Stereotypes come true

A remarkable thing about religious liberalism is that it’s made all the worse stereotypes that Catholics and Protestants have about each other become largely true.

Consider the Protestant’s worst image of the Catholic Church.  It would be that 1) the Church is basically a racket whereby the clergy financially defrauds the laity and gives nothing in return; 2) it ignores the plain meaning of Scripture to foist absurd dogmas on the laity; 3) it ignores supernatural faith and preaches salvation through works, and “works” always involves just shelling out more money.   Now, these stereotypes were absolutely not true for the Church of Dante, Vincent de Paul, and Father Damien.  They do describe uncomfortably well the post-Vatican II Church.

Consider #1.  Now, it used to be thought that the clergy exist to serve the laity:  to teach them the apostolic faith and dispense the sacraments.  The laity are paying the priest’s salaries, and they’re entitled to those services.  If a priest doesn’t want to preach the Catholic faith, he can find someone else to pay his salary.  That attitude, dear friends, is now known as “integralism”, and anybody who’s anybody in the Church derides it.  The idea of accountability for clergy belongs to those oppressive preconciliar days when priests and nuns were expected to serve the laity and teach the faith rather than heretical fads, and nobody much cared about their “self-actualization” or “academic freedom”.  Nowadays, there’s only one article of faith that all our priests believe:  that the world, or rather the laity, owe them a living and a platform for them to dispense their pet heresies.

Then there’s #2, which is pretty much standard fare in today’s liberal Catholic homilies and bible study guides.  I remember one of the latter expressing scorn for the idea that God is angered by sin and punishes sinners.  I challenge anyone to read the bible and come away with any other impression.  Then there are the homilies.  I remember one where the priest explained that the true meaning of the story of Mary and Martha is that women shouldn’t have to do housework.  I remember one priest taking the side of the Prodigal Son, saying that his was a justifiable revolt against the injustice of primogeniture.  Even the most orthodox I’ve encountered always claim that Saint Paul didn’t really mean that wives should obey their husbands.  I must admit that a very “Protestant” sentiment has been building up inside me, the kind that makes me want to say “Show me where that’s in the Bible, or shut the hell up.”

Finally, there’s #3, about which little needs to be said.  We’ve all been told to stop being otherworldly, forget our dogmatic hang-ups, and get to work for “social justice”.  Justification comes not from buying indulgences, but by supporting higher taxes.

Then there’s Protestantism.  A Catholic’s worst idea of Protestants would be this:  1) they disparage works to the point that they don’t mind if one is an unrepentent sinner so long as one has the correct beliefs; 2) they think that the most outlandish reading of scripture invented five minutes ago by an illiterate carries the same weight as the two-millenium tradition of the Fathers and saints; 3) the whole thing is a scam to provide cover for monks who don’t want to obey their vows of obedience and chastity, kings who don’t want to stick with their first wives, and princes who want to steal church property.  Certainly, this does not describe the faiths of Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley.  It does bear more than a passing resemblance to post-Schleiermacher Protestantism, though.

As for #1, it’s certainly true that liberal Protestants don’t give a rat’s ass about godly living, just so long as one can mouth the appropriate PC shibboleths.  Want to abandon your wife and children and take up with your sodomite lover?  No problem!  In fact, we’ll make you a bishop!  Or look at the case of Karl Barth, who combined an affirmation of the Calvinist creed with a lifelong support for atheist communist tyranny.  I would call this a large disconnect between faith and practice, but I wouldn’t want to be accused of “works righteousness”.  Or, let’s take the case of divorce, which Jesus condemned in pretty strong terms.  Is there any case when a Protestant congregation won’t approve of a divorce anymore?  Just wanting one is supposed to create an unquestionable right.  Freedom of the Christian indeed.

As for #2, it’s certainly a prime enabler of #1.  “Don’t judge” means that we must not only refrain from guessing peoples’ spiritual states, we must also endorse every act that anyone engages in.  “neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female” means we must dissolve the family and separate countries.  The fact that nobody in the history of Christianity, including the Apostles themselves who were taught by Christ himself or Saint Paul who actually wrote some of those lines, understood it this way is no deterrant.  Neither is the fact that they flatly contradict other lines in scripture.  The liberal has his favorite text, and it’s all he needs.

#3 is sort of a restatement of #1, and it’s hard to deny that liberal Protestantism’s main selling points are that it offers the most sexual goodies to the faithful and the most unchecked power to the state.

So, the stereotypes are now true.  I guess that means that liberal Christianity has succeeded in its aim of fostering interdenominational understanding.

15 Responses

  1. When Christianity is simply another organization, another club, another ideology, another totem… it deserves to die. If it is not a life-saving and life-changing faith, then what is the point really?

  2. Exactly.

  3. At least the remnants of traditional Catholicism are more coherent and in line with what was once Christendom. Then again you have people like Tom Woods who while pro Latin Mass simultaneously support Enlightenment philosophies over Church Teaching.

