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Tagcatholic

words and deeds

Pope Francis has issued several excellent statements on sexual abuse. But his actions haven’t matched his statements. Now he has made an impressive gesture. The summons to all the world’s episcopal conferences is unprecedented; under different circumstances it would convey a sense of urgency. Not now.

So in five months the representatives of the world’s bishops, who have fumbled and compounded this problem for decades, will meet with the Pope, who has been talking about the problem for years. And they’ll talk about it some more. If the meeting sticks to the announced agenda, it will do nothing to resolve the problem, nothing to ease the righteous anger of an outraged Catholic laity.

Phil Lawler. My predictions are still holding up, though it seems increasingly likely that Wuerl will retire. With many expressions of gratitude for all the wonderful service he has rendered, no doubt.

the report of the Reform Commission

This extraordinary ‘ministry of all the talents’ was shaped into a Reform Commission, to produce a report on the ills of the Church and to suggest remedies. Not a single member of the Curia was included. Its report, the Consilium de Emendenda Ecclesia , presented to the Pope in March 1537, was dynamite. In the bluntest of terms, it laid the blame for the ills of the Church, including the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, squarely on the papacy, cardinals and hierarchy. It listed the evils of the Church, from papal sales of spiritual privileges, curial stockpiling of benefices, heretical or pagan teaching in universities, down to such matters as the ignorance of country curates or the poor spiritual direction in convents of women. It lamented the corruptions of the religious orders, recommended that all but the strictly observant religious orders should be abolished, and that novices in slack houses should be removed at once before they could be contaminated.

— Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Papacy. The report was scuttled after a copy was leaked to Martin Luther and he gloated over it.

a clear choice

Matthew Schmitz:

If the church really does believe that homosexual acts are always and everywhere wrong, it should begin to live what it teaches. This would most likely mean enforcing the 2005 decree and removing clergy members caught in unchastity. If the church does not believe what it says — and there are now many reasons to think that it does not — it should officially reverse its teaching and apologize for centuries of pointless cruelty. 

This is exactly right. Refusing to change its teaching but also refusing to uphold it is the worst of all worlds, theologically, morally, and practically. 

populist leaders and the defiance of norms

After the release of the Vigano letter detailing Pope Francis’s rehabilitation of Cardinal McCarrick, people started saying, “I don’t see how Francis can survive this” or “This will mark the end of Francis’s papacy.” It’s precisely the same sort of thing that people say when yet another revelation about Donald Trump comes out, or yet another member of his inner circle is convicted of a felony.

And yet there is no plausible path for Trump to be removed from office — congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they will stick with him through thick and thin, and even a Democratic Senate won’t have enough votes to get him tossed out — and no path at all for Francis being forced to resign.

I think the assumption that many people make about both men is that they can be brought to heel by the force of political norms — that they will see, or those associated with them will see, that the violation of important norms makes their position unsustainable. But as I wrote 18 months ago,

Like Donald Trump, Francis makes dramatic and apparently extreme pronouncements which send the world into interpretative tizzies. When he says things like “Who am I to judge?” Catholics who support him effectively say that he should be taken “seriously but not literally” — just as Trump supporters say about their man. Both men generate massive, thick fogs of uncertainty.

Like Donald Trump, Francis cuts through political complications by issuing executive orders and blunt power grabs, as when he dismissed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and is seeking to replace him with a “papal delegate” under his own personal control, a move of questionable legality.

Like Donald Trump, Francis is an authoritarian populist: he bypasses institutional structures and governs by executive order, but believes that there can be nothing tyrannical about this because he is acting in the name of the people and is committed to “draining the swamp” of his institution’s internal corruption.

