Thursday, April 04, 2013

Which way for the churches?

It's impossible not to notice that Christianity has been mostly captured by the left. The reality struck home for me in my recent efforts to find a relatively apolitical suburban Catholic parish. I failed. Every mass I attended had lines blurred between left-liberal causes and the Catholic religion.

That makes things awkward for us traditionalists. It's no use attempting to renew traditionalist communities but bringing with us a Christian culture that has become hostile to tradition.

The very opposite ought to be true. The clergy ought to be the most solid supporters of traditional communities.

So what has gone wrong? I'm not going to attempt to put forward a complete or systematic answer. I'll limit myself to a few thoughts and acknowledge at the same time that I am not an expert theologian.

The first observation I'd like to make is this: Christianity enjoins us to love man for the sake of God. That makes Christianity a certain kind of religion, one that encourages social commitment rather than an otherworldly withdrawal from society.

That's something that should be appreciated by traditionalists. It means that the "big picture" aspect of Christianity encourages us to care about what kind of society we live in and the kinds of goods that are promoted in that society. It discourages the option tempting to traditionalists, of finding a quiet place in the countryside where we can live the good life, without being concerned about what is happening to the larger society.

However, this social commitment aspect of Christianity can also appeal to the left. Furthermore, in scripture there are plenty of references to helping the most marginalised and to the particular virtue of showing love for the outsider. If you combine the social commitment with the identification with the other then you get something very like a left-liberal understanding of solidarity (one in which you show virtue by turning against your own in order to identify with the other). That then becomes a dissolving form of religion, as there is no longer a loyalty to the particular tradition you belong to.

And that is where we have to be very careful in the way that Christianity is understood. It is not that the left is making things up, but that they are running with a certain understanding of scripture that fits with their world view.

The leftist take on scripture isn't supported within Catholic tradition. In this tradition there is an "ordo caritatis" in which our obligations are ordered, with the closer relations taking precedence to those further out.

And that's the basic answer to leftist Christianity: that extending compassion and care to the marginalised or to outsiders does not extinguish the loves and the obligations that we have to those we are more closely related to.

However, I do want to make a criticism of the Catholic position (at least as I understand it). The Catholic position seems to be that the love we have for our family or our ethnic kin is a natural one, but that through the infusion of divine grace we are given a supernatural ability to love those we have no such natural inclinations toward, such as outsiders or the marginalised.

That perhaps explains why Catholic priests and bishops have collapsed on this issue. If you really believe this, then it will seem more distinctly Christian and more virtuous to prefer the marginalised and the outsider, as such feelings will be thought of as being more than natural - as being supernatural.

But I don't think the schema works very well. It seems to me to be a false division into natural and supernatural.

Let's look at the relationships more exactly. Is it really true, for instance, that the traditional family is founded on natural ties of affection and loyalty? The answer seems to be: yes and no. Certainly, there are natural instincts that bring men and women together to procreate and to attempt to ensure the survival of offspring. But these instincts can be expressed in different ways. For instance, there have been some societies in which women were allowed to follow an inclination to choose a variety of men to have sexual relationships with. With uncertain paternity, men then invested more in their sisters' children; the role of uncle was more important than that of father. Other societies have permitted older men with resources and status to follow an inclination to choose much younger women as additional wives.

So why then in the Christian tradition have we had monogamous marriage? It's not because this is simply a natural outcome that doesn't require any larger spiritual aspect. Instead it involves an ordering of natural inclinations through our higher conscience, our social commitments and our spiritual nature. Why, for instance, would an attractive, resource rich older male limit himself to his first wife? Does it not have to do with a ideal of love that is an expression of our spiritual being? Does it not have to do with our social commitment, in the sense of understanding that we limit ourselves for the good of the society we identify with? And why would men not lightly abandon one family for another? Does that not have to do with our higher conscience, in the sense of recognising paternal duties to our children?

The family as we know it is not simply a natural unit and therefore lesser to what might be thought of as spiritual. It survives at least in part through a kind of inspiration - through a process of higher valuing - that is a key role of the churches to promote.

