Saturday, May 16, 2009

Who Really Is Catholic In Name Only?

Who Is a Real Catholic?

By David Gibson Sunday, May 17, 2009---Washington Post

All you need to know to diagnose the state of the Catholic Church in America today is that Pope Benedict XVI -- who has a knack for ticking off Muslims and Jews -- spent the past week wandering the Middle East, yet Catholics here barely noticed. They were too busy fighting over Barack Obama's appearance as commencement speaker at Notre Dame or arguing about the fate of a popular Miami priest known as "Father Oprah," who was caught on camera sharing a seaside embrace with his girlfriend. (I still maintain that this was absolutely intentional. The one message the right did not want heard was Pope Benedict's denunciation of state security as the barometer for moral judgement when it comes to the questionable activities of a nation/state.)

Is this what Catholicism in America has come to? Bickering about whether Notre Dame is really Catholic, or whether a priest can make out on the beach with his gal pal? Well, yes. And that should come as no surprise.

Since the emergence of Catholicism in the 19th century as a counterweight to the United States's reigning Protestant culture, American Catholics have struggled to balance their desire to assimilate into society with the fear of losing their faith in the nation's melting pot. These new controversies show that, in the Catholic saga, assimilation is winning.

That is because American Catholics -- and there are upwards of 65 million of us -- are going their own way on many matters of faith and especially on issues ranging from priestly celibacy to political candidates, and there seems to be little the bishops can do about it. If there is a true swing vote in the U.S. electorate today, it is the Catholic bloc. This disturbs conservative members of the faith, the self-styled "orthodox" who often dismiss such fickle folks as "cafeteria Catholics." In the vacuum left by the disappearing Catholic subculture, conservatives have made politics the eighth sacrament, with one's position on abortion and gay marriage becoming the litmus test of whether one is a "good Catholic," or a Catholic at all. (Interesting how neither of these litmus tests pertains to heterosexual males.)

This civil war, as the Catholic writer Peter Steinfels recently called it, between hard-liners and those seeking greater engagement, is one the church cannot win. A recent Pew survey showed that despite a generally greater "brand loyalty" than most faiths, Catholicism in America is bleeding out, to the point that nearly one in 10 Americans identifies as a former Catholic. For every one convert, four Catholics are leaving the church -- half of them to traditions like evangelicalism that they find more spiritually fulfilling. Without the inflow of millions of Latino immigrants in recent decades, American Catholicism would be in decline, and even still the church is shrinking in many areas.
The conflicting identities of American Catholics have deep roots. Beginning in the 1800s, American Catholics insulated themselves by building an alternate universe of schools to educate their children, hospitals to care for their sick, and cemeteries to bury their dead. They were forbidden to marry outside the fold, and stepping inside a Protestant church was considered hazardous to the soul's health. On the other hand, just as Catholics wanted to show Rome they could be every bit as Catholic as the pope, they also wanted to prove to their fellow citizens that they could be as red, white, and blue as any Connecticut Yankee. They fought in the nation's wars, labored in the country's factories, and turned out generations of college graduates who took their place among America's elite. And after the presidential candidacy of Al Smith was thwarted in 1928 thanks in part to anti-Catholic canards, the faithful helped power John F. Kennedy to the White House in 1960.

Of course, just as Catholics finally arrived, they almost immediately set to fighting among themselves with a bitterness that would make even the most fractious Baptists blush. The Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s brought contested reforms that coincided with the social upheavals of that decade, and in 1968, as women were rejoicing in the liberation of The Pill, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ban on artificial contraception. Some Catholics stormed off but others simply defected in place, feeling free to stay and disregard papal teaching. Then came Roe v. Wade, drawing Catholicism into the culture wars with a fury that seemed to peak during the 2008 election. (Some stormed off, but a huge percentage defected and stayed in place.)

But it didn't end on November 4. In March, when the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to deliver its commencement address -- as it has done for presidents going back to Eisenhower -- conservative Catholics and a growing number of bishops (about 60 at last count, though still a minority of the nearly 290 active bishops in the United States) denounced the school and its president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, in the harshest terms. Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., had perhaps the sharpest (and most insider) of jabs, calling Jenkins's invitation "truly obscene" and suggesting that he rename the school "Northwestern Indiana Humanist University."

As such purple rhetoric was flying about on the Notre Dame affair, American Catholics suddenly faced a more sordid one: A tabloid published shots of popular Cuban American priest Alberto Cutié -- a multimedia star among U.S. Hispanics -- in risqué poses on the beach with a woman who turns out to be his girlfriend of two years. Nothing draws media flies like a sex scandal, especially one involving a man of the cloth, but a funny thing happened on the way to Father Cutié's disgrace: He did not slink away in shame but instead proclaimed, with Luther-like dignity, that he wasn't worried what the hierarchy thought. "What worries me most is how God views me. The institution, the church, is something else." (How true, the institution, the church, is surely something else.)

Cutié is now reportedly considering whether to marry his girlfriend, and has said he thinks priestly celibacy should be optional. What's more, 78 percent of Miami-area Catholics said they had a favorable impression of him, and 81 percent backed his call for a married priesthood, according to a Miami Herald poll. (Which should give the hierarchy some idea on just how 'traditional' Hispanic Catholics are about certain issues.)

That willingness of American Catholics to break ranks with such long-held tenets is evident in surveys on a number of issues, including church teachings regarding celibacy and birth control. But for conservative Catholics, "opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life," as Jody Bottum, who recently succeeded the late Father Richard John Neuhaus as editor of the theocon journal First Things, wrote recently in the Weekly Standard. To Bottum, Notre Dame's president and others who could engage a pro-abortion rights politician like Obama "lack the cultural marker that would make them Catholic in the minds of other Catholics."

While those "other Catholics" are a distinct minority, they have adopted the tactics of hard-line activists. For example, when Obama visited Georgetown University last month to deliver a major economic policy speech, his set-up crew covered up a religious symbol behind the podium to make the setting conform to a non-religious standard. The move was immediately cited as proof that Obama was anti-Catholic -- the speech's references to the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding.

These activists have also exploited -- or worked with -- bishops whose views match their own. And they can get away with it because the do-it-yourself trend in Catholicism is also infecting the hierarchy, with bishops openly contradicting each other on such fundamental issues as one's suitability to receive Communion, in terms that might have once been reserved for the church's archenemies. (This do it yourself pastoring is further eroded by the fact personal pastoral issues are now made glaringly public.)

And this is perhaps the greatest irony: Conservative Catholics are proving to be the greatest assimilationists, with their efforts to decertify fellow Catholics mimicking a sectarian and divisive culture that classic Catholicism has always rejected. (The surest sign of this is the insistence on using state security concerns to justify acts by the US which are most certainly in conflict with the moral and social justice teachings of Traditional Catholicism. This is the real TRUTH.)

A recent courageous editorial in the national Jesuit weekly America (which has at times felt the wrath of Rome) cited the dangers that the Notre Dame furor has revealed: "For today's sectarians, it is not adherence to the church's doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program . . . They scorn Augustine's inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics . . . [and] threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States."

This priority on unity is the principle that most American Catholics still live by, and it makes them accept Father Cutié, girlfriend and all, and welcome Obama to the iconic campus in South Bend. As the conservative Catholic legal scholar and Reagan administration lawyer Douglas Kmiec put it in Slate earlier this year, "Beyond life issues, an audaciously hope-filled Democrat like Obama is a Catholic natural." (But not a Calvinistic leaning sexually obsessed red blooded American natural.)

When he speaks at Notre Dame, Barack Obama -- an African-American Protestant with a Muslim father -- may enunciate a vision that resonates more genuinely with American Catholics than the pronouncements of the church's high-decibel spokesmen. This state of affairs can emerge only in a church that is compromising its historic self-definition as the biggest of tents.

A century ago, the church was deeply divided over Pope Pius X's campaign against "Modernism," which was a catchall for anything Rome deemed suspicious. When Pius died, the conclave of 1914 elected Benedict XV, who immediately issued an encyclical calling on Catholics "to appease dissension and strife" so that "no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith."

"There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism," Benedict XV concluded. "It is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname.'"

If the Catholic Church had a bumper sticker, that could be it. And it means that the real dilemma for American Catholics today is not whether Notre Dame is Catholic, but whether we are.


David Gibson has hit on some important points in this article. One point he makes needs special consideration. American Catholicism was it's own sub culture. We did use our own hospitals, go to our own schools, get buried in our own cemeteries. Going to a Protestant church was a ticket on the train to hell. Almost all of this had to do with immigrants coming from an almost universal Catholic culture in Europe. To be sure there were national differences, but in many respects Catholicism represented one's home away from one's birth home. This is why the changes wrought by Vatican II were far harder on first and second generation Catholics than they were on their children. For those first generations, Vatican II seemed to truncate the universality of the Church. It too became foreign.

I can truthfully say this current conservative version of real Catholicism is completely foreign to me. But I find it more sinister in it's foreignness. There are trends with in it which were never apparent before the neo con converts got a hold of the megaphone. Supposed sins used to be private. They were between a person and his confessor. There were no 'temple police' who took it upon themselves to trot to Rome to 'correct' a pastor or a bishop. That was unthinkable. One didn't have to wear 'Catholic' on their forehead. Everyone knew it from what school you went to or what mortuary you used. In many respects this Catholic identity exhibited a fortress mentality, but it was mainly defensive. Now it's offensive, engaging in 'pre emptive strikes'.

