A Church I Could Believe In

What if popes sounded like this?

The Catholic Church then is, and always will be, violent and intransigent when the rights of God are in question. She will be absolutely ruthless, for example, towards heresy, for heresy affects not personal matters on which Charity may yield, but a Divine right on which there must be no yielding. Yet, simultaneously, she will be infinitely kind towards the heretic, since a thousand human motives and circumstances may come in and modify his responsibility. At a word of repentance she will readmit his person into her treasury of souls, but not his heresy into her treasury of wisdom; she will strike his name eagerly and freely from her black list of the rebellious, but not his book from the pages of her Index.

Was Leo XIII as jealous of God’s rights when it came to the Word of God?

The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.

That doesn’t sound like a Social Gospel. But it does sound like a view of sin that would drive you to confession — forget weekly or, ahem, weakly — but daily. Sort of like what Luther experienced when he considered his sins and how to atone for them.

But from most of the “converts” I read, my soul is not in peril by remaining outside the Roman Catholic Church. If I “convert,” I get an upgrade. But I’m not apparently in danger of going to hell.

We Need a Religion that Unites

That was the dream of the founders. Ben Franklin stopped going to hear the Presbyterian pastor, Jedediah Andrews, because the printer believed Andrews’ turned his hearers not into good citizens but good Presbyterians:

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevailed on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

Serious Presbyterians (and other Protestants) may not have agreed with Franklin’s civil religion (though at the Revolution Presbyterians turned out in force for generic and patriotic devotion), but in today’s debates about the nation and its identity Franklin dominates. Consider a couple examples of how the word “Christian” obscures differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants who would have had very decidedly different estimates of each other and the nation in 1790.

James Conley, the Bishop of Lincoln, NE, thinks we need to return to the vision of the founders:

If the American experiment is to survive, it needs Christianity—and the influence of all religious believers. And if our legal system is to survive, it needs your influence. Our obligation is to work to restore a sense of the common good and a sense of the transcendent in American public discourse. If law continues to be an agent of self-interest, we will see more instances of religious persecution and family disintegration. On the other hand, if law helps us to identify, proclaim, and seek a common good, then we will have turned the tide and served the vision of the Founding Fathers.

But why would a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church ever be satisfied with the Christianity of a bunch of patriotic Presbyterians and skeptically Protestant statesmen? That seems a long way from what Rome taught then and now about the nature of Christianity.

Mark David Hall in similar fashion glosses differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants to talk about the influence of Christianity (could he mean Eastern Orthodoxy?) on the founding:

I believe that this is the most reasonable way to approach the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas. I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders.

Before proceeding, I should emphasize that I am not arguing that Christianity was the only significant influence on America’s Founders or that it influenced each Founder in the exact same manner. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era. The Founders were also informed by the Anglo–American political–legal tradition and their own political experience, and like all humans, they were motivated to varying degrees by self, class, or state interests. My contention is merely that orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.

But which Christianity? Doesn’t a historian have to do justice to the antagonism that has evaporated but that used to make Protestants and Roman Catholics suspicious (if only) of each other, and which led the papacy to condemn accommodations of Roman Catholicism to the American setting?

And so what always happens to biblical faith in the pairing of religion and public life continues to happen: Christianity loses its edge and becomes a generic, pious, inspirational goo. Even the Seventh-Day Adventists are worried about losing religious identity while gaining public clout.

One of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s most famous sons, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is seeking evangelical support for a likely 2016 presidential bid. But the global leader of his church worries that the thriving denomination is becoming too mainstream.

In 2014, for the 10th year in a row, more than 1 million people became Adventists, hitting a record 18.1 million members. Adventism is now the fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, after Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and the Assemblies of God.

Meanwhile, Team Religion doesn’t seem to notice that religion divides believers from unbelievers (as well as serious believers from other serious and not-so-serious believers). You gotta serve somebodEE.

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?

In But Not of America (part one)

Not every nation has a heresy named for them, but when Leo XIII issued Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), he identified Americanism as a heresy. It is a heresy that Roman Catholics today rarely contemplate, probably because they don’t know about it. But the same pope who “started” Rome’s social teaching, also condemned Americanism. Why TBN never makes lists of papal social teaching is a mystery that ranks up there with Jason and the Callers’ avoidance of other delicate subjects.

One of the stranger aspects of contemporary Roman Catholicism in the U.S. is the ways in which church pundits, academics, and bishops all engage in a form of Americanism, hence the liberal-conservative divide among Roman Catholics. One place to see these debates is here.

Several items recently came my way that further underscore the seriously divided state of Roman Catholics on the American question. I plan to mention several of these in the days ahead. But before that happens, some understanding of Americanism as a heresy might be in order. One useful sources is an older article by Russell Shaw. Here’s how he described Americanism:

For a long time, the tendency among Church historians was to pooh-pooh this view of the matter. Thomas T. McAvoy, CSC, in The Great Crisis in American Catholic History 1895-1900, shows an instance of this tendency. His argument was that, in the United States at least, Americanism either hardly existed or, if it did exist was nothing to cause concern. As far as the Church in this country was concerned, Pope Leo needn’t have worried.

More recently, however, the pendulum of historical opinion has swung back the other way, so that American Catholic “Americanism” has come to be seen as something both real and serious. Father Conley, for example, identifies four central Americanist tenets:

* that the world was in an era of radical change (as indeed it was then, and still is today);

* that America was at the cutting edge of change-indeed, was the very embodiment of the future (which was also true, and very likely still is true, although no one can say how long it will remain the case);

* that the Catholic Church was obliged to change with the times (a proposition which may be either true or false, depending on what specific content one gives to that statement); and

* that the Church in America-or, as is now often said, the “American Church”-had a divine mission to point the way to the Church everywhere else, and particularly to “Rome” (which contains an element of truth, but suffers from a fatal arrogance as well as from a failure to comprehend the divine constitution of the Church).

A corollary, perhaps, can be glimpsed in the exasperation seething just below the surface in a writer like Brownson at the thought that support for the pope’s embattled temporal claims to the Papal States was a relevant test of Catholic loyalty in the United States.

There is, however, a central fifth tenet fundamental to the Americanist point of view: a belief in the intrinsic compatibility between Catholicism and American culture. Archbishop Ireland expressed the idea in beguilingly simplistic terms in 1884: “The choicest field which providence offers in the world today to the occupancy of the Church is this republic, and she welcomes with delight the signs of the times that indicate a glorious future for her beneath the starry banner.” And in a remarkable address to a French audience in 1892, seven years before the promulgation of Testem Benevolentiae, Ireland declared:

The future of the Catholic Church in America is bright and encouraging. To people of other countries, American Catholicism presents features which seem unusual; these features are the result of the freedom which our civil and political institutions give us; but in devotion to Catholic principles, and in loyalty to the successor of Peter, American Catholics yield to none…. Besides, those who differ from us in faith have no distrust of Catholic bishops and priests. Why should they? By word and act we prove that we are patriots of patriots. Our hearts always beat with love for the republic. Our tongues are always eloquent in celebrating her praises. Our hands are always uplifted to bless her banners and her soldiers.

This is as naive as it is sincere. In the middle years of this century, by contrast, John Courtney Murray, SJ, polished the Americanizers’ intuitions to a sophisticated high gloss. The Catholic Church, he argued, was not simply comfortable in America; properly understood, the American tradition and the Catholic tradition were very nearly one and the same. In his celebrated and enormously influential book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), Murray wrote of the “evident coincidence of the principles which inspired the American Republic with the principles which are structural to the Western Christian political tradition”-principles which, he contended, find their fullest expression in the Catholic natural-law tradition.

Let me be clear that this is not a form of tarring Roman Catholics with the brush of anti-Americanism. Plenty of Protestants, especially Presbyterians, have let the nation or the city set the agenda for Christianity in ways that confessional Presbyterians find to be idolatrous if not heretical. So I have great sympathy for Roman Catholic traditionalists who want the church to be the church since the tendency in American Christianity is to make the church into a servant of the nation (or the city, hello followers of Tim Keller).

But in many ways, the tensions in contemporary Roman Catholicism, both between the left and the right, and between Rome and the U.S., don’t make sense without the Americanist heresy as a backdrop.

A Blustering Bigot Who Can’t String Together a Cogent Argument if His Life Depended On It

I sure do hope that charge in the comm box does not mean that I am incapable of putting together thoughts that will at least allow me to purchase food for the cats (down to one feline inside, but the cats in the hood have found our back door to be bounteous). Jason Stellman doesn’t appreciate my bringing up unpleasant parts of Roman Catholic history. He also thinks I misrepresent his position on the nature of the papacy.

On the former, I understand the discomfort of having to answer for historical events you may not have known about. But if you want to play fair while making a case for the superiority of Rome, then you need to do something with the less than desirable parts of Rome’s existence.

