The Tough Lesson of Augustine’s “Dear Marcellinus”

At the beginning of Augustine’s City of God we have this opening:

My dear Marcellinus: This work which I have begun makes good my promise to you.  In it I am undertaking nothing less than the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to its Founder.

Flavius Marcellinus was a high official of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius.  In 410–the year Alaric sacked Rome–he was given orders to suppress the Donatist churches in North Africa, which he proceeded to do.  But the Donatists resorted to the old Late Roman trick of laying a charge of treason against Marcellinus and his brother, accusing them of supporting a separate rebellion.  The Roman general Marinus, who had just put down the rebellion, put them on trial, secured a conviction, and had them executed just two short years after Augustine began the City of God.  Honorius exonerated Marcellinus the following year, but by that time it was too late.

Jean-Paul Laurens’ portrait of the Roman Emperor Honorius

When it came to “what happens when careerism goes south,” Rome was never a walk in the park, but after Marcus Aurelius things really got bad.  Careers of the great and incompetent alike ended in execution; Honorius, the weakest emperor at the most critical time, had his capable general Stilicho executed a few years earlier because he saw him as a rival.  The informant system–with information true and false–was destructive or deadly for many Romans, carried out by such masters of the art as Paul the Chain.  The river of blood continued after Rome fell apart, with Boethius writing his classic The Consolation of Philosophy while waiting execution, which came, after his fall.  Gregory of Tours’ account of Gaul beginning its transition to France was likewise a river of blood of those who ended up on the wrong side of ruthless power-holders such as Fredegund.

Christians tend to consider the fall of Rome as a result of a decline in their sexual morality, but there’s no evidence that Rome’s sexual morals were worse in the late period than the earlier one.  What was worse was what the French historian Ferdinand Lot referred to as the “corruption of the public spirit,” the decline of civic life and the communal idea that goes with it.  The Roman system was patronage driven from top to bottom, but when it was working properly it meant that those who aspired created a clientele which benefited from them while they moved up.  When the system broke down it was replace by an autocratic system where money and resources were forcibly pushed to the top to be dispensed to a bureaucracy which kept the power holders in place.  This led to the onerous taxation system of which Lactantius was the most famous chronicler.  Lactantius also noted that those who lived off of the tax system were more numerous than those who paid the taxes, and although that may have been an exaggeration there was definitely a retreat of the productive portion of the society, which in the end led to the system’s bankruptcy.

Christianity was unprepared for its legalization under Constantine, but its response to the deteriorating situation–and the corrupt morals of the political system–was to call at least some of its flock to a higher, if withdrawn, calling.  How this played out depended upon the end of the Empire in question.  In the East it led both to the growth of monasticism (withdrawal from the evils of the world) and to the Caesero-papism that complicated the doctrinal disputes that raged in the fourth and fifth centuries.  In the West monasticism took longer to get started but when it did the result was the same: the withdrawal from a system in breakdown which Christianity couldn’t quite get the upper hand with.  (It’s worth noting that Pope Siricius wouldn’t let people who had been in the civil service become priests.)

Protestants generally put down monasticism, but it represented an attempt to live in a more Christlike fashion in a world which made that very difficult.  Is ours any better?  To some extent it never has been, but in a world where laid, high or drunk is the battle cry of those at the top, and which is prepared to ignore blatant influence peddling and employ cancel culture (and also vindictive prosecution, as Marcellinus experienced) to enforce their idea, it’s time for American Christians to re-examine their naive belief in the lack of moral and personal hazard in moving up.  That may seem like blowing retreat, but in blowing retreat Late Roman Christians laid the groundwork for the advance which transformed European civilization, and ultimately ours.

Today our left is making “little lists” of people to destroy.  Our current game is to intimidate law firms from representing clients we don’t like; that’s a quick way to skew our justice system, and not in good ways.  Most of those lists are those who might achieve high position; they don’t want the competition.  Is it worth it to find yourself on one of those?  There are times when we have to endure persecution for bearing the name of Christ, but if it’s for our careerist ambition, that puts things in a new light.  It’s time for American Christians to stop being so reflexive about moving up, and to look at their eternal objectives more than their temporal ones.  This empire, like Rome, will pass, and we need to take some lessons from those who responded to its decay.

Word of God: Amen Our Hearts Cry

Word of God W/G 7711 (1977)

This is another in a series of albums that the Word of God put out featuring their worship songs and the music group that led them. It has an interesting mix of songs, including some of the community’s own (Psalm 8, Psalm 18,) non-Catholic choruses (Therefore the Redeemed, Our God Reigns) and an ancient Catholic hymn (Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.) It also includes Pauline Mills’ Thou Art Worthy, which is performed by the composer elsewhere on this channel.

I keep getting heat about my opinion of the musical style and performance on these albums, but I really think that, as was the case with other groups, from a creative and performing standpoint, this album is not up to the standard of the earlier ones.

1977 was a turning point year for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, with the Kansas City conference. It was also a turning point for me in that I considered and declined to join the Community of God’s Delight in Dallas.  I think this may have been the first Word of God album I bought and the others came later.

The songs:

  • Ex. 24:3,7
  • Isaiah 60
  • One Thing I Ask For
  • Hallelujah, Our God Reigns
  • Lift High the Banners of Love
  • Therefore the Redeemed
  • Psalm 18
  • Psalm 8
  • Thou Art Worthy
  • Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
  • Our God Reigns

  • Producer: James J. Cavnar
  • Conductors: Donald E. Fishel, Donna Kelly, Abbie Root
  • Performers: Chorus and Orchestra of the Word of God
  • Orchestral Arrangements: Donald E. Fishel, Donna Kelly, Richard Rhodes, Linda Speck
  • Recording Engineer: Henry J. Root
  • Cover design and photography: Gerry Rauch, John Leidy, Charismatic Renewal Services, Inc.
  • Back Cover Photograph: Jack Taipala

Overcomplicating Anglican Eucharistic Theology — The Bossuet Project

I’ve been reading with interest the Rev. Ben Jeffries’ Is the Eucharistology of the Anglican Reformation Patristic? As those of you who follow this blog and Positive Infinity know, this is of special interest, as it was to the great Bossuet

Overcomplicating Anglican Eucharistic Theology

Amy Coney Barrett and the Lessons of the Ukrainians

In the midst of everything else that’s going on, next Monday (Lord willing) we’ll start confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett to be the newest justice on the Supreme Court.  In light of the fact that she was and is in a Catholic Charismatic covenant community, I’ve tried to shed some light on what that really means and not be taken off on rabbit trails by our uninformed media.

I didn’t turn down membership in such a community because of what they believed.  I turned it down because I didn’t think their authoritarian structure was, well, a propos.  That separates me from those who somewhere along the way “discovered” what their idea really was.  Part of that idea is certainly wrapped up in the way they looked at the world around them.  To varying degrees, covenant communities were a preparation for a time when Christianity would be very unpopular and even persecuted in our culture.  That time looked imminent in the 1970’s, in the wake of the nervous breakdown we experienced. I really thought that such times were coming.  But I had my doubts as to whether the communities that were forming in the Catholic Charismatic community were an answer to this problem, and those doubts were confirmed in something that happened in the next decade.

In 1988 my church facilitated the resettlement of twenty-four Ukrainian Pentecostal refugees.  For someone who had been regaled with stories of the persecuted church, to have real contact with these people was a chance-in-a-lifetime experience.  The fact that I had made my own first trip to the USSR the previous spring only added to the anticipation.  We struggled with the language barrier but we did learn quite a bit about their life under communism.

The first is that the USSR was as hard on Christians as everyone said it was.  That varied with the generation.  Many of the older people had done hard time in Siberia.  One had been sent to an “orphanage” because her parents had been shipped to Siberia and couldn’t raise their child.  The younger ones had it better; under Brezhnev, things lightened up.  The biggest problem was that you couldn’t go on to higher education unless you were in the Young Pioneers, which meant that you had to be a communist, in outward form at least.  This was unacceptable to them, although they had relatives who had backslid along the way.

The second is that their churches did have organization but it was informal in that there were no paid clergy.  (Some of the reason for that is here.)  They were house churches, organized around the families that came.  (There were more formal Evangelical churches with buildings, my wife and I visited one two years later.)  Their leadership tended to be strong (it still is in Slavic churches over here) but more than just the pastor was allowed to speak during their meetings, something I also saw in covenant communities (I think the latter kept a tighter rein on what got said.)

The third is that they had no problem participating in the underground economy (or «marché noir» as my African contacts called it.)  Although it’s easy to understand why one would disrespect a government which was trying to eradicate your religion, the Ukrainians lacked the punctilious obsession American Christians have with abiding by every law and regulation the government comes up with.  (Within the church they were capable of serious legalism, something people in the Church of God could relate to.)

