Roman Catholics at Plymouth Rock?

In the department of strange bedfellows comes George Weigel’s praise for the Museum of the Bible:

On September 29, 1952, the publication of the complete Revised Standard Version of the Bible was celebrated at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., and the principal speaker was the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The son of the Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Acheson movingly described the ways in which the King James Bible, which the new RSV was to supplant, had once shaped American culture and our national life:

In the earliest days in the Northeast, the Book was All. The settlers came here to live their own reading of it. It was the spiritual guide, the moral and legal code, the political system, the sustenance of life, whether that meant endurance of hardship, the endless struggle against nature, battle with enemies, or the inevitable processes of life and death. And it meant to those who cast the mold of this country something very specific and very clear. It meant that the purpose of man’s journey through this life was to learn and identify his life and effort with the purpose and will of God.

That biblical vision helped form the bedrock convictions of the American idea: that government stood under the judgment of divine and natural law; that government was limited in its reach into human affairs, especially the realm of conscience; that national greatness was measured by fidelity to the moral truths taught by revelation and inscribed in the world by a demanding yet merciful God; that only a virtuous people could be truly free.

Of course, the U.S. is a free country and anyone can assemble the past in ways consoling.

But does anyone else feel a certain discomfort with a Roman Catholic recommending the Bible without also mentioning the objections that sometimes Bishops registered against Bible readings in public schools without comment? The United States would not have as many parochial schools as it does if not for Bishops who worried about sending children to public schools where teachers read the Protestant version of the Bible.

Not to be missed is the odd relationship between the Bible and the founding. If the settlers who came to America and launched the tradition of Thanksgiving wanted a society with a biblical vision at its bedrock, don’t you also have to mention that those same Bible-only Christians were a tad jittery about including Roman Catholics in the nation that emerged from their colonial enterprises?

This may be why some Roman Catholic political theorists are uncomfortable with Roman Catholics getting comfortable with the founding.


Why Do You Need to be A Christian to Feed the Hungry?

The flip-flop of World Vision on gay marriage has attracted lots and lots of comments but no one seems to be asking a couple of important questions. That’s why we have confessional Reformed Protestantism.

1) As the title here suggests, why is it necessary for Christians to dispense aid to the poor and hungry through a Christian organization? World Vision says, for instance:

We provide emergency assistance to children and families affected by natural disasters and civil conflict, work with communities to develop long-term solutions to alleviate poverty, and advocate for justice on behalf of the poor.


Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

That second part of their mission statement obviously raises lots of questions about WV’s original decision to accept gay marriage. But does it make a difference whether the poor and hungry receive aid from a Christian or a non-Christian, a homosexual or a heterosexual? Is the aid any different? And very much related, haven’t we been here before? Evangelicals were responsible for the original social gospel, called the Benevolent Empire associated with the Second Pretty Good Awakening. Eventually, the concern to eliminate poverty and inequality spawned theological liberalism and moral evasiveness. Did anyone really think that World Vision was pursuing humanitarian efforts (which are laudable) in a conservative Protestant way? If you look at the leadership pages for WV, no church is mentioned. Rich Stearns himself leaves church membership out of his “story.” Since membership in mainline (read liberal) Protestant churches is common at evangelical liberal arts colleges, WV would surprise me if they self-consciously steered staff and officers away from non-evangelical churches where humanitarianism did trump orthodoxy and biblical ethics.

Which leads to the second question:

2) Why haven’t the critics of WV brought up the ecclesiological question? It is similar to a point that Patrick Deneen just made about the significance of the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, namely, that social/religious conservatives often miss the forest of institutions and structures for the trees of specific moral convictions:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction.

The same goes for WV. The fund-raising world and structure of oversight in which WV operates is also abstracted or disembedded — in this case not from mom and pop businesses but from pastor-and-elder churches. Its model is like the parachurch more generally (and the New Calvinists since we’re obsessed right now) and, as Deneen puts it, its work is through “ministries of scale” that transcend the ordinary or local networks of fellowship and accountability by which denominations and congregations operate.

