Damian Thompson on the “spooky” similarity of Pope Francis and the new ABC

Damian Thompson writes:

The similarities between Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis are almost spooky — once you get past the fact that one is an Old Etonian evangelical Protestant and the other a South American Jesuit who prays in front of garlanded statues of Mary. Archbishop Welby was enthroned two days after Francis was inaugurated. That’s simple coincidence, but the other parallels tell us a lot.

Both men were plucked from senior but not prominent positions in their churches with a mandate to simplify structures of government that had suffocated their intellectual predecessors, who also resembled each other in slightly unfortunate ways. Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI seemed overwhelmed by the weight of office; both took the puzzling decision to retreat into their studies at a time of crisis in order to write books — Dr Williams on metaphor and icon-ography in Dostoevsky, Benedict on the life of Jesus. When they retired, early and of their own volition, their in-trays were stacked higher than they had been when they took office. Their fans were disappointed and the men charged with replacing them thought: we’re not going to let that happen again.

Enter the God Squad. In Britain, this is a term used to describe Christian Union types who talk without embarrassment about Jesus (albeit often in an embarrassing fashion). Justin Welby found his vocation at Holy Trinity, Brompton, whose public-school-educated worshippers had an unnerving habit of mentioning the Lord just as the guests were digging into the stilton. But these days ‘HTB’ has refined its evangelising and forms part of a global network of Christians who preach the Gospel without worrying too much about denominational boundaries or liturgical niceties.

There’s more at the link.

I would agree with much of this assessment.

And come to think of it, I, too, am very comfortable in the presence of the so-called God Squad.  More comfortable with them than I am with fellow Catholics who push for a different kind of ecumenism, what I call the lowest common denominator variety that focuses on social justice.

But, after all the hoops I had to jump through to become Catholic and all the things I have come to believe (though admittedly with some difficulty, for instance the need to have Sacramental Confession where you confess you sins in kind and number to a priest—-I do what I’m told, but having had the experience of direct confession to God and the cleansing tears of repentance and the sense that it’s not individual sins that get me in trouble, it’s a sin nature that needs to die . . .) I have some concerns.

First of all, the temptation to indifferentism.  Having been a Just-Me-And-Jesus type of evangelical with this kind of pure faith springing from a personal relationship with Christ it can be easy to default to this and to think, well, there are essential doctrines and less essential doctrines.  So let’s not worry about baptism–whether you baptize infants or not or whether it’s a symbol of regeneration or a sacrament;  let’s not worry about Communion—whether you believe in Real Presence or not; let’s not worry about Apostolic Succession or whether you think women can be ordained or not.

Yet as a Catholic I see this all in a more nuanced, even paradoxical light.  I am thankful for having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as evangelicals put it, and I also believe this is a great starting point.  I also believe the Holy Spirit does lead us into all truth and I have met Protestants who have amazing grace, holy love and wise insights through their willingness to pray over Scripture and obey what God reveals to them.

But I do not think you can take some doctrines and classify them as non-essential.   The Catholic faith is of a piece and you start snipping out this and tearing away this thread pretty soon it unravels.

Your thoughts?

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20 Responses to Damian Thompson on the “spooky” similarity of Pope Francis and the new ABC

  1. grahame says:

    Compared to the past the Catholic Church presents very few hoops to run. No heresies have to be abjured or the like. One simply has to make a good confession (something familiar to Anglo-catholics ), profess all that the Church teaches is revealed by God and be chrismated and communicated. The whole process is positive. We are not treated as converts but baptized Christians come home to Catholic unity. In short these days the Church is a gracious and welcoming mother in the way non Catholic believers are treated when they come knocking. GCT

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  3. Stephen K says:

    [Quote] “I do not think you can take some doctrines and classify them as non-essential. The Catholic faith is of a piece and you start snipping out this and tearing away that thread pretty soon it unravels.” [end quote]

    This is a neat and concise statement of a particular view about (a) the nature and (b) the coherence, of the Catholic faith: in other words, it is a discrete thing essentially constituted of doctrines that not only support each other but are necessary for each other.

