June 5, 2012

In 2010, InsideCatholic.com director Deal W. Hudson asked, “Is It Time for A Catholic Tea Party?” Whatever the answer might have been then, today it seems to be “Yes,” but on terms very different from those Hudson envisioned. Instead of a grassroots movement pressuring the Catholic bishops to marshal their authority in support of pro-life candidates, we now have the bishops themselves preaching to the faithful in the fearful, combative tones of grassroots right-wing activists.

Oh, come on. Yes they are. When Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, Cardinal George predicted: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Last summer, Cardinal Dolan drew a broad comparison between gay marriage supporters and communist dictators. Just last month, Dolan accused the White House of “strangling” the Catholic Church, the silken cord being the Affordable Care Act. The Church’s official voice has come within a sound byte of death panels and birtherism.

None of this is to suggest that the institutional Church fits hand-in-glove with the Tea Party in ideological terms. The bishops did protest Representative Ryan’s budget plan, and filed an amicus curiae brief against SB 1070, the Arizona law aimed at curbing illegal immigration. No, the resemblance is mainly stylistic — in the doomsaying, in the quick evocation of totalitarianism, in the ascription to the Obama administration of the darkest possible motives. By calling on the faithful to “witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties,” the bishops seem to be working from the same assumption that made Rick Perry threaten to withdraw Texas from the Union. If the system won’t turn events to their advantage, then it must be irreparably broken.

To maximize their moral leverage, the bishops, like the Tea Party, claim an ancestor in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As Glenn Beck did in his “Rally to Restore Honor,” the bishops profess to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a fellow faith-based freedom fighter. Both claims represent a re-writing of history. The libertarIan Beck’s true ideological heritage flows back to Barry Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Plenty of individual Catholics, including members of the clergy, supported King, but the American Church never spoke in a single — or particularly loud — voice on the subject. Hey, I’d love to have flown in the Battle of Britain, but at least I’m big enough to admit I didn’t.

The Church likes to see itself as countercultural, anchored in eternal verities and unswayable by trends. By taking their cues from a phenomenon so dependent on the culture and the moment as a political movement, its leaders looks seem to be admitting they’ve reached the end of their moral ammo. When Bishop Jenky of Peoria called on members of his diocese to form a “fearless army of Catholic men” and fight Obama — whom he listed alongside Hitler, Stalin and Bismarck as an implacable laicist — I sighed. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought. “Water the Tree of Liberty — I’ve heard it all before.”

It’s not hard to understand why the bishops would be moved — consciously or not — to steal the Tea Party playbook. What distinguished Tea Party candidates was their ideological purity. They were more consistently and thoroughly conservative than the candidates endorsed by the GOP’s so-called elites. Though the 2010 midterm elections brought only 32% of these candidates into office, the movement changed the boundaries of the mainstream, at least temporarily, to the point where Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann were able to pass as serious contenders for the presidency. To orthodox Catholics, scrambling for traction in a pluralistic society that increasingly rejects their views, the affinity is natural.

But the Tea Party, as many observers have noted, makes liberal use of what Richard Hofstadter terms “the paranoid style.” The style, which dates as least as far back as the anti-Illuminist movement of the early 19th century and went on to influence anti-Catholic nativists, involves rhetoric that “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds.” It transforms the opposition into “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman.”

Consider “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” a proposal for a negative ad campaign recently compiled by Republican strategists. After observing, a little ruefully, that swing voters may not be “ready to hate” the president, the proposal promises that a five-minute “unusually unique video, bringing his tutorship under Reverend Wright and others to the forefront of popular discourse” could succeed in “hitting Barack between the eyes.” That’s what the paranoid style looks like when it’s up for sale.

To their credit, the bishops have yet to go the full monty in that direction. (When referring to the president in official statements, they tend to omit his middle name. Those who include it rarely do so in consideration of those who might confuse him with Barack Donald Obama.) But in his condemnation of Obama’s revised health care mandate, Archbishop Chaput accused the administration of an “aggressive attack on religious freedom.” Warning his audience that hashing over the details of the mandate would mean “wandering into the weeds,” he concluded that the affront to the Church was “measured and deliberate.” “It’s impossible,” Chaput said, “to see this regulation as some happenstance policy. It has been too long in the making.” Without actually using the words anti-Catholic conspirator to describe the president, Chaput was clearly leading people toward that judgment.

Maybe it’s because I already have enough enemies — some real, some imaginary — to keep me busy, but this just doesn’t work for me. Bishop Blaire of Stockton, California, recently told America Magazine’s Kevin Clarke that he and his brother bishops “need to continue to seek to persuade others to join us in this just cause through reasoned, civil and respectful discussion.” If the bishops insist on working from a political template, I would put that a little differently. For the bishops, primary season is over. They’ve already established their bona fides with the base. To win over swing voters, it’s time to break out the soft soap. Less paranoia from them could mean more metanoia from us.

Update: Thanks to Kevin Clarke of America for linking to me. By gum, I’m on the map!

August 16, 2012

Paul Ryan’s hometown bishop has defended him. The bishop of Lansing, Michigan and the archbishop of Kansas City broke ranks to wonder aloud whether the USCCB’s condemnation of his proposed budget looked excessively partisan. With the exception of Mark Shea, practically every Catholic pundit to the right of America and National Catholic Reporter has agreed, more or less, that Ryan seems okay, is a good old boy, one of us, his love affair with the thinking of Ayn Rand just a youthful indiscretion.

I say, thank God. We’re back to politics as usual, and politics as usual I know how to deal with.

For a while, it looked like the American Church had slipped the moorings of the entire American political system. The bishops called for civil disobedience and warned of martyrdoms. Archbishop Chaput in particular wore his alienation like a laurel wreath, preaching on the world’s ephemerality, patriotism’s limits as a virtue, the imperfections of democracy. Basically, the hour of revolution had come, and we were all supposed to be Cristeros or Cameronians — Viva Cristo Rey! Nae King save Christ!

Now, the general mood seems to be: Put down your crosses and return to your homes, everyone. We’ve got a solid budget hawk on the ticket.

Okay, maybe I am being a little unfair. Not everyone has gone so far as National Catholic Register’s Pat Archbold, who praises Ryan’s budget plan, even to the point of fraternally correcting the bishops who condemned it. Yes, the deficit does need some slimming down. Yes, those stingy exemptions written into the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act threaten the free exercise of religion. Worse, given the assurances Obama’s made in the past, they constitute an act of betrayal. There’s no trivializing any of that. No one who feels relief at the appearance of a dynamic personality on the opposite ticket has any cause to blush.

I just wish, for the love of Mike, that someone had let me in on the joke, taken me aside and whispered, “Listen, all this inflated rhetoric and saber-rattling boils down to a very simple point: Romney’s a flip-flopper and a stiff with the common touch of a Capet, and we’re sure he’s going to lose.” Whatever kind soul took the trouble would have earned my undying gratitude, and, I firmly believe, a kingdom in heaven.

Look, I’m relatively new to Catholicism, but even I have some sense of the debate that’s been raging quietly since the end of the 19th century: Is America good for the Church? I also have some grasp of the argument that goes: No, it’s not. Basically, all that freedom led to license, which has secularized the culture, which has marginalized the Church. Even John Courtney Murray would agree, were he still alive, or so the reasoning goes.

But I have never quite understood what was supposed to happen when the conensus became official. Even Professor Patrick Deneen, who warns of American-style liberalism’s unsustainability, comes up short on concrete alternatives. And that scares me. To these 21st-century ears, Libertas, the encyclical in which Pope Leo XIII defines freedom for the ages, is a grim piece of work. Natural liberty, the kind that counts, says Leo, means being free to follow the natural law. It means having the right to do right, speak right and think right. He has no patience at all for the other kind, where people are free to do, speak and think wrong. That happens to be the kind of liberty I’m used to, the kind I cherish.

How long, I’ve often wondered, before Catholics decide that both major parties have made themselves irrelevant by surrendering so much ground to Mammon? And where would they go from there? My Patheos colleague Thomas MacDonald calls himself a distributist. To that, I say: Ee-aye-ee-aye-oh, and holla at me for me for the barn-raising. The Catholic-flavored political philosophies that worry me are the ickier, more authoritarian ones– integralism, corporatism, Rexism, and all the other systems that aren’t quite fascism, but come so close that whole doctoral dissertations have been written to split the difference between them.

In my worst nightmare, one of them comes back into fashion. Exactly how the modern-day phalange acquires power I haven’t quite worked out. Maybe Michael Voris, taking a page from Brigham Young, leads his followers to a sparsely populated western state — with my luck, mine — and reigns as caudillo, by the Grace of God. Or maybe, rather than strike out on their own, Latin-style conservatives come to form a distinct wing within the GOP, complaining about the false ecumenism in national prayer breakfasts. Or maybe they’ll just gain enough credibility in intellectual circles that the strain of blogging around their sensibilities will send me to an early grave.

What, you want to laugh? Well, go ahead, hepcats and kittens — yuk it up. But fair’s fair. If Obama can be Hitler or Stalin, I get to start at the spectre of Generalissimo Buchanan.

Love Ryan or hate him, he’s a very mainstream American Republican, which is to say a Tea Party Republican — pro-life, but not nearly so down on gay rights as he could be. Even if he’s telling the truth when he says he’s planned his budget cuts with the Catholic principles of subsidiarity and solidarity in mind, he’s pitched them to non-Catholics as expressions of rugged, Randian invididualism — the kind the Church tends to frown on. The fact that he and it are being so widely hailed, embraced or at least cut slack, tells me something. It tells me that even the crankiest Catholic righty remains as attached to this licentious country, its wicked ways, and its two-party system as I am.

I repeat: thank God. There’s a statement that bears repetition, if any statement ever did.

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