First Princeton, Now Yale

The PCA keeps coming up short (the OPC is not even on radar).

Remember Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary? Here was how he stood in opposition to the PCA at the time that women objected to Tim Keller receiving the Kuyper Prize:

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.

I wonder which prophets Dr. Barnes goes to to oppose the PCA. But at least it’s an ethos.

Now comes a Yale Divinity School graduate and PCUSA pastor who puts the differences between the PCUSA and PCA this way:

I am a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor who has family members who attend PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) churches. The best (and simplest) way to differentiate between the two is that the PCA asserts that the Bible is inerrant, or without error. The PCUSA believes that the Bible is authoritative, or guided by God, but actually written by human beings, influenced by their culture, time, and limited knowledge of the world.

You might not notice this while visiting either churches, except that the PCA, because of their stance on the Bible, read Paul’s writings that prohibit women from participating in the leadership of worship as what God intended. So you will not see a female pastor (like myself) at a PCA church, or indeed, any women ruling elders (the governing body within each congregation).

The order of worship for both denominations is essentially the same; both are part of the Reformed movement. However, the preaching will likely be quite different, with a PCUSA pastor emphasizing the broad love of God for all of God’s people, and a PCA pastor leaning more towards evangelism and conversion.

No mention of the alt-right, Confederate Monuments, or even LBGT. Maybe the lesson is that resolutions are overrated.

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Where Do You Go When You Leave Progressive Presbyterianism?

Certainly not to the OPC.

The PCUSA last year lost the equivalent of three OPC’s:

Updated statistics made available today by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly (OGA) show a denomination continuing a steep, uninterrupted decline in 2016. The U.S.-based denomination shed 89,893 members in 2016, a decline of 5.7% percent, dropping below 1.5 million members for the first time. A net 191 congregations closed or were dismissed to other denominations, bringing the denominational total to 9,451 congregations.

I’ll do the math. The OPC has roughly 30,000 members (I hear chortles), the PCUSA lost almost 90,000 members. Ergo, the PCUSA lost three OPC’s last year. The thing is, these mainliners didn’t show up in OPC congregations. The OPC lost roughly 250 members last year.

This brings back memories of Orthodox Presbyterian hopes from 1936 to 1967 that members of the PCUSA would awaken (#woke?) to the ways in which liberalism had infected their denomination and lead them to join with the OPC. Here’s an excerpt from Between the Times (for UPCUSA think PCUSA):

In a remarkable display of responding to the moment, the Assembly appointed the Committee on the Confession of 1967 to address the recommendation from its two standing committees. Typically, study committees appointed by the Assembly have a year or several to reflect on the matter and report back to the body. But the Committee on the Confession of 1967 had the task of responding by the end of the Assembly. This explains another unprecedented development – the Moderator’s decision to appoint this committee rather than receiving nominations and casting ballots. In this case, Robert W. Eckardt, the moderator, appointed John Galbraith, Calvin Cummings and Edward Eyres to consider the recommendation from Home Missions and Christian Education. The Committee on the Confession of 1967 ended up following closely the original recommendation from the standing committees. It encouraged the Assembly to reach out to conservatives in the UPCUSA, to remind them of a common heritage, and to recommend the OPC as a “logical choice” for those concerned to maintain historic Presbyterianism. The Committee also followed the basic elements of the program suggested by the standing committees for outreach. To show that the OPC was serious about these measures, the Committee also recommended a resolution, again that followed the standing committees, designed to clarify exactly the kind of church the denomination was: “the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is completely committed to the Bible as the written Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as faithfully and fully setting forth the teachings of Holy Scripture.” In addition, the Committee recommended that the OPC resolve that it “express its desire to serve those in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who wish to continue adherence to the historic Christian faith as summarized in the Westminster Standards.” After some minor editing of the resolution’s language, including changing it to read that the OPC was committed to the Westminster Standards as “faithfully setting forth” (instead of “faithfully and fully”) the teaching of Scripture, the Assembly approved.

