Thursday, June 01, 2006

Catholic Matters

I finished Richard John Neuhaus' new book today. Neuhaus? You mean the neo, nay, the theo-con? The registered Democrat who slams torture, decries idolatry of one's country, strategized closely and was friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and who tirelessly insists that the alternative to the naked public square is not the sacred but the civil public square? Yes. Who were you referring to?

He's worth reading, as always, if only for style. One fault of the book is a degree of repetitiveness, but seeing that what he says is worth saying it's a forgivable one. Catholic Matters is part autobiography, part apologetics, part church history, and part contemporary critique and analysis of American Christianity. As with Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus' pastoral insights are generously peppered with choice quotes from theological and literary classics, such as the wonderful phrase sentire cum ecclesium (thinking with the church) or Oscar Wilde's quip, "The problem with Socialism is it leaves one with no free evenings."

Several incidental insights are worth noting, such as Neuhaus' reflection (in contrast to Ehrman's) on a teenage "born again" experience:
"I was fourteen years old then... but for four or five days, maybe a week after the encounter, I lived in an ecstatic state of the experienced immediacy of God's loving presence such as I have not known since. To this day, as I recall them, I draw on the experience of those days. To this day I am grateful for those days. In the years that followed I would, from time to time, try to recreate them, to experience again what I experienced then. It never worked. But I did come across the words T.S. Eliot gives the martyred Thomas Becket in his Murder in the Cathedral: 'I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,/ And I would no longer be denied; all things/ Proceed to a joyful consummation.' Ah, yes, I thought, that is it. And I have thought so ever since. The consequence of the experience also had a shadowed side. I, who had known ecstasy, was for a time contemptuous of the ritual and sacramental formalities of what I viewed as a spiritually comatose Lutheranism" (51-52).
Thank God for religious experience, but how sad that too many instead make Neuhaus' "for a time" contempt of liturgy into a lifetime of refusing to the see, in the words of church historian James Nichols, that "the spirit of devotion flows best through long consecrated channels"(293).

In addition, it had never occurred to me, until reading Catholic Matters, that there might be a satisfying theological explanation for the dearth of Protestant novelists and artists. Explains Neuhaus,
"David Tracy, a contemporary theologian, captures some thing key to the Catholic spirit in his treatment of 'the analogical imagination.' The analogical imagination seeks out resemblances, similarities, correspondences, and overlapping truths between apparently disparate realities. It aims at synthesis on the far sided of experienced antithesis... By way of contrast to the analogical sensibility is the dialectical sensibility. Here the emphasis is on either/or, on a juxtaposing of contraries, and between them a stark choice is demanded, Here it is nature or grace, Church or world, reason or faith, Christ or culture. The dialectical disposition has provided Christian history with moments of spiritual and intellectual pyrotechnics in the likes of Martin Luther and, perhaps above all, Soren Kierkegaard. It is not the Catholic spirit" (153).
One wonders why he refrained from mentioning the greatest dialectical theologian who insisted that the only real reason for not becoming a Catholic was the analogy of being. And why should it be a surprise that a lack of this analogical imagination, or what Jody Bottum calls a "metaphysical thickness," would lead to a lack of art, which needs just that in order to thrive?

And in regard to persistent attempts to secure some mythological turf "beyond" conservative or liberal approaches, Neuhaus remarks,
"There comes a time, as the essayist Midge Decter once put it, when one must take the side he is on. If someone proposes to you a position that is beyond left and right, you can be almost certain he's peddling a gussied-up liberalism our gussied-up conservatism. Beyondism is a shell game"(177).
Unfortunately it usually takes getting fooled a few times to learn that, on this, the padre is right.

