Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Leisurely Ramble through the Comboxes and "The Posting That Failed"

My return to blogging and my decision to write about the threat to the Church from the theological and political right wing were both occasioned by my growing awareness of the extensive right-wing Catholic blogosphere. Within this category, I have recently had occasion to discover a little clutch of interconnected blogs which chronicle the goings-on, or imagined goings-on, within the Archdiocese of Boston. All of these display a strong animus toward the Archbishop himself, Seán Cardinal O'Malley (who has a blog of his own, by the way), and number of other archdiocesan officials, especially Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, currently the Cardinal's Secretary for Health and Social Services, and Fr. Richard Erikson, currently the Vicar General. Indeed, one of this clutch of blogs is dedicated exclusively to "exposing" Fr. Hehir.
Other targets of these bloggers' indignation and scorn are a long list of Catholic organizations and institutions, some of them ostensibly on the same side of controversial issues involving Church and state as the bloggers themselves. On this list, for example, are certain pro-life organizations, like Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the National Right to Life Committee, which some of the bloggers have decided are insufficiently rigorous or orthodox. And some of the people who post comments to these blogs are even more particular about the fellow Catholics they are willing to associate with than the bloggers themselves.
Recently, for example, when someone for MCFL dropped the name of Fr. Frank A. Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life, a "Throw the Bums Out in 2010" combox poster calling himself "Jerry B." wrote to hurl this double anathema: "1) Fr. P. promotes the heresy that babies who die in Original Sin yet enter Heaven. 2) Fr. endorses blood-communion with the drippings of murdered babies, otherwise known as vaccination." Now, while I must admit that I do not understand the vaccination reference in point #2, I do recognize the position on unbaptized infants in point #1. The problem here is that Fr. Pavone, if he does indeed incline to take a lenient view of the matter, happens to be in good company -- so does His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who is, apparently, not quite Catholic enough for Jerry B. If you doubt me, you an look it up here and in several other places you can find by doing a little creative Googling.
When I said I recognize the position expressed in point #1, I meant that I recognize it from certain specific sources, namely those which claim that the present Pope is heretical on this and (in some instances) a large number of other topics and thus cannot be a legitimate holder of his office. Thus, they hold a position with regard to the Pope which is remarkably parallel with that of the "Birthers" toward President Barack Obama. Remarkable, isn't it, how much religious and political rightist extremisms seem to have in common!
This is not the only instance in which the voices in the blogs and their comboxes have come perilously close to Sedevacantism. Usually, to be sure, they never come right out and say that the pope is either illegitimate or grossly incompetent, but often that is the clear implication. For example, the unremitting blanket criticism of the American hierarchy to be found in some of these blogs can only be an indirect criticism of the present Pope and his immediate predecessor. Given the length of John Paul II's reign, very few of the currently serving American bishops can have been appointed by John XXIII or Paul VI, two Popes of whom the right wing is often openly contemptuous. So in spite of a commonly expressed admiration for John Paul II and a piously professed allegiance to Benedict XVI, the implication is that both pontiffs were too dull or busy to notice the heretical and morally derelict tendencies of the men they appointed, or that they approved of and shared these tendencies themselves. The latter possibility is exactly what people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who would like to have the Pope arrested in Britain and tried in the Hague, would maintain to have been the case. Does the Catholic right wing really want to ally itself to these characters? (By the way, please pray for poor Hitch, who has a very serious case of cancer. Even he feels that he is not long for this world.)
But the extremist tone of much of what appears in the comboxes may not be there entirely at random. As the television pundits have found out, featuring extremists who agree with them is good for ratings and keeps the excitement of their regular followers at a high level, while faturing extremists from the other side helps to establish a caricature of their views as representing all of them in the public mind and keeps the indignation of their followers at a fever pitch. In the political realm, the media on the left, like MSNBC, have been playing this game with the likes of Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, both of whom can be counted on to make statements which lead everyone but their greatest enthusiasts to question whether they are living in the real world.
I have recently had some personal experience of this tactic. After having explored the comments posted on a couple of the Boston blogs that had caught my attention, I concluded that these comments were either in close agreement with the positions of the blogger or, if in disagreement, so extreme, vituperative, unreasonable, ignorant, and at times obscene that they destroyed the credibility of their side of the argument. So I decided on a little experiment. Not a scientific experiment, nothing I would want to submit in an article to The New England Journal of Religious Pathology, yet none the less good enough for here. So I submitted two comments to the same moderated combox within minutes of one another. The first was a short, slightly snarky post criticizing the weak Latin of another commentator who had chosen to call herself "tantamergo." Within a reasonable time that comment appeared on the blog. my second contribution. reproduced below was much longer and more serious and addressed itself, in an unmistakably critical, yet reasonable and polite tone, I thought, to my difficulties with the tenor and intent of the anti-hierarchical blogs which I was just then discovering. This contribution has yet to make it past the moderator and onto the blog. I thought that perhaps, to complete the experiment, I should have written a third submission expressing the same objection but vituperative, abusive, and laced with deletable expletives, just to see if that would make it through the moderator's screening be posted because it would have been a self-discrediting verbal tantrum. But, alas, I simply do not have it in me to write that sort of thing, even anonymously. I suspect, however, based on other reactions allowed to appear in connection with earlier topics, that it might well have appeared.
Whatever the case may be, I have decided that it does, in fact, have merit, and I am posting it below for the record and to get it off my chest. (The piece in its original form was too long to be uploaded, so I cut the two sections printed below in brackets [...]. So here it is:

