This Is Embarrassing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(more of) Show Me Jesus

To hear some of the recent commentary about Rome’s relationship to modern society, you might wonder about the significance of Jesus. The young journalist, Elizabeth Bruenig, whom Presbyterians baptized, Methodists discipled, and Jews educated (at Brandeis), explained her conversion as finding a refuge from modernity:

Yet the church remains firm, unmoved by this current in modernity. And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.

I don’t know. To say that the church remains unmoved while failing to mention the about-face involved in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors when Piux IX sneered at the church making any adjustment to modernity (does she really want that?) and the 1962 Second Vatican Council where John XXIII called the church to update its relationship to modern society is quite the claim. You might think a journalist would look a little more carefully at her sources.

Then there is praise from Anthony Annett at Commonweal for the Jesuit article that condemned U.S. evangelicals and Roman Catholics together for an “ecumenism of hate”:

the basic thesis is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism. (Commonweal’s editors commented on it here, and contributing editor Massimo Faggioli wrote on it here.) This world is a Calvinist world, manifesting politically in the twin ideas that the United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history, which gives rise to a dualistic outlook, and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism. This latter pathology comes in different levels, of course, the nadir being the appalling “prosperity gospel.”

Annett too fails to mention how a church that so resolutely opposes modernity (according to Bruenig) is so susceptible to its members doing back flips to join Calvinists in the public square. If you have all that history, authority, and tradition, what happened?

For example, at the church frequented by my in-laws in New Jersey, I’ve heard homilies glorifying the military, calling for higher military spending, criticizing Muslim immigrants, and comparing the hill of Calvary with the hill of Iwo Jima. Seriously. This is horrific, but the overwhelmingly white middle-class Mass-goers seem to lap it up. It’s no wonder that they find no contradiction between Catholicism and Trumpism. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump enjoys their support while the rest of the Catholic world views with him with askance and horror.

Clearly, episcopacy has some bugs that not even papal infallibility (determined just on the heels of the Syllabus of Errors) cannot fix.

In fact, as much as Annett and Bruenig believe that real Roman Catholicism is on the side of left-of-center politics, Matthew Schmitz agrees but also notices how out of step Rome’s liberalism is with Rome’s history. The ultramontanism that sustained Pius IX’s quest for papal infallibility also supported integralism, a form of church-state relations that conservatives and liberals in the United States might find a tad overwrought:

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

With Francis has come a different kind of integralism:

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without accountability to the age and freedom from tradition.

It is in this context that one must understand the Vatican’s recent sally against America in the unofficial papal organ La Civiltà Cattolica. Written by Fr Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, another papal confidant, the article is not merely an expression of anti-American spite or an attack on ecclesial enemies. It is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Sorry, but I’m just not seeing the unity or the authority that wow converts. Plus, did you notice that all of these opinions come from the laity. What would make Roman Catholicism from Protestantism is if lay members kept quiet and deferred to their ecclesiastical superiors. I wonder what that kind of pre-modern ecclesiastical order would do to those converts who find in Rome a horse that rides even higher than the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, do Roman Catholics actually worry about personal sins, God’s judgment, and whether they are going to purgatory?