Conversion Matters
Neuhaus is of course a Protestant convert to Catholicism, and interestingly, the book is a great place to go if one is looking for reasons not to become Catholic. That is, these pages present an an unvarnished image of American Catholicism today, warts n' all. But the book is also a good place to look for answers to common objections made of those who have converted, intelligent replies to the standard wisdom around Protestant seminaries as to why one wouldn't "do that."
"In becoming a Catholic, one is braced for certain criticisms. Among the most common, usually coming from Protestant sources, is that the person who becomes a Catholic has a 'felt need for authority.' This is usually said in a somewhat condescending manner by people who say they are able to live with the ambiguities and tensions that some of us cannot handle. But to say that I have a felt need for authority is no criticism at all. Of course I have, as should we all. The allegedly autonomous self who acknowledges no authority but himself is abjectly captive to the authority of a tradition of Enlightenment rationality that finally collapses into incoherence. Whether in matters of science, history, religion, or anything else of consequence, we live amid a storm of different and conflicting ideas claiming to be the truth. Confronted by such truth claims, we necessarily ask, 'Sez who?' By what authority, by whose authority, should I credit such claims to truth? Answering the question requires a capacity to distinguish between the authoritative and the authoritarian"(70).
In other words, the confessionally postmodern might stop and wonder just how quintessentially modern their objections to classic ecclesial structures may in fact may be. Neuhuas continues,
"To speak of the Church as a mother or to speak... of putting oneself up for adoption [to the Church] raises red flags for those of a Freudian bent. Is this not an instance of letting oneself be infantilized? And Jesus said, 'Unless you become as little children...' It is not a regression to childhood but a progression beyond adulthood falsely defined as the autonomous self, as the gloriously independent actualization of me"(66).
Neuhaus addresses the Eastern question as well, explaining that his decision to not choose Orthodoxy had to do with his being a Western Christian, and a stranger to the ethnic and national identities mostly tied to Orthodoxy (Pelikan, for example, had Serbian roots). While not ignoring the serious obstacles between East and West, still he insists that "the only thing missing for full communion is full communion"(69). The statement is carefully guarded but still may be jejune. On the differences between Catholic and Protestant he is much more insightful:
"For the Protestant, the act of faith is an act of faith in Christ, and only then, if at all, is it an act of faith in the Church. They are two acts of faith. For the Catholic, the act of faith in Christ and his Church is one act of faith. In the Nicene Creed we do not say, 'I believe that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.' We say, 'I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.' Because I believe in Christ, I believe in his Church, I entrust myself to her. Christ is the head and the Church his body constitute the totus Christus, the total Christ. However it may be that the Church is present in other communities, there is no other community that is prepared to, that would dare to, that should dare to, accept my unqualified trust" (75).
Then, in tackling common objections to Catholicism, in kicks the analogical imagination:
"But how can I know that? How can I know so much that I believe to be true except by believing it to be true? Trust, which is an act of love, is a way of knowing. How can a bride know that the bridegroom will be faithful? Or vice versa? The image is apt, for we are told that the Church is the bride of Christ, and it is no secret that the people who are the Church have, like Israel of old, often gone a-whoring. But also like Israel of old, she is still the people of God. Through Scripture, councils, and the Magisterium she has taught truly, although her children, in positions both high and low, have not always been faithful to her teaching. There is development of doctrine, clarification of doctrine, refinement of doctrine, and there will be until the end of time. But there is neither change nor contradiction of doctrine. Where others claim to see change or contradiction, I see development and refinement with a vision transformed by love. I, too, can construe such development as change and contradiction. It is easy to do. I choose to view it as Spirit-guided development and refinement. I accept responsibility for that choice. The apostolic leadership of the Church has been given the authority to judge. I choose to obey" (76).
Contemporary historians would be the first to admit that one's reading of history is significantly affected by one's inclination, and Neuhaus later expands on reading church history on a Catholic incline:
"Even a cursory knowledge of Catholic history braces one for the possibility of bad popes and bad bishops who are either ignorant or corrupt, or both. For many of these, don't even ask about holiness. But whoever holds the magisterial office has little room for innovation, and that is a very good thing. The apostolic tradition through Scripture, the councils, and the history of magisterial teaching is specific and not easily modified. It is much tighter, for instance than the rule of stare decisis - the rule to stand by prior decisions - in the decisions of the Supreme Court... One must admit that in some instance it may be a close call. In the long and tumultuous history of the Church, one can find examples that might be described as change rather than development, as contradiction rather than clarification. I do not think that is true of any matter of faith and morals on which the Church has invoked her full teaching authority. But, even if there were a close call in one instance or another, one's judgment is in large part dependent on one's inclination. The inclination entailed in the vow of obedience is to put the best possible interpretation on the teaching in question, to give the benefit of the doubt, to accent as best one can, within the bounds of reason and honesty, the continuities rather than the discontinuities.... It is called loyalty. Not blind loyalty, but loyalty with eyes wide open" (97).
Just how wide open is of course matter of debate.

