Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2012 Elections and Re-Claiming the Moral Center of Catholicism in the Public Square

That incisive moral analysis and strong moral values that so many American Catholics like Margery Eagan exhibit: where are they coming from?  At National Catholic Reporter this week, theologian Richard McBrien offers strong reasons for doubting that the incisive moral analysis or values are trickling down from the top of the church to the bottom.

McBrien finds that the more and more overtly the bishops reveal themselves as tools of the Republican party, the more decisively U.S. lay Catholics distance themselves from the bishops and claim their birthright obligation as baptized Christians to exercise their informed consciences in making political and moral judgments.  To put the point as plainly as possible, the Catholic hierarchy may speak, but not many folks are listening: 

In summary, on most of the issues the survey asked about, majorities of Catholics said the locus of moral authority rests with individuals, not the bishops, but after taking church teachings into account. 
Given the findings of this latest survey, it is clear that relatively few Catholics look to the bishops themselves as the sole source of guidance on moral issues.

The survey to which McBrien is referring is a survey of American Catholics commissioned by NCR, whose results were published this past October-November.

And as long as Catholic hierarchical officials keep making statements like the following, the not listening is going to continue, I suspect--the not listening of informed consciences with strong moral sensitivity, that is.  Right after Christmas, the bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández, warned the world that a nefarious plot has been hatched by the United Nations to "make half the world homosexual" in the next 20 years.  Bishop Fernández's source for information about the UNESCO plot is the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli.  How Cardinal Antonelli came by word of this sensational secret plot, I'm not yet certain.

And in 2012, Pope Benedict has gone on yet another of his gay-marriage-threatens-to-destroy-civilization new year's rants.  In his new year's address to the Vatican diplomatic corps yesterday, Benedict says that marriage equality endangers "the future of humanity itself."  The pope appears not to understand that what he proclaims about family--namely, that it's the fundamental unit of society and therefore needs to be made as strong as possible--applies obviously and unambiguously to both families headed by opposite-sex parents and families headed by same-sex parents, in the minds of many morally perceptive people, many Catholics included.

The top officials of the Catholic church seem so transfixed by illusory moral threats--plots hatched by the U.N. to turn half the world's population gay!--that they can't see the real moral forest for the non-existent moral trees.  And the upshot is that, increasingly, when they hold forth, no one listens.

The upshot is also, predictably, that those who claim to be most attuned to the hierarchy no matter what inanities the Vatican and bishops utter appear to be walking in a moral maze, politically speaking, at this point in the history of the Catholic church.  The 2012 election cycle has given anyone interested in the intersection of Catholic faith and the political process fascinating information to mull over, about what happens to a community of faith and its moral analysis when the leaders of that community tip over into moral inanity.

In this election cycle, we have the interesting spectacle of leading Catholic centrists of the commentariat class, folks like Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels of Commonweal, colluding with the fringe right (that's to say, with all Republicans) to convince us that "Catholics" oppose contraception and must continue to do so as the federal government considers requiring Catholic institutions to add contraceptive coverage to health care plans.  This in the face of longstanding, overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of Catholics do not, in fact, oppose contraceptive use, but consider it morally legitimate and even a positive good, morally speaking.  (For those seeking links that flesh out the analysis in this paragraph, please click the label "artificial contraception" below.)

And we now see the equally bizarre spectacle of a group of powerfully placed Catholic political leaders, the most orthodox among us, by their own profession--the former ambassadors to the Vatican--seeking to represent a man of a faith community whose understanding of marriage and family is wildly at variance from traditional Catholic understandings of marriage and family--as the pre-eminent champion of family values in the GOP today.  Irony piled on irony.

In a well-functioning and healthy Catholic community, theologians would be assisting the faithful in sorting out the moral inanities and in applying authentic moral values and moral teachings to the body politic.  Theologians find themselves embattled and marginalized, however, and uncertain of their future in a Catholic academy that increasingly seeks, under hierarchical pressure, to reduce the function of theology to catechesis--with the bishops and Vatican calling the catechetical shots.

To a great extent, American Catholic theologians have placed themselves in this unenviable position, unfortunately, as large numbers of them have continued to keep their mouths shut through one purge after another that should long since have demonstrated to them just what the restorationist regime in the church intends for theologians and their ministry in the church.  From the silencing of Charles Curran through the silencing of Matthew Fox and the punishment of John McNeill and Jeannine Gramick, to the decimation of liberation theology and the quiet purge of gay and lesbian faculty in many Catholic institutions in the period following Ex corde ecclesiae, theologians should have been able to see the handwriting on the wall for years now, and should have been banding together to resist the unwarranted claims of church leaders re: their right to control theological discourse.

It should not have taken the Elizabeth Johnson situation to awaken American Catholic theologians to what restorationist Catholicism means for the theological enterprise and the Catholic academy.  The hierarchy learned a long time ago that it can adroitly manipulate and push mealymouthed centrist Catholic academics around.  It's too late now to unteach that lesson, and to recover much integrity in the theological enterprise of the American Catholic academy, just as it's too late to recover much integrity in the journalistic enterprise of the centrist Catholic intellectuals closely allied to the mealymouthed academy.

The real moral center of American Catholicism today is represented neither by church leaders, whose moral leadership could not be more abysmal, nor by the quiescent Catholic academics and journalists who have blessed and colluded with that abysmal moral leadership.  It lies with the large numbers of American lay Catholics represented by Margery Eagan, who can clearly discern the difference between moral forests and moral trees.  And who are very capable of telling us the difference.

The graphic is an illustration of the findings of the 2011 NCR survey of American Catholics to which a link is provided above.

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