One of several curiosities of devoting so much OPC energy to another denomination, and especially a mainline one at that, was that after the first decade or so many Orthodox Presbyterian leaders resigned themselves to the determination of conservatives in the mainline not to leave but to stay. The Presbyterian Guardian had run a number of articles giving reasons for conservatives to exit and affiliate with the OPC. Once that did not happen by 1947, many in the OPC readjusted and conceived of the denomination as a small continuing remnant of conservative Presbyterians. Now, with substantial evidence of liberalism in the UPCUSA, the old hopes for a mass exodus of conservatives into the OPC found life.

The one factor that explains the OPC’s hopefulness was a letter from Edward Kellogg, then a minister at San Diego OPC in Paradise Hills. Only a week before the Assembly – written on the national holiday of July 4th – Kellogg alerted commissioners to rustling among United Presbyterians in California. Bruce Coie, Robert Graham, and he had met a number of conservatives in the UPCUSA who were alarmed over the influence of modernism in their church. These interactions led to a rally held at the Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego where close to three hundred packed a room designed to accommodate 250. Kellogg conceded that the normal channel for his letter was through presbytery but, he explained, “the events that caused me to feel that assembly action was important were too recent for the normal course of procedure.” What Kellogg proposed was the formation of a Presbyterian Covenant akin to the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union that had been the organizational chrysalis for the OPC. The new covenant would enlist Presbyterians from all denominations to stand for the true faith and to oppose the Confession of 1967. It would also involve a pledge from United Presbyterians who entered it to leave the UPCUSA if the denomination adopted the new confessional standard. Kellogg’s letter was not the only impetus for the resolution adopted by the 1965 General Assembly; the standing committee recommendations actually contained more of the substance of the OPC’s response to the Confession of 1967 than did Kellogg’s letter. But the encounter between Orthodox and United Presbyterians in Southern California led some to believe that an outreach to conservative mainline Presbyterians might lead to the kind or realignment for which some had hoped in the 1930s. (93-94)

Of course, a defection to the OPC didn’t happen then and it still isn’t happening. Why?

The OPC has many afflictions, but its bark is much worse than its bite. Most congregations have a degree of autonomy that outsiders likely find perplexing. Ordination exams are rigorous and each presbytery has its own short list of non-negotiables, but the OPC doesn’t require exclusive psalmody, affirming the National Covenant, or sending children to Christian day schools. In fact, what characterizes the OPC, aside from fairly strong adherence to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, is a commitment to Scripture and a high view of preaching. If you are a Reformed Protestant and want to sit under the ministry of the word, you can reasonably rely on finding that in the OPC.

But if you want a certain “style” of ministry, or if you want to send specific signals about the kind of Calvinist you are, chances are the OPC will not scratch your itch.

So that raises a question, if matters proceed in the PCA such that conservatives there want to find another ecclesial home, where will they go? I have heard some say that the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is one option. Being southern apparently matters. On the other side of the coin, if the PCA doesn’t become as progressive as some want it to be, where will the relevant wing of the denomination go? The likely destination is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

But don’t forget what happened to The Village Church. If urban sort-of Presbyterianism is your preference, you could wind up in the Reformed Church in America. At that point, the difference between you and the PCUSA would vanish.

If we had a state church, we wouldn’t have this problem opportunity.

Presbyterian Polity 201

Presbyterian polity 101 is rule by elders.

201 is living in submission to the rule of elders within a communion’s assemblies unless a member or officer appeals the rules.

So imagine if Tim Keller were as particular about the rules of the PCA and NAPARC as Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, is about the PCUSA:

On the question of who can receive the award: anybody can. Again, this is a family argument within the Reformed communions between the PCUSA and the PCA. And as a Presbyterian seminary, it’s in our bylaws, we have to uphold the polity and the procedures of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So once the award became a matter of affirming a man who doesn’t believe women can be ordained, you know, that’s a problem for us. And that’s what the entire controversy became about. Not [about] what I wanted, which was just to have Tim Keller on campus to speak, because we have all kinds of people speaking.

We’ve had other people receive this award in the past who aren’t particularly Reformed, even. If you look at the list of previous recipients, it isn’t that we have criteria like that for the award. It’s just that this particular issue for Presbyterians against other kinds of Presbyterians — the award just became impossible to maintain, because we were, through the award, affirming Keller’s position on women’s ordination.

What do the rules of the PCA polity say about cooperating with Baptists and Pentecostals in the ministry of word and sacrament? Think The Gospel Coalition and City-to-City (partners for C2C churches are Acts 29 and Christian Reformed Church).

Not to be missed is that the Kuyper award has not exactly gone to people who battled modernism the way Kuyper did. Notice too that if you can’t tell the difference between Presbyterians and Methodists, you may have trouble with discerning modernism.

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.

You Don’t Need an Education to be Outraged

Molly Worthen wrote a good piece at the New York Times about the way that conservatives take ideas seriously (and by implication, liberals not so much):

The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Liberals, however, can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do. These are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

One reason that liberals and progressives don’t study the past or its leading voices is that so many of the authors fail so quickly on the left’s moral grid of identity righteousness/victimhood (race, class, gender, sexual orientation). If John Stuart Mill was on the wrong side of women’s liberation or Immanuel Kant wasn’t a proponent of civil rights for blacks — a bit anachronistic, mind you — then what could they possibly teach about the plight of trannies in search of a public bathroom? It worked the same way in the world of mainline churches. Who reads Henry Sloane Coffin, William Adams Brown or their evangelical enablers like Robert Speer? These modernists or doctrinal indifferentists were on the cutting edge of reducing the conservative orientation of the PCUSA. But by the 1960s when sex, Civil Rights, and Vietnam were the topics of debate, the old contests of the 1920s had no value.

In point of fact, activism needs no serious reflection if you listen to interviews with contemporary Ivy League students like this. Sure, the Princeton University editor is respectful and intelligent in some respects. But he has no clue about the impropriety of going to college to learn while also saying that faculty need to be re-educated about race and safe spaces. If this student is representative, today’s college students, the really smart ones, can’t tell the difference between being policed in Ferguson, MO or by campus police at Princeton University. Heck, they even think that the oppression African-Americans have confronted historically is on a par with what women, gays, and trannies face.

Meanwhile, the therapeutic quality of contemporary activism should never be discounted. The idea of not hurting students’ sense of empowerment is prominent in discussions of critical race theory like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s in Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex. Where that leads was the subject of Judith Shulevitz’s New York Times piece on safe spaces discussed here.

With all the smart people running the world for the last 8 years, you might think that colleges and universities would themselves provide the sort of intellectual training for which Worthen calls. Why do you need supplemental education when you are in a four-year accredited and, in some cases, prestigious university? The reason is that universities, even the good ones, treat students like this:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Imagine that: a good novel, historical investigation, and even philosophical deliberation might lift a person out of their own set of ideas and consider those of other people. They might even experience empathy with hillbillies (or they can simply deconstruct and carry on impervious to others).

Yes, there are lots of good faculty, serious students, and great classes across the board in U.S. colleges and universities. But the limits of smarts are well on display. Can U.S. higher education self-correct? Can the Vatican? You do the math and set the odds.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

Do Historians Do This?

