In But Not of America (part two)

Sometimes politically conservative Roman Catholics can appeal to Americanism to show the flaws of the Democrats. George Weigel has done this:

[Leo XIII] was, in other words, warning against confusions and distortions that are manifestly in play in certain Catholic quarters today, whether or not they were widespread in Catholic circles in late-19th-century America.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has displayed many of these tendencies throughout her years in the national spotlight. Most recently, the House minority leader said that her Catholic faith “compels” her to “be against discrimination of any kind,” which is why she, as a Catholic, supports so-called “gay marriage.” That the teaching authority of the Church has made unmistakably clear on numerous occasions that there is and can be no such thing as “gay marriage” evidently makes not the slightest difference to Mrs. Pelosi, whose personal judgments are the magisterium she obeys.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is another whose approach to faith, judgment, and public policy would seem to vindicate Leo XIII’s concerns. Despite the efforts of the archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Joseph Naumann, to convince her otherwise, Sebelius, first as governor of the Sunflower State and now as chief health-care official in the Obama administration, has insisted on the most libertine possible abortion policy. She vetoed a bill prohibiting late-term abortions shortly before leaving the governor’s office in Topeka, and she has defended the HHS mandate’s diktat that religious institutions must provide coverage including abortifacient drugs as part of “preventive health services.” That several popes and the entire Catholic hierarchy of the United States have, on numerous occasions, declared such actions beyond the bounds of moral reason — not just the bounds of Catholic doctrine, but the bounds of moral reason itself — makes no discernible difference to Secretary Sebelius. Like Representative Pelosi, she is her own magisterium.

Leo’s concerns about confusions over the natural and supernatural virtues seem prescient when one looks around the U.S. Catholic scene today. E. J. Dionne Jr. regularly praises the Church for its social-service networks (as well he should). But amidst his many attempts to bolster the fading cause of Catholic progressivism, has Dionne ever written about the absolute centrality of the sacraments to Catholic identity and mission, linking the Church’s liturgical life to its work for justice, as the leaders of the mid-20th-century Liturgical Movement always did? I don’t doubt that Dionne believes that the celebration of the Eucharist is a stronger expression of the essence of Catholicism than what any bishop says about the Ryan budget; still, no one would learn that from any of his columns since January. And in this, of course, Dionne maintains his role as chief cheerleader for the Obama administration. For it was President Obama who, at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement, defined social-service Catholicism of a certain ideological hue as the real Catholicism — a theme to which Obama has returned in recent weeks, reminiscing about the halcyon days of his community organizing in Chicago.

Then there is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of sisters the Vatican is attempting to reform. That Vatican intervention took place not because many of these sisters supported Obamacare (pace E. J. Dionne), but because their approach to religious life embodies many of the difficulties against which Leo XIII cautioned: conscience understood as personal willfulness and set against ecclesial authority; religious obedience juxtaposed to human maturity; humility discarded for the sake of pride (in this case feminist pride). Many of the LCWR’s leaders seem to agree with Dionne that what really counts in the life of American sisters is their social service, not the vowed witness of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the midst of a culture dominated by the imperial autonomous Self. Leo XIII would have disagreed, and his prediction that any such secularist reduction of consecrated religious life would lead to its implosion has been borne out by the sad fact that the LCWR orders are dying from lack of new members.

Then there is Mario Cuomo, who in 1984 gave a distinctively Americanist speech, in Leo XIII’s sense of the term, at Notre Dame: a speech that paved the way for the national careers of Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, and Joe Biden, and that would have defined the curious Catholicism of the John Kerry administration, had things gone the other way in 2004. Cuomo recently told Maureen Dowd that “if the Church were my religion, I’d have given it up a long time ago. . . . All the terrible things the Church has done. Christ is my religion, the Church is not.” Yet the Church and its teachings, as Leo XIII wrote to Cardinal Gibbons in his ornate style, come to us “from the same Author and Master, ‘the Only Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father’ [John 1:18].”

Maureen Dowd’s anti-Church rants on the New York Times op-ed page would have brought an embarrassed blush to the face of a great man (and a devoted churchman) like Isaac Hecker. But in this instance, Dowd’s invitation gave Cuomo the opportunity to articulate with precision one facet of the down-market theology that shapes the new Americanism: the theology that sets Jesus (heavily edited down to a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount) against the Church. And when Jesus is juxtaposed to the Church rather them embraced as the Lord of the Church that is His Body in the world, the rest readily follows: Private judgment trumps authoritative Catholic teaching; the Church of social service is severed from, and then trumps, the Church of the sacraments; freedom is purely a matter of following conscience (no matter how ill-formed or erroneous that conscience may be); doctrine is an obstacle to witness; and Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic cabinet officer who has declared her administration at “war” with the Catholic Church, addresses a commencement ceremony at Georgetown University, a hub of the new Americanism and its distortion of Catholic identity and Catholic social doctrine.

This new form of Catholicism Lite, a not-so-phantom hash of ideas that poses real problems for the integrity of the Church and its evangelical mission, breathes deeply of two winds that have long blown through American Christianity: the ancient Pelagian wind, with its emphasis on the righteousness of our works and how they will win our salvation; and the Congregationalist wind, with its deep suspicion that Catholic authority is incompatible with American democracy. As for the older Americanist controversy, I think the classic historiographers of U.S. Catholicism were largely right: The “Americanism” of which Leo XIII warned in Testem Benevolentiae was far more a phantom concocted by fevered, ancien-régime European minds than a heresy that threatened Catholic faith in the United States. But the problems that Leo flagged are very much with us over a century later. They are at the root of the internal Catholic culture war that has intensified as religious freedom has come under concerted assault, and as the new Americanists, who form a coherent party in a way that Isaac Hecker and his friends never did, have either denied that assault — or abetted it.

And sometimes Roman Catholics can appeal to the popes to challenge politically (and market friendly) conservatives like Weigel. For instance, here’s an excerpt from Weigel’s reaction to Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work. And another Justice and Peace favorite – the creation of a “world political authority” to ensure integral human development – is revisited, with no more insight into how such an authority would operate than is typically found in such curial fideism about the inherent superiority of transnational governance. (It is one of the enduring mysteries of the Catholic Church why the Roman Curia places such faith in this fantasy of a “world public authority,” given the Holy See’s experience in battling for life, religious freedom, and elementary decency at the United Nations. But that is how they think at Justice and Peace, where evidence, experience, and the canons of Christian realism sometimes seem of little account.)

If those burrowed into the intellectual and institutional woodwork at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace imagine Caritas in Veritate as reversing the rout they believe they suffered with Centesimus Annus, and if they further imagine Caritas in Veritate setting Catholic social doctrine on a completely new, Populorum Progressio-defined course (as one Justice and Peace consultor has already said), they are likely to be disappointed. The incoherence of the Justice and Peace sections of the new encyclical is so deep, and the language in some cases so impenetrable, that what the defenders of Populorum Progresio may think to be a new sounding of the trumpet is far more like the warbling of an untuned piccolo.

Perhaps it was criticism’s like this that prompted Weigel’s piece to go the route of the interweb’s lost and found:

Weigel celebrates Centesimus Annus which he claims “jettisoned the idea of a ‘Catholic third way’ that was somehow ‘between’ or ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ capitalism and socialism – a favorite dream of Catholics ranging from G.K.Chesterton to John A. Ryan to Ivan Illich.” Actually, both Centesimus and even more so Caritas in Veritate stress that the “Catholic way” must be prior to the claims of any economic theory, that the disposition for grace and communion must be part of the system, not a mere add-on, that unjust systems produce unjust results, and that a system that produces – at the same time – material wealth and spiritual poverty must be seen as morally and humanly suspect.

Weigel repeats the now common neo-con canard that capitalism is morally wholesome because it is driven not by greed but by human creativity. So, creative like Bernie Madoff or creative like Steve Jobs? Either way, Weigel fails to note that this celebration of wholesome capitalism is not found in the many pages of Caritas in Veritate. . . .

The gravest intellectual problem for Weigel is not his inability to see the validity of the influence of the good monsignori at Justice and Peace, nor that the Catholic social tradition permits several ways of approaching complicated economic and political issues. He claims some passages are “simply incomprehensible” and perhaps they are to him. But, the example he gives is telling. He writes that “the encyclical states that defeating Third World poverty and underdevelopment requires a ‘necessary openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion.’ This may mean something interesting; it may mean something naïve or dumb. But, on its face, it is virtually impossible to know what it means.” Gee. I don’t think it is that difficult to understand. It means that the stance of the Christian must be one of openness to the other, especially to the poor, and that we must create shares in the economic sphere for the poor, a share that sees them as a gift from God. We must see our relationship to the poor as one of communion not exploitation. And, does Weigel truly think Pope Benedict would write something “dumb”? Even if you disagree with Pope Benedict, he is never dumb.

Weigel not only misunderstands the relationship a Christian should have to the poor, he misunderstands the relationship a Catholic should have to a papal encyclical. I had thought that it was the Pope and the bishops who had the task of authoritatively interpreting the doctrine of the Church. Silly me. Mr. Weigel, with his gold and red pens, is the official arbiter of what passes as orthodoxy. He labels parts of the new encyclical “incomprehensible,” he charges the curia with “fideism” for advocating the necessity of transnational institutions, and he casts slurs upon Pope Paul VI for Populorum Progressio. Benedict is a “gentle soul” incapable of controlling a text that bears his name and he has been duped into signing on to foolishness.

Weigel is wrong on the merits, but he is also wrong in his stance. This encyclical – all of it – bears the Pope’s signature and the respect due to all statements of the magisterium. Weigel’s arguments have long been tedious and are here tendentious. But, it is not only the intellectual dishonesty of this essay that rankles. Behind his knowing Vaticanology, Weigel betrays a disloyalty to Pope Benedict and to the memory of Pope Paul that surprised even me. I have long recognized a certain myopia and a pronounced hubris in Weigel’s writings but he has outdone himself. He should put his red and gold pens away and read the text in its entirety as an invitation to grow in discipleship. As I commented yesterday, Caritas in Veritate has something to challenge everyone.

These are squabbles you’ll never see mentioned by Jason and the Callers. Sure, dogma has not changed, though the stance that accompanies the dogmatic utterances sure has. But can anyone explain how these disputes, which hardly signify a united church, signify that the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption even matters?