Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vatican Undercuts Catholics of the Far and Center Right on Obama

I’ve blogged a number of times in the past (see e.g. here) about how the center of American Catholicism moved so far to the right in the final decades of the 20th century, that political and religious positions once considered unthinkably far right are now considered close to the center.

It’s interesting to track this shift in the American Catholic center by noticing the difference between how President Obama has been received at the Vatican, and how he’s being received by some vocal American Catholics who consider themselves Vatican-devoted Catholics of the highest order. The Vatican’s response to the new president has been, on the whole, far more moderate than that of a significant minority of American Catholics, including many of the bishops of the American Catholic church.

The disjuncture between where the American Catholic church now finds itself after decades of leadership that has pushed it to the political and religious right, and where the Vatican itself is on some issues (e.g., capital punishment, rights of workers, the obligations of the rich, the preferential option for the poor, the war in Iraq, etc.) is apparent in the reaction of center right Catholics to a 29 April article about President Obama in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (here, H/T David Gibson—see below). L’Osservatore Romano finds President Obama not the radical threat many Catholics had feared. And American Catholics of the far and center right are not happy to hear that assessment.

My source for the preceding link to John Thavis’s Catholic News Service Report about the L’Osservatore Romano statement is a posting by David Gibson yesterday on the Commonweal blog (here). It’s fascinating to read the comments of many of my fellow Catholics of the center right posting in response to David Gibson (and L’Osservatore Romano).

For some decades now, these brother and sister Catholics have been wont to inform the rest of us that they alone stand with the Vatican, that their voice alone represents “the” Catholic voice—they occupy the center and the rest of us are outside the pale. Now, when the official Vatican newspaper refuses to rant and rave about the new president as they are doing, they suddenly find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being at odds with the Vatican. Though they’d like to claim that their Catholicity is purer and truer than that of the majority of American Catholics who voted for Mr. Obama—that it is the Catholic position of Rome itself—the Vatican newspaper itself, L’Osservatore, is undercutting that claim.

Will the Vatican’s refusal to condemn Obama as American Catholics of the far and center right want result in a new awareness that, in the theology and political views of people like Robert W. Finn and Thomas Euteneur (here), the center of American Catholicism has finally moved so far to the right that it’s headed off the charts of Catholicity? It’s hard to know.

It may well be that, as they observe the unhinged reaction of some American Catholics to the election of the new president, some Vatican officials are finally beginning to recognize the considerable downside of the rough beast they have nurtured in American Catholicism for far too long now. There are growing indicators that some groups within the Vatican recognize that Benedict himself has been for far too long (including in his years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) a polarizer and not a uniter of the church.

I have to wonder if the statement in L’Osservatore Romano represents the considered opinion of some Vatican officials that there is a greater need on the part of the church to dialogue with “enemies,” rather than to lambast and excommunicate them—that is, if the church expects its voice to be heard and if it expects to remain viable in the cultures of the 21st century. I also have to wonder if some Vatican officials are beginning to recognize that the apocalpytic, devil-infatuated, blood-and-gore Catholicism that is trying to claim the center of American Catholicism after Obama's election is, well, just plain crazy—and exceedingly dangerous.

I don't know for sure. I’m not a Vaticanologist, and I grow weary of those who claim to have the insider's viewpoint from episcopal palaces and the Vatican, just as I grow weary of those precious viewpoints themselves, since they hardly represent the viewpoint of the entire church. I don’t claim to speak with certainty about what is going on in Rome or any bishop's palace or chancery office. Leave the chancery to bury the chancery: that's long been my philosophy of Catholic life.

Of one thing, I’m certain, however: it’s nice to have the Vatican issue this reminder that Catholicism is a much broader (and, at its best, a more sensible and morally compelling) phenomenon than many more-Roman-than-Rome American Catholics of the far right and center right would have us believe. It’s nice to have the Vatican’s voice, for a change, undercutting the claims of the Virginia Foxxes, Erik Princes, Maggie Gallaghers, Bill Donohues, Charles Chaputs, and, now, Newt Gingriches of the world to represent “the” Vatican position on matters political and religious.