What A Difference a Council Makes

Over the weekend I was looking around the Catholic Encyclopedia to see what the old definitions of heresy, schism, and modernism were, and to check what they writers said about Protestantism. It was eye opening. Roman Catholics don’t talk that way anymore about Protestants.

For instance, here’s the part of the article on justification:

This principle bears upon conduct, unlike free judgment, which bears on faith. It is not subject to the same limitations, for its practical application requires less mental capacity; its working cannot be tested by anyone; it is strictly personal and internal, thus escaping such violent conflicts with community or state as would lead to repression. On the other hand, as it evades coercion, lends itself to practical application at every step in man’s life, and favours man’s inclination to evil by rendering a so-called “conversion” ludicrously easy, its baneful influence on morals is manifest. Add to justification by faith alone the doctrines of predestination to heaven or hell regardless of man’s actions, and the slavery of the human will, and it seems inconceivable that any good action at all could result from such beliefs. As a matter of history, public morality did at once deteriorate to an appalling degree wherever Protestantism was introduced. Not to mention the robberies of Church goods, brutal treatment meted out to the clergy, secular and regular, who remained faithful, and the horrors of so many wars of religion, we have Luther’s own testimony as to the evil results of his teaching.

Then this on church-state relations (i.e. Caesaro-papism):

A similar picture of religious and moral degradation may easily be drawn from contemporary Protestant writers for all countries after the first introduction of Protestantism. It could not be otherwise. The immense fermentation caused by the introduction of subversive principles into the life of a people naturally brings to the surface and shows in its utmost ugliness all that is brutal in human nature. But only for a time. The ferment exhausts itself, the fermentation subsides, and order reappears, possibly under new forms. The new form of social and religious order, which is the residue of the great Protestant upheaval in Europe, is territorial or State Religion — an order based on the religious supremacy of the temporal ruler, in contradistinction to the old order in which the temporal ruler took an oath of obedience to the Church. For the right understanding of Protestantism it is necessary to describe the genesis of this far-reaching change.

. . . From this time forward the progress of Protestantism is on political rather than on religious lines; the people are not clamouring for innovations, but the rulers find their advantage in being supreme bishops, and by force, or cunning, or both impose the yoke of the new Gospel on their subjects. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, and all the small principalities and imperial towns in Germany are examples in point. The supreme heads and governors were well aware that the principles which had brought down the authority of Rome would equally bring down their own; hence the penal laws everywhere enacted against dissenters from the state religion decreed by the temporal ruler. England under Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and the Puritans elaborated the most ferocious of all penal codes against Catholics and others unwilling to conform to the established religion.

But the faculty at Catholic University of America produced a New Catholic Encyclopedia just after the Second Vatican Council. It takes a decidedly different tone. In fact, its authors offer little comment. This is a Roman Catholic version of an Encyclopedia Britannica, an effort to cover a comprehensive range of topics and provide useful and reliable information. Here is an excerpt from the NCE’s article on Luther (it does not even have one on Protestantism):

Evaluation. It is an exaggeration to identify the Reformation with the person of Luther and to equate all of Protestantism with his doctrines. Nevertheless, one must admit the enormous influence that he exercised upon the movement. The survival of Luther’s own brand of evangelicalism was greatly aided by the rise of numerous reformers elsewhere in Northern Europe, that is, by the rise of figures like Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, and a host of others. Lutheranism’s success as a protest against the Church’s dominant teachings concerning salvation, and its later growth as a church independent of Rome, is also in part attributable to Luther’s long and productive life. He continued to exert his stamp upon the evangelical cause for a quarter century after the movements birth. And upon his death in 1546, he had trained large numbers of pastors and theologians who were prepared to carry on his legacy.

That’s it. No condemnation, not even a warning. In fact, the article even suggests that some bishops were glad to have Luther’s protest:

It is one of the strange turns of history that Luther was never officially prosecuted in his own country, although excommunication, by labeling him a heretic, made him liable to the death penalty in the Empire. A number of circumstances combined to render the ecclesiastical and civil penalties ineffective. In the first place there was strong public reaction that rebelled at the prospect of condemning a man who had become the outright spokesman for their own grievances against corruption in the Church. The conviction that until a council had actually pronounced against him, he and his followers were not definitely cut off from the Catholic Church was widespread. Finally, the majority of the German bishops, still influenced by conciliarism, were hardly inclined to stand in the way of a man whose attacks on papal claims to ecclesiastical supremacy expressed their own opposition to Romanism.

It is curious that the papal bull itself against Luther was not sufficient to condemn him (it would have likely had not the Turks been creating distractions for the emperor, Charles V). Could it be that the editors of the New Catholic Encyclopedia were welcoming a renewal of conciliarism? Odd then and ironic that Protestants convert to Rome because of conservative popes at a time when Roman Catholicism has wiggled out of papal supremacy and returned oversight to bishops and superiors, thus rendering the Church as diverse and unruly as Protestantism itself.

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You Can't Spell Billy with Two Ks

Our Pennsylvania correspondent sent an email with the poster (the image used here) attached. The text, which appears with a close-up of Billy Graham, old but still looking good, runs as follows:

The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.

Graham, who has always been vulnerable for consorting with Republican presidents and presidential candidates, threatens to go out of this mortal life with another questionable. This advertisement comes in various formats and can be downloaded and printed for bulletin inserts, bulletin boards, and is even filling up billboards. It also follows on the heels of news that Graham met with Mitt Romney and that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has removed Mormonism from its list of cults, which would appear to make safe the way of Graham’s endorsement.

Since Graham has a complicated (at best) relationship with presidents and has exhibited (in all about my estimation) a remarkable naivete about U.S. politics, I am not inclined to conclude, as some have, that Graham may be ruining his legacy. As a preacher of fairly crass decisionism, Graham has not impressed this “vinegary Old School Presbyterian” (how one colleague puts it) as having made the greatest contribution to Protestantism. I have admired his ability to avoid the kind of personal failings that seem to go with the baggage of itinerancy. It is also hard not to be impressed by the longevity and strength of his organization. At the same time, since Graham has a history of sidling up to political candidates — without apparently considering whether he is actually the one being used — I am not going to throw a flag or raise a card. Billy is what he is.

But the language used in this poster does deserve some comment. First, support for the nation of Israel may be a responsible foreign policy for U.S. presidents, but it hardly follows from the teaching of Scripture since the church, which transcends national borders, is the new Israel. But old habits of dispensational premillennialism die hard. Second, biblical teaching on marriage is hardly a uniform call to the God vote since Protestants and Roman Catholics have pretty different understandings of the relations between man and wife, at least whether marriage is a sacrament, not to mention the kind of instruments spouses may use to enhance or restrict the fruit of their womb. And that leads to the third problem in Graham’s message — how would he or his supporters feel if Muslims sponsored billboards that called upon Americans to vote for candidates who upheld marriage as defined by Sharia Law?

Rather than clarifying dilemmas confronting voters, the introduction of religion only makes matters more confusing. That’s not to say that deciding on a candidate in this election should be all that hard. Looking at the political philosophies of both parties, instead of their religious affirmations, should provide a clear choice. Then again, those FroPo Cons have a habit of making even a simple political decision difficult.

On the bright side, at least one of the figures identified in my book is making a splash this electoral season. Thanks for nothing Sarah.

Why Exclude Walter and the Dude?

Viewers of “The Big Lebowski” may well remember one of many memorable lines from Walter Sobchak. This one comes in the context of a discussion with Donny about the merits of nihilism. Walter will have none of an outlook that believes in nothing. As he explains to Donny, “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

That line came to mind when reading a recent Christianity Today editorial about Chuck Colson and his efforts to unite Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in an Abraham-Kuyper like coalition to oppose “spiritual nihilism.”

Colson, like Kuyper, was concerned about the effects of modernism and later postmodernism on contemporary culture. And like Kuyper, he believed that unless believers are equipped with the critical tools of worldview thinking, they are unlikely to make any headway in redeeming culture.

When Colson and Richard John Neuhaus formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), their new Protestant-Catholic initiative, the group focused its initial statement on the common mission of the church in the third millennium. That mission, their 1994 document said, involved contending together “against all that opposes Christ and his cause.” In “developed societies,” that included “widespread secularization” that had descended “into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism that denies not only the One who is the Truth but the very idea of truth itself.”

Within the framework of Kuyper’s vision, this was an excellent summary of what Protestants and Catholics needed to address together.

As commendable as it may be for Christians to combat nihilism, why would this be a project that would exclude religiously conflicted folks like the Dude’s good friend and bowling team member, Walter? Lots of people who are not Christians oppose nihilism. Some of them are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some are Mormon. Some profess no God. If you want to oppose nihilism, then why not broaden the tent?

It could be that Christians think they alone have the true basis for a proper opposition. Or it could be that “spiritual nihilism” is different from Karl Hungus’ version of nihilism. But it does seem to me to be a form of shooting yourself in the foot when you make a common cultural cause into a matter of the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Postscript: are neo-Calvinists really comfortable with Colson carrying the water for Kuyper’s legacy?

Walker Percy on American Protestantism

The main character, Tom More, writing about his Protestant wife:

Later Ellen experienced a religious conversions. She became disaffected when the Southern and Northern Presbyterians, estranged since the Civil War, reunited after over a hundred years. It was not the reunion she objected to but the liberal theology of the Northern Presbyterians, how, according to her, were more interested in African revolutionaries than the divinity of Christ. She and others pulled out and formed the Independent Northlake Presbyterian Church.

Then she became an Episcopalian.

Then suddenly she joined a Pentecostal sect. She tells me straight out that she has had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that where once she was lost and confused, seduced by Satan and the false pleasures of this world, she has now found true happiness with her Lord and Saviour. She has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in tongues.

I do not know what to make of this. I do not know that she has not found Jesus Christ and been born again. Therefore I accept that she believes she has and may in fact have been. I settle for her being back with us and apparently happy and otherwise her old tart, lusty self. She is as lusty a Pentecostal as she was a Southern Presbyterian. She likes as much as ever cooking a hearty breakfast, packing the kids off to school, and making morning love on our Sears Best bed, as we used to.

