Friday, August 15, 2003

Orestes Brownson and Homosexual Bishops

As thousands of blog-readers with blurry eyes can attest, I've spent the past week putting up Orestes Brownson's essay, "Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty" as a commentary on the elevation of Gene Robinson in the Episcopalian Church. Here is the index of those blogs:

Introduction to the Series

Part I: Thesis and Introduction

Part II: Why Constitutions Cannot Protect Liberty

Part III: The Survival of Liberty Requires Super-Human Virtue

Part IV: Why Only Religion Can Sustain Liberty

Part V: How Protestantism Is Inferior to Catholicity as a Guarantor of Virtue

Part VI: The Three Stages of Protestantism

Part VII: Why Protestantism Is Uniquely Dominated by Secular Influences

Part VIII: Why Only Roman Catholicism Can Protect Liberty

Part IX: The Limits of Catholicism's Superiority

Part X: Religious Implications, and Conclusion

I began the series with some commentary on why I find Brownson's thoughts so apt to the event, and what I'd like to do now is offer some concluding thoughts on the same subject.

While posting Brownson's essay I've been perusing the web, especially the blogging web, for reactions to the elevation of Gene Robinson as the Official Homosexual Bishop of the Episcopalian Church. I don't mind that Gene Robinson is a homosexual. Plenty of good Christians, even admirable ones like Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde, were and are homosexuals. Had Mr. Robinson ever genuinely taken holy orders, I wouldn't even mind if he were made a Bishop. I don't think homosexuality (or the more sanitized term "same-sex attraction") is a dogmatic obstacle to a godly priesthood or effective episcopacy, provided that Catholic teaching on chastity is well and fully observed. Even if Mr. Robinson were Catholic, homosexual, and unchaste we are -- as Protestants never tire of reminding us -- the bunch who put up the Borgia popes. It wouldn't really be consistent of us to become Donatists and repudiate ex opere operato just because another scandal-hog has donned a miter. As far as I can tell, this is the main opinion of all concerned -- none of the bloggers I've read really minds Robinson's active homosexuality or his episcopacy. What we mind, and what we ought to mind, is the dual consecration of Robinson's priesthood and sodomy as wholesome gems in the crown of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. That, not the sordid details of Robinson's forswearing his wife for a male lover, is the true and only scandal in this matter.

One of the reasons I find Brownson's essay an appropriate commentary is his explanation of why the outraged and sympathetic shock one sees in so many responses to Bishop Robinson is misplaced. There's nothing particularly abnormal in the ECUSA's decision; Protestants have been flogging the Bible to produce congenial sexual dogmata for half a millennia. Philip of Hesse wanted two wives simultaneously, Henry Tudor wanted six in sequence, and the Reformers were happy to oblige these royal urges with "unchanging, rock-solid" teaching from the perspicacious Word of God. When affluence, a low mortality rate, and a materialistic Zeitgeist combined to make contraception appear as a desirable normalcy the Anglicans were happy to give the bourgeois more "unchanging, rock-solid" Scripture authorizing their use of condoms, ointments, pills, and such other impedimenta to childbearing as might be provided by man's chemical and pharmaceutical ingenuity. When the sexualized impulsiveness of modern society showed that even those precautions would not suffice, and the comfort of bourgeois lives hung in the balance, Bible-believing Christians like the Methodists and Baptists were happy to sound the tocsin of sola scriptura and call for abortion on demand. Now, when the Gospel connection between family, childbearing and sexuality has been thoroughly eroded by centuries Reformed perspicacity, and bourgeois culture again presses for another logical vindication of its sexual appetites, we have homosexual Church-weddings and Officially Gay Bishops. The only shocking thing would have been Bishop Robinson's repudiation.

What else could explain this phenomenon but Brownson's observation of an essential difference between Catholicism and Protestantism:
Protestantism assumes as its point of departure that Almighty God has indeed given us a religion, but has given it to us not to take care of us, but to be taken care of by us. It makes religion the ward of the people; assumes it to be sent on earth a lone and helpless orphan, to be taken in by the people, who are to serve as its nurse.[1]
As I've said elsewhere, men are in a fallen condition and even after baptism, the effects of their prior state remain in the form of disordered passions, faulty reasoning, and a general disinclination toward sanctity. Therefore, a pastorage which tailors its witness to a lowest-common-denominator faithfulness will see that denominator sink lower, and lower, and ever lower, until all Christian life becomes utterly two-dimensional, a notional dot on a hypothetical plane, incapable of being seen by one's neighbors or even one's self:
The National Lutheran Youth Organization, an official youth office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), voted overwhelmingly to welcome people of all sexual orientations as members. Delegates also adopted a resolution supporting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate individuals of all sexual orientations in committed relationships. . . .

By a 91% margin, the youth organization also voted to be listed as a "Reconciling in Christ" organization with Lutherans Concerned/North America, an independent group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Lutherans, and one of the coalition groups of the Lutheran Alliance for Full Participation.

"The youth are clearly leading the way to full acceptance of GLBT
[Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and/or Transgendered] persons in the life of our church," said Jeannine Janson, Co-chair of Lutherans Concerned/North America. "They are modeling the ELCA as it will be; the question is simply when."[2]
The Episcopalians have produced a gay bishop, but the Lutherans will be even more fruitful, for they will produce a woman who had to undergo a sex-change operation before "he" could even become a gay bishop! Brownson's observation about the popular control of religion, an observation that perfectly describes the Protestant view of Christianity, is a recipe for all that has gone on before, and all that will come after, Bishop Robinson. Genetic manipulation, polygamy, incestuous marriages (between cousins, at first) -- within a century Protestant denominations will bless them all, and some of them will be inclined to bless even more.

If anyone is tempted to dismiss this prediction out of hand, he should refer to the fiery sermons preached by Protestant pastors against contraception and abortion during the 19th century (or against homosexuality in the 20th). He will find such great confidence and burning zeal that contraception, abortion, and homosexuality shall never gain a foothold among the disciples of Jesus Christ as to make him blush. Catholic moral theologians have taught from time past mind how the only natural human urge stronger than sexuality is self-preservation. If Christianity is to exert a worthwhile influence on Christians, it must be strong enough to still and restrain this powerful desire in the very hearts of those who are inflamed by it:
The only restriction on [the people's] will we contend for is a moral restriction; and the master we contend for is not a master that prevents them from doing politically what they will, but who, by his moral and spiritual influence, prevents them from willing what they ought not to will. The only influence on the . . . action of the people which we ask . . . is that which it exerts on the mind, the heart, and the conscience; -- an influence which it exerts by enlightening the mind to see the true end of man, the relative value of all worldly pursuits, by moderating the passions, by weaning the affections from the world, inflaming the heart with true charity, and by making each act in all things seriously, honestly, conscientiously.[3]
The only "type" of Christianity which can achieve this influence is one that defines and subordinates man's sexual nature to itself, independently of what men might want or like. It should be able to say to men, "What difference does it make if you never experience conjugal love? The drought will only last a lifetime, and beyond that time awaits a Love such as you have never imagined." But when Christianity is thought to have been committed into the sole custody of the people, to be supervised and taken care of by them, "self-preservation" becomes a non-issue because popular custody of the faith necessarily erases the difference between vox Dei and vox Populi. One is left with sexuality considered only abstractly, without reference to self-preservation, its place in life a simple question of achieving whatever idea of human fulfillment suits the custodians of the faith. It is no longer Christianity which demands of men, but men who demand of it, saying "It is a great injury to my happiness that I cannot experience conjugal love. What do we intend to do about that?" It's not a coincidence that within years of seizing custody of the faith from the "inauthentic" grasp of an infallible Pope, Old Catholics authorized clerical marriages and now agree with Protestants on the liceity of contraception and civil divorce. Even the Orthodox, who asserted a similar custody much longer ago, are openly flirting with the democratic passions for abortion, contraception, and divorce. Scripture gives us only one instance where the people had custody of Jesus Christ: "But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" John 19:15 (KJV).

