Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 30, 2012

Thoughts on "crossing the Tiber"

In recent years, several people that I personally know and admire have left Protestant denominations to become Roman Catholic, including an Episcopal bishop, a couple of scholars, and recently an Episcopal priest. (This move is familiarly and colloquially known as "crossing the Tiber.")

I am too much a child of the Reformation ever to entertain such an option for myself, but I think I understand why someone would do it. The great appeal of the Catholic church for crossovers is the magisterium, the Catholic teaching office. Even though many, probably most, modern Catholics—certainly in the United States—openly flout the church’s teaching on birth control, abortion, and, increasingly, homosexuality, no one seems to question the church’s right to teach what it believes. There is nothing remotely comparable in Protestantism. Protestant teaching in our time, taken as a whole, seems to be wildly untethered and undisciplined, and there seems to be nothing anyone can do about it.

Ross Douthat (a very interesting and very serious young Roman Catholic intellectual) has just published a book, Bad Religion, analyzing the breakdown of the religious consensus in America. I think I agree, more or less, with his general point of view, based on excerpts I’ve read. Protestantism in our country has almost completely ceased to matter in the public square unless you count the Tea Party. The “Christian Right” of today is a mere cul-de-sac compared to the days, fifty years ago, when the World Council of (Protestant) Churches really meant something, and its American branch, the National Council of Churches, played a significant role in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Gone, gone are those influences.

These thoughts are occasioned by a remarkable broadcast I heard a few days ago. I listen to the POTUS channel on satellite quite a lot (selectively—I don’t like Pete Dominic, but political commentator Llewellyn King is among the last of the old-school hyper-educated British polymaths, with an accent to match). On this particular afternoon there was an hour-long interview with Father James (Jim) Martin, a blogging Jesuit, on the subject of the Roman Catholic bishops’ statement about Paul Ryan’s budget. Congressman Ryan has invoked his devout Roman Catholic faith in recommending his plan. The bishops have risen up and the whole country has been required to take notice. There is nothing in Protestantism today that remotely compares to this sort of impact. When Paul Moore was the Episcopal bishop of New York in the late 60s and early 70s, his stature (literally and figuratively) fit the temper of the times, and his thunderings from the pulpit made copy. A few months ago, the Diocese of New York elected a new bishop, and there was not one word in The New York Times to note the event—so irrelevant have we become.

The Episcopal bishops today could not produce a document like the recent one from the American Catholic prelates. With all due respect, most of them are not as learned. The academic rigor required of Catholic clergy outstrips the Episcopal Church’s standards. The Catholic bishops are able to articulate their positions with reference to the great figures in their (and in some cases, our mutual) tradition. They understand their role and responsibility as teachers of the faith. There are only a few American Episcopal bishops who see themselves in this capacity.

The Jesuit in question, Fr. Martin, made a splendid case for Catholic social teaching, and though he spoke somewhat too colloquially for my taste, his presentation was powerfully persuasive. He explained how the “preferential option for the poor,” a central commitment in Catholic social teaching, has clearly made an actual, on-the-ground difference in the way that Catholics minister to the less fortunate.

What really struck me was Fr. Jim’s argument that you can’t have Catholicism “lite.” He was, indirectly at least, targeting the Tiber-crossers who love the magisterium when it supports traditional teaching about marriage and homosexuality, but ignore it when it goes against the economic policies of the Republican party. The bishops were able to state, bluntly, that Paul Ryan is simply wrong when he invokes the Catholic faith in the context of his budget, and they were able to say it with uncontrovertible authority. Their stand has been making news for days. From a Protestant perspective, one can only envy them this capability.

PS. A less felicitous development occurred at the same time as the American bishops’ statement. The Vatican leveled its magisterial guns against nuns who, supposedly, spend too much time helping the poor and fighting injustice, and not enough time opposing abortion and contraception. I must admit, this really shocked me. The pushback has been intense. I admire Nicholas Kristof’s defense of nuns, and his column is well worth reading: