Postmodern Gray Lady goes post-facts

What we have here is a really interesting New York Times story about a significant development among liberal mainline Protestants in Belgium that could end up spreading to other parts of Europe.

It seems that, in response to the hellish clergy-abuse scandals in the Catholic church in their land, small circles of Catholics have decided to leave the church and start their own independent Protestant congregations that offer an interesting blend of free-church, egalitarian church government and their own versions of catholic, small “c,” liturgies.

The end result sounds like a blend of the United Church of Christ and a liberal Lutheran body, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It’s kind of hard to tell, however, if this new Belgium church has any kind of hierarchy at all. It sounds like a network of free churches.

So what’s the problem? Well, you can see the train go off the rails in the opening paragraphs:

BUIZINGEN, Belgium – Willy Delsaert is a retired railroad employee with dyslexia who practiced intensively before facing the suburban Don Bosco Catholic parish to perform the Sunday Mass rituals he grew up with.

“Who takes this bread and eats,” he murmured, cracking a communion wafer with his wife at his side, “declares a desire for a new world.”

With those words, Mr. Delsaert, 60, and his fellow parishioners are discreetly pioneering a grass-roots movement that defies centuries of Roman Catholic Church doctrine by worshiping and sharing communion without a priest. Don Bosco is one of about a dozen alternative Catholic churches that have sprouted and grown in the last two years in Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium and the Netherlands. They are an uneasy reaction to a combination of forces: a shortage of priests, the closing of churches, dissatisfaction with Vatican appointments of conservative bishops and, most recently, dismay over cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests.

OK, for starters, I doubt that Delsaert grew up hearing a Mass that included this sentence: “Who takes this bread and eats, declares a desire for a new world.” The other problem, of course, is that he is not an ordained Catholic priest and the rite at which he is assisting is not a Catholic Mass. Thus, he may be leading a flock in a Belgium Catholic Church, a new independent body, but it is not part of the Roman Catholic Church.

These believers have every right to form their own congregations and to do whatever they want to do — as independents (in other words, as Protestants). The Times has every right to report about their activities. Like I said, this is a fascinating, timely and, in a way, truly tragic story. The scandal in Belgium is what it is. I used the word “hellish” for a reason.

The problem, once again, is that the Times is not interested in the actual facts of the story, in terms of doctrine and church history.

The train officially crashes with the following passage.

In the view of Rome, only ordained priests can celebrate Mass or preside over most sacraments like baptisms and marriage. “If there are persons or groups that do not observe these norms, the competent bishops — who know what really happens — have to see how to intervene and explain what is in order and out of order if someone belongs to the Catholic Church,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said. …

“Something is beginning to crack,” said the Rev. Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and former vice rector at the Catholic University of Louvain, which is considering dropping the “Catholic” from its name. “I think the Belgian Catholic Church is starting to feel something exceptional for the first time in 40 years. A lot of Catholics are waking up and speaking out.”

The key is this phrase — “In the view of Rome.”

You see, the Times has decided that the views expressed by the Vatican and by Pope Benedict XVI are simply one viewpoint in the wider Catholic world. Doctrines that have been in place for 1,000 or 2,000 years are merely optional. Thus saith the Times.

Sorry, but to be a Catholic priest in the ancient Catholic church requires being in Communion with the pope of Rome. That is not a controversial statement. It’s a fact of history.

Journalists should cover disputes about the actions of Rome and the debates that result. Journalists should accurately report the views of those who dissent from Rome and, yes, accurately report their claims — the Womenpriests come to mind — that they are still Catholics.

However, it’s totally bizarre to say that “in the view of Rome” these independent believers are not Catholic priests who are leading Catholic rites.

Why? The Vatican is the institution that ordains and retains Catholic priests, through its bishops around the world who are in a state of Communion with the pope of Rome. Love it or leave it.

This is not breaking news, folks. This is like saying that you can have an Eastern Orthodox priest who was not ordained by a bishop who is part of a canonical Eastern Orthodox church, serving under an Eastern Orthodox bishop. This is like saying that a Messianic Christian who calls himself a rabbi is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi simply because he says that he is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Would editors at the Times do that?

