Saturday, March 07, 2009

Come on Catholics, Get Your Act Together!

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.

17 comments:

Garpu said...

Great post...

I think a lot of the divisions will be smoothed over IFF each side can see the other as part of the Body of Christ. Sadly, groups on both sides are screaming that they're the true Church, and everyone else should be denied communion. (Don't we all say we're not worthy?) On the one hand, you've got EWTN, and on the other you've got some of the posters at NCR. While JPII bungled the sex abuse crisis, he did know a thing or two about keeping both sides together.

Mike McG... said...

Well done, Jeff. I second the motion. But I confess to be utterly defeated. No more pissing into the wind. Not until we agree to focus on process issues, where we are amazingly similar, and lay off of content issues, where the most engaged among us have staked out irreconcilable positions.

I locate the root causes in the realm of social psychology, not religion. And lest I seem to be smugly pointing outward, I hasten to add that I see every one of the following traits well ensconced within me.

Cognitive dissonance is painful. Ambivalence is exhausting. Tribal allegiances are reassuring. Dissent from reigning orthodoxies is costly, particularly within the sphere of personal relationships.

We all want friends and their esteem. And we don't want to walk on eggs. Solution: adopt the prevailing perspective, tack the zeitgeist rather than question it. Never intentionally, of course. Imperceptibly.

We tout our diversity bona fides but we are repelled by those who steadfastly hold to moral codes incongruent with our own. We can't even imagine, for God's sake, how a sane and moral person could vote for the other candidate for president.

We define ourselves by our wounds. Who among us has not been painfully rebuffed when sharing dissenting views on a contended issue? We resent the symbols and institutions that have wounded us and we wear these wounds as a badge of honor. We defer to the tribe we hang with...increasingly our political tribe, now that we're 'recovering from' the religious tribal allegiances of our childhood.

"Our" views are, of course, the sensible ones. "Their" views represents are venal, heartless, and...take your pick...fascist or socialist. Whatever happened to "mmm, I take your point. I see where you are coming from"?

We come to loathe and marginalize 'the other.' This contempt is most visible in blogdom. I never see exchanges quite so raw face-to-face. Insults received justify and propel insults hurled, ad infinitum. Take no prisoners.

I loved Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort," particularly because its themes have been so broadly communicated. But what's the take away: "'They' need to move to our obviously sensible and tolerant view" or "'I' need to question my own certainties and open myself to other perspectives.' I'd bet on the former rather than the latter.

Maybe the world will look better with the arrival of spring. Hope springs eternal.

crystal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liam said...

Good post, Jeff. I think Mike makes some very good points.

As far as the whole internet thing goes, I don't have the interest in shouting matches. A lot of people seem to really get off on trolling and flaming. I fins it depressing. I try to keep the discourse respectful on my blog (I don't always succeed, even with myself).

I stumbled across and incredible flamewar on livejournal among fastasy/science fiction writers concerning "writing the other" and racism. There were valid points on both sides, but for the most part it was insult, self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, and resentment. These are people who spend their time writing about elves and flying saucers.

(Yes, I know there is sf of very high literary quality, but I did find it somewhat ironic).

As far as the church goes, there is a lot of derision and lack of charity on both sides. A lot of not very humble ideas about what Christ meant. A lot of taking methods as if they were principals.

I do think, however, one side is more apt than the other to talk about some of us not being "real Catholics" and to get very gleeful about someone else's excommunication.

I also think we have to be careful about not confusing tolerance and relativism. I grew up a minority in a place run by people who were very sure they knew what God wanted a society to look like. That can get very bad.

bilbannon said...

Catholicism must straighten out the levels of authority in plain language and which issues are in each one. Not even Cardinals know how to sort out the ordinary magisterium from the supreme ordinary magisterium from the universal ordinary magisterium from the papal ordinary from the papal extraordinary...Oi Veh...I think I have a headache and not an ordinary headache but a supreme ordinary headache. People all over the net cite Lumen Gentium 25 as though it were scripture itself and yet Pope Paul VI stated in January 12 of 1966 audience that Vatican II as a whole supplied no new infallible statement anywhere.
Whatever happened to the sermon on the mount. And what ever happened to the sin of gluttony. Half our teens are overweight and not a word from anyone about gluttony. Whatever happened to usury? Visa ups you to near 30% if you are late and not a word. Saints you declare against whole cites as usurious and now that usury is actually here...not a word. One priest speicializes in birth control...another in Latin Masses...another in abortion.....none in gluttonly or usury. Oi...veh...the headache is coming back and now it's supreme universal ordinary extraordinary.

crystal said...

I tried to write a comment last night but when I looked back it sounded so stupid I deleted it :)

One thing I wrote which I'm still thinking about is what you said about liberals and piety. I don't know what piety means - please expalin about it.

Meg said...

The only person I can change is myself.

Do I make a true and prayerful effort to understand conservatives? Do I appreciate the values they are trying to conserve? Do I recognize that their obedience may be virtuous? Do I treat them as beloved brothers & sisters? Have I tried praying in their pew for a while?

When I tried, this, I found my anger dissipating.

Of course now that I see both sides, I am completely incapable of choosing one and actually making a decision, but, hey, one step at a time.

;)

We are the Body of Christ and the Body needs ALL of its parts.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

I think a lot of the divisions will be smoothed over IFF each side can see the other as part of the Body of Christ.

That's true. Anne had an uncle who passed away not too long ago, and his son (who's a priest) made note of the extreme diversity of people who showed up at his funeral. His life had touched people across the spectrum. Many of them came from all points of the compass on the Catholic spectrum, but all was put aside when it came to celebrating the eucharist together.

I wrote about LG and its emphasis on the Church as "People of God." I read something by the late Raymond Brown once, expressing his opinion that we needed to recover some of the emphasis on the Church as "The Body of Christ" too.

Jeff said...

Hi Mike,

We come to loathe and marginalize 'the other.' This contempt is most visible in blogdom. I never see exchanges quite so raw face-to-face. Insults received justify and propel insults hurled, ad infinitum. Take no prisoners.

I loved Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort," particularly because its themes have been so broadly communicated. But what's the take away: "'They' need to move to our obviously sensible and tolerant view" or "'I' need to question my own certainties and open myself to other perspectives.' I'd bet on the former rather than the latter.

Maybe the world will look better with the arrival of spring. Hope springs eternal.


We all need to question ourselves. You know, I jumped in briefly at Vox Nova for the first time recently. Interesting experience. The pressure to have the last word in blogdom, to save face, is persistent and overwhelming. It leads to many a "Baghdad Bob" moment.

Bill Bishop's Big Sort sounds quite relevant here, doesn't it? Politically and spiritually. I'd never heard of it before that John Allen column. It looks like something worth looking into.

At times I feel defeated too. Spring hopes eternal? Maybe. :) I'm wondering how much more I can say around these topics.

Jeff said...

Liam,

I stumbled across and incredible flamewar on livejournal among fastasy/science fiction writers concerning "writing the other" and racism. There were valid points on both sides, but for the most part it was insult, self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, and resentment. These are people who spend their time writing about elves and flying saucers.

Ha! Amazing/ See, there really is no safe haven from controversy on the web. It really makes you wonder, doesn't it? What is it about instantaneous written communication? At a first read we may take things a different way than we would have if we had calmed down and taken the time to parse it carefully... Taken the time to read it in the spirit it really may have been written in, instead of with a defensive posture. Maybe human beings really do need eye contact and facial cues in order to communicate effectively.

I also think we have to be careful about not confusing tolerance and relativism. I grew up a minority in a place run by people who were very sure they knew what God wanted a society to look like. That can get very bad.


Good point. I think your Utah experience gives you an insight there that a lot of us might otherwise miss.

Jeff said...

Bilbannon,


Thanks for visiting and commenting...

Oi...veh...

:) Ha. "Oi, veh" is right.

Funny that you should mention those particular sins. I actually put up a post about usury not too long ago. Gluttony? Not directly, but we do discuss consumerism and avarice quite often here. Maybe not individual gluttony, but there's plenty of discussion around corporate gluttony.

Jeff said...

Crystal,

They say that one of the best indicators of how someone is going to vote in an election is their level of Church attendance. Those who attend religious services on a weekly basis or more tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican. Those who attend less, or not at all, tend to vote Democrat. There seems to be a conflation right now between traditional religious observance and conservatism.

I think Rolheiser would define "piety" as regular church attendance, the use of standardized prayers and devotional practices, and concerns over strict orthodoxy. The way he uses it in his books, I think he also attaches a concern for chastity and personal sexual purity. In this post, check out what he considers to be styles of spirituality out of balance.

Jeff said...

Hi Meg,

Great to see you here again. I can see you've been very busy with your courses. I hope they are going well. :)

Do I make a true and prayerful effort to understand conservatives? Do I appreciate the values they are trying to conserve? Do I recognize that their obedience may be virtuous? Do I treat them as beloved brothers & sisters? Have I tried praying in their pew for a while?

When I tried, this, I found my anger dissipating.


While I'm on the Rolheiser thing, I may as well keep going. I've always found him helpful in that regard. See here and here. Again. :)

cowboyangel said...

Excellent post, Jeff. And a lot of great comments from everyone. You should at least feel good that you've created on your blog the kind of environment you want.

I don't have much to add.

Maybe, though, it's not so easy to put on a seamless garment or to have a consistent life ethic. The church contains so many people from so many backgrounds and cultures. It's not surprising that there would be differences.

And I don't think you can fall back on Church teaching as a solution. It's simply too flawed.

You wouldn't even be able to get agreement on what constitutes a "consistent life ethic" among your readers, as much as they respect each other and are open-minded and tolerant.

But your blog is a great step in the right direction, and you should feel proud of that.

Deacon Denny said...

Jeff --

Loved your post, and the comments. I usually have, though I've been away from blogdom for a while.

But as regards the clash of views so easy to find in blogs, what you said about the funeral hit the nail on the head. I had a former pastor who put it this way: "Well, Dennis, I always let the Archbishop worry about the big things, like Peace and Undocumented Immigrants. Here at the parish we worry about little things, like weddings and funerals and people concerned about their teenagers."

I have a ministry at the parish, and find that the conversation very seldom drifts into politics. You can always push it that way if you want, but people usually don't want to. They'll react to particular homilies, usually if they're on justice topics, and usually appreciatively, and that's OK. But the coffee-hour conversation is usually about someone who died, or someone whose cancer has come back, or the child who needs an operation on her ears.

Gives me a little pause. I'll still stir things up now and then, but I can't help loving these parishioners. Blogdom misses a lot of that -- though I do appreciate the recurring viewpoints of people whose names I recognize again and again.

Jeff said...

William,

Thanks very much, as always.

Maybe, though, it's not so easy to put on a seamless garment or to have a consistent life ethic. The church contains so many people from so many backgrounds and cultures. It's not surprising that there would be differences.

I don't know. I really don't think it's that complicated if we can adhere to a broad group of guiding principles that leaves room for shades of grey and pastoral sensitivity.

The Catholic Church has always understood human frailty and weakness. Talk to an Italian cardinal about moral doctrine, and he'll be likely to tell you about "ideals." For example, Catholic Church doctrine is pretty conservative when it comes to sexual matters, yet the Vatican is in the heart of Italy of all placesl... It was this Latin "subtlety" and laxity around principles that so disgusted rigid-minded northern Europeans that it helped to spark the Reformation.

What I'm seeing, and what I think John Allen is seeing as well, is that the split in the Church seems to mirror, and indeed seems to be driven by, the split between the USA's two major political parties. We both find this to be frustrating. I think we can realize that we live in a pluralistic society, can recognize the dangers of theocracy (whether it would be under someone else's religious tradition or our own), but still recognize that our attitudes towards our faiths shouldn't be driven off of purely secular political platforms.

Jeff said...

Deacon Denny!

You don't know how glad I am to see you! It had been so long since you'd blogged that I was actually worried that something might have happened to you.

Thanks for the reminder that in the end, this is all about God's love for humanity, and the Church is meant as a sacrament for the world in order to relay that love... That the law is made for people and not the other way around. Your blog has always been a great reflection of that. I'll be re-linking "Brief Notes". :)