Mark Lilla’s Tragic Trilogy on Islam and France

Mark Lilla has done little to endear himself to Christians, specifically Catholics, over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean he should be ignored. The Stillborn God, Lilla’s less-than-complete account of the role of religion and politics in modernity which largely failed to include Catholic thinkers, earned him some chastising words from George Weigel: “[W]riting any part of the history of the Western debate over religion and politics without a serious wrestling with Catholic sources is a bit like writing the history of baseball without mentioning the National League.” More recently, Lilla’s polemical review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was unsurprisingly ill-received despite having a few insightful words to offer on meta-narratives of spiritual-intellectual decline. Lilla, for reasons which remain foggy, hasn’t done much in the academic sphere since transferring from Chicago to Columbia. Happily, however, that has left him with sufficient time to keep running reviews and commentaries in various publications, including The New York Review of Books which just published Lilla’s three-part series covering, inter alia, France, Islam, and the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Comprised of two book reviews and an independent reflection, Lilla’s “trilogy” deserves to be read in full, not because everything he says is spot-on, but because unlike most commentators on “things political and religious,” Lilla has a surprising, even enchanting, way of detaching himself from secular-liberal commitments even if, at the end of the day, he appears dedicated to holding on to them.

Russian Orthodoxy and the SSPX

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times blog post on Pope Francis’s critics contained an unfortunate but all-too-common mischaracterization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as “schismatic.” Like many who suggest that charge, Douthat backed it up with neither an argument nor a citation to an official decree. Both Frs. John Zuhlsdorf and John Hunwicke—two canonically regular priests in good standing with the Catholic Church—have explained why the “schismatic” label is improper; so, too, has the Society. The thing is, if the SSPX were truly schismatic, Catholics like Douthat (and countless others) would likely have no problem with Rome playing nice, as evidenced by the adulation and cheers which accompanies the brief, insubstantial, and soon-forgotten meetings between a pope and hierarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Never mind of course that unlike the SSPX, the Orthodox do not accept concrete tenets of the Catholic Faith such as Papal Primacy and appear hostile (though not absolutely so) toward others (e.g., Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, and the Filioque). The Society’s “crimes,” according to its critics, are threefold: rejecting modern liturgical reform; criticizing Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty; and opposing ecumenism. But where does Eastern Orthodoxy come down on these three issues? A brief, but informative, glance at Orthodoxy’s largest canonical body, the Russian Orthodox Church, reveals no measurable deviation from the Society’s positions.

On Owen White to Orthodoxy

Despite many requests, I have never finished drafting a piece concentrating on why I chose to leave Eastern Orthodoxy for the Catholic Church four years ago. Some of my reasons have been woven into various blog posts, comboxes, e-mail exchanges, and Facebook threads, though I have kept several things to myself. When asked, either in person or privately online, to say a few words on the topic, I am usually willing to do so unless I get the sense that it’s nothing more than an invitation to a pointless back-and-forth. There may come a time when it is appropriate to write in more detail on what happened during Lent 2011, just as there may come a time to engage the more complicated questions about why I fell away from Catholicism in college, how I came back to Christianity, and what brought me to the Orthodox Church in the first place. The only reason to discuss those matters at all is if it might be of benefit to someone who is struggling to hold on to their faith amidst a storm of understandable, though ultimately unpersuasive, doubts. As for the question of choosing Rome over Constantinople (or Moscow), that’s harder to engage in a fair-minded manner. Most conversions occur for reasons which are neither easily explained nor objectively clear. Some compensate by peppering their tales with store-bought piety. Others opt for boldness, claiming that their intellectual rigor has brought them to the indisputable truth of Catholicism (or Orthodoxy). Maybe that’s happened a few times since the Great Schism, but I have my doubts.

Bloom Contra Bruenig: The Pushback Continues

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s (ESB) recent article on Pope Francis for The New Republic is receiving the critical pushback it deserves. Following last week’s posts which, inter alia, took ESB to task for castigating the Pope’s critics as fear-mongering reactionaries (see here and here), Professor Adam DeVille offered some hard hitting, but necessary, correctives over at Catholic World Report

Now comes J. Arthur Bloom, an editor for both The Daily Caller and Front Porch Republic, to deliver what I hope amounts to a final blow against ESB’s sloppily composed, ill-researched article — one which has done little more than feed ongoing media myths concerning Francis, the papacy, and contemporary Catholicism. Bloom doesn’t hold back, and nor should he. For more than a year, orthodox Catholics have watched with understandable disappointment (if not horror) as the media has used its vast resources to craft a false narrative of Francis’s pontificate in order to set the stage for another liberal revolution within the Catholic Church. The fact secularists have engaged in these antics is understandable; to see a fellow Catholic engage in the same reckless behavior is lamentable. Bloom has done a great service for the truth, and I for one applaud him for it.

DeVille Contra Bruenig

Time constraints prevented me from putting together a “Weekly Reading” post over the weekend. Had I been able to, topping the list of recommendations would be Professor Adam DeVille’s incisive critique of Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s article, “Fear of a Radical Pope.” (For my own critical comments on this rather troubling piece, see here and here). From DeVille’s piece over at Catholic World Report:

When I was a graduate student, a professor once said to me: “watch your adverbs.” I offer the same counsel here to Bruenig because her careless usage offers very fat targets ripe for ready rejoinder: wildly successful evangelism? Obviously superior approach? Relative to whom—the Westboro Baptists? Such lazy, tendentious and noticeably fact-free generalizations have no place in the writing of any would-be serious scholar—and the fact she’s writing for a once-popular magazine does not excuse this evidentiary burden.

Be sure to read the rest.