Diversity

I do wonder what it is like to be in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. It cannot be easy.

First you have the challenge of interpreting Vatican II (and lots of different interpretations):

Sammons and Mosebach see three standard interpretations of Vatican II:

The “liberal” or “progressive” interpretation sees the Council as a decisive break with Catholic tradition, and welcomes it. Citing the “spirit of Vatican II,” proponents of this interpretation have implemented radical changes in the Church, and push for more.

The “official” interpretation sees Vatican II as a great success, and denies that any serious problems arose in the Council’s aftermath. There was some understandable friction as changes were implemented, the partisans of this theory will concede. But ultimately the changes are proving successful and all is well.

The “conservative” or “orthodox” interpretation cherishes the documents of Vatican II, but believes the implementation of the Council was generally hijacked by the “progressive” party within the Church. If only we would adhere to the true teachings of the Council, this party says, the Church would thrive once again.

According to this “conservative” or “orthodox” interpretation, the hijacking of the Council created the incorrect impression that the Church had repudiated past teachings. My favorite quick exposition of this view was made by Philip Trower in his excellent book, Turmoil and Truth, in which he formed a vivid image to explain what happened:

Six men are pushing a heavily loaded car which has run out of fuel. Three of them, who have been riding in the car, want to push it 20 yards to get it into a lay-by. The other three, who have offered to help, mean to push the car 50 yards and shove it over a cliff followed by the car owner and his two friends. Once the pushing begins and the car starts moving it is probable the car is going to come to rest more than 20 yards from the starting point even if it does not end up at the cliff’s foot.

Now let us imagine what a group of people watching from a nearby hilltop will make of the incident. They will start by assuming that all six men have the same intentions. The car is moving steadily forward. Then they see three of the men detach themselves from the back of the car, run around to the front and try to stop it. Which are the troublemakers? Those surely who are now opposing the process that has been started.

Once you get your mind around the magisterium since 1960, try calculating your afterlife:

But “temporary” can mean a long, long time. Based on reports from visions of saints (see the quotation from St. Francis of Rome in this more recent vision), it has been widely taught that each sin must be punished by seven years of purgatorial fire. This is what Tetzel refers to, below, but I recall hearing it from Mother Angelica of EWTN and other conservative Catholics today. The Church has never officially specified a set time, as far as I know. I have heard contemporary Catholics say that since we will be outside of time after death, the experience of Purgatory will seem as if it is over in an instant. But the theology of Purgatory requires a temporal punishment. Some conservative Catholics say it might be more like an hour for each sin, but they agree that this will amount to many years, even centuries in the fire. (See this and this.)

So if Tetzel and St. Francis of Rome are right–as many if not most Christians believed in the medieval church–let’s do the math. Assume that seven years in purgatory are required for each sin. Say you are a very good person and only commit one sin per day. That comes to 2,555 years in purgatory for one year of sinning. If you live to be 70, you would be facing 178,850 years of suffering.

This would be for sins that are forgiven!

Protestantism has its problems. It also has its advantages.

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Protest

When you see gross deficiency in the church, you don’t shrug. You object as Phil Lawler does over news of a new Roman Catholic church in Boston:

in the past 50 years, the Archdiocese of Boston has opened zero new parish churches. Over the same span, roughly 125 parishes have been shut down or merged into “cluster” units.

This might be understandable, if the Boston’s Catholic population had disappeared. But it hasn’t—at least not according to the official statistics. On paper, it has grown. There were about 1.8 million Catholics registered in the area covered by the Boston archdiocese 50 years ago; today the official figure is 1.9 million.

The trouble, of course, is that most of those 1.9 million Catholics aren’t practicing the faith. Consequently it should be no surprise that their sons don’t aspire to the priesthood. There were just over 2,500 priests working in the archdiocese 50 years ago; now there are fewer than 300. That’s right; nearly 90% of the priests are gone. If you can’t replace the priests, you can’t keep open the parishes.

Let’s be frank. These figures are not a cause for concern; they are a cause for horror. Panic is never useful, but something close to panic is appropriate here. Things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Lawler also identifies four possible responses:

A) “This is a disaster! Stop everything. Drop what you’re doing. “Business as usual” makes no sense; this is a pastoral emergency. We don’t just need another “renewal” program, offered by the same people who have led us into this debacle. We need to figure out what has gone wrong. More than that. We know that the Gospel has the power to bring people to Christ; therefore it follows that we have failed to proclaim the Gospel. The fault lies with us. We should begin with repentance for our failures.”

B) “Don’t worry. Times change, and we have to change with them. Religion isn’t popular in today’s culture, but the faith will make a comeback sooner or later. We just need to keep plugging away, to have confidence, to remember God’s promise that the Church will endure forever.” . . .

