Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Peter Steinfels on Religious Freedom: My What-If Response

In a posting this past Saturday, I noted that I hoped to say something about Peter Steinfels's latest statement re: the bishops and religious liberty at Commonweal.  Steinfels's comments are the first in a series of comments Commonweal has published recently about the religious liberty debate in the U.S. Catholic church and the bishops' involvement in that debate.

What I'd like to say about Steinfels's essay is rather pointed.  At first blush, his assessment of the religious freedom debate appears measured and thoughtful--typical of much that Peter Steinfels has written for many years about American Catholicism, and for which I have valued his work.  But dig beneath the surface of what Steinfels argues in the essay (e.g., the bishops ought to accent dialogue more than coercion, if they expect to be credible moral teachers), and the essay makes some interesting assumptions that, to my way of thinking, reveal the increasingly apparent inadequacy of the untenable positions many leading Catholic centrists have chosen to take vis-a-vis the bishops and the issue of religious liberty.

The bishops remain compelling tribal leaders for leading Catholic centrists, the arbiters (along with the centrists themselves, it goes without saying) of what it means to be authentically Catholic.  And so when significant centrist thinkers like Steinfels take the bishops to task, they do so from an insider perspective which assumes that they and the bishops stand together at the center of a circle that determines Catholic identity, and certain clearly identifiable others--Steinfels identifies these in the essay as "my prochoice friends, fellow journalists, and liberal activists"--stand outside the circle of Catholic identity, and must be excluded from the conversation that determines Catholic identity, insofar as they claim Catholic status.

I'd like to ask some "what-if" questions about Steinfels's essay that point towards a reframing of the conversation which, in my view, would provide a more adequately catholic model for the Catholic contribution in the public square and of the dialogue about Catholic identity within the Catholic church itself.  My starting point in this reframing exercise is to ask what might happen if the onus of proving authentic Catholic identity were shifted rather radically, and if the people whose authentic Catholicity is now strongly asserted by centrists like Steinfels began to appear (as I suggest they really are) more tenuously Catholic than the centrists imagine them to be.  I'm speaking of, say, the Catholic authors of the Manhattan Declaration (whose arguments Steinfels finds "well-crafted" and some of which he accepts as convincing).  Or of Dr. Donohue of the Catholic League, whose new book defining Catholic identity, Why Catholicism Matters, has just been lionized by some of the leading lights of the Manhattan Declaration.

What might happen, I'd like to ask, if the primary spokespersons for the Catholic community, and the primary definers of Catholic identity (along with the leaders of the church)--the powerful centrist commentariat represented by Peter and Margaret Steinfels and others in the Commonweal community--began to pay more attention to the arguments of their "prochoice friends, fellow journalists, and liberal activists" as possibly authentic Catholic arguments and less attention to the "well-crafted" arguments of right-wing Catholics like Bill Donohue, Robert George, Timothy Dolan et al. as exemplary Catholic arguments?

What might happen to the intra-Catholic debate about Catholic identity if such a shift occurred, and to Catholic credibility in the public square?  This is what I'd like to raise envisioning questions about through an exercise in asking "what-if" questions that seeks to reimagine the definition (and politics) of the American Catholic academic and media center:

So what if . . . let's begin with the following important ground-laying passage in Steinfels's statement:

Every struggle over religious freedom has a cultural and political context, whether the nativist response to alien Irish papists in mid-nineteenth-century America or the anti-Muslim prejudice prompted by fear of terrorism. The current explosion of episcopal fervor for religious freedom has had a long fuse. It is rooted in the long-standing battle over abortion and in the newer wave of changing attitudes toward same-sex unions. It is rooted in the bishops’ belated realization of their diminished hold over Catholic opinion and Catholic institutions—and in the implausible belief that this diminishment would not be the case if only the clergy had been more assertive in enforcing Catholic teachings, largely about sexuality and gender. Finally, it is rooted in a kind of panic, constantly nurtured by prolife activists and conservative intellectuals, at the election of a Democratic administration marked by prochoice and same-sex sympathies.

And here's my first what-if question: if Steinfels is correct in noting that "every struggle over religious freedom has a cultural and political context," what if the American Catholic bishops (and their culture-war allies including Robert George, Bill Donohue, Mary Ann Glendon, and others) are simply far off-base in believing their politicized cultural agenda to be the only possible, the only imaginable, Catholic agenda for American culture at this point in history, while the agenda of Steinfels's outsider "prochoice friends, fellow journalists, and liberal activists" has much to recommend it as a specifically Catholic agenda?  

