"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Manhattan Declaration and Christian Principles

See my post at the First Things blog "First Thoughts."   A lot more can and should be said, but as a response to Steve Hutchens of Touchstone, I believe the post is a good conversation starter.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Outside the Magic Circle

With his conservative confrères, British Catholic blogger Damien Thompson likes to call the British Catholic hierarchy "The Magic Circle." The phrase is meant pejoratively, of course. They see the bishops as a self-congratulatory cabal more interested in maintaining its élite status among "the great and good," including and especially the Anglican establishment, than in easing the path of traditional Anglicans into the Church or, more generally, in implementing the Pope's policies for the Church at large. If they're right—and I have independent reason to think they are—the fact itself is disturbing. Whatever the ideological coloration, if any, of a magic circle might be, just being part of a magic circle is usually bad for peoples' souls. It constitutes a culture of privilege that insulates them from the worst criticisms, causes them to think themselves better than others, and makes them resistant to reforms the need for which is obvious to many outsiders. That sort of problem fueled the Protestant Reformation centuries ago. In a sense, the Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the Americas has continued to be a magic circle for a long time. But is that about to end?

With occasional and egregious exceptions, the Church hierarchy has been part of the Establishment, thus enjoying a presumption of good will on the part of government, big business, and high society. Indeed the exceptions, such as in Mexico and Spain for the early part of the 20th century, can be seen largely as reactions against that status. But in an atmosphere of ever-encroaching secularism, the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals are fast destroying the status and most of what goes with it. I believe that faithful Catholics should greet that development the way Lenin greeted the travails of Russia in World War I: "the worse, the better."

Over at First Things' "On the Square," theologian R.R. Reno has lately been commenting on the iteration of the global scandal in the Belgian Church. In his latest installment, he notes:
Police raids, computers impounded, and holes drilled into crypts so that spy cameras can be inserted. Perhaps the chief investigator’s office was as blindsided as the Vatican, suddenly waking up to the fact that the Church is now outside the magical circle of elite society, and that elite society, always attuned to changes in status, demanded the Church be treated differently. Scrambling to action, they overcompensated with heavy-handed tactics. [Emphasis added]
Generalizing, Reno observes that "after the scandals," the Church in Europe
...has become largely disestablished on the ground, with few going to church (a social reality the consequences of which were masked, perhaps, by the remarkable charisma of John Paul II), and therefore it can no longer retain the privileges of social establishment, one of the most important of which is protection from debilitating criticism.

If I’m right about the larger dynamics at work in the current round of scandals, the Church is in for a tough season. The expulsion from the elite makes her leaders supremely vulnerable.
Already true of the Church in Europe and Canada, I believe that will come true of the Church in the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The Church will be forced in the concrete to recall why cardinals' hats are red. That the trends in Africa and Asia are actually running in the opposite direction is a fact whose significance I shall explain at the end. For now, we must see the travails of the Church in the West as the beginning of a much-needed purification.

Two factors allowed the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals across the globe to get out of hand: the strength of the old presumption of good will, which obtained as much among the laity as among the clergy, and the inability of the bishops in their magic circles to grasp that moral and legal rules applicable to ordinary people applied to them and their brother priests. Such is the consequence of belonging to a culture of privilege. Politicians, at least in relatively democratic countries, aren't insulated quite as well because their enemies often cannot resist using their peccadilloes against them. It takes more than mere peccadilloes, however, to destroy prominent clergymen. It takes being part of a systemic corruption that hits a moral nerve in the larger society. That's what's been happening. In the long run, that will have proven itself a good thing.

In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great was the first Roman pontiff to describe himself as servus servorum Dei: "slave of the slaves of God." His failure to see anything wrong with the live institution of slavery itself—a blind spot he shared with the entire world of his time—enabled him to adopt slavery as a metaphor for the servant-leadership he exemplified so well. It is that model which so many bishops have forgotten. Indeed, they had started forgetting it in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Theodosius privileged them as officers of the state. The collapse of the Western empire did force the bishops, especially those of Rome, to assume a degree of temporal authority that some of them exercised well. Yet what St. Athanasius said in the fourth century has been true of all too many bishops since, even in Rome: "the path to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." Of course no earthly or demonic force can destroy the Church; as Cardinal Consalvi pointed out to Napoleon, even the best efforts of bishops have failed to do so. And that much will remain the case. But God is as interested in saving the souls of bishops as he in saving other souls. Hence he will often chastise the bishops by permitting the Church to be persecuted in their persons. Such events remind some bishops—the ones disposed to be so reminded—that they are servant leaders, and that they should expect no easier a fate on earth than that of the One they are called to serve through serving His people.

That's what's starting to happen to the leaders of the Church in what is broadly called "the West." I think the Pope sees it. But he is not in the majority among his brother bishops. The recently retired Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Danneels, doesn't see it. Cardinal Sodano, formerly Vatican secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, doesn't see it. And how many bishops in the U.S. have admitted that their reflexive interest in protecting their culture of privilege, which included protecting a lavender mafia, was the cause of their own complicity in the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal? It seems that almost everybody gets it but them. Until they get it and change accordingly, things will only get worse for the Church. If and when they do get it, then and only then will things get better.

This is a spiritual law I've observed at work even in my own life. Once, for about a dozen years, I had an academic career. Thus I was part of a magic circle: I got to treat abstractions as realities; I interacted mostly with the cultured and like-minded; I had enough vacation time to actually think and write about what interested me. I didn't have to take work that bored and alienated me just to keep a roof over my family's head. I was very comfortable and began, subtly and insensibly, to think myself immune from the iron laws of ordinary life that the vast bulk of humanity groaned under daily. My fall was slow but sure; I hit bottom when I suffered a severe bout of clinical depression a decade ago. When I recovered, my life became harder than it had ever been. Although I had nobody but myself to blame, it took me another several years to realize that. Aside from a few brief and happy interludes, my life has continued being hard—but no harder than that of most of the world's people, and easier than some. So if my circumstances ever improve enough to let me earn a living in roughly the sort of way I once did, I will not take the privilege for granted. I will be grateful, for I will have been chastened enough to see that all is gift, and that the pleasant gifts are less deserved than the unpleasant ones.

That's what the leadership of the Church needs to learn by experience. A few have, but most have not.  Before there can be resurrection, there must be death. The increasing size and strength of the Church in the global South may be part of the resurrection; it is certainly where the Church's center of gravity is shifting and is likely to remain. But the lessons about to be learned by the Church in her historic base of influence will eventually have to be learned everywhere.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How "choice" devours itself

Lydia McGrew has coined a chillingly apt metaphor for the culture of death: "choice devours itself." She has applied the metaphor to the specific issues of forced abortion, euthanasia, and "organ conscription," which are quite serious enough in themselves. But I believe her metaphor can be generalized to describe the entire direction that the societies of the secularizing West, and increasingly others too, are taking. The modern, secular, Western understanding of freedom sows the seeds of its own destruction.

In The Abolition of Man (1943)—a book I am not alone in seeing as one of the most prophetic of modern times—CS Lewis argued that "man's power over Nature" really means "the power of some men over others with Nature as its instrument." He predicted that scientific and technical progress in "eugenics," "psychological conditioning," and other areas will in due course give some people the power to remake others as they please. The question will then arise: What criteria will they use to determine how to remake humanity itself? Unless "the conditioners" acknowledge a rational, objectively binding set of moral norms governing themselves and everyone else, their only criteria will be subjective: their own desires, impulses, and preferences.  There would be no norms by which to evaluate, and choose accordingly among, those desires, impulses, and preferences themselves. Such a situation would recall Hume's dictum: "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." The conditioned would be the slaves of the conditioners' passions, and the conditioners the slaves of their own. In that sense, might would indeed make right.

Now in one way, Lewis' scenario seems quite fanciful. There has never been a time when people, even those who profess moral relativism in principle, have acted without lip service to the belief that at least some of the moral norms they acknowledge have universal and objective binding force, irrespective of whether this or that set of people also acknowledge it.  Callow undergraduates and ugly drunks aside, hardly anybody is willing to come right out and say that might makes right, full stop. Even Hitler spoke as though the might of the Aryan race went hand-in-hand with its general moral superiority, according to a standard that obtained whether non-Aryans, or unreliable Aryans, recognized it or not.  Lenin, Stalin, and Mao held that their atrocities were justified by the direction of history: dialectical materialism assured us that everything would work out in the end for the benefit of the masses. Even the worst megalomaniacs try to rationalize their libido dominandi in objective terms. Or at least they have so far; for such is the tribute that sophistry pays to conscience, where "conscience" is understood, à la Ratzinger, as the human race's collective anamnesis of the most basic moral truths. So we might think it likely, as some of Lewis' critics have, that once scientific and technical progress give us the ability to remake ourselves, the values by which we do so will be those of most of today's scientific community: rational, liberal, humane. In other words: the values taken for granted by the faculties of secular universities. What would be so bad about that?

The problem is that what's happening along the march for ever-increasing "freedom" and "choice" virtually precludes such a result. For what secular liberalism regards as moral progress, which is indeed making its way throughout Western society, contains within itself a pair of performative self-contradictions too basic to be sustainable. That is what the slogan "choice devours itself" ultimately means.

For the secular liberal, moral progress is thought to consist in facilitating what I call "radical autonomy." From this point of view, what's most precious in the human person is the capacity for fully autonomous choice. Within the limits imposed by the laws of nature and others' "right to choose," what is chosen is considered less important for human well-being than that it be chosen autonomously. That idea has much appeal. In a now-famous opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy put it thus:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
To most Americans, that seems unexceptionable: Who, after all, wants the State to force our adopting beliefs on such matters? But that leaves us with two questions: What should those beliefs nonetheless be, and how would we know them to be justified?

As given by secular liberalism, the answer to the first question is that we ought to believe in radical autonomy. The whole tenor of modernity virtually impels us in the West to hold that moral progress consists in expanding the effective scope of such autonomy. The more "liberty," the better. And of course, if all adults are equal in virtue of possessing such autonomy, then it is an injustice to any of them to hold that some choices in the spheres Kennedy named should not be respected by law.  From thence derives much of the support for abortion, assisted suicide, court-imposed redefinition of marriage and family, and other practices thought to protect or expand people's autonomy.

In practice, though, it doesn't quite work that way. Allowing women to kill in their wombs the human lives they've generated, on the ground that respecting women's autonomy requires that, or allowing people to enlist others in their own demise, on the ground that they should be the judge of when their lives are no longer worth living, encourages a habit of thought which makes life more precarious for everybody. And allowing marriage to be redefined so that parenthood, if chosen at all, becomes a purely legal category rather than a primarily biological category just is going to undermine both the stability and the freedom of the family. Mind you, I am not here addressing the question whether abortion, suicide, or same-sex marriage are intrinsically wrong, or only wrong for the most part, or not wrong at all. My point is just this: a habit of thought in which the value of human life is seen primarily in terms of what we can freely choose to do with it, rather than as a gift from some transcendent source uniting reason and love, is a habit of thought which will lead to more and more people becoming victims of others' "choices."

At first that will be, indeed already is, the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. But no principled line, more secure than that drawn by raw power, can be drawn between lives exempt from such a fate and lives subject to it. It's all a matter of what "we" consider valuable, where "we" are the people with the votes and/or the guns. Once the value of life, and the reality of human nature, are no longer treated as givens but as measurable by some sort of calculus among "autonomous" human agents, no other result is possible. That is why, when the "might" in "might makes right" is that of politically institutionalized "choice," choice devours itself. Such is the first "performative self-contradiction" in the ideology of radical autonomism.

The other question I posed for secular liberalism is how we are to know what basic beliefs about the "mystery" of "existence" and "human life" are the ones we ought to adopt. That question is more difficult for secular liberals than most of them realize.

One might think that a thoroughgoing radical autonomist would simply reject the question, thus insisting that there are no such beliefs we "ought" to adopt, as though there were some philosophical standard other than autonomous "choice" for adopting one set over another. But such a stance is so plainly self-defeating that few proponents of "choice" are willing to defend it openly. For if what chiefly matters is the choosing, so that it doesn't matter what we choose unless we're insanely ignoring the laws of physics or inconsistently infringing others' "right to choose," then my freely choosing to reject radical autonomism must be respected as much as other's freely embracing it. But implausible as it may seem, that seems to be the rationale behind the sort of Western "multiculturalism" which cedes more and more ground to Muslim resident aliens claiming the right to be governed by Sharia law.

In almost every major city of Western Europe, we now have a de facto situation in which domestic violence, and the oppression of women generally, is legal on one side of a street and illegal on the other. Don't think it can't happen here. If such a situation be accepted as legitimate in principle, then radical autonomism is thereby giving up its claim to be objectively and universally binding. It can only be seen, even by itself, as just one more "choice" made without prejudice to any other sort of "choice." But if that judgment applies to Muslim fundamentalism, why not to any other brand of fundamentalism, or indeed to any comprehensive belief-system whatsoever? There is no principled basis for making a distinction.

Now to their credit, a few secular liberals, such as Christopher Hitchens, have seen the problem and addressed it. They attack multi-culti cravenness as just that, urging us to buck up and defend some version of secular liberalism as a universally, objectively binding morality incompatible with "religion." But that focuses attention on the second question I raised: how, without some version of what they call "religion," would we know which morality enjoys such status?

Most secular liberals point to the progress of science and democracy as evidence of the truth of their ideology. Our lives are just better, by a host of measures, for those products of modernity. We know more, we're more comfortable and longer-lived, and accordingly we have a wider array of "choices" befitting our personal dignity than did people before the Enlightenment and its effects took hold. What's cited as evidence here is indeed the case; but what, exactly, is it evidence for, other than the fact that it gives some of us more of what most of us find ourselves wanting? What ought people to value and therefore seek, irrespective of what some or most of them actually do value and seek?

Once again, secular liberals have no principled answer to that question. For answering it requires what John Rawls called some-or-other "comprehensive world-view" which, according to him and secular liberals generally, cannot be enshrined in the public sphere without infringing people's autonomy. We are to order our lives together only by investigating which public norms enable more autonomous human agents to get more of what they want by living together than the alternatives would. It's a purely empirical question of maximizing preferences and thus "choice." Aside from that, no vision of life imposing a universal scale of values on people should be embodied in our political institutions.

