Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Hardness of Our Hearts


Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:3-9
“As Christians, we follow Christ.  Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn't. And I’m sticking with him.”
George Cardinal Pell, October 8, 2014
I was exchanging e-mails with a friend recently.  I was making an argument about poverty, subsidiarity, and the social teachings of the Church regarding economics.  I wrote that some conservative Catholics take the Gospel's message about care for the least only as a suggestion, much as many of the same people have found ways to ignore the radical pacifism we also can find in the Gospel.  My friend pointed out, of course, that the Gospel hardly is unambiguous about violence, and the Catholic tradition for centuries has found ways to accommodate the ugly demands of worldly living.  That is why we have a theological tradition of just wars, after all.  Good point.

I was thinking about that e-mail exchange while I read Cardinal Pell's comments on the synod.  For, it seems, Cardinal Pell has found one passage of the Gospel that must be interpreted literally and unambiguously.  He appears to believe that the Gospel allows us no latitude to accommodate the worldly reality of divorced and re-married Catholics in the same way that, say, the just war tradition permits a cardinal to announce, full-throated, his support for the Afghanistan war.

For some people, there are casuistries we will permit, and there are casuistries we will not.

But I disagree with Cardinal Pell far enough to say that I think there is a lesson for us and for the Extraordinary Synod in the intersection of economic justice, warfare, and these questions affecting family life.  As Luther counseled the sinner to sin boldly, let us boldly and consistently apply our most Jesuitical casuistry to the problems facing Catholic families in the contemporary world.

It will profit us to look just a little further into Matthew 19:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus is astonished by the rich young man's question.  "Why do you ask me about the good?"  Isn't it obvious??  Keep the Commandments.  Everybody knows that.  But the young man is looking for something more.  He is asking about spiritual perfection, and Jesus is ready to help him find his way.  "If you wish to be perfect," Jesus tells him, sell all you have.  The young man cannot do it.  He went away sad.  He was not perfect.  But was he sinful?

I discern a persistent theme in Matthew 19.  There is a path of spiritual perfection for "those to whom that is granted"(Mt. 19:11).  For others, there is a path of mercy that acknowledges imperfection.  The young man can enter the Kingdom if he keeps his possessions as long as he also keeps the Commandments.  It would be preferable to sell all that he has.  But salvation is not only for the perfect.  It is for all who live as though they long for the Kingdom, even as they routinely fall short of deserving it.

Lost in all of our blustery shouts about traditional marriage is this little piece of Matthew 19:
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”  [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”  He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted.  Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
Where is the papal pronouncement or the catechetical teaching that "it is better not to marry?"  Why is that not a topic of discussion for the Extraordinary Synod?  After all, if we're 'sticking with Jesus' then we really should stick with Him, shouldn't we?

And, it's not only Jesus.  Here is Saint Paul:
Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote: "It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman," but because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband….Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do….
I Corinthians 7:1-3, 5-8
Paul also is rather clear.  Marriage is not preferable.  It is an accommodation to worldliness, a way to contain the sexual impulse and avoid "cases of immorality."

But the Church does not insist on universal celibacy.  In fact, Humanae Vitae teaches quite the opposite. Thank God the Church follows the path of mercy, sees the goodness in family life that Jesus and Paul never talked about.  Of course, it wouldn't have occurred to them.  They were unmarried.  They followed that path of perfection, as today so do clergy and vowed religious.

But Heaven is not only for unmarried men like Saint Paul and Cardinal Pell.  And, perhaps, now is a good time to remind the Carindal that the path of mercy leads to the same place as the path of perfection.

Just as Moses could permit divorce as an accommodation to worldly reality--"the hardness of your hearts"--so the Church can overlook the imperfections of divorced and remarried people who long for the Kingdom, whose lives have placed them in imperfect circumstances.

It is a short leap to say the same thing about homosexual relationships, too.

The answer is there if you want it.  You can reach that answer only by applying the same kind of reasoning that we apply routinely to war, the same kind of reasoning Jesus and Paul applied to marriage.  The world sometimes gives good people only imperfect choices, and we need not punish them for doing their best.