And that's to say: what if, from its very inception, the bishops' "religious freedom" agenda has been far more about the cultural and political context that Steinfels recognizes as the framing determinant of all religious liberty crusades, and far less about defending authentic Catholic values?  And what if the cultural and political agenda being promoted by the bishops and their right-wing allies under the aegis of religious liberty actually betrays core Catholic values and the Catholic tradition in quite egregious ways?  By fraying or even attacking the common good, for instance.  By ignoring or denigrating the least among us, for example.

And what if those "outsider" Catholics who listen carefully to the views of pro-choicers, liberal activists, and journalists, who have expressed serious reservations about the bishops' religious liberty crusade from the outset, have been right about the crusade all along, as they have insisted that this crusade is about promoting a political agenda that seeks to impose so-called Catholic values in American culture which ultimately have little to do with the Catholic tradition at its best?  And which are politically partisan and not adequate to the best values of the Catholic tradition?  What if all those Catholics who happen to be the unhappy object and target of the faux religious liberty crusade--e.g., gay and lesbian Catholics--have been correct in their instinct about this crusade all along, as they have depicted it as a crusade attacking the humanity of targeted groups of human beings in the name of Catholic values that it actually betrays by denigrating fellow human beings and fellow Catholics?

These questions leap out at me as I read Steinfels's assertion that "every struggle over religious freedom has a cultural and political context," and then as I proceed to read his statements linking the struggle against abortion to the struggle against gay and lesbian rights (specifically, the right of civil marriage)--as if the two are really one struggle, and "Catholics" have no choice except to buy into the latter struggle if they buy into the former one.  They're all of a piece: Catholics who resist abortion must also naturally resist the extension of gay rights, since "Catholics" are, as he goes on to maintain, resisting a powerfully financed "mainstreaming" movement that is intent on reducing what people of faith have to say about these issues to "morally credible islands of resistance" in a mainstream culture increasingly hostile to religious warrants (or, at least, to the specific religious warrants used by Catholics and evangelicals who absolutize the anti-abortion or anti-gay stance).

Note that the allusion to "financially powerful currents" trying to "mainstream" abortion and LGBT equality in American society in and of itself "others" pro-choice groups and gay-rights groups, making them not merely inadequately Catholic, insofar as they lay claim to Catholic identity, but, in fact, alien to and corrosive of Catholic identity.  There's an element of threatening otherness about this description of maleficent anti-Catholic activists using big dollars to promote a "mainstreaming" that reduces Catholic notions to moral islands in American culture.  (There also appears to be, surprisingly, no recognition in this analysis that the U.S. bishops, the Knights of Columbus, and the heavily Catholic-skewed National Organization for Marriage have spent countless millions of dollars in recent years to deprive gay and lesbian citizens of the U.S. of civil rights.  Talk about use of huge chunks of money in these culture-war battles cuts both ways, and the victim meme--poor little Catholicism being reduced by deep-pocketed bullies to a threatened moral island in mainstream American culture--rings rather hollow here, given the political clout of these Catholic groups and the amount of money at their disposal.)

What if hinging the Catholic battle to defend the value of life on attacking gay and lesbian human beings as they attempt to become "mainstream"--a term many of us who are gay might construe to mean, after all, "as we become fully recognized as human persons in society at large, and as we expect the full range of rights accorded to all fully human persons"--is a colossal mistake for Catholics trying to convince American culture that human life has value and should count?  What if the more politically astute move of right-to-life Catholics (not to mention, the most adequately Catholic move) would be to begin to make strong solidarity with gay and lesbian Americans in their fight for full equality and for recognition of their full human personhood?  What if that move happened to be the most politically astute and adequately Catholic move available to us, if Catholics expect to be taken seriously as advocates for the value of life when abortion is the topic?

What if lay Catholics who critique the magisterial understanding of contraception, since that understanding has proven inadequate for them as married Catholics exercising their informed consciences, made the connection between their own experience-based critique of magisterial teaching about contraception and their gay brothers' and sisters' critique of magisterial teaching about the intrinsic disorder of LGBT human beings?  What if heterosexual lay Catholics who expect the magisterium to accord certain privileges to them--like the right to determine when and how to control their fertility as a married couple--began to understand critically their astonishing power and privilege as heterosexual people in a heterosexist church and society, and began to use that power and privilege not to exclude LGBT Catholics from the conversations that define Catholic identity, but to include them?  Not to define them as hostile others antithetical to all that Catholicism means in its core sense, but as fellow Catholics with significant testimony to provide about what it means to be Catholic at this point in history?

