Category Archives: Roman Catholic Church
Pundits, journalists, and even most generally well-informed Catholics are scrambling to find information that might tip them off to the significance of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the basic facts are immediately obvious. Born in 1936, Francis is a theologian whose understanding of the Christian faith and its moral implications is quite similar to that of Benedict XVI. As one of my liberal Catholic friends noted, many Catholics will find this pope to be too conservative.
But while Bergoglio has a clear appreciation for orthodox Christian teachings on marriage and the sanctity of life, his choice of the name Francis, invoking the great patron of the poor Francis of Assisi, highlights his embrace of the church’s fundamental obligation to serve Christ by ministering to the needy. He is the first Jesuit pope, and of course, he is an American, in the broad “New World” sense of the term. Though he hails from Argentina, it is important to note that Bergoglio studied in Germany and his parents were immigrants from Italy. His ties to Europe are deep. Ross Douthat helpfully explains the significance of the choice of a pope from Argentina.
Latin America is in many ways the place where the different experiences of global Catholicism converge. The region shares a New World experience with North America, a long record of church-state entanglements with Western Europe, a history of colonial exploitation and stark extremes of wealth and poverty with sub-Saharan Africa. The Latin church faces the same challenges from secularism and sexual liberation as the church in the developed world, and the same explosive growth of Pentecostalist and prosperity-oriented Christian alternatives as the church elsewhere in the global South. A pontiff from the region is thus a natural choice, in ways that an African or Asian pope might not have been, to move the church’s focus away from Europe and North America (and especially Europe) in some ways without cutting the Vatican off from the trends, issues and crises facing the church in a secularizing West.
R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, comments on the choice of a Jesuit, finding a significance in the fact that might be counter-intuitive to those aware of the history of the order during the turbulent centuries following the Reformation:
I worked with Jesuits for twenty years. They break the rules. So far Pope Francis is true to form. He took an unprecedented name, which is the name of the most severe critic of the papacy before Martin Luther. He bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing.
At Via Meadia Walter Russell Mead reminds us of a story told by G.K. Chesterton:
G.K. Chesterton tells the story of the time that St. Francis of Assisi visited Rome and the pope of the day proudly showed him all the wondrous treasures of the Vatican. Referring to a story in the Biblical Book of Acts in which St. Peter spoke with a beggar in Jerusalem and told him he had no money, the pope pointed to the treasures around him and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”
St. Francis’ response: “Neither can he say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”
[Francis is] a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many of our contemporaries. The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.
Mead, who is not Catholic, also notes that like Benedict XVI, who was a young man in Nazi Germany, Francis has had to work through what it means to be a Christian bishop in a non-democratic context.
Cuba’s bishops must somehow work with the Castros; the bishops of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and many other countries have had to make choices that people from stable and democratic places know little about. In Pope Francis’s case, he lived under the horrible Argentine military government of the 1970s when disappearances and torture were business as usual. Those of us who haven’t had to navigate those treacherous waters should be careful how we judge those whose experience has taken them through trials we cannot comprehend.
On First Thoughts Matthew Schmitz notes that the new pope’s concern for the poor does not make him a liberation theologian:
This is a humble man, a prince of the church born into a working-class family who’s noted for riding public transportation and cooking his own meals…. But the new pope is also a veteran of old battles. When many of his brother Jesuits sought to move away from parishes and embrace liberation theology, he insisted on traditional forms of work, and his order’s beloved Ignatian spirituality.
Perhaps most significantly, at National Review George Weigel celebrates the fact that the new pope is committed to the “New Evangelization,” a salutary movement within the church on which I have written before. Weigel writes,
The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.
Weigel quotes from a document that as a cardinal Bergoglio had a significant part in drafting:
The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .
A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
These events should remind Protestants just how important the papacy is for the witness of Christianity in the world. If Rome is to recover a consistent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, movements like the “New Evangelization” will play an important part in that recovery. But these events also remind Protestants just how different Catholic piety is from their own. Having addressed the crowd in Rome and having called the faithful to prayer after being chosen as the new pope, Francis closed with these words,
“Brothers and sisters, I will be leaving. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and we will see one another soon. Tomorrow I want to go and pray to the Madonna that she may protect Rome. Good night and rest well.”
The Roman Catholic Church needs a new pope and rarely has the choice of a the next pontiff come at a more delicate time in the church’s history. Reports suggest the Roman Curia is in turmoil, Pope Benedict XVI having failed to exercise the most practical form of oversight. Across Europe and America clergy sexual-abuse scandals have thoroughly darkened the church’s reputation among insiders and outsiders alike, with many suspicious that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. In both continents cultural Catholics are abandoning the church in large numbers, a decline offset in America only because of large scale Hispanic immigration. Shortages of clergy are becoming more acute as priests age and fewer young men rise to fill their ranks. And as the Catholic hierarchy has been growing ever more assertive and conservative in recent decades, the gap with a much more liberal laity is becoming wider.
According to recent polls roughly 70% of Catholics support women’s ordination and the marriage of priests, while even greater numbers reject the church’s teachings against contraception. Most Catholics support the church’s firm rejection of abortion, but the laity are divided evenly when it comes to the recent conflict between the church and the Obama administration on contraception and health care. Paradoxically, slight majorities believe both that the administration should allow employers to opt out of its requirement that they provide free birth control to female employees, and that the issue is more about women’s rights than about religious liberty.
In the meantime conservative lay American Catholics like George Weigel are arguing that the church needs to continue to evolve in a more evangelical direction, maintaining traditional church teachings while reemphasizing the centrality of Christ for salvation. The laity in particular has to understand its role in the “New Evangelization.”
The primary lay mission in the church is to be the presence of Christ in the world: family, neighborhood, business, culture, public life. The challenge here is to get every Catholic thinking of himself or herself as a missionary: someone who enters “mission territory” every day. Getting a paycheck from the church isn’t what Vatican II meant by “lay mission,” or what John Paul II meant by everyone in the church putting out “into the deep” [Luke 5:4] of the New Evangelization. The Council and Blessed John Paul meant us all to be witnesses, inviting others into friendship with Jesus Christ.
The future of the Catholic Church, which makes up well over half of Christians worldwide, is of obvious importance both to Catholics and to other Christians. Evangelical Protestants will laud any sort of increased emphasis in proclamation on faith in Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. And while many Evangelicals do not share the church’s teaching on women’s ordination, the marriage of priests, or contraception, they should take seriously the church’s social teaching on matters like natural law, sexuality, concern for the poor, and abortion, most of which is based on the tradition they hold in common with Protestants.
We should be watching the developing story with interest. We should be praying for the Catholic Church too.
Concern about the Hollande government’s undemocratic attempt to legalize same-sex marriage is rising in France. The protests against this new attempt to revolutionize marriage feature leadership from sources Americans might find unlikely. Robert Oscar Lopez writes at Public Discourse,
The three most prominent spokespeople are unlikely characters: “Frigide Barjot,” a bleached-blonde comedienne famous for hanging out with male strippers at the Banana Café, and author of “Confessions of a Branchée Catholic”; Xavier Bongibault, a young gay atheist in Paris who fights against the “deep homophobia” of the LGBT movement, believing it disgraces gays to assume that they cannot have political views “except according to their sexual urges”; and Laurence Tcheng, a disaffected leftist who voted for President François Hollande but disdains the way that the same-sex marriage bill is being forced through Parliament.
Reuters likewise reports:
Strongly backed by the Catholic Church hierarchy, Barjot and groups working with her mobilized church-going families and political conservatives as well as some Muslims, evangelicals and even homosexuals opposed to gay marriage to protest….
“The French are tolerant, but they are deeply attached to the family and the defense of children,” said Daniel Liechti, vice-president of the National Council of French Evangelicals, which urged its members to join the march.
Americans like to think that Europeans are far to the left of them on social issues, but the reality is much more complicated. Abortion laws are much more liberal in the United States than in most European countries. And while numerous European countries have established same-sex marriage, they nevertheless tend to bar gay and lesbian couples from adopting children. In the United States, on the other hand, most states (41) maintain that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but there are generally no prohibitions against gay and lesbian couples, or against singles, for that matter, adopting children.
Many of the French find this problematic.
“I am perfectly happy that homosexual couples have rights and are recognized from a civil point of view,” said protester Vianney Gremmel. “But I have questions regarding adoption.”
Support for gay marriage in France has slipped by about 10 percentage points to under 55 percent since opponents began speaking out, according to surveys, and fewer than half of those polled recently wanted gays to win adoption rights.
Under this pressure, legislators dropped a plan to also allow lesbians access to artificial insemination.
Organisers insist they are not against gays and lesbians but for the rights of children to have a father and mother.
Do the French point the way to a potential compromise? Increasingly most Americans are loath to restrict gays and lesbians from exercising the same rights associated with their relationships that married couples have. Yet the most persuasive public arguments against gay marriage continue to revolve around the interests of children. The evidence is solid (though minimized, due to the politicization of the debate) that children do best when raised by two biological parents – both the father and the mother. Of course, as far as adoption is concerned such an ideal is unattainable. Nevertheless, as much as possible it can be approximated.
The issue here is not a matter of religious morality. Christian teaching, like that of other major religions, is as condemning of heterosexual immorality (i.e., sex outside of marriage, unnecessary divorce) as it is of homosexuality. But the French remind us that this is not really what the political debate should be about. It should be about children and the vital social role of the family.
The fact is, if America is ever to become serious about rebuilding the social fabric of marriage and the family, government and the various institutions of civil society will have to be much more proactive in reestablishing the link between marriage and the procreation and raising of children. Yet there is no reason why this has to require the restriction of the legal or civil rights of gays and lesbians, let alone a focus on matters pertaining to homosexuality. In reality, rebuilding a culture of marriage and fidelity would step on the toes of far more heterosexuals than of gays and lesbians. The question is, are we willing to place the interests of children back at the center of our public discussions of sexuality, marriage, and the family?
Perhaps the heirs of the French Revolution have something to teach us after all.
Catholic clergy are playing out a longstanding debate in response to the right to work legislation Michigan enacted yesterday. Reflecting an older, left-leaning Catholic agenda, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton thunders prophetically:
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Gov. Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.
What is Gumbleton’s basis for his prophetic cursing? Invoking the 1986 letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” he writes,
The right-to-work legislation that was passed by the House and the Senate in Michigan just this month is designed to break unions. It is designed to prevent workers from organizing. And we must oppose it as firmly as we did during the 1980s.
As Catholics, we believe that if the dignity of work is to remain protected, then the basic rights of workers must be protected — fair wages, freedom from discrimination and the right to organize and join unions. We believe in justice. We believe in the common good.
Right-to-work laws go against everything we believe.
Economists tell us that right-to-work laws devastate economic justice. They lower wages for all workers. They lessen benefits for all workers. They increase poverty for all people.
Workers tell us that these laws decrease cooperation, collaboration, love and solidarity.
Humbleton also appeals to the official consensus of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Union for Reform Judaism, to argue that his position reflects the core values of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and “all great religions.”
In response the head of the conservative Acton Institute, Father Robert Sirico, calmly and helpfully disagrees:
I dissent. Michigan’s new right-to-work law is neither “unjust” nor will it “foster extreme inequality.” The law simply gives working people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to be members of a union. What’s more, they are not forced to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment. Another word for this is freedom.
Historically, the Catholic Church has looked favorably on unions — with exceptions, of course. The Church sees unions as one way to look after the well-being of workers and their families. However, this favorable bias does not mean that workers are obligated to join a union, nor that management is obligated to accept the terms of a union. The right to join a union, in Church social teaching, is rooted in the natural right of association, which of course also means that people have the right not to associate. Which is exactly what this legislation addresses; it protects workers from being coerced to association with and paying fees to a group with whom they would rather not join.
Christians coming to radically different conclusions on politics is nothing new, of course. And while it is certainly helpful to glean from the best of Catholic social teaching over the years, it seems to me that prophetic denunciation isn’t quite helpful here. Many conservative Christians do it on their own pet issues, I know, but I have rejected that on this blog as well. There are times to speak ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ to the powers that be. Michigan’s right to work legislation is not one of them.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a document calling priests to step up the quality of their preaching at Sunday services. The document, entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily,” positions the call for better preaching as part of Rome’s recent push for a “New Evangelization.”
In our day many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the Church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship.
The bishops note that the Catholic faithful have been calling for better preaching for years now.
We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.
The new emphasis on preaching among Catholics is a good sign. Amid all the issues that led the reformers to break with Rome, as I argued in a recent post, the lack of gospel preaching was first and foremost. Calvin was willing to acknowledge the existence of true churches under the Roman hierarchy, but only where the gospel was faithfully preached. My own Catholic friends tell me that, unfortunately in their view, things have not changed much in the Church since Calvin’s day. Clear, biblical, gospel-oriented preaching is still quite rare.
But the recent push for better preaching comes all the way from the top. Following a 2008 assembly of bishops on the Word of God in the life of the church, Pope Benedict XVI declared that since the word is at the heart of every ecclesial activity, the church’s homilies must be improved. In 2010 he declared that the church’s preaching needs to be direct and focused on the gospel:
Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.
The document approved by the U.S. bishops likewise declares,
The message of the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death” for us; there is nothing routine or trivial about it. If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world….
The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith.
Of course, many Evangelicals and Reformed believers will find this to be but a small step. Luther and Calvin were adamant that the faithful preaching of the gospel is the mark of a true church, such that where there is no such preaching there is no true church. From this perspective the document’s opening assertion of the importance of preaching is still quite weak:
One of the most significant ways in which the Church as the Body of Christ proclaims the dynamic Word of God is through the preaching of her ordained ministers, particularly in the context of the Sunday Eucharist. (emphasis added)
As long as many Catholic priests continue to accept cultural allegiance to Rome, implicit faith, and participation in the sacraments as equally sufficient conditions of a healthy church, the emphasis of Rome and the Catholic bishops on better homilies probably won’t bring about the sort of preaching for which they hope. There is something crucial in the Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the gospel as fundamental – and on the need for Christians to have an active, informed faith – that even this new document fails to capture.
Nevertheless, the efforts of Rome and the bishops should be lauded. The closer priests and the faithful get to the text of Scripture and its presentation of the gospel the healthier (or “truer”) their churches will be. I wish them success in this endeavor.
Every election cycle the controversy hits the news again. A Catholic bishop publicly declares that he will not serve communion to a politician who supports laws that allow abortion. Most recently (HT: Aquila Report) Bishop Michael Sheridan of the Diocese of Colorado Springs has declared that he will not serve the body and blood of the Lord to Vice-President Joseph Biden, a very devout, consistently practicing Roman Catholic.
The Catholic bishops are unified on the issue of abortion like they are unified on no other political issue. And pro-choice Catholic politicians generally affirm this teaching, as Vice-President Biden did in the debate with fellow Catholic Paul Ryan when he declared,
With regard to — with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call de fide [dogmatic teaching]. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.
But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and — I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.
I — I do not believe that — that we have a right to tell other people that women, they — they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court — I’m not going to interfere with that.
The distinction to which Biden is appealing is a distinction between a sin and a crime, or between the truth which he affirms that abortion is murder, and the moral obligation of the state to punish murder as a crime. It is the same distinction that most Christians make when they say that sexual immorality is wrong but that it should not be punished by the state, or that worshiping a false god is a sin that should nevertheless be protected as a right by the state because of the principle of religious liberty.
Contrary to what conservatives sometimes claim therefore, there is nothing inherently contradictory about Biden’s distinction. The question, however, is whether the state has the prerogative not to punish murder, or not to protect a human being’s right to life. To put it another way, is it ever moral for a state to make murder – the killing of an innocent – legal? Or is the right to life so foundational to the very purpose of the state as established by God that a magistrate or legislator cannot abandon his or her obligation to protect that right without sinning?
Note that the question is not ultimately about how sinful the practice in view is. Idolatry is generally portrayed in Scripture as the gravest sin of all, and yet few Christians believe the state should prohibit idolatry. The reason for this is that most Christians believe (though this was not always the case) that the state should be particularly concerned to prevent injustice against human beings rather than impiety against God. The state’s obligation to secure the most basic level of justice, however, they believe to be non-negotiable.
In any case, the Roman Catholic Church has made its position on abortion quite clear, and it has affirmed its judgment that politicians who support laws legalizing murder may not receive communion. In 1974 the Vatican Declaration on Abortion declared:
A Christian can never conform to a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licitness of abortion. Nor can a Christian take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application.
More recently, in 2004, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) sent a memorandum to the American clergy which declared that unlike other moral and political issues matters pertaining to the right to life of innocents are non-negotiable for Catholics, and that Catholics who support the legality or practice of abortion must be denied the right to communion. On some issues, Ratzinger acknowledged, there is a distinction between principle and policy. Not so on this issue:
For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
Ratzinger went on to apply the issue specifically to Catholic politicians who vote pro-choice:
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.
It is on the basis of instruction like this that many Catholic bishops have denied various politicians communion, including Vice-President Biden.
But what about Catholic voters? Does this mean that the church should excommunicate anyone who votes for a pro-choice candidate? Ratzinger clarified that there is a difference between voting for a candidate who happens to be pro-choice and voting for a candidate for the reason that he or she is pro-choice.
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
It is obvious from Catholic history that Ratzinger’s purpose here is not to pander to the Christian Right or to American conservatism. The concern is clearly to place the church in opposition to an evil so grave that it may never be tolerated. For that, I think, the Catholic Church should be lauded. There are some principles of moral obedience binding on a disciple of Christ that simply cannot be compromised, even if (or especially if) that disciple is a civil magistrate
One of my professors at Emory University once claimed when Adolf Hitler became the dictator of Germany and took the country down the path of fascism and national socialism he was giving conservative Christians – specifically Christian Protestants – just what they wanted. Of course, most of us in the room realized that this claim is a massive distortion of history, and a highly inflammatory one at that. But in fact, there is just enough of an element of truth behind the statement to enable someone with an anti-Christian agenda to believe it.
The reality is that the vast majority of German Protestants (4o million people, or two thirds of the nation’s population) were politically conservative and nationalist in their convictions. What that meant in that context was that they were not particularly interested in democracy but were instead looking for a great leader to bring Germany and the German people out of the ashes of the Great War (1914-1918). They loathed communism and tended to view Jews as alien members of society. They wanted to see Germany return to the military glory of the past.
Roman Catholics (20 million people, or one third of the German population) tended to be much more skeptical about the Nazis. The Catholic Church had been persecuted by Bismarck in the early years of the German Empire (the second Reich), and unlike the Lutherans and the Reformed it maintained allegiance to a power outside of Germany, the papacy. The Catholic Church also boasted a massive infrastructure of schools, youth organizations, journals, and political parties, all of which amounted to a state within a state, a serious threat to the all encompassing claims of National Socialism.
But what my professor’s comments failed to acknowledge was that the sort of Protestant Christianity that was susceptible to the Nazi temptation tended to be the more theologically liberal or nominal form. Indeed, even those Christians who loathed what was going on in the “German Christian” (ardently pro-Nazi) movement often avoided association with the Confessing Church (which explicitly rejected totalitarian Nazi claims) because the latter was to a large extent “formed by a piety that veered increasingly towards biblical fundamentalism,” or that required rigid allegiance to Scripture and to orthodox Christian doctrine (Richard J Evans, The Third Reich in Power, 226).
