Is Americanism a Superstition?

Why are some Roman Catholics so willing to look at the United States as the basement of human flourishing but then turn a blind eye to the variety of cults that surround local saints and their relics? A couple years ago, a battle was raging between two saints — St. Muerte vs. St. Jude Thaddeus — that had broad support among the people (think populism):

The Vatican takes a far less rosy view of the cult, which it sees as a deeply threatening presence in the country with the world’s second-largest Catholic population. In 2013, a senior church official said worshiping Santa Muerte was a “degeneration of religion.” Three Catholic bishops in the United States also denounced the folk saint in February.

Yet despite the church’s stance, Santa Muerte is currently the fastest-growing new religious movement in the Americas, according to Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

“The fact that Santa Muerte is the nonjudgmental folk saint who accepts everybody regardless of their station in life, regardless of their social class and regardless of their skin color is really appealing in a country like Mexico, where the gaps between rich and poor are some of the greatest in the world,” he said.

According to Chesnut, Mexico City’s St. Hippolytus Church responded to the explosive growth of the monthly Santa Muerte rosary service in the capital by organizing a special Mass in honor of St. Jude Thaddeus on the 28th of each month. These monthly celebrations drew impressive crowds and quickly expanded to other parts of the country.

“St. Jude Thaddeus is the only Catholic saint in the world who now basically has a monthly feast day,” Chesnut said.

Typically depicted in a green cloak with a flame above his head and a wooden club in his hand, St. Jude Thaddeus was one of Jesus Christ’s 12 apostles.

Much like Santa Muerte, the canonized saint’s popularity is tied to his reputation as a powerful miracle worker. For centuries, believers were wary of invoking him because of the similarity between his name and that of Judas Iscariot, Christ’s betrayer. Yet according to tradition, the forgotten saint became a powerful intermediary, eager to assist those in need.

“Word has spread that St. Jude can help you with your most pressing problems,” said Guadalajara-based priest Fr. Juan Carlos López. “Because of that, the devotion has grown.”

Yet some church officials have expressed concern about the saint’s popularity with criminals.

“There is a dark, negative side to all of this,” said Fr. José de Jesus Aguilar, director of the radio and television service for the Mexico City Archdiocese. “St. Jude Thaddeus has also become the patron of thieves, drug traffickers and those who are doing evil. This is a contradiction. Saints cannot support those who are doing wrong.”

Obviously, a Protestant isn’t going to help Romans sort this out — way above my pay grade, though I could advise that simply going with the sainthood of all believers would cut down on the hierarchy of Christians (not populist). Also, eliminating the cult of saints rids the church of that difficult decision of distinguishing — get this — good saints from bad ones.

What is curious, though, is how church officials and Roman Catholic intellectuals have no trouble seeing the wickedness of Lockean liberalism, free market capitalism, global warming, and nationalism (in almost all forms). Even more startling is how some of these same people are willing to condemn or question the bona fides of Roman Catholics who defend the benefits of modern political and economic arrangements.

Leo Ribuffo said it best way back in 2004:

In the 19th century James Cardinal Gibbons tried to comfort Protestant America with the notion that the doctrine of papal infallibility was no more mysterious than the Supreme Court serving as the final interpreter of the Constitution. Perhaps so, but the Catholic Supreme Court, so to speak, resides in Rome rather than Washington and thus is less responsive to American opinions. Probably papal misunderstanding of the United States has been no worse than that of most European heads of government. This is not a very high standard, however. On the contrary, the papacy has often seemed to reflect European clichés about American hyperpower, mindless materialism, and a confusion of freedom with license. Certainly the Vatican seems more likely to censure a characteristic American religious syncretism—of Catholicism and democracy—than Third World religious adaptations in which Catholicism merges with voodoo or animism.

