Category Archives: Roman Catholicism

The one true church of the Apocalypse, or the harlot of Revelation? You decide.

Texas A&M Newman Association 1975-6

I’ve alluded to my years in the Catholic Students Association in pieces like this.  Now you can get a little more flavour of what that was like in the following video.

Thanks so much to Jeanne Geidel-Neal for the music for this video.

As noted elsewhere, the “straight outta Irondale” folks won’t like this, but that’s true of a great deal on this blog.

The “Arabs” of Thomas Aquinas Weren’t Arabs At All

Returning to the site Ite ad Thomam, I saw an advertisement for the “Annual Fall Workshop on Aquinas and the ‘Arabs'” at Marquette University (not, these days, an ideal venue for such a traditional Catholic conference.)  For someone like myself who started the Summa as an undergraduate and finished it as a PhD candidate, it looks to be interesting.

The two main scholars from the Islamic world that Aquinas cites are Avicenna and Averroes.  The first thing the conference needs to establish is that neither of these two worthies are Arab, although they certainly wrote in Arabic.

Avicenna (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā) was Persian.  Having spent five years with Persian scholars, I can tell you that they’re a world apart from their Arab counterparts.  I’ll go a step further: if there is an “Islamic Civilisation,” it’s Persian, not Arab.

Averroes (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd) lived in Moorish Spain.  His family was prominent under the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty of Berber origin, from North Africa.  Some Berbers at least are very defensive about being called “Arabs.”

As an aside, Averroes’ chief opponent, Al-Ghazali, was also Persian.  About ten years ago I dealt with the difference between Al-Ghazali and Aquinas; it remains an often visited piece on this site.

So perhaps this will be the first order of business of the conference.   Such differences may seem trivial, but if they and others were better understood–especially by those making the decisions these days–our world would be a better place.

When One Steals From A Church, One Sins Twice

Never gave this much thought, but from the “Ite ad Thomam” site:

So stealing from a church is actually two sins, theft and sacrilege? Or is it still one – sacrilegious theft?

Two sins.  And both have to be confessed.  In other words, it’s not enough to say merely “I stole something from a building,” or “I committed sacrilege at the church”; one has to confess having stolen from the church, both theft and sacrilege.  And so with other acts that involve multiple species of sin, as when one does one bad thing for the sake of another.

Something to think about…

Sometimes It Pays to Think

Like in this, from A.B. Bruce’s The humiliation of Christ, about Eutyches, the Monophysite fanatic:

It is plain from those representations that Eutyches had no distinct definite conception of the constitution of our Lord’s person. He felt rather than thought on the subject of Christology. He did not pretend to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation, but rather gloried in proclaiming its incomprehensibleness. He knew that God and flesh were altogether different things, and he believed that Christ s flesh was real; but the divinity bulked so large in his eye, that the humanity, in comparison, vanished into nothing. And if compelled by fact to admit that the humanity was still there, not drunk up like a drop of honey by the sea of the divinity, he refused, at all events, to regard it as on a level with ordinary humanity: reverence protested against calling Christ s divine body consubstantial with the bodies of common mortals.

The result of this was a mess:

It would have been well had the course of events permitted such a man to pass his life in obscurity. But it was otherwise ordered. Eutyches became the representative of a theory which engaged the attention of three Synods ; being condemned by the first, approved by the second,  and re-condemned and finally disposed of as a heresy by the third, the famous (Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon…)

The criticism Bruce levels against Eutyches has also been directed against the Orthodox in general.  Unfortunately Eutyches’ approach has its counterparts in other parts of Christianity.  And, in this emotionalistic age we live in, even the “rational” places are driven by the same kind of lack of thinking.

My “Journey” with Jürgen Moltmann

Diving for stuff in a discard bin isn’t the classiest way to spend one’s time, but for the academic diving in the free book bin at the used book store can be a true adventure. (Diving in the dumpster may be a necessity for the adjunct academic, and the new overtime rules don’t help a bit.) As I have mentioned from time to time, I count seminary academics as friends, and they have introduced me to authors (especially Protestant ones, although Henri Nouwen keeps coming up) I hadn’t read before. So it was an opportunity when one of those authors—the German Jürgen Moltmann—turned up in the bin. I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking a look.

Moltmann is a Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University Tübingen. But he has also spent time on this side of the pond: he was the Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied, however, at Göttingen University.

Göttingen! The name rings clear with people in mathematics and the sciences. It’s hard to conceive of a greater single explosion of scientific brilliance and advancement than that at Göttingen. The names of those who studied or taught there are legendary: Gauss, Riemann, Hilbert, Dirichlet, Born, Oppenheimer, Planck, von Neumann, Pauli, Dedekind, Courant, Dirac, Fermi, Heisenberg, Prantl, Runge, Teller, Weisbach, and so on. The Nazi purge of the place was the beginning of the suicide of the Third Reich. So how does their theology result compare with this one?

The book I found, Religion, Revolution, and the Future, came from another one of his forays onto this continent. Not a true, cover-to-cover monograph, it is a series of his lectures at various institutions in the late 1960’s. This is not meant to be a comprehensive book review or synopsis of the work, but some observations at his idea and how he shows (or more accurately doesn’t) its implementation.

He makes some pithy observations that bear repeating. His thought about revolutions (and by those we’re primarily looking at the Marxist ones) is that they are more about trying to recreate a past ideal and not to create a future reality. That’s not easy to see; it certainly wasn’t when Moltmann delivered these lectures, although those of us who have spent time in such societies got that feeling. He is also aware that these revolutions, far from bringing the freedom that they promised, often ended up with results no more satisfactory than those in capitalist countries. That’s a major concession that needs to be recalled, especially in these days of people “feeling the Bern.”

If there is one idea that he wants to get across, it’s his “theology of hope,” derived from Ernst Bloch. Now you’d think that eternal life in Jesus Christ would be hope enough. But Moltmann doesn’t find this satisfying; indeed, he finds it escapist and decidedly “retro.” What he wants to do is to focus this hope on the improvement of the world, and thus turn the attention of Christians toward the future and away from just the past. To be fair, he’s not the first Christian thinker or theologian to deflect the centre of attention from the eternal goal; N.T. Wright does much the same thing, albeit in a different (and, IMHO, a better but not ideal) context. Although it’s self-focused for its adherents, you could say that prosperity teaching is another way of channeling Christian emphasis on this world. Moltmann isn’t unique in positing that modern (for him, the book comes before the advent of post-modernity) man cannot be swayed solely by eternal reward, it has been the pre-occupation of Christian leaders for a long time now.
The problem comes with Moltmann’s assumption that the Christian focus on hope and improvement for this world would come with Christians cooperating with other, more secular people to achieve the goal. This is one of the key weaknesses of liberal theology, that Christianity is a universal philosophy only to the extent that it meshes with those systems of thought and being around it. What happens is that, the process of this coöperation, Christianity loses its distinctive advantages and purpose. This has resulted in Main Line churches bleeding membership on both sides of the Atlantic; they become waystations for those headed for some form of secularism. In that respect Roman Catholicism, with its own self-contained universality, is in better position to endure this kind of then than Main Line Protestantism, although it’s perfectly capable of throwing away the advantages it has.

He also, to use the Liberation Theology phrase, wants the church to take the “preferential option for the poor” in its life and work. As I’ve discussed before, the “preferential option for the poor” and “preferential option of the poor” aren’t the same, and Moltmann (along with many in his day and even now) is blindly unaware of that fact. In conjunction with that, his world is totally Main Line; he totally ignores the rise of Modern Pentecost, which specialises in the latter. He wasn’t alone; Harvey Cox had to backtrack and write Fire From Heaven: The Rise Of Pentecostal Spirituality And The Reshaping Of Religion In The 21st Century after The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. Here is a place where Christian social action can be both distinctive and more effective than its secular counterpart.

One place where Moltmann should read his own stuff is the issue of theodicy. On the one hand, he sighs that the terrible wars of the last century have put the issue of theodicy out of reach. That’s been a common sentiment of Europeans who went through these wars; it has been a big push in the decline of Christianity in Europe. In the 1980’s my mother had an English S.O. who became an atheist because of his experience in World War II; the effect was different over here. On the other hand, Moltmann points out that modern man is now the master of his own destiny. Then why did he allow these wars to happen? Why were humans out to lunch on this? This may not answer the theodicy issue to Moltmann’s satisfaction, but it should (usually doesn’t) give humanists pause as to the superiority of their idea.

