Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice No More?

I like Ross Douthat and all, but the inside Roman Catholic baseball discussions of divorce at his New York Times blog — NEW YORK friggin’ TIMES!! — are perhaps more appropriate for a parochial website like CTC than at the place for all that’s fit to print. Here’s a recent sampling. First Douthat quotes Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry:

I think this is a grace we often overlook. God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

… If I am a divorced-remarried-unchaste person and, during the eucharistic liturgy, I cry out in my heart, “O Lord! I do not understand your law, and I do not have the will to follow it, but I love you, and I beg you for forgiveness of my sins and the grace to want to want to follow in your footsteps and to be able to humbly receive your body”, is this a contrition that is “sufficient” for me to be able to receive the Body of Christ?

I think so.

Douthat replies in part:

Whatever the complexities and shades-of-gray involved in human sin, it is very clear in Catholic teaching that the medicinal effect, the “succor” of communion, is inseparable (like a two-dose drug) from the succor of a good confession, and you simply can’t make a good confession, and thus be in a position to benefit spiritually from communion, if you don’t intend to take some positive step to separate yourself from a gravely sinful situation or arrangement. To use a higher-stakes version of the professional case Gobry references — if you work at a job that by its nature requires grave sin for full participation (let’s say, I dunno, you’re a lieutenant for the Wolf of Wall Street in his salad days), and you make a confession of sin but have no plan of any kind to disassociate yourself from the business, your confession is by definition insufficient, and saying “I do not have the will to stop defrauding people, Lord, but I pray to gain it” is a sign that you should be praying and not communing.

The same logic, then, would apply to someone in an institutional arrangement that amounts to public adultery under the church’s definitions. You need not have the full desire to change (of course everything is grayer than a term like “perfect contrition” might suggest), but the desire to have the desire is not enough: You need to have some intention to change your life, some idea of alteration, to confess and commune in good conscience.

Can anyone possibly imagine a Reformed Protestant writer for the New York Times blogging about union with Christ or the ordo salutis and the bearing of these debates on denominational politics with reference to American citizens that belong to NAPARC communions? If not, then why do some argue that the anti-Catholic prejudice still exists in the United States? I am well aware that it used to and I can well imagine Paul Blanshard‘s jaws tightening if he were to encounter Douthat while surfing the Times’ webpages. But Ross Douthat free and frequent comments on Roman Catholic faith and practice at the newspaper considered one of the most secular in the nation sure needs to be added to the calculations of anti-Catholic prejudice.

Rome's Advantage over Amsterdam

As much as Jason and the Callers may think of their crossing the Tiber as the fix to Protestantism’s anarchy, another set of converts finds Rome congenial precisely because it has more resources for transforming culture. This is where the idea that neo-Calvinism is making the world safe for Roman Catholicism has some plausibility. After all, Calvinism only fixes so much. It may get you to 1550 Geneva or 1618 Amsterdam. But what about the problems that Protestantism introduced to Europe by upending Christendom in the West. If you give someone a taste for a Christian society, can they ever be satisfied with the kind of disquiet that Protestantism introduced?

That question explains why Hilaire Belloc thought Protestantism was a heresy and Rome the answer to the West’s problems:

1. It was not a particular movement but a general one, i.e., it did not propound a particular heresy which could be debated and exploded, condemned by the authority of the Church, as had hitherto been every other heresy or heretical movement. Nor did it, after the various heretical propositions had been condemned, set up (as had Mohammedanism or the Albigensian movement) a separate religion over against the old orthodoxy. Rather did it create a certain separate which we still call “Protestantism.” It produced indeed a crop of heresies, but not one heresy_and its characteristic was that all its heresies attained and prolonged a common savour: that which we call “Protestantism” today.

2. Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle_reaction against a united spiritual authority_so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more widely. None of the older heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church_and we know what measure success has been attained by that effort! . . .

But let it be noted that this breakdown of the older anti-Catholic thing, the Protestant culture, shows no sign of being followed by an hegemony of the Catholic culture. There is no sign as yet of a reaction towards the domination of Catholic ideas_the full restoration of the Faith by which Europe and all our civilization can alone be saved.

It nearly always happens that when you get rid of one evil you find yourself faced with another hitherto unsuspected; and so it is now with the breakdown of the Protestant hegemony. We are entering a new phase, “The Modern Phase,” as I have called it, in which very different problems face the Eternal Church and a very different enemy will challenge her existence and the salvation of the world which depends upon her.