"The Bishops vs. Catholic Faithful (The Second Inning)" -- the title of this posting expresses what is so deeply wrong about your understanding of the Church and how it functions. The Church is not some kind of mobocracy in which a populist uprising can topple the government. It is not even an orderly democracy (as theological conservatives were once at great pains to tell us) in which the people get to "throw the bums out" periodically through free and fair elections. The Church is hierarchical.

Trying to apply the norms and methods of American secular politics to the Church, as you seem to do, is, on the face of it, profoundly non-Catholic, and shows exactly how deeply secular assumptions and instincts have tinctured the minds even of those who might think of themselves as the defenders of some kind of old-fashioned, "real Catholicism."

There is no justification in the traditions of the Church for its members to "take the law into their own hands" in the manner of secular revolutionaries, however just their grievances. Those who have attempted this in the past are known as Protestants and schismatics and have harmed, rather than built up, the unity of the Church.

[For the Catholic "faithful" (as a whole) to be "versus the Bishops,"(as a body) -- which is very different from an individual Catholic's being in conflict with a particular bishop over a specific issue -- would have been unthinkable to our "faithful" Catholic ancestors. The resolution of particular conflicts with particular bishops is possible within the structures of the hierarchical Church as regulated by Canon Law and papal decrees.]

I find the uncharitable tone and apparent intent of this blog (to somehow weaken people's loyalty and respect for the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, toward whom the Pope has recently given renewed evidence of his confidence through his appointment as a visitor to the Church in Dublin) repugnant to a Catholic mind and sensibility. It would be better for the Church, I think, were it to be discontinued.

[Finally, the phrase "The Second Inning" reveals an understanding of conflict within the Church as a kind of game, an understanding which is, considering the gravity of what is at stake, completely inappropriate. The life of the Church is not a game, and its phases are measured in eras and ages, not "innings."]

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

How Times Have Changed!

