Friday, October 11, 2013

Constantine again?

I think Ross Douthat's NYTimes op-ed piece from last Sunday deserves more attention for what it contributes to the Christendom vs. Remnant discussion. What is the Christendom vs. Remnant discussion? It is one way people tackle the question concerning the Church's future. Douthat asks quite poignantly whether with Pope Francis the Catholic Church can save itself from the free-fall into the abyss, which might fairly characterize the present status of most mainline or traditional church groups. He seems to be opting for Christianity as Christendom and sees the Holy Father as bent on the same:

"So far, he has at least gained the world’s attention. The question is whether that attention will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own — finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz! — without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.

In the uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the fear that the second possibility is more likely. Their anxiety is not that the new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather, they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense."

[I don't really buy Douthat's line, because his graphics - chasm and all - define a space which only seems to be there. Even when St. Anthony the Great or St. Benedict of Nursia walked away from "the culture" into the wilderness they drew all to themselves for God, like Jesus speaking of Himself lifted up upon the Cross and thereby being gloried, drawing all to Himself.]

On the other hand, lots of highly placed Catholic clergy in Europe would see us already taking up position as a remnant. They differ upon what to do with everyone outside the fold: whether out of political correctness we can get by with humoring them or should we shake the dust from our feet as we walk away from the mess. Douthat would seem to be saying that Pope Francis is giving "Big Church"/Christendom his best shot; the remnant strategy does not appeal for some reason. My question is how you do that, how do you go big without giving Constantine another shot?Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, Czarist Russia... all have come and gone. Personally, I'll buy into the thesis that things haven't been better than in the Middle Ages, but we can't turn back the clock. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church's seeming openness to finding a "czar" in Putin cannot be totally dismissed. Important in any scenario is not losing sight of the goal, of being that "City" not made by human hands.

Not to drift too far afield from Douthat, I guess you would have to ask whether a Pope alone can reestablish the predominance of Catholic-Christian culture. The alone is intended to mean without the help of a benevolent Christian despot. What do you intend by Christianity in its "Big Church" format if you don't intend to enforce order in society with the help of the "secular arm". How would the "two sword" theory of long ago play out today?

With such, I am not just intent on provoking intelligent people, more schooled and more read than I. The present crisis in the US, for example, but we could take Europe just as well, points out the total inadequacy for guaranteeing basic freedoms and human dignity of any of the various pluralistic or non-discriminatory/inclusive social schemes abroad which exclude the Catholic Church from its rightful place in the public square. Democracy and free-enterprise seem to be in free-fall as well, not for lack of wings but for finally having been exposed as heartless and ignorant of the true glories of the human person as created and saved by the God Who loves us.

Viva il Papa Re! ... not hardly! Personally, I am more inclined to find the remnant possibility a better vehicle for getting the word out and saving the world.

"And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matt. 28:18-20]

I am sure the Church made do with Constantine, Charlemagne, Peter the Great and many more, never losing sight of the commission given by the Risen Lord Jesus to His apostles. Reflecting on two millennia of experience should not leave us at a loss for ideas as to how we carry on that charge today and tomorrow and until the end of the age. While Douthat frames the issue very well, I don't think the Church has ever striven in first instance for the Christendom platform; it has been handed to us on a platter, if you will, time and again. Our challenge for the sake of the life of the world might better draw it's imagery from the remnant part of the binary, without succumbing to eventual temptations to look that gift horse in the mouth should he come our way.



  1. Their anxiety is not that the new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather, they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him...

    Frankly I think Douthat is being a little generous concerning 'conservative' Catholics: many, who found it rather easy to believe the teaching on papal infallibility under popes like JPII and BXVI, are now having to ask whether they "really" believe that; they are having a bit of a crisis of faith stemming from fear of what Francis might do. Maybe there are some conservative intellectuals out there fearing that the center will crumble, as Douthat suggests, but I don't think this is the fear that the "average" conservative Catholic is struggling with at the present.

    1. Yes, Father,
      I too think that Douthat's own fear (?) is being projected on others. We were brought up to understand that even Popes err when it comes to all sorts of things, that infallibility covers faith and morals in solemn pronouncements. The genre's "interview" and "letter to the editor" may deserve a bit more discussing. I'm waiting for some German to come up with "Kadavergehorsam" again, in one sense or another.

      I actually count on the Church's indefectibility to carry us through.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.