From Crisis to Crisis

If Ross Douthat thinks conservative Roman Catholics are having trouble with the current magisterium, he should remember how liberal Roman Catholics felt a little more than a decade ago in the last years of John Paul II’s papacy:

Thirty years after Vatican II, liberal Catholicism is once again passing through a cycle of official hostility and internal disarray. In a time of crisis-mongering, it is easy to exaggerate the situation. In many sectors of American Catholicism, liberal Catholicism is the dominant outlook—in the academy, in many seminaries and diocesan agencies, among religious educators and liturgists, and, on many questions, in the Catholic population generally. Are these liberal Catholic church workers, people in the trenches, as they like to say of themselves, much affected by some of the tensions and conflicts I am going to describe? Do their moods sink and their energies flag with every week’s alarms sounded in the National Catholic Reporter? Reliable observers tell me no. Mostly they get on about their work and hope for the best.

Nonetheless, liberal Catholics have good reason to feel on the defensive and threatened from both within the church and without. Rome considers us suspect, and has been pursuing a slow but steady policy of discrediting, marginalizing, and replacing us, and now and again, where the cost appears sustainable, rooting us out. The same goal is being similarly pursued by a number of influential, well-funded movements and publications that identify themselves as “orthodox” Catholics, presumably in distinction to the rest of us who are heretics. The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these groups and liberal Catholics turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.

But if liberal Catholics increasingly feel that they are not wanted in the church, they are hardly more welcome in the ranks of secular liberalism. American political liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. This shift has opened a serious philosophical chasm between liberal Catholicism and a secular liberalism that would demand an illusory stance of state neutrality, maybe even social or cultural neutrality, on all fundamental questions of lifestyle and therefore a relegation of religious claims to private life and, as Stephen Carter has argued, ultimately to trivialization.

Liberal Roman Catholicism, by the way, was not necessarily about liberal theology but about adjusting ecclesiology to the modern world of liberal politics:

Liberal Catholicism began with a concern for freedom, not of the individual, not of the dissenting conscience, not of an aspiring class, but of the Catholic church. Its pioneers were not revolutionaries but restorationists, who dreamed of restoring the church’s cultural power. Initially they rebelled not against the church’s use of the throne but against the throne’s intervention in the affairs of the church. Then they rebelled against the alliance of throne and altar because they saw the possibility of reconquering society for Catholic Christianity doomed as long as the church remained chained to bankrupt regimes. Only at the end of this process did they conclude that the freedom necessary for the church to prevail implied the general freedom of all.

What I wonder is why a bright guy like Peter Steinfels only sees two options — Roman Catholicism or secular liberalism. Is he so parochial — he worked for the New York Times mind you — to identify Protestantism with secular liberalism? Sure a liberal Roman Catholic has gotten over the idea that liberal Roman Catholicism is the church that Jesus founded.

How to Achieve Unity

I detect something of a breakthrough among Roman Catholics in reaction to Pope Francis’ comments about contraception and the Zika. Christopher Kaczor does his best to help out the pope (even if it is way above his pay grade):

During Pope Francis’ flight from Mexico to Rome, a Spanish reporter posed this question: “Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of ‘the lesser of two evils?’”

In his answer, Pope Francis unequivocally condemned abortion, saying, “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape. [The nuns were in constant danger of getting raped and therefore of pregnancy.] Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself with abortion. … [A]s with every human evil, each killing is condemned. On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI , it was clear.”

The first part of the pope’s answer does not raise many questions, as it is a straightforward and unequivocal application of Catholic teaching that intentional killing of innocent human beings is seriously wrong. But what about the Bishop of Rome’s statements on contraception? Do his remarks indicate that using contraception is ethically permissible if the circumstances are dire? . . .

In his interview, Pope Francis could be understood as endorsing the view that the use of contraceptives such as a condom could be permissible in order to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus, which may be transmitted through sexual activity. On the other hand, his remarks are also open to the interpretation that forms of contraception, such as the pill, would be permissible in order to render sexual acts nonprocreative with the motivation that a child not be born with microcephaly. Given that Pope Francis is, in the very same interview, at pains to praise and show his agreement with Paul VI, the first interpretation is the more plausible one.

But other Roman Catholics from the left and right are not buying this and so are showing remarkable unity. Edward Peters finds the Pope’s construction of church teaching dubious:

No longer are we musing about a point of Church history (as interesting as that might be), now we are dealing with Church moral teaching. The stakes become dramatically higher.

So here’s my point: not only does the Congo nuns permission seem NOT to exist, but, even if it does exist in some form, it could NOT, I suggest, by its own terms, be used by Francis (or anyone else committed to thinking with the Church) to call into question the Church’s settled teaching that “each and every marital act [quilibet matrimonii usus] must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (Humanae vitae 11) and that therefore “excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after conjugal intercourse [coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (Humanae vitae 14).

