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Kingdom Values? Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 22 April 2012

“Political moralism, as we have lived it and are still living it, does not open the way to regeneration, and even. . .blocks it. The same is true, consequently, also for a Christianity and a theology that reduces the heart of Jesus' message, the ‘kingdom of God,’ to the ‘values of the kingdom,’ identifying these values with the great key words of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, as a synthesis of the religions.”

In an earlier column, I pointed out some of the qualities of Joseph Ratzinger’s 2005 speech from which the above is taken. But so much more lies in this historic insight. It is historic because it highlights the quality of the time in which we live and it does so while we are still in it, rather than becoming evident only when we look back from a vantage point of, say, fifty years. I believe that he has captured the essence of our period.

Our period is also a transitional period from the certainties of the fifties. Who knows how long it will last? The current transition is similar to what happened to the Church under Napoleon. Most of the Church was in his pocket. Similarly in China right now the Communist Party wants the Church in its pocket.

And of course it is similar to what is happening with the Church in the United States where more than half of the members of the Church puts the teachings of the party above the teachings of the Church. As odious as these trends are, some of the other implications still remain to be explored.

In the Kingdom, truth is key. Remember: “whoever breaks one of least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Yet in his homily on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict had to ask about some Austrian priests proposing a movement of disobedience: “Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? . . .Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Because opposing authority (the various “Occupy’ movements come to mind) has become the mark of “standing up” in secular society, it apparently had to become – for some – the sign of standing up in the Church. The value of the secular kingdom is supposed to become the value of the sacred Kingdom, not the other way round.

If we pursue this a bit, it looks as if for those formed by secularism anything from outside of our situation, like revelation and what can be drawn from revelation, is to be covered over or completely denied. This strand of thinking goes all the way back to Spinoza and during the radical Enlightenment Voltaire himself advocated that man simply work things out with his own (very truncated form of) reason in a kind of “top-down deist reformism” (Jonathan Israel).

But evidently at the same time Voltaire foresaw a residual elite because: “Enlightenment is not for the majority.” The elite had replaced revelation. In contemporary terms, the elite identify the kingdom values that they judge suitable for the people.

Now, coming back to disobedience itself: the word “obedience” comes from “going to meet.” This involves an existential decision – one is going to meet Christ and follow Him. Hence the pope posed a question in the same Holy Thursday homily, which was of course addressed to the clergy:

Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?

The Church only offers the truth of Christ so why oppose it? As a sign of what? As a sign of the precedence of secular culture perhaps? Which was Voltaire’s ultimate aim as he worked against the role of religion in society (at least amongst the elite).

Other secular values have also slipped right into the nascent Kingdom: “The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery.” (Vatican II) Obedience is being replaced by a secular kind of self-assertion. Sacrifice is being replaced with its secular counterpart, convenience. Gospel poverty is being replaced by the secular idea of becoming middle class.

If this is following Christ then any cup will just have to be passed, my will will be done, and the Son of Man will have a comfortable place to lay his head! Then too the public presence of the Church becomes more and more a mush of ideas from the culture, somehow still wreathed in incense and pious phrases. But we – the enlightened elite -- know where the real values lie, nudge, nudge.

“It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers.”

That’s Benedict XVI’s idea – a quite radical one – of what “standing up” for what’s true and right really means.

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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Comments (14)Add Comment
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written by will manley, April 22, 2012
This is one of the best essays posted on this site. I love the emphasis on the teachings of Christ as opposed to the accepted practices of secular society. Obedience has become not just a neglected virtue, but is too often seen as a forfeiture of one's personal sense of reason, a kind of cowardly surrender to authority. Obedience is really the starting point of our religion. It gives us the direction and discipline we need to follow the teachings of Christ. Thanks for the reminder. Great essay!
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 22, 2012
In the secular "marketplace" of ideas, religions really are reduced to their values - and the question really does become one of convenience. There once was little or no religious marketplace in the West - think Europe around the twelfth century, when even the heretics generally claimed to be nothing other than true Christians (and when the alternative to orthodoxy was either living "under the radar" or facing various more or less punitive sanctions from Church and state). At that time, people naturally encountered the Church and its teachings as the objective "given" of reality and could honestly ask, like the article states, "The Church only offers the truth of Christ so why oppose it?" Even those who did - the heretics, again - generally did so because they thought they embodied that truth better than the publicly recognized institution of the Church.

All this to say that the phenomena this article describes is a natural result of pluralism - that is, it is natural that once individuals experience religion as choice rather than as given, and more particularly when they experience multiple religions competing for their attention and loyalty, it will become the case that the "values of the kingdom," that is, those more common non-revelatory bits of ethical and natural philosophy and science that form the basis of a secular institution's legitimation, will become one of the means by which the religious "consumer" judges which religion to invest himself in. I think that insofar as there is a pluralistic society, this is a largely inevitable situation, the only solution to which is shutting one's self in a kind of social and cultural ghetto such as described in MacIntyre's After Virtue.
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written by Bangwell Putt, April 22, 2012
I am thankful that thecatholicthing provides a forum where questions like this can still be asked. Thank you, Fr. Bramwell, for the clarity that this post provides.

