Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Reader Writes: Did Vatican 2 Happen?

A very astute reader of this blog left a wonderful response to my posting yesterday about Bobby Jindal’s response to President Obama’s recent address to the nation (here). Two other astute readers have added valuable replies to that response.

I’ve been thinking all day about the points these readers are making. It strikes me that there’s something very important about the questions this thread is raising, and they deserve extended conversation. I do not have all the answers to the significant questions the reader who began this thread is asking.

So I’d like to offer this space as a space for further discussion of the reader’s response. My hope is that by doing this, I will open a conversation to which many voices contribute. My own perspectives here are limited and partial, and need other perspectives to complement them.

First, here’s what Brian has to say:

In the last decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, the Episcopalian Church (Anglicanism in the USA) grew by 300%. I read this stat in Nicholas Lemann's book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

Responding to the many waves of mostly non-Protestant, Eastern and Southern European immigration that America welcomed in the late 19th century, it seems that many white Americans were looking for some conservative, respectable institution with cultural gravitas that would serve as a redoubt for "American" values or, in a variation, "Anglo-Saxon Civilization". In this way, the ECUSA, which was known as "the Republican Party at prayer" back then, became the spiritual home for the Establishment.

My feeling is that throughout the 1990s and up until late, this phenomenon has been happening on a smaller scale in the Catholic Church in the US.

Let us consider some well known converts to Catholicism in the USA in recent years:

the late Richard John Neuhaus (not as recent, but deserves mentioning), Senator Sam Brownback, reporter Richard Novak, former Governor Jeb Bush (brother of you know who), conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, Governor Bobby Jindal, Fox News Supply-Sider Lawrence Kudlow(!), one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and the sleazy ex-literature professor Deal Hudson, now a full time GOP booster... oh and (drumroll please) this Easter 2009, Newt Gingrich will enter the Catholic Church.

Basically, they're all GOP activists and operatives who, other than opposing abortion, don't seem to espouse the Catholicism I was taught. I don't know much about Jeb Bush, but, well, he's got some baggage, let's just say that.

Most of these names are found within or around the Beltway in DC. I've read that one of the biggest sources of these right-wing conversions is the Opus Dei center in DC, where a priest named C. John McCloskey works. It seems to me that these converts have retained their authoritarian nature, apparently seeing nothing but good in throne-and-altar politics where people know their place. Oh, and they've expanded their "liberal bias in the media" agitprop to include "anti-Catholicism in liberal media/politics".

Is the Catholic Church in the USA to become the new "Republican Party at prayer"? On the bright side, there are too many people of other stripes already involved in the Church for it to become an establishment sect (fingers crossed).

Furthermore, it's unfortunate that bishops like Chaput, most prominently, are basically the personal chaplains for these new converts.

Is my analysis incorrect? I'm just wondering why all these right-wingers are deciding that the Catholic Church is the church for them. Did Vatican 2 happen at all?

In response, Carl notes the ties of beltway politicians and some of the right-wing Catholic groups named by Brian to money. And Colleen suggests that there’s a “sort of Trojan horse strategy” at work in the conversion of these neoconservative political figures to the Catholic church, as their former allies in the evangelical religious right go up in flames (many of them) in various scandals.

I think Brian and the respondents are onto something. And I think this phenomenon of right-wing political leaders crossing the Tiber deserves analysis.

Brian’s insights are powerful:

▪ “GOP activists and operatives who, other than opposing abortion, don't seem to espouse the Catholicism I was taught.”

▪ “Found within or around the Beltway in DC.”

▪ “Authoritarian nature, apparently seeing nothing but good in throne-and-altar politics where people know their place.”

▪ “Did Vatican 2 happen at all?”

Here are some initial points that strike me as I try to deal with the question Brian is raising here:

▪ With regard to progressive social movements, I shy away from the pendulum-swing explanation of history, in favor of action-reaction theories. As I’ve stated on this blog, in my view, the project of Vatican II has deliberately been stalled by strong reactionary forces within the church—and strong reactionary political groups have colluded with that reaction because they do not want the Catholic church to have a progressive face in social movements.

