Friday, November 23, 2012

Catholics in the News: Cardinal Newman Society Hyperactive after 2012 Elections

And in Catholic news as this Thanksgiving (in America) week ends--a series of consecutive postings  focusing on particular issues, beginning with news about the shadowy but exceptionally well-heeled right-wing Catholic academic watchdog group, the Cardinal Newman Society, about which I've written frequently in the past (click on the label beneath this posting for my previous statements about the Cardinal Newman Society):

The Cardinal Newman Society is hyperactive these days, having played a leading role in the recent débacle at the University of San Diego, where British Catholic theologian Tina Beattie was first invited and then disinvited to be a visiting fellow, as USD president Mary Lyons told Beattie the university couldn't have a theologian who dissents from church teaching as a fellow on its campus.  Joshua McElwee notes the role played in this shoddy narrative by the Cardinal Newman Society.  (Beattie's primary sin: she signed a statement in August supporting marriage equality.)

And now the group is going after yet another theologian (and see this California Catholic story), Lisa Fullam, who teaches moral theology at Berkeley's Jesuit School of Theology and who is a regular at Commonweal.  Fullam's sin: she celebrated the victory of marriage equality at the polls recently in a posting at the Commonweal blog.  Two Catholic theologians, two women theologians, targeted by this mysterious self-appointed watchdog group specifically because of their support of marriage equality . . . .

As Dan Morris-Young points out, the funding streams of this political-as-religious group are murky.  Though the Cardinal Newman Society claims that its funds come from donations of its members, it has no members.  Meanwhile, its president and vice-president pull in six-figure salaries, and its revenues jumped by more than 50% in the last five years.

The upshot of this kind of political-academic watchdoggery in American Catholicism: American Catholic colleges and universities lose credibility as bona fide academic institutions in the academy at large.  As the British Catholic journal The Tablet notes in its latest editorial statement about the Beattie débacle,* 

The issue of academic freedom versus Catholic identity is a fraught one in the United States where there are many Catholic campuses. Many British Catholic academics have always preferred to work in a secular context and there has never been much enthusiasm in Britain for the idea of a Catholic university. The reason may be that under the draconian terms of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it would not fit into British academic culture. The constitution states, for instance: "In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching."

And there's also this to be considered: not only does the kind of political bullying that goes on with groups like the Cardinal Newman Society under the guise of maintaining orthodoxy undermine the reputation of Catholic universities as real universities.  But it also undermines the witness of the Catholic church in the American public square, since it seeks to confine the definition of Catholicism within narrow, partisan parameters that have nothing to do with Catholic ideas and values in the final analysis.

It creates an idol out of one political party, and tries to make all American Catholics bow down to that idol.  This mentality is strongly represented among American bishops like Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois.

It betrays authentic Catholic identity via its political idolatry, and brings Catholicism into disrepute in the public square, assuring that people with intellectual acumen and strong consciences simply ignore what the bishops and their orthodoxy watchdog groups have to say about anything at all.

Why the hyperactivity of the Cardinal Newman Society right now?  In my view, the Society is in hyperdrive after the 2012 elections for two reasons.  First, it and its unnamed benefactors are angry.  They're angry that their attempt to control the American Catholic conversation through the hidden flow of shady big money is not paying the kinds of returns they expect for their investment.  And they're angry that their bullying tactics designed to keep the conversation under their control aren't working, as a large percentage of American Catholics ignore the bishops' instructions to vote Republican.

And they're afraid.  They're afraid of the kind of multicultural church coming into being before their eyes, as they fight tooth and nail to keep "their" church dominated by conservative, affluent, white Catholics, while the American Catholic church becomes increasingly brown and increasingly progressive in its politics.  We can look for more reactionary moves by the Cardinal Newman Society and its undisclosed big-bucks donors in the days to come, I suspect, because the anger and the fear are not going to go away anytime soon, and are growing larger due to the recent election results.

*The complete text of the editorial is behind a paywall.  I'm grateful to the indefatigable Jim McCrea for emailing the editorial to me and other folks; Jim is my source for several links provided above.

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