We are all Protestants now

We are all Protestants now November 11, 2012
We're all Protestants now
nirots, FreeDigitalPhotos

“[D]o nothing apart from the bishop. . . .”
— Ignatius of Antioch,
Magnesians 7

One of the more intriguing narratives flowing out of the election concerns Roman Catholics bucking their bishops’ entreaties — some would say threats — to abstain from voting for candidates who support abortion and the HHS contraception mandate.

Regardless of the directive, a majority of Catholics punched the Obama/Biden ticket on November 6, acting as if the episcopal counsel counted for squat. This strikes me as an interesting development, demonstrating a significant breakdown in church authority. Apparently, we’re all Protestants now — each man his own magisterium, each person his own pope.

On Election Day, Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote about the importance of the contest and the gravity of the choice facing the faithful. “[E]lections are tough times for serious Catholics,” he wrote. “If we believe in the encyclical tradition — from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate — then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party.” Apparently it wasn’t that tough after all. Either the assumption proved wrong just hours after he wrote it, or the majority of Catholics aren’t “serious.” Either option bodes ill.

It’s not my intention to talk politics so much as point to something happening in our culture. It seems to me that individualism has become something of a universal solvent, corroding norms and institutions, including the church.

Chaput’s observation was couched in a larger argument about the aftereffects of the Reformation, and it’s worth reading closely.

The Protestant rejection of church authority stemmed primarily from the doctrine of sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible beats bishops when it comes to questions of doctrine and life.

Appealing to sola scriptura, Protestants dispensed with most of the church hierarchy and sacraments, scholasticism and the pre-scholastic patristic tradition. While simultaneously misunderstanding the role of tradition (in large measure because of Roman abuses of it), they jettisoned most aspects of it they couldn’t find in the two testaments, including those parts of the first testament they regarded as “Apocrypha” (though, curiously, some inexplicit things like Trinitarianism and Sunday worship were nonetheless retained, though there is no biblical warrant for them).

The problem is that if each individual or group of individuals is free to determine what stays and what goes, they will invariably arrive at differing — even mutually exclusive — lists. This is exactly what happened subsequent to Luther’s hammer strikes in Wittenberg. Hence the multitudinous Protestant denominations, churches, and roaming free agents.

Sola scriptura changed everything for Western Christendom,” said Chaput. “The Church became the churches, and the process inadvertently, but relentlessly, fueled individual sovereignty and relativism.”

That individualistic ethic has cut its way thorough all of Western life, affecting more than questions of Christian doctrine. It now affects virtually all moral considerations, family dynamics, social norms, basically everything, all the way up and down the chain. No wonder Alister McGrath called it “Christianity’s dangerous idea,” alongside which term it is useful to employ C.S. Lewis’ phrase, “the poison of subjectivism.” And it affects Catholics now as well as Protestants.

The pre-Kennedy concern in American politics was that Catholics would support Rome instead of Washington. Rest easy. If it wasn’t evident before, the Election of 2012 showed that disregarding the authority of the church is no longer a worry for American Catholics.

This is only the beginning. If the influence of the bishops wanes in one area, why not others? Disregarded sociopolitical direction will soon seem like nothing when the faithful start choosing which doctrines they will or will not countenance. For Americans this is particularly likely, as we are a people who offer a notorious shrug of the shoulders to most theological concerns. Protestants have never solved this problem, and now it seems likely Catholics must deal with it as well, if not soon, then eventually. Authority means little if unheeded.

I wonder if Luther saw how deep that nail would pierce.

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  • william crew

    since politics are the seedbed of the commentary, an observation; the orthodox are the religious equivalent of the negative spin candidate. infer your own worth by pointing out a lack elsewhere. in politics it is called ‘campaign in poetry, govern in prose’. words of granduer for yourself, accusation for the others. suggest that what catholics and protestants are not equates to what the orthodox are. elections are proof that some are easily and thoughtlessly persuaded. in both politics and denominational discourse, it takes courage to confess your own failings out loud, and it is weakness and pettiness that refuses to do so. orthodox hubris is akin to the cranky old man whose misery arises from what others are not.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Bill, I’m sorry if you read any hubris on my part in the piece. I am not judging the Catholics or the Protestants here but making an observation that in my mind can only be called unfortunate for all involved. I’m not so triumphalist as you suppose. In the face of Western materialism and individualism, Christians of all stripes face a foe far greater than lions and pyres. This is but one pixel in a vast and dark picture. Neither am I holding up myself as some sort of answer to the problem. Sorry if I led you to believe so.

  • william crew

    joel: made a sincere effort to critique the words, not your heart. obviously i failed. my apologies. i have grown weary of the cottage industry that mourishes itself by discussing protestant (or catholic) failings over and over again. i am still waiting to meet an orthodox writer who is as incinsive and deliberate with criticism of his/her own denomination as they are of protestantism. apparently that is a difficult proposition if you begin with the presumption that one is the church and one is a rogue denomination. very wearisome stuff. i do not know any protestants who spend as much time looking sideways at the orthodox as i do the reverse.
    i agree with you regarding the deadly trends in pop culture. i may be more inclined to see the tenets of protestantism as valuable in the fight, not the primary cause of it. i value luthers hammer on the door as i value truth upon error.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Ultimately, the point has to do with the corrosive nature of materialism and individualism. The Orthodox in Russia can answer how well they fared against the former. The church took a beating from which it still hasn’t recovered.

  • joe louis gonzalez

    i believe that what turns many catholics off is the arrogance, self-sufficiency and derogatory thoughts, words, deeds, laws, edicts…ad nauseabundum of the hierarchy, from pope down to altar boy. Their ‘ angelic ‘ standards and demands do not fit mankind, that which Jesus lived, died and rose for. Their lust, not only for power – which they mask imposing behaviours impossible to keep, and thus generating guilt – but also for riches of any kind is overt, and their disregard for true human misery is blatant. No one who considers himself a man will stoop to lick the tailor-made magenta slippers of an octagenarian ex-inquisitor who fancies himself the Lord’s Vicar.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Well, I suppose that might run a few off, yes. Though it appears your brush is rather broad.


    • R.C.

      This description strikes me as far out of touch with reality.

      Either Jesus left an Apostolic Succession, or He didn’t.

      Those who take the view that He didn’t are not Catholic or Orthodox, and need not involve themselves with anything having to do with bishops unless they wish on their own authority to ordain leaders for themselves using rites of their own making, and call them bishops.

      You can’t possibly be in that category, inasmuch as you seem to be affected by what Catholic bishops say. Growing up a Baptist, I never once heard any mention that a Catholic bishop had made any kind of statement — their words are typically too timidly-voiced and confined to their own bureaucracies to break the surface tension of popular media — and for all I knew, Catholics were a European phenomenon, rarely found in the U.S. I did hear of the pope once, when he was shot. That was it. That’s the degree to which a non-Catholic’s life is affected by the opinions of a Catholic bishop in the United States.

      So, when you say, “i believe that what turns many catholics off is the arrogance, self-sufficiency and derogatory thoughts, words, deeds, laws, edicts…ad nauseabundum of the hierarchy, from pope down to altar boy” I first must take this as excited exaggeration, since altar boys are frequently prepubescent girls, typically say nothing audible in the lives of adults, and flaunt their positions no more than any given piece of furniture in the church.

      But beyond this, I must conclude you are a Catholic, for apparently you were in a position to hear about it, when a bishop said something. People who aren’t Catholic typically have no such exposure.

      But your experience of bishops seems so wildly different from mine and everyone else’s? What arrogance could you possibly be referring to? Can you give an example?

      You say that, “Their ‘ angelic ‘ standards and demands do not fit mankind, that which Jesus lived, died and rose for.”

      Of course not, if you mean God’s Moral Law. But those are not the clergy’s standards. That is the Christian faith. None of us sinners can live up to the standard “Be Ye Perfect”; with man this is impossible but with God all things are possible. Do what everyone else does: Find a good and gracious confessor and see him once a week.

      “Their lust, not only for power…”

      How? Over whom? To achieve what? I am genuinely astonished that anyone could think that a Catholic bishop has measurable power over the lives of anyone.

      I have a bishop; I have seen him twice. If I decided the Catholic faith was false he couldn’t stick a gun in my face and make me stay. To the extent he exercises any influence in my life, it’s because I give him that ability by remaining a Catholic and remaining in his archdiocese. But he is very far from demanding. Beyond the demands of God’s Moral Law (to which I would be subject if I were Catholic or not), the clergy have imposed a scant few scandalously easy additional instructions: Go to church once a week (already did); confess my serious sins (who’d be Catholic and not take advantage of THAT?); give some money to help the poor and help the church keep the lights on (frankly Catholics don’t seem to do that half as faithfully as Baptists; I’d be ashamed to be living in this comparatively wealthy country with a lower-middle-class income and not give 10% pre-tax…but the Church doesn’t even require THAT); receive the Eucharist (who’d pass up the medicine of immortality?!). Other than such pittances requiring that I do mostly what I’d do anyway, I have never heard word one from the man.

      “…they mask imposing behaviours impossible to keep, and thus generating guilt…”

      Huh? Every Christian sins. We try to stop. We fail, we keep confessing. The sense of guilt lasts as long as up to the time of repenting. It need not last longer. Avoid scrupulosity.

      But how can a man blame the rules of God’s Moral Law on a bishop? Isn’t that blaming the messenger? It’s God’s Law. The bishop has no option to change it…and remember the “watchman”: If he fails to warn the people, their blood is on his hands. I’m often shocked that Catholic priests are as — how to say it — as tentative as they are about people trying to live a moral life. Homilies in my experience tend to be very short, therapeutic-sounding, fluffy things.

      “but also for riches of any kind”

      I’m sorry, but on what planet can a man become richer as a Catholic priest than as, say, a reasonably experienced plumber? Not one I’ve visited. A bishop, I grant, lives in pretty good apartments…not that he owns them, but he has their use. But my priest — and he pastors the 3rd largest parish in the diocese, and in a wealthy-ish part of the county — while not threadbare, shows no signs of enjoying the luxuries that students at the nearby college enjoy. He has a cell phone, but I bet it’s the cheapest one for his carrier.

