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The Rise of Rex Mottram Catholicism

If you have not read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – well, what’s wrong with you? You should really go read it. Like right now. I’ll be here when you get back.

Now that you’ve returned, let’s talk about the character of Rex Mottram. Rex, of course, is Julia Flyte’s fiance. He is a non-practicing Protestant, and he goes through the process of becoming a Catholic. Since the book is set in the 1920s, and thus pre-Vatican II, Rex is not subjected to RCIA. Instead, Rex meets with the Flyte family’s priest, Father Mowbray. Father Mowbray relates the following exchange:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.'”

This, along with Rex’s unquestioning acceptance of Cordelia Flyte’s description of Catholic doctrine are among the funniest aspects of the book. What this scene does is expose one of the silliest anti-Catholic prejudices, namely, that Catholics are expected to uncritically and unblinkingly accept every word uttered or written by a Pope as unequivocal truth. This makes hash out of the doctrine of infallibility, which this very educated audience understands applies only to ex cathedra statements regarding faith and morals.

This stereotype of Catholics has fueled anti-Catholicism here, to the point that Catholic politicians have had to fend off charges that they are, in essence, tools of the Vatican. Yet today we see a rise in the number of faithful Catholics who seem intent on giving credence to the stereotype.

I’m not the first blogger to note the rise of the “Rex Mottram Catholic.” In fact I’m not the first person today to observe the phenomenon.

An example of the genre is provided by a former TAC blogger who now writes, naturally, for Patheos. This is hardly the most egregious example of the type, but it is a handy showcase. Larry D of Acts of the Apostasy has a strawmen caricature-inspired satire of what not to expect from the (now released) Papal Encyclical. He then writes:

Bottom line? The encyclical will be Catholic, and will espouse and expand on Catholic teaching. Faithful Catholics needn’t get their biodegradable knickers in a twist over Laudato Sii. Those who are…well, they have an agenda to push. Will there be some things in the encyclical that might make us a bit uncomfortable? Sure, I fully expect it – because being a Catholic sometimes makes you a bit uncomfortable. Comes with the territory. Let the Right and the Left yammer about it – ignore them. Online at least – read the thing and be able to discuss it cogently and coherently with flesh and blood folks, like family members and coworkers.

Let’s unpack this a bit. He first accuses anyone who might be bothered by the encyclical as “having an agenda” to push, as though there could be no legitimate quarrel with anything the Pope writes. Further observe that Larry has pre-judged the criticism before it has even been offered. That’s right – before the encyclical had even been released and anyone knew officially what was in the document he determined that anyone who made a fuss had an agenda to push. So he’s criticizing the criticism, that hadn’t occurred yet, of a document that hadn’t even been released.We’re through the looking glass here people.

He then continues in a vein that is typical of the Rex Mottram Catholic: the Pope ain’t gonna say anything that is contradictory to Church teaching, so why the fuss? In other words, as long as the Pope doesn’t say anything heretical – and ipso facto he cannot – then why even raise a fuss?

There are several problems with the line of thinking, and we’ve been over some of them in excruciating detail. I won’t address the potential problems with this specific encyclical because I haven’t read it. Generally, though, this sort of thinking both excessively elevates the Pope and diminishes him. It elevates him because it places large swathes of what he says and writes outside the bounds of legitimate criticism. It diminishes him by reducing him to nothing more than a vessel of speaking truisms about the faith. If the Pope is merely echoing basic tenets of the faith such as that we are meant to be stewards of creation and have grave responsibilities towards it, then so what? Why bother with a 200 page encyclical? He could have pretty much said the same thing in a 10-minute homily. Obviously, though, the Pope’s intention is to do much more with this. He is hoping to shape debate and push Catholics (and others) towards a certain course of action. Well if that’s the case, don’t we have the duty to take a step back and make sure that what the Pope is saying has merit to it?

You can see this attitude in the comments. When one commenter dared imply that the Pope’s opinion about the scientific data was not sacrosanct, someone replied, “Why do you place your understanding above the Pope’s in determining what is, and what is not, ‘supported by scientific data’?”

This brings us back to the Rex Mottram quote. The Pope has no special charism to interpret scientific data. If he sees a few clouds in the sky and predicts rain, it’s not disobedient for me to pull up my Droid, open the Accuweather app, and inform him that there is a zero percent chance of precipitation.

One last note. Another talking point that has been and will be repeated is that conservative Catholics who ignore, dispute, criticize, etc. this encyclical are no different than liberal Catholics who did the same to previous documents, especially Humanae Vitae. Anyone who does so would be guilty of Cafeteria Catholicism just the same.

I would concede that there is a danger that too many Catholics will raise up the “prudential judgment” banner too reflexively. I’ll also concede that Larry D, for instance, has a point in noting that sometimes being a Catholic makes you uncomfortable. Our disposition as Catholics should be that hen we read this or anything written by the Holy Father that we put our prejudices aside, and not mentally check out whenever he says something that might contradict something we believe.

What I will vehemently dispute is that any criticism of this or any document is just the same as the reaction to Humanae Vitae. People did not just object to certain facets of the encyclical. Rather, dissidents objected to the very core teaching of Church that Pope Paul VI was promulgating. Now, if Catholics object to the idea of being stewards of creation, then yeah, they’re hypocritical cafeteria-style Catholics. If we reject the fundamental idea of caring for the poor, that’s dissidence. I suspect, however, that there won’t be much of that style of reaction.

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Dante alighieri

32 Comments

  1. Absolutely. Those who disagreed on Humana Vitae disagreed with basic Catholic doctrine. That man is causing climate change is not a doctrinal matter. It is the opinion, in this case, of a left wing ideologue who, following the rather mysterious resignation of a more traditionalist pope, attained the Chair of St. Peter, and is using his pulpit to impose his views on the Church and attack those who disagree. Papal infallibility does not extend to matters of science.

  2. I’ve been using “Mottramism” in place of “ultramontanism” since before the synod last year. It’s more evocative than the latter term, requires no less explanation, and more accurately captures the phenomenon we see at places like Patheos and Catholic Answers under this papacy. I think the term was coined by Rod Dreher in an article a few years ago, and semi-prominent journalists like Michael Brendan Dougherty and Matthew Schmitz have been deploying it on Twitter with regularity.

  3. How does one say excellent article in a million different languages?

    It is amazing how dogmatic the dogma haters can be, isn’t it.

  4. Rod Dreher: Dante vs. the Mottramists:
    .

    I’ve seen on my Facebook feed and elsewhere in the past few days that some faithful Catholics are denouncing critics of the Synod as “divisive” and “wounding the Body of Christ” by their complaints. It is certainly possible that one’s protest is only destructive, and therefore wrong. But I get the idea that there are more than a few people who, perhaps out of fear, adopt an essentially Mottramist stance toward the bishops and the Pope, when what is needed is a full-throated defense of the Truth. Mottramism, a subset of clericalism, is one of the reasons the sexual abuse scandal metastasized within the Body of Christ. Outside of the saints, you will find no more faithful Catholic of the High Middle Ages than Dante Alighieri, and it is precisely because of his Catholic faith that he stood up, in verse, to the clerics that traduced it. He understood that the Church is not merely the institution, and that the deposit of faith belongs to all Catholics, not just the priestly class.

  5. While I’m spamming your comments section, can I say that I find few things more triggering than the ceaseless, frantic cries of Calm down! Don’t panic! Nothing to see here! Move along! from the Mottramist contingent? Every time someone expresses even a moderate level of concern at the goings-on at the Vatican, they leap straight into tone-police mode, adopting the weary condescension of the only adult in a room full of distraught children.
    .
    Liz Scalia (“Momma Bear of the New Homophiles”) seems to have been born to play this role, but it’s also a favorite of Thomas McDonald, Fr. Longenecker, Simcha Fisher, and apparently Larry D. (Meanwhile, Mark Shea can be heard just offstage as he strives valiantly to calm people’s nerves by shrieking at them hysterically.)

