Monday, 18 February 2013

End of the 'Catholic Moment': The Paradox of the Roman Church in the Postmodern World

Back in the late 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus, an American Lutheran pastor with a high public profile who had been raised, educated and ordained in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, but who was by then on the cusp of converting to Roman Catholicism, wrote a book called The Catholic Moment. In this work he argued that "the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this is, I contend, the Catholic Moment." I contend that Neuhaus's Catholic moment, if it ever existed,  has come to a close with Benedict's resignation.

A large contributing factor in its snuffing out is undoubtedly the world-wide clergy sex abuse cover up scandals, as  New York Times columnist and conservative Roman Catholic commentator Ross Douthat admits, "Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion. " But further to this, Benedict's resignation, appeals to ill-health notwithstanding (and fwiw, we wish him well in his retirement), seems to be an admission of defeat in his attempts to reform various facets of the Roman church, including its diplomatic and financial offices as well as its priesthood, from the position of its highest office. These efforts, according to various informed commentators, have been scuttled by the self-interest and vicious inter-personal rivalries of highly placed cardinals within the Vatican curia. This reminds me of the comment of Ronald Knox, an English Catholic theologian of an earlier generation: "He who would travel in the barque of St Peter had best not look in the engine room".

As if that wasn't concerning enough, surely more perplexing for devout Roman Catholics is the reporting that these rivalries are not merely personal - they also reflect the long standing and ongoing post-Vatican II division of the Roman church into conservative and liberal camps. The crucial battle in this war has recently been fought over control of the powerful Vatican diplomatic corps, which not only represents the Vatican to the world but crucially also represents the world to the Vatican, thus serving as the main conduit for information on potential candidates for the episcopate, which largely determines what sort of church Roman Catholics get 'on the ground' in each diocese. This, it seems, is a battle Benedict has lost and with that he has surrendered his attempt to unify the Roman church under his authority as the successor of St Peter (as Rome conceives the Papacy). The most significant aspect of this development for Lutherans is that the continuing division of the Roman church into liberal and conservative camps means that the historic Lutheran proposals for reform will continue to be sidelined; shunned by conservatives with other fish to fry and misrepresented by liberals in the service of their own agenda (a liberal Catholic doth not a Lutheran make!). 

Many confessional Lutherans, including the author, may feel human sympathy for Benedict, who was personally a humble man who at times had brilliant theological insights - after all, if there must be a Pope, at least let him be a good one. But we must also note with disappointment that in many ways the tenor of his reign moved the Roman church further from a place where Lutheran proposals for reform on the table since the Reformation could gain a sympathetic hearing and towards to a renewal of Tridentine-style Catholicism, replete with the Latin Mass and the partial rehabilitation of Traditionalist bishops formerly under doctrinal discipline. However, the Pope's efforts to address declining attendance and apathy among Catholics in the West have borne little fruit while his handling of doctrinal dissent among bishops has further alienated sections of the remaining faithful.

Now, instead of the Catholic renaissance Neuhaus envisaged in his 1987 book, the next Pope seems poised to preside over continuing decline without and dysfunction within the Vatican. Lutherans will not be surprised or unduly disturbed by this - our ecclesiology, although it is an unfinished work, disavows identifying the church of Christ with any particular church body and thereby endowing that body with a divine imprimatur that can be tarnished by the all too human failings of those who lead her.  This leads us to the problematic question of Roman Catholicism's plausibility in the postmodern world, which demands "authenticity" above all else - a basic congruence between the "talk" and the "walk". A church with such an over-realised ecclesiology yet such an underwhelming actuality positively invites scepticism as to its claims. Now that really is, to borrow Neuhaus's sub-title, "the paradox of the (Roman church) in the postmodern world".


SCEcclesia said...