We should encourage Cardinal Pell, and others like him.  They're not bad people.  They just haven't thought it through.

And, after all, nobody's perfect.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

One Cardinal's Boycott Becomes Another Cardinal's Blarney

The saintliness of the late John Cardinal O’Connor’s unheralded ministry to AIDS patients should provide the light in which we discuss this.  It takes nothing away from Cardinal O’Connor’s memory or his merit as a Christian for us to remember things that happened, and to hold events next to one another for comparison.

But the fact is that the March 18, 1993 New York Times reported that, in Cardinal O’Connor’s words, political correctness is not worth "one comma in the Apostles' Creed.”  At issue was the desire voiced by  New York’s Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to join the 1993 St. Patrick’s Day parade.  (And, we should note that the Apostle’s Creed addresses neither homosexual acts nor parades.) 

The question had gone into the air after new-President Bill Clinton had placed gays in the military on the national agenda.  Before even a week of 1993 had gone by, Cardinal O’Connor was in the controversy and, already, he had compared letting gay and lesbian marchers in the St. Patrick’s Day parade to admitting “the PLO in the next Jewish parade.”  He went on further to say that the parade is a “religious celebration of a Catholic saint,” and to wonder what power the New York mayor should have to alter such a celebration.  And, that’s reasonable—if gay and lesbian Catholics can't be religious believers, or cannot have a devotion to St. Patrick, or if merely being gay or lesbian makes them sinners.  At least, those seemed to be logical implications of what the Cardinal was saying.

On February 16, 1993, the Times reported that the Cardinal pushed all his chips into the middle of the table—if gay marchers were admitted to the parade, he and organizations of the Archdiocese would boycott.  The Cardinal couldn’t order gay groups out of the parade, but he could control whether he or his Archdiocese would be there for it.

All of this is why, today, after announcing that the Archdiocese of New York would not oppose admitting gay groups and that he would honor his commitment to be Grand Marshal, Timothy Cardinal Dolan is mostly, technically correct that, "Neither my predecessors as archbishop of New York nor I have ever determined who would or would not march in this parade.” 

But that legalistic evasion is attempting to conceal something important from us.  The ground has shifted seismically.

If Cardinal Dolan is not breaking from his predecessors, he is doing something that looks a lot like it.  Gone are the thundering comparisons to the PLO, the claims that letting gays and lesbians march in a parade (that is soaked with beer) diminishes the event’s Catholicity, and gone also are the threats to “determin[e] who…would not march in this parade.”

In 1993, having gay people in the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a religious liberty issue.  Catholics asserted a right “to declare their beliefs publicly without governmental interference.”

In 2015, Cardinal Dolan--champion of the Church's religious freedom--will lead a St. Patrick’s Day parade with openly gay and lesbian marchers behind him.

Call it the Francis Effect.  Call it the Holy Spirit.  Call it whatever you want.

But, despite all of Cardinal Dolan’s there’s-nothing-to-see-here-move-along’s, the Church has changed.  It has changed its mind, and it has changed its public witness.  It takes little effort to see how, or how much.

And, Deo volente, it will keep changing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Claude Rains, Call your Agent


Cardinal Dolan is shocked, shocked that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has mistaken the Roman Catholic Church for a political pressure group.

Oh, Cardinal Dolan hasn't said that they've mistaken the Church for a pressure group.  For him, the FFRF ad is Exhibit Z in a long history of American anti-Catholic bigotry.  But look closely.

(Disclaimer: I've been critical of the FFRF, myself, for another ad they placed in the Times.  I lend them no support with these observations.)

Read and re-read Cardinal Dolan's column.  Now read it again.  What is the anti-Catholic claim that the FFRF has made?  What text has he singled out as an attack on the Church?

You haven't found it?  Me, neither.

The closest he gets is characterizing the ad as "a whole-page sneer at 'dogma'" (which hardly is an attack exclusively on Catholics) and where he observes that the FFRF characterizes the Court's majority as "all male Roman Catholic," which is factually true.  He then attacks the Know-Nothings and the KKK, with whom he paints the FFRF guilty by association.

Now look further.  Here is the FFRF ad.  Read it closely.

In fact (contrary to the Cardinal's claims), I do find something like an argument here: "RFRA radically redefines 'religious freedom,' according believers extreme religious liberty, exempting them from laws they claim create substantial burdens on their free exercise of religion."  The ad even encourages us to read FFRF's amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case--certainly, there we find an argument.

The ad has a strong point-of-view.  We should expect that from an organization devoted to promoting atheism.  But is this an ad hominem attack?  Only, it seems to me, if you cannot intellectually disentangle being Catholic from partisan, political activism.

And that, I suspect, is the Cardinal's problem.  I've been documenting this problem for over two years.  Find my treatments of it here, here, here, here, and here.

The Church must engage the world.  That means that the Church must engage in social and political activism.  But that activism is dangerous and the danger should be recognized.  It is easy to become ensnared in the worldliness of the rough-and-tumble, to lose sight of the actual objectives and stop acting like the Kingdom of God on its earthly pilgrimage.  More than anything else, Cardinal Dolan gives testimony here to how that is what has happened.

Notice that neither Cardinal Dolan nor the FFRF has mentioned that one of the dissenting justices in the Hobby Lobby case--Justice Sotomayor--is Catholic.  They haven't mentioned it because it doesn't fit how they see that label, "Catholic."  The FFRF is using "Catholic" as a synonym for "conservative Republican," and Cardinal Dolan feels stung by an expression of political disagreement that he only can take as an attack on the Church.

What Cardinal Dolan and the FFRF have in common is an inability to disentangle the Church from its political activism.  But the greater culpability belongs to the Cardinal.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched its political campaign while Cardinal Dolan was its president.  FFRF simply has been getting the message that the USCCB has been transmitting.  This is what happens when bishops make themselves indistinguishable from lobbyists.

Here is Cardinal Dolan's summary assessment of the FFRF ad:
as the professors of logic, rhetoric, and speech taught us in college, arguments attacking a person—instead of an idea, viewpoint, or opinion—are the weakest and most vicious of arguments…although, sadly, rather effective in firing up a mob.
And that’s the tactic at work here. An ad soberly criticizing the decision would have been part of the discourse that makes us such a durable democracy…and there have been such ads. But the FFRF, perhaps knowing that their legal arguments fall flat, instead attacks the people on the court, and implies that their Catholic faith makes it impossible for them to protect the cherished Constitution they have sworn on a Bible to uphold.
Judge for yourself.  But it seems to this writer that the Cardinal doth protest too much.  Why else omit any reference to Justice Sotomayor, surely the best evidence available to muster against the FFRF's charges?  Why dwell for so long on the history of anti-Catholic bigotry if not to 'fire up a mob'??

This back-and-forth between the bishops on the Right and the secularists on the Left now is as illuminating as the dueling press conferences at the White House and the Capitol that we get during a government shutdown.  But the impoverishment of that debate has been the bishops' recent work.  Only they can elevate it.

Cardinal Dolan is shocked, shocked that the Church looks like a pressure group to the outside world.  But I'm not.  No on else should be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Speed and Post



My goodness.

This appeared so quickly after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision that it's almost as though Archbishop Kurtz had written it before the decision was made.

It's quickness recalls the prefabricated political campaign that rolled out minutes after the Department of Health and Human Services announced its rules for implementing the Affordable Care Act.

We can assume a few things with some safety:

  1. Archbishop Kurtz didn't write this.  Not personally, anyway.
  2. A staff of loyal people at the USCCB prepared this draft, and another in case the Court surprised everybody and ruled differently.
  3. The American bishops have spent the last few years building as slick a political operation as can be found outside K Street.
Before we ask whether Archbishop Kurtz's example of the Presbyterian church and its service to the poor compares even at all to the facts of the Hobby Lobby case and the implicated rights of thousands of Hobby Lobby employees, more at other closely-held firms, we should stop to ask whether this is what Catholics should want from their shepherds.

Should a national conference of Catholic bishops be a lobbying firm?

That question raises a number of issues about evangelization, mission, culture, and the identity of religious groups that I won't try to address in this small space.  But let us say at least that Catholics are entitled to be able to distinguish their spiritual leaders from crass political activists.

That may sound harsh.  But there is one other important fact.  This op-ed did not appear in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  Rather, Archbishop Kurtz's column appeared in today's edition of Mr. Murdoch's New York Post.  It is interspersed with eye-popping photographs of actress Megan Fox and Australian pop singer Iggy Azelea, as well as an encouragement on its back page for the U.S. soccer team to "GO KICK SOME ASS!"

As one who has had some success and more failure placing op-ed columns in newspapers, I know all too well that you get the column published in the paper that will agree to publish it.  Beggars can't be choosers.  Still, the final decision about where to send the column and whether to let a particular op-ed be published rests with the author.

I will let Archbishop Kurtz's venue speak for itself.  I will not dwell on the fact that it did not find a place in a more reputable, less salacious, less partisan newspaper.  But that fact tells us all we need to know about the USCCB's devotion to pressing its message, its commitment to lobbying.

And, it tells us even more about where Church leaders are coming from.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Pandora's Box from Hobby Lobby

There is little to add to the commentary already available today about Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, save for this thought.

The Court's ruling--"very specific" as Justice Alito's opinion asserts that it is--is dangerous for the way that it accepts this premise from the respondent's brief to the Court:
...impact on third parties should be irrelevant to the RFRA analysis. Any time a statute takes the form of a mandate that party A must do something for party B, granting a RFRA exemption to party A will make party B worse off. But there is no reason whatsoever to treat exemptions from such Peter-to-Paul mandates as uniquely disfavored under RFRA.
It can be a bit difficult to follow.  But the gist of the argument is nothing more complicated than this: an employer's claim of religious liberty is what matters, and the autonomy of their employees, whatever liberties those workers might like to assert over their own access to healthcare, doesn't matter.

I don't mean to make that sound unusual.  Before the era of the Warren Court and modern constitutional jurisprudence, decisions like the one in Lochner v. New York have done much to shackle workers to the preferences of the person who happened to hire them.  There is nothing particularly novel about the Supreme Court or American constitutional law treating employees as little better than indentured servants.

The danger that lurks in the acceptance of that premise does not threaten the U.S. political system, its economic system, or the structure of our juridical system.  The danger really lurks for the religious groups who cloak themselves in this strange, anti-Christian argument.

"Am I my brother's keeper?"  Not if he works for Hobby Lobby.  Every man for himself, it seems, is the Gospel that Hobby Lobby believes in--a world where I can exercise my rights as though you don't exist.

I've been writing about the strange way that the atomism of modern political ideas has infected the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups fighting the HHS mandate.  The core difference between a religious perspective on politics and the one that emerged from the Enlightenment is a valuing of the community over the individual, versus the Enlightenment's valuing of the individual over the community.

Now that argument has prevailed in the United States Supreme Court.  It will not discourage religious leaders from pursuing this course.  The damage that can do to the position of religious faith in American life, its ability to offer something distinct from and better than what the secular culture can offer, is greater than any of these people cheering the Court today yet has thought about.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A New Breeze More Like a Harsh Wind

Celebrating his new presidency and the beginning of a new era in 1989, President George H.W. Bush observed that, "A new breeze is blowing," and, "the day of the dictator is over."

He was half right.  Maybe.

But as ISIS engulfs more and more of Iraq--a country itself inextricably linked to the Bush name after two Iraq wars--that new era heralded by The First President Bush appears more marked by missed opportunities than rebirth.

ISIS refers to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as we find it today in the headlines.  Historically, Isis was the mother of Horus, the Egyptian god of war, and also was associated with the wind.  She often was depicted as wailing.  And, so Isis is a fitting symbol for this climactically bellicose moment that follows so many calamitous misjudgments we quite properly should bemoan, a moment when the new breeze coarsely whips at us like a harsh wind.

The Cold War's bilaterally stable world was a historical aberration.  It followed the breakup of colonial empires in the non-Western world at the ends of World War I and World War II.  Those colonial empires tried to imprint Western values and ideas--such as the Westphalian nation-state--on parts of the world that lacked the historical context or cultural undergirding to sustain Western values and ideas without the imposition of force.  Once those empires disintegrated, the colonial framework was held in place by the Cold War's bilateral struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  When that struggle ended, the framework began to fray.  We saw it in Yugoslavia first.  But the post-Cold War world has been a world marked by the increasing re-assertion of ethnic and religious identity over and above Westphalian national identities.  It is the defining characteristic of the international scene since 1989.

The Westphalian state, we should say here, is itself an unnatural creation.  It's chief characteristics are fixed national borders and full internal sovereignty embodied in a legal framework unto itself.  People have not lived that way throughout most of history.  Historically, a nation is a people united more by culture, language, religion, and ethnicity.  They are who they are wherever they are, and they live according to their own norms and mores wherever they can live  The legal fact of a nation in the sense we mean it typically dates no farther back, really, than 1648, and it has been far from the way that men and women universally have lived since.

The post-Cold War world demanded serious attentiveness to building-up and preserving the institution of the nation-state once its colonial and Cold War supports evaporated.  But Western powers, the most typically characteristic nation-states on the planet, in fact went about quietly undermining the nation-state at an intuitively bedrock level.  The meanings of borders were eroded by free-trade agreements that made national boundaries economically porous, and the growth of multinational corporations with their jurisdiction-shopping, tax-evading ability to evade the sovereignty of nation-states that bloomed prosperously in the 1990s.

Yet, the signal moment in the decline and fall of the Westphalian nation-state came on the morning of September 11, 2001.  The most powerful nation-state on Earth was successfully and devastatingly attacked by a non-state.  That non-state arrested and re-directed the whole national public policy and culture of the United States.  At the deepest level of the conflict, in this sense the non-state actor won.  al-Qaeda succeeded to demonstrate that they understood the reality of the post-Cold War era better than the leaders and citizens of nation-states.  The subsequent years only have demonstrated this more and more persuasively.

Into what new direction did the U.S. lead the world after the 9/11 attacks?  The immediate aftermath of the attacks was a remarkable moment of international solidarity among otherwise quarrelsome nation-states.  France's Le Monde declared "We Are All Americans," and even the Chinese and Iranian governments offered outpourings of shock and outrage.  Did President Bush seize on international sentiment to define the conflict as what it was?  As an existential confrontation between nation-states and non-state actors?  Between the forces of rational civilization and those who want to undo it?  A fight in which every nation-state has a common stake, regardless of other differences?

Nope.  Good and evil.  Black and white.  Those who aren't for us are against us.  And, God help us, we are in a "crusade."  The Bush Administration's response to the 9/11 attacks actually fed the centrifugal forces of culture, language, religion, and ethnicity that have been pulling apart the international order, created new grievances against the West as a colonial other, and sharpened tribal and religious differences in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and even in Europe.  We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, arguably the two most fictional nation-states on Earth, and destabilized the whole region.  Our involvements in those places heightened Arab and Islamic identity the point where an 'Arab Spring' swept over the region and beyond to topple governments.  And, now we find ourselves in a moment when the energy of these developments finally augurs a plainly unapologetic movement to supersede altogether the idea of national boundaries, that core definition of the Westphalian state.  What would define Iraq and Syria?  To be Islamic, not national.  Sic transit the Westphalian order.

What has happened has been the result of profound hubris and intellectual failure since 1989.  Nation-states generally, the United States particularly, have arrogantly failed to notice that our intellectual constructions are not part of the natural order, do not grow from the soil like dandelions and lilies of the field.  They can succeed, have succeeded, and are worth preserving.  But they are more like the delicate orchid, they require cultivation and care.  We have lived so long in the unnaturally accommodating environment of the hothouse, in the Cold War's bilateral stability, that we began to believe the whole world simply would keep growing orchids for us.  We have been wrong.

The nation-state is not dead.  The nation-state, as a symbol of political order, is the best idea most conducive to civilization in the world.  But it is on the ropes, and it needs help.  Like anything else, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that we have one.  We must recognize the real shape of the conflict around the globe in all its shapes and forms.  It will require international cooperation on a shared basis of Westphalian nationhood really to address it.

Else, that harsh wind will gather into a whirlwind for us all to reap.