And we can say something similar for ethnic kinship. It is not the case that the relationships we have to people we are ethnically related to are simply natural ones. Yes, there is a kind of natural form of identity with people we are closely related to in matters of language, culture, race, history and so on, But so too are there factors undermining such a loyalty, a key one being material self-interest (but there are others: a nihilistic urge to destroy, a desire to more easily control people by dissolving group loyalties, sectional interests such as dynastic or class ones, assertions of radical individualism based on pride or radical autonomy and so on).

People have long been aware of the natural forces pulling apart communal loyalty. The Australian Federation poets warned of a base materialism and of radical autonomy; George Essex Evans, for instance, wrote of the newly established nation:
The world's grey page lies bare today-
The rise of nations - the decay.
Will She, too, rise - and fall as they?

What shall it profit Her if we
Make gold our God, and strength our plea,
And call wild licence Liberty?
Unfortunately his warnings went unheeded: the forces pulling against a communal loyalty proved too strong.

So what then allows an ethnic kinship to survive? If you have natural inclinations pushing both for and against this kinship, what allows the baser ones - the materialism, the individualism, the managerialism, the sectionalism - to be suppressed so that the communal tradition can survive?

Again, this is where social commitment, higher conscience and human spirituality come into play. Human spirituality recognises the inherent good (a kind of communal soul) that is created over time within such communities. It also values the connectedness to generations past and present that exists within such communities. Social commitment means that people choose to place limits on their own material or sectional self-interests for the larger interests of the community. A higher conscience means that people feel a duty to the key institutions of the society; they might, for instance, be willing to make sacrifices within the family in order to raise a future generation.

Again, a church should set itself to promote this kind of sorting or odering amongst natural impulses; it should encourage the preferencing of commitment, conscience and spirituality rather than a falling into materialism, sectionalism and individualism.

Finally, there are the relationships we have to people we are not closely related to: toward people who are outsiders or marginalised in some way.

The point to be made here is a slightly different one. I suggested above that current theology tells us that our concern for such people is not a natural one and must therefore be a divinely infused supernatural one.

Again, I think this is at least partly false. I don't doubt that people are naturally more willing to make sacrifices for those they are more closely related to. I'm likely, for instance, to be more willing to put my life at risk to save my children than to save a stranger.

But we shouldn't exaggerate this. Is there really no natural feeling for the suffering of another human being, even if they are not family or ethnic kin? If I saw someone of another tribe or nation in need of medical attention and I had a phone to ring for an ambulance is it really unnatural for me to make the call?

Christianity does do a good job in forcefully reminding us that charity doesn't stop at home. It is right that it does so. But I would dispute the idea that the sacrifices men make every day as fathers are merely "natural" and unspiritual, whilst the occasional act we might make for someone we don't know is supernatural and therefore the proper focus and subject matter of a church.

A church ought to see to it that each form of relationship - family, ethnic kin and stranger - is rightly ordered, in the sense that natural inclinations are joined together with social commitment, higher conscience and spirituality to create the higher forms or expressions of these relationships.


  1. I wonder to what extent is priestly celibacy a factor? In the absence of spouses/children then it might be 'natural' for a Catholic priest to 'default' into leftist universalism than it might be for, say, a priest in the Orthodox tradition (who is probably married)?

    It's not an argument against celibacy (and I understand Orthodox bishops are celibate), but it might be another factor in the times we live in.

  2. I should think that the chief reason for leftist universalism among Catholic clergy is the fact that in Australia such clergy, like most single mothers, depend entirely upon government subsidies in order to survive. In other words, they are welfarism's bitches.

  3. Well, the Roman Catholic church has always interpreted the Bible very liberally, and also added their own 'tradition' to it, tradition which nullifies whichever part of the Bible it contradicts. So it's no surprise that, since they've invented their own religion apart from Scripture (taking a lot from the pagan cultures that they converted) that they would still be doing the same today. It's just more obvious now.

  4. Laura,

    What I wrote of the Catholic Church applies even more so to the mainstream Protestant ones.

    There's a temptation for religious conservatives to agree that liberalism is a problem in society but to respond that the answer is simply their own denomination of Christianity.

