Yesterday in this space, I discussed the failure of conservative Catholics in our engagement with gay people. It could just as easily have been a discussion of our failure with virtually anybody who is not already a conservative Christian. The response to almost everybody outside the conservative Catholic culture war bubble is to regard them as an enemy, not as somebody for whom Christ died.
Case in point: me. I’m somebody who believes virtually everything that conservative Catholics do. I’m with them 100% on the Creed. I believe what the Church teaches about all the pelvic stuff. Even on mere human traditions, I’m pretty similar to conservative Catholics. I like Tolkien. I enjoy most of the stuff ordinary people like with the exception of beer and sports (and even sports is fine if the home team happens to be winning). I have no big issues with capitalism, I just don’t think it God’s Anointed Economics. I can buy just war doctrine, though I know enough about it to know that its purpose is to make it as hard as possible to go to war, not to confer a license to kill on anybody who can game it with sufficient sophistry. I would like to see the end of our abortion regime and think that saving babies from death is a noble cause. Etc.
And yet I am intensely and deeply hated by many in this subculture and regarded as a mortal enemy–nearly as mortal an enemy as the Pope. Why? Because I, in fact, believe *all* that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims is revealed by God, even the stuff that is not dogmatic. And that is a real problem for American conservative Catholics who, as their war with Pope Francis and the Magisterium makes clear, want to whittle the Church’s teaching down to only that stuff which is politically and culturally useful to their real magisterium: American conservatism as it is now constituted in the Age of Trump. So I find myself routinely vilified as somehow in bed with pro-abort forces, not because I support abortion, but because the real goal of American conservatives is a bunch of other culture war junk that the Faith is not especially keen on. If conservative Catholics do this when the tree is green, what do they do when it is dry?
Easy: they spit on liberals as “libtards”. I know, because they have done it to me and I’m not even a liberal.
They routinely call not just ardently pro-choice, but even reluctantly pro-choice people (who would be fine with some restrictions on abortion) “babykillers”. I know, because they do it to me even when I am ultra-clear that I always oppose abortion.
They reject not only practicing gay unbelievers, but even gays who are struggling to obey the Church’s teaching as “homophiles”. I know, because they accused me of attacking the Church, not because I am gay, but simply because I spoke well of a devout gay man I once knew.
They attack those who differ from them on gun violence as damn libruls and probably a babykiller, since holding a position identified as “liberal” in one area means you are the enemy in all areas. I know, because they have attacked me in those terms for differing on this utterly prudential matter.
Question the brutality being meted out to immigrants on the border? That’s the way abortion-loving babykillers talk. I know, because I’ve been accused of this.
Support the ministry of Pope Francis? You’re a socialist and you probably defend gays and babykillers. Ask me how I know this logic is deployed.
Against the death penalty like that liberal fake pope? That’s the way babykillers talk. You may be wondering how I know this.
Don’t tell me I exaggerate. I’ve gotten this treatment a million times from people who deeply believe themselves to be the Remnant of the Righteous. This subculture routinely calls me “Marx Che”. I got called a “Commie fraud” the other day because I was critical of Cardinal Burke (who has contradicted the Church by saying Muslims worship a different God than Christians and who is now, in addition to backing Steve Bannon’s Nazi Hogwarts project, also demanding the US institute religious bigotry in its immigration policy, despite the Holy Father’s call for generosity to desperate refugees in the midst of the greatest immigration crisis since WWII.) This is the ambient noise made by conservative Catholics in the US in their war on Francis and the Magisterium and their support for a ton of right wing culture war talking points that have nothing to do with the Five Non-Negotiables and everything to do with making war on the obvious guidance of the Church.
Indeed, just the other day I was informed of the astonishing proposition that upholding the teaching of the Church on Catholic social doctrine was “watering down the gospel”. It is not the first time I have heard this. I have heard priests, of all people, say that focusing on the works of mercy “took away from devotion to the Eucharist”–as though the second commandment is the opposite of and not related to, the first.
Sure, I get it: the gospel is about the saving work of God incarnate, crucified and raised from the dead. It is not a Unitarian social program. Yes. I know that. But here’s the thing: neither is it a fertility cult with sacraments. Yet none of the people demanding we resist the Church on her so-called “liberal” teachings ever says, “We need to dial back on all that prolife political stuff and remember that the gospel is about the Eucharist and not prolife work.” We don’t pit the Eucharist against the unborn. But we constantly hear (from one subculture in the Church and one only) that we need to not get carried away with “all that liberal social justice stuff” and “focus on the Eucharist”. No. It’s not “liberal”. It’s Catholic. It’s the teaching of the Church that life is sacred from conception to natural death. It’s the teaching of the Church that unjust war is another term for mass murder. It’s the teaching of the Church that torture is gravely and intrinsically immoral. It’s the teaching of the Church that families deserve a living wage. It’s the teaching of the Church that health care is a right. It’s the teaching of the Church that capital punishment should be abolished.
Yet by no coincidence, we also constantly hear from those at war with Francis and the Magisterium that we need to “prioritize prolife issues over those other social teachings”, meaning “pit the unborn against those forms of human life culture war conservatives want to bomb, torture, execute, deprive of health care, drive away from the Church, deprive of their children at the border, and rob of a just wage. For that subculture, the goal is to create a legal regime that ends abortion. Until we do that, we must fight everything else the Church teaches. Our goal is to establish, by law, a prolife society. That, and that alone, is now the salvific work of the Church for American conservative Christians. And in this hour, that subculture deeply believes it is closer to achieving that goal than it has ever been. As Rick Wiles put it, “We are going to impose Christian values in America again, whether you like it or not.”
In short, American conservatives have adopted a neo-Pelagian soteriology. Soteriology is the theology of salvation. It answers the question, “What must we do to be saved?”
Pelagianism and its bastard stepson neo-Pelagianism answer that question by saying that we have to save ourselves. Jesus, according to this theory, came simply and solely as a role model. He showed us how to act and now our job is to keep the rules and save ourselves.
The problem is that literally 2000 years of Christian teaching says that we cannot be saved by imposing and then keeping law. The only way we can be saved is by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through us. Obedience to the law is the fruit of the Spirit, not the cause of salvation. Pelagianism and neo-Pelagianism represent a collapse of faith that God will help us. It teaches that we are on our own and we have to make it work all by ourselves. So we need to make people live out whatever moral vision we think needs to be imposed on them via law, force, fear, and, if necessary, lies and deceit.
Now, law has its place. So laws limiting access to the technology of mass slaughter, whether in a clinic or at a gun shop, are reasonable. The Gun Cult lies that all law is a futile waste of time since “sin is in the heart” is something only a gun cultist believes. The rest of us know that while sin may certainly be in Kim Jong-Un’s heart, it’s still a good idea to deny him access to the technology of mass slaughter and that, for the same reason, making it harder to abort children or massacre people in Vegas is smart if you are serious about saving lives.
However, that said, what is also smart is not cutting off abortion supply with the left hand while supporting–for forty years–policies that do all in our power to increase demand for abortion with the right hand. This is the essence of what American conservatism has chosen to do. In embracing the soteriology which teaches that opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world, it has granted itself the right to inflict a world of hurt on the poor and vulnerable and–yes–on pregnant women, imagining that a few laws against abortion are salvific because it imagines that “owning the libs” is somehow advancing the kingdom of heaven. The goal is not evangelizing the culture but defeating it with raw power. It is a project doomed to fail.
At the start of his reign, Pope Francis wrote Evangelii Gaudium. In it, he mentioned some of the obstacles to the proclamation of the gospel on both left and right. It was a balanced assessment, noting that the problem on the left was that, among other things, the left is skeptical of evangelization as mere cultural imperialism, etc. This was all smooth sailing because that part told the right what it wanted to hear: its culture war enemies are wrong. But then the Pope dared to suggest that the Right might be wrong too–because he spoke of a reactionary resistance to evangelism as well that was self-absorbed, neo-Pelagian, and Promethean.
- Self-absorbed because it was concerned with battening down the hatches in Fortress Katolicus, keeping outsiders out and purging those within (such as, for instance, the pope himself, whom the Righteous have declared a heretic).
- Neo-Pelagian because it is focused on salvation by keeping rules and imposing those rules on people who don’t even share the Faith, expecting the fruits of the Spirit from people who do not believe in the existence of the Spirit.
- Promethean because the entire project of salvation by law is an attempt to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit by imposing the law on people who do not even believe that the law needs to be kept much less have the desire or power to do so, which is the ultimate form of “stealing fire from heaven.”
Apostolic Christianity began, not with an attempt to oppose a legal regime on a pagan culture, but with the effort to proclaim the person of the risen and living Jesus Christ to a pagan world that did not share Christianity’s morals. The moral change came as a side effect of the faith people had in the person of Jesus himself. With that came things like saving babies from exposure and abortion, the abandonment (for the first time in the entire history of the human race) of slavery, the rejection of gladiatorial games, and other changes. Laws appeared in order to enforce the changes for a society where such things had become unthinkable. Yes, there was back and forth on this. Slavery made a resurgence with the rise of the nation-state. But it was a resurgence because it had really been beaten back.
American conservative Christianity has largely become a project of trying to demand people who lack a faith in the person of Jesus act conservative under the lash of laws, fear, tricks, and threats. The reason it has become that project is that Christians themselves have abandoned the hope that the living Jesus will act. So we are trying to save the world by the force of law. We look to force, not the power of the Holy Spirit, to save. We are fearful of leaving the Fortress and actually engaging people who really are different from us. We tell, not just pro-choice people, but even people like me who simply have a different approach to trying to save the unborn and other forms of human life, that they are babykillers, libtards, and even servants of the devil. For this subculture of self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagians, even the Pope is a servant of the devil. If they speak that way when the tree is green, what do they when it is dry?
Answer: They don’t propose Jesus to the non-Christian culture in any living way, yet they still demand that they adopt a Christian(ish) moral code while simply ignoring them when they ask, “Why should I do that? I’m not a Christian.” And worst of all, when non-Christians say to us, “I actually agree with what your Church says on war, the environment, refugees, capital punishment, etc.” most of American conservative Catholics don’t make common cause with them and see in that a chance to talk about the teaching of Jesus, because trusting Jesus in such matters frightens us and could give some advantage to the real object of their fearful attention: their culture war enemies. Make common cause with liberals? But that might help them win. Better to fight the Church when it sounds too liberal. It frightens us so much that we say things like “Pacifism is satanic” (an actual quote I saw recently which would be news to the Christians of the first few centuries of the Church) or we call the Pope a heretic or even a satanist.
The belief that we have to save ourselves since God will not act is what it has always been: false. In truth, only God can save us. We cannot go around telling gays or anybody else that they have to live by the high and hard teachings of Jesus while doing all in our power to keep them from first having an encounter with Jesus and his love for them. But that, at present, is the ambient noise of American conservative Christianity: not grace or love or mercy or hope, but rules, force, fear, rejection, and condemnation.
We have to do better and, by grace, we can do better.