I think it best to skip a detailed analysis of his theology, which is wanting at many points. Seminary academics are notorious for dense prose of very limited meaning, and Moltmann is certainly up to that task. To be fair, some of his talks are easier to follow than others. One is never sure with such people whether they think they are dealing with objective reality or not, or even whether they fully grasp the difference.

One place where Moltmann’s theology could use some help from the mathematicians is the issue of imminence vs. transcendence, which is a favourite occupation of theologians. Since the days of Dedekind and Cantor (who was inspired by mediaeval theologians) we’ve had reasonable ways of describing the infinite which could be very helpful in this matter. Moltmann is aware of this but is either unable or unwilling to avail himself of this kind of thinking.

Overall, I found going through his talks an education. It made me look at liberal theology in a different way, if not in a more favourable one. As far as Göttingen people are concerned, I’ll stick with the list I gave at the start and leave Moltmann to the liberal seminary academics.

Pope Francis and Two-Way Ignorance

Pope Francis isn’t much of a fan of things American these days, but his visit to this country was a revelation:

Prior to his election Francis had never set foot in the United States, making him the only pope in the last eighty years other than St. John XXIII who had never been to America before taking office…People close to Francis also say his U.S. trip last year helped him to better distinguish between ordinary Americans and “the system.”

But when another world leader discovered something, the evaluation was different:

Latin Americans also tend to have long memories, and many still recall moments such as Ronald Reagan’s famous reaction upon returning from a 1982 trip to the region: “You’d be surprised … they’re all individual countries.” The fact that national differences could strike a U.S. president as a revelation still rings in Latin American ears as proof of our capacity for condescension.

What I think we’re looking at is two-way ignorance.  There’s a lot that people in the U.S. need to learn about Latin America, but the converse is also true, as we see with His Holiness.

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. has always been a complicated one, from stuff like this to this.   And the rise of obsessively sex-driven liberalism will only make it worse.

You Really Can Do Biblical Preaching From a Lectionary

Recently my wife and I ventured to Regent University for me to deliver a paper.  While there we got the chance to view one of the University’s new acquisitions, namely a Torah scroll from Yemen.

torah-regentThe fact that a Christian university could acquire such a donation is a sign of the times: Evangelicals are about the only reliable Gentile group the Jews have for support, in spite of the attempt by BDS types to worm their way into the system.

A New Testament passage that prominently features a synagogue reading (not from the Torah) is this one:

Coming to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, Jesus, as was his custom, went on the Sabbath into the Synagogue, and stood up to read the Scriptures. The book given him was that of the Prophet Isaiah; and Jesus opened the book and found the place where it says– ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, For he has consecrated me to bring Good News to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, To set the oppressed at liberty, To proclaim the accepted year of the Lord.’ Then, closing the book and returning it to the attendant, he sat down. The eyes of all in the Synagogue were fixed upon him, And Jesus began: “This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 TCNT)

The curator noted that, when Jesus was asked to read from the scroll, the reading was not of his immediate choosing, but came from a cycle of readings–a lectionary–that the synagogues employed.  He was told what to read, he read it and then interpreted it (not entirely to their liking, I might add…)

Lectionaries are the stock in trade of liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican/Episcopal churches, Orthodox churches and the like.  But Evangelicals avoid such constraints like the plague.  A good example of this came to me when I was in undergraduate school at Texas A&M.

One of the nice things that ministerial associations promote is pulpit exchanges, where ministers from different churches preach in other places.  For a Catholic church, this can be problematic, but in the 1970’s things were easier.  Our exchange was with a Baptist church; the Baptist pastor and our priest were good friends, shown by their mutually swelling waistlines.  (Gluttony, I might point out, was a sin for the Catholic, but a way of life for the Baptist.)

So the time for the Gospel reading came, and the Baptist preacher got up and, ignoring the fancy three-year lectionary cycle introduced by the Novus Ordo Missae, read from John 15.  His subsequent sermon on “love one another” was different: he observed that “the Aggies love the Aggies and the Catholics love the Catholics, but the Baptists don’t always love the Baptists.” (Subsequent experience would bear that out.)  That alone was probably worth the side trip from the lectionary, but it still was a side trip.

As was the case here, Evangelicals are loath to follow any kind of lectionary or reading pattern for the Scriptures. There are two main arguments against the practice.

First, some will say that it smacks of “formalism,” which is their objection for the liturgical concept.  But there’s no evidence that using a lectionary is a more “formal” way of doing things than doing it ad hoc every Sunday.

Second, Pentecostals and Charismatics will argue that it “blocks the move of the Spirit” if they are forced to preach out a set pattern of the Scriptures.  However, if it was good enough for Our Lord to not only read from a lectionary but to proclaim the fulfilment of prophecy, are we any better?

The major downside of doing it without a lectionary–assuming, of course, the lectionary is comprehensive in its coverage of the Scriptures–is that our ministers tend to develop a very limited repertoire of scriptures and sermons.  And didn’t Our Lord having something to say about repetition?

And, of course, special occasions pretty much demand a lectionary type of choice.  The first funeral I ever helped preach was for a former employee down in Georgia.  We got to the graveside, and the credentialed minister actually asked me what scripture to use.  (The answer can be found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.)

So my advice to Evangelicals and Pentecostals is this: don’t disparage those who follow a lectionary, it just might improve what you are doing.

Revisiting the Catholicism of “Christ Among Us”

Educating new Christians in the basics of the faith has always been an important task of the Church.   A few years back I featured a series on Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, which date from the fourth century.  Evangelical churches can be very casual about the whole business, their reputation for dogmatism notwithstanding.

With Roman Catholicism, things are a little more involved.  Roman Catholic doctrine and thought is enormously complicated; it can be a lot for the novice to absorb.  The approach here too has varied.

For many years American Catholics were inculcated using the famous Baltimore Catechism.  Vatican II pretty much left this behind.  When I first revealed to my parish priest that I was interested in becoming Roman Catholic, he gave me Martin Farrell’s Parish Catechism. You can see an earlier edition of this here; the one he gave me had the obligatory hat tips to Vatican II, but the content was essentially the same.  Farrell was succinct and clear: you knew what the Church that followed it expected out of you, and that was fine with me.  I reviewed it, told him I was good with it and made the Profession of Faith.

Today, of course, it’s different: we have the RCIA, a multi-year voyage which includes the sprawling Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This document is the stuff of legend among conservative Catholics.  We have, for example, the spectacle of Al Kresta, who strolls to his talk show microphone with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in one hand and the New York Times in the other.  (Let’s hope his helpful staff has put the coffee on his desk in advance.)

Between the two was the stuff of another legend: Anthony Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us.  First published in 1967, when I got involved in the Texas A&M Newman Association, I found it was “all the rage.”  One friend had it read at his wedding.  Echoes from it can be found in the Catholic folk music of the era.  It was used frequently in study and, when I got to Dallas, I found myself using it in my high school CCD class.  Since then it’s fallen out of favour.  But what was the appeal?  And did (and does) it deserve the adulation?

The subtitle of the book is “A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith.” Both its strengths and weaknesses stem from that premise.

Its Strong Points

  • It makes being Catholic out to an adventure.  And, truth be told, in the 1970’s being Roman Catholic (for me at least) was both fun and an adventure, more so than before or since.
  • It really is a readable and easy to follow presentation of Catholic theology, doctrine and life.
  • It attempts to present the essentials of the faith without making the accretions to Catholic life essential in themselves.  To put it another way, it did not make the sacramentals that characterised pre-Vatican II Catholicism a necessity to arrive at the sacraments.  This, probably more than anything else, set the traditionalists’ teeth on edge.
  • Probably the best part of the book is “Our Christian Presence in the World,” where Confirmation is discussed.  Although not a Charismatic book, it actually adopts a “power to witness for Christ” view of the infusion of the Holy Spirit, something I would find again when I worked for the Church of God.

