This morning’s First Things offers some insight into the modern malady impacting the Catholic Church, and a bit of insight as to Pope Francis’ leanings and solutions.
For a start, Jessica Murdoch starts with an assessment of God that would be familiar to any video game studio, and if one truly reflects on the observation, has tremendous insight as to how our programming “gods” create their worlds and what they expect of them:
One of my students, in a paper concerning the Church’s doctrine on the four last things, made the curious comment that God had not “incentivized” salvation appropriately, and thus human beings could not be at fault for their sins. Had God, the student argued, developed an appropriate system of (earthly) reward, salvation would be much easier to achieve. I confess I chuckled at this very utilitarian assessment of the divine plan.
The real meat of the article gets to where NCR’s Michael Sean Winters — no friend of orthodoxy — takes aim at the critics of Pope Francis (and Cardinal Burke specifically) as a Jansenist… a claim that could very well be directed at perhaps some of the more misinformed or uncatechized supporters of tradition within the Church, but would be uncharitably directed towards Burke et al.
More interesting to me is Murdoch’s approximation of Francis contra the Jansenists from the perspective not of the Thomists that Catholics in America have come to expect, but rather from the Molinist position of a more radicalized (rooted) human freedom:
Whereas the Baianists emphasized the role of grace at the expense of free will, the Molinists opted to highlight human freedom. For the Molinists, grace anticipates free will, in that God gives a person efficacious grace precisely because he foresees that the person will consent to it and act virtuously. Jansenius, for his part, sided with the Baianists, composing a volume supposedly founded on the theology of grace in the thought of St. Augustine. Though he died before the volume was completed, Jansenius’s followers extended and popularized his beliefs.
Murdoch is naturally correct in both her summation, diagnosis, and prescriptions against Jansenism: namely that Jansenists reject free will, render it passive and thus destroy human freedom, and therefore require a response of supernatural grace that “is truly sufficient for us — grace that really gives us the power to advance in virtue and overcome sin.”
Complete side note. I am quickly reminded of this from Arnout’s Imitation of the Sacred Heart, which is a wonderful book (and a long one) where — if Murdoch is not familiar with it — then she has definitely picked up on Arnout’s themes. Written in the voice of Christ Himself, it is a marvelous exposition of the power of supernatural grace vs. the inadequacy of the human will. To wit:
Humility is the first of virtues: no virtue is acquired without it. Humility produces all other virtues, nourishes them when produced, and preserves them safe and sound.
A noble virtue is humility, which makes man truly generous and great-souled. By its means he overcomes, not only what is most arduous, but he even conquers himself.
Whilst the proud man, with his narrow heart, fettered by the dread of humiliation, which may, perhaps, befall him, struggles with himself, shrinking back at one time, hesitating at another, whether or not to assail the difficulty placed before him; the humble one, with a great and expanded heart, has already subdued himself, overcome the difficulty, and marches onward rejoicingly.
It is the virtue that inspires courage — disposes the soul for the greatest deeds. For the humble man, overlooking himself, and relying upon God, exchanges his own strength, and puts on the strength of God, upon whom he rests, and in whom he can do all things.
He is an object of terror to the very demons. These enemies dread the humble: no other mortals do they fear so much.
— Fr. Peter J. Arnout, “Imitation of the Sacred Heart” (1904)
What is interesting is that Murdoch responds by stating that Burke’s critics — the good folks at National Catholic (sic) Register and Michael Sean Winters himself — are held in the grips of Jansenism themselves.
We are, indeed, plagued by a new sort of Jansenism, one rooted in presumption rather than despair. The “old” Jansenism arose from both anthropological and theological despair—the Catholic absorption of total depravity, and the loss of hope in the possibility of salvation. Ironically, those who criticize the four cardinals—and anyone who believes that Amoris Laetitia is in need of clarification—often fall into a new form of Jansenism.
I won’t spoil it by quoting Murdoch’s response in full, though I would quibble slightly in this: both the critics and the supporters on the extremes, insofar as they oppose Amoris Laetitia and by extension Evangelii Gaudium, are in truth exhibiting signs of the old phantom heresy — Americanism.
If the Catholic Church during the modernist period was obsessed (rightly) with modernism — even if late to the game by the time of Leo XIII — what Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae stumbled upon was an accurate critique not of modernism merely baptized by the American political experiment, but the green shoots of post-modernist culture.
If the principle sins of the Americanist heresy can be summarized, it is as follows:
1. That the “Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age.”
2. That greater “allowance be granted to the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity.”
3. That the infallibility of the teaching office of the papacy now liberated the Church faithful from careful consideration of new doctrine.
4. That “the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful.”
5. That virtue can be split into passive (contemplative prayer) and active (social justice) virtues, and furthermore that active virtues are preferable to passive ones.
If one attends to a careful reading of Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, this correlates amazingly well to his proscriptions against his “mass man” — a rootless physicalist automaton that defines freedom as license rather than liberty and therefore becomes a tyrannical figure; one who can not only alter themselves according to rational desires, but the world and other human beings accordingly.
What Leo XIII cauterized in the Americanist controversy (and what Cardinal Gibbons at the time rejected as an opinion no Catholic in America held) has now become metastasized into the default condition of most Catholics in the West. Indeed, if one reads Michael Sean Winters’ condemnation of Jansenism, one can immediately detect the presence of Americanism — or as 19th century critics pointed out, an alarming conflation of “Protestantism and Pelagianism” — or what Pope Benedict XVI warned against with regards to the grip of acedia in The Yes of Jesus Christ the twin pull of gnosticism and neopelagianism.
It is perhaps a sin that both the progressives and the traditionalists hold in common, which interestingly enough, puts both Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke on the same side, defending an authentic Catholicism against two opposite extremes poisoned by the secular and materialistic religions of the postmodern era — socialism and corporatism respectively.
In this, I would ever so slightly disagree with Murdoch’s assessment. Her young student wishing that real life were more like the simulacrum of a video game environment is not rejecting the idea of supernatural grace being sufficient per se. For example, we already see this in the presence of a “social justice gospel” that seems at times to contradict the Gospel itself in an attempt to be more merciful than Christ. One that rewards active virtues and eschews passive virtues. A more robust awards system from the Holy Spirit. Above all else, a recognition of our ability to reshape ourselves and our society — not the measured and rooted human freedom of the Molinist, but the direct and uprooted action of Guardini’s postmodern mass man.
What our young student is demanding is the presence of an institution more in accord with the five errors of the postmodern Americanist heresy, one where the incentives are self-created rather than accepted as a gift of creation; self-confidence and technology given over to pride and absent of any attribute of humility.
In this, Arnout’s prescription of humility as the basis of courage rings true.
For the postmodern man to come out of the torpor of acedia, the only true courage for living only comes from the antidote rightly expressed — a humility that concedes human limitations and allows for what Murdoch describes as a supernatural realism that inculcates virtue contra vices — or more accurately, room for the grace that permits virtue to exist amidst the physicalist tendencies of postmodern man to define, confine, bend and conform.