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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Seinfeldian Catholicism.

The Church of "Not That There's Anything Wrong With That."

Or, Would You Mind Removing the Dagger of Christian Fellowship From Between My Shoulder Blades, Thanks?

America Magazine offers its diagnosis of the problem with Obama being given an honorary degree at Notre Dame. And, in a shocking twist, the real problem is the group of unwashed hooligans who made the Baby Jenkins cry.

"The clouds roll with thunder, the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth, and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak—'We are the only Christians!'" So wrote St. Augustine about the Donatists, a perfectionist North African sect that attempted to keep the church free of contamination by having no truck with Roman officialdom.

And, we're off--to a very, very bad start. As in First--and file this away for later--note that the editorialist starts off with an accusation of heresy. Then compare it to the Kumbaya ending.

The second problem is that it is a stupid analogy. The Donatists didn't have a problem with those "having truck with Roman officialdom." The Donatists had a problem with those clerics who had caved in to Roman persecution, giving up the sacred books ("traditors," from which the term "traitor" is derived) and generally selling out the faithful.


Anyway, the Donatists challenged the ability of clerics who had given in to the Romans to administer the sacraments after the persecution ended. St. Augustine rightly fought against that. It's not remotely the same situation as complaining about festooning public officials with honors and platforms, but it makes for a handy self-righteous label, so why not?

Oh, and the Church fought the Donatists with repeated condemnations by popes and councils, so the analogy really sucks wind if you have the slightest grasp of Google. Moving on.

In the United States today, self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy, like Randall Terry and the Cardinal Newman Society, push mightily for a pure church quite unlike the mixed community of saints and sinners—the Catholic Church—that Augustine championed. Like the Circumcellions of old, they thrive on slash-and-burn tactics; and they refuse to allow the church to be contaminated by contact with certain politicians.

Except, of course, that that's not what Donatism was about. And why the fearbabe references to noted publicity whore Randall Terry, and, not, say, to Bishop D'Arcy of South Bend, or one of 70 or so of his colleagues? Gosh, this wouldn't be an exercise in well-poisoning now, would it?

Oh, and the Circumcellion (see above link for details) reference is a nice touch, given that group's propensity for physical violence. I guess I should be thankful that the editorialist didn't make a reference to the Taliban.

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 and fierce opposition to any proposal short of that program. They scorn Augustine’s inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics,

Who positively carpet-bombed the Donatists with condemnations, excommunications, mandatory penances and denials of communion, not to mention calling in the Emperor to drop the legal hammer, who imposed confiscatory fines and exile. But ignore the historical record--we have a narrative to push here.

who will not know which of them belongs to the City of God until God himself separates the tares from the wheat. Their tactics, and their attitudes, threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States, the effectiveness of its mission and the credibility of its pro-life activities.

Well, of course. There's no provocation here, none whatsoever. Aside from honoring the most explicitly pro-abortion President we've ever had. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Apparently. It certainly doesn't compare to making Catholic university administrators uncomfortable, at least in the editorialist's mind.

The sectarians’ targets are frequently Catholic universities and Catholic intellectuals who defend the richer, subtly nuanced, broad-tent Catholic tradition.

So, that's what they call the screaming flight from Ex Corde Ecclesiae these days. Lest we forget, the broad tent encompasses such time-honored elements of the Catholic tradition as annual royalty payments to third-rate playwrights, internships at abortion clinics, supporting ESCR, encouraging cohabitation, and cutting theology programs. To name but five things defended by our smart set.

From the peanut gallery, that looks less like a big tent than a lunatic asylum. Then again, I haven't had years of modern Catholic education to help me suss these things out.

Here's the problem with that rich, broad tent: there are no walls. Catholic universities have let every cultural wind blow into the tent for the past two generations, taking stands only after taking cues from the zeitgeist first. All the while intoning "not that there's anything wrong with that" when faced with something that actually might implicate a Catholic witness to the world contrary to something held dear by their secular liberal pals.

If they actually start telling them no--there is something wrong with that--once in a while, I'll take their self-certified clean bill of Catholic health seriously.