  6. Indeed Murray. There is a bit of a disconnect as it relates to the release of this encyclical where we are simultaneously told not to freak out before reading it while at the same time being assured there will be nothing in there to freak out about. Well, how do you know that before having read it?

    My educated guess is that my faith will not be impaired after having read the encyclical. I’m doing this crazy thing where I withhold all judgment, pro, con, or indifferent, until later. Crazy I know.

    Perhaps we need to create a tee-shirt, “Keep calm and Mottram on.”

  7. Good post Donald. Let me add an observation to this part”

    “Further observe that Larry has pre-judged the criticism before it has even been offered. That’s right – before the encyclical had even been released and anyone knew officially what was in the document he determined that anyone who made a fuss had an agenda to push. So he’s criticizing the criticism, that hadn’t occurred yet, of a document that hadn’t even been released.We’re through the looking glass here people.”

    The Pope and his Vatican cooperators have been doing this for weeks in advance of the publication of the encyclical. We have been peremptorily dressed down by Vatican officials regarding any opposition to this 200 page letter. It tells me that some in the Vatican know full well that they are promoting an agenda.

  8. “Catholic climate change expert Anthony Annett”
    ***
    LOL! Seriously?”

    Our old buddy Morning’s Minion, tireless hack for pro-abort Democrats, is now a climate change expert? That is rich!

  9. I thought Morning’s Minion was an economist. How does that make him an expert in climate science?

    But here from an interview with Annett:

    “So decarbonization is actually pro-life. But many so-called pro-lifers try to oppose decarbonization by hiding behind the unborn and casting aspersions at the whole sustainable development agenda. This is shameful.There are, of course, plenty of people who support family planning measures as a way to reduce poverty in places like Africa. And indeed, a declining family size is a standard feature of the development path, and is tied to rising educational and occupational opportunities for girls and women. The Church has no problem with this, and of course strongly endorses female education. Even more, the Church has no real issue with the idea of planning families for economic reasons – just as long as it’s not by artificial means.”

    So decarbonization is pro-life. And thus so are smaller families. The Pope’s “don’t breed like rabbits” makes more sense.

  10. Strawman caricature followed by an opinion that contradicts Church teaching.

    Yep, that’s our Morning’s Minion for ya.

  11. “But it’s the fact that Larry cites him as a “Catholic … expert” on ANY topic that indicates how truly has the world turned upside down.”

    Yep, especially since the cited interview is a classic Minion rant:

    “Hence you have pretty much every Republican running for the hills when climate change is mentioned, because their funding spends on obstruction. I have been told that if you get these people in private, they will admit that anthropogenic climate change is a hugely important issue. But they can’t say that in public. Aside from the political level, you can also see a tidal wave of propaganda coming from monied interests, especially through outlets like Fox News and talk radio, outlets that really appeal to the worst instincts in people. So the first issue is the degeneration of American politics and political discourse.

    The second issue is related, and it is the dominant strain of libertarianism in America. Again, the U.S. is unique in this sense. What you get is a self-centered individualism and an entitlement mentality – I have the right to do whatever I want, and the government better stay away. It’s an ideology of hooliganism, the very opposite of the common good based on harmonious social order. And the same monied interests spend an inordinate amount of money propping up “free market” think tanks (and a heavy dose of fossil fuel funding closes the circle). Americans call this “conservative”, but it is in fact the antithesis of conservatism. This is where basic economic logic runs smack into rigid ideology. Economics say that carbon is underpriced, because the market price fails to account for social cost. We have an externality, so the solution is to put a price on carbon (and there a number of ways to do this). But the ideologues will say “no way”, as this is government instruction in the sacred space of the market.

    And yes, I’m choosing these words carefully, because it is quasi-theological. That brings me to the third point: the influence of a peculiar American theology, especially the horrible idea of American exceptionalism, which is so rooted in this country. Honestly, what could be less Christian than the idea that God favors some nations over others? The implication is that America is under God’s protection, ordained for prosperity and greatness, to be achieved by using the resources given by God. So don’t worry about climate change, God is in control. (But I wonder: if God won’t let carbon emissions destroy the earth, is it also “safe” to start a nuclear war? Best not go there!). It’s derivative Calvinism, and dangerous Calvinism at that. Add to this the bizarre eschatology, whereby most evangelicals seem to think we are living in the end times. Well, if the world is ending, then we should party on, and the best highs come from the fumes of fossil fuels…”

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/06/16/previewing-laudato-si-anthony-annett-on-integral-ecology/

    That a political shill for the Democrats and the loony Left is taken seriously at the Vatican tells you all you need to know about the powers that be at the Vatican these days.

