While away this summer I read Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, a story about a Roman Catholic women, with a strongly plagued conscience, who figures out to do with her life after her father dies, a man whom she had offended and to whom she tried to make amends by taking care of him (a stroke incapacitated him) for eleven years. It is a novel about growing up in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and whiffs of what the new order are like emerge. But it is not a heavily religious novel. It does, though, have this observation about Protestantism in comparison to Roman Catholicism:
Protestants, it said, thought about moral issues, drank water and ate crakcers, took care to exercise and had a notion that charity was synonymous with good works. Catholics, on the other hand, thought about eternity, drank wine, smoked cigards, were somtimes extravavgant, but knew that charity was a fire in the heart of God and never confused it with that Protestant invention, philanthropy.
It is an odd take on Protestantism since one of Trent’s major objections to the Reformation was the idea that one could be saved apart from good works (of course, I’d need to qualify that as the Reformed confessions did). For Rome, Protestantism was an open invitation to licentiousness and antinomianism. Now, Gordon, among others, is telling us we are moralists.
Ross Douthat’s recent post on Jody Bottom’s switch on gay marriage (Bottom was formerly editor of First Things) reminded me of this passage from Gordon and my plan to comment on it:
In the longstanding, not-unjustified stereotypes of Western religious conflict, Roman Catholicism was generally seen as far more accommodating and tolerant — or, alternatively, more decadent and lax — than its Protestant rivals on matters related to the human body and the human heart. The structure of Catholicism, with its elevation of religious life in all its varied forms above the family unit, was always friendlier to what today we might call non-heteronormative aspirations, male and female, than many other churches (and, indeed, than many other civilizations). The emphasis that the church’s sacramental life placed on the cycle of confession-sin-repentance, as Bottum notes, tended to create a moral economy in which fallenness was taken for granted, and wider latitude extended to people who persisted in their sins than was sometimes the case in the sterner, Calvin-influenced precincts of Christendom. (The old Protestant image of Jesuitical confessors performing elaborate logical contortions to minimize the gravity of moral faults — and has — some basis in reality.) And then of course the deeply carnal nature of Catholic liturgy and art and culture created a broad religio-aesthetic landscape in which a wide diversity of enfleshed desires could be projected, expressed, sublimated, channeled, fulfilled.
This historical and cultural backdrop helps explain several things about how the gay marriage debate has played out among American Catholics. (And elsewhere, as well.) First, it’s probably one of the reasons why Catholics as a demographic have tilted somewhat more strongly in favor of same-sex marriage than other major Christian groups.
Of course, Rome was not always tolerant of all form of deviancy. It did give us the Inquisition, the Index of Books, and bishops at Vatican I were excommunicated for not endorsing papal supremacy and infallibility. Why the church would fudge on morality but not on words, ideas, or authority, or not see how looking the other way on morality might actually jeopardize authority is another matter.
What I find intriguing about Douthat’s piece is this kind of admission about Roman Catholic laxity in the context of a major sex scandal. Again, I don’t like going after the child abuse business because it is a case of hitting a man when he is down. But would the kind of leniency Douthat describes account in part for a culture that covered up what priests did? Wouldn’t that also explain why Vatican officials ignored the enormous indiscretions of the Renaissance popes? Might it not also explain why the Vatican was cozy — too much at times — with fascist governments? Sure, you could say that the fascists were anti-Communist. But John Lukacs has long argued that Communism is closer to Christianity than fascism. In other words, rather than a strength, Douthat’s depiction of Rome is a weakness (some would say major).
Meanwhile, the church did advocate celibacy, poverty and other forms of self-abasement as the surest way to salvation for monks, nuns, and clergy. Maybe they needed to be forgiving of sexual shenanigans since the laity didn’t have a clear guide for life in the secular world.
One last thought concerns the severity of Calvinism. I have no doubt that Calvinism draws its share of moralists — just say hello to the theonomists. But if you read through the registry of Geneva’s consistory — at roughly the very time when Englishmen were being inspired to be Puritans (as in purify church and society) — you see remarkable patience with the sins of the Genevans. One case, for instance, involved a man who had gotten his married chambermaid pregnant through fornication. This fellow’s penalty: he was admonished and sent to the city council who imprisoned him for 9 days. (Registers of the Consistory of Geneva, Vol. 1, 388-89). If this example is any indication — and I’ve only skimmed the Register, the moralism that afflicts contemporary Reformed Protestants may have less to do with Reformation theology than the spread of middle class virtues and an egalitarian intolerance of difference.
Bottom line: I’m not sure why Douthat finds this side of Rome appealing. Nor am I certain that moralism is inherent to Calvinism.