Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Benedict's Smaller, Purer Church: Room for Antisemites, Misogynists, Homophobes . . . But Not for Us (3)

In several previous postings, I’ve noted that this year’s March for Life and Pope Benedict’s rehabilitation of the Society of St. Pius X, events that occurred at roughly the same time some days back, flow together in my mind ( and The connection has to do with the kind of church both events celebrate, with the notion of church both implicitly promote.

I’m particularly intrigued by how centrist American Catholic bloggers are choosing to represent both events. What strikes me as important to note is not so much what many centrist postings say about the two events, but what they don’t say—what they take for granted. This is particularly true of what they take for granted regarding the church—what the church is, what it should be, who belongs and who doesn’t. The ecclesiology underlying many middle-of-the-road American Catholic reflections on the rehabilitation of SSPX as well as the March for Life is an ecclesiology that implicitly excludes many Catholics in the developed nations of the world from communion, at the same time that it colludes in the rehabilitation of open antisemites who are also misogynistic homophobes.

Not surprisingly, many centrist American Catholic commentators have expressed mild disapproval of the pope’s unilateral (there are indications he contravened the recommendations of some of his key advisors in rehabilitating SSPX) decision to bring SSPX back into the fold—most precisely, of his decision to rehabilitate Richard Williamson. Various commentators have noted Williamson’s longstanding record of virulent antisemitism. Less frequently (and this is worth noting in itself), centrist American Catholic observers of religion and politics advert to Williamson’s misogyny and his homophobia.

What intrigues me in this centrist commentary is not so much its predictable discomfort with the positions for which Richard Williamson stands. That mild discomfort is to be expected. And I expect it to wane just as quickly as it manifested itself following the Vatican announcement about SSPX, particularly as Rome does image management and spin control to mollify those outraged at the choice of the current pope to claim Catholic ownership of a misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic bishop.

No, what interests me more is the commentary of these same centrist Catholic bloggers about the March on Life. Running through many middle-of-the-road to liberal considerations I’ve been reading about this year’s anti-abortion march and the new president’s decision to rescind the Mexico City policy with its global gag rule has been a hidden assumption that “we” Catholics—all of us—obviously stand with those marching for life and against the decisions our new president has just made. If we don’t stand there, then quite clearly, we’re just not Catholic. We’re less Catholic, that is, than Richard Williamson, gross homophobia, antisemitism, and misogyny notwithstanding.

As I read such commentary, I feel thousands of miles away from the ecclesiology such commentary on the March for Life presupposes. I feel very much outside the church such commentators assume as the basis of their critique of abortion. I feel just as alienated—perhaps even more so, truth be told—from these liberal/centrist American Catholic spokespersons, than I do from Richard Williamson and the SSPX folks.

Neither speaks for a church in which I believe, a church I take for granted. Neither reflects my own experience of church—and, I daresay, the experience of church that millions of Catholics in developed nations take for granted after Vatican II.

The message is clear: it is not just that the church of the center belongs to people like Lefebvre and Richard Williamson. It’s that it does not belong to me, and to millions of other Catholics for whom Vatican II reframed how we view the life of faith and our relationship to God. More precisely, the message is that we do not belong to a church in which the center can now easily open its arms to Richard Williamson, while excluding us, without any perceivable remorse for its tacit writing off of millions of believers.

Vatican II has reframed how many Catholics view the church and the life of faith by pointing us back to traditional images of the church as the people of God and the sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in the world, ecclesiological images that had been discarded over the course of Christian history. Discarded, in particular, by the church of the Counter-Reformation and of the early modern period, which was in such reaction against the world around itself that it chose to shut itself up in a fortress . . . .

Where being a “perfect society” (to use Cardinal Bellarmine’s classic phase to describe the church) with ironclad rules and top-down leadership intent on enforcing those rules count far more than productive engagement with the world. Where the primary interest of the church is not to mediate salvation to the world or to live in a way that makes God's love sacramentally present in the world, but to condemn the world, to attack it, to draw all believers together in a tight little band of warriors combating the entire world, with all its evil, darkness, and Satanic smoke.

And it’s not just—or even primarily—the SSPX crowd who have brought us back to that fortress church with its ironclad rules and ruthless top-down leadership. It’s even more significantly the majority of pro-life Catholics who have succeeded in putting us back there. It's those who now occupy the center of American Catholicism who have definitively returned us to a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology, and who have made it possible for Richard Williamson and the SSPX group, which rejects Vatican II, to be more at home in the church than millions of post-Vatican II Catholics.

Let me explain . . . .