The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

“Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

The average American parishioner is more faithful to the Democratic and Republican platforms than the Credo. Alasdair MacIntyre pithily noted this (classical) liberal creep in his classic Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

Our political picture isn't red or blue, it's more like grey.

Our political picture isn’t red or blue, it’s more like grey.

If you want proof the unity of opposites (on the classical liberal spectrum) then go no further than the recent ecclesiological suggestions of Ross Douthat and Anthony Paul Smith.

First, pay careful attention to the wording of Smith’s latest bit of writing for a general audience:

“To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.”

Now compare this with the takeaway from Douthat’s February takedown of the Neuhaus Catholic Moment:

“Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.

But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.”

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

Are we seriously supposed to entertain the possibility that a fight where the laity slays the hierarchy is the only tactically viable maneuver for the Catholic Church?! This sounds like suicide through competition to me. It echoes the fight between the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The film is a comedy for those of you who missed it.

Michael Sean Winters, in a recent repost of a long-lost article, proposes the work of David Schindler as one possible way to do an end-around the whole classical liberal Hydra represented by Smith and Douthat: 

“The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that ‘in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.’

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not ‘articles of faith’ but ‘articles of peace.’ But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively ‘neutral’ state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a ‘privatization’ of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world ‘as Church’ (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being ‘Christian’ is reduced to being kind.”

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

Working out his project seems to be the only viable alternative to this:

Advertisements

Colm Tóibín’s Regensburg Moment & Macauley’s Catholic Dissidents

576px-StPeter_Regensburg

Regensburg solid.

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.

Get it?

Get it?

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: