Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Here Be Dragons: Tribalistic Patrolling of Catholic-Identity Boundaries and Pushback Against Garry Wills

Over the lunch hour and after we had met friends for lunch, Steve had a bit of business to conduct. As I often do while I wait in the car for him, I turned on a "Christian" radio program to catch up on what the "Christians" (the folks who hold forth on this channel are very much what Andrew Sullivan would call Christianists) are saying these days.

Today's offering: someone from the Family Research Council ranting about Lawrence O'Donnell and his "attack on the bible as God's infallible word" and his "attack on Jesus" back in early January. I blogged about O'Donnell's statements, which Bill Donohue of the Catholic League singled out for censure, some weeks ago.

Lawrence O'Donnell didn't, of course, attack the bible. He didn't attack Jesus. He pointed out that there's a great deal in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that, with good reason, faith communities today choose to regard as culturally conditioned and even morally reprehensible. All communities of faith that regard scriptures of any sort as foundational are constantly involved, over the course of history, in a process of sifting what those scriptures have to say, in order to determine their pertinence for ever-changing cultural situations. 

This is one of the prices that any faith community which centers itself on a revelatory text has to pay for its decision to be a religion of the book. The meaning of holy texts is never self-evident. It has to be winkled out by a process of ongoing discernment and discussion that keeps contemporary culture always in mind, since it's against the backdrop of contemporary culture that the full meaning and pertinence of holy texts becomes evident.

As I listened to the ill-informed rant about O'Donnell's sane understanding of the process of biblical interpretation, I couldn't help thinking of what Matt Malone published yesterday at America's "In All Things" blog about Garry Wills. Malone takes exception to remarks Wills made recently on the "Colbert Show."

I haven't seen the Colbert clip. According to Malone, Wills "wantonly insult[ed]" his fellow Catholics by claiming that the sacraments are "invented," and by denying that the eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ. Malone thinks Wills should apologize for his incivility, his lack of charity, and his suggestion that fakery is involved in Catholic understandings of the sacraments--notably the eucharist.

Again, I haven't seen the clip to which Malone is referring, and I can't comment on the substance of what Wills said. I'm aware that many different kinds of Catholics show up on Colbert's comedy show on a routine basis, and that some of them say jocular and even shocking things. They're not there, I'd assumed, to do theology or define Catholic identity. They're there to joke with Stephen Colbert.

This appears to me part of the show's shtick. Colbert himself is Catholic, and he himself is perfectly capable of sending up some aspects of Catholic faith and practice in a comedic way on his show. In fact, he's often been applauded by Catholics of a centrist and liberal bent, some of them writing on the "In All Things" blog itself, precisely for his penchant for lampooning some of the most outré notions of right-wing Catholics and of some Catholic hierarchical figures.

Without having seen Colbert's exchange with Wills, I am struck by the following, as I read Malone's response: as a Catholic theologian and a Catholic struggling to make sense of what my church teaches and what I believe in a cultural context that constantly challenges and stretches me to delve more deeply, to understand more keenly, I don't find it particularly helpful when Catholic journalists or hierarchical figures draw lines in the sand and say, We Catholics stand here. And all discussion stops here.

Here are the tribal boundaries: you are not to venture beyond them. Go beyond the lines I've drawn, and you are no longer Catholic. I don't find it especially helpful when Catholic journalists or hierarchical figures resort to such conversation-stopping tricks precisely when historical events open up conversations that it's necessary for us Catholics to have if our Catholic faith is to have any real meaning at all in the culture in which we live.

When a cycle which involves a major transition in Catholic institutional life comes around again, as is happening with Benedict's abdication and the election of a new pope, the tendency of the powerful commentariat that tries to control the definition of Catholic identity in the American media is always to draw those tribalistic boundary lines yet again--and to warn fellow Catholics calling for more honest and critical discussion of the lines that they've verged into territory that disqualifies them from claiming Catholic identity.

For Matt Malone, talking about what the sacraments mean and precisely how Christ is present in the eucharist and in our eucharistic celebrations is, I gather, fraught with danger insofar as it verges on the territory of the non-negotiable. Michael Sean Winters has recently informed his readers at National Catholic Reporter that our Catholic faith is normed at a fundamental level by "our commitment to the core doctrines of the faith, our love for the Eucharist, our devotion to the Blessed Mother."

A contributor to National Catholic Reporter discussions who began to appear at that site in the recent past--someone now calling herself Purgatrix Ineptiae (she's been a regular at Catholic blog sites under a plethora of previous usernames)--has responded today to an article of Jamie Manson's on Benedict and tradition by claiming that "the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood is considered part of Tradition. The Popemobile is a tradition. The Assumption is Tradition." Popemobiles: negotiable. Women's exclusion from ordination and the Assumption of Mary: non-negotiable foundations on which the Catholic church rises or falls.

Here the boundaries lie. Here discussion ceases.

It's no accident, I'm proposing, that these kinds of declarations of Catholic identity by fiat inevitably proliferate precisely when the liminal boundaries of the church appear to have become vulnerable at a moment of institutional transition. As Mary Douglas reminds us in her classic work Purity and Danger, the response of those who guard the center of any social institution--those concerned to maintain its integrity as an organism--to any perceived threat to the liminal thresholds of the institution at a time of crisis is to fight. To push back. To feel that their institution is under attack by infectious agents. To find someone or some groups to identify as a threat, a scapegoat, and to expel it to help consolidate the institution's self-definition and to shore up its boundaries.

It's no accident that, at moments of transition in the Catholic church, various members of its centrist commentariat are intent on telling the rest of us precisely what we must believe--and precisely what we can say--in order to be considered good Catholics. This is part of their self-appointed work as those patrolling the tribal boundaries, and those controlling who is permitted into the conversation defining Catholic identity, and those who are to be declared outside the conversation.

For my money, it might be far healthier (and far more adequate to the church's self-definition as catholic) to entertain more wide-ranging and probing conversation than the guardians of the center wish us to entertain. Questions about how to define the eucharist--about what the Real Presence and transubstantiation mean--and about the nature of the sacraments and their historical origins are hardly new to Catholic theology.

They've been constantly and fruitfully discussed by theologians for years--when the hierarchy doesn't choose to shut these discussions down and declare them off-limits and those pursuing open discussion  of such matters unfaithful dissidents. Such discussions are, in fact, precisely necessary if the core affirmations of Catholic faith are to have any real meaning in shifting cultural settings.

If we can't talk--honestly, openly, critically, and respectfully--about what these matters mean, then what we're perhaps actually saying is that our fundamental affirmations of faith have no real meaning for the world in which we live. No real meaning other than to define our tribal identity against the identities of other competing tribes . . . .

I'd like to hope that our basic affirmations of faith mean a bit more than that, and that those who push us hard to reflect on their meaning--even by insulting and taunting us--are actually doing us a favor.

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