Its Weak Points

  • It brings in a rogues gallery of modern Catholic thinkers such as Kung, Schillebeecx, and Teilhard de Chardin.  (To its credit it also brings in John McKenzie; it also brought up a name I hadn’t heard in years, namely Michel Quoist.)
  • It works under an implied assumption that the supernatural work of God in the past has been superseded by our own work.  That’s the defective assumption behind the “Contract on the Episcopalians,” and it doesn’t work any better in Roman Catholicism than it does in the Anglican-Episcopal world.  That, of course, leads to its emphasis on social justice work.  I’ve discussed the problems of Roman Catholic social teaching in the past; this book doesn’t do anything to solve those.  The Charismatic Renewal could have helped to bring the supernatural and the temporal together better, but it got bogged down in authority issues and other problems.
  • It frequently implies that the practical magisterium of the church will shift from the bishops to the academics and lay people.  That, of course, hasn’t happened, and many of the changes they hoped for haven’t happened either.  In Mainline Protestantism, the seminaries have been the main source of trouble, eventually rolling both bishop and lay person alike.
  • Its presentation on which sins break the relationship with God and which sins don’t is mushy.  It studiously avoids for most of the book the terms “venial” and “mortal” sin, even though these are central to the whole Catholic penitential idea.

Probably the most objectionable point in the book takes place in (where else?) its discussion of sex and marriage:

Some couples feel that they have a deep, mature and permanent commitment t one another before the marriage ceremony–and often it has its consummation in the sexual union–and in the judgement of the couples this is not wrong.  Their permanent, unconditional commitment (not the instability of trial or companionate marriage) draws them to a fuller expression of their love.  Priests who are counselling couples, while they must present the Church’s ideal regarding this, also realize that what is a beautiful and attainable ideal for one couple may be deeply frustrating and disruptive for another.  Each couple, in dialogue with God, will have to do what they are capable of. (p. 323)

So how do we look at Christ Among Us on balance?  I think the concept is a good one, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  If it were “tightened up” in places, we’d have a real winner.  Unfortunately the drift with many “modern” presentations is outside of Christianity, and that occupational hazard pokes its head out more than once in this book.

The traditionalists, buoyed by the pontificate of St. John Paul, had their knives out for Christ Among Us.  In 1984, after a two-year letter writing campaign, the future Pope Benedict XVI ordered Newark Archbishop Peter L. Gerety to remove his imprimatur from the book.  This move, nearly unprecedented, pushed its publication to a secular house and made its use problematic for parishes.  Combined with the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church later in the decade, the book largely went out of currency in catechetical work.

And as for me?  Personally I’m glad my years as a Roman Catholic saw my intellectual formation with the Fathers, Aquinas and writers such as Bossuet and Pascal and not Christ Among Us.  I am also glad that my spiritual formation came through not only the influence of this book but of the Charismatic Renewal.  Unfortunately the combination created a “new wine in old wineskins” problem with Catholic parishes I was a part of after undergraduate school that lead to the inevitable burst.

Where I teach, one of the Dean’s secretaries was a Third Order Franciscan.  She noted that the Catholic parishes in this area had a low view of spiritual formation, with few opportunities for growth.  That’s not restricted to this area, sad to say.  Christ Among Us was an attempt to do something about that and, although it leaves something to be desired of, so does the current state of spiritual life at the parish level.

 

When the Catholic Faithful Were Not Allowed to Vote

If you listen to Catholic commentators–especially conservative ones–you’ll hear about the obligation of the faithful not only to vote but to vote for the proper person, i.e., one that is pro-life, etc., and that it’s a sin to fail to do so.

But there was a time when the Church had a less roseate view of voting, and in one case wouldn’t allow its people to vote at all.  But a little history is in order.

I005_Papal_States_Map_1870Italy, unlike the UK or France, was relatively recent to unify.  Before that time it was a collection of small countries, one of which were the Papal States, under the direct rule of the Vatican.  (See map to the right.)  They literally cut the Italian peninsula in half.  When unification first took place in 1860, most of the Papal States (the pink part on the map) were made a part of Italy, so the bisection problem was solved.  But then there was Rome…that was annexed against the will of the newly infallible Pope Pius IX in 1870.  He became a “prisoner” in the Vatican.

Needless to say, the Pope (and his successors) were not happy with this situation.  One of their responses, as Daniel-Rops points out in A Fight for God, was the following:

What attitude could Catholics adopt to counter this offensive? They might, like the German Zentrum, have joined battle in the parliamentary field; but Pius IX would allow no such course.  When asked by some of the faithful what they should do at elections, he stood firm by his principle of completely ignoring the monarchy, and directed the sacred penitentiary to tell them, “it is not fitting” that they should take part therein.  This formula, non expedit, imposed upon Italian Catholics a rule of conduct; they most not vote at political elections; and in fact when balloting took place in 1871 more than half of the population of Italy abstained.  They were advised, however, to take a hand in municipal and other local elections, in order to sway public opinion.  For more than half a century, at least in theory, non expedit remained the rule, imprisoning Catholics in a sullen opposition to all that the government of their country might do. (p. 90)

The problem was eventually solved with the Lateran Treaties in 1929, when the Vatican State became a really small nation.

