Everyone familiar with the tactics of right-wing American Catholics saw this coming. We all knew that today would be a day of downplaying whatever the Vatican was going to say about the financial crisis because we all knew that the Vatican wouldn’t say anything like what George Weigel or Thomas Peters would say about it. Ho hum.
Now here’s the thing. We could spend all week debating the merit of the ideas in the scandalous note (and we will), and we could spend all week debating its relative weight in terms of magisterial teaching (and we will) etc. etc. And, while all of this is very interesting, we all know what everyone is going to say in any case. I’d like to, then, in this piece, focus on something a little different, namely, my own existence.
You see, Thomas Peters doesn’t believe I exist.
In Peters’ utterly predictable Fact Check: Why Catholics Who Disagree with Justice and Peace White Papers Aren’t “Cafeteria Catholics”, he sets up a very convenient narrative. Convenient, but false. You see, I do exist.
According to this post, and, one suspects, in Peters’ world generally, there are two types of Catholics: liberal Catholics and orthodox Catholics. The former like this new document and accuse the latter, who do not like it, of being . . . wait for it . . . “cafeteria Catholics.”
But Peters’ orthodox Catholics can’t be “cafeteria Catholics” even if they do downplay the most recent Vatican document. A note is not binding for goodness sake! People who treat it as if it were, simply misunderstand how the Church teaches. (For the record, I don’t know anyone who is treating this as if it were binding, but what of that? We all know that encyclicals fare no better when they run up against right-wing American Catholic orthodoxy!)
But beyond the fact that the most recent Vatican document to disagree with Tea Party economics ranks low in terms of magisterial weight, there is a much more important reason why Peters and his orthodox friends must not be labelled “cafeteria Catholics” for rejecting it (in Peters’s own case, by his own admission, even before he read it!): namely, because liberal Catholics reject more important teaching of higher magisterial weight.
It is very easy to convince oneself that one is justified as long as there is some other out there who is less justified. In fact, it’s human nature. We see it as soon as kids can reason:
“Toby, did you hit your brother?”
“Yes, but he BIT me!”
This, essentially, is the heart of Peters’ argument:
Furthermore, it strikes me as a deep hypocrisy for liberal Catholics to complain that orthodox Catholics are being “selective” when we don’t accept prudential comments on tangential things such as economics issued by a second-tier curial department, when liberals regularly refuse to accept authoritative teachings on the fundamental right to life, on the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, let alone the Church’s whole doctrinal system.
Is that the debate they really want to have — fidelity to the Church’s most basic teachings?
I’ll make this simpler: for any liberal Catholic who claims orthodox Catholics are being “cafeteria Catholics” on questions of economics, they should pledge publicly that they fully, 100% support the Church’s teaching on life, marriage and contraception right now.
Then we’ll talk. If not, we simply don’t share the same basic commitments to being fully Catholic.
Now, I can’t tell if I’m a liberal Catholic or an orthodox one. It seems that, as someone who is actually interested in reading the document and even learning from it, I cannot possibly be orthodox. And I do complain that Peters’ orthodox Catholics are being “selective” when they don’t accept “prudential comments on tangential things.” That must make me a liberal, right?
But things get dicey here. You see, I don’t refuse to accept Church teaching on issues of life and family, or “the Church’s whole doctrinal system.” I am as true a believer as you are likely to find, from contraception to consubstantial.
I don’t fit the narrative. Peters’ seems to imagine that anyone who would dream of challenging orthodox Catholics for being “selective” hasn’t a leg to stand on because they must, necessarily, dissent on other, more important, issues. Those of us who unconditionally accept Church teaching on issues that Peters values, but who would challenge his hermeneutic for reading Catholic Social Teaching, are simply airbrushed out of the picture. We’re inconvenient because we wreck the “I’m-not-selective-because-others-are-more-selective” narrative essential to his self-justification for ignoring Vatican teaching.
OK, Thomas, I’ll take your deal. I hereby publicly pledge my 100% support for Church teaching on life, marriage and contraception. Now can we talk?
I rather doubt it. I am a logical impossibility – the Catholic version of a 4-sided triangle. By the very fact that I made Peters’ pledge I void the contract by not being a liberal (that’s who was offered the deal, after all). I mustn’t exist.
I wonder if Peters believes in Cardinal Turkson.
Or the Pope.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.