R.J. Snell, a recent convert, echoes Belloc on Rome’s cultural potentialities while sounding very different from Jason and the Callers on dogma and papal infallibility:

. . . Lumen Fidei is making no claim of empty pietism but rather an acutely prescient observation when stating that “once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim,” for the light of faith provides an illuminating source of “every aspect of human existence,” and thus is integral and non-reductive in its knowledge. Such a light, the encyclical continues, given our sinful state, “cannot come from ourselves but … must come from God.” Further, this light does not merely sweep us out of our troubles and into some serene realm of transcendence, but transforms us by God’s love, giving us “fresh vision, new eyes to see”—faith allows us, again, and also here and now, to begin the recovery of thought, memory, imagination, and freedom.

The faith is about far more than social recovery and advance, for in the end faith gives us an encounter and union with the living God, but faith never provides less than the possibility of social recovery. While God gives us Himself, and this is ultimate, it was not below Christ to heal the lame, teach the unknowing, and work as a carpenter; just as Christ engages us in our natural and temporal concerns, so too does faith, this Humanism of the Cross, bring new vision and light to the spiritual impoverishment surrounding us. . . .

The Church exists not for itself but for others. We exist for evangelization, for the health and welfare of souls. But persons are not souls only, they are, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a unity of soul and body so profound that “neither the spiritualism that despises the body not the materials that considers the spirit a mere manifestation of the material do justice … to the unity of the human being.” As such, we exist for others as complete and integral persons—for an integral humanism.

But just as 2kers question neo-Calvinists on cultural transformation, so they ask Rome’s apologists whether the point of Christ’s death was to save Western Civilization. Of course, apologists might think that question too blunt, and that the relationship between Christ and culture requires nuance. It may, but the kind of sensibility that led Christ to say that his kingdom was not of this world or Paul to say that the unseen things are really the permanent things, not philosophy or the arts, were also responsible for figures like Thomas Aquinas writing that:

Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. Such is the truth that God is trinune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.

In other words, not everyone is cut out for a liberal arts education with a major in one of the humanities and you don’t need a B.A. to be a Christian to trust the triune God. Plumbers and farmers understand more truth, if they trust Christ, than the smartest of philosophers. That is, at least, one way of reading Aquinas on faith and reason.

This gap between Christ and culture is also behind the fourth stanza of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”:

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

In the world of otherworldly Christianity, a believer goes straight to the head of the class, and gets to by-pass Philosophy 101 and Intro to the Classics, simply by faith (or baptism as Rome understands it).

And yet, neo-Calvinists, who have the memo on the eternal and the temporal, have yet to reflect on it. That may owe to Abraham Kuyper’s own refusal to unhitch Christ and culture and his concomitant demand for integralism:

Hence, as a central phenomenon in the development of humanity, Calvinism is not only entitled to an honorable position by the side of Paganistic, Islamistic and Romanistic forms, since like these it represents a peculiar principle dominating the whole of life, but it also meets every required condition for the advancement of human development to a higher stage. And yet this would remain a bare possibility without any corresponding reality, if history did not testify that Calvinism has actually caused the stream of human life to flow in another channel, and has ennobled the social life of the nations. . .

. . . only by Calvinism the psalm of liberty found its way from the troubled conscience to the lips; that Calvinism has captured and guaranteed to us our constitutional civil rights; and that simultaneously with this there went out from Western Europe that mighty movement which promoted the revival of science and art, opened new avenues to commerce and trade, beautified domestic and social life, exalted the middle classes to positions of honor, caused philanthropy to abound, and more than all this, elevated, purified, and ennobled moral life by puritanic seriousness ; and then judge for yourselves whether it will do to banish any longer this God-given Calvinism to the archives of history, and whether it is so much of a dream to conceive that Calvinism has yet a blessing to bring and a bright hope to unveil for the future. (Lectures on Calvinism, 38-40)

At the end of the nineteenth century, Calvinism’s fortunes may have looked a lot brighter than Rome’s did. The Roman Church was under a virtual lock down from the Vatican amid encyclicals against Americanism and Modernism and church dogma about papal supremacy and infallibility. But that is no longer the case. Not only can Rome boast five U.S. Supreme Court justices, but the texts of Western civilization chalk up more Roman Catholic believers than Protestant saints (and they ARE saints). In another hundred years, the tables may turn again. But Protestantism will never be able to claim that it shaped the West as much as an older version of Western Christianity did.

