Shifting Sands Part II

Ross Douthat posted another fantastic column in the NYT that tracks nicely with last post’s theme of the shifting view of law, morality and ethics with the Catholic Church in the United States.  Douthat rightly questions the view of conservative Catholics as “order-obsessed absolutists desperate to believing in an unchanging, unchangeable Catholicism.”  He points to the myriad ways the Church has changed dramatically is the last half-century:

A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

Speaking of marriage and the reception of divorce and remarried Catholics to communion, Douthat  suggests that conservative Catholics have drawn a line at “certain essentials of the faith.”  Whereas conservative Catholics saw an ally in these essentials with Popes JP2 and B16, they are unsure (at best) about Pope Francis, who has consistently emphasized the pastoral over the doctrinal.  However, as I mentioned in the last post, I think a lack of acceptance towards human failure goes against the natural Catholic inclination.  So why the adamant opposition to these particular changes?

One answer could be the heavy infusion of former Protestants into the Catholic intellectual tradition, with the associated Protestant inclination towards strict adherence to church law/ethics/morality.  In fact, Douthat’s article is a response to Damon Linker, who initially came into the church because he “longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth.” Although he seems to have abandoned that need, it is a real phenomenon that should be taken into account.

However, I think there may be something different happening here, and why this issue has spurred such angst in both “conservative” and “traditional” Catholics. Douthat notes that “the church’s understanding of marriage is so close to the heart of Catholic moral and sacramental theology.”  The current primary point of contention, Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, is essential to the sacramental theology of the Eucharist.  Most conservatives are focused less on the argument over relaxing the standards for declarations of nullity, but rather more on the issue of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist.  Conservatives and traditionalists see the Eucharist as so central to the faith that officially endorsing reception by unrepentant sinners strikes at its centrality in Catholic sacramental life.

As a side note, it says something very interesting about the modern psyche that this is such a point of contention between liberals and conservatives.  From what I read (I wasn’t alive then), up to fifty or sixty years ago a much smaller percentage of Catholics received communion when attending Mass.  This wasn’t because they were all divorce and remarried, but due to what Archbishop Chaput referred to as “an excessive fear of our own sins.”  A Catholic who was aware of having committed a mortal sin would not have thought about receiving the Eucharist until they had received absolution. Now, as Chaput puts it, “far too many of us receive Communion unthinkingly, reflexively, with no sense of the urgent need for our own self-examination, humility and conversion.”

So, are conservatives saying enough is enough and drawing a line in the sand on the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, or is there something particular about this issue?  I think it may be the latter for an interesting reason: this issue blends the boundary between pastoral practice and doctrinal change to an unusual degree.

To a liberal, allowing the divorce and remarried to receive communion is about meeting spiritually wounded people where they are at and making them feel welcome in the community.  They understand the powerful place the Eucharist has in the church and to deny someone the Eucharist may drive them from the church.

To a conservative, allowing someone to receive Eucharist who is in an acknowledged state of sin, for which they cannot be absolved while they choose to stay in the relationship, undermines the entire doctrinal framework of sin, absolution, and the Eucharist. They see an already devalued Eucharist resulting from poor liturgical practice, and view reception while mortal sin as undermining its sacramental understanding as well.  Again, given the centrality of the Eucharistic to the Catholic faith, it’s understandable why conservatives are so upset.

To conclude, I think Douthat is correct in stating conservatives aren’t “order-obsessed absolutists” resisting change in any form.  They have seen dramatic upheaval in the church and are understandably concerned the fundamental nature of the Eucharist is being undermined.  Whereas a church liberal may see heartless adherence to outdated doctrine, there is something unique to this particular issue and it should be viewed in this context.


Shifting Sands


Reading a commentary from Prof. Mark Weston Janis on Hugo Grotius (17th century Dutch jurist considered by some to be the “Father of International Law”), I was struck by the following line:

That Grotius in particular and Protestants in general should put faith in law as a means to moderate the cruelties affecting the relations of states should come as no surprise, for a respect for law runs deep in the Protestant tradition.