▪ What happened culturally with the 1960s was a moment of opening to a future that some powerful groups within our society (and in the churches) did not wish to entertain. In particular, there was exceptionally strong resistance within the churches to the emergence of women onto the stage of history as free agents and actors, rather than taken-for-granted decorative stage props reflecting the refulgent glory of preening heterosexual males (or males capable of convincing us that they are heterosexual).

▪ A counter movement occurred following the 1960s, in which the political and religious right cooperated to close the door to the future that had been opened in the 1960s.

▪ I have enormous respect for Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. One aspect of his analysis of Vatican II does not persuade me, however. He speaks of a pendulum movement in which reaction to Vatican II was necessary, in order to correct the out-of-control movement that had taken place in the church after Vatican II.

▪ I have a different memory of the period after Vatican II. The Catholic right have been adroit about developing a spurious discourse of outrageous liturgical violations and kooky cultural practices following Vatican II. I do not remember such developments—not anywhere to the degree to which they are “recreated” in the discourse of the Catholic right.

▪ What I observed was a deliberate throttling of the Council and its reforms, a deliberate murdering of the spirit of hope that the Council engendered in many Catholics, and an iron-fisted, draconian return to the fortress church in which those who did not like what was taking place were invited to leave the church.

▪ One anecdote to demonstrate the process I’m describing here: in the mid-1980s, I was invited to write an ethics textbook for a graduate program in lay ministry sponsored by a Catholic university. When I wrote the textbook, the director of the program told me he had sent the draft to bishops and theologians all over the nation, and had gotten glowing reviews (except from one theologian)—including from most bishops who had written in response.

▪ Several years later, as Ratzinger’s restorationist agenda emanating from the CDF with the blessing of John Paul II began to have a strong chilling effect on Catholic universities across the U.S., I received a request from the same lay ministry program (now under a new director) to re-write the ethics textbook. I was told that it no longer adequately reflected the consensus of the best Catholic moral theologians writing today. In particular, I was told to incorporate John Paul II’s writings as much as possible into my text, especially “Splendor of Truth.”

▪ I labored for months on the revision, receiving back letters of single-spaced critiques, page on page, from a Jesuit appointed to read and comment on the text as I composed it (there had been no such censor when I wrote the first edition). These focused almost exclusively on sexual ethics, and on homosexuality in particular.

▪ My point? Within less than a decade, a textbook used in a graduate lay ministry program sponsored by a Catholic university had become problematic; it had moved from being an outstanding representative of the best Catholic thought on fundamental ethical issues, to being flawed—especially in what it had to say about sexual ethics. Nothing in the text itself had shifted, except that I flooded it with deferential quotes from John Paul II. The shift took place outside . . . .

▪ This movement from the mid-1980s into the 1990s corresponded with my finding myself without a job in any Catholic theology departments, after I was given a one-year terminal contract with no disclosed reason in the early 1990s at the Catholic college at which I taught. Steve and I have now been permanently outside the Catholic academic world--as in unemployed and apparently unemployable--for over a decade now.

▪ In the same period, one theologian after another (all certainly more important than me—in mentioning myself and Steve, who suffered the same fate, I’m pointing to a wide trend emanating from Rome) was removed from his or her teaching position, silenced, pushed out.

▪ As this went on—a very important point to make—there was hardly a peep on the part of the Catholic academic community in the U.S. There was not the strong movement of outrage and reaction one would expect from scholars. The academy, the center of the American Catholic church, was part of the problem—and, a fortiori, the liberal center was very much part of the problem, because it demonstrated no solidarity at all with theologians being robbed of their vocations in this period, no concern for the effects of this movement on the lives of those subjected to this shameful treatment.

▪ Why that lack of solidarity? Liberals want to be on the winning side. As the reaction set in (a point I want to insist on: it was deliberate and was manufactured from the center of the church; the pendulum did not swing of its own accord), what constituted the center moved ever more to the right.

▪ Consequently, there is a generation of American Catholic thinkers and commentators—our intellectual class of the center—who have grown up in a culture and religious milieu in what is considered centrist is well to the right of center. Whereas I remember the “installation” of John Paul II and Reagan by powerful groups of resistance to the movements of the 1960s and to the open door those movements created for us, this generation of centrists takes for granted that John Paul II and Reagan are admirable, praiseworthy role models for church and society who came on the scene through their own merits and dominated things through the force of their personalities and ideas.

▪ In part, they take this for granted because the religious and political right has succeeded for several generations in dominating political and religious discourse to such an extent that they have made the unthinkable thinkable, and have mainstreamed right-wing ideas that were once on the margins of church and society.

▪ Brian mentions Richard John Neuhaus. He is a shining example of the movement—the deliberate, cultivated, calculated movement—I am describing. I have written extensively on this blog about the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Since its founding in the early 1980s, that group has worked without cease to undermine progressive movements in mainstream American Protestant churches, and to shut the door to the progressive moment represented by the 1960s (culturally and politically) and Vatican II (religiously).

▪ Interestingly enough, though IRD targets non-Catholic churches, among its most influential founding members were Neuhaus and Michael Novak. It has always had a sizeable Catholic presence.

▪ Groups like IRD are predominantly concerned with the economic implications of some of the progressive movements of the 1960s. What they are combating, as they drive wedges into mainstream churches regarding the role of women and gays and lesbians in the church, is the social application of the gospel in a way that critiques the prevailing ideas of neoconservative capitalism.

▪ Because of their appeal to wealthy economic elites, groups like IRD are extremely powerful and well-funded, and have strong clout in our government. They attract the kind of politicians Brian is discussing. They are part and parcel of the cultural move that has been bringing those political (and economic—Erik Prince comes to mind) leaders into the Catholic church.

▪ What do these new converts to Catholicism see in the Catholic church? They see, in part, an institution that does not intend to critique their neoconservative economic ideas or practices. They inhabit a closed inner circle of the church impervious to the economic critique of traditional Catholic social teaching. They see an institution whose rich, powerful intellectual traditions have been co-opted (in their circle, at least) by a “Catholic answers” approach to religious truth that banalizes and trivializes and ultimately betrays the tradition—though they are very loud in their claim that they alone represent the tradition.

▪ These groups have been adroit about disseminating their soundbyte “Catholic answers” everyplace they can, about claiming the center for their eccentric, politicized, a-traditional theology, and about silencing and marginalizing critical voices. They appeal to authoritarian political activists who front for wealthy economic elites.

▪ They gleefully assisted in the dumbing down of the American Catholic church through their assault on the catechetical movement that sprang up following Vatican II, and through the imposition of a catechism now regarded not as a starting point for theological reflection or for study of the tradition, but as an instant-answers approach to catechesis that has robbed a generation of Catholics of the tradition, while convincing them that knowing the answers constitutes better catechesis than ever occrred in the past.

▪ And as they carry on in this way, there have not been powerful resistance movements within American Catholicism—certainly not (and this is shameful to me as a theologian)—in the theological community, and not in parish life, which has been gutted by the restorationist movement, on the whole, with the complicity of bishops appointed by the previous pope and the present one, and parish priests who are increasingly of the John Paul II generation.

Others will perhaps see things different, and I welcome responses. As I note above, my perspective is limited and partial. I was not part of the Reagan revolution. I have never been persuaded by any aspect of neoconservative ideology, whether in religion or politics. My understanding of Catholicism militates against that ideology in a fundamental way, and always has done so.

So I do not reflect (or perhaps even fully understand) the perspective of those who were infatuated with John Paul II and Reagan and have made a gradual journey away from neoconservatism when its flaws became too glaringly apparent to ignore in the Bush presidency. I have always seen John Paul II and Reagan as the religious and political face of one cultural movement, which was all about shutting doors and following the lead of William F. Buckley when he said that the obligation of conservatives is to stand astride history and shout stop.

But history cannot and does not stop, and the obligation of believers (it seems to me) is to participate in the movement of history and try to influence it to positive goals . . . .