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!

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Beaver Cleaver Was Lost in His Trespasses and Sins

Trigger warning to self: you’ve engaged Carl Trueman critically before and it did not go well. So be careful, be very careful.

The reason for bringing up Dr. Trueman again, even if ever so gingerly, has to do with his recent evaluation of Rusty Reno’s new book about prospect for a Christian society. Trueman writes:

I simply am not convinced that change can be achieved on any significant scale. The causes of the modern malaise are complicated, and their solution must be equally elaborate. For example, as George Grant and David Schindler have shown, technology brings with it a different view of reality from that of traditional Christianity. This mindset is now deeply embedded in our world. The entertainment industry mediates much of what is taken for reality and grips the moral imagination of the masses. The globalized economy has transformed communities and community expectations in ways we have yet to fathom. To borrow that hackneyed but poetic phrase from Marx, all that is solid melts into air. Zygmunt Bauman’s argument, that we live in a time when even the most longstanding and reliable social structures are in permanent flux, seems to me compelling. It must be accounted for by any hope that depends upon the solidity of concepts or institutions from the past. How does one reform or recapture or rebuild that which has been robbed of solid existence?

I generally agree.

But where I push (not shove) back is with the idea that modernity alone has these problems. Ever since the fall, it seems to me, the possibilities of pursuing lives of holiness and passing on the faith have been hard. Just remember what Paul warned Timothy about the “last days”:

understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-8)

Was Paul predicting a time when Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche would dominate understandings of human nature and the created order, or was he talking about life in the Roman Empire circa 60 AD? My understanding is that he was talking about life in the Mediterranean world then.

So why do Christians believe modernity is so much worse than any other time? Well, it sure seems that Roman Catholics have a certain nostalgia for the Christian society of medieval Europe, neo-Calvinists for the Christian society of the Kuyperian era of Dutch history, evangelicals in the U.S. for the First Pretty Good Awakening that of course led up to the Christian founding of the United States. Here Protestants want to recalculate critiques of modernity since Kuyper and George Whitefield both fall on the modern side of the divide between medieval and modern periods. In other words, Protestant critiques of modernity play into the hands of certain Roman Catholic apologetics (even if nostalgia for the flourishing of the Middle Ages seldom extends to the Crusades or the Inquisition).

But surely anyone with eyes and ears has to admit that we are living in worse times than 1950s American when Ward and June Cleaver reared Wally and the Beave. I have eyes and ears. I will concede that the 2010s are worse than the 1950s, though I did live through 1968 and that was not a good time. But on a scale of fallen humanity, are modern or contemporary times really worse than what Noah lived through, or Lot, or Jeremiah, or our Lord himself? Doesn’t the fall mean we always live in desperate times?

The point here is not that people who believe in original sin should be relativists when it comes to assessing the way humans live together or proposing ways that are better for a common life together and for the proclamation of the gospel. But I think it is a mistake to cultivate the notion that human flourishing is possible whether by putting in place the right policies or institutions, or by thinking about the past a certain way. I know Dr. Trueman knows this. But it sounds like he thinks we are living through one of the worst times in human existence. No matter how pleasant and reassuring Beaver Cleaver’s America was, it was not the new heavens and new earth. When sin abounds, it’s not a good time. The Cleavers were certainly flourishing as we now count such living, but they were also drowning in sin (and never in church). Shouldn’t that perspective inform the way we view the West post-Foucault?

Communicants, Siblings, Friends, and Others

When you have a comprehensive view (w-w) of the world, when you think that your faith informs (or should) everything you do, hard are those distinctions that 2k so readily supplies, like — this is the church so Christian rules apply, this is not the church so freedom applies.

This problem is no less challenging for Roman Catholics than for neo-Calvinists since both are in the comprehensiveness business of showing how faith relates to EVERYthing a Christian does. Cathleen Kaveny took the comprehensiveness and catholicity of Rome in an arresting direction when she accused Richard John Neuhaus and the First Things crowd of partisanship and undermining the bonds of Roman Catholic unity:

Some conservative Catholics have blamed Pope Francis for sowing division among the members of the Body of Christ. But the charge is more properly lodged against one of the heroes of conservative Catholicism: the late Richard John Neuhaus.

It was Neuhaus, after all, who advanced the view that conservative Roman Catholics have more in common with orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants than they do with progressive members of their own religious communities. In fact, that view was an operational premise of First Things magazine under his leadership. This approach is based on a thoroughly distorted view of religious realities and commitments.

Does honoring Jesus as the Son of God count as a commonality? Like their conservative counterparts, progressive Roman Catholics acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ, and find the interpretive key to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. Orthodox Jews do not—indeed, must not—treat Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Book of Isaiah. It would be blasphemous for them to do so.

Does living in the grace imparted by the sacraments count as a commonality? Both progressive and conservative Roman Catholics believe that God’s grace is channeled through the seven sacraments. Many Evangelical Protestants do not have the same view of grace or the sacraments; they often view the Eucharist as a memorial of a past event, not a way of being present with Christ here and now.

In trying to find common ground with evangelicals, then, Neuhaus was not truly Roman Catholic but actually Protestant:

Ultimately, Neuhaus’s focus was on nurturing these commonalities in the American political context—he was building a political movement. For a variety of partially overlapping reasons, conservative Roman Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and orthodox Jews were inclined to vote Republican in political elections. Along with George Weigel and Robert George, Neuhaus coached Republican politicians in Catholic-speak to win national elections. . . . But here’s the irony of Neuhaus’s project: in treating theological belief and commitment as mere instruments of political will, Neuhaus’s view of religion resonated more with Feuerbach, Marx, and Leo Strauss than with the church fathers. In separating his own church of the politically pure from the hoi polloi of the body of Christ, his ecclesiology better reflects Protestant sectarianism than Roman Catholicism.

For the record, I too took issue with Evangelicals and Catholics Together for putting politics ahead of theology and for locating Christian unity not in ecclesiastical contexts but in parachurch groupings.

But Rusty Reno didn’t particularly care for Kaveny’s shot at Neuhaus. And so he tried to justify finding fellowship among religious people who were political liberals and then got mugged by reality:

many of the founding figures who played such a prominent role in First Things, as well as early readers like me, came to some shared conclusions. We became less and less impressed with the modern conceit that ours is a time of the unprecedented. We became more and more convinced that our traditions contained an inherited wisdom—a divine revelation—that provides greater insight into the human condition than any modern method, mentality, or revolution. Again, in the magazine’s early years, it was an exciting and invigorating to find others who were coming to the same post-liberal conclusions, whether they were Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant.

That is mainly true but does not represent the nature of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Otherwise, ECT should have been called Evangelicals and Liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Stanley Hauerwas Together. But at least Reno recognizes different layers of commonality:

When it comes to many things that are important to me, I have more in common with friends than with my brother. But my brother’s still my brother. It in no way compromises the truth of our fraternal bond for me to link arms with those with whom I have more in common politically, intellectually, or even theologically. The same goes for the sacramental bond that units us in Christ.

That is more or less a 2k point. But a 2ker would not call a magazine about religion and public life First Things. It’s not elegant but Penultimate Things or Proximate Things or Common Things would work better.

That left Michael Sean Winters to settle the debate and he did so (in neo-Calvinist-friendly ways) by taking issue with Reno’s separation of life into different spheres:

There may be “other dimensions” as Reno notes, but surely, for the Christian, those other dimensions need to be related to “what matters most.” It was this dualism between the Catholic faith and Catholic morality that stalked Neuhaus’s writings and continues to afflict the journal he founded. This dualism not only colored Neuhaus’ judgment, but it kept much of his otherwise enjoyable controversial writings at a fairly superficial level. It also led him to overlook the failings of his own team, both in politics and in religion: His defense of the Iraq War and of Fr. Maciel were stains on Neuhaus’ intellectual project that deserve attention and explanation by those who champion him.

. . . Reno, too, puts his sacramental beliefs in one silo, and his moralizing in another, and never the two need challenge each other. That is not how Catholics think when we are thinking at our best.

Apparently, 2k thinking is a no-no for Roman Catholics as much as it is for neo-Calvinists. Everything belongs to God. Or the papacy has universal jurisdiction (which is a topic for discussion in its own right). Which makes it hard to justify solidarity with people of a different faith.

But if you limit that solidarity to the church and find all sorts of room for cooperation outside the church, problem solved. Why does that solution seem so impious?

A Reason Not to Convert

An important reason behind conversions to Roman Catholicism over the last three decades has been the Protestant mainline’s abandonment of Christian teaching on sex. For a while the Anglican communion was the place for beauty-deprived Protestants to worship. But once the bishops started coming out of the closet, Christians sound on the family but challenged on doctrine needed to look for another communion. Rome’s holding the line on sex proved appealing.

But Matthew Sitman (say it ain’t so that a good Grove City boy turned Roman Catholic) warns about the danger of that strategy in response to Rusty Reno (who was Anglican and converted). Reno wrote:

The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in ­practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It ­allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.

Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.

