Puzzlin’ Evidence

One of our favorite scenes in David Byrne’s (sort of uneven) 1986 film True Stories is the scene where the preacher, played perfectly by John Ingle, begins spooling out an entirely secular web of conspiracy theories. Ingle’s preacher hits every note of the 1980s evangelical preacher as he sings “Puzzlin’ Evidence.” It is a shame that the album version of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” on the True Stories soundtrack is a version by Talking Heads with vocals by David Byrne. Whatever Byrne’s talents as a vocalist, he does not bring the same rollicking style to “Puzzlin’ Evidence” that Ingle did. At any rate, we could not help but think of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as we saw some of the reactions to Fr. Romanus Cessario’s very fine piece in First Things about the Mortara case.

Princeton professor Robert George, one of the grand old men of the interfaith coalition of neoconservatives, reacted to Cessario’s piece with horror. On Twitter and Facebook he decried the very idea of baptizing a child against the will of his or her parents as “an unspeakable injustice,” condemned by no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas. Somewhat surprisingly, George does not note that the current canon law of the Church, promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1983, notes that an infant—whether the child of Catholic parents or non-Catholic parents; it does not matter—in danger of death is baptized licitly even against the will of his parents (can. 868 § 2). The same code states that a child in danger of death “is to be baptized without delay” (can. 867 § 2). This, by the way, was the law under the 1917 Code, which clearly authorized baptism even of the children of non-Christians in danger of death (1917 can. 750 § 1). By the way, did you know that pastors have long been supposed to teach their subjects the correct way to baptize, in case of emergencies (can. 861 § 2; 1917 can. 743)? Stop for a moment and think about this: the law of the Church practically directs the faithful to baptize infants in danger of death notwithstanding any objections by their parents, and it commands pastors to make sure that the faithful know how to do this. Despite this clear teaching, George calls the baptism of Edgardo Mortara “an unspeakable injustice.” Does George really mean to say that the law of the Church for the past century, if not longer, constitutes an unspeakable injustice?

Plenty of the responses to George have happily pointed this out. One might also ask George what he thinks Matthew 28:19 means, to say nothing of the canons of the seventh session of the Council of Trent (March 3, 1547). We wish to emphasize another point, however, which might be overlooked otherwise. We come to the puzzling evidence.

In George’s haste to decry the baptism of Edgardo Mortara as “an unspeakable injustice,” he echoes some of the most vicious modern critics of the Church. In his (revolting and revoltingly titled) attack on Mother Teresa, Christopher Hitchens cited Teresa’s order’s practice of baptizing the dying as evidence of her “hypocrisy.” Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth: the saint consistently baptized those persons in her care. Fr. Leo Maasburg recounts that in Communist Armenia—where baptism was by no means a risk-free proposition for anyone—a hospital under Mother Teresa’s direction made sure that children (and some adults) dying were baptized. Nevertheless, the entirely true allegation that Mother Teresa baptized the dying has become one of the favorite slurs of the secularists against the Saint. In a review of Hitchens’s book for the New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton gleefully took up the charge. Indeed, Kempton is spurred to heights of fury rarely seen even in the explosive pages of the NYRB by the idea that an Albanian nun might want to succor the dying spiritually. The charge that Teresa baptized the dying remains one of the more popular charges, even twenty-some years after Hitchens’s book: Michael Stone, writing at Patheos in 2016, found nothing but horror in the idea that Teresa might baptize the dying.

Is there really any difference between George’s language regarding the Mortara case and the savage polemics directed at Mother Teresa? Is there any difference, really, between the spirit of George’s frantic denunciation and the lacerating blows directed at the Albanian saint? George calls the baptism of Edgardo Mortara and its consequences “an abomination” and “an unspeakable injustice.” Hitchens calls the baptism of many of Teresa’s patients a “hypocrisy.” Murray Kempton calls her baptisms “tickets of admission contrived in stealth and sealed with a fraudulent stamp.” And the Patheos blogger called them examples of “her moral corruption, and her callous attitude toward the sick and dying in her care . . . .” He goes on to call this “[t]he stuff of horror movies.” Surely George does not mean to indict Mother Teresa in the same terms that her most hateful critics have used! Surely he would find some way to distinguish his outrage over Romanus Cessario’s mild, intelligent defense of Pius IX from the gleeful, spiteful attacks of Christopher Hitchens and Murray Kempton! But try to think how you can indict Pius IX and exonerate Teresa. Try to think how you can distinguish contempt for Pius IX and Cessario’s argument from contempt for St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Harder than it looks, isn’t it?

On the value of the Mortara Case

At First Things, Romanus Cessario, O.P., has an interesting review of a new book about the Mortara Case. Cessario’s review, discussing the recent publication of Mortara’s memoirs, provides an excellent historical, canonical, and theological introduction to the case. If you are unfamiliar with it, we encourage you to read the review. (For transparency’s sake: we contribute a regular web column to First Things.) The reaction to Cessario’s review, especially on every writer’s favorite microblogging platform, Twitter, was swift and outraged in many instances. This outrage is largely because Cessario does not seem to think that Pius IX did anything wrong when he removed little Edgardo Mortara from his parents’ home following his baptism by a servant girl. The reactions take a couple of major forms, but they boil down to this: the Mortara Case contradicts liberal ideas about the role of the state and the family in the state. Such reactions, however, seem to overlook some facts about the liberal state and they ignore the value of the Mortara Case as a historical example.

The Mortara Case has been in the air a while, on Twitter and elsewhere. There is a sense that it is an important event, though in many cases it is not always spelled out why it is important. On prior occasions, the reactions have been no less outraged, but the length of Cessario’s treatment and its prominence have provoked a larger, more sustained reaction. It’s too bad. Taken on its merits, Cessario’s piece is very good. It provides a large helping of historical, canonical, and theological material about the case and, more generally, baptism. We suspect that Cessario’s piece will not be read with all the attention it deserves, and that many of the thoughts it was clearly intended to provoke will be lost in the broader chorus of condemnation.

The immediate reactions—that is, to Cessario’s review—have been, as we say, outraged. On one hand, you have outraged progressive-modernist theologians who insist that Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae mean—either individually or collectively—that Pius IX was wrong and wicked in his actions. Neither document says any such thing, and such a reading requires the invocation of the long-discredited Spirit of Vatican II. (Plus a healthy dollop of liberalism—more on that in a bit.) The theologians do not grapple with the argument Thomas Aquinas makes in Question 10 of the Secunda Secundae Partis, to say nothing of the manualist tradition after Thomas. Nor do they address the magisterial weight of Thomas’s thought in the light of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris and Paul VI’s Lumen Ecclesiae. Moreover, the doctrinal weight of Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae are open to debate, as Francis and officials in Francis’s Curia, like Archbishop Guido Pozzo, have recognized. In other words, there is potentially a debate about the Mortara case along the lines sketched out by the theologically inclined, though they do a poor job indicating the status quaestionis (to say nothing of advancing their arguments). Nevertheless, this is an interesting line of argument to explore with greater rigor.

It is less edifying, if possible, to see the extreme reactions of those who suggest that the Mortara case is some sort of shibboleth for traditionally minded Catholics. Naturally, at least some prominent authors who have said as much are not Catholic. Their argument is that the view that Pius IX acted consistently with sound doctrine, however that view is modulated or couched, is some sort of performative demonstration of orthodoxy, unalloyed with baser concerns, like feelings. In other words, they argue that an argument in favor of Pius IX, however uncompromising that argument may seem, is ultimately some sort of signal (or initiation ritual) for traditionally minded Catholics. One is reminded of Cardinal Newman’s statement in the Apologia pro Vita Sua that Kingsley was “poisoning the wells” against him. No matter what the arguments, no matter how rationally marshaled and logically sound they are, these young Christian writers say, whenever someone discourses on the Mortara case with anything but shock and horror, you may rest assured that he or she is actually just playing at orthodoxy to impress his or her friends.

There is also a sense in many of the reactions—just a brief word about this, as it is not an enthralling subject, though it goes along with poisoning the wells—that a clear expression of Catholic orthodoxy is somehow unkind. In other words, a statement that Pius IX did nothing wrong is seen not only as performative orthodoxy but also as unkind. Perhaps it is in this case; we cannot speak for every Twitter power user. Nevertheless, it is deeply worrying to see orthodox views characterized as insincere and unkind, not least because there is no end to that sort of thinking. Moreover, as a dear friend of ours is given to saying: every dispute about tone conceals a substantive dispute. The allegation of insincerity or unkindness seems especially apt to conceal such a substantive dispute. Perhaps it does not in this case; as we said, we cannot speak for every Twitter power user. Nevertheless, it seems to be a strong current in this debate.

