Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Abortion and the Catholic Culture

Jody Bottum has written a medium and longer essay reflecting on the meaning of the opposition of conservative Catholics to the President's speech at Notre Dame. His conclusion: the leaders of the great (and increasingly liberal) Catholic universities have become distant from, and ignorant of, Catholic culture. And because of this distance from the heart of Catholic culture, they have become tone-deaf and even willfully resistant to the idea that opposition to abortion is the issue that will brook no compromise.

To quote Jody precisely,

The role of culture — American Catholic culture, in particular — is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame, and John DeGioia at Georgetown, and many other presidents of Catholic colleges seem not to understand. Indeed, their lack of Catholic culture is what makes them appear so un-Catholic to the people they antagonize, and it is what so befuddles these college presidents when the charge is made. They know they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a distant world, attenuated and alone. Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country.


I admire and agree with much of what Jody writes, but I fear I have to disagree with him over this analysis. In my view, the singular focus upon abortion as THE issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence. It seems to me that - along with the opposition to gay marriage - this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum. The ferocity over this issue - and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture - suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically - and not culturally - with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).

Most Catholics have long ago ceased to live in a Catholic culture, per se. I would go so far as to surmise that many of the most vociferous opponents of abortion - ones lined up in this particular battle - do not by and large live in particularly Catholic cultures, so much as occasionally gather with like-minded Catholics at various locations (Church, a conference, a retreat) and otherwise live suffused in a decidedly non-Catholic culture. Most of us - Catholic or non-Catholic - live by default in THIS culture, whatever we would call it - liberal, modern, American, global, polyglot, anti-culture. THIS culture is decisively a "culture of choice." Even those who would seek to inhabit a Catholic culture do so as a matter of individual choice - a lifestyle option. But this is not a Catholic culture as we might historically and traditionally understand such a culture - where that culture (as with any culture) shapes and forms your worldview, largely unbeknownst to you and without prior consent or choice on your part.

One of the most ardent and conservative Catholics that I know lives in an ocean-side house in Malibu, California. His opposition to abortion is fierce; however, in no way could it be suggested that he lives in a Catholic culture. He is a Catholic living in a culture of materialism, individualism, hyper-mobility and hedonism. While perhaps more extreme than the case for most of us, nevertheless his situation is closer to most American Catholics today than not. American Catholics have largely assimilated into mainstream American society, and come to seek success and approval from that culture on its terms.

If Jody were right, parents from this Catholic culture would refuse to allow their children to attend those schools he mentions. Now, it's true that many do just that, electing instead to send their children to Ave Maria or Thomas Aquinas rather than Georgetown or Notre Dame. However, many many good and faithful Catholic parents whom I have met over the years absolutely and without question want their children to attend a top tier institution, whether it be Georgetown or Princeton or Harvard or Notre Dame. The likelihood of their childrens' success, it is believed, hinges on their attendance at one of these sorts of institutions.

So, it could be asked - do the likes of Fr. Jenkins or President DeGioia operate in a vacuum, guiding institutions that aim to pull the wool over the eyes of parents and undermine the cultural commitments of their incoming Catholic students? Of course not: these administrators have been selected because they are expected to evince keen sensitivity to market forces, particularly what constitutes a "good product" for the "customer base" of prospective students and their tuition-paying parents.

Jody himself begins his essay by acknowledging that some 55% of Catholic voters cast their ballots for President Obama last election. His positions on life issues were fairly well-known by election day, but were less influential among that part of the electorate than, presumably, discontent with Bush, the Republicans, and the economy. If the Catholic culture were indeed defined by opposition to abortion, then one would have expected 100% opposition to Obama on this score - or at least 55%. It turns out that this issue determined less than half the vote of Catholics, and perhaps a lot fewer than even 45%.

In sum, I see little evidence of this Catholic culture to which Jody would point us. I wish there were such a vibrant and living culture living alongside the dominant liberal culture. However, Catholics have been substantially assimilated to the reigning "culture of choice" that defines modern liberal and capitalist America, and it's hard to imagine that this condition will be changed or reversed any time soon.

A culture - Catholic or otherwise - that regarded abortion as well-nigh unthinkable would be profoundly different than the one we inhabit. First, such a culture would foster a strong sense of place. This is one of the central features of Catholicism, in strong distinction to Protestantism: we are members of parishes, which are located where one lives, and not according to the choice of minister or music or fellow churchgoers. One's worship - and much of one's life - is lived with a considerable degree of acceptance of what the Lord gives (a necessary disposition for having children and staying married, as well). There is a predisposition for acceptance, not transformation.

Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes - inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of "the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born." A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future - after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O'Connor - and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us - they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody's fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us - just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook "friends" or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.

A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be - as Jody suggests - opposition to abortion - which is, after all, negative - but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.

Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter "Now, this..."), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten - an acceptable price of progress - and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.

Unfortunately - and perhaps as an "irony of history" - conservative Catholics have and continue to participate in the dismantling of its own culture. Rightfully joining in the opposition to the Communism, Catholics at first reconciled themselves to (e.g., Buckley), and eventually became active proponents and cheerleaders of free market capitalism (e.g., Novak). In doing this, they encouraged the expansion of a materialist, hedonist, and culture-destroying economic system in order to combat a materialist, impoverished, and culture-destroying enemy. The enemy was worse, because its ideology posited the prospect of changing human nature in accordance with the expected progressive course of history, but the ferocity demanded in the opposition to Communism fostered acquiescence to, and eventually wholehearted support of, an economic system that has proven destructive to what was a strong Catholic culture. The Catholic economic thought of Pope Leo XIII, Chesterbelloc, Schumacher and Roepke has been displaced among many Catholics by an embrace of Hayek and Friedman, along with their materialist and individualist anthropology. The whole cloth of Catholic thought - encompassing politics, economics, religion and culture - has been unraveled, thread by thread. Lacking the solidity of that cloth across the spheres, its porousness led to its eventual disintegration. The current battle over Obama's appearance at Notre Dame takes place amid this backdrop: one can still focus on abortion as the single remaining issue that defines us, but to arrive at this point, much else that would have supported a culture of life has long been discarded.

So, I wish I could agree with Jody, because then I would think this issue was less bleak than it appears to me. Until there is an alternative culture to the culture that is regnant in our age - and appears to have largely routed every resistant culture into which it comes into contact - I fear we throw our passions into a skirmish while avoiding battle with our own self-deception.

35 comments:

N. Trandem said...

Excellent analysis, though I think his name is "Joseph" rather than "Jody". I agree that the issue is cultural. Americanism took over the Church in this country back in World War I, when the largest group of Catholics trying to live and build a Catholic culture (mostly the Germans and Imperials) were crushed - socially, politically, and especially culturally. From Americanism, it was a short step to the Modernism that took over the entire culture of the U.S. after World War II. We have indeed lost - there remains only a remnant in a sea of heresy and immorality. The world groaned to find itself Modernist...

paul said...

Absolutely brilliant, as always. I would also argue that conservative Catholic campuses (I'm thinking particularly of my own school, the Catholic University of America) really do create a sort of holistic 'culture,' though obviously not in the sense of something that forms a person from birth, etc.

Bill Bruehl said...

Your analysis is compelling. Catholics have melted away into the general secular culture which is not only American but European as well. The question is "why?"

I will offer two reasons based on my own experience. When I left 12 years of Catholic school in Chester PA in 1949, I left the church. I wasn't capable at first of understanding why I left. It took me years to figure that out. Now at age 77 I understand why the church ceased to command my respect and loyalty.

The first reason is to be found in the hierarchy, its demand for obedience. Secondly, the church clings to absurd literalism in its dogma and imagery. It is patently absurd for educated human beings -or beings being educated as I was - to believe LITERALLY in dogmas like the Assumption or the Resurrection or Transubstantiation. These are silly supernatural superstitions that contain a numinous power of enormous importance ONLY when understood as metaphors, but no, the hierarchy cannot believe we simple minded foolish humans can deal with anything but silly superstition.

Unchurched spirituality, on the other hand, the search for a meaningful numinous experience is on the rise. It takes many forms, some as silly as literalism, but others like the thinking of Bishop Spong or Matthew Fox profoundly challenge the ever more conservative orthodoxy now ruling the Roman Church. A new reformation is needed that will accept the revelations of science in the 21st century.

Bill Bruehl said...

Your analysis is compelling. Catholics have melted away into the general secular culture which is not only American but European as well. The question is "why?"

I will offer two reasons based on my own experience. When I left 12 years of Catholic school in Chester PA in 1949, I left the church. I wasn't capable at first of understanding why I left. It took me years to figure that out. Now at age 77 I understand why the church ceased to command my respect and loyalty.

The first reason is to be found in the hierarchy, its demand for obedience. Secondly, the church clings to absurd literalism in its dogma and imagery. It is patently absurd for educated human beings -or beings being educated as I was - to believe LITERALLY in dogmas like the Assumption or the Resurrection or Transubstantiation. These are silly supernatural superstitions that contain a numinous power of enormous importance ONLY when understood as metaphors, but no, the hierarchy cannot believe we simple minded foolish humans can deal with anything but silly superstition.

