The priorities of Catholic leadership today, and how they must influence praise and blame
A reader raised a thorny problem the other day: Since there is good reason to criticize many things that Pope Francis says in order to dispel confusion and avoid spiritual discouragement, is it also right and proper to praise Pope Francis when he says or does something very good? The reader had in mind the Pope’s urgent concern for migrants and refugees, and his frequent exhortations to both the Church and the world to avoid prejudice and help those seeking a better life in a new country.
This is an important question, and I have addressed it at least partially in the past. But I’m not sure that broad social issues like migration and climate change are the best examples to use—however right Pope Francis is that we should be generous toward refugees and good stewards of “our common home”. A better example is the Pope’s emphasis on frequent and expanded use of the Sacrament of Penance—that is, on the culturally unpopular priestly work of the confessional—which, to his great credit, this Pope mentions about as often as he mentions anything at all.
I wrote about this large issue of praise in the midst of blame just over a year ago. Sadly, when it comes to saying nice things about other people, time flies more quickly even than usual! But on December 30, 2016, I wrote “Pope Francis: Hope through the Sacrament of Penance” and, at about the same time, I addressed three pertinent aspects of the larger question. None of this applies exclusively to Pope Francis; far from it. But the Pope is a particularly tall lightning rod. See these essays:
- Rehabilitating Pope Francis, and saving ourselves (November 4, 2016): Here I argued that it is grossly unfair (and even sinful) to refuse to notice when those with whom we frequently disagree say or do good things, and also to fail to give such persons the benefit of the doubt.
- When it comes to Pope Francis, is it time to turn the corner? (November 22, 2016): Next I pointed out, essentially, how happy the Devil will be if we become so fixated on the shortcomings of our pope that we ignore all the apostolic work we should be doing.
- Recommended: Challenge yourself with Pope Francis’ latest interview (January 23, 2017): Finally, I suggested that, despite concerns about the trajectory of the current pontificate, we should allow ourselves to be challenged by the Pope’s evangelical message, applying whatever we can as thoroughly as possible to ourselves.
But the issue is even more complex than all of this.
In “The Public Square” last December, where the editor of First Things offers running commentary on whatever captures his attention month by month, R. R. Reno included a subsection called “Bourgeois Religion” (if you follow the link, scroll down to that subtitle). It is likely that he overstates his case in some respects, but his insights are arresting. In fact, they mirror insights expressed using different terminology by the editors of CatholicCulture.org. Reno writes:
Catholicism and other forms of establishment Christianity in the West tend to take the form of bourgeois religion. That term denotes the fusion of church culture with the moral consensus held by the good, respectable people who set the tone for society as a whole. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, that consensus shifted….
The strategy was one of careful retreat…. It has become apparent that Pope Francis wants to make that retreat more explicit…. Pope Francis and his associates want to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution. They will use whatever arguments and rhetoric are necessary to achieve this goal….
Reconciling the Catholic Church with the sexual revolution is necessary in order to preserve Catholicism as a bourgeois religion. Unless this is done, more and more of the good and responsible people will come to regard the Church as a regressive, harmful force in society, a source of repression and bigotry that is antithetical to the spirit of inclusion and affirmation that promotes human flourishing.
In my own writing (perhaps most briefly and abstractly here: “In a Nutshell: Liberalism and Modernism”), I have made a philosophical point which leads to the same conclusion. Because the central ideas of our dominant cultures are decidedly liberal and modernist (in the philosophical senses), alignment with either the zeitgeist or what Reno calls bourgeois culture (meaning the broad culture of contemporary respectability) leads to precisely the same spiritual and ecclesiastical result.
With this in mind, when I said above that “I’m not sure that broad social issues like migration and climate change are the best examples” of subjects for awarding potential praise, I meant three things:
- First, there is very little prophetic value in announcing to the world the platitudes that are already on the lips of what Reno calls the bourgeoisie and I call our cultural elites.
- Second, there is no salutary moral clarity in preaching frequently about broad social issues when their difficulties lie not so much in their generalized moral imperatives as in the adoption of specific policies that will actually work.
- And third, government has rarely if ever been an effective stimulant of spiritual and moral progress. Without the essentially counter-cultural spiritual and moral revolution which must be precipitated in the human heart by Revelation and grace, the more emphasis churchmen place on public policy, the more quickly will the social order degenerate.
This does not mean Catholics should never be reminded of what we might call our creeping selfishness. Pope Francis’ constant reminder to root everything in the person of Christ, and his call to genuine Christian engagement with those in need, are very necessary indeed, and so very praiseworthy. But far too often these sharp spiritual and moral imperatives degenerate into an intensely partisan moral advocacy of particular public policies, which are by their very nature prudential and therefore legitimately controversial. Unfortunately, in addressing broad social issues, the more we absolutize what is prudential and relative, and the more we relativize what is intrinsically moral and absolute, the faster will civilization decline, and the faster will we all end up in Hell.