In other words, while virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.
To be sure, when push came to shove (or prison, or death) most Protestants supported the Nazi regime regardless of where they fell on the theological spectrum. And prominent liberal theologians like Paul Tillich were just as hostile to the Third Reich as were prominent conservative theologians and pastors like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And the tragic thing is that while the Catholic Church and the Confessing Church rigorously opposed Nazi claims to totalitarian power over their churches and other church-related organizations, neither said much at all in the way of denouncing Nazi policy towards Jews, or to the mentally-handicapped.
In fact, the religious group that the Nazis found more hostile to its goals than any other was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group alone – committed in its very essence to faithful witness to the point of suffering – seemed immune to the pressure of imprisonment or death.
What is worth noting in the context of contemporary debates about political theology is that the two kingdoms doctrine was used in conflicting ways, both to support allegiance to the Nazi regime and to oppose it. For those inclined to support the regime the two kingdoms doctrine taught that the realm of politics and the state is separate from the realm of the gospel, representing a source of authority and identity distinct from that of Christ and yet binding on the Christian’s allegiance.
For those who opposed the regime, on the other hand, the two kingdoms doctrine functioned in the context of a higher allegiance to the lordship of Christ over all of life. The Barmen Declaration, adopted in 1934 by the Confessing Church, declared, “We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” It went on to declare that the church is not “permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus becoming an organ of the State.
What those Christians and churches who maintained this confession – and their opposition to the Nazi regime – seemed to recognize, in contrast to many of those Christians who supported Hitler, was that the allegiance of Christians and of the church to Christ is preeminent in every area of life, and that therefore the authority of Scripture must always be the ultimate judge in matters of justice, political ideology, or politics. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued so carefully, versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that divide life into distinct realms, one of which is outside the authority of Christ, are denials of the Christ in whom all things exist. To conceive of any action or authority apart from Christ is to conceive of an abstraction.
Christians who held to the two kingdoms doctrine but who lacked this Christocentric perspective had little with which to resist the claims of a state that masterfully channeled the spirit of the times. Given our contemporary debates, that something we need to take seriously.
The most effective argument made by Catholic apologists against the Protestant Reformation has always been that Protestantism inevitably fractures the church and destroys its unity. When Scripture rather than the authority of the magisterium is the bond of unity you end up with millions of popes rather than one pope, each Christian following the inviolable authority of his or her own conscience. When confessional documents are the authority the result is merely a paper pope that lacks the flexibility and personality of a real human being like the bishop of Rome.
The response of theologians like John Calvin was to argue that the unity of the church is grounded in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and that all other differences between Christians or churches are to be negotiated in the context of unity. For Calvin arguments over worship, church government, or even discipline were important but secondary. No one had the right to separate himself or herself from a church unless the gospel itself was at stake. Calvin labored long and hard to keep the various branches of Protestantism united. He downplayed differences with the Reformed churches in places like Zurich, and unlike Luther, he bent over backwards to make unity between Lutherans and the Reformed a reality.
He failed miserably. Although for a time Protestants remained relatively unified within their various national boundaries, by the 17th Century the churches were fracturing into denominations and sects, especially in the English speaking lands that were the bastions of the Reformed tradition. By the end of the 18th Century there were Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and numerous other sects (as well as ethnically oriented groups like the German Reformed and Dutch Reformed) present in the American colonies. During the 19th Century the forces of democratization and fragmentation exploded American Protestantism into what have since become thousands of fragments, each claiming to represent Christ’s body in its purest (or close to purest form).
According to Wikipedia (citing Christianity Today) there are over 38,000 Christian denominations in existence today.
Of course, some of these differences are legitimate. It would be impossible, even by Calvin’s criteria for unity, to bring Baptists and Anglicans into the same denomination, due to differences over baptism. And a good number of the denominational splits have been the result of the abandonment of fidelity to the gospel in a particular existing denomination (for instance the Presbyterian split of the 1930s, or the exodus from the Episcopal Church in the United States in the past decade).