This is like saying that someone can play for the New York Yankees without the legal permission of the New York Yankees. Or try this: Start your OWN gender-neutral New York Yankees squad and try to show up and play the canonical Red Sox team. Let’s see how the Times handles that one.

It’s like saying that you can play in the New York Philharmonic without being hired by the hierarchy of that great organization. It’s like saying you are an editorial writer at the New York Times without the blessings of the bishops of the Times and getting on their payroll.

“In the view of the Electoral College of the United States of America,” radio talk superstar Glen Beck is not the president of the United States. That’s true, of course, but what’s the point of saying that? Beck is not the president of the United States. That’s a fact.

The authority of the Electoral College is not in doubt, in terms of the basic facts of journalism. Ditto for the publisher of the New York Times or the owner of the New York Yankees.

Neither is the ecclesiastical authority of the Vatican, in terms of the basic facts of journalism.

It’s great to cover this kind of controversy. It’s great to accurately quote both sides. But there is no need for the leadership of the Times to go post-factual on us and drift off into the postmodern mists of journalistic heresy.

PHOTO: St. Rombouts Cathedral, seat of the Catholic hierarchy in Belgium. The headquarters of The New York Times.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    It’s also a little odd that they pick “baptism and marriage” as an example of two sacraments that “only ordained priests” can preside over (and what exactly do they mean by ‘preside’?), since in an emergency a layperson can baptise – you don’t need to be Catholic, you don’t even need to be a Christian! – and in matrimony, it is the couple themselves who are the ministers of the sacrament (for various other purposes, a priest should witness the marriage and celebrate the Nuptial Mass, but he doesn’t ‘make’ them married).

    This is supposed to be what? The Belgian equivalent of the Roman Catholic Women Priests? That despite “the Vatican”, there are so women, married and gay Roman Catholic priests out there?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    The key is this phrase — “In the view of Rome.”

    You see, the Times has decided that the views expressed by the Vatican and by Pope Benedict XVI are simply one viewpoint in the wider Catholic world.

    Secular journalism reflects relativism.

    I understand you getting worked up about it, and so I encourage you to write a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times about it.

  • Ed Mechmann

    What was the dateline on that story, “Wittenberg, October 31, 1517″?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ED:

    No, that would be story about the Protestant Reformation.

    TRUTH:

    I accept relativism as a given in the debate. Quote both sides.

    I am arguing with the VOICE OF THE NEWSPAPER being post-historical, post-factual.

    There’s a difference.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I’ve come to expect this kind of general relativism in religious reportage from the NYT; that actually bothers me less than it probably should.

    What is really confusing about this fluffy bunny of a story is that it is so unclear (to my reading, anyhow) on what is the relationship between the so-called ecclesia movement and the Roman Catholic Church. Are they celebrating in churches owned by the RCC, in parishes constituted by the RCC? Or are they wholly independent from the institutional church, as the use of the word ‘alternative’ suggests? If they are independent, do they hold themselves out as being part of the RCC, or as an independent, non-Roman-Catholic catholic church (like the Old Catholic Churches)?

    There are a lot of questions left unanswered here; as it is, the lack of much hard info makes it hard for a discerning reader to know quite how to feel about the situation in Belgium. Perhaps a better approach would be to go heavy on facts, and quit pretending that everything is all sunshine and unicorns with these dissenters.

  • http://jchichetto@stonehill.edu jay

    The Belgian bishops don’t seem to mind. After all, the “innovators” are using Belgian Catholic churches for their prayers and gatherings. If the bishops really minded they would have prohibited them from using the churches (as American bishops prohibit gay Catholics from using Catholic churches for gatherings). The Belgium Catholics seem to be replicating what the Brazilian Catholic church is doing: lay people preach, baptize, deacons officiate at weddings, etc. Haowever, they don’t celebrate Mass. Instead they have Eucharist services (with consecrated hosts) with lay presiders.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    … In the Catholic Church not just priests officially preside at or celebrate the sacraments of marriage and baptism. Ordained deacons also do so (along with preaching, presiding at wakes, and officiating at funerals and benediction services–as well as being those who are the ones who should be chosen, according to canon law, as the administrators of a parish in the absence of a resident pastor. Most of us are also married, but the media constantly labels all Catholic clergy (of which deacons are a part) as all being celibate. Among Catholic clergy only priests and bishops must vow to remain celibate.
    I often wonder, is the political and world affairs coverage of the Times– and much of the rest of the mainstream media–as completely misleading and inaccurate as its religious coverage so often is?

