Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Catholics in the News: Don't Look Now, But It's about the Money

Significant news stories are breaking in the Catholic world so fast these days, it’s hard to keep up with them. I want to follow the posting I made earlier today about the recent Vatican attempt to blame gay priests (again) for the clerical sexual abuse crisis with one that provides links to a number of other recent stories I’m recommending to readers.

The first significant piece is Jason Berry’s commentary on the “Maciel problem” in the Hartford Courant earlier this week (and see here). My colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker reported on this story yesterday at her Enlightened Catholicism blog.

As I’ve noted in previous commentary, Marcial Maciel, a Spanish priest who founded the influential Catholic religious order the Legionaries of Christ, was removed as head of his order when Benedict became pope, after the Vatican decided that years of allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians by Maciel were credible. It was subsequently discovered that Maciel had also fathered several children by women he supported with his community’s funds. (Follow the labels “Marcial Maciel” and “Legionaries of Christ” at the preceding link, if you want more of my commentary on this story.)

Despite the allegations of abuse, Maciel and his Legionaries appeared untouchable during John Paul II’s papacy, because John Paul protected and promoted this cultic right-wing religious group. The Legionaries are also very well-connected financially and politically. In the United States, they have strong ties to wealthy conservative Catholics, whom the secretive order deliberately cultivates for its lay group Regnum Christi.

Berry argues that the Legionaries remain a serious challenge for Benedict’s papacy because he began his papacy decrying moral relativism in the church. In Berry’s view, Benedict’s papacy moves between two poles, one an absolutist pole that consistently challenges moral relativism, the other a pastoral pole that grants concessions when these appear appropriate—as when Benedict welcomed the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the church.

Berry argues that Benedict will seriously undermine his authority as pope and his claim to combat moral relativism if he does not assure that the Legionaries are thoroughly investigated now. In particular, he urges that the finances of the Legionaries be thoroughly probed.

Berry’s recent report on the Maciel problem contains information about Maciel’s use of money to woo Vatican insiders that is new to me. He states:

Maciel impressed his priests and seminarians with lavish gifts to favored Vatican officials. Several insiders I've interviewed express regret about checks as high as $10,000 to certain cardinals, Christmas gifts of expensive wines and $1,000 Spanish hams, even a car to one cardinal. They wonder if all that was bribery.

This information goes a long way towards explaining why Maciel received such a sympathetic reception for so long in the Vatican, despite the persistent (and credible) reports of his abuse of seminarians. I strongly agree with Berry’s call for a thorough investigation of how the Legionaries of Christ and groups affiliated with them, including Regnum Christi, have handled financial matters.

One of the most important keys to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, in my view, is the reprehensible way in which Catholic church officials have used money to cover up the abuse story, to pay off and bully survivors with hardball legal tactics, and to secure the cooperation of the media and the criminal justice system whenever possible in the cover-up. The same reprehensible pattern is also emerging now as dioceses like the diocese of Portland, Maine, collect money and use substantial donations from never-identified donors to attack the gay community.

At the heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church—at the heart of the corruption that runs clearly right to the top of the Catholic church—is a story about financial wheeling and dealing that has nothing at all to do with the gospel. Until lay Catholics and other groups apply serious pressure to the church to account for the funds it receives and how these are used, not much is going to change for the better in the Catholic church.

The second story to which I want to draw attention has to do with ongoing discussion of Archbishop Burke's recent visit to the U.S. As I noted last week, Burke used this visit to fire political salvos at the Obama administration and Democrats in general. Among Burke’s recent remarks, his implicit attack on his brother bishop Sean O’Malley of Boston has drawn particular attention. Burke maintains that Catholics who openly support same-sex marriage and/or the right to abortion should not receive Christian burial. This implies that Cardinal O’Malley made a pastorally indefensible decision when he chose to grant Senator Ted Kennedy a Catholic funeral.

Blog threads with postings by Fr. James Martin at America and Cathleen Kaveny at Commonweal have followed up on this discussion. Both have generated extensive discussion. I recommend both discussions for those seeking a feel for where the Catholic center is right now on issues like these. (Hint: it still enfolds more folks from the right than the left, though people like Burke are nudging the discussion a tiny bit to the left. Neocons welcome; progressives, not so much.)

I’m struck, in particular, by a comment of one respondent, Jack M., on the America thread, which closely parallels my own argument that Burke and other right-wing American Catholics are undermining the pro-life cause by linking it to attacks on their gay brothers and sisters. Jack M. writes,

I am disappointed in moral equivalency implied in Burke's statement “the inviolability of innocent human life or the integrity of the marital union.” How is a politician who supports civil rights (emphasis on civil) for gay people, i.e. gay marriage, committing a grave violation of moral law? Even if it is “grave” it is certainly not nearly as grave as the taking of innocent life, right? Where is the confusion that a Catholic politician might foster if he or she supports civil, legal protections for same-sex couples? Seems to me pretty clear - civil union/civil marriage is something very different from sacramental marriage. The staunch pro-lifers in the Church are offended when people try to equate other social evils like war and poverty with abortion. Isn't Burke doing the same thing when he lumps gay rights with abortion?

Another commentator who has jumped into the fray re: Burke’s implicit attack on Cardinal O’Malley is Fr. Richard McBrien, who published a piece at National Catholic Reporter two days ago arguing that Burke’s attack on a stalwart anti-abortion figure like O’Malley is proving to be a felix culpa, a “happy fault.” In McBrien’s view, the venom demonstrated by Burke and his supporters in going after O’Malley is creating a teachable moment in American Catholicism, in which we are seeing—just as we saw when Notre Dame invited President Obama to give its commencement address this spring—how extreme the Catholic right has become. And how little interested in authentic Catholic values, as opposed to scoring political points.

Finally, I want to make a note of a resolution the House of Representatives passed this week in support of Catholic women religious. Jim Martin reproduces this document on the America blog.

As I’ve noted in previous postings (here and here), American nuns are currently under attack by the Vatican, which has mounted an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious, the umbrella group to which the vast majority of American religious women belong. Some commentators are suggesting that this attack is ultimately politically motivated, and is being engineered by influential right-wing Catholics in the U.S. who want to curb the political influence of women religious, insofar as it departs from the right-wing script.

Rome recently created quite a furor by asking the U.S. bishops to foot the bill for this investigation. As Tom Fox notes, commentary about most issues at the National Catholic Reporter website is often lively and even contentious, but about this matter, there appears to be widespread agreement among American Catholics that it is outrageous for Rome to ask us to foot the bill for an investigation about which we were not consulted in advance.

The House resolution in support of American religious women is a welcome statement about how much these faithful women are appreciated by many American Catholics, at a time when the leaders of the church are giving them definite signals of unwelcome.

Once again, my colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker is all over this story. Her take:

It's becoming more and more apparent that this LCWR investigation is all about who has influence and power in the Vatican and just how secure those interests feel that they can be this blatant about exercising that power. Pretty freakin' blatant.

On the other hand, the silent majority really is finding their voice. It's probably only fitting that the issue which is motivating that voice centers on the very sisters who were so instrumental in raising that majority in the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may very well be the Pope on whose watch the Church once again fractures because of the corruption with in the hierarchy. No amount of papal perfume concerning positive evangelization can mask the stench coming from the Vatican curia. So be it.

A quotation that my colleague Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic featured yesterday as his quotation of the day . . . .

Old Vatican Song and Dance: Again with the Gay Priests as Child Abusers Theme

John Aravosis reported yesterday that Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. observer, made a statement at the U.N. Monday blaming the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church on gay priests and suggesting that the problem of sexual abuse of minors is no greater in the Catholic church than in non-Catholic communities of faith. Aravosis’s article links to a piece about this by Riazat Butt and Anushka Asthana at the Guardian (UK).

The Guardian report quotes Archbishop Tomasi to say,

Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this [i.e., gay] sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17.

Tomasi claims that the majority of cases of abuse of minors by priests reported in the Catholic church involve not children but young adolescents (that is, they are cases of ephebophilia rather than pedophilia), and that “only” 1.5%-5% of Catholic priests have been involved in sexual abuse of minors.

Barbara Dorris of the highly regarded Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued a statement Monday evening commenting on the Vatican claims. Dorris notes that,

In a long series of deceptive and callous statements from top Catholic officials about the church’s on-going clergy sex abuse and cover up crisis, this is one of the most pathetic and disturbing.

As she observes, the Vatican is playing a political, as opposed to spiritual, game of blame-shifting and refusing to admit its own responsibility and that of thousands of bishops for the abuse crisis. In Dorris’s view, this statement indicates that there is not much hope for self-reformation in the Catholic hierarchy: “If the church hierarchy can't even talk reasonably about this horrific crisis, it certainly cannot ameliorate it.”

SNAP has issued repeated statements noting that the Vatican is playing an insincere and dangerous political game in seeking to scapegoat gay priests for the clerical sexual abuse crisis. In December 2005, three women who are survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy—Ann Hagan Webb, Barbara Blaine, and Kathleen M. Dwyer—released a joint statement articulating the perspective of female survivors of clerical abuse in response to the Vatican’s attempt to lay blame for the abuse crisis at the feet of gay priests.

Hagan Webb, a psychologist and co-coordinator of SNAP in New England, was abused by a priest from kindergarten through 7th grade. She notes that there is a “myth” that girls have not been victims of clerical sexual abuse. She states, “And homosexual orientation in our abusers had nothing to do with it.”

Hagan Webb asks how statistics claiming that 80%-90% of victims are boys account for the fact that half of SNAP’s members are women? She maintains, based on her experience with SNAP, that many adult women who survived sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy when they were children remain afraid to speak out. Hagan Webb concludes,

The sexual abuse crimes of Catholic priests were perpetrated by adult, supposedly celibate men against minor children and vulnerable adults. Sexual orientation was a non issue.

Blaine, SNAP’s founder and president, agrees. She states:

We take issue with the bishops' claim that 80% of the victims of abusive clergy are male. First, this figure is based on a very flawed self-survey of bishops themselves. Second, we believe a disproportionate percentage of male victims report the crimes and are believed. Third, fully half of our 6,000+ members across the country are female. And finally, even if this 80% figure is correct, it may well reflect greater access to boys by priests rather than greater homosexuality among predators. (Many parents allowed their boys to go to the movies or on overnight trips with priests; few parents allowed their girls to do so.)

Dwyer, a member of SNAP in Boston, notes that she was abused between the ages of 5 and 8 by a priest, two Knights of Columbus, and her father, who brought her to the church to be abused. She maintains that the Catholic hierarchy “wants desperately to make invisible” female victims of clerical sexual abuse.

In Dwyer’s view,

Rather than role modeling a moral, supportive and loving way to address sexual abuse, the hierarchy, from the Pope on down, continues to cover up and blame others in order to protect themselves, their power and their money. But now, they are more focused and have settled on blaming Gays for all the abuse, even though countless studies indicate that most child molesters are heterosexual and/or are characterized as fixated -- being attracted to children, not to men or women.

In order to be successful in blaming Gays, the hierarchy knows that the sexual abuse of girls must be swept into invisibility and be internalized in the culture as a "rare exception." Something it has been doing since 2002. It should then not be a surprise to anyone that they ultimately decided to scapegoat Gays for what they are responsible for. By doing so they are able to "kill two birds with one stone" because if they can get the public at large to believe their lies about who was abused and what it is to be Gay, which helped create the myths, their chances of banning same gender marriages will also be increased.

A 4 March 2002 article by Michael Paulson at the Boston Globe about the Vatican’s attempt to shift blame for the abuse crisis from church leaders to gay priests cites another SNAP leader, David Clohessy, who rejects the Vatican’s analysis. Clohessy is SNAP’s national director. He tells Paulson,

The fact that there seem to be a disproportionately higher number of gays in the priesthood - I don't think it has a direct relevance to the pedophilia problem. The relevance of gay priests is somewhat like the relevance of celibacy in that both contribute to a culture of secrecy and that culture enables abuse to go undetected. But celibacy doesn't make one molest kids, and neither does one's sexual orientation.

Andrew Sullivan also deals with this story at his Daily Dish blog yesterday. His take:

But this is Ratzinger's real view: that the sex abuse crisis was basically a liberal plot to discredit the Church, rather than what it was, an international conspiracy for the molestation of children, enabled by the Vatican.

Scapegoating a vulnerable and targeted minority; passing the buck for blame that belongs primarily to church officials including those in the Vatican; changing the subject; refusing to admit that sexual abuse of minors at any age by adult authority figures is abhorrent; trying to spread the blame around to other communities of faith: Barbara Dorris is right. This is not what reformation or authentic spiritual leadership are about.

If the Catholic church is going to be reformed—and it gives every sign of needing thoroughgoing systemic reformation at this point in history—that reformation is not going to come from the top. Not from the men sporting fabulous scarlet silk trains and high hats. It’s going to come from the bottom and margins, including, I suspect, from the very marginal communities the Vatican and many bishops want to scapegoat now, to avoid their responsibility for an abuse crisis that is about the abuse of authority first and foremost.

O Tempora, O Mores: On the Politico-Religious Uses of the Calvinist Myth in American Culture

I blogged yesterday about an emerging neoconservative meme represented in yesterday’s op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times. As I noted, this meme celebrates the good old-fashioned Calvinist work ethic, with its stress on self restraint and delayed gratification.

It does so by way of commenting on our current cultural and economic crises, and what—in the view of this perspective—has brought us to this crisis. Brooks appears to believe that at some unspecified point in the past (well, before the government intervened in our lives by setting up safety nets that mitigate the consequences of lack of self restraint), we adhered to Calvinist virtues that made us great as a nation, and brought us wealth without causing us to wallow in the self-indulgent luxury of nations with a more pliant moral fiber.

Brooks calls for a new moral revival to return our nation to its Calvinist roots. He urges neoconservatives to transfer the moral fervor of their culture-wars fixations to the economic sphere, and to help bring in this moral revival of our nation.

Having analyzed Brooks’s thoughts about these matters yesterday, I was intrigued later in the day when I picked up a book I had ordered recently through interlibrary loan and discovered it promoting the same religio-political analysis of American culture that Brooks makes, at an entirely different period of American history. The book was written in 1930, when Hoover was president, and when the nation was on the brink of an economic crisis created by several presidencies that gave big business free rein while doing little to assure that the corporate sector served the common good. That crisis would require the visionary leadership of FDR—and strong government intervention—to set the nation back on track politically, culturally, and economically.

Because this book is not in copyright, I’m going to cite it without providing a title or publication information. My primary reason for going that route is that I do not want to cause pain to any living members of the family of the person who wrote the book. I see no reason to do so. What I make of the book might well appear to them to be critical in a way that slams the legacy of their family member—though that is not my intent. My intent is to juxtapose analysis of the mythical hard-working, morally upright Calvinist past of our nation from two different periods of our history, to show how persistent (and how predictable) this theme is in conservative cultural commentary at times of cultural crisis.

The book in question focuses on the colonial history of a family that happens to be one of my own family lines—one of those Ulster Scots families who left Ireland in droves in the first decades of the 18th century to begin new lives in the middle colonies. Like many of these families, the Kerrs moved from Pennsylvania into the Valley of Virginia prior to 1750. The book focuses on their lives and legacy in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia.

As Ulster Scots, the Kerrs were intense Calvinists. Since they were among the first Scotch-Irish families to make the move from Pennsylvania to Virginia, they played a founding role in setting up an historic Presbyterian church, Tinkling Spring, near their homeplace. The family’s progenitor, James Kerr, is on a 1741 list of settlers in the Shenandoah Valley petitioning for the formation of Tinkling Spring church, and a 1742 list of founding members of the church. My ancestor Samuel Kerr was baptized in 1741 in the church, soon after his birth.

It would be hard to find a more prototypically Calvinist family than the Kerrs—the kind of stiff-backbone, hard-working, morally upright family that Brooks’s mythology about the American past celebrates. Through blood, marriage, and shared religious ties, the Kerrs connect to several noted Ulster Scots families who have left long political legacies in the United States, including the Pickens and Calhouns.

It’s interesting to see what one family member made of that celebrated Calvinist heritage just as the Depression hit in 1930. His interpretation of this heritage sounds remarkably similar to Brooks’s thesis as we struggle through the economic downturn of the first decade of the 21st century.

As he writes about the house James Kerr built in Virginia between 1730 and 1740—a house still standing in 1930—the author looks back at his family’s Calvinist heritage and compares the values he believes the Kerrs held in the past to those he sees dominating the culture in which he lives in 1930. He’s appalled at the discrepancy:

As we pen these words we think of the hardships our parents and ancestors bore in their fights with the Indians and British to protect their families and homes and crops they labored so hard for, cutting down trees into wood and mauling rails for fences, and hewing logs to build houses and barns, raising flax and scotching it and their wives spinning it for clothes. And of the bearing of children of which my grandmother and mother each had a dozen, and what awful pain, anxiety, and care! And now we fuss about hard times while riding around in automobiles and reaping their labors, without shame, and boys and girls having a good time, smoking cigarettes and going to movies—and that is not all, by a long shot. And we are taxed heavy for schools to teach them to play baseball, football, basketball, and ball-room, etc., and a larger tax to build fine macadam roads for lovers of pleasure, more than lovers of God; and for Scripture on the perilous times, read 2nd Timothy, 3rd chapter, and 24th chapter of Matthew; and it reads, “Except those days should be shortened no flesh will be saved.” And this fast, wicked life is ushering in these last days. I think of days when they went to church on horseback and took their wives and children and sweethearts on behind the saddle, and cut their hay and wheat and rye and oats with scythe and cradle, and when I was fifteen or sixteen, I was one of two that cradled seventy acres of wheat my father had on his 300-acre farm. . . . . Part of that land is idle now, and men are idle and won’t work it.

Past good, present bad. Calvinist past good, decadent secular present bad. Self reliance, wonderful; government intervention, not so much. Horses fine; paved roads and automobiles deplorable.

You get the gist. This is a timeworn trope of American thought, this comparison of the mythic past of hard-working (white, patriarchal) Calvinist families with what we have now. It is a trope that uses religious language to decry current developments (the book also lambasts those who drink liquor and vote wet) that the myth-maker sees as morally abhorrent. And it links that moral abhorrence rather predictably to attacks on government “interference” in the lives of sober, hard-working (white, patriarchal, Christian) families.

Much that the book says about moral decay of (white, patriarchal, Christian) American society in the 1930s sounds precisely like what conservative groups in the Christian churches are saying today about gays and the effects of gay-affirming attitudes in our society. There is a clear carryover from the political intent of this myth-making rhetoric about our Calvinist past to the current cultural and religious debate about welcoming and affirming gay human beings. In the past, the moral crusades focused on prohibition and resistance to public funding for schools and roads. Today it centers on resistance to gay folks.

Same rhetoric: different targets. Same players: different enemies at different moments of American cultural development. And the same scripture verses are used by these groups to decry whatever is their current object of moral ire. The section of the book attacking those who drink alcohol cites Timothy, as does the preceding passage, lambasting lovers of pleasure who reject God, lead “silly women” astray, and usher in the last days.

I grew up hearing sermons that applied all these texts to African Americans and the socialists and communists who were said to be collaborating with black folks to bring down Christian civilization in the United States, and precipitate Armageddon. In my growing-up years, I heard stories about how those same texts and that same rhetoric had been applied a generation previously to women who sought employment outside the house, bobbed their hair and used make-up, and dressed in men’s clothes (i.e., slacks).

I recently read a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of railroads written by a late-19th century American evangelical writer. The writer claimed that when railroads were introduced, the culture went to hell in a handbasket and natural disasters began to proliferate as God tried to get our attention. God’s beef about railroads? That they ran on Sunday, breaking the Sabbath.

Given the way this religious rhetoric about our purported golden Calvinist past and our purported current decadence keeps cropping up in both American religion and American political commentary—always with the same political goals, though the objects of the moral wrath vary at different periods—one wonders why anyone continues to try to promote such religio-political analysis. It wasn’t right in the past. It didn’t stop necessary social changes in the past.

Why would anyone imagine it is suddenly right today and that it will succeed today in blocking social changes that have long been overdue in a land committed to democratic ideals and human rights?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Best Headline of Day: Andy Borowitz on Sarah Palin Memoirs

American Vice: Who Sins How and Where

Speaking of greed, it appears that this capital sin has a distinct geographic provenance in the U.S., as do all the other capital sins. For a bit of fun (but also some serious reflection), have a look at this recent geographic breakdown of the capital sins in American context, prepared by the Kansas State University Geography Department.

Interesting to note that the study (which uses various data sets to map “vices” state-by-state in the U.S.) confirms others which find that the area most prone to preach about the need for sexual restraint, the bible belt of the Southeast, also happens to be the one most prone to lust, as indicated by reported cases of STDs.

This set of maps reminds me of one I had bookmarked some time back, and have lost sight of. I think the map appeared on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish site. If any reader remembers it and can draw my attention to an article that features this map, I'd be grateful.

The map was a global map of areas of the world in which wife-beating is culturally acceptable and defended even by women beaten by their husbands. What struck me as I looked at this map is how closely it parallels global maps indicating countries in which homosexuality is outlawed or punished.

Christians of the right in developed nations love to point to anti-gay prejudice in developing nations as an indicator of how Christians of the developing world hold the true faith as we in the West abandon orthodoxy by affirming gay people. The overlap between misogyny and homophobia in some parts of the world raises an interesting question: when the religious right defends the “right” of people in developing nations to bash gays, is it also defending the “right” of husbands in many of those same nations to beat their wives?

Is the religious right's defense of homophobia in some cultures also a defense of misogyny in those cultures? Western Christians of the right charge their brothers and sisters who oppose gay-bashing in developing nations as well as in the West with imposing Western cultural norms on those cultures. They charge Western Christians who deplore homophobia in all cultures with relating to Christians in developing nations in an imperialistic way.

If our culture and its faith communities have decided that beating women is ethically unacceptable anywhere it occurs, and that women have fundamental human rights that must be respected in any cultural setting, then why can we not take the same steps when it comes to discrimination against LGBT people? Or do those who want to use the people of the developing world as tools in Western battles to bash gay folks really support misogyny at the same time that they oppose gays?

David Brooks Ends the Culture Wars, or Does He? New Neocon Meme about Self Restraint

As neoconservative political and religious commentators cast about these days for some new theoretical center to ground a badly faltering conservative movement in the U.S., they seem to be floating a rhetorical trial balloon. And what they're suggesting has me worried.

David Brooks pushes the emerging new center of neocon political analysis in an article at New York Times today entitled “The Next Culture War.” Brooks’s article is an obvious move on the part of a leading neocon spokesman to shift the emphasis of American neocon political analysis and strategy from hot-button culture-war issues like same-sex marriage to economic issues.

On the face of it, that would be a welcome move, if the economic presuppositions being promoted by this move had anything to do with recognizing and decrying the deleterious (and immoral) consequences of an economic system in which the vast majority of wealth is owned by a tiny minority of people. Where the new neocon analysis appears to be headed, instead, is in the direction of blaming the large number of us who don’t share in that wealth for our lack of self-restraint and ability to defer gratification.

We’re the reason for the economic and cultural mess the U.S. is in, it seems. Not the lords of Wall Street and their enablers in the federal government.

Brooks’s piece is interesting to read as an attempt to re-ground key neocon narratives about moral decay in economic analysis. Brooks takes terms that neoconservatives have enjoyed using in recent decades to discuss sexual morality and applies them to the economic sphere—something neoconservatives have been hesitant to do, because talking about morality in the economic sector will inevitably lead to questions about the immorality of systems that leave the market free to do whatever it wants even when it tramples on have nots to enrich haves.

Brooks announces that we need a “values shift” now, a “moral and cultural movement,” even a “moral revival” to get us back on the right track economically and culturally. And where should that revival look for its core values? It should, Brooks proposes, remember the “Calvinist restraint” that built this nation and its wealth—the ethic of hard work and self-denial that urged sober laboring people to defer gratification as they struggled to make life better for their children. The new “moral revival” Brooks urges will “champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who can argue with hard work, self-denial, and delayed gratification, especially when we apply those standards not only to the “small” but to the “large”?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s where this analysis is really headed—that is, I seriously doubt that this is a call for a moral revival in American culture that will hold the grossly wealthy accountable for their actions in any effective sense. I suspect that this analysis is really a way of allowing the grossly wealthy to celebrate their wealth (earned through self-restraint and hard work, it goes without saying), while shifting the blame for our current economic malaise to the millions of Americans who are stung by the economic downturn. This analysis is implicitly telling all the rest of us, the non-rich, that we wouldn’t find ourselves in embarrassing circumstances now, if we had practiced good old Calvinist restraint and had delayed gratification as consumers when the bubble was developing.

The problem is, you see, government. It was government that let us get into this mess by, well, being government. And by doing what government does, trying to mitigate the consequences of economic disparity and to form safety nets for those at the bottom. Brooks argues that Calvinist restraint worked as a key cultural force in the golden ages of pre-government intervention, when people knew that they’d better scrimp and work hard, by golly, because no one was going to bail them out: “Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.”

And so this new meme is, in the final analysis, a nasty little political-religious text about the dangers of government intervention and econonmic restraint (on the rich and powerful), and the blessings of personal restraint and delayed gratification (for the middle classes and the poor). It is an old trope that has run through our nation’s rhetoric from its foundations, one with Puritan roots, which imagines the wealthy as favored by God and everyone else as under God’s curse.

This is not, as I say, a call to moral analysis of our economic life that will in any way touch on the real issues that any sound moral analysis of economic life has to touch on, if it is to be either accurate or grounded in core moral values of most communities of faith. Sound moral analysis would refrain from blaming the vast majority of Americans who are the victims of the current economic downturn for an economic situation that originates in the greed and lack of self-restraint of our economic movers and shakers—and in the malfeasance of political leaders who enable that immoral behavior.

Sound moral analysis would note that, as the middle and lower classes bear the brunt of the current recession, the wealthy elites that have brought us to this point are still making off like bandits (and see John Aravosis at Americablog on this point). Even as Brooks writes about the need for a renewal of Calvinist self-restraint in our culture, the greed of those at the top of the economic pyramid continues without any boundaries at all, defiantly proud of its lack of restraints or curbs.

The meme Brooks is promoting does not in any significant way move beyond the neoconservative moral analysis that got us into this economic mess in the first place, with its narrow, blinkered focus on pelvic issues as the center of moral analysis and its refusal to apply moral analysis of any sort to the economic realm, and especially to the growing economic disparity created by the free market neoconservative political and religious thinkers champion. As Sarah Posner reminded us recently, though the tea-party focus on big government as the enemy and the waning interest of the culture at large in same-sex marriage as the defining moral problem of our time might appear to portend a shift to a post-culture war politics centered solely on economic issues, we may be seeing, instead, the convergence of traditional culture-war politics and tea-party attacks on government restraints on the market. Rather than eclipse culture-war politics, the analysis Brooks is promoting simply enfolds the presuppositions of religious-right culture warriors into a bogus post-culture war analysis of the political and economic sphere.

In fact, the rhetoric Brooks is promoting—back to self-restraint and delayed gratification—has been floating around for some time now on many blogs discussing same-sex marriage and the prop 8 battle in California. A significant meme that has emerged in these discussions is that prop 8 passed because affluent white gays do not know how to delay gratification and wait for rights like marriage, whereas people of color, gay and straight, understand that rights don’t fall from trees. One has to work and wait for rights, something affluent gay folks don’t understand—or so this meme goes. Because affluent white gays do not understand this, they have failed to understand the cultural disaffection between their community and communities of color, and have failed to build bridges with communities of color.

This meme is being actively promoted by the religious right as yet another way to drive a wedge between the gay community and communities of color. And it is precisely the same meme—a meme about delayed gratification and hard work and Calvinist restraint—that Brooks and other neocon spokespersons who want to declare the end of the culture war are pushing, as they call for a shift in emphasis from traditional culture-war moral analysis to a new moral analysis of the economic sphere, centered on questions of self restraint.

Far from portending the end of the culture wars and the influence of the religious right in our political and economic life, this new trope fuses traditional culture-war presuppositions with a new, bogus post-culture war economic analysis. In doing so, it continues the very culture wars it claims to eclipse. This is a dangerous—and fundamentally dishonest—new rhetorical game for neoconservatives to be playing, one that deserves the attention and critique of anyone interested in real moral analysis of our economic life, as well as in fair-minded and ethically enlightened analysis of same-sex marriage.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Synchronicity and Blogging Communities: Follow-Up to Terry Weldon on These Themes

I feel I often talk too much (at least on this blog). And, though I’m not Jewish,Yom Kippur gives me a reason to spend my time today reflecting and praying rather than babbling. I should say I’m not Jewish, but I stand in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters, and I value their spiritual and liturgical traditions, and I believe that Christians in general need to do more to understand and appreciate Judaism.

I’m breaking silence today to draw attention to a posting yesterday by my blogging friend and fellow pilgrim Terry Weldon at Queering the Church. Terry links to my postings last week about synchronicity in blogging.

As he notes, a group of us who blog about similar issues have been talking by email about the interesting synchronicity we frequently notice in our postings. The group engaged in this dialogue has consisted of Terry, Colleen Kochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism, and me. We haven’t deliberately excluded anyone from that email exchange. In fact, we would very much welcome the contributions of others interested in sharing in this conversation.

The make-up of our discussion group has just happened. It has happened because Colleen, Terry, and I have all noticed strands of synchronicity running through our comments on other blogs and in our postings on our own blogs. To be specific: we have noticed on a number of occasions that, without having discussed a topic among ourselves or expressed any intent of writing about it, we happen to write about the same issues at the same time. And repeatedly so.

As Terry’s posting notes, this has led us to the conclusion that we—and, we think, others with whom we interact in the blogging community—are part of a growing community of bloggers with shared interests and shared purposes. And so we’ve been talking about formalizing that blogging community in some way, perhaps by sharing a platform for all of our blogs, by cross-posting on each other’s blogs, by drawing more collaborators into our group, etc.

We’re not sure, to be honest, precisely where this shared venture is heading. We don’t yet see the specifics clearly. What we do see is that a number of us began blogging around the same time, focusing on the same issues, and we’ve begun to form an unofficial blogging community with shared concerns and mission.

And so we invite anyone interested in this venture to be in touch with us and to talk about possible next steps. It seems to the three of us that the synchronicity wouldn’t be happening if there weren’t some purpose to it. And we think that by pooling our efforts, we may maximize the possibility of achieving that purpose, whatever it is.

I’m being deliberately vague about identifying the shared purpose of our new unofficial blogging community for two reasons. The first is that we want to remain open to whatever happens as we continue to explore a shared blogging venture.

The second—and perhaps more important—reason I’m being vague is that we don’t want to draw the lines so tight that we exclude a wide range of contributors to our shared venture. We do all happen to be Catholic, though our connections to the institutional church and our perspectives on active participation in it vary. And we definitely think that there ought to be room in our community for Catholics who fit somewhere along a spectrum from active involvement to purposeful disaffection.

And for that matter, for religionists of all types. Or for those alienated from religion altogether, but perhaps still seeking a spiritual path (that much seems fundamental to the venture—an interest in a shared spiritual path). And for those who incorporate elements of a number of religious worldviews and faith experiences in their lives.

We also all happen to be somewhere along the middle-to-progressive end of the political spectrum. We live, however, in different parts of the world. One of us grew up in the American South, another in the American West. Yet another is South African and lives in England. Our individual blogs seem to have found resonance with bloggers in other parts of the world, and we can foresee bloggers from many other cultural backgrounds participating in this community.

Several of us share an interest in gay issues and religion, though that’s not the exclusive focus of any of us or of our blogging community. For instance, Terry and I share the experience of having grown up in places in which apartheid of one sort or another prevailed, and both of us note that our thinking about many issues has been decisively shaped by the experience of seeing the racially segregated societies in which we grew up change in our lifetimes.

Well, enough. I’m writing now primarily to draw attention to Terry’s posting about what’s been happening as he, Colleen, and I talk among ourselves about our blogging experiences. And as Terry notes in his posting, we definitely invite anyone else interested in participating in this discussion and some shared blogging initiative to be in touch with us.

At a personal level, I take inspiration from the invitation of other bloggers I admire to collaborate with them. I’m convinced that most of the significant things that happen when societies change for the better happen due to decisions of people to stand in solidarity with each other.

Solidarity is at a premium in many societies, but perhaps most notably in the highly individualistic, atomistic, fragmented society of the United States. Our overriding American philosophy of rugged individualism assures that many voices which very much need to be heard, if we’re going to build a more humane culture, do not get heard. There are very strong watchdogs at the door of all the dialogic communities that see themselves as significant and influential, capable of speaking in a mannered voice that reaches the halls of power. Those watchdogs are there whether the dialogue communities be to right, left, or center.

And theyre not intent on inviting many kinds of outsiders into the conversation, particularly when those outsiders speak in the wrong accents, have the wrong pedigrees, come from and write about insignificant places, say what the canons of decency within official dialogue communities do not wish to have said. Official communities of discourse that consider themselves portentous are not in the habit of credentialing certain kinds of unwelcome others who are routinely excluded by a given dialogic community on grounds that usually have nothing at all to do with the substance of the excluded one’s insights, and everything to do with unwritten canons of taste about who belongs and who doesn't.

When those of us who seldom find ourselves invited into any of these significant and influential communities of discourse talk among ourselves, listen carefully to the experiences and insights of each other, and make solidarity with each other, who knows what might happen? From where I stand, it’s worth taking a chance and finding out.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mr. Clinton Changes His Mind: Knowing Gay People and Rejecting Homophobic Discrimination

There’s an aspect of what former President Clinton said the other day about gay marriage that keeps sticking in my mind, like a small pebble in an otherwise comfortable shoe. But before I talk about this, I want to take a cue from Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog and give credit to Mr. Clinton for changing his mind about gay marriage, and being willing to say so publicly.

In response to a critic who faults him for “enthusing” over Clinton’s change of mind about gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan notes that he has often written critically about the former president’s record on gay rights. As he says, having done so, he now has an obligation to give Mr. Clinton credit when credit is due.

I, too, have criticized the Clinton record about gay issues on this blog, and I agree with Andrew Sullivan that it is only just to recognize the significance of Clinton’s change of mind now. I take Andrew Sullivan’s remark about this as a useful reminder to remember to praise those I may have criticized on this blog, when they deserve praise.

With those remarks by way of introduction, here’s what catches my attention in Mr. Clinton’s statements about why he eventually changed his mind re: gay marriage. In response to Anderson Cooper’s question about what made him change his mind, Clinton says,

I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it [i.e., about the term “marriage” as applied to same-sex couples]. And I decided I was wrong.

That comment intrigues me—it speaks volumes for me—because of what it says about how people change their moral minds when injustice and discrimination towards a targeted group of people have become so ingrained (and, often, so hedged about with religious warrants) that they seem “natural.” And right. And hardly unjust at all.

I’ve noted over and over on Bilgrimage that my own thinking about many social issues has been decisively shaped by my experience coming of age in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in the American South. As I’ve said here, some of my formative experiences during those years opened windows in my mind and soul, through which I began to see that I had been tutored in racism as a white Southerner, and that a social system I had grown up to think of as natural and even as divinely ordained was a radically unjust social system founded on insupportable tenets of white supremacy and black inferiority.

These formative experiences had everything to do with beginning to know African Americans as human beings. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was, like many white Southerners, in constant contact with African Americans. A black woman cleaned my family’s house and, to a great extent, raised my brothers and me.

But these contacts were controlled contacts: they were contacts that white society controlled so that they would invariably yield, among white citizens coming into contact with black citizens, the unvarying impression that whites are superior to blacks, that the humanity of blacks is inferior to that of whites. What changed that deeply inculcated impression for me was coming into contact with black people in uncontrolled environments, in settings in which the dominant white manipulation of racial consciousness had been removed by law
—for instance, when the schools were integrated, and I came to know African Americans as human beings every bit as human as myself.

Once I had these breakthrough insights, there was no going back. The insights forced me to rethink everything I had taken for granted. They forced me to do more than see, feel, and think. They made me change, since that’s what moral insight is all about: new perspectives spawn new decisions that lead to new actions, which in turn deepen the perspectives that initiated the process of change in the first place.

One of the governing insights that these formative experiences have led to in my life is the recognition that we all grow up in social contexts in which we take for granted unjust, discriminatory practices and attitudes in many different areas of our lives. Recognizing that this is the case in one part of one’s life—say, in the area of race—only opens the door to questions about whether it can also be the case in other areas—say, re: gender or sexual orientation.

The process of re-examining our formative presuppositions, once revelatory insights have led to us to recognize that some of them are radically skewed by prejudice, is never-ending. There is no area of our social formation in any part of our upbringing in which we do not have the potential to imbibe discriminatory presuppositions.

I’m glad that Mr. Clinton has come to a recognition in the area of sexual orientation akin to mine about race, and that this recognition seems to have reached him through his interactions with gay friends. At the same time, I wonder why it is taking so many of us to reach conclusions similar to Mr. Clinton’s. Mr. Clinton is not the only one with gay friends. We all live in a world in which the likelihood that we know several gay people as more than passing acquaintances is rapidly increasing.

Why are people’s social attitudes about gay people and discrimination against gay people so often moving at snail’s pace, given that this is the social world in which many of us now live? For that matter, having struggled with his heritage of racism as a white Southerner, why did Mr. Clinton take so long to extrapolate from his experience in analyzing and rejecting racism to a recognition that discrimination based on sexual orientation is just as insupportable as discrimination based on race?

One would expect people who have struggled to understand and reject racism to do the same when they begin to encounter gay people and questions about sexual orientation. Wouldn’t one?

Or is there some difference between race and sexual orientation that is simply not obvious to many of us who make connections between those two issues, and who have come to the conclusion that homophobic discrimination is as indefensible as racial discrimination is? I suppose the question I’m really asking here is, how does one have close gay friends and gay family members and gay colleagues, and still support discrimination against these human beings whom one knows at a human level?

I’ll admit that this is a question I’ve already asked myself about Bill and Hilary Clinton for some time now, for a somewhat personal reason. Since I happen to live in a place in which they, too, have lived and were political leaders, I also happen to know some of the gay couples who have been closely associated with them over the years.

I want to be clear here. I do not know the Clintons at all. I do, however, know a number of gay people, including several gay couples, who have lived near members of their family, and have—or so they have told me—a more than passing acquaintance with the Clintons.

And as I have listened to these folks talk about their connections to the Clintons, I have wondered repeatedly over the years how they can have been so enthusiastic about a president who—let’s face it—had a less than stellar record in supporting gay rights. When Hilary Clinton was asked about her stance on gay issues during the last presidential campaign, and responded by saying something to the effect that she was still making up her mind, I have to admit I wondered how the gay people I know who claim to be close to the Clintons can have been so enthusiastic about them over the years. Enthusiastic about them as friends of the gay community . . . .

I take remarks like Hilary Clinton’s in response to that question personally. I put myself in the place of those gay couples that have close ties to the Clintons, and I think about their lives. They’re, as far as I can see, upstanding, hard-working, people who contribute a great deal to the community.

As far as I can see, nothing in their lives could possibly account for the decision of a majority of folks—at least in this area of the country—to deny them the right to adopt children, to marry or enter into a civil union, to be protected against discrimination in housing and employment, to visit each other in the hospital and make medical decisions about each other.

How, I wonder, does one know such people on a more than superficial basis, and not feel compelled to work as hard as possible to outlaw such gross discrimination—especially when one has the power to do so? If one concludes that one must make such solidarity with those discriminated against on grounds of race, how does one draw a line and then decide that similar solidarity is not demanded when sexual orientation is the question at hand?

I have come to the conclusion that, when it comes to gay people and gay rights, quite a few people do not move from knowing gay family members, friends, and colleagues, to working resolutely on behalf of gay rights, for one primary reason. This is that people—including many liberal people who profess to find discrimination of all sorts abhorrent—feel, at some deep, unexamined level that gay humanity is not quite like the humanity of heterosexual people. It is humanity at a slightly less human level.

How else can one claim to know, love, and support gay people, and continue accepting the legitimacy of gross, overt, persistent discrimination against gay people? And not merely accepting, but refusing to do what is in one’s power to overturn this particular form of discrimination, since one knows real people who suffer from it and do not deserve to suffer in that way?

My intent in asking these questions is not to criticize Mr. Clinton. I applaud him for changing his mind about gay marriage, and for saying so.

But I suspect he’s far from the only liberal Democrat in the United States who continues to struggle with questions that have everything to do with figuring out how to deal with the real humanity of people we’ve been taught by discriminatory ideologies to regard as somewhat less human than ourselves. And like Mr. Clinton, unfortunately, some of those liberal Democrats have the ability to make decisive changes to make things better for their gay family members, friends, and acquaintances.

And like Mr. Clinton until fairly recently, they do not seem to feel much urgency about making those changes, even when they have the power to make them. Even when they are, many of them, running the churches that talk a whole lot about love. And the government in D.C., which talks about change we can believe in.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

And More Synchronicity: Newman Again--Misappropriating and Misrepresenting the Facts

More fascinating synchronicity: I learn this morning from blogger Terry Weldon at Queering the Church, an outstanding blog I read daily with great interest, that he, too, noticed the thread about Newman at Michael Bayly's Wild Reed blog yesterday, and he posted a statement about that thread as well. Terry seems to have been writing his posting around the time I was working on mine. I didn't go back to his blog after an early-morning reading of it yesterday, and learned of his statement about Newman only when I saw his comment on my blog this morning.

In his comment on my Newman posting yesterday, Terry states,

One of the key lessons for me is how easily the rightwing sometimes gets away with misappropriating and misrepresenting the real facts of church history - but not in this case. We need to completely vigilant to prevent this, and to do so we must ensure that we have a good understanding of the real history ourselves.

Terry's posting at Queering the Church about these issues also notes,

This highlights for me yet another theme I have become conscious of: so much of our popular perceptions of church history (where we have any at all) are simply wrong. The hierarchy makes no attempt to correct these misperceptions, instead selectively extracting from 2000 years of history that suits and matches their interpretations of what “must” have been, not of what actually was the case.

Then another nugget: In trying to track down the quotation I was looking for, I found another excellent and useful post on McClory, “A Catholic Understanding of Dissent.” This deals with a keynote address McClory gave to a prayer breakfast, in which he spoke (inter alia) about Bishop Nienstedt, and an extraordinary action he took concerning his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker.

“At that time,” said McClory, “[Nienstedt] had done something newsworthy in relation to a book entitled, Revelation and the Church: Vatican II in the Twenty-First Century. This book had been largely written and edited by his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker,” explained McClory, “and, in it, Bishop Lucker said that there were a lot of things that the Church needs to think about. He listed 37 matters of authoritative Church teaching that have undergone substantial change over time – including the Church’s approach to religious liberty, the Bible, slavery, and the Jews. Bishop Lucker’s book also contained a list of 15 teachings that could change in the future, including clerical celibacy, artificial birth control, intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics, condemnation of homosexual activity, and the ordination of women. When Bishop Nienstedt came in and saw that book he said: ‘Take that off the shelf.’”

I heartily second what Terry Weldon says in these reflections. What's at stake in this discussion is separating truth from falsehood. Terry is correct to note that one of the "key lessons" of the recent discussion about Newman on Michael Bayly's blog is "how easily the rightwing sometimes gets away with misappropriating and misrepresenting the real facts of church history."

And so the need to be vigilant and to push back daily against the falsehoods.

In the discussion of Newman and the sensus fidelium at Wild Reed to which my posting yesterday linked, there are two strands of misappropriation and misrepresentation of the facts. I'd like to label these two strands the lie and the equivocation.

The lie is rather easy to detect and combat. People who say that Newman wrote about Arianism to demonstrate that bishops defended orthodox teaching about christology, while the faithful held unorthodox teaching, turn Newman on his head. They grossly misrepresent what Newman said, and why he wrote about this topic.

As my posting about this issue yesterday noted, it's easy to overturn this lie by a reference to Newman's texts. One wonders why anyone would bother trying to tell this lie about Newman's work when Newman's writings about Arianism and the sensus fidelium are easily accessible and easily understood, and when they so clearly say the opposite of what the lie wishes to maintain.

Newman wrote about the Arian crisis to demonstrate that the pastoral leaders of the church can sometimes be wrong in their doctrinal teaching, and that the lay understanding of the faith--the sensus fidelium--can be correct, and can actually save the church from error when its leaders have departed from what the laity hold as the accurate understanding of faith.

Lies about Newman's theology are easily exposed. The equivocation is harder to detect, and for that reason, is more insidious. It masquerades as something other than what it really is. It tells us it is all about concern for statistical accuracy, for correct interpretation of texts, or for legitimation of many readings of the tradition, when its real goal is to discredit this building block of Newman's theology, the sensus fidelium, in order to defend current magisterial teaching as the only possible option for faithful Catholics.

If the question at hand is, for instance, to understand what we should make of the fact that a huge majority of Catholics in the developed nations reject magisterial teaching on artificial contraception (and teachings on sexual ethics in general, insofar as they are based in a biologistic interpretation of natural law), then those dealing in equivocation will propose that this large majority is illusory. Despite hard empirical evidence for several decades now, which shows that the large majority of lay Catholics in the developed world reject magisterial teaching about artificial contraception, and that the trend is well-established and is not diminishing but increasing, those who equivocate about this topic often argue that statistics are misleading.

Or that what the empirical data are capturing consistently over several decades are sporadic "lapses" of the faithful, as they try contraception now and again and then return to the Catholic fold. Or that, if we do admit this trend exists, it exists only for Western Catholics and it is imperalistic to try to impose the concerns of those Catholics on Catholics in other parts of the world.

Since it is clear that what is happening to official teaching about artificial contraception in contemporary Catholicism so closely parallels what Newman wrote about in his work on the sensus fidelium, another line of attack in the equivocating approach is to suggest that Newman's work on the sensus fidelium is only one strand among many in his thought, and that those who focus on that strand misrepresent Newman's work in its totality.

This approach ignores--it equivocates about--the centrality of the sensus fidelium to Newman's entire body of work. It glosses over and equivocates about how Newman's work on the sensus fidelium has now become canonical within Catholic theology and magisterial teaching itself. The documents of Vatican II repeatedly enshrine the concept of the sensus fidelium in their statements about the nature and role of the church.

The equivocating position about Newman's theology of sensus fidelium stands that concept on its head as starkly as the lie does. This position seeks to subvert the plain meaning of the term sensus fidelium. As the term clearly suggests, sensus fidelium is all about the consensus of the faithful, the shared sense of many of the faithful about various Christian teachings, grounded in the lived experience of faith.

To try to twist the meaning of the phrase sensus fidelium to imply that the term means that the magisterium is always correct in its formulation of doctrine or moral teachings at any point in history is to subvert plain sense in the most machiavellian way possible. It is to take a concept that is all about listening to the laity and to use that concept to defend the magisterium when it ignores the laity's voice.

Terry is right. Somehow, how we teach Christian history and Christian theology has gotten twisted, when people of the lie can promote such obvious lies and equivocations and expect to get away with them. In my view, Terry's anecdote about how Bishop Nienstedt handled Bishop Lucker's book on revelation and the church illustrates how we have come to this point.

Though he was a bishop, Lucker had the courage to admit that the church has changed its mind about a wide range of doctrinal and moral issues in the past. Because he refused to ignore the abundant historical evidence which proves this, Bishop Lucker argued that, having done so in the past, the church can change its mind about doctrinal and moral issues in the present and future.

Bishop Nienstedt's response to his predecessor's work? It was to remove Lucker's book from the shelf. We have been living for some time now through a period in Catholic history in which some of our church leaders and some of our intellectual class think that we can control what people think and believe by simply removing contrary evidence from our bookshelves.

We have been living through a less than stellar moment in church history in which people of the lie have claimed the center of the church, and now want to lie boldly (and subtly) about matters all of us can fairly easily see right in front of us, if we open our eyes and look at what is right before our faces. And so the lie has to be supplemented by orders for us to stop seeing what we see, to stop talking among ourselves, and above all, to stop thinking. The lie has to be supplemented by distorted data and subversion of the plain sense of canonical texts.

Fortunately for those who care about the history of the church as an institution, history suggests that such authoritarian tactics of mind control will work only in the short run. They will not prevail in the long run, because people do keep thinking. And noticing the sharp discrepancies between what the official leaders of the institution teach and what they practice. And refusing to put up with those discrepancies, particularly when doing so requires that they sacrifice their own understanding of what the Christian life is all about.

Meanwhile, we are living through a time when the people most inclined to represent themselves as the only trustworthy purveyors of absolute truth are those most intent on misrepresenting and misappropriating the facts. We're living at a moment in Christian history in which Christians of the right are not only trying to outlaw artificial contraception in many places, but are inventing bogus scientific narratives about contraception which suggest that contraceptives are abortifacients and that they harm not only mothers but also children.

If a teaching is true and compelling, it does not need lies to make it palatable. When it has to rely on lies and equivocations to carry the day, something is clearly wrong with the teaching.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Burke Followed By Terry Followed by Scalia: Keeping Track of Current Right-Wing Catholic Attacks on Obama Administration

And speaking of synchronicity, isn’t it interesting that Archbishop Burke has popped back across the Atlantic just at this particular time—right after the 9.12 folderol took place, and right before Congress was expected to begin voting on the health care reform bill?

Just in that significant little window of time, it happens, his right-wing Catholic handlers bring him on the scene to whip up the faithful, lambast his brother bishops who dare to give communion or Christian burial to those who accept gay marriage and don’t kowtow to their version of the pro-life agenda, and pontificate about Senator Kennedy’s funeral.

Oh, and to inform us that the health care reform bill has a “mandate” for abortion and “provides for the provision” of abortion.

We’d be foolish, I think, if we didn’t read these recent utterances of the “de facto pope of the Republican Catholic Church” as purely political—purely politically driven—pontifications. They’re designed to call the faithful to battle—to battle against the Obama administration and against the health care reform bill.

And as an insightful posting of Colleen Kochivar Baker to which I’ve just linked notes (citing a recent piece by David Gibson at Politics Daily), in beating the war drum this past week, Archbishop Burke was beating it against some of his own brother bishops, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who chose to give Senator Kennedy a Christian burial.

Burke and his handlers are working very hard to divide the American Catholic church, and to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the pastoral leadership of bishops who do not toe their Republican hard line. Following the dust-up that ensued when Burke gave an interview to Randall Terry this past March—an interview Terry uploaded to his website as if his extremist anti-abortion activities have Burke’s direct support—Burke distanced himself from Terry. Somewhat.

But here’s the thing. Terry works hand in hand with his more sober right-wing Catholic confreres, including Burke’s handlers, who do not want to be out on the front line wheeling baby carriages full of blood-smeared dolls, but who completely endorse Terry’s ideology and its political goals. What drives this movement is its intent to identify being Catholic in the U.S. with being Republican, to silence voices which question that alliance, and to drive religious and political dissidents out of the church.

And so it’s fascinating to see now that, on the heels of Burke’s remarks once again calling into question the pastoral legitimacy of some of his brother bishops who will not endorse his Republican Catholicism in toto, Randall Terry has leapt into action immediately. As Right Wing Watch reports yesterday, his current target is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

On the heels of recent Burke’s performance in D.C., Terry and his groupies staged a demonstration at the headquarters of the USCCB. Their goal? To suggest that bishops who support health care reform support abortion.

Terry is continuing Burke’s recent work in D.C. This is not about abortion. It’s not about Catholic teaching that health care is a human right, and that moral societies need to provide access to basic quality health care to all citizens.

It’s about overturning the Obama administration, because only a Republican administration suits the wishes of those Catholics spearheading this attempt to split the American Catholic church. Even if said administration chooses to ignore the needs of millions of citizens for access to health care, leads us into war on the basis of lies, further enriches the rich and oppresses the poor, promotes capital punishment, etc. . . . .

Watch the video at the link I just provided reporting on Terry’s recent demonstration at the USCCB headquarters, and think of Burke lying about the “mandate” for abortion in the Baucus health care reform bill. And lambasting Cardinal O’Malley for giving Senator Kennedy a Christian burial.

It’s all of a piece. Synchronicity? I don't think so. Choreography, rather, with lots of money and lots of power determining each step in the process of this relentless attack on any political option for Catholics except the single one these right-wing activists promote.

P.S. Oh, and guess who else came out of the woodwork right on the heels of Burke's D.C. performance? Republican Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has just given an interview to the Orthodox Jewish publication Hamodia, arguing against the separation of church and state. Look for more and more of these carefully orchestrated right-wing Catholic moves against the current administration to unfold in the near future, and as you do so, keep in mind that it's on September 29 that the Supreme Court is supposed to hear the appeal of the Catholic diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that Scalia has handed to the court, to permit the diocese to keep its files about clerical sexual abuses cases sealed.

A Reader Responds: Standing Newman on His Head

One of the interesting experiences I sometimes have with this blog is an experience of synchronicity involving several other bloggers who talk about issues that engage the passion of all of us as a group. I've just had one of those synchronistic experiences in a three-way dialogue with two other bloggers. I'd like to relate that now, in one of my "a reader responds" postings.

In response to what I wrote yesterday about Archbishop Burke and his anti-Obama political crusade gussied up in fabulous religious garb, Colleeen Kochivar Baker of Enlightened Catholicism writes,

The whole tenor of some voices is really reminiscent of the reign of Pio NoNo. Hell and damnation from the pulpit, promotion of the personal piety of cloistered nuns, siding with the hugely wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class, and the purposeful promotion of creeping infallibility in the Papacy.

No wonder the big push is on to co opt Cardinal Newman. It's almost mandatory the Church bring him in the exalted fold before people actually read what he wrote. Perhaps he is truly the Saint for our time.

As Colleen was sending that comment to my blog, I was over at Michael Bayly's Wild Reed blog, reading and responding to his recent summary of a 2003 National Catholic Reporter article by Arthur Jones, in which Jones interviewed Richard Sipe. Sipe argues that the stage is set for a new Reformation in the Catholic church, because the sensus fidelium, the faith held by "ordinary" lay folks in our "ordinary" everyday lives, has moved in a direction decisively counter to what the church is teaching at an official level in the area of sexual ethics.

A vast majority of Catholics in the developed nations of the world reject the official Catholic teaching on contraception. Increasing numbers of Catholics also do not accept the church's teaching that homosexual acts are ipso facto unnatural and immoral, gravely sinful no matter when and in what context they occur.

I find the response to Michael's posting about the sensus fidelium fascinating, because several respondents completely turn on its head one of the classic sources affirming the sensus fidelium, the theology of 19th-century Catholic theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman's work noted that, in the period of controversy in the early church in which the Christian community sought to hammer out an understanding of christology (specifically, an understanding of how humanity and divinity connect in Christ), a large number of bishops held the Arian position that was eventually condemned by the church, while the laity held what eventually became the orthodox christological position.

Though Newman is very clear about this issue--in fact, much of his theology revolves around his reflections on what these historical findings portend for the development of doctrine--two posters responding to Michael's posting want to maintain that Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium is actually about the magisterium's inability to be wrong, ever, and that the magisterium (i.e., the bishops) held the orthodox teaching during the Arian crisis, while the sensus fidelium was unorthodox!

And so I responded to these comments on Michael's blog with the following comment:

Great article, Michael. I'm amazed at how a number of respondents in this thread completely turn Newman on his head, when it comes to the sensus fidelium and the Arian crisis.

As Newman repeatedly and clearly points out, it was the faithful--lay believers--who held onto what became the orthodox definition of Christ's nature, when a majority of bishops (the magisterium, to use Liam's term) were Arianists.

As John J. Burkhard notes in "The Sensus Fidelium" in Gerard Mannion and Lewis Seymour Mudge's (eds.), The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church (London: Routledge, 2008), "Newman, for instance, was famous for his claim that during the second phase of the Arian crisis, when many of the bishops accepted Arian compromise formulas for expressing the faith in Christ, the faithful rose to the task of witnessing to Christ's full divinity by refusing to have anything to do with such compromises. Increasingly, then, a doctrine of the role of the faithful as a true source of the church's faith became a part of the Roman Catholic theology of faith" (pp. 561-562).

My God, what are they teaching in these right-wing Catholic colleges nowadays, if they can take Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium and his history of the Arian crisis and try to argue that this theology and that history argue for the perpetual rightness of the magisterium and the wrongness of the laity in matters of faith and morals?

And then I logged into recent comments on this Bilgrimage blog to find that, while I was responding to Michael's posting and discussing Newman's theology of the sensus fidelium, noting that there seems to be a move afoot in some Catholic quarters to turn Newman's theology on its head, Colleen was responding to my posting yesterday by noting that there's a "big push" on to co-opt Newman and to "bring him into the exalted fold" before people actually read his theology.

I call this exchange synchronicity. It's that spark of insight shared by a number of bloggers day by day that keeps me going. It convinces me that many of us who are blogging about these issues are part of a wider community of thought and faith than we often realize, as we sit blogging in our individual locations.

And that's a good thing to recognize, when the odds against our marginal little communities of discourse seem stacked so largely in favor of those who hold the reins of power firmly in their hands.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Linking Anti-Abortion Activism to Homophobia: Right-Wing Catholics Undermine Pro-Life Cause

In my posting two days ago about Archbishop Raymond Burke’s recent remarks in D.C., in which he repeatedly linked same-sex marriage and abortion as the premier evils that faithful Catholics must combat at this point in history, I said that I’d follow up with more discussion of the abortion issue. I also noted that I’d do so with reference to Michael Sean Winters’s recent discussion at America of the connections between the abortion issue and health care reform.