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possess — all the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

 

P.S. I wonder if the people who expect resignations or discipline of corrupt leaders tend to be old enough to remember stronger institutions, and more effectual norms, than the ones we have now.  Or perhaps they have participated in strong institutions. Younger people, and those whose experience with institutions has reinforced a belief in their weakness and inconsistency, don’t even bother to demand what seems to them clearly impossible.

big news, no action

The story Rod Dreher reports here would in a certain kind of world be catastrophic for the Catholic hierarchy. I do not believe that we live in that kind of world. Here’s what I think the fallout will be:

  • Pope Francis will not comment.
  • Curial spokesmen will make evasive comments, and simply deny that the Pope knew anything or did anything that would make him culpable.
  • American bishops will continue to deny that they knew anything about anything, and will, when talking among themselves, express great relief that the spotlight has shifted away from them for a while.
  • Expressions of regret will continue.
  • Committees and task forces will be convened.
  • No one will resign, and no one will be disciplined.
  • No collective action will be taken by lay Catholics.
  • The long slow drift of American Catholics away from Catholics will continue.

That’s it, I suspect. Given that (a) the statute of limitations on the worst crimes from the Pennsylvania dioceses has run out and (b) there is no institution capable of holding, or willing to hold, prelates accountable for non-criminal acts, what can happen? Nothing significant, as far as I can tell.

UPDATE 8/26: Yesterday I predicted that the Pope would not comment. Here’s what he said today on his flight from Ireland to Italy: “I read that Viganò statement this morning. I say this sincerely: read it carefully and judge for yourselves. I am not going to say a word about that. I believe that the document speaks for itself. You have the journalistic ability to draw conclusions, with your professional maturity. ” He added that he “may” talk about it in the future.

after Catholic fusionism, what?

Kevin Gallagher’s essay on “The Eclipse of Catholic Fusionism” is elegantly written, incisive, and largely quite persuasive. I commend it to you, and hope you read it straight through.

[Pause while you read it straight through.]

Now, I want to call attention to the essay’s final paragraph, breaking it into two parts. Here’s the first part:

Across the political spectrum, electoral dislocations and popular discontent have persuaded many that the liberal intellectual consensus of the last century is crumbling and unhelpful; what will succeed it is nowhere yet clear. But the resurgent discourse of identity suggests that the era of the naked public square is over, and political arguments made with baggage attached — representing a particular tradition, nation, or tribe — may now be admitted to the bar.

I have a question: Whose bar? Because the idea that there is a permanent, viewpoint-neutral court in which disputes can be adjudicated is the governing fiction of the very liberal order that Gallagher says is now collapsing. That belief in such a bar did indeed govern, and was indeed a fiction, was convincingly shown many years ago by Stanley Fish in the pages of First Things, back when First Things was the parish magazine of fusionism:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable.

The collapse of the liberal order means the collapse of the very category that Gallagher invokes here: “arguments made with baggage attached.” After liberalism all arguments are understood to have baggage attached, which means that the relevant question becomes: What baggage are you carrying? And the baggage carried by Catholics is simply not welcome at the bar of the New Just City. Gallagher is implicitly rehashing here the old saw that “postmodernism brings a level playing field,” when in fact it relieves the rulers of the obligation to level that field. Under the ancien regime of liberalism people needed to come up with reasons for dismissing religious positions, and typically did so, even when the reasons were very badly formed indeed; now the reasons are unnecessary. “You’re a bigot” does the job just fine. As I once heard Richard Rorty say, “The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” There may be, and indeed I think there are, good reasons to abandon fusionism, but the idea that in our current order integralist and other post-fusionism arguments will have greater purchase than fusionism did is, I fear, a fantasy.

Now on to the second half of that paragraph:

For Catholics, this is an invitation to boldness, to parrhesia: there is no point in watering down traditional teachings to comply with the norms of a decaying liberal discourse. And for non-Catholics, it offers the possibility of new political alignments, based not on a false equation of Catholicism with any other school of thought, but on the identification of genuinely shared goals. As Catholics become less diffident about the politics their religious commitments imply, they can be more selective in their alliances, seeking allies that not merely pay the Church occasional lip service, but genuinely engage with her ideas. Catholics, of course, hold these ideas to be true. But even nonbelievers may have reason to welcome a more intellectually assertive Catholic politics. In this ideologically unstable era, the tradition of the Church offers an alternative to moribund liberal modes of political thought, an alternative that may avoid many of the errors and illusions that confound contemporary society. As that ideology loses its grip, as liberalism loses credibility, there is less profit than ever in a scheme of fusionist accommodation. To participate in this no-longer-neutral public square, the Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice.

