Shaky, Not Stirring

What happens when Christians put more faith in modernity than they do in the Faith?

Jonathan Aitken, an Anglican, has penned a piece for The American Spectator praising the edgy, intellectual heights and depths of Rowan Williams and the late Cardinal Carlo Martini. The latter was not known to many non-Italian Catholics (at least on this side of the pond), I suspect, until after he died this past August and it was revealed, with much media furor, that he was critical of certain qualities exhibited by the Church in Europe. He stated, rather (in)famously, in an interview late in life, “The Church is 200 years behind the times”. This was top-grade catnip for the chattering classes, who immediately made Cardinal Martini a saint, prophet, and folk hero. (Russell Shaw ably critiqued the usual suspects in this September 2012 CWR article.)

Aitken is late to the party, but wants the tired band to play on. He writes that Cardinal Martini “shook up a heady intellectual cocktail for the Catholic Church before he passed away.” That’s certainly debatable. Making a splash and making a difference are, well, different. And an occasional fireworks display from the secular media does not equate in the least to serious—that is, meaningful, mature, and rational—discussion within the Church. But Aitken seems to think the dusk has fallen on the Catholic Church; yet a much stronger case can be made that the light of faddish, liberal Christianity is fast faltering, if only because it is (to switch metaphors in midstream) parasitical and the host, secular humanism, will only abide it while it is helpful.

But, before getting too far afield, here is Aitken outlining the impressive achievements of his two heroes:

The lives of Cardinal Martini and Archbishop Williams share common themes. Both have held the highest academic positions and been recognized as great scholars, having produced over 50 works of theology between them. Both are remarkable linguists—Martini spoke 11 languages and Williams speaks six. Their prelatical concoctions pack a punch, and both will certainly enliven the debates about the future of the world’s two largest churches

And, he adds, “Cardinal Carlo Martini, who died on August 31, was the best modern pope we never had.” It’s interesting, of course, to hear what an Anglican hopes for in a pope, keeping in mind that Anglicanism was the product of a king rejecting the papacy. (If I ever make the mistake of trumpeting my choice for king or queen of England, please chastise me promptly.) It appears that Aitken, not surprisingly, would prefer a pope who is, well, not really Catholic or papal; in short, someone like Williams.

Cardinal Martini, he notes approvingly, “was the counterweight to papal conservatism. On a crucial range of issues—contraception, homosexuality, family values, and the right to end life—he took popular positions that made him almost a leader of the opposition within the hierarchy of the church.” Or, in other words, he apparently took positions contrary to historical, traditional Catholic teaching. Agreed—those positions are certainly popular, most notably among those who have either renounced the Catholic Faith or large chunks of it. Shocking, that. Anyhow, this means Martini is deemed worthy of one of the greatest titles that can be granted a capitulating Christian: modernizer. The assumption is that being “modern”—which seems to ultimately fixate on loosening moral and marital bonds while lamenting the demands of traditional beliefs—is not just inevitable but enviable.

Williams is wonderfully brilliant and incredibly open minded, Aitken notes, yet has somehow managed to repeatedly mess things up, having openly “spoken with engaging self-deprecation about his sense of failure and frustration.” The departing Archbishop of Canterbury has not been able to bring unity to his “disparate flock” and has been “troubled by the impossibility of maintaining doctrinal unity.” Granted, Williams was dealt a difficult hand. As Monsignor Ronald Knox, who left Anglicanism in 1917 (and whose father was a Church of England bishop), once noted, “The Anglicanism of today, except where it is expounded by people definitely under the influence of the Oxford movement, simply does not possess enough of fixed background to allow for it being intelligently yet authoritatively taught.” Things have only gotten worse in the meantime. Aitken writes:

Williams feels his church has been “wrong” in its treatment of homosexuals but remains opposed to same-sex marriages. He supports women bishops but has been unable to make progress on this even within the comparatively open-minded Church of England. Nor has he been able to make any meaningful contribution to the dialogue between Islam and Christianity. In fact he made things worse, at least among his own faithful, by suggesting that Islamic Sharia law should be recognized by the courts.

So, other than being a failure, he’s been great! And that is exactly what the Catholic Church needs, if one follows Aitken’s puff its logical conclusion: an establishment pope who goes with the democrati—er, elitist—flow, regardless of tradition and truth.

In a recent First Things essay, “The High Price of Establishment”, Wesley J. Smith (an Evangelical, if I’m not mistaken), admits being “astonished” that Williams, after the failed attempt to usher in female bishops in the Anglican Communion, not “only bemoaned the failure in his farewell speech to the General Synod, but also insisted that the Church had betrayed its responsibility to reflect the sensibilities and values of the general culture.” The take-it-home-and-let-it-make-you-ill-quote goes like this:

“Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday,” Williams sternly lectured his flock, “whatever the theological principle on which people acted or spoke,” dissenters had to understand that their objection to woman bishops “is not intelligible to wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of wider society.”

Much could be said about what the brilliant but often failing Williams misses here. For instance, is the rejection of female bishops really an act of willful blindness to “the trends and priorities of wider society” or in fact the recognition that occasionally—yes, sometimes!—the tradition and teaching of what we might generally call orthodox Christianity is preferable to current fads? The serious danger with being a “modernizer”, it turns out, is that modernity not only seeks to direct and distort the faith, it can become the faith. Smith writes:

Here’s a further irony: Statues honoring Christian martyrs—including Martin Luther King—have been installed above the main entrance to Westminster Abbey. But what Christian was ever martyred for adhering to mainstream cultural values?

It is amazing that Rowan Williams, a widely respected scholar of Church history, would urge the church toward such a blatantly conformist course. Under his theory of fitting in, for example, should early Christians have attended the wildly popular gladiator games in order to prove they were not “blind” to the values of their culture? Rather than seeming aloof and intolerant, should they have participated in pagan feasts and consumed meat dedicated to idols? Heck, maybe they should have gone through the motions of emperor worship—such as famously required by Pliny the Younger and approved by Trajan—to avoid martyrdom.

I mean, dying rather than lighting incense to a statue? How “not intelligible to wider society.”

Smith is right, but is it really so “amazing” that Williams gets it wrong? After all, even his fans, such as Aitken, acknowledge that he gets much wrong. Begin with faulty premises and you’ll never be surprised when you arrive at faulty conclusions. Unless, that is, you never really test and evaluate your assumptions.

Meanwhile, it’s more than a little revealing that Aitken, in all of his talk of intellectual giants and popes—”we need spiritual leaders who are intellectuals of the highest stature”, he says—never mentions a pope who has published close to a hundred books—on a dizzying array of topics—and is widely acknowledged as the greatest pope-theologian of modern times. If you really want a “religious stirrer”, you cannot go wrong with Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. The current pontiff is well aware of what he calls the “dogma of relativism”, which presents active, orthodox Christian belief as narrow-minded, reactionary, and outdated. He knows, as he wrote in Truth and Tolerance (Ignatius, 2004) that “the belief that there is indeed truth, valid, and binding truth, within history itself, in the figure of Jesus Christ and in the faith of the Church is referred to as fundamentalism …” Much more has followed over the course of his pontificate.

So, it is Benedict who continues to address modernity with both directness and nuance. He is neither reactionary or capitulating, and he does not make the self-destructive mistake of preferring the “trends and priorities of wider society” over the teachings of Christ, the Tradition of the Church, and the intimate guides of faith and reason. His pontificate, to indulge Aitken’s metaphor, has been a bracing and exceptional drink, not shaken, but truly stirring.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.