Thursday, December 20, 2012

God-Talk and the Public Square After Sandy Hook: Where Are the Catholic Bishops?

Bishop William Lori and Confreres, Religious Liberty Hearing, Feb. 2012

With a bow to Sr. Maureen Fiedler at National Catholic Reporter, Frank Cocozzelli asks yesterday in a powerful essay at Talk to Action, "Who knew that the Catholic bishops support gun control?" Frank wonders why so few Catholics and so few American citizens know anything about the position taken by the U.S. bishops, when they are on record calling for strict controls on the sale and use of firearms. He wonders if the quid pro quo arrangement the bishops have made with the political right to gain its support on culture-war issues now makes them so completely captive to "movement conservatism" that they have effectively muzzled themselves on issues like gun control.

Frank also notes the narrow, exclusive (and, to my mind, self-defeating) focus of the bishops on the single issue of abortion, as they consider any issues having to do with the value of life--and how this narrow and exclusive focus thwarts the ability of church leaders to speak coherently about issues like gun control from the vantage of a consistent ethic of life:  

This brings us back to the matter of human dignity, which the USCCB seems to relegate more to embryos than those who bring them into the world, and into the society in which they will live.  

To my way of thinking, the valuable questions Frank is asking about the bishops' inability to craft cogent or compelling ethical teaching in the American public square have much bearing on the current post-Sandy Hook discussion of God's presence or absence in the public square that I briefly surveyed in a posting yesterday. Since Catholics are a huge and powerful consistency in the political and cultural life of the nation, one would expect the U.S. Catholic bishops to have a vibrant presence in that national discussion.

Instead, they have been completely silent up to now. 

They have no choice except to be silent, I would maintain, because breaking their silence would require them to point out that the traditional Catholic understanding of God and God's connection to the political and socioeconomic life of nations is at sharp variance from the religious-right notion of God promoted by the likes of Revs. Bryan Fischer and Mike Huckabee. Since, as Frank notes, the bishops have spent several decades wooing the likes of Revs. Fischer and Huckabee, they have no choice but to be silent now as Revs. Fischer and Huckabee articulate "the" conservative understanding when debates about who God is and how God relates to the American public square break out following yet another mass shooting.

Effectively, the Catholic bishops of the United States now proclaim to the American public square that their understanding of the deity is consonant with that of Revs. Fischer and Huckabee--and even with that of Westboro Baptist church. This is the position they have worked themselves into--this is the position they have chosen--by their several decades of alacritous hopping into bed with the political and religious right.

Most American Catholics and the American people in general now understand quite well that the God the U.S. Catholic bishops proclaim and worship is the God-as-conservative-white-man-writ-large proclaimed by the religious right in general. And because we understand this quite well, we Catholics now make our political, ethical, and religious decisions against the backdrop of this taken-for-granted default position of our bishops. We define our own positions as lay Catholics against that backdrop. We either buy into and support the notion of God that the bishops proclaim loudly and clearly through their acquiescent silent support when religious-right spokespersons articulate that notion in the public square, or we dissent, pointing out as we do so that it's our commitment to traditional Catholic notions about God and traditional Catholic values that requires us to dissent.

Even if the bishops should now decide to make nice, polite noises about how God is, in the understanding of the Catholic tradition, somewhat different than the deity depicted by Revs. Fischer and Huckabee, most American Catholics won't listen. We have every reason in the world not to listen, since, through their overt partisan politicking throughout 2012, the bishops have already spoken plainly to us and the wider culture about who they really do imagine God to be. It will take a long time before any nice words of the bishops about a loving, inclusive, and salvific God who cherishes everyone in the world manage to dispel those images of Bishop Lori, the bishops' religious freedom guru, seated with his religious-right confreres at the table of the "religious liberty" hearings in D.C. this past February.

Those pictures tell us with absolute clarity who the bishops imagine their God to be.  
About who occupies the table set by the bishops' God and who is absent from that table.  
About whom God chooses, blesses, empowers, and includes, and whom God shoves from the table.

And so, as I think about the potential contribution of the Catholic bishops to the discussion regarding God in the American public square now underway following the Sandy Hook massacre, I both lament, along with Frank Cocozzelli, that the bishops seem effectively to have muzzled themselves in this discussion, and I also frankly celebrate their absence from the conversation. Since, if what they have to say to the public square is what they've been communicating via their partisan politicking all through 2012 and via the  exclusive table they set at the February "religious liberty" hearings, I'm not really prepared to listen.

The grand irony of this moment of Catholic history is that the bishops and their supporters, who make very loud noises about representing and safeguarding "the" Catholic tradition, actually betray that tradition in the grossest ways possible. A case in point: immediately after the massacre of children in Connecticut, a number of Catholic groups in alliance with evangelical religious-right groups began circulating messages through the social media and at blog sites about how, though it's tragic that children have just been murdered, the real tragedy that should occupy our attention is the murder of millions of children in recent years through abortion.

One of these messages came my way on Facebook several nights ago. It was being circulated by a Catholic priest in Illinois. It deliberately--and, to my way of thinking, callously and cruelly--played the death of children in Connecticut by guns against the death of fetuses through abortion. Its underlying message was that the massacre of children in Connecticut by guns is thinkable precisely because we Americans have made the massacre of children by abortion thinkable.

And here's what strikes me as I've thought about this message circulated by a priest in Illinois, a message accompanied by a display of abortion tools with a slogan comparing the deaths of children in a gun massacre invidiously with the deaths of fetuses via abortion: even if one could grant, as the message asks one to do, that children are being massacred via legalized abortion, the playing of those deaths against the deaths of children in a gun massacre is stupendously wrong-headed. It's callous and cruel. It does nothing at all to promote a coherent pro-life message.  In fact, it accomplishes precisely the opposite.

If the goal of such messages is, as the right-to-life movement professes, to convince the culture at large that all life is sacred, what is really accomplished by informing a society, including the families of those who have just lost small children in a massacre, that the deaths of fetuses mean something more than the deaths of 20 children at gunpoint? In what way do we serve the values of life when we use the deaths of 20 children in a gun massacre in this callous and cruel way--in this instrumental way--to suggest that abortion tools and not guns and the gun culture are the ultimate threat to the sanctity of life today?

How do we serve the value of life by reducing the deaths of 20 children slaughtered in a gun massacre to an instrumental message about the wickedness of abortion--since abortion, we want to maintain, kills children? To go further: how do we proclaim an ethic of life when part of our goal in circulating "pro-life" messages like this is to shut down a much-needed discussion of gun control and of the dangers posed to a culture of life when guns are as freely available as candy in the U.S.?

When I did an online search to find the source of the poster being circulated by the Illinois priest at Facebook, with its message that the deaths of children by abortion are much weightier than the deaths of 20 children in a gun massacre, I found that it originates with a religious-right group that has evangelical roots. And which was founded for partisan reasons--to anoint one political party as the party of life and to stigmatize the other as the party that represents a culture of death.

Moreover, I found that the group circulating this poster has not only strongly supported various politicians who combat gun control and are closely allied to the NRA lobby: I also discovered that the group combats the attempt to restrict or supervise the sale of guns as a liberal plot designed to draw Americans' attention away from the real threat to a culture of life, which is abortion.

How does one convincingly argue that one is pro-life while one lobbies for more guns in our culture, for the unrestricted sale of guns? And while one characterizes those seeking to prevent the unrestricted, unsupervised proliferation of guns as anti-life?

This is the dead-end to which the current episcopal leaders of the Catholic church in the U.S. have led the "pro-life" movement in the Catholic church. Our bishops have led many American Catholics into this cul-de-sac because, in the name of conserving Catholic tradition and Catholic values, they have selectively chosen to highlight certain Catholic teachings and certain Catholic values, while discounting much of the rest of the Catholic tradition that provides a strong counterweight to such selectivity.

In doing so, they have ended up nullifying any credible contribution that the Catholic church might have made to the important discussion now underway after the Sandy Hook massacre about who God is and how God is manifest in the American public square. If there's to be any effective Catholic contribution to that discussion, one drawing on authentic Catholic values and the broad range of Catholic teaching with all its nuance and complexity, that contribution will have to be made by lay Catholics who remain the real carriers of the Catholic tradition at this point in history.

Not by the bishops . . . .

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