It’s an interesting spectacle. On one hand, so many American right-wing Catholics set themselves up as mini-magisteriums, defending the orthodox faith against the dark army of dissenters. But on the other hand, and with equal passion, they will attack, mock, and dismiss Church teachings they don’t personally like. We saw this very clearly with the snide dismissal of recent Vatican proposals for financial reform.
To take an extreme example: the Catholic League purports to defend “free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened”. It is necessary, it claims, because “the degree of hostility exhibited against the Catholic Church is appalling. Quite simply, Catholic bashing has become a staple of American society.” So where was the Catholic League when a bevy of right-wing Americans were mocking and denigrating Vatican teachings? Were they out there opposing such obvious “Catholic bashing”. No, they were not. They were actually standing with the bashers. They were giving the Vatican a jolly good lecture on theology.
There is a certain logic to this. I believe it reflects a high level of cognitive dissonance. These people are in the thrall of some ideologies whose principles stand in stark opposition to Catholic social teaching – the evil individualist spirit that underpins the laissez-faire economic agenda, the dark nationalism that underpins the American exceptionalist theology. Therefore, they claim, one can safely ignore these teachings – they are merely prudential, only guidelines, and anyway the people who write them don’t really understand these issues, God bless them.
But this is bound to create some kind of inner tension. I believe it manifests in hunkering down into defensive hyper-orthodoxy. They defend themselves – indeed, convince themselves – by going on the offensive against dissent and heterodoxy. They cloak their vulnerability in the mantle of the zealous heresy hunter. It reminds me a little of the deeply closeted gay man, who simply refuses to accept his sexual orientation. Instead, he becomes an ardent homophobe. He has something to prove.
But here’s the issue. I might support certain politicians in spite of their violations of Catholic teachings. I hold my nose. But they will support certain other politicians because of their violations of Catholic teachings. They inhale the aroma. In this, the healthcare debate of 2009 was incredibly eye-opening. They opposed it for the wrong reasons (individual autonomy) while hiding behind virtuous reasons (protecting the unborn).
It is too tempting – and too easy – to answer these people by turning the accusation of dissent back at them. But this is not the right approach. It is not the Catholic approach. Applying Catholic teaching in the public square can be complicated. And yes, most judgments involve a fair amount of uncertainty, and require prudence – and this applies whether the issue is deemed intrinsically evil or not. Catholics are not obliged to support the creation of a global financial authority tomorrow, but they are certainly obliged to adhere to the moral principles that animate economic justice.
But they do not want this debate. It can get messy. And messiness is exactly what they are trying so hard to avoid.