Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Catholic Identity Debate: When Politics Trump Catholicity

Matthew 13:28-30

At the risk of thoroughly boring readers, I'd like to revisit my recent discussion of Peter Steinfels's Commonweal essay re: the bishops and religious liberty.  I'd like to revisit it for one quite specific reason: as discussion about Catholic identity continues (and sharpens) in American Catholicism during the current national election cycle, we would spectacularly miss the point of this discussion and of the bishops' religious liberty initiative if we failed to see that the Catholic identity discussion is unfolding against a very particular backdrop of political and cultural interchange.

The Catholic identity discussion in the U.S. right now is not taking place in a vacuum.  It's not coming out of the blue.  It reflects political choices and political intents to situate the definition of "authentic" Catholicism in connection to contemporary American culture and the contemporary American political scene.  A case in point: the particular discussion of Catholic identity to which I pointed readers as I examined Steinfels's reflections on the bishops and religious liberty at the Commonweal site, which ostensibly deals with the Vatican condemnation of the work of Sr. Margaret Farley, revolves explicitly around claims of some contributors that they are, as one defender of traditional Catholic identity puts the point in this discussion, defending what they obviously regard as the only thinkable form of "real" Catholicism against both the right and the left.  

What makes the political context (and political intent) of this particular defense of "real" Catholicism all the clearer is that the person mounting this neither-left-nor-right defense of Catholicism (and lambasting Sr. Margaret Farley for her inadequate Catholicism) states in the same thread that he does not accept many Catholic teachings and does not regard himself as Catholic any longer.  But he nonetheless has a vested interest in determining the definition of "real" Catholicism, and in reading people like Sr. Margaret Farley--"the left"--out of that definition.  He has a vested interest in informing some other Catholics--particularly those of "the left" at the Commonweal site, he avows--that they are defectively Catholic.

It's self-evident that this vested interest can only be strongly political, if the person who has invested so much in defining Catholicism for everyone--and, above all, in keeping "the left" marginalized in discussions of Catholic identity--is not even himself Catholic.  This particular contributor has also stated in previous Commonweal threads that he's openly gay.

And so back to Steinfels: as I noted in my discussion of his essay on the bishops and religious liberty the other day, one of Steinfels's ground-laying principles is that "every struggle over religious freedom has a cultural and political context . . . ."  And now I want to argue that if this is true (and I think it clearly is), then we might also make precisely the same claim about struggles over Catholic identity: Every struggle over Catholic identity has a cultural and political context.

To go a step further: I think one must also recognize that the discussion of religious freedom in the American Catholic context at present is also a discussion of Catholic identity.  The two discussions are intrinsically connected.  And it should also be noted that the discussion of Catholic identity in the U.S. waxes and wanes.  It's cyclical.

It reignites with each national election cycle, and in direct connection to the national election cycles, and the discussion grows sharper and more acerbic in direct relation to the question of how Catholics should apply their Catholic values and Catholic teaching as they vote in national elections.  It is impossible--and it would be foolish--to try to disentangle the cyclic discussions of Catholic identity in the American context that have become a feature of our national church's life every four years from the political context driving those discussions.

The various events we see unfolding with this particular election cycle, many of which seem (but it would be fallacious to conclude this) to have little to do with American politics and everything to do with Vatican preoccupations: they all revolve, in some way or another, around the need of the U.S. Catholic bishops and the Vatican to define Catholic identity in a quite specific way that has quite specific political application.

It is not accidental that, with one shock-and-awe event following on the heels of another, we've seen in rapid succession 1) the declaration of a "religious freedom" war against the Obama administration by the USCCB, 2) the bishops testifying at "religious freedom" hearings in D.C. and writing letters about "religious freedom" and contraception to the current administration, 3) the release of USCCB letters about these matters at a national level, to be read in all Catholic parishes, 4) the announcement of "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rallies around the country this summer, 5) an aggressive attack on American nuns, who have dared to speak with another voice than that of the bishops about the current administration's healthcare plan and the HHS guidelines, 6) a rabble-rousing speech by one bishop with no fraternal correction from his brother bishops accusing the current president of being like Adolf Hitler, 7) a continuation of a national campaign to attack the civil right of marriage for gay citizens, with stepped-up intensity in North Carolina, Minnesota, and  Washington state, 8) now an attack on a particular American nun who is a highly regarded theologian and who speaks in a different voice than that of the bishops about Catholic teaching on sexual morality, etc.

All of these shock-and-awe events--and there will be more of them: on this, see below--revolve around one central and often unacknowledged concern: this is to define Catholic identity in such a way, particularly in the American context, that "real" Catholics will automatically make certain political choices dictated implicitly and explicitly by church officials.  That they will, in other words, translate their "authentic" Catholic identity into political choices that those pulling the levers of the Catholic machine from the center want to identify self-evidently with real Catholicism, as they exclude some Catholics judged defective from the definition of authentic Catholic identity . . . .

I have made versions of these arguments in two previous postings (here and here) using the shock-and-awe tag for what is now happening in the American Catholic church, and now I'm interested to see Jon C. Sivalon, the former provincial of the Maryknolls, confirming my intuition by using precisely the same language in a recent article in which he maintains that the Vatican is mounting a "year of assault" on post-Vatican II understandings of Catholic identity.*  Sivalon further claims, "[T]he action against LCWR and the other actions against loyal voices of faithful Christians open to discerning God's wisdom in modern culture, should be seen as initial forays of shock and awe to soften the strongest areas of resistance, before the actual onslaught begins."