    Also as far as I am concerned even “conservative” Protestantism is thoroughly compromised. Between prosperity gospel, individualism and worst of all Zionism most of American Protestantism tends to be a lot of America and little of Christ.

  4. Brilliant post. So true; good ordering of data. And I totally sympathize with the sentiment in the Catholic #2.

    I wonder about the cause for this transformation, though; why would liberalism transform each into some parody of itself? What makes it bring out the worst of each state? In each case, it seems like liberalism makes people just drop what they believe, for no good reason–progress, maybe–which then leaves people with a certain institutional structure (or lack thereof) whose innate vices must take over once the reason for the structure (or lackthereof) has been forgotten. It turns each into a bureaucracy/collection of institutions/tradition with no reason to exist but self-perpetuation. Or, if I may become MacIntyrean for a moment–it makes the members of institutions forget the virtues/practices that the institutions were founded to pursue, and thus destroys what was good in them.

    That being said, it partially seems like the Catholic problems arise more from Catholics having simply stopped believing in what the Church teaches; they then soaked up whatever the liberal culture around them thought.

    On the other hand, the protestant problems are arguably there from the start. At least, some counterrevolutionaries (Cortes) saw Protestantism as just the religious beginning of political liberalism. Louis Bouyer, a convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism, wrote “The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism” in which he argues essentially that (1) Protestantism was founded to pursue good things that the Church had, in practice, begun to abandon and (2) it fails to get them because it had taken into itself a false nominalist philosophy from the beginning. His arguments are all the more interesting as he seems not to write from any particular traditionalist, counterrevolutionary viewpoint–he’s only interested in this one thing, not in any larger points. (And the book is the only book on Catholicism and Protestantism that I’ve read that is neither very polemic nor very relativist.)

    @Gneisenau: Woods is very irksome.

  5. Hello Anodos,

    That’s an interesting idea, and I think I even believe it. If I’m reading you correctly, you’re saying that the old stereotypes did contain some truth: they recorded the characteristic vices into which each church would tend to fall without real faith and holiness. Liberalism took away the inner core of faith, and so the characteristic vices naturally expressed themselves. Thanks for adding this to my post.

    A note on my opinion of the relationship between Protestantism and liberalism: I don’t think that Protestant theology leads to liberalism, but I do think that the Protestant historical narrative has a natural connection to it. According to this narrative, medieval Christianity was utterly corrupt, and the only way to connect with the original purity of the faith was to sidestep the existing tradition. (On this reading, Luther didn’t build on medieval theology; he tore through it to get back to Saint Paul.) A conservative prefers to connect to his ancestors through living traditions. The Protestant narrative also disposes Protestants to see would-be reformers as noble rather than anti-social, and it makes it harder for them to regard the present as worse than the past.

  6. I suspect, like Anodos, that both are right. What we see are two “faiths” devoid of seriousness or a real spiritual experience.

    Test: ask the average Catholic if the Eucharist becomes the physical body of Christ when eaten. If they answer yes, narrow your eyes and ask again.

    Test2: ask the average Protestant how they know their pastor’s interpretation of the bible is correct.

    Eric Voegelin once mentioned that the Church was as much to blame for the Reformation as Luther. Very interesting post.

  7. That’s a clearer formulation of what I was trying to say. And the distinction between Protestant narrative and theology is a good on, although i suspect they interact in interesting ways as well.

  8. ‘pretty much standard fare in today’s liberal Catholic homilies and bible study guides. I remember one of the latter expressing scorn for the idea that God is angered by sin and punishes sinners. I challenge anyone to read the bible and come away with any other impression. ‘

    Well, I could come up with some pretty blasphemous interpretations of Scripture.

    The Old Testament is full of savagery. If the God of the Old Testament is also Jesus Christ, then that God is so far beyond human standards that rational thought can’t make any sense of that God. One might as well follow up “Three Persons are all the same God” with “God is a square triangle, and it makes sense in God’s world, not in any humanly knowable sense.”

    The Bible is a horrible place to learn about whatever “sin” might mean. In one book, God tells the Israelites to take female slaves and to give them no discernible legal rights; then there’s that passage about “blessed is he who dashes the little ones upon the rocks.” And just when you think God is treating the Israelites as a some kind of Nazi super-race who should properly be trampling everyone else, God says that the Israelites are oath-breaking scum.

    That’s not getting angry at sin. That’s beyond any earthly level of psychosis. That’s a God so weird as to be totally incomprehensible.

  9. Hello zhai2nan2,

    You bring up some important issues. However, your interpretation is only plausible if you ignore most of Scripture and focus on only a few stories. Not that I blame you–a half page of massacre is more memorable to an unbeliever than ten pages of legislation–but it’s the latter that forms the bulk and core of the Bible. Through the Decalogue, the Mosaic Law, the protestations of the prophets, and the teachings of Christ, God displays a strong and detailed interest in how people behave. Nor does He refrain from promising rewards and punishments: prosperity and progeny to Israel if she obeys, national devastation if she doesn’t. The Christian is promised Heaven for good behavior and Hell for bad behavior. This doesn’t mean that Jews and Christians are only motivated by these facts, but they’re definitely there in the Bible. And the Bible can’t be too bad a place to learn morality, because that’s where the civilization of Western Christendom learned it. Biblical morality seems to me far superior to the Benthamite and revolutionary lunacy that came after it.

    Now, the Bible does make it clear that God can dispense with some of His commandments (the second tablet of the Decalogue), but this requires a special and direct revelation from God for each such act. Here you’ve brought up an interesting case. As Aquinas says, God is the universal good Who contains supereminently within Himself the goodness of all particular goods. Absent a special revelation, God has revealed–and Christian philosophers claim to prove–that we must show our love for God by valuing the particular goods of his creatures. (“Whatsoever you did for the least of my people…”) For special revelations, God, the ultimate good, is trumps. The Bible very much seems to indicate that God can, for example, order me to kill someone. This is shocking, no doubt, although maybe it shouldn’t be. Pretty much every belief system posits some principle that you can kill for. The measure of how high human life is valued would be how elevated the principle must be that trumps it.

    Israelite slaves did have some rights enumerated by by Mosaic law. For example, they had a right to a day of rest once per week.

    “Happy the one who dashes the little ones upon the rocks” is from Psalm 137. It’s not God speaking, but an expression of Israelite dejection. (Remember, in the Psalms, it’s men speaking, not God.) It certainly can’t be taken as a divine authorization to kill Babylonians.

    The nature of God (including the three Hypostases) is indeed a mystery in this life, but it is certainly not nonsense. Human reason can grasp the distinction between substantial unity and personal unity. It may be impossible for us to imagine how they could ever not coincide, but that’s not the same thing as establishing logically that they cannot.

    There’s no doubt that God mightily encouraged Israelite tribalism. One nice thing about talking to you is that tribalism doesn’t scandalize you and me as much as it does my more comfortably modern contemporaries. A craving for Israelite hegemony is quite consistent with moral absolutism. In fact, moralism and aggression tend to go together–not always a good thing, I know.

  10. Bonald,

    How much of the Israelite tribalism which you say God “mightily encouraged” in the Old Testament is really just an Israelite foundational myth, akin to the foundational myths found in every culture? How much of the Israelite law really came down to Moses on Mt. Sinai?

    Jesus, when he states that that Moses only included a provision for divorce because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts, seems to be saying that parts of the law most certainly did not come from God. And when he states that God could make sons of Abraham out of rocks, he seems to be saying that there’s nothing inherently special about Israelite tribalism.

    But, we have to admit, there really is no “plain meaning of Scripture,” as you seem to suggest, and as most Protestants seem to believe.

    This is all to say that Old Testament morality is in tension with Christianity, largely because the Israelites of the Old Testament were precisely too tribalistic.

  11. Hi Stephen,

    I’m afraid I must disagree. We are required by faith to believe that all of Sacred Scripture is from God, even parts that should turn out not to have come directly from Moses. Tribalism is a good thing. Our Savior himself compared non-Israelites to dogs. If Israel were just an ideology and not a concrete society, it would have been an imperfect image of the Church. That God could make sons of Abraham out of rocks doesn’t mean that there was nothing special about the Jews; only that there was nothing special about them apart from their divine election. From the calling of Abraham to their rejection of Jesus, the Jews were a uniquely chosen people. I also worry about admitting a conflict between the Old and New Testaments. Internal contradictions would prove that Scripture is not reliable. Jesus himself insisted that he is the fulfillment of the Law, and indeed most of his moral injunctions can be found in the Old Testament.

    No doubt Israelites got carried away from time to time and pursued their national interests for reasons other than fidelity to God, but admitting that doesn’t buy us anything, theologically speaking. We must still accomodate facts such as that God directly ordered the Israelites to exterminate the Midianites, and he directly ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son.

    I will grant that the idea of a plain meaning of Scripture is problematic. Still, it does seem that one can often see that a given interpretation is plainly wrong.

  12. The expression “the physical body of Christ” is a problematic one.

    As Miss Anscombe says, “* Theologians have not been accustomed to say that our Lord is “physically” present in the Eucharist. I think this is because to them “physically” means “naturally,” as the word comes from the Greek for nature – and of course, our Lord is not present in a natural manner! But to a modern man to deny that he is physically present is to deny the doctrine of the Catholic Church – for meanings of words change. Pope Paul VI tells us in the Encyclical Mysterium Fidei that “Christ is present whole and entire, bodily present, in his physical reality.”

    Moreover, “when eaten” may suggest a receptionist doctrine, so I would ted to answer your question with a “distinguo”

  13. I’ll be sending you an e-mail about this question, hopefully within a couple days.

  14. Sounds like Stephen is going to tear my arguments to shreds but doesn’t want to embarrass me on my weblog. Our correspondences are always beneficial to me.

    This discussion has brought up some really important topics worthy of their own posts–either on Throne and Altar, The Guild Review, or both.

  15. No, I’m not going to tear you to shreds; I’m just trying to get my thoughts together.

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