Stop all this internecine fighting and just put on the seamless garment
There is a divorce between Private Morality and Social Justice... The pious aren’t liberal and the liberal aren’t pious... People seldom have the same passion for: private morality and social justice, action and contemplation, poverty and family values...
-- Fr. Ron Rolheiser, The Holy Longing
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
A Stag at Sharkey's, by George Bellows (1909)
Why not? Why not try on the seamless garment? A consistent life ethic is what the Catholic Catechism teaches... What the hell is so hard about it? Why does it seem equally hard for both the left and the right to embrace?
As I've said here before, it seems to me like a lot of Americans let their faith be informed and shaped by their personal secular politics rather than having their politics shaped and informed by their faith... There are things about the latter that can be dangerous, to be sure, but the former is never a good thing. Years ago, when I was helping out with high school youth ministry in our parish, we did a segment on "How do you make decisions, as an American or as a Catholic?" They are not mutually exclusive by any means, but the team was pretty chagrined by what they heard from the students. Relativism and the embracing of situational ethics was alive and well. The only thing to be harshly judged was judgmentalism itself. The catch-phrase "I can't say that what's right for me is necessarily what's right for someone else" was heard early and often. It came from home. Their parents were pretty much the same. That's the laity...
Vatican I was held in 1870. It defined papal infallibility, but the council was abruptly ended when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. The Council Fathers never got around to writing a constitutional document on the Church itself. It's probably just as well... Formally defining the Church was left up to Vatican II, and that definition was presented in Lumen Gentium.
The order of the chapters is important. For years, most people inside and outside of the Church tended to think of it as a pyramid structure, with the pope, cardinals, and bishops at the top, followed by priests, sisters, and other religious, and with the laity at the bottom. Lumen Gentium flipped the pyramid over. The Church is defined as a mystery and as the "People of God" first. The chapters on the ecclesiastical offices comes after. This was not accidental. We all are called to holiness and have equal status in the Church through our baptism.
Unfortunately, we've seen that the chasm between the hierarchy and the laity is growing wider and wider instead, and out of fear, the hierarchy has tried to "flip" the pyramid back over again. The hierarchy has a legitimate teaching function, that is certainly true, which is why they need to be careful not to squander their moral authority foolishly. They need to have good pastoral judgment, and speak up for the dignity of life without laying heavy burdens on our shoulders that they're not willing to carry themselves.
There has been a lot written and said lately about the hierarchy's most recent blundering miscues, such as the lifting of the excommunications on the SSPX bishops, and the controversies around Gerhard Wagner in Austria and Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho in Brazil. It's important not to squander moral authority, because there is much accumulated wisdom in Church teaching that desperately needs to be heard today. The prophetic teaching of the Church needs to be heard today especially on issues like social justice for the poor, and on the dangerously resurgent spectre of eugenics.
Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna has been very bold and prominent in speaking out on these curial and hierarchical mistakes. Recently he published a letter called "Word of Comfort and Encouragement" to the priests and church employees in his diocese, stating:
I can imagine that many of you don't feel too good at the moment. Neither do I... Once again we are confronted with occurrences that cause grief and indignation. They make us shake our heads and seem incomprehensible. And once again the Church has been made to look stupid and so have we. And again we ask, ‘Is this really necessary? Have we deserved this? Are we to be spared nothing?'
At a time when the Church should really be dealing with the crucial worries that face people today such as the financial crisis and unemployment, it is confronted with debates about a small group of people who refuse to recognise the Second Vatican Council, or at least crucial parts of it, who think the Pope and the Church are on the wrong path and who consider themselves as the true Catholic Church. And on top of that we are now faced with the uproar concerning the new auxiliary in Linz. This is all a bit much and can give rise to a feeling of hopelessness...
Now, as to this whole SSPX thing in particular... Hardly anyone I speak to has ever heard of these people, yet the Catholic blogosphere would lead you to believe that the SSPX and the Tridentine Mass are the only things that matter out there. I tried taking a stab at offering an explanation as to why the Pope reached out to this group, but this strange solicitous attitude towards them still seems odd nonetheless.
Here's something for liberals to consider in that vein... It's a sacramental church. Popes and cardinals and bishops say Mass. They dispense sacraments. They notice who shows up looking for them. To them, that's the pulse of where the Church lives... The laity in Germany and France and Austria and other European countries who are so upset about this SSPX decision need to consider this:
If they had been showing up to Mass every week, this ridiculous overture to the SSPX would have never taken place.
The SSPX would have been forgotten long, long ago, except that for all of their other faults, they show up at Mass every week, if not daily. I've read that there are as many SSPX seminarians in France as there are diocesan seminarians. You almost can't blame the curia for wondering who the "committed Catholics" are under such circumstances.
It won't do for liberals (or progressives, if we prefer) to dismiss the "institutional church" and to sit things out when they feel disaffected. They need to stay engaged, and they need to step up and justify the faith that the Vatican II fathers put in them. They went out on a limb for the laity, claiming that the laity could be as holy as any saintly clerical superstar. The laity shouldn't let them down.
Is Fr Ron Rolheiser right? Is it true that the pious aren't liberal and the liberal aren't pious? Why should it be that way? Why is there so much cafeteria selection taking place on both sides? Why is Catholic blogdom so polarized? A lot of people in parishes used to feel the same way I do. Where have they all gone? Why do I feel like the Last of the Mohicans all the time?
He and the Huron were perilously close to the edge... Plate from Last of the Mohicans, by N.C. Wyeth (1919)
As someone who often feels like a lonely voice calling out in the wilderness, I was gratified to see this recent column by John Allen, Social ministers long for unified Catholic voice. Some excerpts:
I spent part of this week at what is arguably the most courageous annual event in Washington, D.C. -- or the most quixotic, depending upon your point of view. It’s the “Social Ministry Gathering” sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which brings together more than 500 Catholic leaders for a week of issue seminars and knocking on doors on Capitol Hill.
Here’s what makes the shindig unique: It pulls off the oil-and-water exercise of gathering pro-life and social justice activists under one roof, and pushes them to work together. Perhaps no other venue in this ultra-partisan town allows one to get an update about fighting the Freedom of Choice Act in one room, then stroll next door to hear about the dangers of global warming or why natural resources in developing nations aren’t used to help the poor. Even more remarkable, these are largely the same people, who share the same broad vision of defending human life and dignity across the board.
Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley of Washington, D.C, an African-American prelate born in Florida, struck this tone at a Pro-Life Activities breakfast on Tuesday. He called upon “pro-life and peace and justice people” to build “a more integrated network,” comparing the pro-life cause and anti-slavery efforts in the 19th century by arguing that both promote “equal treatment under the law.” Holley also said that the church’s social message must “begin at the womb, but not end there.”
Holley told a powerful story from 1972, when he was a lanky teenager in the deep South, about being confronted by three pick-up trucks full of angry white men. One of them, he said, held a shotgun to his head while screaming racial hatred, and for a while it wasn’t clear he would escape without a beating … or worse. (Eventually the mob ran out of steam, and Holley and his little brother slipped away). Holley said that memory flooded back when he watched Barack Obama on election night. He ended up on his floor, he said, sobbing uncontrollably about what the result meant in light of the African-American experience in this country.
Yet in almost the same breath, Holley described his disappointment with Obama on the “life issues.” Though he didn’t quite spell it out, one could almost sense the division in Holley’s own heart -- his anguish at being unable to fully embrace this administration, which in many ways seems so full of promise, because of what he sees as its moral blindness on unborn life. Holley’s remarks seemed to capture much sentiment here: strong optimism about some aspects of the Obama presidency, alarm about others, and, in any event, longing for a more unified Catholic voice that could somehow bring both of these instincts together.
While that longing is hugely commendable, one should not be naïve about the cultural tide against which efforts such as the Social Ministry Gathering are swimming.
In that regard, here’s a reading recommendation: Journalist Bill Bishop’s recent book The Big Sort offers hard empirical data to illustrate what he sees as a thirty-year trend in American life towards “homophilia” -- which in this case has nothing to do with sex, but rather love of one’s own kind. Bishop shows that over the last three decades, Americans have retreated into ideologically-defined ghettoes -- both physical and virtual -- in which we have systematically walled ourselves off from people with whom we disagree.
A few factoids from the book:
In 1976, less than one-quarter of the American population lived in “landslide counties,” meaning counties in which the spread in the presidential vote was more than 20 percent one way or the other. By 2004, it was more than fifty percent, meaning that Americans are increasingly clustering near people who think like them.
In 1975, moderates made up forty percent of the House of Representatives; by 2005, that number had fallen to eight percent...
As Bishop observes, when people spend most of their time in like-minded company, a “law of group polarization” takes over... In 2006, Abramowitz found that 86 percent of Democrats now call themselves “liberal,” and 80 percent of Republicans say they’re “conservative,” suggesting that the moderate middle has all but vanished.
All this concerns the world of secular politics, but in many ways American Catholics have reproduced this trajectory within the church. Mutz’s research offers confirmation of the point; in surveys in the late 1990s, she found that the overwhelming majority of regular church-goers, including Catholics, say the people they meet at church are “like them” politically. Applied to Catholics, this means that pro-lifers and those whose concerns skew towards anti-poverty efforts or immigration reform rarely rub shoulders. More often, they’re socialized to see one another as members of different tribes, with alien customs and worldviews.
Purely in terms of Realpolitik, this laceration within the church means that Catholics speak with a divided voice. Theologically, the problem cuts even deeper. The church is supposed to be the sacrament of the unity of the human family, which is difficult to pull off when we’re clustered into competing factions.
When I trotted all this out during my talk at the Social Ministry Gathering, one young Catholic from the West Coast challenged me, arguing with great conviction that Americans are more unified now and that the 2008 elections marked a sea change in that regard. He also insisted that the same thing is true within the church. I’d very much like to believe that’s right, but my reading of both Bishop’s data and the recent experience of American Catholicism suggests that we’re dealing with long-term historical trends unlikely to be reversed in the flash of an eye.
In any event, I told the crowd in Washington, when it comes to building unity in a divided church, the trick is to hope that things have changed -- but to work as if they haven’t. Anyone looking for inspiration in that regard would do well to keep the Social Ministry Gathering in mind.