PROTESTANT PARANOIA?

R. R. Reno confirms Samuel Gregg’s suspicion that First Things is tempering its embrace of free markets (“Building Bridges, Not Walls,” November). Perhaps he can confirm—or deny—whether the journal is also rethinking its commitment to the free exercise of religion. In the same issue that Reno reappraised Michael Novak’s classic defense of capitalism (“The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” October), he also took Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa to task for the “shrill, exaggerated, Manichean, and manipulative tone” of their essay on “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism.” The authors’ belief that Rousas Rushdoony or Church Militant wields significant influence in the United States is clearly mistaken. But less clear, and left unaddressed by Reno, is whether integralism is nevertheless resurgent, and whether, as Spadaro and Figueroa think, this might be lamentable.

These are questions worth asking, since the same issue of First Things included a glowing review of an integralist historical study that was “the hot beach read of the summer” (“An Integralist Manifesto,” October). Referring to Ross Douthat’s impression that “a revived Catholic integralism” is on the rise, the reviewer himself advocates “working toward such a transformation.” Not coincidentally, that reviewer has been an outspoken supporter of Thomas Pink’s thesis that the Catholic Church still maintains a right (and, when prudence permits, a duty) to make use of the secular arm in proscribing the free exercise of non-Catholic Christians. This thesis has also been articulated by Pink himself in the pages of First Things (“Conscience and Coercion,” August/September 2012).

The same October issue further devoted five pages to a review-essay (“Catholic America”) in which we learn that the Virgin Mary has claimed America “for herself,” and that American Catholics thus “sojourn in a land marked out for us, that we are instructed to possess.” Now, in the November issue, Adrian Vermeule considers the “strategy” by which such instructions might be fulfilled (“A Christian Strategy”). He approvingly quotes Carl Schmitt: “One appropriates all freedoms of one’s opponent in the name of the opponent’s principles and denies them to him in the name of one’s own Catholic principles.” And yet Vermeule finds “Protestant paranoia” on this score “amusing”?

In view of a certain pattern that seems to be emerging even in the pages of First Things, perhaps the editor would like to reassure me that this alleged Protestant paranoia is not actually warranted concern?

Korey D. Maas
hillsdale college
hillsdale, michigan

R. R. Reno replies:

Worrying about Catholic integralism in the United States is like wringing your hands over the possibility that monarchists will take over. With today’s Catholic universities drifting away from any recognizable connection to the Catholic tradition, dioceses closing parochial schools, and the Church’s ability to influence politics at a historic low, it’s absurd to speak of a “resurgent” integralism.

Korey Maas is right in one respect, however. We are doing some rethinking at First Things. Some of us wonder if John Courtney Murray was too sanguine about the congeniality of the American project to Catholicism. This is not idle speculation. Progressive culture warriors are clear about their intention to give sexual freedom priority over religious freedom. Maas is entitled to the view that these threats to religious liberty betray all that is right and good in the American founding. That’s my position. But I’m less confident now than I was a decade ago, which is why I’m interested to hear what people like Michael Hanby, Patrick Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule have to say.

To be honest, I find myself confused by Maas’s contention that this reassessment of our present circumstances suggests a retreat from the free exercise of religion. The opposite is more nearly the truth. We need to face the facts: The Obama administration and many legal scholars advanced arguments for curtailing the free exercise of religion that draw upon central tenets of liberalism. The notion of “dignitary harm” develops John Stuart Mill’s central doctrine of liberal freedom, which can only be limited insofar as our freedom leads to harm of others. Which is why, again, I think we need to listen to those who warn us that our liberal tradition has become decadent, and that we need to defend freedom with deeper, more theological arguments.

We are not living in seventeenth-century Spain, and nobody associated with First Things argues that we should revoke the First Amendment. In the society in which we actually live, it’s the progressive law school professors who use elements of the liberal tradition to argue that the First Amendment is indefensible, because it provides special rights to religious people. Korey Maas and other Protestants need to recognize the real reasons why they should be paranoid.

ECUMENICAL IMPASSE

Referring to the 1999 Joint Declaration of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, Phillip Cary (“Luther at 500,” November) optimistically notes its “theological consensus that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone need not be Church-dividing.” However, the fact that more conservative Lutheran denominations repudiate that Declaration (which some of them have acerbically dubbed “the Augsburg Concession”) shows that Lutheranism itself remains deeply divided over this core principle of the Reformation.

Many of us Catholics also hold that the Joint Declaration papers over some very real cracks. And none is more real than that which comes to light in Cary’s explanation of what Luther actually means by “faith alone,” namely, a simple, firm belief that our sins are absolved when we hear the divine words to that effect pronounced in the sacraments of Baptism and Penance. Luther claims that “to doubt the word of absolution is to call Christ a liar.”

But that claim raises the vital question of whether this word is unconditional or not. Cary points out that Luther, “[c]ontrary to the long-standing teaching of the medieval Church,” teaches that sinners hearing these words of absolution “should not concern themselves with whether their inward penance or contrition is sufficient to confirm the absolution and obtain forgiveness of sins.” But it is perennial (not just “medieval”) Catholic doctrine that contrition (repentance) must accompany both Penance and adult Baptism. To listen to Luther, one would think Jesus’s saving word is simply “Believe in the gospel!” In fact, what he says is “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
oblates of wisdom study center
st. louis, missouri

Phillip Cary paraphrases point five of the preamble to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification when he states that the signatories reached a “theological consensus that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone need not be Church-dividing.” As indicated by the document’s preface, however, the claims of the Joint Declaration cannot be understood properly apart from the Annex that follows it.

