Friday, August 28, 2009

Health Care Mobs, Bishops, and Hating on Ted Kennedy: The American Catholic Soul Laid Bare, Summer of 2009

Here’s how I’m coming to see it. When Congress went into recess with legislation for health care reform incomplete—let’s be honest: with no substantive details at all to reassure us the process is underway—they left a window open.

And through that window have now crawled some of the worst ghouls and goblins of American culture. Ghouls and goblins we’ve always known were there; they’re part of the dim recesses of our national psyche, hovering always somewhere in the background. But ghouls and goblins now prancing around in the light of day, occupying center stage.

And about to claim the center. About to take over.

Many of us had hoped that the election of Mr. Obama might mean at least a temporary respite from the freak show. We had hoped that these forces might be placed in check, at least for a period of time, while the damage they and their kind did to the nation during the last presidency got cleaned up and the nation put back onto the right track.

That did not happen. For whatever reasons, the new administration failed to recognize that placing these forces in decisive check was imperative, if it were to move forward on any front. The administration failed to listen to its most ardent supporters, the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

And it failed to listen to the large majority of those who voted Democratic in the last election, who desperately wanted to see the nation made whole again, and some of our key problems addressed forthrightly. The vacuum of leadership at the top of the nation—ethical leadership which recognizes that to call something a moral imperative is to act on that imperative as expeditiously as possible—opened the door for the many spineless, ethically compromised Democrats who consistently place the interests of corporations and economic elites ahead of their fellow citizens. It opened a door for them to collude with those to whom they have sold their souls, to block the health care reform process for as long as possible.

They began the process of blocking health care reform because they could do so. The administration’s lack of leadership invited them to do so.

The Republicans, we knew all along, were intent on blocking health care reform because it is their best and brightest hope to destroy the new administration. Only a fool would not have known that leaving the window open during this long, hot summer recess was a prelude to seeing the Republican party at its tawdry, seamy worst—at the underbelly worst it has now become in its minority status—streaming through the window.

Armed and ready to do damage. And what damage these folks, this army of malicious fools, have now done to our nation in one short summer.

We are now back further than we were when the president took office. Those in leadership positions in this nation have given the radical, destructive right a chance to regain strength, and we will all be paying a price for that mistake for a long time to come. It is very likely, in fact, that the Republican party—the party intent not on building a better society, but on blocking any and all possible attempts to build such a society—will regain control of Congress in 2010 elections.

And there’s little that those of us who gave the mandate for a new direction to this administration—which is to say a clear majority of Americans—can do about that.

And here is what else happened when the window was left open and the ghouls and goblins were invited back in. As I predicted (and I am not happy to see this prediction come true), some U.S. Catholic bishops are using this time of ugly social discontent and engineered rage and confusion to go on the attack. Some U.S. bishops are right there with the ghouls and goblins, shouting and threatening and jubilating at the thought of destruction of good people and good plans.

Their goal is not to build a better nation. It is not to see core Catholic moral values regarding health care and concern for the poor served. It is solely—and exceptionally mean-spiritedly—to attack while they believe the knife can most easily be inserted and twisted. The New York Times
reports today that Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, and—predictablyArchbishop Charles Chaput of Denver have all issued statements seeking to block health care reform.

I should say, all three of these men of the cloth have issued statements supporting the Republican crusade to block health care reform, because this is partisan politics pure and simple. These bishops are willing to put partisan political objectives—their partisan political objectives—ahead of what has long been regarded as a clear, compelling objective of Catholic social teaching, health care coverage for all citizens.

They are willing to play the abortion card and to hold the nation hostage on the specious grounds that a plan for health care reform may cover abortion, in order to destroy the new administration. Make no mistake about it: this is their goal. It is their hope. For partisan reasons. Having scented blood this summer, they are circling around now, ready to make the kill. These men of the cloth.

The hatred that underlies this ostensibly religious crusade is on shocking display—if anyone happens to have missed the shocking displays of the town hall meetings this summer—in the reaction of the fringe right, its Republican party enablers, and, yes, many in the churches, to the death of Ted Kennedy. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes in his HuffPo article about this yesterday entitled “Hatin’ on Ted Kennedy,” it is impossible to disentangle the crude, crowing statements of delight at Ted Kennedy’s death that are pouring out of the mouths of people in all the aforementioned groups from those groups’ intent to block health care reform.

They smell blood. And they are going for the kill. Hutchinson notes,

The Kennedy counter assault comes against the backdrop of a well-defined, well-heeled, and well orchestrated right counterinsurgency against health care reform, any other proposal from Obama and Congressional Democrats on the economy, immigration, expanded civil liberties and civil rights protections. This is more than an insurgency with the GOP's hidden hand behind the curtain pulling the strings. The hate crowd actually believes what they say about Obama and Kennedy, and couldn't care less how many times or how many people scream crack pot and lunatic at them.

