Why Convert? Stability

Ross Douthat reproduced Damon Linker’s reasons for converting to Roman Catholicism. Since Jesus has little appeal, this seems like one of the better expressions of cultural or philosophical Christianity (neo-Calvinists beware):

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

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

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

Douthat responds by describing the way conservative Roman Catholics acknowledge change without admitting discontinuity:

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

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

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations.

What I don’t understand is how a change like the one on religious liberty at Vatican II is not crucial. It was clearly a big deal to Pius IX who abducted Edgardo Mortara, wrote a Syllabus of Errors to condemn most aspects of the modern world as then understood, and how eventually responded to the crisis of losing the papal states by doubling down with papal infallibility as infallible dogma.

In light of Pius’ conservatism compared to Vatican II, the idea that the pope might have been correct about Mortara led one elite Roman Catholic historian to write:

it was a fallible papal decision, and a pope’s stiff-necked refusal to honor the natural law, not God’s decrees, that are at stake here. No divine command decrees that a child be circumcised or baptized against the will of the child’s parents. Aquinas recognized this; too bad Reno [ed. the editor of First Things] does not. Moreover, no thoughtful Christian doubts that our natural moral affections might, in certain circumstances, be in tension with the revealed will of God; it should not have taken Cessario’s [ed. the author of a review of Mortara’s memoirs] mistaken reasoning to awaken this possibility in the veteran Catholic theologian Reno’s mind.

Is it just I, or is the Roman hierarchy really set up for lay Roman Catholics to challenge popes and bishops? It sure looks to me like something pretty crucial is at stake if a Council embraces teachings that then give Roman Catholics the power to condemn popes, and especially one that declared an infallible dogma.

Interpreting Vatican II in continuity with the church may be reassuring to conservative Roman Catholics (trads apparently understand how difficult that interpretive feat is and opt for discontinuity. But looking for matters essential (kernel) compared to ones ephemeral (husk) is right out of not the conservatives but the modernists playbook.

To Douthat’s credit, he did acknowledge that conservatives are confused.

Wasn’t Pius IX Speaking for the Church?

R. J. Snell responds to a piece a while ago about the flap over Edgardo Mortara at First Things:

When the Church is speaking for itself, its teachings do not lead to anti-liberalism.

This handy distinction seems to be a way to avoid Augustine’s views on religious liberty:

As Augustinians, Shields elaborates, Catholics define liberty not as “freedom from constraint” but as acting in conformity with the good. Once defined in that way, liberty cannot primarily mean (as it meant to Locke, Mill, and other founders of modern liberalism) “freedom to choose, freedom from constraint, freedom from coercion.” Instead, in the Augustinian view as described by Shields, the purpose of the state is not to secure a morally neutral freedom in consonance with whatever vision of the good life citizens happen to hold. Rather, it is to “orient citizens” toward the genuine liberty that leads to collective salvation. While “Catholic integralism,” as this position is sometimes termed, “may not be a necessary consequence” of the Augustinian vision of liberty, anti-liberal Catholics are disposed in its direction.

Snell goes on to say that this is not what John Paul II taught:

In 1993, for instance, John Paul II, quoting among other things the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) issued in the mid-1960s at Vatican II, taught that humans have a duty to follow their own conscience, since “God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel,” with individuals “free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by [their] own will.” Of course, the Church also continues to insist that human conscience lacks the right to create moral value, and that persons attain genuine liberty when freely choosing the good. Yet mark the word “freely”: no one is to be, or coherently can be, coerced into either faith or liberty—such coercion is wrong and contradictory.

John Paul II similarly insists that individuals and political communities alike have a “rightful autonomy”: the “autonomy of earthly realities” in which “created things have their own laws and values . . . discovered, utilized, and ordered by man”—not by the Church. To the contrary, in recognizing the freedom of the individual, the Church also recognizes the autonomy of disciplines of knowledge, society, and legitimate political authority.

But the problem of Pius IX remains. When he was speaking — the Syllabus of Errors (which condemned political liberalism, for starters), for instance — apparently someone pretty high up in the church was the voice of the Vatican. Now, Snell might argue that John Paul II came later than Pius IX, and so the most recent teaching of the papacy matters, sort of the way you can see the development of an author and differentiate the early Wendell Berry from the late Wendell Berry.

That only increases the problem for Snell, however. The church is not supposed to have recent and early voices. Rome is not supposed to change. It is the rock in the history of West which resists modernity, the church Jesus founded in 30 AD and all.

