Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

Subsidiarity Matters

What happens when you locate the vitality of your religious tradition in the officers who are far removed from the socializing and rearing of human beings?

American Protestants are keeping their children in the faith at a higher rate than Catholics or the unaffiliated, according to the latest study from the Pew Research Center.

Four out of five children raised by two Protestant parents remained Protestant into adulthood. For those raised in Protestant homes where religion was very important or often discussed, the retention rate jumps even higher (85% and 89%, respectively).

For those raised by a single parent who was Protestant, the retention rate doesn’t dip much. Three-quarters of American adults who had a Protestant single parent still identify as Protestant.
Those raised by two Catholic or unaffiliated parents, on the other hand, were equally less likely (62%) to remain in their parents’ religion—or lack thereof.

A theology of the body for the trenches?

“One pattern regarding the passing on of religious identity from one generation to the next is clear,” Pew stated. “Among those who were raised in a single religious background (especially within Protestantism), the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood.”

Bishops Talking, and Talking, and Talking

Patrick Deneen recently complained about the right-wing, GOP-supporting, critics of Pope Francis under the provocative title, “Would Someone Just Shut that Pope Up?” Deneen’s point was more to the effect that critics like Rush Limbaugh should shut up than the other way around. Either way, the piece brings attention to how much the papacy speaks and how much pundits or talk-show hosts speak more. We are surrounded by papal speech and responses to and interpretations of papal speech.

After looking at the Archbishop of Albany’s pastoral statements yesterday, I was unaware of all the speech that all bishops communicate. In fact, a quick surf around the interweb revealed that Archbishop Howard Hubbard (Albany) is restrained compared to other archbishops. Here, for instance, is a catalog of Charles Chaput’s statements, the archbishop of Philadelphia. Here are the statements of Archbishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo of Richmond, Virginia. And here are the statements from William E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore. Compared to papal statements, these U.S. bishops rival in number the communications from popes like Paul VI or Gregory XVI.

Some of the bishops’ statements are trivial, such as this from Archbishop Di Lorenza on the relocation of a prep school:

An outstanding Catholic education has been provided to high school students in the Benedictine tradition at its three-story facility on Sheppard Street in Richmond’s Museum District since 1911. In 2011 the Diocese of Richmond purchased the Sheppard Street complex including the school building, the priory building, the gymnasium and the parking lot parking adjacent to St. Benedict Church to insure the viability of St. Benedict Parish.

Others like this one by Archbishop Chaput, explore tensions that Jason and the Callers sublimate:

Tocqueville saw public opinion as a great vulnerability for democracy. In a democracy – at least in theory — every man is his own final moral authority. But the reality is different. Men and women very soon discover how isolated and uninformed they are as individuals. In the absence of a strong religious or similar community, they tend to abdicate their thinking to public opinion, which is the closest that purely secular democracies ever come to a consensus. To the degree that public opinion can be manipulated, democratic life is subverted.

This is why the Founders saw religion as so important to the health of the public square:. At its best, faith creates a stable moral framework for political discourse and morally educated citizens to conduct the nation’s work. The trouble is, no religion can survive on its utility. People don’t conform their lives to a message because it’s useful. They do it because they believe the message is true and therefore life-giving. Or they don’t do it.

My point is this: The “next America” we now see emerging – an America ignorant or cynical toward religion in general and Christianity in particular — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. It’s a new America, but it’s made in America. We can blame the mass media, or the academy, or science, or special interest groups for the environment we now face. But we Christians – including we Catholics — helped create it with our eagerness to fit in, our distractions and overconfidence, and our own lukewarm faith.

Too many people who claim to be Christian simply don’t know Jesus Christ. They don’t really believe in the Gospels. They feel embarrassed by their religion and vaguely out of step with the times. They may keep their religion for comfort value. Or they may adjust it to fit their doubts. But it doesn’t reshape their lives because it isn’t real. And because it isn’t real, it has no transforming effect on their personal behavior, no social force and few public consequences. That sort of faith is exactly the same kind of religion that Symmachus once mourned. Whatever it once was – now, it’s dead.

Still others indicate the changes that were in the air after Vatican II, like this from Archbishop Hubbard in Albany:

When we speak of the Church, we are dealing with a living mystery. As the Second Vatican Council expressed it, the Church is a mystery prefigured in creation, prepared in the history of Israel, initiated by the Holy Spirit and reaching its fulfillment only at the end of time (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, par. 2). The Church is that mystery in which is made visible God’s saving presence in Christ Jesus. It is Christ’s mission that the Church is about; it is Christ’s message it strives to communicate to others and it is His ministry that it extends into the world.

Because the Church is a mystery, therefore, it cannot be totally understood or fully defined. But from its very beginning the Church has been revealed to be a community of people formed by the word of God, animated by the creative power of the Holy Spirit and sustained by the worship and service of its members. Its mission is both to proclaim the message of Christ for the enlightenment of the hearts and minds of people and to provide a place where His healing presence can be experienced. As such, the Church must always understand itself as not existing for itself but for the world. The Church can never be a mission or ministry to itself; rather it is to be a community of ministers charged with the task of bringing the healing presence of Christ to a wounded humanity.

We who belong to the Church today, then, are called to be the community described in the New Testament where all things were held in common; where Paul urged that competition should be in giving service; where Jesus said that those who would be great should be the servants of all people.


In 1978, I suggested that the Second Vatican Council had given us a concept that enables us to be the Church, the community of God’s people in our day: the concept of shared responsibility. Put succinctly, shared responsibility means that each of us, by virtue of baptism, has the right and the duty to participate in Christ’s mission of praising and worshiping the Lord, of teaching His word, of serving His people and of building a community here on earth in preparation for the fullness of life together in the kingdom of heaven.

Through baptism, in other words, every Christian is brought into an intimate, personal and abiding union with Jesus and with all other Christians. This sacramental dignity unites popes, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity in the one body of Christ which is the Church. It also serves as a mandate to each of us to use his or her talents so that the mission of Christ and His Church may be fulfilled.

. . . the Church is a community of collaborative ministry. That is a community in which each member is challenged to see his or her baptism as a call to holiness and ministry; a community which seeks to help its members to discern the personal charisms given them by the Spirit and to enable them to employ their gifts in the mission the Church; a community whose ordained and vowed ministers see the fostering of greater participation in the work of the Church as essential to their responsibility as leaders.

This understanding of the priestly ministry which belongs to the entire Church and this emphasis on collaborative ministry have profound implications for ordained ministers, religious and the laity.

Bishops, priests and deacons, for example, must recognize and appreciate that their ordained ministry arises from the priestly call that is given to the entire Church and exists for the purpose of enabling the whole Christian Community to be a priestly people.

Still, no matter how much the bishops talk, no one except for perhaps a very few in the church pay attention to their bishop’s statements. For instance, the pastoral letter from Jose H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, a reflection on the new evangelization called for by Benedict XVI, failed to gain any press coverage outside Roman Catholic news agencies. (A search at the Los Angeles Times produced the proverbial crickets).

So why do church members and journalists and pundits pay so little attention to any bishop who is not presiding at Rome? Don’t these non-Roman bishops have charism? Are not they successors to the apostles? And what happened to the collegiality for which Vatican II called? Did St. Peter only have one set of keys made? Are non-Roman bishops chopped liver? (Ask Alexander VI.)

My explanation is that the doctrine of subsidiarity notwithstanding, the qualities of celebrity, publicity, historical associations, and nostalgia for the imperial capital all point to the papacy as an institution that detracts from the pastoral work of local bishops and priests. The government of the United States is a perfect analogy. How much do I know about the mayor of Hillsdale or the governor of Michigan compared to the news I easily follow about the president and congress of our national government? (How much, for that matter, do I know about Chinese or French politics and economics compared to what I think I know about the Affordable Care Act or the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan?)

I understand from some interlocutors that I don’t know what I’m talking about (on many things) when it comes to subsidiarity. Some have tried to instruct me that subsidiarity only applies to society, which is even what the church’s catechism teaches. But that same catechism defines as society as “a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them. As an assembly that is at once visible and spiritual, a society endures through time: it gathers up the past and prepares for the future” [1880]. Since the church is a society — “The church, as has been seen, is a society formed of living men, not a mere mystical union of souls. As such it resembles other societies. Like them, it has its code of rules, its executive officers, its ceremonial observances” — I don’t see why what’s good for one society is not good for another, natural law, grace completes nature, and all that (especially since for more of its history than not the papacy ruled over a temporal society).

If that is the case, then I (all about Protestant me) do not see why this interpretation of subsidiarity does not apply to all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church:

One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

This is why Pope John Paul II took the “social assistance state” to task in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. The Pontiff wrote that the Welfare State was contradicting the principle of subsidiarity by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility. This “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

Why subsidiarity does not apply to the relations among the local bishops and the pope is hard to figure. Could it be that the Vatican does not trust local authorities? If so, this suspicion has not kept the bishops quiet. They have been more talkative that most church officials. Maybe with the help of subsidiarity, the spotlight can shine less on Rome and more on places like Lansing, Michigan and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

2K Subsidiarity?

What’s good for society is not so much for the church.

Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny. It makes hierarchy more a matter of enabling those in the middle and bottom to carry on their lives than giving those at the top the power to plan out what is wanted and see to its achievement. It rejects the conception of social justice most common today, which emphasizes equality and universality and thus a comprehensive system of supervision and control. Instead, it stands for the Catholic and classical conception of social justice, a state of affairs in which each part of the social order receives its due so it can carry out its proper function.

More generally, it rejects present-day liberalism, the attempt to turn the social order into a technically rational contrivance for maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences. It opposes it not only in its leftist or progressive form, which emphasizes expertise and equality, and prefers to act through neutral bureaucracies and international authorities, but also in its rightist or conservative form, which emphasizes energy and efficiency, and prefers global markets and the exercise of national power. So it is ill at ease with both the politically-correct welfare state and such aspects of present-day capitalism as outsourcing, big box stores, the penetration of commercial relations into all aspects of life, and the bottom line as the final standard for business decisions.

It nonetheless accepts certain tendencies often identified as conservative or liberal. It generally favors family values, distributed powers, federalism, local control, and freedom of enterprise and association, all of which now count as conservative causes. It also favors causes that count as liberal, such as grassroots democracy, limitations on big business as well as big government, and certain kinds of unionism. It favors neighborliness and an active civil society, which everyone says he likes, and maintenance of borders and limits on globalization, which our major parties along with the whole of our ruling class now reject.

The life of the Church provides a concrete example of why subsidiarity makes sense and how it works. The point of the formal structure of the Church, her hierarchy, sacraments, disciplines, and subordinate bodies, is to help the faithful become what God intended them to be. That purpose can’t be legislated, administered, or forced on anyone, but it can be aided, and that is the point of what the Church does as an organized community. As the saying goes, salus animarum suprema lex (“the salvation of souls is the supreme law”).

To that end, the aspects of the life of the Church that normally matter most—parish life, the availability of the sacraments, and the religious life of the believer and his network of family and friends—are necessarily local.

I do not understand why papal supremacy and the centralization of church power in Rome fits neatly with such a subsidiarist outlook. The Reformation questioned the centralization of European church life. Protestants are inherently subsidiarist while Roman Catholics have to hedge.

Who's Your Bishop?

I wonder what Christian Smith is thinking today about words he wrote (published in 2011) about his conversion to Roman Catholicism:

I also worry a bit in all of this that, for all of the standard associations of apostasy and error that “Rome” evokes for some Protestants, the same “Rome” may stir up unduly romanticized visions among evangelicals who are contemplating “swimming the Tiber.” Becoming Catholic, we must remember, is not primarily a matter of venturing off “to Rome” to soak up the splendor of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the wonder of the ancient Catacombs, the endless memorials to Christian martyrs, and the like. All of that is good and fine, as long as it is not turned into some kind of “Catholic Disneyland.” But Rome is not ultimately what Catholicism is about.

That is not the impression an observer would take away from matters Roman Catholic since Benedict’s abdication (or from the Callers).

Smith adds:

Rome is certainly an indispensable, authoritative sign of Christian communion, a testimony and instrument of the authentic catholicity of the believers and church which stand in full communion with her. But Rome is not everything. Rome is one thing in one place — as central, indispensable, and valuable as it is. The Catholic Church, by contrast, is nearly everywhere, doing lots of things, in various ways.

In a footnote, Smith explains:

. . . the Catholic Church is an assembly of thousands of distinct dioceses spread throughout the world that are united through the bonds of mutual communion, especially as embodied through their full communion with the bishop of Rome and all bishops throughout the world. It is the latter view, which sees one diocese and parish as one’s true local home, which I wish to emphasize to evangelicals considering my “return to Rome.”

Smith’s brief for the local parish and diocese surely fits with the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, the idea that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority possible. I myself have always thought that Protestantism was the ecclesiological embodiment of subsidiarity and that the papacy was at odds with that principle. So while I applaud Christian Smith’s ecclesiastical localism, I am having trouble thinking that he described accurately what we have witnessed over the last four weeks. I even wonder how many of the recent converts to Rome, who are ecstatic about the Conclave and its result, actually know the identity of their local bishop. Did they celebrate when he took office? Did they notice?