The news that Lifeway Christian Stores will all close brought back a memory of something that happened in one of them that was, in some ways, life altering.
In 2010 the Church of God decided to abolish the Department of Lay Ministries, which I was working for at the time. That left me without a job with the church. Mercifully that wasn’t my main source of income, but there’s something special about doing God’s work, even when the institutions don’t always go your way. This was all complete by the end of August, a month after the church’s General Assembly.
Sometime during the fall I was in the Lifeway store in Chattanooga, when I ran into Dr. Donnie Smith, who was the Executive Director of the Church of God Division of Care. The Care Division includes the ministries of the denomination which used to be called “benevolent.” These include the Church of God Chaplains Commission (which trains and certifies chaplains for the military, prisons, etc.,) Church of God Ministerial Care (which works to restore ministers in the wake of personal disaster,) Operation Compassion (which furnishes supplies by the trailer load for disaster relief,) Smoky Mountain Childrens’ Home and, as much as Ilhan Omar hates to hear it, Ministry to Israel.
Donnie’s wife Barbara, who was making a miraculous recovery from a stroke, was down from Cleveland to get her hair done, and Donnie had some extra time, so he went to Lifeway. We talked about church events and people for some time; it was nice to keep up.
But keeping up wasn’t the end of it: a couple of weeks later Donnie called me and offered me a position on the Care Board. Tom Offutt, who was from Winchester, VA (where my Aunt Dorothy had lived for many years) had passed away suddenly shortly after his appointment, leaving a vacancy of the Board. It was a pleasant surprise to get this invitation, and to get “back in the loop” in the life of the international church. I’ve been on the Board ever since; it’s been an excellent experience.
I’ve always thought it strange that two Church of God people–one a current General Assembly appointee (Donnie) and one former one (me) would gather in the Baptist bookstore to discuss Church of God things. But our own publishing house has had its share of misadventures in the “brick and mortar” store business; that’s why Lifeway got our business.
And 2010 was a year of other changes: about the same time my Kenyan department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and his Cameroonian assistant sat me down and asked me to obtain my PhD. This decade has been an adventure in many ways. God is always doing something new in our lives, and the fact that it was in Lifeway shows that he has a sense of humour too. For his part Donnie passed into eternity last summer, too soon gone; I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity on the Care Board that he did.
There are many who disparage Lifeway for their restrictive policies on what they would carry. But it’s like the places I can’t teach: institutions make decisions that they must live with, and it’s their prerogative to do so. Personally I think that Lifeway’s closing of their stores is a net loss for the church in this country. But that’s just me.
What many are calling the worst admissions scandal in higher education emerged Tuesday, with federal authorities announcing 50 indictments in a scheme that allegedly involved faux athletes, coaches who could be bribed, cheating on the SAT and ACT, million-dollar bribes and “guarantees” that certain applicants would be admitted to highly competitive colleges.
By the end of Tuesday, several coaches had lost their jobs (oddly, not for helping athletes, but for helping nonathletes) and some politicians were calling for investigations of college admissions. Meanwhile a broader debate has been renewed about the many advantages that wealthy families have — advantages that are legal. And advocates for black and Latino students were quick to note that just as a lawsuit against Harvard University could endanger many colleges’ affirmative action plans, fresh evidence has arrived that college admissions is far from a meritocracy. The investigation was dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Hopefully this–and more–will finally convince people of something that this blog has been saying for years: we really don’t have a meritocracy. Never have, and probably never will.
To be Roman Catholic these days is an unenviable business, especially if you’re aware of what’s going on in the Catholic Church (and many Catholics, sad to say, are not.) It’s easy to comment on what’s happening, but what really matters is how one plans to fix the problems that face the Church.
Let’s start with what won’t work: the idea of the Pope and the “reappraisers,” to use Kendall Harmon’s expressive term. As one who was raised in the Episcopal Church, one gets a “déjà vu all over again” feel about this. As I’ve pointed out before, the idea of Francis and other “reverends pères jesuites” using their “morale accommodante” to advance the Church has a long history. Progressive Protestants have done the same thing and the empty churches speak for themselves; Roman Catholicism can’t expect a different result.
So what is to be done? One group of people with “the answer” to these problems are the “trads,” those whose idea is to return to some kind of traditional Roman Catholicism. They’ve been around since their church was turned upside down with Vatican II, although many have had to operate in the shadows. Now, as was the case with the Anglican-Episcopal world, the combination of the internet, social media and wider broadcast choices have made networking easier to do. (A sympathetic former Pope didn’t hurt, either.) So do they really have the answer?
I think the best reply to that question is…sort of.
Stating the obvious is the quickest way to get Americans angry, but let’s start there anyway. “Trad” Catholicism is not, to use a good Scholastic term, univocal. We have the #straightouttairondale types and we have the TLM (Traditional Latin Mass) types, and they don’t always get along. That’s a typical problem with groups which focus on liturgical precision, and Trad Catholics certainly do that. The first thing that Trad Catholics need to do is to promote unity amongst themselves, even if they don’t agree on every point.
That leads to the next problem: Trad Catholics are too focused on the sacramentals and not enough on the sacraments. What Trad Catholics of all types are trying to do is to reconstruct the Catholicism of the pre-Vatican II years, down to the last devotion and spiritual discipline. Their idea is that Vatican II wrecked the church by throwing the doors open, which led to the exodus of people and religious that has led to the current crisis. This ignores something that Europeans should understand but Americans don’t: that the decline in Catholic numbers in Europe long antedated Vatican II, Tridentine Mass and all. Vatican II was called in part to address this issue; for the American church, booming (like their Episcopal counterparts) in the post-World War II environment, such a reform was almost unnecessary.
The biggest challenge the Trads face, however, is the structure of the Catholic Church itself.
The church the Trads find themselves in is the result of the greatest triumph of long-term Trad Catholicism: ultramontanism. The term means “beyond the mountain,” and refers to the centralisation of power and authority in the Pope. Largely facilitated by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic upheaval, it eliminated practices such as the regale and curtailed the national autonomy churches had guarded for centuries. The proclamation of the Pope’s infallibility at Vatican I (the same time the Italians trashed the Papal States) sealed the deal. It eliminated meaningful national autonomy and certainly any lay input into the life of the church, something Vatican II tried to address without much practical effect. Both autonomy and lay involvement would have been handy for American bishops to deal with the sex abuse crisis; instead, the Vatican ran interference and the American church will suffer the consequences.
What this means for the Trads is that, should the Vatican continue to move leftward, they will leave the Trads in the lurch. That’s because it is difficult in the Catholic parish system, which have no voice in their selection of priests, to have a distinctive identity. That’s what messed up the Catholic Charismatics forty years ago; they found it next to impossible to have Charismatic parishes. Their solution was the covenant community system, but that had problems too. And ultimately those communities which remained found themselves being made offers they could not refuse. The Trads, which are more dependent upon the sacerdotal and sacramental systems, are even more vulnerable to this kind of pressure.
None of this should obscure the fact that the Trads have some strong points: they have a definite idea of what Christian life should be all about, they’re good at attracting people to vocations (something that may be a life saver in a priest-starved church,) and their people, like Bossuet’s characterisation of God, tend to be fertile.
I’m not sure that the Trads Latinate, legalistic and overly sacramental view of Christian life will have the broad appeal they think it will, although they will attract some in this way. I would like to see the Trads, to borrow more Scholastic terms, differentiate more meaningfully between the essentials and the accidentals. But I’m afraid, as was the case with the Charismatics a generation plus ago, that the Church itself will be the worst enemy of those trying to renew it, and that’s the saddest part of the whole business.