Thursday, May 7, 2009

Coerced Morality and the Pastoral Failure of the American Catholic Bishops: More Reflections in Light of Notre Dame-Obama Controversy

Two recent statements by influential thinkers in the American Catholic church deserve particular attention, it seems to me. The first is Thomas Reese’s “Memo to Bishops: Most Catholics Aren’t Listening” in Washington Post this past Tuesday (here). Thomas Reese is the former editor of America, who was forced out of that position when American Catholics of the right, who had the ear of Rome, appealed to then Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then head of the Vatican Congregation of the Faith, to silence him (here).

One of Ratzinger’s first acts as Benedict XVI was to have Reese removed from his position as editor of America.

In his recent WaPo statement, Reese tries to make sense of the fact that American Catholics are simply not listening to those bishops who continue the war against President Obama, even after they failed in their attempt to coerce their flocks to vote Republican in the last election.

I’m struck by an observation Reese makes about the root of Catholics’ refusal to listen to the bishops on this and other issues. He states:

I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, "it is the teaching of the church." This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, "Because I said so."

The bishops must persuade and convince with arguments not by turning up the volume. When they resort to commanding and threatening punishments, people are turned off. Banning speakers, denying Communion, silencing theologians is a sign of weakness not strength. Censorship and violations of academic freedom come across as admissions that their arguments are not convincing and therefore the opposition must be silenced.

This observation dovetails (in my mind, at least) with something Douglas Kmiec says in a statement this week at America re: the open seat that David Souter is now leaving on the Supreme Court (here). Kmiec’s statement is entitled “The Case for Empathy.” Kmiec, readers may remember, is a Pepperdine University law professor who was a legal counsel for both Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but who broke with the Republican party in the last election to support Obama (here).

Kmiec makes a strong case for the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice who brings empathy to the court’s deliberations. I’m especially taken with his conclusion:

Empathy yields one additional lesson: law is no substitute for love. Yes, it is wrong when the Court usurps legislative function or when it disregards the structure of the Constitution that reserves appropriate questions to the states. Yet it is empathy that gives insight into where exactly no government—federal or state—should be involved. In times past, it may have been possible to count upon church or competing private institutions to maintain this boundary between what is public and what is private, but these independent sources of moral formation have also come to overly rely on the crutch of law’s coercion.

In the end, however, coerced morality is without meaning or lasting effect. In the words emblazed upon the New Hampshire license plate that will likely soon again adorn David Souter’s car, we are to “live free or die.” A judge with an empathetic understanding of the Constitution would grasp all that means.

Law is no substitute for love, and coerced morality is without meaning or lasting effect. If only the bishops who continue to try to hold the Catholic church in the U.S. hostage to the Republican party—and to its most rabid right wing, at that—could hear these wise, simple points. Really hear them.

People aren’t listening, because you can’t make them listen. Pastoral leadership is not about forcing people to adhere to what you dictate. It’s about leading, about pointing the way and helping others walk along that way.

The bishops’ coercive, dictatorial approach to the issue of abortion (and, since they have chosen to hinge everything on this, to the question of what it means to be a Catholic in the public sphere today) is an utter failure because this approach assumes that one can establish moral consensus by fiat.

Creating moral consensus by fiat always fails, and has to fail, because this approach treats human beings as objects in an area of life in which objectification is impossible. If morality means anything, it means that we human beings are moral agents and not automatons, persons endowed with mental ability to sort out questions of value, and with consciences to make judgments about issues involving values.

The morality-by-fiat approach undercuts what morality is all about, at its most fundamental level. One establishes moral consensus first and foremost by engaging in moral reasoning and deliberations of conscience with others. One does not establish moral consensus by standing at the head of the queue and commanding everyone else in the queue to line up behind you and do as you do.

For decades now, a large number of the American bishops have refused 1) to talk with their flocks and the public at large about moral issues, 2) to discuss burning moral issues in all their complexity, with respect for their nuances and for the conflicting data that make it difficult to arrive at clear moral judgments about these issues, 3) to permit those called by the Spirit and prepared by professional training—namely, theologians—to assist in building consensus about difficult moral issues to pursue their vocations, and 4) to face honestly and openly the numerous ways in which their own egregious moral lapses (especially in the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children) undermine their ability to address moral issues compellingly.

