Catholicism and Secularism and Nostaligia

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Is a Christian cakemaker required to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, in violation of his religious beliefs? That is the issue in a case currently before the US Supreme Court. The case looks like yet another major clash between the forces of secular progressive liberalism and their Christian targets. And yet some Christians are so optimistic as to hope for a truce. For instance, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat has appealed to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who as so often will almost certainly cast the deciding vote. Despite Kennedy’s record – he composed the 2015 Obergefell decision which divined a right of same-sex marriage in the Constitution – Douthat hopes that the judge will vote to protect the baker, and so bring about some peace, of uncertain duration, between liberalism and Christianity.

In so doing, Douthat illustrates a pervasive tendency among Catholic intellectuals today: the temptation of nostalgia. He casts a wistful glance backwards, to a time in which secular progressive liberalism and what he calls “religious conservatism” peacefully coexisted. When exactly? One candidate is the period just before the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, but it seems likely that by 2014 it was already too late to disband the competing forces. A better candidate is 1950-70, which Douthat believes future historians will identify as the glorious peak of the American polity. Douthat is slightly coy about whether he thinks these future historians will be correct, but it is clear that he thinks something went very wrong in American life in the 1970s, and that Hugh Hefner played an important role. One can see why 1950-1970 would appeal to a certain strain of traditional Catholic. The immediate postwar period was a time in which Catholics peacefully coexisted with the liberal Imperium, and indeed became increasingly integrated into it, helping to elect a quasi-Catholic President. Anthony Kennedy is no John F Kennedy, as it were, but in Douthat’s view “you appeal to the emperor you have.”

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Why are self-described “trad” Catholics prone to nostalgia? The typical mistake is to conflate the traditions of the Church with the traditions of the broader society. These are very different things; the Church is an ark afloat on a dangerous sea, which preserves its own internal traditions in part with walls that prevent it from being deluged by secular practices and mores. 1 Peter thus connects Catholic rootlessness and homelessness with a rejection of human political traditions, enjoining Catholics to “live out the time of your exile here in reverent awe, for you know that the price of your ransom from the futile way of life handed down from your ancestors was paid, not in anything perishable like silver or gold, but in precious blood …” Catholicism is not Burkeanism. Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions. They can have no final affection for the misty English landscape that always stands just behind Scruton’s prose, for Reno’s polite distinction of liberal tradition and liberal creed, for the bipartisan fedora-hatted governance of Douthat’s postwar golden age, or even for Ahmari’s era of the triumph (albeit short-lived) of liberal democratic freedom after 1989.

As secular liberalism attacks the Church, Catholics can’t afford to be nostalgic

I am going to risk a prediction: 2018 will be the year we see an end to the fighting over Amoris Laetitia.

This might seem rather presumptuous, given that just this week five bishops have underscored the Church’s traditional teaching on the reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried. The bishops’ statement is a positive delight to read for its clarity of thought and expression – especially after some of the tortured sophistries we have had to endure of late.

The document unflinchingly reminds us that some things are just wrong, and no amount of personal reflection or mitigating circumstances can change that.

Seeming to address directly the various interpretations of that single contentious footnote in Amoris Laetitia (the one Pope Francis cannot remember), the five bishops quote St John Paul II: “The confusion created in the conscience of many faithful by the differences of opinions and teachings … about serious and delicate questions of Christian morals, ends up by diminishing the true sense of sin almost to the point of eliminating it.” This describes all too well the results, and I would say the intentions, of many of the opaque and tendentious “pastoral” guidelines which have followed Amoris Laetitia.

The doctrinal errors in interpreting Amoris Laetitia are part of a serious movement afoot in the Church to undermine her clarity of thought and expression on the moral order, especially regarding marriage, sexuality and personal conscience. What drives this movement? Let’s be clear: it has nothing to do with helping divorced and remarried Catholics. Those of us who work in marriage tribunals, where canonists and priests have more contact with such couples on a daily basis than most working in bishops’ conferences have in a year, can tell you that the divorced and remarried are, in the vast majority of cases, desperately seeking clarity from the Church, not to be told to “do whatever they think is right.”

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At the time of the cultural and sexual revolution, the Church spoke powerfully and prophetically against the inevitable consequences of what was happening. In the last half-century, Paul VI’s encyclical has proven ever more prescient and relevant. It is a bitterly comical irony that, just as wider society is beginning to wake up to the consequences of a sexual ethic based solely on consent and the pursuit of personal fulfilment, the Church is having to defend herself against those within who deny not just the Church’s teaching, but the last 50 years of history which have so convincingly vindicated it.

There’s a movement to undermine Catholic morality – Communion is just the start

Growing in wisdom involves growing in the discernment of who is wise, and who only parodies wisdom. While there are many ways to parody wisdom, two stand out in the age of the internet. At first glance they might seem to be opposites, but (on closer inspection) they reveal themselves to be alter-egos of one another. Tragically, each of these tendencies has plenty of public representation. Let us label their distinctive brands as “Prophetic Performers,” and “Authenticity Acts.”

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“Prophetic Performers” prey upon the humans’ natural (and good) instinct to respond to certain modes of rhetoric and prophetic inflexibility. Since humans are sometimes liable (some more than others) to say “whatever” too often, to be morally lazy, or to fail in their capacity to protect sheep from wolves, it is important that we can nevertheless be psychologically accessed by a strong rebuke, by a reminder that some things are hard, that some bits of reality are unsavory and rough-edged, sometimes you have to confront your own will and sentiments, etc.

. . .

More popular in our era is the “Authenticity Act.” Sometimes, but not always, this person started out in the first camp and ends in the second. One will frequently hear this sort waxing eloquent about how “messy” and “complicated” life is. Rather than reducing the complexity of life, they will tend to reduce the complexity of God’s law (not to mention His character) to some vague platitudes about infinite empathy. These persons are frequently hurting and broken, and use the public platform they have to tell their personal narrative, process their lives, and garner empathy for their spiritual destination, or the turns their “journey” has taken.

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What do these two characters have in common? Fundamentally, they have a narcissistic relationship to reality. Even when they are correct (as they sometimes accidentally are), their relationship to the reality that they presumably elucidate is inflected through their final goals of self justification – whether it be of the deeply fearful valiant badass for Jesus in the case of the former, or the deeply broken demander of infinite affirmation in the case of the latter.

In both cases, what is required is getting out of one’s own head and into the world. Wise men do not safely wax about a reality which functions as their shield, but speak of it with fear and trembling. Wise men are humble before God. Wise men often admit that life is complicated. Wise men sometimes do not know the answer. Wise men are also willing to receive an answer that they find unsavory. And most importantly, wise men will ask divine help to bend their will to savor reality over their distorted sentiments.

Prophetic Performers, Authenticity Acts, and the Need for Wisdom

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