This Is Embarrassing

The Protestants who I enjoy criticizing are clear at the same time that Roman Catholics are not. And the editors at First Things are caught.

First, a recommendation of the evangelicals who produced the Nashville Statement:

[Several] critiques have merit, and are especially significant since they come from within the evangelical movement. But in our era of theological mushiness and cultural transformation, even the most imperfect attempt at clarity and doctrinal solidarity is better than soft-spoken obfuscation. Christians committed to historic, biblical doctrine on sexuality should be disposed to approve of efforts to make orthodoxy clear, unequivocal, and pastoral.

Perhaps, as many have said, the timing of the Nashville Statement was insensitive. Waiting a couple weeks after the initial images from Houston had appeared might have muted this criticism. But can we foresee a season when such a clear statement of traditional doctrine would not offend, alienate, or divide?

I suspect that what has turned off many people to the Nashville Statement is its clarity. The document’s fourteen affirmations and denials are short, unequivocal, and to the point.

But Roman Catholics, not so much. Aside from the ongoing dilemma of marriage and divorce that Pope Francis and his synods introduced into the magisterium, individual priests, like James Martin, are signaling virtue but in a very sensitive way:

Fr. Martin notably seeks peace. He speaks reassuring phrases in soothing tones. He prefers the familiarity of a sweater vest and dad jeans to the strangeness of the soutane. In ways superficial and profound, he seeks to render Christianity inoffensive. At a certain level, I understand this desire. The Church may be a sign of contradiction, but it is also a source of consolation. Sometimes we need a Church built on sharp, gothic lines, and at other moments we seek the calm harmony of the classical.

But Fr. Martin’s proposed renovation goes beyond mere ornament, to require the restructuring of the whole Christian edifice. Fr. Martin never says this outright, but the logic of what he does say demands it. Approval of homosexuality is now considered the bare minimum of politeness in the world’s respectable precincts (where one hundred years ago, it would have been thought intolerably rude). If Christianity is to have the manners Fr. Martin values—if is to exhibit perfect “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” in the eyes of world—it must not only change its phrasing but reverse its teaching on sex.

Fr. Martin is no idle vandal of the Church, even if his critics often take him for one. Though I disagree with his conclusions, I believe that Catholics have something to learn from his argument that the Church treats homosexuality unfairly.

Catholic teaching has not changed, but at the practical level the Church today has made peace with heterosexual desire. Praise of virginity and warnings against lust in the marriage bed have given way to anxious reassurances that Catholics do not hate and fear sex. The Church has largely ceased to speak of sex as dangerous and requiring restraint, even where it is licit. We hear of the dangers of pre-marital sex, of extramarital sex, sometimes even of homosexual sex—but very rarely of sex simply.

Of course, doctrine hasn’t changed. You hear that a lot from those who have to live with modernists — those who won’t live by, defend, or recommend the doctrine that hasn’t changed. But something has.

And I suspect some converts to Rome are having trouble arguing for Rome’s superiority to Nashville.

The Answer

James Fitzpatrick has doubts and James Martin’s advice about discernment are not resolving them. The source of these doubts and advice is the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Martin appears to be optimistic about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church:

“Discernment,” Martin continues, “is the term used by Jesuits and their colleagues to describe the way that decisions are made in a prayerful way. St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, lays out many of these methods in his classic text The Spiritual Exercises. At heart, the process begins with the belief that God wants a person, or a group, to make good, healthy and life-giving decisions; and through the ‘discernment of spirits’ sort out what is coming from God and what is not.”

What does “discernment” look like in practice? Martin writes, “At the heart of every group discernment is the idea that everyone should be…radically free to follow God’s will wherever it may lead.” This means that the participants in the group should free themselves from “disordered attachments,” including “fealty to things, ideas and people” — including previously accepted beliefs and figures in authority — “that prevent one from thinking, speaking and acting freely. The most essential element of group discernment is this absolutely radical freedom.”

Martin acknowledges that this freedom may “create tension among those who feel that any movement away from the status quo is in opposition to fidelity to the church or that change itself would cause confusion.” This fear, Martin claims, must be rejected: “Group discernment calls for a willingness to be open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and also to be open to another person’s thoughts and feelings, no matter how threatening they may seem,” since “in group discernment it may be the least likely person or group through whom the Spirit moves most strongly.” It well may be, he continues, that the Spirit is moving in opposition to “those who feel that those with the most authority, learning, or experience naturally have the correct ‘answer’.”

It is for this reason, Martin asserts, that we should not overreact when we hear leaks about things said at the synod. Many of these early positions taken by participants will be rejected before the synod ends; they will not be part of the final report. We must have patience: “The Spirit blows where it will. It takes its time for people to offer their reflections, for questions, for discussion, for clarifications, for prayer and discernment. The Holy Spirit cannot be rushed.”

It is amazing to see a Jesuit appeal to the Holy Spirit as freely as Gilbert Tennent.

But Fitzpatrick, a conservative I suppose by virtue of his writing for The Wanderer, is not so reassured by Martin’s advice:

How can we feel confident that the participants at the synod are proceeding with a “prior commitment and fidelity” to the teachings of the Church, when recent years have given us so many examples of members of the clergy who have demonstrated their opposition to what the Church teaches?

We have seen Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee retire in 2004 after it was revealed that he had used $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to settle a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment of a male lover.

We remember how Pope John Paul II in 2003 found it necessary to remove Hans Hermann Cardinal Gröer from office because of allegations of sexual misconduct with young students in his care. In September 2005, Juan Carlos Maccarone, the bishop of Santiago del Estero in Argentina, was forced to resign after pictures were released of him engaged in sexual activity with another man.

