Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Insiders, Outsiders: Catholic Centrists and Stem-Cell Debates

To build on points made in my last two postings (here and here), the marginalized position in which the Catholic church now finds itself as it seeks to convince the culture at large of the importance of its ethic of life has everything to do with the path the church has taken--from its center--following Vatican II.

As President Obama removes restrictions placed on stem-cell research by the previous administration, many Catholics, including those representing the intellectual center of the American Catholic church, are responding with dismay. Many of the spokespersons for centrist Catholicism are noting that "we" believe that life begins at conception, and it is therefore always gravely immoral to experiment on a conceptus as if the zygote is merely a piece of tissue.

These may well be valid points. And they certainly deserve consideration in scientific debates and debates regarding public policy governing scientific research.

But they are points to which few outside the tightly constricted circle represented by the "we" in the defensive arguments of the center are listening. And they are not listening precisely because "we" have not thought carefully enough about what "we" have been doing for years now, as we draw ever tighter lines to identify true believers and exclude everyone else.

We will not begin to convince anyone of the wisdom of our ethical positions as long as we ignore the way in which we belie some of the most fundamental tenets of those positions in our drawing of insider-outsider lines that cruelly and unjustly exclude others. To begin changing the mind of culture about our ethic of life, we have to begin living differently as a Christian community, behaving differently toward one another.

The tragedy of the period following Vatican II is that we need not have ended up where we are now. We need not have taken the dead-end road we have taken as a church--the road it was clear our top leaders intended to take, a move "we" did not protest at all, but one with which we have collaborated in every way possible, so that we now have no right to blame the leaders of the church for bringing us where we have brought ourselves. We who represent the center of the American Catholic church, that is, its knowledge class, those of us who are so confident that others are listening to and benefiting from our opinions as we talk among ourselves and only among ourselves (and not to anyone outside the tight circle of "we") . . . .

Following Vatican II, with its opening to dialogue with secular culture and its recognition that the Spirit moves in the developments of the secular world as it does in the church, we might have built strong ties with contemporary science. We might have enouraged dialogue between geneticists and biologists and pastors and theologians.

We might have admitted that our theological notions about when life begins and about the value of the fetus should depend at least in part on the best findings available to us from the natural and philosophical sciences, and that we need to remain open to dialogue with those sciences. We might have acknowledged that dialogue is never a one-way street in which the owner of "the" truth hands it down to the passive recipient on the other side of the line.

We did not follow that path after Vatican II. Instead, we have chosen to regard the secular, including the world of science, as largely the enemy. We have closed ranks, defined what "we" all believe, and defended that set of truths we define as essential to our identity ever more stridently, with ever less care to understand, to probe meaning. Our primary care has been, instead, to stand on "our" side of the line and shout.

And to become enraged when "they" do not listen.

But, of course, we cannot convince them when we do not attempt to convince those we have made "them" inside our own camp, via the insider-outsider lines we have drawn so sharply at this period of our history. Perhaps the primary problem of Catholic apologetics today is not the inability of those who are so confident that they possess the truth to convince the culture at large of the persuasiveness of our truth claims. It is the problem of convincing the millions of believers who, following Vatican II, did not want to take this we-vs.-them approach to the world or to fellow believers, who are far from persuaded about the truth of the very claims "we" keep shouting ever more loudly about. As if shouting is persuading.

As long as the centrist knowledge class of the American Catholic church continues to act as if the vast numbers of alienated Catholics who do not fit into its defensive we-they categories have somehow earned their place on the outside, those at the center will make no headway at all in their attempt to convince the culture at large of the validity of Catholic ideas and Catholic values. The most serious challenge the church faces today, if it wishes to be a viable, life-giving presence in the midst of culture, is the revision of its own life.

A radical revision is in order: one with implications for how we do our everyday business in parish life. Those we-vs.-them lines that have been drawn ever more sharply after Vatican II? They run right through parishes. The insider-outsider lines are everywhere in our parish life. Every time the parish gathers for liturgy, those praying in the church are not accompanied only by invisible hosts of angels and the faithful departed, as John Chrysostom wrote.

They are accompanied as well by invisible hosts of brother and sister Catholics who have been made completely unwelcome in the church of the restoration. The pews are full, so to speak, of those who have departed, but are not dead. The pews are full of ghosts, of those we have rendered the living dead as we drove them away or stood by passively as they walked away, and those ghosts ought to trouble us, to make our prayers far uneasier than they seem to be.

If we continue praying as though none of this matters, the absence of so many of our brothers and sisters--as if it is not the most significant ecclesiological and apologetic challenge of our period, a theological problem of the utmost import--then we can hardly expect to convince the world outside our church walls that we have something of importance to contribute to debates about the significance of life. Our that our theology of communion makes any real difference to the way in which we live.

If we really believed that theology of communion, we would recognize that the tight we-they lines we have drawn as identity politics have driven our Catholic life confine us as much as they exclude others. We might realize that those who choose to live inside ever smaller circles of absolute certainty end up imprisoned by their certainties, made dumb by their patent truths, turned as hard as stone by the privileges of the center.

We inside the tight circle of the center need the sloppy, errant, questioning brother and sister on the other side of the line to return our humanity to us, as we pray. History suggests to us, after all, that the more sure-fire certain people become, the less inclined they may be to think carefully about those matters regarding which they are so certain, while simultaneously more inclined to do unutterably cruel things in the name of the truths they passionately defend.