Monday, October 5, 2009

The Rosary and Reaction in the U.S.: Can Traditional Piety Be Disentangled from Right-Wing Politics?

Over the weekend, I was involved in a fascinating discussion about the rosary at Terry Weldon’s Queering the Church blog. October’s the month of the rosary in the Catholic devotional calendar.

The heart of the exchange at Queering the Church is whether praying the rosary—particularly in public gatherings—is becoming so tainted with political associations in some cultures that this devotion is irretrievable for some of us. Or is it possible to divorce forms of piety from their political ties (which all forms of piety have), and to reclaim them for spiritualities that do not move in reactionary directions?

For some years, I haven’t moved in circles in which praying the rosary in public settings is de rigeur. I do value this and other repetitive mantra-like forms of prayer in my private prayer. But as I’ve noted on this blog, I find myself pushed to the margins of the church and I can no longer participate in the church’s public worship, in its liturgy. My life partner Steve and I have found that while the church preaches that everyone is invited to share the Lord’s bread at the Lord’s table, it often shoves some of its own employees (and these are frequently gay and lesbian) away from the table of daily bread, firing us without any regard for our human rights.

The disconnect between what the church proclaims about the eucharistic bread and how it treats some of us when it comes to daily bread has grown insupportable for us. If eucharistic bread is to have any real significance—if it’s to be what the church proclaims it is—then the Lord’s table has to be effectively connected to the table of daily bread. When the church itself violates what it proclaims about daily bread—that God desires for all of us to have it, that we all have a moral obligation to provide it to those in need—it radically undercuts what it proclaims about the Lord’s bread. You cannot convincingly welcome people to the Lord’s table while shoving them from the table of daily bread.

To participate in liturgies at which a church proclaims welcome while practicing anything but welcome towards some of its children affirms, we believe, the church’s violation of its own core eucharistic principles in its treatment of its gay and lesbian members (and many of its employees). And so we stay where we’ve been placed—on the margins—and seek community and spiritual life wherever we can find it.

This means that we’re almost never in settings in which praying the rosary with others is an option. The last several times that option has been there for us have been wakes and funerals for members of Steve’s devoutly German Catholic Midwestern family. And those experiences haven’t convinced us that praying the rosary with other Catholics is something we long to do right now. Quite the opposite, as long as the rosary signifies what it has come to signify for many of those praying it together in public nowadays.

Some of Steve’s family members are caught up in rosary demonstrations now held routinely in small towns throughout their area of the country for political reasons. These are ongoing and well-organized, and several of Steve’s siblings are active in organizing and leading these religio-political demonstrations.

He’s just gotten notice that one of the major yearly rosary demonstrations in his area will take place down the road in October. A cousin of Steve’s, a Knight of Columbus who led the rosary at his father’s funeral in 2008, is spearheading this event. Like many Knights of Columbus these days, he’s outspoken in his opposition to affirmation of gay people, though his large Catholic extended family contains its fair share of gays and lesbians.

The group sponsoring this rosary calls itself America Needs Fatima. As this group’s website notes, America Needs Fatima is a “special campaign” of a group called the American Society for Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP) to spread the Fatima message in the United States.

TFP is a Catholic religio-political cult founded in Brazil by Plinio CorrĂȘa de Oliveira (and condemned by the Brazilian Catholic bishops) that is resolutely opposed to what it calls “the liberal, socialist and communist trends of the times.” These trends include same-sex marriage.

TFP has become a leading Catholic group working to remove the right of same-sex marriage in states that have accepted this right. During the prop 8 campaign in California, it sent groups of young men there to march against gay marriage, wearing trademark red sashes, and waving red banners that remind observers like Chip Berlet of the blood-red flags the Spanish Inquisition used to announce its presence in a community. The group also bought expensive full-page ads in California to warn against the dangers of gay marriage.

TFP’s critique of “liberal, socialist, and communist trends” is not merely an attack on progressive political movements. It’s a deliberate defense of those with wealth and power. In a book entitled Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Press, 1993), TFP’s founder de Oliveira argues that, instead of making a preferential option for the poor, the church should cater to social elites, to the wealthy and well-born.