But many more of the divisions are simply the result of petty disputes or theological arguments over secondary issues. For instance, although the conservative confessional Reformed world is unified under the North American and Presbyterian Reformed Council (totaling roughly 500,000 Christians), that body is itself divided into no less than 12 different denominations. These denominations profess the same basic doctrines and hold to the same confessional documents, they observe the sacraments in the same way and have the same form of church government, and they even worship in broadly similar forms, but due to various cultural or theological distinctives they cannot seem to join themselves together as one church.
And of course, the lack of unity among Protestants (or Catholics for that matter) does not simply pertain to the proliferation of denominations. Perhaps the most painful demonstrations of division and enmity take place within particular congregations. These divisions stem from anything like disputes over theology and practice to personal grudges and resentments arising from struggles over power, culture, or tradition. Christians judge one another, break fellowship with each other, or refuse to pursue reconciliation together over any range of issues. You name it, and I’m sure you could find an example somewhere in this country.
What is perhaps most tragic about this, however, is that we are so resigned to it. Many of us seem to think unity is an ideal rather than a commandment. Most Reformed pastors I speak with accept separate denominations not simply as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. We act as if any theological or practical difference is a matter of principle over which there can be no compromise – especially because we are always on the edge of some dangerous slippery slope. And our anger is always righteous anger of course. It is the others who are at fault for our inability to be united in Christ. We have done all we could.
It was with some of these thoughts in mind that I recently reread Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In this letter Paul describes a church with more problems – and more serious problems – than any modern church of which I am aware. And at the heart of the struggles of this church – a church “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1:2) – was division. “Each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1:12-13)
And then Paul makes a staggering statement. Note that in the following declaration the “you” is plural. He is speaking to the church as a body, not to Christians as individuals.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him (3:16-17).
This is a terrifying warning, and it indicates that God takes division in the church very seriously. Schism amounts to nothing less than the destruction of God’s temple. And God will destroy those who are guilty of it.
I used to think the great sin of the American church was covetousness and materialism. But lately I am beginning to wonder – and of course my humble opinion on this point is worth a grain of salt – if our true blind spot is our lack of unity.
Unity is not simply an ideal. It is a command. There may be much evil in a church (as there was in the Corinthian church) but you do not solve an evil by creating another evil (division). We need to stop justifying ourselves every time we refuse to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to stop pretending that the worship of God is more important than that reconciliation. It is not (Matthew 5:23-26; 23:23). As Paul puts it, “Let no one deceive himself” (1 Corinthians 3:18). No matter how much faith or knowledge our church has, no matter how faithful we are in worship and teaching, if we do not have love for one another, we have absolutely nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
Note: The following post originally appeared as an article in the Aquila Report on May 15. Given Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, I thought it appropriate to reprint it here (and print it for the first time on this blog) today.
Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Yet it is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics. Not only does the tradition of Catholic social teaching have an immense amount of wisdom to teach us; there is always much to learn from watching how politicians and pundits try to turn theological principles into concrete proposals of policy.
Ryan described the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Particularly noteworthy was his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.
On the principle of subsidiarity:
Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
And on the preferential option for the poor:
The Wisconsin Republican said that he also drew on Catholic teachings regarding concern for the poor, and his interpretation of how that translated into government policy.
“[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence,” said Ryan.
As the article says, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has praised Ryan for his attention to Catholic teaching. On the other hand, Joe Knippenberg points out, the top bishop in the USCCB committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development disagrees.
This debate within the Catholic tradition is an old one, involving Catholic theology and politics at the highest level. It was only after Vatican II opened the doors to the Church’s engagement of culture and politics as a means of service to the world in witness to the Gospel that the American Catholic bishops began to enter into the political forum. In previous years, they had limited themselves to issues and causes of concern to Catholics, such as the freedom of Catholic schools and their access to public funding. Yet soon after Vatican II the bishops began to speak out against the collapse of American laws against abortion.
