Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Reader Writes: Post-Constantinean Catholics Look for Persuasion, not Force

Donation of Constantine, Sylvester Chapel, Santi Quatro Coronati, Rome

Several days ago, a reader, Evagrius, made a valuable comment in response to my posting about re-claiming the moral center of Catholicism in the public square.  I'd like to lift Evagrius's comment from the combox following that posting and post it as a stand-alone posting so that more readers may benefit from it.

Evagrius writes:

I've just read a theology article that may shed some light on all of this.  I happen to like Origen and read him and about him when I can.  I was able to obtain Origenia Septima, the compendium of an Origen confrence held in 1999.  The last article, by Kurt Anders Richardson, entitled, "Origen and the contexts of Christian theology conditional similarities of pre and post-Constantinians" ( pp. 753-764), struck me as extremely relevant when reading your post.  Essentially, Richardson argues that Christianity is now in a post-Constantinian age, that is, it no longer has the State to butress it or enforce its decrees or support it through socio-political pressure etc.  In other words, Christians are in a similar position they were in before Constantine.  They could not use force, certainly of public officials, ( not sympathetic to them in the least), to settle disputes, heresies, etc; etc.  Instead, they had to depend on chaps like Origen, brilliant, spiritually deep theologians who used persuasion, philosophical, theological, poetic, spiritual to convince others of the truths of Christianity, ( that's one reason I like him so much).  The present Pope refuse, along with the Curia and so many others in hierarchy and the rest of the Church, especially, I suppose in the U.S., to recognize and acknowledge this situation.  Hence he, and the Vatican, are trying desperately to pretend that Constantinian power is still available.  Hence his naming so many as cardinals who still hold that view.  But I think that many Catholics realize that they are now in a post-Constatinian age.  They look for persuasion, not force, to help them live a Christian life and they are looking everywhere for those who have that persuasive skill based on deep spirituality, deep experience.  I don't think we can go back to the good old days of Constantine.

Evagrius's comment notes that he had previously posted the same remarks at Colleen Baker's Enlightened Catholicism site, in response to her brilliant commentary about Benedict's latest batch of men earning scarlet beanies.  The only editing I've done as I post Evagrius's comment is to add spacing between sentences and to change punctuation in several places.

I find Evagrius's theological analysis very important for the following reasons:

1. The analysis identifies one of the key rifts in the contemporary Catholic church as follows: while many lay (and clerical) Catholics would prefer to see their church use persuasion and not force to make its case in the public square, the leaders who control the church from the top down clearly prefer to rely on force rather than persuasion. 
2. As Evagrius notes, the persuasion that many Catholics would prefer to see the church applying in the public square (as opposed to force) is the persuasion of compelling theological analysis based on "deep spirituality, deep experience." 
3. By contrast, the leaders of the Catholic church, at the top, are in a reactionary mode in which they are seeking to revive a Constantinean arrangement that permits them to rely on the state to use force to enforce their dictates--even when (but precisely because) Christianity has moved into a post-Constantinean moment, in which it can no longer rely on the state to buttress its authority.

I think this analysis is absolutely correct.  I also think that the increasingly belligerent and even hysterical way in which top Catholic officials now want to assert their claims to moral supremacy and to special faith-based "rights" in the public square at this moment in history has everything to do with their recognition that the Constantinean paradigm that afforded them those special "rights" and that supremacy is a thing of the past and cannot be retrieved--though they intend to hinge the future of the church on their proposal to try to force Western culture back into some semblance of that paradigm, even if this strategic choice negates the church's own witness in Vatican II and drives huge numbers of Catholics from the church.

What we see going on in the U.S. right now, as the Catholic bishops at an official level, led by their president Mr. Dolan, push their claims to special faith-based "rights" and "ministerial exceptions" with ever greater ferocity, is an attempt to bully the state into submission to the bishops, insofar as the course of contemporary culture diverges from what Catholic officials demand--e.g., with the decision to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Catholic officials now openly demand the right to bully the state into upholding their moral dictates.  And when the state refuses to accede to this demand, they claim that the state is persecuting them and the Catholic church.

