Roman Catholics at Plymouth Rock?

In the department of strange bedfellows comes George Weigel’s praise for the Museum of the Bible:

On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principal speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God.

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

Of course, the U.S. is a free country and anyone can assemble the past in ways consoling.

But does anyone else feel a certain discomfort with a Roman Catholic recommending the Bible without also mentioning the objections that sometimes Bishops registered against Bible readings in public schools without comment? The United States would not have as many parochial schools as it does if not for Bishops who worried about sending children to public schools where teachers read the Protestant version of the Bible.

Not to be missed is the odd relationship between the Bible and the founding. If the settlers who came to America and launched the tradition of Thanksgiving wanted a society with a biblical vision at its bedrock, don’t you also have to mention that those same Bible-only Christians were a tad jittery about including Roman Catholics in the nation that emerged from their colonial enterprises?

This may be why some Roman Catholic political theorists are uncomfortable with Roman Catholics getting comfortable with the founding.


Married Presbyterian Pastors

Protestants do not receive nearly the credit they should for seeing 500 years ago what George Weigel recently observed (and it took Hillary Clinton — a Methodist).

First, marriage can be a good thing:

The Church’s unique, Christ-given structure invests great authority in bishops. And that, in turn, puts a high premium on the ability of the bishop to know his weaknesses and learn from his mistakes. But to know and learn from his weaknesses and mistakes, the bishop has to recognize them – or be invited to recognize them, if one of a number of vices prevents him from seeing himself making mistakes. Wives and children do this charitable correction for husbands and fathers. But Catholic bishops don’t get that form of correction because they don’t have wives and children. So it has to come from somewhere else.

Second, regular assemblies of clergy (think presbyteries or classes) also have their advantages:

“Fraternal correction” among bishops is an ancient and honorable tradition in the Church. Patristic-era bishops practiced it with some vigor, the most famous case being the controversy between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen, Bishop of Rome. Today, bishops’ respect for each other’s autonomy tends to mitigate against the practice of fraternal correction. Still, if “affective collegiality” means anything, it ought to mean having enough care for a brother-bishop, no matter his position in the episcopal college, to suggest to him that he is off-course, if that is one’s conscientious judgment, tempered by prayer.

Fraternal correction is a delicate instrument, to be used with care. If its use completely atrophies, however, the Church risks becoming an ecclesiastical version of Clintonworld.

Hello! The conciliarists of the 15th century knew this. But when you hold on to “venerable” institutions, it’s hard to change (or admit when you do).

A Paradox Epistemology Won’t Solve

Once upon a time Andrew Sullivan edited The New Republic. Once before that time, Sullivan was a graduate student in political theory at Harvard. He was and still is a practicing Roman Catholic. He is also of English descent and gay. Those may be reasons why he spotted way back when he was a graduate student what many contemporary converts never seem to contemplate — namely, that being American and Roman Catholic are incompatible identities. The same goes for Reformed Protestants, though you’d never know about any tension between church and nation — unless the nation is blowing it — from the every-square-inchers, the neo-Confederates, or the God-and-country Calvinists who dominate mainline and sideline Presbyterian churches. But Roman Catholicism comes to the U.S. table with different bags and Sullivan understood why thirty years ago:

There was a moment on the pope’s recent visit to Chile that still lingers in the mind. Tear gas was fired into the crowd in Santiago, Rioting broke out within a stone’s throw of the altar. And John Paul II knelt to pray. Faces were turned toward him, looked up to him to take sides; and instead he proceeded to pray. The act was moving, but more important it was ambiguous. The pope’s presence alone was to measure the extent of his commitment.

Political explanations for the pope’s behavior—the advice of local bishops, his personal experience in Poland, the dangers of encouraging violence—have been offered, but they fail to capture the drama of what was really happening in Santiago. It would be better to ask why the pope was there at all. The answer is simple: the Second Vatican Council. That event, decades distant, contains the clue to the pope’s predicament. After over 20 years, the Council’s most enduring effect has been to have removed the possibility of a complete separation between the Church and the modern world
(a separation represented perhaps most clearly by the late 19th-century papacy). For the Vatican, a political engagement with the world, a compromising commitment, is in full swing. It was such an engagement that was articulated in Santiago, where the ironies implicit in living the apostolic life in the modern world were bluntly revealed.

The Second Vatican Council was aware of the risks of opening a dialogue with the modern world, though the text of its proceedings breathes an optimism now quaintly anachronistic. In its mass of documents issues were grasped with unnerving directness. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council was the first papal document addressed not merely to the faithful, but to “all men of good will,” He reached out even to the Communist world, by drawing a distinction between the systems of belief that it represented and the men and structures that enforced these beliefs, “Besides,” he continued, “who can deny that those movements, insofar as they conform to the dictates of right reason and are interpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval?”

More significant, though less noticed, was the peace that the address made with liberalism. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out at the time. It rather easily laid to rest the long-standing confrontation between natural rights and natural law, by conflating the two. John XXIII both asserted the necessity For “freedom” and attempted to make it compatible with the moral strictures with which natural law constrained us. Catholics had a natural right to freedom, but they were not entitled to use that right for any ends they chose. Catholics were not “free” to accumulate wealth without
limit, nor to exploit, nor to commit adultery, nor indeed to commit any sin. Yet the admonishing rhetoric deliberately suggested that they were still “free” in a modern and politically charged sense of that word. It was, it is, an explosive mix.

These overtures made sense within the historicism of the documents, especially Pacem in Terris. It talked of a “new order” in which “the conviction that all men are equal by reason of their natural dignity has been generally accepted.” This was an order as inevitable as it was largely unsubstantiated in the text. It presented an opportunity for the Church to assist in the creation of a universal common good by which nations could address one another. A notion of progress had entered the spirit of the Church, bound up with particular political structures and ideas. And yet at the same time the Church was to maintain an independence from them. In subsequent years that independence proved rather paradoxical. . . .

. . . it is argument, not assertion, that is needed for the discussion inaugurated by the Vatican Council. That discussion can no longer be wished away. And that discussion will go nowhere fast unless it acknowledges the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the modern world. This Weigel, the happy synthesizer, does not do. By declaring natural law to be compatible with America, by making the solution so comprehensive and so simple, by articulating a theory that will banish all the complexities, Weigel misses something essential in the fate of the modern Church: its uncertainty. History has not provided the Church with a comfortably Hegelian purpose by which everything has been, or will be, resolved. It has instead presented faith with a moral challenge, with a choice that includes both good and evil. Far from showing the inevitable triumph of natural law, modernity has
seen the destruction of even the concepts that make natural law thinkable again. Weigel’s confidence misses the depth of this crisis, and its consequence for Christianity. Modernity leaves Christians with a challenge to gamble. We do not know whether alliance or attack is the safest option. But we do know that escape, or a cozy coincidence of philosophical and political opposites, is no longer possible.

Weigel’s book represents just such an escape from the dilemma that Hanson’s book describes. The escape is certainly coherent; but its coherence is its flaw, since it transforms the risk of faith into a safe bet. In so doing, it obscures the essence of the Christian calling: to act in radical doubt, in the knowledge that any action, even the best intended, can be a manifestation of evil. This is the risk for the Catholic Church in world politics. It is this uncertainty that explains the anguished expression on John Paul’s face as he knelt to pray in Santiago. And it goes some way, at least, toward explaining the contemporary challenge, even in America, of the cross to which he turned.

Why Worry About Change?

When you can always interpret.

George Weigel tries to get out in front of Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the family. But he couldn’t beat Cardinal Kasper (and, oh, by the way doesn’t a Cardinal outrank a layman in teaching authority?):

As is his wont, Cardinal Walter Kasper was first out of the starting blocks, announcing that the apostolic exhortation (whose date of publication he got wrong) would be a first step in vindicating his proposals for a “penitential path” by which the divorced and civilly remarried could be admitted to holy communion—despite the fact that his proposal had been roundly criticized and rejected at both Synods and in various scholarly articles and books in between. The Kasper spin was then picked up by some of the usual media suspects, who called on the usual Catholic talking heads on the port side of the Barque of Peter, who took matters further by speculating that the apostolic exhortation would open up even more revolutionary paths, involving the Church’s eventual acceptance of same-sex marriage and other matters on the LGBT agenda.

But not to worry, the Council that many think unsettled the church has actually settled what popes can do:

By declining Paul VI’s suggestion about a papacy “accountable to the Lord alone,” Vatican II made clear that there are limits to what popes can do. On the bottom-line matters at issue in the two recent Synods, for example, no pope can change the settled teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, or on the grave danger of receiving holy communion unworthily, because these are matters of what the Council’s Theological Commission called “revelation itself:” to be specific, Matthew 19.6 and 1 Corinthians 11.27-29. Nor has Pope Francis indicated in any public statement that he intends any deviation from what is written by revelation into the constitution of the Church.

