Global Sectarianism

Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, recently remarked that it is a “heresy” to believe “we can be saved as individuals.” Astonishing – both in the use of the word heresy and the implied invocation of community. Neither is exactly what you expect to hear from the small sliver of Anglicans in this country who have proudly broken with the large majority worldwide in their own church – to say nothing of millennia of Christian tradition – on all sorts of things, most notably on ordaining gay bishops.

This is therefore one of those moments to which Attention Must Be Paid. I looked into this apparent renewed doctrinal rigor among the Episcopalians, but am sad to report that I think she meant individual efforts to reach heaven are an old Protestant bugbear: works’ righteousness, now conveniently reconfigured as a way to delegitimize the remaining Christian elements in the culture. No need to struggle with yourself about those – it would deny grace. And anyway, we shouldn’t make too much of Christian faith and morals, she said, since God is at work in many other religions and lifestyles, which are fine (or at least no worse than we are) just as they are. So: also forget about evangelizing them.

I would be happy to hear I’ve gotten this wrong, but I don’t think so. It follows quite closely what many Catholics in the United States, too, have come to believe because both they and their Episcopalian counterparts now take their doctrinal definitions from the culture, which has evangelized parts of the Church. There is heresy for them indeed, but it consists in not being inclusive of others and, well, Catholic. They believe strongly in community, but it’s the abstract community of world religions and social justice, not the concrete community of the universal Church in its passage through time, going back in Biblical revelation into the history of the Jewish people, and still living today in family, parish, diocese.

As used to be said, it’s admittedly a scandal, this particularism. How odd of God to choose the Jews (and later the Christians) for his definitive communication to the human race. In French, there’s an old semi-humorous complaint from the Jewish people to God: What did we ever do to you that you chose us? Being chosen sounds great, until you see how the rest of the world reacts to it – as even God Himself experienced in his Crucifixion. Outside the historic reality of the people of God and Church, it seems like the orthodox are just making trouble for everyone by insisting that things as they are and have always been among the human race are going to change. The world likes to think that it all comes to much the same thing and prefers it that way because it involves no demands – the kind of boiling inconclusiveness of various faiths that don’t claim to represent truth, a perpetual India of religions, the world of Kipling’s Kim.

But to think that God has not communicated authoritatively with us in a way we can identify is to say that he pretty much has left us to ourselves. There’s a very different and quite defensible way to approach these matters. Cardinal George of Chicago has just published a book explaining it: The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture. Like Bishop Jefferts-Schori, the good Cardinal sees dangers in religion of a purely individual kind: we are all by nature involved with one another. For Christians, even God Himself – in other words, the very deepest reality of the world – is a kind of community of three persons in love. We participate in that Trinitarian reality, which partly defines what it means to be a person. To wall ourselves off from one another in modern societies is a simple denial of the truth and a failure to live it.

To see the falsehood of modern individualism taken in its strongest form is not for him a negation of individual responsibilities. We are partly constituted by our living through others, but as our whole tradition tells us, each of us has to take care to remain in that living mystical body where true community under God exists. Further, we have the responsibility to remain faithful to a properly formed conscience even if the entire community goes mad. In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More refutes the arguments of many powerful and prestigious people in his time who have given in to Henry VIII’s demands. A well-intentioned friend tries to repair the rupture:

The Duke of Norfolk: Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

Christian fellowship is a very important thing because it reflects our relatedness to others in God’s order. But it has to be Christian fellowship. There are all sorts of communities that present themselves as a more humane order, powerful communities of celebrities and public figures and media channels, that try to make us feel that our resistance is, at best, theological hair-splitting and, at worst, dangerous trouble-making.

The results may not be immediately evident, but Bishop Jefferts-Schori has arrived at the endpoint of some currents that have already established a strong beach-head in Catholicism itself. They are not more universal than the universal Church. Despite their presence in international bodies and prestigious intellectual circles, we might call the whole confused mess global sectarianism.

Dear brother More, ora pro nobis.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.