Sunday, April 10, 2016

Douthat can't handle the truth

Clifton Webb in Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), with Gene Tierney's back. Via somebody's Tumblr.
It's Monsignor Ross Douthat, the Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, all hopped up about Pope Francis's new exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love!), but there is no joy in Rossville. It's that danged modernity again:

MODERNITY has left nearly every religious tradition in the Western world divided.
The specific issues vary with the faith, but there is an essential sameness to what separates Reform Judaism from Orthodox Judaism, evangelical churches from mainline Protestantism, the liberal Episcopal Church from the conservative Anglican Church in North America.
The terror-caps are just an accidental feature of the Times style—because it's the first word in the piece. But it does look funny!

Actually what separates Reform Judaism (about 35% of Jews in the United States according to the 2013 Pew survey, plus 6% for Reconstructionist and other particularly liberal denominations) from Orthodox Judaism (about 10%, including the Ultra-Orthodox) is Conservative Judaism (about 18%), of which Ross appears not to have heard, together with the 30% who identify mostly as "just Jewish" (27%) or otherwise unaffiliated.

Modernity really did create Reform Judaism among the newly emancipated, urban Jews of the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain in the tail-end of the Enlightenment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when they wished to participate fully in the largely Christian societies that had at last begun to accept them, and brought choirs and organs into the shul, and began dropping prayers for the restoration of animal sacrifices under a personal Messiah in Jerusalem from their liturgy. But it was the horror of other Jews over these innovations, banning them and their newfangled ideas, throwing them out, excommunicating them, that made them a denomination.

The Anglican Church in North America, on the other hand, separated itself, splitting from the Episcopal Church of the United States in 2009, or 200 years after the first Reform synagogues, out of rage at the appointment of a female priest as presiding bishop of the denomination, as the kind of final straw after a series of insults beginning with the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, in the course of which the international church has acceded to contraception and divorce, denounced capital punishment, and allowed the ordination of women as deacons and priests, while the US and Canadian churches have been particularly active in moving toward the acceptance of gay people, same-sex marriage, and the appointment of an openly gay man as a bishop. The new organization has some 112,000 members, next to the 3.7 million members of the Episcopal Church (which was founded in 1789, just around the time of the earliest Reform Jewish activity, as a national branch of the Church of England for the newly independent United States).

Note that that kind of split, over sex issues such as contraception, abortion, divorce, and the status of women and LGTBQ people, or what Douthat primly refers to as "the proper response to the Sexual Revolution" is a pretty new phenomenon. The different Jewish denominations existed for almost two centuries before such things became a part of their differences (of course divorce and abortion have always been permitted under even the strictest interpretations of Jewish law—abortion is not just allowed but mandatory when it will save a woman's life). They, and the many Protestant denominations as well, were relatively liberal or relatively conservative to start with before they ever considered the ordination of women or the celebration of same-sex marriage, and the way they have grappled with these issues reflects the kind of denomination they were in the first place (though I'll never get over the way the more conservative evangelicals have jumped on the abortion issue, something they never cared about, and even birth control, in recent decades, as if the worst Catholic thinkers were giving them their cues).
Roman Catholicism, however, remains officially united.
Isn't it really a matter of perspective? I mean from the one end, historically, Catholicism was created by the splitting of Christianity in the Great Schism in the 11th century (formalizing many centuries of separation) and the Reformation in the 16th; it is as much a product of division as any other religious tradition, from Buddhism becoming distinct from the broader panoply of South Asian religious practices in the 5th century or so B.C.E. to the Texas state convention of Baptists who left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 on the grounds that it had become too conservative. Prophet Muhammad was barely cold in the grave when the Sunni-Shi'a split began in a dispute over the succession. Wikipedia lists 85 distinct sects deriving from Joseph Smith's foundation of the Latter-Day Saints.

And at the other end, the Roman church has certainly begun to fray in almost exactly the same way as the Episcopalians, in recent decades, giving birth to exactly the same kind of reactionary protest group, matching the Anglican Church in North America with its own Society of Saint Pius X (claiming 25,000 members in the US of 600,000 worldwide in 2013) and so forth. Only, like the original splits in Buddhism, Judaism, earlier Christianity, and Islam as well, over issues that have little apparent relation to sex.

So the Monsignor's opening premise here is, as usual, fundamentally false: the nature of things has caused every religious tradition in the world to divide repeatedly over the millennia (they fuse sometimes too), and Roman Catholicism is no exception.

Then again, one of the special things about the Catholic church is the way it really does end up accommodating these democratic-type movements for progressive change, one way and another, like the Catholic Worker group in the US in the mid–20th century and the heroic worker-priests of Latin America later on, down to current phenomena like
  • the Leadership Conference of Women Religious representing the institutions of some 80% of the US's 57,000 nuns (not including the anti-contraception, anti-labor Little Sisters of the Poor, who belong to a different grouping), who were placed under a kind of counter-subversion investigation for their suspected feminist views under Benedict XVI, in 2012, from which they emerged last year in something like triumph, or 
  • the Austrian Pfarrer-Initiative, an association of male priests calling for an end to the Church's strictures against divorce and same-sex love and for the admission of women and married men to the priesthood and the democratic election of bishops, among other things, which claims to have the support of two thirds of Austrian priests, or
  • the 96% of ordinary Catholic women who use contraception in their fertile years, when they're in a sexual relationship and not interested in getting pregnant, often with the passive encouragement of a priest who may invite them to consult their own consciences and decide what is right for their own particular situation.
I love that aspect of the Church, by the way, going back to Vietnam days, when Catholic religious played such a brave and sweet part in the resistance to the war to the fury of the (US) bishops, and I don't care who knows it (my mom also loved to tell stories of Catholic conscientious objectors in World War II undergoing medical experiments, as alternative service, to study the effects of starvation on the human body, hello Herr Doktor Mengele, but in Minneapolis).

The Monsignor doesn't actually mind all that sinfulness, you know, of

a tension between doctrine and practice, in which the church’s official teaching remains conservative even as the everyday life of Catholicism is shot through with disagreement, relativism, dissent.
Because the teaching is consistent, conservatives are reassured that the church is still essentially unchanging, still the faith of the church fathers, Nicaea and Trent as well as Vatican II.
At the same time, the flexibility and soft heterodoxy of many pastors and parishes and Catholic institutions enables liberal Catholics to feel reasonably at home while they wait for Rome to “evolve” in their direction.
He doesn't love it, with all that soft heterodoxy running around, but at least he knows those people are bad and he's good. That's what religion's all about. But what the Pope has done in Amoris Laetitia is something else:

the pope does not endorse a formal path to communion for the divorced and remarried.... But what he does seem to encourage, in passages that are ambiguous sentence by sentence but clearer in their cumulative weight, is the existing practice in many places — the informal admission of remarried Catholics to communion by sympathetic priests.... there is also now a new papal teaching: A teaching in favor of the truce itself. That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur, rather than being a state of affairs that popes were merely tolerating for the sake of unity. 
It's saying that "soft heterodoxy" is not evil. As James Carroll puts it in a wonderful piece in the New Yorker,
“It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church,” Francis declares. How that feeling is expressed in practice is to be determined, he writes, not by “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” but by “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.”
This is putting Ross in the wrong, with his certainty that all the rules are eternally valid and unchanging, and suggesting that knowing what's right and wrong might require some work and some empathy. Of course he is wrong, in the obvious sense that Christianity really has changed from the fathers through the Councils of Nicaea and Trent and Vatican I and II. It changes, as institutions do, all the time.

And some of the changes have been catastrophic—such as the first serious enforcement of priestly celibacy beginning with the First Lateran Council in 1123 (most priests were married until then), or the Doctrine of Infallibility with which Pius IX reacted in 1869-70 to the loss of his temporal power (with the unification of Italy depriving him of his princely estates) by asserting a spiritual power beyond anything you could imagine, and used it to consecrate the neo-Catholic gobbledygook of the Immaculate Conception, in direct contradiction to St. Thomas—
How, Thomas Aquinas then asked, can she be considered as part of the line of David, all born with original sin, from which line Jesus claims descent? Pius IX ignored such thinking, Wills says, when he proclaimed her Immaculate Conception; it was a power move... (Robert A. Parker on Garry Wills, Papal Sin, 2000)
Nevertheless I wouldn't argue that it isn't the Roman Catholic Church any more. It is a social institution, and it remains itself through its changes; this isn't just anthropologically true but also theologically, since the Church is, according to the dogma, made up of its people, who are flesh, dying and being born in generations, and evolving all the time. Now is perhaps a really good moment in its evolution.

"Francis's watchword is mercy," Carroll goes on to say,
but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine. When human experience, with all of what the Pope calls its “immense variety of concrete situations,” is elevated over “general principles,” a revolution is implicit. Francis explains: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”
Those human beings, to Francis, are at a higher level of creation than the dogma that is supplied to them as a guide to their lives, not subordinate to it, and it is up to their pastor to work to understand them, not to order them around according to an unbending set of canons.

Or in the terms of Douthat's analysis, what he's doing is to take that hypocrisy of the "truce" between conservative dogma and liberal practice and turn it into a kind of sublime truth about the relationship between people and laws, just by laying it out instead of continuing to lie about it as most of the recent princes of the church have done. But Ross can't handle the truth.

And while it does not undercut the pope’s authority as directly as a starker change might have, it still carries a distinctive late-Marxist odor — a sense that the church’s leadership is a little like the Soviet nomenklatura, bound to ideological precepts that they’re no longer confident can really, truly work.
Oh, snap! Remember when Deng Xiaoping said Party cadres should tell people to work with their consciences in deciding what is right and wrong conduct and not be so worried about following the arbitrary diktat from Beijing? Or was that Andropov? No, I don't either.

What the church considers serious sin becomes mere “irregularity.” What the church considers a commandment becomes a mere “ideal.” What the church once stated authoritatively it now proffers tentatively, in tones laced with self-effacement, self-critique.
As if self-effacement and self-critique were inappropriate for an institution that has found itself guilty of condoning thousands upon thousands of child-rapes and financial crimes I can't even begin to grasp (it's worth noting that Francis has done considerably better so far in reforming the Vatican Bank than in dealing with the scandal of priestly child abuse).

The Pope is doing something rather bigger than a change in the law, not smaller (desirable as a change in the law might be); he is revising the church's attitude toward the law, in the sense of II Corinthians 3:6 (Donald Trump's favorite book in the Bible!), which says that the apostolic ministry is
not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
Something pharisaical Ross Douthat is poorly equipped, morally and intellectually, to understand.

Wow, this is long, I've been doing it all day. I really needed to work on something that had nothing to do with the damn campaign, and this had that.

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