Colm Tóibín’s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is a real treat. There’s nothing like seeing the familiar, in this case Catholicism, from an eccentric standpoint. It’s a roller-coaster ride where the memoirist simultaneously plays the role of Catholic insider and outsider. Tóibín frequently rubs me the wrong way with his pronouncements about Polish Catholicism (which I partially registered here).
His speculation that John Paul II would not even know how to fathom the profound depths of Bultmannian demythologization in the watered-down secondhand version Tóibín got from the first-rate second-rate theologian Norbert Brox is (hopefully) unintentionally comical. Note the Dowdish bathos (again, comedy?) when he obliquely references Hamlet in his evaluation of Brox vs. Wojtyla:
“It struck me that these new ideas [of gnostic provenance, only about 1900 years older than Bultmann (my own interjection)] were being fostered once more in the fertility of the German mind, and were so far from what is dreamed of in John Paul II’s philosophy that he probably would not know how to counteract them.”
These revelations are usually followed in the memoir by serious (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) reluctance to submit to Catholic discipline and mysteriously combined with mind-numbingly uncritical acceptance of Primal Scream therapy along with a heavy dose of ketamine.
I’m having too much fun here, but he does get serious and insightful:
“‘Protestants one, Catholics nil,’ I said to myself as I went to midnight Mass the following evening in the Catholic cathedral in Regensburg. But then I thought about it: they won on music and sheer, solemn style, and their churches were charming and pretty and neat. But their churches were small. Our Catholic cathedral in Regensburg, on the other hand, was a big soaring, shadowy Gothic structure, by far the most imposing building in the city. They had Bach; we had buttressing.”
[Video courtesy of Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ who runs a respectable and noteworthy blog “The City and the World.” Give it a spin here.]
The solidity of the popish institutional buttressing came into sharp focus in yet another great column by Philip Jenkins, “Macaulay’s Catholic Dissenters” over at Real Clear Religion. Borrowing heavily from Macauley’s review of von Ranke’s book on the popes, Jenkins notes Rome’s effectiveness in flexibly absorbing and directing the energies of eccentric figures and movements in ways Protestantism doesn’t:
“Macaulay notes that Christianity inevitably inspires great thinkers and activists, what we might call spiritual entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm of such individuals can make them hard to live with, and institutions find it very difficult to keep them within reasonable bounds. As these people know, absolutely, that they are serving God, they see no point in following merely human instructions. Inevitably, charismatic or prophetic individuals often desert their former institutions to set up new churches, sects or denominations, and that process has recurred frequently within the Protestant tradition. In fact, it is a trademark of that tradition.
The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always shown its ability to absorb an amazing range of dissidents. Its inclusive powers are not absolute — witness Martin Luther, and the various spiritual leaders condemned as heretics throughout the years. But in countless cases, the church succeeded. The Catholic genius was to provide means to absorb and channel virtually any form of charisma or inspired spirituality, while at the same time presenting itself as an unchanging and even inflexible hierarchical institution, semper eadem–always the same. We think how the wild, anarchic, spirituality of St. Francis was channeled and disciplined into the Franciscan Order. Eventually, even a pope would take his name.”
On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (2017) Jenkins has the following to say to his Protestant colleagues:
“Macaulay’s vision [of Catholicism] could offer a practical recipe for modern-day churches contemplating how to survive and flourish in apparently impossible circumstances.
Not that this is new, but the formulation is striking. Many Protestants have been moving toward a rapprochement with Rome ever since the pathbreaking pontificate of John Paul II. This is evidenced by initiatives like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or the intellectually vibrant Anglican and Roman Catholic scholarly cooperation under the banner of Radical Orthodoxy. There are also many recent instances of Protestant intellectuals crossing the Tiber, among them, Christian Smith (the sociologist), Paul J. Griffiths, and Reinhard Hutter.
This institutional flexibility is the best example of Hegel’s most famous concept, Aufhebung, that I can think of. What a great historical irony given how Hegel saw Catholicism as but a stage on the way to universal Protestant individualism!
Yet a Chrome browser auto-correct reminds me that indeed some things are necessarily rejected in the dialectic. Whenever I try to type “syncretism” into this very blog entry it gets a red underlining. The suggested replacement is, get this, “cretinism.”
So perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre is a necessary supplement to what I’ve been saying here? In this video he reminds us that Catholicism always defines itself as being an alternative to, “instead of,” some other movement. The most famous example is Augustine who chose Catholic Christianity instead of continued adherence to neo-Platonic gnosticism. A more recent example is pope Francis continuing the severe critiques of capitalism of his two predecessors by presenting Catholicism as an alternative.
Here is MacIntyre:
And so in the end . . . “Let me tell you, I stand with two-thousand years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me. My kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants! And I couldn’t give a [rat’s ass] for your Internet-assembled philosophy!” Check out the whole “Evil Vicar” clip below: