Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Why Pietism and Liberalism Go Hand in Hand

Amy Julia Becker declares her independence from evangelicalism — for at least the reign of President Trump. She seems to think that evangelical stands for something on the conservative side of Christianity’s spectrum. But she now sees how political evangelicalism has become. I’m not sure if she just landed from Mars.

Here is what makes her a pietist:

I am still tempted to categorize my Christian friends with words like “liberal” or “progressive” or “orthodox” or “conservative” or “evangelical.” I am still tempted to judge the faith of other people according to my standards of who and what constitutes Christianity. But when I stop and ask how I see God’s work in their expressions of faith — when I stop and consider the expansive love of God at work in and through countless people, people like me, people who have our theology wrong plenty of the time, people who have our theology right and still behave badly, people who are bumbling around in a world of sin and are still at our core beloved by God and invited to participate in God’s work in the world — when I do that, I start to believe that we are Christians.

Imagine what Ms. Becker would do with Arius. Look at how much he loves God.

Or what about Jacob Arminius? Well, he sure seems serious about the faith.

But such displays of or criteria for genuine faith have little to do with forms. In fact, it’s not just that Christianity revolves around feelings. The people who hurt feelings, the ones who stress right doctrine, the inerrancy of the Bible, or the regulative principle of worship, they are people who care more about forms than feelings. And therefore, such conservatives are inferior kinds of Christians. Tight sphinctered. Machen’s warrior children. They lack charity.

Snowflake Christians beget snowflake nones.

Malcolm X with a Joni Eareckson Tada Finish

The incident in Charlottesville gave Jemar Tisby another chance in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. No one could disagree with Mr. Tisby’s estimate that this protest was an instance of white supremacy or that it is ugly and a threat to public order and the rule of law.

But I do wonder if Mr. Tisby lost his nerve when speaking to a national audience. For instance, in an earlier post last spring about another incident in Charlottesville, he wrote this at his own blog:

As much as city leaders sought to gain support for removing Confederate monuments and symbols, they never had complete consensus. Officials in New Orleans kept the date and time of the monument removals secret for fear of reprisals from their opponents. The Confederate flag came down in South Carolina in the middle of vocal defiance of the decision. Yet come down they did.

In the church as in the world, the time is always right to do right. Racism is sin. Leaders should not take a gradual approach to killing racism just like they should not take a gradual approach to killing any other sin. Nor should they think it necessary to build a consensus to combat this sin. True leadership initiates righteous changes even when they are unpopular with those being led.

That is the kind of radicalism that Charles Finney took to Oberlin College. If it’s sin, you break with it immediately. Any delay is even more sin. It is even in the ballpark of the sort of radicalism that Malcolm X promoted. If you have a system that is so brutally and obviously bad, you need to blow it up or leave it. That was part of X’s appeal — he advocated black nationalism and black separatism, and given the nature of Jim Crow and police brutality, you could understand why.

But at the Post, Mr. Tisby backed away from that sort of radicalism and admitted that we will always have racists with us:

Let’s also be clear that we can’t really end white supremacy. In the Christian view, racism is a sin, and sin cannot be completely eradicated on this side of eternity. But we are called to fight against sin in all its forms, so we should expect positive change in our churches and society at large as we fight against it.

So how do we fight white supremacy without taking Malcolm X’s path? Cue Joni Eareckson Tada:

1. Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.
From the Colonial era to the present day, white churches have helped build a society that privileges whiteness and denigrates blackness. In light of the white church’s involvement in creating and maintaining white supremacy, white pastors can presume that their churches are already part of the problem, intentionally or not.

2. Confess and repent of past sins.
Many congregations were formed in a fit of “white flight” from cities. Many Christian schools, particularly in the South, were explicitly created to preserve racial segregation in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Christians and church leaders must ask themselves how much they have acknowledged their own history. Have they gone through their church records and rulings to tell the full story of how their church, community, or denomination has cooperated with white supremacy? A failure to face white supremacy in the past will lead to a failure to confront it in the present.

3. Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires.
When we examine the history of race and the American church, the story is often worse than we expect. The church hasn’t simply gone along with white supremacy — it has assembled and established it. If white Christians have historically been so intentional about building up barriers between the races, then they will have to be just as intentional to bring them down.

4.Listen to black people.
We’ve been saying all along that a Charlottesville could easily happen. For years, the alt-right and white nationalists have employed the Bible to justify their racism, in public online. But many white Christians have never heard of the alt-right, much less been equipped to filter their messages biblically. We kept trying to tell them that this obsession with the Confederacy and its cultural artifacts sabotaged efforts at racial unity.

In addition to the fourth point, which is an implicit pitch for Mr. Tisby’s podcast, this is advice right out of a w-w play book — take every thought captive. It’s all about thinking and making personal resolutions.

But imagine telling that to Germans living in the 1930s under the tyranny of National Socialism. When evil is so institutionalized and so oppressive, as Mr. Tisby has long argued, do you simply commit to do things differently? Or do you actually think that Malcolm X had a point? You overturn the system or get out and form a separate nation? Mr. Tisby’s recommendations strike me as the equivalent of what I hear about climate change. What do I do? I feel badly and commit to do better, even when the entire food distribution system and development of town life in the U.S. is predicated on the use of fossil fuel.

In other words, Mr. Tisby’s recommendations are sort of like saying don’t trust the system but don’t forget to work with the system. Glenn Greenwald spotted the flaw in this logic when he went after those who complained about the ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville’s white supremacists’ rights to assembly and free speech:

. . . the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

Greenwald’s question is one I’d like to hear Mr. Tisby answer. If the United States was founded by racists, prolonged its racism through slavery and Jim Crow, and now continues that racism in policies of mass incarceration executed by Republicans — and there is validity to this understanding of U.S. history, I’m not saying it’s wrong — then why continue the United States? Why obey the laws of the U.S.? Why submit to police? Why not instead rebel and bring down such an oppressive regime?

Is it because the next regime will also be a sinful one that has its own oppressive bugs (not features)? In which case, is the argument that sin is structural really self-defeating? It certainly gets attention and inspires outrage. It also gives you a platform that will never go away because you’ll always have a system to oppose. But at a certain point, the protest looks like only pious advice unless it counters the unjust structure not with a commitment to do better but an alternative structure.

Who's Afraid of a Secular Faith?

Chris Gerhz is worried about Islamophobia among evangelicals in the United States:

In the 2015 edition of its annual American Values Survey, PRRI asked about a number of topics, but coming a day after multiple Republican candidates proposed that Christian and Muslim refugees be treated differently as they seek asylum in the U.S., this finding stood out:

73% of evangelicals agree that the “values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

Kidd, American Christians and IslamNow, a majority of Americans (56%) feel this way, as do majorities in every Christian group. (Non-Christians and nonreligious are more likely to disagree than agree with the statement, and black and Hispanic Americans are evenly divided.) But that 73% number is ten points higher than the next most Islamophobic group (white mainline Protestants).

But he is also worried about secularization as a solution:

I almost don’t know where to start, I’m so appalled by that 73% number.

Probably the best place is to question how much evangelicals or any other Christians ought to worry about sustaining “American values and way of life.” Insofar as there’s such a thing as “national values” and they’re consistent with the values of he who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” then sure, try to uphold them. But this just makes me more concerned about evangelical susceptibility to different kinds of secularization.

One way out of the problem is at least to decouple U.S. and Christian identity. If the U.S. is not a Christian nation, then it should conceivably be open to law abiding people of all faiths. If notions of religious freedom, equality before the law, republicanism, constitutionalism, federalism, are not revealed in holy writ, then we don’t need to attach to them religious meaning or consequence. So if evangelicals abandoned Christian nationalism, if they regarded the church — not the nation — as the locus of Christian identity, they might have a different reaction to Muslims living in the United States.

And isn’t that exactly what secularity is? A recognition that the heavenly city is not bound up with the earthly city? If we can’t identify God’s way with Rome, Geneva, Scotland, or the Netherlands, then Christians should be less invested in the religious identity of civil authorities who are only temporal (read secular), that is, rulers who are provisional and not of eternal or spiritual significance.

In which case, doesn’t that make a secular faith the solution to Islamophobia? (See what I did there?)

The New Calvinism is not the Old Calvinism

We can be sure of that thanks to Jared Oliphint:

Twelve Thirteen features of the New Calvinism:

1.The New Calvinism, in its allegiance to the inerrancy of the Bible, embraces the biblical truths behind the five points (TULIP), while having an aversion to using the acronym or any other systematic packaging, along with a sometimes qualified embrace of limited atonement. The focus is on Calvinistic soteriology but not to the exclusion or the appreciation of the broader scope of Calvin’s vision.

1. The Old Calvinism begins with the doctrine of Scripture summarized in confessions like the Westminster Confession of Faith and is willing to use TULIP as a handle for understanding Calvinist soteriology. Old Calvinism also relies on systematic thought.

2. The New Calvinism embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation, and in all the affairs of life in history, including evil and suffering.

2. The Old Calvinism affirms divine sovereignty in everything, even in Christ’s death on the cross for the elect.

3. The New Calvinism has a strong complementarian flavor as opposed to egalitarian, with an emphasis on the flourishing of men and women in relationships where men embrace a call to robust, humble, Christ-like servant leadership.

3. The Old Calvinism follows biblical teaching on male ordination and refuses to describe human life this side of glory as flourishing.

4. The New Calvinism leans toward being culture-affirming rather than culture-denying, while holding fast to some very culturally alien positions, like positions on same-sex practice and abortion.

4. The Old Calvinism understands salvation to be distinct from culture, hence Old Calvinists’ belief that deceased saints are saved even though they no longer inhabit a culture.

5. The New Calvinism embraces the essential place of the local church. It is led mainly by pastors, has a vibrant church-planting bent, produces widely-sung worship music, and exalts the preached word as central to the work of God locally and globally.

5. The Old Calvinism does not exist apart from congregations where the marks of the church are evident and which are part of regional, national, and ecumenical assemblies.

6. The New Calvinism is aggressively mission-driven, including missional impact on social evils, evangelistic impact on personal networks, and missionary impact on unreached peoples of the world.

6. The Old Calvinism actually calls and supports home and foreign missionaries through assemblies of presbyters that oversee such ministry.

7. The New Calvinism is inter-denominational with a strong (some would say oxymoronic) Baptistic element.

7. The Old Calvinism is Reformed Protestant and seeks fraternal relations with communions of like faith and practice.

8. The New Calvinism includes charismatics and non-charismatics.

8. The Old Calvinism excludes charismatics because Old Calvinists believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.

9. The New Calvinism puts a priority on pietism or piety in the Puritan vein, with an emphasis on the essential role of affections in Christian living, while esteeming the life of the mind and being very productive in it, and embracing the value of serious scholarship. Jonathan Edwards would be invoked as a model of this combination of the affections and the life of the mind more often than John Calvin, whether that’s fair to Calvin or not.

9. The Old Calvinism does not drop names and includes Reformed Protestants who are temperamentally restrained (read Scots, Dutch, Germans, Swiss).

10. The New Calvinism is vibrantly engaged in publishing books and even more remarkably in the world of the internet, with hundreds of energetic bloggers and social media activists, with Twitter as the increasingly default way of signaling things new and old that should be noticed and read.

10. The Old Calvinism has more books than New Calvinism, and many of them are ones that New Calvinists need to tell the difference between Calvinism and other kinds of Protestantism.

11. The New Calvinism is international in scope, multi-ethnic in expression, culturally diverse. There is no single geographic, racial, cultural governing center. There are no officers, no organization, nor any loose affiliation that would encompass the whole. I would dare say that there are outcroppings of this movement that nobody (including me) in this room has ever heard of.

11. The Old Calvinism was and still is international in ways that the New Calvinists would not understand. Old Calvinists also appreciate in ways that New Calvinists don’t how European and Western Calvinism is. This means that Old Calvinists speak English without feeling guilty.

12. The New Calvinism is robustly gospel-centered, cross-centered, with dozens of books rolling off the presses, coming at the gospel from every conceivable angle, and applying it to all areas of life with a commitment to seeing the historic doctrine of justification, finding its fruit in sanctification personally and communally.

12. The Old Calvinism teaches that Christ died on the cross only for the elect and Old Calvinists are happy to let the Reformed creeds and confessions define the way that Reformed pastors teach and apply the atonement (among other doctrines taught and professed by the Reformed churches).

13. The New Calvinism uses words like robust, vibrant, embrace and lots of adverbs.

13. Old Calvinists don’t.

Calvinism Envy

Mark Tooley wishes Methodists were more like Calvinists. (H.L. Mencken couldn’t tell a difference when it came to Prohibition and World War I.)

Calvinists are sometimes mocked but they do have their own élan. These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama. Think John Knox, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathan Edwards, Rembrandt, Hester Prynne wearing the brand of her Scarlet Letter, Woodrow Wilson, George C. Scott in “Hardcore,” or a bewhiskered Francis Schaeffer in his lederhosen traipsing about the Alps. They may not always be easily lovable but they must command respect. Theirs is a firm, unflinching identity.

As a Methodist, I’m jealous of the Calvinists. . . . Where’s the drama in Methodism? Methodists typically are amiable people, earnest, quiet, dutiful, often colorless, diligent but not renowned for intellectual rigor, art, literature or political theory. Methodism transformed Britain, shaped America, and has influenced the world. It fostered education, charity, philanthropy, a democratic ethos, and social reform. But Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has. Instead it evokes images of potluck suppers, hymn sings and ice cream socials. Very nice.

In point of fact, Methodism did once spark experimental, culture-transforming Protestantism with the best of the Edwardseans. The problem was that it cooled off the way most movements do when they organize and form structures. Then Wesleyanism needed the kick of Holiness (read Nazarenes) or a second dollop of the Holy Spirit (read Pentecostals) to reignite the fire.

The source of Tooley’s envy is John Piper’s recent poem, The Calvinist, set to video. (The sort of financing, planning, and producing that go into even a small video like this do tend to sap the vigor of even Piper’s earnestness.) Here are a few lines:

See him on his knees,
Hear his constant pleas:
Heart of ev’ry aim:
“Hallowed be Your name.”

See him in the Word,
Helpless, cool, unstirred,
Heaping on the pyre
Heed until the fire.

See him with his books:
Tree beside the brooks,
Drinking at the root
Till the branch bear fruit.

It won’t rival Horatio Bonar, so why did it turn Tooley’s head? It likely goes back to the way that Puritanism has dominated the English-speaking world’s idea of Calvinism. And of course, no Protestant group, not even those world-changers, the Dutch-American Calvinists, can rival the way that the Puritans continue to enrapture and repel.

But if Tooley wants to see a different strain of Calvinism, one less exceptionalist and more restrained, he only needs to visit any congregation of the OPC. There he will find pot-fatalist suppers, hymn sings, and even the avoidance of stimulants (e.g., grape juice). That’s not a put down or a recommendation. It is (what it is) a communion Christ founded.

I Haven't Seen Jesus in Business Class Either

Vatican reporters give reasons for thinking Pope Francis is channeling Charles Sheldon, the originator of WWJD:

“You cannot know Jesus without having problems. And I dare say, ‘But if you want to have a problem, go to the street to know Jesus – you’ll end up having not one, but many!’ But that is the way to get to know Jesus! You cannot know Jesus in first class!” Francis said.

On the contrary: “One gets to know Jesus in going out [into] every day [life]. You cannot get to know Jesus in peace and quiet, nor even in the library: Know Jesus.” Certainly, he added, “we can know Jesus in the Catechism,” for, “the Catechism teaches us many things about Jesus. We have to study it, we have to learn it.” Thus, “We know the Son of God, who came to save us, we understand the beauty of the history of salvation, of the love of the Father, studying the Catechism.” Nevertheless, he asked, how many people have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church since it was published over 20 years ago? Yes, you have to come to know Jesus in the Catechism – but it is not enough to know Him with the mind: it is a step.”

The important step however, is getting to “know Jesus in dialogue with Him, talking with Him in prayer, kneeling. If you do not pray, if you do not talk with Jesus, you do not know Him. You know things about Jesus, but you do not go with that knowledge, which He gives your heart in prayer. Know Jesus with the mind – the study of the Catechism: know Jesus with the heart – in prayer, in dialogue with Him. This helps us a good bit, but it is not enough. There is a third way to know Jesus: it is by following Him. Go with Him, walk with Him.” It is necessary, “to go, to walk along the streets, journeying.” It is necessary, said Pope Francis, “to know Jesus in the language of action,” Francis said.

The Anglo-Catholics are looking like the surest defenders of high church Christianity.

An Evangelical Pope

As the returns come in, the difference between Rusty Reno at First Things and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post reinforce the notion that the more you want Christianity not to be bound by rules, institutions, or forms — which is to say, you’re an evangelical — the more you like Francis. And the more you want Christianity to provide rules, stability, and patterns for belief and practice — which is to say, you’re an institutional conservative (e.g. ecclesial or confessional Christian) — the more you wonder about Francis.

First the evangelical Gerson:

Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Then the Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Reno:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Francis is certainly giving new meaning to papal audacity and Roman Catholic conservatism.

The Pietist Pope

I was at first dismissive of the lead singer of Jason and the Callers’ invocation of categories I developed in Lost Soul of American Protestantism to explain the current statements from Pope Francis. Not to say I wasn’t flattered or surprised that an arch-Roman Catholic would lean on Protestant categories to defend an institution and person who is so superior to Protestantism. But after reading Francis’ interview, I believe Jason is more astute than he realizes (but not so much here). (He should also realize that he belongs to a flock of interpreters, the members of which seem to have forgotten that it was the papacy itself that was supposed to end the Protestant craze of various interpretations.)

Several commentators have been concerned about the mainstream media’s highlighting the pope’s apparently lackadaisical views about homosexuality and abortion, such as:

In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

A confessionalist, that is, a churchly Christian who values ecclesial forms and ordinances (preaching, sacraments, prayer) as the means by which the Spirit works, as opposed to a pietist who generally disregards forms and elevates the Spirit over all religious externals or man-made doctrines or liturgies, might have responded to the predicament of homosexuality or abortion by pointing a person struggling with these matters to the regular ministry of the church. For someone like Francis — “is the Pope ecclesial?” could be a new taunt — you would expect him to uphold Rome’s sacramental system of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance. Say what you will about the flaws in those teaching and practices from a Reformed Protestant perspective, Rome’s ministry as outlined, for instance, in Trent’s Catechism is as thorough a way of addressing the plight of sinners as someone could imagine.

But instead of upholding the gracious character of the sacramental system, or the mercy that Rome shows in recommending that a person wrestling with sin seek forgiveness and repentance through the ministry of her priests, Francis went in a pietistic direction. That is, he spoke of ways to make the church seem more responsive and charitable.

How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary­ – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

To be sure, Francis does mention briefly the role of the confessor in the life of a woman who has had an abortion:

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

But the pope’s presentation of the issue is open ended. What should the confessor do? No answer. A woman with a guilty conscience? She needs to work it out with a confessor, but not in a way that would involve the pain of repentance or the acts of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. What happened to the words of Trent which defined contrition as “a sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more . . . joined with a confidence in the mercy of God and an earnest desire of performing whatever is necessary to the proper reception of the Sacrament”?

In other words, Francis appears to be confused like many pietists, who mistake experience for authenticity. He apparently wants to offer forgiveness to a broken world but does not value highly the very means that his own communion has (and has had for six hundred years) for reaching out to a broken world. It is as if he had read too much Gilbert Tennent and believed that new circumstances required new ministry measures. It is a Roman Catholic instance of pietism’s promotion of feelings and experience at the expense of the outward and ordinary means of grace.

By the way, it is also breathtaking since it is supposed to be either the low church Protestants or the Roman Catholic mystics who are so indifferent to sacraments and ordinances.

Postscript: in a related story, the Vatican press reported on Francis’ efforts to avoid taking a hard line with couples who are cohabiting:

The Pope told priests they should welcome couples that live together and championed the courageous and creative choices involved in going out to the “existential peripheries”, RomaSette says in its article. But the truth factor is crucial here. “The truth must always be told,” not just in the dogmatic sense of the world but in the sense of “love and God’s fullness”. The priest must “accompany” people.

Francis referred to some experience he had in Buenos Aires as examples of creativity. For example, when some churches were kept open around the clock, with confessors or “personal courses” available for couples who want to marry but can’t attend a prenuptial course because they work till late. The “existential peripheries” are the priority. These also refer to the kinds of family contexts Benedict XVI often talked about, for example second marriages. Our task is to “find another way, the just way,” Francis said. . . .