Again, I agree with the conclusion but not with the reasons stated to support it. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Catholic particularism will have any more “credibility” to the society at large than Catholic fusionism did. “The Catholic tradition must be prepared to speak in its own voice” not because that will be more credible or effective but because it is the Catholic tradition’s own voice. Calculations of political effectiveness are misplaced in a social environment where all substantive (and hence exclusive) religious stances are indistinguishable from the grossest bigotry. The dogma living loudly within you won’t win many friends or influence many people. But it ought to live loudly within you anyway.

Which leads me to my chief point: earlier I pointed out that Gallagher was employing a category (“arguments that carry baggage”) that in our moment has become invalid, and now I’m going to point out one that’s absent from his essay but I think has some use. That category is “Christian.” Note that Gallagher writes of “non-Catholics” and then, a little later, writes of “nonbelievers” in a way that suggests he sees the two terms as synonymous. I suggest that they aren’t. But Gallagher’s essay contains only the vaguest of hints that non-Catholic Christians exist.

This means that he doesn’t note that one of the natural outgrowths of Catholic fusionism was a certain attention to ecumenism. If, as a Catholic, you could make common cause with free-market conservatives, then you certainly ought to be able to make even more common cause with free-market conservative Protestants, especially if they also shared your views on abortion. Thus the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, which began, more or less, here and is now moribund.

For many years I tried to persuade reluctant or indifferent Catholics that this kind of ecumenism is not just feasible but mandatory. I typically did so by citing, enthusiastically and in great detail, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (See an example of this kind of argument here. I was so innocent then.) But eventually it dawned on me that the Argument from Catechism was wholly ineffective. For liberal Catholics, it is a product of the very Magisterial authority that they try hard not to think about; for integralists and other traditionalists, its close association with the much-loathed Second Vatican Council — very large chunks of the Catechism are copied and pasted from the documents of Vatican II, and this is especially true of the sections dealing with the “separated brethren” — tends to make it even less appealing to them than it is to liberals.

I just wish I had realized this about a decade earlier than I did.

So I am left with a few questions for integralists and other traditionalists. Without asking that you in any way compromise your integralism or traditionalism, I wonder:

  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you theologically?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean?
  • Does the category “non-Catholic Christian” mean anything to you politically, and especially in the American context?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, what does it mean? Do you think of these particular matters in ways distinct from the fusionists?

episcopal feelings

One of the more curious aspects of the fallout from the recent revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is the emergence of a certain language of emotion. For instance, Richard Malone, Bishop of Buffalo, wants his flock to know that when he took his recent vacation his “time away for R&R was clouded by the challenges we are facing right now in our diocese.“ He found that his mind was “preoccupied” and his heart was “troubled.” He had feelings. We know that he cares, we know that he takes these “challenges” seriously, because of the feelings he had — even at the beach.

The idea that underlies this kind of communication is made quite explicit in this interview with Fr. Hans Zollner, “a member of the Vatican Commission against paedophilia and president of the Child Protection Centre established at the Pontifical Gregorian University.” The key moment comes when Zollner is asked if the Church is doing enough to protect children and to respond to its past failures to protect them. Zollner’s response: “If we talk about these cases and remain shocked, it means we are taking them seriously.” He goes on in the usual vacuously bureaucratic way to describe the scheduling of “meetings and workshops,” but really the whole substance of his response is this: What matters is how we the clergy feel.

Were your children abused? Well, just look at how “shocked” I am. There. Better now?