  • Jerry

    To me, the story was clearly about breakaway Catholics and not about a significant development among liberal mainline Protestants. I don’t understand Terry’s rationale for asserting that the story was about Protestants rather than breakaway Catholics. It seems like a bigger journalistic sin than the Time’s poor choice of the phrase “in the view of Rome”.

    Also, the rest of the article made official Church doctrine quite clear in other phrases which Terry posted here and which he should have mentioned.

    Finally, jay’s comments make me wonder if the situation in Brazil adds up to a more complex situation than the article covered.

  • Bill

    Among Catholic clergy only priests and bishops must vow to remain celibate.

    Deacon, are there also nuns or brothers who do not take a vow of celibacy? (I mean in the Vatican Catholic Church, not the NYT catholic church.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Really funny, big guy.

    What I was saying is that they are now functionally mainline Protest in their approach to church life and in their approach to worship. What we MAY have here is the birth of a new mainline Prot denomination, the Belgium version of the Church of England. Of course, that would require the defection of several bishops …

  • Julia

    Are they celebrating in churches owned by the RCC, in parishes constituted by the RCC?

    Many, many Catholic churches in Europe are owned by the government. I lost the link, but recently learned from a reliable historical site that much of this happened during the time of Napoleon. The government confiscated church property, churches, rectories, and rental & agricultural property that helped support the church, and in return promised to pay the priests and ministers’ salaries and upkeep of the church buildings. It’s kind of like our government dipping into SS payments for general revenue reasons and promising to pay the IOUs later as needed instead of people having their own retirement plans. It’s a matter of control, not belief.

    There is a church tax in many European governments that raises some of the revenue necessary for support and upkeep of the various recognized churches. That’s why most European countries have approved and unapproved churches. You probably read about Germany refusing to recognize Scientology as an official religion.

    There were stories in the last year or two that communities of homeless Muslims are living in some big, old Catholic churches. So maybe these churches are used for lots of other things that would seem odd to us – maybe including services run in contravention to Catholic canon law.

    Church and state in Europe is very entangled and partly explains many people’s antipathy for Christianity. I have read that Benedict very much admires the separation of Church and state in the US; likes that it’s all voluntarily supported; and thinks the US situation, in general, is a good model for fixing Christian woes in Europe.

    BTW Protestants by definition are break-away Catholics.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bill–I said “among Catholic clergy”–that is those ordained. Nuns and brothers do take a vow of celibacy, but they are not ordained so are not considered “clergy.” And it is the word “clergy” the media so often conflates inaccurately with “priest” as if the only Catholic clergy are priests and all Catholic clergy are vowed to celibacy.
    There have been married Catholic clergy (deacons) since right after Vatican II starting about a half century ago. Do you think maybe the media ought to have caught on by now?

  • Julia

    Here’s the 2006 stories with lots of photos of Muslim illegal immigrants squatting in Catholic Churches in Belgium. So why not non-Catholic Catholics? Source is not a main stream newspaper but the photos are pretty persuasive.

    The Muslim squatters hold Islamic prayer services in the church. The altar has been moved and the statue of Our Lady covered by a cloth to hide her from the eyes of the Muslim believers.

    The squatters live in tents in the churches. The tents are being provided by Catholic relief organisations. They have also been offered radios, television sets and computers.

    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/1053

    http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/1051/print

    Scroll down to paragraph #4 of this piece from the late 1990s which sets forth how churches and now Muslim schools & mosques etc are supported by the state in Belgium. I didn’t realize the government even pays for new buildings. The taxpayers, even the atheists, pay for all of this.

    http://www.flw.ugent.be/cie/CIE/deley3.htm

    http://www.flw.ugent.be/cie/CIE/deley3.htm

  • John M

    Terry, I echo Jerry here that calling these folks “Protestants” without some major qualifiers is a stretch to say the least. It’s not the 16th century anymore. Disassociating from the Pope in 2010 doesn’t by itself make you a Protestant.

    -John

  • Hector

    Re: What I was saying is that they are now functionally mainline Protest in their approach to church life and in their approach to worship. What we MAY have here is the birth of a new mainline Prot denomination, the Belgium version of the Church of England.

    I don’t agree, it isn’t that simple. “Protestant” doesn’t simply mean, “A Western church not in communion with Rome”. (If that’s taken as the definition, then the Albigensians and the Montanists were Protestant too). The word ‘Protestant’ connotes a whole slew of theological doctrines (about the Mother of God, about purgatory, about the Real Presence, about giving veneration to the saints and angels, etc.) that, for example, many Anglicans and Old Catholics don’t accept, and I doubt that these Belgian fellows would accept them either. That’s the reason that many Anglicans are unhappy about being called ‘protestant’.

    Leaving ecclesiology aside, it seems clear to me that, for example, Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict have more in common with each other than either of them does with, say, Rick Warren.

    I’m uncomfortable enough when my own church is referred to loosely as Protestant- we aren’t Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t necessarily make us Protestant either. Let’s not further cloud the issue by forcing on these Belgian folks a label they may not welcome, either.

  • Hector

    Re: I don’t understand Terry’s rationale for asserting that the story was about Protestants rather than breakaway Catholics. It seems like a bigger journalistic sin than the Time’s poor choice of the phrase “in the view of Rome”.

    yes, I agree with Jerry. There seems to be very little that’s meaningfully ‘Protestant’ about the breakaway Belgian churches.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Many, many Catholic churches in Europe are owned by the government [etc.]

    Thanks for that info, Julia. I was unaware of a lot of that.

  • Marie

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/protestant

    What is a Protestant? Here is a dictionary definition (Definition 2). In the broad sense to say they are functionally protestant is correct. Clearly they have rejected the authority of Rome and are practicing in neither Catholic nor Eastern Traditions (or is the correct term rite/communtion?) . In a more specific sense they could not be labeled as Protestant Protestant without knowledge of their specific doctrine.

    I find it humorous, in a tragic way, that the media can’t seem to understand that there is no one Islam but now seeks to present a world with no one Roman Catholic rite.

  • Julia

    In England & Wales, I think all the Anglican churches are owned by the government, but not any of the others. When it became legal to be Catholic again in the early 1800s, the Catholics had to build and support new churches with their own funds. However, all kinds of schools sponsored by a variety of churches get most of their money from the government.

  • Passing By

    Marie -

    The Catholic Church is some 23 or so churches, often referred to as “Rites”, that are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, much as the Anglican national churches form the “Anglican Communion” in communion with Canterbury. Eastern Orthodoxy is likewise a “Communion” of national and other local Churches (autonomous and autocephalous are two terms I remember, but the exact usage escapes me).

    Tmatt’s use of “protestant” is historically anomalous, since these groups don’t derive from 16th century northern European ideology (though clearly influenced by it), but I agree with you that his use of the term is functionally correct.

    Journalism, though:

    cracking a communion wafer .

    That’s the best laugh I’ve had all day. It sort of encapsulates how serious this rebellion is.

    And if they are doing all of this “discreetly”, how did they end up in the New York Times? It reminds me of a film I saw where Glenn Gould is walking by a like in angst-ridden solitude, but then you realize a camera crew was there to capture the solitude. :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    VARIOUS:

    * I think the issue of who owns the buildings is a key to why Rome has not been more firm on this, that and the horrid nature of the scandal there. The Vatican may be trying to save connections to as many of these little flocks as possible.

    * I used the term Protestant in a more accurate way than the Times used the word Catholic. That was sort of the point.

    * So the Catholics here in comments basically agree that if you are not in Communion with an ancient Church then one is, essentially, Protestant. Bingo.

    * The folks here in comments land who essentially seem to disagree with Rome seem to think that the word Catholic must be interpreted in a rather postmodern and non-factual way. In other words, they back what the Times did. That’s sort of the point, too.

    * The priest isn’t a priest. The Mass isn’t a Mass. The parish isn’t a Catholic parish. It’s something new. There isn’t even, at this point, a claim of apostolic succession — until some bishops revolt. Looks like the United Church of Christ meets do-it-yourself-liturgy to me.

