Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The American Catholic and His Problem With A Secular Culture

George Weigel, the author of the monumental biography of Pope John Paul II, wondered whether Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House and Pope Benedict XVI attended the same meeting (Feb. 2009). She had requested a private audience with His Holiness since she considers herself a devout Catholic. Weigel’s wonderment is quite understandable when one exams the after-meeting statements of the speaker and Pope. These statements are in complete disconnection from one another.

The Pope’s statement with his usual clear and precise language spoke of the obligation of Catholic public servants to ensure the well being of the unborn and to follow Justice as is taught by the Church. On the other hand, the speaker said they talked about climate change, social work and the like, with absolutely no reference to the central point of the meeting. It was as if she never heard such a statement or that he never made one. Weigel and thousands more most certainly question the legitimacy of her “statement”.

The Pope’s statement was in writing and made public shortly after the meeting. The Speaker never put anything into print but only gushed to the media that it was a wonderful experience for her and her family. Was it just that she dozed off when the Pope spoke or was she distracted by the attire of her family or did she shut out his teaching for fear of any possible interior conflict for her? Or was it that Catholicism can be interpreted her way—or what she deems the American way? Is she saying that she can select what teachings she will follow and not others? Or is she lying? Or suffering a temporary mental problem? Or simply has a “nostalgia” for the Catholic memories of her childhood? Or was she enveloped in the misunderstood and distorted notion of “separation of Church and State”?

Actually, she and the other “Catholics” of her ilk may have serious difficulty reconciling their personal interpretations of Catholicism with the basic teachings of the Church. As one witty television commentator said (after the meeting) “The cafeteria[1] is now closed.” One basic position of the Catholic Church is that God’s Will is primary and must be followed as best one can. The clarification of God’s will (for Catholics) belongs to the Church through Tradition and Scripture and which is articulated by the Bishop of Rome (read: Pope) together with Bishops, particularly in a General Council. The Nancy Pelosi type Catholic does not accept the Church’s articulation of God’s Will, but prefers her own view as the basic criterion of what it means to be a Catholic in modern America.. They, themselves, will decide what is God’s will, which is usually compatible with their personal objectives, aims and personal gain. Hence, the criterion of truth and morals is whatever they wish. Such a position certainly shouts at least the traces of narcissism and arrogance. It is precisely what Pope Benedict XVI has been teaching for years i.e. that the enemy of God and holiness is moral relativism.

Apparently, until recently, the American Bishops have been slow to point out to Catholic politicians their obligation not only to not support immoral injunctions but also to work to change whatever evil may exist in their world. While this applies only if it is possible, it is this very loophole which has made it possible for many to avoid confrontation. The Pope’s statement to Pelosi, however, may ultimately be the death knell for those Catholics who may, for political reasons, support and articulate agreement with intrinsically evil measures. While the choice is theirs, choosing the evil puts them in effect outside the Church. This even if they attend Mass with prayer book in hand, show up on Ash Wednesday with ashes on their foreheads, always have their Marriages in “pretty” Catholic churches and have parties for a baptized infant. So, they consider themselves “practicing” Catholics. I wonder what genius instructor laid out such a life plan for them?

Once, in a jocose mood, I raised, at the common table, the question with fellow religious whether a famous Senator from New England was a Catholic. The responses ranged from indignation to patronizing instruction that, of course, the Senator was a Catholic who went to Mass, had his children baptized as Catholics and probably gave “something” when he was at the Holy Sacrifice. However, in back of my apparently light hearted statement, I was raising the fundamental question beyond the cultural and social appearances:

What is a practicing Catholic? Or is that view an abstraction that has no image in reality?

One clue to the correct answer lies in the recent situation in Kansas. President Obama (who has been called the “abortion” president by Cong. Smith of New Jersey) appointed the Governor of Kansas, K. Sibelius to the Cabinet post of Secretary of Health and Human Services. This is a pivotal appointment since it controls, to a great extent, hospital regulations and certain forms of Health care relative to abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research[2] and other such items. Gov. Sibelius has been notorious in her support for abortions[3] in her state and has publicly posed with the grisly physician who has the Moniker of “Dr. Abortion.” This “Doctor” will kill a baby at any stage of development. His gruesome practice is well known in the State and there was no move from the Catholic politicians to protest his practice. Certainly not from the Governor. Yet she considers herself a devout Catholic and had been receiving Holy Communion at her parish openly without any question as to her right to receive the Lord.