Except that the Second Vatican Council broke widely with Pius IX (among many other popes). That means that something comparable was happening in Roman Catholicism to what was going on in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. when the latter adopted the Confession of 1967.


(more of) Show Me Jesus

To hear some of the recent commentary about Rome’s relationship to modern society, you might wonder about the significance of Jesus. The young journalist, Elizabeth Bruenig, whom Presbyterians baptized, Methodists discipled, and Jews educated (at Brandeis), explained her conversion as finding a refuge from modernity:

Yet the church remains firm, unmoved by this current in modernity. And while it is impossible to speak for all Protestants—and important to note there exists a vast array of opinions on property ownership within the Protestant tradition, some hewing close to the Catholic view—the Catholic Church, at least, bases its position on property in a moral universe far more stable than that which has been constructed since the Reformation. And by the time I neared the end of my time in college, I had become convinced it was the only firm ground from which a Christian could fight back against the domination of the poor by the rich, against poverty, against the destruction of families and communities at the hands of businesses and their political lackeys, against a world stripped of meaning.

I don’t know. To say that the church remains unmoved while failing to mention the about-face involved in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors when Piux IX sneered at the church making any adjustment to modernity (does she really want that?) and the 1962 Second Vatican Council where John XXIII called the church to update its relationship to modern society is quite the claim. You might think a journalist would look a little more carefully at her sources.

Then there is praise from Anthony Annett at Commonweal for the Jesuit article that condemned U.S. evangelicals and Roman Catholics together for an “ecumenism of hate”:

the basic thesis is certainly correct—that a small but vocal and influential segment of American Catholicism is now far more comfortable with the world of right-wing political evangelicalism than with global Catholicism. (Commonweal’s editors commented on it here, and contributing editor Massimo Faggioli wrote on it here.) This world is a Calvinist world, manifesting politically in the twin ideas that the United States is God’s chosen country with a unique destiny in the world’s history, which gives rise to a dualistic outlook, and that God bestows material rewards on his favored, which leads to a full-throttled embrace of capitalism. This latter pathology comes in different levels, of course, the nadir being the appalling “prosperity gospel.”

Annett too fails to mention how a church that so resolutely opposes modernity (according to Bruenig) is so susceptible to its members doing back flips to join Calvinists in the public square. If you have all that history, authority, and tradition, what happened?

For example, at the church frequented by my in-laws in New Jersey, I’ve heard homilies glorifying the military, calling for higher military spending, criticizing Muslim immigrants, and comparing the hill of Calvary with the hill of Iwo Jima. Seriously. This is horrific, but the overwhelmingly white middle-class Mass-goers seem to lap it up. It’s no wonder that they find no contradiction between Catholicism and Trumpism. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump enjoys their support while the rest of the Catholic world views with him with askance and horror.

Clearly, episcopacy has some bugs that not even papal infallibility (determined just on the heels of the Syllabus of Errors) cannot fix.

In fact, as much as Annett and Bruenig believe that real Roman Catholicism is on the side of left-of-center politics, Matthew Schmitz agrees but also notices how out of step Rome’s liberalism is with Rome’s history. The ultramontanism that sustained Pius IX’s quest for papal infallibility also supported integralism, a form of church-state relations that conservatives and liberals in the United States might find a tad overwrought:

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

With Francis has come a different kind of integralism:

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without accountability to the age and freedom from tradition.

It is in this context that one must understand the Vatican’s recent sally against America in the unofficial papal organ La Civiltà Cattolica. Written by Fr Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa, another papal confidant, the article is not merely an expression of anti-American spite or an attack on ecclesial enemies. It is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Sorry, but I’m just not seeing the unity or the authority that wow converts. Plus, did you notice that all of these opinions come from the laity. What would make Roman Catholicism from Protestantism is if lay members kept quiet and deferred to their ecclesiastical superiors. I wonder what that kind of pre-modern ecclesiastical order would do to those converts who find in Rome a horse that rides even higher than the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, do Roman Catholics actually worry about personal sins, God’s judgment, and whether they are going to purgatory?

Which Is It? How Do You Know?

In reading through documents from the magisterium, I continue to be amazed by how right next to affirmations that Roman Catholics still defend are teachings those same Christians choose to ignore or chalk up to a mulligan for the magisterium. For instance, the same council that codified transubstantiation also weighed in on the place of Jews in Christendom:

1. Confession of Faith: . . . His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us. Nobody can effect this sacrament except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the church’s keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors. . . .