So if Protestants want to compete in the Christian olympics, perhaps they should forget the events of Great Books and Christian political theology and put their talent and resources into soteriology, worship, and church government. Even if they don’t bring home the gold, they can take comfort from knowing the streets of paradise are paved with it.

Winding Up Confessional Lutherans

A post about Protestants and American conservatism provoked one young, saber rattling, Missouri Synod Lutheran to produce the quote of the day. Aside from its punch, it also shows how hard the “hermeneutic of continuity” is to buy for anyone outside Rome and why that hermeneutic looks so self-serving.

By the way, the videos are priceless.

“Rome is the last large and strong bastion against modernity (philosophically understood) in the West.”

This and other comments purport that “Rome” (our metonym of choice for the RCC) is a monolith. It’s very important — an article of faith, in fact — for the Roman Christian to affirm that it is. But the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” which (it is claimed) gives univocity to the lone Latin see’s pronouncements over the course of two millenia, wedding the “spirit” of Unam Sanctam, Exsurge Domine, and the Tridentine Canons and Decrees with that of Vatican II, is a philosophical and epistemological unicorn. It isn’t apparent to anyone who isn’t required to believe it. Moreover, it would make Ruth Bader Ginsburg blush.

Also implicit . . . is the thesis that it is the mission of the Church to transform the world. While this is a thesis that could be argued (though not one that I agree with), it is not one that I should be assumed. So, too, with the assertion that one can “make a somewhat similar claim about Rome”, i.e., a claim comparable to that of the Old South being the “last non-materialist civilization in the Western World.” If one can make that claim, I, for one, would like to see it made and developed. For now, I’ll just say that I’m not sure an institution which came up with the idea of the “parvity of matter” as a way of grading sins can ever be in that contest.

The Lutheran critique of Rome is that it got to the point where it was not a faithful conservator of the tradition that was entrusted to the Church, and that there was no exclusive promise from Christ to all of Rome’s bishops for all of time that Rome a) was infallible and supreme among the apostolic sees, or b) would necessarily remain a faithful conservator simply by dint of being Rome. So far, that’s also the Eastern critique. But this critique has only to do with theology, and I’m trying not to go too far down that path.

That having been said, the foregoing presumption on the part of RCs with respect to theology seems to breed similar presumptions with respect to politics, culture, &c. Since Rome claims to have ever been the Church itself which other ecclesial bodies can only separate from or rejoin, it likes to claim that every culturally sanative influence which the Church has ever had on the world (the “culture,” if you wish) has been its influence. Benedict of Nursia? Surely he was not just a Western Christian — no, he must have been a Roman Catholic and a devoted papalist. Augustine of Hippo? Boniface of Mainz? Patrick of Ireland? The same claim is made. Were you a Christian in the West before 1517? Then you must have been a Roman Catholic. Were you a Christian in the first century? Roman Catholic. Yet it make just as much sense (and just as little) for me to claim that all of these men were “Lutherans.” But Rome continues to do this all the time today — with all of the abovementioned saints (and many more), as well as with any number of luminaries ranging from C.S. Lewis to Shakespeare. “That person is just too wonderful to have not been a Roman Catholic!” But you can’t take the historical developments of one era and then use it as your heuristic guide for cherry-picking all of your favorite dead people for your team. I call shenanigans.

Conservative? It all depends on what you’re conserving. As a Lutheran, I see it as the duty (yea, the Great Commission) of the Church to conserve the deposit of faith and carry it to the ends of the earth. Rome, on the other hand, says that doctrine is “developing.” Hmmm. Yet Rome’s faithful become indignant right along with the best of them when liberal jurists claim that the US Constitution is a “living document” whose doctrines are developing.

There’s a reason God Himself wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets and instructed His prophets to follow suit. Man’s purportedly sacred “living traditions” become perverse without fail. As with politics, so, too, with theology. Rome is not conservative; they’ve just reserved for themselves the singular right to be liberal. As far as I’m concerned, the Roman Catholic Church is simply a denomination that started in 1563 with the close of the Council of Trent. A very rich denomination with a very mixed past, but just a denomination. RCC =/= CC.

What this means for individual Roman Catholics is another thing. I’m not impugning any individual’s bona fides as a Christian or a conservative. That’s none of my concern here. But neither can anyone simply assert carte blanche that the Church of Rome is the world’s arch-conservative institution, or even the oldest . . . . And I won’t lie, I think it’s important to take a pin to Rome’s balloon on some matters. The spirit of the Borgias still lives, and it must be kept at bay. The Lutheran quarrel with Rome is actually quite friendly, all things considered…

Again, Rome is no monolith. Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Remember that next time you hear Gregorian chant and feel either jealous or smug.