Turning to the Annex, we learn that significant differences in theological terminology still linger between Lutherans and Catholics. Specifically, the second of the four “elucidations” in the Annex addresses the relationship between grace and merit vis-à-vis Lutheran and Catholic understandings of “concupiscence”:

The concept of “concupiscence” is used in different senses on the Catholic and Lutheran sides. In the Lutheran Confessional writings “concupiscence” is understood as the self-seeking desire of the human being, which in light of the law, spiritually understood, is regarded as sin. In the Catholic understanding concupiscence is an inclination, remaining in human beings even after baptism, which comes from sin and presses toward sin.

A distinction with a difference, if there ever was one.

Cary goes on to comment that “God is a person rather than a principle” and to contrast hearing God’s voice (Lutheran?) with seeing the Divine Essence (Catholic?). “The question for Catholics to consider,” Cary proposes, is whether the former is not superior to the latter as a means of assenting to the gospel, which is “the source of every sacrament.” Yet according to the Catholic tradition, it is the historic Christ himself who is the direct source of every sacrament. From the gospel accounts of his spoken words at the Last Supper, the unity of Catholic tradition holds that the Real Presence is divinely given in the sacrament of the Eucharist—substantively more than any lesser parallelism on our part of either seeing or hearing.

At this five-hundred-year benchmark, ecumenical dialogue is still very much a work in progress.

Peter D. Beaulieu
shoreline, washington

Phillip Cary replies:

Ecumenical dialogue certainly is still a work in progress, as Peter Beaulieu says. So let’s keep talking.

The question about the nature of concupiscence, which Augustine identifies as “the sin that remains in us after baptism,” is near the center of our ongoing disagreements. In his treatise Against Latomus of 1521, Luther insists (contrary, it turns out, to Augustine himself) that this concupiscence is not just called sin but really and truly is sin, infecting everything we do, so that every good work of a pious Christian is in substance mortal sin if God were to judge it by strict justice. This claim is the deepest bone of contention in Luther’s response to the papal bull against him that same year.

Rather than speaking for the Joint Declaration, let me just suggest why Luther would want to say such a thing. It is an issue about grace and merit, as Beaulieu points out. Luther asks Latomus to imagine standing before the judgment throne of God, claiming to have profited so much from divine grace as to merit heavenly reward and be secure against all condemnation. Doesn’t the very thought of saying such a thing to God make you shudder with terror?—Luther asks Latomus. Isn’t it far better to have nothing to plead but the mercy of God in Christ? That has always been the Protestant view. 

This means we have nothing to cling to but the gospel of Christ, which includes the promise of the keys authorizing the sacramental word of absolution. Fr. Brian Harrison asks “whether this word is unconditional or not.” If the question is about the logical content of the word, the answer is clear. The word is: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This contains no conditional clause such as “if you have sufficient contrition, your sins are absolved.” Hearing this unconditional word addressed to us means we cannot doubt that our sins are absolved, unless we believe the word is not true.

Contrary to Fr. Harrison, by a Lutheran reckoning, the command to “repent and believe the gospel” is not itself a saving word—precisely because it is a command, which means it is law, not gospel. It tells us what to do but does not give us Christ, who alone can do what is necessary and sufficient to save us. If we ask ourselves, “Have I repented sufficiently to deserve absolution?” the answer is surely no, Luther thinks. And the same answer must be given if we ask about how sincerely or strongly we believe, as if this were a virtue that merited salvation.

We are saved by faith alone, Luther teaches, not because faith is meritorious but because faith receives Christ. For the gospel we are commanded to believe has the same efficacy as a sacrament: It gives what it signifies to those who receive it in faith. And what the gospel of Christ signifies is Jesus Christ. Only the gospel is a saving word, therefore, because only the gospel is a word that gives us Christ. (And yes, Luther certainly agrees that Christ—as the gospel teaches—is the source also of the sacraments that give us Christ.) 

So why does Luther say this kind of thing? Negatively put, he wants to free us from the kind of performance anxiety that asks: Am I doing this (repenting, believing, etc.) well enough to be saved? The answer is always no. Positively put: Justification by faith alone amounts to justification by Christ alone. That is something to keep talking about.

SACRAL LANGUAGE

Nathaniel Peters (“Thus Saith the Lord,” November) seems unaware that his plea for sacral English texts for use in the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities has already been answered. The Personal Ordinariates erected under the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus have provided for precisely the elevated language Peters envisions by drawing on the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. A full English rite for Holy Mass as well as texts for Baptism, Reception and Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, and Funerals are already approved by the Holy See and in use around the world. These rites bring the whole liturgical enterprise for English sacral language into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Fr. John L. Hodgins
catholic parish of st. thomas more
ordinariate of the chair of st. peter
toronto, ontario, canada

Nathaniel Peters replies:

I have been aware of the Anglican Ordinariate since its inception, and I am glad to learn that the sacramental rites Fr. Hodgins mentions are now in use. My essay referred not to the Ordinariate’s particular liturgy, but to the translation of the Roman Rite that most Catholics use. Since sacral language exists in English, it should be easy and obvious to use its cadences in Catholic liturgy, Scripture, and hymnody, whether in continuity with historical Anglican practices or not. Use of sacral language in the Roman Rite would elevate the aesthetics and theology that the laity receive through it. The fact that the riches of Anglicanism are now a part of the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate gives us further reason to use them more broadly for the benefit of the faithful.

I might add that Christians of all stripes—Protestant and Catholic, traditional and progressive—have taken great consolation and joy in the beauty of English sacral language. We need not become Anglicans in order to adopt it. A friend’s grandmother has a saying for hard times: “There is nothing that a hot bath, bourbon, and the Book of Common Prayer won’t cure.” Give me that old-time religion, indeed.