      “their disregard for true human misery is blatant”

      I’m sure there are examples of bishops and priests who don’t care for the needy and suffering, but I have encountered none. Where’s this secret stash of sadists you’ve discovered?

      “No one who considers himself a man will stoop to lick the tailor-made magenta slippers of an octagenarian ex-inquisitor who fancies himself the Lord’s Vicar.”


      “Fancies himself?”

      Look, you: Be Catholic, or don’t be. It’s a free country; nobody will shoot you if you go join a Pentecostal Holiness church or fall in with the Anglicans.

      If you actually believe that the way Jesus set up the church involved investing stewardly offices in His apostles, and that these offices have successors and did not cease to exist when their first occupants died, say so! But certain consequences follow from that. If there really is a power to “bind and loose” as Matthew 16 and 18 say — and the phrase has its origins in three places in the Old Covenant: the priestly expelling and including of persons among the community, the stewardly legislative authority under the Davidic king, and the rabbinical interpretations of the Law — and if the binding and loosing of the occupants of these offices is actually prompted by and ratified in Heaven, then that matters.

      But if, in your considered opinion, that claim is rubbish, then: You’re not Catholic! Congratulations, there are other things you can be and it’s entirely up to you.

      But if you hold that the Catholic faith is true, why, then, there should be none of this “fancies himself” nonsense. We the baptized are all of us little cells in Christ’s body, but some are tasked with representing Christ to the others, and the pope is Christ’s “vicar.” His “chief flunky,” one might say. Every part of the Body of Christ gets a role to play; that’s his. They eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you.” And if the whole body were all eyes or all hands, what a mess that would be!

      And I have no use for Italian leather shoes myself, but if a person to whom Jesus Christ has delegated some kingdom authority wears some regalia appropriate to the office, I don’t mind. I’m a guitar-player; so I wear my hair long. My father is in banking; he wears a suit. Who cares what the bishop of Rome wears, so long as he isn’t fooling anyone about what his job is?

      I serve no-one but Jesus Christ. But when Jesus Christ says, “My Church is also an army; I’m placing you in this particular unit, under this officer, who reports to this other officer, and so on up the chain of command” I reply, “Yes, Your Majesty” and then I report for duty. And I take orders, unless they’re illegal orders or I suspect my officer of treachery — in which case I report the problem up the chain of command. That’s how it works.

      Of course those officers are men, too. Some of them make errors I wouldn’t make. Some have character flaws I don’t have. Fine. I have character flaws they don’t have, and make mistakes they wouldn’t make…like spending this long typing a note nobody’s likely to heed. Whatever. At any rate, none of that matters. What post does Jesus wish me to serve in? That’s where I need to be.

      Mr. Gonzalez, if you’re not in the post where Jesus wishes you to serve, then go where Christ sends you. Or, if you’re fed up with Christ and His army, do as you please. If you don’t like your bishop’s disciplines, say why. And if you don’t like God’s Moral Law, take it to God, because it isn’t the bishop’s doing.

      • pmyshkin

        I like what you say, but I am even more in agreement with how you say it. Frankly, you defend well my beloved church with graciousness, without the unnecessary name calling and hostility. Ultimately, Bishop Guglielmone has accepted a grave responsibility to shepherd my wretched self, and those brothers of his who fail in their responsibilities face the wrath of God, so I am thankful they have accepted this risk, and I am thankful R.C. for your vigorous defense. P. Myshkin.

  • I may agree with your general point, but I think your above analysis is problematic. Telling Catholics whom to vote for is clearly overstepping one’s episcopal authority, which does have its limits. Obedience to the bishop is never absolute, not for Catholics, and especially not for Orthodox. Consider, as well, that many of the church’s teachers, theologians, and even other episcopal authorities were highly critical of Romney/Ryan on social issues. The point being (not politics, but): How does one obey authority when there is no consensus? It would be one thing if there were some kind of synod which declared “Catholics must always vote thus and thus.” (I would love a canon lawyer to chime in and offer clarity about the probability of something like that happening and about how binding it would be.) St. Ignatius wrote in a much different time and place, when episcopal sees were smaller, the church was not a political force, and patterns of episcopal jurisdiction and governance was still somewhat fluid. There is no question that one should listen to the teachings of one’s bishops when it comes to moral issues, but politics is tactics. Two people may have the same moral convictions and vote in two different ways because they differ over which policies will produce results which most align with those convictions. When it comes to tactics, we should look to bishops as those who help draw us deeper into God, and who partly fulfill that function by speaking for the church and its teachings as they understand them. But they are not generals, and I see no reason why one should follow them blindly into the culture wars.

    In other words, good point. Bad evidence. (-;

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m willing to stipulate that the bishops overstepped their bounds (though I think that’s arguable). The problem is that they made their play and a majority of their flocks decided not to back it. I can’t help but see that as indicative of lost authority or the cause of losing authority.

      My larger concern, which I hope came through in the piece, is that Western materialism and individualism are corrosive influences and will ultimately undermine more than directives about how to vote. They would seem ultimately to threaten the willingness of the flock to accept the harder, more difficult teachings of the faith itself — and this after the shepherds have essentially lost their ability to guide their flocks. In undermining this show of authority, all authority will be undermined.

      Whether you believe the bishops’ move was a bad one or not, the outcome is unfortunate.

  • “If it wasn’t evident before, the Election of 2012 showed that disregarding the authority of the church is no longer a worry for American Catholics.”

    Though there are many people who call themselves Catholic who openly reject the Church, there are many Catholics who are faithful. Not following your logic of ‘many Catholic reject Church teaching’ to ‘there are no Catholics who are faithful’.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’m not saying there are no faithful Catholics. If I gave that impression, that’s a mistake on my part. I am saying that a majority of Catholics decided to ignore or defy their leadership.

  • JoAnne Braley

    Good article, well written. I would agree with you more than with the commentors, esp. the one who says the Pope fancies himself the Lord’s Vicar. That was decided by Jesus when he built his church on the rock, then renamed Peter. In fact, I heard from the Pope’s brother, he didn’t really want that title, he would rather retire with his books and writings. It is a very difficult job– physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s not like the Pope’s in olden days who were leaders in the papal states. I’m Catholic in my mind and soul, but I no longer go to church, as the new ways are “community,” and Jesus is put in the corner. Martin Luther’s attempted reformation failed. If the Pope then did not excommunicate him, and would have stopped selling indulgences, etc. then there would still be one, holy apostolic Catholic Church. Luther would have stayed. I think of the breakup as a penance for the corrpution of the Church then. However, the Gates of Hell shall not prevail, and the good Catholic Church is still there, somewhere. I’m appalled at this election, and it was done Hollywood style. Many of my old friends say they do not like organized religion and they are spiritual, but I think they are missing the point. I yearn for my Nazareth College and Academy days in Kentucky, when we wore uniforms, went to daily Mass, sang Gregorian Chant, obeyed the nuns, got good grades, and really loved each other. I fear for what’s to come.

  • I agree with your concern about the “corrosive nature of materialism and individualism” and the “poison of subjectivity”. These are huge dangers to the Church and society at large.

    BUT I find it rather ironic that Catholic parishioners don’t vote the way their bishops want them to and this is Martin Luther’s fault!! It sounds like a serious case of blame-shifting! And like something that the Council of Trent would have said a few hundred years ago. Perhaps there could be some other things to blame for Catholics not voting the way they did like:
    – they were overextending their authority by telling people who to vote for.
    – they have been overextending their authority in many ways for hundreds of years and so people don’t want to submit to it.
    – they have not been effective in discipleship and this is just the fruit of it.
    – people have not just been influenced by the Reformation but also by the Renaissance and Enlightenment and other movements all the way up to current Postmodernism.
    – people weren’t sure if they should vote for a Mormon.

    I really think it just goes too far to blame Catholic disobedience on Luther, especially as Lutherans and Protestants are against abortion. It seems to me that this article is just an attack on Luther and Protestants in general. And it seems all the more bizarre to me because the Pope was unrelenting about indulgences and Luther was kicked out the Catholic Church and didn’t have another option except to organise another church. I thought most Christians moved on from this issue a few hundred years ago but clearly I was wrong!

    Dealing with Obama’s pro-abortion policies and other policies is going to be a big enough battle for the Church without turning on each other and blaming each other for it.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Luther does not bear all the blame, but as far as explaining the currents in Western thought, he’s a a signpost as much as an actor. And blame isn’t a useful concept here anyway. I’m looking at consequences, not trying to condemn people for them.

      You are right when you say, “people have not just been influenced by the Reformation but also by the Renaissance and Enlightenment and other movements all the way up to current Postmodernism.” But these are linked. The Reformation was affected by Renaissance humanism (Calvin was, e.g., a humanist scholar before a Reformer), and in many ways the Enlightenment grew out of seeds planted in the Reformation, giving us ultimately Modernism and Postmodernism.

      The piece isn’t about bashing Protestantism. It is about describing the real outcome of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s “here I stand” moment allowed and even prompted every other person in Europe and later America to make the same determination. And eventually we all did. We’re all in this together.

      I frankly have a lot of sympathy for Luther. What choice did he have? The church was abusive and corrupt, as its own subsequent reforms attest. But that doesn’t make the changes he wrought in Christianity any less real or problematic. There’s a reason after all that the Protestant Alister McGrath calls sola scriptura “Christianity’s dangerous idea.”

      The idea that each Christian is free and even in a sense responsible to determine for himself what’s doctrinally true and valid by his own reading of the Bible alone is a recipe for confusion, error, and arrogance. And that now affects more than Protestants. It’s changed the way Catholics do their faith as well.

  • Blaise

    This article fails to distinguish that Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Obama and are traditionally Catholic, while Non-Hispanic Catholics supported Romney 59-40. That said, I know plenty of White liberals who claim they are Catholic. But then you must also mind the difference between urban and rural Catholics…I think there is a difference between a suburb of Boston and Todd County, Minnesota.

  • Of course, Ignatius was following Scripture: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive…,” Hebrews 13:17, which gets us back to your key point about our American individualism. Being submissive comes from the Holy Spirit’s leading not form the spirit of our times.

