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Thursday, January 29, 2004

Weapons of Mass Deconstruction: Nuking the New Apologists, Part I.

I have profited from reading Bill Cork's blog over the past year or so. That even includes occasional tidbits on The Film That Shall Not Be Named, and his passionate advocacy for Christian unity is a model that should be emulated more often.

Those of you sensing an impending qualifier are spot-on.

I also am compelled to say that his work suffers from some obvious flaws--the most obvious of which is his penchant for dogmatic anathemas, through which he seems especially willing to read fellow Catholics the riot act, employing a tone and terminology he wouldn't imagine using on non-Christians.

There's that, and his irritating tendency to spray the term "fundamentalist" around like an elk on Lasix.

Both traits were on display in his touting of University of Toledo Prof. Richard Gaillardetz' America article deriding the New Apologists. Frankly, his posts on it read like medieval bulls in defense of the often-inaccurate, not infrequently silly and very frequently condescending piece, which advocates a diet Coke apologetics as a substitute for that being practiced by the likes of Pat Madrid, Karl Keating, BC Prof. Peter Kreeft, Jesuit Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Prof. Scott Hahn, et al.

You know: the Catholic Axis of Evil. A veritable Borg cube of uniformity, if I've ever seen one, but I'll get to that later.

In the 1/13/04 issue of the Christian Century, there was a disarming admission by a self-described "liberal Christian" and seminary professor named Barbara G. Wheeler in an exchange between her and evangelical Richard Mouw. In it, Dr. Wheeler candidly confessed that great failing of liberal Christians:

We are pretty sure that we are advanced and others outmoded. When everyone else grows up, we believe, they will look and think like us.

While I would not call Bill a liberal, the same smug dismissiveness toward more conservative Catholics is a feature of his writing, and definitely wafts up in hair-drying gusts from the article he fervently defends. For example, look closely for the political labels used in the piece, and who gets what. Reading Gaillardetz' piece, I was left with the distinct impression of someone who, standing in front of a burning apartment building with trapped residents, chooses for some reason to carp that the firemen are brusque, use rough language, don't shave enough, and really need a Carnegie course. Add to that a fundamental (!) incomprehension of evangelicals and evangelical converts to Catholicism (in all their bewildering diversity--Reformed, Arminian, Pentecostal, Wesleyan/Holiness, Baptist--which is not acknowledged by Bill or the Professor), and you have a deeply flawed article and a deeply flawed defense.

1. The Gaillardetz Article and the Initial Defense.

With that in mind, let's look at the article and Bill's first statements on behalf of it. First and foremost, the balance in Gaillardetz' piece is at best pro forma. Bill references the four recited compliments (detailed here), but come on--each is of the "Hitler-was-a-powerful-speaker" variety. All for style, none for objective substance--with the partial exception of the damning with faint praise "they're OK for refuting the Swaggarts of the world" statements. Even that boomerangs back, as Gaillardetz turns it into an attack on--wait for it--Catholic "fundamentalism," a beast so fearsome, it must be regarded as the gravest of threats and tilted at with all due haste--much like your average modern liturgist has to expunge every last scrap of "devotionalism" from the eucharistic community celebration (f/k/a "the Mass").

Count me among the unimpressed with the purported "balance."

On to the weaknesses, which are far more serious in Gaillardetz' and Bill's minds, inasmuch as they require a complete replacement of the fundies currently laboring in the fields with nicer people. The evils seen in the NAs are as follows:

1. Prooftexting fundamentalism;
2. All Catholic doctrine is presented as equally authoritative and binding (citing the much-loved (and even more abused) "hierarchy of truths" reference from Unitatis Redintegratio;
3. A triumphalism which finds error in other religious beliefs, thereby undermining ecumenism;
4. An ahistorical understanding of doctrinal truths;
5. (Near as I can tell--it's a lot more abstract) the failure to understand that the Church is a sinful pilgrim.

In other words, the East German judge finds the technical part of the long program to be entirely wanting, even though he's willing to give you a 2.5 for the artistic presentation.

The first substantive problem with Prof. Gaillardetz is that, if I didn't know better, I'd swear he'd been living in a bubble for the past twenty five years. That "many" are not well-catechized is something of an understatement. In fact, if the USCCB's most recent report is accurate, the American Church is in the process of raising up its second such badly-educated generation since the end of Vatican II. We can argue all day about who dropped the ball--letting parishes substitute Glitter Aplenty! for God Almighty in the catechism classes--but you might expect the Hammers of Apologists to be slightly thankful that at least someone has tried to pick it up and give the faithful something they are clearly starving for. It's not like Surprised by Truth and Rome Sweet Home sold by the bushel because of the slick TV ad campaigns.

Are they thankful? Well, of course not. In my experience, nobody shoots the wounded and the medics treating them quite like a Catholic.

No, instead there's much fretting about triumphalism, the damage to ecumenism, and so forth. The critics prefer to give the laity who have stood in the gap a patronizing and savage kick in the teeth. "You've got spunk and all, but you're doing it wrong, you fundy twit."

A more appropriate response might be for those in Catholic academia to climb down from their lofty towers, take a break from PlauditQuests in non-Catholic circles, the secular world and their own amen corners, and actually do the dirty work of feeding and teaching their brothers and sisters. Including--gasp!--doing "apologetics." Like those dreadful evangelicals are wont to do--notably in the world of biblical studies.

Especially if these far right, prooftexting, unacademic, anti-ecumenical, out-of-the mainstream, mackerel-snapping Elmer Gantrys are making such a hash of it, as Prof. Gaillardetz suggests.

[Honesty compels me to acknowledge that Prof. Gaillardetz appears to be one who puts his money where his mouth is, having written a number of books on Catholic issues (marriage issues mainly, although he has a book on the magisterium called, interestingly enough, By What Authority) for the average man in the pews. Unfortunately, that makes him a rare exception among Catholic academics of a moderately to fully progressive bent. I'll be over here--not holding my breath for the rush of volunteers.]

Speaking of "damage to ecumenism," I'm still agog at that claim. It's not like the real reason ARCIC derailed was because someone slipped Rowan Williams a copy of On Being Catholic. In reality, the complaint about ecumenical damage is pure Emily Post--an objection to the tone employed by the insufficiently refined. I mean, a grounded faithful Catholic is compelled to say that, compared to the Faith, other religious groups are in some respect "fundamentally erroneous." You have to acknowledge this, otherwise you wouldn't be a Catholic in the first place.

Right? So, again, it boils down to a style objection.

Finally, in response to the ahistorical argument. Well, history is a funny thing. Responding directly to his example of Scott Hahn's misuse of Dei Verbum--well, actually the drafting history and not just the text (!) supports his position.

I recommend the article--truly fascinating. If, like me, you're into fundy rags like Homiletic and Pastoral Review, that is.

On to Part II.

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