Converts and Cradles Together?

Part of the trouble that Protestants have in trying to make sense of Roman Catholicism is the bi-polar character of Rome (in the U.S. at least) and its appeal to evangelicals. Damon Linker explains the attraction that Roman Catholicism once had for him:

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

What then does a convert do when she understands that the people who grew up with Rome’s promise of order and stability don’t want to perpetuate that reliability but actually desire change? John Zmirak describes where such desires come from and such aspirations must seem odd to Bryan and the Jasons:

When a large group of highly educated people who have dedicated themselves to an organization with firm doctrines, strict rules, and stern demands — such as the Catholic Church — lose their faith in those doctrines, rules and demands, what do they do with themselves instead? Shrug and join the Unitarians? Leave their rectories or convents and go find apartments, maybe jobs as high school guidance counselors?

What do families like the Pelosis, the Kennedys or the Bidens — and millions of non-famous Irish and Italian-American clans with strong ethnic and historical connections to the Church — do with themselves when they reject its teaching authority?

The history of the Catholic left gives us the answer: Such people focused on the parts of the Church’s mission that still appealed to them, such as looking out for the poor and rebuking unjust discrimination. And of course the Church has an almost 2,000 year tradition of offering the needy education, health care, and a voice in the face of genuine oppression. Many Catholics had joined the Civil Rights movement and marched for integration.

In the 1960s, there were fresh, exciting causes available for Catholics to join which modeled themselves on the Civil Rights movement’s tactics and rhetoric, whose agendas were not so compatible with traditional Christian teaching as the noble fight against institutionalized racism had been. Feminists, homosexuals, and anti-war activists began to throng the streets and demand radical changes in American law and policy, and many Catholics with left-wing sympathies and deep roots in the Democratic Party began to exert their energies on behalf of these new movements — assuring themselves that they were acting as Jesus had when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.

Many grandchildren of Catholic immigrants to our overwhelmingly Protestant country still clung to the pretense that they were outsiders — excluded and marginalized victims of the existing American establishment. So they felt bound to make common cause with every other “outside” group, regardless of the justice of its claims. This outsider illusion made it easy for them to be right about Civil Rights … and then poisonously wrong about feminism, gay liberation, and socialist economics.

It would be like an avid reader of John Calvin (other than Marilyn Robinson) joining the PCUSA with the expectation that mainline Presbyterians actually care about perpetuating Reformed Protestantism.

While Bryan and the Jasons want Protestants to join the ecumenical discussion, shouldn’t they be having that conversation first with the folks in their own communion?

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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.

Zmirak is on a Roll

Why stop with one feisty post from a “liberal” Roman Catholic, when another is so handy? In this case, Zmirak speaks truth to Dawson (one of those powerful writers who pines for Christendom):

Dawson warns that the bourgeois spirit is a vampire which must be staked straight through its heart, and he summons as alternatives other spirits he finds more wholesome. Here he is not simply mistaken but deeply perverse, and merits the full force of outrage Jeffrey Tucker expressed in his counterblast. Let me offer choice quotations from Dawson’s essay, bits of broken glass that make him so dangerous to swallow. Dawson claims:

The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the “open” type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction.

This statement muddles two starkly different issues: The quantitative attitude of the Pharisees toward accumulating religious merits, and the ordinary good sense required in managing any earthly enterprise — from a bakery to a family. No, we are not to see God as a business partner, to whom we pay His “share” while retaining the rest for ourselves. Nor again is He a customer whom we wish to charge what the market will bear. In dealing with almighty God, that attitude (which emerged again in the Christian world with the sale of indulgences) is presumptively absurd. This is true for a simple reason: We are each in a state of infinite debt to God, if only for the fact of our creation and our ongoing existence, which depends from moment to moment upon His sovereign will. We are further indebted to Him for the still greater gift of Redemption, the actual graces we need from day to day, and the grace of final perseverance we pray will see us into heaven.

