If you have not read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – well, what’s wrong with you? You should really go read it. Like right now. I’ll be here when you get back.
Now that you’ve returned, let’s talk about the character of Rex Mottram. Rex, of course, is Julia Flyte’s fiance. He is a non-practicing Protestant, and he goes through the process of becoming a Catholic. Since the book is set in the 1920s, and thus pre-Vatican II, Rex is not subjected to RCIA. Instead, Rex meets with the Flyte family’s priest, Father Mowbray. Father Mowbray relates the following exchange:
“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.'”
This, along with Rex’s unquestioning acceptance of Cordelia Flyte’s description of Catholic doctrine are among the funniest aspects of the book. What this scene does is expose one of the silliest anti-Catholic prejudices, namely, that Catholics are expected to uncritically and unblinkingly accept every word uttered or written by a Pope as unequivocal truth. This makes hash out of the doctrine of infallibility, which this very educated audience understands applies only to ex cathedra statements regarding faith and morals.
This stereotype of Catholics has fueled anti-Catholicism here, to the point that Catholic politicians have had to fend off charges that they are, in essence, tools of the Vatican. Yet today we see a rise in the number of faithful Catholics who seem intent on giving credence to the stereotype.
An example of the genre is provided by a former TAC blogger who now writes, naturally, for Patheos. This is hardly the most egregious example of the type, but it is a handy showcase. Larry D of Acts of the Apostasy has a strawmen caricature-inspired satire of what not to expect from the (now released) Papal Encyclical. He then writes:
Bottom line? The encyclical will be Catholic, and will espouse and expand on Catholic teaching. Faithful Catholics needn’t get their biodegradable knickers in a twist over Laudato Sii. Those who are…well, they have an agenda to push. Will there be some things in the encyclical that might make us a bit uncomfortable? Sure, I fully expect it – because being a Catholic sometimes makes you a bit uncomfortable. Comes with the territory. Let the Right and the Left yammer about it – ignore them. Online at least – read the thing and be able to discuss it cogently and coherently with flesh and blood folks, like family members and coworkers.
Let’s unpack this a bit. He first accuses anyone who might be bothered by the encyclical as “having an agenda” to push, as though there could be no legitimate quarrel with anything the Pope writes. Further observe that Larry has pre-judged the criticism before it has even been offered. That’s right – before the encyclical had even been released and anyone knew officially what was in the document he determined that anyone who made a fuss had an agenda to push. So he’s criticizing the criticism, that hadn’t occurred yet, of a document that hadn’t even been released.We’re through the looking glass here people.
He then continues in a vein that is typical of the Rex Mottram Catholic: the Pope ain’t gonna say anything that is contradictory to Church teaching, so why the fuss? In other words, as long as the Pope doesn’t say anything heretical – and ipso facto he cannot – then why even raise a fuss?
There are several problems with the line of thinking, and we’ve been over some of them in excruciating detail. I won’t address the potential problems with this specific encyclical because I haven’t read it. Generally, though, this sort of thinking both excessively elevates the Pope and diminishes him. It elevates him because it places large swathes of what he says and writes outside the bounds of legitimate criticism. It diminishes him by reducing him to nothing more than a vessel of speaking truisms about the faith. If the Pope is merely echoing basic tenets of the faith such as that we are meant to be stewards of creation and have grave responsibilities towards it, then so what? Why bother with a 200 page encyclical? He could have pretty much said the same thing in a 10-minute homily. Obviously, though, the Pope’s intention is to do much more with this. He is hoping to shape debate and push Catholics (and others) towards a certain course of action. Well if that’s the case, don’t we have the duty to take a step back and make sure that what the Pope is saying has merit to it?
You can see this attitude in the comments. When one commenter dared imply that the Pope’s opinion about the scientific data was not sacrosanct, someone replied, “Why do you place your understanding above the Pope’s in determining what is, and what is not, ‘supported by scientific data’?”
This brings us back to the Rex Mottram quote. The Pope has no special charism to interpret scientific data. If he sees a few clouds in the sky and predicts rain, it’s not disobedient for me to pull up my Droid, open the Accuweather app, and inform him that there is a zero percent chance of precipitation.
One last note. Another talking point that has been and will be repeated is that conservative Catholics who ignore, dispute, criticize, etc. this encyclical are no different than liberal Catholics who did the same to previous documents, especially Humanae Vitae. Anyone who does so would be guilty of Cafeteria Catholicism just the same.
I would concede that there is a danger that too many Catholics will raise up the “prudential judgment” banner too reflexively. I’ll also concede that Larry D, for instance, has a point in noting that sometimes being a Catholic makes you uncomfortable. Our disposition as Catholics should be that hen we read this or anything written by the Holy Father that we put our prejudices aside, and not mentally check out whenever he says something that might contradict something we believe.
What I will vehemently dispute is that any criticism of this or any document is just the same as the reaction to Humanae Vitae. People did not just object to certain facets of the encyclical. Rather, dissidents objected to the very core teaching of Church that Pope Paul VI was promulgating. Now, if Catholics object to the idea of being stewards of creation, then yeah, they’re hypocritical cafeteria-style Catholics. If we reject the fundamental idea of caring for the poor, that’s dissidence. I suspect, however, that there won’t be much of that style of reaction.