And right in the middle of this festival of hate that is all about tearing down rather than building up, I have to repeat, are some loud, key Catholic voices. Catholic voices. Voices of people whose fundamental religious convictions should be about loving, including, building a better world. Screaming, shouting, condemning, tearing down with an alacrity that most people of goodwill anywhere in the world would find impossible to associate with bona fide religious or moral values.

Michael Sean Winters has published a number of fine statements about this at the America blog, and I commend him for his courage. For daring to commemorate Ted Kennedy in a positive way, and to expose the maleficence of the fringe right in American Catholicism which is celebrating the senator’s guise, he is being slammed and slammed hard. As that fringe group is wont to do, when they organize and pressure for “Catholic” positions to be upheld.

One of the people Michael Sean Winters has dared to call out for hating on the deceased senator is one Patrick Madrid of the Envoy Institute at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Madrid chose to eulogize Ted Kennedy as follows:

Whatever his positive qualities may have been, and no doubt he had some, the tragic reality is that Senator Kennedy's long political career was squandered by his vociferous, relentless promotion of abortion. And that, sadly, will be his enduring legacy. I agree with you that tears are appropriate upon hearing the news of this man's death, but not for the reasons you are crying them.

I’m sorry to say I happen to know a thing or two about Patrick Madrid and Belmont Abbey College, though I’ve hesitated to mention that on this blog. I have hesitated because places like Belmont Abbey College have a penchant for using negative publicity generated by progressive bloggers to their advantage. The school is a showplace of the American Catholic right, and it has friends in very high places.

Criticize it, and those friends will find a way to use the publicity to the advantage of Belmont Abbey, to bring yet more ardently right-wing students to the school. And, as the reaction to Michael Sean Winters’s blog posting about Patrick Madrid illustrates, criticize it, and you are up against a powerful, well-funded, and well-organized group of right-wing activists intent on bringing you down by any means possible. One respondent to the America postings I cite above is now calling for Michael Sean Winters’s resignation from America, because he dared to criticize Patrick Madrid.

As I say, I happen to know a bit about Belmont Abbey, because I spent two hapless years teaching there, and it was there that my ability to connect to the Catholic church in an institutional way was definitively broken. It was there, in fact, that my faith itself was almost broken, until I realized that the behavior of some people who call themselves Catholic is not synonymous with the church itself, no matter how powerful they happen to be.

And, interestingly enough, my memories of those years of struggle simply to survive in a sea of toxic reactionary Catholicism I had never encountered before and did not even know existed include one sharp memory centering on Ted Kennedy.

This happened in the faculty lounge at Belmont Abbey, a place that, in the early 1990s, belonged to an old boys’ network who were quick to let you know who belonged and who didn’t. They were not above removing something you posted on the bulletin board of the lounge, and putting in its place something else which implied that 1) you were anti-Catholic and 2) that meant you were pro-abortion. Never mind that you had never said a word about abortion in any class you taught or any piece you had published.

If you didn’t belong to their club, you had to be for abortion. That was the crude logic by which the club controlled, and then destroyed, anyone it perceived as an enemy.

The occasion I recall involving Ted Kennedy was this. Among the old boys who gathered in the faculty lounge to smoke and grouse between classes were always a number of the Benedictine monks who own the college and determine everything that goes on in it—including who is or is not president at any given time.

On this occasion, the question vexing the old boys was what to do about Anita Hill and her challenge to Clarence Thomas during Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I have never seen such gloom as I saw in the old boys’ lounge at Belmont Abbey during the days when it seemed Anita Hill might prevail in the hearings. And I have never seen such unabashed, evil delight as I witnessed among the same old boys when Thomas was confirmed.

Somehow, during all this phallic preening about Hill-Thomas, Ted Kennedy’s name came up. When it did so, one of the monks was sitting in one of the large windows that overlooked the campus from the lounge. He liked to fold himself into the windows, as he sat on the windowsill and smoked, pontificating from that vantage spot in the direction of the other old boys sitting on the sofas in the middle of the lounge.

When Kennedy’s name came up, the monk poured out a stream of invective the likes of which I had never heard: goddamned hypocrite; Chappaquiddick; worst of any of the liberals; wish him and his kind had never been born.

I had never heard anything like it—certainly not from a man who prayed several times a day in a choir stall in church. Not from a man wearing a religious habit. Not from a fellow Catholic.

To my discomfiture, I learned from that experience—and from my whole experience at Belmont Abbey—a valuable lesson about what Catholicism is capable of. It was not a pretty lesson. But it was a necessary lesson.

That lesson has made me very tentative about claiming Catholic identity in a church in which such voices prevail. And what the American Catholic bishops are doing today—what the partisan loudmouths intent on bringing Obama down are doing as they join the shout-fest, what the silent majority who let their brother bishops behave this way with impunity are doing—makes me even more convinced to keep my distance.