Of Protestants and Priorities
A recent post over at Vox Nova by Henry Karlson gives me an opportunity to address an issue that has been on my mind as of late: the state of evangelical-Catholic relations in the United States. It will likely surprise no one that my views on this matter are diametrically opposed to his. I believe this is the case, quite frankly, because Karlson – and he is far from alone in this, among his comrades – has a disordered hierarchy of values. He writes:
Vox Nova has for years pointed out the negative influence Evangelical Protestantism have had on American Catholics, where such Catholics have engaged Protestant sensibilities, turning their back on authentic Catholic teaching. It is easy to see how many American political ideologies have become a part of the religious faith of Catholics, so that when discussing religion, they end up echoing American political screeds.
So much for ecumenicism! Somehow Catholic dissent on torture is to be blamed on the influence of high-profile conservative evangelical converts, i.e.:
[T]hose who mock Catholic social doctrine in Papal Encyclicals and those who think intrinsic evils, such as torture, is [sic] fine…
I wonder to which conservative evangelicals Karlson might point to explain left-wing dissident Catholic acceptance of intrinsic evils such as abortion and the perversion of marriage.
In order to understand this matter at all, we have to understand that while they overlap and intersect in many places, religion and politics are not one, nor should they be. Aside from non-negotiable issues, and I agree with Karlson at least on the point that torture is one of them, Catholics are under no obligation to categorically reject “American political ideologies” as if they were the graven images of Baal.
The reference to “American political ideologies” is all the more absurd when one considers a) that the “ideology” most publicly supportive of torture, neo-conservatism, is deeply rooted in Leo Strauss’s views of European philosophy as well as disillusionment with Trotskyism, and b) that the ideologies, at least on the right, most opposed to torture – libertarianism and paleo-conservatism – pride themselves on a much more solid foundation in Anglo-American political thought. Has he never heard of Ron Paul’s position on torture?
It is arguable at any rate that many of the policy positions held by Karlson and some of his co-bloggers violate the principle of subsidarity, though this is neither tantamount to theological dissent or a lapse of personal piety.
I have been and remain opposed to the ongoing “Protestantization” of the Catholic liturgy we find in the “Novus Ordo” rite as it is often practiced, for a number of important reasons: its inherent and misguided egalitarianism, its mediocre and sometimes revolting aesthetics, and above all the lack of demands it places upon worshipers in terms of reverence and devotion. It amounts to, as Dietrich von Hildebrand argues in The Devastated Vineyard, a desacralization of the Mass, which is a grave offense against God.
But this is in no way equivalent to hostility towards Protestants, either as human beings or political and cultural allies. I return to Hildebrand, who argued that it is perfectly acceptable to pursue methods in political matters that have absolutely no place in theological or liturgical matters.
In political theory we can and must apply, for instance, mesotes theory, or finding the middle way between extremes. In political practice, we can and must navigate between isolated sectarianism and unprincipled opportunism to find a pragmatic compromise among different interests. But these methods have no place in theological discussions, for, as Hildebrand argues:
While I can meaningfully say that something should not be too cold and not too warm… it makes no sense to say that one should not be too pious or not pious enough, too virtuous, or not virtuous enough. All the more meaningless is it to say that this person is too orthodox and that one is not orthodox enough and to claim that truth lies in the middle. Orthodoxy is the truth and all heresies are not forms of extremism; they are simply false, incompatible with the Revelation of Christ. (17-18)
In the hierarchy of priorities, we ought to be more on guard against Protestant ideas seeping into Catholic theology and liturgy than we are against some vaguely Protestant or secular political ideologies influencing Catholics as citizens. Furthermore we ought to be allied closely with our evangelical brethren in defense of life, marriage, family, educational freedom, and a host of other rights essential to a dignified human existence and a functional society.
This is precisely what Richard John Neuhaus sought to achieve in a document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. I can’t do this document justice in this blog post, but I do wish to quote a passage most relevant to the topic at hand:
Our cooperation as citizens is animated by our convergence as Christians. We promise one another that we will work to deepen, build upon, and expand this pattern of convergence and cooperation. Together we contend for the truth that politics, law, and culture must be secured by moral truth. With the Founders of the American experiment, we declare, “We hold these truths.” With them, we hold that this constitutional order is composed not just of rules and procedures but is most essentially a moral experiment. With them, we hold that only a virtuous people can be free and just, and that virtue is secured by religion.
These lofty words are reminiscent of those spoken by the popes over the last 70 years or so (I think of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, which called upon all people of good will to oppose threats to the sanctity of life), and stand in sharp contrast to the bitter politico-religious sectarianism emanating from Karlson’s post and indeed many corners of both the Catholic and Protestant worlds.
It is a shame that just when opposition should be voiced – when liberal mainline Protestants who have all but unhinged themselves from natural law, traditional morality, and even a recognizable Christian theology in some cases, are sought out as examples to emulate in our Catholic churches – there is nothing but silence issuing out of these corners. On the other hand, it is precisely when cooperation is justifiable and warranted, in the sphere of politics and civil society, that these elements raise their voices in protest. It is a clear sign that political concerns have been misunderstood, taken out of their proper context, and assigned a higher place in the hierarchy of values than they warrant.
I also suspect that a part of the problem is that in the Vox Nova court, for which Karlson claims to speak repeatedly in his post, “Catholic sensibilities” versus “Protestant sensibilities” on this or that matter has come to mean “servility before all invocations of authority” versus “independent thought and reason,” or if one prefers, the virtue of thinking like a modern European as opposed to the vice of thinking like an American. This is yet another disturbing inversion of the hierarchy of priorities, and the manifestation of a totalitarian approach to the social teaching of the Church.
Whereas the popes have declared that we may disagree on political matters (Leo XIII), or that the Church has no concrete models or blueprints to offer (JP II), or that the aim of Catholics is not to build the perfect society on Earth (Benedict XVI), certain leftists declare almost precisely the opposite: to not support policy A over policy B is to disobey the Church and delay the triumph of social justice. The Papacy becomes transformed from the supreme authority in faith and morals while offering, as JP II put it, “her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation” into a sort of Catholic Kremlin, issuing directives to be disseminated by the local party bosses (the bishop’s conferences) and implemented by Catholic citizens and statesmen on the narrowest of terms. The broadness and depth of the social teaching, which leaves room for prudential considerations and reasonable debate in many areas, is completely emptied out in this radically politicized view of things.
I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to bring ideas such as Distributism to as many people, Catholic and non-Catholic, as possible. I believe Catholic social teaching in general has universal application and appeal as a synthesis of all that is right in several different philosophical and political traditions. In my view, the authority of this social teaching is rooted in its truth, goodness, and even beauty, and not primarily in the fact that it issues forth from a hierarchy. Because of my confidence in its truth, I have no desire (or standing) to insist that people accept it “or else”, or to even imply such a thing, and I can only apologize if I have done so in the past.
Finally I will say that I greatly admire and respect many of the evangelicals I have had the privilege of meeting, on college campuses, at political events, online, and in other venues. To see young people especially so energized in their faith and their love of Christ, even if it is based upon what I would call an incomplete view, or to see them rally in defense of innocent human life or their religious liberties, is all quite inspiring to me. I’m proud to call them brothers and sisters in these struggles.