Monday, April 4, 2011

Cardinal Burke and Fr. Andrew Hamilton: Defining Catholic Identity for 21st Century

A recent diptych of statements about what it means to be a Catholic follower of Jesus at this point in history has been receiving attention--well-deserved attention.  Some days back, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, now a powerful Vatican official, gave a presentation to the Australian Catholic Students' Association about what it means to be Catholic now.  Burke frames his definition of Catholicism in terms of a combat between church and culture by entitling it "The Fall of the Christian West."

Australian Jesuit priest Fr. Andrew Hamilton then responded to Burke's presentation at the Eureka Street site, with an essay entitled "Does Catholic Identity Matter?"  There's been a thread discussing this exchange of viewpoints about what it means to be Catholic today at America, with a statement from Fr. Jim McDermott followed by reader comments.  And the wide-ranging thread at Commonweal to which I pointed readers recently, in which Mollie Wilson O'Reilly zeroes in on feminism as a primary concern of the U.S. Catholic bishops as they condemn Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's 2007 book, has also touched on the Burke-Hamilton debate.

I don't really want to summarize Burke's and Hamilton's essays.  Interested readers can easily find and read each of them with the links I provide above.  What I want to do, instead, is to talk about how this exchange reveals something fundamental about the different ways in which different groups of Catholics now approach Catholic identity, and how they talk about what it means to be Catholic in the world today.

Here's Burke's take: to be Catholic means to stand in opposition to the world, which is headed to hell in a handbasket.  To be Catholic means to rally around the pope and the bishops, who hold Catholic Truth in their hands and dispense it to all faithful Catholics through magisterial teaching.  To be Catholic means to condemn the primary trend of postmodern culture, insofar as postmodern culture represents the fragmentation of the Christendom model of European and North American cultural history, in which church and state worked in tandem, and in which church leaders like Burke could dictate to culture and the political sphere, forcing the culture at large to adhere to that Catholic Truth that Burke and his fellow bishops dispense to the world.

To be Catholic means today, then, Burke wants young Catholics to know, to gather into a tight battle unit, a small enclave of true believers who have the Truth on their side, and to combat the world around them, as it changes.  We have done with the Vatican II moment, in which we spoke of church and culture together on pilgrimage towards the reign of God, and in which we recognized the need for respectful dialogue between church and culture, since the Spirit leading us to the reign of God blows where the Spirit will.  And the church can learn from the Spirit's leading in cultural movements that move towards the reign of God just as the church itself does.

Vatican II told us that the church can learn from cultural movements by reading the signs of the time and discerning the Spirit's presence in non-Christian religions, in other Christian churches (which, Vatican II reminds us, are imbued with the presence of the Holy Spirit), and by paying careful attention to movements for human liberation in the world at large.  We all share the same goal, and no one of us has any exclusive ownership of the truth that moves us to that goal.

We're done with all of that, Burke is announcing to young Catholics today.  No matter what the entire church said and thought at the last ecumenical council, at Vatican II, what we're about today is returning to a church-vs.-world way of doing business, in which pope and bishops speak.  And the laity listen.  And do what they're told.  No questions asked.

And far from imagining we have anything to learn from the world around us, from other religious groups, from reading the signs of the times, we ourselves have the Truth in our own hands.  We own it.  We (we who are bishops) dispense it.  And you will lose the means of salvation if you depart from us bishops and the Truth we dispense to you.

This is one way of thinking about being Catholic in the 21st century, and it's an influential one, since it's the model of church assiduously promoted by the last two popes and the vast majority of bishops at present, who were appointed by those popes.  It calls itself countercultural and professes to resist the culture at large.  But, ironically, it's deeply invested in certain conservative cultural movements and cultural power centers, which imagine they're losing control in the postmodern period and intend to reassert their control.  

As I noted in my response to the bishops' condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's 2007 book, patriarchal systems of power and the heterosexual men who have crafted those systems and whom these systems serve imagine they are losing control at this point in history, and are now intent on using religious symbols and religious leaders to reassert their patriarchal control.  When the Cardinal Burkes of the Catholic church tell us the West is declining and the church is under attack, what they are really saying is that the rich and powerful men with whom they have allied their church feel that they are under attack.

And the Burkes of the church intend to stir up support for their allies by mobilizing younger Catholics to serve the Truth.  To fight against the culture at large.  To engage in countercultural discipleship which is really all about preserving a very particular cultural model that has long given overweening power to rich and powerful men, both in society at large and in the church itself.  And to call that cultural model "the" Catholic model.