    Is this true? It might be salutary and instructive if this was analysed and discussed in some depth. For example, we might have some difficulty in being satisfied that we could identify every jot and tittle of doctrine promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church let alone any other Catholic Church. (e.g. Should we point to the CCC? The Documents of Vatican II? The documents of every ecumenical council?) Could we be satisfied that we could identify every doctrine in its most integral form or expression, free of problematic lacunae? Are we talking about the first or the latest expression, or an agglomerate compendium of expression and emphasis? Is the Catholic faith expressed in the mystical and spiritual writings of the many saints and revered figures (e.g. the Eastern fathers and doctors, a’Kempis, Mother Julian, St Teresa, etc). Does it properly encompass the theological systems of moralists and theologians through the centuries? Or ikons and church architecture? What would be the view of an Eastern Catholic about the “Catholic” faith?

    This is without venturing into the views of the Orthodox or Anglo-Catholics. Setting aside questions of emphasis, can we identify ‘camel-back breakers’ like the filioque question or papal doctrine? Is that what determining “the Catholic” faith comes down to when all else may be consonant? At what point, for example, did those now in the Ordinariates have, hold and live the ‘Catholic’ faith? From their earliest years, the moment of spiritual alienation from their native communities, or upon formal reception into the Roman Catholic Church? On Passion Sunday earlier this year I had felicitous occasion to attend a very spiky Anglo-Catholic Evensong. Was their Catholic faith diminished, fragile by their official non-affiliation with the Roman Pope?

    The next question that may be worth more reflection and study is whether in fact it is true to say that every doctrine we can identify supports every other and is necessary to them, such that the rejection of one (i) leads to the rejection of all; or (ii) vitiates completely the ‘catholicism’ of the faith of the person. Or would it be true only of some? For example, is a belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary really necessary to support the belief in the divinity of Jesus?

    I am familiar with the view that would insist that anyone who rejects any single doctrine propounded by the Roman Catholic Church in its official texts is not or is no longer a “Catholic”. This is in fact the bread-and-butter of many blog disputes and commentary. It seems difficult enough to reach agreement on whether such a person is a Roman Catholic, let alone a Catholic in a larger sense. I haven’t quite worked out whether, to the extent that agnosticism, doubt or denial of various Roman Catholic ideas, practices or doctrines is a sin (along with all the other sins), a person who so doubts or denies is no longer a Roman Catholic but just another Roman Catholic sinner.

    These are necessarily deep waters. There are doctrines taught and held by Popes and Councils and contained in books and collectively they may be said to constitute the Roman Catholic faith. But, faith is a thing of more than the intellect and, away from the printed page, we might be hard pressed to find them all in all their integrity in the minds and hearts of every self-identifying Catholic including many who insist we should. Perhaps these issues can be thoughtfully discussed?

  4. Rev22:17 says:

    Deborah,

    You wrote: I would agree with much of this assessment.

    Yes, it seems to be accurate overall.

    You wrote: And come to think of it, I, too, am very comfortable in the presence of the so-called God Squad. More comfortable with them than I am with fellow Catholics who push for a different kind of ecumenism, what I call the lowest common denominator variety that focuses on social justice.

    I’m with you completely on this. The “lowest common denominator” approach cannot be a basis for restoration of full communion. Rather, the Second Vatican Council stated clearly, and all subsequent popes have affirmed, that there must be full unity of faith, even though that common faith finds legitimate liturgical expression in a diverse variety of “rites” and “uses” within the Catholic Church.

    More to the point, however, a “God Squad” focused on scripture as a source of revelation, divinely inspired and thus inerrant, is not going to tolerate the worst abuses that have arisen in Anglican Christianity. Theologically, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) probably are a lot closer to the Catholic Church than The Episcopal Church (TEC) or the Anglican Church in Canada (ACC) even though both the BGEA and the SBC lack liturgical worship, the sacraments, and a mature theology of the church.

    You wrote: Yet as a Catholic I see this all in a more nuanced, even paradoxical light. I am thankful for having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as evangelicals put it, and I also believe this is a great starting point.

    Indeed, a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is an essential element of authentic Christian faith — not just a “starting point” — and the sacraments of Christian initiation are intended to be expressions of this reality.

    Several years ago, I attended a “day of recollection” at a Benedictine archabbey. The speaker, an elderly monk, remarked during his presentation that, when we come to Christ in the sacraments of initiation, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us in a special way to lead us onward and that our vocation is to live in complete submission to the Holy Spirit. He went on to explain that, so long as we live in complete submission to the Holy Spirit, we cannot sin because the Holy Spirit will not lead us to sin — and, conversely, that, whenever we stop living in complete submission to the Holy Spirit, all that we can do is sin because we are no longer doing God’s will. This, of course, implies that our vocation is to live a life of constant prayer fully attuned to the Holy Spirit and to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.

    You wrote: I also believe the Holy Spirit does lead us into all truth and I have met Protestants who have amazing grace, holy love and wise insights through their willingness to pray over Scripture and obey what God reveals to them.

    Yes, absolutely!

    I have also encountered many people who fell victim to seriously defective catechesis in the parishes in which they grew up and never formed a personal relationship with the Lord therein. In many cases, it was evangelical Christians — either an evangelical ministry such as The Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ, or Varsity Christian Fellowship or an evangelically oriented Protestant church — that led them to the only cure for this defect and helped them to establish the personal relationship on which our salvation really depends. It is only by solidifying this relationship, and thus attuning our lives to the Holy Spirit, that we can avoid sin and its price of eternal damnation.

    You wrote: But I do not think you can take some doctrines and classify them as non-essential. The Catholic faith is of a piece and you start snipping out this and tearing away this thread pretty soon it unravels.

    While I would not classify any doctrine as “non-essential” or in any way dispute the veracity thereof, it is certainly true that some points of doctrine are much more central to the mystery of salvation than other points of doctrine.

    The other reality here is that our understanding of doctrine grows with maturity. Points of doctrine that did not make sense to me thirty years ago now make a lot more sense because my understanding has grown. There is, however, a certain core of understanding that one must have in order to embrace the true Jesus of Christian faith as one’s lord and savior. I am much less concerned about members of the church who don’t fully understand matters that are beyond this core than members of the church who don’t understand this core sufficiently to embrace the true Jesus of authentic Christian faith.

    Norm.

    • grahame thompson says:

      Norm,

      This may open a theological debate which might not be suitable by this means but it seems to me that ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ language represents a certain kind of piety, one of relative recent vintage. Ultimately trinitarian worship and prayer is to the Father through the Son in the Spirit within the Church. This is what we find in the propers and Canon of the Mass, the summit of Christian worship. The ‘come to Jesus’, ‘relationship with Christ’ type of Campus Crusade/Billy Graham Assn devotional approach, simply put,doesn’t suit everyone. Grahame

      • Stephen K says:

        Grahame, your proposition is interesting, and very worthy of theological discussion. Perhaps I might venture some comments here. I think a distinction might usefully be made between “personal relationship with Jesus” piety and “personal relationship with Jesus” language, for whilst the latter may strike those raised in less-evangelical church traditions as ‘recent’ because of the vocabulary that a Mass-centred prayer structure emphasised, I think theologically speaking a piety founded on a relationship of the person with Jesus is implicitly encouraged right from the beginnings of Christianity. I was prompted to turn to Ephesians and Philippians for example where exhortations to do everything in and for and by Christ are numerous and sit side by side with Trinitarian reminders. And, at the other end of Christian history, I need only turn to a volume “The Manual of the Holy Catholic Church” (Chicago, 1906) where I find, on page 74 and following, meditation after meditation on Jesus, couched in effusive Ligourian language.

