The Protestant Posture Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Thursday, 17 March 2011

In anticipation of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Germany later this year, more than 200 German “theologians” have issued “The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure.” In this laborious piece of prose, they explain how the Church has to change. The usual thing . . . ordination of women and so on! The imperative is theirs, based on the imagined “magisterium” of the university. This institutional conceit has been an issue since the sixties, although there have been attempts to try to link it back to the service of the University of Paris in the Middle Ages, when that institution was a center of research on questions that were posed by various bishops.

Something that the “Catholic theologians” – in inverted commas because it’s difficult to say how such freelancers are related to the historic Catholic Church – do not seem much to consider is that they are in a country with a Protestant majority. Perhaps such a national setup puts pressures on Catholic thinking when people do not take the necessary care to identify where they get their premises.

The classic case of course was Karl Rahner, S.J.’s insistence on the ordination of women based on the cultural argument that, if patriarchalism is dead in the culture, then women should be ordained in the Church. This might be plausible if the original choice of apostles was purely cultural. But if we take a step back to THE priest in whose priesthood priests participate, then we come to Christ himself and the non-accidental act of God in incarnating himself as a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Male priests express the male priesthood of Christ. Culture is more of a surface expression, while gender is ontological, i.e., it has to do with our very being. And in this case it is tied to the decision of God to incarnate as a male.

The word Protestant implies defining oneself in reaction against something. It imposes an a priori framework on the formation of concepts. The adversarial stance removes something substantial, namely: “All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials.” (Vatican II) This is not simply an authoritarian statement. Rather, it is authoritative because the truth is unitary and it exists in the “Catholic Church [which] has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace.” (Vatican II) Of course, the German way is to approach this adversarial structure intellectually and to frame the challenge in an intellectual way.


         Some Catholic politicians (and theologians) encourage rot in the life of the Church

The Catholic situation in the United States is similar, but the response is different. It is not intellectual. Listening to Nancy Pelosi trying to teach our bishops about Saint Augustine or to Ted Kennedy seeking to impose the view of a narrow cultural elite on the Church about several questions, no one would be led to think that American Catholic dissent is intellectual. It is more a kind of spoiling action, a political muddying of pools, a way to introduce a little rot into the system.

It is still an adversarial approach, but it is deliberately – almost openly – subversive. It embodies a political strategy in line with the American fascination with politics. And it ultimately relies on the conviction that truth is merely political. The American approach lets some professors teach seminarians that the priesthood started in the fourth century or that a priest is just like a Protestant minister. The subversion is practiced because this kind of thinking fragments the Church and acts as a spoiler when the priest is in a parish. Bishops who allow such things to be taught in seminaries in effect leave problematic colleges for their successors to deal with.

The Protestant posture, if I may call it that, comes down to making the same mistake that Rahner made: confusing orders of reality. Rahner took the merely socio-cultural idea of patriarchalism and gave it an importance that is beyond its value. The accidental nature of culture does not supersede the essential nature of the human being. The discussion of the nature of the Incarnation is not about accidents, but about essences, divine and human. God does not act randomly. The Incarnation is a deliberate choice on the part of God. The choice was that the Incarnation would be as a male human being.

When we look at Pelosi and Kennedy’s words, they are confusing the ideas in their social circle with the truths of the Church. These are different orders of reality. The truth of the Church is the truth of Jesus Christ, and that is not to be pushed aside by the solipsistic thinking of an elite that comes and goes, and is remembered, if at all, only as a minor footnote in the history of ideas.

The scary side of American Catholics who choose the Protestant posture is how subversive they are in the different institutions of the Catholic Church. Like the German “theologians,” they undermine the function of the institutions. Like incompetents or embezzlers in a bank, they interfere with the institution’s ability to function. The bank loses its ability to do business and the Church is clouded in its efforts to speak the message of Christ clearly to a world that is, now beyond any reasonable doubt, faring poorly under a false Gospel.


Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

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