Christianizing America Americanized Christianity

I was glad to see W. Jason Wallace receive attention from the Historical Society’s blog. Wallace is the author of Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835–1860 (Notre Dame University Press, 2010), a book that triangulates the politics of northern evangelical anti-slavery proponents, southern evangelical defenders of slavery, and apologists for Roman Catholicism against anti-Catholicism.

I recommend the book and also the interview which includes the following nugget:

Over the course of the mid-nineteenth century the Protestant theological divisions of the past came to matter less than how Christianity translated into social and political questions. Evangelicals, however, faced a serious problem when they began to disagree about what constituted legitimate social concerns. Nowhere was this problem more pronounced than with the slavery question. Where theology could be either ignored or debated without real public consequence, politics could not. Antebellum politics betrayed the appearance of unity evangelicals so desperately desired. Both northern and southern evangelicals held fast to the notion that there was in fact a relationship between Protestant Christianity and good government. This relationship, though never explicitly defined, divided millions of evangelicals when the slavery question could no longer be ignored. Northern evangelicals believed slavery to be as incompatible with American values as Catholicism, and they launched a semi-coordinated campaign against both Catholics and slaveholders in sermons, speeches, and journal articles. A consequence of this campaign was that slaveholders, like Catholics, shared the position of the northern evangelical ideological “other”—the outsider who had to be assimilated or reconstructed. While southern theologians retreated into a myopic defense of the peculiar institution, Northern evangelicals increasingly allowed their understanding of the church to be defined by the American experiment.

The lesson appears to be that when you make a religious defense of a particular political order a habit, politics wind up swallowing your religion. Americanism is and was as much a problem for Protestants as it was for Roman Catholics in the United States.

Conversions Gone Bad

News about Magdi Cristiano Allam, an Egyptian-born Muslim whom Pope Benedict publicly baptised at Easter five years ago in St Peter’s Basilica, leaving the Roman Catholic Church was the top story for a while yesterday at New Advent.

“My conversion to Catholicism, which came at the hands of Benedict XVI during the Easter Vigil on 22 March 2008, I now consider finished in combination with the end of his pontificate,” Mr Allam wrote on Monday in the right-wing Milan daily, Il Giornale.

The 61-year-old journalist and right-wing politician has long been an Italian citizen. He said he had pondered his decision to leave the Church for some time. However, he affirmed that the “last straw” was the election of Pope Francis, which he said was proof that the Church is “troppo buonista” – excessively tolerant.

“The ‘papolatry’ that has inflamed the euphoria for Francis I and has quickly archived Benedict XVI was the last straw in an overall framework of uncertainty and doubts about the Church,” he wrote.

Edward Peters responds to Allam’s announcement:

Maybe it’s just me, but this modern proclivity to parade one’s spiritual angst in the blogosphere is wearing pretty thin. Besides, as Chesterton remarked, there are a thousand reasons to leave the Church and only one reason to stay: It’s true. So, Magdi cited two or three reasons to leave the Church, and not reasons especially high up on the “Top 1000 Reasons To Leave the Catholic Church” list at that. Whatever.

If it wears thin when someone rejects the Roman Catholic Church, isn’t it a tad grating to have a blog dedicated to parading one’s new found epistemic certainty?

More Lumping and Splitting

Word on the web is that Rome is opening up ecumenical conversations with confessional Lutherans. At the First Things blog, Matthew Block describes some of the activity and rationale for these discussions.

While dialogue between Roman Catholics and mainline Lutherans continues, a desire has arisen among Roman Catholics to begin looking to confessional Lutherans for more fruitful dialogue. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, while still under the presidency of Cardinal Walter Kasper, contacted the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK), Dr. Klän reported, to “fathom the chances of having something like a dialogue established between the two church bodies, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany and [SELK].” Dr. Klän and SELK’s Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt were subsequently invited to visit the Unity Secretariat in Rome to meet with Cardinal Kasper and Msgr. Dr. Matthias Türk (responsible for the PCPCU’s Lutheran relations). This consultation led to the six-part discussions in Germany.

“One cannot deny that the church is influenced and affected by worldly societal trends,” said Dr. Klän in his report to the ILC. “The challenges that Christianity is facing today are not restricted to one church body. And that is why it makes sense to look for alliances with Christians and churches we might find agreement with on certain issues.”

He continued: “In many a way it may be hoped that confessional Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on the world level could contribute to pursuing the goal of communicating foundational principles of Christian faith and defending them against being watered down, being contradicted, being challenged, and neglected not only from outside Christianity, but also within the realm of established church bodies. That is why it makes sense to me for the ILC and its member churches to enter into a theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Roman Catholic Church seems to agree. When the German discussions ended, the participants issued a report encouraging both churches to enter into formal dialogue. Responding to that report, the new president of the PCPCU, Cardinal Kurt Koch, wrote in 2011 to Bishop Voigt of the SELK, informing him that the Roman Catholic Church is highly interested in starting an official dialogue with the ILC.

(Here is a link to the International Lutheran Council.)

Block suggests that recent opposition to Obamacare is a factor in making these ecumenical discussions plausible:

In the United States of America, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod have recently become allies over the subject of religious liberty in the face of the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. And in Canada, very tentative discussions between the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Church–Canada have also begun. These churches are members of the International Lutheran Council, an international association of Lutheran churches known for their more traditional interpretation of the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions—hence the term “confessional” Lutherans.

I don’t mean to remind Lutherans impolitely of Martin Luther’s chutzpah at the Marburg Colloquy, but these sort of dialogues do present a problem both for the integrity of the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran communions and for the powers of human reason. Here I am reminded of Alan Wolfe’s interpretation of the recent thaw between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the United States (this from a sociologist of Jewish-American extraction who has no dog in the interpretive fight):

Now it is undoubtedly truth that many of these once furious debates between Catholics and Protestants have subsided in contemporary America. For the first time in our history, a generic thing called Christianity is emerging, as large numbers of switchers move from one faith to another and as young spiritual seekers respond, not to doctrinal differences between faiths, but to the vibrancy of specific sermons or the charisma of particular clergy. But if there exists a convergence among Christians today, it is difficult to imagine that the Christianity which historically divided them is precisely what is now unifying them. On the contrary, it makes more sense to argue that there is something in contemporary American culture that causes all American religions to become similar to each other (just as there is likely something in Nigerian culture that make all of Nigeria’s faiths — Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim — conservative in a worldwide context). Once something resembling a generic Christianity emerges, in other words, it confirms a relationship between democracy and Christianity, but it is not the one discovered by Tocqueville and extended by Heclo: today democracy shapes Christianity more than the other way around. (in Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo et al, 191-192)

This is one reason why lumping causes indigestion for splitters. I don’t presume to speak for the lumpers who seem to be able to swallow anything.

What Kind of Witness Do Presbyterians Have Anymore?

Over at the Imaginative Conservative I ran across this intriguing tidbit of church history:

Did you know that Christmas celebrations were banned in Scotland until 1958? I certainly didn’t, not until my son started working on his sixth grade “Christmas around the World” report. I haven’t looked up what the English did in this regard (Scotland always has had a good deal of autonomy within Britain, and never stopped following its own legal code). But it seems the good Presbyterians of the established Church of Scotland (“the Kirk,” ironically enough for traditional conservatives) thought Christmas was a Catholic holiday, best stamped out with criminal penalties for unwholesome celebrations (pretty much anything outside of church), along with persistent tolling of bells to make sure everybody went to work on the day.

Bruce Frohnen, the author who uses this piece of trivia to introduce reasons for celebrating Christmas and Epiphany, goes on to say that times have changed and the old reasons for Presbyterians not celebrating Christmas have changed as well:

None of this is intended as a complaint against Presbyterians. In our secular age those of us who’ve “got religion” need to let bygones be bygones—especially when it comes to wrongs with their origins dating back a long way, and which aren’t really relevant to the character of people or religious practice today. What’s more, as they say, “at least they took us seriously.”

This is a curious line of reasoning since it suggests that those who take religion seriously (the “got religionists”) have no reason to take the old reasons for differences between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics seriously. But if the “got religion” crowd does believe religion to be important, then doesn’t that belief extend beyond a generic conservative Christianity doing battle with secularists and egalitarians? Doesn’t it lead all the way to what traditional Presbyterians and traditional Roman Catholics have believed traditionally about practices like the church calendar (redundancy intended)? This is not to say that beliefs change. Presbyterians (in the U.S. anyway) revised their confession in 1789 on the subject of the civil magistrate. Roman Catholics “developed” their doctrine of the church at Vatican II such that salvation now is possible outside the Roman Catholic Church. Still, despite changes and developments, what is a traditional Presbyterian to do who still objects to the “doctrines and commandments of men” implied in the liturgical calendar used by Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury (not to mention Dort)? Can confessional Presbyterians find a seat at the pro-religion, cultural conservative table if they bring up objections to other conservative faiths on the basis of their own conservative faith?