Of course, theological imprecision and poisoning the wells are necessary in this argument because the real motivation for the reaction to the Mortara case is comfortable, bourgeois liberalism. However the Twitter sages phrase it, this is what they mean: in a liberal society, in 2018, the Church ought not go around taking children from parents. Pius IX’s actions strike at two crucial components of bourgeois liberalism: low-stakes religious pluralism and the family as the only building block of society. Consequently, to take a position on the Mortara case other than horror that Pius IX would do as he did is to take a position against pluralism and the inviolable family. Of course, liberals fail to recognize that pluralism tends toward ostracizing believers who believe too strongly. Moreover, they fail to see that the state is already enormously intrusively involved in families through the child welfare apparatus, which is no less intrusive than Pius IX’s gendarmes. The liberal state is no less intolerant and intrusive than Pius IX. However, liberalism presents itself as a perfectly neutral option, and, therefore, its intolerance and intrusion are frequently disguised as the rational, necessary actions of an impartial adult.

Moreover, precisely because liberalism presents itself as perfectly neutral and free of ideological content, it relies entirely on the will of electoral majorities to implement juridical provisions. That is, the will of the majority—or their representatives—becomes the neutral, inerrant viewpoint. Consequently, the intrusiveness and intolerance of the liberal state really represent the tastes of the majority. And electoral majorities require dissensions in the body politic; it is, therefore, necessary for those who wish to represent the people’s will to create and maintain those dissensions. None of this actually means that the liberal state is all that interested in protecting the rights of minorities. Consider the United States: it has existed for over two hundred and thirty five years as a liberal state. For how many of those years has it adequately protected the rights of minorities? More could be said on this point, but it is worth noting that adopting an attitude of horror at the Mortara Case misunderstands the situation of minorities under liberalism.

Nevertheless, because the Mortara case implicates some of the most cherished liberal values, it is worth considering as people begin to think about a post-liberal world. Cessario’s review moves in that direction, and we think it sets up the parameters of an interesting and fruitful discussion along those lines. And despite thinking that the reactions we saw today are not uniformly cogent (or even coherent), it is worth noting that some of those reactions point toward lines of discussion that are useful for considering the Church’s posture toward liberalism today. This, then, is the value of the Mortara Case as we see it: as a situation where some of the issues confronting serious Christians today intersect and require serious thought.

The year of Paul VI

Here is a prediction for 2018: it will be the year of Paul VI. In addition to canonization talk, there are two important anniversaries connected with Paul’s papacy. On July 25, the feast of St. James, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s landmark encyclical On the Regulation of Birth, known around the world by its incipit: Humanae vitae. Shortly before that, on June 30, we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Paul’s Credo of the People of God, which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre called, “an act which from the dogmatic point of view is more important than all the Council.” Both events—the promulgation of Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God—are of acute importance at this moment in the life of the Church, when the role of the Petrine ministry seems to be hotly contested. Both events saw Paul acting as a guardian of tradition against the innovations urged upon the Church in the wake of the Council. These events, however, contribute to Paul’s complicated legacy as a pope who was staunch in his defense and appreciation of tradition one day and who indulged the reformers’ whims on another day.

As noted above, there is already talk that Paul VI will be canonized this year. There are reports that the medical and scientific experts have already reported favorably upon the second miracle necessary for canonization. There remain some steps for canonization, according to the Crux article, including the approval of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and approval by Francis. However, these steps are largely administrative. The idea, according to the reports, is that Paul would be canonized during the ordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops this fall. Paul, you see, established the Synod of Bishops in the wake of the Council. It would also be appropriate for a meeting already deeply penetrated by Boomer notions about young people to see the canonization of the Boomers’ pope.