The fourth is that they were a lot of fun.  They had a good sense of humour and knew how to enjoy life.  If I had to make the greatest contrast between them and covenant community people, it was that, I always felt that the latter were too serious.  Beyond that, covenant communities were a synthetic response to coming persecution; what the Ukrainians experienced was real.

Lastly, the Ukrainians had the advantage of not having to deal with an “over church” like the covenant communities did with the RCC.  They were a real, autocephalous (to use the fancy ecclesiastical term) group.  That complicated relationship came back to haunt the covenant community movement; I am surprised the People of Praise have stuck it out as long as they have.

For me, having experienced both of these groups, the reason why it’s important to put Amy Coney Barrett on SCOTUS is to avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting ourselves into the same situation that our Ukrainian Pentecostal friends found themselves in and from which they’ve tried to escape.  But the irony that we’ve nominated someone who is a product of a community that was formed, in part, to weather the storms of the “laid, high or drunk” crowd is one of those ironies that makes us say “you just can’t make this stuff up.”

Was the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Really Catholic?

The week after next the grilling of our latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, will begin.  There will be a great deal of pressure brought to bear on the fact that she is a serious Roman Catholic.  That happened during the last nominating process; Diane Feinstein’s remark about the dogma living loudly within her reflected that.  There will be more focus on that.

But is that focus misplaced?  She is a product of a covenant community, the People of Praise, and a major one at that.  This puts her whole relationship with Roman Catholicism in a different light.  The relationship between the covenant communities and the Church is a complicated one.  This isn’t going to be a “blow by blow” account of that, but more of a personal reflection based in part on experience and in part on knowledge gleaned from others with more personal–and in some cases unhappy–experience with covenant communities (most of my personal experience comes with prayer groups that did not formalize a covenant commitment.)

Let’s start by making a bold statement: the RCC in the US during the late 1960’s and 1970’s was, in many ways, a different church than the one we have now.  In the wake of Vatican II and the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae (the liturgy that followed Vatican II) it was more open to influences coming from outside of the Church than before or since.  David Peterman, who headed up the Community of God’s Delight (a major covenant community in Dallas) noted that there were two streams flowing: the one of Catholic thought before Vatican II and the other from Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity.  Because the Church never figured out how to communicate the former to the faithful, the latter surged in those years, and the Church had a decidedly “Protestant” feel to it.  #straightouttairondale types will hit the floor before they can grab the smelling salts at that statement, but one advantage is that it made it easier to get converts (like me) coming from Main Line churches which were selling the pass on the basics.  It was possible in the 1970’s to go through Catholic life without an Ave Maria or a rosary; I know, I did it.

That brings us to the ecumenical nature of prayer groups and covenant communities.  Catholic permission for ecumenical activities is, even after Vatican II, fairly restrictive.  Ecumenical groups such as the People of Praise weren’t really “according to Hoyle” but the hierarchy, from the parish level up, was so shell-shocked that they let it slide.  It’s interesting to note that many of the objections to this state of affairs comes not from traditional Catholics but from the left, from the likes of J. Massyngberde Ford or John Flaherty.  And the influence of those communities and prayer groups on parishes was usually limited.  I was confidently told that there was a certain Mass at St. Rita’s in Dallas where members of God’s Delight gathered, and I went, but you really had to look hard to detect their presence.

At this point I want to stop and say with a decent degree of confidence that the type of Christianity that Judge Barrett experienced in the Catholic Charismatic renewal was different in important ways from either the conventional Catholicism of the day or the Trad/Rad Trad Catholicism that is fashionable in some circles today.

However, like the covenant communities themselves, this situation was metastable.  The thing that changed was the accession of Pope John Paul II in 1978, who was determined to bring some order to the chaos of the waning decade.  The existing renewal was impacted and responded in various ways.  One of them was the Sword of the Spirit network, led by Steve Clark and Ralph Martin, who wanted to continue on as they had with the ecumenical and authoritarian communities by more or less going “underground.”  (The People of Praise split off from this.)  In other cases the Church brought these communities to heel, either by forcing them to abandon their ecumenical ways (God’s Delight) or by dissolving the community altogether (Servants of Christ the King.)  But another effective weapon was the imposition of Marian devotions, which was guaranteed to split covenant community and prayer group alike.  I was involved in a prayer group that experienced the latter; it was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen in a Christian group.  This kind of thing generally came from the inside, which only made matters worse.

So the situation today is much different than before.  That difference is obscured by the fact that many of the major figures of those times in the Renewal have switched over to the #straightouttairondale Catholicism, which in many ways is antithetical to what they were in before.