When conservative and traditionalist Catholics talk about changes in the Church since Vatican II, one of their most constant themes is the near-disappearance of Confession, of the sacrament of Penance. You can find plenty of commentary on this phenomenon not just in Catholic venues — here and here, for instance — but also in Slate and the Washington Post. (That last piece, from 2007, is about a big push for a return to Confession in the Archdiocese of Washington by its then-newly-appointed archbishop, Donald Wuerl.) There are many speculations about why confession has fallen into such disfavor, but I won’t get into those here, because I have a different point to make.

One could argue that the really key thing about the historical, now almost lost, understanding of penance is this: it’s not something you feel, it’s something you do. There’s an excellent moral realism in this emphasis. Feelings come and go; feelings can be manufactured or pretended-to. But actions — you either do those or you don’t. You say your paternosters or you don’t say them. You wear sackcloth and pour ashes on your head, or not. You take the road to Canossa or you stay home.

Now, to be sure, these actions can be taken for impure reasons. Maybe you wear the sackcloth because you want people to see how holy you are; maybe you kneel before the Pope because you want to keep your crown. But you’re putting yourself to trouble, maybe to some really significant trouble. Moreover, as Bertolt Brecht noted, “weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” There are costs to acts of penance, some known, some unknown and unanticipated.

The declaration of feeling, by contrast, is cost-free. Nothing is easier than to say that one’s heart was troubled at the beach, or that one is shocked — shocked! — by further revelations of abuse. Which is why so many Christians are begging the bishops to do something, something that enacts penitence, or at least grief. But the most the bishops, who themselves seem wholly unaware of the enacted grammar of penance, are willing to do is to speak of their feelings.

Oh wait, they also schedule workshops. My bad. Complaint retracted.

an apology

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I sought to express solidarity with what many of my faithful Catholic friends are going through these days. I also sent the link to some of those who have been on my mind. Very few of them responded at all, and among those who did respond, while a small handful were grateful, the predominant tone was one of irritation. I clearly touched a raw nerve, or struck the wrong tone, or something. I honestly do not know what went awry, but something did, and I am sorry for it. I never would have published the post if I had known that it would bring no comfort.

And if you are one of those friends who found my post somehow inappropriate, I would be grateful to you if you wrote to explain where and how I went astray. I will listen with open ears and heart.

common prayer

I have many faithful Catholic friends who are hurting right now — who are in deep pain, even anguish. They stay in the forefront of my prayers, along with the victims of clerical abuse. (And of course, many of those victims remain faithful Catholics, though who knows how many have left Catholicism and even the Christian faith altogether.) 

I am also praying for the clerical abusers and their enablers, my primary emphasis being that they find true repentance and express that repentance publicly. For what it’s worth, I wholly (and quite seriously) endorse Sohrab Amari’s suggestion

But the first step is, as I say, sackcloth and ashes. I mean that quite literally. Following ancient Israel’s footsteps, the early Church adopted ashes as an expression of sorrow for sin. Depending on the sin, public penitents were required to wear ashes and sackcloth. The Church should bring back such practices. Whatever criminal and civil consequences await McCarrick, he should also be called to Rome and forced to circle Saint Peter’s Square in sackcloth and ashes, perhaps while the pope observes from the steps of the basilica. Or how about having McCarrick spend hours kneeling at a prie-dieu while Pope Francis looks upon him with anger and contempt? Others have proposed corporal punishments. I’m not opposed to these, either. The point is that the old apologies and settlements won’t do. 

But I am not dwelling on the clerics. It’s those who are wounded by clerical sin and crime who primarily concern me. 

And, I think it essential to say, these are not the wounds of Roman Catholicism. These are the wounds of the Body of Christ. Insofar as we are members of that Body those wounds are ours. This is no time for those of us who belong to the Reformation traditions to be smug (as though we have a leg to stand on anyway). This is time for every Christian to weep with those who weep. This is the time to confess our own sins of omission and commission. This is a time to ask God to reveal to us all that we have done and left undone that pride and complacency and fear do not allow us to perceive. This is a time to bear one another’s burdens. This is a time to pray a common prayer, and die a common death. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” 

excerpts from my Sent folder: the Mortara case

No, Cessario is quite explicit about this: “Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing.” Not merely a Christian upbringing, but specifically a Catholic one. In terms of canon law and the law of Vatican City, what mattered about Mortara’s case was not that the Mortaras were Jewish but that they were not Catholic. Though it’s hard for me to believe that the actuating motive here wasn’t antisemitism, if David Kertzer is right in his book on the case, Pio Nono might have been even stricter with a Protestant family:

