‘Institutionalism’ & the Church

A Catholic friend of the late Orthodox priest Matthew Baker’s writes with reference to the Archdiocese of New York problems post:

I noticed that a number of commentators took the opportunity to express their satisfaction that they left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy and so thereby avoid these kinds of problems. I appreciate your effort to rein in the enthusiasm – as noted the East has had its share of scandals, though never so great. I am reminded, however, of one of the last conversations I had with Fr. Matthew Baker before he died. In the course of the conversation we came to discuss the ills of the Catholic Church, which we both agreed was best labeled ‘Institutionalism’.

Now, ‘Institutionalism’ affects both traditional and progressive Catholics in equal measure. It is one might say – to borrow and misuse a term – the “structural sin” of Catholicism, living in its very bones, in seminaries, parish structures, canon law, etc. Institutionalism can be summarized as something like: ‘the excessive trust in institutional structures – including a complacent belief that the institution takes care of itself, an expectation that those vested with institutional authority can and will exercise sound if not perfect judgment, and finally, and most importantly, the conviction that all problems are institutional ones to be solved by ever-more refined rule-amending, making, or keeping’.

The most obvious manner in which institutionalism manifests itself is in attitudes toward the papacy and ‘creeping infallibility’ (in which the pope is assumed to be infallible even in his ordinary teaching). However, one can also see it among progressive Catholics and their attitude toward Vatican II as well as their oft- vocalized belief that we need a Vatican III to ‘address contemporary problems’ or that this or that rule needs to change. It is this obsession about the institution that makes mincemeat of both the tradition of faith (we need to adapt to the contemporary worldview or else no one will go to church anymore!), cover up evil (we cannot let anyone know about this or else no one will come to church anymore!), or place sole responsibility on Church institutions for failure (if it weren’t for those progressives at Vatican II, everyone would still be coming to church!).

Now, institutionalism is not the ‘structural sin’ of Orthodoxy – at least not today (there’s reason to suppose it was in the Byzantine period). And therefore, one shouldn’t really expect Orthodoxy to go awry in these institutional scandals, and certainly not compromise the tradition in order to adapt to the era (though I wouldn’t necessarily claim this as a intellectual or moral victory on the part of Orthodoxy – your experience of Western Modernity is in some respect much more as outsiders and late-comers).

As I discussed with Fr. Matthew, we concluded that the ‘structural sin’ of Orthodoxy today is probably something more like ethnocentrism, nationalism, or perhaps even chauvinism. The scandals here are often less intrusive to the daily life of Orthodox in the US …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The British Empire and WWII. William Dalrymple reviews Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War (a.k.a. India at War).

Will Republicans fall for the Iran trap? Robert Merry warns the GOP of the pitfalls of opposing the nuclear deal.

The costs of the nuclear deal debate. Michael Cohen fears that the benefits of the deal will be obscured by a “torrent of hand-wringing and threat-mongering.”

Yemenis starve, and Saudis are accused of war crimes. Vice‘s Samuel Oakford reports on the latest developments in the war on Yemen.

The return of the Venezuelan boundary dispute. Nick Miroff reports on the role of Jim Jones’ cult in the territorial dispute and the tensions between Venezuela and Guyana that have once again flared up over the boundary.

…read more

Via:: American Conservative


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The Beautiful Lie

Here’s a new 11-minute video from the Planned Parenthood expose. If you can’t watch the whole thing, start at the eight-minute mark:

Brandon McGinley writes about America’s “Potemkin life” exposed by the Planned Parenthood scandal. Excerpt:

We were on the patio of a casual restaurant within sight of the gentle Beaver River. Between us and the riverbank was a pristine lawn, crisscrossed by walking trails. The weather was mild and clear. Around us, people conversed contentedly while dining wholesomely and affordably, in perfect security. To all appearances, here was the very image of the good society: pleasant, safe, and prosperous.

I mused aloud: Unless a person is steeped in a tradition of moral theology, the notion that our culture is in a state of decay will sound simply incredible. The secular citizen might acknowledge an injustice here, a minor outrage there—but the MacIntyrean concept of a new Dark Ages? Madness.

But as the ongoing Planned Parenthood revelations demonstrate, our Potemkin society conceals more than just notional corruptions.


Like Justice Kennedy, we use soft language to conceal hard truths. There are the guilty euphemisms of the abortionists: “products of conception,” “tissues,” “choice,” and so on. And there are the more popular evasions that, while less perverse, still serve to obscure uncomfortable realities. We call the workings-out of our particular rendition of international capitalism “natural”; we look at a permanent underclass and speak of “freedom”; we give nearly every innovation, regardless of its human cost, the name of “progress.”

Oh yes. Oh yes, indeed. When I go on about the Benedict Option, there are lots of people of good will who genuinely have no idea what I’m talking about — meaning, why I see a need for this. Planned Parenthood, and the popular culture’s reaction to it, is one big reason why. The moral insanity exemplified by the rapid deconstruction of the family, and even of gender identity, and the near-irresistible propaganda machine calling it progress, is another. These are by no means the only things, but they are indicative of America’s advanced state of decadence.

At this point, I don’t see much point in arguing with those whose ideological or moral commitments prevent them from seeing what is clear to us Christians (and Muslims and Jews) who are steeped in the tradition of Abrahamic moral theology. Yes, we have to keep fighting politically to protect ourselves and our communities, but the more important fight is to build up the institutions, communities, and ways of living that will endure what is, and is to come. We have to resist. You don’t do that by simply having the right attitudes and principles. You have to live them out, consistently, in community.

But action must first begin with contemplation. We have to contemplate, without sentimentality, the character of what we are facing. David Bentley Hart:

I wish, that is, to make a point not conspicuously different from Alasdair MacIntyre’s in the first chapter of his After Virtue: in the wake of a morality of the Good, ethics has become a …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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Why Community Matters

Caleb Bernacchio, with whom I spent a good lunch this week, talking about the Benedict Option, writes:

Thinking about our conversation, I think there is one point that should be clarified. After Virtue, rather than a offering a program, end in an aporia but its conclusion is not totally lacking content. It suggests that we build new forms of community that promote and protect practices against the corrupting effect of institutional pressure and its accompanying vices.

Why is the question of building new forms a community the central question of After Virtue? Why is this a question of the first importance for MacIntyre’s philosophical project?

Because After Virtue was an extended argument against the very possibility of an ethical theory that was not grounded in a very particular type of community. This is a community that has three characteristics it is organized in terms of various activities directed toward shared goods, it provides a space for people to order their life toward a final end, and it understands the present in terms of tradition of which it is a part. The first characteristic is explained in terms of the notion of a practice. Practices are the key to any “new form of community,” because practices provides the primary locus for the experience of the virtues, as well as the experience of rationally grounded authority, and tradition.

Unlike mere discussions of virtues, practices provides the primary context for the experience of the virtues. They also allow for the development of practical wisdom. What are practices? They are arts, and sciences, games like chess or baseball, and crafts life carpentry and farming, and professions like accounting or engineering. To be a successful participant of any one of the activities one must possess the virtues to a large degree or at least rely upon the virtues of others to maintain the integrity of the practice.

Participating in any of these activities requires honesty, justice, and courage. One must be honest to oneself and to others about the quality of one’s performance. One must be just in giving other their due when they perform well; and one must be courageous in resisting pressure to cheat when the other team is not looking. One must learn that winning and excellence are not the same; by learning this in very particular cases one becomes practically wise.

Any new form of community in MacIntyre’s sense must be a community that seeks to promote and preserve practices against the threat of hostile institutions that ostensibly support the practice. So, for instance, schools have been known to degrade the disciplines of math or literature, and instead to teach students how to pass standardized tests. Universities have been described as glorified trade schools because they instrumentalize what should be a period whereby students learn various arts or sciences and in the process become better human beings; they instrumentalize the disciplines and instead focus on teaching students the skills that will look good on a resume. Youth sports have become obsessions driven by the unlikely prospect that …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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China’s rigged markets will ultimately destabilize global capitalism

Beijing’s efforts to engineer a strong stock rally and the recent Shanghai market collapse have had quite limited effects on Western markets, but going forward the fallout from Chinese market meddling will likely be less benign. …read more

Via:: Fox Opines


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Constant Lambert Lost (and Found)


Before about 1980, almost all culturally literate musicians trained on British models—not necessarily in Britain itself—discovered, generally by happenstance, Constant Lambert’s 1934 philippic Music Ho! Somehow, while never troubling the bestseller charts, Music Ho! stayed in print and in the collective unconscious for four decades. Does it continue to attract fans? Its very name might well mean nothing to anyone under 50. Time was when it won not just fans but the most evangelistic votaries.

In his raffish, autodidactic nonage Lambert had mysteriously acquired a prose style that blended Macaulayan confidence with Nietzschean spite—“the loudspeaker is the streetwalker of music” counts as one of his tamer epigrams. Only Virgil Thomson, providing a similar brand of high-cultural bitchiness to Manhattanites, withstood literary comparison with him. Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, Schoenberg, Bartók, Arthur Honegger, Richard Strauss: all these composers Lambert treated as emperors so deficient in clothes that they were ostentatiously dying of pneumonia. Sibelius and Duke Ellington alone, among the contemporaneous elect, met Lambert’s approval.

All readers who at an impressionable age relished Music Ho!’s frenetic intellectual sadism will have asked: who was this Lambert anyhow? What else did he write? If they have enjoyed Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, they will have stumbled on Lambert again since Powell freely admitted to using Lambert’s traits for the novel-sequence’s louche character of Hugh Moreland. The première recording of “Façade,” in which the treatment of Edith Sitwell’s words by William Walton marks history’s first surviving example of rap, includes Lambert as one of the narrators, Sitwell herself being the other. Through his own “The Rio Grande,” an early, jazz-inflected partnership with Edith’s younger brother Sacheverell Sitwell, he achieved as a composer intense popular acclaim that never completely faded. All this before his 30th birthday.

Such stunning promise; such self-destructive lack of fulfillment. After “The Rio Grande,” most of his music bombed in commercial terms. His dark side made it hard to remember his light side. When scarcely out of his teens he turned no less a martinet than Diaghilev from indulgent friend to unpitying foe. A chain-smoking alcoholic, he hurtled through two chaotic marriages as well as numerous affairs—Margot Fonteyn being his most renowned trophy—while inspiring in his academic and journalistic antagonists the Hedda Hopper verdict: “You had to stand in line to hate him.” In 1951, wracked by diabetes and less than a week before turning 46, he boozed himself to death. His Christian name, as he confessed, had proven to be the least apposite of any famous musician’s since Modest Mussorgsky’s.

It was not all “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Lambert’s friends, while they could hardly be expected to outnumber his enemies, were loyal and influential. (They ranged from Percy Wyndham Lewis on the Franquista Right to Tom Driberg on the Stalinist Left.) Surviving phonograph records confirm that Lambert the conductor—especially with ballets under Sadler’s Wells’ auspices—could extract admirable performances from the weariest orchestral players. At the piano, he could likewise charm; sound archives corroborate …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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Watch the Humanum Series

We have just spent the last hour talking with our kids about what it means to have a mother and a father, and why both are important to family life. Why? Because we watched the second video in the Humanum series, a terrific, high-production-value collection of instructional videos, available for free on YouTube, on the meaning of life, male, female, and family, from a traditional perspective.

I learned via research that the producers are Roman Catholics, but there is nothing sectarian about the series, at least not that I have seen. In fact, in tonight’s video, there’s a Muslim couple talking about the traditional family. When I first heard about the series, I thought it was bound to be didactic, clunky, and dull. I could not have been more wrong. This thing is extremely well done. We’ve watched the first two episodes — each about 15 minutes long — with our kids, and they have both sparked deep and interesting discussions about the nature of gender, marriage, and family.

I cannot possibly express how grateful I am for this series — not only for its content, but the excellent aesthetic quality of the presentation. It doesn’t come across as churchy or stilted. Our kids love the series. Watch the trailer above for a sense of what it’s like.

The whole series — there are seven episodes in all — is here. And here is a Catholic World Report article on the genesis of the series, which was created to complement a Vatican conference last year on the meaning and sanctity of the traditional family.

…read more

Via:: American Conservative


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Patriotism & the Benedict Option

Here’s a thought-provoking First Things piece from 2004 by John Owen IV, a UVA political scientist, who analyzes Christianity and patriotism in light of After Virtue and 9/11. Remember, this was written in 2004. It begins like this:

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre closed his 1981 book After Virtue by posing what might be called the St. Benedict option. As a society, we retain the vestiges of traditional moral language but not the communities and practices that produced that language. Moreover, our elites think that justice has no grounding apart from individual feelings. The Enlightenment project of replacing tradition with self-grounding moral rules has failed, and no grand replacement has emerged. According to MacIntyre, such a society is “not waiting for Godot, but for another”and doubtless very different”St. Benedict.”

To conservative American Christians”evangelical Protestants and orthodox Catholics”MacIntyre’s diagnosis sounded right. Christendom, the res publica Christiana inaugurated by the Emperor Constantine and (so it had been thought) carried on by the American Founders, appeared dead, and what had replaced it was not clear: perhaps a centerless web of individuals; perhaps a welter of groups holding incommensurate values; perhaps an aggressive secular empire. Conservative Christians saw that they had been routed from the commanding heights of culture, including the media, the academy, the state, and in particular the courts.

Whatever MacIntyre’s intent, his line about St. Benedict was often taken to mean that people adhering to traditional moral norms should withdraw to some extent from the corrupting influences of American society and into their particular communities.

(An interesting ancillary question — did Owen coin the term “Benedict Option”? Did I? Did Fr. Jape at New Pantagruel? I honestly don’t know.)

Owen then makes an interesting claim: that the end of the Cold War and the resulting lack of a foreign enemy made it psychologically possible for Benedict Option-oriented Christians to detach themselves from the American mainstream. The experience of 9/11, and the sudden appearance of radical Islam as a threat, halted and even reversed the trend. Owen:

Most Evangelical and orthodox Catholic Americans find ourselves loyal not only to what ought to be our most important spiritual community, the Church, but also to the community that God uses to keep us secure, prosperous, and free to worship Him — namely our country. We know that we must defend our homeland and sense that that defense must involve some degree of affirmation of American culture and institutions. If one’s country is wicked enough, if its institutions and practices are evil, as in the perennial limiting case of Nazi Germany, one should pray for its defeat in war. America is not nearly so wicked as that. It continues to be good to us and to the Church more generally, not just by shielding us from foreign threats but by allowing Christian life, and life in general, to flourish as it rarely has in history. The Islamists are wrong to regard the United States and the West more generally as thoroughly corrupt and worthy only of destruction.

But the …read more

Via:: American Conservative


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