    As the saying goes, we can all hang together or we can hang separately whether our church be Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant. There is much work to be done in getting Christians to break loose from the grip of our times. Basics like love, prayer, and forgiveness have been distorted by the zeitgeist and there are Christians of all persuasions who are confused–take the extreme case of supporting abortion and homosexual acts in the name of ‘love.’

  • Tom Laichas

    I suspect that the issue here is not creeping Protestant intrusion into Catholic thought, but instead the Americanization of Catholicism. Politically, the Catholic Church is a monarchy, and we Americans are taught to disparage monarchy. That the Pope claims authority over that which, in the US, is construed as political behavior, simply does not sit well with a large proportion of US Catholics. The collapse of Catholic authority in southern Europe comes, I believe, from similar causes. To put the issue more starkly: democracy itself undermines papal claims to legitimate authority. If this is the case, then we may expect that the Church’s invocation of its own authority, via Pope, Cardinal, or Bishop will actually alienate many – perhaps most – US and European Catholics.

  • Joel,
    I like your book 🙂
    But I think you are wrong when it come to the Holy Trinity. Definitely in the Bible, e.g., matt28:18–19 and many of the doxologies. Sunday as well.
    But I get your point, even though Protestant 😉 (a bad one though, quite ecumenical)…


    • Joel J. Miller

      Glad you like the book. Does me good to hear that.

      My point on the Trinity is that Mormons read the same text and — intentionally rejecting tradition on this point — don’t see the Trinity there, not as understood by Christians.

      It’s tradition that tells us Mormons have a bad reading. If it were plain in the text it wouldn’t have required the Second Ecumenical Council to formalize the received and correct doctrine for posterity.

      • Ben

        Mormons don’t see the Trinity in the Bible because they have (or rather, they believe that they have) a series of separate, later revelations that control their reading of the Bible and that rule out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses would have provided a better argument, since they also reject the Trinity even though they’re working from the same authoritative revelation orthodox Christians are (albeit in a different translation much of the time).

        Speaking as a Protestant, I don’t think the overall thrust of this piece is entirely unfair. I agree that subjectivism and individualism are pretty clearly inevitable outgrowths of Protestant methodology, and that’s always made me somewhat uneasy. However, your assertion that there is no Biblical warrant for Trinitarianism almost gave me a heart attack. That’s an incredibly incautious statement, and it flies in the face of every early argument for the Trinity I have ever read, all of which rely heavily on scriptural testimony (here’s an example: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm). Beyond that, Protestants have been arguing for the Trinity on scriptural evidence for centuries (here’s an example that I happened to have close at hand: http://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/the-biblical-doctrine-of-the-trinity-by-dr-benjamin-b-warfield/). If you want to claim that orthodox Trinitarianism does not rest entirely on Biblical data I think that position is at least defensible, but what you actually said definitely is not.

  • mike flynn

    either what you say, joel or;

    1. pop culture counts nominal RCs in its numbers.

    2. the alternative (romney) appeared more detrimental to loving god and neighbor than obama for church going RCs. the plutocrats of both parties are taking away the “material” in materialism, and leaving USA with wars and increased poverty.

  • Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB

    The loss of credibility of the hierarchy is a serious problem. Going forward, we’re going to have to find a way to reconstitute that authority and reunite our Catholic people around their bishops.
    A piece of the problem is that Catholics are more individualistic, and perhaps more “Protestant.” But that’s not the whole story.
    There is a long history over the centuries of prophetic voices, including canonized saints, critiquing the hierarchy and stating the inadequacies in leadership. Thus, not all critique is “American individualistic” or “Protestant.” Some of it could well be very Catholic, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
    Hierarchy and magisterium are constituitive of Catholic polity. But top-down absolute monarchy as a way to run the Catholic Church is man-made and changeable. It gradually evolved; the Church wasn’t always that way and doesn’t always need to be that way.
    My sense is that top-down absolute monarchy no longer works, we’re at a breaking point because humanity has moved beyond this European medieval/Renaissance model. Critique of the hierarchy by devout, faithful Catholics is most constructive if it helps us all face this very difficult question which will not go away: how do we reform Catholic structures now that absolute monarchy doesn’t work? We’re already well into the crisis, but we aren’t very far along in talking about what comes next.
    Imposing top-down absolute monarchy all the more strongly and demanding that everyone accept it isn’t an answer – it’s a way of avoiding the question.
    Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for that point. I agree that monarchy is problematic. E. Orthodoxy governs in a conciliar manner, which I think is preferable.

  • Chuck

    In other words, it is no longer a church of immigrants who could not think for themselves if they even understood the concept of thought. Welcome to civilization.

    • mike flynn

      Chuck, I don’t know. when i look around at where we are heading, i wonder if our italian, irish, polish, etc forebearers didn’t vote more wisely than we do. so much education. so little wisdom.

      • Joel J. Miller


  • William Converse

    The intellectual roots of our current malaise in the West lie in medieval nominalism, the position that the only things that exist are particular individual things; there are no such things as uiniversals. Things designated by the same term share only the fact that they happen to be so named. William of Ockham. Thomas Hobbes, Rudolph Carnap and W.V.O. Quine were all nominalists in varying degrees. Luther attended Erfurt University, a hotbed of nominalism. The rest is history, as they say!

  • Paul C

    The Catholic Church’s role is to administer the sacraments and teach the truth about salvation. When the USCCB came out and said to vote against candidates that favored abortion, the HHS mandate and same sex marriage, it was done to save souls of those who would be mislead into thinking that just because it was lawful to abort, to contracept and to engage in homosexual acts, it was no longer sinful to do so. They explained their reasoning to those that would listen. You will note that the more frequently someone went to mass, the more likely they would be to following the bishop’s advice. One third of Catholics attend mass at least weekly. These are the Catholics that follow the advice of the bishops. There are a lot of cultural Catholics out there that rarely if ever practice their faith. It is not shocking that these people were less likely to follow their bishop’s voting advice since they don’t follow any of their other advice either. And of course, there is the special case of the hispanic community, whose vote was not a snubbing of the bishops but a vote for relaxed immigration.

    I think Joel’s thesis that we are all protestant’s severely overstates the case. Church going non-Hispanic Catholics voted overwhelmingly with their bishops desires. The real problem is reaching out to those Catholics who have lapsed in their faith and bring them back onto the road to salvation. (and I don’t mean to the Republican party). This is the point of the new evangelization and the current year of faith.

    • Joel J. Miller

      The margin that broke for Obama was slim. It was 50% to 48%. I’m not saying all Catholics are in the weeds. And I agree that evangelism is important to bring people back on the road.

  • There’s a lot of great commentary in this piece but one thing I’m not too keen on is the unfair and misleading discussion of Sola Scriptura and Protestant approaches to tradition, liturgy, theology, etc. This is not a full-scale treatment of the issue and is, in fact, aimed at dealing with Roman Catholic charges against Sola Scriptura–it does point out some of the unfairness of these charges such as subjectivism and the wholesale rejection of tradition.
    As anybody who’s actually read Calvin and, certainly authors in the Reformed tradition, would know, Sola Scriptura does NOT mean Scriptura only or a “me and the Bible” approach to things.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Derek, for the note. While I’ll agree that the Magisterial Reformation was not so simplistic as me-and-the-Bible in its approach, that’s not always been the case with its cousins, nor its descendants. Tradition must govern interpretation or novelty and error are inevitabilities.

      I mention in the piece Sunday worship as one such example. There’s no directive toward Sunday worship in the scripture, as any Seventh Day Adventist can tell you. But most Protestants worship on Sunday. Why? That’s the tradition they received from the apostles through the church. Tradition dictated Sunday worship, not the scripture. Now when we read John speaking in Revelation, for instance, about the Lord’s Day, we know he means Sunday. Without tradition to govern that reading, the Adventists are right.

      • Jeff

        Mr. Miller,

        I’m glad you acknowledge the diversity within Protestantism regarding Tradition! Because we do not give Tradition the first chair does not mean that we dispense with it entirely (at least not all Protestants!). My understanding is that Scripture comes first, then Tradition, then the current authorities (clergy, current councils etc.) and then finally my own reason comes in fourth place when it comes to matters of faith and practice. At least that is the way it’s “supposed” to go. In reality, though, I think the point about the Catholic Church being more Americanized than “Protestantized” It is a problem that I think will only be solved with revival.

        Great article!


        P.S. In my Reformed denomination, we make a distinction between the church as “organization” (what the denomination says we should say and do politically) and the church as “organism” (individual Christians take all of the Church’s teachings into account, from our pro-life stance to those on creation care etc., and then vote in the way that they believe advances the gospel best.) Most of the time we act as organism. I hope it’s more out of recognition of the complexity of Church teaching and the political options rather than an act of weakness!

      • Hey, sorry if I was snippy earlier. Not my intent. To follow up, I would say, I don’t dispute the whole logic of Sunday worship being connected to tradition. Sola Scriptura does not always rule out that which is “extra-biblical” but rather that which is non-biblical in the sense that it is contrary to the message of the Scriptures. Sunday worship isn’t, nor is confessing creeds that properly summarize the Scriptures. On the other hand, buying indulgences, asserting Papal authority beyond what is written, having more mediators than Christ (ie. the saints), etc. is contrary to the scriptures, even if these are developments of the tradition. Also, as you read the Horton article, there does come a point at which you ask, “which tradition”? Rome’s or Constantinople’s? Also, if Rome, which Rome? Trent? Vatican 1? Vatican 2? The Neo-Thomists or the Nouvelle Theologie? Or, if Constantinople, is it Orthodoxy according to the Russians, or what? My point is, the problem doesn’t go away by ditching Geneva. It’s still there.

  • Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB

    With all due respect, I think Paul C. simplifies what is a rather complicated reality.
    It’s too simplistic to say that, because abortion is wrong, therefore Catholics should only vote for candidates who say they are anti-abortion and it’s wrong to vote for pro-choice Catholics. It’s not necessarily the case that Catholics will think it’s moral to abort sice it’s legal (although I agree it’s a danger that some could think that).
    Abortion is wrong, according to the Catholic faith. So far so good. What you do with that in the political realm is very complicated, and good Catholics will come to different conclusions. Some Catholics say vote for anti-abortion candidates, in the hopes that someday they’ll get Roe v. Wade overturned, and then someday maybe a few states will outlaw abortion , and then maybe someday the rate of abortions might go down a bit. Other Catholics say that voting for anti-abortion candidates does nothing in the short term to reduce abortions, and might never succeed in the long term. These Catholics say that, as awful as the pro-choice position is, as a good Catholic I’ll vote for the pro-choice candidate if he/she might help reduce abortions by good social programs that give poor women more options.
    As I see it, neither option is very good, and both options involve a lot of compromise, and you have to respect Catholics to make their own decision. Either way, the sad political reality is that most abortions will continue; either way, it’s a plan to possibly reduce abortions. Voting for anti-abortion candidates might actually cause more abortions to happen that could have been prevented with good social programs; voting for anti-abortion candidates might never lead to success in outlawing abortion.
    It’s not so obvious to me that Catholics should be required to throw away their vote on what might not do any good to fight abortion, as if it’s any help to vote for the one who says nice-sounding things.
    Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSb

  • Umm, have you been following the Met. Jonah stuff and the Orthodox mess? It’s not like the EO are immune from individualism.

    • Joel J. Miller

      As I told Bill up top, I’m no triumphalist. I’m not holding myself up as the answer.

      The Orthodox are in a tangle right now too, as you point out, and in some ways they have bigger problems than other groups. E.g., there is no canonical organization right now in North America, which means they couldn’t even organize a response to the current situation like the Catholics did.

      I have only watched the situation with Met. Jonah from afar, but it seems lamentable. For all of this there is at root only one thing to say: Lord, have mercy.

  • R.C.

    I found the overall piece here interesting and pretty accurate.

    But let’s keep in mind: In all likelihood the Catholics who voted for Obama are those who attend Mass solely at Christmas and Easter, as a familial obligation; who shacked up before marriage if they bothered to marry their sexual partner at all; who think of the Eucharist as a poignant ceremony involving bread and wine; who suspect that there’s a God and assume that He mainly wants everyone, at the end of the day, to be happy; who suspect that Jesus was probably a very good man with some sacred stories wrapped around him; and so on.

    Show me a Catholic who attends Mass weekly and on all the holy days of obligation, and occasionally on weekdays; who attends confession once a month, who believes in the Real Presence; and I’ll show you either a Romney voter, or a voter who felt he couldn’t in good conscience vote for Romney because (a.) Romney wasn’t pro-life enough, and (b.) Romney didn’t oppose waterboarding for captured terrorists.

    So, while I don’t intend to say anything at all about the souls of the people who, being culturally Catholic, voted for Obama, I think it’s fair to generalize that their attachment to the faith and its practices is in general extremely weak, compared to that of Catholics who voted differently.

    • R.C.

      I should probably say: I don’t think the marginal Catholicism of the Obama voters is a good thing. It’s a tragedy that so many Catholics should abandon their faith and/or know so little about it, let alone be aware that they’re voting for a guy who’s in the process of setting up a (mild) institutional persecution of Catholics. (Granted, that persecution won’t really affect folks whose Catholicism is so marginal.)

      So there is definitely a failure of the Catholic Church to catechize, to exhort, to lead people to spiritual maturity, to engender a deep love for Jesus Christ and a practice of personal holiness. This is a sad, bad thing.

      But…I think it’s worth acknowledging that for any other denomination of Christianity save perhaps Orthodoxy and perhaps some of the Mennonite or Amish-type groups, people who were as detached from the community of belief as most of these Catholic Obama voters are would no longer call themselves Catholic. When a Southern Baptist leans “no” on the divinity of Christ and “iffy” on the existence of God, he typically gives up calling himself a Southern Baptist and identifies as “agnostic.” But for whatever reason, these Catholic Obama voters think that having one Irish or Italian grandmother requires them to check “Catholic” on the survey, like it’s some kind of ethnicity….

  • Luther was not the first to question the RC view of authority in the Church.

    ‘Anyone who is not with me is not with the truth,’ exclaimed Maximus the Confessor when nearly everyone was content either to keep quiet or to compromise. And Theodore the Studite, witness to orthodoxy during the second outbreak of iconoclasm and persecuted by the majority of bishops and the patriarch himself, affirmed most evangelically that ‘three believers who were united in the orthodox faith constitute the Church.’ (Clement, You are Peter, p. 54 and 55)

    Luther never intended to leave the mother that had born him, but the words of Hosea 2:2 may have not been far from him: “Judge *your mother*, judge her, for she is not My wife and I am not her husband; let her put away her fornications and her adulteries from between her breasts”. Such correction (not only moral, but doctrinal) Rome could not endure. He was as the faithful prophets before him.

    Ideally, the Church should not only be a vehicle for faith but an object of faith, as Richard John Neuhaus once put it. In other words, we should be able to have confidence in the Church and what it teaches at all times. History, however, has shown us that what ought to be is not always what is. In the Lutheran view, the Lutheran Reformation (not the radical Reformation or even the Reformed view of the Reformation) is all at once an event to be celebrated and a tragic necessity.

