Monday, May 18, 2009

Circumventing the Bishops: Catholics in the Public Square in Light of Obama's Notre Dame Speech

The cooked-up controversy over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame is now over, and those seeking to undermine the new president in any way possible will move on to other matters—in particular, to attacks on his nominations for Justice Souter’s vacancy on the Supreme Court. In continuing the discussion of Notre Dame, one plays into the hands of those who engineered the media circus there in recent weeks. Their numbers were tiny, and they failed to embarrass Notre Dame. They embarrassed themselves.

Even so, these political engineers of destructive social turmoil did manage to capture the attention of the mainstream media, and to use their media shills as they have done for some decades now—to insinuate that there is only one possible Catholic position on social issues including abortion, and that anyone who disagrees with this anti-intellectual, highly partisan position is not a faithful Catholic. This in the face of the Vatican’s complete silence about the Notre Dame “controversy,” a recent editorial in the Vatican paper praising Obama, and the obvious warm, supportive reception that the Notre Dame audience gave the president yesterday.

And so we have no choice except to respond, when the ability of a rabid, destructive (but powerfully connected, to the wealthy and powerful) fringe group to command media attention and obtain media legitimacy continues. In what follows, I’d like to offer some wrap-up thoughts about President Obama’s Notre Dame appearance, to round out what I said in my preliminary top-of-the-head reactions yesterday.

The question with which the event leaves me is this: what are Catholics (and the public at large) to make of those U.S. Catholic bishops who continue to attack the new president on partisan grounds, using abortion as their rationale? In the first place, it strikes me that these bishops have now thoroughly discredited themselves.

They do not deserve to be listened to—not as moral authorities. The alacrity with which a number (but far from all) American bishops snapped to and lined up in military formation as right-wing fringe groups began beating the anti-Obama, anti-Notre Dame drum, completely undermines the claim of these bishops to be credible moral teachers.

I know one of the Texas bishops who was among the first to snap to. I know him personally. I have followed his career for years, even before he became a bishop. I have had no choice except to do so. He has done some very destructive things to people I love. I have had to try to figure out how a man of the cloth who claims to walk in the footsteps of Jesus could behave as he does, while I stand in solidarity with my wounded friends.

In my considered judgment, after years of reflection, this man is not and never will be an admirable pastoral leader. He does not have what it takes to be a good pastoral leader. He is barely educated. He does not read broadly and has never read broadly. He is not thoughtful; he is not a listener. He does not listen because his world contains no nuance. It is black and white, and the lines that demarcate black from white have everything to do with his advancement in the hierarchy.

He is a careerist, a shallow, anti-intellectual yes-man who carefully tests the winds before he acts, and then commits himself only when he thinks that in doing so, he will advance his career in the church. He is willing to do cruel, anti-Christian things to those under his pastoral authority, if it means advancing his ecclesiastical career.

He is, sadly, like not a few of the American Catholic bishops, and, in particular, like a large number of the bishops appointed by the late John Paul II. These men do not and cannot offer compelling pastoral and moral leadership to the church, because they are not themselves compelling pastoral and moral leaders.

And so I do not understand—in fact, I am completely baffled by—Michael Sean Winter’s “C minus” grade for Mr. Obama’s speech yesterday . Mr. Winters argued that “the speech handed the President’s opponents plenty of ammunition and showed the extent to which the Obama White House is tone deaf to Catholics and our concerns.”

Really? Did Michael Sean Winters and I hear the same speech, see the same audience reacting to the speech? I would have thought that the reaction of the audience yesterday amply demonstrated that many Catholics—in fact, the vast majority of those in the audience—do not at all think the president is “tone deaf to Catholics and our concerns.”

In my judgment, the reaction of the audience showed exactly the opposite: namely, that a majority of American Catholics are eager for precisely the kind of leadership Mr. Obama offers, insofar as that leadership moves us beyond the frustrating, heading-nowhere roadblocks of those who want to continue the ineffectual culture war, the screaming across barricades, the grotesque display of baby carriages full of dolls splattered with fake blood (and the closed eyes and silence when “pro-life” leaders support capital punishment, lead us into wars on the basis of lies, and ignore the needs of millions of citizens for health care and other necessities of a fulfilling life).

In other words, the majority of Catholics—who, after all, voted for the president, continue to support him, and supported Notre Dame in inviting him to the campus—simply refuse to go where the bishops, many of them, want to take us under the new administration. And yet, Mr. Winters argues,

We hoped the speech would set the stage for a rapprochement with the Catholic hierarchy, if not with Catholic Republicans who have no interest in seeing a good relationship between the President and the leaders of the Catholic Church develop.

Note the royal “we” here. It hovers behind the previous observation, too, about how the president is tone deaf to Catholics and our concerns. For whom is Michael Sean Winters speaking with his “we Catholics”? If not for the Notre Dame audience yesterday, if not for the majority of Catholics who voted for and continue to support the president, then for whom? Who are “we Catholics” who share Mr. Winters’s judgment that the president failed to reach out to the hierarchy yesterday and threw our concerns overboard?

Mr. Winters concludes,

While I am sure the President thought he was doing his best to be respectful and even solicitous of Catholic sensibilities, he failed to find the language and the logic that might have laid the foundation for building a better relationship with the Catholic hierarchy. It was a lost opportunity.

I do not intend to attack Michael Sean Winters in this posting. Indeed, his subsequent posting at America re: the Notre Dame speech shows him having second thoughts about what he said initially in his C-minus rant about the president’s failure to be “respectful and even solicitous,” and to reach out to the hierarchy.

I highlight these judgments because, in my view, they reflect an entirely wrong-headed approach to Catholic concerns and the public square, which has to be discarded if we hope to move ahead. As I’ve noted in previous postings on this blog, Mr. Winters’s persistent “we Catholics” refrain is a very narrow category of analysis, one that hardly reflects the rich diversity of American Catholicism, and the variety of political, moral, and theological positions that can legitimately call themselves Catholic at this point in history, in the United States.

Mr. Winters’s “we Catholics” is invariably a test-phrase that separates the sheep from the goats, and in doing so, separates out a large proportion of us who are Catholic but who do not in any shape, form, or fashion share many of Mr. Winters’s preoccupations—neither his judgment that “we Catholics” all rest easy at the continued exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from communion, nor his conclusion that Mr. Obama ought to appease a morally bankrupt set of bishops.

What the Notre Dame speech and the reaction of the crowd to it demonstrated to me is that the only way forward, if we want to see a viable reconnection of Catholic insights and Catholic values with the public square, is a way that marches resolutely around the bishops. Implicit in the approach of many centrist Catholics to the question of how Catholicism and the public square should connect are two presuppositions—and they are strong in Mr. Winters’s thought—that I suggest many Catholics do not share at this point in history, and which are counterproductive, if we really want to share our insights and values in the public square.

The first is the insistence that the bishops are the “authentic” voice of Catholic teaching about abortion, sexual ethics, and many other matters. And the second is the belief that there is some easily assumed, unitary voice, a “truth,” to be handed down by the magisterium, received by Catholics, and then brandished about as what “we Catholics” think and believe, when we engage the general public about issues that concern us.

These presuppositions have been central to the identity politics that has dominated Catholic political and cultural life in the U.S. in the neocon, neoCath period of our history. They have been so strong, so ruthlessly imposed on us by those on the political and religious right that even centrist Catholics like Mr. Winters have caved in to them, and want to craft our life as a church and our behavior in the public square around them.

And they are simply wrong. They do not reflect our tradition at its best. They betray significant, important aspects of our tradition and diminish our ability to be skilled, credible witnesses in the public square. They energize the worst among us and marginalize the best among us.

Though Winters critiques Mr. Obama’s insistence that faith goes hand in hand with doubt—a necessary and valuable insistence, because no one has the final answer, and people of faith proceed together towards a truth that transcends any one of us—that position is solidly rooted in Catholic thought. It is not Mr. Obama who departs from the Catholic center, in insisting on the need for dialogue, for careful thought, for humility in the face of a truth that transcends us all. It is Catholics of the neoCath generation who do so, in their conviction of some unimaginable Truth that can be captured in neat, ahistorical catechism statements, clutched in our little hands, and then waved about as something we own and no one else has, while we do battle against everyone else in the public square.

And this is, of course, where the bishops’ failure lies, and why they are not credible moral teachers, on the whole, today. Because they have refused to treat even their own flocks with respect, they can hardly convince the public at large to pay attention to their teachings about respect for life. Because they have refused to engage the people of God and the public at large in respectful, careful, thoughtful dialogue about complex issues that go beyond simplistic formulations of “the” truth, they have ended up being totally unconvincing, when they seek to define the debate about life.

It is impossible to convince people that one respects pre-birth life when clearly doesn’t respect post-birth life. The bishops’ refusal to engage even their own flocks in dialogue in which we all seek together a truth transcending each of us, bespeaks a shocking lack of respect for the lives, consciences, and real concerns, of the people the bishops shepherd. The bishops’ willingness not merely to tolerate with but to assist in creating a smaller, purer church of rabid ideologues, as millions of thoughtful, conscientious Catholics are written out of the church, speaks volumes about the bishops' lack of respect for life.

No, I cannot agree with Mr. Winters that, in order to convince us Catholics of his solicitude for our concerns, Mr. Obama needs to focus on “rapprochement” with the hierarchy, just as I cannot agree with Mr. Winters's insistence that the bishops are distinct from “Catholic Republicans who have no interest in seeing a good relationship between the President and the leaders of the Catholic Church . . . .” The American Catholic bishops and Catholic Republicans have long since come to be synonymous in the public's mind, and the bishops have worked very hard to clench that identification.

In doing so, they have unwisely linked the future of the American Catholic church to the future of a particular political party, one badly faltering now for entirely understandable reasons. As people become weary of that party's pretense to stand for what is holy, in the face of massive evidence of its betrayal of all that is holy, the future of the Catholic church in the U.S. depends, in my view, on the increasingly willingness of the people of God to ignore the bishops and follow the Spirit's lead, as the Spirit weaves Her fascinating way through the ruins the bishops have created, and builds anew.