It Takes a Populist to Know a Populist

Boniface notices another wrinkle of papal audacity:

The poor of the world oppressed by corrupt elites. The downtrodden encouraged to rise up and take their destiny into their own hands. The great leader, the pope, urging them on and joining his voices with those of the oppressed. A call to translate the popular emotional anxiety and social angst of the poor into community action. Is this language not dripping with populist rhetoric? And this speech is just one example; these types of statements from Pope Francis are legion.

The point is not whether Pope Francis is correct or not. In much of this, he certainly is. The poor of Latin America are oppressed. There is an elitist global cabal that would like nothing more than the economic enslavement of the downtrodden. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Pope Francis’ appeal is absolutely, definitively, without a doubt populist in nature.

Pope Francis is fundamentally a populist. It’s so intrinsic to his worldview he doesn’t even realize it. He recognizes demagoguery and populist appeals in leaders whose agenda is in conflict with his own, but fails to identify populist rhetoric in his own appeals. Steeped in the neo-Marxian populism of Latin America, his brand of Argentine populism does not seem like populism to him – to him it’s just, well, it’s just the way leaders speak.

Again, this is not a critique of the pope’s ideas or his initiatives. But it does demonstrate that his assertion that “populism” is essentially evil is untenable, for he himself is a populist, and populism cannot be “evil” when used by one’s opponents but Christlike when done by the pope – and Pope Francis is the world’s most prominent populist.

How to Observe Reformation

If you are Roman Catholic, forget Martin Luther and remember Thomas More:

We should not celebrate the Reformation, because we cannot celebrate the defense of erroneous conscience held up against the authority of the Church. As St. Thomas More rightly said in his “Dialogue on Conscience,” taken down by his daughter Meg: “But indeed, if on the other side a man would in a matter take away by himself upon his own mind alone, or with some few, or with never so many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable.” He may have had Luther in mind.

More did not stand on his own private interpretation of the faith, but rested firmly on the authority of Christendom and, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead: “But go we now to them that are dead before, and that are I trust in heaven, I am sure that it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things, the way that I think now.”

More is a crucial example of standing firm in a rightly formed conscience. We should remember why he died and not let his witness remain in vain. He stood on the ground of the Church’s timeless teaching, anchored in Scripture and the witness of the saints. If we divorce conscience from authority, we will end in moral chaos. As Cardinal Ratzinger asked in his lucid work, On Conscience: “Does God speak to men in a contradictory manner? Does He contradict Himself? Does He forbid one person, even to the point of martyrdom, to do something that He allows or even requires of another?” These are crucial questions we must face.

Rather than celebrating the defender of erroneous conscience, let’s remember and invoke the true martyr of conscience, who died upholding the unity of the faith.

But, if you’re Roman Catholic, you follow the pope, right?

In light of the current controversy on conscience, it is troubling that Luther is now upheld as genuine reformer. The most troubling is from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year 2017: “Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel’ (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.” The Vatican also announced a commemorative stamp (which to me sounds like the United States issuing a stamp commemorating the burning the White House by British troops).

Pope Francis has spoken of Luther several times in the past year, including in an inflight press conference returning from Armenia: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.” In response I ask, what did Luther reform? Francis pointed to two things in his journey to Sweden. The Reformation “helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the Church’s life,” but it did so by advocating the flawed notion of sola scriptura. Francis also pointed to Luther’s concept of sola gratia, which “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” While the priority of God’s initiative is true and there are similarities to Catholic teaching in this teaching (that faith is a free gift that cannot be merited), Luther denied our cooperation with grace, our ability to grow in sanctification and merit, and that we fall from grace through mortal sin. Francis also noted, while speaking to an ecumenical delegation from Finland: “In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide Her.” Most recently he spoke of how we now know “how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation.”

Doesn’t the magisterium know more and better than Dr. R. Jared Staudt?

Does POTUS Define US?

Of course, not. The federal government has two other branches and the United States is way more than its government. McDonalds? Hollywood? Caitlyn? Harvard? The military? Heck, we don’t even pledge allegiance to the White House.

But what’s true for a nation is not true for a church like Roman Catholicism. There the papacy does define Roman Catholicism. And Ross Douthat explains why investing all that power and identity in a single office is a mistake, or why Pope Francis is more of a threat than President Trump:

Friendly media coverage casts the pontiff as a man of the center, an ecclesiastical equivalent of Angela Merkel or Barack Obama or David Cameron, menaced by authoritarians to his right. But he is no such thing, and not only because his politics are much more radical and apocalyptic than any Western technocrat. In the context of the papacy, in his style as a ruler of the church, Francis is flagrantly Trumpian: a shatterer of norms, a disregarder of traditions, an insult-heavy rhetorician, a pontiff impatient with the strictures of church law and inclined to govern by decree when existing rules and structures resist his will.

His admirers believe that all these aggressive moves, from his high-stakes push to change church discipline on remarriage and divorce to his recent annexation of the Knights of Malta, are justified by the ossification of the church and the need for rapid change. Which is to say, they regard the unhappiness of Vatican bureaucrats, the doubts of theologians, the confusion of bishops and the despair of canon lawyers the way Trump supporters regard the anxiety of D.C. insiders and policy experts and journalists — as a sign that their hero’s moves are working, that he’s finally draining the Roman swamp.

Meanwhile the church’s institutionalists are divided along roughly the same lines as mainstream politicians in the face of Trump’s ascent.

There is a faction that has thrown in with Francis completely, some out of theological conviction, some out of opportunism, some out of simple loyalty to the papal office. (The analogy would be to the mix of populists, opportunists and institutionalists who smoothed Trump’s progress to the Republican nomination.)

There is a group that is simply silent or deeply cautious — note how few of the world’s bishops have taken any position on the controversy over divorce and remarriage — in the hopes that things will simply return to normal without their having to put anything at risk. (The analogy would be to most Republican elected officials, and a few red-state Democrats as well.)

There is a group that is relatively open in criticism of the pope’s agenda but also unwilling to cross the line into norm-smashing of its own. (The analogy would be to the American center-right and center-left, from John McCain to Hillary Clinton.)

This last group’s sheer diversity is one reason the Bannon-versus-Francis theory fails. The ranks of papal skeptics are filled with Africans and Latin Americans as well as North Americans and Europeans, with prelates and theologians and laypeople of diverse economic and political perspectives. Most are not traditionalists like Burke; they are simply conservatives, comfortable with the Pope John Paul II model of Catholicism, with its fusion of the traditional and modern, its attempt to maintain doctrinal conservatism while embracing the Second Vatican Council’s reforms.

But because this larger group is cautious, its members have been overshadowed by the more forthright, combative and, yes, reactionary Cardinal Burke, whose interventions might as well come with the hashtag #TheResistance.

Which places him in the same position, relative to Francis, that a Bernie Sanders occupies relative to Trump — or that Jeremy Corbyn occupies relative to Brexit. He’s a figure from the fringe whose ideas gain influence because the other fringe is suddenly in power; a reactionary critic of a radical pope just as Sanders or Corbyn are radical critics of a suddenly empowered spirit of reaction.

So the story of Catholicism right now has less to do with reaction alone and more to do with what happens generally when an institution’s center doesn’t hold.

You don’t hear Bryan and the Jasons saying much about church politics. It’s like reading the Federalist Papers and ignoring the 2016 presidential campaign. And yet, ideas do have consequences and the theory of chief and infallible interpreter of the faith is not simply an idea. It is a way of life. At least the federalists left behind a Constitution. What enumerated powers did papal supremacists leave behind?

Just In Time for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

A papal crackdown:

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

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

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

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

Fundamentalist Controversy Redux

John Allen explains how Roman Catholicism has come along side Protestantism. The Left and Right aren’t even on the same page of what constitutes truth:

… at this point most defenders of Pope Francis haven’t accused critics of being dissenters, nor have they suggested that people who uphold contrary positions on the substantive positions associated with the pontiff, such as opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, are thereby committing heresy.

The implication seems to be that fans of the pope are more generous, less vicious, and less inclined to question people’s bona fides as Catholics. There is, in other words, often a presumption of moral superiority in the observation that “we don’t talk that way.”

Simply as a descriptive matter, that proposition seems a bit disingenuous. Many in the pro-Francis camp don’t invoke concepts such as “heresy” and “dissent,” because frankly, it’s not the worst insult they can think of with which to slur an opponent.

Instead, they use terms that Francis himself also regards as abhorrent, such as “rigid,” “inflexible,” “legalistic,” “clerical,” and, of course, worst of all, “anti-Vatican II.”

In effect, what’s on display here is one of the defining differences between the Catholic left and the Catholic right over the last fifty years.

For the right, “heresy” and “dissent” are about the worst things imaginable, so when they want to say “x is terrible,” that’s the language that comes naturally. For the left, the equivalent horror is “rolling back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council, so when they want to call something or someone awful, that tends to be the verbal packaging in which the complaint comes wrapped.

Someone trying to remain objective about today’s debates would probably have a hard time concluding that either side has a claim on the moral high ground, since both are charging the other with virtually the vilest crime in their respective vocabularies.

At the same time, gatekeepers like John Allen don’t see when modernism is part of the warp and woof of church life:

Despite challenges intolerance brings, Camilleri stressed that religion, Christianity included, has an endless capacity for good, not only for individuals and communities, but for society as a whole.

The Church, he said, “does not pretend…to substitute for politics. Nor does the Church claim to offer technical solutions to the world’s problems since the responsibility of doing that belongs elsewhere.”

What religion does, then, is offer specific guidelines to both the community of believers, and to society as a whole.

Religion by its nature “is open to a larger reality and thus it can lead people and institutions toward a more universal vision” and a “horizon of fraternity” capable of enriching humanity, Camilleri said.

The Holy See, then, “is convinced that for both individuals and communities the dimension of belief can foster respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, support democracy and rule of law and contribute to the quest for truth and justice.”

Dialogue and partnerships between religions and with religions, he said, “are an important means to promote confidence, trust, reconciliation, mutual respect and understanding as well as to foster peace.”

If religion did all that, I’m sure President Obama would have gotten on board. Wait. He did:

Holy Father, your visit not only allows us, in some small way, to reciprocate the extraordinary hospitality that you extended to me at the Vatican last year. It also reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America. (Applause.) From my time working in impoverished neighborhoods with the Catholic Church in Chicago, to my travels as President, I’ve seen firsthand how, every single day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns, laity are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children, and fortifying the faith that sustains so many.

And what is true in America is true around the world. From the busy streets of Buenos Aires to the remote villages in Kenya, Catholic organizations serve the poor, minister to prisoners, build schools, build homes, operate orphanages and hospitals. And just as the Church has stood with those struggling to break the chains of poverty, the Church so often has given voice and hope to those seeking to break the chains of violence and oppression.

And yet, I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as Pope, but to your unique qualities as a person. (Applause.) In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds. (Applause.)

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concerns. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized — (applause) — to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity –- because we are all made in the image of God. (Applause.)

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. And that means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart –- (applause) — from the refugee who flees war-torn lands to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. (Applause.) It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, to those who have suffered, and those who have caused suffering and seek redemption. You remind us of the costs of war, particularly on the powerless and defenseless, and urge us toward the imperative of peace. (Applause.)

Holy Father, we are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people — (applause) — which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere, and a better life for the Cuban people. We thank you for your passionate voice against the deadly conflicts that ravage the lives of so many men, women and children, and your call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy.

You remind us that people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely. (Applause.) Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. It was the basis for so much of what brought us together. And here in the United States, we cherish our religious liberty, but around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith. Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship. The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed. So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation. (Applause.)

And, Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us. (Applause.) We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to changing climate, and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations. (Applause.)

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true, what we know to be right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope.”

For that great gift of hope, Holy Father, we thank you, and welcome you, with joy and gratitude, to the United States of America. (Applause.)

Instead of a Shrug, Concern

James Schall has a concern about Pope Francis’ apparently intentional ambiguity:

The “concern” is not so much to “prod” the good Holy Father into answering his mail. Others have tried this approach and failed. Rather it is to articulate the core “concern” that many normal people have about their Church under Pope Francis’ leadership. The Argentine pope certainly attracts crowds and generous media attention. He is seen kissing little babies, waving, smiling, and talking earnestly with almost anyone from scientists to politicians to mullahs and rabbis. We all recall his visit with the late Fidel Castro.

Pope Bergoglio has been on some twenty travels out of Italy and all over the known world. He dutifully attends to papal liturgical, diplomatic, bureaucratic, and ceremonial functions. At almost eighty, he seems full of energy and zest. He appears in public to enjoy being the pope. He even gets annoyed. He is human. The people he seems to like the least are practicing Catholics and the poor ecclesial bureaucrats who have to do all the thankless grunt jobs in the Church. He certainly has a good press. The crowds at papal audiences seem down, while observers do not yet detect any remarkable “Francis effect” in increased vocations, conversions, or Mass attendance.

But none of these issues seems to be what most concerns people. We are used to maintain that the principle of contradiction binds us to the truth of things. Catholicism is a religion that takes mind seriously. Revelation and reason do not contradict each other. These affirmations about reason and revelation indicate a certain confidence in our Catholicism. When spelled out, what the faith teaches makes sense in all areas. We can articulate what we are talking about without claiming that we grasp absolutely everything about the mystery of being. In fact, we claim that we do not understand everything in all its intelligibility. We do not confuse ourselves with the gods.

What we can figure out by ourselves makes sense also. We hold that what was revealed by Christ still holds and was intended to do so over time. Among these teachings and practices that were revealed was that of the consistency over time of the content of revelation.

Given Roman Catholicism’s understanding of reason and revelation, why put all of your eggs in the papacy basket? Schall’s understanding of Christian truth is one that Protestants share (mainly). His papalism does not follow in practice or theory:

In this tradition, the Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suarez and Robert Bellarmine, at least considered the problem of a hypothetical pope who did not affirm what had been explicitly handed down. In general, they held that a pope who might enunciate any heretical position would cease ipso facto to be pope. But this was an opinion. The one or two instances in the history of the Church, when a given pope did state something dubious, were usually considered, on examination, to be merely private opinions or not taught infallibly. So the consistency record over time is pretty impressive from that angle.

In this light, the “concern” that exists today is whether the promise to Peter that what Christ did and held would be kept alive in its fullness. The Church thus must avoid contradicting itself; that is, teaching one thing in one generation or area and its opposite in another. We are not concerned here with equivocation or impreciseness. If some pope did cross this line, we can at least suspect that he would not admit it or see the point. If he had the issue pointed out to him and saw its import, he would simply acknowledge what is the truth and be done with it. Otherwise, a drawn-out struggle would follow to decide who is right.

In other words, if reason and revelation are such (relatively) reliable guides, why then glom the bishop of Rome on top of such reliability? Does Father Schall really need the papacy’s help to tell what’s true or to be faithful to the truth? Or is the pope like the English monarchy, something you trot out when you need pomp and ceremony?

Own that great pretty good intellectual tradition.

That Was Then

Here‘s why the church excommunicated Luther almost five centuries ago:

1. Separation of justification from sanctification.
2. Extrinsic, forensic, imputed justification.
3. Fiduciary faith.
4. Private judgment over against ecclesial infallibility.
5. Rejection of seven deuterocanonical books.
6. Denial of venial sin.
7. Denial of merit.
8. Sola Scriptura and radically private judgment: “if we are all priests . . . why should we not also have the power to test and judge what is right or wrong in matters of faith?”
9. Denial that the pope has the right to call a council.
10. Only justified men can do good works.
11. Denial of the sacrament of ordination.
12. Denial of exclusively priestly absolution. Anyone in the Christian community can grant absolution.
13. God has not instituted the office of bishop.
14. God has not instituted the office of the papacy.
15. Priests have no special, indelible character.
16. Temporal authorities have power over the Church; even bishops and popes: “The pope should have no authority over the emperor”.
17. Vows of celibacy are wrong and should be abolished.
18. Denial of papal infallibility.
19. Unrighteous priests or popes lose their authority.
20. The keys of the kingdom were not just given to Peter.
21. Private judgment of every individual to determine matters of faith.
22. Denial that the pope has the right to confirm a council.
23. Denial that the Church has the right to demand celibacy of certain callings.
24. God has not instituted the vocation of monk
25. Feast days should be abolished.
26. Fasts should be strictly optional.
27. Canonization of saints is thoroughly corrupt and should stop.
28. Confirmation is not a sacrament.
29. Indulgences should be abolished.
30. Dispensations should be abolished.
31. Philosophy (Aristotle as prime example) is an unsavory, detrimental influence on Christianity.
32. Transubstantiation is “a monstrous idea.”
33. The Church cannot institute sacraments.
34. Denial that the Mass is a good work.
35. Denial that the Mass is a true sacrifice.
36. Denial of the sacramental notion of ex opere operato.
37. Denial that penance is a sacrament.
38. Assertion that the Catholic Church had “completely abolished” the practice of penance.
39. Claim that the Church had abolished faith as an aspect of penance.
40. Denial of apostolic succession.
41. Any layman who can should call a general council.
42. Penitential works are worthless.
43. The seven sacraments lack any biblical proof.
44. Marriage is not a sacrament.
45. Annulments are a senseless concept and the Church has no right to grant them.
46. Whether divorce is allowable is an open question.
47. Divorced persons should be allowed to remarry.
48. Jesus allowed divorce when one partner committed adultery.
49. The priest’s daily office is “vain repetition.”
50. Extreme unction is not a sacrament (the only two sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist).

What about now?

If Lutheran teachings and practices don’t result in excommunication today, it likely has something to do with situations like this:

“Life is full of ambiguity”, Cardinal Cupich said, but the “important thing is to bring an attitude of discernment to a situation.” He then referred to a “wonderful article” by Professor Rocco Buttiglione in L’Osservatore Romano some months ago, “who situated historically that document in terms of the ongoing development of the teaching of the Church.” (Professor Buttiglione’s essay has since been refuted).

He ended by saying “there are enough voices out there in which the Holy Father doesn’t have to in any way have to defend a teaching document of the Church. It’s up to those who have doubts and questions to have conversion in their lives.”

Controversial passages never passed

But defenders of the Dubia argue that Cardinal Cupich’s comment that the controversial propositions in question were “voted on by two-thirds of the bishops” is especially problematic.

It is often forgotten, they point out, that despite the strenuous efforts by the Synod secretariat and others to manipulate and jostle the synod fathers into accepting the most controversial propositions (allegations detailed in my book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?), none of the three most controversial propositions managed to obtain a two-thirds majority during the first, Extraordinary Synod on the Family, in October 2014.

One of them was a proposition relating to the “Kasper proposal” of admitting the divorced and remarried to holy Communion after a period of penitence. That failed to pass, and only a proposition calling for “careful reflection and respectful accompaniment” of remarried divorcees made it through.

Under such circumstances, they would normally therefore have been rejected.

In spite of this, the Pope controversially broke with custom, which he can do, and authoritatively insisted that all three rejected proposition be kept in the document, thereby enabling them to be carried over into the working document for the Ordinary Synod on the Family the following year.

Not to worry, the more ambiguity, the more it’s the church Christ founded. If only the consequences for souls dependent on faithful ministers of the gospel and reliable expositors of sacred mysteries were so ambiguous.