This “trickle-down” theory of evangelization, in which the church consolidates its ties to the rich and powerful and then uses them to reach (and coerce and control) those at the bottom of society, is characteristic of other forms of piety born in Spanish and Latin American Catholicism in response to the Spanish Civil War and subsequent social movements in Spain and Latin America to defend the poor and workers against the oppression of the powerful. The same “trickle-down” theory of evangelization can be found in the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei, both with roots in fascist movements in Spanish Catholicism. With their belief that the best way to influence societies is by working inside elite circles at the top, all three groups also shield many of their financial and political ties and activities from outside scrutiny, claiming that this allows their devotees to pursue their evangelistic work more effectively.

Strange, isn’t it, that a group with such reactionary elitist political associations is so strongly influential right at this moment of American Catholic history—particularly through rosary crusades in small towns and rural communities whose citizens have nothing at all in common with the social elites that TFP courts as its primary converts? And yet it’s not so strange, I think.

One of the primary ways right-wing Catholic groups like TFP can exert influence on the political process is precisely through popular movements that advance TFP objectives, without doing so overtly. Steve’s family members who form the backbone of the America Needs Fatima public demonstrations in their area—and who attend any and every public rosary sponsored in their part of the country—don’t know anything at all about the ideology of the group sponsoring their rosary crusades. They know nothing of TFP’s preferential option for the wealthy, or its political intent to return Western society as much as possible to a pre-Enlightenment, pre-modern monarchical theocratic social order.

What they do know is that they oppose abortion, fiercely and absolutely. They also know that they are coming to fear and reject their gay brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters because groups like TFP have been adroit at manipulating their fears of gay people as the menacing Other. The fierce and absolute resistance to abortion is coalescing, more and more, with homophobia, as right-wing groups like TFP massage the fears of rosary crusaders in small-town, rural America—people who gather to pray the rosary primarily out of devotion, because they think this traditional religious practice is being overlooked by the Catholic mainstream, and that America has gotten far from its moral moorings at this point in its history.

As I noted in a previous posting, things have come to a point in Steve’s family in which his true-believing Catholic siblings are now not talking to his more inclusive, religiously questioning siblings, after Steve’s niece pointedly decided not to invite the partners of her two gay uncles to her wedding on the feast of the Assumption this August. As the mother of this niece explained to one of Steve’s brothers who questioned the decision, marriage is by definition between one man and one woman for life. Can’t have the gays at a wedding. They dilute its sacred meaning.

The rosary—rosary as weaponis getting intertwined with ugly political reaction in the Catholic heartland I begin to wonder if this venerable Catholic devotion will survive the political use to which it’s being put in areas where people now routinely gather to pray the rosary against abortion and gay marriage. And against Obama, since these politico-religious demonstrations are also overtly against the new president and the ways in which he has come to symbolize all that these heartland Catholics have come to fear most in a rapidly changing culture.

And, sadly, against health care, since health care reform is being promoted by the Obama administration. One of the strangest twists in the crusades sponsored by groups like the American Society for Tradition, Family, and Property is that these crusades are calling together groups of the faithful to pray simultaneously against abortion and health care reform, though abundant evidence suggests that making good, basic health care available to all citizens will diminish abortions by preventing the economic quandaries that cause many poor women to consider abortion.

There’s a sad cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face quality about how the rosary is being used nowadays in public gatherings in the American Catholic heartland. People passionate about eliminating abortion are praying against one of the primary pro-life social remedies that promises to diminish abortion. People who live on the economic margins are collaborating with right-wing political groups promoting the interests of wealthy elites who thrive on exploiting those on the economic margins.

People who are rejecting wholesale some key elements of Catholic social teaching—e.g., the universal human right to health care, the universal moral obligation to provide health care coverage to all citizens—are claiming that their Catholicism is uniquely faithful to the magisterium, while the Catholicism of their progressive brothers and sisters is defective Catholicism.

As long as the rosary is being put to these political uses, I think I will continue to find myself a concerned observer rather than a participant of most public rosary events, at this point in American Catholic history. I have no choice but to exempt myself from such demonstrations, it appears, if I care about health care for all citizens, or human rights, particularly for those on the social and economic margins.