Friday, February 27, 2009

Collusion of the Catholic and Political Right: The Martino Story Continues

Again, I’m using this blog space today to respond to a comment from a reader—to Colleen’s extremely valuable observations re: what I posted yesterday in response to Brian (here). Colleen recounts a shift she has seen happening in the Catholic college she and her daughter attended.

She took courses in Vatican II that were intellectually demanding and required real thought and engagement. Her daughter took courses—same university, same professor—in moral theology in the period in which the restorationist agenda began to roll through American Catholic theology departments. She was able to pass the course while hardly attending class. The syllabus spelled out in detail what the professor would teach. When Colleen asked about the shift in his pedagogical style—from challenging students to think, respond, and critique, to spoon-feeding them with “truth”—he told her he was being monitored in class and lived in fear of being reported to the authorities for saying anything that transgressed the restorationist canon of truths.

This is a significant testimony. Part of what I hoped to do with yesterday’s posting is to capture a “moment” in American Catholic theology, in which a decisive shift took place. That moment is not so distant in time. It took place decisively in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had everything to do with pressure from the current pope, Benedict, when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Ratzinger.

As head of the CDF, the current pope deliberately created within the academic life of Catholic universities a chill that began to affect how and what theologians thought, and how and what they wrote. This shift moved Catholic intellectual life away from a post-Vatican II engagement with contemporary society in which Catholic thinkers listen to and learn from secular disciplines as they offer Catholic insights, values, and teachings in a process of dialogic give and take. Now the model for Catholic intellectual life—and for theologians in particular—became one of receiving “truths” from on high and handing these down to anyone who cared to listen.

And that model was attended by severe punishments for those who sought to be faithful to the Vatican II model of dialogic engagement and respect for the wisdom of secular traditions, or even of non-Catholic Christian traditions and the contributions of other world religions.

Why focus on this shift? Because it needs to be remembered. History is written by the victors, and to a great extent, the restorationist agenda (and its right-wing political counterpart) has “won.” It has succeeded in determining the dominant discourse to such an extent that the center has moved decisively right. Now forward movement is permitted now without engaging the stop-gap arguments of those intent on standing astride history and shouting no. And by forcing us to bow to their "centrist" arguments as we try to move forward, they are effectively keeping us from the forward movement they intend to resist at all costs.

We have to struggle to remember the history from which we have just come, or we will never be able to move beyond the stalemates the religious and political right wish to produce in our imaginations and our discourse. We also have to know this history, to tell it in all its gory detail, because if we ever do budge from the stalemate position in which the right has deliberately placed us, we will not know how to budge, where to go, without understanding where we come from.

As the preceding notes suggest, the move against Vatican II—the move to the right, the deliberate dumbing down of Catholic intellectual life and the punishment of thinkers—was not merely a religious phenomenon. It was allied to and tied to a thrust within our political life and culture to stop critical reflection and force us into a right-leaning ideological conformity. It is part of a broader (and very deliberate) dumbing-down process in our culture at large, which is intended to cause us to reduce complex discussions to simplistic soundbytes, and to view iconic figures (e.g., Reagan and John Paul II) as heroic assurances of the virtue of the right-wing soundbytes we're being fed as gospel truth.

The watchdog groups monitoring what Catholic theologians teach and write today are hardly confined to the Catholic right. The political right has a keen interest in suppressing critical thought in Catholic life and a continuation of the project of Vatican II because the dialogical engagement with the world and with secular intellectual traditions has the possibility of retrieving the many critical strands in Catholic tradition that stand against neoconservative political and economic positions. The right does not want this to happen, and will not tolerate it happening.

I’m interested to hear Colleen’s testimony on the heels of the latest developments with Bishop Joseph Martino in Scranton. The phenomenon she describes at her alma mater—the monitoring of syllabi, the reporting to bishops and other authorities about any lapse in the “truths” taught in theology classes—is still going on. And I suspect that those involved in current movements to attack open theological discussion in Catholic universities are that same nasty nexus of right-wing Catholics and their well-funded, powerfully placed political allies who have been doing this monitoring for years now, a nexus that has attracted the kind of converts Brian notes in his comment on this blog’s posting several days ago—which I highlighted in yesterday’s posting.