My advice to everyone is to evaluate Amy Coney Barrett on what presents itself now and not try to impose some ideal construct of what Catholicism is or is supposed to be.  In addition to being from the New Orleans area (which always complicates things) her antecedents coming out of a covenant community are more complicated than they look.  I doubt that members of the U.S. Senate will do this, but stuff like that is one reason why it isn’t the deliberative body it used to be.

From Covenant Community to SCOTUS Nominee

Well, it’s official: the product of a Catholic Charismatic covenant community, Amy Coney Barrett, is the nominee to be a Supreme Court Justice.  My regular readers know that I’ve dealt with this subject over the years, from this piece in 2011 (where I document why I turned down the invitation to join one) to the present.  One of the albums I posted came from the People of Praise, the community Barrett is a part of.

If I were sitting in one of the meetings of the Community of God’s Delight over forty years ago and someone told me that a product of another major covenant community would end up in the situation Barrett now faces, I wouldn’t have believed them.  That’s not because the members of the community typically lacked formal education or were not professional people.  The man who taught my Life in the Spirit Seminar, Joe Canterbury, was a Dallas attorney whose delivery of the Seminar reminded me of a closing argument for a jury.  And of course we have David Peterman, the PhD holding engineer who ended up leading the Community.  The extreme bifurcation of education and status–and the wealth inequality that goes with it–wasn’t as extreme in American life then, which is interesting because one of the battle cries of Barrett’s opponents is “equality.”

The reason for my disbelief is because covenant communities, like much of the Charismatic Renewal at the time, were decidedly escapist and more akin to the “Remnant” theology of my Baptist grandparents, which I discuss in my piece on Elizabeth Warren.  In some ways these communities were the prototypes of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  Some of the leaders of the day, like Ralph Martin, still reflect that idea.  One of the things this nomination will be “about” is whether people who want to seriously live the way that Barrett lives will be permitted to do so, or even to express that desire.

The current idea in American politics–especially as it comes from the left–is that those who live in this country are obligated to support their racial and sexual construct.  That of course is totalitarianism, and their criticisms of authoritarianism from institutions like covenant communities ring hollow.  In order for that totalitarianism to succeed, things like rights must be set aside, and along with those rights the due process that judiciaries are constituted to uphold.

We’ve already been regaled with a “trial balloon” of setting due process aside with the blowback from the “Dear Colleague” letter than came from Barack Obama’s Department of Education on sexual harassment and assault.  The enthusiastic response of university administrators to this was breathtaking.  Now I’m not one to support the encouragement of the “laid, high or drunk” mentality our elites hold sacred, and I’ll bet that Barrett isn’t either.  But leaving due process in the rear view mirror isn’t right, and if you can get away with doing it in that important of a field of law you can do it anywhere else.  Barrett herself was involved in the judicial pushback against this; that’s a legitimate subject to discuss now, but those who oppose Barrett’s idea don’t want the issue framed around due process.

But getting back to the original point: I’m not looking forward to the whole issue of Catholic Charismatic covenant communities being front and centre in a this kind of process.  The whole issue is complicated from an ecclesiastical standpoint let alone a political one; a great deal of ignorance will be on display.  My reservations about covenant communities have not changed in the forty years since the choice was put in front of me back in Dallas, and I’ve never regretted my decision not to join.

But that doesn’t change the fact that covenant community authoritarianism has more than met its match, and that’s the fight we’re having now.

OCP Pulls the Plug (Finally) on the Angel Moroni

OCP managed to get itself into trouble by using an image of the Mormon Angel Moroni on the cover of its missal:

The image below is from the cover of a missal being published by Oregon Catholic Press:

The cover depicts an angel blowing a trumpet — but not just any angel.

It’s the Mormon Angel Moroni, who is the unofficial symbol of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and who frequently appears on the cover of the Book of Mormon:

I’m no fan of OCP as an organization and have said so repeatedly when talking about their music. The trads trash them regularly, in part because some of their music is questionable theologically (although they had people like this to prepare the way.)  Much of their music is banal and explains why, after the initial rush, post-Vatican II Roman Catholic liturgical music has gone downhill.

Using the Angel Moroni is especially questionable, but they did it anyway.  I’m glad they’ve been called out for it and have retracted the cover.

US Christians increasingly departing from core truths of Christian worldview, survey finds

A new survey shows that the majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus is the path to salvation and instead believe that being a good person is sufficient.

