Nation, Race, Church

What is my primary identity? I am a white man or less crudely, a person of European descent. I am also a citizen of the U.S. And then, rounding out personal identities, I am a member of the communion known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

But if I check my wallet, the only ID card I find comes from the State of Michigan – a driver’s license (the photo on which identifies me as a white guy with receding hair). When I travel I have a passport issued by the United States (and a similarly dopey photo of a follicly challenged white man). So far, no ecclesiastical body has taken me up on my observation of the need for church passports. That way, we could when on the road, show that our papers are in order and that our membership is in good standing. We could also receive a stamp to verify to the home church authorities that we were present for church and if we partook of the Lord’s Supper.

So far, I am unaware of any documents that would certify my racial or ethnic identity. I know some fancy cats and dogs have breeding papers. The last time humans may have thought about such documentation, the effects were not pleasant. So let’s not go there.

These were some of the thoughts I had after listening to a story on NPR about Italian opposition to Cecile Kyenge, recently appointed as the first black cabinet minister within the Italian government. If Americans think that racism is bad on this side of the Atlantic, I wonder what they would do with Italians referring to Kyenge as a monkey and throwing bananas her way when speaking in public. Granted, it would not be fair to tarnish all Italians with the accusation of racism since the Northern League Party has been responsible for the ugly opposition to Kyenge, a party that accounts for 18 of Italy’s 315 Senators. Then again, can anyone imagine any political candidate winning an election in the U.S. if he were associated with this kind of racism?

So far, so nation and race. We have citizens of Italy who are of European descent (duh!) opposing an African-Italian politician. What about Christianity and church membership. Italy (another duh) is a nation whose citizens have long and deep ties to the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, the Vatican was a major speed bump to Italy’s emergence as an independent nation, and tensions between Italian nationalism and Roman Catholicism existed down to World War II. Still, it is not inconceivable to think of Italians as having some awareness and affection for the Roman Catholic church. And that might lead us to think that Christians, like Roman Catholics, would not react in such a hostile way to politicians like Kyenge. After all, this is a church that puts “universal” in its very name. No matter how bad Christian practice is in Europe, being Catholic, you would think, would lift you out of the particularities of race and nation to identify at least with other Christians if not other humans in a universal way. But apparently Roman Catholicism has not had that affect on Italians just as evangelicalism has not lifted Protestants in the United States, despite all that mystical union with the body of Christ business, above identifying the United States with God’s redemptive purposes.

The Vatican has in the past spoken out against Italy’s racism, so it is not as if the Roman curia are unaware of the problem. Even so, this news does remind us of the older associations between Roman Catholicism and a European conservatism that opposed egalitarianism, individualism, and democracy. (Say what you will about the problems of those political sensibilities, they have been largely responsible for countering racial views that elevate one group above others.) I mention this Roman Catholic illiberalism if only because of a fascinating book by Peter D’Agostino about Roman Catholics in the United States and Italy and how the former sided with a Vatican that was opposed to the kind of political structures on which Americans usually prided themselves. (The book is just the start of D’Agostino’s fascination for me.) I have not finished the book, but here is an indication of the argument he makes:

Students of religion in the United States have ignored Fascist Italy. Studies of the interwar years rarely mention the Italy-Vatican rapprochement of the 1920s or the Lateran Pacts of 1929. Historians John McGreevy and Philip Gleason have analyzed mid-twentieth-century American liberal critiques of Catholicism as an antidemocratic, authoritarian culture with affinities to “fascism” or “totalitarianism.” In their work, “fascism (not Fascism) is a generic term for authoritarianism, and the “rise of fascism” happened in the 1930s, as if Fascist Italy did not exist in the 1920s. They tend to conflate informed anti-Fascists struggling for a democratic Italy with the bigotry of Paul Blanshard. . . . Ultimately, they sidestep the issue liberals raised: the substantial links between the American Church and Fascist Italy for two decades. . . .

On occasion American Catholics did criticize Fascism. It does not follow, however, that “what appeared to Italian exiles and American liberals to be a monolithic pro-Mussolini Catholic chorus were in reality the voices of individual churchmen.” This claim ignores hierarchical structures of power and community vigilance that belie the notion that the Church was a group of atomized individuals free to articulate broadly divergent views on matters relating to the Roman Question. Attention to the timing and content of American Catholic criticism of Fascism during the Italy-Vatican rapprochemement of the 1920s reveals the collaboration of a transnational church. When the Vatican praised Fascism for outlawing Masonry, American Catholics voiced similar praise. When the Vatican protested Fascist interference in the moral development of Italian youth, so did American Catholics. When the Vatican instigated the dissolution of the Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI), American Catholics agreed it was a wise policy. When the Vatican withheld commentary on the beating, imprisonment, or murder of an anti-Fascist, American Catholics also remained silent. (159-160)

So sometimes church membership does transcend nation (American Roman Catholics following Rome), and sometimes it does not (Italians today).

My point is not to find more skeletons in Rome’s closet. I do think this is another piece of Roman Catholic history that Jason and the Callers have airbrushed from their philosophical accounts of the papacy. But the fascinating point, I think, is the degree to which Christianity actually affects a person’s politics and identity. Does church membership define someone more than race and nation? Sure, we know what the ideal is. But can Christians actually escape the constraints of history like to whom and where you are born?

Defining Morality Up

The word in the media over the weekend (actually, the end of one week and the beginning of another), was that the Roman Catholic Church needs to maintain its orthodoxy or else it will experience what has happened to mainline Protestantism. Ethics and Public Policy’s Mary Eberstadt expressed just such a view in an interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition:

SIMON: Before Pope Francis was selected, you wrote that you’d hoped to see the new pope deploy doctrinal orthodoxy. What do you mean by that?

EBERSTADT: Well, what I meant is that if you study the history of churches, over time the churches that have tried to lighten up the Christian moral code and put forth sort of kindler, gentler version of Christian as they see it, have not done well. They haven’t done well demographically and they haven’t done well financially.

Churches that stick to orthodoxy do better over time, in part because it’s only those kinds of churches that tend to create families that can be of size and carry on the Christian tradition. So, in saying that the pope would do best to stick to orthodoxy, I was talking in part about what it would take to strengthen the Catholic Church.

SIMON: So if I were to remind you about some of these polls we’ve all seen in recent days showing 66 percent of U.S. Catholics favor allowing women to become priests, 79 percent favor the use of artificial birth control measures, what does that mean to you?

EBERSTADT: Well, it means in part that you have to be careful about what you are calling Catholic. In other words, are you Catholic if you say you’re Catholic? Are you Catholic if you were baptized Catholic? Are you Catholic if you haven’t been in church in five years? What you tend to find is that the more observant people are, the more orthodox their opinions tend to be. That’s one point.

But the other point is that for Catholics like that, for Catholics who want married priests, women priests, who want again to lighten up the Christian moral code, there is a place for people like that. The place is called the mainline Protestantism. And the point is that mainline Protestantism is in serious disarray. The pews are graying, they have few children in them.

By contrast, the Protestant churches that have hued closest to a sort of strict Christian moral code have done best. Those would be the evangelical churches and churches like the Pentecostals are thriving, and not only in the United States but around the world.

I don’t mean to be precious, but are male priests, celibacy, and contraception really part of Christian orthodoxy? I could think of matters like Christology, God’s incommunicable attributes, or even closer to Rome’s home, transubstantiation or apostolic succession. I can also think of believers who are not Christian who come close to Eberstadt’s notion of orthodoxy — such as Orthodox Jews.

In which case, what is orthodoxy for Roman Catholics in the United States and how much has Americanization polarized the church into segments that mirror the larger culture war dividing the so-called orthodox party from the progressives (both transcending confessional and religious lines)? If Roman Catholics in the U.S. reflect the larger divisions among the American people, that is an ironic outcome of Vatican II’s aggiornamento.

Sometimes the "Bar" Eats You

Lest readers think Old Life is a lone voice in evaluating how far Called to Communion’s view of Rome is from the rest of the world, here are a few recent takes on the Church in the light of Benedict’s abdication. First, Ross Douthat:

The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.

This transformation suggests that we may have reached the end of a distinctive “Catholic moment” (to repurpose a phrase from the late Catholic priest-intellectual Richard John Neuhaus) in American politics, one that began in the 1980s after John Paul’s ascension to the papacy and the migration of many Catholic “Reagan Democrats” into the Republican Party.

This was hardly the first era when Catholic ideas shaped American debates. (New Deal-era liberalism, for instance, owed a major debt to Catholic social thought.) But it was the first era when the Catholic vote was both frequently decisive and genuinely up for grabs, and it was an era when Catholic debates and personalities filled the vacuum left by the decline of the Protestant mainline.

Then Rod Dreher (on Douthat):

. . . there never was a possibility for a Catholic moment in America. Not even American Catholics agree on what it means to be Catholic, and what is required of them as Catholics. From the outside, Catholicism looks unitary, but from the inside, Catholicism (in America, at least) is just about as fragmented as Protestantism. This is why you have the spectacle of Garry Wills denying the sacramental priesthood and the Real Presence, but still presenting himself as a Catholic, and being received by many Catholics as Catholic. Catholicism in this country has lost its distinctives, because many, probably most, actual Catholics have no sense that the faith they profess calls them to accept and to live by a set of theological and moral precepts that they may struggle to accept, but must accept because God revealed them authoritatively through His church.

One may say this is a good thing, this Protestantization of Catholicism, or one may decry it as a bad thing. But I don’t see how one can credibly say that it doesn’t exist. Catholicism, understood on its own terms, is radically opposed to American culture, and to the essence of modernity. Catholicism, as understood by most American Catholics, is not. There’s the problem with the Catholic moment, and why it was never going to happen. Of course, the behavior of the bishops in the abuse crisis didn’t help, but ultimately it was beside the point.

Yet, Called to Communion, ever paradigmatic, continues with ‘s’all good, infallible even.