A severe but still true blessing is that we live in a time of decision; a time when two diverging paths have appeared; a time when a comfortable vagueness is no longer possible.
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written by debby, April 22, 2012
what a great post! thank you!
"To obey is better than Sacrifice..." 1 Samuel 15:22
echoed, "not My will...." and then again today's reading from 1 John 2:1-5- "don't obey Him but you say you love Him? Liar!" (my translation)

i absolutely love the quote of the Holy Father's noted here! often in my own spiritual life it is not so much the "word of consolation" but the "word which disrupts" which does in fact lead me to deeper conversion-death to self-love and emptying, making more room for the Lord of Love to enter and fully possess, making me truly His "human". slowly (30 years and counting) i am being re-educated in what it means to "stand up" by running to meet Him. He is so often found in places my flesh would rather not go (crucifixion), but He is always so very worth the effort, the passion. His Love is a magnet i cannot resist; i am finally not wanting to resist Him AT ALL. i hope His flowers bloom profusely and draw others to Him. we all need a "word of disruption" to spur us on in truth! thank you, TCT for all the years of truth.
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written by Chris in Maryland, April 22, 2012
Amen and thank you Fr. Bramwell. I am very concerned with the federal "blue ribbon schools" program, whose banners are emerging on Catholic grammar schools in this neck of the woods.

In the end, nothing good for Catholicism can come from alliances with factions otherwise hostile to the Church.
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written by tom, April 22, 2012
"the Church only offers the truth of Christ so why oppose it?" Is this a serious comment?
The Church offers much more than the truth of Christ...it offers a highly misogynistic view of the world - a view not propounded by Christ, and it offers a highly-focused determination to keep things the way they are - or were (just ask Galileo)
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written by Fr. Bramwell, April 22, 2012
Hi Tom, could you give me one actual example of a misogynistic view of the world?
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 22, 2012
Tom:

"The Church offers much more than the truth of Christ...it offers a highly misogynistic view of the world - a view not propounded by Christ, and it offers a highly-focused determination to keep things the way they are - or were (just ask Galileo)"

While this has been an issue with the Church, I wouldn't reduce the Church's doctrine to simply the more misogynistic or male-centered tendencies, tendencies that likely have much more to do with the Church's enmeshment within cultures that were themselves misogynistic: don't forget that in the beginning, the Church grew in part because it really was a champion of women's rights in comparison to the standard operating procedure of most cultures - indeed, Christianity was a genuine liberalizing force. I would agree that insofar as the Church soon became identified with the larger political structure - and culture in general - that it became harder for Christianity to act as a liberal force. It became conservative as it became powerful: it soon lost much of its liberalizing edge as it stopped being the persecuted counterculture and became the dominating culture.

As this situation has melted away, I believe there is a possibility that Christianity can once more become a liberalizing force - but, of course, it is very difficult to shake off the feeling of power, permanence, and authority - and the corresponding conservative tendencies - that was over twelve hundred years in the making.

(note that by "liberalizing" I DON'T necessarily mean any correspondence with contemporary American liberalism)
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written by jason taylor, April 23, 2012
"It became conservative as it became powerful: it soon lost much of its liberalizing edge as it stopped being the persecuted counterculture and became the dominating culture."

Glorification "counterculture" in and of itself is like glorifying rust at the expense of iron. The Churches proper position is as the dominating culture. If apostasy happens to be more powerful then the Church at any given momment that does not change the fact that it is apostasy that is the "counterculture"
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 23, 2012
Jason:

"Glorification "counterculture" in and of itself is like glorifying rust at the expense of iron."

I highly doubt you would have said this had you lived in AD 120. But nevertheless, I agree, and I never said such a thing. I did say that Christianity was a liberalizing force and a counterculture, and that it lost its liberalizing power as it became the dominant culture. To some degree, it ossified, resisting change simply by means of its dominance.

'The Churches proper position is as the dominating culture. If apostasy happens to be more powerful then the Church at any given momment that does not change the fact that it is apostasy that is the "counterculture"'

If the Church's teachings are true, it doesn't particularly matter whether it is the dominant culture, does it? Of course, the fact that the Church is not all of culture - the fact that there are other voices which put forward different accounts of the truth and attempt to confirm those accounts with a legitimating social structure - simply means that the Church cannot rely on anyone assuming that it is the default. The Church is no longer the default "keeper of truth" in the West, which means that it must, as it slowly is, return to an active, dynamic, even liberalizing engagement with culture; and it must do a better job of legitimating itself.
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written by Achilles, April 23, 2012
Scotty, if by "liberal" you mean "freeing" as in liberating the human soul from the bondage of concupiscence and egoism, then the Roman Catholic Church, has been, is, and will be the only truly liberal institution ever.

