A Chesterton for our times?

Ross Douthat

How we should learn learn to stop complaining and love the New York Times! How could we not, for it has given us a Chesterton for our times. Who would have believed it? It did not begin this week – but it certainly reached a new level of power this week.  The latest shining of this new and welcome light began last Monday with the  First Things Erasmus lecture in New York City. Then today we have a penetrating column, a veritable gauntlet for the cause of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church thrown at the feet of its heterodox academic theologians, in one of the free world’s greatest liberal newspapers.

We are talking about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His star as an interpreter, explainer and sometimes warrior in the culture battles of our time has been rising for a number of years. Since his move to the Times a handful of years ago it has reached super-nova dimensions.

Don’t buy the jibe that he is the Times’ token conservative. The Times is a genuinely liberal paper and as such will inevitably give voice to – and at its top level may also sincerely subscribe to – a view of human nature which is wide of an accurate reading of the real nature of the human condition. But its first ideal is to  try to give voice to intelligent human beings who are seeking the truth. This it will generally do regardless of what the paper’s own view of the truth at any time might be. The Times may even be as confused as Pilate was about the very possibility of Truth. Its starting point is, however, unarguably a good ideal, one which is at the very heart of our civilization. Because of a commitment to this ideal we can hear the voice of Ross Douthat.

This week Douthat gave us a razor-sharp analysis – for me at any rate – of where the “Catholic moment” is today. This was the 28th Annual Erasmus Lecture. It presents a challenge to be sensible, honest and continuously courageous in thinking about where we have been, where we are and where we are going with out Christian civilization yesterday, today and tomorrow.

You can watch and listen to this lecture here courtesy of First Things (firstthings.com). Now in its 28th year, the Erasmus Lecture has been bringing world-renowned speakers to New York—including Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Gilbert Meilaender, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—to address an audience of over five hundred people each year.

Ross Douthat, who like Chesterton – but without the semantic and rhetorical fun and games – is nothing if not provocative, is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).

Last week he was challenged by a group of academic theologians who must surely now regret their silly passing remark casting doubt on his “authority” to speak about religion at all since he had no qualification in theology. In fact they did not challenge him. They complained behind his back – like true liberals – to the New York Times for giving him a platform at all on “their” subject. Today he answers their silliness – silliness which all honest people will laugh at but which nevertheless they should also take seriously, as he does. He begins:

I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

Both his lecture, his column today and on many other occasions, make compelling reading.

He concludes today’s column, making reference to their elitist and Gnostic jibe, where they imply that all these things are above his pay grade and that he does not understand them because he is not a theologian: “…indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts.”

What is their real position on doctrine and the teaching of the Church, he asks? He suspects that it is that almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind. He concludes:

As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

It is good to have another Chesterton among us.

A road map well worth looking at

On December 1 last, Cardinal George Pell delivered an address in Glasgow in which he both analysed the history of our Faith over the past 50 years and the behaviour of Catholic Christians in the post Vatican II era, good bad and ugly – and they were all there – and then suggested a programme for continuity with all that was good. In it he looked back to the optimism of the 1960s:

The 1960s was initially an age of optimism exemplified in the person of Pope John XXIII.  President de Gaulle in France and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany were strong Catholics and the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president of the USA electrified the Irish diaspora everywhere in the English-speaking world. 
            The permissive revolution which followed the invention of the contraceptive pill in 1962 had not properly got under way and the social dislocation which accompanied the unpopular war in Vietnam had not reached its peak.  The student uprisings in France and Germany in 1968 followed after the Council, but triggered a whirlwind of revolution in the Catholic world. 
            Pope Paul VI’s long delayed decision against artificial contraception in 1968 was a catalyst.  Many realized their exaggerated ambitions for change would not be realized.  10,000 priests around the world left in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI and a larger number of religious.  A number of my contemporaries had been ordained expecting to receive permission to be married later; they were disappointed.    
            Vocations to the priesthood and religious life declined in many Western countries and Catholic life collapsed in countries with an extraordinarily high rate of religious practice and with many missionaries overseas, e.g., Holland and Quebec.   I was fearful in the past that we faced such a prospect of collapse in Australia; but the situation there has been stabilized, although the gains are still fragile. 
            Mixed fruit followed the efforts of the Second Vatican Council at New Evangelization, many of them not intended by the Council and not direct consequences of the Council teachings.       
Where are we now?  What can we do?  Read on to get his answer.

The Spirit of the Maccabees

The history of the Jewish people tells the story of what is regarded as the first religious persecution of the Graeco-Roman world. This is the account of the ruthless, brutal but ultimately futile attempt by Antiochus IV to Hellenise the culture of the Jews by destroying their own religion. The biblical version of the story, contained in 1 and 2 Macabees, recounts an event which typifies the persecution at its height – the martyrdom of a widow and her seven sons who refuse to deny their God and submit to the self-styled god-ruler, Antiochus. The story of the persecution culminates with the eventual revolt against the persecution by the old priest, Mattathias and the subsequent war against the tyrant led by his son, Judas Maccabeus.