Events of 1848-49 only strengthened Pius IX’s opposition to the idea of freedom of religion. He was committed to the principle of the Catholic state, one in which any other religion had to be viewed with suspicion and closely regulated, if not banned. This principle extended not only to the Jews but to other Christian denominations as well. Indeed, the Pope was more favorably inclined toward the Jews, who represented no threat to the Holy Church, than toward the Protestants, who did. To the complaints of those who said that the Jews were poorly treated in the Papal States, the Pope and his defenders could argue that, on the contrary, they were accorded privileged treatment, allowed to have their own synagogues and practice their religion undisturbed. By contrast, Protestants were not permitted such freedoms, and Rome itself had no real Protestant church, other than a converted granary outside town used by diplomatic personnel and other foreigners. Papal police stood guard at its doors to ensure that no native went inside.

There are of course legitimate arguments to be had about whether true Christian faith is compatible with the liberal order, whether separation of church and state is a good idea, what Pio Nono’s true motives were, and so on — but there’s no doubt that the politico-theological principle at stake in the Mortara case does not concern the relations between Christians and Jews but rather the relations between the Catholic Church and everybody else.

a Holy Week thought on rhetorical Leninism

If you’re the kind of writer who works to be generous and fair-minded; if you admit that you have priors that incline you towards certain positions and away from others; if you’re willing to acknowledge that your preferred positions on a given issue are not without weaknesses, that there are trade-offs involved, and that those who choose the other side are not acting irrationally (even if you think they ultimately make the wrong call); then you should pursue that path only because you think it’s the right thing to do and not because you expect or even hope that people who disagree with you will extend similar courtesies to you. Because they almost certainly won’t.

Here’s a recent example: Michael Sean Winters reviewing Ross Douthat’s new book. Douthat exhibits all the traits I mentioned in the previous paragraph — I would call them “virtues,” though YMMV — and Winters, with the assurance characteristic of those who feel themselves enfolded by the wings of the Angels of Righteousness, announces his Judgment: Douthat’s “facts are nonsense, his arguments tendentious, and his thesis so absurd it is shocking, absolutely shocking, that no one over at Simon & Schuster thought to ask if what he writes is completely or only partially unhinged. I incline to the former adverb.” You can read further from there if you want; the review grows less restrained as it goes along.

Is Winters right?  You will not be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced. (Even if didn’t call Ross a friend, I am always profoundly suspicious of declarations that definitive, whether they are positive or negative.) He quotes unnamed sources who say that Douthat is wrong, while ignoring Douthat’s own sources. He says that “thoughtful, learned churchmen” see things as he himself does — which I suppose leaves us to conclude that the churchmen Douthat quotes are neither thoughtful nor learned, though it seems to this observer that that point might profitably be debated. Again and again he assures us that there are no arguments for positions other than his own. I’m pretty sure that these matters are not as crystal-clear as Winters claims, but I don’t want to debate the substance here. What I am interested in, rather, is Winters’ scorched-earth approach.

It’s especially noteworthy, I think, that he simply ignores 95% of Douthat’s book, presumably because he doesn’t find anything in it to loathe. Which should remind us that, despite superficial appearances, what Winters has written is not a book review: it is a skirmish in a great War for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. And Winters quite evidently believes that the stakes of this war are such that generosity, or even elementary fairness, to one’s enemies is no virtue. The proper name for Winters’s strategy is rhetorical Leninism. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” No mercy for the enemies of Pope Francis!

