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Defending The ‘Catholic Moment’

Ross Douthat pushes back [1] against my contention that there never was a real chance for Fr. Neuhaus’s “Catholic moment” to exist in American culture, because (as I contend) Catholicism runs too counter to the currents of modernity. Ross says he’s sympathetic to my position, but that I’m being way too absolute and determinist to say that the conduct of the US bishops made much of a difference in Catholicism’s influence in the public square. More:

The Catholic liberals of the 1930s and the Catholic neoconservatives of the 1970s shaped law and public policy debates more decisively than either the Catholic left or right does today. John Paul II and Mother Teresa made Catholic ideas more attractive than Roger Mahony and Bernard Law. George W. Bush and Michael Gerson took Catholic social teaching more seriously than Jim DeMint and Glenn Beck. Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo are both cafeteria Catholics, but the father was straining (however unpersuasively) to keep a certain kind of Catholic liberalism alive, whereas the son is a functionally post-Catholic creature of the Bloombergist center-left.


Acknowledging structural forces, in other words, doesn’t mean ignoring the way that individual choices shape how those forces make themselves felt. So yes, I dothink that if the American bishops had been, not “luminous saints” regarding sex abuse, but just more competent and courageous and less self-protective and corrupt, the church they shepherd would enjoy (and deserve) significantly more influence today, both over its own flock and society as a whole. (One need not undersell the forces hostile to Catholicism in our culture to recognize the sex abuse scandals as a grim turning point [2] in the American religious story.) I also think that Catholic social thought would enjoy more bipartisan appeal today if the Bush presidency had ended in something other than disaster, that Catholic ideas would find a wider audience if Catholic pundits and intellectuals were more critical of their respective “teams” of left and right, and that the church’s media image would be less tarnished if the Vatican bureaucracy could be dragged into the 20th century, let alone the 21st. I’m sure I could come up with many more such counterfactuals, given world and time enough — and I don’t think I’m pining for an impossible Arcadia by imagining that at least some of them were plausible.

Point taken. On reflection, religious truth, as I often say, cannot be essentially conveyed by cold rationality, but requires subjective engagement. That’s a fancy way of saying that the arguments for a religion (or a politics) depends to an underappreciated degree on the personal authority of the person or persons making the argument. If I’ve read Philip Rieff correctly, authentic charisma in leadership requires both a creed, and a personality that so fully embodies the precepts of that creed that they open others to the possibility of believing the same things, by the force of their committed personality.

Let me give you an example. In the fall of 1987, Pope John Paul II came to the United States. New Orleans was one of the stops on his tour. I was 20 years old, a junior in college, and had by then become seriously interested in Catholicism, but was still hovering on the margins. Something told me that I had to get down to New Orleans and see the pope. I couldn’t really explain it. I needed to see him and hear him and be near him. I mean, I knew what he stood for, and what he had accomplished, but there was something else going on. A big part of it was what he had done, and was doing, in standing up to communism. Mostly, I think, it was that there was something about the person of John Paul that captured my imagination, and made me want to listen to him, and take him seriously.

I did go to New Orleans that fall to see the Pope in the Superdome. It didn’t make a Catholic of me. But it did open my mind and my heart more than it had been.  Come to think of it, the Christians who have made the biggest difference in converting my heart have not been those with the best arguments, but those who lived out the faith most joyfully, sacrificially, and fully.

I think this is what Ross is getting at, and I appreciate the correction. I wouldn’t cross the street to see Cardinal Roger Mahony or Cardinal Bernard Law, and if either man gave a sermon praising motherhood and apple pie, I would wonder if either thing was all it was cracked up to be. The US Catholic bishops, by their failures, have brought what you might consider negative charisma to their message. They hold ecclesial authority by virtue of their apostolic offices, but overall, they have little or no moral authority. And this, as Ross (an orthodox Catholic) indicates, is their own fault.

The same, incidentally, is true of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, for other reasons.

It’s always going to be hard for real, substantive Christianity, in its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant versions, to make much headway in modern cultures. But it’s much more difficult when those given the authority to proclaim the Gospel squander their gift and responsibility. Why should the world listen to our message when our leaders (to say nothing of we, their followers) do such a terrible job of living out our beliefs?

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54 Comments To "Defending The ‘Catholic Moment’"

#1 Comment By Church Lady On February 20, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

There was a defection of about 7-10% of the 1988 electorate from the Democratic Party between the 1988 and 1992 elections.

Hilarious interpretation of electoral results. The Democrats lost the 1988 election in a blowout. They won the 1992 election, and the popular vote in five of the next six presidential elections. But somehow that shows a decline in support for Democrats? Please, throw me in that briar patch, Bre’re Rabbit.

#2 Comment By Richard M On February 20, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

Hello Thomas,

1. The trouble with nit-picking is, of course, that the facts do still remain: The hierachy of the American Catholic church is overwhelmingly behind the Republican party. They are overwhelmingly behind a coalition with Southern Baptists and the LDS.

On social issues, certainly. What choice do they have? Again: did you see the Abortionpalooza in Charlotte last August?

Once again: There’s an aggressor in all this, Thomas, and it’s not the Church. The Church wanted single-payer, has wanted single payer since 1919…it could have been a great political ally for Obama on health care, but instead he found it easier to pick multiple fights with it. It’s the secular liberal cohorts that dominate the Democratic Party. For them, the Catholic Church is useful only as a foil now, because religiously active Christians are increasingly scarce and unwelcome in the party, and that’s been going on, as I said, since 1972. Not 2009.

2. To your other point: It bothers me, a lot, to see my tax money used to support your wars of aggression and your acts of torture (we’ve got numbers on that one, thanks to Rod, it’s well over 2/3 of you conservative Christians who think torture is great).

Rod is correct: You assume too much, I’m afraid. I do not think that the Iraq War passes muster as a just war (I think almost everyone favored the initial intervention into Afghanistan, even Ron Paul; whether subsequent nation-building military efforts are justified is something else), and I am absolutely opposed to torture, under any name. You might not have had reason to know that, but it was unwise for you to simply assume it. At any rate, torture support is lower among Catholics than evangelicals, although I am still dismayed that it is significant at all.

You won’t and you can’t stop abortion. Nobody has ever been able to.

You could fill in “murder” or “rape” in that sentence, you know…

Actually, there have been plenty of instances where abortion bans have been reasonably effective in reducing incidence down to a low level. There’s no reason to think it could not be the case again.

But more contraception and sex education won’t do it. We were told that in the 60’s and 70’s, and both have become very widely available and accessible. And yet we have 4,000 innocents killed every day. Every day.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 20, 2013 @ 8:48 pm

Citizen Aquinas:

You have neatly defined why I consider the word “treason” appropriate, although I respect EngineerScotty’s cogent argument on the subject.

I know that at its core, the Roman variant of Christianity claims suzerainty over all the earth (not unlike certain claims found in Islam), and under that rubric, your “Who cares?” is perfectly logical. It also makes you, at least in the abstract, my mortal enemy.

I am not suggesting, I am explicitly stating, that under the constitution and laws of the United States of America, elected officials represent the voters who elected them, NOT the hierarchy of their church, and their conduct in office is NOT subject to coercion of any kind.

I would agree with EngineerScotty that opposition to government policy, although those in power sometimes find it convenient to call this “sedition,” is not, should not be, and under our constitution cannot be, a crime. But, it is for the voters, not the bishops, to chastise office-holders by removing them from office. If what a majority of voters want is contrary to what the church teaches, the church has every right to advocate, but no right to discipline.

(E.g., in South Dakota a few years back, legislators all but banned abortion, and without waiting for the pro forma appeals to the federal courts, the state’s voters set them straight, by referendum. The church had a right to speak, but not to direct. Likewise, when the Supreme Court shot down state aid to parochial schools, Cardinal Spellman complained “I do not understand how the Catholic member of the Supreme Court could support that decision.” Duh… the Catholic member, like all members, was there to expound the Constitution, not to advance the venal interests of his church.)

You can argue for the holiness and righteousness of the church’s discipline all you want, but as you propose to apply it, it is an offense to the oath to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States,” and as such, on the part of any U.S. citizen, is treason. If you don’t agree, you should not seek, or you should renounce, your citizenship.

(I am aware that, again not unlike certain currents in Islam, there are Roman Catholics who believe it is their God-given mission to CONVERT the entire nation and to bring it under subjection to Rome. These are the same Catholics who were apoplectic when John F. Kennedy offered broad assurances that he would do no such thing. Its also similar to the communist “boring from within” methodology.)

The CEO of Hostess is representing nobody but shareholders in a corporation. There is no special constitutional standing there. Excommunicate away.

Church Lady: Excellent and insightful commentary on voting patterns, factually supported. Thank you.

I suggest that if the church really supported single-payer health coverage, the church would forthrightly state:

1) We support single payer health insurance,

2) We advocated that current proposals be amended so as to leave contraception and abortion out of the scope of coverage, but,

3) We support single payer health insurance, as opposed to no single payer health insurance.

#4 Comment By Ron J. On February 27, 2013 @ 11:13 am

Richard M comment: “You won’t and you can’t stop abortion. Nobody has ever been able to.

You could fill in “murder” or “rape” in that sentence, you know…

Actually, there have been plenty of instances where abortion bans have been reasonably effective in reducing incidence down to a low level. There’s no reason to think it could not be the case again. ”

If you view Sharia law, you will find abortion is aborent to Islam and requires a death penalty for those who engage in abortion. Thus, Muslims, in general, reproduce prolificly. Western culture is being bred out of existence.