Sitman counters:

The wrong reason to defend Church teaching and the status quo is because it proves strategically helpful. When Reno writes, “Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism,” you can see that the concern is not for the coherence of what that encyclical teaches, but it’s ideological usefulness. When he also asserts, “Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural,” I confess to wondering why “inconvenient and countercultural” seems to matter more than standing for the truth.

Total rejection and uncritical praise both bind you to the spirit of the age; intransigence apart from discernment, apart from reading the signs of the times, still takes it cues from the merely contemporary. Such a conservatism shades into reaction, moved more by fear than hope, mustering only doomed rear-guard campaigns as a response to the genuine perplexities of modern life.

Might the reason to convert have something to do with being saved from my sins? Tell me Rome has a better account of how I am right with God. Tell me that being right with God (as opposed being right with mother earth) even matters.

Wasn’t it someone important who said, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose own his soul”?

When Did Christian America End?

For some it happened recently. This blogger doesn’t refer to the Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, but it’s hard not to think he has it in mind:

The 350-year marriage of Protestant Christian theology and American popular culture is over. Christianity, it may be sadly said, is no longer the preeminent social influence in American life. We Christians who dared to presume that America was ever all and only ours are, apart from some God-ordained awakening, unlikely to “get our country back.” We will live and work henceforth, as do most other Christians around the world, amidst a public square hostile to our beliefs.

The odd wrinkle to Christian readings of the American revolution is that the United Kingdom was a Christian nation. Presbyterians were the established church in Scotland. And King George was head of a church that claimed George Washington as a member (and he was an orthodox Christian, you know). Plus, it seems that King George III wasn’t all that bad a king.

What the United States did was to establish itself without a Christian church. Advocates of a Christian America may not like the language of the separation of church and state, but what the United States did in comparison to Europe and 1500 years of history (and even compared to France where Napolean eventually made Roman Catholicism the established church) was to create a nation without a state church (at the national level — hello) and that prohibited religious tests for holding office. That also meant the churches (except for Congregationalists in New England) had to pay as they went on the basis of their own creative schemes for finding parishioners and persuading them to give (till it hurts — I mean, tithe).

So even though American has been secular for a long time — as long as the U.S.A. has existed — the events of two weeks ago seem to be decisive for making Christians of all kinds abandon the United States as a blessed, favored, or welcome place.

No one except for Rusty Reno seems to recall that in 1996, a time when the Internet was just catching on, Christians were also worried about “The End of Democracy”:

The prospect of a purely political decision from the Court led me back to the famous First Things symposium published in November 1996: “The End of Democracy?” The occasion for that symposium was a federal circuit-court decision finding a right (subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court) to doctor-assisted suicide. The reasons given were identical to those used to justify America’s abortion regime. Richard John Neuhaus and the others who participated in the symposium were deeply concerned about the perverse way in which our constitutional system was turning liberty into an enemy of life.

No matter what the higher courts decided, physician-assisted suicide is still on the books in Oregon. And the number of Americans — since we are after the 14th Amendment now citizens not of the states but of the nation — dying with the help of doctors in Oregon is growing — from 16 in 1998 to 105 last year.

So what I wonder is whether Christian America ended in 1998. I also wonder why more Christians have not been outraged by a federal government that allows Oregon to persist in this law. Maybe secession is unconstitutional, but can’t the Union kick states out? And why single out same-sex marriage? Wasn’t Roe v. Wade worse?

Is it simply that the Internet now gives Americans more room to hyperventilate about Outrage Porn?

Window Shut?

When asked about the need for the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” So how can it be that the new encyclical, Laudao Si, may be an indication that the Roman church is shutting the window that Pope John opened? How especially could a seemingly open, affable, and loose pope like Francis, function as a brake on progress in the church?

Just this morning I was reading Colleen McDannell’s fine book, The Spirit of Vatican II, a reflection on McDannell’s mother and the changes that she witnessed in her pre- and post-Vatican II life. Here is part of McDannell’s account of Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

Given that God acted within the world and not against it, people learned his mysterious designs by studying not only society but nature as well. The Constitution admitted that science and technology could foster a detached orientation toward matter that encouraged the denial of God’s involvement in life, but this need not be the case. Conducted in the correct spirit, science and technology could greatly improve the conditions of humanity. Science as well as philosophy, history, mathematics, and the arts served to elevate humanity to a “more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty.” (111-12)

The church, in other words, was opening up to the modern world of science and technology, and trying to avoid an overt association with things medieval.

Such openness is not how some are reading yesterday’s encyclical. Rusty Reno, for instance, thinks Pope Francis has impersonated William F. Buckley, Jr., and has stood up to yell “STOP” to the modern world:

Commentators are sure to make the false claim that Pope Francis has aligned the Church with modern science. They’ll say this because he endorses climate change. But that’s a superficial reading of Laudato Si. In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.

