Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Do All the Good You Can": Not the Catholic Cup of Tea — Really?!

As I noted last week, it is fashionable in some circles within the U.S. Catholic commentariat — I'm going to call these circles centrist ones (and more on that in a moment) — to disparage the kind of traditional Wesleyan piety represented in the venerable Wesleyan adage Hillary Clinton cited in her acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential candidacy:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

Centrist Catholic media commentators, the elite sector of American Catholicism which imagines it stands in the breach between Catholics of the right and of the left and mediates between the two camps, has chosen to pick at this adage, noting that it's frequently attributed to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, but that Wesley didn't actually say it. Or these Catholic commentators disparage it as not their cup of tea, continuing a polemic that is well-established in centrist Catholic commentary about religion and politics in the U.S. — the implication that doctrinally "loose" mainline Protestant churches are "soft" and ineffectual in challenging what's wrong with American culture, while hardline evangelical Protestant traditions and the Catholic church, as they bear down on doctrinal clarity and purity, stand more of a chance of making a real dent in transforming American culture.

There is more than a little hint of Catholic superiority in this approach to sister Christian traditions of the Reformation, including the Wesleyan strain of Protestant Christianity in which Hillary Clinton is rooted. We have it. They don't. They've lost it through their non-serious emphasis on things like gender inclusivity and including gay* folks in their churches.

We Catholics have held onto the real thing, the authentic teaching handed down by the apostles from Jesus himself, which binds us together as one in the holy Catholic church. That adage about doing all the good you can in any way you can everywhere you can as long as you can: nice-sounding. But soft. What does it really have to do with doctrinally pure Christianity represented in its most undiluted form in the Catholic tradition, anyway?

But there's another way to approach this discussion — which is an important discussion, since it's about the interface of the politically powerful Catholic community in the U.S. with the hegemonic religious traditions of the country, its Protestant Christian traditions. Necessary dialogue, when so much is at stake in a nation with the soul of a church whose white church members are bringing us the candidacy of Donald Trump . . . . 

Another way, as I say, to approach this discussion might be as follows:

Do all the good you can, etc . . . . 

1. Jesus:

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 
Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

2. Jesus

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"
The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

3. Mother Teresa of Calcutta:

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

4. Francis of Assisi:

O Master, grant that I may never seek, so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul. 

5. Thérèse of Lisieux:

My mission -  to make God loved  — will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses. 

6. John of the Cross:

In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.

7. Dorothy Day:

Love in action is harsh and dreadful when compared to love in dreams.

At its best, the Roman Catholic tradition is replete with spiritual insights about the primacy of love in the spiritual life, about the primacy of love embodied in action, particularly in actions designed to lift the least among us out of the misery to which prejudice, discrimination, and social injustice consign them.

Far from being "above" or superior to the traditional Wesleyan formula cited by Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech, the Catholic tradition of spirituality — at its best — dovetails neatly with the Wesleyan tradition. As well it should, since both traditions look to the same source: both traditions look to the words and example of Jesus in the gospels, which are foundational for all Christian churches insofar as they wish to call themselves Christian.

One of the lamentable effects of the choice of Popes John Paul II and Benedict to stop Vatican II, with its return to the biblical and patristic sources of the church, in its tracks has been how this choice stopped effective dialogue between the Catholic community and other communities of faith rooted in the gospels. From the middle of the twentieth century forward, as American Catholics began to emerge from their ghettoes and enter the social mainstream, there was great promise of fruitful interaction between the Catholic community and other Christian communities in the U.S. around all kinds of issues, including shared activism for peace and justice causes, shared theological schools, shared worship.

Vatican II opened the door further for such ecumenical reconciliation. When John Paul II and his theological watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) slammed the door on the Vatican II project, they placed the Catholic church, its theological academies, and its journalistic sphere, back into a defensive parochial posture from which these institutions have yet fully to emerge. That parochial stance, with its refusal to learn from and collaborate with Christians of other traditions and other theological penchants, is in full evidence in the dismissive way in which leading Catholic journalists of a centrist stripe are treating the Wesleyan formula cited by Hillary Clinton as the leitmotiv of her faith as a lifelong Methodist.

This tribal, defensive, parochialism is beyond tragic in a culture in which huge numbers of church members, young ones, in particular, are exiting the churches at this moment in history precisely because they do not see the Christian churches giving proper place — priority — to the kind of love in action that Jesus clearly tells us is central to Christian discipleship. It's beyond tragic in a culture in which a certain configuration of white Christians acting in concert have brought us the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump, as a direct result of the choice of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the reactionary-parochial period of Catholic life under John Paul II and Benedict to align the U.S. Catholic church with white evangelical churches that share the doctrinal rigidity of these bishops around issues of gender and sexuality, when what is clearly most important within the Christian tradition is the command to do all the good possible in all ways possible everywhere possible for as long as possible.

*Gay = LGBTQI.

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