Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And Furthermore: Obama, Catholic Voters, and Michael Sean Winters

And as the day goes on, I realize there’s more to say about Michael Sean Winters and his argument that Mr. Obama is failing to be a hit with “Catholics” (here).

The end-run Mr. Winters wants to make around the complex question of who these Catholics are—who American Catholics in general are—is an end-run that seeks to circumvent the complex, painful discussion of what Catholics really believe, rather than what Catholics are being told to believe. In much that he writes on this topic, Michael Sean Winters implicitly privileges the voice of the American Catholic bishops, and equates being a real Catholic, a true Catholic, with fidelity to that voice in its most simplistic forms.

This is harmful to American Catholicism, this narrow identity-politics way of handling what it means to be Catholic in the U.S. today. The voice of the bishops, the voice of the pope, the voice of the Vatican, is hardly the Catholic voice.

Important as those institutional voices are, their definition of Catholicism counts for very little, unless what these institutional voices say elicits a response from those addressed by the hierarchy. Catholicism is a dialogue: faith is a process of not only hearing and receiving what is taught, but of internalizing and acting on what is taught. Without that internalization, that active reception, and activity based on it, faith is not faith at all: it is merely a machine-like repetition of “truths” handed down from on high at which robots and parrots do far better than do human beings.

In much that he writes about “the” Catholic voice and “the” Catholic vote, and what “Catholics” believe and think, Michael Sean Winters takes for granted that the defining issues for all Catholics are and should be abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. And he takes for granted that what the bishops have to say about these issues—at their narrowest, at their most peremptory and commanding—is the final word about these issues, the rallying cry for faithful Catholics in the public square.

This circumvents a whole world of necessary, healthy discourse about these and other issues, that goes (and needs to go) far beyond what the bishops have to say about them. The bishops have, on the whole, long ago used up their moral capital in the public square precisely because they refuse to have the conversations about these and other issues that are necessary to sustain both vibrant, engaged, mature faith among their flock, and strong public buy-in (both by Catholics and the culture at large) for “the” Catholic position on these issues.

Instead of fostering dialogue, the bishops have chosen to issue orders. Instead of recognizing that there is a legitimate divergence of opinion on many matters among the faithful, the bishops have chosen to weed the flock of all questioners, dissenters—even thinkers—and equate being Catholic with walking lockstep behind them at their point of least moral persuasiveness, where they teach by belligerence and slogan-slinging, rather than by dialogue, thought, persuasion, and, above all, example.

Why do I find Michael Sean Winters’ reflections on what American Catholics think and believe not merely unconvincing but misleading and dangerous? Because they implicitly seek to truncate important dialogues about Catholic identity and Catholic belief in American life today, and in doing so, implicitly lend credence to the definition of Catholic identity offered by some of the least admirable and least morally compelling episcopal leaders in the American church at present.