Francis describes the root of our problem as a failure to affirm God as Creator. Because we do not orient our freedom toward acknowledging God, the Father, we’re drawn into the technological project. We seek to subdue and master the world so that it can serve our needs and desires, thus treating “other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.” By contrast, if we acknowledge God as Creator, we can receive creation as a gift and see that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not found in us.”

In short, without a theocentric orientation, we adopt the anthropocentric presumption that we are at the center of reality. This tempts us to treat nature—and other human beings—as raw material to do with as we wish. For Francis, “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable.”

Of course, God is exactly what modernity has forgotten, which means that it too is “not acceptable”—exactly Pius IX’s conclusion. The Syllabus of Errors is exquisitely succinct. Laudato Si is verbose. But in a roundabout way Francis makes his own case against the modern world.

Mark Tooley seconds Reno and wonders whether we will have to give up air conditioners after Pope Francis is finished:

The new papal encyclical addressing climate change comes as I’m having central air conditioning installed in my Northern Virginia home. Likely I’m one of the last people in the notoriously muggy Washington, DC area not to have it. For nine years since purchasing my current home, which is 75 years old with radiator heat, I’ve postponed installation, trying to pretend it wasn’t needed, relying on overhead fans, window and floor units. After all, I largely grew up in the 1970s without it. My parents’ home didn’t have it (until after my brother and I moved out!). Neither did my elementary school. Central air was experienced in grocery stores, movie theaters, public libraries, and my grandparents’ house.

Currently I’m out of town, in pleasantly temperate Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending an Acton Institute conference on faith and free markets. But I can’t wait to get home and experience my new central air conditioning.

Interestingly, the new papal encyclical warns against air conditioning as a supposed contributor to climate change:

55. Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.

Ironically, a Slate.com column, which praises the papal encyclical as “more like a poetry slam at an Occupy Wall Street rally than a formal church document,” notes that in poor countries like India air conditioning is becoming a “human rights” issue:

An estimated 300 million people there—one-quarter of the country—has no access to electricity at all. Just last month the country endured the fifth-deadliest heat wave in world history. In India air conditioning is increasingly becoming a human rights issue. This is what the pope is talking about when he discusses climate change and poverty in the same breath.

But in fact the papal encyclical implies that Indians should go without air conditioning, and electricity for that matter, as 300 million joining the grid ostensibly would heat the planet. Despite rhetoric about renewables, the provision of electricity to the 1.3 billion in the world currently without it primarily requires more fossil fuel powered electrical generators. African and Asian countries are busily building mostly coal powered plants.

Should we in the wealthy West tell the 1.3 billion that they should live permanently without electricity? Many hundreds of millions more have unreliable sources of electricity. And most people globally have no air conditioning. Would they be wrong for wanting it?

Just at the time I need to open the window to let in a breeze, Pope Francis closes it.

An Evangelical Pope

As the returns come in, the difference between Rusty Reno at First Things and Michael Gerson at the Washington Post reinforce the notion that the more you want Christianity not to be bound by rules, institutions, or forms — which is to say, you’re an evangelical — the more you like Francis. And the more you want Christianity to provide rules, stability, and patterns for belief and practice — which is to say, you’re an institutional conservative (e.g. ecclesial or confessional Christian) — the more you wonder about Francis.

First the evangelical Gerson:

Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission. In the America interview, he vividly compared the church to “a field hospital after battle.” When someone injured arrives, you don’t treat his high cholesterol. “You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” The outreach of the church, in other words, does not start with ethical or political lectures. “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.”

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

Then the Episcopalian-turned-Roman Catholic Reno:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.

It’s in this context that Pope Francis makes extended observations about the profound pastoral challenge of ministering to gay people today, to which he adds the personal statement that he cannot judge a homosexual person who “is of good will and is in search of God.” He also speaks of other pastoral challenges: a divorced woman who has also had an abortion. These are subtle remarks, and necessary ones.

He sums up this section with statements about the witness of the Church today. They are the ones most often quoted: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” “It is not necessary to talk about these issue all the time.”

In themselves these statements are obvious and non-controversial. Since my entry in the Catholic Church in 2004, I have heard some homilies on abortion, gay marriage, and even one on contraception. But these are infrequent. For the most part priests expound the mystery of Christ, which, as Pope Francis emphasizes, is the source and foundation of our faith. Without Christ at the center, the Church’s moral teachings can quickly become mere moralism.

But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Francis is certainly giving new meaning to papal audacity and Roman Catholic conservatism.