…[T]here was often a tension between the teachings of the churches and some of the accepted practices of everyday life. The most glaring example of this was the ‘Double Standard’ of sexual morality, according to which extra-marital sex by women was severely condemned, while in the case of men it was widely tolerated. This was not of course the view taken by feminists or by Christian preachers, both of whom fervently insisted on the fact that the same moral rules applied to both sexes. The inequality was probably less widely accepted in the working class or middle class than it was in the aristocracy. But there certainly were large numbers of men in all classes who felt that the double standard applied to themselves, and in the upper reaches of the social hierarchy there was a fairly widespread acceptance by men (and even by some women) that such a double standard existed, even if it could not be morally justified. Wealthy men frequently kept mistresses and sometimes had affairs with their servants, and there were many men in all classes who visited prostitutes.” -pg. 128
“A modest wish: that our doings and dealings may be of a little more significance to life than a man’s dinner-jacket is to his digestion. Yet not a little of what we describe as our achievement is, in fact, no more than a garment in which, on festive occasions, we seek to hide our nakedness.”
“Why this desire in all of us that, after we have disappeared, the thoughts of the living shall now and again dwell upon our name? Our name. Anonymous immorality we cannot even escape. The consequences of our lives and actions can no more be erased than they can be identified and duly labelled- to our honour or our shame.
‘The poor ye have always with you.’The dead, too.”
December 9th, 1954
Dear Mr. Nichols:
The passage of the Bible which I would choose is Ephesians 4:32, “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” I take it that the purpose is to find a passage of Scripture which will contain as much as possible of the whole message of the Bible….
In Niebuhr’s view, therefore, the Christian message is twofold: a demanding ethical system, and the theological and historical grounding for that system, without which the ethical standard is impossible to achieve. This is Niebuhr’s articulation of Luther’s Law/Gospel dichotomy, which demonstrates that the Old Testament Law is not negated, but rather fulfilled by the New Testament Gospel. Christianity is not primarily an ethical system, but nor is it the occasion for antinomian licentiousness.
While this answer stands with the majority of the Christian tradition, it is also distinctively Niebuhrian in several ways. First, it recognizes the limitation on human moral performance. Niebuhr notes that mere knowledge of the moral imperative is insufficient to actually perform it. Secondly, the humble approach we must take toward our moral performance is occasioned by the reality of sin. Though Niebuhr would later mention that he regretted so frequently employing the language of sin because it entailed historical and doctrinal baggage from which he wanted to distance himself, that language is inextricably bound up with the rest of Niebuhr’s political, ethical, and theological projects.
The third way this answer is distinctively Niebuhrian (for his time and position in the mid-20th century) is his explicit emphasis on the historicity of Christ. This move is in keeping with the broad majority of Christianity and with more conservative theology that was contemporaneous with Niebuhr, an emphasis on the historicity of Christ separated Niebuhr from his earlier mainline Protestant Liberalism and which marked his shift later in life to something like Neo-Orthodoxy. Contra the post-Kantian move in Liberal Protestantism that sought to go beyond an historical faith, in Niebuhr’s view, the Christian ethical code is necessarily linked to an historical phenomenon that carries theological implications. Our forgiveness is only possible because we have been forgiven in Christ.
The interest in poverty, however, runs deeper than his personal lifestyle. The Latin American bishops have spent the last fifty years wrestling with one dominant question: What does it mean to exercise a preferential option for the poor? In the U.S., Catholics live in an affluent society and have grown tone-deaf to the essential understanding of the Christian Scriptures: The Gospels are good news for the poor. The Catholic Church in America certainly provides many and varied social services to the poor, but the Church has only incidentally and sporadically questioned the roots of our market economy. In the U.S., even the Catholics have been “Calvinized” over the years. To the extent that religion plays a role in evaluating the economy it is as an add-on, encouraging people to give to charity once they make their millions.
In Latin America, where millions of Catholics go to bed hungry and live in slums, the cause of the poor is not only about providing social services. The Church in Latin America, for historical and cultural reasons, plays a great role is shaping society in foundational ways. The question of providing for the poor in Latin America, and throughout the global South, has been asked at a deeper level, intellectually and practically, than one finds in the affluent West.
Many Latin American theologians in the late 60s and 70s were attracted to “liberation theology,” which started with a Marxist-inspired analysis of social structures and tried to craft a Christian response. But, the liberation theologians strangely mimicked the neo-con capitalists they criticized, exercising an economic reductionism that equated the achievement of social progress with salvation. The neo-cons suggest the market will heal human ills, and the liberation theologians thought Marxist analysis would achieve the same end. Both ended up diminishing the most obvious Christian doctrine—original sin—and collapsing their hopes for the end time into a political program. Liberation theologians and neo-con American Catholics are loathe to admit it, but both committed the same mistake, reducing the mystery of man to a manageable problem capable of either Marxist or market manipulations. They approached the problem of the poor from different directions, but their relationship is strangely symbiotic.
Bergoglio was never seduced by the promises of the liberation theologians. For Christians, salvation comes from Christ, not from re-arranging social structures, and it must conquer death, not merely debt. Christians are called to love the poor, and to learn from the poor. Bergoglio and the other bishops in Latin America have been relentless in questioning and criticizing those who exercise power in ways that marginalize the poor. The criticism of capitalism is trenchant: He called the IMF’s efforts to squeeze interest payments out of a struggling Argentine economy “immoral.” Here, Bergoglio stands in continuity with Benedict whose criticism of modern capitalism never made headlines but was there for anyone who cared to look. Catholicism does not propose any specific economic or political systems, but it must always criticize whatever systems insult human dignity.
(Source: azspot, via affcath)