Last night’s conversation at Presbycast about a lot of things Presbyterian, together with current research on Roman Catholic debates during the 1980s about the church and American identity, got me thinking about whether I, as a historian of J. Gresham Machen and the OPC get away with writing this kind of evaluation of the PCUSA. What follows is from Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1985) [Dolan taught history for many years at Notre Dame]. Here’s his description of what happened in the United States after Vatican II:

Another change that transformed the religious world of Catholics was a new understanding of sin. The traditional concept of sin was grounded in a system of laws, some of which were rooted in Scripture or the natural law, while others were promulgated by the church. The new Catholic morality argued for a more personal, less legalistic, approach to sin. The virtue of love became primary, together with the individual conscience. The implications of this shift, publicized in both scholarly and popular works, was tremendous. Perhaps most dramatic was the decline in confession. A 1974 study found that only 17 percent of the Catholics surveyed went to confession monthly, compared to 37 percent in 1963. Soon form followed function, and reconciliation rooms, where priest and penitent could interact face to face, replaced the dark confessional box. Penitential services became popular, and on some occasions a public general absolution replaced private confessions. (434).

For those who say nothing changed after Vatican II, Dolan is a contrary voice and a recognized authority on Roman Catholicism in the United States to boot (not a blogger or apologist).

But that’s not the primary reason for unearthing this quote. The point is this: what if I wrote this about the PCUSA after the OPC’s formation? What if I asserted in a book published by a trade press (Doubleday) that the PCUSA had become liberal, that it changed its theology on sin and salvation, and that these departures from historic Presbyterian practices constituted a “new” Presbyterianism, or Protestantism for a “new age.”

Of course, while wearing my OPC hat, I think that about the PCUSA. But I can’t get away with that in the mainstream publishing world without running the risk of being ostracized from the profession as the Gary North of American historians. Call me a coward. But historians of American religion cannot make certain claims about communions everyone knows to be theologically accurate because they don’t want to admit that the fundamentalists had a point.

It could also be a function of 2k. What is acceptable for churchmen’s judgments is not so for professional historical scholarship. We don’t always succeed but we do try to keep theological judgments from informing historical analysis. Sometimes that’s artificial. But it’s also the case that professional academics is not the place to settle ecclesiastical conflicts.

Still, why do those academic calculations not apply to Jay Dolan, the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, or Doubleday? Is it a function of academic seniority? Once you acquire tenure you can write whatever you want?

Or is it that what Dolan said is actually good history and that converts and apologists have yet to catch up with the church they’ve joined and celebrated?

Every Square Inch of MmmmeeeeEEEEEEE

The politics of identity continue to haunt. Are you gay? Straight? Muslim? Man? Man trapped in a female body? Evangelical? Reformed Protestant? How’s a nation supposed to handle so many personal identities yearning to breathe free?

Ra’fat Aldajani offers this advice for Muslims:

The first objective is embracing being American. Too often we confuse being American with an erosion or rejection of our native culture and mores. It is quite the contrary. America is the land of immigrants, a melting pot of many diverse cultures and peoples, all contributing to what makes this country unique and strong.

Assimilation means developing a hybrid of what is good from our mother countries (family values, importance of education, respect for elders) and our adopted home (democracy, justice, rule of law) and engaging in every aspect of American life as Muslim Americans, rather than retreating defensively into our own culturally fenced-off communities.

Of course, the problem with assimilation is that it leads to liberal Protestantism where the nation’s social crises matter more than biblical teaching (also think PCA). If the nation tips toward equal rights for women, who are we mainline Presbyterians to deny the office of elder to women?

So the question for reconciling personal and national identity is where you put the qualifier.

If you are an American Christian, then national identity trumps religious loyalty.

If you are a Christian American, then your religious identity trumps patriotism.

And if you are simply present as Christian (or LBGT), and leave out any reference to the government whose laws you follow at least when you check out at the grocery store or drive a car, then you are a different order of person.

The difficulty we now face is that personal identity absorbs nationality. The nation must be or reflect my identity — it must be Christian, gay, or black. What we need in the era of transgenderism is to recognize that we (citizens of the U.S.) are all personal identities trapped in an American body.

Converts and Cradles Together?

Part of the trouble that Protestants have in trying to make sense of Roman Catholicism is the bi-polar character of Rome (in the U.S. at least) and its appeal to evangelicals. Damon Linker explains the attraction that Roman Catholicism once had for him:

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

What then does a convert do when she understands that the people who grew up with Rome’s promise of order and stability don’t want to perpetuate that reliability but actually desire change? John Zmirak describes where such desires come from and such aspirations must seem odd to Bryan and the Jasons:

When a large group of highly educated people who have dedicated themselves to an organization with firm doctrines, strict rules, and stern demands — such as the Catholic Church — lose their faith in those doctrines, rules and demands, what do they do with themselves instead? Shrug and join the Unitarians? Leave their rectories or convents and go find apartments, maybe jobs as high school guidance counselors?

What do families like the Pelosis, the Kennedys or the Bidens — and millions of non-famous Irish and Italian-American clans with strong ethnic and historical connections to the Church — do with themselves when they reject its teaching authority?

The history of the Catholic left gives us the answer: Such people focused on the parts of the Church’s mission that still appealed to them, such as looking out for the poor and rebuking unjust discrimination. And of course the Church has an almost 2,000 year tradition of offering the needy education, health care, and a voice in the face of genuine oppression. Many Catholics had joined the Civil Rights movement and marched for integration.

In the 1960s, there were fresh, exciting causes available for Catholics to join which modeled themselves on the Civil Rights movement’s tactics and rhetoric, whose agendas were not so compatible with traditional Christian teaching as the noble fight against institutionalized racism had been. Feminists, homosexuals, and anti-war activists began to throng the streets and demand radical changes in American law and policy, and many Catholics with left-wing sympathies and deep roots in the Democratic Party began to exert their energies on behalf of these new movements — assuring themselves that they were acting as Jesus had when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.

Many grandchildren of Catholic immigrants to our overwhelmingly Protestant country still clung to the pretense that they were outsiders — excluded and marginalized victims of the existing American establishment. So they felt bound to make common cause with every other “outside” group, regardless of the justice of its claims. This outsider illusion made it easy for them to be right about Civil Rights … and then poisonously wrong about feminism, gay liberation, and socialist economics.

It would be like an avid reader of John Calvin (other than Marilyn Robinson) joining the PCUSA with the expectation that mainline Presbyterians actually care about perpetuating Reformed Protestantism.

While Bryan and the Jasons want Protestants to join the ecumenical discussion, shouldn’t they be having that conversation first with the folks in their own communion?

How Far Will Conservatives Bend?

Ross Douthat finds the progressive fundamentalist inner-self of conservative Roman Catholics (is this what Bryan and the Jasons signed up for?):

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations. For a long time this conservative quest was lent a certain solidity and rigor and self-confidence by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But the advent of Francis has made it clear that conservative Catholicism doesn’t have as clear a synthesis as conservatives wanted to believe, and that in some ways the conservative view of the post-Vatican II church is a theory in crisis — or the very least that it lacks a clear-enough account of itself, and of what can and cannot change in its vision of Catholicism, to navigate an era in which the pope himself does not seem to be “on side.”

The parallel here between Douthat and Carl Henry & Co. is striking. Try to preserve conservative Protestantism by identifying essentials like the National Association of Evangelicals list of doctrinal non-negotiables. The point about how to interpret history is also apt. Neo-evangelicals had to find a narrative that placed them in the mainstream of American Protestantism without offending Arminians, Calvinists, or Pentecostals. The way to do that was to read sixteenth-century Protestantism (Reformation) into the First and Second Pretty Good Awakenings. Meanwhile, like conservative Roman Catholics, Douthat has to distance himself from the SSPXers just as Henry and Billy Graham disavowed fundamentalism as mean.

That sort of spiritual and theological retrieval may have its moments, but it is hardly — as the those inclined to overstatement like to put it — “robust.”

Douthat goes on to do a pretty good impersonation of what it felt like to be an evangelical in the PCUSA who also belonged to the NAE while General Assembly after General Assembly did not perform as badly as it might:

. . . if Pope Francis was blocked from going the full Kasper, he still produced a document that if read straightforwardly seems to introduce various kinds of ambiguity into the church’s official teaching on marriage, sin and the sacraments — providing papal cover for theological liberalism, in effect, without actually endorsing the liberal position. It’s not the first time this has happened; as Joseph Shaw notes, it’s very easy to find “examples of Popes and other organs of the Church issuing documents which seemed, if not actually motivated by a rejection of traditional teaching, then are at least motivated by a desire not to be in conflict with those who reject it.” But it’s the first time it’s happened recently on a controversy of this gravity, on an issue where conservative Catholics have tried to draw a clear line and invested so much capital … and I think it’s fair to say that they (that we) don’t know exactly how to respond.

Do conservatives simply declare victory, because the worst didn’t happen, the full theological crisis didn’t come, and it’s important to maintain a basic deference to papal authority (itself a big part of the JPII-era conservative synthesis) so long as no doctrinal line is explicitly crossed? Do they acknowledge the document’s deliberate ambiguities, as my own treatment did, when doing so might give aid and comfort to liberals who are eager to make the most of any perceived shift? Do they deny that any real ambiguity exists, not out of pure deference to Francis but because given conservative premises this document should be read in the context of prior documents, not as a stand-alone, and if you read it that way there’s no issue, no rupture, everything’s fine? Do they stress the technicalities of what counts as magisterial teaching to make the document’s seeming ambiguity less important or less binding? Do they attack the document (and the pope) head-on, on the theory that conservative Catholicism’s essential problem is its vulnerability to constant end-arounds, constant winking “pastoral” moves, and that these need more forthright opposition?

Conservatives have tried all of these strategies and more. Some sincerely believe that the letter of the document is a defeat for liberals and that anxious Catholic pundits are overstating the problems with its spirit. Some think the problems with its spirit are real but also think the church will be better off if conservatives simply claim the document as their own and advance the most orthodox reading of its contents. Some think the best course is to downplay the document’s significance entirely and wait for a different pope to clarify its ambiguities. Some (mostly journalists, as opposed to priests or theologians) think it’s important to acknowledge that this pope has significantly strengthened liberal Catholicism’s hand, and to describe that reality accurately and answer his arguments head-on where they seem to cut against the essentials of the faith. Some think that this document, indeed this entire pontificate, has vindicated a traditionalist critique of post-conciliar Catholicism, and that the time has come for a complete rethinking of past concessions and compromises, past deference to Rome. Some are ambivalent, uncertain, conflicted, unsure of what comes next. Some have shifted between these various perspectives as the debate has proceeded. (And this long list excludes the many moderately-conservative Catholics who didn’t see a grave problem with the Kasper proposal to begin with, or who have simply drifted in a more liberal direction under this pontificate.)

Consequently, while conservative Roman Catholics discern the best defense of Pope Francis, the claims of papal audacity by Bryan and the Jasons look all the more dubious. If the interpret in chief nurtures uncertainty, what’s the point of abandoning Protestant diversity?

I do not have an answer, alas, to all of this uncertainty. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge its existence, rather than taking a kind of comfort, as some conservative Catholics do, in being accused of Total Inflexibility in Defense of Absolute Truth by writers like Damon Linker. For good or ill (or for good in some cases, and ill in others), that has rarely been an accurate description of the conservative position in the modern church, and it clearly isn’t accurate at the moment. Conservative Catholicism isn’t standing athwart church history yelling stop; since (at least) the 1960s it’s always occupied somewhat more unstable terrain, and under Francis it’s increasingly a movement adrift, tugged at by traditionalism and liberalism alike, and well short of the synthesis that would integrate fifty years of rapid change into a coherent picture of how the church can remain the church, what fidelity and integrity require.

You mean the instability of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism was the church Christ founded? Note to apologists: update your defense as much as your bishops updated your communion.