Hauerwas, Weigel, and the future of Catholicism in the U.S.

Hauerwas, Weigel, and the future of Catholicism in the U.S. July 19, 2013

Prominent Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas recently penned a provcative piece on the end of American Protestantism.

Hauerwas writes argues that American Protestantism is dying precisely because of its success. America is the first instance of Protestant society not having to overcome and grow out of a Catholic culture and history. Thus he sees the U.S. as “synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that insured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.” Because American Protestantism has succeeded in marrying their faith with their patiotism, he this American Protestantism might be dying because its Christian faith is often no longer distinguishable from being a good citizen.

Put another way,

“America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by “freedom.” The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism.”

We can see this exemplified in the statement of the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under the compulsion of the State.”

The American notion of freedom, of liberty, is fundamentally a matter of personal choice. It is the right to choose one’s own story without interference from government or society or church, because with such interference, with a backstory, one is not truly free.

Thus, Hauerwas continues,

“Of course, the problem with the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story is that story is a story that you have not chosen. But Americans do not have the ability to acknowledge that they have not chosen the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. As a result, they must learn to live with decisions they made when they thought they knew what they were doing but later realized they did not know what they were doing. They have a remedy when it comes to marriage – it is called divorce. They also have a remedy regarding children – it is called abortion.

The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord – but that’s just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial to sustain democracy. …

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.

But a church formed capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may well think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to that task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop Francis George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and being an American. As a result Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned.”

So for Hauerwas American Protestantism is dying because it is no longer capable of identifying its faith in the God of Jesus Christ as separate from American public religion:

That Americans are willing to die for America is indicative of their most basic conviction. For, as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle observe in their book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag:

“In an era of Western ascendancy, the triumph of Christianity clearly meant the triumph of the states of Christianity, among them the most powerful of modern states, the United States. Though religions have survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith. Still, in the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.”

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. Freedom names the attempt to live as though we will not die. Lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility, moreover, can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others.”

Such claims are controversial. They make us uncomfortable; but they seem to be fairly accurate. As a whole, Christianity in America has generally proven incapable of being a prophetic witness in contrast to the state. Christian faith (Catholic and Protestant) in the U.S. is often a private practice, one which does not impinge on our “patriotism” or challenge the hegemony of the state. Sure our faith may spur us to stand for or against this or that issue, but it does not enable to criticize the American hegemony from without or en toto. We rarely get as emotionally upset over slanders against the Church as do over attacks on the military. We rarely get sing as fervently in praise of the Lord as we sing in praise of America around the 4th of July. As Hauerwas quoting Cardinal George noted above. Catholics are no less guilty of this than are Protestants.

Meanwhile, one of the more prominent lay voices in the Catholic Church here in the states has written a book detailing how the Catholic Church can undergo deep reform to once again become an evangelical force in the world. Despite the skill of Weigel’s pen and the infectious fervor of his words, much is missing. John Cavadini has recently put his finger on the central problem: Weigel’s evangelically Catholic Church is not really a sacramental church.

It is it is “sometimes hard to distinguish this beneficial discomfort from the worry that, despite Weigel’s disclaimer distinguishing Evangelical Catholicism from Protestant Evangelicalism, the ecclesiology implied in his descriptions of Evangelical Catholicism threatens to leave behind fundamental features of Catholic ecclesiology.”

Indeed Weigel is inadvertently proposing a Protestant ecclesiology. Cavadini further explains:

It is significant that Weigel claims Dei Verbum, not Lumen Gentium, is “the key Vatican II document for the deep reform of the Catholic Church.”He never mentions the doctrine, prominent in Lumen Gentium and emphatically repeated in the Catechism, that the Church is the sacrament of communion with God and of unity among human beings.

In fact, this is its “first purpose.” The Church can be this because she is born not primarily from our works, confession, or conduct, but because she is “born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross,” and she comes forth from his side as his Bride, joined to him in one flesh as one Body.

Weigel substitutes for this teaching the doctrine of Christ as the primordial sacrament of the human ­encounter with God, an expression not used in the Catechism. He uses it, in effect, to replace the doctrine of the Church as sacrament: “Evangelical Catholicism begins with meeting and knowing the Lord himself, the primordial Sacrament of the human encounter with God.”

Weigel comments, “The joy of being in the presence of the Lord is the sustaining dynamic of the communion, the unique form of human community, that is the Church.” But is that really true? The sustaining dynamic of the communion that is the Church is the all-surpassing sacrifice of Christ. Establishing Christ as the “primordial sacrament” without any evident relationship to the Church as sacrament leaves the Church as simply a “unique form of human community.”

Ironically, for a cultural critic, this weakens the perspective that the Church can bring to bear on all of the absolutizing claims of the kingdoms of this world. For it is only a community that is not formed on the basis of claims of human purity, achievement, or excellence, however unique, that can mediate perspective, simply by its very presence in the world, on those that are.”

Indeed when Christianity ceases to be fully sacramental and eucharistic, and becomes instead a set of moral norms or purity laws, it ceases to put us in full communion with Christ. It becomes just one of many forms of human community. It ceases to have the power to withstand and critique the hegemony of the state.

Weigel’s plans for reform, some of which may indeed be necessary and good, are dangerously incomplete. What is needed not some form of evangelicalism in the Catholic Church, but for all Christians to willfully return to Christ (in the Eucharist) over and against the sacrificial demands of mammon. To recognize that our communion does not come from any righteousness on our part, but from the mercy of God as manifested on the Cross. In our current society, if we don’t find ourselves crucified with Christ, we are probably doing something wrong. We are probably being too American.

Hauerwas concludes his essays with a hopeful caveat:

“I love America and I love being an American. The energy of Americans – their ability to hew out lives often in unforgiving land, their natural generosity – I cherish. But I am a Christian. I cannot avoid the reality that American Christianity has been less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God we worship as Christians.

If I am right that we are now facing the end of Protestantism, hopefully that will leave the church in America in a position with nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. God may yet make the church faithful – even in America.”

I echo these sentiments. I critique the U.S. because I love the U.S., but I also love Christ and his Church. It is not that I merely love Christ more. Rather it is that I believe I cannot love the country, or my family, or my neighbor if I am not sacramentally infused with Jesus’ Spirit of love. It is precisely because the Church is the universal diachronic and synchronic communion in the Body of Christ that it is capable of identifying the actually quite limited nature of the apparently absolute claims of the U.S. to be a people that have no story except the story you choose. Only the absolute worship of Christ and communion with in the Eucharist, in the Church, can adequately relativize the universal claims of the American story that claims to be no story.

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  • Doc Fox

    For those modern folks, think of God in terms of a modern technology: the Universe is a giant computer, designed and built and provided with an operating system, and put in place through the big bang. Evolution is part of that operating system. Occasionally we products of and within of the OS come up with a virus that screws up the operating of the local system. As the designer, God gave us products of evolution free will integral to our nature, which permits us to innovate, and to destroy, and do all things in between. In case of things being ‘tweakable’ without destroying the whole, we have prayer. I prefer to think God desires us to innovate in wonderful ways, and that in the end we remain more than fertilizer for the crops of the next generation.

  • Pingback: The God Wars: Why Prayer Just Isn't Enough - Citizens of God()

  • trellis smith

    One could hardly quarrel with ” I cannot avoid the reality that American Christianity has been less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God we worship as Christians.” but even there he overstates. It is one thing to criticize the excesses and injustices of capitalistic and overt nationalism that equates God and country and to echo the often banal complaint that Americans favor the new over the historical but how is not the story of America not part of the narrative, partly cumulative of the Christian message of freedom? And how is bemoaning this freedom, prosperity and religious tolerance an argument for advancement of freedom and well being? There is much in the American narrative of the exodus from Europe to a “promised land” and the black Protestant America’s civil rights struggle to find the God of Abraham Jacob and Isaac breaking through. The pervasiveness of Evangelical Protestantism equation of God and patriotism is a rather recent development as the original and usual strain of the political class mostly hailed from mainline groups or liberal anabaptism. Also perhaps beyond the scope of his analysis, there is a new paradigm of American environmentalism that will add to the Christian narrative provided the narrative of Creation is embraced. Despite my respect for the renown Stanley Hauerwas, his analysis seems facile and at times incoherent but I find Marvin and Ingles ideas mere calumny.