        Now in saying that “personal relationship” language may strike an inculturated Catholic as “recent”, I don’t pretend to assert that it is actually recent in other ecclesial contexts or traditions. I don’t have any empirical basis for so asserting. Perhaps those who grew up in such churches are more familiar with their style and custom of piety and theology and can provide an opinion about that. But it does lead me to consider your final observation that the Billy Graham devotional approach does not suit everyone. I cannot but agree. We are each well-formed by the time of our adult years and it is very difficult for most of us ‘swallow’ or taste many things to which we’re unaccustomed. This explains much of the passion with which religious worship issues are engaged, to greater degrees than the other conceptual stuff with which many people don’t particularly get too bothered about. It does mean thought that we have to be wary of doubting or trashing the validity or positives of religious forms which we, through what is often if not always existential accident, personally find alien or unpalatable.

      • Rev22:17 says:

        Grahame,

        You wrote: This may open a theological debate which might not be suitable by this means but it seems to me that ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ language represents a certain kind of piety, one of relative recent vintage.

        This really is not so novel in Catholic spirituality as you suppose. In fact, the concept of a personal relationship with our Lord is embodied in the writings of many of the saints, most notably including mystics, and it’s also expressed in many traditional hymns — albeit often in verses that many Catholic parishes don’t sing very often. Ever read the third and fourth verses of the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, for example?

        3. How silently, how silently, the wond’rous gift is giv’n,
        Still God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n.
        No ear may hear his coming, yet in this world of sin,
        Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

        4. O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
        Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
        We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
        O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel!

        And what embodies this more than our theology of (1) baptism, (2) confirmation, and (3) the eucharist?

        You wrote: The ‘come to Jesus’, ‘relationship with Christ’ type of Campus Crusade/Billy Graham Assn devotional approach, simply put,doesn’t suit everyone.

        I have doubts about the Christian character of the faith of those who say that it does not suit them. Rather, something very significant is seriously lacking.

        Norm.

  5. grahame says:

    Stephan,
    The Catholic Church shows great latitude when it comes to piety -a good thing in my books. I apologize if I came across disdainful or as if I was trashing ‘the relationship with Jesus’ piety of Evangelical Protestants and some Catholics if that’s how they wish to express their love for God I.e. with a focus on the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

    • Stephen K says:

      Grahame, and for my part I apologize if I inferred too much or came across critical. Actually, I thought you were picking up on something important Deborah and Norm were discussing, i.e. the concept of “personal relationship with Jesus” and prompting one to ask what that might mean and may have meant in different eras and ecclesial communities, and this led me to consider the phenomenon of what pleases or inspires or makes sense to us all. I find the way we all think religiously – in some ways very differently, but in other respects very commonly – very interesting. We tend to think we come to conclusions in a very disciplined and unassailable way, but I think, in fact, religious thought and feeling – which includes how we regard the terms and practices that frame and express them – are best understood phenomenologically, i.e. sort-of-all-at-once-and-idiosyncratically rather than as pure products of logic and left-brain processes. But that’s just my personal take on things. I find the sense of the reality, the mystery or the presence of God more immediately perceptible (by me) in some contexts or forms than others, and this is largely due to my own formation, considered largely, and I imagine that it is exactly the same for everyone else. I therefore agree with you wholeheartedly that it is a good thing that there is great latitude where piety is concerned. Anyway, I thank you.

  6. grahame says:

    I read a sign-off comment on one of the blogs recently: “Have you accepted Mary as your personal Co-Redemptrix yet?”. Facetious?

    • Foolishness says:

      I just read a most interesting analysys by Fr Aidan Nichols of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s views on Mary as Co-Redemptrix. Fr Nichols says he is uncomfortable with the terminology because co has come to mean “equal” though it did not always. Anyway, if I refind the link I’ll post it.

      • Stephen K says:

        In the Catholic Action edition of the Holy Bible (N.C. 1953) one finds at the back a “Catholic Doctrinal Guide” which has an explicit cross-reference “Co-Redemptrix”. On page 54 it reads “she is the Mediatrix of all graces and in certain way Co-redemptrix with Christ”. In Tanquerey’s Manual of Dogmatic Theology (1959) one reads “Mary is Christ’s cooperatrix in the Redemption. She cooperated in man’s salvation secondarily and dependently on Christ by consenting both to the Incarnation of the Word and to the death of Christ.”