68. Jews appearing in public: A difference of dress distinguishes Jews or Saracens from Christians in some provinces, but in others a certain confusion has developed so that they are indistinguishable. Whence it sometimes happens that by mistake Christians join with Jewish or Saracen women, and Jews or Saracens with christian women. In order that the offence of such a damnable mixing may not spread further, under the excuse of a mistake of this kind, we decree that such persons of either sex, in every christian province and at all times, are to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress — seeing moreover that this was enjoined upon them by Moses himself, as we read. They shall not appear in public at all on the days of lamentation and on passion Sunday; because some of them on such days, as we have heard, do not blush to parade in very ornate dress and are not afraid to mock Christians who are presenting a memorial of the most sacred passion and are displaying signs of grief. What we most strictly forbid however, is that they dare in any way to break out in derision of the Redeemer. We order secular princes to restrain with condign punishment those who do so presume, lest they dare to blaspheme in any way him who was crucified for us, since we ought not to ignore insults against him who blotted out our wrongdoings.

But the problem doesn’t go away. Take the descriptions of papal power from the era of Pius IX. First, from the First Vatican Council:

Since the Roman pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole church, we likewise teach and declare that
he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment.
The sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon.

And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman pontiff.

So, then, if anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that
this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema.

This understanding of papal primacy also means for Pius IX (down to the Second Vatican Council) that freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state in government are forbidden:

And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,”2 viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;”3 and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling.”

The question is not how does someone reconcile these contradictory statements. The much more substantial issue is how anyone is to know which of these statements is the right one but the other, less liberal one, is just a reflection of the fallibility of human beings. Sure, someone can try to distinguish between the opinions of popes and their ex cathedra statements. But since so many of the modern papacy’s or Vatican councils’ pronouncements contain doctrines that conservative Roman Catholics both affirm and resist, the interpretive lengths to which Rome’s apologists must go exceeds almost any of the hermeneutical gymnastics that Protestants perform.

After all, not many Protestants would be comfortable today (except for the fire eaters who attack 2k) with Joshua’s depiction of Israel’s conquest in the Holy Land. Nor for that matter, do many Protestants who defend inerrancy also teach that we need to keep kosher kitchens because God’s word says it, I believe, that settles it. In point of fact, Paul and other New Testament authors had to struggle mightily with how the church would appropriate God’s dealings with Israel and they gave clear and infallible ways of explaining why much of the Old Testament no longer is binding on those who believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant word.

It seems that the closest Roman Catholics come to such an explanation of how to consider the old teaching in the light of new times is the Second Vatican Council where Vatican officials engaged the modern world and called off implicitly many of the papacy’s previous claims about politics and social arrangements — not to mention the previous condemnations of Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. But I still cannot fathom what Vatican II did to Pius IX’s claims for papal supremacy and infallibility, along with his rejection of liberal political and economic arrangements. That council did not establish either a hermeneutic or a theology that would allow a defender of the papacy, the way Paul tries to defend and distance himself from the law, to say that the Second Vatican Council is the fulfillment of what previous popes had taught and so now the post-Vatican II church can live in the glorious liberties purchased by Paul VI.

A Blustering Bigot Who Can’t String Together a Cogent Argument if His Life Depended On It

I sure do hope that charge in the comm box does not mean that I am incapable of putting together thoughts that will at least allow me to purchase food for the cats (down to one feline inside, but the cats in the hood have found our back door to be bounteous). Jason Stellman doesn’t appreciate my bringing up unpleasant parts of Roman Catholic history. He also thinks I misrepresent his position on the nature of the papacy.

On the former, I understand the discomfort of having to answer for historical events you may not have known about. But if you want to play fair while making a case for the superiority of Rome, then you need to do something with the less than desirable parts of Rome’s existence.

On the latter, I don’t think Jason’s position is all that complicated. The Jason-and-the-Caller line is that Protestantism cannot settle its diversity because it has no infallible or authoritative mechanism. In other words, Protestants don’t have a pope or magisterium. Got it. So Jason thinks he has overcome the dilemmas he faced while considering the relative claims of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on Scripture and church authority.

But by siding with the papacy and the theory of an infallible successor to the apostles in the eternal city, Jason did not seem to see where that decision put him. On the one hand, he seems to want a papacy that only orders the confusion that afflicts Protestantism. He doesn’t apparently want a papacy whose authority will extend to these proportions — as the cohesive not only for the church but for all of European society and possibly the world:

4. And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests? For this reason, men of the kind pursue with bitter hatred the Religious Orders, although these have deserved extremely well of Christendom, civilization and literature, and cry out that the same have no legitimate reason for being permitted to exist; and thus (these evil men) applaud the calumnies of heretics. For, as Pius VI, Our Predecessor, taught most wisely, “the abolition of regulars is injurious to that state in which the Evangelical counsels are openly professed; it is injurious to a method of life praised in the Church as agreeable to Apostolic doctrine; it is injurious to the illustrious founders, themselves, whom we venerate on our altars, who did not establish these societies but by God’s inspiration.”5 And (these wretches) also impiously declare that permission should be refused to citizens and to the Church, “whereby they may openly give alms for the sake of Christian charity”; and that the law should be abrogated “whereby on certain fixed days servile works are prohibited because of God’s worship;” and on the most deceptive pretext that the said permission and law are opposed to the principles of the best public economy. Moreover, not content with removing religion from public society, they wish to banish it also from private families. For, teaching and professing the most fatal error of “Communism and Socialism,” they assert that “domestic society or the family derives the whole principle of its existence from the civil law alone; and, consequently, that on civil law alone depend all rights of parents over their children, and especially that of providing for education.” By which impious opinions and machinations these most deceitful men chiefly aim at this result, viz., that the salutary teaching and influence of the Catholic Church may be entirely banished from the instruction and education of youth, and that the tender and flexible minds of young men may be infected and depraved by every most pernicious error and vice. For all who have endeavored to throw into confusion things both sacred and secular, and to subvert the right order of society, and to abolish all rights, human and divine, have always (as we above hinted) devoted all their nefarious schemes, devices and efforts, to deceiving and depraving incautious youth and have placed all their hope in its corruption. For which reason they never cease by every wicked method to assail the clergy, both secular and regular, from whom (as the surest monuments of history conspicuously attest), so many great advantages have abundantly flowed to Christianity, civilization and literature, and to proclaim that “the clergy, as being hostile to the true and beneficial advance of science and civilization, should be removed from the whole charge and duty of instructing and educating youth.”

So, without a rightly ordered society in which the church stands at the head (and we know who stands at the head of the visible church), we have only ruin and turmoil.

That is why the church needs to continue to assert its authority:

8. Therefore, in this our letter, we again most lovingly address you, who, having been called unto a part of our solicitude, are to us, among our grievous distresses, the greatest solace, joy and consolation, because of the admirable religion and piety wherein you excel, and because of that marvellous love, fidelity, and dutifulness, whereby bound as you are to us. and to this Apostolic See in most harmonious affection, you strive strenuously and sedulously to fulfill your most weighty episcopal ministry. For from your signal pastoral zeal we expect that, taking up the sword of the spirit which is the word of God, and strengthened by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, you will, with redoubled care, each day more anxiously provide that the faithful entrusted to your charge “abstain from noxious verbiage, which Jesus Christ does not cultivate because it is not His Father’s plantation.”7 Never cease also to inculcate on the said faithful that all true felicity flows abundantly upon man from our august religion and its doctrine and practice; and that happy is the people whose God is their Lord.8 Teach that “kingdoms rest on the foundation of the Catholic Faith;9 and that nothing is so deadly, so hastening to a fall, so exposed to all danger, (as that which exists) if, believing this alone to be sufficient for us that we receive free will at our birth, we seek nothing further from the Lord; that is, if forgetting our Creator we abjure his power that we may display our freedom.”10 And again do not fail to teach “that the royal power was given not only for the governance of the world, but most of all for the protection of the Church;”11 and that there is nothing which can be of greater advantage and glory to Princes and Kings than if, as another most wise and courageous Predecessor of ours, St. Felix, instructed the Emperor Zeno, they “permit the Catholic Church to practise her laws, and allow no one to oppose her liberty. For it is certain that this mode of conduct is beneficial to their interests, viz., that where there is question concerning the causes of God, they study, according to His appointment, to subject the royal will to Christ’s Priests, not to raise it above theirs.”12

Jason may not realize it, but his church once thought that the health of Europe depended on the papacy’s authority. This was not simply a question of restoring the unity of the church in its teachings and practices (spiritual). This was the protection of Christendom (temporal). In other words, the papacy Jason backs is the one that followed for the better part of a millennium the Christ-the-transformer-of-culture model (not the exilic, pilgrim model he once advocated).