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Why Doesn’t Mere Orthodoxy Take Heed of Full Orthodoxy

Matthew Loftus thinks conservative Christians have more in common with immigrants from non-Christian countries because of the civilizational angle:

If globalism and liquid modernity are the problem, then immigration restriction is cutting off one of the few sources of new citizens who might possible share your views on the priority of faith and family and the importance of religion in providing some moral undercurrent (or restraint) for the state’s actions. Both Putin and Trump appear to be happy to throw a bone to religious conservatives in order for their loyal support, but neither has any respect for human life in the eyes of the state and would happily preside over a fiefdom full of people lost in drugs, alcohol, gambling, or sex as long as they stay in power. There won’t be much civilization left to defend because modernity will continue its corrosive destruction through the institutions we love and believe in– the individualistic atomism that is hollowing out our civilization is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped by an authoritarian state and closed borders.

The lesson for Trumpsters is apparently apparent, but why not for big city pastors who trumpet (see what I did there?) urban life as the kingdom coming? When oh when will the young restless sovereigntists ever see that modernity clings to very institutions that they consider to be “traditional” or conservative (like Gospel Coalition and Tim Keller New York City Inc.)?

Imagine if the head pastor at Redeemer NYC had to respond to this:

…resisting the corrosive and disenchanting forces of modernity is going to require solidarity across ethnic, national, and religious lines because there is a large bundle of assumptions about the self, the world, and God that we share. What’s more, intentionally assimilating people into otherwise racially and religiously homogeneous communities might be one of our best chances at building that solidarity and preventing these newcomers from becoming balkanized (or, God help us, Democrats). Whether you want real civilization that is communal instead of individualistic or genuine ideology that governs according to principle rather than power-grabbing, immigrants and refugees are conservatives’ allies.

Can Mr. Loftus ever imagine that Old School Presbyterians are closer to his concerns about modernity, community, and the self than New Calvinists who thrive in the oh so modern settings of the Internet, weekend conferences, and celebrity pastors and authorettes? If you want real solidarity among believers, try strong local congregations with clear lines of accountability who send commissioners to wider church assemblies to oversee the lives of officers and church members. It’s not magic and it’s often not as thick as village life in the Outer Hebrides, but Presbyterianism is as good a Christian effort as any to resist modernity. You sure won’t find it in the Big Apple unless you live in the ghetto.

Beaver Cleaver Was Lost in His Trespasses and Sins

Trigger warning to self: you’ve engaged Carl Trueman critically before and it did not go well. So be careful, be very careful.

The reason for bringing up Dr. Trueman again, even if ever so gingerly, has to do with his recent evaluation of Rusty Reno’s new book about prospect for a Christian society. Trueman writes:

I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?

I generally agree.

But where I push (not shove) back is with the idea that modernity alone has these problems. Ever since the fall, it seems to me, the possibilities of pursuing lives of holiness and passing on the faith have been hard. Just remember what Paul warned Timothy about the “last days”:

understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-8)

Was Paul predicting a time when Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche would dominate understandings of human nature and the created order, or was he talking about life in the Roman Empire circa 60 AD? My understanding is that he was talking about life in the Mediterranean world then.

So why do Christians believe modernity is so much worse than any other time? Well, it sure seems that Roman Catholics have a certain nostalgia for the Christian society of medieval Europe, neo-Calvinists for the Christian society of the Kuyperian era of Dutch history, evangelicals in the U.S. for the First Pretty Good Awakening that of course led up to the Christian founding of the United States. Here Protestants want to recalculate critiques of modernity since Kuyper and George Whitefield both fall on the modern side of the divide between medieval and modern periods. In other words, Protestant critiques of modernity play into the hands of certain Roman Catholic apologetics (even if nostalgia for the flourishing of the Middle Ages seldom extends to the Crusades or the Inquisition).

But surely anyone with eyes and ears has to admit that we are living in worse times than 1950s American when Ward and June Cleaver reared Wally and the Beave. I have eyes and ears. I will concede that the 2010s are worse than the 1950s, though I did live through 1968 and that was not a good time. But on a scale of fallen humanity, are modern or contemporary times really worse than what Noah lived through, or Lot, or Jeremiah, or our Lord himself? Doesn’t the fall mean we always live in desperate times?

The point here is not that people who believe in original sin should be relativists when it comes to assessing the way humans live together or proposing ways that are better for a common life together and for the proclamation of the gospel. But I think it is a mistake to cultivate the notion that human flourishing is possible whether by putting in place the right policies or institutions, or by thinking about the past a certain way. I know Dr. Trueman knows this. But it sounds like he thinks we are living through one of the worst times in human existence. No matter how pleasant and reassuring Beaver Cleaver’s America was, it was not the new heavens and new earth. When sin abounds, it’s not a good time. The Cleavers were certainly flourishing as we now count such living, but they were also drowning in sin (and never in church). Shouldn’t that perspective inform the way we view the West post-Foucault?

Making Straight the Way of the Green

Lots of excitement in certain quarters of the Roman Catholic Church about Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical about the environment, but Protestants wonder where the energy was when Protestants beat the papacy to the punch.

First, what’s coming:

Vatican officials announced Tuesday that Pope Francis’ much-anticipated encyclical letter on the environment is now finalized and is being translated into various languages, with an expected release date sometime in June.

The announcement came during a Rome summit on climate change co-sponsored by the Vatican and the United Nations, headlined by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

An encyclical letter is considered the most important, and most developed, form of papal teaching. This will be the first-ever encyclical entirely devoted to environmental themes.

Next, the excitement:

Ron Pagnucco of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University “would like to see Francis continue to use the concept of ‘solidarity’ in the encyclical, discussing what global solidarity means in regards to the environment.”

“Just as Catholic social doctrine teaches that no person exists without society,” said Vince Miller of the University of Dayton, “we need to also learn that our species does not exist without the rest of creation.”

“How climate change and related environmental issues connect with other important concerns, including war and peace, economics, and health care,” needs to be articulated in the encyclical, according to Tobias Winright of St. Louis University.

“It is very important to discuss the environment, conflict and peace,” Pagnucco agreed, since environmental degradation is a “threat multiplier.”

The relationship between the environment and the economy is especially important.

“Environmentalists are looking to the pope for continued linkages to poverty and impact of degradation on the poor,” said Catholic Climate Covenant’s Ellis. Jesuit Fr. James Keenan of Boston College would also “like to see the sustainability issues related to climate change woven into issues related to economic inequality.”

Environmental problems are also connected to racism, said Alex Mikulich of Loyola University New Orleans. And “it would be important to consider the connection between the desire to dominate the earth/cosmos and domination of women,” according to M. Shawn Copeland of Boston College.

One of the reasons environmentalists are embracing religion is because it is one of the few things that can motivate people to sacrifice their own self-interest for the sake of others.

David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary’s University calls for a “forthright confrontation with so-called lifestyle choices.”

“It’s all the choices we make that cause the per capita carbon footprint of the average American to be roughly twice that of most European countries, and that cause the insanity of California lawns and water-thirsty agriculture,” he said. “I’m all for better laws and structures, but until we stop expecting strawberries in February, spacious living quarters, and large SUVs, I’m not sure how those structures change.”

Likewise, Scheid said he hopes for “a critique of consumerism and a ‘scrap culture’ or ‘throwaway culture’ that uses and then discards as trash people, especially the poor, created goods, and the Earth as a whole. I hope he ties the preferential option for the poor and solidarity with ecological concerns.”

Grazer said he hopes the pope “will call upon the larger and more wealthy nations to lead and make the ‘sacrifices’ needed to make urgent progress regarding climate change, and in particular, helping the most vulnerable people and nations mitigate and adapt to climate change.” The pope “needs to call for much greater leadership on the part of wealthier nations and also for sufficient changes in personal and corporate life style, moving away from consumerism,” he said.

But Miller of Dayton University stressed that structural change, not just individual choices, is essential. “Our moral and Christian obligation is not simply to change our consumption as individuals, but to collectively build a culture/society/civilization that is sustainable,” he said.

It requires “a broadening of moral responsibility to care for creation from individual choice to the larger, structural, policy responses that are required to address the environmental crises we face,” he said. “Yes, greed is a problem, but environmental despoliation is cooked into the system we have built.”

Peppard agreed that “market processes are not morally trustworthy guides to long-term flourishing of the physical bases on which all life depends” because the markets are oriented “towards short-term profit and economic growth without a recognition of natural capital as a substrate of those developments.”

How people and governments respond to the encyclical will be critical. “The theology of the encyclical is important,” said Marian Diaz of Loyola University Chicago, “but the implementation or the lack thereof matters more.”

But Protestants have been there and done that. First came the National Council of Churches in 200friggin’6, almost a decade ago:

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES IN CHRIST:

Expresses its deep concern for the pending environmental, economic, and social tragedies threatened by global warming to creation, human communities, and traditional sacred spaces.

Urges the Federal Government to respond to global warming with greater urgency and leadership and gives support for mandatory measures that reduce the absolute amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and in particular emissions of carbon dioxide, to levels recommended by nationally and internationally recognized and respected scientific bodies.

Urges the Federal, State and Local Governments to support and invest in energy conservation and efficiency, sustainable and renewable, and affordable and sustainable transportation.

Calls for business and industry to respond to global warming with increased investment in conservation and more efficient and sustainable energy technologies that are accessible, sustainable, and democratic.

Stands firmly with all of God’s children by urging that adaptive measures and financial support be forthcoming from government and industry to aid those directly impacted by global warming and in particular those least able to relocate, reconstruct, or cope with the current and pending impacts of climate change.

Calls on all Christians, people of faith and people of good will the world over to lead by example and seek active means whereby they may, individually and in community, quickly reduce their emissions of green house gas emissions and speak out for engagement by their elected officials on matters of global warming.

In the same year, evangelicals added their moral heft:

The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.

There are several reasons for urgency. First, deadly impacts are being experienced now. Second, the oceans only warm slowly, creating a lag in experiencing the consequences. Much of the climate change to which we are already committed will not be realized for several decades. The consequences of the pollution we create now will be visited upon our children and grandchildren. Third, as individuals and as a society we are making long-term decisions today that will determine how much carbon dioxide we will emit in the future, such as whether to purchase energy efficient vehicles and appliances that will last for 10-20 years, or whether to build more coal-burning power plants that last for 50 years rather than investing more in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

In the United States, the most important immediate step that can be taken at the federal level is to pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through cost-effective, market-based mechanisms such as a cap-and-trade program. On June 22, 2005 the Senate passed the Domenici-Bingaman resolution affirming this approach, and a number of major energy companies now acknowledge that this method is best both for the environment and for business.

We commend the Senators who have taken this stand and encourage them to fulfill their pledge. We also applaud the steps taken by such companies as BP, Shell, General Electric, Cinergy, Duke Energy, and DuPont, all of which have moved ahead of the pace of government action through innovative measures implemented within their companies in the U.S. and around the world. In so doing they have offered timely leadership.

Numerous positive actions to prevent and mitigate climate change are being implemented across our society by state and local governments, churches, smaller businesses, and individuals. These commendable efforts focus on such matters as energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, low CO2 emitting technologies, and the purchase of hybrid vehicles. These efforts can easily be shown to save money, save energy, reduce global warming pollution as well as air pollution that harm human health, and eventually pay for themselves. There is much more to be done, but these pioneers are already helping to show the way forward.

Finally, while we must reduce our global warming pollution to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, as a society and as individuals we must also help the poor adapt to the significant harm that global warming will cause.

Conclusion
We the undersigned pledge to act on the basis of the claims made in this document. We will not only teach the truths communicated here but also seek ways to implement the actions that follow from them. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we urge all who read this declaration to join us in this effort.

I understand that critics often blame Protestantism for encouraging modernity and lacking a sense of tradition, and once again Protestants seem to be out in front of Rome. But does 9 years count for establishing one’s traditionalist bona fides?

