"Twilight of Mercy" and the "Wasteland"

Today we introduce a new columnist to our roster, Matt Emerson — whose work you have read in the past months, considering Jesuit Education, why he left practicing law, behind, the popularity of Lady Gaga in light of Gaudium et Spes and Stephen Colbert in light of catechesis.

His column is called “After Manresa” and I will leave it up to him to tell his readers what that’s about another time. His debut column manages to coin a phrase (“Criteria Catholicism”) and ask a serious question regarding Catholicism’s passionate commitment to life — which is quite right — and the impulse by some to forget the quality of mercy we owe each other amid the battle:

To link so imperiously authentic Catholicism with one’s attitude toward abortion, however, confines the fullness of discipleship. It encourages people to think, “I am against abortion; thus, I am a good Catholic.” The position incites people to exalt viewpoints alone, and to license an illusory holiness without setting one foot forward on behalf of the poor, without visiting the imprisoned, or without feeding the hungry or ministering to the sick; without sustaining a renunciation or commitment reflecting the complete change of heart and the heroic agape love to which Our Lord calls us.

When fencing — really in any battle — one does need to be constantly mindful of one’s position, and correcting one’s own stance, in order to maintain balance. This is an important balancing note, I think; human dignity matters. I would urge everyone to read the whole thing.

While we’re thinking about our fellows, also take a look at Joseph Susanka’s examination of the documentary, “Waste Land”:

If one were to assemble a list of the most egregiously overused phrases in documentary review history, “triumph of the human spirit” would undoubtedly fall near the top—a descriptor used with such frivolous regularity as to render it almost meaningless. So it is with some trepidation that I find myself making the following admission: Waste Land is one of those rare and rewarding cases where it truly applies.

Vik Muniz, a Brazilian-born artist known world-wide for his distinctive way of incorporating everyday objects into his sculptures and photographs, has achieved a level of fame and success far beyond his wildest dreams. Now, chafing at the “exclusivity and restrictive nature” of the art world in which he has made his fortune, he is searching for a way to return (and to give back) to his native land. Guided by the advice of his family and friends, he settles upon the perfect subjects for his new artistic/humanitarian project: the catadores (trash collectors) of Jardim Gramacho.

The personal stories of these people are really incredible; uplifting, inspiring. Joseph never steers us wrong, but this one I need to watch!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • DWiss

    Matt Emerson is a very talented and insightful writer and I’m happy to see him become a regular on Patheos.

    I read his new article, and here’s the thought that preoccupied me. Catholics are on a hair trigger these days. Any whiff of priestly impropriety creates a storm of internal and external criticism and finger pointing. Similarly, Notre Dame touched the hot burner with the Obama invitation, and now they’re under excessive scrutiny. Fair or unfair, that’s the world we’re living in now.

    But, to cut to the chase, to say that you were unaware that Emily’s list supports abortion is to say you are incapable of a simple Google search. Go ahead. Google “Emily’s List” and then say that the organization’s purpose is ambiguous. Can’t be done. Any Catholic who takes the faith seriously would have trouble with it.

  • Brother Jeff

    There may be a few Catholics who actually believe that opposition to abortion makes them good catholics, but I have never met any. People who take the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life seriously tend to take the other teachings seriously as well, and are probably more likely to reject cafeteria catholicism.

  • Jeannine

    I just feel a sense of weariness about Matt Emerson’s article. A wealthy elite Catholic again throws the unborn under the bus, but that’s ok. Promoting pro-abortion politicians is de rigeur among the elite intellectuals. How dare those ordinary Catholics object! Pharisees! And what’s wrong with that Weigel guy? Doesn’t he know that all the best people consider that abortion question settled?

    Roxanne Martino may indeed be a wonderful person, and many of her causes do seem very admirable. But in elite Chicago circles, there would be no admiration for a pro-life stance; there would be contempt, while contributions to Emily’s List would be considered commonplace. Perhaps to expect her to support pro-life causes would be to expect heroic sanctity.

    But the issue is whether she should be guiding and directing a Catholic university.

