Tuesday, April 14, 2020

"Jesus Paid It All": How the Pushback of Some US Catholics Vs. Church Closings Reflects Captivity of Catholic Imagination to a Capitalist Worldview

Jesus paid it all,
All to him I owe.

As social gospel theologian Shailer Mathews noted in the early 20th century, those words from a beloved American hymn signal to us how deeply imbued American Christianity is with a capitalistic worldview and capitalist values.* The substitutionary atonement of Christ's death on the cross is celebrated in the hymn as a financial transaction — we sinners owe a debt; Jesus pays it on our behalf.

I've had Mathews's analysis of this hymn in mind during this period in which there's such concerted effort among a certain set of US Christians to push against the restrictions of social distancing and sound medical advice, and keep churches open and functioning — and keep churches open and dispensing product to their religious market. As the media are reporting this morning, yesterday yet another group of pastors has sued its state to force the re-opening of churches after officials have restricted religious gatherings. This time, the group of pastors filing suit is in California rather than Texas. And, predictably, we're now being told that US attorney general Barr, a Catholic with close ties to Opus Dei, is "monitoring" the closing of churches: he's seeking to find ways to weaponize the anger of a certain sector of US Christians that they no longer have access to religious services, and to pretend that this is a restriction of religious freedom. 

There are many things that might be said about all of this, including a critique of the longstanding ugly games played by one of the nation's major political parties as it pretends to have unique possession (unique ownership) of religion and as it pretends that the other major political party is a-religious or anti-religious. What I'd like to focus on now, however, is a discrete aspect of this story. What I want to talk about is how this pushback against closing of churches and cessation of religious services among some US Catholics reveals the extent to which many American Catholics' religious imagination is captive to a capitalistic worldview that, in its core aspects, runs utterly against Catholic social teaching and the notion of solidarity.

The idea that Catholics are being deprived of … something, some thing … as churches close and religious services cease depends, it seems to me, on the assumption that religion and religious services are a commodity of sorts. It depends on the assumption that Catholics are religious consumers and they're being deprived of an essential product in the same way they'd be deprived of other essential products if grocery stores suddenly closed.

One can get the essential religious product only in a church and only through the ministrations of an ordained cleric. It's not available beyond those parameters. It comes to Catholics packaged and parcelled out in the same way goodies are dispensed from a dispensing machine or in the same way that "the" "Truth" reaches Catholics neatly wrapped and tied with bows in the catechism.

This notion — Mass and sacraments and Catholic "truth" as reified commodities — harks back to those justly maligned pictures of the pre-Vatican II catechism depicting the soul stained by sin as a milk bottle with a black spot in it, which grace-as-commodity might niftily scrub away if one only availed oneself of grace. As the panic of many US Catholics at seeing themselves deprived of Mass — a panic that drives them to consume the pre-packaged religious goods of Mass and other devotional services via television or computer screens — suggests to us, these reified, commodified understandings of sin, grace, divine presence in the world, sacramentality, salvation, etc., are still very deeply present in the mentality of many US Catholics.

Who are now at a total loss to understand how and where they can find God if they cannot go to church…. As if God is not everywhere and as accessible to us — in a sacramental way in a church that is not a building but a sacrament of the divine presence in the entire world — outside a church building and beyond the mediation of a cleric as God is present in Catholic rituals….

If there's a beyond to this pandemic, one that provides the church a chance to take stock of where it went so tragically wrong in leading 6 in 10 white Catholics to elect the moral monstrosity who pretends to be pro-life, perhaps that beyond needs to start by reassessing the extent to which many US Catholics are capitalists much more than followers of Jesus. As are their leaders in the US Catholic episcopacy, who have repeatedly bridled at the attempts of the current pope to rehabilitate Catholic social teaching and liberation theology….

P.S. As a footnote to this story, don't miss Sarah Stankorb's recent essay "For Some Churches, Easter Is Too Profitable to Cancel." For commentary on the Catholic side of the same story, see Michelle Conlin's "Empty pews, empty collection baskets: coronavirus hits U.S. church finances."

* See Shailer Mathews, "Theology and the Social Mind," Biblical World 46 (1915), 201-248.

No comments: