Open Tabernacle, the newly spawned progressive Catholic blog to which I occasionally offer ELCA tidbits, keeps spinning out one exceptional article after another. Today, Bill Lindsey critiques the conservative retreat of the last two popes from the progressive reforms of Vatican II. His post is directed at Catholics and Catholicism, but it occurs to me that there are parallels with the current Lutheran CORE / Wordalone conservative retreat from the progressive ELCA.
There is a fundamental difference, of course, in that progressive Catholics such as Lindsey are the outsiders critiquing the Catholic establishment, but in Lutheranism, it is the conservatives who are the outsiders opposing the progressive ELCA. There is also a difference between the hierarchy of the Vatican and the democratic polity of the ELCA. Putting aside those obvious differences, is there wisdom in Lindsey’s post for Lutherans to apply to our own internecine struggles?
The focus of Lindsey’s post, inspired by fellow blogger Colleen Kochivar-Baker, is the shift away from the Vatican II emphasis on “internalizing theological insights and ethical values, as well as on the role of conscience and discernment in the Christian life” toward “rote memorization of dogmatic and moral formulas”. Lindsey expands on the idea:
This shift moved Catholic intellectual life away from a post-Vatican II engagement with contemporary society in which Catholic thinkers listen to and learn from secular disciplines as they offer Catholic insights, values, and teachings in a process of dialogic give and take. Now the model for Catholic intellectual life—and for theologians in particular—became one of receiving “truths” from on high and handing these down to anyone who cared to listen.
Kochivar-Baker provided a personal illustration. When she was an undergraduate at a Catholic University a generation ago, “she took courses in the documents of Vatican II that were intellectually demanding and required real thought and engagement.”
Then down the road, her daughter took courses—same Catholic university, same professor—in moral theology in the period in which the restorationist agenda of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) began to roll through American Catholic theology departments.
She was able to pass these courses, Colleen notes, while hardly attending class. The syllabus spelled out in detail what the professor would teach. When Colleen asked about the shift in his pedagogical style—from challenging students to think, respond, and critique, to spoon-feeding them “truth”—he told her he was being monitored in class and lived in fear of being reported to the authorities for saying anything that transgressed the restorationist canon of truths.
Disturbing for Catholics and Catholicism, to be sure, but does this not sound a warning bell for the ELCA?
Consider the following words of Lutheran CORE / WordAlone spokesmen. Listen for a rejection of hard thinking–spirit led thinking, conscience bound thinking, reflection in dialogue with scientific disciplines–in exchange for a clear set of rules, a cookbook of moral recipes, handed down from on high. Hear the Lutheran CORE call, if not for an infallible pope, then for infallible (and unambiguous) canon, creeds, and confessions. Listen for the CORE promotion of their assumptions, their interpretations, their fossilized traditionalism–unquestioned and unchallenged by science or reason or conscience. Certainty instead of ambiguity. Learn the rules and don’t worry about moral discernment.
Therefore, the office of the papacy acts as a check, controlling the range of interpretation. The bishops share in this authority.
So the congregation, the elders, pastors and theologians are linked together in a system of mutual watchfulness. The lay people, elders, pastors and theologians all look both ways, watching over each of the other layers of authority. Interpretation requires constant scrutiny, lest the interpreters be led astray.
[T]he idea that the Holy Spirit in the heart supersedes Scripture and sets aside all the normal standards. Having floated away into such a never-never land beyond the ordinary, in reality the August churchwide assembly has stranded the ELCA ecumenically.
Benedict XVI, the orthodox patriarchs and commonly the Protestant leaders as well, know both Scripture and the church’s tradition intimately—well enough to recognize the difference between the historically certain and the ambiguity of convenience.
How ironic that a 21st century Roman Catholic pope and an archbishop can better articulate confessional Lutheran teaching than the ELCA churchwide organization.
When the first Lutherans lost the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, it had no sure authority to put in its place.
Modern Protestantism is an amalgamation of historic Christianity and the principles of the Enlightenment, its rationalism, subjectivism, and anthropocentrism. The underlying assumption is the neo-gnostic belief in the innerdwelling of God, such that everyone is endowed with the inner light that only needs to be uncovered. The light of truth does not shine through the Scriptures and the Christian tradition as much as through scientific reason and individual experience. This is what happened in Minneapolis: appeals to reason and experience trumped Scripture and tradition, punctuated with pious injunctions of Lutheran slogans and clichés. The majority won. And they said it was the work of the Spirit, forgetting that the Holy Spirit had already spoken volumes through the millennia of Scriptural interpretation, the councils of the church, and its creeds and confessions.
And, I might add, the Spirit having spoken in those long ago councils and creeds, better damn well keep her mouth shut these days.
The radicals so decisive in the defining moments of the ELCA intended to smash the authority of the influential theologians and bishops who had informally kept both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America on course. The radicals wanted many voices and perspectives, especially those of the “marginalized,” put forward in the ongoing deliberations of the ELCA. They were so successful that now, after 20 years, there is no authoritative biblical or theological guidance in the church. There are only many voices. The 2009 Assembly legitimated those many voices by adapting a “bound-conscience” principle, according to which anyone claiming a sincerely-held conviction about any doctrine must be respected. The truth of the Bible has been reduced to sincerely-held opinion.
Allow me to conclude by paraphrasing the words of my fellow blogger, Bill Lindsey, to graft Lutherans into his post.
The move against Vatican II—the move to the right, the deliberate dumbing down of Catholic intellectual life and the punishment of critical thinkers that have been part and parcel of the restorationist agenda—is not merely a Catholic phenomenon. Restorationism is tied to a similar thrust within [Lutheran] life and culture to stop critical reflection from progressive standpoints, and to force progressive theological [Lutheran] thinkers into a right-leaning ideological conformity.