Zmirak is on a Roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribalists All

While six middle-aged men continue to receive their comeuppance for challenging the soundness of rap and hip-hop, the imbroglio over whether Mark Driscoll plagiarized Peter Jones continues. (I don’t know why people are not debating whether Driscoll should even be writing books.) Miles Mullin writes a gloomy assessment of evangelicalism thanks to the structural problems that the Driscoll affair reveals:

Because of the personality-driven leadership inherent in contemporary evangelicalism, the tribalism it nurtures, and the reality that most of American evangelicalism subsists in some variation of the free church tradition, the final outcome of this story is clear. There is no authority that can adjudicate this matter other than the authority upon which both Driscoll and Mefferd have built their ministries: evangelical popular opinion. . . . Thus, regardless of whether or not Mark Driscoll truly plagiarized in A Call to Resurgence(and other books) or whether Janet Mefferd lied about Driscoll hanging up, their tribes will defend them to the end.

This is the troubling reality of the personality-based leadership that encompasses much of American evangelicalism. Often, charisma and dynamic communication skills trump character and integrity as popular appeal wins the day. And for those of us who wish it were otherwise, there is no court of appeal with the authority to hear our case.

I am not sure about the distinction between charisma and dynamic communication on the one side and character and integrity on the other. In the world of mass media no one has the kind of personal knowledge that allows us to tell whether a figure has any more character and integrity than he does charisma and rhetorical skills. Someone who actually holds an office of authority could function as an umpire in such a dispute. And said office-holder would have authority no matter what his gifts or integrity (unless of course he broke the rules that pertained to his office). In other words, an ecclesiastical officer could decide this matter (as well as an officer of the court) if Driscoll were part of a church overseen by officers who assented to church authority.

Now I can see where some might think this takes me, right in the direction of Jason and the Callers’ boy-have-we-got-a-solution-for-you appeal to papal supremacy. And that is exactly where I’d like to go since it seems to (all about) me that without temporal authority the pope’s spiritual office has descended to the levels of charisma, rhetorical skills, integrity, and character. Before Vatican 2 the papacy could claim greater authority and generally commanded it. But since the 1950s with the greater prosperity of Roman Catholics in the U.S. and greater academic accomplishments by Roman Catholic scholars, even papal supremacy does not command the conformity that it once did when the people prayed, paid, and obeyed. For instance, the Vatican’s power to police Roman Catholic universities has arguably never been weaker (despite Ex Corde Ecclesiae).

Here is one recent story where Roman Catholic professors are appealing to Pope Francis’ off the cuff remarks to challenge their administrations:

Pope Francis surprised many last month following the publication of his first full-length interview, in which he offered a less doctrinaire stance on issues such as homosexuality and abortion than any of his predecessors.

“I am no one to judge,” he said in response a question about gay people, echoing previous comments he’d made to media on the topic this summer and signaling to some that the Vatican was becoming more moderate. Somewhat similarly, the pope said that the church has grown “obsessed” with doctrine — at the expense of larger spiritual matters.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”

But within days of the publication of the Vatican-approved interview, which appeared in the U.S. in the Jesuit magazine America, several American Roman Catholic institutions took a harder line on those exact issues.

The apparent disconnect led some faculty members at Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount Universities, which recently dropped coverage for elective abortions from their standard health insurance plans, and Providence College, which banned a gay marriage advocate from speaking on campus, to wonder whether their administrations had gotten the message.

Meanwhile, the theologians whom John Paul II tried to make more accountable through Ex Corde Ecclesiae are raising questions of their own:

An international group of prominent Catholic theologians have called the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality “incomprehensible” and are asking bishops around the world to take seriously the expertise of lay people in their preparations for a global meeting of the prelates at the Vatican next year.

Church teaching on issues like contraception and same-sex marriage, the theologians write, are based on “abstract notions of natural law and [are] outdated, or at the very least scientifically uninformed” and “are for the most part incomprehensible to the majority of the faithful.”

Addressing next year’s meeting of church leaders, known as a Synod of Bishops, they say that previous such meetings involved “only carefully hand-picked members of the laity.”

Those meetings, they write, “offered no critical voice and ignored abundant evidence that the teaching of the church on marriage and sexuality was not serving the needs of the faithful.”

Of course, an apologist could say that this changes nothing. The pope is still in charge. Which of course is true in a sense. But his being-in-chargedness is not exactly evident in large sectors of the church, any more than Protestants have some way to adjudicate the Driscoll affair. And if we recall how popular Francis is compared to Benedict XVI, the categories of charisma and character turn out to be as crucial for a pope’s clout in the modern church as it is for celebrity pastors among Protestants.

