Friday, August 23, 2013

The Death of "Conservative Catholicism'

In the August/September 2013 issue of First Things, editor R.R Reno celebrates the end of theological liberalism being a "force in the churches."  The damage in Protestantism has already been done, and the better crop of bishops in Catholicism means that, if nothing else, we won't see a massive rebellion akin to Humanae Vitae again.  Eric Cohen offers a response that, while talking about Judaism, could just as easily be talking about Christianity, and specifically the experiment of First Things to wed Christianity very closely with the great American experiment known as conservatism.

For Cohen, while theological liberalism as an intellectual force has been found wanting, as a force of nature it is all but triumphant.  It dominates intellectual life.  The majority of even churchgoing individuals have embraced theological liberalism in practice if not word.  Today, a former editor of First Things proved Mr. Cohen right.

Joseph Botum has argued in Commonweal not just that Catholics will have to accept same sex marriage as the law of the land here in America (something anyone can see), but that there is indeed a Catholic case for same sex marriage that religious conservatives can embrace.  The case seems to simply be:  our culture is no longer Christian, so we must adapt.  In his 9300 word essay, nowhere does he cite Church teaching to back up his case.  Nowhere does he cite the scholastics, the fathers, the popes, etc.  He doesn't do this because he is forced to concede that the Catholic position on gay marriage is crystal clear.  Even Pope Francis, that one who was going to liberate the Church from the repression of theological conservatism, actually ended up giving a stronger defense of it than anything the previous pope had!  (I know I know, Benedict wrote most of Lumen Fidei, shut up already.)

He admits that natural law is against gay marriage, but pulls out a card that is a very odd choice for a "conservative Catholic", the card of modernism:

I DON'T MEAN to hide this essay’s conclusions. Where we’re going with all this is toward a claim that the thin notions of natural law deployed against same-sex marriage in recent times are unpersuasive, and, what’s more, they deserve to be unpersuasive—for their thinness reflects their lack of rich truth about the spiritual meanings present in this created world.
The answer he offers cannot by nature be a "Catholic case for same-sex marriage", because it is ultimately a political one, not one grounded in objective truth.  The Bishops should stop emphasizing marriage because the culture no longer does.  Their defense of marriage is predicated on a Christian culture nobody believes.  Far better to focus on those things which people will find relevant (what else!): charitable work for the poor, evangelizing third world countries, etc.

At this point, Mr. Bottum has, in Pope Francis' words, reduced Christianity to just another NGO, a do gooder organization which does socially acceptable things.  That's not the Gospel.  Christ gives some of his most forceful teaching on the subject of marriage, and he quite expliclty proclaimed just how closed this debate was.  The Bishops aren't engaged in some regional political game here in America as Mr. Bottum would have them.  They are (at least in theory!) shepherds of souls.  They exist not to do what is socially acceptable, but to protect revealed truth and guide their flock in following Christ.

It is this dynamic that makes the Church what she is in the things Mr. Bottum idealizes in her missionary zeal, the courage of martyrdom, etc.  The Church is operating on something above the whims of man.  Does anyone seriously think that if she began compromising on positions, these socially acceptable things would survive?  For that answer, simply look at the corpse that is instutional Protestantism.  The mainstream denominations hold little if anything sacred and their missionary character has suffered as well.

This is the reason why I seldom used the phrase "conservative Catholics" when I noted those Catholics in good will who disagreed with me over issues of a traditionalist nature.  They were quite distinct from the likes of some of the writers at Crisis and First Things:  these individuals attempted to create a synthesis between conservative political ideology and religion.   As with any attempts to synthesize the two, you ordinarly get more of the politics and less of the religion.

Gay marriage may be "inevitable" in American political society, but Catholics do not need to hasten its arrival, or hasten its destructive results on society.  God praised the Rechabites for adhering to the laws of their fathers when all of society had "progressed" beyond their primitive cultural ideas.  (Jer 35)  Yahweh exhorted Israel to do the same, but they refused.  Mr. Bottum is akin to those of our brothers in faith in the Old Testament who sought accommodation with the pagan world around them, in the belief that adhering to socially acceptable practices would save them.  We know how that turned out, and there's no reason to think Mr. Bottum's course of action would lead us to any different path.

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