She loves the Holy Spirit, says little about Jesus.

She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body. In her case spirit has nothing to do with body. Each goes its own way. Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist: Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit – things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.

She’s happy, so I’ll settle for it. But a few things bother me. She attributes her conversion to a TV evangelist to whom she contributed most of her fortune plus a hundred dollars a week to this guy, which we cannot afford, or rather to his Gospel Outreach program for the poor of Latin America. I listened to this reverend once. He’d rather convert a Catholic Hispanic than a Bantu any day of the week. . . .

Catholics have become a remnant of a remnant. Louisiana, however, is more Christian than ever, not Catholic Christian, but Texas Christian. Even most Cajuns have been converted first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists. The shrimp fleet, mostly born again, that is, for the third time, is no longer blessed and sprinkled by a priest.

Why don’t I like these new Christians better? They’re sober, dependable, industrious, helpful. They praise God frequently, call you brother, and punctuate ordinary conversation with exclamations like Glory! Praise God! Hallelujah!. I’ve nothing against them, but they give me the creeps. (The Thanatos Syndrome, pp. 353-45)

Caritas in Flagrande

Caleb Stegall over at Front Porch Republic has already asked a good question about a recent evangelical statement, “Doing the Truth in Love,” that commends the pope’s recent encyclical Caritas in Vertate to the wider evangelical world. Caleb asked, “how many evangelicals does it take to comment on an encyclical?” The answer is a whole lot more than the teamsters it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer to Caleb’s question is 68, the number of evangelicals who signed “Doing the Truth in Love.” The answer to the question about the teamsters is “10, you gotta problem with that?”

Maybe it is oldlife’s current obsession with neo-Calvinism, but we couldn’t help but notice a strong attraction of Kuyperians to Benedict’s encyclical. The Protestant statement backing the pope originally stemmed from a Center for Public Justice effort, and a number of neo-Calvinists added their signatures, among them our favorite Byzantine-rite Calvinist. The convergence of neo-Calvinists and the Roman church’s pontiff does not prove our repeated contention here that a preoccupation with worldview turns the confessional and ecclesial lobes of one’s brain into jello. But it does add to the mix of examples that show neo-Calvinists to be promiscuous in their discernment.

Meanwhile, the neo-Calvinist theological interpretation of Benedict is not reassuring. DTL states:

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God removes all that stands in the way of right relationships between God and the world, among humans, and between humanity and the rest of creation. Human development is included in this restoration of all things to right relationship.

This is the typical neo-Calvinist cosmological rendering of redemption, the license that tells Christians they need to save the world – not just the lost tribes in Africa, but also the kitchen sink. Is it really possible that Benedict is a neo-Calvinist? What would Abraham Kuyper, who thought Rome had nothing to offer the modern world, say?

We do not want to suggest that Benedict or any other pope cannot be read for insight and wisdom. In this case, oldlife has yet to read the encyclical. But would the evangelical signers of DTL also be willing to draft and sign the books by other authors who possess a lot of wisdom about the economy and globalization – say Niall Ferguson or P. J. O’Roarke?

And what about Wendell Berry? Is he chopped liver? Almost twenty years ago he wrote:

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperial governments and multinational corporations) have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought. Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people. National thinkers tend to be dangerous also: we now have national thinkers in the northeastern United States who look on Kentucky as a garbage dump. A landfill in my county receives daily many truckloads of garbage from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This is evidently all right with everybody but those of us who live here. (“Out of your Car, Off Your Horse,” 19)

So why no statement recommending The Unsettling of America to evangelical readers. Berry had some of us thinking about the problems of globalization a while ago. It didn’t take the Bishop of Rome to get us to do it. And we didn’t have to issue a declaration and seek signatures to call attention to our debt to Berry.

Mind you, if Benedict actually agrees with DTL when the statement says, “globalization has indeed lifted millions out of poverty, primarily by the integration of the economies of developing nations into international markets. Yet the unevenness of this integration leaves us deeply concerned about the inequality, poverty, food insecurity, unemployment, social exclusion—including the persistent social exclusion of women in many parts of the world—and materialism that continue to ravage human communities, with destructive consequences for our shared planetary habitat” – if that’s what the encyclical affirms, then maybe a Berry declaration is in order. As Stegall notes, “Take it from me, sitting in the belly of the beast, when Evangelicals ask you for a ‘serious dialogue’ about ‘new models of global governance,’ reach for your gun. Or your rosary.”

Beyond globalization, Benedict, and Berry is the cringe produced by watching low church Protestants jump on the papal bandwagon. Could it be that evangelicals get more mileage out of siding with the pope than even a popular American author? Impugning motives is always unwise, but why don’t these evangelicals worry just a little bit about coming off as Vatican groupies?

Sorry for the cynicism, but any good Protestant knows something is wrong when those who are not in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, and who remain tarnished by the condemnations of Trent, are so eager to recommend the chief officer of the church whose jurisdiction their communions have purposefully renounced.