  • Chris

    It appears that, effectively, no-one owns Anglican parish churches in England http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=13603

  • Bill

    In #12, Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    Nuns and brothers do take a vow of celibacy, but they are not ordained so are not considered “clergy.” And it is the word “clergy” the media so often conflates inaccurately with “priest” as if the only Catholic clergy are priests and all Catholic clergy are vowed to celibacy.

    Thanks, Deacon. I did not know nuns and brothers were not considered clergy. I recall that all religious back in Medieval times were, and fell under clerical or Canon law. Even University students received a tonsure and were granted clerical status. (Imagine if all college students today could not be subject to civil authority!)

    I knew, as Passing By wrote in #20, there are a number of Rites or autonomous churches in communion with Rome, but retaining their own liturgies and other characteristics. I did not know how many, if any, have married clergy or nuns and brothers.

    You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the NYT seems not to care about scorecards, rule books or who’s on first.

    In Sarah’s post about Jim & Tammy’s son, there seems to be in the article discussed a flippancy and carelessness about doctrine and definition. Those things don’t matter. Being edgy does. Remember Flip Wilson’s “Church of What’s Happenin’ Now?”

  • Bill

    Sorry for the italics in #23. My mistake.

  • Jim

    I’m sure the priests and friars who used to work on Sunday are glad to be free for brunch.

  • Martha

    tmatt, if you feel called in your heart to be the editor of “The New York Times”, I for one will support your candidacy to bring democracy and empowerment of the laity to the closed, conservative, hierarchical world of traditional ink-on-woodpulp newspapers ;-)

    Regarding who is and isn’t a Protestant, and what constitutes Protestantism, I believe that the Anglicans (and some, at least, of the Lutherans?) do not consider themselves “Protestants” but rather Catholics (according to the ‘branch theory’), whereby you have Roman Catholics and Anglican Catholicism (or Catholic Anglicanism), and one is as good as the other.

    I still think most people would agree that a Lutheran or an Anglican is not the same thing as an RC, and if these Belgians are going ahead with a DIY church, then they may (arguably) be Catholics, but it’s more along the lines of a breakaway denomination and not “just as much Roman Catholics as the Vatican”.

  • tipi tim

    i think i remember a recent Pope (in the last 50 years) saying that all people are Roman Catholics as the Church is made up of rings expanding outward from the Vatican. sorry i can’t remember more accurately than that.
    the armchair theologian in me would make a narrower definition than that though.

  • Jon in the Nati

    tmatt, if you feel called in your heart to be the editor of “The New York Times”

    He already is… just not in the view of the New York Times management.

  • Jerry

    * I used the term Protestant in a more accurate way than the Times used the word Catholic. That was sort of the point.

    One reason I objected to your use of the word was my reading of why they took that action. Two reasons were closing churches and lack of priests and a third is sexual abuse. None of these are theological issues on the order of Luther’s 95 theses. Even the conservative issue does not in my opinion rise to that level.

    One definition is

    a member of any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth;

    I would not assign the word “denomination” to that group of break-away Catholics, at least not now. And that’s another reason I objected.

    Also, the sense I got was that they feel that the Catholic church left them, not that they left that church. I would therefore put them in the same ballpark with SSPX and other such groups that have objected to Papal actions from the left and right as outlined in http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=4121&CFID=58540241&CFTOKEN=94662528

  • Hector

    Re: * So the Catholics here in comments basically agree that if you are not in Communion with an ancient Church then one is, essentially, Protestant. Bingo.

    The claim of many of us in the Church of England is that the Church of England is the legitimate and lineal descendant of the first Christian communities established in the British Isles by bishops and priests in the apostolic succession, and is therefore, in itself, an Ancient Church. If you’re in communion with the Church of England, then you are, ipso facto, in communion with an anceient church (in my opinion).

    If you mean, by ‘ancient church,’ either ‘Rome or Constantinople’, then by that logic the Church of Armenia is also Protestant. As would the Montanists, the Arians, the Docetists, the Albigensians, and the followers of Joachim of Flora. Which would be ridiculous.

    Re: a member of any of several church denominations denying the universal authority of the Pope and affirming the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth;

    This definition would be closer to the truth; unfortunately for TMatt, many Anglicans (and members of the Belgian churches, presumably) would only agree with the first premise, and not with the other three.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    … I wouldn’t say that being out of communion with Rome made a group Protestant, but I do see a parallel here with these breakaway house churches. One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was a desire to get away from the Church hierarchy and set their own standards for who had authority to do what. Hence, the various Protestant churches have widely varying definitions of ordination, from the Anglican sorta-apostolic succession to the six-week Bible college certificate. These breakaway groups do as some of the early Protestant sects did, in trying to do the same thing without priests that they had always done with priests. (If that makes sense.)

  • Theresa Henderson

    “… It’s like saying you are an editorial writer at the New York Times without the blessings of the bishops of the Times and getting on their payroll….”

    I LIKE it!! Let’s all go, walk on in and just do it!
    Great idea although it was tongue in cheek.

  • Hector

    Re: One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was a desire to get away from the Church hierarchy and set their own standards for who had authority to do what.

    Breaking away from the church hierarchy was a hallmark of EVERY Christian heresy starting in the first century; it’s what makes you, in the view of Rome, a heresy by definition. Treating that as the defining criterion of what makes a Protestant not only fails to distinguish Anglicans from Baptists, but it also fails to distinguish those Christian schools of thought deriving from Luther and Calvin from the schools of thought deriving from Socinus, Arius, Nestorius, Severus of Antioch, Marcion, Jean de Lugio, or Joachim of Flora.

    Protestantism was a specific type of Christianity, originating in a specific historical moment, with specific beliefs. It isn’t a sort of catch-all phrase meaning ‘western and not Roman Catholic’. TMatt’s phraseology is not only grating to Anglicans and Old Catholics, but it’s also absurdly narrow, because it defines as the essential characteristic of a Christian movement, ‘whether you are, or are not, in communion with Rome’. It’s as silly as, from a Mormon viewpoint, classifying Christians into one group who subscribes to the teaching of Joseph Smith, and then grouping together everyone else as ‘Gentiles’.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Protestantism was a specific type of Christianity, originating in a specific historical moment, with specific beliefs.

    I understand that, Hector. I didn’t mean the the Belgian dissidents had actually grafted themselves onto that tradition. What I meant was that this group seems to have parallels within the Protestant reformation, especially among the Radical Reformers. They didn’t just break away from the Roman hierarchy, they broke away from the very idea of a hierarchy. These Belgian groups appear to be d0oing something similar, in preserving some forms of Roman worship while not recognizing Roman authority and instead instituting their own authority in individual congregations.

    I should have commented earlier on this:

    In the view of Rome, only ordained priests can celebrate Mass or preside over most sacraments like baptisms and marriage.

    My take is that the NYT is using “in the view of Rome” as a clumsy way of saying that these unauthorized sacraments are not recognized by Rome. I doubt anybody really thinks that Rome holds that there are no marriages, baptisms or even Masses other than those celebrated by Roman priests.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    @ Julia: “Church and state in Europe is very entangled and partly explains many people’s antipathy for Christianity. I have read that Benedict very much admires the separation of Church and state in the US; likes that it’s all voluntarily supported; and thinks the US situation, in general, is a good model for fixing Christian woes in Europe.”

    It’d be a good model if the US and Europe had more of a common attitude towards religion. What makes Benedict think that attitudes created by centuries of dicvergence would be fixed by–what? Institutional changes which would deprivilege established churches would run serious risks of harming them. One anti-clerical site calculated that, directly or indirectly, the Spanish state subsidized the Church and its various operations to the tune of six billion Euros.

    http://www.concordatwatch.eu/showtopic.php?org_id=845&kb_header_id=36851

    Would the Spanish Catholic Church benefit from disestablishment? Would other established churches elsewhere do as well?

    Anyway, I’m skeptical of the thesis. Leaving apart the long history of formally and informally established religion in many American states, the entrenched geography of levels of active religious identity and practice suggests that relatively higher levels of religiosity owe more to long-seated cultural markers of some American cultures, not of American cultures as a whole. Besides, England has a long history of tolerance for sects, English Canada had a similar religious history to the United States but has substantially lower levels of identity and practice, while the Netherlands and German Switzerland stand out as compact, ethnically homogeneous, and religiously diverse societies which still see low levels of practice and identity than those found in the United States.