But times are different (though John Paul II and Benedict XVI did a lot of speaking about Europe’s intellectual and moral crises). The papacy does not have the power it once had, whether because it lost is temporal power or simply owing to turf battles within the church. Nor does the church Jason picked have the clarity that it once did. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church is facing a crisis of authority (even if you’d never hear that from Jason and the Callers). Here is how one of the contributors to The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity put it:

A second important difference from the Leonine church is evident in the [Second Vatican] council’s opening to the ecumenical and interfaith relations and with it the continued softening of the traditional belief that there is no salvation outside the church. If that doctrine suggested service to a jealous God, trimming it suggests an appropriate emerging sense of theological and historical humility. For Leo, it was fundamental that “those who refuse to enter the perfect society or leave it are separated forever from life eternal.” In the Decree on Ecumenism (1964), on the other hand, heretics and schismatics have become “separated brethren.” They “have a right to be called Christians and with good reason” to be “accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” While all the elements necessary for salvation are said to “subsist” in their “fullness” in the Catholic Church, “which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic,” it is nevertheless true, according to Lumen Gentium, that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.” In other words, there is no sacred monopoly on holiness and truth, a teaching that Leo would have regarded as undermining the basic mission of the church. As Karl Rahner made the point, there has been a growing recognition that “many whom God has, the Church does not have; and many whom the Church has, God does not have.”

The transforming response to the new universalism is evident here as well. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles concluded a recent review of the development of church teaching on the question of who can be saved with these observations: “Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.” Theologically speaking, while Dulles holds that all grace is mediated through the one, triune God, he does not insist, as Leo felt he had to do, that is it mediated exclusively through the one true church. The post conciliar church reads history and culture differently from the way the Leonine church read them. (79-80)

And they tell us there is one holy catholic and apostolic paradigm.

So the problem, and I apologize for sounding condescending, is that Jason has bitten off more than he can chew by arguing for the superiority of Rome’s ecclesiology to Protestantism’s. If he wants a magisterium that can objectively and authoritatively settle disputes in the church, he is going to get a church that also condemns all aspects of modernity as 19th century popes did because those aspects of modern life were creating disputes within the church and hurting the souls of believers. If Jason wants a spirituality of the church papacy, he is not going to find it (until the recent post-Vatican II past) because the spiritual weight of the papacy was always at odds with creating space for the political apart from the faith (which is why it took until Vatican II for Rome to embrace religious freedom and separation of church and state). In other words, a papacy with the kind of clout that would reign in the faithful with denunciations of Americanism and Modernism was also a papacy intent on asserting or recovering its temporal power (because temporal power gave the church freedom to assert its spiritual authority).

But then when Jason finds out that he does have a spirituality of the church papacy in the post-Vatican II era, he gains a church where popes are still echoing their older temporal power through various “social teachings” while also following a theological proposal like Dulles’ where the church sounds like it would have trouble settling basic theological conflicts (which may explain why so many conservative Roman Catholics associate orthodoxy with a male priesthood and not using contraceptives). In other words, he now has a crisis of authority that makes dispute between Baptists and Presbyterians look like sandbox rivals fighting over a scoop.

So when Jason left Protestantism thinking he had left behind its problems, my sense is that he did not realize just how big the problems were in his new communion. Roman Catholicism’s crisis of authority — going all the way back to Gregory VII’s battles with Henry, through the Avignon papacy and conciliarism, to the nineteenth-century controversies over the Papal States and Rome’s standing among Europe’s ruling class, down to Vatican II and its effort to appropriate communio ecclesiology — is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the earthquakes that erupt from the movement of earth’s tectonic plates. Jason entered a conflict almost a millennium old. If he understood that, he might not be so quick in his assertions of superiority or his claims that his critics “don’t understand.”

Italy or Infallibility

The claims to papal infallibility to which John Henry Newman objected came at precisely the time when Pius IX was on the hot seat with Italian republicans and Europe’s ruling class.

The military defeats suffered by Pius IX, far from leading him to make peace with the new regime, prompted him to go newly on the attack. In 1862, his allocution, Maxima quidem laetitia, reaffirmed that the Pope could not be free to do his spiritual duty without temporal power, and on December 8, 1864, he issued one of the most famous – and controversial – encyclicals of modern times, Quanta cura, with its accompanying Syllabus of Errors.

