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Mennonites for Mammon

Old-school Mennonites live and breathe the New Testament. Other Christians should take note.

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The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has a surprising number of pro-choice members. I guess one would be a surprising number but, as of last month, there are two.

The first, Nigel Biggar, was appointed in 2017. Biggar is a former Regius Professor at Oxford and an Anglican. Not only does he support the right to abort up to eighteen weeks: he also approves of same-sex marriage and defends euthanasia. 

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The second, Mariana Mazzucato, was appointed on October 15. Mazzucato is an Italian economist at the University of London and an atheist. In the months leading up to her appointment, she repeatedly denounced the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Mazzucato praised Ana Kasparian when the latter said, “I don’t care that you’re a Christian. I don’t care what the Bible says. I feel like it’s a clown show, sitting here trying to decipher what your little mythical book has to say about these very real political issues.”

Why Biggar was asked to join the Academy is anyone’s guess. (Cough cough.) Mazzucato’s appointment is less mysterious. Pope Francis is a big fan of her book The Value of Everything. “I see thinking that is not ideological,” the Holy Father said, “which moves beyond the polarization of free market capitalism and state socialism, and which has at its heart a concern that all of humanity have access to land, lodging, and labor.”

It sounds like Mazzucato’s economic views have a lot in common with Catholic social teaching. And I’m sure that is (ostensibly) why she was appointed to the Academy.

For conservative Catholics, though, it doesn’t cut the mustard. They say that all members of the Academy should be required to uphold the Church’s unqualified opposition to abortion. And, once upon a time, new appointees had to sign a pledge to just that effect. Archbishop Paglia dropped the pledge in 2017—the same year he appointed Professor Biggar.

Paglia’s defenders would point out that the Academy’s statutes still require members to “promote and defend the principles regarding the value of life and the dignity of the human person interpreted in conformity with the Magisterium of the Church.” Yet the Vatican obviously doesn’t care that much. 

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So, what gives? I can only see two possible explanations. The first is that Paglia & Co. are trying to undermine the Church’s teachings on abortion. Pope Francis is either actively conspiring with them, or he’s some sort of puppet-pontiff. I wouldn’t rule that possibility out, but I do think there’s a more likely explanation.

Francis and his allies adhere to what’s called seamless garment theology. They believe that, in order to be authentically pro-life, Catholics must take a wider view of “life issues.” We must uphold the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death. We must oppose racism, xenophobia, economic inequality, and capital punishment as stridently as we oppose abortion, euthanasia, etc.

According to its founding documents, the Pontifical Academy for Life exists to promote “the study, information and formation on the principal problems of biomedicine and of law, relative to the promotion and defense of life.” If you take the wide, seamless-garment definition of life issues, then Paglia’s inclusion of folks like Mazzucato makes perfect sense.

Yet here’s the thing: whatever else you want to say about this theology, there’s nothing “seamless” about it. Since Paglia took over, it has become a ghoulish hodgepodge of political religions and religious politics. As individuals, its members have nothing in common. Some are conservative; some are progressive; some are centrist. Most members are Catholics, but a few are Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Shinto. At least one of them—our Mariana—doesn’t even believe in God. 

The one thing that unites them is Archbishop Paglia’s opinion that they have staked out some more or less Christian position within their respective “fields of expertise.” He’s chopping off whatever parts he finds useful and trying to stitch them all together as a single worldview. It’s the Frankenstein’s monster of Catholic social teaching. 

Paglia is the Vatican’s official body-snatcher. He has replaced John Paul II’s culture of life with a politics of the undead.

What Christians need is not a patchwork of secular ideologies that, at 40,000 feet, bears a certain resemblance to the Gospel. What we need is… the Gospel. 

That’s why I was sad to learn the Pennsylvania GOP is making an unprecedented bid to win the Mennonite vote in this week’s elections. It’s unprecedented because, traditionally, they don’t vote at all.

Old-school Mennonites live and breathe the New Testament. They are forbidden to bear arms, take oaths, or serve in public office. Many of them, like the Amish, remain totally aloof from the modern world. They live in tight-knit agrarian communities, largely self-sufficient and self-governing. In theory, they can still cast a ballot. They just don’t see the point.

As the Mennonite scholar John D. Roth writes in Plough, “The most powerful seduction of political engagement, particularly in democracies, is the illusion that true power is in Washington.” But that’s not the Christian view. “Christians believe that history is carried forward by the church, not the state,” Roth explains. Any time spent trying to steer the City of Man is better spent building up the Kingdom of God.

That’s going a little too far… but only a little. 

While I’m not ready to shave my moustache, I do love the Amish. I take a huge amount of comfort just knowing they are out there, with their plain speech and simple living. I’m sure I’m not the only one, either. 

People like me—papists who drone on about Wendell Berry and the Benedict Option—get slapped with the label “Catholic Amish”. I wish I could live up to it. I hope someday I can. Those old-school Mennonites embody St. Benedict’s rule of ora et labora, work and prayer. They take seriously Paul’s injunction to “live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we charged you; so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.”

The Amish are also the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, despite making zero effort to evangelize. Why? Because they are extremely fertile. Their population grew almost 180 percent between 1992 and 2000. Meanwhile, the Catholic population increased about 16 percent in the same timeframe, thanks only to immigration from South America. The Catholic Church is now declining while the Amish continue to boom.

Of course, religion is not a numbers game. Having lots of kids doesn’t exempt you from the Great Commission, either. All Christians are called to “make disciples of all nations”—not so we can call shots, but so we can save souls. The Amish don’t do that. Then again, neither do Catholics.

In the Book of Jeremiah, God says to Israel:

Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

That’s what the Mennonites do best. In fact, it’s all they do. They work and they pray. They have big families. They seek peace. 

This ordinary witness by everyday Christians is worth more than all the economists in the world—and most of the archbishops.

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