The Roman Catholic funeral for the late Senator Edward Kennedy earlier this month was a magnificent display of ecclesiastical pageantry. In terms of talent and finesse it had the best of everything Catholic going for it: the splendid Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston as a setting; leadership by a cardinal of the church; numerous clergy assisting in their beautiful white vestments; a solo by none other than opera star Placido Domingo; and the thrilling sounds of a three manual pipe organ. All this was laced together by a Catholic mass, ancient prayers, and a series of praiseful eulogies.
Five United States presidents were in attendance. The spectacle was nearly flawlessly choreographed, evoking a sense of splendor and awe.
But behind the scenes both before and after the event, murmurs of protest could be heard. Some of them came from pro-life Catholic organizations, and some from conservative Catholic laity who know church law. Still other protests are from highly placed Catholic clergy who fear that so resplendent a funeral for the late senator has further diminished the Roman Catholic Church as an institution that takes its own canon law seriously.
The protest has not been trained directly on the late senator, although his longstanding and relentless pro-abortion stance, as well as his agreement with same sex marriage and stem cell research – all three in open defiance of Roman Catholic teaching – do come to the fore again and again.
The principal point of protest seems to be against church officials who, in order to give the senator a full Catholic funeral, were willing to ignore his promotion of these issues. They point out that his positions were serious violations of Catholic teaching. That the senator’s defiance should therefore have been called heresy (any position taken in opposition to authorized doctrine). And that, instead, highly placed officials produced a showcase funeral, making him appear to have been a faithful son of the church. (Several of the eulogies went so far as to declare that the senator was already in heaven.)
To an informed Protestant, the whole thing is somewhat startling. The Catholic Church has an elaborate system of canon law. It has its Magisterium to pronounce with authority on what the church holds to be true. It has its doctrine of papal infallibility, active whenever the pope speaks “ex cathedra.” Besides, it has its clear regulations on who may and who may not take communion. That is, it speaks clearly on who is a Catholic in good standing and who is not.
Clearly the senator, over a long period of time, deliberately failed the test.
All this would not be of concern to an evangelical Protestant if it were not for the uneasy question it raises: Is this moral sponginess, this easy disregard for deeply professed commitments, this tendency to accommodate to a relativistically shaped culture, a problem faced in Boston-based Catholicism alone? Or was the funeral only one situation among many that glaringly reflect what has happened to truth-commitments generally in the Western world? To give the question a finer edge, is evangelicalism tainted with the same doctrinal and moral easyspeak?
David F. Wells, in his recent book The Courage to Be Protestant, sounds an alarm. He contends that evangelicalism, which developed robustly in the years following the Second World War, has since gone into serious decline in terms of its doctrinal commitments stemming back to the Reformation and the ancient church. This, he holds, despite the impressive institutions, journals, para-church organizations and mega-churches it has spawned. For openers, he states, “Today, evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine,” and are “enmeshed in culture for the wrong reasons” (pp. 3, 4). As a result, “Evangelicalism is wounded and declining” (p.21).
One might argue that he paints with too broad a brush and that there are still thriving evangelical bodies that hold to orthodox truth and labor with godly zeal. Nevertheless, his case is worth our attention.
In light of the doctrinal climate revealed by the Kennedy funeral and reflected in Wells’s book, it is fair to ask: Across evangelicalism generally, does Christian doctrine shape evangelical commitments – in its worship, its family life, its lifestyle? Does Christian morality seek its rootage in revealed truth and in doctrinal wholeness? Or, has evangelical experience been cut loose to become increasingly superficial, as Wells asserts? The poll results gathered by such polsters as George Barna reflect biblical illiteracy among evangelical youth, a divorce rate not much different from society at large, and doctrinal heresy among professed believers all of which is both shocking and embarrassing.
This whole matter is critical because we are all living in a culture that is relativistic and even skeptical regarding whether there is such a thing as absolute truth. Christians caught in this can easily become careless regarding both doctrine and the lifestyle that should grow out of the truth we profess.
In an upcoming post I will write more about David F. Wells’s analysis – and about his recommendations for evangelicals today.
Do you have any thoughts on this post? I’d be glad to hear them.