  12. Honestly, what could be less Christian than the idea that God favors some nations over others? ”

    Of course there is “His chosen people” and there’s “the apostle He loved” and then……

  13. Honestly, what could be less Christian than the idea that God favors some nations over others?

    So the old testament is no longer Christian? Or is that another sign of how the Catholics’ bible is different?

  14. The only thing that is unchristian is to presume that God favors one’s own country in every particular. To assume that God favors nothing about one’s country is also unchristian, a variant of the sin of despair. The sins of presumption and despair are mirror images on one another.

  15. “Honestly, what could be less Christian than the idea that God favors some nations over others? ”

    Perhaps it is more like chance favors the prepared. That is, that certain countries have defended basic rights such as private property and had limited government. Thus, economic flourishing could occur. But that might fly in the face of those who see progress of one coming only at the expense of another. Thus the line in the Encyclical about “winners and losers.”

  16. “The sins of presumption and despair are mirror images on one another.”

    Great observation Tom D. Pride and hope seem to belong in that “equation” somewhere.

  17. We have received a 200 page document about the climate supposedly written by a Catholic cleric who has rarely been outside of Buenos Aires his entire life and never studied meterology in his life. Makes perfect sense to me.

  18. [C]an I say that I find few things more triggering than the ceaseless, frantic cries of Calm down! Don’t panic! Nothing to see here! Move along! from the Mottramist contingent? Every time someone expresses even a moderate level of concern at the goings-on at the Vatican, they leap straight into tone-police mode[.]

    Doing a Chip Diller impression is not how to go about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs.

  19. This passage of St. Paul is copied from a wdtprs blog post which speaks to Ernst Schreiber’s apt description of the leaping group.
    .
    St. Pauls Epistle reading, common for doctors, was striking today:

    Lesson from the secons letter of St Paul the Apostle to Timotheus
    2 Tim. 4:1-8
    Beloved: I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus, Who will judge the living and the dead by His coming and by His kingdom, preach the word, be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, entreat, rebuke with all patience and teaching. For there will come a time when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but having itching ears, will heap up to themselves teachers according to their own lusts, and they will turn away their hearing from the truth and turn aside rather to fables. But be watchful in all things, bear with tribulation patiently, work as a preacher of the Gospel, fulfill your ministry. Be sober.

  20. The closer we get to the pope’s visit here in the US, the more often I find myself responding to comments on social media to explain that the pope nor anyone else at the Vatican has the authority to dictate political views to Catholics. And climate change is PURELY political from every aspect at which it is looked. The only concrete response I have received as of yet to my comments re: this encyclical is from one faithful Catholic who liked my comment on my Facebook page. The Protestants don’t dare address it. I also add at the end of my comments on the encyclical that I wish that the pope would focus his energies on lost souls.

    The liberal MSM is eating this stuff up. I heard today,for the first time in reality, what I knew would be coming out of the mouths of the MSM at some point. A liberal female member of the MSM stated that the pope would be visiting the US specifically to address the US Congress & the UN about the need to address man made climate change & the damage it was causing the poor of the world.

    What a joke. Without the use of fossil fuels–how many billions of poor people would be starving on our planet every day??

  21. Another talking point that has been and will be repeated is that conservative Catholics who ignore, dispute, criticize, etc. this encyclical are no different than liberal Catholics who did the same to previous documents, especially Humanae Vitae. Anyone who does so would be guilty of Cafeteria Catholicism just the same.

    In the (unlikely) event that happens to me, I intend to stand tall, proud and defiant as I play my Seamless Garment Baby! Card.
    .
    Take that, Yu-Gi-Oh!

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