And that may explain why WV’s leadership could think about gay marriage the way they did. If church officers oversaw them, they would not have to flip in response to public pressure. But if that were the case, if WV were overseen by the church, it would likely not exist. That’s because churches have diaconal agencies — either locally or denominationally — and because church officers might likely conclude that this work is something that any number of state and non-state organizations already perform.

Finding the West's Inner Augustine

Peter Lawler has responded to Patrick Deneen about the divide among U.S. Roman Catholics on whether or not to get right with America. Part of Lawler’s response is to invoke Augustine on the homelessness that all people feel this side of the eschaton (or is it merely the impermanence of creaturely existence?):

All political arrangements, devised as they are by sinners, have within them the seeds of their own destruction. It’s the City of God, not the City of Man, that’s sustainable over the infinitely long term. Still, Christians have the duty not to be too alienated from their country, and to do what they can to be of service to their fellow citizens by loyally encouraging what’s good and could be better in the political place where they live. America, we southerners know especially well, is the easiest place in the world to be both at home and homeless, to enjoy the good things of the world without forgetting that our true home is somewhere else.

When Lawler does this, he implicitly invokes the Augustinian- vs. Whig-Thomist debate previously mentioned here. Ironically, it is Lawler the Whig, who identifies more with Augustine than the Augustinian-Thomists who seem to be motivated more an older view of politics than an Augustinian one.

Through most of these debates I fail to detect a recognition of an even older division in political thought, namely one between pagan and Christian theories. Here is how R. A. Markus describes that difference in his book on Augustine:

For the polis-centered tradition of Greek thought the political framework of human life was the chief means of achieving human perfection. Life in a city-state was an education for virtue, a fully human life, the good life. Politics was a creative task. It consisted in bringing into being the kind of ordering of society which was most conducive to the realisation of ultimate human purposes. In this sense, Plato, Aristotle, the Sophists and the rest all upheld fundamentally the same conception of political activity. . . .

In Judaeo-Christian tradition the key-note of political thinking was different. The people of God, whether of the old or the new Covenants, could not think of themselves as citizens involved in creating the right order in society, nor of their leaders as entrusted with bringing such an order into being. Only God’s saving act could establish the one right social order. In relation to that kingdom they were subjects, not agents; in relation to all other human kingdoms, they were aliens rather than citizens. . . . Their whole tradition was dominated by the need to adjust themselves to a society radically alienated from the one ultimately acceptable form of social existence. In such a society they could never feel themselves fully at home. (Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, 73-74)

Since Thomism is what seems to bind both sides of the Roman Catholic debate about the U.S., and since Thomas Aquinas was responsible for injecting a major dose of Aristotle into western Christianity, could it be that Thomism is responsible for the preoccupation of contemporary Roman Catholics about society and politics instead of ecclesiology and sacraments (what accounts for the transformers, neo-Calvinists, and theonomists is likely nostalgia for Christian nationalism — Dutch, Scottish, or U.S.). In fact, I wonder if anyone who is serious about Augustine and his views on the church as a pilgrim people can ever talk about “human flourishing” with a straight Christian face. If Markus is correct, human flourishing is what the pagans wanted through the polis. For Christians, human flourishing doesn’t happen this side of the new heavens and new earth.


What Must I Think about America to be Saved?

Contrary to Jason and the Callers, the fault lines in U.S. Roman Catholicism are not between traditionalists and liberals, but between American exceptionalists and those skeptical about America. Here is how Patrick Deneen describes the division:

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. . . .

Proponents of this position argue that America was well-founded and took a wrong turn in the late-19th century with the embrace of Progressivism (this intellectual position, closely associated with intellectuals at Claremont McKenna College and Hillsdale College, was briefly popularized by Glenn Beck. It has been developed not especially by Catholics, but by students of Leo Strauss, but has been widely embraced by Catholics of this school). The task, then, is restore the basic principles of the American founding—limited government in which the social and moral mores largely arising from the familial and social sphere orient people toward well-ordered and moral lives. This position especially stresses a commitment to the pro-life position and a defense of marriage, and is generally accepting of a more laissez-faire economic position. It supports a vigorous foreign policy and embraces a close alignment between Catholicism and Americanism. It has become closely aligned with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party.

Those are the Americanists (psst — Leo XIII, yes the very one of Rerum Novarum fame, branded Americanism a heresy; some Old Schoolers would agree). On the other hand:

On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism. Its main intellectual heroes are the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler (brilliantly profiled in the pages of TAC by Jeremy Beer). . . . The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.

Because of these positions, the “radical” position—while similarly committed to the pro-life, pro-marriage teachings of the Church—is deeply critical of contemporary arrangements of market capitalism, is deeply suspicious of America’s imperial ambitions, and wary of the basic premises of liberal government. It is comfortable with neither party, and holds that the basic political division in America merely represents two iterations of liberalism—the pursuit of individual autonomy in either the social/personal sphere (liberalism) or the economic realm (“conservatism”—better designated as market liberalism). Because America was founded as a liberal nation, “radical” Catholicism tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe.

Michael Baxter, identified sometimes as one of the “radicals,” puts the issue this way:

“It has been a greatly providential blessing,” John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed in We Hold These Truths, “that the American Republic never put to the Catholic conscience the questions raised, for instance, by the Third Republic. There has never been a schism within the American Catholic community, as there was among Catholics in France, over the right attitude to adopt toward the established polity.”

However much this statement was true in 1960, it is not true today. Now the politics of the American Republic does raise questions of conscience for Catholics. Now a schism has arisen within the Catholic community in the United States over the proper attitude toward the established polity. The schism is between those Catholics in the United States who identify with liberal politics and those who identify with conservative politics in the secular sphere. The division is pervasive and deep, and it is tearing the U.S. Catholic community apart.

The division between these groups of Catholics is a consequence of Catholics’ performing the role Father Murray assigned to them. He believed that the United States was exceptional among modern states. Unlike France, it was founded on principles inherited from Catholic political theory. This meant that Catholics could carry out the crucial task of transforming public discourse with the principles of natural law and returning the nation to the consensus on which it was founded. Father Murray, a long time editor at America, was aware that this “American consensus” was crumbling in the nation as a whole, but he was confident it would remain intact within the U.S. Catholic community. What he did not foresee, however, is how this consensus would fall apart even among American Catholics; how, in attempting to transform the nation, Catholics would become politically divided and therefore incapable of performing their pivotal role as, in his words, “guardians of the American consensus.” Without that role, his story of Catholicism and the United States falls apart.

An outsider wonders whether these folks sometimes discuss the significance of baptism for justification, how long one can expect to stay in purgatory, the benefits of indulgences, the mystery of transubstantiation, or the power of bishops. It does seem that as big and pretty good and powerful as the U.S. is, its import vanishes beneath the weight of eternal considerations about judgment day.

Even so, Baxter issues a caution that neo-Calvinists, theonomists, and TKNYers should well consider:

The problem is that in setting out to transform politics [me: or cities or culture] in the United States, Catholics have been transformed by it. Like mainline Protestants, they have succumbed to the molding pressures of state-sponsored bureaucratic power—not the overt and direct power of Fascism and Communism or the militant secularism of European democracy (as in France), but the more subtle workings of indirect power, which domesticates any and all subordinate groups by dissolving their ability to resist the authority of the state and by co-opting the well-intentioned efforts of good people, good Catholics, into conforming to the polarized political culture of the nation.