It is a story which resonates down through history, century after century, millennium after millennium. It still does so today. Pope Benedict XVI might well be a latter-day Mattathias when he recently exhorted his brother bishops of the United States of America to resist the encroachments of what he even suggests may be a new tyranny facing those who put a value on their religion to the extent that they see it as an essential part of their very way of being in this world.

When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.

Pope Benedict, speaking to the US bishops on their recent visit to Rome, reflected on America’s historical experience of religious freedom, and specifically the relationship between religion and culture. At the heart of every culture, the Pope said, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus…was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.

Pope Benedict spoke to the bishops of the United States but he might equally have said this to all the bishops and all the Christians of the wider Anglo-world – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Ireland. In all these countries a clear agenda is emerging from the dominant political classes which is not only seeking to “liberalise” laws and custom but is seeking to marginalise out of existence any who seek to live by and speak out in favour of another way, a way which they argue is the one which best serves mankind’s true flourishing.

Just recently in Ireland, a member of the Dáil (the country’s lower house of parliament), Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said to be a ”major influence” on the Education Minister, Rory Quinn, spoke openly to The Irish Catholic newspaper, saying ”that religious ethos has no place in the educational system of a modern republic”. The remarks follow an accusation by the Labour Party that Catholic schools are breaking the law over enrolment policies in the way that they admit Catholic children to their classrooms.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin said  ”I see no reason for to give a faith-based school any protection” to ensure that it can fulfil its mission to provide a faith-based education in line with the denominational ethos of the school by way of an admissions policy.

Dr John Murray of Dublin’s Mater Dei Institute of Education said the Labour move amounted to an attempt to ”intimidate” the schools. ”It is nothing less than an attack on the religious freedom of denominational schools,” he said. Nor did he see it as just a Catholic issue: ”A curb on the enrolment policy of denominational schools would hit Church of Ireland schools particularly hard because Church of Ireland children are often a small minority in their own communities and if their schools couldn’t admit Church of Ireland children first, then they would face the prospect of having to turn away the very children they were established to serve,” he said.

Mr Ó Ríordáin’s views do nothing to reassure Christian denominations of the sincerity of Minister Quinn’s words a few months ago that ”religious education will have an important place in the future of education in Ireland”. Minister Quinn makes no secret of his atheistic secularism. In his view Ireland is a post-Christian society in the making – if not already made.

In some critical instances, of course, laws and constitutional roadblocks are thwarting this process – Ireland’s Constitution has so far successfully protected her society from abortion on demand. However, this remains constantly under pressure and the present Irish government’s recently established “expert” study group looking into the matter is now the focus of national and international media speculation as to whether or not the pro-abortion lobby will eventually succeed in getting the legislation it wants.

The remodelling of the Irish education system, a system which currently has a strong commitment to education in a context of religious faith, is another plank on the secularist platform.  There are more. All these planks are designed to chip away and erode the overall Christian cultural ethos of the society. The most sinister of all is probably the one to which the Pope himself refers in his address – the drive to push out of the public square anyone who speaks of ideas which connect in any way with their religious faith.

This agenda, for example, concedes no rights to a Church which, in Benedict’s words, alluding to Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10). To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God.

The people driving this agenda have no time for the Pope’s justification of the Church’s defence of a moral reasoning based on the natural law and grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world. Nor do they believe him when he says that the Church proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.

The Pope agues coherently that the Church’s witness is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.

Benedict XVI does not mince his words and has no qualms about describing what he sees as grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.

Of particular concern to him are the attempts he sees being made to limit the freedom of religion. In the American context he alludes to concerted efforts being made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

To help counter all this the Pope calls for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. His call can apply to all societies which have the right to call themselves genuinely democratic.

He concluded his address: No one … can ignore the genuine difficulties which the Church encounters at the present moment. Yet in faith we can take heart from the growing awareness of the need to preserve a civil order clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as from the promise offered by a new generation of Catholics whose experience and convictions will have a decisive role in renewing the Church’s presence and witness in American society. The hope which these “signs of the times” give us is itself a reason to renew our efforts to mobilize the intellectual and moral resources of the entire Catholic community in the service of the evangelization of American culture and the building of the civilization of love.

Things are unlikely to get as bad as they were when the Jewish people faced the forces of Hellinisation some 2200 years ago. Nevertheless the spirit of Mattathias and his sons, expressed in different ways and with different means, seems to be very much what the Pope is calling for  – and not just in America but right across the Anglo-world.