Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Individualism Versus The Church

FLG thinks Anti-Climacus misses something here.

Yes, modern day liberalism is inherently political and is much removed from its Protestant origins. Nevertheless, one should not overlook the strain of individualism that runs from those original Protestant liberals to today's more politically-based liberals.

Protestant churches are, for all intents and purposes, the individuals within the congregation within that local community. This goes back to Luther, and stands in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic Church as an eternal organization to which one belongs, but in important and fundamental ways stands beyond and above any of its members.

FLG thinks a misunderstanding of this relationship is why the Obama Administration got caught seemingly blindsided by the overwhelming negative reaction of even pro-choice, Democratic Catholics. Moreover, it's why FLG, who is not Catholic, finds many of the arguments based upon what percentage of Catholics use contraception, etc or arguing that the HHS mandate doesn't inhibit any particular Catholic individual from practicing their religion are incredibly offbase.

The Church, as an organization and institution separate from any group of Catholics even if they are a part of it, undertakes certain good works (education, health care, etc) as part of its religious obligation on behalf of its members, and if you pressed the logic all of mankind. It doesn't matter how many of its members use contraception or approve of its stance on abortion. The Church itself acts. Much in the same way that a corporation is a person that exists outside the individuals that own and work for it. Unlike a corporation, however, the Church endeavors to take up important good works instead of turning a profit. Thus, FLG is steadfastly in the grant a broad religious exemption and tell people that if they want to have contraception covered in their health care insurance plan, then don't work for the Catholic Church.

Anyway, modern liberalism, which is individualistic, a quality it inherited from its Protestant origins, does, FLG thinks, present a unique problem for the Catholic Church.


Hilarius Bookbinder said...

"Protestant churches are, for all intents and purposes, the individuals within the congregation within that local community. This goes back to Luther, and stands in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic Church as an eternal organization to which one belongs, but in important and fundamental ways stands beyond and above any of its members."

I think both the standard account of liberalism and the standard account of the Reformation (at least among the non-Protestant) give short shrift to the importance of community, ecclesiology, and political order. It's true for the most part that Luther put the individual before the collective. Calvin certainly did not, at least not when rubber met road in Geneva. Still less is this true for the Magesterial Reformers, generally, and I suspect it's least true of all in England, in which the public role of the church is of much greater controversy than the role or fate of individuals. Now this Protestant understanding may have changed over time, but I think the typical story is so overly reductive as to be wrong, or useless for purposes of identifying 'Protestantism' as the genesis of 'liberalism.'

Anonymous said...

Today's more politically-based liberals have more in common with elect Puritanism than original Protestantism. It would be nearer reality to suppose that the Obama Administration had not been caught up in a misunderstanding but had acted in the spirit of a liberal/Puritan revolution – in no way an individualistic enterprise.

The unique problem here is not one for the Catholic Church to lament but everyone else. It is the Catholic who acts individually upon his own conscience, safe in the knowledge he will not be visited in the night by Jesuit ninja or Swiss Guardsmen in mufti. It is for Catholics and everyone else to come to grips with this and future administrations that will not leave to the afterlife any final judgments but render them here and now and will not accept conscience as a defense.

Individualistic modern liberalism, indeed.

George Pal

Withywindle said...

Ditto Hilarius. Although it's also worth noting that back ca. 1519, the Catholic polemicists said something like, "Protestantism will lead to atheism, secularism, and a la carte Christianity," and the Protestant theologians said, "Gracious, no, it would never happen!" Catholic polemicists had a point. But it was a long and winding road from 1519.

Flavia said...

Yes and no. Catholic teaching has long held that it is the people who are the church, and that it is always correct--indeed, that is a moral imperative--to follow one's individual conscience even when what one's conscience tells one is in direct contradiction to the church's official teachings.

Personally, I find it deeply offensive when people tell me that the church isn't a democracy, and that I have an obligation to follow what the bishops say because they speak for the church. This simply is not so. Surrendering one's conscience to anyone else is itself a sin.

George Will says it best, here, though this shorter piece in the Times is also quite smart about the moral and philosophical issues.

Andrew Stevens said...

That's Garry Wills, not George Will. I have always shared Martin Gardner's opinion on Wills's Catholicism. (The last few paragraphs, in particular.)

Withywindle said...

Yeah ... Flavia, I don't think the Catholic Church (or Catholics) have shared your views on Obedience for much of their history.

The Ancient said...

Flavia's first two paragraphs are exactly right.

(I'm too sleepy to sort through the rest -- but really , they don't matter. Who really cares what Garry Wills writes? He stopped being a Catholic about the time he bailed from The National Review. He stopped being a Christian when he found it impeded his social life.)

FLG said...


I don't disagree with anything you wrote. There is, however, a very different relationship in Catholicism between the people of the Church and the Church as an institution than there is in Protestantism.

Flavia said...

Yes--I was commenting too hastily and confused my Wills(es), which is not something I ordinarily do! I also confused which article did what; the Times piece is the clearer, with less political axe-grinding. Apologies.

Withy: vague appeals to what people probably thought, throughout history, do not interest me. If you would like to discuss Catholic teachings about the formation and exercise of conscience, that's another matter.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: I suspect this is a conversation which is going to degenerate rapidly in tone. Let me try not to be waspish.

1) I gather there is a difference between the free exercise of conscience and the practical obedience to the Church; i.e., believe what you like, but if the Church tells you to be quiet, don't say a word. I suppose this is some measure of freedom, but it isn't one that impresses me all that much. When people critique the Catholic Church, I think they are referring to the practical obedience desired, and that your defense may not be germane to the point at issue.

2) I was trying to avoid the question of "What is real Catholicism?", since, aside from not being a believer, it doesn't really elicit helpful answers much more precise than "Whatever I think it should be." "Real" being an infinitely squishy concept. I do think it is more helpful to talk about what Church theology and Catholic belief have been, historically, rather than burble about what I think it should have been or should be.

3) The Catholic Church has an illiberal history. For a good part of the time between, oh, at least 1650 and 1964, it was significantly more illiberal on average than the various Protestant churches & sects, in stated theology, in belief, and in practice. An awful lot of Catholics prided themselves on their illiberalism, since they didn't take liberalism to be a virtue. (Neither do I, necessarily.) I suppose you can call this a vague assertion. It's a vague assertion made not only by, say, Whiggish history professors who wrinkle their noses at the Papist unwashed, but also some large number of millions of people born Catholic, in Catholic countries, with some knowledge (if partisan hostility) of the Church. And also some liberal Catholics, who argue not that the Church has always been liberal, democratic, etc., but that it has not been on the whole and it should be reformed to become so. In the historical mode, John W. O'Malley's The First Jesuits seemed to be an argument in this mode--talking about radical potentialities in the first generation of Jesuits, not least as a resource for the future, but recognizing that these potentialities had been put into deep-freeze fairly rapidly thereafter, and that most of the history of the Jesuit order was rather conservative.

I don't quite see the point of stringing together some number of examples to prove what seems to me to be an overwhelming amount of evidence for the thesis, if you don't already see this yourself. I confess that I'm puzzled: do you really not believe this?

4) Am I right to think that you are taking the historical case for an illiberal Church as a personal attack on your own status as a Catholic in good standing? I do think these are two separate issues. At any rate, I have no particular desire to grind my axe from History to Polemical Invective.

Withywindle said...
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