Michael Sean Winters is even later to the pre-publication spin and offers his own prebuttal.

But what if the bishop whose job it is to interpret Scripture and tradition interprets dogma so it doesn’t change but its meaning does? This was the option favored by Protestant and Roman Catholic modernists. If modernism could happen once, why couldn’t it happen again (as if it ever went away)?

And then we have the problem of reason and what people with minds do to texts. Sam Gregg recently invoked Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address to call not his communion but the entire West to its former high esteem for reason:

One of the basic theses presented by Benedict at Regensburg was that how we understand God’s nature has implications for whether we can judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable. Thus, if reason is simply not part of Islam’s conception of the Divinity’s nature, then Allah can command his followers to make unreasonable choices, and all his followers can do is submit to a Divine Will that operates beyond the categories of reason.

Most commentators on the Regensburg Address did not, however, observe that the Pope declined to proceed to engage in a detailed analysis of why and how such a conception of God may have affected Islamic theology and Islamic practice. Nor did he explore the mindset of those Muslims who invoke Allah to justify jihadist violence. Instead, Benedict immediately pivoted to discussing the place of reason in Christianity and Western culture more generally. In fact, in the speech’s very last paragraph, Benedict called upon his audience “to rediscover” the “great logos”: “this breadth of reason” which, he maintained, orthodox Christianity has always regarded as a prominent feature of God’s nature. The pope’s use of the word “rediscover” indicated that something had been lost and that much of the West and the Christian world had themselves fallen into the grip of other forms of un-reason. Irrationality can, after all, manifest itself in expressions other than mindless violence.

Gregg warns rightly that “irrationality is loose and ravaging much of the West—especially in those institutions which are supposed to be temples of reason, i.e., universities.”

But if Father Dwight is any indication, irrationality also has its moments well within the confines of Roman Catholic parishes (even beautiful ones). If you wonder why the virgin Mary is the Queen of Heaven, just take a rational look at your Bible:

We simply have to read the Scriptures with Catholic eyes and understand the Jewish context of the Scriptures to see how the Catholic beliefs about Mary are all contained in the Scriptures. The problem is, they are not stated explicitly. Instead they are locked in the Scriptures to be understood and teased out. As the church came to understand more fully who Jesus really was they then began to understand more fully the role of his Mother, and as that became clear they also began to see that these truths were already there in the Scriptures. . . . The truths about Mary are subservient to the truths about Jesus because she is always subservient to her Son and always points to her Son. It is about him. It is not about her. . . .

Luke chapter 1:26-38 and Revelation 12. Consider first the passage from Luke. This is, of course, the story of the Annunciation of Jesus birth by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. . . . The angel Gabriel is called “the Angel of the Lord”. He is the main messenger direct from God. Therefore his words can be taken as a direct revelation from God. His message to Mary is therefore God’s message to the world. He declares solemnly that Mary’s Son will be the Son of the Most High, but he will also be the heir of David and the King of the Jews and furthermore his kingdom will have no end. In other words, he is king of heaven.

In the Jewish understanding of monarchy the Queen of heaven was not the king’s wife, but the king’s mother. Solomon’s mother Bathsheba played this role in the Old Testament. It follows therefore that if Jesus is to be the heir of David’s throne and be king, then his mother would be the Queen. Furthermore, if Jesus is also to reign over the kingdom of heaven, then his mother would be the Queen of Heaven.

At some level, Christians on both sides of the Tiber need to give up the idea that their convictions are rational in the sense that people with well functioning minds will recognize the point of Christianity. Aside from the noetic affects of the fall which predispose unbelievers to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, Christians also affirm truths that defy reason — like the resurrection and the Trinity.

But if what Father Dwight does with Scripture is any indication of the interpretations that attend sacred and infallible texts, no amount of bishops and cardinals bringing their conciliar foot down on papal authority will prevent interpreters from interpreting.



What Bryan and the Jasons fail to cover in their call to Protestants obsessed by modernism (read Machen’s warrior children):

Recently The Catholic Herald, one of our most reliable English Catholic weeklies, recently published an article by George Weigel on Vatican II and the subsequent fifty years called “Mission Abandoned” and carrying on the cover the phrase “George Weigel says we’ve wasted the last 50 years on infighting.”

