Last month, I had an interesting conversation about the DNA of the gospel

I remarked here that opposition to slavery is in the DNA of Christianity, provoking outrage and scorn from some readers who remarked, predictably, that this was rubbish and noting the long history of the tolerance of slavery in Christian lands. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into all the various parts of the discussion, but will instead confine myself to a conversation I had with reader 3vil 5triker, who offered a pretty representative response, and then reproduce my reply to him, since it explains what I do (and do not) mean by something being in the DNA of Christianity.

He wrote two sets of comments to which I responded. The first was in reply to my comment on my delight with the news that my book on Catholic Social Teaching having an effect on the conversation:

I’m sincerely glad for you. I hope your book and the ideas in it spread wide and far enough to become mainstream (again?), to the point where people across the political spectrum can have honest disagreements that nevertheless center people’s wellbeing as the end to public policy, as opposed to viewing them as replaceable cogs in a machine.Also, in the intersection of religion and politics I recently came across this article by Rebecca Hamilton:

GQP Whore Bishop Alert: What’s Happening to Disney Can Happen to You.Her article could be considered prophetic, given what has followed soon after:

Marjorie Greene’s DELUSIONAL Rant On The Catholic Church

It serves as a reminder that for many of these politicians, Catholics are merely tools of convenience, to be disposed of at the earliest opportunity, should one arise.

Seriously, how twisted things have to be for outspoken atheists on a political commentary show, to come out in defense of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general? Its as if the baseline for what was universally seen as moral has receded considerably on one end, to the point where there is less distance between atheists and the Catholic Church, than there is between the Catholic Church and what passes in the US for “Conservative Christianity”.

It goes to show that the labels and categories we use to describe different ideologies can often fall short or be completely misleading when taken at face value.

To which I responded:

As Tom Holland argues persuasively in DOMINION, modern atheists are, for the most part, deeply and intensely Christian atheists. Indeed, many of them are emphatically more committed to fundamentally Christian moral conceptions than the MAGA antichrist worshippers are. So we find them making common cause with a lot of the Catholic tradition while the antichrist worshippers who adore imbeciles like Greene are aesthetes who happen to like smells and bells but who hate the Church and Christ present in the least of these.

And he replied:

Well yeah, that’s the thing about culture: its the proverbial water we swim in. For better or worse, Christian culture serves as our common point of reference. You could even make the case that the bulk of atheist criticism of Christianity consists of pointing out the ways in which the later fails to meet its own standards and to uphold its own values.

All this serves to make the Greene’s position even more bizarre. Its like walked into the plot at the very end and missed the entire plausible deniability enabling backstory, where her side is supposed to arguably be on the side of the good guys. So she would say things like, “the Church means well, but they’re causing more harm than good”, or “the Church could help those people more if they deployed those resources in their home countries”, and so on.

But nope, instead, she just says the quiet part put loud: the Church is “satanic” for helping people in need, because of some unspecified clash with “the law”. Its like they’ve gone so far off the spectrum that they lost the ability to even pretend to be good people. They can’t even fathom the concept in their minds.

Maybe that’s the closest we can come to what Hell would be like.

And I responded:

This is precisely Holland’s point. Nearly every atheist critic of the Church criticizes the Church on Christian grounds. And not simply in order to show that Christians are hypocrites, but because the atheist deeply *believes* things that are, in the end, founded in the Church’s mystical doctrines and are in no sense derivable from “science and reason alone”. Believing in such a thing as “human dignity” at all is, in the end, rooted in Genesis 1. Nietzsche entire complaint against “English flatheads” was that they continue to believe in Christian morals when they could not ground them in anything but a Christian faith they were losing. Holland’s point is that we are still doing that and that we need to face the fact that virtually everything from BLM to wokeness to MeToo to gay rights/civil rights/worker’s right movement (which conservative Christians all hate and postmodern liberals all support, find their roots in fundamentally Jewish and Christian assumptions.

Then we had a closely related conversation in which he responded to my “Opposition to slavery is in the DNA of Christianity”:

That would be like saying that the Catholic Church was in favor of the BLM movement and was ahead of the curve in race-related issues, just because Gloria Purvis, a Catholic, advocated strongly for those things. That doesn’t quite give the full picture, does it?

Sure, the Quakers and Christians who fought on the Union side of the Civil War were opposed to slavery. But who were they fighting against? It would be remiss to ignore that it was Christians who were on the other side as well.

You talk about the room temperature of humanity, but you forget that when Christianity rose to power it took on that role. The idea that if not for Christianity slavery would still be in place, is unfalsifiable at best and ahistorical at worst, especially when you consider the fact that Christianity brought slavery to places where there was none, or was not entrenched to the point where it essentialized slavery by tying into the human construct of “race”.

I’m not trying to single out Christianity as uniquely evil in this regard, but I don’t think that going in the opposite direction and trying to downplay its role when it comes to continuing, enabling and justifying the institution of slavery is helpful either.

I think the part you’re missing in your analysis is that Christian ideology and culture does not exist in a vacuum; it changes and becomes influenced even as it changes and influences others. In a fashion akin to living organisms, it adapts to its environment. That’s one of the points Neil Carter made in the article that Joel linked to you. You also made a similar point in an article you published a while back, where you contrast the positions of the American Catholic Church and the Vatican when it came to slavery.

Lastly, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice when you conflate honest critique with “bigotry”. We’ve both seen what actual bigotry looks like and this ain’t it. Just saying.

