Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ross Douthat on the Pope's Betrayal of Catholics Who Count: A "Small Minority" Have "Kept the Faith"

My family once belonged to a country club. I hated every moment we spent in that club, because its "old" members made it very plain to my family that we were jumped-up interlopers who didn't belong as they did. 

"Our" little club invested a lot of energy in sending signals to some people that they did not belong.  The poor, even middle-class people, certainly did not belong. Why else have a country club?

In the years in which my family belonged to it, a Jewish family petitioned for membership. They were blackballed, though the money that set up the club originally came from an affluent Jewish attorney in our town — the only Jewish person ever admitted to that country club until . . . well, I stopped following its antics after my family moved from that little town in 1969.

I think of "our" little country club and all the energy it and clubs like it everywhere have long invested in letting some people know that they belong and others that they don't as I read Ross Douthat's op ed piece in today's New York Times, entitled "The Pope and the Precipice." Douthat's thesis: a "small minority" of Catholics (read: white, affluent/middle-class, conservative ones) have "kept the faith." They (or we, since Douthat is clearly speaking for himself and others like him here) have "kept the church vital" as the rest of Catholics have gone to hell in a handbasket and sold out to mainstream culture.

Insofar as Pope Francis wants to shift Catholic attitudes making gay and divorced folks unwelcome in the church, he's betraying this Catholic minority group who deserve to be celebrated and not betrayed. Since they and they alone have kept the faith alive, as a small minority, a faithful remnant, a pure and true little church inside a larger, culturally captive church that has betrayed the faith at this point in history . . . . 

Two points I'd like to make in response: 

1. Douthat ignores the large numbers of Catholics who are not, like himself, white, affluent/middle-class, heterosexual/heterosexist, who do not think as he does about the church or about how the church should respond to the pastoral needs of gay and divorced folks, but who have done just as much as his minority group has done to "keep the faith" alive (think: Latino Catholics; think: nuns on the bus; think: gay Catholics who, for inexplicable reasons, persist in claiming a church that has been ruthlessly unwelcoming to us; think: Catholic women, ditto).

2.  Douthat's thesis is ultimately a not very subtle form of blackmail. It's akin to the announcement of Home Depot's right-wing Catholic fat-cat co-founder, Ken Langone, backed by former USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan, that Langone and other fat cats will stop donating money to the Catholic church if Pope Francis continues to talk about solidarity with the poor. 

Or, as John Allen, a man never abashed to shop around prescriptive right-wing memes masquerading as "objective" descriptive centrist analysis, recently put the point

What people generally think of as "conservative" Catholics are often among the Church’s most dedicated members, among other things serving as major financial donors. Already, one head of a conservative think tank in Rome this week said he’d gotten a call from one of his benefactors saying that if things keep going the way they are, he was going to stop ponying up.

Memo to Messrs. Douthat, Dolan, Langone, and Allen: the Catholic church is far bigger than its rich, conservative constituents. The poor are also the church, and without the poor, the church would not exist, since as Father Jorge Costodoat pointed out recently, Catholic churches around the world have been physically built and physically maintained by poor people, many of whose lives don't fit the purist pattern right-wing Catholics want to impose on everyone else in the name of a Catholic truth that they pretend belongs to them and to them alone.

Despite what you may wish us to believe about the rich making the world go around, it's the labor of working-class people around the world that builds our societies, puts food on our tables, builds our schools, hospitals, shops, and so on, maintains these, fixes what breaks in them and cleans them for us. It's deeply insulting (and deeply anti-catholic) to pretend that those people and their labor count for nothing at all, as Catholicity is defined.

An authentically catholic church is not a country club, no matter how much that fact may discomfit a self-congratulatory minority in the church which believes that it alone keeps the pillars of the church in place. A truly catholic church belongs to and welcomes everyone.

(Later in the day): as Matticus points out below, Ross Douthat recently appeared at a fundraiser for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which Media Matters describes as "an extreme anti-gay legal group working to criminalize homosexuality." He then claimed not to have known that the event at which he spoke was a fundraiser for ADF. 

The headscratcher illustration is from The Evening Ledger (Philadelphia, May 4, 1916), and was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Johnny Automatic of Open Clip Art Library.

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