What Rome and Mainline Protestants Have in Common

Fear of being small and on the margins.

The most poignant part of Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis and the crisis over remarriage and divorce is the admission that to be large and influential, Roman Catholicism cannot demand too much from its adherents. Douthat uses several episodes from church history to put the current controversy in perspective and one of those was the seventeenth-century conflict between Jansensists and Jesuits. Jansenism lost not because they laced “theologically decisive argument,” “brilliant” exegesis, or a persuasive interpretation of Augustine’s thought. The problem was that Roman Catholicism would not survive as a global faith on Jansenists’ grounds. Here he quotes Leszek Kolakowski (who wrote a book on the controversy):

In the new world, full of novelty and excitement. . . Christianity had to mae itself, if not “easy,” at least much easier, in order to survive. One could not resurrect as a universal norm the ethos of the apostolic time when the faithful lived in the shadow of imminent apocalypse. But that is precisely what the [Jansenists] tried to do — to their doom.

One way of putting that is to say that to ask Christians to live as if pilgrims and exiles, as if this world is not their home, is too much, even if that’s exactly what Christ and the apostles taught.

Douthat adds that this — the gap between rigor and accommodation — may be why Francis will wind up winning:

…history’s likely verdict on this era in the church would be that Pope Francis had understood, as his critics do not, what the Catholic faith must accept to move forward and continue preaching Christ. Like the Jansenists before them, with their desperate quest for purity in a changing world, the “more orthodox” church of today’s conservatives could only be a sect, not a universal faith, so great is the gap between our own new world and their kind of rigorism. So the faith must change, and in the changing, the conservatives must diminish, and like the Jansenists before them, lose. (To Change the Church, 167, 168)

What this says about why conservative churches are growing is anyone’s guess. And whether its a consoling view for Protestants who operate in micro-communions may be tempting, but pride in smallness is a danger also.

What it does explain is the consolation that many Roman Catholics take from that 1.2 billion number. It is encouraging apparently to belong to something big (like those who follow Tim Keller on Twitter). But size has its cost and one of those debits is faithfulness. The current Vatican and many others in the church want Roman Catholicism but not too much.

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Why Convert? Stability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anabaptist Roman Catholics

Roman Catholic apologists are currently leaving a lot out of their presentation of Christianity. Here’s another where the author seems to imagine a Roman Catholicism that transcends the fall of Rome, the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and Christendom. Is Roman Catholicism just simple Christians trying to follow Jesus?

Why are self-described “trad” Catholics prone to nostalgia? The typical mistake is to conflate the traditions of the Church with the traditions of the broader society. These are very different things; the Church is an ark afloat on a dangerous sea, which preserves its own internal traditions in part with walls that prevent it from being deluged by secular practices and mores. 1 Peter thus connects Catholic rootlessness and homelessness with a rejection of human political traditions, enjoining Catholics to “live out the time of your exile here in reverent awe, for you know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood …” Catholicism is not Burkeanism. Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions. They can have no final affection for the misty English landscape that always stands just behind Scruton’s prose, for Reno’s polite distinction of liberal tradition and liberal creed, for the bipartisan fedora-hatted governance of Douthat’s postwar golden age, or even for Ahmari’s era of the triumph (albeit short-lived) of liberal democratic freedom after 1989.

Ahmari acidly mocks a certain strand of Catholic integralism as “hobbit village” nostalgia. In this Ahmari is partly unfair (the rural village and the integral City are very different ideals) but partly correct. After the collapse of the postwar rapprochement with liberalism, integral Catholicism can only go forward, with the hope of translating the old principles into new settings and institutional forms, creating an altogether new order. But Ahmari, like Douthat, Reno, Scruton and the authors of the Paris Statement, ought to apply that same acid-wash to his own nostalgic views as well.

Roman Catholics in exile with all that stuff in Rome (and all those museums)?

Wow!

If God So Loved the World, Why is The West So Special?

In his review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Rod Dreher makes his bracing claim:

any Christian or secular conservative who cares about the stability of Western civilization cannot be indifferent to the fate of the institution that, more than any other, created it. The Orthodox Church is alien to the West, and Protestantism has become far too fragmented and rootless to hold things together.

That is a big burden for Rome to bear. But it also represents a much bigger problem. For a church that ministers a gospel based on a person (and God) who never set foot in the West, your identification with the West may be the hugest (thanks Bernie!!) version of cultural Christianity eh-veh. (Imagine Mormonism without upstate New York and you have a speck of Rome’s burden.) I understand that many Protestants envy Rome’s cultural and historical footprint. Some even become Roman Catholic for the wide swath the communion appears to give.

But, non-Western lives matter too.

On the flip side, when you have your religious identity so bound up with a culture or civilization, you set yourself up for the kind of inevitable cultural adaptation that Protestant modernists created and embraced. You need to do this to keep up with the culture of which you are part since civilizations have never been one-way, top-down endeavors. Today it’s emperors, tomorrow it will be senates and republics. Today it’s Thomism, tomorrow its Kantianism. Today it’s Baroque, tomorrow it’s Bauhaus.

Even more of a problem: today it’s hell, tomorrow its annihilationism. So when Pope Francis flirts with denying the existence of hell, Michael Brendan Dougherty notices about today’s Vatican what fundamentalists used to observe about Protestant modernists:

Because, as I write on Maundy Thursday, his favorite Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, is reporting his latest conversation with Francis. In his reconstruction of their conversation, Scalfari has the pope saying that souls who have not repented and therefore have not received God’s pardon simply scomparire — disappear, in English. In other words, there is no hell. The souls of the damned aren’t damned, they just are no more.

The Vatican promptly put out a statement that the interview is a reconstruction of their conversation, not a series of direct quotes. But the Vatican also pointedly issued no specific denial of any of the pope’s words. Amazing to say it, but that’s typical. In essence this constitutes an invitation to disbelieve whatever you want. Predictably, Catholic media who rely on the pope’s star power and the appearance of impeccability put out stories noting that the pope has often talked about hell in the past and that, by the way, Scalfari is an atheist and unreliable narrator. Frankly, I find the Vatican’s position revoltingly underhanded. It refuses to tell us whether the pope said these things, and encourages us to believe what we want. It incentivizes the pope’s defenders to defame Scalfari as a fraud and an underhanded atheist. What kind of game is this? It shouldn’t be hard to just tell the truth about this, yet it is.

This is the fifth interview the pope has done with Scalfari, and far from the first scandal to come out of it. It is impossible to believe that someone as earthy as Francis is still innocent of what’s happening here. Yes, he’s talked about hell as a reality before. But the whole intellectual culture of Catholic seminaries and formation is filled with doublespeak. Doctrines are proclaimed in creedal statements, and then their contents are emptied in theological essays, or given a completely opposite interpretation in “practical” application. I can’t possibly pretend any longer that Francis is immune from this culture of deception, including self-deception.

Now, That’s Audacious

Ross Douthat takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the era of Francis:

In fact the conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church’s tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office. Indeed, when Professor Faggioli complains about a “Catholic social media that has completely bypassed” the way the “Catholic Church has worked for centuries,” he might just as easily be describing Pope Francis, whose personalized style has made the lines of authority within the church maddeningly unclear.

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal.

In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisers who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.

But even that kind of Kremlinology doesn’t completely clarify the pope’s intentions, which is why Francis’s liberalizing allies are frequently impatient with him and sometimes get out ahead of his intentions and find themselves reined in.

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty.

What does that kind of uncertainty do to the narrative of so many converts that you go to Rome for the authority and certainty of timeless truth? Part of what it does is expose that unity and certainty are good in theory, and then comes a specific pope with all the authority and charism of the theory (they did not go away when Francis became pope — they inhere in the office). Protestants at least are honest about our disagreements. Roman Catholics cannot be:

This is a situation calculated to make everyone feel self-righteous and self-justified, to complain about toxic rhetoric while flinging insults frequently themselves.

It also places Catholic institutions — schools and parishes and universities and diocesan shops — in a very difficult position. The temptation, already evident, will be to shy away from conflict, to self-segregate theologically (liberal speakers to liberal campuses and parishes, vice versa for conservatives) and avoid even acknowledging the conflict.

But this approach is foolish. When the Supreme Pontiff is allowing argument to flourish and public division to increase, it does no good for institutions to pretend that none of this is happening — as though the average Catholic will somehow not notice that the leaders of the church are increasingly opposed to one another. (The poison of online debate is itself partially a reaction to this public pretense of tranquillity.)

All the more reason for my contention that Roman Catholicism would be better off without the papacy.

Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

Why Didn’t Douthat Recommend Keller?

When Ross encouraged liberals to go to church on Easter, he even mentioned Marilynne Robinson:

Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Did Princeton Seminary spook Douthat? Shouldn’t Jonathan Merritt be outraged that Douthat snubbed Keller?

Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.

Maybe.

But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?

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?

America Is Not America (part one)

Ross Douthat wrote a very good piece on the two U.S. narratives that have vied with each other for the last thirty-five years.

The liberal narrative (with President Obama functioning as story-teller in chief) runs like this:

“That’s not who we are.” So said President Obama, again and again throughout his administration, in speeches urging Americans to side with him against the various outrages perpetrated by Republicans. And now so say countless liberals, urging their fellow Americans to reject the exclusionary policies and America-first posturing of President Donald Trump.

The problem with this rhetorical line is that it implicitly undercuts itself. If close to half of America voted for Republicans in the Obama years and support Trump today, then clearly something besides the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism is very much a part of who we are.

. . . In this narrative, which has surged to the fore in response to Trump’s refugee and visa policies, we are a propositional nation bound together by ideas rather than any specific cultural traditions — a nation of immigrants drawn to Ellis Island, a nation of minorities claiming rights too long denied, a universal nation destined to welcome foreigners and defend liberty abroad.

Given this story’s premises, saying that’s not who we are is a way of saying that all more particularist understandings of Americanism, all non-universalist forms of patriotic memory, need to be transcended. Thus our national religion isn’t anything specific, but we know it’s not-Protestant and not-Judeo-Christian. Our national culture is not-Anglo-Saxon, not-European; the prototypical American is not-white, not-male, not-heterosexual. We don’t know what the American future is, but we know it’s not-the-past.

Then there’s the conservative narrative (with Trump adding Jacksonian democratic accents):

But the real American past was particularist as well as universalist. Our founders built a new order atop specifically European intellectual traditions. Our immigrants joined a settler culture, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that demanded assimilation to its norms. Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war. Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.

As late as the 1960s, liberalism as well as conservatism identified with these particularisms, and with a national narrative that honored and included them. The exhortations of civil rights activists assumed a Christian moral consensus. Liberal intellectuals linked the New Deal and the Great Society to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Pop-culture utopians projected “Wagon Train” into the future as “Star Trek.”. . .

But meanwhile for a great many Americans the older narrative still feels like the real history. They still see themselves more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. They still embrace the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War, prefer the melting pot to multiculturalism, assume a Judeo-Christian civil religion rather the “spiritual but not religious” version.

Douthat wonders if one narrative is any longer possible.

But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

What he observes though is a truth about liberal progressive narratives that we also see in mainline Protestantism — historical denial (read fake history). The PCUSA can’t talk about the days it opposed Arminianism, refused to ordain women, and possessed Princeton Theological Seminary as its chief intellectual jewel. No mainline Presbyterian today recognizes the names of William Adams Brown, Robert Speer, or Harry Emerson Fosdick. Why? Because they were not who contemporary Presbyterians are. They don’t measure up to the present.

The same goes for political progressives. They have no useful past in the actual institutions of national life because old Americans are not contemporary Americans. It is what it is becomes we are who we are. We have no capacity to say “we are who we were” even in part.

If that’s so, let’s not simply ban the confederate flag. Let’s burn the U.S. flag — what a racist, misogynist, heterosexist, capitalist country. How dare President Obama wear a flag lapel pin.

Even better — let’s move to Mars where we can reboot the human race.