Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mary Lee Settle, John Henry Newman, and Roger Williams: Musings on Authentic Catholicity

Becky Garrison's interview today at Religion Dispatches with Wake Forest's Bill Leonard about Roger Williams catches my eye for a very particular reason.  Yes, I've always been interested in Roger Williams and his contribution to American religious (and political) thought, because that contribution was drummed into me as a child in Sunday School.  As I was growing up, many evangelical churches had not yet abandoned their longstanding commitment to separation of church and state (they've done so now with a vengeance), and still held up for veneration figures like Roger Williams, with his courageous defiance of the attempt of the Puritan majority in New England to suppress freedom of conscience via state control of religion.

But I'm even more interested in Roger Williams at the moment, because I have just finished Mary Lee Settle's biographical novel about Williams entitled I, Roger Williams.  And here's the angle that strikes me as I think about Settle's novel.

Mary Lee Settle chose to become Catholic in the late 1980s.  But that choice did not stop her from writing a stellar novelistic biography of a courageous proto-Baptist thinker in New England.  Nor did it keep her from writing generous, accurate, intelligent analysis of the significant contributions of Islam to Spanish culture (and of the maleficent attempts of Spanish Catholicism to extirpate these contributions) in her book Spanish Recognitions.

I have long read anything I can find by Settle precisely because of the generosity, intelligence--and, yes, catholicity--of her vision.  It is that generous, intelligent, catholic vision that I strongly maintain some of the current defenders of authentic catholicity, who reduce catholicity to a set of jejune political propositions designed to define who's inside and who's outside, threaten.  Defenders of catholicity who reduce the meaning of being catholic to propositions like "stem-cell research is anti-life and is undertaken by Godless scientists," "or gay adoption is wrong because Catholics endorse a male-female binary model for the sake of the children," or "women can't be ordained because Jesus chose only male apostles": these defenders of catholicity betray our tradition, at its best.

Ultimately, they reduce the meaning of catholicity to narrow tribal chants about who belongs and who doesn't, which resurrect ethnic suspicions and old battles that should long since have been laid to rest within Catholicism.  People like Mary Lee Settle and John Henry Newman provide, in my view, an alternative model of what it means to be catholic--one capable of learning from the best thought of any and all cultural traditions, because God is not confined to any one culture, religious group, or ethnic clutch of people.  (On this point vis-a-vis Newman, see Garry Wills' brilliant essay at New York Review of Books on Benedict's misguided attempt to steal Newman.)

Nor is God the exclusive possession of either gender.  Or any one sexual orientation.

When I read some of our top-name Catholic journalists about what it means to be Catholic, my heart shrivels.  When I read Settle on Roger Williams or the English Civil War and  the effect of its religious battles on her Virginia roots, or Newman on anything at all, my heart expands.

And so I conclude that one understanding of catholicism touches on the heart of what it means to be Catholic.  And the other doesn't, and demands serious critique, if we really care about authentic catholicity.

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