    [On reading the piece, I thought the issue was whether a Catholic who publicly admitted a mistake, professed the faith and promised not to repeat the mistake was entitled to the benefit of a doubt, and mercy among the brethren. -admin]

  • Brother Jeff

    Elizabeth, I didn’t “tell you what to do” re Father Corapi. Your hair trigger sensitivity on this issue is really odd and out of character. Someone calls Father Corapi a “cult” yet again and that’s fine and dandy, but my suggestion you jump all over. Fine. Here’s to hoping he is vindicated because I know you’ll be writing lots of articles about that.

    [I hadn't seen the "cult" quote -- I actually have a fulltime job and am not continually checking comments, so I saw the "cult" comment and your advice to me at the same time. Had I seen the "cult" comment first, I MIGHT have called it a "wash" with your typically passive-aggressive "writing articles of vindication" bit. (which you repeat here. Since I have never sullied Corapi's name, I will continue to do what I've been doing, which is simply putting what we know and don't know up there). But then the nonsense began, and I closed the thread. That doesn't mean we're going to debate in some other thread, "Brother" Jeff. You got to speak your piece; I didn't stop you. Then someone said their piece and since you disagreed, you thought you should "suggest" (advise) me on how to handle my blog and my comments thread. And now comments are closed. I made it pretty clear that I was in no mood for nonsense, and I am STILL not in the mood for it. I am giving you a friendly suggestion that you stop telling me what to do on my blog. I think you should take it. -admin]

  • Frank Gibbons

    I hardly think this is irenic:

    “To link so imperiously authentic Catholicism with one’s attitude toward abortion, however, confines the fullness of discipleship. It encourages people to think, “I am against abortion; thus, I am a good Catholic.” The position incites people to exalt viewpoints alone, and to license an illusory holiness without setting one foot forward on behalf of the poor, without visiting the imprisoned, or without feeding the hungry or ministering to the sick; without sustaining a renunciation or commitment reflecting the complete change of heart and the heroic agape love to which Our Lord calls us.”

    “Imperiously” …. “incite” .. “license an illusory holiness”? This doesn’t sound like balanced diction to me.

    Can Mr. Emerson substantiate his opinions? Does he know what’s in George Weigel’s heart? Maybe we could give Weigel the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he was speaking from a prophetic impulse.

    As far as Gaudium et Spes and Lady Gaga goes — what a violent juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements! There’s an awful lot of stuff about marriage and sex in Gaudium et Spes. Can Mr. Emerson do a follow up on how we reconcile the Lady’s views on sexuality with Gaudium et Spes’ comments on the “disfigurements” that obscure the brilliance of marriage? Lady Gaga doesn’t shock me. I charitably assert that Mr. Emerson, Tom Beaudoin, et all are simply wasting their time trying to create a theological connection where none exists.

    Peace to all — including Lady Gaga.

  • Matt Emerson

    Mr. Gibbons,

    I appreciate the time you’ve taken to critique what I’ve written. A few thoughts in response.

    You ask about substantiation. With the exception of my early years on the earth and a brief time practicing law, I’ve spent every day working or studying in a Catholic institution. I’ve been around really impressive people, both academically and personally; people who model Christ in ways that leave me inspired and humbled. Most of these people are extremely charitable and well-meaning, and I don’t intend (as my article indicates) to pronounce on ultimate questions of their faith and soul.

    However, I do know from years and years of personal experience (in Catholic philosophy departments, theology departments, and an outstanding Catholic law school) that there is an inclination to so prioritize the question of abortion (or even gay marriage, in some circles) that the question of orthodoxy becomes, in practice (and I stress “in practice”), collapsed into one’s stand on these issues. I’ve been guilty of it myself. The result is an exclusion of, for lack of a better phrase, the big picture, the fullness and the “layeredness” of discipleship, which our Holy Father brings to light in his exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. And so the question of turning one’s whole life, one’s whole heart and mind, toward the Cross is marginalized in place of, “What is your position on Roe v. Wade?”

    When pressed, of course, all Catholics will acknowledge that the faith does not rise and fall on these issues. But again, the message/impression that is conveyed is something different. What’s in practice is often not what it’s in theory.

    George Weigel is immensely intelligent and, for all I know, immensely faithful. His works have edified me for the last ten years and he’s shown up in numerous papers of mine. My column takes issue with his tone and with his general effort to indict a LOT of people and, in effect, declare them bad Catholics. Moreover, I take issue, as a proud graduate of Notre Dame, with so ominous a statement on ND’s Catholic identity, knowing from direct experience how richly faithful the institution is and remains.