Which is just one way of saying that in the modern world where churches are “merely” spiritual institutions, without backup from the state — the real power in contemporary affairs, Roman Catholics and Protestants are both shooting blanks. (Eastern Orthodox may be different when you can have titles like this one — His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch.) And that may explain why so many popes, now regarded as being products of time and place, the ones who oversaw Inquisitions, abducted Jewish boys, and condemned all aspects of modern social life, had a point. If they were going to retain their power, it needed to be powerfully palpable and visible.

Paper, Print, Ink — The Winner Is?

If paper beats rock in “Paper, Scissors, Rock,” does paper beat the printing press in the development of modernity and what it means to be enlightened?

. . . in the Enlightenment the magical agency of the press to transform society became a near-universal belief. Censorship was the negative recognition of this absolute credence, and the eighteenth-century relaxation of control over the printed word (in the Habsburg domains and in Russia) was a short-lived experiment. But what was the state of those who did not enjoy the benefit of the printed word? They lived in an unimaginable darkness, waiting and longing for the coming of the light. And what of a government that deliberately turned its back upon the printing press? It could only be considered as the epitome of barbarism.

That was precisely the position of the Ottoman Empire and the infidel East. The West believed that the Ottomans “prohibited” the printing press because of their obscurantist faith – Islam. The Turks’ refusal to accept this unique benison from the West was an indication of their deep and fundamental wickedness. . . . I believe that the debate over the printing press was the final formulation of the Western malediction of the Eastern infidel; but it was a condemnation carefully adjusted and attuned to the mores of an Enlightened age. What had begun with the Muslim as the “Abomination of Desolation,” then continued with the “Antichrist”, “the malignant foe,” and all the other epithets, ended with a portrayal of debased ignorance. This is the stereotype that has come through to the present day, and still flourishes in the West, but I believe that the Ottoman “failure” to adopt the printing press was the first point at which this prejudice was systematically articulated. (274-75)

. . . .The failure to adopt Gutenberg’s new art became a touchstone of the essential backwardness of Muslims. . . . To change or even question that norm is to enter a maelstrom. It is easier to pose the question as a counterfactual, a “what if.” What if Mehmed II “the Conqueror,” to cap his victory at Constantinople in 1453, had paid the debts of the floundering Mainz entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg, and shipped his printing press to the Old Palace above the Bosphorus? It is perhaps not such a foolish premise, knowing what we do of both Mehmed’s passions and Gutenberg’s financial circumstances. Nor is it entirely fanciful, because the Islamic world had already pioneered a development much more far reaching than Gutenberg’s trio of innovations – reusable metal type, the casting mold, and the printing press.

It was paper more than print that revolutionized the world. Take another counterfactual: what if Johann Gutenberg had had to print his great Bible on the only material available in 1455: sheep, cow, and goat skins? What would have happened to his great invention if there had been no paper in western Europe? The role of paper in the printing revolution has been strangely passed over. Yet without paper, transmitted from China to the Muslim world, and thence to Europe, the development of publishing in Europe is virtually unimaginable. (Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, 276-77)

History is hardly inevitable, nor does it break down in easy to chew, bite-sized pieces that never produce indigestion. The only way to see good guys and bad guys in the past MAY be through the eyes of faith. Everything else is quicksand, or in the words of Qoheleth, “vanity.”

What I'm (all about ME!) Sayin'

While looking through the blogs today I came across a couple worthy of highlight.

In keeping with the theme of the realities of contemporary Roman Catholicism, Samuel Gregg’s piece on Vatican II and modernity might be of interest (especially to CTCer’s who whitewash dilemmas from church history). He seconds a point I often make that Rome’s decision to open itself to the modern world came at one of the worst points in modern history. Do you really want to open yourself to feminism, deconstruction, the Beatles, and suburbia? Here’s an excerpt:

Vatican II is often portrayed, with some accuracy, as the Church opening itself to “the world.” This expression embraces several meanings in Scripture. God loves “the world” (Jn 3:16). Yet “the world” can also mean that which opposes God (Jn 14:17). At Vatican II, however, the world took on yet another connotation: that of the “modern world.”

Curiously, you won’t find a definition of the modern world in any Vatican II text. But modernity is usually a way of describing the various Enlightenments that emerged in the West from the late seventeenth-century onwards. Among other things, these movements emphasized applying instrumental and scientific rationality to all spheres of life in the hope of emancipating humanity from ignorance, suffering, and oppression.

Given the often-vicious treatment inflicted upon the Church by many self-identified moderns—including Jacobins and Bolsheviks—Catholics were often wary of anything asserting to be modern. It’s untrue, however, that the pre-1962 Church was somehow closed to modernity’s genuine achievements. This quickly becomes evident from cursory reading of encyclicals written by popes ranging from Leo XIII to Pius XII.

Nonetheless, many Catholics during the 1950s and 60s were tremendously optimistic about possible rapprochements between the Church and modernity. And that includes the present pope. In a 1998 autobiographical essay, Joseph Ratzinger recalled his hopes at the time for overcoming the gaps between Catholicism and the modern mind. A similar confidence pervades Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document that specifically attempted to approach modernity in a non-antagonistic manner. Yet even in 1965, many bishops and theologians (including some associated with efforts for renewal) were warning that Gaudium et Spes’ view of modernity was excessively hopeful, even a little naive.

Of course the modern world has witnessed tremendous achievements since 1965. Its technological successes are the most obvious. Even diehard traditionalists find it awkward to be uncompromisingly anti-modern when needing dental-care. Likewise the spread of the economic modernity associated with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations has lifted millions out of poverty at a historically unprecedented speed.

The warnings, however, about undue optimism concerning modernity turned out to be quite justified. The cultural and intellectual chaos that erupted in the late-1960s should have been proof enough. Since then, we’ve witnessed what might be considered an ongoing crack-up on modernity’s part.

Then on a different subject, prayer, Paul Helm registers reservations about the amount of detail that we put into our petitions. I have wondered about this for a long time, especially in those small group gatherings where you almost faint from the descriptions of medical conditions and procedures. Helm is addressing public worship but his point about prayer works just as well for the prayer closet (does any reader actually have such space?). Here he goes:

I don’t know how it is with you, but I cannot cope with times in services of worship when the minister or leader invites the congregation to ‘spend a few moments of quiet praying for someone in special need’. My mind starts to think about anything or nothing except a person I know of who’s in need. It’s rather like someone who says ‘Don’t think of a white horse’, an invitation that it’s impossible to accept.

We could spend a few moments reflecting on the view of public worship that it is implied by the ‘periods of silence’ invitation, of whether it is appropriate to think of public worship as involving the sum of the private devotions of the people who are present. Ought we not rather to think of public worship (as a general rule) as common worship, as in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, as expressing in public the common, communal needs and aspirations of Christian people? But instead of thinking out loud along these lines I would rather spend these few minutes thinking out loud with you about what I shall call The Affliction of a Failure of Concentration.

Here’s my suggestion – not a novel one, but still, I think, worth airing and emphasizing – that praying, and particularly that branch of praying that is called petitioning or asking, including of course interceding for others, is not primarily, or even, a matter of acquiring and processing information, and then presenting it in bite-sized pieces to Almighty God. It is not a condition of responsible and genuine Christian prayer that it is ‘intelligent’ i.e. well-informed.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the provision of information. I have spent much of my adult life as a teacher and writer, engrossed in the world of ideas and arguments. I expect the students I teach to be able to absorb, understand, weigh and produce information. The more the merrier. But the point is that not all speech is primarily informative, and most certainly Christian petitionary and intercessory prayer is not primarily informative. Fellow-prayers in the prayer meeting may learn all sorts of things about Mr Smith when he prays publicly. But the living God is in a rather different position from our fellow worshippers in the pew. Does he need educating? Is he ignorant of any detail? Has he overlooked any of the needs of his people?

Selah.