Unchurched spirituality, on the other hand, the search for a meaningful numinous experience is on the rise. It takes many forms, some as silly as literalism, but others like the thinking of Bishop Spong or Matthew Fox profoundly challenge the ever more conservative orthodoxy now ruling the Roman Church. A new reformation is needed that will accept the revelations of science in the 21st century.

N. Trandem said...

Wow, I think Bill just made my point for me.

Jerry Beckett said...

Gee, I don't know, Mr. Bruehl, I find it patently absurd for educated human beings - or beings who are as impressed with their own level of education to the extent that you are - to find either the sloppy thinking and disingenuous exegesis of Bishop Spong, or the loopy 'Creation Spirituality' of Matthew Fox, to be a "profound challenge" to the Roman Catholic Church. Also, I find it patently absurd that such a person could actually believe that 'science' will somehow disprove the historicity of supernatural events: perhaps it is not the Church that needs a better understanding of what modern science has to say.

tony said...

To Bill:
Spong and Fox as credible threats to the truth of the Catholic faith?? Give me a break. These fellows are vain charlatans, not worthy or your or anyone else's respect. Be mindful of St. Paul's warning that it is those that are "wise" in the eyes of the world that consider the Church to be absurd.
Regards from Canada.
Tony

Bill Bruehl said...

Jerry, it may seem to some that the only way to defend their faith in the church is to launch ad hominem attacks. I don't think so. I think the Church can and will change. The Magisteria is not unchanging (vide Galileo). So the more Catholics think for themselves and demand that the hierarchy listen, the stronger will be both their faith and their church.
The time is past to have the hierarchy think for you. You are not a lamb, a sheep. Can you see that?

yegreat2 said...

I wonder if you read the most recent cover story in the City Paper titled Screw You: Want to get laid on the Catholic University campus? Steer clear of the God squadders.

I'm protestant, and no stranger to hypocrisy (my own included), but this story still blew my mind.

I doubt there's any benefit to reading such a story, but I figured I'd mention it.

As to silly superstitions, I've found a pretty strong correlation between believing them and being right about reality. I don't know Catholic theology in depth, but I imagine that transubstantiation can be objectively real without being literal in the sense that you are defining literal.

yegreat2 said...

I wonder if you read the most recent cover story in the City Paper titled Screw You: Want to get laid on the Catholic University campus? Steer clear of the God squadders.

I'm protestant, and no stranger to hypocrisy (my own included), but this story still blew my mind.

I doubt there's any benefit to reading such a story, but I figured I'd mention it.

As to silly superstitions, I've found a pretty strong correlation between believing them and being right about reality. I don't know Catholic theology in depth, but I imagine that transubstantiation can be objectively real without being literal in the sense that you are defining literal.

Anonymous said...

I left Catholicism pre-Vatican II and returned post. Wow! And the parish I happened to join was very involved in the Charismatic Renewal. Incredulous! But is has all worked itself out. I think that we can speculate, commiserate, pontificate on what has and is and will happen to the Church in the United States and we may, if God wants us to, get fairly close to reality. I personally think that Catholics in America were just like all other human beings. They allowed themselves to be misled by false idols and forgot about God. One can spend lots of time and energy using verbosity to describe in detail what happened, but picking false idols is part of the possible choices we make as humans. In the year 2009, we are not fundamentally different than in the year 1. We have advanced in many ways, such as knowledge of what we have termed science and the arts, but our advancement as far as it relates to honoring God, and His Son, and accepting the gifts of the Spirit, we have not changed. We have choices to make, and which we choose determines how our world is. As a scientist, it has amazed but not surprised me to see how politicians and supposed believers have rationalized abortion as not being an intrinsic evil. And have not realized that one who turns away from fundamental truths can continue to err.

beth said...

I always thought that the defining stance of the Catholic culture was to RESIST the ways of the world -

But defining that resistance as opposition to abortion, as Jody Bottum suggests, strikes me as extremely narrow. And his preach-y tone: "this is the way it is, you either get it or you don't" leaves me not getting it.

The Catholic's profound belief in the sacredness of human life is the bedrock from which Catholic culture is born. The sacredness of the unborn is only one part of that broad belief, which includes the condemned and enemies.

beth said...

Another problem I have with the Bottum claim that opposition to abortion is the signpost between Catholic culture and American public life is the fact that in America today, Catholics abort at the same rate as any other denomination.

If opposition to abortion is the signpost, then a first step might be to live that belief before attempting to impose it upon others with different beliefs.

