Happy New Year and New Decade!

Te Deum, the chant of the New Year. (Source)

Thus concludes Anno Domini MMXIX. It is strange to think that we are about to enter the third decade of the new millennium. I am by temperament a pessimist, but I hope that this decade is an improvement over the last (a time in which I experienced a tremendous amount of personal growth). Let us pray for God’s continuing mercy and Providence.

Here are some blog stats from the last year, for those who are interested.

In 2019, The Amish Catholic received a total of 66,839 views, with a total of 39,175 visitors. My total views were down this year by 1,035, though I received 3,969 more visitors in 2019. My most popular month was March, in which I received 19,066 views and 12,919 visitors. My least popular month was February, with only 3,011 views and 1,369 visitors. This is really all very good news, since I published many fewer pieces in 2019 than in 2018 – this has been my most intense calendar year of studies ever. Including this summary, I published 42 pieces in 2019 – down from 109 in 2018. Had I been a bit more productive, all my other numbers would have gone up this year.

Here are my top 10 posts:

  1. 100 Edifying Lenten Penances (with over 12,000 views, this is my most popular post ever)
  2. 30 Alternate Religious Mottos
  3. Elsewhere: Courage, the Cardinal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis
  4. When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro (this one is from 2017, but it remains perennially popular)
  5. The Hidden Wound of Christ
  6. We Do Not Need St. Chesterton
  7. The Best Monastic Documentaries (from 2018)
  8. The Ratzinger Letter: A Failure
  9. Chesterton on Cheese (one of my earliest posts, from June of 2017)
  10. Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Humor keeps the top spots, while works of controversy and commentary appear with greater frequency this year than in the past. Spiritual and academic pieces usually don’t have a terribly wide appeal – which is probably good, because I’m a young layman and a lowly grad student.

I will highlight one academic piece, however, of which I am somewhat proud: my Church Life Journal argument in favor of the fundamental Catholicity of Jansenism and the continuing relevance of these early modern controversies. The Jansenist controversy remains one of the most important and misunderstood chapters in Church history. I hope to expand some of these themes here and elsewhere in the new year.

I suppose I could finish this trying to come up with a list of lessons I’ve learned over the course of the last year – in blogging, in life, etc. The temptation is even greater in view of the closing decade. Yet that often seems rather contrived. I would rather close with what seems to me the best way to end a year and a decade: on a note of gratitude. I could not have gotten where I am today without tremendous help along the way. Friends, family, mentors, and even strangers have made my life better in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Thank you to everyone who has been there along the way. You know who you are.

And thanks to the friends in heaven who have helped with their many prayers. As I concluded 2018, so will I finish the decade – with a prayer that encompasses all of time.

Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen.

Elsewhere: Speaking of Jansenism

Jorgen Sonne’s 1866 Nuns walking in a cloister garden in Rome. He has, whether intentionally or not, given them the habit of Port-Royal-des-Champs. (Source)

I refer my readers to two articles that have recently appeared in the Notre Dame Church Life Journal. The first, which came out about a month ago, is an excellent piece by Dr. Shaun Blanchard showing that our polemical use of the term “Jansenism” is seriously mistaken. The second is an article I wrote, a church-historical study in which I both defend the Jansenists from various degrading misconceptions as well as point out some parallels between their situation and our own. I’m also very pleased that the Catholic Herald picked it up for Wednesday’s “Morning Catholic Must-Reads.”

This is not the first time I have tackled the issue, having previously pointed out the rhetorical and ecclesiastical-political resemblances between Pope Francis’s critics and the French Jansenists. I am more sure than ever of that similarity, and may yet elaborate it again should I deem it helpful for the present conversation. Regardless, I certainly will write more about Jansenist history and theology – watch this space.

I should add that I am particularly grateful to Dr. Blanchard for his kind aid in the preparation of my piece, and Dr. Artur Rosman for his editorial patience.

