Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Watchdog Activities of Cardinal Newman Society: The Response of American Catholic Bishops

And, since the Cardinal Newman Society, on whose episcopal advisory board Bishop Martino of Scranton sits (here), sought to plant a second defamatory story about Catholic universities on the same day it trumpeted its story about Martino's attack on Misericordia University, I'd like to draw attention to an editorial in America magazine two years ago (here).

This editorial is still pertinent. America published it at a moment in which the American Catholic bishops and American Catholic universities were being hounded by Cardinal Newman Society over the implementation of the Vatican document Ex corde ecclesiae. That document, which calls on Catholic institutions of higher learning to assess their Catholic identity and consider how they transmit Catholic values to students, precipitated an ongoing discussion among bishops and presidents of Catholic universities. As the America editorial notes, Ex corde ecclesiae was itself written in this dialogic fashion, as the outcome of a process of discussion.

Cardinal Newman Society would have nothing of the discussion. The Society and the bishops who advise it preferred, instead, to attack, to plant misleading stories in the media about the purported decline in the Catholicity of American universities.

As the America editorial notes, in January 2006, the outgoing chair of the bishops' committee dealing with Catholic higher education, Archbishop John G. Vlazny, wrote Martino and other bishops identified as episcopal advisors for the Cardinal Newman Society. Archbishop Vlazny's letter notes that his committee and the American bishops had been monitoring the actions of Cardinal Newman society, and found them "often aggressive, inaccurate, or lacking in balance," as well as "often objectionable in substance and in tone."

What, in particular, have brother bishops found objectionable about the behavior of Cardinal Newman Society and its episcopal advisors? Here's America's observation:

What have been the methods of the Cardinal Newman Society that the Bishops and Presidents Committee find so objectionable? The Cardinal Newman Society keeps a close watch on how Catholic campuses observe the society’s self-defined and rather narrow view of what constitutes Catholic orthodoxy. Their litmus tests include: whether any campus group has sponsored a presentation of “The Vagina Monologues”; whether any politician who does not favor criminalizing abortion is invited to speak at a campus event; whether the institution has sponsored a support group for gay and lesbian students; and, most recently, whether faculty or staff at a Catholic institution supported John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2004 elections.

In pursuit of its skewed view of orthodox Catholicism, the Cardinal Newman Society has been reckless in its caricature of opposing viewpoints, misrepresenting the positions of those with whom they disagree. Even sadder, however, is the assumption behind their watchdog tactics. The test of a Catholic institution implicit in those tactics is a negative one.

As America notes, Cardinal Newman Society wants to impose an entirely negative test on Catholic universities, as it judges their catholicity. It does not focus on the positive ways in which a Catholic institution transmits Catholic ideas and values. It establishes a narrow (and--my assessment--fundamentally political) standard by which to judge most Catholic colleges as "out" and a select, sectarian, highly politicized and right-leaning few, as "in."

The approach of Cardinal Newman Society has, America thinks, little understanding of or regard for one of the central functions of a Catholic university, which is to engage contemporary culture in a dialogic way. It, and its episcopal leaders, would prefer to dictate to culture, to create a bastion of like-minded believers and hurl down invectives against contemporary culture, insofar as it does not toe the party line of these sectarians.

And they're still at it. On the same day that Cardinal Newman Society sought to create a media frenzy around the Martino-Misericordia story, the Society issued a press release attacking Georgetown University, Loyola of Chicago, and Seattle University (here). Their infraction?

According to Cardinal Newman Society, these three Jesuit institutions have permitted dialogue about LGBT issues. As Misericordia University did, incurring Martino's ire: the similarity in these stories is not accidental. Both stories are attempts to create media frenzies in which "orthodox" Catholics will get up in arms about the (totally manufactured) "decline" in Catholicity of American Catholic schools.

And will donate money. To the Cardinal Newman Society. And to the Republican party.

And will vote Republican. And will (the real objective of the Martino story, with its pointers back to Mr. Biden and Scranton) participate in the crusade of the Catholic right to undermine the new administration in every way possible.

While our economic institutions fall apart, while millions of Americans are struggling to pay mortgages and rent, to feed their families, to find work, these political partisans wearing Catholic garb are gleefully engaged in divisive attacks, in attempts to undermine and destroy, in ongoing efforts to seize theocratic control of the political process. And in behavior that tears apart the unity of the American Catholic church.

If they do not succeed--and they may well do so; they have powerful people with deep pockets behind them, people whose willingness to disseminate disinformation in the name of their "good" is well-demonstrated--there may come a day when historians look back at such behavior and ask how those engaged in it ever thought they were faithfully Catholic. Or grounded in the gospels and example of Jesus, in any shape, form, or fashion.

(As an aside: note the web editor's comment that follows the America editorial. As it suggests, when America published the editorial, the right-wing Catholic noise machine did something it routinely does, when its actions are criticized: it encouraged its partisans to flood America with invective about its betrayal of Catholic values. It is clearly not about dialogue, for the political and religious right. It's about control, and the shutting down of dialogue and destruction of opponents that are required to gain such control.)