How to Observe Reformation

If you are Roman Catholic, forget Martin Luther and remember Thomas More:

We should not celebrate the Reformation, because we cannot celebrate the defense of erroneous conscience held up against the authority of the Church. As St. Thomas More rightly said in his “Dialogue on Conscience,” taken down by his daughter Meg: “But indeed, if on the other side a man would in a matter take away by himself upon his own mind alone, or with some few, or with never so many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable.” He may have had Luther in mind.

More did not stand on his own private interpretation of the faith, but rested firmly on the authority of Christendom and, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead: “But go we now to them that are dead before, and that are I trust in heaven, I am sure that it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things, the way that I think now.”

More is a crucial example of standing firm in a rightly formed conscience. We should remember why he died and not let his witness remain in vain. He stood on the ground of the Church’s timeless teaching, anchored in Scripture and the witness of the saints. If we divorce conscience from authority, we will end in moral chaos. As Cardinal Ratzinger asked in his lucid work, On Conscience: “Does God speak to men in a contradictory manner? Does He contradict Himself? Does He forbid one person, even to the point of martyrdom, to do something that He allows or even requires of another?” These are crucial questions we must face.

Rather than celebrating the defender of erroneous conscience, let’s remember and invoke the true martyr of conscience, who died upholding the unity of the faith.

But, if you’re Roman Catholic, you follow the pope, right?

In light of the current controversy on conscience, it is troubling that Luther is now upheld as genuine reformer. The most troubling is from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year 2017: “Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel’ (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.” The Vatican also announced a commemorative stamp (which to me sounds like the United States issuing a stamp commemorating the burning the White House by British troops).

Pope Francis has spoken of Luther several times in the past year, including in an inflight press conference returning from Armenia: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.” In response I ask, what did Luther reform? Francis pointed to two things in his journey to Sweden. The Reformation “helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the Church’s life,” but it did so by advocating the flawed notion of sola scriptura. Francis also pointed to Luther’s concept of sola gratia, which “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” While the priority of God’s initiative is true and there are similarities to Catholic teaching in this teaching (that faith is a free gift that cannot be merited), Luther denied our cooperation with grace, our ability to grow in sanctification and merit, and that we fall from grace through mortal sin. Francis also noted, while speaking to an ecumenical delegation from Finland: “In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide Her.” Most recently he spoke of how we now know “how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation.”

Doesn’t the magisterium know more and better than Dr. R. Jared Staudt?

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What's In Your Kitchen?

John Zmirak adds to the confusion that Protestants have about papal audacity and the magisterium’s authority:

There is such a thing as a cafeteria Catholic. That term refers to people who pick and choose from the Church’s non-negotiable teachings, based on what seems right to their private consciences formed by the secular culture around them; their own urgent desires; and the writings of disaffected Jesuits, and radical nuns who traded in Thomas Aquinas for Karl Marx, Carl Rogers or Carl Jung. Do you find the Church’s historical teaching on divorce too much of a “hard saying”? There are theologians, up to the level of Cardinal Kasper (the friend of the Zeitgeist), ready to nuance it into oblivion. Do you feel that the Church’s condemnation of abortion or homosexual “marriage” is too “patriarchal”? Here’s a coven of nuns ready to teach you all about the love of Goddess.

But when theologically faithful Catholics question the current pope’s exotic economic views, which he himself has said are not binding on Catholics, suddenly those who dissent from core Church teachings are ready to break out the thumbscrews and light the stake.

In the piece that so offended Michael Sean Winters and provoked our phantom debate, I showed how the statements of popes over the centuries on economics and politics were at such variance with each other that it was simply false to pretend that the Magisterium extended to cover such questions. By definition, the Magisterium includes only teachings that have remained fundamentally consistent since the time of the Apostles. It is those teachings, along with the Bible, that form the core of Catholic faith. So if we find that popes and councils have differed with each other on an issue (as they indisputably have over slavery, lending at interest and religious freedom), then those papal teachings are not part of the ordinary Magisterium. They may contain worthy insights, like St. John Paul II’s forays into philosophy, but they are not part of the Faith.

There are some Catholics who are uncomfortable admitting facts like these. For whatever reason, these people — whom I will call Feeding Tube Catholics — crave the certainty that the Holy Spirit guides every single step taken by the church through its 2,000 years of history. The Holy Spirit picks each pope, they believe, and guides his daily steps, public statements and decisions. So whatever the pope is saying at the moment, you should simply shut down your critical faculties and believe it — regardless of what previous popes and councils might have taught. Those go into the Memory Hole, and pfft! They never existed.

Well wouldn’t that be nice? Except that then we’d have to explain why the Holy Spirit picked so many corrupt and cruel pontiffs, and why throughout the Renaissance He seemed to favor the cardinals who offered the highest bribes. That’s kind of a weird coincidence, isn’t it? We’d also have to ask why the Holy Spirit inspired one pope to dig up his innocent predecessor and try his corpse for heresy. Why did the Holy Spirit guide popes like Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Leo XIII to denounce religious freedom as a diabolical snare, then direct Pope Paul VI and Vatican II to declare religious freedom a fundamental right, based in both divine revelation and natural law?

The answer I usually get to questions like these is along the lines of: “Shut up, you sound like a Protestant.” Commentators like Mark Shea have demanded that Catholics adopt a pet-like “docility” to whatever the Vatican is saying at the moment, while one learned writer at First Things called on conservatives to accept Pope Francis’ statements on economics as the fruit of a “spirit-led Magisterium.” To which one must respond: Did the same Spirit lead all those previous popes who contradicted each other on issues ranging from slavery to the right of Protestants to worship freely without being arrested by the Inquisition? He sure seems to change His mind a lot.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the threat of Feeding Tube Catholicism, which if seriously pursued would reduce Catholics to the kind of mindless zombies imagined in the worst stereotypes of anti-Catholics like Jack Chick. Ratzinger had already pointed out one case where a pope (Pius IX) had issued a comprehensive manifesto of political statements (the Syllabus of Errors), only to be later contradicted by a council in its documents (Gaudium et Spes). Ratzinger spoke specifically of the case of Pope John Paul II, whose teaching on the death penalty differed from that of previous popes. Ratzinger sharply distinguished between dissent on issues where the church had spoken clearly and consistently, such as abortion and euthanasia, and disagreement with a pope who was saying something new. Ratzinger reminded us that the teaching of the Church is not some Moscow-style “party line” meant to wipe clean the minds of believers like the shake of an Etch-a-Sketch.

Let me propose instead of Cafeteria or Feeding Tube Catholicism a kind of Thomistic golden mean. Let’s call it Knife-and-Fork Catholicism. No, we won’t pick and choose from the Church’s teachings as if we were scanning for our favorite muffin type at a Shonee’s breakfast bar. Nor will we lie back, brain-dead, as the latest pope’s latest statements are downloaded into our brains like one of Apple’s or Microsoft’s non-optional updates.

Instead we will sit up like men and women with knives and forks at a restaurant. We will accept the balanced, healthful meals sent out by a chef whom we trust. But if there seems to be some kind of mistake, if we find on our plates gorge-raising dollops of stale Cuban, Venezuelan and North Korean prison rations, we drop our forks. We assume there has been a mistake, since none of this was on the menu. We send the chef a message that we will pass, in the happy faith that the restaurant’s Owner will agree and understand.

So far, I detect all three stripes of Roman Catholic here at Old Life. Many converts are Feeding Tube faithful — all that papal audacity in denial of all that history.

Some of the cradles seem to be the Cafeteria type, picking and choosing among the two infallible dogmas.

And some are Knife-and-Fork, level headed, understand discrepancies in the past and the present, and register dissent.

But what puzzles me is how it is John Zmirak’s pay grade to determine which meal is balanced and healthful. For most of Roman Catholic history, that determination was the responsibility of the bishops, the ones who would protect the church from error and shepherd the flock. So while I don’t want to upset John by comparing him to Luther, I’m not sure how his independence of thought is any different from Luther’s before the excommunication ax fell.

Even More Angst about Selective Sensitivity

Bruce Baugus is worried about assaults on religious liberty coming at Christian vendors who refuse to provide services for gay weddings. The issue is the old Kuyperian one of how deep down does my religious identity go? Does it involve primarily acts of worship and devotion or does it extend to all of life so that my conscience and religious identity are implicated even in business transactions?

The problem is that Christians look fairly selective on this one. Chances are Christian entrepreneurs have been serving burgers and gas to homosexual clients for a long time. And chances are that the food and fuel consumed by gay-Americans have not always gone to holy ends (as if heterosexuals use such energy for good purposes). So why have Christians become particularly sensitive about serving gay clients now? Duh. The issue is gay marriage, to which Christians object (as do other American citizens) and plans for such nuptials reveal the sexual orientation of clients in ways that pulling up to the drive-thru or pump do not.

I do get it and the libertarian in me says government should not coerce any person to engage in any particular business transaction — the removal of prohibitions about serving minorities does not strike me as the same as forcing a business to engage in certain transactions but I may be off on that since I am neither an attorney nor a Jesuit. But I do think that folks worked up about restrictions on religious liberty need to pay much more attention to what’s at stake in freedom of conscience. According to the confession of my communion:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.

Where you find in that a plan for expanding notions of religious freedom from worship to decorating wedding cakes is not altogether clear. Baugus seems to acknowledge something behind this point when he concedes:

. . . providing a good or service is not always the same as participating in the activity for which it is procured. Yet in some cases it may be a way of participating in or endorsing the activity.

Heck, if your conscience is really really sensitive, or if your w-w is turned up high, you’d never leave the house because that would mean endorsing the ways of all the unbelievers with whom you interact in the course of car driving, grocery shopping, and mail sending.

Neo-Calvinism's Whiggish W-w

In his piece for Christian Renewal (March 26, 2014) Bill Evans expands on his earlier critique of 2k. And he commits again two important mistakes.

The first is to assert that 2kers identify the church with the kingdom of God. Wrong. 2kers follow the Confession of Faith in identifying the kingdom of Christ with the visible church and — see if you can follow the balls — the kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Christ. If it were, then Saddam Hussein, who was under God’s reign, would have been part of the kingdom of Christ.

Remember how the Confession puts it:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

I still remember sitting across a seminar table from solid conservative Presbyterians under the spell of Kuyper who asked me if I really believe that affirmation (even though they had subscribed the Confession).

The second mistake is to say that Calvinism is socially activist in contrast to Lutheranism. Evans writes, despite similarities in the way that Calvin and Luther spoke about two kingdoms, Calvin’s efforts to protect the church from encroachments of the state, and to emphasize the duties that Christians have to the state wind up denying the sort of ecclesiastical independence that results in Luther’s view (even though Lutheran churches were as much part of the political establishment as Reformed).

This difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity toward the state that has characterized much of the Lutheran tradition and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians.

And there you have in one sentence a historical verdict on 400 years, as if everyone knows this, as if the Scottish Kirk was all that militant in resisting London, or as if the Dutch churches were any more successful in opposing Hitler than Lutherans were. Just glide right over those complexities and arrive with two thumbs up for Calvinism which gave us the modern world. These Calvinist optimists — who seem to forget that TULIP is not exactly John Locke write large — never seem to calculate that Calvinists never lifted a hand to stop the execution of Servetus or argued against sending Roger Williams into exile.

Aside from Calvinist soteriology, the Confession of Faith and its historical circumstances pose a speed bump to Evans’ whiggish rendering of history where all lines lead to Christian Renewal‘s readers. Of the major confessions from the Reformation era (as far as I know), only Westminster’s has a chapter devoted to Christian liberty, a pretty important concept for those who argue for Calvinism’s influence on modern social and political arrangements. For instance, this is how John Witte understands Calvinism’s contribution to human rights:

The first and most essential rights for early modern Calvinists were religious rights — the rights of the individual believer to enjoy liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion, and the rights of the religious group to enjoy freedom of worship and autonomy of governance. Already in Calvin’s day, the reformers discovered that proper protection of religious rights required protection of several correlative rights as well, particularly as Calvinists found themselves repressed and persecuted as minorities. The rights of the individual to religious conscience and exercise required attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs.(2) John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights)

It would be harder to find a view of freedom of conscience, though thoroughly accepted by moderns, more at odds with the way the Westminster Divines conceived of freedom of conscience, which was for them first and foremost a spiritual reality:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

Unlike the Anabaptists, Quakers, or Roger Williams, freedom of conscience had nothing to do with politics. But for Evans’ understanding of Calvinism’s activist progressive side to make sense, he needs Witte to be right and to ignore what the Westminster Confession says.

And yet, the Westminster Divines, who wrote under the patronage of a Parliament at war with the crown — a sure sign of political activism if you wanted one — refused to let freedom of conscience be a buttress to political ends:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

Call it Lutheran if you want, but the A2k view of the Reformed tradition relies on a recent construction of Calvinism that has been foisted as the general article.