Paul’s canonization will likely be controversial, despite the events of 1968 discussed here. At New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo anticipates that “St. Paul VI” will be used to argue that the reformed post-Conciliar Mass is to be regarded with the same reverence as St. Pius V’s Tridentine Mass. DiPippo argues that canonization does not erase mistakes that saints made during their lifetimes, pointing most notably to the example of St. Alphonsus Liguori. He also notes that canonized popes, like Pius V and Pius X, initiated liturgical reforms that had both foreseen and unforeseen consequences—not all of them good. For example, St. Pius X’s reform of the breviary was extremely radical and resulted in ancient liturgical traditions being discarded practically overnight. So, DiPippo argues, there is no reason why Paul VI’s canonization would have any effect on the merits of the Novus Ordo. (Or at least the ongoing debate over its merits.)

Now, it is far from clear that the canonization actually matters to the partisans of the reform. In August, Francis, citing, among others, the example of Paul VI, declared “with magisterial authority” the liturgical reform “irreversible.” (It is not exactly clear to us what that means, however.) Furthermore, Francis, anticipating one of DiPippo’s arguments, observed that Paul VI’s liturgical books were “well received by the very Bishops who were present at the Council”—not including Alfredo Ottaviani or Marcel Lefebvre, one feels inclined to add. In one sense, therefore, the canonization of Paul VI means as little to the defenders of the reform as it does to DiPippo. They have arguments about the merits of the Novus Ordo that do not rely on a missal promulgated by a saint, just as the partisans of the traditional Mass have arguments that do not rely on a missal promulgated by a saint.

However, it seems to us that the rock-ribbed traditionalists who argue that the Novus Ordo is in some way bad or noxious to faith and morals (or illicit or invalid or whatever) will have a problem if Paul VI is canonized. Indeed, DiPippo seems to anticipate this argument somewhat with the example of St. Alphonsus. The controversy of the Regolamento is not easy to understand, but it boils down to this: in 1779 or 1780, for a variety of reasons, the Redemptorists wanted the approval of the Neapolitan monarchy for their Rule. The Rule was finally submitted, and edited grievously, with the connivance of Alphonsus’s friends and colleagues. (The Neapolitan government did not want the Redemptorists to be a religious order, so one of the chief amendments was the removal of the vows of religion.) Alphonsus was induced to sign it and the king approved it. Redemptorist priests reacted sharply and quickly, telling Alphonsus in no uncertain terms that he’d wrecked the Redemptorists. They also appealed to the pope, Pius VI, whose relations with Naples were strained. Following a trial, Pius essentially suppressed the order outside the Papal States, installed a new superior general, and effectively expelled Alphonsus and the Neapolitan members of the order. In 1793, the Neapolitan government recognized the original Rule and the order was reunified.

Now, on one hand, the parallel between Alphonsus and Paul VI is fairly easily made: just as Alphonsus was tricked (essentially) into ratifying a bad Rule, so too was Paul VI tricked (essentially) into ratifying a bad Missal. Fair enough. However, we are not sure the example quite meets the argument. A Rule is not the Mass, and an imprudent Rule, at variance, however great, with the high and noble purposes of an order is not necessarily noxious to faith and morals or illicit or invalid. It may be administratively destructive and morally harmless. Consequently, it seems to us that the canonization of Paul VI is liable to have some impact—though just what impact, we cannot say—on the argument that the Novus Ordo is positively harmful. It will be, we think, awfully tricky to argue that a canonized saint did something as pope that is bad (or whatever). Obviously, the arguments about its prudence or historical correctness or aesthetic merits remain unaffected.

But liturgical arguments are not the only arguments about Paul VI’s legacy that 2018 will see. As mentioned, 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae, the moment when Paul stood up in the face of the world (and many of his own cardinals, bishops, and priests) and proclaimed the intrinsic immorality of artificial contraception. Paul’s prophetic act was a true sign of contradiction and an exercise of the most fundamental duty of the Petrine office. It was widely anticipated that Paul would approve at least hormonal birth control methods—i.e., “The Pill”—not least because a papal commission, managed by the Dominican Henri de Riedmatten and the American philosopher John T. Noonan, had almost unanimously reported in favor of that resolution. Paul, however, was unwilling to take that step, not least because Pius XI’s Casti connubii proclaimed, possibly infallibly, that most forms of artificial contraception were intrinsically evil. Assisted by Cardinal Ottaviani, and famously Fr. John Ford and Germain Grisez, Paul prepared Humanae vitae and declared clearly that even hormonal birth control, which does not interfere with the reproductive act itself, was immoral.