Not a single one of these things is true in our business relationships, assuming that we are not slaves of either a private master or a totalitarian state—to name just the two most time-tested alternatives to the market economy. We are to cast ourselves at the feet of the throne of Mercy, not presuming to tote up our paltry good deeds against our many sins. Does this mean we should act the same way toward our employers, or toward the State? Does humility before almighty God demand we cultivate servility toward men? Was pre-modern Russia, where the “little father,” the Tsar, owned every stick of furniture in each of his subject’s homes, the model of a true Christian society? Is ours a creed designed to make for cringing slaves, forelock-tugging serfs, and masters who preen and strut with the borrowed authority of God? To that we bourgeois reply: “Don’t tread on me.”

Here is another example, albeit a less absurd one, of Dawson carelessly conflating heaven and earth:

In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses.” It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

News flash: Christians are not called to husband and steward their resources wisely, to plan for their retirements or their children’s education—nor even, it would seem, for their nutrition. (The Catholic economist Amintore Fanfani actually asserted precisely this in his too-widely read treatise Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, wherein he praised fathers for disinheriting their children and leaving them destitute.) If this were true, it would make nonsense of Pope Leo XIII’s ferocious defense in Rerum Novarum of the sanctity of property rights—which on Dawson’s reading become the occasion of mortal sin. Indeed, Dawson dances perilously close to the heresy of the Spiritual Franciscans, who sought to impose on all clergy and finally on all laity the evangelical counsel of Poverty. They ought to have been consistent and preached universal celibacy, which solves all social problems in 70 short years.

Here Dawson takes Our Lord’s warning against taking spiritual comfort in worldly accumulation — against thinking, like Job’s comforters, that earthly wealth implies beatitude — and turns it into a literalistic demand that we all live like animals, with no more thought for the morrow than monkeys or mayflies. Only a handful even of religious orders have adopted such an attitude and refused to raise funds or keep financial reserves, relying on whatever wealth was thrown over the transom. (The Theatines were one of these rare orders. Perhaps the Conventual Franciscans and the Jesuits were too infected with the bourgeois spirit.) But Dawson demands this Providentialism of fathers of large families. He would no doubt have approved of my drunken grandfather, who fathered 11 children, only 5 of whom lived past age 5. Old Whatshisname lived quite untouched by the bourgeois taint.

As a noble alternative to the squalor of the suburbs, Dawson holds up “the Baroque culture of Spain… an uneconomic culture which spent its capital lavishly, recklessly and splendidly”. How, I might ask, was that capital acquired? In Spain’s case, massive shipments of gold and silver were taken by force in unjust wars of conquest—which conquistadors covered over with a fig-leaf in the following splendid way: The soldiers would order their chaplain to present the New World pagans they met with a copy of the Gospels, then demand (in Castilian, of course) that the pagans do reverence to it and submit to the King of Spain. When the puzzled Indians refused, perhaps even smote the Gospels to the ground, the Spaniards would attack and enslave them—then cart their gold home to Spain, to use it “lavishly, recklessly and splendidly.” Of course, the massive importation of currency—which men of that era mistook for wealth—accomplished nothing in the long run except to inflate the prices in Spain and ruin the bourgeois who were still left behind after the unjust expulsion of the Jews. This economic vandalism guaranteed the dominance of viciously anti-Catholic, slave-trading England. Catholic France was more friendly to business, so Dawson duly condemns it.

When Jason and the Callers can summon up this kind of criticism of and honesty about their tradition, I’ll take their call.

What Talking to Bryan Cross Feels Like

John Zmirak (apparently no relation to Zrim) has frustrations remarkably similar to mine. Liberal Roman Catholics and Protestants together:

Q: Do you think that Vatican II taught heresy when it said that the use of coercion by the state in matters of religion is a violation of natural law—you know, like sodomy or (even worse) contraception?

A: Vatican II was a merely pastoral council, which must be interpreted in the light of sacred tradition, not in a hermeneutic of discontinuity.

Q: Are you saying that the state’s right to torture and execute Protestants is an infallible truth of faith or morals, which the bishops of the Church and Pope Paul VI somehow failed to recognize when they issued Dignitatis Humanae? So the Society of St. Pius X is right, and Pope Benedict XVI was defending heresy when he refused to accept them back into communion unless they acknowledged this point?

A: Dignitatis Humanae is a profoundly ambiguous document. It is hard to tell what it means, if it means anything at all. Remember that it states that the Council maintains the traditional teaching about the “duties of societies” toward the true religion.

