Monday, March 28, 2005

The Romance of Orthodoxy

First up is Sidney Callahan, writing in the Washington Post:
To many of us in the church's liberal wing, some of John Paul's rulings have been cause for real distress. As a card-carrying member of Feminists for Life, I find myself dissenting with a small but significant percentage of church teachings -- on women, sex, divorce and homosexuality. I also fault the pope for failing to enact more of the Vatican II reforms intended to change the way the church is run.
The response is from Irish Law:
Too many people, Westerners in particular, seem to believe today that the Church only teaches what she does because of the pernicious authoritarian influence of John Paul II, not because any writings and teachings he has made are drawn from and expound on about 2,000 years of Tradition, Scripture and natural law. The Church is not going to undergo radical theological changes as soon as a new pope is elected, not only because the office is larger than a single man, but also because as we believe the deposit of faith is protected by the Holy Spirit against corruption.
This is an interesting debate, for many reasons. One is that it gets to the heart of what the Catholic Church is. Is it "by the people, of the people and for the people" or is it rather something else, something unlike any other institution? Another interesting facet of the debate is how it inverts our expectations of how people of different ages would usually view it. Callahan is the older of the two writers, and yet she is the one who questions things that do not line up with her views, which draw heavily on very recent thinking. Irish Law, is, I suspect, Gen X or Gen Y and it is she who is the defender of time-tested orthodoxy. One could look at the age split here and argue that Callahan represents the wisdom of experience and Irish Law youthful idealism (or even zealotry). After all, the youth wings of the various politcal parties are rampant with youthful exuberance and excess. It is when people learn that excess is unlikely to succeed in practical matters, and even less likely to convince anyone with a dissenting opinion, that they begin to reform their position. It becomes more modest in ambition and the sales pitch becomes sweeter. I don't think that scheme fits here. A large reason for my saying that is that Irish Law is drawing on a very old tradition and not her personal wants. She may well have difficulty with tradition here and there (as do I) but her view is the traditionally Catholic one that when an individual disagrees with the Church on a matter that is considered to be settled, it is the individual that needs to pause and reflect, and to wonder why it is that this particular wisdom is eluding them. That's not to say that everything in the Church has that weight. An institution that has been around for 2,000 years is going to have a lot of tradition and not all of it has equal weight. Priestly celibacy, for example, is a longstanding tradition and it could be changed (bad idea, I think). Other questions are considered to have been settled, either through the deposit of faith that the church was created to defend, or because formal, institutional debate has ended (informal debate of the kind we are engaged in here never ends; we all need to learn the issues from scratch). It is considered to be ended when the Vatican arrives at a decision that is considered to have been divinely inspired. Such decisions are quite rare! Casual comments by Vatican officals do not fall anywhere near this authority. As best as I know, the question of women priests falls into this category. Given the church's long history and complex, evolved legal traditions, the laity ought to be forgiven for some confusion in matters like this. It's harder to understand how those who have given their lives to knowing such things wind up in blatant error. In the comment thread of one of my wife's posts, The Last Amazon wrote:
A good friend of mine is in the process of converting and I have been going to mass with her as her sponsor. I have not had much call in the last ten years to attend a different parish and it has been eye opening. From the wafer police that stand watching to make sure you swallow the host on the spot to learning Jesus was a Palestinian and not a Jew or that all men are created evil. The mass this evening will see the rites concluded and she will be accepted today which is a good thing on many levels but mostly because if I had to keep this up I will be calling the rabbi to convert.
I winced when I read that because Palestine did not exist in Jesus' time. The muslim arab people moved into that area of the world hundreds of years later. It is also impossible to overlook Christ teaching in the Jewish temples, which is plainly in the Gospel itself. The comment looks to me to be a stark example of present day politics manipulating the past to serve its ends. The idea of man being "created evil" is also completely out of step with Catholic teaching. The generation gap in the Catholic Church in North America is fascinating. Why is it that we have a sandwitch generation, of which I'm using Callahan as an example, that puts more weight on intellectual trends than it does historic teaching? My speculation is that Callahan's generation might be the last in a line of thought going back to the 1800's, which believed most of the wildest dreams of enlightenment modernity. For people like myself, too many of those dreams have crashed and we are left to clean up the mess. An interesting book on this subject is Colleen Carol's The New Faithful, in which she writes:
For liberal Catholics at the 2000 national conference of Call to Action in Milwakee, the future looked grim. The conference spilled over with gray haired radicals, priests wielding canes, and nuns dressing as definantly as septuagenarian can. But young adults were scare. To fill a meeting room reserved for "the next generation," conference organizers defined young adults as anyone between the ages of eighteen to fourty two - a move that provoked snickers among the collge-aged students in attendence. High on the list of concerns at the conference were the conservatism of young seminarians and the overwhelming sense that today's young Catholics no longer care to wage the battles for women's ordination, married priests, and democracy in church, battles that consumed their baby boomer predecessors.
Caroll also offers suggestions for why this should be the case, suggestions that seem sensible to me:
The childhood experiences that shaped today's young adults - both at home and in the larger culture - go a long way toward explaining not only their craving for community but also why many are attracted to Christian orthodoxy. Reared in a media culture that relentlessly lobbies for their attention and panders to their whims, many young adults find it refreshing when religious leaders demand sacrifice, service, and renunciation of consumerism. They feel strangely liberated by orthodoxy's demands of obedience and objective morality, which belie their culture's tendency towards individualism and relativism. And they are captivated by groups that stress stability, commitment and integration - the very values they found wanting in their splintered, mobile families and fragmented, impersonal communities.

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