It's Only Culture

At the risk of opening up the Scripture-is-silent can of worms again, I did have a thought recently about how a biblicist might attempt to employ the Bible to define culture. Definitions of culture abound, and Scripture certainly teaches truths about human beings and their relations that imply basic ingredients of human existence. But for an easy definition from a biblical passage I’m left scratching my head. Just to add to the point, none of the catechisms I know come remotely close to describing culture. They certainly discuss virtues that would contribute to a wholesome culture, or vices that would work havoc on culture. But the basic contours of human experience as culture are absent from the catechisms and Scripture.

The reason for bringing this up is the recent post by Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in which he gives one of the better definitions of culture that I have seen in some time. According to Deneen, the basic component of culture is the reality of man as a technological being – “the creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving.”

Deneen is following Romano Guardini’s book Letters From Lake Como, who argues that “human techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to nature’s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance.” As such, human cultures vary in relation to the diversity of natural settings in which people live. This means that “while every culture has tended to share certain basic features – the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead – these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.”

And this understanding of human interaction with and limitation by nature leads to the following definition:

The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call “culture,” were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.

Whether or not this is an adequate definition — it is one that I would gladly use in class whether at a college or seminary — it is remarkably different from the way neo-Calvinists talk about culture. I came across Deneen after spending more time Henry Van Til’s book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. I don’t know, I might be a faux Calvinist. I’m sure I can think of several Old Life readers who would reach quickly for that explanation. Still, Van Til leaves the impression of a very thin account of culture compared to Deneen’s, one that is high on abstraction and philosophy, but low on the humanness and creatureliness of basic human experience. The reason has much to do with the neo-Calvinist mental tick of viewing everything as if it’s a philosophical system or a set of logical propositions.

Here is one example of Van Til’s outlook:

. . . the position here presented is that there is no culture without a presupposition, since man is a religious being. There is no such thing as . . . . the postulate that the scientist must have no presuppositions. In this sense neutrality is altogether impossible; it does not exist. Every man, as cultural agent, whether he be a philosopher or artist, agriculturist or architect, lives by faith, which determines his whole being and mode of life. . . . If a man does not choose the Christian faith that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth from all sins, then he must choose an alternative metaphisics, for, “The metaphysical dimension of the mind never remains empty, but must always have a content.” . . . So then it is man as religious being that is called to culture. Faith, therefore, is the religious a priori of man’s whole cultural enterprise, and particularly of his scientific quest. (pp. 171-72)

I don’t object to anything that Van Til writes about the priority of faith or belief for understanding the end of human existence, but he is not writing about culture. Instead he is looking at culture as a means to the end of proving a philosophical point. Philosophy has its place. And Deneen himself is a philosopher – a political rendition. But Van Til reads like the philosophical version of the adage that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. For Van Til, culture looks like an abstraction. And my sense is that anyone who started with his account of culture would have trouble analyzing, critiquing, or even transforming it with any significance.

What is particularly striking about the differences between Van Til and Deneen is that on Deneen’s view of culture a Christian could conceivably recognize his own stake in the contemporary setting and how he might attempt to preserve or engage his own culture. After all, he is a human being and he relates to nature in his day-to-day existence much like his neighbors, whether they are Christian or not. On Van Til’s view, however, the Christian will likely flee all those cultural expressions that do not spring from the proper faith-motive. On this view, the Christian participates in culture not as a human being created in the image of God but as a regenerate saint, set apart from the unregenerate.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the Calvinistic philosophical approach to culture has an amazing irony attached to it. The one group of Reformed Protestants for whom world-and-life view thinking is pronounced are the same ones who are bound not by philosophical abstractions or answers to the Heidelberg Catechism. No, what binds Dutch-American Calvinists together is the shared human experience of being Dutch immigrants to a foreign land and creating sub-cultures that appropriate the Old World’s ways for life in the New. To be sure, the church was an important part of that cultural adaptation. But seeing how communions like the CRC have fared, what looks more typical of Dutch-American Calvinism after World War II is the importance of the human as opposed to the spiritual part of being Dutch Reformed. In other words, it is the Dutchness, not the Calvinism, that binds most neo-Calvinists together.

And that is why Dutch bingo lives.