As many bishops have engaged in all these refusals—which are, at a very fundamental level, betrayals of their vocations as pastors—they have simply commanded. They have sought to browbeat people into thinking and doing what is right—or what the bishops believe to be right.

And they have sought to extend that imperious, coercive approach to the public at large. One of the most curious statements Mary Ann Glendon makes in her recent letter (here) explaining why she is opting out of the Notre Dame commencement ceremony at which President Obama will be honored is this: she notes that Notre Dame has contravened a 2004 request of the U.S. Catholic bishops that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Those who act in defiance: that is a telling phrase, and it is telling that Mary Ann Glendon chooses to quote it here. To me, it says a great deal about what is wrong with the morality-by-fiat approach of the bishops, and why that approach has failed so dismally.

On what grounds can one justly claim that a president who is not even Catholic has “defied” Catholic moral principles? The word “defy” is a loaded word. It implies that those who are defiant are choosing deliberately to act against regulations or principles imposed on them by some authority.

By what right, I wonder, do the American Catholic bishops claim such sway in the public sphere that they believe they can demand that a political leader who is not of their faith, whose moral outlook may well not reflect in every particular the principles or prudential judgments they want to impose on their flocks, should bow to their commands? This is undisguised theocracy, and I’m glad that Mary Ann Glendon lets us know that this is what the battle has been all about, all along.

At least now we know what we are dealing with: anyone who disagrees with not only the principles but even with the prudential judgments of the bishops—including non-Catholics—is defying them in doing so. The path to moral consensus is fiat, and when the attempt to dictate morality fails, force should be the next step.

This is a shoddy way to bring people to moral consensus. It is not working. It cannot work. The Catholic church in the U.S. is bleeding members today at such a rapid rate—particularly among the young (here)because commanding people to do right, and then trying to force them to do right when they do not obey, does not lead to moral behavior: it leads to rejection of those who try to rule by fiat.

And who do not lead by example as they try to command: for instance, I am totally unpersuaded by the recent claim of Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando that his Mass of Reparation earlier in the week was a non-confrontational, apolitical act (here). I am not persuaded because Bishop Wenski has a history of making public statements—in the secular media—that are overt political statements and attempts to strong-arm Catholics in central Florida to vote Republican.

During the last election, he published a statement in a local paper (here) calling on Catholics in his diocese to continue the culture war against their gay brothers and sisters—a theme dear to the heart of the party for whom Bishop Wenski is clearly shilling with his “reparation” Mass and other public statements (here).

And once his side had lost, Bishop Wenski did not give up the battle, but continued publishing overtly political statements in the local secular media. Following Obama’s election, Wenski wrote another op-ed piece in a local paper which, under the guise of congratulating the new president, raked him over the coals regarding a Freedom of Choice Act that has never, in fact, even been on the table (here and here). Drumbeats for the faithful—beats on a war drum—to assure that Catholics in his area will continue to vote “right,” just as the Mass of Reparation this week clearly was . . . .

(The good bishop seems to have a little bee in his bonnet when it comes to gay people, by the way. The anti-abortion screed to which I’ve just linked contains a nasty little dig about gay rights and gay marriage, as did Wenski’s sermon at the Mass of Reparation, which was, again, ostensibly all about abortion, but managed to praise [here] the “courage” of the “convictions” of a beauty queen from California—that is, Carrie Prejean, the new darling of the religious right on the issue of gay marriage.)

With this level of “moral” discourse, and when the teaching of bishops is so clearly captive to one party and its economic movers and shakers, is it any wonder that people are no longer listening?

And when a bishop—in this case, Peter Jugis of Charlotte—does this (here) within days after a prominent member of his flock, Virginia Foxx, has characterized the claim that a young gay man was brutally murdered because he was gay as a hoax? Bishops standing against a bill to outlaw bullying of children on grounds of sexual orientation in North Carolina schools?

It boggles the mind. With such shepherds, is it any wonder that the sheep are no longer walking meekly behind?