Their most recent target has been the University of Notre Dame and its president, John Jenkins, C.S.C., who has invited President Barack Obama to offer the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at this year’s graduation.

Poor fellow. Given how above board and forthright he was about this from the start, it's a true injustice.

Pope Benedict XVI has modeled a different attitude toward higher education. In 2008, the pope himself was prevented from speaking at Rome’s La Sapienza University by the intense opposition of some doctrinaire scientists. The Vatican later released his speech, in which he argued that "freedom from ecclesiastical and political authorities” is essential to the university’s "special role" in society. He asked, "What does the pope have to do or say to a university?" And he answered, "He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others."

I am at a loss as to how to characterize this section. "Misleading" fits, in the same sense calling a bundle of TNT a "noisemaker" fits. Here's the actual speech by the Pope, which was prepared specifically for La Sapienza, an explicitly secular, not Catholic, university. This is the section from which the quotes have been cribbed:

I am moved, on this occasion, to express my gratitude for the invitation extended to me to come to your university to deliver an address to you. In this perspective, I first of all asked myself the question: What can a pope say on an occasion like this? In my lecture in Regensburg, I indeed spoke as pope, but I spoke above all in the guise of a former professor of the university, seeking to connect memory and the present. But at the university "La Sapienza", the ancient university of Rome, I have been invited as "Bishop of Rome", and so I must speak in this capacity. Of course, "La Sapienza" was once the pope's university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy which, on the basis of its founding principles, has always been part of the nature of the university, which must always be exclusively bound to the authority of the truth. In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its special role, and in modern society as well, which needs institutions of this nature.

* * *

And so let me go back to the initial point. What does the Pope have to do or say in a university? He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others, which can only be freely offered. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive man’s responsiveness to the truth. Similarly he must again and always invite reason to seek out truth, goodness and God, and on this path urge it to see the useful lights that emerged during the history of the Christian faith and perceive Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates history and helps find the way towards the future.

Faux-ultramontanism is all the rage these days. But the disingenuous chutzpa of trying to use the La Sapienza speech to defend actions in a Catholic university deserves some kind of award. It is, in fact, pure bullshit.

The divisive effects of the new American sectarians have not escaped the notice of the Vatican. Their highly partisan political edge has become a matter of concern.

For the folks at America, I have no doubt it is a matter of deepest concern. As to the Vatican...well, some actual, you know, quotes from someone in a position of authority would be nice. The faux-ultramontanist readings of cherry-picked L'Osservatore Romano articles and Vatican "silence" are getting pretty tiresome.

That they never demonstrate the same high dudgeon at the compromises, unfulfilled promises and policy disagreements with Republican politicians as with Democratic ones is plain for all to see. It is time to call this one-sided denunciation by its proper name: political partisanship.

The trouble is, the partisanship argument (again, unsupported by actual examples) cuts both ways, and the reflexive special pleading on behalf of Democrats should be called by its proper name: political partisanship.

See how easy--and empty--that is?

Pope Benedict XVI has also modeled a different stance toward independent-minded politicians. He has twice reached out to President Obama and offered to build on the common ground of shared values. Even after the partially bungled visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Pope Benedict, Vatican officials worked quickly to repair communication with her.

Behold the special pleading and the cherry picking. They assert that Pelosi's trip was bungled because...they need it to be. For the Narrative. The Pope's denial of a photo-op to Pelosi and the instant release of his remarks to her speak louder than newspaper articles and supposedly-portentious "silence."

Furthermore, in participating in the international honors accorded New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson in Rome last month for outlawing the death penalty (See Signs of the Times, 5/4), Pope Benedict did not flinch at appearing with a politician who does not agree fully with the church’s policy positions. When challenged about the governor’s imperfect pro-life credentials, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe responded on point, "We were able to help him understand our position on the death penalty.... One thing at a time."

"Imperfect pro-life credentials." The editorialist has a future in the law, no doubt.
Indeed, a guy who voted twice against the prohibition of ramming scissors into the skull of a partially delivered baby could be said to have "imperfect pro-life credentials." Here he is again, bewailing the ban on the campaign trail. Sounds like you have a long ways to go, Abp. Sheehan. But keep us updated, if you will.