Your historical interpretation is as wanting as your philosophy and for similar reasons.

It is ironic that you come to the Church’s defense with an attack, and in the end a much more damning attack than poor Tom’s feminist ideological misunderstandings. Hegel has done you no favors Scotty.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 23, 2012
"Scotty, if by "liberal" you mean "freeing" as in liberating the human soul from the bondage of concupiscence and egoism, then the Roman Catholic Church, has been, is, and will be the only truly liberal institution ever."

Be that as it may, I was referring to the Church's ability to question ossified social structures - such as the paternalism of ancient agricultural societies. Of course, Christianity is an agricultural religion, and so it could never truly question the paternalism of agricultural religions, but nevertheless it did offer the beginning of a critique of male superiority and power (it also questioned a number of other Roman pagan assumptions about reality). However, this liberalizing trend continued only so long as Christianity was a persecuted counterculture - its establishment as the political Church of the west also marked its turn to conservatism (and dogmatism, along with the power to enact its own persecutions and suppress dissent and liberalizing trends). Insofar as this is no longer the case, we may see Christianity become liberalizing once again.

"Your historical interpretation is as wanting as your philosophy and for similar reasons."

Which are? I would appreciate specificity rather than vague assertions.

"It is ironic that you come to the Church’s defense with an attack, and in the end a much more damning attack than poor Tom’s feminist ideological misunderstandings. Hegel has done you no favors Scotty."

I intend neither to attack or defend the Church, merely analyze an interesting historical trend. If you ask my opinion, I would say that losing its political power (and the powers of coercion which political power grants) has been quite good for the Church; it is nice to see the Church have to deal with a more or less voluntary, rather than coerced, membership, and honestly think that arrangement is best both for the Church and for the world outside the Church.
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written by Achilles, April 24, 2012
Dear Scotty,

I would love to be more specific with you, but you are immune to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who does that leave that could possibly help you to understand the difficulty you have with your will and its relationship to your reason?

However, I was listening to Fr. George Rutler this morning talking about Fides et Ratio, that fine encyclical against which you have also been inoculated, and he has much to teach us:

“you cannot love what you do not know, philosophy moves the mind beyond facts to the reason there are facts, the fact that a man knows the chemical composition of a woman and has seen her x-rays gives him a very intimate knowledge of her in one sense, it does not make him love her, it may make him capable of performing surgery on her, but it cannot make him love her. He must really know her to love her, and then he must make an act of the will, and it is because we have a breakdown of the will in our generation that people find it so hard to love The will is the soul in action, the intellectual perception without direction from the will is rationalism and nothing more”

William Blake said “they always will believe a lie who sees with and not through the eye.”

The issues you write of are at best peripheral to Mother Church, much like the x-rays, you have an intimate knowledge of Her in a way. You act as a surgeon offering an unnecessary elective surgery. Your analysis is as silly as the reactionary feminism and liberation theology that undergirds and is marbled through your complex but superficial ideology. Figure out what has gone so terribly wrong with the breakdown of our wills in this generation, give assent to the Gospel message and you will be on your way.

Best wishes Scotty.
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written by Scotty Ellis, April 24, 2012
Achilles:

"I would love to be more specific with you, but you are immune to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who does that leave that could possibly help you to understand the difficulty you have with your will and its relationship to your reason?"

I am reasonably familiar with the writings of both saints. What specifically were you thinking of? I would note that simply because I do not assume that everything Augustine and Aquinas says is true does not mean that I believe they say nothing important, true, relevant, and valid.

"that fine encyclical against which you have also been inoculated"

Interestingly enough, it is one of my favorite encyclicals.

"The issues you write of are at best peripheral to Mother Church, much like the x-rays, you have an intimate knowledge of Her in a way. You act as a surgeon offering an unnecessary elective surgery."

Very well, let's take your analogy to its logical conclusion: let us say that I am a surgeon, and that I happen to love (or, at the very least, have a genuine interest in) a particular woman. Very well - I want to know her better. I cannot reduce her to only what is knowable through my medical knowledge. I would agree with this. It would be a grave mistake, however, if I see that she has cancer, for me to say, "ah, very well, this cancer - which I know about and can address because of my medical knowledge = is peripheral to the more intimate or real 'her.'" I may learn about her in other ways (and, indeed, I must), but it would be silly to say that what I know about her through my medical knowledge is somehow rendered unimportant.

I can offer historical, social, or philosophical criticisms of the Church without reducing the Church to the thing or aspect I am criticizing, which I believe to be a fair, honest, and quite respectful way of engaging with it. Unfortunately, I know that there are many enemies of the Church who do not go about engaging with it in this way, as well as I know that there are countless "protectors" or "lovers" of the Church whose primary reflexive response to any criticism of the Church is immediate, even borderline thoughtless, rejection, reactionism, and condemnation. I once again invite you to engage me with a little less vague and sweeping condemnations and instead with a little more specificity and meat, although I recognize and respect your right to pull a Cephalus.

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