Sivalon thinks the shock-and-awe campaign is going to peak dramatically (more shock, more awe!) in October 2012 with the opening of the Synod of Bishops on the "New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith."  He also maintains that the Vatican intends to keep pushing what has been a central claim of Benedict's papacy--namely, that by emphasizing a hermeneutic of retrenchment which salvages real Catholic identity from the bogus varieties that have proliferated after Vatican II, it's saving the church from a hermeneutic of rupture which misunderstands Vatican II.

Though Sivalon doesn't make this point, it seems to me well worth noting that the shock-and-awe assaults he enumerates have been playing out in the American Catholic context, and the coming major assault in October will take place precisely on the eve of the national election in the U.S.  If Steinfels is correct--"Every struggle over religious freedom has a cultural and political context"--then it would be beyond naive for American Catholics (and Catholics in other parts of the world) to fail to recognize the peculiar American context in which the Vatican's assault on post-Vatican II Catholic identities it wants to declare defective and to disqualify is taking place.

The shock-and-awe campaign is deliberately designed to identify some Catholics as inauthentically Catholic--to weed them out of the Catholic church, and to point the focus of Catholic identity to particular political applications controlled by ecclesial dictate.  But there is, as Peter Steinfels's essay about the bishops' current religious liberty crusade notes, a very specific (and steep) price to be paid by the entire Catholic community for these politically ginned-up crusades mounted with the intent of declaring some folks real Catholics and others false ones: Steinfels observes, 

Cynicism about political manipulation of religion is already rife. It may well be the leading factor in the massive drift of young people from any religious identification. 

I think Steinfels is absolutely correct about this point.  Robert Putnam and David Campbell's study American Grace has convincingly demonstrated the increasing disaffiliation of younger Americans with the mainline churches insofar as the churches continue to take political stands that appear to identify Christian identity and the gospels with right-wing (and, especially, anti-gay) politics.  

But it would be blind for us to imagine that only younger Catholics will walk away from the Catholic church down the road, as an effect of the shock-and-awe campaigns designed to draw lines between real and fake Catholics--designed, that is to say, deliberately to drive increasing numbers of people away from the church for political reasons.  As Mark Silk reports at his Spiritual Politics blog site several days ago, a recent research paper presented by Barry Kosmin and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, using the 1990 and 2008 American Religious Identity Survey data sets, strongly indicates that "the increasingly conservative winds that began to blow out of Rome during the papacy of John Paul II blew a lot of Gen-X away from the church."

Silk notes that Kosmin and Navarro-Rivera's research shows American Catholicism holding onto younger adherents at a higher rate that that of other mainline churches in the period right after Vatican II.  But then along came John Paul II and Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and something dramatic happened: the rate of religious affiliation among younger Catholics dropped to around the same level as that in the rest of the mainline churches.

The reform of the reform, the restorationist agenda, the hermeneutic of retrenchment that got underway with John Paul II: these have succeeded in driving away an entire generation of Catholics who are now not the younger generation, but Generation X.  People heartened by the promise of Vatican II managed to hold onto Catholic faith and practice despite national trends moving in the opposite direction for other religious groups--until John Paul II, Benedict, and their conservative lay Catholic-identity mavens in many places in the world reversed the trend.

And so I think Charles Curran could not be more on target in his response to the recent Vatican condemnation of Sr. Margaret Farley, when he writes

All have to recognize there is such a real crisis in the church today. But the crisis is not just a crisis in moral theology; it involves a crisis in the church as a whole and in our very understanding of the Catholic church. According to the well-respected Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one in three people who were brought up as Roman Catholic in the United States are no longer Catholic. The second-largest "denomination" in the United States is former Catholics. One out of every 10 people in the United States is an ex-Catholic. We all have personal experience with those who have left the church because of the teaching on sexual issues. Related issues, including the role of women in the church, celibacy for the clergy, and the failure of church leadership to deal with the scandal of child abuse and its cover-up, have also been recognized as reasons why many people have left the Catholic church.

And when he goes on to say,

What is happening here is that the pope and the Vatican are more and more defending the idea of a remnant church -- a small and pure church that sees itself often in opposition to the world around it. It seems as if church authorities are not concerned at all about those who leave the church. Any other organization would take strong action to remedy the loss of one-third of its members. But the remnant church sees itself as a strong church of true believers, and therefore is not worried by such departures. 
This concept of the church is opposed to the best understanding of the Catholic church. The word "catholic" by its very definition means big and universal. The church embraces both saints and sinners, rich and poor, female and male, and political conservatives and liberals. Yes, there are limits to what it means to be Catholic, but the "small 'c' catholic" understanding insists on the need to be as inclusive as possible. 

As I noted yesterday, the grand irony of much of the high-fiving that goes on among conservative Catholics (or conservative political thinkers who are not even Catholic themselves, or no longer Catholic, but who have a vested interest in defining Catholic identity in a conservative way) when the latest shock-and-awe enactment comes down the pike--another nun-theologian slapped down: rejoice!--is that in the name of preserving and reasserting "real" Catholic identity, these folks are jubilating that they're running folks off. They're jubilating about engaging in behavior that, in the grossest way possible, belies what the term "catholic" means in its fundamental and root sense. 

And they're succeeding in defining Catholicism, for all intents and purposes, as the very opposite of catholic.  For political reasons and to achieve short-term goals they want to equate with the essence of Catholicism, they are willing, in the long run, gleefully to rupture the communion of the church as--irony piled on irony--they define the very church council that kept many adherents within the church for a generation, before the weeding process began, as an event that ruptured authentic Catholic tradition.

*Later in the day: I'm just now seeing that Colleen Baker posted about Fr. Sivalon's article yesterday at her Enlightened Catholicism blog, with the text of a 1989 address that then Cardinal Ratzinger gave as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, outlining his retrenchment strategy--and which I have not yet read.

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