Ignoring possible secular disapproval, her archbishop, Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, courageously confronted her. First, he called her in for a private conference with him where he outlined the Catholic positions relevant to her situation. She disregarded his teaching and continued her previous behavior. The Bishop, then according to our protocol, publicly stated his opposition and told her not to present herself for Communion until she would accept Catholic teaching and morals. Reading between the lines in the diplomatic wording of the Bishop, it is, to me, patent that she has been “excommunicated” from the Catholic Church. Even perhaps she knowingly excommunicated herself. My observation in the light of this development is that Gov. Sibilius is not a practicing Catholic regardless of her personal view. Factually, to her credit, she stopped going to Communion. The Archbishop’s action was highly influenced not only by concern for the spiritual fate of Gov. Sibelius but also for the Faithful Catholics who are often confused by ambiguous clerical mouthings and who can be profoundly scandalized by such flagrant violation of God’s Law. In my view, to keep silent would be negligence.

This procedure is gaining more and more support among those Catholics we consider “practicing.” In a recent telecast on Fox News a senior business manager, Neil Caputo, interviewed Archbishop Chaput, the Archbishop of Denver. The Archbishop discussed what he would do should there be a “scandalizing” Catholic politician in his archdiocese. He replied in a way that seemed a copy of Archbishop Naumann with Sibelius. First, he said, he would invite the person for a private conversation in which he would outline why it was so serious a problem. If the person refused to comply and continued in his/her defiant behavior, Chaput said that he would then publicly suggest that the scandalizing person refrain from receiving Communion. The choice and consequences obviously belong to the Politician who might choose simply to ignore the Church’s teaching. What would not be acceptable would be that such a person would describe self as a devout and practicing Catholic.

Catholicism is a “totalistic” religion requiring its adherents to accept all that is in the C reed and the Councils of Catholic history[4] at least in matters of Faith and morals.. That is why the term “Cafeteria Catholic” is oxymoronic. Such a stand contradicts itself. As with the unbelievable attempt to give abortion via Catholics for a Free Choice, a good name, so is it with those in public life who opt not to believe certain doctrines and positions of their own Church. These people try to justify their behavior by appealing to “Separation of Church and State”, thinking that such an appeal immediately shuts off all criticism. Perhaps there ought to be a Seminar on this subject for members of Congress. Apparently, few officials understand the meaning of the term “Separation of Church and State.”

So far, cafeteria Catholics self identify as “good” Catholics. Of course, legitimate dissent and challenge are appropriate from the members of this Church about practices and attitudes around the world. Supportive challenges are rich and useful. But no one has the right to dissent from the basic teachings of our Faith.

For example, a priest from my own community left the priesthood, married and pursued a successful career in writing. So far, so good. For some reason he became an activist ‘left winger’[5]. While he passionately declared his love for the Church, he began a crusade of attacking the Church he allegedly loves. Because he loves the Church, he says, he will crusade for reforms within. These include accepting same-sex marriage, ordination of women, the abolition of all Bishops, turning over all authority to the laity, and other measures so antithetical to Catholic thinking. It has been suggested to him that the church he envisions as more perfect and superior already exists and it is called the Unitarian Church. He could hardly be called a practicing Catholic, in my mind.

It is interesting to note that strong unwavering Catholic positions have occasioned some commentators to make the unmentionable observation that Catholicism and the American political structure might be incompatible. There may be some truth in that wonderment even though we have been enormously successful in this country, prospering in an environment not always favorable to us. How does a ‘Monarchy’ like Catholicism meld with a secular Democracy and still maintain its personal identity? Some observers believe that balance has already been achieved in spite of Pelosi and her “Catholic” colleagues.

