Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 04 Aug 2017, and is filled under Uncategorized.

Ross Douthat’s Vatican Problem

Ross Douthat of the New York Times has joined the swelling ranks of those reacting to the recent article in the influential Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, written by two papal confidantes, the Jesuit Rev. Antonio Spadaro and the Protestant journalist Marcelo Figueroa.

First of all, let me say that I think the development of the Catholic blogosphere, epitomized by this flurry of activity over a relatively obscure article, has been an incredibly positive development for the Church. Though a tiny group in comparison with the larger Church, and loaded with unbalanced and poorly-catechized ranters, this small contingent has organically taken up the Second Vatican Council’s call for more active participation in the life of the Church on the part of the laity, and has opened up a forum for discussing what are, after all, supposed to be the central questions in a Catholic’s life: what does the Church teach, and how does it apply to my life? Questions which need to be asked and debated, not only in seminaries and formal theology courses, but by all of us who are trying to make sense of our lives in our confusing contemporary situation.

The trouble, of course, with the blogosphere (as with the Internet in general) is that it is largely unedited and favors sensationalism over careful analysis, and so sometimes can appear to do more harm than good. A particular problem in the American Catholic blogosphere is that we tend to understand Catholicism through the lens of our political and cultural allegiances (mostly ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’) and fail to recognize that the Catholic faith explodes those categories and offers a distinctly different worldview than those we are used to as Americans.

Perhaps the best and most authoritative writer in the Catholic blogosphere is Ross Douthat, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times. Though he lacks academic credentials in theology, Douthat’s columns frequently comment on issues related to the Church, and his writings display nuance, thoughtfulness and depth often lacking among Catholic bloggers.

But Douthat often falls prey to the same trap as lesser writers, failing to recognize that some Catholic issues transcend the familiar categories of American conservatism and may come from an entirely ‘other’ place. Such is the case with his recent column, “The Vatican’s America Problem”.

Douthat begins his article with a brief survey of the Magisterium’s wrangling with the rise of the secular liberal State in Europe beginning in the late 19th century. He sees Pope Leo XIII’s policy of ralliement, expressed in a letter in 1892 to French Catholics, as the beginning of a process of gradually re-thinking the Church’s view of religious liberty, the first step in a “process of harmonization between America and Rome, sealed in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council, in which the church’s political thought was tacitly Americanized.”

Though it’s not the centerpiece of his article, this reading of the Church’s development of doctrine on religious liberty, though commonly accepted by the vast majority of American Catholics, is extremely problematic in and of itself. Without getting into a huge digression on the complex theology of religious liberty, the issue brings us two hugely difficult points, one theological and the other practical.

On the theological front, Douthat’s claim that “the American way of doing religious politics — in which a secular political framework allowed a great deal of room for religiously inspired activism — was blessed and accepted as the Catholic way as well” is highly problematic, because it, perhaps unconsciously, reads a hermeneutic of rupture into Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Document on Religious Freedom. Simply put, Douthat’s Americanist reading would see the Church as repudiating the clear and authoritative teaching of the Magisterium of the previous nineteen centuries, thus throwing the whole concept of Magisterial authority into question, and opening the door to relativism in matters of Religion, which would fundamentally undermine the Catholic Faith to its core. As a fascinating four-part series at the blog The Josias by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. explores in great detail, though the document employs the language of American/Enlightenment ideas about religious freedom, and one of the peritus (experts) at Vatican II was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who explicitly argued for the Americanist interpretation, the Council Fathers in the end rejected the broader Enlightenment understanding of religious liberty in favor of a much more limited understanding, as the document itself clearly articulates in its first paragraph:

Religious freedom […] which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

Certainly the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and Dignitatis Humanae in particular, are difficult to interpret, especially for moderns whose understandings of concepts like “freedom” and “conscience” tend to come pre-loaded with Enlightenment baggage that doesn’t cohere with traditional Catholic teaching. But more on that later: suffice it for now to say that Douthat’s reading of the Second Vatican Council is far too pro-American.

The second issue that Douthat’s brief history lesson conjures up is a practical one: yes, it is true that Leo XIII made a “novel gambit” in promoting the strategy of ralliement for Catholics dealing with the hostile French Third Republic, but it is not clear that this strategy was a prudent one. In fact, in the short term, the strategy was an utter failure, as Roberto de Mattei described in an article posted at Rorate Caeli:

Despite Leo XIII  and his Secretary of State Mariano Rampolla’s endeavor, this policy of dialogue was a sensational failure and unable to obtain the objectives it proposed. The Anti-Christian behavior  of the Third Republic increased in violence, until culminating in … “the Combes law” which suppressed all financing and public recognition of the Church;  it considered religion merely in the private dimension and not in the social one;  it established that ecclesiastical goods be confiscated by the State, while buildings of worship were given over gratuitously to “associations culturelles” elected by the faithful, without Church approval. The Concordat of 1801, that had for a century regulated the relations between France and the Holy See, and that Leo XIII had desired to preserve at all costs, fell wretchedly to pieces.

Pope Leo’s successor, Pius X, reversed Leo’s course and in doing so was able to mitigate the losses suffered during the ralliement. But of course a similar strategy was once again taken up at the Second Vatican Council, this time under the battle cry of ‘aggiornamento’, and again with similarly depressing historical results. Douthat dedicated his brilliant 2015 Erasmus Lecture, “A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism” to a detailed description of the failures of the post-conciliar Church and warning that the ‘reform of the reform’ undertaken by Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI were now in jeopardy under Pope Francis, a concern shared by many like Douthat who would characterize themselves as conservative Catholics.

But here’s the problem I have with Douthat’s analysis: Certainly the policy of ralliement under Leo XIII doesn’t require internal assent for Catholics today, especially as this policy was reversed by his successor. But are we free to reject, as Douthat does, the basic pastoral thrust of the Second Vatican Council, to see it basically as a mistake, though not a doctrinal one? Additionally, are we free to reject the basic pastoral thrust of Francis’ pontificate as well?

I am deeply sympathetic with the line of thinking that would identify Liberalism as the plain and simple Enemy of Catholicism, as articulated for example by Thomas Storck in his article “Liberalism’s Three Assaults”. I agree wholeheartedly with the analysis of intellectual titans like David Schindler and Michael Hanby that Catholicism cannot thrive within a secular democracy like America because such a system is based on the lie that the State can be ‘neutral’ on religious matters, when in fact it ends up sneaking in a whole series of corrosive baggage which inevitably push the society towards atheism. But does that mean that the Church must commit itself to a siege mentality, whether that of the French monarchists in the 19th century, or that of the ‘Culture Warriors’ of today? Is there a possible third option, one that recognizes the profound flaws of Modernity without retreating to a fundamentally defensive posture? And is that option possibly what Pope Francis is trying to articulate for us?

Leaving aside his treatment of the history of religious freedom in the Church, Douthat then proceeds to give a very balanced and accurate summary of recent developments in Catholics’ assessments of Modernity. He quite correctly recognizes the recent emergence of Paleo-Catholicism as a rejection of the Neo-Conservative brand of Catholicism which preceded it and which dominates conservative Catholic discourse in America. Spadaro and Figueroa, in their article, don’t appear to understand the distinction, a distinction well-articulated by Patrick Deneen in his seminal article, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching”; instead, they simply lump the two movements together, along with a whole bunch of other stuff they don’t seem to have a very firm grasp on.

Douthat seems to recognize the frustration of young Catholics with Neo-Conservatives’ hopeless and now-failed project of unifying Catholicism with American Liberalism, epitomized by Richard John Neuhaus’ calling in 1987 for the emergence of a ‘Catholic Moment’ in American life. Strangely, given his vast exaggeration of the Church’s endorsement of Liberalism at the Second Vatican Council, Douthat seems to recognize that Paleo-Catholics may be prophetic “because they sense that the present order might someday soon be itself an ancien regime from which their religion must slip free.” It’s hard to see how Catholicism could ‘slip free’ of Liberalism if indeed it had wedded itself (as Douthat claims) to an American system in a universal Council. Here we see a profound lacunae in Douthat’s thought: he is so profoundly unaware of the way the Church’s magisterial authority works that he fails to recognize it even when it unnecessarily hinders his own argument.

Douthat’s main critique of the Civiltà article, beyond its flawed grasp of American religious and political realities, is that it represents an exaggerated hand-wringing on the part of the Vatican about the shifting world political order represented by the rise of authoritarian and populist movements. The Vatican, if this article is any indication, seems concerned that more harm than good may come from American Catholics abandoning the liberal order, especially in favor of the type of regime embodied by Donald Trump, with its overtones of xenopohobia, paranoia, and violence.

Leaving aside the question of how much Pope Francis really had to do with this article, and assuming its harmonization with his own views (which, as Douthat points out, is problematic in that Francis is himself something of a populist), is Douthat right to be so dismissive of the Vatican’s warnings about American trends toward the dark side?

in their evident paranoia about what the Americans are up to, you see a different spirit: a fear of novelty and disruption, and a desire for a church that’s primarily a steward of social peace, a mild and ecumenical presence, a moderate pillar of the establishment in a stable and permanently liberal age.

Douthat’s reaction is much milder than that of most in the Catholic blogosphere, but it shares a dismissive tone that seems to me unfitting for someone writing from the Catholic perspective- the Supreme Pontiff and his minions are bleeding-heart European Liberals, so we better be on our guard- exacerbating the distance and lack of filial piety between Francis and his conservative American flock.

I’m not going to try to defend Spadaro and Figueroa’s article on the basis that it is well-written or a good summary of American or religious history: it is none of those. And I would argue vehemently that a certain concept of integralism is ultimately going to be part of any genuine ‘Catholic moment’ that may emerge historically from the current failure of liberalism.

Nevertheless, I do think that the tone of the article stands as a legitimate warning of a pessimistic strain within American Catholicism that can be a temptation, that stands in contrast to the ‘pastoral Magisterium’ of Francis’ entire pontificate.

What do Catholics like Douthat owe to this ‘pastoral Magisterium’?

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