Getting the Message
This lesson is on display everywhere today, but I was reminded of it in an odd way just the other evening while reading a very fine book by Paul Schneider on the history of The Adirondacks (1996). The Adirondacks are a large mountain region in New York State that has been declared “forever wild” in the State Constitution. This necessitates “management” (a decidedly anti-wilderness term) of major sections of both public and private land inside what is called “the blue line” in the northern part of the State.
Toward the end of the book, Schneider recounts his interview with George Davis, one of the strongest leaders in Adirondack wilderness protection during the second half of the twentieth century. By the mid-90s, in fact, Davis had been important to far-reaching ecological initiatives around the globe. Reflecting on it all, he had this to say:
I’m afraid that unfortunately government cannot create a land ethic where there is not one. It’s just like any other ethic, I suppose. As much as they might try, regulation is simply not going to do it, and sometimes it actually works against the development of such an ethic because people become resentful that they’re being told what to do. [p. 316]
Or, surely, because people assume the government can handle it, which conveniently eliminates personal responsibility and sacrifice. Goodness is redefined as coloring within the regulatory lines. But Davis continued:
I’m…unsure whether the landowners here today have any stronger land ethic personally than they had when the park agency act passed, or than they would have had now if there hadn’t been a park agency. And indeed with some of them there’s probably less of such an ethic…. But in the meantime, in our present culture there’s nothing to indicate that anyone but outsiders can save a natural area…. The majority on the inside still are not, unfortunately, the people who want to save it. [pp. 316-17]
What a metaphor! “The majority on the inside still are not, unfortunately, the people who want to save it.”
The applications of this insight are legion, but as an illustrative thought experiment, let us focus briefly on just one issue that dominates the news even as I write: The sexual harassment of women.
Clearly “the majority on the inside” of our culture do not realize that all the government laws, regulations and punishments in the world—and all the media efforts to raise consciousness and effect social change—cannot accomplish something which actually flows naturally from strong families—families formed on natural and Christian principles, open to new life in the context of permanent commitment, rooted in sexual fidelity, and rich in deep inter-familial ties. Political, regulatory and advocacy-based social programs cannot create a culture in which the sexual harassment of women is, in the first place, extraordinarily rare and, in the second, corrected promptly and effectively by husbands, brothers and close friends.
This one example illuminates the larger point. Healthy civilization comes through the family or it does not come at all. The absolute sexual morality which so many in the Church refuse to preach as a key component of our response to God is every bit as important to personal well-being and social health as it is to the consistency of our exposition of the natural law or the cohesion of academic theology. It has been sexual morality which has suffered the most from the decline of religious faith, even as wayward sexual desire has inescapably contributed mightily to that decline. To all of this, our spiritual leaders have most often responded by retreat, accommodation, and emphasis on whatever tenuous public policy goals the dominant culture already approves.
It is not hard to see why. An understanding of the absolute personal morality at the root of authentic family life, and so at the root of all healthy culture, is forbidden knowledge in our time. Admitting that we know it is the path to ridicule, ostracism and even persecution (or, as Reno put it, to no longer being the honored pastors of the bourgeois religion). So while there are many praiseworthy things in the generalized social goals of Catholic leaders (and even, though far less often, in the particular policies they so often confuse with moral imperatives), these praiseworthy things will fail to transform society unless we start with the redeemed life of the family and with the personal wholeness and serene self-possession which authentic family life both fosters and demands.
This explains a good deal about my attitude toward praise and blame: I mean this tendency to absolutize prudential social concerns and relativize the bedrock moral truths on which all social success must be based. Wherever a particular churchman or politician can be assigned blame for this serious error, I remain reluctant to place a very great emphasis on those derivative social goals to which a certain measure of praise may rightly be assigned. The reason is not just temperamental or emotional or psychological. It is axiomatic: The rotten fruit at the bottom spoils the whole barrel.
In all of this we may, I believe, profit from the example of Pope Blessed Paul VI. He was not slow to comment on the interplay between Catholic principles and social development (see, for example, Populorum Progressio). But he firmly anchored everything when, in 1968, he saw that personal sexual issues were at the behavioral root of our modern crisis. Accordingly, he issued Humanae Vitae. Inevitably, of course, he was told by both the world and dissenting Catholic academics (the world again!) that the keys of Peter did not include the key to the bedroom. But this is so completely backwards that those who fail to notice are actually incapable of addressing the spiritual, moral and social needs of our age.
No, the first principle of effective Church leadership today is simply this: If the Church does not hold the key to the bedroom—where the commitments to life and love must be formed and strengthened most intimately—she does not hold any keys at all, and certainly not the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. And if our paltry gospel does not demand a reordering of loves at the very core of our being—even in the bedroom, behind closed doors—then it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who has redeemed not just our souls but our persons, including our bodies.
This insight is foundational for an understanding of the crisis of our age. It must therefore play a huge role in assigning praise and blame.
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