Four years or so ago, when I established this blog and briefly continued to write for it, the most significant threats to the well-being and unity of the Catholic Church in the United States seemed to be coming from people who had misinterpreted the Second Vatican Council as permitting them, if not indeed encouraging them, to adapt the cultural style and teachings of the Church to the norms of American culture. This "inculturation" meant, in effect, a movement to Protestantize and even to some extent to secularize American Catholics' ways of belief and practice. The powerful appeal of this project to many American Catholics came mainly from two sources: (1) a deeply rooted sense of the superiority of "the American Way of Life," including the principles of the U. S. Constitution, over all others; (2) a misguided notion that loyalty to the Church in the wake of the Council meant a wholesale abandonment of old ways and an unquestioning adoption of the new.
In the absence of a clear idea of what was "reformable" in the Church and what was not, everything could seem equally up for grabs. If one was no longer obliged to abstain from eating meat on Fridays, then why bother any longer to go to Confession on Saturdays, which had always been even more of a drag? Furthermore, if aggiornamento meant that any given facet of the Church's life could be "updated," then why not change or eliminate those things about the Church which made her seem most foreign because they had no spontaneous appeal to American cultural sensibilities?
The almost instantaneous emergence of the "folk Mass" in the mid-to-late sixties and the continuation of the trend that it set even up to the present in many American parishes illustrates well the effect of the two influences mentioned above. Ironically, as I remember it, some of the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents of the "folk" approach to liturgical music had not too long before been among those most devoted to the cultivation of Gregorian Chant. The reason was that the chant had been important to the reform-minded liturgists in the decades leading up to the Council; many of the same people after the council, strongly under the influence both of its "pastoral" emphasis and of the contemporaneous burgeoning of a "folk" music associated with the promotion of social justice and resistance to the Vietnam War, found almost irresistible a new style of music which appealed to young people even as it expressed strong moral commitments on issues such as civil rights and peace.
In any case, the real threat to the Church in America seemed to me four years ago to be coming from groups like "Call to Action" and ideas like Robert Blair Kaiser's notion of an American "autochthonous church." Then, through various random circumstances, I started paying more attention to the opposite side of the spectrum of ecclesial opinion -- the so-called "conservative" side. And what I found there seemed, as time went by, just as extreme, just as mistaken, and just as alarming. In fact, it appeared to me that as the tactics and rhetoric of the American political Right became increasingly unrestrained by standards of truthfulness and fairness, so too did those of the ecclesiastical Right (involving, in many cases, the very same people).
There has even developed within the Church a rough equivalent of the political "Tea Party" movement, a kind of raucous populism that has had enough of the hierarchy and is not going to take it any more. Examples of this phenomenon can be found on Carol McKinley's blog "Throw the Bums Out in 2010," and the blogs it links to. In spite of a title which seems to allude to this year's mid-term elections, this blog is actually taken up almost exclusively with the affairs of the Archdiocese of Boston and with secular politics only in so far as they intersect with ecclesiastical concerns, such as in opposition to abortion. And it is almost completely devoted to discrediting the cardinal archbishop, the archdiocesan administration, and many of the institutions within the archdiocese. It is also not particularly enthusiastic about the rest of the American ecclesiastical establishment, especially as represented and governed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (hereinafter the USCCB). In this it follows in the footsteps of the man who appears to be its principal theological mentor, frequently linked to or embedded in various like-minded blogs, Michael Voris, S. T. B., once of "St. Michael's Media," now of "Real Catholic TV."
Less populist in style and more professionally polished in his delivery of his views, Mr. Voris seems to share with Ms. McKinley two important things: the conviction that it is a mortal sin for Catholics to vote for most non-Republicans and the same interpretation of recent Church history. What it means to vote almost exclusively for Republicans is something I will let my readers discover for themselves -- it is all there in the public record. But the shared metanarrative concerning the course of Church history since Pius XII is something less obvious to the untrained eye and less generally accessible outside any source not already controlled by it.
The master idea behind this metanarrative is that the Catholic Church and most of its established institutions (i.e., its religious orders, schools, official liturgy, and major publicatons) have been hijacked by people acting, wittingly or unwittingly, according to the plans of the Forces of Darkness, and hence must be reclaimed or rescued by the Forces of Light, which happily include the likes of Mr. Voris, Ms. McKinley, and most of those ordinary folks in the pews. Some of the specific complaints which these people raise, such as that run-of-the-mill catechesis since the Seventies has been insipid and often barely Catholic seem justified and would meet with widespread agreement. But the overarching metanarrative seems unnecessary as a way of accounting for this and all the other specific sources of discontent with recent Catholic practices and attitudes in the United States and elsewhere.
On the one hand, this metanarrative is an easy extrapolation from the Biblical and traditional account of universal history as the titanic struggle of Satan versus God. Rejecting it therefore can be make to look like a rejection of the whole framework of Salvation History. On the other hand, a rejection of it is not necessarily a rejection of the underlying reality of history as a struggle between good and evil; it could rather be merely the rejection of a too confident assignment of roles in this struggle to particular historical figures and movements. Few would quarrel with the giving Hitler and Stalin, or Simon Magus and Alexander VI for that matter, stations in the ranks of the Powers of Darkness. But Father Joseph Gelineau and Archbishop Annibale Bugnini? One hesitates. Especially in an era superabounding in nonsensical conspiracy theories, the reasonable person with a concern for truth and justice can only resist giving easy credence to what seems nothing but another clutch of such theories.
In subsequent postings to this blog I hope to explore further this topic of the threat to the good estate of the Church from some of those on its theological and political right wing.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Spiritual Modesty

The genesis of this entry goes all the way back to some time around 1970, when a middle-aged priest of my acquaintance went off to make his annual retreat at some place far away and exotic, foreign and outré, somewhwere, as we used to say, “west of Dedham.” As soon as he came back it was clear to everyone who knew him that whatever had happened on that retreat had been a transformative experience. He took to wearing jeans and a cowboy hat and to pronouncing the name of Jesus as though it had three syllables: “Je-yeez-us.”

He had also developed the need to “testify,” as he called it, to all the wonderful things this Person whose name had just picked up an extra syllable was doing in his life. He punctuated this stream of highly personal testimony with hearty “thank you’s.” This was a man who had been celebrating Mass, the great “thank you” of the Church, every day for at least twenty years. But somehow that was no longer quite adequate. His personal gratitude and the gratitude of the Church had parted company and could no longer be expressed in the same act, unaccompanied by the intimate details of the reasons for his gratitude. I could hardly bear to be in his company.

My adverse reaction to his enthusiasm (in the sense close to that of the word as used in Ronald Knox’s book title) led me to question why I was so uncomfortable with the novel turn in this man’s behavior. Was it simply that I had not experienced a similar “conversion’ — that I had somehow never welcomed Him-of-the-Three-Syllabled-Name into my life as my very own personal savior? Was it perhaps just a cultural thing, that I merely felt the typical north-easterner’s loathing for the “Country-and-Western” style? What I realized in the course of my self-examination was that a certain attitude toward openly and publicly manifesting the state of my soul and its relationship to God had been instilled in me by my mother, a Quebecoise with a slight tinge of Jansenism in her religiosity. This attitude she called “spiritual modesty.”

But this attitude was not just a peculiarity of hers or of the Grand Seminaire training of her spiritual mentors. My childhood pastor and confessor spoke of it, as did two of my later spiritual directors (both Irish-Americans and so perhaps also not unaffected by the same heresy). Indeed, the principle of “spiritual modesty” seemed very much in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy and the tone of the kind of piety nourished on it. Growing up Catholic, I had taken these qualities for granted. Challenged with the display of their opposites by my priest-friend in the cowboy hat, I began to reflect on them explicitly and to appreciate them anew, and in the course of this reflection, I reached some conclusions.

The first was that Jesus can be my personal savior only because he is the Christ, the Savior of the World. It is only the absolute objectivity of this truth which is able, so to speak, to guarantee the genuinity of my personal experience of a relationship with Him. The second conclusion follows: that although the details of this relationship are of immense importance to me and, I dare say, to Him as well, in some mysterious way that passes understanding and is accessible only to faith, it is of importance to others only in so far as it is the wellspring of my attitudes and actions toward them. Which leads me to my third conclusion, namely, that words are cheap, but actions, especially habitual actions, are not. They are a way of spending, and so of expending, our present finite lives. They cost us, in the end, everything, and this cost is woven as a thread into the objective order of the universe.

Our acts, once performed, are unalterable and make a permanent difference both to us and to the world. But the difference they make to us can only be expressed in a limited and imperfect way and is, ultimately, of little importance; it is the difference they make to the world that matters. The emotional restraint and objectivity of liturgical prayer seem to reinforce and affirm these truths in the midst of a culture in which every little individual is constantly being tempted to act as though he himself is of primary and ultimate importance. The liturgy reminds us that our individual significance, a reality whose greatness we ourselves cannot begin to estimate, is derived from our having been created and redeemed and sanctified by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is in the light of this realization that “spiritual modesty,” a kind of habitual reticence about the details of one’s own personal relation to this mystery, seems a virtue indeed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Americanismus Redivivus

Depending upon the sources you consult and your own ideological proclivities, “Americanism” was either a dangerous heretical tendency among certain members of the hierarchy and clergy of late 19th-century Church in the United States or a figment of the overheated imaginations of certain reactionary European ecclesiasts. In any case, once Leo XIII had been persuaded enough of its reality to issue Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae in January, 1899, whatever of such a movement had actually ever existed disappeared deep underground, and American Catholicism was already on the way to earning its mid-century reputation for unswerving loyalty to the Papacy and unquestionable orthodoxy in doctrine.

But quite apart from the historical status of any movement espousing the tendencies and ideas condemned in the 1899 encyclical, the underlying fear that American Catholics might allow certain premises of their secular culture eventually to infiltrate their understanding of their religion has proven, in the long run, not to have been entirely baseless. Much of the American way of attempting to implement the decrees of the Second Vatican Council seems best explained by the resurfacing of a “Americanist” vein in this country’s Catholicism. It was as though, after the strain of a long-sustained effort to maintain attitudes in religious matters which were becoming increasingly foreign to our other habits of mind and heart as fully assimilated Americans, the promulgation of the council's decrees finally allowed us to relax into our native and more natural modes of thought and behavior.

A survey of self-identified Catholics undertaken three years ago on behalf of the Boston Globe, though methodologically flawed, as the Catholic Action League’s C. J. Doyle has pointed out, nonetheless squares with what I have found in my own conversations with “cradle Catholics” in the same area of the country in which the survey was conducted. To quote from the League’s own refutation of the study:
That survey reported that overwhelming majorities of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston reject Catholic teaching on abortion, contraception, and homosexual sodomy, and favor the ordination of women, married men, and homosexuals to the priesthood. It also claims that 39% of Catholics want a schismatic American Church.
This is the current list of public opinion preferences, presumed by the sponsors of the survey to constitute an ecclesiastical vox pop, usually refered to as the sensus fidelium by those anxious to throw over it some veil of theological legitimacy. To the secular media, the hierarchy's unwillingness to accede to these preferences is yet another sign of how "out of touch" it is with the people in the pews, although there is a good deal of evidence that many of those who self-identify as Catholics and yet hold these opinions have long ago deserted the pews.

It is the notion that the opinions and "beliefs" of such people should somehow be normative for the Church that smacks of the kind of "Americanism" condemned a little over a century ago. Underlying this notion are two typically American, but not typically Catholic, assumptions: first, that all legitimate authority is derived from the consent of the governed, so that "policies" (and it is significant how often Church doctrines are so called in the media) should reflect the current opinions of those over whom authority is exercised; second, that moral progress is just as inevitable as material progress, and that the American people are at the sprearhead of such progress. (A good deal of United States foreign policy seems, at the moment, to be premised on the latter assumption.)

"Americanism" in this sense may or may not have been a widespread problem among Catholics in this country around 1899. There can be no doubting that it is a widespread problem here and now.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Heading Down the Old Schism Trail

In an earlier blog entry I expressed my belief that the Catholic Church in the United States is likely to face increasing harrassment from the media, hostile interest groups and organizations, and eventually government, at least at the state level, which could in time even amount to what might be characterized as a mild persecution. A good deal of this is likely to be led by persons who were once Catholics themselves and now feel, for various reasons, angry and hostile toward the institution whose teachings they have come to reject. But the Church in this country should perhaps also steel itself against a second, distinct though related threat: a formal schismatic movement on the part of people who will maintain that they are still faithful Catholics — indeed, that they represent "true" American Catholicism.

I am inclined to agree with those who have maintained over the last few years that there is already a de facto schism in the Church in this country, but one which has been resisting the temptation to formalize itself and even refutes any attempt to point out that it exists. This informal schism that dare not speak its name, often flying the false flag of "fidelity to the spirit of Vatican II," is centered in the groups belonging to the coalition called "Catholic Organizations for Renewal." Whether in fact this "coalition" consists of anything more than a Web site full of links, some of them dead, is not at all evident; but the organizations listed, including both US and Canadian branches of Frances Kissling's "Catholics for a Free Choice,"
— a rogues' gallery indeed! — pretty much define the contours and the content of the general movement I have in mind.

Over the last several months, even in the secular press, there have been ever more frequent references (most recently in connection with the gay adoption flap) about the possibility of "catholic" institutions or agencies without the capital "C," or about the fact that "American Catholics" are not just Catholic Americans, but rather constitute a special breed, apart from and to a great extent opposed to "Roman" Catholics, that is, those who remain loyal to such distant, oblivious, anachronistic, and irrelevant figures as the Pope and his power-hungry (indeed, probably crypto-fascist) Vatican. I wish that what I have just written were a caricature, but I am afraid that it is not.

Now comes Robert Blair Kaiser, who began his career as a Jesuit scholastic with a somewhat different name, then left the Society and changed his handle at around the time he became Time magazine's man in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. In this capacity, Kaiser was, perhaps, after the pseudonymous "Xavier Rynne," the person most responsible for the popular impression of the Second Vatican Council as a titanic political struggle for control of the Church between "Liberals" (cheers) and "Conservatives" (boos). Presently he seems to be making a rather desperate bid to re-launch himself yet again as the catalyst for the formation of something he describes as an "autochthonous" Catholic church in America.
(The term "autochthonous" is derived from Greek roots meaning "pertaining to or derived from one's own soil; indigenous, native.") Or perhaps he is really only trying to flog his recently (14 March 2006) published book, A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future (Knopf, $25.950).