Now as we've already seen, such a position is self-defeating in its radical form. But let's suppose it can be suitably qualified to avoid that result. Rawls himself admitted that he too has a "comprehensive world-view" (CWV) in terms of which "political liberalism" is to be justified. So the only question becomes: which world-view?

The problem secular liberals have with answering that question is their naturalism, which can be either methodological or, more strongly, ontological. They're always telling us that people's CWVs are shaped by "culture," which in turn is shaped by the laws of biology generally and of evolution in particular. Now granted that is true to some extent, it leaves untouched the question to what extent various CWVs are themselves true, along with the question whether we can choose our CWVs freely, as Justice Kennedy assumes. If people's CWVs are wholly shaped by factors beyond the individual's control, then as Bertrand Russell once quipped, "some of us are determined to be right; others, to be wrong." Right or wrong, we would not be adopting our several CWVs for the reason that they are true, even if we think we are; for whatever our CWVs, our holding them as true is beyond our control, and hence we do not choose to believe them simply on the ground that they are true. Rather, we believe them to be true because we are causally determined to do so. But in that case, why should our CWVs be respected as those of autonomous agents?

A secular liberalism that avoids epistemological self-cannibalism must say not only that certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, but also that we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and choose freely, for that very reason, to guide ourselves by them. Assuming there are such propositions and norms, it cannot be said that they bind on the ground that we choose them. That's because, for purposes of decision-making, we can only be said to choose them for reasons inherent in them—not arbitrarily or randomly, and not because were are causally determined to choose them by factors beyond our control.  If we chose them arbitrarily or randomly, then our choices would be no more worthy of respect than any others, and hence we would have no reason to make them as opposed to others. And if we were causally determined to choose them, then we could not be choosing them because they are true, but simply because we have no choice. That's not what secular liberals claim, or seek to claim, as the basis of personal autonomy.

Hence the second performative self-contradiction. Secular liberalism stands as much in need of self-justification as its competitors. It must explain why certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, how we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and therefore why we ought to choose freely, for that reason, to guide ourselves by them. But that is precisely the kind of argument it cannot produce if all CWVs are equally products of culture and biology, with none admitting a justification that transcends both. And so if it is not to seek a justification simply in terms of the might of Western secular democracies, and the cultural preferences of their self-styled "enlightened" citizens, secular liberalism must produce an argument for claiming that "choice," within the limits already specified, trumps what is chosen. As I've argued, the only kind of argument that can do that will end up positing things beyond "choice" as universally and objectively binding criteria for choice. There can be no principled objection to including those as part of a CWV that undergirds the res publica. For excluding them in the name of choice deprives choice of the justification it needs to bind. So choice devours itself, unless something higher than choice must regulate choice without crushing it.

Now if there is an argument that is of the needed sort, elicits general assent among secular liberals, and does more than invoke their own preferences, I've yet to hear it. It is taken as almost self-evident that the sort of society in which secular Princeton philosophers are both possible and comfortable is the best kind. But as I've already argued, a CWV like that cannot explain why human life is intrinsically valuable or even why the values of science and personal autonomy trump all others. It cannot supply a sustainable rationale for itself. All it can do is justify a certain sort of "might" to itself, in its own terms, without reference to any transcendent source of reason and love.

For that reason, Lewis was essentially correct. In a society driven by "choice," the people who gain enough power over human nature will have nothing to prevent them from becoming as much the slaves of their own non-rational appetites as the rest of us. "Man's final conquest will be the abolition of man." Or: choice will have devoured itself. Unless, of course, the laws of "Nature's God" are acknowledged and respected as much as "the laws of Nature" themselves.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Toward a theology of vocation

Catholics need a sounder understanding of vocation. The old-fashioned, hard-bitten Catholics I know are comfortable thinking only of clergy and religious as having vocations, which makes a certain sort of sense, but really is too narrow. More up-to-date and optimistic Catholics love to speak of the "vocation" of marriage. On the whole, that way of speaking represents an advance, but it often exhibits muddled thinking. Some even speak of the "vocation" of the single life, which has always struck me as odd. Does God "call" people to lay singlehood out of something else, as though we weren't all born as lay singles?

What people who speak of three basic "vocations" really mean is three "states of life," which is not quite the same thing and shouldn't be spoken of as if it were. More clarity is needed, if only to aid people's discernment and sense of Christian identity. Now I'm sure there's good writing about this topic out there somewhere. I welcome readers' suggestions for that. In the meantime, I tentatively offer a few thoughts that have been stimulated by meditation and discussion, but not by any systematic reading on the topic.

