Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The advent of Confessional Catholicsm and the decline of Cultural Catholicism

In The Future Church,Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter John Allen projects a decisive shift in the future of world Catholicism. Among other things, he sees a Church whose center of gravity shifts decidedly south of the equator to Africa and South America.

Commenting on Allen's observations in Suicide of a Superpower,Patrick J. Buchanan writes:
With the number of bishops and cardinals from Latin America, Africa, and Asia inevitably rising, Allen sees a Church that is more Third World, Pentecostal, and Charismatic, with an African Pope before 2050.
The decisive words here are "Third World, Pentecostal, and Charismatic."

I am not concerned here primarily with what has been called, now for several decades, the advent of a "post-Christian culture." I am concerned, rather, with what little is currently left of Catholicism as a vibrant and transformative cultural force, and what I see within this residue as a growing rift between two forms of Catholicism and the apparent ascendance of one and gradual eclipse of the other. What I mean is the contest between Cultural Catholicism and Confessional Catholicism.

Cultural Catholicism I would define, not merely as that Catholicism that has historically been identified closely with certain European cultures, like that of the Italian, Irish, or Polish; but as identified with that compendium of Catholic tradition that is our common inheritance from the past, including not only Scripture and Sacred Tradition, but the ancient liturgical rites of the Church, as well as her common devotions and liturgical seasons, feasts, observances and familial habits. This is the sort of Catholicism that regards as important not merely Holy Days of Obligation, but habits bespeaking the importance of belief in Purgatory, Indulgences, Patron Saints, Marian devotion, the Friday Penance, Holy Saturdays, blessed salts, holy water, candles, processions, pilgrimages, Scapulars, relics, Latin prayers and hymns, Masses for the dead, and the like.

Confessional Catholicism I would define as that form of Catholicism identifiable chiefly by two occasionally-but-not-always-overlapping subsets: (1) Propositional Catholicism, and (2) Evangelical Catholicism.

Propositional Catholicism exhibits primarily a concern for doctrinal clarity, for the clear articulation of and adherence to a body of propositions to be believed and followed, as summarized in the latest Catechism of the Catholic Church. This concern is expressed in an emphasis, for example, on expository Biblical theology and apologetics.

Evangelical Catholicism appears in the concern for the shared experience of confessional discourse confirming the reality of these beliefs, the experience of interior renewal and a living relationship with Christ, often finding expression in external dispositions of enthusiasm, evangelical fervor, and a willingness to share how the Holy Spirit is experienced as acting in one another's lives.

These distinctions may be somewhat arbitrary and overlap at points, to be sure, but I believe they have their conceptual uses.

On the one hand are those who see Cultural Catholicism as a dead relic. If anything, it is dismissed as the dead traditionalism of the past, if not, in Jaroslav Pelikan's words, "the dead faith of the living." What matters, from the point of view of these critics of Cultural Catholicism is what Kierkegaard called experiencing the "contemporaneity of Christ," the personal encounter with the living Christ of Faith, not the dead carcasses of extraneous medieval traditions.

On the other hand are those who see Confessional Catholicism as little more than an thin, etiolated form of religion, stripped substantively of its traditional Catholic roots. On the one hand, they see it as reduced (in Propositional Catholicism) to a body of discrete doctrinal propositions cut off from traditionally Catholic "habits of the heart," the living customs and devotions of hearth and home and liturgical seasons of one's parish. On the other, they see it as reduced (in Evangelical Catholicism) to a form of religion emphasizing the "lived experience" and discourse of the "believing community," but also as a phenomenon susceptible of transmogrification into the worst sorts of distortions described by Msgr. Ronald Knox in his classic tome, Enthusiasm. What matters most from the point of view of these critics is the preservation of Catholic identity enshrined in Catholic tradition, most of which is seen as jeopardized by these forms of Confessional Catholicism, which often strikes the them as differing little from Protestantism with a twist of Catholic Lite on the side.

In many ways, I see partisans of each side of this divide as missing what is prized as being of utmost importance by its opponents. Neither do I think that Cultural Catholics must represent a bloodless religion of dead and empty formalism, although it may indeed have become that in some quarters; nor do I think that Confessional Catholics must represent a pathological obsession with "living in their heads" (in Propositional Catholicism) or a mindless wallowing in subjective experience and "enthusiasm" described by Knox (in Evangelical Catholicism), although it may indeed have become that in some quarters.

I do think, however, that the most vulnerable point in the contemporary and short-term future development of Catholicism, at least if Allen and Buchanan are right, lies in a subjectivist detachment of emotional experientialism from propositional truth, and the detachment of both from the roots of Catholic identity historically embodied in the living traditions of Cultural Catholicism. This is precisely the Catholic legacy of the 1960s; and the prevailing winds these days are, unsurprisingly, subjectivism, experientialism, and personal preference. A Catholicism that indulges these and forsakes propositional truth is progressively weakened. By the same token, a Catholicism that lives too much "in its head," in abstract concepts and propositions at the expense of the life-embodying cultural forms of Catholic tradition, has cut itself off from its identity and recognitional form, which has more to do with habits of the heart than with propositions in the head. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.


Anonymous said...

Spot on! Thank you.

Pertinacious Papist said...

I remember an evangelical-minded Lutheran professor at a university in NC who was speaking to me about Lutheran missionaries in Africa and a Lutheran seminary in Africa.

Why, he asked, should we first world Christians be encumbering these African seminarians with having to learn the history of all the dogmatic controversies (Christological, Trinitarian, etc.) of Western church history? Why not just give them what they really need: a good first-hand knowledge of the Bible and intimate acquaintance with Jesus?

I'm afraid that too many Catholics these days are beginning to think like this. Why should I be afraid of this? Are not the Bible and Jesus all that is essential? Does not St. Jerome even say, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ"?

Yes indeed. However one comes to a true understanding of the Bible only through its interpretation by Holy Mother Church, and one comes to encounter Jesus as He truly is in Himself through Holy Mother Church.

As St. Augustine himself says: I would not have believed the holy Gospels if it were not for the authority of the Holy Catholic Church.

JM said...

Much needed analysis as the world races along. And right on. Even Evangelicals know this. Over at Ray Ortlund's blog her posted this:

“In our quest for the fullness of the Spirit, we have sometimes forgotten that a Spirit-filled intelligence is one of the powerful weapons for pulling down satanic strongholds.” [Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, 1979), page 183].

He has with it a picture of Augustine, from whom Frank Sheed took away the lesson of the power of the intellect. Jesus is Who we need, and the Bible is the basic data about Him, but we need the slowly accumulated aggregate wisdom of the Bible's handlers as well as our own ongoing experience. Otherwise we are thrown against the hermeneutical equivalent of our own unformed consciences, things with vast potential but also calling for vast conditioning. As usual, it should be a Both/And versus Either/Or. The more Catholics decry Western enculturation, the more they will start looking like The Emergent Church. Just like the Biblical Movement at Vatican II, they will be following the mis-steps of Protestants, only unfashionably and embarrassingly late. If you want to see where that leads, check out Rob Bell our browse the twenty-something blog called "Patrol," where the erstwhile Evangelicals are all busily discarding assorted articles of faith and living. Disheartening. Which is another reason to watch with grateful amazement at all the SSPX activity, wherever it does or does not lead.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Propositional Catholicism cannot survive outside of tradition. Neo Caths just don't get that. They shine their little one bulb led flashlights on one or two articles of the faith -- the current favorite is "the sacredness of life" -- and think that they have the whole of it. Precisely how the Reformation got started.

Pertinacious Papist said...

I could have called Evangelical Catholicism "Charismatic Catholicism," except for the fact that the phenomenon signified is broader than simply the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. The emphases and habits are found in a broad spectrum outside of those who speak in tongues, etc.

JFM said...

" the current favorite is 'the sacredness of life'"

Is this ever the truth.