    I hope this sheds light on your question.

    As for Lady Gaga, my column on her does not attempt, at all, to ennoble her message (on the contrary, I was quite critical of the nihilism she projects), but I do think that her entire presentation has an oddly messianic tone that’s quite riveting for millions of people. As a high school teacher, I see daily how compelling someone like Lady Gaga can be. These are the students that we are trying to get through Confirmation Class. These are the students we are trying to get to pray, to respect life, to respect themselves. The topic of Lady Gaga may not need to be addressed in the halls of the Vatican, but it certainly does by the moms and dads whose kids are on the internet watching her disturbing images.

  • Bender

    Disingenuous mischaracterizations of what someone, e.g. Weigel, has said is not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, much less living up to the standard that Emerson demands of others. But that is par for the course for the disingenuous “seamless garment” crowd. We’ve heard it all before, and this introduction to the thought of Emerson does not augur well for reading him again.

  • Bender

    I see that Cathleen Kaveny is touting that Emerson tooks courses with her in law school, and with Fr. John Kavanaugh, SJ (an America columnist) as an undergrad.

    Explains a lot.

  • DWiss

    Matt, if you’re still reading these comments, maybe this will add to the conversation.

    Catholic Answers publishes a Voters Guide For Serious Catholics. They have a lsit of 5 non-negotiables. In the introduction they say:

    “But some issues are so key, so elemental, that only one position accords with the teaching of the Christian gospel. No one endorsing the wrong side of these subjects can be said to act in accord with the Church’s moral norms.”

    Strong words.

    Here are the 5:

    1) Abortion
    2) Euthanasia
    3) Fetal Stem Cell Research
    4) Human Cloning
    5) Homosexual Marriage

    Catholic Answers isn’t the Vatican, but they’re out there with this list telling people that they can only be on one side of these issues and be in conformity with Catholic moral teaching.

    So it seems to me that if people are using these thinga as a Catholic litmus test, there’s precedent for it.

  • Matt Emerson


    I once read somewhere that Cardinal Newman was asked at a dinner to explain his conversion to Catholicism, to which he said something like, “This can’t be explained between the appetizer and main course.” I feel a similar impulse as I consider responding to your well framed comment.

    There are undoubtedly moral positions our faith presents that require (as I noted in the column) a passionate, sometimes uncompromising, defense, both in private and in public. The five positions Catholic Answers lists are in that category. I would note, however, that with the exception of issues #2 and #5, the others are rarely, if ever, subject to voter input. The major decisions on abortion, for example, are now entirely with the Supreme Court. Voters have little influence.

    If a Catholic, however, believes in a woman’s right to choose and therefore votes for or supports a candidate primarily because that candidate wants to preserve choice as a fundamental right: this way of thinking, according to our Church, constitutes formal cooperation in evil. It is a gravely deficient action and ought to be corrected.

    Roxanne Martino may be in that category, or she may not be. The Emily’s List contributions, as I noted in the column, rightly raised questions and concern. (I never called for her reinstatement.)

    One of my concerns is this: it’s one thing to say a person is acting, in some capacity, contrary to a fundamental teaching of the Church and to say this person ought to be corrected — at risk of completely eroding one’s communion with the faith. It’s another to brand this person (or an institution) as fundamentally unserious about about his or her Catholicism, which is essentially accusing someone of being unserious about his or her relationship with Jesus. It’s a significant charge. And for the reasons Pope Benedict gives in his exegesis on the Sermon on the Mount, I think we ought to be especially careful to avoid generalization because there may be things about that person’s faith life that are quite heroic and praiseworthy, but which are obscured.

    A second concern is the way in which an aggressive tone on certain issues can lead people to marginalize the bigger picture of what it means to follow Christ … the extraordinary change of heart and mind revealed to us in the Beatitudes, the call to love our enemies, to reject the allure of riches and the temptations of the world and to seek Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 25).

    It doesn’t mean the seamless garment argument is correct (Bender incorrectly judges my own position) and it doesn’t mean the Church is wrong on abortion. It just means that the defense of unborn life is part of a much larger life project of picking up the Cross and leavening the world.

    In other words, in classic Catholic fashion, it’s not “either/or” but rather, “both/and.”