As I say, that's one way of looking at the business of being Catholic in the world today.  Andrew Hamilton has another way.  As he notes, the gospels themselves do not reflect the predominant concern with defining Catholic identity that characterizes Burke's approach to these matters.  When Jesus is asked who is the neighbor, he responds with a parable, with a story--not with the kind of catechetical or magisterial definition of the Truth beloved of the Cardinal Burkes of the church, since those definitions are so much easier to dispense (and control) than are stories.  In response to the question about who is one's neighbor, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that completely explodes all of the boundaries that each particular cultural and religious group always wishes to establish, in order to control the definition of one's neighbor.

Everyone is the neighbor, the parable insists.  And therefore the question of identity dissolves in the teaching of Jesus--the question of an identity that sets followers of Jesus apart from every other group in the world in some unique way that allows Jesus's disciples to claim a corner on the truth market.  What predominates in Jesus's approach to the question of how his followers should interact with the world around them is not the question of identity but of need:

The story suggests that the question we begin with should not be about identity but about how we meet the needs of the people who present themselves to us. Identity questions fix our attention on the group to which we belong. The question Jesus asks invites us to look through the eyes of strangers. Only from that perspective can we safely reflect on our group.

This story, which encapsulates Jesus' ethic, suggests that groups inspired by a Christian motivation should always begin by looking outwards to ask who in their world are in need of healing, freedom and love, and asking how we can reach them.

As Fr. Hamilton notes, if we begin with this understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus at the most fundamental level possible, we end up with a different logic than the logic controlling the identity model of Cardinal Burke.  We end up with a model that urges us to look at the world around us and ask what movements and groups in society at large are enhancing or diminishing the freedom and integrity of people who are bruised.  And we'll make common cause with the former--with those serving the freedom and integrity of those on the margins--regardless of their ideological backgrounds, since what they are about is what we are about ourselves, as followers of Jesus.

We'll also find that we must commit ourselves to struggle against those intent on continuing to bruise the freedom and dignity of those on the margins--even when those so intent happen to be our fellow Christians.  Even when they happen to be fellow Catholics who proclaim that they alone have the Truth, and what they are doing to bruise and assault others, to rob others of freedom and dignity, is done in the name of Catholic Truth.

Two logics, Andrew Hamilton argues.  Two powerful logics competing right now for the Catholic mind.  One is being powerfully imposed from the center of the church, and wishes to present itself as the only possible option for faithful Catholics.  It wishes, in fact, to declare the other logic not adequately Catholic at all.

The problem it has in making that declaration, however, is the problem of the gospels themselves.  Of what they actually say.  Of the Jesus crucified and risen to whom they point--crucified for proclaiming a message that dissolves social boundaries which turn some people into privileged insiders and others into despised outsiders.  Resurrected because he walked in the path of that message--he embodied its logic in his own life and behavior--to the cross.  And found what he had proclaimed and what he had done with his life vindicated in an act of marvelous, unexpected reversal that revealed the fundamental emptiness of the power of those who had crucified him for proclaiming the dissolution of boundaries making one group dominant and the other devoid of dignity and freedom.

Cardinal Burke's unyielding, exclusive, unilateral definition of what it means to be Catholic, and all definitions like it, centered as they are on a desire for control exercised by church leaders over every other Catholic in the church, creates a significant problem for many Catholics who do not opt for his identity model of Catholicism.  The problem is this: increasingly, many of us do not even see what is most fundamental about being a Catholic follower of Jesus at work in the words and behavior of those who insist they alone own Catholic Truth and they alone have the right to dispense Catholic Truth.

Increasingly, for many of us, the only way to live the calling of Jesus as faithful Catholics is beyond the boundaries of the church, outside the control of the Cardinal Burkes of the church.  Though these gentlemen of the cloth tell us that departing from them and their teaching will cause us to lose our access to salvation, to many of us (and our numbers are constantly increasing), it appears precisely the opposite: the only way to save our souls is to distance ourselves from the "Catholic" claims of Cardinal Burke and those in his camp.

The graphic is Cardinal Burke at the 2006 St. Louis (by invitation only) Fleur de Lis Charity ball.  The evening's menu: "Una festa Venezina" Hearth Baked Breads, tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and olives, sweet cream butter; "Primo Piatto" Seared sea scallop with Truffle oil, lemon herb marinated shrimp, gorgonzola cheese, radicchio 'gondola' with romaine lettuce, arugula sun-dried cranberries, peppered walnuts with balsamic honey vinaigrette; "Sorbetto" Honeydew opal basil sorbet with sugared grape; "Secondo Piatto" Filet mignon with crimini mushroom ragout, petite osso bucco, polenta fontina, green beans, roasted red pepper, baby carrot; "Dolce" Cappucinio hazelnut torta, mocha ganache, marscapone, frangelico sauce, fresh berries with coffee and/or tea.

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