The idea of preparing an inventory of the errors of modern times had long been championed by the Jesuits of Civilita Cattolica. A team of Vatican experts drew up the list, and the Pope’s encyclical and the Syllabus were sent out together to all bishops with a cover letter sent from Cardinal Antonelli. The Cardinal explained: “The Pope has already in Encyclicals and Allocutions condemned the principal errors of this most unhappy age . . . . Therefore the Pope wished a Syllabus of these Errors to be drawn up for the use of all Catholic bishops that they may have before their eyes the pernicious doctrines that he has proscribed.”

For the Pope’s enemies, the Syllabus simply confirmed their belief that the pontifical state – if not the papacy itself – was a glaring anachronism in the nineteenth century. Among the pernicious doctrines the Pope condemned were that people should be free to profess whatever religion they thought best; that even those not in the Catholic Church could aspire to eternal salvation; that Catholics could disagree with the need for the Pope to have temporal power; that there should be a separation of Church and state; and “that the Pope could and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

Even many loyal Catholics – perhaps most – were shocked by the Syllabus, in which the Pope seemed to condemn progress and modern civilization. For the anticlerical forces, the Syllabus was “manna from heaven,” in the words of Roger Aubert, Pius IX’s biographer. One Piedmontese newspaper, noting that the Pope had condemned modern science, delightfully (if maliciously) asked whether he now planned to ban trains, telegraph, steam engines, and gaslights from his – albeit recently reduced – lands. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 257-58)

(Parenthetically, Protestants were and continue to be a mixed bag when it comes to progress and modern science. And that may be too charitable, since postmillenialism too readily morphed into paeans to modernity as the outworking of God’s special purposes. At the same time, Protestants who read Wendell Berry and figure out how to bemoan the dislocating effects of modernity often turn to Roman Catholicism as the Christian answer to the woes of progressive civilization. These folks find the Syllabus of Errors congenial if not prophetic. Too bad that every pope since Vatican 2 has refused to agree with Pius IX. These post-Vatican 2 popes have wanted the church to engage the modern world and update the Roman Catholic faith. Which makes me wonder why the Protestants who convert to Rome as a conservative response to modernity don’t join forces with the SSPXers who are truly opposed to modernity and to the contemporary Vatican’s indifference to if not outright rejection of Pius IX’s Syllabus.)

Kertzer also points out that Pius IX not only doubled down on his divine status in troubled times, but also continued to oversee the Roman Inquisition’s abduction of Jewish children.

In 1864, another episode involving a Jewish boy demonstrated anew the Vatican’s intention to hold out against the forces of secularization. The case involved 9-year-old Giuseppe Coen, who lived in Rome’s ghetto. One day Guiseppe failed to return home from his job at a nearby cobbler’s shop. His parents soon discovered that he had been taken to the House of the Catechumens, forced there, they said, by the Catholic cobbler. For the Jews and the enemies of Church temporal power, this had all the makings of Mortara redux.

At the beginning of August, when protests about the new case began to appear in the liberal press the church-allied Giormale di Roma painted its own picture of what had happened. Giuseppe Coen, a Jewish boy of the Rome ghetto, had long nourished the wish to become a Christian, along with the fear that he would be severely punished if his parents heard of it. “For fifteen days he begged his employer to take him to the House of the Catechumens.” Finally, on July 25, taking advantage of the visit by a relative of the cobbler who happened to have a priest with him, Guiseppe’s pleas were answered. They took him to the Catechumens, whether the boy convinced the Rector of his fervent desire to become a Christian.

The Coens had wasted no time in seeking French aid, for in the wake of the Mortara case, they had no illusions of getting their son released simply by petitioning the Church. Three days after the child’s disappearance, the French ambassador went to see Cardinal Antonelli on their behalf, and he returned to the Vatican the following morning to renew his angry protests.