By the time of Roe v. Wade 1973 the bishops, operating as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB, now the USCCB) had a lengthy paper trail of opposition to legalized abortion, and they had already founded the National Right to Life Committee. Yet Roe v. Wade catalyzed them into political action. They established a lobby group and called for a constitutional amendment that would protect the right to life. Since that day, Catholic organizations have formed the core of the pro-life cause in America. When Francis Schaeffer called Evangelicals to action on the issue, the alliance of Evangelicals and Catholics together on cultural and political issues became inevitable.
But the political significance of Catholic social teaching has long been contested. During the 1976 presidential election the bishops, headed by Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, were widely criticized for putting so much attention on abortion that they effectively endorsed Republican President Gerald Ford in his campaign against the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. The result was that Bernardin and many of his colleagues began to articulate Catholic social teaching as a “seamless garment” that involved opposition to abortion as only one of many uncompromisable positions, including positions on capital punishment, labor, nuclear weapons, and care for the poor. And it turned out that on virtually every issue except abortion, the bishops were closer to the position of the Democrats than they were to the position of the Republicans.
The 1980s were the high water mark of liberal Catholicism, as E.J. Dionne has argued. The bishops authored two statements that placed them in direct confrontation with the Reagan administration on its nuclear policy (The Challenge of Peace, 1983) and its economic and fiscal policy (Economic Justice for All, 1986). Conservative Catholic writers like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus protested vehemently, pointing out that the American bishops were not representative of the older and more international Catholic tradition. Numerous bishops, appointed by the conservative Pope John Paul II, continued to act independently to highlight abortion as the most important issue at stake in political elections.
In fact, largely because of John Paul II’s work in appointing a stream of conservative bishops, the USCCB has shifted to the right since the 1980s. John Paul II condemned the Marxism of liberation theology and promulgated moderate statements on the economic implications of Catholic social teaching even as he continued to highlight the importance of opposing abortion. During the 2004 presidential campaign between the pro-life Republican George W. Bush and the pro-choice Catholic Democrat John Kerry, one of his leading cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a public letter stressing the supreme importance of abortion as a political issue, calling Catholics to vote only for pro-life candidates, and urging priests to bar pro-choice politicians from the Eucharist.
The relation between the USCCB and the Obama administration highlights the rightward tilt of the Catholic Church in recent decades even more. The bishops almost single-handedly defeated Obama’s signature health care legislation, and since its passage they have clashed heatedly with the president on his policy requiring insurance companies to subsidize birth control, including abortifacients. Moderate Catholics who prominently supported Obama in 2008 have declared that they will oppose him in 2012.
It is in this context that Congressman Ryan’s appeal to the authority of Catholic social teaching should be evaluated. There are those among the bishops who genuinely fear that Ryan’s fiscal proposals will bring harm to the poor, but just as importantly, many Catholics see Ryan’s claims as just one more part of a long story of increasing conservative cooption of the church’s public image.
These concerns are genuine, and Evangelicals who are conservative politically should resist the temptation to take Ryan’s side just because he is a conservative Republican. One should always be suspicious of politicians when they claim theological authority for their actions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that it is a good thing that Ryan is highlighting principles like subsidiarity, and the preference for the poor, and introducing them to the national dialogue.
We would do well to pay careful attention to the debate over Catholic social teaching, not just as a political phenomena, but as a substantive conversation of Christian wisdom. Evangelicalism in America tends to be far more politicized than is Catholicism, and sometimes it helps to see the way in which another tradition seeks to bring its wisdom to bear on politics.
Even as Presbyterian and Reformed Christians we have no reason to be smug. Silence, apathy, or instinctive conservatism is no substitute for centuries of careful thought and tradition. And in fact, the roots and basic ideals of our own Reformed tradition are much closer to those of Catholic social teaching than we might imagine. We will only grow in our wisdom by paying attention to their struggle to work out their faith in difficult times.