This is, by the way, an important example of why religion — at least conservative faith — is not glue that keeps cultural conservatives together that many scholars and journalists suppose. The religion of the culture warriors (in James Davison Hunter’s old categories) may bring them together, but it is more likely going to be some kind of ecumenical, broadly tolerant religion that stresses morality (the way the old liberal Protestants did), not one that tells Protestants they are in danger if they don’t fellowship with the Bishop of Rome or that tells Presbyterians they should not observe man-made holidays.

Either way, it is remarkable that even mainline Presbyterian churches like the Kirk as little as a half-century ago would not observe the liturgical calendar. Not even the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had that kind of tenacity — just look at the hymns devoted to the birth of the baby Jesus in the Trinity Hymnal.

But if you are thinking about holidays and wondering how to bring in the New Year with a good movie, the Harts recommend Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a Coen Brothers production that ranks right up there with Miller’s Crossing. Hudsucker is set at the end of 1958 — talk about harmonic convergence — the year that the Kirk started observing Christmas, and stars Tim Robbins and Paul Newman. We are planning on some sparkling shiraz to go with the popcorn and should be in bed by 10:30. Woot!

More for Called to Communion to Consider before Taking the Call

The recent death of Cardinal Carlo Martini, Archbishop of Milan, prompted a piece at First Things that has me wondering again about the arbitrary differences between liberal Roman Catholics and Protestants, not to mention the solidity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the magisterium it professes to represent. (Though I must add that if gin without tonic water agreed with my tender stomach, I might be called to a communion that has a bishop named Martini.)

Here is the run down of the spectrum of thought in Roman Catholic circles, all within one high ranking official’s thought and service. First, there’s the Christocentric and exegetical side of Martini that sounds reminiscent of Luther:

At the heart of Cardinal Martini’s spirituality was an intense devotion to Christ. Understanding the Lord, drawing closer to him, and becoming his faithful servant, was what directed Martini’s exegesis. Of course, he knew that in order to be a disciple of Christ, one first had to accept the Incarnation, and truth of the Gospels, which is often a struggle for those contending with modernity. It is a trial Martini experienced himself. . . .

Longing to find the truth, Martini plunged himself into studying the New Testament, and read everything he could on “the historical Jesus”—including Christianity’s fiercest critics. Only after testing the Church’s claims against the most rigorous demands did he see “more and more clearly the solid basis for what we can know about Jesus” and that “there were significant and decisive sayings and events in his life that could not be eliminated by any criticism.” Having liberated himself from his fear of embracing Christ fully, he did so, and was inspired to evangelize others. . .

If Martini sounded like an evangelical when it came to Christ and the Bible, the other aspect of his career also echoed Protestant sensibilities (especially mainline and some born-againers):

Cardinal Martini was not merely “open” toward homosexuality, he approved civil unions for same-sex couples. He often praised the family and Christian love, yes—but did so in the context of assailing Humanae Vitae, and advocating the use of condoms to fight AIDS. He challenged the Church’s position on bioethics. Most seriously, he wrote that there was a “positive” aspect to legalizing abortion, and referred to this crime euphemistically as a “termination of pregnancy.”

The Cardinal’s defenders say these statements shouldn’t be isolated, but viewed in a broader picture, alongside his strong statements in favor of life, traditional marriage, and the papacy. . . . The biggest disappointment here is that the Cardinal’s persona as a public commentator was often at odds with his strengths as a biblical interpreter. Serving as the latter, he stressed the need for interior conversion, a renunciation of worldly values, and deeper obedience to Christ. Yet his outreaches to the world became not so much pastoral as fashionable. There was a reason he was “respected among nonbelievers and lapsed Catholics,” as the Washington Post put it, and it wasn’t because he challenged his secular audiences: it was because he accommodated them.

What is striking here is that such a prominent figure in the church was not known for defending the papacy, venerating Mary, or adhering to church tradition. Was he to Rome what Brian McLaren is to Protestantism?

Sure sounds like Called to Communion folks might want to add a page or two about the breadth and diversity of the church to which they are calling Protestants.