        Two things occur to me here: (1) that “cooperatrix” is a better term because it probably avoids the connotation that somehow Christ was not sufficient a redeemer, or that Mary was in any way a redemptrix. (The difference between “redemptrix” and “co-redemptrix” is probably too subtle for most of us to be helpful); and (2) Tanqueray seems to be proposing how and in what sense Mary played a part in the redemptive schema – by cooperating, consenting, i.e. something much more reactive than the term ‘co-redemptrix’ suggests. But this means that it is also something much less unique, since Christians are always and everywhere exhorted to co-operate with the grace of the holy Spirit.

        I remember using the term “co-redemptrix” in a short address about 40 years ago quite deliberately but noted the parish priest’s sudden intake of breath. Clearly he thought it heresy, or not at all a salutary expression. Today I would agree with him on both counts.

    • Rev22:17 says:

      Grahame,

      You said: I read a sign-off comment on one of the blogs recently: “Have you accepted Mary as your personal Co-Redemptrix yet?”. Facetious?

      A couple decades ago, some very staunch traditionalist groups submitted petitions to the Vatican asking that Pope John Paul II promulgate an ex cathedra decree infallibly proclaiming Mary to be the “co-redemptorix” and “mediatrix of all graces.” The Vatican’s press office issued a public statement giving three reasons for not doing so.

      >> 1. The past use of such titles by theologians had given rise to widespread misunderstanding.

      >> 2. The past use of such titles by theologians had given rise to what the Vatican very charitably called “exaggerated” Marian devotion.

      >> 3. Such a decree would create further obstacles to Christian unity, with which ongoing ecumenical dialog with various other Christian denominations would have to deal.

      But such a history makes me wonder if the sign-off comes from staunch traditionalists who engage in “exaggerated” Marian devotion or from someone on the other side who is using sarcasm to make a point.

      Norm.

      • grahame says:

        Norm

        For the record, I believe Christ enters the life of those who by grace repent and believe but we could also say we are drawn up into his Life. We could also say we are adopted by grace and are co heirs of the Father’s Kingdom with Jesus our Brother. We could also put it in terms of partaking in the divine nature or participating in the Life of the Trinity. The point is there is more than one way to speak of the experience of grace and union with God. For me the word ‘relationship’ doesn’t work. That’s all. Regards, Grahame

  7. Richard Grand says:

    I’m confused. You say that you have trouble with things like Sacramental Confession, Apostolic Sucession and the real Presence, yet you accept them as a Roman Catholic. Did you not accept them as a member of the Anglican Catholic Church? These are essential to what the Anglican Catholic Church believe(d) as a “continuing” Anglican Church. You must have beleieved them before you entered the Ordinariate or what was the point?

    • Foolishness says:

      Where did I say I had trouble with Apostolic Succession or Real Presence? Maybe I did back in the days I was a Baptist, because no one ever told me about Apostolic Succession or Real Presence. I said I struggle with Sacramental Confession though we had it in the ACCC and I obediently went to Confession. Where I struggle is in this: I have had experience of direct confession to God, like the Psalmists write about, without a priest as an intermediary. I have experienced His forgiveness and peace. Without a priest. Now when I did my big first Confession before coming into the Catholic Church I went through many sins I had committed that I knew I had already experienced forgiveness for (and freedom from that tendency as well) but I confessed them anyway.

      And while I struggle with it, I think everyone who is Catholic should go and regularly!

      Don’t worry, I can discuss all of this with my confessor and spiritual director.

      • Rev22:17 says:

        Deborah,

        In reference to sacramental confession, you wrote: And while I struggle with it, I think everyone who is Catholic should go and regularly!

        To be clear, the Codex Juris Canonici requires sacramental confession at least once per year — but only if one is conscious of “serious” (or “mortal”) sin. Those who are not conscious of mortal sin are not required to confess.

        Of course, if one is conscious of “serious” sin, one also must obtain sacramental confession before receiving sacramental communion….

        Norm.

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