Bottum cites that Catholic culture begin deteriorating when the "no meat of Friday" rule was lifted. IF we can go no deeper than arbitrary "rules" to define our Catholic culture, then it's not such a strong culture to begin with.

I think that Bottum should look deeper into what Catholicism means. Those of us who are born and raised in the faith may not be lock step in line with a conservative interpretation, but we do carry in our souls a sense of a graced world, a personal presence of God with us (Eucharist), and a God-given conscience that we are bound to follow.

Fr. Cipolla said...

This is a very fine article. I was also uneasy with Bottum's analysis. But what amazes me is that no one sees that the quasi-destruction of the liturgy lies at the very heart of the collapse of Catholic culture after 1970. The traditional Latin Mass, now called the extraordinary form, was at the very heart of Catholic culture, both subjectively and objectively. So much nonsense has been written for so many years now that would deny this fact of history. What would you expect when the chief act of worship for Catholics becomes a high school assembly with the priest as the principal? There is no hope for the restoration of Catholic culture including its moral content until the liturgy is fixed.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. As awful as it sounds, Catholics in this country have become a fully integrated part of what remains in many ways, irrespective of religious belief, a Protestant culture. The consequences have been obvious long enough--how else to explain this vocal minority of elites focusing so narrowly on abortion and gay rights while effectively ignoring the very un-Catholic, very extreme individualism and hypercapitalism our society now seems unquestioningly to adore? I wonder if Catholic culture ever could survive alongside great wealth, here or elsewhere.

Jon said...

Great post! My greatest concern with the Catholic church, in which I was raised, is that so many vociferous Catholics (and even most Catholic leaders) are willing to sacrifice every pillar of the church in order to fight abortion. Especially since I was brought up to believe that social justice (in ALL its forms), charity, peace, and understanding are what the church is all about.

Jerry Beckett said...

Mr. Bruehl:

Thank you for your humorous reply. I appreciate the irony you displayed when you

1) wrote of my ilk that "the only way to defend their faith in the church is to launch ad hominem attacks"

2) then, a mere 6 sentences later, call me a "sheep".

I also see you chose to continue with your "more intellectual than thou" theme in the thrust of your reply: that I let the hierarchy do my thinking for me, while you think for yourself. What evidence do you have for this charge? Oh, right, because I fail to reject the historicity of the Resurrection and Assumption (among other dogma) and be dazzled by the comically specious ramblings of the likes of Spong and Fox, as you have. Refraining to inquire whether my belief could possibly be due to, say, my own 20+ years of reading, questioning, and reflection, you settle right into your comfortable and rather self-flattering conclusion: since I don't think like you, I therefore do not think for myself.

This is what you consider an intellectually sound line of argument?

Good grief.

Jerry Beckett said...

Correction to previous comment:

2) then, a mere 6 sentences later, call me a "sheep".should read

2) then, a mere 6 sentences later, insinuate that I, in my belief, am a "sheep".My kingdom for an proofreader.

Anonymous said...

I've long thought that there was something wrong with the conservative Catholic position that if only Roe vs. Wade were repealed, our troubles would be over. It is obvious that the common acceptance of abortion arises out of a certain intellectual environment; it's one of the results, not the cause, of our current malaise.

You're on the mark when you say, "Culture is affirmation, not simply denial." It's what we're for that ought to determine what we're against. If we define ourselves by a negative, we've pretty much lost our raison d'etre. I'm reminded of the priest at my mother's church (SSPX), whose sermons always seem to be a long list of "what we're against." The Orthodox priest and teacher Alexander Schmemann wrote that joy is the "tonality of of Christianity"; it cannot be so if what defines it is opposition.

Anonymous said...

I have an alternative hypothesis: nostalgia and romanticism have destroyed Catholic culture by creating absurd standards for what would be acceptable in the here and now.

But I enjoyed the cultural essentialism-cum-chauvinism. "We have all the best storytellers?" Uh-huh. Right.

Anonymous said...

I'm rather surprised no one has though to bring up the obvious: where was this outrage when President George W Bush spoke at Notre Dame?

He supported capitol punishment and launched the invasion of Iraq, both of which are directly opposed to the teachings of the Church.

Where was the outrage when Condi Rice spoke there? She's pro-death penalty, pro-war AND pro-choice.

Yet, there was silence. This makes me think that the opposition to Obama on this matter isn't principled but rather partisan.

William Burns said...

All the best storytellers? Homer? Dickens? Trollope? A little humility, please.

Conorpwilliams@gmail.com said...

The anonymous contributer is certainly correct to remind us that Pres. Bush was no more "Catholic" in his politics than Pres. Obama. Nonetheless, this is not really the point of this post.

The real question, and a difficult one, is how we might consciously become unconsciously embedded in an holistic culture again. Even if the analysis offered here of Catholic culture is correct, I remain doubtful that we can recapture our un-self-conscious, unchosen culture. As Hegel (and others) realized, once humans recognized individual choice as a new source for meaning, there could be no unaware return to the fixedness of embedded living. How do we knowingly choose to stop choosing without recognizing that we too are living out an un-Catholic culture by making this choice?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure any of this quite gets to the point: Roman Catholicism is authoritarianism, and Americans are essentially anti-authoritarian.

Bottum basically argues that Catholic culture requires obedience to doctrine. It's hard to argue that it does NOT, because of course there is a word for Catholics who reject authority: lapsed.

But if the phrase means anything, 'Catholic culture' is much richer than doctrine -- as the old line "recovering Cathoholic" implies. I'm as lapsed as it gets, but not so long ago I was in a Catholic school basement amid 150 or so people, all of 'em total strangers to me when somebody asked me who they should talk to for answers on something -- I glanced around, and picked out the nun in charge and the head of the Home School Association identified only by body language.

That's culture, too. (The funny thing is how easy it would be for any cradle Catholic: you all could have done it in any parish in America.) Hisotrically American Catholic immigrant groups, e.g., Italians, Poles, the Irish, are also famously competitive, even rebellious. It's a pretty inclusive culture.

So what's NOT "Catholic culture", the way Bottum imagines it? American culture.

Roman Catholicism is authoritarian. Historically, even theological disputes about the nature of Mary or transubstantiation fade into insignificance compared with the the Vatican's absolute character. That is why the Orthodox churches remain independent, what provoked Luther, why the Syllabus of Errors stated that the many things incompatible with the faith include religious liberty, the separation of Church and State, and free speech.

When that Pope's successor Leo XIII condemned the Americanist heresy 11 decades ago, he insisted that all this American freedom and democracy stuff could ONLY have value under the authority of the Catholic Church.

That's ultimately the long-lost battle that Bottum wants to keep fighting. The essence of the Americanist heresy that prompted Papal condemnation is that civics has a moral value in itself, that good people can disagree about an alarming range of stuff (including abortion!) without one side thereby becoming evil.

The Vatican has never found a way to reconcile its authority with that fact -- JC Murray and Vatican II notwithstanding. The core problem (presented not over abortion, but contraception) was identified in his dissent from Paul VI's birth control commission, when JPII said that if the Vatican conceded that the Protestants were right that contraception could be anything but sinful, that would have meant the failure of the Holy Spirit, since previous Popes had condemned the practice -- that, because the Vatican is authoritarian, IT could not fail unless God failed, as well.

That rationalization for authority is simply not compatible with American values. It's odd to say, but Uncle Sam is actually more humble than that, now, isn't he? We KNOW authority makes mistakes all the time.

So in that sense to an American, it's not so much that JP II dissented from the birth control commission, as it is that he felt comfortable overturning their considered judgment without ever going to a single meeting, that feels unsound. (He had a good excuse.)

That's the core of the little flap over President Obama speaking at the University of Notre Dame. Authoritarianism rejects even hearing the other side.

ND did not. Bottum wishes they had. QED.

- theAmericanist

N. Trandem said...

theAmericanist has it exactly right: Catholicism is indeed incompatible with the libertine ideals that are the bedrock of American culture. And whether the battle is "long-lost" or not, I for one will fight against the errors of Americanism to my last breath.

Anonymous said...

Gratified by the agreement, but that's not what I meant: if Joe Catholic lives next door to Larry the Libertine, it's perfectly legit for Joe to reject Larry's morals. That's not what the Americanist heresy was about, nor this Obama flap at ND.

Joe can refuse to smile when Larry waves hello, can tell his kids not to play with Larry's kids -- and you know what? Many of us who grew up Catholic know families like that. I dunno as that's the Catholic idea -- but, then: I'm lapsed.

What I meant was more along the lines of: Joe Catholic is making a mistake -- a particularly Catholic mistake -- if he was to go knocking on doors to get voters to elect representatives who would fine or imprison Larry the Libertine, force him to give his kids to foster parents or something.

There is a looooong history of this in the Catholic Church: just to stay (barely) within 100 years, Casti Connubi insisted that Catholics could not morally vote for politicians who would legalize divorce; JC Murray and others fought for years to keep contraception illegal; the pro-life arguments are well-known, and Benedict XVI now insists that it is just as sinful to vote for those who would accept legalizing same sex marriage as... well, where do you want to start?

The late Father Neuhaus summed up the Roman Catholic position pretty clearly, when he objected to those who treated sexuality as "bricolage", a great word in context. He specifically condemned the slippery slope he saw in SCOTUS decisions that first legalized contraception for married couples, then for anyone, then the Roe regime (which is tiresome even to explain) and then to 'abortion on demand'; IIRC he threw in stem cell research and same sex marriages as extra slippery spots on the road to hell.

(delicately, so as not to be misunderstood again) I think he was wrong in all that.

But by his own reasoning, he starts in the wrong place: why start with the organized Catholic objection to legalizing contraception -- and NOT to legalized divorce?

I think N Trandem is misreading the history of the Americanist heresy, but that's an historical dispute (over Cahenslyism, for folks who REALLY need to get out more): the significant thing about the heresy is -- it won, it's been essentially the Vatican position since John XXIII: nobody's trying to defend the Syllabus of Errors, are they?

The essence of the Americanist heresy is the simple truth that civics has a moral value IN ITSELF: you may believe that Larry the Libertine is going to hell, but that doesn't change the fact that it would be morally wrong for you to try to get a government to fine or imprison him.

Historically, the driving force in American history has been on the right side of that dynamic. I'm not so sure you could say the same about the Vatican -- JC Murray didn't.

But that's the moral principle that explains why it is MORAL, that divorce is legal. It's why it is right, that contraception is legal -- and so on, including same sex marriages, coming soon to a community near you.

Folks who want to refight battles long since lost (JC Murray's great line about how the Vatican shows up with the great guns of its moral authority, right after the battle has been won, only reversing which side the Church is on), miss the point: you don't like this, that, or the other thing?

It's Aquinas 101: the best way to fight evil, is to do good.

-theAmericanist

Conor said...

I think that N. Trandem just made my point for me.

The moment that a Catholic recognizes the individual self as the important locus of political judgment and decision making, Cultural Catholicism is lost. Thus, the statement, "I for one will fight," already presupposes Americanism/libertinism/modern liberalism. A true Catholic answer, as theAmericanist has noted, would never intimate that "I" could act alone ("for one"); instead, it would seek the re-establishment of orthodoxy everywhere/for everyone. I just don't know how we could "fight" to get that sort of consensus back without realizing that we were fighting for it (and choosing it freely).

I recognize the pull and appeal of a tightly knit community in which everyone agrees on fundamental issues. I don't, however, see how we can get back to this sort of community.

Anonymous said...

Conor, that seems an odd reading -- it's like Malraux said, to explain why Communism was full of academically-trained intellectuals rather than rough-palmed working stiffs: it was about the will to FEEL proletarian, rather than, yanno, reality.

The moment we believe in ourselves as individuals "cultural Catholicism" is lost? I cannot imagine what that could possibly mean, except a desire to be sheep. Psst -- the Biblical analogy of the faithful to a flock is not meant to be a compliment, much less an admonition.

Nor does the US Constitution begin with "We, the Sheeple".

Since at least Lincoln, Americans have generally recognized that the United States was invented with the Declaration that human rights are not granted by governments -- we are born with 'em, God gives 'em to us as individuals (since we're not born collectively, after all), so we create governments to protect our rights -- which is why governments can derive only their just powers from our consent.

You're confusing two distinct ideas, and you're wrong about both: First, it is simply not possible, as a matter of morals, for an individual to avoid responsibility for what they do. So the idea that I noted "A true Catholic answer... would never intimate that "I" could act alone ("for one")...." not only blurs me and Trandem (we don't agree, after all), it also gets something pretty basic wrong. If Joe Catholic decided that his neighbor Larry Libertine is an unfit father because of his morals -- say, for instance, cuz he's gay -- I would argue that it is a sin, not just a crime, should he kidnap the tykes to raise 'em in an (ahem) properly Catholic household.

YMMV. But I'm exaggerating (only a little) to make the point that an individual can NOT escape responsibility for what they do, by claiming either 'he started it!" (if Larry wasn't gay, Joe wouldn't have kidnapped his kids?), or that this individual act is actually about a Higher Power (God says Larry is a sinner, therefore Joe is right to steal his kids, regardless of the law, much less ordinary morality).

Beneath all the high tone, that's what we're talking about. That's what all the pro-life/pro-choice, or 'defense of marriage' stuff means, when it comes down to the ACTUAL exercise of Papal authority over faithful American Catholics. Joe Catholic can live as faithfully as he chooses -- we're talking about what is right and wrong about what he (and millions of other Catholics) can choose to do, as individuals seeking to act collectively, regarding his neighbor Larry the Libertine.

And I'm not exaggerating much -- one motive for same sex marriage/civil unions is to ensure child custody, hospital visits, health insurance and the like: stealing his kids isn't entirely an abstract example.

On the other hand, the idea that a Catholic must in some form "seek the re-establishment of orthodoxy everywhere/for everyone..." is both true, and something like an historical hallucination, at the same time.

A pretty good contemporary example is same sex marriage, because the Pope has said that voting for representatives who support, or even tolerate it is a violation of Catholic doctrine. Do you guys believe that, in order to be a good Catholic, you have to support stealing Larry the Libertine's kids? There's lots of historical precedent -- why not a return to the Edgardo Mortara standard?

The fact is, there never was an 'orthodox community' of Roman Catholics the way you seem to think: the Arians, the Eastern churches, Charlemagne building feudalism after he saved the Pope -- you might as well be talking about the morals of gangsters and warlords... in fact, you ARE.

So I (for one) reject the Notion that people (even faithful Catholics) are relieved of their individual responsibilty because of some imaginary orthodox community to which they belong by faith, which we know collectively can commit enormous crimes, cuz it has.

That's where the Americanist heresy lives, after all -- old-fashioned American civics has simply proven to be a better method for resolving the moral crises and recovering from the spectacular sins that flesh is heir to, both individually and collectively. Majority rule, minority rights is MORE moral than the Edgardo Mortara standard, don't you agree?

Or would you insist the law apply that distinctly Catholic standard to American gay families?

That doesn't make civics a religion -- but it DOES make it a way of life. The state has no legitimate power to force EITHER Larry the Libertine OR Joe Catholic to believe that any particular thing is right or wrong; but it does have the power to enact and enforce the law. That's what we're talking about.

The essence of the heresy is that civics has a moral value in itself, which the Vatican twice rejected (in the Syllabus of Errors and in Leo XIII's condemnation) because it directly contradicts the authoritarian character of the Vatican.

In the end, you're arguing for a Catholic form of the sha'ria. You're wrong.

-theAmericanist

Conor said...

theAmericanist,

Slow down, buddy. You've given me a lot of baggage that I didn't bring to this discussion. I'm trying to agree with you, despite your best efforts to isolate yourself. What's more, I'm a lapsed Catholic as well, coming from the same discomforts that you've been noting at length in your comments.

I prefer American civics to feudal Catholicism, just as you do, and I agree that the attempt to unify and homogenize communities ethically has a very dodgy history. Clear?

My only point in the last comment was to note that I don't see a practical route to returning to something like Cultural Catholicism of the sort that has been discussed in the comments here. I tried to acknowledge that the pull of community is a strong one, while still showing that N. Trandem's own comments reflected the essentially Americanist foundation of his worldview. Once more, I made a practical objection to the Catholic Culture argument and noted that its defenders were stumbling even in their sharpest rhetoric. That's all. The difference, of course, is that I read N. Trandem charitably and tried to prompt further discussion, whereas you decided to launch off unprovoked. Still clear?

But since you want an argument, I'll take the bait, just a bit. My point in my last comment was that we're stuck in modernity, for better or for worse. In both of my comments, I've noted that we can't stop realizing that we are individuals and that that is what matters. Without providing an argument, you are maintaining that individuals have always conceived of themselves as they do now, as self-determining individuals, and that legitimate government has always and already been the government which protects these individuals' rights to self-determine. To be fair, you do defend this with the throwaway: "old-fashioned American civics has simply proven to be a better method for resolving the moral crises and recovering from the spectacular sins that flesh is heir to," but you never explain how it's better. This, I think, would put you in a tough spot with many of the Catholics here who are arguing in good faith that Americanism fails to meet their needs as humans. Hang on, though, before you accuse me of gangsterism again, because I don't agree with their position, I like yours. I just would prefer that you provide an argument for yours, as they have here on a few occasions.

I DO disagree with you about the nature of modern individuals, however. There doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that humans have always thought of themselves in these terms (something which I think you admit when you argue that it's a conception that dates since Lincoln or so, but that you deny when you argue that individuals have always borne moral responsibility). For Aristotle, humans outside of communities were "beasts or gods," and Rousseau found the modern individual deeply fragmented. Put simply, that we consider ourselves individuals who have the right to decide how to raise our children or which churches to attend (or not attend!) is a historical achievement (like language, or tradition, etc).

