Is This The Public Face We Want For Catholicism?

Is This The Public Face We Want For Catholicism? August 16, 2016


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This post is a part of the Patheos Catholic Channel series, “Catholicity: Identity and Its Discontents.” Steel Magnificat both cordially invites and heartily encourages our readers to read more here.

(Additionally this is the piece I was writing last Friday before several more urgent items turned up. I am aware of the irony of the first paragraph considering that, and hope it allows everyone a good chuckle.)

When I sit down to write here and have multiple tabs up, it sometimes feels like I spend more time blogging about things that jumped out at me while I was going back and forth, than on what I sat down to write.

Instead of my planned column, I am going to talk about some of what I read: I have selected four pieces of Catholic social/political commentary that were making their rounds on social media. These four pieces are not really unique in their style, claims or significance. I see equivalent material circulating on the Catholic internet on a daily basis. Thus, I believe that they are a fair sample of what a non-Catholic searching for Catholic voices might discover browsing the news. While what is out there is a mixed bag, not a trash bag (I have picked two bad and two good articles to discuss here) – I think the picture provided is unsettling. The cumulative evidence is that we ought, as a community, to seriously reconsider just how disturbing a public face it is that we Catholics are presenting to the world that God so loved. We need different standards of disagreement with those outside the faith than the ones our common Catholic practice seems to be providing; or, at a minimum, better standards than our practice is consistently providing.

The first article is also the most appalling – George Weigel’s preposterous assertions about how the Washington Post is out to take away his religion. I would be happy to believe that this is just a tasteless piece, overdone rhetoric, failed satire, or something of that kind. Unfortunately, I can’t believe that, because there is absolutely nothing in the article to indicate that. Since it was written as entirely literal and serious, my critique assumes that Weigel intends every word at face value. I know he is a very respected voice among many Catholics, but I can’t in conscience accept that his style of representing the Church to those outside the faith is remotely appropriate. And if this is understood as addressed entirely in-house, with no possible appeal to those outside our Catholic faith communities- that is even worse, because the Church is fundamentally open to and addresses herself to all who will listen. Besides, forming one’s own conscience or self-image on this fare is a dietary plan for a profound sickness of spirit.

The piece begins by suggesting that intellectual limitation is a form of malice (which he also conflates with simple ignorance – both in the first paragraph). But no! Mere intellectual disability (which would be a vice how?) is not sufficient to account for displeasing the Weigel. The Post is actively supporting a different religion than Catholicism, namely, Weigel’s “Church of the Imperial Autonomous Self” aka, the “Church of Me”. Except. . . why would it be scandalous if they did? The Post has never, to my knowledge, claimed to be a Catholic publication. Nor have they claimed to be a religious authority of any kind.  If only Weigel had provided some links wherein The Post states or even remotely implies their advocacy of this new religion, then, perhaps, Weigel’s article would not seem so fantastical.

Instead, he goes on to explain that the real problem here is  a notion of freedom “preached” by the “prophet” Anthony Kennedy (hmm, I thought Kennedy was a supreme court justice, not a religious leader- maybe in his spare time?). Or, the problem is the corresponding anthropology (I am not clear that Weigel has decided which). In this alleged anthropology, the “human person is just a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is what we mean by ‘human rights.'” It is appropriate to critique the theoretical positions implied (or even potentially implied) in statements about human rights, public policy and the like. Unfortunately, Weigel does not wish to rely on any particular statements (much less religious proclamations) provided by The Post or by one of those apparently quite horrible and culturally defective persons he anoints as their prophetic leaders. Rather, he announces his own straw creed– the reader must take it on faith that this creed is the only possible basis for The Post’s grievous failure to affirm us all in Weigel’s peculiar personal interpretation of the Catholic faith.

As opposed to, you know, The Post being a secular news outlet. Perhaps one wherein a variety of opinions and viewpoints are loosely united, not by prophecy, but by the vision of the editorial staff? A news outlet where stories are approached from a different standpoint than Weigel’s, and therefore are interpreted differently than he would gloss them? If that were the case, then someone disagreeing with The Post on an article’s specifics or its overall editorial vision would need to articulate disagreements and state the reasons for them- to take part in some form of public conversation about the disagreement. Nah, why bother? They are, after all, obviously out to get us.

From there he does critique an actual article from The Washington Post. There certainly may be flaws with The Post’s presentation of Pope Francis. In the first instance, one might suggest that the attention Pope Francis affords to injustices committed by Churchmen against homosexuals and other minorities is not a rupture, but a difference of emphasis from other presentations of Catholic teaching. One might also suggest that this difference is more with regard to US Catholic commentators (e.g. Weigel) than with regard his predecessors. I suggest that in future The Post’s editorial staff insist that their writers understand that Papal teaching does not happen in a vacuum and does not need to reconstructed only from isolated quotations- that it is teaching addressed to a large global body of diverse faithful, with a long history of experience and theology. Papal teaching is, in practice, as often as not, a kind of authoritative gloss on that history. This sort of error is not proof of a malicious ignorance, much less of some intellectual incapacitation on the part of the staff of The Post. It is evidence they may have missed an element of their story that Catholic commentators could graciously fill in for them.

It is not evidence of Weigel’s core claim- that The Post is actively engaged in a work of conspiracy and disinformation with the goal of replacing Catholicism. I think if they meant to replace the Catholic faith, the chief evidence would be that they would say so, a la Auguste Comte. In the absence of such explicit evidence, then some body of compelling and systematic evidence should be provided. Weigel does not give proportionate evidence for his rather extraordinary claim of conspiracy, nor does he offer any reason beyond his personal word, to believe that The Post is intending to offer religious instruction to Catholics instead of secular reporting to the world at large. Thus, I can no longer hold to my previous opinion of George Weigel- I used to think he was a less excellent theologian than he believes himself to be, but was a competent journalist. I now believe, on the basis of this article, that I should downgrade my assessment to conspiracy alarmist.

Speaking of (and specifically against) conspiracy alarmism, I also found this very well-rounded piece from Charles Lewis writing for The Catholic Register. He writes specifically about the notion of conspiracies of gay people attempting to take over Canadian law practice. He compares the idea to its most obvious historical precedents- polemics about Jewish conspiracies for world domination, the idea that JFK was attempting to subvert the US government on behalf of the Pope, and such like. (We might add to his list Weigel’s theory that The Washington Post is out to subvert US religion.) Lewis’ argument is straightforward- we do not need to believe in any conspiracies. The belief we have evidence for is that there are groups of people, whose views differ from conventional Christian moral and religious narratives, and who advocate for their views. These are our neighbors with whom we disagree, not ravening hordes of inhuman enemies.

I honestly don’t know what to say- isn’t that just common sense?

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