The fantasy of “quasi-Catholicism”

Regular readers will be familiar with quasi-Catholicism, a term coined by Anthony to describe the phenomenon of theologically educated Christians who deeply admire the Roman Catholic Church and even ascribe it a certain degree of practical authority, yet do not actually become Roman Catholic. In milieux such as Anglican or Lutheran confessions, such a stance is perhaps understandable as a kind of drive toward unity that recognizes we’re not quite there yet, but in more evangelical settings, it is arguably much more strange. After all, most evangelical groups have tended to have a deep suspicion of the RCC and are generally very congregational in practice if not in explicit polity — reflecting a more “democratic” ethos that distrusts hierarchical authority and intellectual elites.

Yet it is precisely this last aspect that may explain why intellectually-oriented evangelicals are attracted to Roman Catholicism (and here I would claim some personal insight, as I was at one time an intellectually-oriented evangelical and actually converted to Roman Catholicism, albeit without the intermediation of academic “quasi-Catholic” discourse). Think of how the RCC appears to someone in an anti-intellectual evangelical setting — a place where there is a clear line of authority, where theology has a chance of becoming enforcible doctrine, where education in general is highly valued and intellectual authorities have a great deal of day-to-day power, where ministers must go through a rigorous program of study and formation rather than relying on personal charisma, etc. This is somewhere they could feel welcome, finally! What’s more, this is somewhere that people like them are in charge, rather than being a marginalized and distrusted element. Surely, this is how things should be, this is what “the church” that is “really the church” looks like!

Why not become Roman Catholic, then? Well, frankly, there is a lot of “weird shit” going on in actual existing Roman Catholicism, especially from the perspective of evangelicals — devotion to Mary and the saints, folksy practices that appear to be both “unbiblical” and “superstitious,” etc. The irony here is great, since the power of the binding authority that evangelical quasi-Catholics so badly want to exist has been established in the modern era precisely in relationship to the Marian doctrines that an evangelical cannot accept. So the RCC becomes a kind of fantasy-object, a model for the idealized evangelical version of “the church” that the quasi-Catholic intellectual would create and enforce if given half the chance.

Now I realize that I’ll get some defensive comments here, so I want to be clear that I’m talking about gut-level appeal rather than conscious belief. Obviously intellectually-oriented people are very good at coming up with compelling intellectual reasons for what they’re doing. But given that it’s young adults who tend to become “quasi-Catholic,” it doesn’t seem implausible or offensive to me to think that there is more going on here than objective assessment of the theological data. This gut-level appeal may also explain why “the church” is such a third rail among theology bloggers — what one is challenging in critiquing the fashionable strong ecclesiology is not an actual existing institution or a “regulative ideal” to which that institution should aspire, but the quasi-Catholic intellectuals’ fantasy of their own power and authority.

About these ads

25 Responses to “The fantasy of “quasi-Catholicism””

  1. Colin Says:

    Who are some examples that embody quasi-Catholicism? Most evangelicals I have met have been more anti-Catholic than anything. Most of the evangelicals I have met are also rather anti-intellectual, so I have probably been running in the wrong circles to observe this phenomenon.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t want to name individuals in the context of this post, because it will naturally sound like a personal attack. But it should be clear from my post that I’m not talking about rank-and-file evangelicals — this is a subset of the intellectual elite among them. It’s a pretty small group by any scale, so it’s not surprising you haven’t run into them, but they are pretty heavily underrepresented in theology blogging circles.

  3. Hill Says:

    Valuable insights here. As someone who made his way from a Southern Baptist Convention church to Roman Catholicism (somewhere in “young adulthood”) I’m sympathetic to what you are saying here. The surest way to be disabused of one’s ecclesiological fantasies about Roman Catholicism is to convert to it, and this is a course of action I unequivocally advocate for all people.

    The debate between “Protestant” and “Catholic” ecclesiologies is in many cases a debate between Protestants (or unassimilated converts) about Catholic ecclesiology (as you’ve suggested), especially in the blogosphere. There has been, for me at least, such a profound difference in experience between acknowledging the possibility of the mediation of divine authority through a human (and necessarily corruptible) institutions and actually attempting (with fits and starts) to bind and submit myself to that authority, that it’s of almost no interest to me to have a conversation about the former.

    Another curious observation is that many of the critiques that emerge as reactions against quasi-Catholicism, e.g. that the desire for authority constitutes a grasp for an inauthentic certainty about which we are called rather to have faith, ring hollow to me (after having actually converted) because nothing has done more to me to elicit that feeling of “being out over seventy fathoms of water” than the realization that there is a human being at the helm of this ship. I found that it required to put my money where my mouth was, metaphorically speaking, regarding the power of the Spirit. Put otherwise, I’ve found it to require a deeper and more challenging faith to trust in the authority of the Magisterium, providentially guided by the Spirit, than in my own private illumination.

    I realize this isn’t particularly well-developed, but I’m curious about your perspective on these sorts of issues.

  4. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “This gut-level appeal may also explain why “the church” is such a third rail among theology bloggers — what one is challenging in critiquing the fashionable strong ecclesiology is not an actual existing institution or a “regulative ideal” to which that institution should aspire, but the quasi-Catholic intellectuals’ fantasy of their own power and authority.”

    Why can’t it be both a regulative ideal and the QC’s fantasy? Presumably the QCs use the notion that people like them should be listened to as an element of the regulative ideal which they use to judge actually existing practice & imagine where it should go etc.

    I guess the fantasy bit is supposed to explain the “third rail” nature of “the church”; all I want to object to is that you should’ve said “not just an actual existing etc.” Because it can still serve as a regulative ideal, even if it’s also a psychological-type thing.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe I should’ve dropped an “ultimately” into the quoted sentence: “what one is ultimately challenging….”

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Hill, This may be my idiosyncratic experience — and it risks derailing the thread almost before it’s begun — but when I was at my most devout, I appreciated the fact that the particular human being in each office didn’t really matter. There was an objectivity to the procedings that I really needed after the extreme emotional manipulation of my evangelical background. Even in the case of the pope, it seemed like he couldn’t go too far off the reservation — not because of the Holy Spirit (in my mind), but because he had a huge bureaucratic apparatus hemming him in.

    We may be talking about two sides of the same coin — but in any case, what we found was not what the “quasi-Catholics” seem to be hoping for.

  7. Hill Says:

    Indeed, probably a conversation for a different venue. I’d agree with the two sides of the same coin assessment. I appreciate your perspective in general on these issues.

  8. darren Says:

    “Indeed, probably a conversation for a different venue.” I (and probably others) was hoping you two (Hill and Adam) would continue in this venue, especially regarding this: “There has been, for me at least, such a profound difference in experience between acknowledging the possibility of the mediation of divine authority through a human (and necessarily corruptible) institutions and actually attempting (with fits and starts) to bind and submit myself to that authority, that it’s of almost no interest to me to have a conversation about the former.” What has your experience of attempting to submit to the authority been like? How have you seen the ‘divine’ mediated through such?

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I really prefer to stay on topic, and I also don’t have much more to say on your question. This blog is not a venue for my own personal introspection.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’d also add that what it’s like to be Catholic has been widely explored in literature, much more insightfully than is possible in a comment thread — so it’s not like Hill and I are your best or only resource on this question.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yeah, comments like those last two are probably what has earned me a reputation as kind of a dick on the internet. Still, the point stands — I don’t want to talk about it.

  12. Brad Says:

    Isn’t the point of being Catholic that everybody’s experience is the same anyway? So, what’s the point of a talking about one’s personal experiences as a Catholic? Be faithful to the cause, one and all, and use broad strokes, please.

  13. darren Says:

    ‘comments like those last two are probably what has earned me a reputation as kind of a dick’

    haha, yep. thank you for the advice that the wide world of books will be more helpful than your blog comments.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Hey, at least I let your comment through.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Man, talk about thread death.

  16. Hill Says:

    Mission: Accomplished. You deserve it you friggin’ jerk.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If only I’d been willing to reflect on my spiritual life!

  18. old Says:

    I think you are probably right to a large extent on QC stuff. However, I had a brief period of such, but don’t think it had anything, or at least not very much to do with such things. I had professor at Liberty U who had done his PhD at Boston College, become a personalist, and therefore became convinced that Aquinas was dead right on almost everything. He turned me on to Aquinas and I was genuinely dazzled intellectually (fwiw, discard and I met in a three week seminar with Richard Hays at Notre Dame where I pushed Aquinas heavily and he pushed back with Barth – at the time neither of us realized, I think, that these two figures formed 2/3rds of the intellectual trinity at Duke Div. from which Hays hailed. I also met my wife in that seminar). I also had a professor for whom evangelical tinkering with “postmodernism” caused him to want to just really read as many of the figures considered postmodern as he could, and to encourage his students to do the same. A couple of the more anthological or descriptive works we began with included stuff on Alisdair MacIntyre. I was, again, genuinely dazzled. Though even more of what impressed me about MacIntyre then his turn to Catholicism was his suggestion for how to deal with intellectual dissent. His championing of Aquinas’ way of dealing with the apparent stark competition between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism is just wonderful. I just eventually realized that while MacIntyre was great at describing how this all worked, he was terrible at anything resembling attempting to repeat such a feat in a new context.

    Hey, so that might even fit slightly better over at the Friday Confessional …

  19. Craig Says:

    Recently in conversation I called myself a “vulgar materialist atheist Catholic.” I was talking with a former Wesleyan pastor/colleague in my department. He told me that only atheists can understand Christianity and only Christians can understand atheism. A little too gnomic for my tastes, but I think I understood what he meant. Upon further reflection, I’m not sure if the description of myself was an attempt to be funny (failure!), a consequence of my latent Schmittianism (the Church is the ur-form of the political unit), or a consequence of my latent Durkheimianism (the social is a structure embodying the distinction between sacred and profane maintained through a system of negative and positive rituals).

    Can atheists be “quasi-Catholics”? Does, for instance, Zizek display a certain atheistic quasi-Catholicism?

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In this context, “quasi-Catholic” only refers to members of other Christian denominations. You could use it to mean different things, too, but I don’t think you can get to Zizek by stretching this meaning.

  21. The Politics of Resentment « Loretta’s Basement Says:

    [...] the church, and so forth, with some smattering of Augustine, Aquinas, David Bentley Hart, and the quasi-catholic extolations of the recent popes mixed in. His taking on the mantle of Neuhaus seems to be losing [...]

  22. The Politics of Resentment | Inhabitatio Dei Says:

    [...] the church, and so forth, with some smattering of Augustine, Aquinas, David Bentley Hart, and the quasi-catholic extolations of the recent popes mixed [...]

  23. daniel imburgia Says:

    Hi, stumbled in here looking for the Zizek/Millbank debate/article, can you give me the link? However, for what it’s worth, my experience resonates with some of those above, though in reverse? I grew up RC (Sicilian style, old women in black babushkas muttering the stations of the cross and hexing bad neighbors and burying St.Joseph upside in the front yard etc.). Got ‘saved’ and married in a pentecostal/holiness/snake-handling/okie fundamentalist temple. later joined the quasi/marxist/anarchist ‘Jesus People,’ and used to leave tracts on the windows of cars in RC parking lots to save them from the ‘anti-christ and great whore.’ A variety of spiritual/philosophical crisis started heading me back towards orthodoxy via post-structuralism and Levinas, Benjamin, Derrida, rosenzweig, et al. yadda yadda now attend mass from time to time, subscribe to the RC church like one might subscribe to a museum, or like a Terry Eagletonian who actually puts money in the collection basket (cafeteria Catholics?). Started reading the works of Ratzinger and dammit if i don’t find myself being impressed and learning something, especially in his critiques and shameless borrowing of Heidegger (ontology of Being etc). And the ‘anti christ?’ Well….now I’m worried sick about those fundamentalist, fatigue-clad okies with semi-automatic AR15′s down at the full-gospel tabernacle calling for air strikes on Iran and chest high blood in the valley of meggido!. But, they have great contemp. music and let you wear Hawaiian shirts to church, and counsel presidents on foreign policy and eschatology. But, given the…checkered? history of the RC church, some kind of concordat betwixt evangelicalism and Rome causes me concern, even if it is ‘quasi.’ thanks and don’t forget that link, daniel

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There’s no link — it’s a book.

  25. Hauerwas and the Mennonites « memoria dei Says:

    [...] of high church traditions—manifested in the number of recent conversions and the phenomenon of quasi-Catholicisim—which has gone on without very much theorizing of the low-church end at all. This new [...]


Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,287 other followers