    • flowersan

      “how is not the story of America not part of the narrative, partly cumulative of the Christian message of freedom?”

      Because His Kingdom is not of This World.

      There is no doubt that the Christian narrative contributed, but only in a perverse way, only in the same sense it unfolded into political Christendom, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, etc etc.

      You can worship your goddess Liberty, but please take your filthy immanentism out of the church.

      The really wonderful thing that is happening today is that the Church is realizing just how evil Her alliance with the powers of the World really was.

      There’s a line in a Simpson’s episode where Lisa tells Mr. Burns “You’re still evil, and when you try to be good, you’re even more evil!” This describes America perfectly. There is no doubt many will turn and say, “But this is liberation! This is taking the glory of Freedom and Liberty to it’s ultimate conclusion!” To which those of us who understand Babylon will only shake our heads.

      Your “civil rights” movement only enslaved the blacks more than ever. Your “environmentalism” will only destroy the earth. Your democracy has only left the people MORE disenfranchised.

      If America’s narrative is “partly cumulative of the Christian message of freedom” it is only as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an adoption of a narrative in order to CO-OPT it and actually turn it around for evil ends.

      This is easy enough to see politically. We may also see it in individuals. How often have I seen people turn around and throw my own words back in my face, but using them to justify the exact OPPOSITE of what they really imply.

      Shame shame shame on this horrible country. “And the smoke of her burning shall go up forever.” Every Christian should read the Apocalypse of St John endlessly if they want to know what it really means to be a Christian and what the Christian’s attitude towards the World should be.

      • trellis smith

        “How often have I seen people turn around and throw my own words back in my face, but using them to justify the exact OPPOSITE of what they really imply”
        I would deem you as guilty of this as anyone. You most certainly are not responding to what I have written but reading in your own connotations flailing at ghosts and heretics under the bed or in the closet.

        You confuse the new darling of the religious right, immanetism with immanence.
        The prime difference between the Catholic imagination and the Protestant imagination is one of emphasis on the manifestation of the God head. Protestants emphasize the transcendental complete otherness of God which emphasizes the differences, whereas the Catholic imagination sees the likenesses to God the analogies His immanence and Incarnation.
        From the Protestant emphasis arose the great explorations of science which categorizes and departmentalizes in order to examine the workings of the world. From the Catholic emphasis, a paradigm of the holistic, an appreciation of the totality and ecology of the workings of the world.
        The husbandry of St. Benedict. the love of nature of St Francis finds reiteration in the environmental movement today and a moment for the holistic vision of Creation that Catholicism envisions to shine.
        The Kingdom of God is not of this world but you neglect that the Kingdom of God is within you in th here and now.
        God so loved the world that he gave his only son,,(,whom he) did not send to condemn the world but to save it. Through the beatitudes we engage the world and the sacramental character of the Church in the world is revealed

        How unfortunate you see a perversity of meaning and are unable to see as Lincoln did that “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as an expression of the emancipation from bondage that joins the narrative of the Exodus as great historical manifestations of the Kingdom.

  • “Indeed when Christianity ceases to be fully sacramental and eucharistic, and becomes instead a set of moral norms or purity laws, it ceases to put us in full communion with Christ. It becomes just one of many forms of human community. It ceases to have the power to withstand and critique the hegemony of the state.”

    The problem is that many Catholics want the Church to simply be a set of moral norms and purity laws, and drive out anyone who does not follow them the way that they understand them. After the last election, a man with whom I was Facebook friends called me a “so called Catholic” because he was under the impression I voted for Obama. (I did not vote for Obama, but I saw no reason to correct him.) He then announced he was unfriending everyone who voted for Obama, and did.

    It’s the same mindset. Membership in the Catholic Church, for him, is not sacramental, deriving from Baptism. Rather, for him, membership in the Catholic Church is achieved and maintained through voting for the correct candidate or donating money to the correct political party.

  • A lot of good points here. Christianity in America is at a turning point, and is finally beginning to realize that wholesale allegiance to the state is antithetical too its very being. The great challenge is to convince itself that this is indeed true.