Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Churches and Fascism: The Other Side

Interesting reminder last night of the path some churchmen* took during the Nazi period, which provides a model for us today different from the one provided by those who blessed fascist leaders. Last night, we happened to watch Claude Berri’s 1967 film “The Two of Us” (Viel homme et l’enfant).

As many readers already know, it’s a classic memoir of life in occupied France, told through the eyes of a little Jewish boy evacuated to the countryside to live with an elderly Christian couple who are unaware that they are hosting a Jewish refugee. The charm of the film has to do with the interaction between the gruff, anti-semitic “grandfather” smitten by the little boy desperately trying to hide his identity even from his hosts.

One scene in the film spoke strongly to us. It could easily be lifted out of the P├ętain years and used as a parable for contemporary Catholics as they discern political choices.

It’s a Sunday homily in the parish church. The grandfather has gone unwillingly, aware that the local priest doesn’t share his anti-semitic views.

And sure enough, the priest chooses to preach on the response Jesus demands that his followers make to the scenes of hatred and murder unfolding all around them. He tells the parishioners that it is entirely anti-Christian to make judgments about whom God loves and whom God rejects.

That’s God’s work, the priest says. It’s God’s job to sort the tares from the wheat, and the measure God uses is far different from the one we ourselves use. In fact, God has a particular love for those who are oppressed, no matter where they’re found or who they happen to be.

Including—and especially—the Jewish people, since, after all, Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he? God looks at the world at each period of history, the priest informs his parish, to identify those most in need of love and acceptance. And it’s the obligation of Christians to do the same, over and over, in new cultural settings and new time-frames.

Why a parable for the contemporary church? Obviously, because a significant proportion of church members have been expending so much energy—and continue to do so, even now, when far more serious substantial issues face us and demand our creative responses—deciding who’s in and who’s out. Who belongs and who doesn’t.

Who’s worthy to sit in the pew and who isn’t. Who’s the true Catholic (or evangelical, or fill in the blank) and who’s the false one. Who should receive communion and who ought not to do so.

This is what the culture war and the wafer wars have been all about: human beings taking it on themselves to mind God’s business and do the sorting of the wheat and the tares here and now, in the muddled circumstances of history. And these are the hate-filled impulses on which fascism feeds. This is why I see the churches inextricably involved with the rise of fascism—or with preventing its rise, in the way in which they deal with the impulses of hatred right within their own walls.

The parish priest in the film is completely correct to challenge the root of the fascist impulse—the willingness to give way to hatred, and on that basis, to begin dividing people into worthy and unworthy. The willingness to use coercion and power to consolidate the division of human beings into worthy and unworthy. The readiness to lie and bully when all other means have failed, to cheat and steal and call this righteous behavior when we imagine we’re doing it in the name of God.

When some people of faith (like the parish priest in the Berri film) can see so clearly that these options are anything but consonant with the basic ethical tenets of all world religions, why does the fascist option keep attracting other people of faith (like the German bishops depicted in the photo accompanying yesterday’s posting about discernment)? This is a complex question, one that would take page after page of careful analysis to answer.

But one obvious answer that leaps off the page immediately—and deserves attention, in the context of the religio-political debates currently underway in the United States—is this: in the Catholic context, there’s been a fateful and malicious retrenchment in the period following the Berri film, which was made in the era of Vatican II. That was an era in which the church spoke about positive dialogue with the contemporary world, and about retrieving aspects of theology and ethical thinking that had fallen by the wayside in the period in which the Catholic church was in complete, closed, defensive reaction to modernity.

Within the context of the dialogue Vatican II invited with the modern world (a dialogue Pope John Paul II and his chief advisor Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, largely shut down), a promising new approach to moral theology, but one rooted in biblical and patristic thought, began to develop. This approach stressed the formation of good character as the goal of ethical life, rather than—as the Catholic tradition had stressed in its period of reaction to the modern world—a focus on individual acts as good acts or evil acts.

The moral theology that began to develop after Vatican II, but was quickly squelched by the top pastoral leaders of the church, noted that character is more fundamental than acts. Produce good people, and good acts will follow.

The exclusive focus on acts as the center of the moral life runs the risk of keeping people woefully immature, when it comes to making moral decisions and political decisions that involve moral judgments. At its worst, it produces a churched population that looks for some answer book—a catechism, a bible—to provide all the answers it needs as it makes moral judgments. And, it should be noted, some answer book as authoritatively interpreted by church leaders . . . .

The churches, especially in the American context, all too often keep their adherents in a state of moral infantilism, through their focus on the rightness and wrongness of this or that act, as proved by selected texts of catechism or bible, interpreted exclusively by church leaders. This approach to the moral life (and to the application of the moral life in the political realm) yields simple-minded sloganizing that all too quickly degenerates into a hate-filled division of everyone into the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, the in and the out, the true believer and the false believer, the blessed by God and the despised by God.

In other words, it paves the way for the kind of leaders that rose to power very quickly in Nazi Germany. One of the painful lessons the churches ought to have learned in that period is how important it is to prepare people carefully to make political decisions on some moral basis that goes beyond sloganizing, pandering to hateful social movements, and resorting in the most simple-minded way to religious authority figures to tell us what is right and wrong.

Forming people of good character who make sound moral judgments is far more difficult than telling people to do this and that. Helping people develop character, helping them to come to sound ethical decision making within their own lives, using their own minds and consciences, is much more difficult than handing them catechisms and bibles and telling them to do x and avoid y.

I hold the American Catholic bishops responsible for helping to foster such immaturity in moral decision making among American Catholics, that many of us simply cannot see the way in which we have sold out our most fundamental values in the elusive pursuit of "the" pro-life candidate. We’ve needed much more from them as pastoral leaders in the past several decades, we who still identify, however tenuous the connection has become, as Catholics. While we’ve needed religious education to allow us to gain adult maturity in moral decision-making, we’ve been spoon-fed. We’ve asked for respectful dialogue and have been handed Catholic answers.

And the fruit of this approach to the moral life has been so exceedingly bitter that, with their abdication to the religious right, Catholics have practically forfeited any claim to have something of importance to say to the public sphere, in a period in which making ethical moral judgments about political issues has perhaps never been more imperative. Fascism—telling people what they must do, forcing them to do it if they refuse, and pandering to hate—is certainly a lot easier and a lot less messy.

But, oh, the price, when we give in to it!

*Men, because most churches have historically excluded women from key leadership roles.