Friday, February 27, 2009

Reconsidering the Holy Alliance: Reagan and John Paul II

Colleen Kochivar Baker has had two wonderful postings on her blog the past two days (here and here), which tie into the theme Brian began with his reply to me several days ago . Since my response to Brian (here) is framed as a dialogue with those reading this blog, I'm posting here some comments I have made to Colleen in reply to her postings--a continuation of the dialogue. Colleen notes at the end of her posting today that she's thinking through issues similar to those discussed in my response to Brian.

Here's my reply to Colleen,

Colleen, I read your postings yesterday and today. I want to provide a bit more background to why I brought up John Paul II and Reagan in my response to Brian. I have two primary reasons for bringing them into the discussion.

One is that, in my view, they are not manifestations of some kind of "natural" pendulum swing following Vatican II and the 1960s, to correct Vatican II and the sixties. They often get treated that way in the media, and I think this is because the right has succeeded in scripting the history that way, and in doing so, dominating our discourse about the decades following the 1960s. I think it's time to challenge the iconization of Reagan and John Paul II because their elevation to iconic status by the right is part of a bigger right-wing narrative that needs to be challenged if we're to move forward culturally and religiously.

The second reason I bring them up is to try to shine light on some of the fundamental ideas of that period that have now become normative in our discourse, and which are fundamentally wrong-headed. One of these that I keep harping on is the government-is-the-problem shtick of Reagan. I'm not convinced that Reagan ever really believed that. It was selective rhetoric on his part, to attack political ideas and movements he wanted to stop dead in their tracks. Reagan was perfectly willing to invoke government in the most heavy-handed way when it served his interests to do so.

John Paul II also had more faces than the one that appears in his iconic representation in our media, under the spell of the right. That iconic face stresses his battle against the state communism of the Eastern bloc nations, his defense of freedom of conscience against state repression, and so on.

Our media have also conveniently chosen to overlook that the principles John Paul II applies in his battle with state communism are principles he refused to accept in the life of the church itself, as well as in the church's relationship to cultures where his model for confronting Eastern bloc communism did not work. Rather than endorsing the central role of conscience within the church itself, or the kind of critique of dictatorship he encouraged in the Eastern bloc nations, John Paul II willingly repressed dissent in the church. He also refused to permit involvement of priests in political struggles in Latin America, while encouraging such involvement in Poland.

Our media have chosen to ignore, as well, John Paul II's critique of capitalism. His writings on political and economic issues balanced his critique of state communism with an equally stringent critique of our capitalist economic model. Insofar as he's been turned into a kind of religious counterpart of Reagan (and he has, in the iconic representation of the right), his complex, multi-faceted thought on political and economic issues has been distorted.

And where he richly deserves critique among those who claim to defend the right of conscience to come to informed judgment about complex issues, he is rarely critiqued. This is a testament, I believe, to the way in which the right has succeed in shaping our discourse about these two iconic figures, and also about all cultural, political, and religious developments in the latter half of the 20th century.

This dominant discourse of the right, which now masquerades as centrist, needs to be challenged if we're to move forward. The conversion of the political figures you and Brian have enumerated (and I keep wanting to add Erik Prince to the list) signals the continuing intent of powerful right-wing political and economic groups to use the Catholic church as a shelter as they keep trying to dominate the cultural and religious discourse of the 21st century.

And to his shame, Benedict is permitting this to happen, as witness his decision to bring the SSPX crowd into the fold. And he will continue to permit this to happen, unless Catholics who see the sell out to the right as a betrayal of our tradition insist that it is our church, too.