Elsewhere: Catholic Kabbalah

Portrait of Giles of Viterbo in his old Palazzo (Source)

Over at Church Life Journal, Andrew Kuiper has a tour-de-force article on the history and theology of Catholic Kabbalah. His review of four Catholic Kabbalists – Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, Giles of Viterbo, and St. John Fisher – is a model of intellectual history. He does a great job showing the continuing relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic (and other Christian) thinkers throughout the centuries.

The piece is amply cited and provides several helpful theological considerations. I thought Kuiper’s nod towards Sophiology was particularly enlightening. If Christian Kabbalah has a place in Catholic theology today, I predict that it will be in the writings of latter-day Sophiologists.

If I were to offer a criticism of Kuiper’s piece, it would be a very minor one at that: he makes no reference to the works of Margaret Barker. Her research has shed a new light on the roots of Christianity and Jewish mysticism (in both its Merkabah and later Sephirotic developments) in the memory of the First Temple. Reading Kabbalistic texts through a Temple lens can ease their Christian interpretation. But I digress.

Pico della Mirandola, a pioneer in the Christian use of Kabbalah. (Source)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the article, for a historian of the period, is Kuiper’s various references to the Kabbalistic books written by these Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries. I would particularly keen on finding the text of Giles of Viterbo’s Shechina or Pico’s Heptaplus. Some of these hard-to-find volumes have never been translated into English.

It is not easy to summarize the teachings of the Jewish mystics, nor their Christian interpreters. Kuiper does both with commendable attention to detail and obvious competence, all while keeping things clear and concise enough for a lay reader. This article also provides a badly-needed defense of the respectability of Kabbalah as a field of study. Its bastardization in recent times, exemplified most clearly by Madonna et al., has led some to question whether Kabbalah is anything more than a gnostic mishmash of magic with Hebrew letters. I have heard colleagues dismiss it entirely as a field of serious inquiry for a historian or theologian. This tendency seems especially strong with Christian academics, many of whom retain outdated ideas about Jewish mysticism or who simply haven’t up with the post-Scholem rediscovery of Kabbalah. Kuiper’s intervention is a broadside against this boring complacency. It’s not exactly “a cruel angel’s thesis,” but it is one worth defending.

On Gallicanism and Ultramontanism

CouncilofConstance.jpg

Scene from the Council of Constance, the Sixteenth Ecumenical Council (Source)

Over at Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, there are two important pieces worth your time. The first, Dr. Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s “A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism,” is a theological analysis of the recent use of “ultramontanism” as a pejorative in Catholic discourse. Dr. O’Neill, a Neo-Thomist theologian, suggests that Ultramontanism is “the golden mean” by which to preserve a healthy and authentically Catholic respect for the Papacy. He writes:

But how does the historical usage of the term “ultramontane” hold any significance for us today? Given that the term arose as an insult against those who challenged the claims of Gallicanism, and given that those who championed papal primacy over local kings and bishops were legitimized at Vatican I, the term ought not to be associated with heterodoxy but rather orthodoxy.

To equate ultramontanism and orthodoxy is an extraordinary claim. While Dr. O’Neill recognizes that there are some excessively papalist versions of ultramontanism – a phenomenon he would prefer to call “super-ultramontanism” or “ultra-ultramontanism” – he fails to escape the very alienation from the term’s “historical significance” that he attempts to address.

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Umberto Benigni (1862-1934), Ultramontane church historian. (Source)

Take, for instance, his citation of Umberto Benigni’s article on “Ultramontanism” in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia. The passage O’Neill cites reads:

For Catholics it would be superfluous to ask whether Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing: assuredly, those who combat Ultramontanism are in fact combating Catholicism, even when they disclaim the desire to oppose it.

If O’Neill had borrowed his words merely for a theological point, we might pass over the citation. But his is an historical judgment, not primarily a theological one. O’Neill doesn’t mention that Benigni is an out-dated, partisan, and sectarian Church historian whose article manifests those faults. It is hard to imagine any contemporary historian making much use of Benigni, whose other works include a volume entitled Ritual Murder Among the Jews (Belgrade, 1926-29).

Ultramontanism arose as a coherent and self-identified ecclesiological tendency under the pressures of post-Napoleonic Europe. While Papalism has always existed in the Church, the emergence of a self-consciously “Ultramontane” party before and after Vatican I was bound up with the Catholic response to modernity. And in some places – especially France – it was synonymous with less savory elements such as antisemitism. This fact alone hardly invalidates O’Neill’s theological point. But if we want to look at the term’s “historical significance,” I see little way to escape the actual history. “Historical significance” might just as well mean “connotations” as any sort of precise theological definition. O’Neill delimits ultramontanism by confining it to the realm of ideas as a functionally timeless truth. Yet he mires Gallicanism in the muck of human history. Ultramontanism is just the consistent teaching of the Church; Gallicanism, by contrast, is the small and fractious complaint of tendentious and self-interested minorities such as French kings and the Old Catholic schismatics. This discursive move may not be disingenuous, but it does set up a problematic historical imbalance. Ultramontanism is just as historically-conditioned as Gallicanism. Both involve something rather more than mere ideas – they enlisted social, political, and ecclesiastical movements, not always with very good results. And unfortunately, some of O’Neill’s history is simply incorrect.

At the same publication, the historian Dr. Shaun Blanchard’s “A Quasi-Defense of Gallicanism” provides some helpful correctives. It is a nuanced and well-argued piece (and well-sourced, too – Dr. Blanchard has seen fit to provide his readers with eight end-notes referring to reputable historical literature).

Against O’Neill’s suggestion that Gallicanism only arose after the Reformation, Blanchard correctly notes that the Medieval Conciliarist tradition most eloquently expressed by Jean Gerson (1368-1429) and the fathers of the Council of Constance (1414-18) provide ample groundwork for what would later be called “Gallicanism.” And Dr. Blanchard is right to point out that “Gallicanism” was never just one phenomenon, but a disparate tendency that crystallized into different forms of resistance to Papal centralization – not all of which were at play in Vatican I. Moreover, Blanchard correctly argues that, against Benigni and O’Neill’s interpretation, the Gallican minority at Vatican I preserved certain ecclesiological truths later vindicated by Vatican II. One could go on. Blanchard provides a great deal more historical background than O’Neill in support of his point.

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Cardinal Newman in his winter cappa. The man was no Ultramontanist. (Source)

Blanchard’s defense of Gallican thinkers such as Gerson, Bossuet, and Fleury is admirable. One could add to their names that of Cardinal Newman, whose soft-conciliarist ecclesiology earned the ire of ultramontanists like Cardinal Manning and W.G. Ward and Monsignor George Talbot, who famously wrote to Manning,

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.

None of this broader historical context appears in O’Neill’s piece. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to demand it, insofar as O’Neill is more interested in our contemporary debates than in the genealogy of the terms at play. But if we are to properly recognize “the historical significance” of ultramontanism, then we can’t really dodge the issue. If O’Neill is right to suggest that “the term ought not to be associated with heterodoxy but rather orthodoxy,” then men like Newman are beyond the pale of orthodoxy. And that seems like rather an impoverished vision of the Catholic intellectual life. I will conclude with Dr. Blanchard’s own measured words on the matter.

My point in this qualified defense of Gallicanism is not that we should “return” to Gallicanism, if such a thing were even possible. Neither must we equate ultramontanism with Catholic orthodoxy, simply because ultramontanes triumphed at Vatican I. Catholic orthodoxy is too big to be equated with either. The Catholic faith is big enough and dynamic enough to include what is good and true in ultramontanism and in Gallicanism, and likewise to reject what is harmful, false, or exaggerated in both.

Read them both.