More recently, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Keith Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, because of allegations from three priests and one former priest that O’Brien had engaged in improper sexual conduct with them during the 1980s.

And just a few weeks ago, Fr. Krzysztof Charamsa, a Polish priest and Vatican official, came out publicly as an active homosexual with a male partner. Charamsa condemned what he called the “institutionalized homophobia in the church,” calling for a change in the Church’s teaching on homosexual sex.

And just this past week, according to, Archbishop Basil Cupich of Chicago said, concerning Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, that there are some ideas surfacing in the synod hall about “penitential paths” in order to integrate people back into the life of the Church.
“[Archbishop Cupich] pointed to the so-called Kasper Proposal, an idea floated by German Cardinal Walter Kasper that would create a pathway to Communion for the divorced and remarried, and he expressed support for the theology behind the idea, published in a book last year,” reported

LifeSiteNews reported: “When asked by LifeSiteNews if the notion of accompanying people to ‘the Sacrament’ who had a clear indication of conscience to do so also applied to gay couples in the Church, Cupich indicated an affirmative answer.

“‘I think that gay people are human beings too and they have a conscience. And my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point. It’s for everybody….”

So, I ask this question sincerely, without an axe to grind: How can we feel confident, given the above history and with some of the statements that have come from certain synod fathers?

Is the cure for such worries two multi-syllabic words — wait for it — papal infallibility?

Folded or Dirty

It’s still laundry that most of us don’t get to see. It’s a little old at this point, but the exchange between Ross Douthat and James Martin, editor at large of America magazine, displayed an honesty that conversations between conservatives and liberals in American Protestantism never revealed. It also exposed us outsiders to a range of views that Jason and the Callers keep under wraps (whether out of duplicity or ignorance is anyone’s guess. Here are a few highlights:

Douthat admits that papal supremacy won’t fix what ails Roman Catholicism (contrary to Jason and the Callers):

. . . to the extent that some conservatives ultimately find themselves in sincere disagreement with statements this pope makes, or experience sincere disappointment with some of his appointments, that experience might help cure them of the unhealthy papolatry that sometimes built up under John Paul II, and help them recognize the truth of a point that more liberal Catholics have often raised—that the Vatican is not the church entire, and that many worthwhile experiments in Catholic history have been undertaken without a stamp of approval (quite the reverse, indeed) from the hierarchy.

But with all of this said, on some of the issues we’re debating right now, I think there’s also an important asymmetry between the position of progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics vis-à-vis a pope who might seem at times to be on the “other team.” By this I mean that for Catholics who desire some kind change in church teaching around sex and marriage and the family, by definition the continuity and integrity of the current teaching isn’t essential to their understanding of what the church is, why it’s worth belonging to, and so on. As much as they may have been disappointed under the last two pontificates, that is, their fundamental reasons for being Catholic were not shaken by what John Paul or Benedict taught or said on divorce or same-sex marriage or other issue, because they had already decided that what any specific pope says about sex or marriage can be taken as provisional, subject to the future revision by the Holy Spirit.

Martin identifies the bottom line for Roman Catholic progressives (would Jason and the Callers agree?):

I can surely understand the frustration of some who feel that what they view as essential is up for grabs. Seeing something that you deem essential being held up for debate would be disturbing indeed. But, for me, the essentials are contained, first, in in the Gospels and, second, in the Nicene Creed. So no pope—no Christian—could say, “There is no need to love your enemy, to forgive, or to care for the poor.” Nor could any Christian say, “Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead.” After the Gospels and the Creed, I look to the whole rest of our church tradition, through the lens of the hierarchy of truths, understanding what has a greater level of authority over us.

That’s a brief answer to a big question, but as for the essentials, I would—and I’m not being metaphorical here—die for them.

One more — Douthat identifies the state of U.S. Roman Catholicism (and makes me wonder whether Jason and the Callers are calling to this communion):

These are all clearly persistent temptations for the church—a version of the commercial temptation helped bring on the Protestant Reformation, after all—and much of what we think of today as liberal Catholicism was forged in reaction to their pre-Vatican II manifestations. The ritualistic spirit of Eat meat on Friday, go straight to hell, do not pass go, the God-as-accountant image inherent in say these seventeen different prayers to thirteen different saints and receive in return exactly 4,544 days off Purgatory, the culture of shame and silence around sexuality, the punitive visions of hell immortalized by James Joyce, the pomp and circumstance embraced by princes of the church…these are stereotypes, of course, of a richer and more complicated reality, but they are grounded in real aspects of the pre-1960s church, which were in need of correction and reform.

But as someone who came of age long, long after the battles of Vatican II, I simply don’t recognize the Catholic culture that many liberal Catholics seem to believe they’re warring against or seeking to undo or overthrow. The “traditionalist” church, the church of lace and legalisms if you will, that the current pontiff is particularly quick to critique, is simply not part of most American Catholics’ everyday experience. It may exist in some parishes and precincts, or among certain bishops or cardinals. But the dominant experience of Catholic life, Catholic liturgy, Catholic preaching, has nothing in common with the stereotype of a Pharisee lecturing people about their (mostly sexual) sins.

What it has more in common with, and I speak from experience, is certain forms of Mainline Protestantism and megachurch evangelicalism: Notwithstanding what still emanates from the Vatican, we’ve become a church of long communion and short confession lines (and you’re more likely to find me in the first than the second), of Jesus-affirms-you sermons and songs, of marriage preparation retreats (like mine) where most of the couples are cohabitating and nobody particularly cares, and of widespread popular attitudes toward the divine and toward church teaching that mostly resemble H. Richard Niebuhr’s vision of a God without wrath, men without sin, and a Kingdom without judgment.

Would that we would ever hear this kind of frankness from Jason and the Callers (and the entire team of apologetical salesmen).