Ecumenism and Social Climbing

Catholics adopt theological liberalism in order to socially climb, but would do better to look for partners in dialogue among conservative Protestants.

by Leon J. Podles


The principal Catholic ecumenical effort in the United States has been directed to the mainline Protestant churches which are technologically, spiritually, and demographically moribund, and not to the rapidly growing, energetic churches in the conservative wing of American Protestantism: the evangelicals, fundamentalists, charismatic's, and pentecostals. Only part of the reason for the Catholic interest in mainline Protestantism is to be found in the dominance of theological liberalism in the establishments of both parties in this cozy dialogue. Shallow calls unto shallow. Liberals enjoy talking to each other, rather than to someone who might by intemperate disagreement spoil the atmosphere of genial disbelief. However, the dominance of liberalism is more an effect than a cause for the Catholic interest in mainline Protestantism. The motivation for Catholics is too often social climbing, the desire of the social inferior to imitate the social superior and to be accepted by him.


This judgment may seem harsh, but else how to explain why people who make much of their "preferential option for the poor" spend most of their time associating with Episcopalians, not notoriously an oppressed group. Ecumenical liberals ignore both the Orthodox on one side and the conservative Protestant churches (among whom are many black Baptists and pentecostals) on the other. The atmosphere of conservative Protestantism in general is not that of the religious or secular establishment. Despite a professed love for the poor and marginalized, Catholic liberals have little use for non-mainline forms of Christianity. The conservative churches, full of the poor, working class, and lower middle class, reek of the blue collar world from which Catholic new class intellectuals have just escaped. Like all parvenus, theological liberals want to put as much difference as possible between themselves and the unwashed masses from which they have only recently emerged, whatever the price in hypocrisy.


Nor is this situation an historical accident. It is not likely that there would be a situation in which conservative, orthodox Protestantism would be socially prominent and inspire Catholics to fits of orthodoxy in order to better themselves. There is an intrinsic connection between theological liberalism and social climbing.


Theological liberalism stems from Ludwig Feuerbach, who claimed that the essence of Christianity was the worship of Man. God is simply a projection of man, the image of ideal humanity projected like a searchlight against the empty vault of the heavens. When Christians thought they were talking about God and worshipping a Being outside of themselves, they were only, in Feuerbach's analysis, talking about and worshipping Man, that is, themselves.


Marxists took Feuerbach's analysis in one direction, the European bourgeoisie in another. If Christianity is the worship of Man, it was obviously mankind in its highest and best manifestations that the divinity could be seen most clearly and honored most fittingly. And mankind in its highest and best manifestation was obviously the bourgeoisie, which in its infinite self-conceit saw itself as the vanguard of human progress, enlightening the world, freeing it from obscurantism and superstition: the heir of all the ages. After Feuerbach, the bourgeoisie settled down to a comfortable worship of itself. In liberal Christianity it had found the philosophical justification for self-adoration.


That it was the mainline (that is, socially prominent and influential) Protestant churches that succumbed to liberalism is not therefore an accident of history. The person who is socially prominent and successful usually has a high opinion of himself; after all, such an opinion only mirrors society's manifest opinion. "I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men." The Lord is only the Superego, not a God-out-there who might take it upon himself to have an opinion that differs from that of society's.


Those who are on the margins of society have fewer temptations to self-conceit. They know that the powers that run things despise them, and their poverty (relative or absolute) makes them face the poverty of the human condition, and its need for something outside of itself. It was among the marginalized fundamentalists of the South that Flannery O'Connor saw the clear workings of divine grace. The South of the poor was Christ-haunted. Americans who work with the poor in India are astonished that these Hindus will spend their last pennies on celebrations of the manifold divinity that surrounds man. The poor know that they are not divine; they know the true human condition of loneliness, nakedness, and helplessness before the cosmos and death. Civilization can hide from man his true condition, and give him illusions of power, wealth, and control.