The progressives and modernists in the Church have never forgiven Paul for his iron-willed refusal to surrender to the spirit of the age.

It is also clear that the same progressives and modernists, taking full advantage of the opening offered to them by the Holy Father’s marriage document, Amoris laetitia, intend on taking the opportunity of the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae to gut the encyclical. In the summer of 2017, reports broke of a four-member commission, established with some degree of Vatican approval, to study the historical circumstances that led to Humanae vitae. Of course, the original deliberations of the papal commission played out in the press, with the majority report, minority report, and schema of an encyclical leaked and analyzed at length. (You can read many of the original documents at Grisez’s website today, and we encourage you to do so.) The current commission, allegedly headed by Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo, has allegedly been given unprecedented access to Vatican archives, including the usually sealed archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as part of its mission to study the encyclical. The suggestion is that the historical commission will discover what everyone knows: that the papal commission was almost unanimously in favor of some forms of birth control. Based upon this finding, the fear is that the commission will propose a modification or reinterpretation of Humanae vitae. Now, there was a lot of back and forth about just what the Vatican commission was—beginning with the question of whether it even existed? If it existed, was it a commission tasked with reinterpreting the encyclical or was it just a private study group? Given the climate of this pontificate, it is understandable that official denials are given perhaps less weight than the officials issuing the denials might hope.

But setting to one side the question of an official reconsideration or interpretation of Humanae vitae, it is clear that the modernists and progressives, emboldened by what they see as official support, will seize the opportunity to undermine Humanae vitae. We will hear, no doubt, that some great majority of Catholics, especially Catholics in the United States and Europe, not only support but use various forms of birth control. (It may be suggested that a lot of Catholics “have left” the Church because of the Church’s inflexibility on this point.) We will be told, we imagine, that Paul’s teaching has not been “received” by the faithful. We will be told that so-called natural family planning, a doctrine developed in large part by Pius XII but approved quite definitively by Paul VI, is not infallible and, moreover, is a serious burden on some Catholics. We will be told that the Church needs to attend closely to pastoral realities of couples, especially couples who, for whatever reason, live together without being married. In sum, we will hear all of the arguments in favor of bourgeois sexual ethics from Boomers.

This is, of course, not new, but the proponents of such errors will no doubt state their case louder and longer and with a more favorable reception by the hierarchy, as it will be implied that their views are, as we noted early, shared by prelates in the very highest circles of the Church. Perhaps there will be a press conference or an address to this or that association that gives fuel and oxygen to the fire.

And this is why it is so important to commemorate Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God. When he made his profession of faith, Paul recognized that the mandate entrusted by Christ to Peter was to confirm the brethren in the faith. The Petrine ministry, Paul observed, requires the pope to resist even those in the Church who are seized by a desire for novelty, lest the faithful be perplexed and scandalized. Both Humanae vitae and the Credo of the People of God are moments when Paul resisted the innovators and proclaimed doctrine clearly part of the deposit of faith—good, old Christian truth, to put it another way. Indeed, the documents of the Second Vatican Council ought to be read through the lens of Paul’s Credo, as some points that are murky in the Council’s documents are admirably clear in Paul’s creed. Today, unfortunately, the Pope’s loudest supporters see the pope as a magical figure, who is infallible in every utterance and who has (apparently) the power to amend the doctrines handed down from the apostles, who received them from God.

Of course, it must be mentioned that 1969 and 1970 mark the fiftieth anniversary of the full implementation of the liturgical reform. And it is impossible to separate Paul’s prophetic acts of 1968 from the difficulties posed by the liturgical reform. It is strange, for example, to read in the Credo of the People of God a ringing reaffirmation of the sacrificial dimension of the Mass knowing within a couple of years, the sacrificial dimension would be obscured for many in a haze of optional texts. It cannot be said that Paul did not understand the Petrine ministry, either, given his clear summation of his mandate on June 30, 1968. Instead we are left to grapple with both aspects of Paul’s legacy and come to what conclusions we can.