The French liberal press quickly took the case up, demanding to know why French soldiers were standing by while Jewish children were being stolen from their parents. On August 13, the papal nuncio in Paris wrote to Cardinal Antonelli to report on his recent unpleasant meeting with the French minister of foreign affairs, Drouyn de Lhuys. The Minister railed against the holding of the boy, calling it an action contrary to the laws of nature, “carried out and sanctioned by the Holy See under the eyes of the French troops.” The nuncio reported, “I responded that France’s protection of the pope’s temporal power did not give it the right to involve it in measure and actions that regarded the Pontiff’s spiritual jurisdiction.” (258-59)

Echoes of Unam Sanctam were still reverberating in the Vatican, apparently. The papacy did not have the temporal power strong enough to make its spiritual power stick. The papal states were no match for Austria or France. But even if the papacy depended on the French and Austrians for protection, its officials could not recognize that the papacy was not temporally or spiritually independent. If Pius IX regarded his temporal power as essential to his spiritual authority, and yet he was not strong enough to defend his Legations, then the Church was not truly free. But this did not prevent the Vatican from regarding the stronger political powers as beholden to the pope. Apparently, the Vatican’s spiritual power not only depended on the integrity of the Papal States (temporal power), but also on the civil muscle of Roman Catholic emperors and kings. All power, civil and ecclesiastical, flowed from the Eternal City.

A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

While Europeans were figuring out what to do with Edgardo Mortara, church law, and papal power, other parts of the Christian world (okay, Protestant) were also struggling to sort out the temporal and spiritual realms. In 1834 the Afscheiding rejected the Dutch ecclesiastical establishment and opted for a church free from the constraints of political compromise. (Of course, many of these Dutch Calvinists still wanted a return to the Dutch republic of Dort’s Synod’s fame.) A similar secession occurred among the Scots when in 1843 the Free Church abandoned the comforts of the Kirk for an ecclesiastical existence free from state control. (Of course, Thomas Chalmers was loathe to call this a voluntary church – despite the name “Free” – and repeatedly affirmed that the Free Church stood for the establishment principle; this meant that the Free Church still preferred ecclesiastical establishment but only on orthodox terms.) And then there was the case of the Old School Presbyterians, who had no ecclesiastical establishment to repudiate but did reject the blurring of nationalism and Presbyterianism on display among the New School Presbyterians. This rejection involved the doctrine of the spirituality of the church – the idea that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends.

In each of these cases, Reformed Protestants were coming to a clearer understanding of the church’s spiritual character thanks to the lessons taught by church entanglements with temporal power.

The Vatican, thanks to the case of Edgardo Mortara and a European consensus, needed also to come to grips with a church vacated of temporal power and limited to spiritual authority. Italian republicans attempted to their best efforts to teach this lesson to the papacy when in 1849 they drafted an Italian Constitution that included these articles:

1) The papacy’s rule and temporal power over the Roman State is declared over.

2) The Roman Pontiff will have all the guarantees necessary for his exercise of spiritual authority.

3) the form of the government of the Roman State will be pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of the Roman Republic. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 22)

What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.

The Audacious Case of Edgardo Mortara

David I. Kertzer’s book on the amazing case of a little Italian Jewish boy abducted by the authorities of the Roman Inquisition (if no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, how much more surprising the Roman Inquisition) is a page-turner, filled with intrigue, personal and political. It was such an absorbing narrative that movie moguls had planned to turn the story into a film, starring Anthony Hopkins as pope Pius IX (Pio Nono) and Jauvier Bardem as Momolo Mortara, Edgardo’s father.

In some ways it was a small story about a single Jewish family’s experience with the papacy’s temporal rule within the Papal Legations. Canon law confined Jews to ghettos, which is where the Mortaras lived in Bologna. Canon law also specified that Christians should not interact with Jews, nor should Jews employ Christian girls as servants. Here the Mortaras (along with most Jews and Italian Christians) looked the other way and this is where the family’s son became vulnerable. For canon law also specified that a Christian of any rank, from humblest servant to noblest Cardinal, should baptize an infant in near-death circumstances, even against the will of parents. The Mortaras’ servant in 1852 baptized the infant Edgardo when she thought he was going to die. He survived. Canon law also stipulated that by virtue of baptism a person was a Christian and forbade Christian children from being reared by non-Christian parents. Consequently, in 1858, when the Roman Inquisition learned of a Christian child in a Jewish home, authorities instructed the papal police to take Edgardo (age six) from his parents and rear him in a home for catechumens.

Edgardo’s parents’ lives were never the same. Momolo, the father, spent the rest of his life trying by every legal means to recover his son. This meant neglecting his business and depending on charity. The international Jewish community rallied to the Mortaras for both humanitarian and political reasons. Momolo spent almost the last year of his life in prison and on trial, accused of of murdering another Italian Christian servant girl. Kertzer argues convincingly that the death, for which Momolo was found not guilty, was actually a suicide. But thanks to the anti-semitism that prevailed in Christendom, authorities were more inclined to attribute the death to Momolo than to the deceased Italian Christian. Only a month after being freed from prison, Momolo died of natural causes, the unnatural end to an unbelievably tragic life. I would have paid $9 gladly to see Bardem portray this tragic figure.

But the case of Edgardo Mortara took on international significance – not only among Europe and North America’s Jewish communities – but among Europe’s rulers because it exposed the illiberal and pre-modern character of papal rule in a sizable portion of what would become the nation of Italy. For instance, Napolean III in France, who provided military protection to a fairly weak papal regime (at least in the temporal realm), wanted to see Jews in Italy receive the rights of citizens – you know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity don’t exactly square with Jewish ghettos and forced evangelistic sermons that church law required Italy’s Jews to hear every Sabbath after attending synagogue (often the priests would use the text expounded earlier by the rabbi). Meanwhile, France and Austria had holdings in Italy that Italians wanted for their own nation. As a result, the case of Edgardo became a crucial episode in the unification of Italy (1870). If the papacy could lose its temporal power, then occupying foreign forces would lose some of their reason for rule in Italy and then perhaps the people of Italy could achieve a unified nation.

But Pius IX, who still holds the longest tenure of any pope, and who started his tenure in 1846 with sympathies for republicanism, dug in his heels and became one of the Vatican’s most conservative figures. The revolutions of 1848 spooked him. Out went thoughts of political liberalization and in came a vigorous assertion of papal authority (both temporal and spiritual). Pio Nono would not even consider giving up Edgardo to his parents (despite all sorts of circumstances that suggested the servant girl had made up the story of the boy’s illness and baptism). With papal rule crumbling and Pius’ political allies unwilling to prop up the papacy one more time, the pope made Edgardo a special case and adopted the boy as a ward of the papacy.

It is a story ripe for the big screen.

But it is also a story that Jason and the Callers never consider in their theories of papal audacity and Roman Catholic superiority. For as much as some might think that the notion of the papacy holding two swords, temporal and spiritual, is of the distant medieval past and died with Boniface VIII, in fact, Pius IX was still committed to this part of church teaching (and revealed truth, by the Vatican’s reckoning). Kertzer reminds readers of how long this idea lived and that Italy’s existence depended on the pope being stripped of temporal power:

The autonomy of national churches – championed in the past not only by secular rulers who were hostile to control from Rome but also by major sectors of the Catholic population and clergy in France, Austria, and elsewhere – was during this Restoration period increasingly challenged by the growth of the “ultramontane” movement. The ultramontanes argued that local churches everywhere should come under the strict control of the Holy See. They sought to bolster the power and the prestige of the Pope, and they championed the supremacy of Church law over secular legal principles. In all this, they fought not only the liberal movement but their opponents within the Church as well, those who, from the ultramontanes’ perspective, were poisoned by Enlightenment ideas that were at odds with the Church’s mission.

The Pope’s refusal to return Edgardo to his family became a sacred cause for the ultramontane forces, involving the prestige and authority of the papacy as well as the supremacy of divine law over modern ideas of individual rights and religious equality. (130-131)

Kertzer explains that this view of papal authority was not simply the construction of French conservatives but also the pope who was not coincidently responsible for establishing the Immaculate Conception of Mary and papal infallibility as Church dogma:

The Pope was not above a conspiratorial view of the forces lined up against him. No organized opposition to papal rule was permitted in the Papal States, and so he had some grounds to worry about conspiracies, which from the time the Restoration began had plagued the papacy. Those opposed to the temporal power of the pope were not only branded agents of the devil but cast together in one large, godless cabal run by the Freemasons. A Civilta Cattolica article illustrates the Pope’s thinking. The minister of a great power, the journal reported, had come to plead for Edgardo Mortara’s return to his parents “in the name of the needs of modern society.” “What you call modern society,” the Pope replied, “is simply Freemasonry.” . . .

Pius IX told the French journalist that he would risk his life to defend the papacy’s temporal rule, “because temporal power is necessary for the Church’s freedom, and the full freedom of the Church is necessary for all Catholic society and for all humankind.” Painfully aware of the superior political strength of the forces lining up against him, the Pope ruminated: “Undoubtedly, order will one day be restored. But after how much time? And at the cost of what catastrophes!” (157-58)

This case of a six-year old boy was a big deal – for the Mortara family, the Vatican, Italy, Europe, and the world. (Who will retrieve the screenplay and re-sign the actors?)