Thursday, September 14, 2017

Faith Defined as Dogma Is Weaponized Faith: A Theological Footnote to Father Jenkins' Response to Senator Feinstein re: Catholic Dogma

I'd like to add a theological footnote to what I posted yesterday reflecting on the recent claim of Notre Dame University president Father John Jenkins that "'dogma lives loudly' . . . is a condition we call faith." As I noted, Father Jenkins makes this assertion in an open letter to Senator Diane Feinstein criticizing her statement to Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett, who is being vetted for a federal judge's position, that "dogma lives loudly" in Barrett and might impede her ability to uphold the law when the law conflicts with her dogmatic religious positions.

Father Jenkins' open letter to Senator Feinstein is only one example of wide pushback in the past week among many American Catholics to Feinstein's statement to Barrett. In this pushback, I hear (all over again — this is such a tired and self-defeating posture of American Catholicism) strong overtones of a tribalistic defensiveness that has long hampered the ability of American Catholics to connect creatively and dialogically to American culture and which, in many ways, is at the very heart of the lamentable decision of a solid majority of white Catholics in the U.S. to place Donald Trump in the White House. Jenkins' position about dogma is essentially tribalistic. It implies that dogma is a tool, a weapon, something meant to divide "real" Catholics from those who have given up the "real" faith — though they may consider themselves Catholic even as they reject some dogmatic positions of the magisterium, claiming that they do so in good conscience.

Dogma-as-weapon is about securing tribal boundaries. It's about setting us off from them. It's about legitimating our view — when we want to trot this hoary old claim out again for political reasons — that "they" are out to get us. It's about shoring up our ceaseless whine that Catholics are discriminated against in American culture, even as a majority of justices sitting on the Supreme Court are Catholics. 

It's all about excluding and denigrating targeted others within our own tribal community, telling them they do not belong to the tribe, that they have earned their place outside the tribal boundaries by their lack of adherence to dogma — to faith defined as dogma and not as the disposition of the heart to the divine Spirit. Dogma-as-weapon provides us who are comfortably ensconced within the tribal fortress, pointing our weapons at hostile others as they approach the tribal boundaries, with the illusion that we can call ourselves Catholic while behaving in an eminently uncatholic way to a huge number of our own fellow Catholics who fall outside the dogmatically secured tribal boundary lines.

I've said this before and must say it again, because it's so obviously true: the biggest shortcoming of American Catholicism is its lack of a strong communitarian ethos. American Catholics find it very easy to write off lots of people who are defined as hostile others, as enemies of the church, as louche betrayers of faith reduced to dogmatic formulation. This is true not merely of Catholics on the hard right, of the sort I saw taunting a young Catholic theologian friend of mine on Twitter yesterday when she raised critical questions about the canonization process with claims that "canonization is infallible, hun [sic]."

It's also true — and perhaps a fortiori — among Catholics of the left, among the movers and shakers of the Catholic academy and journalistic world, who talk only among themselves to an astonishing degree, and who feel no obligation to reach out to the many Catholics who have been run off the dogmatically defined premises in recent decades for one reason or another, to listen to what we have to say, to tell us that we are valued . . . 

To recognize that their lives as human beings and as Catholics are radically incomplete when they practice such hard-hearted, dogmatically fortified tribalism in their dealings with many former Catholics and fellow Catholics who are not welcome in the dogmatic tribe. . . . Or who don't happen to live in the right places, to have gone to the right schools, to know the right people . . . . 

I'm firmly convinced that the people proposing bridge-building and "dialogue" as the current task of the U.S. Catholic church don't even hear this critique. They have made themselves incapable of hearing it. They have long since shrugged off people raising such questions and asking for a hearing in the "dialogues" that are said to be taking place. They assume that we who have been shoved beyond the tribal boundaries have deserved our fates and can be written off even by people professing in the most dogmatic way possible to be catholic.

Bridge-building is not for the likes of us.

No comments: