Beware the But(t)

Beware the But(t) February 8, 2017
("Morning Toilette" by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1841. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(“Morning Toilette” by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1841. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

This is a continuation of my recent “Catholic first” shtick (though I suppose that’s always supposed to be a Catholic’s shtick).

I’m interested in something I’ve noted in many groups, though my concern here is obviously my own: Catholics. We affirm the same principles, what some might call lip service, but then demure when it comes to actually agreeing—it’s a sort of equivocation.

Take the recent refugee-migrant-immigrant-Muslim (pick your poison) ban. No Catholic can deny that there is, within the order of charity, an obligation due to the stranger. The sojourning non-Jew in Israel, the Good Samaritan—these tropes have to figure in our discussions. And yet for certain groups, qualification must follow:

“Yes, we have a duty to our non-Christian brothers and sisters, but…”

“Of course those legitimately displaced deserve our attention, but…”

On the other side, you are liable to see much the same thing. Take contraception: we may all affirm that (as Catholics) life has innate dignity; we can’t quite get around the “God has known you since before you were born” bit. And yet:

“Undeniably, all life is sacred, but…”

“Granted, human dignity is intrinsic from womb to tomb, but…”

“Affirmative word, platitude, but…” This is the unhelpful structure of so much Catholic discourse. Ideology enters on either side of the ethical (and this makes it merely a moral) platitude. The commitment one has to a given tradition (American conservatism, classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, socialism, etc.) enfolds the statement we can all affirm and ends up undoing it, depriving it of real content.

This ought to trouble us. Disagreement is a given within any community; we cannot avoid interpretation and all its pitfalls (what is one of our primary insights vis-à-vis Protestantism but that the text of the Bible is anything but plain?). Still, consensus (what Burke might have called “custom,” what Žižek would call “norms”) cannot be paper thin. Without some sort of fundamental agreement on what terms mean, we are doomed to pointless argument and the dominance of non-Catholic ideology over our religious commitments.

That’s it. Greater consciousness of this tendency is the first step to rebuilding anything like meaningful dialogue in a Church ridden with (and always to suffer from) fault lines. No meaningful conversation is going to happen on Trump’s “Muslim ban” if every “conservative” argument boils down to “Yes,____, but,” and we aren’t going to win hearts and minds to the pro-life ethic if “liberal” discourse amounts to “Of course,____, but.” The “but” is the undoing of the Church; it’s the necessary qualification that stands behind, the thing (like a “butt,” if I may be permitted some immaturity) that we know is there and yet cannot see. It’s our collective blind spot.

If Catholic first (and who could put a “but” after those words?), then we must recognize this tendency in ourselves. As my mom used to say: no ifs, ands, or buts.

"This is so old, the original article is gone."

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