"But there are," I can imagine someone saying, "Protestants who don't participate in this dynamic." It is true, of course, that the miraculous thing about Protestant communities isn't their ability to repudiate Catholicism, but rather the amount of Catholicism which they manage to retain. Orthodoxy is forfeit when one is separated from the Church, but one's conscience and the freedom of grace remain. The Baptists, shocked at the consequences of their earlier "Biblical" views, now give us (some) chapter and verse from Evangelium Vitae on the immorality of abortion and even the Methodist Church now calls for "a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion" before parents decide to hack up their little ones.[4] Such actions, conscientious though they may be, still prove that there's more than one way for people to express their enthusiastic interest in protecting and nursing the helpless orphan child of Christianity. That root problem remains, as it must, in a religion committed to the custody of the people:
Here, then, is the reason why Protestantism, though it may institute, cannot sustain popular liberty. It is itself subject to popular control, and must follow in all things the popular will, passion, interest, ignorance, prejudice, or caprice. This, in reality, is its boasted virtue, and we find it commended because under it the people have a voice in its management. Nay, we ourselves shall be denounced, not for saying Protestantism subjects religion to popular control, but for intimating that religion ought not to be so subjected. . . . The burden of their accusation will be, that we labor to withdraw religion from the control of the people, and to free it from the necessity of following their will; that we seek to make it the master, and not the slave, of the people. And this is good proof of our position, that Protestantism cannot govern the people, -- for they govern it, -- and therefore that Protestantism is not the religion wanted; for it is precisely a religion that can and will govern the people, be their master, that we need.[5]
However much Protestantism recoils at its earlier approval of, or slumbering indifference to, abortion on demand, it's still dominated by the same popular passions that compelled it to teach doctrines which logically produce abortion on demand. Marriage, it should be recalled, was desacralized as part of Protestantism's "de-incarnation" of Christian witness: "Christ may have to stay married to His Bride, but our spousal fidelity has nothing to do with that! No works-righteousness for us! We're saved by faith, faith in Christ's willingness to forgive our infidelities!" Divorce separates marriage from its Gospel purpose of witnessing to the indissoluble unity of Christ and His Church; once that separation occurs, what good reason is there for the fabric to remain only partly rent when we're next pressured to separate marriage from its Gospel witness to the fruitful unity of Christ and His Church? There's a reason Scripture repeatedly uses "adultery" to describe sin; if we can call the consequence of marital adultery a "blended family," there's really no reason why we shouldn't call blasphemy of the Holy Spirit's teachings on homosexuality "blended orthodoxy." Protestantism doesn't retain (or return to) Catholicity on sexual matters because it harbors an autochthonous wellspring of magisterial truth. It does so because even a glutton will occasionally feel compelled to put down his fork. When a Protestant community (temporarily) rejects open homosexuality, abortion, or putting grandma to sleep, it's not really saying "no." It's really saying "no more."

This brings me to my second puzzlement over the blogging world's reaction to the ECUSA's latest forkful, namely the helpful reading lists about Catholicity proposed for concerned Episcopalians. There seems to be a tendency to regard "recusant ECUSAns," Episcopalians who abhor their church's most recent token mounting of the Gospel, as a chastened remnant eager to be persuaded of Catholicism's merit. Why should we persuade them? From a motive of Christian charity, of course. But to serve this motive as well as we can, shouldn't we be sure to convey the idea that Catholicism isn't a better and more effective way to take charge of and supervise the Christian religion? Recommending Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua is fine and well, but shouldn't we be sure to point out the following passage:
From the time that I became a Catholic, of course, I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious, on my conversion, of any inward difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.[6]
This is the voice of a man under the yoke of a governing power, a power which belongs to him, but in which he has no "say" and over which he has no final control. It is a thing most abhorrent to the mind of Protestants, as one may easily tell from their tireless charges that we Catholics are mental slaves, deniers of our own reason, lemmings who abjure our own God-given right to decide for ourselves by referring every important question to the power of a priestly caste. Such accusations aren't the voice of Christian liberty. They're the braying of Neitzschean Ubermenschen who feel themselves capable of taking charge of Christ's religion, supervising and protecting it, ensuring its fitness for human consumption.

That kind of vanity is more than the substance of a warped theological tradition, it's a natural and deeply-rooted inclination of the human mind. That's why Protestants succumb to it even as they deny its influence -- it lurks beneath the surface of confessional life, like the lungs' breathing or the mind's ability to apprehend language:
"I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me . . . and am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever."[7]
.The more men think their contact with the Divine Mind in Scripture can't be threatened by the necessary and active participation of their unsaintly selves, the more likely they are to be giving their passions and prejudices free reign over and against God's word. Only true apprehension of the dangers inherent in a relationship with God ("And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." -- Genesis 32:30 KJV) can produce another result -- and that apprehension isn't the kind of man-degrading skepticism of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, but the wondrous fear which sings Psalm 8 ("What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?").

Catholicism is, so far as I know, the only Christian religion which has ever claimed a just power to restrict the people's access to, and use of, Scripture:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall -- in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine -- wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church -- whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures -- hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established.

And wishing, as is just, to impose a restraint, in this matter, also on printers, who now without restraint -- thinking, that is, that whatsoever they please is allowed them -- print, without the license of ecclesiastical superiors, the said books of sacred Scripture, and the notes and comments upon them of all persons indifferently, with the press ofttimes unnamed, often even fictitious, and what is more grievous still, without the author's name; and also keep for indiscriminate sale books of this kind printed elsewhere; (this Synod) ordains and decrees, that, henceforth, the sacred Scripture, and especially the said old and Vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever, on sacred matters, without the name of the author; nor to sell them in future, or even to keep them, unless they shall have been first examined, and approved of, by the Ordinary; under pain of the anathema and fine imposed in a canon of the last Council of Lateran.
Protestants enjoy citing this Decree as proof that Catholicism is the enemy of human freedom. They are, of course, quite right. Catholicism generally, and the Decree specifically, are indeed the enemy of the human freedom to let oneself loose on Scripture, to picnic on it, plundering it for "full acceptance of GLBT [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and/or Transgendered] persons in the life of our church." "For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean . . . While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage." 2 Peter 2:18-19 (KJV).

Scripture, as Protestants never tire of telling us, is the infallible voice of God. We agree, which is why the Church tells mankind that Scripture is beautiful and dangerous, full of "things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest . . unto their own destruction." 2 Peter 3:16 (KJV). Decrees like Trent's are badger skins, staves of shittim-wood: "Let not the tribe of the families of the Ko'hathites be destroyed from among the Levites; but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things." Numbers 4:18-20 (KJV). They are the laws of a religion with a healthy sense of awe in the presence of divinity and confidence in its own right to govern the passions which would otherwise destroy anyone who is unlearned or unstable. But once the people take custody of their religion, denying the existence of the ignorance or instability which require a governing hierarchy, they lose their sense of awe and walk boldly toward the burning bush with sandals on their feet and manifestoes in their hands.

We should do what we can to ensure that Episcopalians who may be interested in Catholicism understand all this, that Catholicism means putting an end to the freedom they have previously been accustomed to exercise in religious matters. If one converts to Catholicism he will no longer be a nominal, notional part of a democratic rulership entrusted with the guardianship of an orphaned Christ. The elites which govern him will at least be open and visible, not like the folksy cliques and invisible networks that truly dominate all "democratic" societies. But the princes and bishops of the Church will be there, ruling and commanding just as Orestes Brownson described so long ago:
[W]e have no security for popular government, unless we have some security that the people will administer it wisely and justly; and we have no security that they will do this, unless we have some security that their passions will be restrained, and their attachments to worldly interests so moderated that they will never seek . . . to support them at the expense of justice; and this security we can have only in a religion that is above the people, exempt from their control, which they cannot command, but must, on peril of condemnation OBEY. Declaim as you will; quote our expression -- THE PEOPLE MUST HAVE A MASTER-- . . . hold it up in glaring capitals, to excite the unthinking and unreasoning multitude, and doubly to fortify their prejudices against Catholicity; be mortally scandalized at the assertion that religion ought to govern the people . . . We care not. You see we understand you, and, understanding you, we repeat, the religion which is to answer our purpose must be above the people, and be able to COMMAND them. We know the force of the word, and we mean it. The first lesson to the child is, obey; the first and last lesson to the people, individually or collectively, is, OBEY; -- and there is no obedience where there is no authority to enjoin it.[9]
One of the most galling things to a possible convert is that none of this guarantees that his new bishop won't be an active homosexual, wink at active homosexuals in his administration, or aid and abet sexual criminals. As I observed in my introduction to this series, Catholic countries like Ireland may legalize abortion, but they don't do it with the blessings of the Church. Practically, that may be a small difference. But if one is to hope for the restoration of Christian sanity to our civilization, it's a difference that really matters.

A Catholic bishop has many powers to sin and foment sin, but the one power he does not have is the power to make sin into something good, to decree that vice is a virtue. The Weaklands, Laws, and O'Briens of Catholicism acted clandestinely because they couldn't change the theology by which they have been condemned. Had they been Episcopalians or Lutherans, they could have held a synod and made inclusive discoveries about the Gospel's "real" teaching on celibacy, homosexuality, and "cross-generational love." That such a project would have died aborning has less to do with the Vatican than what the Vatican represents -- a theological culture which a bishop cannot abandon without destroying the legitimacy of his own power to rule and be obeyed. Catholicism presides over this unique marriage of orthodoxy and power because it regards the faith as something which masters and commands everyone -- even bishops and Popes -- in a way that can't be envisioned or practiced if every man is effectively his own bishop, his own Pope, who joins a communion not because he has heard his master's voice, but because he has heard an echo of his own. "I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me . . . and am . . . on my guard against . . . being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever." [10] The difference I'm outlining may seem subtle to some, just as the difference between cohabitation and marriage seems subtle to many, but it is a difference which becomes obvious under stress. Unfortunately, stress is the permanent state of the Church Militant: "If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. John 15:19 (KJV). Communities in which the Gospel has been supposedly entrusted to the people are not marriages, but cohabitations. Under stress, the union cannot hold; it must either disintegrate or change its terms to alleviate the pressures tending to disintegration. A theologically-egalitarian community will always and inevitably allow the Zeitgeist, when it's strong enough, to write dogma.

"Oh this is ridiculous," I can hear someone saying to himself (I like to imagine that people read these essays, you see.) "What good reason can there be for chastising a Christianity that is ‘committed to the custody of the people' if the alternative is Christianity committed to the custody of a few people, namely your Popes and Curia, your bishops and magisterial authorities? It seems to me that few people would be equally, if not more, susceptible to the Zeitgeist than many, and even if they're not, all your scheme of ecclesiastical government does is confine the same phenomenon you find objectionable to the actions of a few rather than the actions of many." I'll address this in my next installment.


[1] Brownson's essay, Part V: How Protestantism Is Inferior to Catholicity as a Guarantor of Virtue

[2] Press release of Soulforce, a GLBT lobbying group. The text can be found here. The information is also on the official website of the National Lutheran Youth Organization, which can be found here.

[3] Brownson's essay, Part IX: The Limits of Catholicism's Superiority

[4] United Methodist Church, Book of Discipline, "Abortion." The entire text can be found here.

[5] Brownson's essay, Part VII: Why Protestantism Is Uniquely Dominated by Secular Influences

[6] John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The text can be found here.

[7] Alexander Campbell, quoted in Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 179. Campbell was a founder of the Church of Christ, a/k/a the Disciples of Christ.

[8] Council of Trent, Fourth Session, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures. The text can be found here.

[9] Brownson's essay, Part VIII: Why Only Roman Catholicism Can Protect Liberty

[10] Alexander Campbell, loc cit.

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