    @ Hector: “Protestantism was a specific type of Christianity, originating in a specific historical moment, with specific beliefs. It isn’t a sort of catch-all phrase meaning ‘western and not Roman Catholic’. TMatt’s phraseology is not only grating to Anglicans and Old Catholics, but it’s also absurdly narrow, because it defines as the essential characteristic of a Christian movement, ‘whether you are, or are not, in communion with Rome’. It’s as silly as, from a Mormon viewpoint, classifying Christians into one group who subscribes to the teaching of Joseph Smith, and then grouping together everyone else as ‘Gentiles’.”

    Exactly. Sometimes postmodernism can be quite right in recognizing that people often act within the frameworks of extended religious traditions. These people are relating to their religion not as secessionists, but rather as Catholics who are practicing a highly selective form of dissent within the Church.

  • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com/ Tony Layne

    “Protestantism was a specific type of Christianity, originating in a specific historical moment, with specific beliefs.”

    Yes and no. The term arose as a lump description of the massive breakaway from Catholicism post-1517. But while the different churches that arose in the 16th and 17th century did have specific beliefs, those beliefs weren’t all of a piece. And as the term is used today, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, it refers to the subset of Christianity that rejects not only papal authority but the authority of the formal Church as a whole. It’s not a case of “you can maintain at least 51% of the dogmas and still call yourself Catholic”, which seems to be the attitude not only of the NYT but also of dissident groups like these. The Eastern Orthodox communions aren’t Protestant because they maintain the apostolic authority of the episcopate along with 95-99.9% of the dogmatic tradition. Sorry, but to call these “ecclesias” Protestant—even better, crypto-Protestant—is eminently reasonable and apposite.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And. don’t. forget. the. Mormons. (Can’t be much more of a WESTERN church.)

    This is a chronic complaint of mine. Does not-in-obedience-to-the-Pope outrank in importance salvation by faith alone, Sola Scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers?

  • Julia

    Would the Spanish Catholic Church benefit from disestablishment? Would other established churches elsewhere do as well?

    The Catholic Church in Spain [not the Spanish Catholic Church] is not doing all that well. It’s current government is very anti-church. Benedict seems to think that a smaller church of people who really believe in it might be a good thing.

    The point is that much of the active dislike and disdain for Christianity in Europe is from people who resent having their taxes support institutions in which they don’t believe. It’s not just established churches that are supported by taxes in many countries on the Continent.

    There is a growing militancy among atheists in Europe and the UK which is partly due to being taxed to support churches. And it’s feeding the march towards secularism.

    Even in France where “laicite” is the by-word of the government, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not owned by the Catholic church.

    When the French government officially separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church early in the 20th century, it took ownership of all cathedrals owned by the church, and they became public buildings. This included Notre-Dame. The cathedral is now technically managed by the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques (the National Historical Monument Trust), a government agency that is responsible for most major landmarks. Services are still held inside the cathedral by the Catholic church, however, and it still manages the cathedral in many respects as if it still owned the structure.

    From a website all about Paris which looks legit:
    http://www.atkielski.com/main/NotreDameFAQ.html

  • Julia

    Chris:

    It appears that, effectively, no-one owns Anglican parish churches in England

    After reading the article, it appears that the local parish churches still operate somewhat under feudal rules left over from the Middle Ages.

    There’s an interesting website in the UK that has info and photos of all the churches in Suffolk which is fascinating – even the BBC has now featured the site and its author and webmaster. Looking through the different little & big churches and their histories, its easy to see how ownership is unclear.

    http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/Alist.htm

  • Doreen Carvajal

    I appreciate the feedback and some of the comments. It might interest you to know that the people involved in these churches still consider themselves Catholic. And as was stated in the story, Don Bosco church is a nearly 60 year old Catholic church. The retiring pastor helped church members prepare for his retirement by developing this alternative. They are advising other existing Catholic churches facing priest shortages about how to come up with their own models of operating without priests.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    Julia:

    “The Catholic Church in Spain [not the Spanish Catholic Church] is not doing all that well. It’s current government is very anti-church.”

