Addressing an Anglican conference at Holy Trinity Brompton yesterday, Friedrich Cardinal Schörborn declared that the election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis was due to certain strong, supernatural ‘signs’ before and during the conclave events. He then compared the appointment of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to the election of the pope, calling it a ‘little miracle’ and ‘a sign from the Lord’ for the churches to move to closer unity.
By now, readers of this blog will know that such a declaration is the sort of thing that makes me ecstatic, both in the emotional and charismatic sense. After all, I am an Anglican, but I self-identify as catholic, and I am often conflicted over calling myself ‘Anglo-Catholic’ because I am not an Englishman and harbour no desire to return to that odd, dominating construct we once called the British Empire. That is why, after all, I’ve styled myself a ‘Chinglican.’ For some, these ambivalences may read as falling precisely into what Pope Francis–then Cardinal Bergoglio–condemned prior to the conclave: the ‘self-referential’ Church as a sick, old, and dying Church because it fails to participate in the missio Dei.
Indeed, even when I was an evangelical–that is, when I thought like an evangelical, I spoke like an evangelical, I reasoned like an evangelical–I was accused of being un-missional because it was alleged that I was more interested in church politics, contemplative spirituality, and complex theological terminology than in making the faith accessible through attractive programming and simple language. One time, for example, I was in the home of an evangelical mentor when I pitched the idea of having a class on eschatology, as many people to whom I had spoken (both those in the church and not) expressed a curiosity about the Last Things. He raised his finger and pointed at me: ‘You,’ he said. ‘How dare you. People are lost, and all you want to do is to make things more complicated. Our job is to make things easier for people to understand so that more people can teach this stuff. Who do you think you are?’
He was, in short, calling me ‘self-referential,’ a traitor to the cause of the mission to expand the kingdom of Christ through evangelism and discipleship.
It has been years since this experience, but I finally have a reply. To make my response, I’d like to appropriate critical theorist Judith Butler’s reply to those who call her anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli state policy: ‘No, it is not anti-Semitic,’ she says, because of the internal contestations within Judaic tradition about the state and because she is hanging on to a narrative of dispossession and precarity within Judaica. In the same way, my appeals to the Christian tradition, particularly a revisionist Anglican one with a deep desire for fuller catholicity, can be framed similarly.
No, I say. It is not self-referential. This is because of the inconvenient fact of Catholic social teaching.
After all, May 15 is the day that we celebrate the promulgation of decisive encyclicals in Catholic social teaching: Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, Pius XI’s Quadrogesimo Anno, and John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra. Now, Catholic social teaching can often be confused with Catholic sexual teaching. After all, most of what people know about Catholic social teaching is drawn from Monty Python’s ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’ in The Meaning of Life, a hysterically hilarious lampooning of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial birth control as contrary to the natural gift of children through the unitive and procreative sex act. It’s so funny, in fact, that you should see it yourself:
To be sure, this misconception is not altogether unjustified. It has in fact been highlighted in recent forays into public politics by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their opposition to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to require religious organizations that do not only serve members of their own faith to insure their employees for artificial contraception, including medications deemed by the bishops to be abortifacient (like Plan B). In addition, it’s fairly well-known that the current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, was the ‘godfather of Proposition 8‘ when he was bishop of Oakland, raising money to promote a grassroots initiative to write into the state constitution that California only recognizes marriage between one man and one woman. Most recently, Archbishop Allen Vigneron has also told Detroit Catholics who disagree with these socially and sexually conservative stances to refrain from taking communion, implying that opposition to contraception and alternative kinship structures is the definitive Catholic view on sexual and social relations.
Whatever your stance on sexuality issues and traditional family values, these bishops’ interpretation of Catholic social teaching isn’t necessarily wrong or even misguided (it is, however, a particular strand of Catholic sexual teaching emphasizing natural law that is debated among Catholics). Instead, what you can say about it is that it elevates a part of Catholic social teaching that’s actually fairly latent in the encyclicals I just named. It’s actually a bit of a derivative dogma, something that can be drawn out of the concerns of Catholic social teaching as articulated in Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum.
See, Catholic social teaching is best articulated as a Catholic response to current political economic conditions, namely, the threat of unfettered market fundamentalism, what sociologist Max Weber would call the ‘iron cage’ of industrial capitalism with its disenchanting bureaucratic logic permeating everything it touches in the world, what Leo XIII called the ‘new things,’ rerum novarum. While commending socialists for attempting to better labour conditions, Rerum novarum rejects a socialist ideology that places property ownership in the hands of the state and out of the hands of workers themselves. Proposing a C
atholic alternative to socialism, Leo XIII emphasized human dignity, arguing that it is the state’s duty to protect the dignity of workers, even as workers themselves had the right to own property, pursue human development in the arts, and make personal time for family. That‘s where the family doctrine comes in: Leo XIII affirmed the family as a basic unit of social relations to which all workers had a right as a matter of basic human dignity. In other words, workers have a right not to be subjectified by the state or the market into cogs in their industrial machine; their human dignity with the basic need for creativity and sociality must be fully recognized.