That title gives away the general tone of what is going on here,
which is an extension of the "good guys vs. bad guys" version of church politics which he helped to establish as a cliché forty years ago. It would be easy to dismiss it as dated and almost silly except that it has gained wide popular currency and is supported by a certain number of people (whose names Kaiser loves to drop) who are taken for intelligent and inflential. Hence, I am afraid that the sort of thinking that Kaiser's notions represent may have very serious implications for the future of the Church in the United States and for the unity of the Church universal. (Anyone inclined to doubt this might perhaps check out the text of an e-mail that Kaiser posted this March 27 to a Yahoo group he had formed for ex-Jesuits in 2002.)

What Kaiser seems to be promoting under cover of the word "autochthonous" is an American branch of the Catholic Church remodeled along the lines suggested by the constitutional forms and prevalent cultural norms of the United States and whose relation to the See of Rome would be analogous to that of the Eastern Rites, which are also sometimes described as "autochthonous" churches (although I think the term is much more usually applied to those larger, parallel religious bodies not in communion with Rome). This notion reflects an increasingly common idea among Catholic Americans that what is wrong with the universal Church is that it is not sufficiently in harmony with
contemporary American values, attitudes, and ways of doing things. This, it seems to me, is a sure-fire formula for schism. (Those with firm faith, steady nerves, and a nagging curiosity about what Kaiser and his associates are really up to might want to take a look at this Web site they have recently put up.)

Indeed, what Kaiser seems blithely to overlook is that most of these historically "autochthonous" churches were rooted in ancient, geographically distant and genetically distinct cultures and that for a long time they fell out of touch with one another and out of communion with Rome. In fact, the present Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church are for the most part minority groups from within these ancient Churches which at various times and for various reasons
once again acknowledged the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while at the same time the majorities in their ecclesial communities remained separated, often bitterly so. Thus, the actual history of "autochthonous" churches, from the perspective of Church unity, is not a happy one.

But the idea that the "American Catholic Church" has become so significantly different from the "Roman Catholic" — and potentially so superior to it in its modernity of thought and degree of popular appeal — that it could and should rightfully claim a kind of special autonomy has become
widespread, it seems to me, at least in those parts of this country where the bulk of the Catholic population is thoroughly Americanized. It has certainly emerged with increasing frequency in my own private conversations with "cradle" Catholics in the northeastern United States. It often takes the form of assuming that the fundamental political principles enshrined in America's founding documents are so self-evident and axiomatic that they must always trump the doctrines and practices of the universal Church in situations of apparent conflict. This is another way of saying that these people are now more certain of their political convictions than of their religious beliefs.

At the moment the conflict of this sort most frequently cited is that between popular notions of the equality of the sexes and the Church's insistence that it cannot ordain women to Holy Orders. But usually discussion of this or other disharmonies between "American" and "Catholic" principles leads quickly to the question of the hierarchical structure of the Church. (The newly annointed King James I dimly perceived the problem when, explaining why he had no intention of introducing his Scottish presbyterian church policy into England, he uttered the famous maxim, "No bishop, no king." I wonder if he realized that it also perhaps works the other way around: No king, no bishop.) What is at stake, ultimately, in the very nature of the sacramental institution/community which Christ left behind him as the ordinary means of salvation.

[More on this topic next week.]

Sunday, March 19, 2006

No Room in Either Political Inn

If the New York Times can be believed (and once in a while it can be), the latest call for stripping the Catholic Church of its tax exemption comes, not from the ACLU or any other of the usual suspects, but from two "conservative" commentators, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs. This may shock some people who have accepted the notion that political conservatives, and specifically the Republican Party, are the Church's natural allies and most reliable supporters in the public square. Such people have somehow managed to overlook the fact that, going all the way back to the days of "Mater Si, Magistra No" (usually attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to William F. Buckley, Jr.) American political conservatives have found a great deal of the Church's teaching, especially on social and economic matters, but also on the sanctity of life, to be completely unacceptable. Having fixated on the abortion issue as if it were the only one that counts, many faithful Catholics have been willing to overlook the extent to which American political conservatives, while paying lip-service to the Church's opposition to the slaughter of the unborn, have rejected its teachings on a great many other issues, some 0f which, if heeded, might contribute indirectly to a reduction in the number of abortions actually performed by making the future prospects of those unborn less unrelievedly grim.

Obviously, candidates for public office who are openly and enthusiastically in favor of abortion should not enjoy the support of Catholics. But neither should professed anti-abortion candidates who are open and enthusiastic supporters of frequently applied capital punishment, premptive and unjust warfare, legalized violations of human rights (like torture and indefinite detention without trial), and the unjust exploitation of the labor of the desperately poor. If it is indeed true that, in the Church, "the cafeteria is closed," then it also should be clear that the liberals are not the only ones who can no longer enjoy an entirely free choice of entrée. At this point in the discussion it is usually objected that the evil of abortion far outweighs the other evils which some conservatives are willing to tolerate or even to promote. Yet, on the basis of traditional Catholic moral teaching, it is far from clear exactly how this kind of calculus of wickedness can be undertaken.

We believe that the lives of all persons, born and unborn, are equally precious in the sight of God and have an equally inviolable right to exist; that each person is, indeed, of incalculable value and the object of an infinite love; that each is in himself alone worth the whole redemptive sacrifice of Christ; and that, finally, each and every person, from conception forward, must be treated as a subject and not as an object, as an end and not as a means. But if all this is true, then the moral weight of the Church's teaching on war and the various applications of justice must be valued as highly, when it comes to the formation of our political judgments and strategies, as that on abortion. We are perhaps less certain of the precise number of lives needlessly and sinfully sacrificed, directly or indirectly, during the last fifty years due to policies of aggression and greed promoted by the political right than we are of the number of those who have fallen victim to the license to abort so dear the political left. But that does not matter. The value of the human lives for which we are responsible and the evil of policies that permit them to be snuffed out when they get in our way cannot be toted up by means of simple arithmetic.

The fact is that neither American political party has room under its roof for those who adhere to the entire moral teaching of the Catholic Church. The Democrats, in trying to reconstitute themselves as a coalition of downtrodden minorities, especially in the 'seventies and early 'eighties of the last century, managed to alienate from themselves the sympathies of the broad immigrant working-class majority, much of it Catholic, which often regarded these minorities with a mixture of fear and loathing. Then, by accepting the claims of sub-cultural and life-style groupings as being essentially of the same kind and dignity as those earlier asserted by racial minorities, they committed the party to a number of positions to which Catholics and others rooted in the moral and cultural tradition of the West could not subscribe.

In the meantime, however, the Republican party has also transformed itself in ways which put it out of touch with the small-town, middle-class, somewhat isolationist conservatism which had once characterized the bulk of its popular support. Judged on the basis of the policies pursued by the present administration, it is sometimes difficult to see what it is that these self-styled "conservatives" are trying to conserve. The ever larger and more intrusive role of government, the assault on traditional civil liberties and constitutional guarantees, the unprecedented federal deficits, the unilateralism and foreign interventionism -- these do not seem to reflect classic conservative values. Nor do they, in many cases, reflect classic Christian values.

Of course, American politicians who claim to be conservative and who court the support of traditionally Catholic segments of the population have learned to make all the right noises, especially about issues that center around the family. But one is sometimes tempted to think that they can afford to do so precisely because these things have very little to do with what really seems to matter most to them, namely, the unbounded increase of their own wealth. Concerning those things which do really matter to plutocrats, they have shown themselves remarkably capable of moving mountains and getting things done. But, let's face it: the Republicans have been in charge of the executive branch for 26 out of the last 40 years, and all but two of the sitting justices of the Supreme Court are their appointees. Considering this, why has not more real progress been made by them in the fight against the abortion license? Of course, if the precedent of Roe v. Wade actually were to be overturned, the Republicans would thereby lose a valuable political asset.

However uncomfortable the realization, I think American Catholics must come to see that there really is no room for them, as Catholics, in the American political inn, no matter whether the innkeeper at any particular time be a Democrat or a Republican, a political liberal or a political conservative. For the time being, the Republican innkeepers have let us bed down in the equivalent of the manger, and this has let us entertain the illusion that we have found a home. But being allowed to lie down on someone else's straw has its price -- a price of which people like Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs are happy to remind us. The revocation of the Church's tax exempt status would put us on a very short route back into the catacombs, shorter even than the cumulative effect of seemingly endless tort judgments. (Just imagine the annual bill arriving at the New York chancery for the taxes on St. Patrick's cathedral!) Indeed, one might even conclude that we have here no lasting dwelling.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The First Step in a Long Withdrawal