Winters frames his reflection on abortion and health care as a response to Burke’s recent statement to FOX news that the Baucus bill provides a “mandate” for abortion, and is thus unacceptable to Catholics. Burke also states that the bill “provides for the provision of abortion.”

Winters tries to make sense of both contentions, noting as he does so that both are unclear. His response to the “mandate” claim is far more charitable than mine. I would say simply that it’s an outright lie, and I think anyone concerned about truth in this discussion needs to note that from the outset. There is no “mandate” for abortion anywhere in the Baucus bill, and even to struggle to engage the semantics of this politically motivated lie is to give Burke’s claim a legitimacy it simply does not deserve.

As for the claim that the Baucus bill “provides for the provision of abortion,” Winters notes that the only sense in which that claim might be considered anywhere near truth is that the bill does not outlaw abortion—as it cannot, since Roe v. Wade remains law. The Hyde amendment does not permit federal funds to be used to pay for an abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at stake. There is no suggestion in the Baucus bill that it would revoke the provisions of the Hyde amendment.

What remains to be determined is whether a public option, if this reaches the table, would provide for abortions with federal funds. Winters argues that the Hyde amendment ought to be extended to a public option. I seriously doubt that any public option that might reach a vote is going to include provisions for direct payments for abortion with federal funds.

As Winters notes, the only other possibility that appears to be now on the table, vis-à-vis the question of abortion, is that abortion would be subsidized indirectly through tax credits if a public option prevails. The Baucus bill envisages the government providing tax credits to those who would then choose to purchase policy riders that might include the option of abortion. As Winters notes, the moral distinction on which this option relies is the direct-indirect distinction: it would subsidize abortion only indirectly if at all. It would not use taxpayer moneys to fund abortions in any direct way.

And as Winters also notes, there is significant evidence suggesting that many women who choose to have abortions do so because of economic pressures that would be diminished considerably by the provision of universal health care. “Health care reform is pro-life per se,” Winters’s observes, because it helps prevent the economic quandaries in which many women find themselves when they cannot afford adequate health coverage for their themselves and families, and are pregnant.

Winters’s distinctions are good and necessary ones. They’re fine ones. But here’s what I would like to say in response—and my response also addresses the thread of comments following Winters’s posting.

These distinctions—in fact, the entire discussion—leaves me cold. Increasingly, when I listen to my centrist Catholic brothers and sisters engage Catholics of the right, including Archbishop Burke, on these issues, I feel as if I am listening in on a conversation taking place on another planet. This is not a planet on which I live. It is not a planet whose rules make sense to me.

I do care about abortion. I think that in an ideal world, no one would be forced to have to deal with excruciating decisions about whether or not to end a pregnancy. I also think that in the real world in which most of us live, that decision unfortunately confronts many people. And I doubt seriously that dictating to those people what they must do in the situation confronting them—or dictating to society at large—is going to provoke the kind of moral awareness that people need in order to make momentous moral decisions like whether or not to have an abortion.

If our goal is to provoke people to see that abortion is not a value-free practice, but one with profound ethical implications, then we have failed lamentably and we continue to fail lamentably to convince many people to recognize those ethical considerations. The approach we have taken, we Catholics (and our right-leaning evangelical brothers and sisters), is entirely counterproductive. Rather than convince people that values are at stake in the question of abortion, we are causing them simply to shrug their shoulders and walk away from the discussion (which is not a discussion at all, and that's a huge part of the problem).

Something is totally awry in the way many Catholics have chosen to approach the issue of abortion in the public square. Something is awry if our goal is to convince others to examine the life issues that we believe are inherent in this discussion. Something is wrong with our approach to this issue at the most fundamental level possible, when our first and foremost reaction is to suppress discussion, coerce and command, and threaten anyone who disagrees with us.

It strikes me that there are some serious unacknowledged problems, some stumbling blocks, to the sane discussion of abortion, which impede that discussion from its very outset, causing it to be a mostly ineffective and intramural Catholic (and right-wing evangelical) discussion/non-discussion that has no ability to reach most sane people in our society. Not where they live and move and have their being. I’m surprised, frankly, that my centrist brothers and sisters don’t appear to see those stumbling blocks, and that they continue discussing these issues with their brothers and sisters on the right (though, strangely enough, not with their brothers and sisters on the left), as if the discussion is a good-faith discussion in which those on the right seriously want to parse difficult issues and arrive at common ground.

I’ve talked previously about some of these stumbling blocks. We cannot discuss abortion sanely as my Catholic brothers and sisters of the right insist we must discuss it if we're going to discuss it at all, when we exclude from the conversation questions about the varied, far from uniform witness of our tradition about abortion, which contains more moral options than the single option the right now provides us with. We cannot have sane discussions of abortion when we simply dictate from the outset that life begins at conception and that this question will be off the table, or we’ll take our marbles and boycott the discussion. We cannot discuss abortion sanely when we take that approach, because our own tradition is not uniform about a human life starting at conception, and because some of our leading classical theologians, including Aquinas, held otherwise.

The teaching that a human being is fully present at the moment of conception is a very recent teaching. We may try to establish it by fiat if we wish, but we will be largely unsuccessful when we seek to do so, because thinking people will think about these issues, and will want to discuss them, before they make up their minds about them. Our non-negotiable, rule-by-fiat, no-discussion approach has the opposite effect than the one we claim we want, when we say that our goal is to convince people to take abortion and the moral implications of abortion seriously.

We also cannot discuss abortion sanely with anyone outside our little club if we fail to look at the political connections between the anti-abortion movement and the anti-feminist movement. It is undeniable that opposition to abortion has arisen within Christian churches in direct proportion to the emergence of women to full personhood on the stage of global human history. Resistance to abortion is, in many quarters, resistance to women’s full personhood and to the rights of women. And we undermine our efforts to convince people of the seriousness of abortion as a moral issue when we do not admit this, and when we do not eradicate misogyny altogether from our moral arguments against abortion.

And finally, it is also undeniable that a significant proportion of those who now argue that abortion is one of the premier evils of our time—including Archbishop Burke—have chosen to link the anti-abortion movement to homophobia, to resistance to gay rights, to movements to crush and dehumanize gay people. If for no other reason, as a gay person who also happens to be Christian, I cannot listen to Archbishop Burke’s arguments about how I should take abortion seriously as a moral issue, when he links that argument to arguments that deny my full humanity and combat my human rights.

If the Catholic church hopes to convince society at large that abortion is something to take seriously on moral grounds, it needs to rethink its current political choice to link resistance to abortion to homophobic causes. That linkage is unwise. It is dangerous for religious groups that hope to make a compelling case in the public square that abortion is a serious moral issue.

It is unwise and dangerous because an increasing number of people in the developed world do not buy into homophobia. They do not do so precisely because of their respect for human rights—because of their respect for the same human rights that, in the mind of the Catholic church, form the basis for opposition to abortion. Human beings have a right to life, the Catholic church wants to teach us.

But human beings who happen to be born gay also have rights, and those rights include the right to live with decency, not to be attacked, lied about, shunned and shamed. To the extent that the Catholic church participates in such actions—and it does; it is going out of its way to do so in Maine and many other places in the U.S. today—it totally undermines its credibility as a moral teacher regarding abortion and other life issues.

Let me put the point even more bluntly. Archbishop Burke has become a political operative, a shameless political pawn, for a group of right-wing Americans who have no intent at all of respecting gay human beings. The archbishop’s analysis of the twin evils of abortion and same-sex marriage is political, first and foremost. His opposition to health care reform is primarily political. As with other Republicans, he wants at all costs to turn back health care reform, even if doing so means that poor women will continue to have no health care coverage and will be faced with difficult decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy.

When the Archbishop Burkes of the world talk about abortion, I do not intend to listen. I cannot do so. I cannot do so because who they are and what they have chosen to embody militates against the message they claim that they want to impart to me.

And I remain astonished that so many of my Catholic brothers of the center seem not to see what is really at stake in these discussions, that they seem willing to live with the gross homophobia as part of the price one must pay for opposing abortion, that they appear untroubled by the appalling misuse of money by Catholic officials to mount nasty attacks on gay human beings. The appalling misuse of money to attack gay people by the same Catholic officials who have misused funds again and again to cover up clerical sexual abuse of minors, silence victims, and to mount lawsuits against those calling for justice.

When the walls are imploding under the weight of such massive corruption, how can we continue talking about moral issues as if we're in a well-constructed and stable house?

The graphic shows results of an August 2008 Pew survey.