If You Go Back to 33, Why Bother with 1776?

While John Fea has tried to live tweet David Barton’s claims about America’s Christian founding, Roman Catholics in the U.S. also feel the need to make America safe for faith. Which allows a repetition of a point: not integralism but Americanism is the default setting for Roman Catholics in the U.S. That is, American Roman Catholics, contrary to the worst anti-Catholics like Paul Blanshard, were never ambivalent about American exceptionalism or the need to modify aspects of church life to assimilate the church to American ways.

And so, Roman Catholic defenders of America have come out parading once again for July 4th. A little early to the festivities was Matthew Schmitz who used the approaching national holiday to vindicate Sohrab Ahmari over against David French:

David French of National Review said that Ahmari was forsaking America’s historical commitment to “neutral principles” such as free speech and due process. By insisting that governments should re-order the public square towards the common good, Ahmari was “forsaking the framework for ordered liberty established by the Founders.”

But the idea that America was founded on “neutral principles” is a myth. From its beginnings, America has been characterized by what Tocqueville called the “intimate union of the spirit of religion with the spirit of liberty.” The Americans whose representatives drafted the Constitution did not seek to end this union, but to place it on a stable footing.

In 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence, were … the general Principles of Christianity … and the general Principles of English and American Liberty.” The former are not neutral principles.

Every early administration except Jefferson’s summoned America to days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Americans were urged to “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life … and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain pardon and forgiveness.” Is this neutrality?

…As these men show, the belief that politics should be ordered to the common good and the highest good is not only classical and Christian, but American. We need to reinvigorate this tradition, not by going back to colonial arrangements, but by pioneering new ways to unite the spirits of Christianity and liberty.

David Barton could not have said it better, though Schmitz’s praise may seem odd for a convert from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism if only because he fails to mention his examples all came from Protestants. Roman Catholics at the time (and down to Vatican II) were hostile to civil liberty, freedom of ideas, and free markets. That difference between medieval and modern is pesky for those who embrace one of the most modern nations on earth.

Then today at The American Conservative, the man who likely decided to run Schmitz’s piece, Michael Warren Davis, another convert, wrote positively about the Puritans’ settlement in North America and their influence on the founding. He quotes John Wintrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and then writes:

This is the high ideal that lies at the heart of our nation’s founding: not wealth or strength or freedom, but charity. This is the divine purpose for which America was founded: that we might love as ought to love.

Love her, too, while you’re at it. Love America the way we mortals can only love when we’ve grown old enough to accept that our mother is flawed, as we are. Love her all the more because she won’t be around forever.

From the woodlands of Maine to the mountains of Virginia, from the golden shores of California to the black sands of Hawaii, from the lakes of Michigan to the endless ranges of Kansas—every last one of us has a chance to be as wise as Greeks, as virtuous as Romans, as cultured as Englishmen, and as loving as Christians. That’s worth celebrating.

Again, what a great development to have Roman Catholics praising — of all people — Puritans on the occasion of America’s birthday. Might they also recommend the Puritans’ teaching and worship to anyone struggling with the way the bishops have been conducting their affairs during abuse scandal? If not, if Protestants still need to get right with the Vatican to have an awesome Christianity, then Davis should add that the bishops were also wrong for a long time about political liberty (as in “error has no rights,” a phrase used by top Vatican officials against John Courtney Murray as late as the 1950s).

But then comes a mild corrective from yet another convert, Chad Pecknold, again from the webpages of the Catholic Herald where Davis works. Pecknold is not so convinced that Puritans were a healthy influence on the United States’ political culture of liberty:

[Tocqueville] cites approvingly Cotton Mather’s discussion of “holy liberty” in Magnalia Christi Americana. Tocqueville is struck by how this “holy liberty” is freedom for goodness, for truth, for justice, for God. In this sense, what makes Puritan liberty different from the liberty of 1789 is precisely that it is not liberty “for secular purpose,” but for holy purpose. Where France divorced liberty from religion, the Puritans united “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

This seed, this germ, Tocqueville writes, is “the key to nearly the whole book.” So the Puritan seed was dispersed, fragmented, and scattered. Its children could favor different aspects of the originating spirit. It could combine with other species, if you will, and yet American diversity would always have this common root. Yet Tocqueville also sees something profoundly unstable in the Puritan seed — it is sectarian, and not “the whole.” The Puritan seed lacks a unifying principle, and cannot supply the American people with a stable, common creed.

In one of his more Catholic insights, Tocqueville believes the Puritan seed is made to be divided, to be diversified through a great plurality — yet moving in two directions. Tocqueville writes, “our descendants will increasingly divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.”

Tocqueville is no Augustine for America, but he does have an important insight into American polarization. In the end, he thinks one part of America will view liberty as the flight from Christianity, and the other will see that a culture of freedom requires its full embrace.

See what he did there? On the one hand, Pecknold thinks Tocqueville recognized that the Puritans provided an unstable foundation for a nation — to much sectarianism — though it is odd that when Puritans were more doctrinally sane as opposed to their Congregationalist successors, they supported the American founding with vigor. Of late, Congregationalists have been willing to live with Jeremiah Wright as one of their pastors in good standing.

On the other hand, Pecknold, by a magic trick only rivaled by Doug Henning, makes Roman Catholics, the ones with the “full embrace” of Christianity, as the true successors to the Puritans who united the “spirit of liberty with the spirit of religion.”

It seems fairly plausible to conclude that Roman Catholics ponder the American founding more than Matthew 16:18-19. On the upside, it sure beats running the Fourth of July through Abraham Lincoln.

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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.

(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?