Does the United States Need a Spanish Inquisition?

The folks at Called to Communion generally avoid the culture wars and that is to their credit, though their apolitical posture is hardly characteristic of Roman Catholics in the United States these days. Two of the significant GOP presidential hopefuls were Roman Catholics — Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. And now another is on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan for vice president (though whether Ryan is a “good catholic” depends on how your understand the church’s social teaching).

Other bloggers are not so circumspect about the United States and its increasing barbarism. Fr. C. John McCloskey III, writes at the Catholic Thing. He recently argued that if the United States is going to be a Christian nation it needs Roman Catholicism because Protestantism has run out of gas:

With the passage of time, homegrown American Protestant sects sprang up so profusely that they now can be counted in the thousands. Despite this variety, almost all shared a biblical moral philosophy not far removed from Catholics. The loosening of divorce laws and the propagation of the birth control pill in the Sixties, however, precipitated further retreat mere decades later by mainstream and traditional Protestant denominations on other moral fronts, including abortion, homosexual activity, and most recently same-sex marriage.

The primary reason is the lack of dogmatic authority in Protestantism and the reliance on the principle of private judgment. Leaving people to rely on only their opinions or feelings as moral guide is not enough to sustain a country that was once Christian and now is increasingly pagan.

What is the solution? Can American become Christian again? In my judgment, mainstream Protestantism is in an irreversible freefall. Don’t count on any great religious revivals. America needs witness, not enthusiasm. The United States will either become predominantly Catholic in numbers, faith, and morals or perish under the weight of its unbridled hedonism and corruption.

Notice the theme of Protestant diversity and subjectivity versus Roman Catholic unity and objectivity that Called to Communion paradigmatists also stress.

Protestants certainly deserve their share of blame for what has happened to moral conventions in the United States. The mainline churches have been particularly negligent on sexual ethics and marriage, not to mention the atonement.

But the analysis here which reflects a common trait of conservative intellectuals — to attribute rotten cultural fruit to bad religious seed — misses the elephant in the room, namely, government. Churches may promote or tolerate all sorts of moral goofiness but the state can still pass and enforce laws that proscribe conduct. The abolition of plural marriage in Utah is one example. At the same time, churches do not have the power and never have had it to enforce temporally or civilly their teachings or codes of conduct.

In the sixteenth century when Roman Catholics wanted to rid the Low Countries of Protestantism they depended on Phillip II and the Duke of Alba (Margaret of Parma wasn’t too shabby either) to implement the church’s ban on heretics. In fact, Rome’s mechanisms of inquisition generally relied up civil authorities to enforce the temporal penalties for heresy.

So if Fr. McCloskey wants a Christian United States he is going to need more than Roman Catholic priests, religious orders, and parishioners. He is also going to need a strong state. Nowhere has Christianity (or Islam for that matter) become the cohesive glue of a society or country without a government that enforces religious teaching and practice.

In which case, the real problem with the United States is the freedom granted in the Constitution. We cannot have religious uniformity and have the political framework established in the nation’s system of government.

Meanwhile, if national order requires an iron fist, would not the same go for ecclesiastical order? I have made the point before, but it may bear repeating. If the structures of Roman Catholicism yield the kind of uniformity and solidarity that Protestantism does not, then why is liberalism a problem for Roman Catholics in the United States? Churches may depend on the state to enforce their norms in the general society, but churches do have the power to enforce their teachings and rules within the household of faith.

Again, Rome suffers from this problem no more than Protestants do. Without a civil pope to call the shots, churches have to make do with the spiritual powers they have, limited though they are. And yet, if Christians — Roman Catholic and Protestant — are longing for the political equivalent of the papacy to restore decency in the United States, do they still qualify as political conservatives who — think Constitution — are supposed to be wary of the centralization of power in one person?

Last I checked, it is still 2012, some 236 years after the Declaration of Independence. The American Revolution has many faults, and one of them may very well be no provisions to check dangerous religious and philosophical views. At the same time, the order that the revolutionaries established granted freedoms that protect Protestants and Roman Catholics to worship, teach, and blog. Those freedoms were not readily available in places like the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century. It may just be (all about) me, but I think I’d rather live now under Obama than then under Phillip II.

Understanding Papal Infallibility

On the one hand, we have the abstract, textbook definitions of papal infallibility when applied to papal assertions about, for example, the ordination of men only:

Does this statement meet all five criteria of Papal Infallibility, as defined by the First and Second Vatican Councils?