We certainly don't appear to be at the end of history either, given the ongoing shifts in what we consider elemental to individuals. We now take sexual gratification pretty seriously as part of what individuals should self-determine (I should note that this seems fair, so as to avoid you attributing homophobia or prudishness to me). It's a new development in American civics, so to speak, but it shows that our notion of ourselves as individuals isn't fixed or pre-determined or eternal. We've been thinking our way into our current self-understanding, and my point (my only point, originally) is that we can't think ourselves backwards out of it very easily.

So, then, in the end, you're arguing for a modernity with individuals who matter and who get to make their own decisions. You're right! Your arguments in defending it, however, are pretty alienating.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough -- although it seems abstract to the point of reification, which is a fancy word for why you find plain talk alienating.

I like examples. Somebody says that back in the day, people didn't think of themselves as 'individuals', I think -- sez who? What's the evidence?

Response is, well -- the people who wrote things down, their evidence suggests that it was all about relationships: somebody was a child (of parents), a husband (of a wife), a serf (of a lord), a subject (of a king), etc.

I find myself wondering -- well, what about the people who didn't know how to write things down?

Don't get me wrong -- I agree with you "that we consider ourselves individuals who have the right to decide how to raise our children or which churches to attend (or not attend!) is a historical achievement ..."

But I don't start that insight with "individuals", but with "have the right". I expect that people ALWAYS thought of themselves as "individuals", the way any living thing strives for self-preservation... emphasis on SELF. In the US, we say "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

In Japan, they say "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Different strokes, same folks.

I don't see any way to regard the rights you recognize as an achievement to be progress that was supported, much less driven by the Roman Catholic Church, if only because it is an authoritarian institution.

So if you regard modern humans thinking of ourselves as individuals with rights as a POSITIVE achievement, it's not clear to me why you're arguing with me about .. what, exactly?

And as for the idea that it would be difficult to move back to a past sense of community that never existed... well, what IS your point, then?

The way to use reification effectively, is concrete examples. Otherwise, you're substituting language for thought (which isn't why we invented it).

-theAmericanist

Conor said...

My goodness! I surrender. Though I ultimately agree with your final destinations, I can't begin to understand your strategy in this discussion. You seem so determined to condescend first and engage second. I give up! You win!

Mark Miloscia said...

One of the best analysis I have read--good job. However, all is not bleak. I am reminded of that cute saying "It is always darkest before the dawn." Our faith teaches me that somehow we will rise up against the libertine culture and win over those (pagans?) among and around us. History backs up this pattern of crash and renewal. Unfortunately, it may happen 100 years from now.

James Vayne said...

With all due respect, I think everyone here has missed Bottum's point. I don't recall seeing him claim anywhere that the fact that abortion functions as such a shibboleth is a sign of cultural strength. In fact, in the context of other things he's written, like "The Swallows of Capistrano", I would say he agrees with Deenan--the importance of abortion is exaggerated largely because so much else is in shambles: with the disintegration or fudging of so many other moral lines and cultural markers, abortion is left as one of the few things left where the Church clearly says "No" where mainstream culture says "Yes".

Thus, for the subset of Catholics who would strongly identify with the Church over the mainstream culture, many of whom take a lot of heat from the culture for standing with the Church, apparent indifference from Church leaders comes across as a particular kind of betrayal. This is Bottum's point, and, given my own experience with the clergy in academia, whose condescending attitude toward "right-to-lifers" was clearly derived from mainstream media reports rather than from actual contact with the thousands of lay Catholics who make up the bulk of it, I think he's probably dead on about their distance from Catholic culture (such as it is) in America.

PureIntelligence said...

Another man's opinion. As Catholics, we are obliged to listen to the Magisterium of the Church, not each lay person's opinion. Abortion trumps all issues, because it is the murder of innocent life. Would you vote for someone that supported slavery if everything else they supported was perfectly with your views. Abortion support is like buying a Mercedes without a steering wheel. It trumps everything else, it is innocent life.
Catholic teaching has been consistent on this issue for centuries and if you want the truth check with the Catechism of the Church, not any fool's opinion. It is defined as an abominable crime in the official teachings of the Church, and the gravity and prevalence of it in modern America requires concentrated effort.
Are you going to be worried about polishing your car when your house is burning down? Things have to be dealth with according to priority

enzoferrari said...

And my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in shewing of the Spirit and power; That your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of G-d.


Alot of hot air. Ironic: that you're all bright, and eloquent and it amounts to nothing. You all want to be heard, no one is listening. Christ's Church in not an abstraction. You live as Christ, or you dont. Christ did not call philosophers, He called disiples.