As an aside, it must have been hard work getting a liberal Democrat to buck the fearsome death penalty lobby within his party, as exemplified by NERAL (the National Executioners' Rights Action League).

In all seriousness, it is asinine wordsmithing like this that raises red flags in the minds of pro-lifers--as in the ones who actually put time and money toward the effort. If you can't bring yourself to name the problem, you are part of it. Not only will your professed fealty be questioned, it is, by nature, questionable. Your "yes" means "mfrmrml" and your "no" means "mfrmrml."

Rather like UND's professed devotion to pro-life witness, in fact.

Finally, last March the pro-choice French president Nicolas Sarkozy was made an honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s own cathedral.

Hoo, boy. This card has been played so much over the past month it is showing scorch marks.

I'll see your $2 and raise you $400: the person smugly playing this card has no clue what French abortion laws actually are. Here you go: only in the first 10 weeks, and after that only if certified by two physicians that there is a grave risk to the woman's mental or physical health.

Ask the President if he'd be willing to sign on to that kind of legislative scheme in place of what we have now. Here's a hint: NARAL would ask for his scalp if he proposed it.

In other words, the analogy compares apples to pomegranates on the legal system alone. France's abortion laws are, compared to the rest of Europe and especially the U.S., models of considered sobriety. Then there's the actual records of the two politicians in question--it doesn't appear that Sarko has ever opposed health care for infants who survive the chop shop thingy. I don't know about you, but that should be a mark in his favor.

And now, for the anti-Donatist tonic.

Four steps are necessary for the U.S. church to escape the strengthening riptide of sectarian conflict and re-establish trust between universities and the hierarchy.

Interesting formulation--it's just a clash between the hierarchy and the "elite" schools. Nothing whatsoever is owed to the Church as a whole, which makes for a telling window on the aggrieved mindset.

Care to guess whether there is any reciprocity involved--whether the universities have any responsibilities owed back to anybody else? You know the answer.

First, the bishops’ discipline about speakers and awards at Catholic institutions should be narrowed to exclude from platforms and awards only those Catholics who explicitly oppose formal Catholic teaching.

Which has the intended side-effect of "sectarianizing" the issue of abortion. Nah, the pro-life position can't be derived from natural reason--it's just a Catholic thing.

Nicely played, America.

Oh, and by the way--no. Note the continued word weaseling: "only those Catholics who explicitly oppose formal Catholic teaching." Nope--can't pilot a zeppelin through that one.

From the stuck-pig scream of the editorial, I'm thinking that only those Catholics who fail to genuflect before the Land O' Lakes Statement are subject to the suggested modification.

Second, in politics we must reaffirm the distinction between the authoritative teaching of moral principles and legitimate prudential differences in applying principles to public life.

More fudge. Mackinaw City is going to get nervous. Given the loophole in the first one, suspicion is warranted here. Frankly, the so-called elite Catholic universities' "application" of said principles usually involve distancing themselves from those fighting on the ground, where they aren't actively complaining about or trying to thwart them. Exhibit A--this editorial.

The fact is, trust has to be earned. Try pitching in instead of bitching on, and on, and on... Try showing the Catholic flag for once instead of saying "personally opposed" and "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Third, all sides should return to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI that in politics there are usually several ways to attain the same goals.

Fine sounding words. But ultimately empty, as they often break down in practice, especially where one side is fighting to change the legal landscape and the other side is carrying water for the status quo. There's no downloadable patch for this problem.

Finally, church leaders must promote the primacy of charity among Catholics who advocate different political options. For as the council declared, "The bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them" ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," No. 92).

Here, we finish with a proffered olive branch.

Right in the ol' retina.

Yes, let us join together in a circle of Christian love--good people like us and benighted, divisive, embarrassing, bullying Donatist-Circumcellion jerks like you that we are working at cross-purposes with. Thanks, America, for the Tall-Fingered Sign of Peace. I'd shake hands, but you know--the swine flu and all.

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