Professor Weigel is one of our most distinguished Catholic writers who over the years has done great work in the service of the Church. This in itself makes me hesitate to take issue with him. But in addition to that is the fact that if I do I shall expose myself to the charge of carrying on the “infighting.”

However, there is one serious omission in his article which, if it remains unmentioned, will do a serious injustice to all those Catholics, like writers and readers of The Wanderer, who, over a period of fifty years, have done their best to uphold the faith and authentic magisterial teaching often in far from easy circumstances.

The omission is the word “modernism.” The impression is given that the “infighting” has all been between two groups equally Catholic in belief and practice, one labeled “conservative” or “traditionalist,” the other “liberal” who, like political parties, comprise the totality of the Catholic body and whose conflicts have been equally useless and destructive. It is as though Blessed John Henry Newman had tried to explain the Arian crisis after the Council of Nicaea in terms of useless infighting between “liberals” and “conservatives” with Arius representing the former, and Athanasius the latter, and coming to the conclusion that they should have reached a compromise.

Responses from the Protestant focus group continue to be received.

Roman Catholic Calvinists

Not sure that this is what Jason and the Callers had in mind.

Mark Silk compares politically conservative (read GOP) Roman Catholics to Jansenists and neo-Calvinists (I think he means New Calvinism) (thanks to Michael Sean Winters):

Today’s neo-Jansenists are likewise moral sticklers, focused laser-like on the twin evils of abortion and same-sex marriage, They are driven crazy by a Jesuit pope who tells them to stop harping on those issues, whose most famous remark is, “Who am I to judge?”

Where he portrays the Church as a hospital for sinners, they want to restrict Communion to the deserving, whether that means excluding politicians who are soft on abortion rights or holding the line against divorced and remarried Catholics. Possible papal readiness to open the door to the latter led Ross Douthat of the New York Times to blog the other day, ”Pope Francis would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do.” Oh, can’t he?

Today’s neo-Jansenists do their predecessors one better by embracing the Spirit of Capitalism famously associated with Calvinism by sociologist Max Weber. To tweet that inequality is the root of evil, as Francis did the other day, distressed them deeply. Altogether, they resemble the neo-Calvinists who have become the intellectual leaders of contemporary American evangelicalism.

The old-time Jansenism included world-class luminaries like mathematician Blaise Pascal and playwright Jean Racine but never the Catholic majority. In their emerging struggle with the Jesuit pope, the neo-Jansenists have lesser lights like Robert George and George Weigel, even as the faithful are overwhelmingly on Francis’ side. And so, history seems likely to repeat itself.

The good news for Weigel and George is that the Vatican makes no such distinctions. From their statistical perspective, the only distinctions are among bishops, priests, deacons, and baptized (not to mention monks and nuns). (But the Callers know better.)

By the end of 2012, the worldwide Catholic population had reached 1.228 billion, an increase of 14 million or 1.14 percent, slightly outpacing the global population growth rate, which, as of 2013, was estimated at 1.09 percent.

Catholics as a percentage of the global population remained essentially unchanged from the previous year at around 17.5 percent.

However, the latest Vatican statistical yearbook estimated that there were about 4.8 million Catholics that were not included in its survey because they were in countries that could not provide an accurate report to the Vatican, mainly China and North Korea.

According to the yearbook, the percentage of Catholics as part of the general population is highest in the Americas where they make up 63.2 percent of the continent’s population. Asia has the lowest proportion, with 3.2 percent.

During the 2012 calendar year, there were 16.4 million baptisms of both infants and adults, according to the statistical yearbook.

It said the number of bishops of the world stayed essentially the same at 5,133.

The total number of priests — diocesan and religious order — around the world grew from 413,418 to 414,313, with a modest increase in Africa, a larger rise in Asia, and slight decreases in the Americas, Europe and Oceania. Asia saw a 13.7 percent growth in the number of priests between 2007 and the end of 2012.

The number of permanent deacons reported — 42,104 — was an increase of more than 1,100 over the previous year and a 17 percent increase since 2007. The vast majority — more than 97 percent — of the world’s permanent deacons live in the Americas or in Europe.