All Christians have the same vocation: the baptismal vocation. In baptism, we die to the old man and rise to new life in Christ. Thus each Christian, even those baptized as infants, become part of
"a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises" of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were "no people" but now you are God's people; you "had not received mercy" but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2: 9-10; emphasis added).
Each of us shares in the priesthood of believers. For those who live to the age of reason, that is manifest when our faith is intentional enough to sustain personal prayer and sacrifice. Those are always necessary for answering "the universal call to holiness" (Lumen Gentium, Ch. V). The ministerial priesthood exists to facilitate and serve that priesthood of believers in certain prescribed ways. Thus the ministerial priesthood, like the life of the non-ordained "religious," is for the Church what the Church is for the world at large. But whether laity or clergy, we all are "called" out of the world to be what Peter says. We all have that vocation.

Marriage and consecrated life are distinct states of life, though they can be combined by married clergy. Yet I dislike speaking of them as two distinct vocations. Both are forms of living that love to which all Christians are called by virtue of the baptismal vocation.  They are two modes of living out the one, baptismal vocation.

But the latter is a clearer mode than the former. If my saying that seems strange, it shouldn't. Until the 20th century, Catholic theologians were reluctant to speak of marriage as a vocation at all. I don't know about the Orthodox, but I suspect the same is true for them. There was a very good reason for that. Most people marry and have children at some point, which is what God intended from the beginning. To speak of marriage as a "vocation" in the strict sense of the term, i.e. as a way of being "called" out of something, suggests that marriage is a special state distinguishing the married from the mass of humanity. But it isn't, really. It's just something most people do at some point, whether they're Christian or not. For those who marry with the right intentions and capacities, of course, marriage is sacramental. But that doesn't make it any more special than just being a good Christian.

Admittedly, given the general breakdown of marriage today, along with people's weakening sense of what sacramental marriage is, it's become more appropriate to speak of the "vocation" of marriage than in the past. To be faithfully married as the Church understands marriage is a noble thing indeed, considering what marriage is in the world today even among Catholics. So there is a sense in which marriage can be well spoken of as a vocation. At the same time, it should be remembered that marriage is not, objectively speaking, as clear a witness to the Gospel as consecrated life involving celibacy.

Marriage can be understood, appreciated, and contracted in purely secular terms. Though that approach to marriage is incomplete from the believer's standpoint, it cannot really be said that married unbelievers aren't married. But leaving aside physical and/or psychological impediments to marriage, a voluntary commitment to lifelong celibacy makes sense only in evangelical and eschatological terms. Hence, as most Catholics used to admit, it's not as appropriate to call marriage a "vocation" as it is to call the clerical state or religious life "vocations." Unlike the married, consecrated celibates really are "called" out of the normal human way of life. To be sure, the way some people live marriage is so exemplary that one can clearly see their marriages as beautiful expressions of the baptismal vocation. Some married folk just are better, holier witnesses to the Gospel than some clergy or religious. But that is more a matter of subjective intentionality than of the objective state itself. We don't expect the married to be holier than the average Catholic, the way we rightly expect clergy and religious to be, even when they aren't. Such an asymmetry of expectation is not a hangover from the bad old days of clericalism. It corresponds to the objective reality of the respective states of life.

What about singles? There are two extremes to avoid here. One I've already rejected: thinking of lay singlehood as a formal, ecclesially recognizable "vocation" like consecrated life or, in a secondary sense, marriage. It isn't. For one thing, we all start out as lay singles. For another, some singles really are called to marriage or consecrated life but don't seem to be attaining either, usually because of their own or others' failings. But let's avoid the other extreme of thinking that all singles are called to marriage or consecrated life and are just failing to answer. Some lay singles must remain such because of impediments to marriage and consecrated life. Others have no obvious impediments, but have been given a special mission by God that doesn't fit into the two usual modes of living out the baptismal vocation. Those two categories of singles are of great significance for a theology of vocation.

The singles with "impediments," including but not limited to the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, are those in whom Christ lives in his vulnerability, in how he takes on the tragedy of the human condition. Through them, he beckons us to love him under that aspect. To the extent we treat such people, "the least of my brethren," as Christ himself, they will show us his love in a special way that is easily lost in the hurly-burly of "normal" human life. They tell us that God loves us primarily for who we are, not for what we do. So it is good that most such people cannot "justify their existence" in any other way. None of us can justify our existence by what we do, for all is gift, "all is grace." The usual classes of singles with impediments remind us of that, and they should evoke our love accordingly.

The singles without impediments, who nevertheless have been given special missions that don't "fit in" with the usual ways of living out the baptismal vocation, remind us that the transforming activity of the Holy Spirit—otherwise known as grace—is not limited to anything that can be institutionalized, including the visible Church herself. That is a reality which the conventionally pious often forget or fail to appreciate. I'm thinking of people like the spinster sister who never left home because she was the one who ended up caring for the aged parents. Or the dedicated scholar who doesn't seem to have time for much of anything except her subject. Or the career soldier who'd like to marry but ends up sacrificing himself on a vital mission. Or the man who doesn't mind celibacy, but was too straight and Catholic to get through his diocese's seminary and instead devotes his life to lay ministry, perhaps as a missionary. There are many people like such singles. They testify that the baptismal vocation can and ought to be lived in any and all circumstances, not just the usual states of life.

If we're going to speak of a vocation to singlehood, then, what we should mean is a vocation to live the baptismal vocation merely as such. But that is just to say that the baptismal vocation is what's fundamental, not the formal mode by which it is lived. Maybe God wills singlehood for some in the Church primarily to remind the rest of the Church that the mode in which we live said vocation is less important than the generosity with which we live it. That is a peculiar challenge for singles themselves, who often have no obvious human commitments to evoke their generosity. But it is, after all, is what the universal call to holiness assumes.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Ecclesial Consumerism

Over at Called to Communion, one of my favorite blogs, Bryan Cross has posted a rather amusing meditation on and critique of "ecclesial consumerism." If you read it, you will probably enjoy yourself as much as I did. But there's a serious theological point here. If there weren't, there'd be no point in making the criticism.

One thing worth stressing about Bryan's post is the implication that Protestantism as such is defenseless against ecclesial consumerism. That's because the essence of Protestantism, seen in its countless manifestations, is to make the individual the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy, rather than to acknowledge a visible communion as "the" Church Christ founded, which would then be understood as the judge of any given individual's or group's orthodoxy. Of course there are many ways for individuals and their friends to go about becoming the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy. One way is solo scriptura: openly taking one's favored interpretation of Scripture as normative while denying that any ecclesial creed or confession is binding. Another is sola scriptura: treating Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith, but acknowledging some ecclesial creed or confession as an authoritative but fallible interpretation of Scripture. Or one could go beyond Scripture alone, taking the hermeneutically significant "sources" to include non-canonical documents of the early Church, liturgy, saints, mystical experience, and so forth. But in the end, it all comes down to the same thing.  Once one accepts the Protestant principle, no church is recognized as "the" Church, the judge of one's own orthodoxy, so that one ends up choosing a church based solely on one's personal opinions and preferences. Those can be weighty or light, serious or silly; but ultimately, they are not normative for anything recognizable as "the" Church. They have no more authority for Christians at large than one's grocery list has for one's fellow shoppers.

That said, contemporary Catholics exhibit their own styles of ecclesial consumerism. And that's amply pointed out in the combox discussion to Bryan's post, whose participants consist mostly of Catholics. To their observations, I shall add my own. I'm sure somebody could learn from them.

As a cradle Catholic who reverted to the Church in college, I've noticed that many Catholics who care enough about their faith to attend church regularly will pick a parish based mostly on what they're "comfortable" with. Most don't want to be challenged. Sometimes, that inertial resistance has to do with doctrine, but it needn't and often doesn't. For example, I've been a regular churchgoer for decades, but aside from the three years when I worked as a paid DRE, I've never been asked by any parish representative, clerical or lay, what I actually believe. People care a lot more about how well I sing, how much money I give or fail to give, and how close to the entrance I am when I light up one of my cigarillos outside before or after Mass. I also get asked a fair amount where my wife and kids are, which is rather embarrassing given that I've been a divorced, non-custodial parent for years. Once that info comes out, people assume I'm there looking for a cute single woman who's probably going to be half my age. As if I'm stupid enough to cause myself even more trouble.

Then there's the theological angle among certain committed minorities. Many of the "progressives" on the Left and "traditionalists" on the Right judge Rome by a hermeneutic of discontinuity or "rupture" (as the Pope once put it). The progs task Rome for betraying Vatican II by reactionary retrenchment, and the trads task Rome for failing to do just that. Thus we get, on the one hand, "progressive" parishes that emphasize "social justice" and "contemporary" hymnody but cast aside the doctrines pertaining to the pelvis. On the other hand, we see communities of "traditional" Catholics who not only celebrate the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Rite but want the Church at large to carry on as though Vatican II and all that nasty 60s stuff never happened. Of course, the right-wing discontinuants and the left-wing discontinuants will have no truck with each other. It's as if there were two different churches, not in communion with each other, yet still residing under the umbrella of the Great Church. Which is why the whole phenomenon is a particularly subtle instance of ecclesial consumerism.