    I can't readily accept that answer because I think the culture of Christianity has been shifted in a certain direction that is dissolving of society.

    And it's not that this modernist Christian culture is entirely unscriptural. It runs with certain aspects of scripture whilst overlooking others.

    It's a wave that seems very difficult for the clergy to resist, perhaps because it ties in with values and assumptions within the secular society.

  5. Neil,

    Although I disagree that the government subsidies are the main reason for the leftward turn, it's true that this is an issue.

    It must be more difficult for the Church to take a stand against government policies when the Church has become reliant on government subsidies for its schools, hospitals, charities and so on.

    The Church in Australia has a vast government subsidised educational network which it then allows to be dominated by a liberal ideology rather than a Catholic culture. Catholics get to send their children to a Catholic school, but if they're realistic they'll understand that the children will be brought up within these schools to follow a left-liberal orthodoxy.

  6. O'Neill, celibacy isn't a factor.

    Celibacy is on the same plane as virginity and chastity. These are quite traditional masculine forms of sexuality.

    It's either marriage or celibacy.

  7. Laura Elizabeth, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are less heretical, modern or liberal than most Protestant denominations (be they mainline denominations or evangelicals). They do have their own problems, but it's a different type of baggage (though striking similar to Protestant baggage in some sectors).

  8. Laura, methinks that the sola scriptura of protestantism contributed more greatly to the foundations of the left's view. Even Luther himself wasn't impressed with the rapidity with which every fool believed he understood what message was being conveyed in the bible through personal reading of scripture. As for the pagan element in catholicism I don't think it is as bad as you think. It was more along the lines of codifying the strong emphasis on family etc, especially for the northern peoples. Deities becoming saints and temples becoming churches are a reality of conversion activity (and conquering). Actually, impetus for the reformation was in some part due to the fact that many rural parts of Europe were found to be semi-pagan still. Let the whole facade burn I say and let's see what Phoenix rises from the ashes.

  9. Its easy to forget all the good that has come from the Catholic Church over the centuries. Who knows how many new people and lapsed souls it has brought into the fold and its intellectual contributions are ongoing. In recent decades the Catholic Church may have received a shot to the head, but the Protestant denominations are already lying on the mat, beaten down and unwilling or unable to help their Christian brethren.

    The current problems have nothing to do with the issue of celibacy - that is a sideshow. It is the spiritual malaise that is common among the laity and to some degree the Church leadership. And if the Catholic Church compromises on those issues which it shouldn't, it won't make it more hospitable to miscreant outsiders, it will provide the opening through which they will try to storm through to finish the job.

  10. An interesting pattern about 'liberal' churchgoers: they preach love and support and are more than ready to condescend and serve those they believe are inferior to them.

    But under no circumstances will they serve those who they either believe are superior or whom it appears so.

    What does this mean?

    I think it has a lot to do with Peter Hitchens recent comment:

    "We were all in favour of as much immigration as possible.

    It wasn't because we liked immigrants, but because we didn't like Britain. We saw immigrants - from anywhere - as allies against the staid, settled, conservative society that our country still was in the Sixties."

    It was ALL about what he hated:

    The citizen of the first world often finds that he seems to belong less in his own country than the refugees flooding it.


  11. The New Testament supports a hierarchy of charity in several ways. First, a widow is to be taken care of by her own relatives before expecting the church to take care of her, even though taking care of widows is a prime area of church benevolence. See 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Also note in that passage that widows supported by the church were to engage in almost constant prayer as a ministry of the church, so that they were employed by the church in a sense and were not just passive recipients of charity.

    Second, the church was to take care of Christians especially, before worrying about taking care of those outside the church (who are too numerous for the limited resources of the church, unlike the few members who need assistance). In the famous "bear one another's burdens" passage in Galatians 6:1-10, the entire context is within the church, and it culminates with the statement in verse 10 that "we must work for the good of all, especially those who belong to the household of faith."

    No church, and no society, has the resources to care for the needs of the entire world. A hierarchy of responsibility must therefore be established, and it can be seen in these passages.