That means Rome has roughly 5 bishops for every 400 priests and 1.2 million members, and 4 priests for 1,200 members. In the OPC, where the costs are nowhere near PCANYC levels, you have roughly 1 pastor for every one hundred members (and these members — ahem — meet membership requirements).

Why Monarchies Are Out of Favor

For more of the West’s history than not (from roughly 600 to the present), monarchy has been the preferred political order. Not until 1789 did constitutional republicanism become an alternative. Since then, republicanism (rule by the few) or democracy (rule by the many) have been the characteristic features of the West’s politics. Sure, we still have a monarch in England and the Netherlands, but they function more like furniture than political figures with real power.

This trend in the West’s politics has not transferred to the West’s ecclesiology. Rule by one (episcopacy) is still popular (even sacred) for some of the West’s Christians, while rule by the many (congregationalism/independency) dominates the worlds of New Calvinism, Baptists, charismatics, and beyond. Rule by the few (presbyterianism) is practiced by a few.

All of this is to provide some context for the recent news that an English Roman Catholic bishop, Michael Campbell has used the power of rule by one to reign in a renegade deacon:

A deacon who runs a Catholic website that criticised bishops, theologians and lay groups for being out of step with church teaching has been asked to stop posting material.

Deacon Nick Donnelly has been asked by the Bishop of Lancaster to stop posting on his Protect the Pope site and undergo a “period of prayer and reflection”.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Lancaster said that Bishop Campbell had asked Mr Donnelly to “voluntarily pause” from publishing in order to reflect “on the duties involved for ordained bloggers/website administrators to truth, charity and unity in the Church.”

The site, however, is being operated by his wife, with the latest posting encouraging readers to submit their own articles. Mr Donnelly, who has agreed to his bishop’s request, told The Tablet that his wife was running the site on her own and he has “no say” over what is posted.

Protect the Pope, which received 100,000 hits a month, regularly criticised groups and individual bishops and took issue with several Tablet articles for being at odds with church teaching.

One of the curious aspects of this story is that it conflicts with what George Weigel tried to teach us about the pope’s power: “Popes, in other words, are not authoritarian figures, who teach what they will and as they will.” Well, when have monarch’s ever not been authoritarian figures except when they ran up against a constitution or parliament that supplied checks and balances? And if bishops (rule by one) have power to act unilaterally within their dioceses, why doesn’t Pope Francis have similar authority to reign in priests, deacons, bishops, and church members in the universal church?

And that makes Pope Francis’ affect all the more remarkable because at times he seems more interested in playing the court jester than the king:

“I want things messy and stirred up.”

This statement by Pope Francis to youth on Copacabana beach last summer in Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day will no doubt become one of the iconic quotes from this papacy, not only because it is a pithy sound bite, but also because — we are learning — it seriously represents Francis’ modus operandi. He stirs things up and then waits to see what will rise out of the chaos.

Francis’ delight in stirring things up is no more evident than in the preparation for the October’s Synod of Bishops. Even before the Vatican officially announced an extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization of the family, there were signs that this event would be different.

What Can Change and What Can't

Since infallibility has become a frequent topic of recent comments here, a couple of pieces from elsewhere may complicate the infallibility-means-superior meme of Roman Catholic apologists. It turns out that you can find as many opinions about what the church teaches (and here discipline merges with doctrine, a no-no I thought) as Carter has pills.

First, an optimistic piece from George Weigel about Pope Francis as a conservative:

Popes, in other words, are not authoritarian figures, who teach what they will and as they will. The pope is the guardian of an authoritative tradition, of which he is the servant, not the master. Pope Francis knows this as well as anyone, as he has emphasized by repeating that he is a “son of the Church” who believes and teaches what the Church believes and teaches.

Thus the notion that this pontificate is going to change Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, or on the effects of divorce-and-remarriage on one’s communion with the Church, is a delusion, although the Church can surely develop its pastoral approach to homosexuals and the divorced. As for the environment and the poor, Catholic social doctrine has long taught that we are stewards of creation and that the least of the Lord’s brethren have a moral claim on our solidarity and our charity; the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise that stewardship, and that solidarity and charity.

And “the role of women in the Church”? No doubt various Church structures would benefit by drawing upon a wider range of talent (irrespective of gender) than the talent-pool from which Church leaders typically emerge. Still, in an interview with La Stampa before Christmas, Pope Francis made it clear that identifying leadership in the Church with ordination is both a form of clericalism and another way of instrumentalizing Catholic women.

So the church is not going to change, but I didn’t see anything about infallibility or the bodily assumption of Mary not changing. Instead, it looks like morality has an aura of infallibility about it. That makes sense since morality comes from God. But if the papacy hasn’t declared the moral law to be infallible, how would we know that morality is unchanging?

And then there is the back-and-forth among Roman Catholics about what the church teaches on Islam:

Consider an online debate that appeared this summer in Catholic Answers Forum about Cardinal Dolan’s visit to a mosque in New York. The debate centered around the Cardinal’s statement “You love God, we love God, and he is the same God”—a statement, in short, which seemed to echo the Catholic Catechism. The most interesting aspect of the month-long thread was that those who argued that Allah is the same God that Christians worship relied almost exclusively on arguments from authority. Here is a sample:

“It is dogma that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God.”

“He [Cardinal Dolan] has the grace of Teaching Authority. Unless you are a bishop, you do not.”

“You are discrediting Vatican II.”

“One either accepts Her teaching authority, or one does not.”

“This is not up for grabs.”

After plowing through dozens of similar propositions, along with numerous citations of the relevant passage in the Catechism, it was difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that forum participants were relying on the argument from authority because it was the only argument they had.

The trouble with the argument from authority in regard to Islam is fourfold. First, the Church has very little to say about Islam. In fact, the brief statements from the Second Vatican Council make no reference to Islam, Muhammad, or the Koran but only refer to “Muslims.” The same is true of paragraph 841 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which simply repeats the two sentences from Lumen Gentium. The second problem has to do with interpretation. For example, Lumen Gentium states that Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham” but does not assert that they actually do hold the same faith as Abraham. Likewise, Nostra Aetate states that Muslims “revere Him [Jesus] as a prophet,” but does not grapple with the significant differences between the Jesus of the Koran and the Jesus of the Gospels—differences that extend well beyond the fact that the Koran does not acknowledge Jesus as God.

The third problem with the argument from authority as it touches on Islam is that there appears to be some uncertainty about whether Nostra Aetate was meant to be a dogmatic statement. . . .

The fourth problem with the argument from authority is that those who fall back on it often ignore the harsh assessments of Islam offered by earlier Church authorities. For example:

Pope Eugene IV, Council of Basil, 1434: “…there is hope that very many from the abominable sect of Mahomet will be converted to the Catholic Faith.”

Pope Callixtus III, 1455: “I vow to…exalt the true Faith, and to extirpate the diabolical sect of the reprobate and faithless Mahomet in the East.”

Pope Pius II, papal bull, 1459: “…the false prophet Mahomet”

. . . The harsh language of earlier Church authorities can be excused on the grounds that Islam was often at war with Christianity. The more conciliatory language of Vatican II can be better understood if we realize that Islam’s aggression against Christianity seemed entirely a thing of the past at that time. But it can be argued that the irenic statements of Vatican II have helped to create a climate of opinion among Catholics that has left them unprepared for the present state of affairs vis-à-vis Islam. And the present state of affairs seems to herald a resumption of the centuries old Islamic hostility toward Christians.

I don’t know how Jason and the Callers come down on the church’s teaching on Islam, but the more I see, the more it looks like the claims made on behalf of infallibility are overblown given the way that ordinary Roman Catholics can (and have to) splice and dice the works of their bishops. At the very least, we see here more evidence that nothing and everything changed at Vatican II.

In But Not of America (part two)

Sometimes politically conservative Roman Catholics can appeal to Americanism to show the flaws of the Democrats. George Weigel has done this:

[Leo XIII] was, in other words, warning against confusions and distortions that are manifestly in play in certain Catholic quarters today, whether or not they were widespread in Catholic circles in late-19th-century America.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has displayed many of these tendencies throughout her years in the national spotlight. Most recently, the House minority leader said that her Catholic faith “compels” her to “be against discrimination of any kind,” which is why she, as a Catholic, supports so-called “gay marriage.” That the teaching authority of the Church has made unmistakably clear on numerous occasions that there is and can be no such thing as “gay marriage” evidently makes not the slightest difference to Mrs. Pelosi, whose personal judgments are the magisterium she obeys.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is another whose approach to faith, judgment, and public policy would seem to vindicate Leo XIII’s concerns. Despite the efforts of the archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Joseph Naumann, to convince her otherwise, Sebelius, first as governor of the Sunflower State and now as chief health-care official in the Obama administration, has insisted on the most libertine possible abortion policy. She vetoed a bill prohibiting late-term abortions shortly before leaving the governor’s office in Topeka, and she has defended the HHS mandate’s diktat that religious institutions must provide coverage including abortifacient drugs as part of “preventive health services.” That several popes and the entire Catholic hierarchy of the United States have, on numerous occasions, declared such actions beyond the bounds of moral reason — not just the bounds of Catholic doctrine, but the bounds of moral reason itself — makes no discernible difference to Secretary Sebelius. Like Representative Pelosi, she is her own magisterium.