“The problem cannot be reduced to whether” these couples “are allowed to take communion or not because whoever thinks of the problem in these terms doesn’t understand the real issue at hand,” Francis said. “This is a serious problem regarding the Church’s responsibility towards families that are in this situation.” Francis reiterated what he said on the return flight from Rio to Rome after World Youth Day, saying he will be discussing the issue with the group of eight cardinals who will be meeting in the Vatican in early October. Francis added that the issue will also be discussed at the next Synod of Bishops on the Gospel’s anthropological relationship with individual people and the family, so that the whole Synod can look into this problem. “This,” Francis said “is a real existential periphery”.

How to Fix the Church

Two items from today’s survey of the blogs and websites that may be of interest to those who follow Jason and the Callers but want a fuller picture of Roman Catholicism.

First, comes advice on how to retain Roman Catholic youth:

First, being a Christian means being a radical. Christianity does not promise a life of comfort and ease. It’s not a religion for people who want to immerse themselves in our culture — in consumerism, selfish ambition and every other bourgeois value — and only break from that consensus at the margins. It is not a religion for people who are comfortable with the status quo. It demands more. . . .

Second, virtue and joy are deeply connected. Being a Christian does not mean being dour or aloof. The way of Christ brings meaning; it incites passion; it generates joy. Pope Francis has said “there is no holiness in sadness,” and joy has been a theme throughout his papacy. . . .

So far, Jim Wallis would not disagree.

Third, religion is 24/7 year-round. Our commitment to Christ should permeate our actions. It should define who we are. It is not an activity to be fulfilled for an hour each Sunday. Pope Francis drove home this very message last week, emphasizing that we can’t be part-time Christians and that “to live the faith is not to decorate life with a little religion, like a cake is decorated with a little frosting.” Most young teens see going to Mass each Sunday as the pre-eminent responsibility of a Catholic. . . . Mass is important. My life crumbles without the Eucharist. But following Christ means embracing joy. It means the radical embrace of countercultural values. It places demands on one’s entire existence. Religiosity and spirituality are fused together and inseparable when pursued authentically. This message is critical because we don’t want the next generation of Catholics split between those who are “spiritual but not religious” and those who are “religious but not spiritual.”

More pietism, activism over sacrament. It is a big tent, Sean tells us.

Finally, keep it real. Pope Francis has quickly become widely admired, even among non-Catholics, and perhaps his greatest appeal is his authenticity. He not only talks about setting aside the illusory and superficial, but seems to live this out in his daily life. The message is simple: Be your authentic self. You are an entirely unique person with immeasurable worth and value, not some cardboard cutout.

Wow! Isn’t my authentic self in conflict? Aren’t I a slave to Christ? Isn’t authenticity what Jean de Florette was trying to grow?

And then we have Francis’ own plans to fix the church, which I am not sure would be appealing to Roman Catholic youth, unless they are going into canon law:

Pope Francis is contemplating a major reworking of the top-level administrative machinery of the Church. Commentators sometimes describe this as “reforming the Roman Curia,” but if the Pope’s own words–together with public and private proposals intended to influence the result–are any indication, the project could extend far beyond reshuffling dicasteries and straightening out the affairs of the Institute for the Works of Religion (the Vatican bank).

In all cases, “collegiality” is said to be both the working principle and the objective of reform. The word refers to the doctrine, revived by Vatican Council II, that the bishops share in teaching and governing the universal Church in union with the pope. The question that obviously raises is how it’s to be done. . . .

In general terms, there currently are two different approaches on the table. One points to a largescale decentralization of authority, the other, as might be expected, toward dramatic centralization. Advocates of each cite the principle of collegiality as their rationale.

Under the decentralization model, diocesan bishops and, especially, national conferences of bishops would have much greater authority for decision-making than they do now.

Liberals tend to favor that. This is partly out of concern for collegiality and partly because they see it as a way to realize such long-sought goals of theirs as married priests, communion for the divorced and remarried, a more permissive approach to questions of sexual morality, and in the long run perhaps even the ordination of women.

By contrast, some conservatives favor more centralization–and, paradoxically, for the sake of the collegiality principle.

One such plan would call for the creation of a permanent, synod-like representative body in Rome, its members nominated by the world’s bishops and selected by the Pope. Acting in union with the pontiff, and never apart from him, it would have the power to make doctrinal and disciplinary decisions for the worldwide Church.

For the U.S. conservatives out there, centralization is never a conservative move. Just one more indication of the differences between European and U.S. conservatism.

But concliarism may be alive and kicking. The question is, which is the authentic Vatican to go with my authentic self?