    Certainly the government–same-sex marriage, say. It can do that only because the mass of Spaniards no longer accept the Church’s moral authority.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Spain

    Ther’s the falling number of priests, nuns, and other clerics. More to the point, same-sex marriage is accepted by a large majority of Spaniards, say, and I’d be surprised if this acceptance of alternate family structures wasn’t accompanied by an overall diversification in family structures (cohabitation, postponed fertility, et cetera). The Church’s close alliance with the Popular Party hasn’t done much for its status as a politically neutral entity, either.

    It’s the apparent self-disqualification of the Catholic Church as an entity capable of making moral pronouncements that’s done a great job fo discrediting the traditional role of the Church in public life. Clerical abuse is the trigger for the splits in the Netherlandophone churches, while in Newfoundland the Mount Cashel and related sex scandals led directly to popular support for the abolition of the old denominational school system and its replacement with a secular one. People may not like subsidizing this institution, but that’s a secondary affair.

    The idea of abandoning the idea of a mission to the mass of Spaniards–who, it sh9ould be noted, still retain a Catholic identity–may not be a good one at all. Apart from giving up on the large majority of the Spanish population and losing still more relevance, how would a shrunken chruch support itself? Will we be seeing more churches put up on the market for redevelopment, say? (Unlike Québec particularly but also much of the rest of Canada, the decidedly non-buoyant Spanish property market but save Spanish chruches for the church for some time.)

    What would the church look like if it liquidated itself and its mission?

  • Julia

    Donald:

    I should have added that the people, too, are growing apart from the church. A lot of it is hold-over from Franco days and also the things you mention.

    Nobody is talking about the church intentionally liquidating itself. But Benedict is recognizing the facts on the ground and thinking about what a smaller church is going to be like. He’s a very realistic man.

  • Victoria

    tmatt’s piece is astonishingly sloppy. As a student of history and of religion, I can only echo what others have said above. (1) Since when is “Protestant” a synonym for “any Western church independent of Rome”? (2) Since when does “Catholic” mean only “Roman Catholic”?

    (1) As Hector has correctly pointed out above, “Protestant” is not a catch-all. It does indeed refer most accurately to particular churches and theologies with particular origins – much like any other proper denominational descriptor. Furthermore, “Protestant” becomes less and less useful and more and more contested when it is applied to groups further and further removed from Reformation-era Europe. Are Baptists “Protestant”? Most people would say yes (myself included) – but not a few Baptists have historically objected to that. Likewise, are the 19th century Restorationists “Protestant”? Are Pentecostals “Protestant”? (By now we’re describing a group with widely divergent views from sola scriptura, to say the least!) Are Jehovah’s Witnesses “Protestant”? Kimbanguists? Other AICs?

    (2) As to the second question – whether “Catholic” is a merely a perfect synonym for “Roman Catholic” – I am appalled by tmatt’s “analysis.” I know of no serious scholar who would insist that the Old Catholic Churches are “Protestant” merely because they are not in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Ditto, say, the Polish National Catholic Church. Ditto the various sedevacantists. Historical examples abound too. Was the Church of England “Protestant” under Henry VIII (but prior to Edward VI)? tmatt would probably say yes – but then he’d have a tricky time explaining why the Henrician Church spent so much time burning Protestant reformers at the stake!

    tmatt’s effort to foist the label of “Protestant” on breakaway Catholics displays an ignorance of both terms. To suggest that the label “Catholic” can be as simply applied as the title “President of the United States” (as tmatt actually does!) is downright laughable. There is indeed a nice clean test for whether a person or a congregation is “Roman Catholic.” But “Roman Catholic” and “Catholic” are simply not the same thing, as the existence of various breakaway Catholic churches indicates.

    tmatt, this isn’t nitpicky stuff. You either have a big ole axe to grind when it comes to Rome, or else you flunked out of Religion 101. In either case, one wonders why you are writing critically about religious matters…

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    tmatt, #21: “* So the Catholics here in comments basically agree that if you are not in Communion with an ancient Church then one is, essentially, Protestant. Bingo.”

    No, not bingo. See Victoria’s comment in #43.