Q: Are you a totalitarian? You know, along the lines of Benito Mussolini, who proclaimed, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”?

A: Of course not. Mussolini was an anti-clerical, whose father was a Freemason.

Q: You do realize that only totalitarians equate “society” and “state.” The classical definition of society includes the family and all sorts of other voluntary associations—including the Church, but also clubs, fraternities, labor unions, and the whole rich fabric of what political scientists call “civil society.” When the Council Fathers wrote that “society” owed allegiance to the truth, they were stating a simple fact—that everyone ought to acknowledge the kingship of Christ. They were not saying that people who didn’t fulfill this duty deserved to be tortured until they confessed, then burned at the stake and put into prison. Since in the same document the bishops of the Church, with papal approval, said that using state coercion to override people’s consciences violated the natural law—again, like adultery or perjury—isn’t it disrespectful of a universal council of the Church to assume that their statement was meaningless, or self-contradictory, or some piece of public relations that the Church would later stuff into the memory hole?

A: You are engaged in a neo-Catholic apologetic for the Americanist Catholicism of the 1950s which no longer exists, and which led directly to abortion on demand, homosexual “marriage,” and the radical imbalance of wealth in America that denies proper compensation to those who teach the liberal arts.

Q: Who would you call the authoritative interpreter of the Council—the popes who presided over it and those who came after it, and the Catechism they published? Or a network of bloggers?

A: Perhaps we serve the role of the faithful laity, which also preserved the Church from Arianism in the time of St. Athanasius.

Q: Did a Church council ever teach Arianism?

A: No.

Q: Was the only opponent of Arianism a band of schismatically consecrated bishops and illicitly ordained priests?

A: There’s a first time for everything.

Q: What confuses me is the fact that you point to the American vision of freedom as the greatest danger to the Church, when in fact the Church’s enemies are throwing that vision of freedom onto the trash heap, in order to hasten the persecution of the Church—and the Church’s friends are citing such freedom in the Church’s defense.

A: The American notion of freedom is profoundly corrupt, and lies at the heart of all the evils we face today.

Q: Is there an alternative political theory out there that anyone, anyone at all outside of infinitesimal Catholic circles, finds attractive, that would protect the Church’s liberty?

A: That is beside the point.

Q: Hasn’t the Church historically taken whatever is true in the secular world, used it as a common ground by which to approach the unbelievers, and tried to baptize and elevate it—rather than tear it all down and start from scratch in a barren wasteland. Wasn’t Augustine a patriotic Roman citizen? Or did he endorse the barbarian invasions in some text that you have uncovered from secret archives?

A: There is no call for sarcasm. The situation was different then. The Roman state endorsed the use of authority in defense of the Good, but merely had an imperfect vision of the Good. The American system has no notion of the Good at all. It is inherently nihilistic, and ought to collapse. Once it is gone, we can figure out what to construct in its place.

Q: Isn’t the classical liberal notion of freedom an outgrowth of the elevated Christian notion of the person, and the deep moral significance of his freedom and his conscience? Those seem to me like good things that the Romans knew nothing about. Was Pope John Paul II merely deluded when he praised those things in Memory and Identity? Was he being disingenuous when he apologized, on behalf of the Church, for the times that Catholics had violated those goods?

A: None of those statements by Pope John Paul II were infallible.

To Bryan’s credit, he is not so Americanist. But he is like this catechumen, thanks to the wonders of logic, elusive. Some call it hair-splitting, others Jesuitical.

(Thanks to our southern correspondent for the image.)

In But Not of America (part three)

Before U.S. Roman Catholics feel too comfortable with the harmony of religion and freedom worked out by the bishops in Fortnight of Freedom or by Tea Party Catholics, they may also want to consider a strain of conservative Roman Catholicism that objects to Americanism and that John Zmirak (a serious Roman Catholic himself) finds troubling. For instance, he has observed these instances of Roman Catholic illiberalism:

– It was a festive evening at the small Catholic college. A hearty dinner followed Mass for the feast of its patron saint. Now the students were gathered with the school’s faculty and leaders for a bonfire and robust songs. The high point of the night was the piñata, which the school’s director of student life hung from a hook. It was full of candy and shaped like a pig. Across it was written, “Americanism.” The student life director held up a bat, and told the students, “Okay, everybody, let’s SMASH Americanism!” The students lined up behind their teachers, their dean, and their college president, to smash whatever it was they thought was Americanism. (They had never been taught what Leo XIII actually meant by that word.)