As part of the ongoing release of the Arizona Christian University-based Cultural Research Center’s American Worldview Inventory, the latest findings — exploring perceptions of sin and salvation — from George Barna, the group’s director, show that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that having some kind of faith is more important than the particular faith with which someone aligns…

US Christians increasingly departing from core truths of Christian worldview, survey finds

Epoch/NALR Family Album Vol. 1

Epoch Universal Publications/NALR 33420/FAI-78 (1978)

“Best Of”/Compilations weren’t unknown in the “Jesus Music” era but they weren’t common either. This is an interesting one, selected from the extensive offerings the ministry had in the 1970’s. It includes many of their best known artists (and some lesser known ones) as follows:

  • Paul Quinlan, a pioneer in the field (featured elsewhere) now with his wife Nancy;
  • Grayson Warren Brown, one of the few (only?) black artists NALR had;
  • Saint Louis Jesuits, the famous, including Bob Dufford, John Foley, Tim Manion, Roc O’Connor and Dan Schutte;
  • Carey Landry, the “Catholic troubadour of the bayou,” who even serves up some “bon ton” in French on this album;
  • Deanna Edwards, the music therapist, one of whose cuts sounds like something from the soundtrack of an old movie; and
  • Wendy Vickers (also featured elsewhere.)

I’m not sure whether this album was ever commercially distributed; based on what’s on the album cover, it may have been intended as a promotional effort for parishes to adopt their music (which many did.) It’s not quite like “The Cry of the Poor” but it’s a nice selection from probably the strongest distributor of Catholic music in the NOM/Vatican II era.

The songs (with their composers):

  • Though the Mountains May Fall (D. Schutte)
  • The Lord is My Shepherd (P. Quinlan)
  • Son-Rise (D. Edwards)
  • How Good is the Lord (C. Landry)
  • Sow a Seed (W. Vickers)
  • Rise Up (P. Quinlan)
  • Jesus Died Upon the Cross (G. Brown)
  • The People That Walk in Darkness (B. Dufford)
  • Live Each Day (D. Edwards)
  • Blest Be the Lord (D. Schutte)
  • In Him We Live (C. Landry)

For More Music Click Here

Pope Paul VI: An Historic Journey to the Holy Land, January 1964

Twentieth Century-Fox TFM 3129 (1964)

It’s something of a departure from our usual offerings, but this is a vinyl phonograph documentary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land at the time of the Epiphany in January 1964.  First, however, some explanation of the medium is in order.

Until the advent of video disks and ultimately the VCR, there was no convenient way outside of a television studio for people to do “video on demand,” and thus phono documentaries like this one were very common in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  It was the best way that people could relive events like this one.

Paul’s visit to the Holy Land was described as historic, and in the context of the time it certainly was.  To begin with, none of the occupants of the See of Peter had come back to the homeland of the first one until that time.  (Kind of reminds you of Brother Andrew’s remark that Jesus told his followers to go, he didn’t tell them to come back!)  It was also the first time in 150 years that a Pope had left Italy, the result in part of the Vatican’s sixty year “imprisonment.”  To visit the Holy Land then and now required that the Holy Father visit the State of Israel, something dicey given Roman Catholicism’s penchant for replacement theology.  Last but not least the Pope met with the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras; a Pope and Patriarch hadn’t met since the two branches of Apostolic Christianity angrily parted company in 1054.

The centrepiece of the recording at least is the Pope’s Mass in Nazareth.  Although Vatican II had been recently concluded, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated.  The Mass was thus conducted both in Latin and in what is now called the “Extraordinary Form” but was then the ordinary one.  That should warm the hearts of Trads who usually use this pontiff’s picture as a dart board, but this Mass was not elaborate.  Then as now media types didn’t understand religion very well; the narrator proclaims the conclusion of the Mass only to have the Pope begin his recitation of the Creed.  (I’ve been to Masses like that, but…)

Outside of the Mass, the Pope addresses the President of Israel, the crowd at Nazareth, and the Patriarch in French.  At the time French was the language of diplomacy; our world has come a long way since then.  He also invited the Patriarch to recite the Lord’s Prayer; good thing he didn’t use the Creed, with the still-ongoing “filioque” controversy, that would have blown things up again for another 910 years.  It wasn’t until he returned to Rome that he addressed the crowd in his native Italian.

The world has changed a great deal in the nearly seventy years since this visit and recording, but the historic nature of the visit–and the way it was disseminated–are both worth remembering.