This is, at heart, an assertion by the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church of their "right" to control what the state thinks, decides, and does, in areas in which these pastoral leaders claim a divine authority that supersedes that of secular government.  It is at heart a demand to keep the Constantinean arrangement alive at a moment in history in which that arrangement has effectively died--as Vatican II recognized.

And this imperious bullying behavior on the part of the top leaders of the Catholic church vitiates the very claims these pastoral officials purport to be defending in the public square.  It does so because the claims are  grounded not on the spiritual experience to which many Catholics increasingly turn as they seek to ground the claims of Catholic faith, or on cogent, persuasive theology rooted in spiritual experience, but on raw force.

And so in winning, the church (that is, the church as represented by its top leaders) loses.  When the U.S. bishops score a "big win" with a Supreme Court decision granting them a unique "ministerial exception" to discriminate against marginalized minority groups, and when lawyers working for the bishops succeed in getting state courts to permit them to bully an organization working for survivors of sexual abuse, the church as a whole loses.

It loses its right to introduce compelling spirituality-based claims into public discourse.  It loses its right to credibility when it points to the gospels as the clear and primary source for its theological and moral claims in the public square.  It loses its right to appeal to conscience and cogent theological argument, as it presents its moral claims in the public square.

The church as a whole loses when its pastoral leaders choose force over persuasion as they seek to make "the" Catholic voice heard in the public arena.  And the church as a whole loses when its top officials seek to control, constrain, channel, and restrict the voices of theologians, who are those within the Christian community who have been given by the Spirit the charism to think about and formulate the church's moral and religious claims in a cogent way within particular culture frameworks.

From the time the top leaders of the Catholic church under Pope John Paul II and his right-hand man Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, began the reassertion of the Constantinean claims of the church in their reform of the reform, theologians have been under the gun.  Rather than welcoming their charismatic contribution to the Christian community, top church officials have sought in every way possible to stifle the witness of the Spirit to the community through the ministry of theologians.

And the results of this process of stifling the witness of the Spirit offered to the community through theologians and their ministry have been beyond dismal.  The last two papacies have effectively gutted the intellectual class within the church most equipped to carry the church into the new millennium via cogent, persuasive theological reflection.  The leaders of the church have relied on assertion backed by force to try to make their points in the public square, and not on well-reasoned theological analysis.

As a corollary to their decision to squelch the voice of the Spirit within the theological community of the church, the top leaders of the Catholic church are also actively working to rebrand Catholicism as a privileged enclave for heterosexual males--and, in this way, suppressing the witness and invalidating the contributions of women and gay and lesbian persons as much as they have suppressed the witness and invalidated the contributions of theologians.  The leaders of the church have made their decision to rebrand Catholicism as a country club for privileged heterosexual males on the basis of a cynical, non-gospel-based judgment that their strategy of using force rather than persuasion to carry the day is more likely to be upheld by heterosexual males than by any other groups within the church.

The upshot of these decisions to employ a strategy to revive the Constantinean arrangement in a post-Constantinean world, and to rebrand the church as an exclusive club for heterosexual (or pretend-heterosexual) men: the entire church is suffering and is withering on the vine.  Because the voice of the Spirit within the people of God is being stifled, restricted (by those who claim to interpret the Spirit's voice for the Catholic community at an official level) to a small minority within the Christian community--to church leaders backed by the heterosexual males they empower in an exclusive way at this point in Christian history.

Institutions that wish to have a bright future rely on the talents of everyone within the institution in order to make that future happen.  Institutions that are mission-driven seek to root their strategic decisions about the future in their mission.  Both of these statements should be true a fortiori in the case of the Catholic church, whose fundamental mission is to be an effective sacramental sign of God's love for all in the world.

The strategic decisions of the current papacy and its predecessor, which have been all about seeking to keep the Constantinean church alive through a reliance on raw power and force more than persuasion, do not bode well for the future of the Catholic church and the effectiveness of its work to proclaim its mission to the world at large in the 21st century.  

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