This held true especially for sexual issues. No one talked about using birth control and no one asked. If you really bought the Church's sexual teachings you knew you were on your way to hell. The sexual teachings were virtually impossible to follow. Biology wouldn't cooperate. We knew all the rules in the world wouldn't change that, something seen operating in the Father Cutie story. He's a guy. He's human. He has a biological imperative that will never compute Vatican directives on chastity. Catholics used to know this and cut each other a ton of slack. The same kind of slack that the clergy cut each other, as can definitely be seen operating in the sexual abuse crisis. The problem with the abuse crisis is the clergy didn't know where to draw the line. Men never seem to when it's a power issue. It's one thing when sex is between consenting adults, it's quite another when it's forced on children.

The thing is, lay Catholics weren't a whole lot better when it came to childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence. It took secular society to bring these issues out of their closets, and that took the women's movement. Women were the ones who pushed the domestic violence and sexual abuse issues. Men behaving badly, enabled by silence and queasy respect for privacy, was no longer tolerated.

And maybe this is why abortion and gay sex have become the culture warriors issues. For culture warriors abortion is not about a woman's right to choose or her right to privacy, it's about intrinsic evil. A form of murder beyond any other form of murder including beating your wife to death. It's about maintaining and preaching that the life of a non viable fetus is more important in a moral sense, than the life of it's mother--even if that mother is a nine year old incestuous rape victim. Oh yea and by the way, so is most every form of birth control an abortifacient, even when it's not. Does your husband have HIV? Too bad, his right to procreative sex trumps your life.

Adultery, domestic abuse, and heterosexual rape are bad, but not as bad as those objectively disordered intrinsically evil gay men, who also happen to all be pedophiles, and gay marriage is the biggest threat to world peace since, well, forever. And oh by the way, no priesthood for them because heterosexual priests don't commit child sexual abuse.

So, what do I think about the big Catholic identity issues? I think they are all about immature heterosexual males having apoplexy because secular society finally grew up enough to demand some accountability for males behaving badly in the 'private' domain. No more free pass. Does it surprise me that this charge is being led by mostly Southern Evangelical converts? Hardly, the attractions are the all male priesthood and exclusively male authority structure. The Church's stance on homosexuality, which has conveniently come to the forefront since the abuse scandal of 2003, and it's attitude towards women, stressing motherhood only after virginity--apparently still the ultimate male fantasy.

The culture wars are neither Christian nor Catholic, and in fact violate Catholic moral tradition. They are the unconscious products of immature and insecure males and their female counterparts. This insecurity leads directly to a sense of elitism and is furthered by mixing a narrow definition of religious orthodoxy with political nationalism. Keep American Catholicism wrapped up in abortion and gay sex, and people will ignore the other Republican male power agenda which is defining the morality of the state strictly on their national security terms.

True Catholicism is global in it's perspective, not national. The culture warriors would have us forget that. The Vatican has not. Neither has Notre Dame and neither have the majority of our bishops. Eventually the Vatican will have to take another look at it's sexual and gender fixations. Maybe the current politically motivated fractured state of American Catholicism will spur wiser heads to take a second look at who's really benefiting from the culture wars, because the real beneficiaries are not particularly Christian much less Catholic, but they are mostly very wealthy, mostly white, mostly male, and mostly Republican.
mjk b


  1. Brava! No time to leave a long comment, but brava for a great post and your own thoughts on Gibson's piece.


  2. Colleen, excellent commentary. I like how you contrast the inclusive, generally non-judgmental culture of authentic traditional Catholicism with the really frightening and anti-Christian culture Catholicism is now producing in the U.S., insofar as it lets those threatened immature males define things.

    You make a point that I think about often. All the men now shouting about how they uphold traditional Catholic sexual morality are curiously silent about what that morality REALLY entails. As you point out, it condemns a heck of a lot more than, say, gay sex.

    It condemns "entertaining" an "impure" thought. It condemns any and every form of sexual pleasure that doesn't take place between a married couple having intercourse in which nothing artificially impedes the procreative possibility of the act of intercourse.

    In other words, it condemns the sexual lives and sexual natures of about 99.9% of humanity, including, you can bet on it, much that those shouting men do and think.

  3. "Maybe the current politically motivated fractured state of American Catholicism will spur wiser heads to take a second look at who's really benefiting from the culture wars, because the real beneficiaries are not particularly Christian much less Catholic, but they are mostly very wealthy, mostly white, mostly male, and mostly Republican. "

    Amen, sister!

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