The remainder of the book is a sober meditation on how such trust grapples with the scandals of Catholicism and the tumultuous heritage of the Second Vatican Council. Neuhaus is often at his best when critiquing opponents, a talent all the more effective by not being mean spirited:
"At times the traditionalists of the new are amusingly counterfactual. During those memorable days in Rome surrounding the death of John Paul and the election of Benedict, the media coverage was generally respectful, even reverent. But again and again reporters expressed their puzzlement at the outpouring of devotion for a faith that everybody knows is unacceptably outdated and oppressive. One moment stands out. Three million (some say 4 million) people cam from all over the world to say their farewells and thank yous to John Paul. By my estimate and that of others, at least 70 percent were people younger than thirty-five. Behind an American television reporter, one saw hundreds of thousands of young people praying and singing as the reporter concluded the segment: 'But the great question remains,' she said, 'whether an ancient and in many ways hidebound Church is still capable of making itself relevant to a new generation.' She did not turn around to see the answer to her great question" (187).
The book draws toward a conclusion with the chapter entitled "The Center Holds," where Neuhaus proposes that there are two kinds of Catholics in the world: The party of continuity and the party of discontinuity. Admitting this to be a familiar rhetorical strategy, he is not one to use it without first diffusing objections.
"I venture this proposal in full awareness of E.M. Forster's quip that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't. Then there are those who are intimidated by Forster's quip and those who aren't. I'm one of the latter" (177).
The party of continuity "hold" the center, urging that Vatican II was not a definitive break with the Catholic past, but a furthering of the Catholic tradition. Conversely, the party of discontinuity are those who do see Vatican II as a break with the past, and this party has both its conservative and liberal manifestations. For the conservative discontinuants, Vatican II broke with the golden age of the 50's, Latin Mass, et. al. Their loyalty lies somewhere in the past. For the liberal discontinuants, Vatican II was wise to break from the sorry past of Catholicism, and needs only now to finish the job. Their loyalty lies somewhere in an imagined future... that strongly resembles Protestantism. Neuhaus describes this party at length.
"A New Yorker cartoon has executives sitting around the boardroom table on which is a box of soap emblazoned with the world 'NEW!!!' The chairman is a saying, "What do you mean what's new about it? The 'New!!!' on the box is what's new.' For almost forty weary years, the left has managed to sell itself as the Church of the future by incessantly announcing that it is the Church of the future. And the pitch does sell, in part because it appears to be news. It is merely pseudo-news, but it is welcome news to those who dislike the Church of the past and the present" (189).
Neuhaus' alternative is the center of continuity that neither glorifies an imagined Catholic past or a fantasy future.

A Protestant Read?
Is there a similar hope for Protestantism? A middle ground between those who foolishly sacrifice what's left of the church on the altar of tomorrow and those hailing the dubious glory of a Protestant yesterday? Can there be a continualism for us? It's not that it hasn't been tried. Neuhaus relates the powerful influence that Piepkorn had on his generation of seminarians. Piepkorn was a high church Protestant ecumenist who attempted a distinctly Lutheran continuity. This was "a way of being catholic as the heirs of a Reformation tradition that was intended to be a movement of reform within and for the one Church of Christ (55)... the fulfillment of the Reformation, therefore, is to bring its gifts into the mainstream of the continuing community from which it had been separated in the sixteenth century, mainly because of the obtuseness of Rome"(56). Piepkorn's was an experiment Neuhaus tried, not unenergetically, for thirty years. He writes,
"my reluctant and painful conclusion was the Lutheranism had settled into being a permanently separated Protestant denomination, or, as the case may be, several denominations, among other permanently separated Protestant denominations(59)... In the parish of which I was pastor I, like other evangelical catholic pastors, could cultivate an enclave of catholic faith, practice, and sensibilities. But it was just that, an enclave... [and] I was priest, bishop, and pope, accountable to no Magisterium but my own"(61).
And so Neuhaus gave up the on lower-case catholicism (and orthodoxy), nevertheless expressing at his conversion a deep gratitude to Lutheranism, insisting that "Nothing that was good is rejected, all is fulfilled." Continualism was, for Neuhaus, only possible on the other side.

Alas, some of us are still trying on this one.