redeeming the whole world and promotes the value of every legal walk of life.

But just imagine how much more comprehensive Rome looks when it has 1500 more years of history, and an institution that (in addition to opposing the French Revolution, a neo-Calvinist requirement) put the Holy in Holy Roman Empire. If you want a culturally influential Christianity, Dutch or Dutch-American Calvinism looks like a piker compared to Rome.

This may explain why Jamie was so pleased by Francis’ first encyclical:

. . . the Pope rightly argues that the standpoint of Christian faith is not opting for un-reality—to believe the Gospel is not an irrational escape from “the real.” To the contrary, it is an invitation to participate in the One in whom all reality holds together. And this is an incarnational faith: tangible, sticky, concrete, embodied, in contrast to the vague Gnosticism that too often passes itself off as “Christian.”

So if Christians practice an otherworldly faith because Christ has gone somewhere else to prepare a home for his people, or because Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, or Calvin prays that we should not become too deeply attached to earthly and perishable things, these otherworldly saints are simply gnostics or fundamentalists.

And Smith goes on to quote approvingly Francis’ depiction of faith as a common (as opposed to a Spirit-wrought) good. Here’s Francis:

Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good. Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.

To which Smith adds:

I can’t imagine a better articulation of the faith that animates our work here at Cardus. The Reformation isn’t over, but the protest that has separated us might not be as significant as the Gospel that unites us. This Protestant is deeply grateful for the witness of Pope Francis to the light of faith for the common good.

I know it is a sign of doctrinalist, logo-centric nit-picking to compare Smith’s words to the confessional standards he subscribes. But how exactly does faith become a common good when you define it the way Heidelberg does? (Can’t you at least show that you know what the Three Forms teach and then try a form of reconciliation?)

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

And what comes of the protest that separates Protestants and Roman Catholics when Heidelberg goes on to describe the centrality of faith to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness?

Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

I understand and even admire the desire of Christians and NPR listeners to make the world a better place (even if I also think that desire can look fairly naive or self-righteous at times). But if you do grasp the otherworldliness of Christ, Paul, and the Reformers, you do understand that the good of a common life together on planet earth is remarkably inconsequential compared to a separate existence in heaven or hell. Gussying up the goods of western civilization, the humanities, Christendom, or social and political solidarity in talk of “the permanent things” still doesn’t cross the gulf that exists between the life that believers and unbelievers share in this world and the separate worlds they will inhabit in the world to come.

Voting with Their Feet?

Roman Catholic young people do not appear to be as excited by Pope Francis as certain middle-aged Protestant converts. Here are the early returns on registrations for World Youth Day (and Francis will be playing on his home court):

O Globo reported that registrations for World Youth Day were expected to be in the neighborhood of 1 million to 2 million, with participant fees covering at least 70 percent of the total estimated cost of $140 million.

Participants are being asked to pay fees ranging from $51 to $283, depending in part on whether they attend the full week of events or just the concluding vigil and Mass with the pope.

As of early July, however, only about 320,000 registrations had come in. The newspaper account said organizers had asked federal, state and city officials in Rio de Janeiro to provide $13 million in additional assistance, which they declined.

The three levels of government already committed to spending roughly $50 million in security and logistics for the weeklong event and an additional $10 million in transportation subsidies.

Counts provided by bishops’ conferences in countries that typically send large delegations confirm that registrations are below previous totals.

In Canada, for instance, the bishops have reported that 1,153 Canadians will attend the event in Rio, which is 5,000 fewer Canadians than attended the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid and 800 below the total that traveled to Sydney in 2008.

Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, a noted media figure who’s coordinating the Canadian delegation to Rio, said the high cost of the event coupled with concerns about security may have played a part in the lower totals.

Rosica also said the interval of two years since the last World Youth Day was too short, calling for “a longer waiting period.”

In the United States, a bishops’ conference official told NCR that registrations for Rio number 9,500, down from 29,000 Americans who went to Madrid in 2011 and 15,000 for Sydney in 2008.

Organizers caution, however, that not everyone registers in advance, and total turnout is generally considerably above the official registration numbers.

Is this an indication that world Roman Catholic youths fall more on the Whig than the Augustinian side of the Whig-Augustian-Thomist divide?