That‘s Catholic social teaching in a nutshell, a key theme that carries through the encyclicals that the Church is in solidarity with workers as they contest state and market modes of subjectification for their right to basic human dignity.
Anglican though he is, Justin Welby has taken Catholic social teaching as a sort of guiding light in introducing a new social priority to the Church of England: going after the corrupt banks that got us into the global economic mess that we’re in. What is needed, Welby argues, is a whole different way of imagining and managing the financial system, where the banks are not self-serving, but instead see their institutions as serving people. This is very close to what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, where the Pope Emeritus notes that both justice and the common good both emanate from a will to love and that what is probably needed is a global financial regulator to keep markets from becoming unfettered.
This is why the healing of schism is so important. The Church’s role is not simply to speak words of love; it is to demonstrate it in action. Longing for the recovery of Christian tradition for the sake of healing schism is not self-referential because there is a distinct social priority at the heart of catholicity: bearing witness to the reality that there is another way of being in the world. Who knows what this will mean for Canterbury and Rome? If Bergoglio’s words to Anglican Southern Cone primate Greg Venables is any indication–he told Venables that there was no need for an Anglican Ordinariate because Anglican charisms were already a gift to the church catholic–might it be possible that the next few years might hold within it a full return to communion between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church? Might this in turn signal a new springtime for Catholic social teaching in which the Church will be seen as decisively on the side of the poor and fully oppositional to any sort of self-serving institution that neglects the common good?
Home reunion in turn might clarify some of the things that came to light in the tenure of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. I’ve often noted that both did a fantastic job at one key thing: managing to polarize their entire communions on the left and the right, even as an impulse to catholic reunion has sort of been latent among the faithful, slowly rising to the surface. The appointment of Justin Welby and the election of Pope Francis doesn’t signify a break with Williams and Ratzinger. It’s a sign, as Schönborn put it so eloquently, that the Church is coming into all the truth, that the Spirit is moving among the people of God to rebuild the witness we shattered through our schismatic actions. Indeed, as we saw in Welby’s ‘Journey in Prayer’ pilgrimage through rural and urban dioceses in the Church of England, as well as Pope Francis’s coming out onto the loggia and then into the midst of the people to the chagrin of his security detail, we saw two prophetic priests emerging in the power of the Spirit declaring to the people of God that the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel, the Gospel not as an ideology, but as a whole new way of being that places love and forgiveness at the basis of human dignity, justice, and the common good. In short, in the faces of Justin Cantuar and Pope Francis, we are seeing Jesus and following him.
And yet, here is where those obsessed with developing distinctive theological identities will cry foul. Home reunion, it might be alleged, will soften distinctive points in Catholic and Anglican theology, riding roughshod over disagreements over papal primacy, the role of women, the place of LGBTIQ populations, the veneration of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the scientific inerrancy of Scripture, and the alone in justification by faith. In fact, as Rachel Held Evans pointed out in a post yesterday, it seems that it is evangelicals who are becoming more and more obsessed with constructing a distinctive identity, one that is becoming narrower with each blog post. In the spirit of attempting to remain distinctively evangelical, for example, the latest denial of Christian catholicity comes from Tim Challies, who rejects ‘mysticism’ as a subjective experience that challenges the inerrant authority of Scripture. Evans takes Challies to task by showing him how much she has grown from reading widely in the Christian mystical tradition. She even goes as far to say that Scripture cannot be a mediator between humans and the divine because we have no need for a mediator.
Here is where I can offer Rachel a bit of a corrective, as well as a parable for those who might oppose any sort of catholic reunion for ideological purposes. Our faith is mediated, but not by the Scriptural text, yes. It is through the sanctorum communio, what Bonhoeffer noted in his doctoral dissertation was the social manifestation of Christ in the present. To that end, we might note that Justin Welby offers evangelicals a different way forward, one that calls evangelicals out of being ‘self-referential.’ Welby has quite the evangelical life story. After all, he came to faith through the Alpha Course through the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton, a church that has also given evangelicals some of their cherished anthems like ‘Here I Am to Worship,’ ‘Everything,’ ‘Beautiful One,’ and ‘Consuming Fire.’ But unlike much of the anxiety among evangelicals over a distinctive evangelical identity, Justin Welby has no trouble taking on Catholic social teaching as a moral compass. Neither is he averse to conversation with Rome–one that will prove to be interesting in the Franciscan pontificate–nor is he unaware of the vast diversity of theologies, liturgies, and politics in the Anglican Communion. Justin Welby might thus serve as an example to evangelicals on how to be an evangelical. His story is also a parable to those who entrench themselves in ideologies that are inimical to catholicity. You see, evangelical identity is not achieved by being self-referential. It is by participating in the mission of God through the church that is becoming more catholic as the Spirit leads us into all truth. In the words of the Lord Jesus, it is to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow our crucified and risen Lord.
Co-crucifixion and the new sociality effected by the Resurrection are hardly self-referential.