John Courtney Murray, of the Jesuits, made a monumental attempt to reconcile the two dynamics in his book “We Hold These Truths”. His work was admirable and pragmatic but it is being challenged in the modern era. Mario Cuomo as Governor of New York State apparently without guilt approved some legislation on pro-abortion approval. His rationale was that he represented all the people of the state. Democratically, by vote, he said, they had indicated their wishes about abortion. Hence he voted against Life, representing (he said) the people of New York. He came up with a Janus-like accommodation whereby, he said, while he was personally pro-life, finding abortion gruesome and wrong, he approved abortion as a state executive because he represented the people, not the Church.

Such a questionable stance was decimated by the now Judge John Noonan in California. When he was at Notre Dame, I invited him to appear on my TV show, Inquiry to discuss the whole abortion and contraception matter. He was clever, knowledgeable and articulate like Cuomo. He demonstrated how impossible it is to function in the manner described by Mario Cuomo who was not personally in favor of capital punishment while the overwhelming public vote was for such a measure. He overrode the people’s choice and refused to implement capital punishment. While most of us hold the same position, his contradictory thinking was difficult swallow. He had no problem attacking that which he considered wrong---i.e. capital punishment but was reluctant “ to impose” his religious view regarding abortion. This is disappointing to me since I recall his Diary in which he said that the most important thing to him is the salvation of his own soul. I wonder, then, what mental mechanism he uses to justify his apparent disobedience.

I wondered how his thinking, as an American, would fly in the matter of slavery. Would he say “I am personally opposed to slavery, but as Governor of some State, passionately pro-slavery with the overwhelming electorate finding slavery a needed good, I officially approve of slavery because I represent the people, not the Church. Whether or not slavery is immoral is academic. The people want it so I have to give them what they want, regardless of my personal values. This is America where the people decide not the Church"?

The conflict will arise. How will it be settled? Accommodation or enculturation? Will more and more Catholics excommunicate themselves as they pursue the Faith in “The American Way”? Will Catholics insist on Cafeteria Catholicism or on the Catholicism propounded by Benedict XVI, John Paul II, John 23, St. Pius X? It has been said that everyone has a right to his opinion and to change it should he so will. But no one has the right to change the facts. The facts about Catholicism are what Catholicism teaches and believes independently of any culture or trend or political affiliation. Our definition of practicing Catholics stands regardless of appeals to contemporary viewpoints. The number of committed and practicing Catholics may become small but this would symbolize the notion of the Remnant, so frequent in Catholic history. Practicing Catholics who are in public life, must try to persuade others to the good and moral and to oppose the wrong and the evil. There is a need to verbalize not impose. Silence is unacceptable.

It has been said in objection to this point that should Catholic politicians follow the norms outlined above, their numbers would diminish and the Church would be out of a Voice? But one asks what voice? One political commentator noted that although Congress has a high percentage (40?) of Catholics, their impact on implementing the Church’s social policies is unremarkable. He noted paradoxically that should all these Catholics be replaced by Mormons the Catholic programs would be far better served.
We are in a dangerous time. Let us pray for the intervention of the Lord, His Blessed Mother and the saints and angels of heaven. We need it.

[1] Those Catholics who believe that they have the right to ignore or deny some basic teachings of the Church want to pick and choose what suits them. Hence, the term “cafeteria” where one can chose a doughnut rather than an ├ęclair. This selective style puts the person in a shaky position as to whether or not he/she is a practicing Catholic.
[2] The Church is completely in accord with 4 of the 5 possible procedures with cell stem research and treatment. The medical potential is enormous. Using embryos for research is unacceptable because it kills the human in the process. Nothing has ever been proven about embryos having any more impact than the other 4 procedures.
[3] Official Catholicism considers abortion the primary, most profound moral problem of our time. The Church is deeply involved on programs for the poor, health care and universal education. Abortion trumps all. Without life, what is there?
[4] This does not mean that all Catholics must believe in Fatima or any thing like it. The Church insists on basics on faith and morals.
[5] That he never resolved what looks like an Oedipal conflict with his father, does suggest some dynamic for attacking any kind of parent figure. Mother Church, for example.