    For more info about this kind of viewpoint, see here: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/the-coming-vindication-of-martin-luther-summary-and-conclusion-part-v-of-v/


  • Matthew

    Joel, I appreciate the general insightfulness of your writing. However, I think your explanation of the Reformation’s understanding of certain things, such as the Trinity are way off. I was surprised to hear you say there is no biblical support for the Trinity. The Reformers precisely understood the Trinity to be grounded in Scripture and defended it as such. I don’t know any Reformation scholar who would say otherwise–and I don’t know too many Protestants who would say the Trinity is not biblical. Second, I don’t think the Reformers misunderstood “tradition” or its role. Luther was an educated Priest who received his doctorate in Theology. He rejected the role of tradition–in so far as it was elevated above Scripture, not merely “as such”. I think it would be equally unfair to say that of the other leading Reformers also–most of whom were well educated. Lastly, Protestants deliberately drew on the early church fathers–even if they cherry picked here and there–in order to show that their theology was, in fact, in line with the Church’s and that it was–in fact–the Church that had left a proper theological trajectory. They believed strongly in “the rule of faith” and did not accept theological innovation as a legitimate enterprise. If anything they could be described as “ro9mantics” seeking to recover a lost age (rightly or wrongly) who rejected theological innovations as they had occurred in the Catholic church. They did not reject tradition as a matter of course–one dead body among the many theological indulgences of the Church, but rather engaged the tradition more critically and in the end found in wanting–or departing from the early church and its ratified councils and earliest theologians like Augustine. May I recommend the writings of Harvard historian Steven Ozment?

    • Joel J. Miller

      Matthew, note first that this is a side point in the post. And thank you for the recommendation of Ozment. I’ve read one of his titles, but I would be aided by more.

      I agree the Trinity is biblical. But it’s biblical because the tradition passed down by the apostles says so. For instance, while the three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in many places in Scripture, it takes a theological reading informed by the received teaching of the church to arrive at the Trinity taught by the church. I don’t think, for instance, you’d ever get consubstantiality from those texts without the leading of the Holy Spirit in the church. That’s why the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed was needed. The texts themselves only get you so far, which is why there are Oneness Pentecostals who today read the same verses, but can’t confess the creed. They’ve divorced themselves from the received teaching and are unable to understand the texts properly.

  • Giertzian

    Brother, RC’s get a lot of unfair criticism and vicious attacks by both Protestants and secular’s. However, your comment about Luther not seeing how fair the nail would pierce is extremely superficial. Actually look into the teachings of Lutheran orthodoxy, which is in fact a Catholic orthodoxy (though I know obviously you would disagree), before you make such vast statements. Considering my RC brethren as brothers and sisters in Christ, I respect your honesty but think that comment is unnecessary. I recommend reading the book “Christ’s Church” by Bo Giertz. Though not RC I get irritated when people make generalizing statements about the Roman church, so I would hope that you can do away with the same.

  • Joel said:

    “I agree the Trinity is biblical. But it’s biblical because the tradition passed down by the apostles says so. For instance, while the three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in many places in Scripture, it takes a theological reading informed by the received teaching of the church to arrive at the Trinity taught by the church. I don’t think, for instance, you’d ever get consubstantiality from those texts without the leading of the Holy Spirit in the church. That’s why the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed was needed. The texts themselves only get you so far, which is why there are Oneness Pentecostals who today read the same verses, but can’t confess the creed. They’ve divorced themselves from the received teaching and are unable to understand the texts properly.”

    I agree that an authoritative interpreter is meant to go hand in hand with the texts of Scripture (hence Acts 8). That said, that is not necessarily because the words of the texts themselves are not clear as regards the things that we need to know to be saved, when read in accordance with the whole of Scriptures. I think an atheist like Christopher Hitchens would be able to tell that a Morman interpretation of the Bible (or Oneness Pentecostal, for that matter), for example, is untenable without becoming a believer.


  • Maureen Williamson

    Approximately the same amount of people have been ignoring bishops for the past 50 years or so. Catholics got out of the practice of listening to bishops when they stopped having anything relevant to say. The wishy-washy, social justice pushing leadership we had from the 60’s on seemed more interested in impressing the liberal press than anything else. The tide is slowly turning as more people (like myself) are returning to the Catholic Church with an adult passion and desire for holiness and many prayerful, orthodox young men are entering the priesthood to lead future saints. We love our Pope and we love the Church and we are not in the cafeteria line picking and choosing which teachings of the church we will agree with. We believe the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church even in the worst of times and the truth shines through clearly.

  • tim johnson

    Interesting essay, and comments.
    I would suggest that it’s not a “lack” of authority, or rejection of it, but a switching of authority.
    I wonder if authority isn’t a basic element of being human, and no one can truly jettison “it” or leave “it” behind, but merely change masters.
    As the medieval rabbi Roberto Zimmerman, “Ya Gotta Serve Somebody..”
    So, whether it’s people actually choosing to bow to themselves, or something/someone else, however implicitly and even unconsciously, everyone still appeals to authority…..perhaps it’s part of our reason….

    • Joel J. Miller

      Interesting point. And the sage Zimmerman was right on that score.