Now the Catholic Church, being as big and as...well, catholic as she is, will always harbor considerable differences of culture, opinion, and praxis. But at least there's a vital center to say what is and is not beyond the pale. That center is not going away, as much as some Catholics want to see its authority reduced. And that is why it's possible for Catholics to transcend ecclesial consumerism. All they have to do is be less American about church. Easier said than done, you might say—and indeed it is. We need to think of ourselves as Catholics first and Americans second. If we did, we'd gain the needed critical distance on consumerism, ecclesial or otherwise.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Secular Ecclesiology

In my online career, I have found that the issues sparking the longest debates are almost invariably ecclesiological, i.e., questions concerning the identity, nature, and authority of something called "the Church." At one time, that surprised me. I do, after all, address a range of philosophical and political as well as theological topics, many of which are are objectively more basic and comprehensive than that particular branch of theology. Yet with the possible exception of abortion—where philosophy, religion, and politics all converge—it's ecclesiology that evokes the most passion around here and in that part of the blogosphere I frequent. At the end I'll say why I think that is. But at the moment I'd like to focus on the latest ecclesiological twist in the news.

At the end of its recent term, the U.S. Supreme Court "...left standing a lower court ruling that will allow an Oregon man to try to hold the Vatican financially responsible for his sexual abuse by a priest, if he can persuade the court that the priest was an employee of the Holy See." For the legal details of the case, you can start by consulting the CNA story I've quoted. Legal eagles will doubtless know where to find the actual texts of the lower-court decision. Now as a decided non-lawyer, I find my eyes glazing over when faced with most legal questions. What interests me about this case is something I've observed in other recent developments at the interface of religion and politics: the idea that it's somehow up to the State to address ecclesiological questions in order to discern and carry out what is just in the civil sphere. In the U.S. today, the organ of the State most often involved in making such decisions is the judiciary. They don't do a good job of it: the incoherence of church-state jurisprudence in America since the 1940s is widely acknowledged. But they sure keep trying.

Of course there are people who think nothing untoward is going on with the present decision. If a victim of sexual abuse is to see justice done to him, then somebody has to be held accountable for the failure of justice to be done in the past. And if this were a case of negligence on the part of some corporation, NGO, or governmental body below the national level, there would be no question who would be liable. Under civil law, officers of such bodies can be held liable for negligence in their oversight and discipline of their "employees." The only exceptions are heads of state. Now in this case the negligence, if it that's what it was, was exhibited by clerical officials of the Catholic Church. Prima facie, the question seems simple: whether the relationship between a local American priest-and-religious and the Holy See is enough like that of employee-employer to justify treating the Pope like, say, the CEO of a multinational corporation rather than a head of state and his government, who are ordinarily immune from prosecution. Even the Obama Administration has taken the side of the Vatican in this one, arguing in a brief that the case does not call for making an exception to the usual rule of immunity for heads of state.

You won't find me disagreeing with that. Yet given that the Supreme Court has allowed the present suit and decision to stand, it is now up to a U.S. District Court to determine whether the priestly perp was in fact an "employee" of the Vatican in the sense necessary to establish civil liability. And that's what troubles me. In general, the relationship between a priest and/or religious and their ecclesiastical superiors is not the same as that of employee to employer. The relationship between such parties is not really that of contracting with each other to exchange labor for material compensation, though that occasionally happens within the context of a larger and more fundamental relationship. But such an occasion does not seem to have arisen in this case. The plaintiff's attorney argues that merely functioning as a priest or religious makes one an "employee" of the Vatican in the legally applicable sense of that term. If that argument is allowed to succeed, then a secular government will be deciding, to a hitherto unprecedented extent, on the hierarchical nature of the universal Church. In effect, Erastianism will have become American law. King Henry VIII would be delighted.

Some would think I'm exaggerating. To such folk, all that's at issue here is whether being a church leader exempts one from the ordinary legal requirement to turn suspected criminals under their authority over to the civil authorities. The pope, the bishops, and religious superiors were in authority over the priestly perp in question; ergo, they should be held legally accountable for their failure to do what they could and should have under the law. Now that actually holds at the local level. That is why many dioceses have had to make huge payouts to abuse victims for civil damages. But in this case, the argument assumes that the kind of authority that the Vatican has over priests and religious everywhere is enough like that of a multinational corporation over its employees to create a due presumption that the former should be treated like the latter. For without that presumption, the papacy cannot be held liable for failure to reign in the perp. So, if allowed to prevail, the plaintiff's argument would commit the United States to treating the pope as the CEO of Catholic Church, Inc.

What's disturbing here isn't just the falsity of such a belief. Even more disturbing is the appearance of such a belief within the wider context of belief among the Church's many critics. For most purposes, they don't want the pope to function as the CEO of Catholic Church, Inc. They don't want the Vatican to muzzle or dismiss priests and religious for expressing heretical views. They don't want the Vatican telling laity who procure or support abortion that they're excommunicated. They don't want priests refusing absolution to couples who contracept. Many, like the kings and nobles of old, want the very selection of bishops taken largely out of the papacy's hands. For most purposes, they don't want the Church to retain an exclusive right to decide which members to elevate, discipline, or expel. But when it comes to protecting kids, the Church has to be treated like any multinational that can fire or prosecute its people at will. And the scariest thing of all is that they see nothing inconsistent about that stance. They want the Church to have less authority than she claims, except when she doesn't claim it and they think she should have it.

