Now, That’s Audacious

Ross Douthat takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the era of Francis:

In fact the conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church’s tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office. Indeed, when Professor Faggioli complains about a “Catholic social media that has completely bypassed” the way the “Catholic Church has worked for centuries,” he might just as easily be describing Pope Francis, whose personalized style has made the lines of authority within the church maddeningly unclear.

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal.

In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisers who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.

But even that kind of Kremlinology doesn’t completely clarify the pope’s intentions, which is why Francis’s liberalizing allies are frequently impatient with him and sometimes get out ahead of his intentions and find themselves reined in.

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty.

What does that kind of uncertainty do to the narrative of so many converts that you go to Rome for the authority and certainty of timeless truth? Part of what it does is expose that unity and certainty are good in theory, and then comes a specific pope with all the authority and charism of the theory (they did not go away when Francis became pope — they inhere in the office). Protestants at least are honest about our disagreements. Roman Catholics cannot be:

This is a situation calculated to make everyone feel self-righteous and self-justified, to complain about toxic rhetoric while flinging insults frequently themselves.

It also places Catholic institutions — schools and parishes and universities and diocesan shops — in a very difficult position. The temptation, already evident, will be to shy away from conflict, to self-segregate theologically (liberal speakers to liberal campuses and parishes, vice versa for conservatives) and avoid even acknowledging the conflict.

But this approach is foolish. When the Supreme Pontiff is allowing argument to flourish and public division to increase, it does no good for institutions to pretend that none of this is happening — as though the average Catholic will somehow not notice that the leaders of the church are increasingly opposed to one another. (The poison of online debate is itself partially a reaction to this public pretense of tranquillity.)

All the more reason for my contention that Roman Catholicism would be better off without the papacy.

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Will it be the Bible or the magisterium? Massimo Faggioli worries that papal audacialists are turning into magisterial fundamentalists:

Now, four years into the pontificate of Francis, only the traditionalist wing still uses the hermeneutics of “continuity and reform” versus “discontinuity and rupture” in interpreting Vatican II; Francis has never used it. But the damage is done, and not just in Rome or in the Vatican. For while on one side there is the minimizing of the role of critical thinking about Church history, on the other there is the cultural turn to an emphasis on identity studies. Even at those universities where a historical-critical approach to Church institutions and magisterial texts persists, things tend to gravitate around “religious studies” instead of theology.

This poses a problem for history and religious studies as disciplines: trying to understand the past lives of Christians without a theological line of credit open toward the faith of those Christians limits the ability of the historians to understand the lives of those Christians. But it’s an even bigger problem for theology. The historical-critical method is facing some pushback today even when it comes to biblical studies, as seen recently in overblown reactions to what the new general of the Jesuits said about the interpretation of the Gospel a few weeks ago. Paradoxically it seems more acceptable in today’s Catholic Church to bring the historical-critical method to bear on Scripture than to documents of the magisterium; it’s become more acceptable to critique divinely inspired authors of Scripture than a pope writing on sexual morality. A creeping magisterial fundamentalism toward the encyclicals of this last century is part of the “biopolitical” problem of Catholicism. This is clearly visible in the debate over Amoris Laetitia. But it would also be worth exploring how naively and uncritically Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum is sometimes used (or misused) in the U.S. church to make arguments about Catholic social teaching.

But with a reduced papacy, what separates Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism? And without the audacity of the papacy, how do you argue for Rome’s superiority to Geneva?

The Theology of Brexit

Massimo Faggioli reminds that Vatican II and the European Union are part of the same cultural moment:

The simultaneity of the Dublin conference and Brexit made me think about the tight relationship between development of Catholic theology (especially ecclesiology) in the 20th century and the development of Catholicism from multinational to truly internationalist/globalist. Catholic support for the European project after World War II (from Pius XII to the most important politicians of the Christian-Democratic parties governing Europe after 1945) was part of the transition from the nationalist, romantic roots of the theological ressourcement between the mid-19th century and the 1920s and ’30s. At Vatican II, Catholic theology internationalized what had been born as expressions of national movements during the previous century (adoption of the vernacular; the new role of national bishops’ conferences; anti- Curia sentiment; anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal Catholic social movements, etc.). The internationalist quality of Pacem in terris and Gaudium et spes was a turning point in doctrine concerning the state and government in Catholic theology, and also a response to the most powerful internationalism of the second half of the century, Communism. At Vatican II, Catholicism became an advocate of globalization, which John XXIII had called in the opening speech of the council in 1962 “a new order of human relations.”

The ties between Vatican II and the EU are even closer in the minds of traditionalist Roman Catholics:

Brexit can be seen as a subset of the debate on Vatican II and the post-Vatican II period, at least among Catholics. It’s no secret that Catholics and the Catholic bishops of Britain were deeply divided over Brexit, and that for many conservative Catholics in Britain opposition to the EU and to Vatican II has similar roots. Traditionalist Catholics who today reject “the new order”—in terms of economic and social exclusion, as well as of the dominance of what Francis in Laudato si’ called “the technocratic paradigm”—tend to put Vatican II and the EU together in one category of internationalization and globalization; they choose a traditional, pre-global church and a nation-state (even though this fallback on the nation-state is for them theologically not unproblematic) as opposed to the larger framework of a globalized ecclesial context and a European political union. It is an opposition to a much more complex world, politically and theologically, and to the modern, globalized attitudes toward vulnerable life, marriage, family, subsidiarity, immigration, war, and peace. It is an opposition that puts back into question the Catholic perception of political power, and in particular the church’s perception of the sovereignty of the nation-state and of international/supranational institutions.

Meanwhile, Damon Linker notices aspects of Angela Merkel’s responsibility for the circumstances that led to Brexit that could also be applied to Pope Francis, perhaps the post-Vatican II pope that most embodies Vatican II:

Angela Merkel is the real catalyst behind the outcome of the UK referendum. Not only did the German chancellor insist on admitting well over a million refugees and migrants from the Greater Middle East into the heart of Europe. Supporters of the policy have also made it clear on numerous occasions that they consider racism and xenophobia to be the only possible grounds for opposing her stand.

From the standpoint of progressivism, this makes perfect sense. An open-door policy toward refugees and migrants fleeing unrest in the Levant and North Africa is obviously the only morally acceptable option. It shouldn’t matter whether those immigrants are Muslims, or if they’re Syrians or Libyans, skilled or unskilled, poor or middle class, literate or illiterate, eager to assimilate or convinced of the need to resist it, looking for freedom and pluralism or hoping to build an enclave of Sharia law within the West. And there’s certainly no reason to suspect that any of them might turn toward terrorism, now or a generation from now. They’re just placeless people — human beings in need of aid, comfort, and charity. That’s all that should matter.

Except that many millions of citizens in EU member countries don’t see it this way. It does matter to them, just as it also matters to them whether Turkey is eventually invited to join the union, and they don’t appreciate having their concerns about the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and economic character of their political communities dismissed as moral pathologies.

Nor do they care to have their religious institutions circumscribed by remote bishops and cardinals. Pre- or post-Vatican II, subsidiarity matters.

Terry Mattingly is Tightening My Jaws

Mr. Mattingly’s point, as someone with journalistic credibility, is to point out how journalists get religion stories wrong. I get it. Reporters make mistakes. Worse, they have bias. But what if Mr. Mattingly gets journalists wrong?

Case in point. He pits the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s (via Crux) coverage of Pope Francis’ refusal to meet with the chief Italian bishop as an indication of the pope’s refusal to identify publicly with a pro-family, anti-gay marriage parade sponsored by the Italian episcopate. Here is a crucial passage from the Crux:

Pope Francis abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight.

Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate.

In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day.

Mattingly thinks this shows that the Times’ report — which indicated a papal slap down of pro-family Italians — was wrong.

Why isn’t the papal speech on Aug. 22 – the one stating “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and every other type of union” – relevant to the Times report that was published on Aug. 24?

Hello.

Saying something to the Vatican court is not meeting with the head Italian bishop. Nor is it an endorsement of the pro-family rally. Even Roman Catholic theologians know this:

[Pope Francis] has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics.

Sure, the theologian in question, Massimo Faggioli, is sympathetic to the Times except when Ross Douthat is the author. Still, its not as if Mattingly’s take on matters Roman Catholic is such an obvious one.

By Whose Authority?

Rod Dreher was the first (from where I sit) to break the news of a letter written by Roman Catholics who disagree with Ross Douthat (can’t call them liberal, I guess) to the New York Times to protest Douthat’s views on Roman Catholicism. In my estimation, this is hitting below the belt. You don’t mess with someone’s livelihood, which is how this feels — tattling to the teacher about an objectionable classmate. Here’s the letter:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

Signatures followed by a number of historians whom I respect. They disappointed me because their scholarship had always suggested to me a breadth of outlook, not one that connoted the old days of parochial Roman Catholic history.

One of the letter’s authors, Massimo Faggioli, has his own perspective on what Roman Catholicism is. It is not John Paul II but it is Francis. (How you pick and choose among popes is anyone’s guess, since that would appear not to be a professor of theology’s paygrade):

The style of John Paul II was very different from a ‘conciliar’ style – consider, for example, the absence of episcopal collegiality in his style of governing the Church, especially in how he treated the synod of bishops and the national bishops conferences … Clearly John Paul II lacked interest in reforming structures of the Church’s central government, which in his 27-year pontificate became more centred on the person of the pope and the papal apartment and its far-from-transparent entourage.

[Francis’s] decision in October 2013 to celebrate an extraordinary synod in October 2014 and an ordinary synod in 2015 (both on the topic of family), signaled a change in the hierarchy of institutions of church government: pope, curia, episcopate. In the April 2014 message to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the synod, Francis spoke about the synod in terms of collegiality that is both ‘affective’ and ‘effective’ – with a significant shift in the use of these two adjectives referring to collegiality when compared with previous decades.

Nor is it clear why Dr. Faggioli (aside from being Italian) has any more right to his views of the papacy than Ross Douthat. Both men I believe are lay Roman Catholics, though I think the New York Times trumps St. Thomas University on the list of gatekeepers in American society. Call me a Northeast corridor snob.

One of the letter’s signers explained why she did and addressed the elitism that lurked behind the challenge to Douthat’s credenitials (or lack thereof):

I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility. When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor. When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists. One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect? In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology. These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.

So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?

This is downright baffling. Do people who teach theology and church history have no clue about journalism? Do they not know the meaning of “op-ed”? Lots of people have access to op-ed pages and have never had training in a discipline. H. L. Mencken didn’t. Walter Lippmann was not an academic. Thomas Friedman apparently only has an M.Phil. in Middle Eastern Studies. So the New York Times is supposed to hire only Ph.D.’s as columnists? And did the letter writers and signers ever consider that the Times’ editors hired Douthat not so much for his writing on religion as his pieces on public policy, conservatism, and the Republican Party? Do Roman Catholics who oppose Douthat read anything other than his columns about Roman Catholicism? If not, how parochial.

The one element that stands out in this clash of professional authority — journalism vs. academics — is the letter’s appeal to Roman Catholicism. The way that most of the apologists have it, Rome’s authority rests not on the basis of academics or circulation and advertising but with the bishops and those whom they appoint. And yet, those who oppose Douthat make no reference to the authority of bishops, priests, and especially the pope.

If the papacy’s authority rested on “professional credentials” where would infallibility be?

But there’s hope for Douthat, not so much for the church’s apologists. It is that the church is wide and tolerant and in need of a conversation just like the United States:

Pope Francis represents the tiniest, most incremental steps toward shifts in doctrine that could have happened years ago, but he too is bombarded by vitriol from Catholics who see the church as a calcified, immobile monument.

Douthat is likely one of those Catholics who would prefer the altar to be turned around, the pews shoved back into rigid rows, women kicked out of the sanctuary and Latin Mass brought back to a country where Latin is rarely taught in schools. Or perhaps that’s what his supporters think he prefers. And they can defend that choice to see the church as incapable of evolution with vitriol, anger and rage. It doesn’t mean they should, and it doesn’t mean they’re right.

But the Catholic Church isn’t just the church of Douthat, Latin Mass traditionalists, or the theologians who signed the letter. It’s also the church of a billion people around the world, each experiencing it in different ways, each living out their faith individually and collectively. And each of those people is qualified to talk about how they live that faith, whether they do so in the op-ed column of the Times, at a potluck, in the middle of the desert, on CNN, or here on RD. It’s when either side tells the other to shut up that the problem starts.

The Pope has asked us to try to listen to one another. Maybe we can start there.

Americanism anyone?