I can hardly think you more wrong, Pastor Mark, but then this just shows how different perspectives on the Catholic Church are from someone outside it to someone inside it. I have been listening to and reading a lot of comments from the Cardinal electors in the last few days, and these are more indicative of the next papacy than anything you will read in the Age or the SMH, I can tell you. 52 of the 117 electors spent three weeks with Pope Benedict and the bishops of the world last October at the Synod on the New Evangelisation, and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that in terms of this New Evangelisation, the "Catholic Moment" (as Neuhaus called it) has only just begun and will continue under the new papacy. Yes, Neuhaus did not make any allowances for the great harm the crimes of sexual abuse have done to the Church, but what has been described as "the greatest catastrophe to hit the Catholic Church since the Reformation" has not destroyed the Church. Rather it has been a call to repentance and to the urgency of the true mission of the Church. George Weigel has just published his "Evangelical Catholicism" book, a copy of which I expect to arrive in my mail box any day now. In a sense, this book is the update on Neuhaus' "Catholic Moment". Yes, with Benedict ends a great period of the Church - but, in Weigel's terms, it is a transition from an inward looking Counter Reformation Church to a truly Evangelical Catholic Church with its eye on the mission of the Redeemer. You may look at the glass and see it half empty - from inside we are looking at a glass that is half full. It certainly has room to be "fuller" (that is our calling!) but in the plan of God the "moment" is always before us. It is "the harvest which is plentiful", and we are praying for a new "humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord" who will inspire us to enter that harvest field with renewed enthusiasm built upon the great work of the Popes from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI.

Mark Henderson said...

Thank you for sharing that perspective, David. I do think you under-estimate the impact of the scandals on the Catholic faithful - have you seen this morning's reports about the dossier presented to Benedict detailing moral and financial corruption within the Vatican? Very unpleasant stuff that it gives me no joy to mention but one can't overlook it just the same. "By their fruits you shall know them" -no pun intended!
On the matter of "Evangelical Catholicism" surely the Lutheran Confession has something to offer that is of value? One can only hope and pray that if this is the new direction of the RCC post-Benedict weseparated Lutheran brethren will be given a hearing.

Mark Henderson said...

Intended to re-write the above but can't delete it - With a convert's zeal you underestimate the negative impact of the scandals on the RC faithful and the effect they have on the "plausibility" of RCism in the general community. You understand I use plausibility in the sense of meriting consideration or acceptance. In most thinking people's minds, an insitution or organisation which has been revealed as morally corrupt has no plausibility. Add to that that this is a religious organisation that claims to teach morals infallibly and you add an extra dimension of hypocrisy to the mix. Now, don't get angry, David - I'm not "having a go at you", I'm just describing the problem that, it seems to me, RCs face - or don't face, as the case may be.

Mark Henderson said...

And btw, I wouldn't waste my time reading The Age or the SMH. I do regularly scan the headlines of The Australian and several international papers, though.

SCEcclesia said...

Indeed, Lutheranism does have something "to offer" in the field of "Evangelical Catholicism" - even before entering into full communion with the Successor of Peter, I described myself as an "evangelical catholic" and still do (only now, with capitals!). The current Pontiff's understanding of Lutheranism is not coincidental in this regard. However, these days, I think Lutheranism is better described as a form of "Catholic Evangelicalism".

And I simply say, once again, that the view from inside is somewhat different from the view from outside. Perhaps you will understand this someday? (I can but hope! And pray!)

In a recent article linked on my blog, Tracey Rowland describes the present state of the church as "attacked by sexual perverts from within and militant atheists from without…while…still contending with loopy interpretations of the Second Vatican Council".

I do wonder sometimes why you consistently fail to recognise the Catholic Church as the ally and not the foe of present day Lutheranism. Lutheranism's greatest challenges today, I would contend, is precisely in learning how to reaffirm its Catholic heritage in the face of a liberal and evangelical protestantism which, on the one hand, is far too accommodating to the world, and on the other hand, plays fast and loose with the Catholic foundation of the Church.

Mark Henderson said...

"I do wonder sometimes why you consistently fail to recognise the Catholic Church as the ally and not the foe of present day Lutheranism"
Briefly (since I have to go out)
1. An ally in some matters, 'res externa' like social ethics, to be sure.
2. But we can't be allies in the Gospel when we don't agree on what it is - faith alone is still rejected by RCism. The whole Reformation turns on that point.
3. See my posts in the category 'Why I Am Not A Roman Catholic'

You may be interested to know I'm presently reading and enjoying a book on Christology by a Cistercian. He interacts with Luther and raises some important points which I hope to address, in a humble way, in a future posts.