On the latter, I don’t think Jason’s position is all that complicated. The Jason-and-the-Caller line is that Protestantism cannot settle its diversity because it has no infallible or authoritative mechanism. In other words, Protestants don’t have a pope or magisterium. Got it. So Jason thinks he has overcome the dilemmas he faced while considering the relative claims of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on Scripture and church authority.

But by siding with the papacy and the theory of an infallible successor to the apostles in the eternal city, Jason did not seem to see where that decision put him. On the one hand, he seems to want a papacy that only orders the confusion that afflicts Protestantism. He doesn’t apparently want a papacy whose authority will extend to these proportions — as the cohesive not only for the church but for all of European society and possibly the world:

4. And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests? For this reason, men of the kind pursue with bitter hatred the Religious Orders, although these have deserved extremely well of Christendom, civilization and literature, and cry out that the same have no legitimate reason for being permitted to exist; and thus (these evil men) applaud the calumnies of heretics. For, as Pius VI, Our Predecessor, taught most wisely, “the abolition of regulars is injurious to that state in which the Evangelical counsels are openly professed; it is injurious to a method of life praised in the Church as agreeable to Apostolic doctrine; it is injurious to the illustrious founders, themselves, whom we venerate on our altars, who did not establish these societies but by God’s inspiration.”5 And (these wretches) also impiously declare that permission should be refused to citizens and to the Church, “whereby they may openly give alms for the sake of Christian charity”; and that the law should be abrogated “whereby on certain fixed days servile works are prohibited because of God’s worship;” and on the most deceptive pretext that the said permission and law are opposed to the principles of the best public economy. Moreover, not content with removing religion from public society, they wish to banish it also from private families. For, teaching and professing the most fatal error of “Communism and Socialism,” they assert that “domestic society or the family derives the whole principle of its existence from the civil law alone; and, consequently, that on civil law alone depend all rights of parents over their children, and especially that of providing for education.” By which impious opinions and machinations these most deceitful men chiefly aim at this result, viz., that the salutary teaching and influence of the Catholic Church may be entirely banished from the instruction and education of youth, and that the tender and flexible minds of young men may be infected and depraved by every most pernicious error and vice. For all who have endeavored to throw into confusion things both sacred and secular, and to subvert the right order of society, and to abolish all rights, human and divine, have always (as we above hinted) devoted all their nefarious schemes, devices and efforts, to deceiving and depraving incautious youth and have placed all their hope in its corruption. For which reason they never cease by every wicked method to assail the clergy, both secular and regular, from whom (as the surest monuments of history conspicuously attest), so many great advantages have abundantly flowed to Christianity, civilization and literature, and to proclaim that “the clergy, as being hostile to the true and beneficial advance of science and civilization, should be removed from the whole charge and duty of instructing and educating youth.”

So, without a rightly ordered society in which the church stands at the head (and we know who stands at the head of the visible church), we have only ruin and turmoil.

That is why the church needs to continue to assert its authority:

8. Therefore, in this our letter, we again most lovingly address you, who, having been called unto a part of our solicitude, are to us, among our grievous distresses, the greatest solace, joy and consolation, because of the admirable religion and piety wherein you excel, and because of that marvellous love, fidelity, and dutifulness, whereby bound as you are to us. and to this Apostolic See in most harmonious affection, you strive strenuously and sedulously to fulfill your most weighty episcopal ministry. For from your signal pastoral zeal we expect that, taking up the sword of the spirit which is the word of God, and strengthened by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, you will, with redoubled care, each day more anxiously provide that the faithful entrusted to your charge “abstain from noxious verbiage, which Jesus Christ does not cultivate because it is not His Father’s plantation.”7 Never cease also to inculcate on the said faithful that all true felicity flows abundantly upon man from our august religion and its doctrine and practice; and that happy is the people whose God is their Lord.8 Teach that “kingdoms rest on the foundation of the Catholic Faith;9 and that nothing is so deadly, so hastening to a fall, so exposed to all danger, (as that which exists) if, believing this alone to be sufficient for us that we receive free will at our birth, we seek nothing further from the Lord; that is, if forgetting our Creator we abjure his power that we may display our freedom.”10 And again do not fail to teach “that the royal power was given not only for the governance of the world, but most of all for the protection of the Church;”11 and that there is nothing which can be of greater advantage and glory to Princes and Kings than if, as another most wise and courageous Predecessor of ours, St. Felix, instructed the Emperor Zeno, they “permit the Catholic Church to practise her laws, and allow no one to oppose her liberty. For it is certain that this mode of conduct is beneficial to their interests, viz., that where there is question concerning the causes of God, they study, according to His appointment, to subject the royal will to Christ’s Priests, not to raise it above theirs.”12

Jason may not realize it, but his church once thought that the health of Europe depended on the papacy’s authority. This was not simply a question of restoring the unity of the church in its teachings and practices (spiritual). This was the protection of Christendom (temporal). In other words, the papacy Jason backs is the one that followed for the better part of a millennium the Christ-the-transformer-of-culture model (not the exilic, pilgrim model he once advocated).

