Thursday, September 06, 2007

Papal Triumphalism: Another Last Gasp of Catholic Dogmatism

In the cover story of the National Catholic Reporter’s print edition August 31st columnist John L. Allen Jr. characterized the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as “The Triumph of Evangelical Catholicism.”

The article is at

While Allen usually is a keen observer of all things Vatican, I think labeling Catholicism since 1978 (the election of JP2) 'evangelical' is mistaken in several ways. A more accurate description of the period is another last gasp of Catholic dogmatism.

One quibble is with use of the term ‘triumph.’ However we characterize the policies of the last two popes, should we be so quick to concede them lasting dominance?

Allen’s sidebar, “Liberal Catholicism endures in pastoral church,” quotes Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian at the University of Toledo, Ohio. Gaillardetz argues that in the U.S. Vatican II’s theology remains “a pastoral phenomenon…alive in parishes that have a flourishing catechumenate, vibrant liturgies, thoughtful and relevant preaching, and multiple lay ministerial opportunities,” as well as “in a growing number of intentional Christian communities that are determined to keep alive a vision of the church that they associate with Vatican II.” This suggests that the most involved U.S. Catholics have not assented to attempts by the last two popes to reverse Vatican II.

Both articles agree that those Allen dubs Catholic evangelicals are still a minority in the church, albeit an energetic and vocal one. The sidebar also notes a 2005 survey by William d’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge and Mary L. Gautier, which found that it was U.S. Catholics 65 or older who agreed most fervently that the Catholic church has “more truth” than other religions (61%, as opposed to 43% of those 26 or younger). This suggests enthusiasm for the papal position among a segment of the Catholic laity who were always fearful of Vatican II’s changes and who long for the self-deceptive certainty of an earlier Catholicism. Triumphalism, yes; but not exactly a church-wide triumph.

What can be said is that the last two popes have been successful at appealing to this segment of the laity and at re-populating the ranks of bishops and cardinals (the bishops who elect the pope) with like-minded theological neanderthals. Given their dedicated fanaticism, papal thinking is clearly in charge of the official church. It will take a fluke like the election of Pope John XXIII, who convoked Vatican II, to reverse that. But should we rush to conclude that the Spirit who shook up the church in the 1950s and 60s is incapable of doing so again?

My largest concern, though, is to resist applying the label ‘evangelical’ to recent papal thinking and its adherents. Only by giving ‘evangelical’ a novel Catholic meaning it never had before can Allen make the label work. But his usage so evacuates the term of its normal content that it confuses rather than clarifies the enormous reversal the last two popes have tried to pull off.

Papal thinking is clearly not evangelical in three of the four senses Allen ascribes to Protestants: “the Bible alone as the touchstone of faith, …personal acceptance of Jesus as opposed to salvation through externals such as sacraments, and strong missionary energies premised on the idea that salvation comes only from Christ.”

The traditional Catholic emphasis, which the recent popes consciously seek to revive, is that the Bible is normative only as interpreted by the official church, valid sacraments make Catholicism the only true church because other ecclesial communities lack them, and there is no salvation that is not mediated by the Catholic church.

Again, this is the Catholic triumphalism which prevailed from the Counter-Reformation through the 1950s. Allen tries to call the papal return to it ‘evangelical.’ But he can do this only by saying that the Catholic evangelical agenda hinges on “authority, the centrality of key doctrines, and Christian exclusivity.” I agree that these are among the chief preoccupations of JP2, Benedict XVI and their loyalists. But their project is to revive the Catholic dogmatism which Vatican II rejected and relativized. Why on earth call that project ‘evangelical’?

Calling the papal policies ‘Catholic fundamentalism’ would be more accurate, but Allen eschews that label—on the grounds that Benedict recently jettisoned limbo! This rationale is amusing, but misplaced. Despite its prevalence in Roman catechisms, limbo was never an official component of Catholic dogmatism. By focusing on a peripheral theological hypothesis that Benedict termed obsolete, Allen takes the spotlight away from the long list of surpassed dogmas that the last two popes have tried to reassert.

Their efforts are fundamentalist in the same sense as those of the evangelical right in the United States—except that they want to be fundamentalistic about the authority of the pope rather than the authority of selected biblical passages that conform to their ideology.

The bishops at Vatican II grasped what Alfred North Whitehead concluded emphatically in his philosophical work in the 1920s and 30s: religion cannot be sustained by resorting to ‘the dogmatic fallacy,’ the belief by any system of thought that “the principles of its working hypotheses are clear, obvious, and irreformable.” Because reality is always growing and our generalizations about it are always partial, Whitehead denied that such finality was ever possible.

In dozens of areas of Catholic belief and practice, the bishops of Vatican II agreed. Confident that they were responding to the deepest urgings of God’s Spirit, they agreed with Luther that Christianity’s defining characteristics—its teachings, its liturgy, its structures—must be semper reformanda, always subject to change, based on the endless interplay of scripture, tradition and contemporary experience.

It is this philosophical and evangelical conviction that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have energetically opposed. To call their approach ‘evangelical’ is to distort the term, and to radically mischaracterize the harm they have done. As a struggle against the creative advance of reality as a whole and Christianity in particular, it cannot ultimately succeed. Let’s not give it sham credibility by diluting and cheapening what ‘evangelical’ means.


The Observer said...

I was led to your site by the Comment that you left at the "A Richmond Voice" blog. Your analysis of John Allen's application of the term "evangelical" is a campelling one --well reasoned and stated.

However, I notice that you do not disagree with John Allen's central thesis. You merely want him to change his terminology from "evangelical" to "fundamentalist".

Gerald T Floyd said...

To clarify, I do disagree with Allen's central thesis in two respects. First, what has achieved dominance in official Catholic circles is a resurgence of Catholic dogmatism, not anything remotely evangelical. Second, I am more hopeful than Allen appears to be that the dominance is not permanent.