C) “It doesn’t really matter whether or not people go to church on Sunday. As long as we’re all nice people, God in his mercy will bring us all to heaven.”

D) “Don’t bother me with your statistics. Actually the faith is stronger than ever. Our parish/diocese is vibrant! You’re only seeing the negative.

Lawler takes no comfort from the idea common refrain that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church:

You see what’s wrong with argument B, don’t you? Yes, the Lord promised that the Church would last through the end of time. But he did not promise that the Archdiocese of Boston (or your own diocese) would last forever. The faith can disappear, indeed has disappeared, from large geographical areas—northern Africa, for instance.

If the Archdiocese of Boston won’t last, what about the global diocese centered in the Eternal City?

Just In Time for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

A papal crackdown:

For most of us, who are not Knights of Malta, the resignation of the group’s grand master will have little immediate impact. But the unprecedented papal intervention into the affairs of that venerable body fits into a pattern that should, at this point, worry all faithful Catholics. Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is systematically silencing, eliminating, and replacing critics of the Pope’s views.

During the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “progressive” Catholics frequently complained about a crackdown on theological dissent. On the rare occasions when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a warning about a wayward theologian’s published works, there were anguished warnings about a reign of terror at the Vatican. Now a crackdown really is occurring—instigated by the Pontiff who famously asked, “Who am I to judge?” And the objects of the current crackdown are not theologians who question established doctrines, but Catholics who uphold the traditional teachings of the Church.

The first and most prominent victim of the purge was Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was exiled from the Roman Curia soon after Pope Francis took office, and given a mostly ceremonial post as patron of the Knights of Malta. It is ironic—and perhaps not coincidental—that the latest incident involves his new charge.

As much as I admire and sympathize with conservative Roman Catholics (like Ross Douthat and the author of this piece, Phil Lawler), can such folks really complain about papal supremacy? Isn’t this what rule by one is supposed to look like (and why Americans love to talk about checks and balances)? In fact, as long as Rome depends on the Bishop of Rome to support its claims of superiority — unity, authority, antiquity — can devout Roman Catholics really object to popes who use their authority to enforce unity?

Aggiornamento Has Its Limits

Many bloggers and reporters are trying to make sense of Pope Francis’ remarks as reported here:

Pope Francis spoke yesterday at a pastoral congress on the family for the Diocese of Rome, and his remarks are causing consternation among faithful Catholics. In off-the-cuff remarks, the pope made the dual claim that the “great majority” of Catholic marriages are “null” – in other words, not actual marriages – and that some cohabitating couples are in a “real marriage,” receiving the grace of the Sacrament.

“I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity,” he said.

Ed Peters wonders if the modern world has suddenly turned red in tooth and claw:

The collapse of human nature presupposed for such a social catastrophe and the massive futility of the Church’s sanctifying mission among her own faithful evidenced by such a debacle would be—well, it would be the matrimonial version of nuclear winter. I am at a loss to understand how anyone who knows anything about either could seriously assert that human nature is suddenly so corrupted and Christ’s sacraments are now so impotent as to have prevented “the great majority” of Christians from even marrying!

Phil Lawler questions the implications for Vatican II’s effort to engage modern society:

The Pope’s statement—if it was relayed accurately and meant seriously—would mean that our society is so thoroughly perverse that it has actually debased human nature. If that were the case, the Catholic Church could not reconcile herself to modern society; the faith would be in open conflict with the modern age. Yet in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis delivered a very different sort of message, suggesting that pastors should learn to work patiently, gradually, and sympathetically with people who do not share the Catholic understanding of marriage.

It is curious how Pope Francis’ openness to the less than ideal circumstances of modern romance and marriage is cheek by jowl next to an anti-modern prejudice (think industrial capitalism and modern finance).

Not holding my breath for Bryan and the Jasons’ authoritative interpretation.

Evelyn Waugh Would Have to Re-Write Brideshead

Phil Lawler wonders about the pastoral implications of Pope Francis’ pastoral advice in Amoris Laetitia. Consider the plight of “regular” Roman Catholics:

In any Catholic community there will always be some devout believers who, following the Lord’s advice, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” They will pray often and ardently, try to attend daily Mass, practice their own private devotions, and seek out spiritual direction from priests who demand a lot of them. For these people—let’s call them “high-octane” Catholics—Gresham’s Law will not apply. They are the equivalent of the folks who demand payment in doubloons.