Conservative Protestantism includes most of the poor in the United States. In any case, its adherents, whatever their income, find themselves on the fringes of an America dominated by secular elites who employ as their chaplains liberal Christians who will bless their secular self-worship and liberation projects. Whatever their financial success, conservative Protestants soon learn that what they value is not what the government, the media, the universities, and the new knowledge class value.


Catholics have succeeded financially in the United States. After President Kennedy, they also found what it was to be like to be at the center of power, and did not want to be shunted off to a Catholic ghetto again. The flattering attentions of the New York Times, appointments to the Civil Rights Commission, bond issues from the District of Columbia, are all a fine mess of pottage, and the birthright of a divinely-revealed religion is a small price to pay. True Christianity always sounds harsh and unappealing in its talk of duty, sacrifice, obedience, repentance, and conversion. Attempts to Christianize the world often lead to a worldly Christianity. In our days fashionable worldly Christianity takes the form of liberal religion (the success gospel is popular but déclasse). Liberal religion sees its function as flattering secular projects in order to gain the favorable attention of the world, and thereby gain access to the seats of power. “All this shall be yours, if you fall down and worship me.” It is a perennial temptation, and a deadly one.


Orthodox, practicing Christians will usually find themselves at the outer edges of society. If they have technical skills and work in jobs that do not demand they give evidence of the beliefs, Christians may have some success. If they work in fields that necessitate revealing one's beliefs about life, they will be shunted aside. Among professions, engineering probably has the highest percentage of conservative Christians. Almost all of the Ph.D.'s that fundamentalists find to defend creationism are in engineering. Probably the lowest percentage of Christians is among television script writers. In the knowledge and communications industries, beliefs are highly visible, and Christians will find few friends. In general, the more influential work, the less chance a person will be an orthodox, practicing Christian. Christians who make it in the world are under enormous pressure to jettison much of their religion as excess baggage. Among Catholics, JFK and Mario Cuomo, along with many others, have succumbed.


If Catholic ecumenism is true to orthodoxy, it will usually find its partners in dialogue among groups that are not at the center of America's power structures. Such partners may well be difficult to have a conversation with, because they have deeply held beliefs, and are suspicious of anything that looks like an attempt to undermine them. However, the experience of Catholics and Protestants in the pro-life movement has been mutually profitable.


Catholics are impressed by Protestants' zeal and self-sacrifice, although they are guided by only their reading of Scripture and do not, from the Catholic point of view, have the magisterium to guide them in sensitive and doubtful issues. Protestants have been impressed by Catholic leadership in this area, which is largely inspired by Catholic fidelity to the papal magisterium, and by the depth of Catholic commitment to the unborn, which is closely allied to Catholic devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. As in the dungeons of Nazi Germany, a true ecumenism is being born in the jails of Atlanta and New York.


Catholics have much to offer the conservative wing of American Protestantism, as Thomas Howard, even in his Anglican days, realized: a sense of Christian history, the liturgy, the sacraments, and the visible signs of Christian unity in the bishops and the Papacy. Conservative American Protestants have much to offer American Catholics: zeal, and an emphasis on person al conversion, Scripture reading, and the local church, aspects of Christian life about which Catholics have grown negligent.


Most of all, the willingness of these Protestants to accept rejection by society can be a spur to Catholics to avoid the temptations of worldliness, and the temptation to gain social acceptance by espousing theological liberalism. If their ultimate ambition in life is to be invited to tea with the vicar (who nowadays is often a leftist and a champion of homosexual causes), Catholics should continue their courting of mainline Protestantism. If they wish to grow in fidelity to the gospel, and become a salt that will not lose its savor in American life, they would do well to turn to the less fashionable but more faithful quarters of conservative Protestantism.


Mr. Leon J. Podles earned his B.A. at Providence College and his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Virginia. He is married and the father of six children (including twins). He has taught at the Heights School in Washington, D.C., and is currently working on national security investigations in Baltimore. His last article in HPR appeared in the October 1989 issue.


Published by HOMILETIC & PASTORAL REVIEW, November, 1990.