Clerical Whispers is reporting today that Martino is seeking to force Misericordia to shut down its highly regarded and very successful Diversity Institute (here). Martino and the Scranton diocese are asking that the school report in very specific terms about what is taught in its theology courses, particularly in the area of morality. Martino and the diocese are demanding course titles, catalogue numbers, precise statements about content (i.e., syllabi), etc.

Now. Hand it over now. Convince me now that you are truly Catholic. When did you stop beating your wife? The menacing approach of those mounting this purge has already found Misericordia guilty as charged. The heads of the Sisters of Mercy who own the school are already on the metaphoric chopping block. Those engaged in this hunt for heretics and witches will have blood.

And they clearly include not merely the Catholic right, but highly placed members of the political right who are interested in seeing this contest take place as a proof of their continued ability to stir Catholic ire around hot-button issues like homosexuality—to keep Catholics voting “right.” Rick Santorum (remember him? the defeated Republican senator of Pennsylvania who loved to try linking homosexuality and bestiality?) weighed in yesterday on the editorial pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer (here).

His angle? Martino is the teacher who enforces. The enforcer who teaches. Mind-boggling analysis, if you stop to think about it, because it speaks volumes about the intent of the right to force people to accept the “truth,” and to use force against them if they do not accept the “truth” of the right. The word “enforce” says it all.

Teaching that compels, that demonstrates its persuasiveness by its arguments and its sound reasoning, does not have to use force. Only teaching whose arguments do not stand up to careful inspection needs to use force to make us swallow its “truths.” Begin teaching by force, and you are really admitting that you have lost the battle: your truths aren’t compelling. They aren’t true.

Google Martino’s name along with Misericordia, and you’ll see that the right-wing blogs are all over the Martino story. This has the smell of a witch-hunt mounted by some of those powerful right-wing political groups, with right-wing Catholic allies, mentioned by Brian in his posting several days ago. Their dirty fingers are all over this story, especially with the grossly insulting demand that Misericordia hand over—right now!—details about what it teaches in its theology courses.

As if what is taught in a curriculum could ever be reduced to what appears in a course listing or syllabus. As if what happens in the classroom itself, through dialogue and the collaborative search for truth, is not at the very heart of the educational process. As if Catholic values aren’t embedded throughout the curriculum of a Catholic university in ways that can never be boiled down to words in a syllabus. As if students don't learn values and moral insights primarily by who the teacher is rather than what she says—by the life he lives in their plain view rather than by the words he utters in class.

JudiPhilly notes something extremely important to this whole saga on her Truth, Justice & Peace blog today (here). As a Scranton native with strong ties to the Catholic community there (though she’s had enough of Catholicism), she has an inside track to news about Misericordia. She says that Martino did not once contact Misericordia or the Diversity Institute to discuss his concerns with them before releasing his statement calling for a witch hunt.

Instead, he went to the media. He issued a press release demanding that the Institute respond to him. This smells. To high heaven.

And I suspect he will get away with it. The speed with which this story is burning through the blogs of the right tells me this is orchestrated, as does Martino’s choice to lambast Misericordia in a press release without seeking to talk to the university in advance.

As I say, the right has won in both culture and church, insofar as it has succeeded in normalizing its far-right presuppositions as centrist presuppositions we all must engage now when we put together religious, cultural, political, or economic arguments. What is going on with Martino and the right, vis-à-vis the Diversity Institute at Misericordia, is muscle-flexing to show us the continued power of the political and religious right.

The target is well-chosen. Mark my words, they will find a way to make Misercordia suffer for its choice to invite an openly gay speaker to its Diversity Institute. This is a well-chosen tempest in a teapot, because the right knows it can almost always win, when the topic is engaging the reality of gay lives within the academic framework of Catholic universities. This punishment of Misericordia is being developed by the right as a symbolic demonstration that it continues to have power in Obama’s America, particularly when it comes to gay human beings and the Catholic church.

The only thing that will effectively halt such tragic diversionary wastes of time and energy by faith communities being used as tools of the political and economic right will be the choice of members of those who resist the right-wing cultural captivity of their churches to stand up, stand together, and insist that it is our church, too. And that the captivity to the political and economic right is betraying all that we stand for and believe in, and have stood for and believed in for centuries, with the best of our tradition.