But most Catholics, in most times and places, are not of the high-octane variety. Most “regular” parishioners will do what the Church demands of them, but will not seek out extra rigors. They will attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, raise their children in the faith, follow the precepts of the Church as they understand them, contribute to the parish. Faithful if not zealous, they will form the backbone of the Catholic community. Nourished by the sacraments and encouraged by their pastors, they will grow in faith; some will eventually become high-octane Catholics.

Now notice how these “regular” Catholics—who sincerely intend to meet their obligations, without taking on extra burdens—are likely to choose between two hypothetical parishes:

In Parish A, Sunday Mass lasts 90 minutes or more; the liturgy is “high” and solemn; the Gregorian chant is unfamiliar. In Parish B, Mass is out in 40 minutes; the hymns sound like (and sometimes are) snappy show tunes.

In Parish A, religious-education classes are demanding, and students who do not master the basic catechism lessons do not advance. In Parish B, teachers assume that “they’re good kids” and don’t worry about details.

In Parish A, when a young couple comes to discuss marriage, and the pastor notices that they list the same home address on their registration forms, he tells them that they must live separately. In Parish B the pastor “doesn’t notice” the matching addresses, and plans for the wedding can move forward.

In Parish A, priests often preach on controversial topics, driving home the Church’s least popular messages, reminding the parishioners of their sins. In Parish B, the homily is always a gentle reminder that we should be kind to one another, and not too rough on ourselves.

Needless to say, high-octane Catholics will flock to Parish A. Regular Catholics will gravitate toward Parish B. Human nature being what it is, most people will choose the less demanding of two options.

Now notice what happens to priests in these parishes when they meet a couple that has been re-married:

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis sets up the model of a pastor who will meet with these couples, help them to review and assess their lives, to repent their past failings, to bring their lives closer to the Christian ideal, and to do everything that they can in their current circumstances to grow in holiness. Exactly how this process will unfold is unclear, because, as the Pope explains, it is impossible to anticipate all the unique circumstances of any individual case. But clearly the Pope is describing a rigorous process, rather than a quick solution.

But what sort of priest would insist on that rigor in his dealings with a remarried couple? The pastor of Parish A, probably. But that pastor would very likely tell the couple that if they wish to receive the sacraments they must live as brother and sister. And the couple, for that matter, if they were active parishioners in Parish A, would probably have reached that conclusion for themselves already. So Amoris Laetitiae would bring no change in their case.

In Parish B, on the other hand, the pastor—having long ago established the pattern of requiring only the minimum—would be far more likely to tell the couple that they should not worry about details, that they should feel free to receive the Eucharist. In all likelihood he would already have conveyed that message, and they would already be in the Communion line every Sunday. Again, the apostolic exhortation would cause no significant change.

But consider what might happen in the marginal cases, where change is most visible. What will happen to divorced/remarried couples who, after years away from the faith, are inspired by the Pope’s message to return to the fold? If they happen to meet with a priest who expects them to go through a long and difficult process, aren’t they likely to seek a second opinion, and maybe a third, until inevitably, they find a pastor who will welcome them back immediately, with no requirements and no strings attached? Hasn’t that pattern already been clearly established by the young couples who want their wedding scheduled without a demanding marriage-prep program, or want their children confirmed without a rigorous CCD requirement?

This is not exactly the church that was opposed to any trace of modernity for at least 150 years.

Now imagine the real life (fictional couple) of Rex Mottram and Julia Marchmain:

Julia manages to match Sebastian’s dissolute lifestyle through her own acts of intransigence. She eventually plans to marry Rex Mottram, a Protestant Canadian, who has managed to gain a seat in the House of Commons. It is this relationship with Rex that marks Julia’s descent into chronic sin. Julia learns that Rex may be carrying on an affair with a mistress. She thinks that if they become engaged, this can put an end to the affair. When it doesn’t, she then begins to reason that if she is going to keep Rex from being unfaithful, she will have to offer sexual gratification to her fiancé before they are married. Julia justifies this in her own mind and presents the proposition to a priest: “Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?” The Jesuit responds in the negative and suggests that she make her confession. It is this moment, when Julia does not receive what she wants, that she turns against the faith: “‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home. From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.”

During their engagement, Rex agrees to receive instruction so that he can convert to Catholicism. However, matters are exasperated when it is revealed that Rex was previously married and divorced in Canada. Rex does not understand how this can be an impediment to a prospective marriage to Julia and he sees no difference between his divorce and the granting of an annulment. When it is obvious that nothing can be done with only a few weeks before the wedding, Julia and Rex agree to marry in a Protestant ceremony, separating themselves from Catholic society and the Marchmain family. Julia’s intransigence reaches its peak as she voices a modern refusal to recognize objective sin: “I don’t believe these priests know everything. I don’t believe in hell for things like that. I don’t know that I believe in it for anything.”