So when you hear Catholic commentators go on about how the Church expects the faithful to vote, just remember that there was a time and place when it was not fitting for them to do so.

Just One Bull Away…

His Holiness has done it again with Amoris Laetitia, his latest encyclical on the family.  The traditionalists tell us he’s betrayed basic Roman Catholic Doctrine.  The loyalists (to the Church) say it really doesn’t say anything new.  And the revisionists fell a “thrill up their leg” while reading it.

Given all of that, I’m reposting my April 2005 piece “Just One Bull Away,” written in the wake of St. John Paul’s death.  Although Francis’ encyclicals are mostly long and tedious, the potential for disaster is always there, as this piece noted.


The recent death of Pope John Paul II has brought an extensive–and well deserved–outpouring of grief from around the world. He did attempt to build bridges between Roman Catholicism and the rest of humanity while at the same time persevering the integrity of the Church. He also was instrumental in the collapse of Communism in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, so much so the Soviets attempted to have him assassinated. And his conservative implementation of the Second Vatican Council restored order–especially in North America–to a church which was flirting with anarchy.

But now there is speculation. Who will take his place? How will the course of Roman Catholicism be affected by it? John Paul’s long papacy insured that the cardinals were more to his own bent than those of his predecessors. Ultimately, however, any pope is confronted by two possible courses of carrying the Roman Catholic Church forward, and both of these courses have pitfalls and opportunities for the Church and everyone else.

The first is to continue John Paul’s course of what Pentecostals would call “the church being the church.” His idea was that Roman Catholicism would be at its best when it was itself. This is why he stood against Communism in an era when many people–including those within Roman Catholicism–had bought into the idea that Marx’ concept of “historical determinism” was really true and history was on the Communists’ side. This is also why his “consolidation of power” fell hard on both liberals and Charismatics alike in North America.

From a purely institutional standpoint, this course is probably the best. Protestants will not find this conclusion to their taste–justifiably so–but the 1960’s and 1970’s proved that, when Roman Catholics experiment with ideas from the outside, they may benefit but the church does not. The Achilles heel to this strategy is the celibate priesthood; in this sexually overstimulated age of ours, expecting people to give up intercourse for any reason is an uphill battle. The priesthood is so central to the life of the church that its continuing shortage is a long term drain on Roman Catholicism.

The second would be to attempt to accommodate the “spirit of the age.” This is especially tempting to Europeans and North Americans, fighting as they are the rampant secularism in their societies. Roman Catholicism has always been happiest when it is in concert with the prevailing ethic of a society; if it cannot define that ethic, then it is tempted to try to work out an arrangement with it. The first example of this took place after Christianity was legalised by Constantine; that’s why we have the devotions to Mary and the saints.

Post-Vatican II Catholic history would suggest that such a strategy is short-sighted, especially since the “centre of gravity” is shifting to the “Third World.” It is the strategy that the Episcopal Church has pursued, and they have the membership loss to prove it. This may bring glee to Evangelicals, who see the potential of discouraged and confused Catholics seeking spiritual fulfilment elsewhere, but a conservative Catholic Church brings credibility to traditional values, which in turn extends the time when real Christianity remains legal in a society whose upper reaches are filled by so many sworn enemies.

And this brings us to the ultimate warning. In spite of its rich intellectual tradition, Roman Catholicism is ultimately a religion defined by the church itself. The church is literally one Papal Bull (or encyclical, to use the more current term) away from a non-celibate priesthood, from the abandonment of Jesus Christ as man’s only road to God, from the unlimited acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life, from just about anything. And although left-lurching moves may weaken the church, they may also make it easier for the powers that be to dispatch the rest of us when they get the chance.

The passage of John Paul II is both a challenge and an opportunity for Roman Catholicism. While he is definitely a “hard act to follow,” how he is followed will have consequences both for Catholics and for the rest of us.