This led me to thinking about the Catholic versus Protestant views on law, ethics and morality.  I would argue that Catholics tend to view moral standards as “ideals” with the result that extremely high standards can be set, knowing they will generally not be attained.  Those who do attain these ideal standards are often canonized.  We strive to be like the Saints, but there is little stigma from the community in failing to achieve that level of perfection.  This helps explain from an earthly perspective why Catholic moral teaching has survived intact, despite centuries of cultural change and incorporation into divergent cultures.

On the flip side, Protestants historically have develop less strict moral codes, but expect more exacting compliance.  An example would be not requiring priestly celibacy, but driving out pastors who are caught in adultery.  Instead of looking to “saints” for inspiration, a Protestant is more likely to look for a community where the more moderate standard (which often changes from community to community) is closely adhered to.

I recognize that this narrative has been flipped a bit in modern times, particularly in the United States.  There are a number of reasons for this I’m sure, but I have often perceived that many commentators advocating the strictest adherence to Catholic morals are Protestant converts.  Over the past few decades, many mainline Protestant churches found it increasingly difficult to maintain the community standard of behavior, so they did what came naturally to them and adjusted the baseline (think divorce, gay marriage, contraception, etc.). This allowed those communities to stay compliant with a  standard that matched the current thinking of the community.

The Catholic church, facing the same broad cultural forces, stayed true to form and kept the high, ideal standard and accepted that many of their adherents would fail to live up to that standard.  It was great if a select few could stay celibate before marriage, remain married for life,  and never use birth-control, but it was understandable if not everyone could.  (This may be what rankles church liberals so much about the debate on Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried: it is a visible stigma of non-compliance.)  Many Protestants who resisted the lowered standards in their own church, saw the maintained ideal of the Catholic Church attractive and converted.

This also helps explain the current consternation over Pope Francis and his emphasis on mercy.  It can easily be argued that the Holy Father is doing nothing more than taking the traditional Catholic  understanding on adherence to moral standards and articulating it.  To my understanding, no change in actual doctrine has occurred under Pope Francis, though his tone has caused many to think that he eventually might.

Pivoting a bit to civil (non-religious) law, these understandings of law and morality have played out in national legal systems as well.  When we think of states that more strictly adhere to the rule of law, we tend to think of northern Europe, Britain, and North America, traditionally Protestant countries.  Southern Europe and South America, on the other hand, might be considered countries where law is more of an ideal, tolerating a looser adherence to the standard.  No accident that these are traditionally Catholic countries.

The question going forward is how will the transient, migratory nature of modern society affect these traditional views of law and will this produce internal conflict? A great example in the United States is the immigration debate.  Should the United States strictly adhere to immigration laws through border control and deportation, or accept a more relaxed enforcement of immigration laws?  Are Catholics more inclined to accept a more relaxed enforcement than Protestants?  Are Protestants more inclined to change the laws to match reality, as opposed to allowing a disparity between law and practice?

It is easy to say that religion and civil law should be entirely separate, but the two have become so intertwined over the centuries that it cannot be that simple. However, with so much global movement of people and ideas, both between religions and between nations, our traditional notions of law, ethics, and morality are certain to shift.


Prepare for Martyrdom


Pope Francis made an important point that should be kept in mind by anyone seeking to grow the seed of authentic Christian faith in the very rocky soil of modern western culture.

In speaking to Scottish seminarians the Holy Father stated that “[w]e too are living in a time of martyrdom, and in the midst of a culture so often hostile to the Gospel. I urge you to have that same selfless spirit as your predecessors did.” While those speaking out against Modernism in the United States are unlikely to to suffer true martyrdom for their faith, it is highly likely they will suffer persecution in such forms as employment discrimination and suppression of religious liberties. However, it is a fight that must be fought and won.   Take courage and remember those who, even today, are being killed for their faith.

Pray for the intercession of these martyrs that we may take courage in the battle ahead.


What Guilt?

Timothy Egan, writing a few days ago in the New York Times, praised the Holy Father for moving towards “the end for one particular kind of medieval millstone — Catholic guilt, especially in regard to sex” in “Amoris Laetitia” — the Joy of Love.  Egan claims that “[t]he old message was: If you break the rules, you’re condemned. Shame, shame, shame. The new message is: Welcome, for forgiveness is at the heart of this faith.”

My question, as someone born in the 1970’s, is where has this message of condemnation been?  I would like to poll weekly mass-going Catholics on how often they feel condemned from the pulpit. In my march across American parishes, I can attest that even the more conservative-leaning pastors are loathe to offer anything that smacks of judgment.

Egan quotes George Carlin as saying he was a Roman Catholic “until I reached the age of reason” when the response to his questions of faith were “well, it’s a mystery.” And here may be the heart of the matter: a lack of catechesis and education. When I was in college and struggling to find the correct path, the priest’s answers to questions of morality were so wishy-washy that any guilt I might have felt for my misdeeds was mostly lost. When I was teaching CCD as an adult from the diocesan approved lesson manuals, there was very little in the way of firm beliefs when it came to moral theology. I distinctly remember confessors at multiple parishes tell me I it was no longer necessary to confess various mortal sins. I find it hard to believe a church that no longer wants to hear of sin in the confessional has a message of “shame, shame, shame.”

While it is absolutely true that “forgiveness is at the heart of this faith,” as Egan puts it, if the message received by at least a portion of the faithful is: “If [sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures] sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table,” then I believe the Holy Father has partly missed the mark.  Jesus certainly said to the adulteress “I will not condemn thee either,” but he followed it up with “Go, and do not sin again henceforward.” John 8:11 (Knox Version).

If the Church does not educate our children (and adults for that matter) on the nature of sin, the occasions of sin, the consequences of sin, and the need for repentance is it really leading them towards salvation?  Will there be some guilt associated with failing to live up to these standards? Absolutely, but a little guilt can go a long way towards guiding behavior. Do pastors need to continue to preach that in Jesus is found forgiveness? Absolutely, we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness.  But preaching either one without the other is to fail to properly form the conscience.  I am sure that in times past the Church has excessively emphasized sin to the exclusion of forgiveness, but that has not been the church I have grown of age in. To Mr. Egan I can only say: What guilt?

A Little About Myself

It occurred to me that it would be helpful to anyone who may read this to know something about my background in order to inform my perspective.

I think it somewhat obvious that I am a Roman Catholic Christian, and that fact I put above all others. I am also a married father of five children. In as much as I hail from anywhere it is the Inland Northwest, but I have lived a decidedly nomadic life and currently reside in South Texas. Professionally, I am a military Judge Advocate specializing in national security and international law (standard disclaimer about the views expressed on this site being my own). My hobbies involve spending as much time outdoors as the above vocations permit: hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and tennis when the gimpy knee permits it.


I hope this provides a bit of context into the musings that follow. And I hope no one minds if I include a few thoughts on Jayhawk basketball or Cardinal baseball every now and then.

Planting the Seed

Perhaps no tradition, religious or otherwise, has as rich a cultural and intellectual tradition as the Roman Catholic Church. The great educational institutes of Europe were originally centers for theological study. Many of the greatest Saints in church history are those brilliant Doctors of the Church such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas who were scholars as well as holy men. Likewise, the cultural treasures of the West are largely born out of Catholic tradition.

Alas, the church in the last half-century has abandoned much that tradition in the last half-century as it tried to adapt to a modern world many felt it was out of step with. The reasons for this abandonment are many, but I do not intend this blog to be wailing and gnashing over what has been lost (or at least pushed to the fringe). Rather, I want to focus on the efforts of those who have planted the seeds of regeneration in the hope that this tradition can be regained.