So which priest would Rex and Julia seek? Parish A or Parish B? This writer thinks Parish B’s priest is closer to Pope Francis’ instruction in his apostolic exhortation:

If they were alive today, would Julia and Charles have had to part ways? Amoris Laetitia offers alternatives: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Couldn’t Julia and Charles have spoken with Father MacKay in the internal forum for the sake of contributing to the “formation of a correct judgment”?

Even the idea of living as brother and sister seems to be impossible in this modern age. While Julia explains to Charles that she plans to “[j]ust go on – alone” this is not a sad revelation because she is finally able to receive God’s mercy and to return to a right relationship with Him. However Amoris Laetitia makes it seem that “going on alone” or abstaining from sexual intercourse is impossible in 2016. Pope Francis explains that “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” In the age of Brideshead, one didn’t die if they abstained from sexual intimacy. Apparently, in this sex-obsessed age, it is impossible for one to live without it.

Some will say that no dogma has changed. And sure the dogma of mortal and venial sins have not changed. But if priests’ pastoral counsel, with a green light from the magisterium, is defective by not warning the flock from sin, if it tolerates sinful practices under the guise of being pastoral, something has changed.

Evelyn Waugh knew that the Church of England had changed (even when dogma hadn’t). Do Roman Catholic apologists think Waugh wouldn’t notice this?

In the Larger Scheme of Things

Should the church engage in politics? John Allen answers, that’s a no-brainer:

And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.

Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.

To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.

As if politics were all about finger-wagging. Lobbyists make lousy politicians.

J. Peter Nixon worries what happens when the church’s ministry becomes too oriented to this world:

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.

The answers to that question are complex and manifold. . . . I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.

The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.

The balance may not involve the monastic life, but it could include something like recognizing that this world, and even its attempts to right social wrongs, is not all there is:

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Of course, Protestants don’t believe we make ourselves good. But confessional Protestants do understand, in ways that challenge followers of the papacy, an institution fraught with power and political intrigue, that ministering the gospel does more good in the long run than making policy or running for office.

The Adam Option

If we wish to right the wrong that the Supreme Court has done, then, we must do more than change the law. We must change the culture. That’s no easy task, and again it is not obvious how we should begin.

That’s one of Phil Lawler’s observations after the Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage. One way to change the culture, I know right off the top of my head, is not the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option literally means no sex and no kids. And the one way that heterosexuals could change the culture in a heart beat is out-reproduce homosexuals. Think about it (but not to long). What’s so hard about that? One kind of sex results in kids, the other doesn’t. Birth rates alone will change demographics and all sorts of cultural bi-products follow. Think of all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Europe being overrun by Muslims who out-reproduce Christians Europeans and think again how those changing demographics are supposed to transform Europe.

It could happen here — families overwhelming singles.

Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy think that the Benedict Option still has possibilities but not the way that Rod Dreher frames it:

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.

I still don’t see room for sex. I am still left wondering what happened to these Benedictines once they die. For the Benedict Option to succeed, don’t you need to have kids and pass on your faith and “values” to them? And where do you see sex or kids in a monastery?

Dreher himself is pondering his critics and has recently come up with this as a better formulation of the Benedict Option:

The early Benedictine monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict, which directed how they were to organize their monastic communities to serve God. Benedict taught that they were to focus on prayer and work, and the common life. The five principles I have discerned from reading the Rule are:

Order
Stability
Discipline
Community
Hospitality

It should go without saying that a method for living out these principles is going to look very different for lay people living in the world than for vowed religious living in single-sex communities behind monastery walls. I think whatever forms the Benedict Option takes, we have to understand that it’s going to be diverse, depending on local needs, and particular religious traditions. How Catholics live it out won’t look exactly like how Southern Baptists live it out. How urban Christians live it out won’t look exactly like how rural Christians live it out. The ultimate goal, though, is developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.

Fine, but weren’t families islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture? And weren’t congregations also there to produce some of those same cultural goods? What happened to family and church? One answer is that families and churches didn’t do that great a job of passing on strict codes governing sex, marriage, and ambition? Did the pursuit of a Republican president in the White House and overturning Roe v. Wade also bring some strong winds and heavy rains to those islands of stability? I think so.

But those islands are still there. Climate change hasn’t obliterated them. Be fruitful, multiply, and catechize (but not that doorstop of a catechism produced by John Paul II — Luther’s Small, Heidelberg, or the Shorter Catechism should do).

Tommie Kidd gets the last word on what was the Adam (okay, ladies) the Adam-and-Eve Option:

How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.

These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.