Leo’s concerns about confusions over the natural and supernatural virtues seem prescient when one looks around the U.S. Catholic scene today. E. J. Dionne Jr. regularly praises the Church for its social-service networks (as well he should). But amidst his many attempts to bolster the fading cause of Catholic progressivism, has Dionne ever written about the absolute centrality of the sacraments to Catholic identity and mission, linking the Church’s liturgical life to its work for justice, as the leaders of the mid-20th-century Liturgical Movement always did? I don’t doubt that Dionne believes that the celebration of the Eucharist is a stronger expression of the essence of Catholicism than what any bishop says about the Ryan budget; still, no one would learn that from any of his columns since January. And in this, of course, Dionne maintains his role as chief cheerleader for the Obama administration. For it was President Obama who, at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement, defined social-service Catholicism of a certain ideological hue as the real Catholicism — a theme to which Obama has returned in recent weeks, reminiscing about the halcyon days of his community organizing in Chicago.

Then there is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of sisters the Vatican is attempting to reform. That Vatican intervention took place not because many of these sisters supported Obamacare (pace E. J. Dionne), but because their approach to religious life embodies many of the difficulties against which Leo XIII cautioned: conscience understood as personal willfulness and set against ecclesial authority; religious obedience juxtaposed to human maturity; humility discarded for the sake of pride (in this case feminist pride). Many of the LCWR’s leaders seem to agree with Dionne that what really counts in the life of American sisters is their social service, not the vowed witness of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the midst of a culture dominated by the imperial autonomous Self. Leo XIII would have disagreed, and his prediction that any such secularist reduction of consecrated religious life would lead to its implosion has been borne out by the sad fact that the LCWR orders are dying from lack of new members.

Then there is Mario Cuomo, who in 1984 gave a distinctively Americanist speech, in Leo XIII’s sense of the term, at Notre Dame: a speech that paved the way for the national careers of Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, and Joe Biden, and that would have defined the curious Catholicism of the John Kerry administration, had things gone the other way in 2004. Cuomo recently told Maureen Dowd that “if the Church were my religion, I’d have given it up a long time ago. . . . All the terrible things the Church has done. Christ is my religion, the Church is not.” Yet the Church and its teachings, as Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Gibbons in his ornate style, come to us “from the same Author and Master, ‘the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father’ [John 1:18].”

Maureen Dowd’s anti-Church rants on the New York Times op-ed page would have brought an embarrassed blush to the face of a great man (and a devoted churchman) like Isaac Hecker. But in this instance, Dowd’s invitation gave Cuomo the opportunity to articulate with precision one facet of the down-market theology that shapes the new Americanism: the theology that sets Jesus (heavily edited down to a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount) against the Church. And when Jesus is juxtaposed to the Church rather them embraced as the Lord of the Church that is His Body in the world, the rest readily follows: Private judgment trumps authoritative Catholic teaching; the Church of social service is severed from, and then trumps, the Church of the sacraments; freedom is purely a matter of following conscience (no matter how ill-formed or erroneous that conscience may be); doctrine is an obstacle to witness; and Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic cabinet officer who has declared her administration at “war” with the Catholic Church, addresses a commencement ceremony at Georgetown University, a hub of the new Americanism and its distortion of Catholic identity and Catholic social doctrine.

This new form of Catholicism Lite, a not-so-phantom hash of ideas that poses real problems for the integrity of the Church and its evangelical mission, breathes deeply of two winds that have long blown through American Christianity: the ancient Pelagian wind, with its emphasis on the righteousness of our works and how they will win our salvation; and the Congregationalist wind, with its deep suspicion that Catholic authority is incompatible with American democracy. As for the older Americanist controversy, I think the classic historiographers of U.S. Catholicism were largely right: The “Americanism” of which Leo XIII warned in Testem Benevolentiae was far more a phantom concocted by fevered, ancien-régime European minds than a heresy that threatened Catholic faith in the United States. But the problems that Leo flagged are very much with us over a century later. They are at the root of the internal Catholic culture war that has intensified as religious freedom has come under concerted assault, and as the new Americanists, who form a coherent party in a way that Isaac Hecker and his friends never did, have either denied that assault — or abetted it.

And sometimes Roman Catholics can appeal to the popes to challenge politically (and market friendly) conservatives like Weigel. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Weigel’s reaction to Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work. And another Justice and Peace favorite – the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development – is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.)

If those burrowed into the intellectual and institutional woodwork at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace imagine Caritas in Veritate as reversing the rout they believe they suffered with Centesimus Annus, and if they further imagine Caritas in Veritate setting Catholic social doctrine on a completely new, Populorum Progressio-defined course (as one Justice and Peace consultor has already said), they are likely to be disappointed. The incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical is so deep, and the language in some cases so impenetrable, that what the defenders of Populorum Progresio may think to be a new sounding of the trumpet is far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo.

Perhaps it was criticism’s like this that prompted Weigel’s piece to go the route of the interweb’s lost and found:

Weigel celebrates Centesimus Annus which he claims “jettisoned the idea of a ‘Catholic third way’ that was somehow ‘between’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ capitalism and socialism – a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G.K.Chesterton to John A. Ryan to Ivan Illich.” Actually, both Centesimus and even more so Caritas in Veritate stress that the “Catholic way” must be prior to the claims of any economic theory, that the disposition for grace and communion must be part of the system, not a mere add-on, that unjust systems produce unjust results, and that a system that produces – at the same time – material wealth and spiritual poverty must be seen as morally and humanly suspect.

Weigel repeats the now common neo-con canard that capitalism is morally wholesome because it is driven not by greed but by human creativity. So, creative like Bernie Madoff or creative like Steve Jobs? Either way, Weigel fails to note that this celebration of wholesome capitalism is not found in the many pages of Caritas in Veritate. . . .

The gravest intellectual problem for Weigel is not his inability to see the validity of the influence of the good monsignori at Justice and Peace, nor that the Catholic social tradition permits several ways of approaching complicated economic and political issues. He claims some passages are “simply incomprehensible” and perhaps they are to him. But, the example he gives is telling. He writes that “the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a ‘necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.’ This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.” Gee. I don’t think it is that difficult to understand. It means that the stance of the Christian must be one of openness to the other, especially to the poor, and that we must create shares in the economic sphere for the poor, a share that sees them as a gift from God. We must see our relationship to the poor as one of communion not exploitation. And, does Weigel truly think Pope Benedict would write something “dumb”? Even if you disagree with Pope Benedict, he is never dumb.

Weigel not only misunderstands the relationship a Christian should have to the poor, he misunderstands the relationship a Catholic should have to a papal encyclical. I had thought that it was the Pope and the bishops who had the task of authoritatively interpreting the doctrine of the Church. Silly me. Mr. Weigel, with his gold and red pens, is the official arbiter of what passes as orthodoxy. He labels parts of the new encyclical “incomprehensible,” he charges the curia with “fideism” for advocating the necessity of transnational institutions, and he casts slurs upon Pope Paul VI for Populorum Progressio. Benedict is a “gentle soul” incapable of controlling a text that bears his name and he has been duped into signing on to foolishness.

Weigel is wrong on the merits, but he is also wrong in his stance. This encyclical – all of it – bears the Pope’s signature and the respect due to all statements of the magisterium. Weigel’s arguments have long been tedious and are here tendentious. But, it is not only the intellectual dishonesty of this essay that rankles. Behind his knowing Vaticanology, Weigel betrays a disloyalty to Pope Benedict and to the memory of Pope Paul that surprised even me. I have long recognized a certain myopia and a pronounced hubris in Weigel’s writings but he has outdone himself. He should put his red and gold pens away and read the text in its entirety as an invitation to grow in discipleship. As I commented yesterday, Caritas in Veritate has something to challenge everyone.

These are squabbles you’ll never see mentioned by Jason and the Callers. Sure, dogma has not changed, though the stance that accompanies the dogmatic utterances sure has. But can anyone explain how these disputes, which hardly signify a united church, signify that the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption even matters?