Asking the Right Questions   Leave a comment

Kurt Willems has an excellent interview with Chris Haw over at his Pangea blog. The interview is about Chris’s book about his coversion to Catholicism. Since I’ve been heading in the other direction, I thought the interview would make an excellent subject for a post.  

Kurt begins by asking Chris about how his (Chris) almost anabaptist convictions square with his Catholicism. Chris  points out that some influential anabaptist thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas identify with Christian tradition as a whole, and denies any essential contradiction between Catholicism and the aspects of his faith that inspired his previous work.

Kurt follows up by asking if it is ever appropriate to push against church tradition. Chris admits to finding some Catholic documents weak or insufficient, but finds this insufficiency worth preserving church unity. He then mounts a counter argument, quoting Chesterton as he goes.

“It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of [religious] authority are like people who attack the police without ever having heard of burglary.”

He then goes on to list various heresies and the various valued aspects of Christianity they threatened. He rounds off the argument in this way:

Now, its obvious that in some of these cases, the Catholic Church responded in a way that was far harsher than we would ever hope today. But we are partly judging the 5th century (or others) by the 21st century; a strategy about as harsh as saying, “if we had lived in the time of the prophets, we would not have murdered them” (a claim which Jesus denounces as false pride, and harsh judgmentalism).

I think this is, in most ways, a fair case. We probably would have murdered the prophets, but this case ignores the fact that the Catholic Church certainly murdered prophets as well. I’ve read some of the interrogations from persecution of protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor, and it is quite clear to me that some of the victims barely understood the theological disputes they were embroiled in. But they were firmly committed to living and praying a certain way, and thus were executed.

Chris argues for the preservation of church unity while ignoring how divisive the Catholic Church was and is, and he argues for a policeman while ignoring how many crimes happened not just under the eyes of, but frequently at the behest of the Catholic Church. The heresies that Chris condemns were not defeated by Christian charity and nonviolent resistance, nor even by something as blunt as argument or demographics. The heretics were supressed by violence and the threat of violence. Without state power to back it, the Catholic Church has managed to outlive some heresies, but it has policed none of them.

But Chris has anticipated some of this:

But, in all, I’d like folks to reflect on how their “anti-hierarchicalism” fails to consider how there are plenty of things worth kicking out of the Church. That it should be done, there should be little disagreement; how to do it is the hard part. (And if someone declares that hierarchy is the thing to be kicked out, we might then ask, by who? By what method would such egalitarians police the appropriate levels of egalitarianism? Its tricky.)

That’s a tough question. And it’s one that I don’t have an answer to. But identifying a tough question and finding a suitable solution are two very different things. I may have to worry about what to do with bigots in my church, but I do not have to worry about bigots with formal church authority over my conscience. And I don’t believe that Chris can say the same thing.

The next interview question has to do with Chris’ reaction to Catholicism’s stand on Just War Theory. Chris brings this back to ecclesiology as well, ending his response with:

While we never painted this tradition-preference with Catholic tones, we had a tone of refusing schism, of refusing to start a new “radical” church over and against the old one. We instead highlighted a path of refurbishing and participating in the crappy Church Peter handed down. That boundedness of the Body is a Catholic dogma that I heartily embrace and promote.

And here we see the inconsistency of the “preserving church unity” argument for Catholicism. I didn’t leave the Catholic Church because of the sex abuse scandal. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t participate in a church that condemned contraception. I left the Catholic Church because I thought it would be disrespectful to stay. I don’t mind being a dissenter in a church. My beliefs are different enough I expect to be dissenting wherever I go. But my Catholic upbringing lead me to believe that the Catholic hiearchy and a good number Catholic laymen would mind me being a dissenter in their Church. So I left.

I respect Chris’ desire to have both unity and some way to define what is not acceptable. I think, with the grace of God, it might be possible to have both. But you will not have both in the Catholic Church as it is currently constituted.

The interview ends with a question about the Catholic Church’s all-male hierarchy. Chris gives another Chesterton reference, which I now realize is a punt.

So many of my liberal friends wax nostalgically about “native religion”; but the natives were more democratic than we enlightened by modernity; for they included their ancestors in the voting process. Catholic tradition, as Chesterton penned, is the democracy of the dead. And democracy is always disappointing for many participants.

Except that we don’t really include our ancestors in the voting process. Their slavery, their torture, and their misogyny we denounce and ignore. Aquinas’ views about the proper role of women in society are not simply voted down, they are not consulted in the first place. This particular argument for tradition simply begs the question of which ancestral votes count and why?

The Catholic Church poses the right questions, and I think it poses them so compellingly that most people don’t get to the point of examining its answers. They’re questions that still trouble and haunt me, and leaving the Church has done nothing to resolve them. But asking the right questions is of no use at all if all your answers are wrong.


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