Always remember, those of you who strive for fairness and humility and charity and (yes) mercy: this is the coin in which you will surely be paid. And with that, a blessed Triduum to you all.

exegetical puzzlement

Much of Paul Baumann’s review of Ross Douthat’s new book is devoted to intra-Catholic disputes that I won’t presume to adjudicate, but there’s one passage that strikes me as extremely odd:

Douthat is right about Jesus’ intransigence regarding marriage in Mark’s Gospel : “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (10:9). Matthew, however, finds this teaching too hard, and exercising his authority as an Apostle, an authority conferred by Jesus, grants an exception for “unchastity” (5:32; 19:9).

Now, the passages Baumann cites are from extended teachings by Jesus. So Baumann’s interpretation of those passages is that when Matthew claims to be reporting what Jesus said, what he’s actually doing is presenting his own teaching about marriage — but that’s okay because his authority to do so was conferred on him by Jesus. Which is one of the more peculiar bits of exegesis I have ever come across.

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)

late-career Papacy: two models

It strikes me that the future of the Roman Catholic Church in my lifetime, and perhaps well beyond, may largely be determined by which of his two predecessors Pope Francis takes as his model for the final stage of a papacy. For John Paul II, the increasing frailty and illness of his last years were almost a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inner radical dependence on God. (“Though he slay me, I will yet trust in him.”) For him, the public bearing of affliction was a necessary consequence of the burden he had taken on when he assumed the seat of St. Peter. For Benedict, by contrast, those burdens were to be set aside when honest self-reflection told him he could no longer stand under them.

I am not interested in judging either choice – indeed, only God can do that – but rather merely in pointing out that if Francis follows John Paul’s model he could be Pope for a very long time, and therefore, even if (or especially if) he gradually turns over more and more decisions to his subordinates and allies, could reshape the Church so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine how it could be set back on the path that both John Paul and Benedict set it on. Conversely, if he follows Benedict’s model and resigns – which it has been reported he has occasionally said he would do – then there is at least a chance for the next conclave to engineer a reversal of course.

I do not know whether any Pope has ever made a more significant decision than the one that Francis will make about how his papacy should end. And it is Deeply ironic that a decision must be made only because of a dramatic innovation by that great traditionalist, Benedict.

A Tradinista! Manifesto

A Tradinista! Manifesto

before Francis

The problem arises from the strange status of human nature in the cosmos; we are a part of the whole yet we are a very peculiar part, the part that is open to the whole and in whom the whole is recapitulated and anticipated. Renaissance poets captured this by calling man a microcosm. We are at once in and of the material world and yet capable of transcending, in our unrestricted desire to know, any and all material objects that we encounter.

It is a mark of the brilliance of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that, in their reflections on the environment, they not only supply a context within which our present difficulties become intelligible, but that they also return us to the perennial sources of wonder in the philosophical and theological tradition.

How we ought to respond to our present difficulties will require a complex negotiation of an array of factors. But this much is clear. We will not even formulate the problems correctly unless we recover some sense of the proper place of the human person in the cosmos.

Thomas Hibbs in 2011, giving us a sense of how deeply Francis’s new encyclical draws on the work of his predecessors

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

It was markedly different from the sermon delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the eve of the previous conclave, in 2005, when he rallied the cardinals by pitting the virtuous Church against the world’s “dictatorship of relativism.” That sermon, encapsulating Ratzinger’s vision of the Church’s moral superiority, was widely perceived as having sealed his election. Now a cardinal was speaking very differently. “One must humble himself before God and men, and try to eradicate the evil at all costs,” Grech said.

James Carroll: A Radical Pope’s First Year : The New Yorker.

Is that what Cardinal Ratzinger preached? Well, you can read the sermon for yourself. Speaking to his fellow cardinals, Ratzinger said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” He said to them, “We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith — only faith — that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.” He said to them, “The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures.”

For a “virtuous church” it, along with its leaders, seemed to require a great deal of prayer in order for it to become what it should be. Only someone, like Carroll, with a desperate determination to see Francis as Benedict’s opposite in every way would be able to reach so willfully perverse a reading of Benedict’s sermon. That the Church’s leadership is failing its people is a point on which Benedict and Francis are in perfect agreement.

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