And I tried to zero in more precisely on what I mean by the DNA comment:

You are talking about a sociological entity called the Church. I am talking about the gospel. When I say that opposition to slavery is in the Church’s DNA, I am not saying that all or even most Christians at a particular period believed that slavery was something that could or should be outlawed, any more than when I say “Opposition to war is in the Church’s DNA” (which it is). I’m saying that a gospel that has “Love your enemy” at the core of Christ’s teaching is a gospel that is always striving to break through the husk of the merely human systems of order that have bound us for 300,000 years. The Church has always tolerated war for the very good reason that nearly all human beings tolerate war and see no way in the world to get rid of it. We humans hate war while perpetually doing it anyway. The Church, if she could, would banish war just as most of us would. But the Church also lives in the real world where war happens anyway. So it offers just war teaching and strives against war, but still fails to prevent and sometimes must take sides in wars that it hates. Same with stuff like the death penalty. The Church took two millennia for the DNA that must, in the end, demand an end to the death penalty to be expressed. But once expressed, there will be no going back, no matter how many Catholics fight the Church to kill people. There is much in the Church’s DNA that is still fighting to be expressed. The Church is the jar of clay. The gospel is the treasure it contains. Multiple times in its history, the gospel has thrown out unexpected roots and branches which its members did not expect and even sometimes hated. The earliest example of this was the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church. And not everybody liked that. Opposition to racism is *deeply* part of the Church’s DNA, not because Gloria Purvis sees it, but because Jesus declares that Gentiles will come from the four winds into the kingdom and the apostles, to their own shock, realize that Gentiles are to be included in the Church after Peter’s vision of the unclean animals and the Council of Jerusalem finally does the math (Acts 15). This is what “development of doctrine” means.

The most gigantic doctrinal development in centuries took place at Vatican II when the Church declared that “Man is the only creature on earth whom God has willed for his own sake”. It means that *no* human system–political, economic, philosophical, sociological, military…or ecclesial–is more important than the dignity of a single human being. Systems are made for man, not man for systems. The Church has barely begun to comprehend the implications of that and there are millions of Catholics who are disposed to hate it. Tough shit for them. The DNA of the Church in that department will sooner or later be expressed about that too. That’s why I keep pointing to Gregory of Nyssa in the late fourth century. He grasped clearly that whatever human structures imposed on the lived experience of Catholics regarding slavery, in the end it *could* not be reconciled with the gospel. Nobody took him seriously, just as nobody took Dorothy Day’s pacifism seriously. But in the end, they were both right: neither slavery nor war can be squared with the command to love your neighbor, therefore the DNA of the Church will always strive to break the clay pot and reveal the treasure.

I think the DNA analogy has merit and warrants further development. I hope to do so in future work.

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3 Responses

  1. I actually missed your last comment along with others that were posted around the same time. I guess I should start enabling notifications for new comments more often. On the other hand, I really don’t like getting even more emails in my inbox. Decisions, decisions…

    Okay, so here’s the thing: given how often I feel like Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, should know better and could do better on a number of issues, I’m inclined to agree that the Church has within it, the possibility to improve in such areas, which in this context, would be to abide by principles they’ve espoused at some point.

    I just don’t think we should be conflating such possibility with some notion of certainty, inevitability or even necessity; as if progress could not be achieved by any other means or under any other ideology. Christianity’s path is just that: Christianity’s; for better or for worse.

    As far as the idea of “ideological DNA” goes, I think the environment plays a larger role in determining whether or not a particular trait will manifest itself. I also think that where there is a will there is a way, and justifications, even those rooted in an ideology’s history and foundational principles, are secondary.

    After all, we could also make the case that MAGA-Christianity, having evolved from both mainline Christian denominations and the Republican Party, also has opposition to slavery and racism as part of its DNA. However, for them, those traits have become vestigial: they still exist in some form, but they no longer have any actual function, or at least not one that bears any resemblance to what it once was.

    I don’t think they’re reforming anytime soon. I think a jar of clay can become so twisted and deformed that it destroys any and all treasure it might’ve held at some point.

  2. The difficulty as I see is always with the use and abuse of the words like Christianity , Catholic “tradition”, “Church” etc.

    The worst of this is the abuse of the word “Church”, done by the clergy and the bishops everywhere. For eg:
    -“protecting” Church from scandal’,
    -“defending” the Church,
    -the authority of the “Church”,
    and so on.

    All of those constructs have been used by mere humans in the Church to cover up their ill deeds, defend those ill deeds, perpetrate abuses of power both in the Church and in the outside world

    In general the word has been used to avoid accountability, and to serve the masters of this world. Church men have been corrupt, greedy and evil throughout history. They all claimed and maybe believed that they were the Church and acting on behalf of the Church. There is nothing that set’s apart these people from any other group on earth.

    So a good start would be define what exactly is meant by the use of ” Church” when a claim is made says that the Church is holy, indefectible and authoritative. A second would be to define what would be an abuse of the word. Only then we can examine any claims about the Church.

    Otherwise the Church’s DNA is as vague as humanity’s DNA. There is always the probability that they both can do better. I mean, Thomas Jefferson believed slavery was evil.

  3. As we near the end of the year at our Catholic school, I’ve been going through the second grade students’ work. Our school would be considered liberal by many, but it’s not. The gospel is at the center of student life.

    The children had many projects, including their “weekend updates”, “advice to future second graders”, “highlights of second grade”… They had total freedom to write about anything, from field trips to school events/parties holiday travel etc.. . I was utterly moved to read the sheer amount of students who wrote about receiving the eucharist as the high point of their year. One little girl wrote that “receiving the bread of life” was the most important event of her year.

    These children aren’t from conservative families. They live in one of the most liberal parishes of the country. They understand concepts that the cynics can’t wrap their heads around. They understand the teachings of Jesus, and the “DNA” of the gospel.

    The problem is the adults –who pay lip service to liberal causes, but are utterly distracted by chasing the almighty dollar, and the trappings that go with the lifestyle they crave.

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