Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Catholicism, Mohler and Notre Dame

I occasionally get reader feedback for this blog (whose feedburner should now be fixed, so please update your readers). One friend, a very good one from Seminary, actually sent me a real response letter. On actual paper. This ups the stakes considerably.

His question was "Why not be Catholic?", and he said he would await the response on millinerd. He claims to have his own "answers" (the scarequotes are his), "but evidently my answers are not sufficient to end the internal monologue." I too have produced "answers" in this forum, perhaps too often and at a "thou dost protest too much" length. The fact that my friend would ask me the question again indicates his accurate perception that my internal monologue also continues.

While I'm not prepared to take on that mother of all question right now, what I can do, and just did, is point to my dissatisfaction with how other Protestants answer it. (While I indicate this dissatisfaction, keep in mind, I'm not doing that much better myself.)

Consider that indefatigable Seminary President Albert Mohler. I listen to Mohler religiously, because - simply put - he matters. The exposure that Mainline Protestants once enjoyed now belongs to Mohler: Who else gets nearly back to back prominence in Time (where Mohler spearheads one of the ten most significant ideas changing not America, but the world) and Newsweek (where he was the main interlocutor for the much discussed End of Christian America article)? Mohler gets this attention because he is a principled Protestant. For Mohler, Catholicism is nary a threat. While he has addressed the matter at considerable length, overall the Roman question doesn't seem to trouble him; a position which sometimes requires considerable dexterity to achieve.

A recent announcement on his site and radio program (start at 34:20 here) gives - seemingly out of nowhere - a great deal of attention to one particular Catholic book. Mohler has not so much as mentioned any of Benedict XVI's books, nor his addresses. In fact, Mohler rarely gives significant attention to normative expressions of Roman Catholicism, a tone which Catholic callers on Ask Anything Wednesday repeatedly protest. Catholicism plays a largely negative role on Mohler's show (except when Robert George is the guest). But all of a sudden, one book gets puffed, and you can bet the farm it's not Beckwith's Return to Rome. Why? Because, I respectfully suggest, Dr. Mohler very much needs this particular book to exist.

A liberal Catholic at Notre Dame (I am shocked - shocked - to find that gambling is going on in here) becomes the authority for what the "Roman Catholic Church now teaches on a number of crucial issues." Funny, I thought those cues came from some city in Italy, not South Bend. Mohler then highlights a passage with the power to galvanize the traditional evangelicals in his considerable audience, and leaves it at that. No analysis. No disclaimer. Take another look.

Just like that, the "Why not be Catholic?" question is easily answered: Because Catholics, you see, are theologically unprincipled pluralists. Nevermind a Pope who has challenged the "dictatorship of relativism" on the world stage. Nevermind Dominus Iesus, the official position which this liberal theologian's passage is deliberately set against. Nevermind the fact that the only American theologian ever elected to the cardinalate was the unimpeachably orthodox Avery Dulles. Nevermind any of that.

We need not wonder how Albert Mohler would respond to a theologian in his Southern Baptist Convention who deliberately countered that denomination's tenor of doctrinal orthodoxy that Mohler does so much to set. Yet when this happens within Roman Catholicism, the opposition not only goes unchallenged by Mohler, it gets headlined on his website, and made to appear as if it is mainstream Catholic teaching. Albert Mohler is a lightning-quick, well-informed man who preaches the gospel with a fervency that I often admire. But to keep his listeners from having to ask that very difficult question, "Why not be Catholic?", he pronounces, from his Louisville cathedra, a newfangled law: Notre Dame locuta est - causa finita est.