– At this same school, in an academic discussion, the college dean explained the greater economic success of Protestant countries that embraced capitalism (compared to agrarian Catholic nations) as the “effects of Freemasonry.” The college president quickly corrected him, pointing out another critical factor: “diabolical intervention.”

– That same dean, in a conversation with me, waved off the possibility of democratic reform in America. Moral reform, he explained to me, would only come in the form of a forcible coup d’état, by which “men of virtue” would impose their will “on the people, who will fall in line when they see that they have no choice.” That dean had previously criticized Franco’s Spain for being too lax.

– The historian at a large Catholic university gathered his friends and family on the day that the rest of us call “Thanksgiving.” But his clan called the holiday “Anathema Thursday,” and every year used it to mock the Protestant origins of America by hanging a Puritan in effigy. This same historian teaches those he mentors to call the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess.”

Zmirak goes on to credit Protestantism with the sort of liberties that Americans enjoy (if not take for granted):

In one of God’s little ironies, as Russell Kirk showed in The Roots of American Order, it was largely Protestants who championed the rights of Christians against the State, while Catholics endorsed old Roman, pagan conceptions of the State and its nearly limitless prerogatives. After the Reformation destroyed the Church’s political independence, popes saw little choice but to baptize, and try to morally inform, the absolutism of monarchs. (The nadir was reached when Catholic kings — who already picked all the bishops in their countries — forced the pope to suppress the Jesuits, who had eluded their royal control.) In the wake of the French Revolution, any talk of liberty seemed tainted by the blood of murdered priests, nuns, and Catholic peasants. The fear of revolutionary violence was enough to make Pope Pius IX side with the tsar and his Cossacks against the freedom-loving Catholics of Poland, and with the British Crown against the Irish.

He concludes with an expression of gratitude for the Enlightenment rarely countenanced in conservative circles (non-mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic):

We ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment — because the American anti-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century were dead right about one thing: Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition. Do I exaggerate? Consider the fact that during the Spanish occupation of New Orleans, before the Louisiana Purchase, an officer of the Inquisition was interrogating heretics and collecting torture equipment — which he never got the chance to use, thank God. (The Inquisition did take root in Florida, and continued in Cuba until 1818.) Protestants in Spain were subject to legal restrictions as late as the 1970s. The great defender of Pius IX and Vatican I, Louis Veuillot, summed up what was for centuries the dominant Catholic view of religious liberty:

“When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle.”

As Americans, too, we must be self-critical, and acknowledge that in their reaction against the paternalism of the past, men like John Locke made grave philosophical errors — and unwittingly poisoned the ground of human dignity where the roots of freedom must rest. Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker do an excellent job of explaining Enlightened errors in Politicizing the Bible, as does Edward Feser in his classic The Last Superstition. In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg shows in detail how freedom-loving Catholics can reintroduce the critical truths about human nature that our Founding Fathers overlooked. Such constructive criticism of the Enlightenment project, which we might call “reparative patriotism,” is essential to preserving the lives of the unborn and the integrity of marriage, among many other things.

It is one thing to say that John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had flawed views of human flourishing. It is quite another for Catholics — given our long, unhappy heritage of paternalism and intolerance — to reject the Enlightenment wholesale; to pretend that religious, political, and economic freedom are the natural state of man, which we can take for granted like the sea, the sun, and the sky. These freedoms are the hard-won fruit of centuries of struggle, and many of our ancestors were fighting on the wrong side. If we expect to preserve our own tenuous freedom in an increasingly intolerant secular society, we must make it absolutely clear to our non-Catholic neighbors that we treasure their freedom too. Denouncing the Enlightenment a mere fifty years after our Church belatedly renounced intolerance, at the very moment when men as level-headed as Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Burke are warning that Catholics face the risk of persecution, and we desperately need allies among our Protestant neighbors… can anyone really be this reckless?

Another point you’re not going to hear from the Callers.