On February 17, I posted the following in response to a comment by Deacon John M. Bresnahan to an item on about the unwillingness of Massachusetts authorities to grant Catholic Charities an exemption to the Commonwealth's anti-discrimination policies:
Let me put in a word of support for the view of Deacon Bresnahan. The Church should continue both to try to do good and to refuse to do evil, then let the chips fall where they may. This is no less than Catholic moral teaching requires every human being to do and the Church itself must provide a model of such behavior. Demonstratively withdrawing from the “social service” field (i.e., the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy) would be a spiteful step contrary to charity. If, on the other hand, the State forces the Church out of these fields, the Church should accept this development with regret, but also ultimately with equanimity—even while urging good Catholic families to extend themselves in charity to provide adoptive and foster families for children in need. Catholic families, in their private capacity, may well be able to do more good than the Church as an institution can any longer do. The main thing is to regard charity as the ultimate norm in meeting whatever challenges the State throws at us.

As this posting attests, I would have preferred that Catholic Charities just calmly go about its business, quietly neglecting to place children with same-sex couples, until someone else made an issue of this and tried to put them out of business. In that case more of the public odium would have fallen where it belongs -- on those to whom it is more important that the Church not be allowed to act according to its beliefs than that further hundreds of needy children be placed in fine and loving normal families. A week after the posting, it is clear that the Church in Boston has chosen the option of making Catholic Charities withdraw from its long- established work as an adoption agency. In this way it does indeed avoid doing evil, and may still, in some way which is not yet clear, continue doing the good which mediating adoptions has allowed it to do for the last 103 years to children needing homes. As has been pointed out, the reason the Church got into this work in the first place was to see to it that Catholic orphans would be placed with Catholic families and be brought up in the faith. In other words, it was aimed primarily at insuring the spiritual welfare of the children it placed and only secondarily at their material security, which could have been provided for equally well by other agencies. This historical background should certainly be kept in mind in any consideration of the appropriateness of the Archdiocese's decision in the face of a choice imposed upon it by an unyeilding civil regime. This decision is indeed "sad," as people have been saying, but it was also inevitable, as people have not been saying.

An unsentimental analysis of the current official positions of the Catholic Church and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts makes clear that they are irreconcilably opposed to one another on any number of important issues and that the number and intensity of these differences is likely to grow in the coming years. The fact that a large number of elected and appointed office-holders in the governmental structure of the state are thoroughly secularized Catholics, often carrying a considerable baggage of guilt and resentment, is an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor in this clash because it has meant that these people have at times attempted to use public power to coerce the Church into adopting their notions of ecclesiastical reform, almost all of which involve "democratization" of the local church and defiance of Papal teaching and discipline -- in other words, the de-naturing of the Church. So the question has for some time been not whether the Church and the Commonwealth would come into open conflict, but rather only when and how that conflict would be precipitated.

The Massachusetts dioceses' announcement of their unwillingness to continue in their traditional role as adoption agencies enjoying subsidies from the state under the conditions imposed by the state has allowed them to sidestep the blow that was directed at them by the Church's internal and external enemies. This maneuver may buy them a little time. It may also be merely the first of a long series of such strategic withdrawals from direct involvement in quasi-public functions. But even such strategems cannot forever stave off the inevitable conflict over fundamental beliefs and values, one which could cost the Catholic Church in Massachusetts (and also possibly, because no state is a legal island, throughout the United States) its tax-exemption, its material assets, its social respectability, and a good deal of its membership. (On that last point, to gain some idea of the public mood around Boston, take a look at the opinions expressed on this Boston Globe-administered Website.)

The Church is already vulnerable on a number of fronts (as an employer, as the proprietor of healthcare facilities, as an educator, and as a provider of religious "services" -- especially of the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, and Matrimony) to demands by the state that it comply with legally enshrined norms of secularist morality, and it will probably be made more so by laws likely to be enacted in the next few years. We have already seen such laws introduced in various state legislatures across the country, and we should not let their defeat lead us to suppose that we have seen the last of them or that those who sponsored them are going to accept defeat. What we have seen is the beginning, not the end, of a campaign by the enemies of the Church (and of religion in general) to make the Church's open practice of the faith which it preaches ever more difficult. And in every instance, you can be sure, the steps in this campaign will be carried out under the sanctimonious slogans of "equality before the law," "protection of the vulnerable," and "freedom of choice."

Faithful Catholics should therefore brace themselves against these developments and consider now, not when the full-blown crisis has already engulfed them, what their stance will be, what kinds of tactics they will chose, and by what means they will try to maintain the practice of their faith under the conditions of mild persecution they may well be called upon to endure.