Vatican I:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church” [Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4.]

Vatican II:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with” [Lumen Gentium, n. 25, paragraph 3.] . . .

All five criteria for Papal Infallibility are met by the declaration on priestly ordination found in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Therefore, the declaration falls under Papal Infallibility and is, without doubt, the Infallible Teaching of Christ. This teaching on priestly ordination is an example of the use of the first charism of the Sacred Magisterium: Papal Infallibility.

Moreover, at this point in time, the same teaching is also infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. So the infallibility of the teaching should not be a matter of dispute among the faithful.

Whosoever obstinately denies or obstinately doubts this infallible teaching commits the sin of heresy.

This is good because we know where we stand.

On the other hand, there is the politics of the Roman Catholic Church:

Debate over the reach of infallibility has swirled ever since the First Vatican Council in the 19th century, and has become steadily more intense since the early 1980s.

Vatican I formally defined papal infallibility in 1870, and most experts say it has been clearly invoked only with two dogmas, both about Mary: the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and the Assumption in 1950. In that light, some theologians and rank-and-file believers argue that on other contentious matters that have never been formally proclaimed as infallible, such as the ordination of women, contraception and homosexuality, dissent remains legitimate.

Other voices in the church, however, insist that a tight focus on rare public proclamations downplays the role of the church’s “ordinary and universal magisterium,” meaning things that have been taught consistently across time. Such teachings are effectively infallible, according to this understanding, even if no pope has ever formally declared them as such, and thus Catholics are bound to accept them.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, a leading advocate of this more expansive view of infallibility was Cardinal Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI.

In the 1980s, these clashing views were at the heart of an exchange between Ratzinger and Fr. Charles Curran, an American moral theologian fired in 1987 by The Catholic University of America in Washington after a lengthy investigation by Ratzinger’s office. In back-and-forth correspondence with Ratzinger, Curran defended a right of dissent from what he called “authoritative non-infallible hierarchical teaching.”

Ratzinger responded that such a restricted view of the church’s teaching authority derives from the Protestant Reformation, and it leads to the conclusion that Catholics are obligated only to accept a few core dogmatic principles — the Trinity, for example, or the resurrection of the body — while everything else is debatable. In fact, Ratzinger said, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) used the phrase the “secondary object of infallibility” to refer to a wide range of teachings on faith and morals that are intrinsically connected to divine revelation, and therefore infallible. . . .

American Jesuit Fr. John Coleman called it a form of “papal fundamentalism.” The Catholic Theological Society of America endorsed a 5,000-word study that concluded “there are serious doubts” about whether the teaching is infallible, and called for “further study, discussion and prayer.” The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland likewise concluded in 1996 that the teaching on women priests was not infallible.

In December 1996, the then-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishop Tarcisio Bertone, published an article in L’Osservatore Romano in which he asserted that certain papal teachings should be considered infallible, even in the absence of a formal statement. Bertone mentioned three such documents: Veritatis Splendor, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Evangelium Vitae.

Bertone is today a cardinal and the Vatican’s secretary of state.
In January 1997, the doctrinal congregation published a collection of documents supporting its reasoning on women’s ordination. In a press conference, Ratzinger addressed the question of whether Catholics who believe that women should be priests are heretics. Technically, he said, the term “heresy” refers to denial of a revealed truth such as the Incarnation or the Resurrection. The ban on women priests, he said, is a doctrinal conclusion derived from revelation, and as such those who deny it are not literally heretics. They do, however, “support erroneous doctrine that is incompatible with the faith” and exclude themselves from communion with the church.

In his 1998 commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, Ratzinger argued that a host of teachings are infallible because they’re joined to the revealed truths of the faith, either by a historical relationship or by a logical connection.

Examples of doctrines connected by historical necessity, according to the Ratzinger commentary, include: the legitimacy of the election of a given pope; the acts of an ecumenical council; the canonizations of saints; the declaration of Pope Leo XIII in the papal bull Apostolicae Curae on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations. Examples of doctrines connected by logical necessity include: the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men; the doctrine on the illicitness of euthanasia; the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution; the teaching on the illicitness of fornication.

(Notice how little teaching about the work of Jesus Christ is considered to be infallible.)

What are Protestants to think? Heck, what are Roman Catholics to believe? But for a doctrine, nay, a reality, that is supposed to produce such certainty, it sure looks like Roman Catholics stumble over it the way that Protestants fail to agree on what their Bibles teach.