That's what I call 'secular ecclesiology'. It's an important aspect of what the present pope meant by the memorable phrase, delivered to the 2005 conclave, "a dictatorship of relativism." What the loyal citizens of that dictatorship want is for the Church to stop telling people what she thinks is right and wrong and instead conform herself to their ideas of right and wrong. At bottom, it's a question of authority: specifically, who gets to to settle disputes about the identity, nature, and above all the authority of the Church herself?

That is the secular parallel to the formal divisions that have rent the Church since the beginning, but especially in the fifth, eleventh, and sixteenth centuries. The underlying ecclesiological question when dealing with "heresy" and "schism" is always who has the authority to decide, in a definitive manner binding the whole Church, what's orthodox and, as part of that, where the fullness of the Body of Christ resides. The main reason I'm Catholic, as distinct from Protestant or Orthodox, is that I believe only the Catholic Church, as she understands herself, has that sort of authority. Christians who are not Catholics, of course, deny that she does—or they would become Catholics with all deliberate speed. But I suspect that the present-day depredations of secular ecclesiology are facilitated, in large part, by the collective failure of Christians themselves to resolve their ecclesiological divisions. If we can't agree on where to locate the divinely given authority of the Church, or even on who is "the" Church, then we're practically inviting the State to subordinate institutional churches to itself. That has always been a problem for the Catholic Church to some extent. It's been even more of a problem for Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches.

This is not just a difficulty about how to relate religion and politics to each other. It's not even mere fodder for ecumenists. I believe that ecclesiology has the importance for Christians today that the great christological debates of the first millennium had for Christians then.

The disputes then were about who and what Jesus Christ is. The disputes now are about who and what the Church is. In one sense, the Church is the pilgrim People of God; the Church Militant is not yet what she is called to be. But in another sense, the Church is Jesus Christ himself; for as his Bride, she is one Body with him in a mystical marriage to be fully consummated only when the Bridegroom returns. Both disputes, the christological and the ecclesiological, are about how God becomes visible in the world. It's about how the Word is made flesh.

Whatever the answer to that question, it cannot be treated as a matter of opinion without being rendered merely political, and therefore idle. That is why Newman said: "No revelation is given, unless there be some authority to decide what is given." By that he did not mean that the Church, whoever and whatever that is, gets to decide for herself what the revelation from God in Christ is. He meant that, if we are to distinguish divine revelation from human opinion about what the "sources" thereof mean, then some visible and divinely established authority has to be able to settle doctrinal disputes in a definitive and binding manner.

Whoever that is, it's not the State. But not for nothing did Chesterton call the U.S. "a nation with the soul of a church." It is here that the question will come to a head.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Orthodox Constructions of the West

First, apologies to readers and friends. Late last week I traveled to Annapolis to attend my brother's wedding. He even asked me to do the blessing at the reception on a rented yacht. Such an opportunity to feel useful was too good to pass up; and as the whole affair turned into a four-day family reunion, I barely even got the chance to look at the Internet. But today I've noticed something I've been meaning to comment on anyhow.

Just before I left New York for the wedding, a conference called “Orthodox Constructions of the West” took place at Fordham University (June 28-30). Although that is less than two miles from where I'm living at the moment, I was unable to attend: when one doesn't have a job, even registration fees become problematic! But several of my friends did, including Drs. William Tighe and Peter Gilbert, did. The only report I've seen on the conference so far is at the blog Eirenikon, where it's possible to discuss Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism without the combox descending into polemical recriminations. The Eirenikon post is the first of several announced installments, and consists mostly of notes by "good friend of the blog and frequent commenter, Michaël de Verteuil," a Canadian civil servant who's better informed on the general topic than most people and occasionally comments here too. He wrote mostly on the opening address by Fr. Robert Taft, SJ, whom he correctly says has "earned the right to say whatever he wants" at such an occasion. Please read the post and the ensuing combox.

I have just a few comments of my own. Of Robert Taft, I'm a big fan. He's almost always right. But as my friend Diane Kamer implies in the combox, realism, objectivity, and charity must prevail on both sides if substantive progress is to be made. On the Catholic side, the impetus for those qualifies definitely exists, because Rome is committed to attaining the reunion for which they are necessary. As I see it, though, the same cannot be said for the Orthodox. Some, especially among theologians and hierarchs, do have those qualities and do see the need to work tirelessly toward reunion. But they are not the majority. And even if the irenic minority prevailed at the hoity-toity level, there can be no reunion on the ground without a change of heart among Orthodox who are...well, on the ground.

As new reports on the conference come in, I'll have more to post.