But times are different (though John Paul II and Benedict XVI did a lot of speaking about Europe’s intellectual and moral crises). The papacy does not have the power it once had, whether because it lost is temporal power or simply owing to turf battles within the church. Nor does the church Jason picked have the clarity that it once did. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church is facing a crisis of authority (even if you’d never hear that from Jason and the Callers). Here is how one of the contributors to The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity put it:

A second important difference from the Leonine church is evident in the [Second Vatican] council’s opening to the ecumenical and interfaith relations and with it the continued softening of the traditional belief that there is no salvation outside the church. If that doctrine suggested service to a jealous God, trimming it suggests an appropriate emerging sense of theological and historical humility. For Leo, it was fundamental that “those who refuse to enter the perfect society or leave it are separated forever from life eternal.” In the Decree on Ecumenism (1964), on the other hand, heretics and schismatics have become “separated brethren.” They “have a right to be called Christians and with good reason” to be “accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” While all the elements necessary for salvation are said to “subsist” in their “fullness” in the Catholic Church, “which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” it is nevertheless true, according to Lumen Gentium, that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.” In other words, there is no sacred monopoly on holiness and truth, a teaching that Leo would have regarded as undermining the basic mission of the church. As Karl Rahner made the point, there has been a growing recognition that “many whom God has, the Church does not have; and many whom the Church has, God does not have.”

The transforming response to the new universalism is evident here as well. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles concluded a recent review of the development of church teaching on the question of who can be saved with these observations: “Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.” Theologically speaking, while Dulles holds that all grace is mediated through the one, triune God, he does not insist, as Leo felt he had to do, that is it mediated exclusively through the one true church. The post conciliar church reads history and culture differently from the way the Leonine church read them. (79-80)

And they tell us there is one holy catholic and apostolic paradigm.

So the problem, and I apologize for sounding condescending, is that Jason has bitten off more than he can chew by arguing for the superiority of Rome’s ecclesiology to Protestantism’s. If he wants a magisterium that can objectively and authoritatively settle disputes in the church, he is going to get a church that also condemns all aspects of modernity as 19th century popes did because those aspects of modern life were creating disputes within the church and hurting the souls of believers. If Jason wants a spirituality of the church papacy, he is not going to find it (until the recent post-Vatican II past) because the spiritual weight of the papacy was always at odds with creating space for the political apart from the faith (which is why it took until Vatican II for Rome to embrace religious freedom and separation of church and state). In other words, a papacy with the kind of clout that would reign in the faithful with denunciations of Americanism and Modernism was also a papacy intent on asserting or recovering its temporal power (because temporal power gave the church freedom to assert its spiritual authority).

But then when Jason finds out that he does have a spirituality of the church papacy in the post-Vatican II era, he gains a church where popes are still echoing their older temporal power through various “social teachings” while also following a theological proposal like Dulles’ where the church sounds like it would have trouble settling basic theological conflicts (which may explain why so many conservative Roman Catholics associate orthodoxy with a male priesthood and not using contraceptives). In other words, he now has a crisis of authority that makes dispute between Baptists and Presbyterians look like sandbox rivals fighting over a scoop.

So when Jason left Protestantism thinking he had left behind its problems, my sense is that he did not realize just how big the problems were in his new communion. Roman Catholicism’s crisis of authority — going all the way back to Gregory VII’s battles with Henry, through the Avignon papacy and conciliarism, to the nineteenth-century controversies over the Papal States and Rome’s standing among Europe’s ruling class, down to Vatican II and its effort to appropriate communio ecclesiology — is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the earthquakes that erupt from the movement of earth’s tectonic plates. Jason entered a conflict almost a millennium old. If he understood that, he might not be so quick in his assertions of superiority or his claims that his critics “don’t understand.”

Americanists All?

Sean Michael Winters believes that Pope Francis is a pontiff for the poor who does not fit the neo-conservative Roman Catholic defenders of free markets and political liberalism:

The new pope’s critique of the current world economy has left conservative Catholic commentators in something of a bind. For years, they have denounced “cafeteria Catholics” on the left, those who differ with the Church on issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion rights. Now, it is these conservatives who need to either change their public policy positions or stand in the cafeteria line. “Before, Catholic economic conservatives like George Weigel and Robert Sirico could pretend that Vatican apparatchiks were smuggling traditional anti-capitalist language into papal pronouncements,” says Trinity College’s Mark Silk, who serves on the editorial board of Religion & Politics. “But no one can doubt that this language comes straight from Pope Francis’ heart. That’s what’s freaking the conservatives out.”

Winters thinks that these same conservatives were wrong about Benedict XVI:

To be clear, Weigel, Sirico and other Catholic conservatives have been pretending for some time. When Benedict issued Caritas in Veritate in 2009, Weigel famously suggested reading the text with red and gold pens, excising those parts he attributed to the Vatican bureaucracy and with which he and other Catholic neo-cons objected. And, Father Sirico’s latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, stands in opposition to more than 100 years of papal social teaching in its championing of laissez-faire policies.

Pope Benedict was not shy about voicing his concerns about the world economy. In his last World Day of Peace message, issued on January 1 of this year, Pope Benedict condemned “a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism,” which he lumped together with terrorism and international crime as threats to world peace. Pope Francis is building on what was said by his predecessors going all the way back to Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century. What is different about Francis is not the content of the teaching, but the directness of his style.

And when some conservative Roman Catholics claim that Francis is not an advocate or teacher of liberation theology, Winters says it doesn’t matter:

. . . it is true that Papa Francesco does not subscribe to certain varieties of liberation theology, [but] he is also not likely to be found at a Tea Party rally, reading Ayn Rand, or otherwise evidencing much sympathy for the anti-government, pro-capitalist positions common among Catholic conservatives in the U.S..

In short, while conservative Catholics might have been able to parse traditional Catholic social teaching in ways that suited their defense of modern capitalism and globalization, Pope Francis’ words are so direct, so forceful, so precise, they do not invite parsing. “The tradition has long been suspicious of the kind of economics proposed by the Acton Institute,” Camosy says. “For Catholics who are thinking with the Church, growing wealth always takes a back seat to justice—in particular, justice for the most vulnerable. Period.” That period has become, under Francis, an exclamation mark.

This is one of those exchanges, again, of which Jason and the Callers seem to be remarkably ignorant (or willfully silent). Sure, they may know about Winters and Weigel. But the debates among U.S. Roman Catholics, which line up remarkably along the lines of the major political parties, make no difference for their claims about the papacy and the difference the office makes to Christian witness. As they would have it, without a pope, Protestants are left to private opinion. But Jason and the Callers don’t notice that with a pope, U.S. Roman Catholics are increasingly left to not-so-private interpretations of what the pope really means or intends. It is a struggle to define the papacy. Here, I had thought that the papacy was responsible for its own definition and Weigel and Winters were to submit.

The true state of affairs among at least some U.S. Roman Catholics is not whose side the pope is on but that each side tries to claim the pope for its politics. In effect, the social justice and pro-capitalist Roman Catholics may both be guilty of what used to be known of Americanism, namely, letting society set the agenda for the church (instead of the other way around), a heresy condemned by Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. Russell Shaw, who has a recent book on Americanism among Roman Catholics in the U.S., wrote:

Leo XIII’s critique is more substantial than apologists for Americanism care to admit. Much of it, in fact, is pertinent to conditions in American Catholicism today. . . .

Turning to the origins of Americanism, Leo XIII says it reflects a desire to attract to the Church “those who dissent.” Central to it, he adds, is the idea that the Church — “relaxing its old severity” — must “show indulgence” to new opinions, including even those that downplay “the doctrines in which the deposit of faith is contained.”

Leo XIII’s reply is that how flexible the Church can and should be is not up to individuals but rests with “the judgment of the Church.” Opposing this orthodox view, he notes, is the modern error that everyone could decide for himself, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit today gives individuals “more and richer gifts than in times past” — no less than “a kind of hidden instinct” in religious matters. . . . Better than Leo XIII or anyone else could have known at the time, the opinions condemned in the papal letter have turned out to be widely held among American Catholics today.

That is the case with the notion that each individual member of the Church can decide religious questions for himself or herself and that this remarkable ability comes directly to each one from the Holy Spirit. This opens the door to “cafeteria Catholicism” — a name given to the pick-and-choose selectivity regarding Church teaching on faith and morals now found among many Catholics.

All of which is simply to say it looks very much as if Pope Leo XIII wasn’t wrong to condemn Americanism — he was just ahead of his time.