Monday, October 26, 2009

Deus Lo Volt?

There is an impossibly stupid Times op-ed piece by Ross Douthat, linked above, which tries to put a Crusading face on the new "personal ordinariate" for Romanizing Anglicans.

Douthat suggests that    

"What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe," by which he means Islam.

He doesn't actually explain how this might happen, mind you.  Instead, he (1) asserts that both churches are threatened by the growing confrontation with Islam, both in Europe and in Africa; then (2) asserts that where Rome has chosen confrontation (e.g., the Regensburg speech), Canterbury has chosen appeasement (e.g., Abp Williams surprisingly dumb hint that shariah might work in Britain as an alternate legal system).  From the apposition of these two claims, he seems to conclude -- we say "seems," because there is no real connection --  (3) that Benedict is not so much kicking the Anglicans while they are down, as marshaling his forces against the Turk.

Let's be clear about what Douthat is really doing, rhetorically:  he is trying to paint Benedict as a new John Paul, whose apparent intractability on theological matters is now frequently pointed to (mostly by theocons) as part and parcel of a long-term plan to undermine Communism.  This by itself is a popular historical trope, but bad history.  It seems pretty clear that Communism was brought down by its unsustainable economic policies, which left the USSR too fragile to maintain a security state, etc.  Reagan helped a little, both by forcing the Reds to keep blowing rubles on their military and by giving Gorbachev a partner in the West.  But how many divisions has the Pope, and all that.

Meanwhile, his assumptions about Islam are, if not cartoonish, at least debatable.  Certainly, the world's two largest religions are now in one another's face as they have not been since the Middle Ages.  Philip Jenkins may be a darling of the neocons, but we do not doubt his contention that the next half-century will be tense.  

Still, the idea that Islam threatens Christianity and Christian values, while certainly not entirely false (they are different religions, and it is the nature of different religions to hold different values), is misleading.  The real challenge afoot today is not Islam vs. Christianity, but Islamism (or, per Hitchens, Islamofascism) vs. Western democracy -- the ideas of individual autonomy, human rights, and specifically the sort of freedoms outlined in the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.  And it is worth remembering that, little more than a century ago, many Western thinkers believed that Roman Catholicism was intrinsically incompatible with these values -- and that Pius IX had given them cause to think so.

As to his characterization of the two church bodies, we don't think Douthat is especially well-informed.  Oh, sure, the spirit of Neville Chamberlain is alive in the CofE; but Bp Michael Nazir-Ali serves as a pretty effective Churchill these days, and some people are paying attention.  And has Douthat actually read the Regensburg speech, or the backtracking follow-up statements from the Pope?  To us, he seemed less like Charles Martel and more like an academic deer caught in the political headlights.

Another sign of Douthat's ignorance, or at least a sign that his biases are conditioned by the usual theocon rant, is his characterization of the ecumenical movement:

Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.

This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.

This is, again, a popular trope -- and again, bad history.  In fact, the modern ecumenical movement began (half a century before Vatican II and the "optimism of the early 60s," by the way) with the deliberate effort of Protestant missionaries to coordinate their efforts and approaches, rather than competing.  It expanded into something much greater, a sweeping re-evaluation of the separation between churches, studied both with regard to their faith and order and to their life and work.

Along the way, there were certainly some public statements on subjects which may not have seemed like the work of the church.  We think, for instance, of the call for Sunday School curricula dealing with birth control and sex education, delivered by the Council of Christian Churches in the USA -- back in the 1930s.

But in fact, the more serious products of the ecumenical movement have been just the sort of consolidation that Douthat imagines Benedict to be proposing:  both institutional mergers that created "uniting churches" in India and the Americas, as well as agreements of "full communion" between historically-rooted partner churches (such as the Lutheran-Reformed Leuenberg Agreement in 1973, and many others since then, including the recent agreement between Lutherans and Methodists in the US).  It is such agreements, in which divided churches recognize in one another the elements of a common faith, which have slowly begun to forge a common witness.

Roman Catholic participation has been a tricky thing.  After a long period of utter indifference, came another -- roughly 1964 to 1978 -- during which it seemed to lead the way.  Since then, we have seen some fits and starts, and in fact Roman Catholic ecumenical efforts have often seemed to focus on good works rather than common faith, meaning, for instance, that they offered significant leadership on the very campaign against third-world debt that Douthat derides.  In discussion of doctrinal matters, and in the difficult work of hammering out agreements, Rome has largely ceded leadership to another late-in-the-day entrant in the ecumenical sweepstakes, worldwide Lutheranism.

There is one significant exception to that remark, however, and it is massively significant:  the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in 1999, and by Methodists in 2006.  In the realm of faith and order, this may well be the crowning achievement of the ecumenical movement to date, and it is a far cry from the sort of politically correct bureaucratic exercise Douthat imagines.  It is a doctrinal statement, growing out of prolonged encounter between two deeply estranged communities, which identifies the common foundation of their faith and points the way toward a recognition of their unity in Christ.  If you are looking for the base upon which to erect a common Christian witness, both against secularism and against Islam, you will find it in JDDJ -- and not in a ham-handed effort to meddle in Anglican affairs.

Douthat wants readers to believe that the "personal ordinariate" is a bold effort by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up the messy house of Western Christianity, and rescue it from threats inside and out.  He has no evidence to support this, and the claims he makes are false.  If he wants to speak publicly about the complex affairs of the church, he should stop reading First Things and start reading church history.

1 comment:

Diane said...

thank you for saying all this so clearly.