The American Problem

The American Problem May 5, 2009

The rabid reaction of many American Catholics to the election of Obama seems to be a cause of concern in the Vatican, unused to the tempest of American bitter partisanship. Even some bishops seemed to have jumped on the bandwagon. I have noted in the past that this perplexes many Europeans, and that the pro-choice Sarkozy was made an honorary canon at the pope’s own church of St. John Lateran. And that fact that many seem to think that Obama speaking at a Catholic university is a greater moral evil than the government actually torturing somebody speaks to the depravity of this position. In this post, I want to point to two good recent pieces– the America editorial and John Allen’s latest musing from the Vatican.

America’s editorial is powerful:

“In the United States today, self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy, like Randall Terry and the Cardinal Newman Society, push mightily for a pure church quite unlike the mixed community of saints and sinners—the Catholic Church—that Augustine championed. Like the Circumcellions of old, they thrive on slash-and-burn tactics; and they refuse to allow the church to be contaminated by contact with certain politicians.

For today’s sectarians, it is not adherence to the church’s doctrine on the evil of abortion that counts for orthodoxy, but adherence to a particular political program and fierce opposition to any proposal short of that program. They scorn Augustine’s inclusive, forgiving, big-church Catholics, who will not know which of them belongs to the City of God until God himself separates the tares from the wheat. Their tactics, and their attitudes, threaten the unity of the Catholic Church in the United States, the effectiveness of its mission and the credibility of its pro-life activities.

…The divisive effects of the new American sectarians have not escaped the notice of the Vatican. Their highly partisan political edge has become a matter of concern. That they never demonstrate the same high dudgeon at the compromises, unfulfilled promises and policy disagreements with Republican politicians as with Democratic ones is plain for all to see. It is time to call this one-sided denunciation by its proper name: political partisanship.”

Amen. Here is John Allen:

“When L’Osservatore Romanopublished an essay this week suggesting that U.S. President Barack Obama’s positions on abortion and other life issues “have not confirmed fears of radical changes,” it provided the latest confirmation of a glaring difference in tone between the Vatican and the most ardently pro-life circles in the American Catholic church, including a growing number of American bishops.

In general, several voices in the Vatican have taken a moderate and conciliatory line on the Obama administration, while several U.S. bishops, buoyed by a network of pro-life activists, have been more pugnacious.

…One striking feature of the L’Osservatoreessay was what it did not contain. There was no reference to the controversy among American Catholics over the University of Notre Dame’s plan to award Obama an honorary doctorate on the occasion of his commencement address this month.

The L’Osservatoreessay was the latest in a string of amicable gestures from the Vatican, beginning with an unusual telegram of congratulations sent by Pope Benedict XVI the day after Obama’s election. (Typically, popes do not address new heads of state until they take office.)

Fiorentino’s piece did not sit well with many pro-life activists in the United States. The web site “,” for example, said the piece “sent shock waves through the pro-life world.” It carried an interview with an official of Human Life International comparing the Vatican’s line on Obama with the policy of “accommodation” towards Soviet Communism associated with the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI.”

Allen argues that “abortion has never been the overriding focus for conservative Catholic intellectuals and activists in Europe that it is in the United States”. While true, this is nonetheless not a very helpful statement. It’s high time for an emperor-has-no-clothes moment: the American Catholic Church is deviating from the global Catholic church in this area because the American Catholic church is increasing aping the tactics and outlook of the politicized evangelical movement — an alliance forged two decades ago by Neuhaus and others. It is a movement based on a stark “us versus them” mentality, a dualistic mentality based on cultural Calvinism and a whiff of Gnosticism, a mentality directed translated into partisan rigidity, and where theological orthodoxy is confused with political loyalty. We are now reaping the fruit of this trend, and the fruit is rotten.

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