Obviously the Congo nuns case (or the Balkan nuns story in the 1990s, to take another variation of the myth) was not about marital acts, it was about religious women facing criminal acts of violent sexual intercourse; the Congo question was not about possible birth defects, it was about stopping rapists’ sperm from reaching ova that perchance had been ovulated. Between women facing rape and wives worried about birth defects there simply is no parallel relevant to the moral question of contraception. One can like that fact or hate it, but one cannot change it or ignore it. Moreover, Church teaching on the immorality of contracepted marital acts is, I believe, taught infallibly; but, even if I were wrong about that technical claim, there is no question about what that teaching is, namely, that contracepting acts of marital intercourse, whether doing so as an end in itself or as means to some other end, is objectively immoral.

So does Peter Steinfels:

The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch. Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur. He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another. He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy.

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that. He respects it. He admires its author. He looks for the truth in it. But he doesn’t buy it.

But that’s pure guess on my part. The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.

This is unity, but it’s not the kind we’re supposed to notice.

You Know What Would Really Be Audacious?

So the papal visit to the United States has even more people reaching above their pay grades, trying to interpret that the chief interpreter is really up to. Is Pope Francis a lefty, is he a traditionalist, will anything change on marriage? So far Bryan and the Jasons are stuck.

What I’m curious about is whether Pope Francis is a pastor who ministers the good news of Jesus Christ. Think about this. Yesterday in the Wall St. Journal William McGurn opined that the pope is mistaken in his understanding of poverty, that capitalism is far better for raising the prospects of the poor than other schemes. That seems sensible enough.

In on of the comments on McGurn’s piece, a defender of Pope Francis tried to explain for the infallible explainer:

William misses the whole point. The Pope isn’t saying capitalism is wrong, he is saying the greed of executives and stockholders is wrong. It isn’t enough to make a good salary, they have to make more than the executives at their competition. They have the attitude, what is the minimum we must pay to get someone to do the job competently and that is what we will pay. The attitude of sharing the wealth is foreign to most executives and stockholders. Stockholders are not satisfied with the return they get, they insist the returns must increase or I will take my money elsewhere. It is when greed takes over that capitalism fails.

Maybe this person also has a point. Capitalism isn’t evil. It’s people who abuse capitalism. Got it.

Here’s the thing, Pope Francis actually has the remedy for the greed of executives and stockholders. He has at his disposal the truth of the gospel (as he understands it), a Petrine ministry, and a sacramental system that could actually change the hearts and minds of New York City financiers. Imagine if instead of visiting political figures, the pope went to Wall St. and preached. Short of a Cornelius Van Til moment, imagine if he had Cardinal Dolan set up a bunch of meetings in the board rooms of corporate New York and he explained the sinfulness of the human condition and the possibility of grace in the sacraments (not to mention the assistance of the Blessed Virgin). Wouldn’t that be something a pastor would do?

Imagine this as well, not only could he point the world’s capitalists to a life of virtue, he also has the remedy for these folks should an insufficient number of them convert and follow Jesus. If the world continues to warm and catastrophe happens, Pope Francis is actually sitting on the goods for a good life in the world to come.

Not too shabby.

But popes don’t do this and this is one of the greatest problems of episcopacy — it removes ministers from their flocks, or makes the pastors of flocks that are beyond their capacities. If Tim Keller has trouble visiting all the people who belong to Redeemer PCA, imagine the pope’s challenge of visiting 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, in addition to evangelizing Wall Street’s financial tycoons.

Peter Steinfels, by the way, as a liberal Roman Catholic is not pleased by all the attention on Pope Francis since Steinfels believes that Roman Catholicism “is bigger than one man.” Well, Protestants have been saying that about Christianity for some time, though they have also said Christianity is all about the God-man, Jesus Christ. Even so, Steinfels is pointing in the direction of the serious flaws that come with episcopacy and especially one whose universal jurisdiction makes the ordinary efforts of priests look irrelevant. Talk about subsidiarity.

Even so, if as J. Gresham Machen said, ministers have something that the world can never give, isn’t that even more true (on Roman Catholic grounds) of the papacy? He has it all — truth, ministry, sacraments. And what do popes do? To the untrained Protestant eye, it looks like a modern encyclical merely becomes a conversation starter. It’s a jumping off point for the faithful (now much better educated than the immigrant church that paid, prayed, and obeyed) to show off their expertise.

And to answer his critics, Pope Francis says that he could affirm the Nicene Creed. Yes, he could do that. But why not teach it? Why not explain it? Why not take it to the executives of Wall Street, Berlin, London, Rome even?

This is one reason why I think the church has become modernist. Sure, you can say the Nicene Creed. But do you believe it? Even more, does it inform your ministry? But if you think you are a moral life coach for the world’s population, a source for thinking virtuously about human flourishing, the leader who will point the world’s systems to a better and more just way — if you think of this world as home rather than as a foreign land — then you very well might engage in all sorts of pious thoughts about the world system of finance and technology and not consider that if you saved more people from their sins and put them on a path to holiness, maybe this world would be a better place.

When you are accustomed to mixing it up with emperors, monarchs, and presidents, mixing with the ordinary laity — even the ones making guhzillion figures — looks, well, shabby.