For that matter, what if centrist Catholics who continue to stick with the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church through thick or thin even when those pastoral leaders are overtly hostile to gay persons are wrong in their suspicion that the real agenda of pro-choicers and liberals is to remove what Steinfels calls elsewhere the "moral 'edge'" that limits federal funding of abortion?  What if hinging support for the bishops and their religious freedom crusade on the slippery-slope argument that the real goal of the HHS mandates is to legitimate and subvent abortion is simply wrong-headed thinking?  

Wrong-headed, because it buys into illicit arguments that conflate abortion and contraception.  Wrong-headed, because it requires "true" Catholics to pay the very high price of colluding in the bishops' insupportable and unCatholic attack on a minority community--gay and lesbian citizens--in order to hold the line against abortion.  Wrong-headed, because it also refuses to dialogue respectfully with those who hold pro-choice positions both within and outside the Catholic church.  Wrong-headed, because it implicitly assumes that one political party, which has shown anything but sensitivity to the value of human life, is the sole bastion against the removal of the "moral 'edge'" limiting federal funding of abortion?

I'd like to imagine that if the powerful centrist Catholic media and academic commentariat began to ask such what-if questions about how they've been managing the Catholic identity-defining conversation along with the bishops up to now, something significant and of great value might happen in American Catholicism today--a reframing of the conversation about Catholic identity that opens it to voices now much needed, if we really do expect to be saved from the fate of becoming a tiny moral island in a mainstream culture that no longer takes our moral witness seriously.

I doubt very much that this reframing is about to take place, however.  I see no signs of it taking place at all in the latest endless, going-nowhere conversation about Catholic identity at the Commonweal blog site, which is discussing the recent Vatican condemnation of the work of yet another American nun-theologian, Margaret Farley.  That conversation hasn't budged beyond the usual stalemate between those who equate what it means to be Catholic with what the leaders of the church say and do, and those who critique that centrist stand but find themselves stoutly dismissed along with Sr. Margaret Farley, who is, after all, a woman, a nun, and a theologian who has called for dialogue with gay folks and open conversation about magisterial sexual teachings that few Catholics, truth be told, accept any longer--but don't want to talk about, because they're mesmerized by the bogus fear that this conversation will open the door to reducing the "moral 'edge'" against federal subvention of abortion.

The conversation remains stuck, in other words, at the level of the claim of the powerful centrist arbiters of the Catholic-defining conversation, who stand with the bishops, to represent authentic Catholicity--while the rest of us just don't and can't represent Catholicity authentically.  Because we're by definition outsiders: feminists, pro-choicers, liberal activists, homosexuals, questioners of "defined" Catholic teaching like Sr. Margaret Farley, who has made the terrible mistake of appearing to stand with the gays in a Catholic academy* where that is simply not done . . . .

The absurd pretensions of the ostensibly "objective" center are nowhere more apparent than in the continued fantasy of leading Catholic centrists at major Catholic blog sites and major Catholic publications that they stand at some pristine point of objectivity in the center, above right and left, omnisciently aware of the shortcomings of both sides.  And that as they stand in that pristine center that has no commitments to right or left (which exists nowhere in the real world, a real world that always demands that we stand with someone--whether victors or victims), they also imagine, and claim, that this pristine center is where the Catholic magisterium stands!

As if Catholic leaders don't make political choices, pursue political goals, and choose sides between victors and victims.  As if they don't sometimes create victims through their political choices.  As if the magisterium and I, in the pristine, objective, standing-above-it-all center, are coterminous: magisterium, c'est moi!

And so we who have been defined by these centrist games as less-than-authentic Catholic outsiders do not have and cannot have the power that the centrists who stick with the bishops through thick and thin wield to define and decree what it means to be Catholic.  And, in my view, more's the pity, if American Catholicism really does expect to have a credible moral voice in the public square, since, God help us, the doltish, blinkered, exceptionally unjust, and rabidly exclusive magisterial fundamentalism of the centrist spokespersons for authentic American Catholic identity surely isn't going to do much to gain us that credibility.  While bona fide and highly respected theologians like Margaret Farley and Elizabeth Johnson are savaged by Rome, and these "objective" and ostensibly learned arbiters of the definition of Catholicity defend the church authorities savaging them . . . .

*Sr. Margaret Farley is an emerita professor at Yale, but a Catholic theologian who has played a very significant role in the American Catholic academy.

No comments: