Month: July 2003

Eulogy for Voices in the Wilderness?

The Summer 2003 edition of The Middle East Quarterly has published the Confessions of an Anti-Sanctions Activist by former Voices In The Wilderness activist Charles M. Brown:

On May 22, 2003, the United Nations (U.N.) lifted the sanctions regime it had imposed on Iraq twelve years earlier. The end of the economic embargo invites a review of the “peace” activism that was aimed at bringing down the Iraq sanctions while Saddam Hussein ruled. Anti-sanctions groups sought to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. In fact, they became—whether wittingly or unwittingly—mouthpieces for Saddam in the United States. I should know: I have the dubious distinction of having been one of them. . . .

As I came to see [Voices in the Wilderness] as a complicity and collaboration with one of the most abusive dictatorships in the world, I tried to get the rest of my group to acknowledge that our close relationship with the regime damaged our credibility. I failed to persuade them, so I quit. Unfortunately, it seems that my former colleagues have regarded this decision as a kind of political “defection,” and it has cost me several friendships, which were apparently contingent on my continued willingness to toe the (Baathist) line.

Voices in the Wilderness, according to Brown, was “almost without exception” formed by Catholic Workers inspired by the ideals and personalities of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the radical priests Daniel & Philip Berrigan, whose symbolic actions during the 60’s against the Vietnam War left a great impression:

Voices belonged very much to this tradition with its emphasis on symbolic acts. The group’s trips to Iraq with symbolic amounts of medical aid were to Voices what the burning of draft files was to the Berrigans and what the beating of nuclear weapons into “plowshares” is to the Plowshares movement. . . . All of these interrelated social movements are characterized by “dramaturgy” — the combination of drama and liturgy, with ostensible prayers for peace and dramatic protest action in the face of significant jail terms. For some of these activists, dramaturgical protest has become nearly synonymous with other (traditional) Catholic sacraments.

The obvious danger of [radical] political activism is rushing into things without thinking: prioritizing the accomplishment of your agenda — in most cases, staunch opposition to U.S. foreign policy — over time-consuming research and careful investigation of the facts. Charles describes how he and fellow members of Voices became the unwitting pawns of the Baath party’s propaganda campaign in the United States:

We saw ourselves as people of action, not reflection. Did we really need to learn the intricacies of Iraqi history and politics and plumb the broader political and economic issues? Who wanted to sit in the library when there were prayer vigils to organize? We opted to march, fast, and hold our signs. . . . Even worse, we were quite willing to consider the Baath regime as a reliable source of value-free information on Iraq. Group members had neither the training nor the inclination to dissect Baathist propaganda, and we in Voices regularly parroted this propaganda in our public presentations as if it were fact, without much editing or critical reflection. Little effort was expended in learning more about general trends and issues in Iraqi history, culture, and politics.

Likewise, critical engagement of conflicting positions in a serious debate is unfortunately sacrificed to the convenient issuing of labels and denunciations. Historical materials on Iraq “that did not take the injustice of Desert Storm as their point of departure were not only ignored, but were very often denounced as pro-American or even pro-Israeli propaganda”, including those of the prominent Iraqi dissident intellectual Kanan Makiya. One can certainly expect the future writings of Charles M. Brown to be met with similar dismissal.

The chief flaw of an organization like Voices, observes Brown, is that it’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to oppose U.S. foreign policy and the “military industrial complex” inevitably led to an overall lack of action to help the victims of Iraq:

Our uncritical treatment of the Iraqi regime was not a case of ignorance. It was the result of a deliberate choice we made among our priorities. We had to decide which moral challenge we wanted to make. We chose to limit that moral challenge to the U.S. policy of maintaining sanctions against Iraq. We were never particularly interested in or suited to challenging Saddam and his regime over their invasion of two neighboring states, the systematic genocide against the Kurds, or Saddam’s consolidation of one of the most violent internal security systems in the world. . . . Voices was an attempt by Catholic radicals and their disciples to promote their vision of world peace; Saddam Hussein’s only apparent desire was to maintain his iron grip over Iraq. Voices and the regime agreed only that the sanctions crisis was rooted in U.S. policy. Yet that single point of agreement became the fulcrum of Voices’ venture in Iraq.

This post shouldn’t be construed as a general condemnation of opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, which remains a matter of “prudential judgement” upon which Catholics can disagree, hopefully with the backing of intelligent arguments and rational discussion. Nor should it be read as an opposition to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which (as previous blogs demonstrate) I hold with great respect for its persistent witness through their works of mercy and critique of unbridled American consumerism.

But there was a time when, as a college student infatuated by radical politics, I once shared a similar naive perception of world events as Voices in the Wilderness (and as I recollect, probably distributed their literature as well). I can relate to Mr. Brown’s recollections about the dangers and pitfalls of such passionate activism, and it is my hope that young radicals today will learn something from him. Mr. Brown concludes with the following summary of his experience:

In the end, I concluded that the Voices campaign against sanctions was a case of misplaced radicalism. Voices had borrowed the concepts developed by the Berrigan brothers against the war in Vietnam and applied them to their agitation against the Iraq sanctions. But this hand-me-down rhetoric was not suited to a deep understanding of the sanctions crisis in Iraq (and it might be the case that the Berrigan-style rhetoric was ill-suited for a better understanding of the war in Vietnam as well). Voices was acutely aware of its Catholic ultra-resistance heritage and wanted to ensure that it continued. It needed a cause. Unfortunately, it picked the wrong one. Voices’ tragedy is that there may no longer be any causes amenable to its concepts and methods, and that the really important policy debates of our time have left it irrelevant and anachronistic.

Eulogy for Voices in the Wilderness?

The Summer 2003 edition of The Middle East Quarterly has published the Confessions of an Anti-Sanctions Activist by former Voices In The Wilderness activist Charles M. Brown:

On May 22, 2003, the United Nations (U.N.) lifted the sanctions regime it had imposed on Iraq twelve years earlier. The end of the economic embargo invites a review of the “peace” activism that was aimed at bringing down the Iraq sanctions while Saddam Hussein ruled. Anti-sanctions groups sought to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. In fact, they became—whether wittingly or unwittingly—mouthpieces for Saddam in the United States. I should know: I have the dubious distinction of having been one of them. . . .

As I came to see [Voices in the Wilderness] as a complicity and collaboration with one of the most abusive dictatorships in the world, I tried to get the rest of my group to acknowledge that our close relationship with the regime damaged our credibility. I failed to persuade them, so I quit. Unfortunately, it seems that my former colleagues have regarded this decision as a kind of political “defection,” and it has cost me several friendships, which were apparently contingent on my continued willingness to toe the (Baathist) line.

Voices in the Wilderness, according to Brown, was “almost without exception” formed by Catholic Workers inspired by the ideals and personalities of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the radical priests Daniel & Philip Berrigan, whose symbolic actions during the 60’s against the Vietnam War left a great impression:

Voices belonged very much to this tradition with its emphasis on symbolic acts. The group’s trips to Iraq with symbolic amounts of medical aid were to Voices what the burning of draft files was to the Berrigans and what the beating of nuclear weapons into “plowshares” is to the Plowshares movement. . . . All of these interrelated social movements are characterized by “dramaturgy” — the combination of drama and liturgy, with ostensible prayers for peace and dramatic protest action in the face of significant jail terms. For some of these activists, dramaturgical protest has become nearly synonymous with other (traditional) Catholic sacraments.

The obvious danger of [radical] political activism is rushing into things without thinking: prioritizing the accomplishment of your agenda — in most cases, staunch opposition to U.S. foreign policy — over time-consuming research and careful investigation of the facts. Charles describes how he and fellow members of Voices became the unwitting pawns of the Baath party’s propaganda campaign in the United States:

We saw ourselves as people of action, not reflection. Did we really need to learn the intricacies of Iraqi history and politics and plumb the broader political and economic issues? Who wanted to sit in the library when there were prayer vigils to organize? We opted to march, fast, and hold our signs. . . . Even worse, we were quite willing to consider the Baath regime as a reliable source of value-free information on Iraq. Group members had neither the training nor the inclination to dissect Baathist propaganda, and we in Voices regularly parroted this propaganda in our public presentations as if it were fact, without much editing or critical reflection. Little effort was expended in learning more about general trends and issues in Iraqi history, culture, and politics.

Likewise, critical engagement of conflicting positions in a serious debate is unfortunately sacrificed to the convenient issuing of labels and denunciations. Historical materials on Iraq “that did not take the injustice of Desert Storm as their point of departure were not only ignored, but were very often denounced as pro-American or even pro-Israeli propaganda”, including those of the prominent Iraqi dissident intellectual Kanan Makiya. One can certainly expect the future writings of Charles M. Brown to be met with similar dismissal.

The chief flaw of an organization like Voices, observes Brown, is that it’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to oppose U.S. foreign policy and the “military industrial complex” inevitably led to an overall lack of action to help the victims of Iraq:

Our uncritical treatment of the Iraqi regime was not a case of ignorance. It was the result of a deliberate choice we made among our priorities. We had to decide which moral challenge we wanted to make. We chose to limit that moral challenge to the U.S. policy of maintaining sanctions against Iraq. We were never particularly interested in or suited to challenging Saddam and his regime over their invasion of two neighboring states, the systematic genocide against the Kurds, or Saddam’s consolidation of one of the most violent internal security systems in the world. . . . Voices was an attempt by Catholic radicals and their disciples to promote their vision of world peace; Saddam Hussein’s only apparent desire was to maintain his iron grip over Iraq. Voices and the regime agreed only that the sanctions crisis was rooted in U.S. policy. Yet that single point of agreement became the fulcrum of Voices’ venture in Iraq.

This post shouldn’t be construed as a general condemnation of opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, which remains a matter of “prudential judgement” upon which Catholics can disagree, hopefully with the backing of intelligent arguments and rational discussion. Nor should it be read as an opposition to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which (as previous blogs demonstrate) I hold with great respect for its persistent witness through their works of mercy and critique of unbridled American consumerism.

But there was a time when, as a college student infatuated by radical politics, I once shared a similar naive perception of world events as Voices in the Wilderness (and as I recollect, probably distributed their literature as well). I can relate to Mr. Brown’s recollections about the dangers and pitfalls of such passionate activism, and it is my hope that young radicals today will learn something from him. Mr. Brown concludes with the following summary of his experience:

In the end, I concluded that the Voices campaign against sanctions was a case of misplaced radicalism. Voices had borrowed the concepts developed by the Berrigan brothers against the war in Vietnam and applied them to their agitation against the Iraq sanctions. But this hand-me-down rhetoric was not suited to a deep understanding of the sanctions crisis in Iraq (and it might be the case that the Berrigan-style rhetoric was ill-suited for a better understanding of the war in Vietnam as well). Voices was acutely aware of its Catholic ultra-resistance heritage and wanted to ensure that it continued. It needed a cause. Unfortunately, it picked the wrong one. Voices’ tragedy is that there may no longer be any causes amenable to its concepts and methods, and that the really important policy debates of our time have left it irrelevant and anachronistic.

News Corp. – Anything to make a buck?

I haven’t really been keeping up with the news, but I managed to learn from Mark Shea’s blog this past week that 20th Century Fox may distribute Mel Gibson’s Passion.

20th Century Fox is owned by News Corporation, which also owns Fox News (what you might call a fairly politically “conservative” television station, in spite of their claim to objective journalism) and the Zondervan Publishing House, which is one of the largest sellers of bibles, books and gifts for primarily Evangelical Christian audiences. So, this wasn’t really all that suprising — it makes perfect sense to me.

But I learned a couple days later that the same mega-corporation pushing to distribute a religious film of this nature and magnitude is also gearing up to produce a new “soap-opera” series about porn scheduled for prime time television (Finally, Porn Does Prime Time, by Frank Rich. The New York Times, July 27, 2003):

“Skin,” the first prime-time network series to take on what is euphemistically called the adult entertainment industry. And with a soupçon of Shakespeare, yet. “Skin” tells of the forbidden romance between a 17-year-old Mexican-Irish Romeo, whose father is the Los Angeles D.A., and a 16-year-old Jewish Juliet, whose father is a porn king. Or as the show’s Web site sums it up: ” `Skin’ is about sex and race. `Skin’ is about politics. And most of all, `Skin’ is about skin: complexion, beauty, desire, attraction, obsession and prejudice in contemporary Los Angeles.”

Now, I’m not really business-savvy so please, correct me if I’m wrong . . . but is there justifiable reason to be disturbed about this? Does the fact that News Corp. owns both 20th Century Fox and Fox Broadcasting Company mean that somebody (or a board of somebodies) at the top is pulling the strings, and has some kind of say in what kind of commodities are being distributed? — Or do they simply plead ignorance, “the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing”, delegating such decisions about content to the individual entities? And who is the ultimate recipient of the consumer dollar?

Just something I’ve been wondering about today. I find it disconcerting to realize how much material being manufactured by way of the television, radio, newspaper, magazine and books one encounters on a day to day basis — often, as is the case with Gibson’s The Passion and Jerry Bruckhimer’s “Skin”, with radically conflicting messages and content — is actually being produced and/or distributed by a handful of powerful media conglomerates. Such is the age we live in.

On a related note, the advent of ‘Skin’ is just another illustration of the growing integration and acceptance of pornography in mainstream media, as Frank Rich writes in his article for the New York Times. Last year Frontline did a special investigation on PBS on this topic, with special attention to the
mainstream corporations which profit from the porn industry. PBS also interviewed Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore and co-chairman of the interfaith Religious Alliance Against Pornography, who has tangled with AT&T and General Motors on their support of this industry, about whom he says:

I have a hunch that there are people at the very top that don’t understand what they’re into. There are people making decisions based on the dollars, without realizing how awful the content is that they’re involved with. They’re too busy with their business to take a look at the product.

And I’ve had people in Hollywood, and in our own local TV industry, say, “Well, we’re making products and showing things I wouldn’t let my own children see, I wouldn’t permit into my house.” That tells me something about these people who are more sensitive. But I think some of the people at the top in this way in which so much in the entertainment industry has been centralized, look only at the bottom line, and do not look at the content. And they’re not even concerned about it. They’re only interested in profit.

Qualifying labels and the ‘Hermeneutic of Suspicion’

Amy Welborn’s blog ‘In Between Naps’ has hosted an ongoing debate (initial post 7/8/03) those who feel compelled to use ideological qualifiers when speaking of themselves and/or others (“orthodox”, “progressive”, “conservative”, “liberal”, et. al.), expressing her concern over the disruption that such politicized factionalism has on the unity of the Church. It’s a perplexing issue and, like Amy and many of those who responded to her blog, I’m not really sure what can be done about it.

Perhaps there used to be a time where by simply describing one as ‘Catholic’ you knew implicitly what that meant, and what Catholics stood for. After all, the Church identifies herself as ‘holy, Catholic, and apostolic’ and lays out quite clearly what it believes in the Catechism, a concrete expression of faith around which one would expect Catholics to rally. However, it is all too often my experience that the opposite is the case, when I encounter both online and in everyay life those who may refer to themselves as “Catholic” and at the same time express differing opinions on all matter of subjects including contraception, abortion, capitalism & U.S. foreign policy, priestly celibacy and the prospect of female clergy, etc. — in which case recourse to qualifiers in conversation may be an unfortunate necessity.

An example of such a situation raised by one commenting on Amy’s blog was that of a child informing her mother that she’s been invited by her Catholic classmate to attend a “Voice of the Faithful” meeting with her parents. How does one respond to such? I found myself in a similar predicament recently when a family member and recent convert to the faith forwarded me the URL to a wonderful “Catholic” website he discovered which, upon further investigation, turned out to enthusiastically endorse the Society of St. Pius X and other schismatic groups and condemn the Holy Father and Vatican II. Presented with such concrete experiences the question “What’s the problem? They’re Catholic too, aren’t they?” absolutely calls for such qualification and clarification of just what it means to be “Catholic”.

Ultimately, it’s kind of a ‘Catch-22’ — for those who use such qualifications as much as for those who eschew them, as Lawrence King noted in his comment on Amy’s blog:

. . . I do not think it’s possible to be an unlabelled Catholic and at the same time be outspoken on controversial issues. If you are asked straight-out if you feel that contraception is wrong, or asked if praying the Rosary every day is just a waste of time given all the homeless folks who need food, then you have to either give a “liberal” answer or a “conservative” answer or a “wishy-washy” answer.

If you give a liberal answer, you alienate the conservatives. If you give a conservative answer, you alienate the liberals. And if you give a wishy-washy answer, those on the left and the right will feel a mild degree of pity and disgust, but you won’t actually alienate anyone! (That’s why far too many priests and bishops choose this third option.)

Finally, there’s the fourth option of strongly holding some conservative views and some liberal views. Garry Wills, for example. But that just gets you the label “eclectic” (or in Wills’ case, “schizophrenic”.)

So Amy, as long as the Catholic people remain divided on issues and consider those issues important, no one can take a stand on these issues and be an unlabelled Catholic.

* * *

While use of such qualifiers is helpful and even necessary at times, indiscriminate labeling carries with it the danger of cultivating a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, as Fr. Tucker of Dappled Things notes:

The whole problem with the labels is that they reduce the Faith to a handful of pro and con positions (litmus tests, if you will) that presume to present the essence of the Catholic Faith. Until the stranger in the pew next to you answers your questions correctly, his faith is suspect (whether that be a liberal faith, conservative faith, traditionalist faith, or whatever). Such a hermeneutic of suspicion is poisonous. If a person professes the Faith with us in the official Creeds of the Church, receives the Sacraments in communion with the Church, and takes part in the Liturgy of the Church, we are supposed to assume his orthodoxy and accept him as a Catholic without qualifiers. He may not be a perfect saint, and maybe he can’t explain the difference between the Virginal Conception and the Immaculate Conception, but we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. [7/8/2003 12:39:33 AM]

One is thus tempted, says Fr. Tucker, to adopt a mediate position between the liberal and conservative camps within Catholicism by avoiding those aspects which are not embraced by the mainstream. But promotion of “centrism” may only exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem, in that:

[centrism] does not eliminate polarization: it merely moves into a situation where there are, perhaps, two antagonistic extreme camps, and it opens a third camp, just as intolerant and exclusionary as the first two, even if its appeal might be broader. It, too, slaps labels on people and excludes them from the number of the elect, generally for the flimsiest of reasons (this person is a Catholic Worker weirdo, that one a mantilla-wearing doily head). If a person is outside the norm (however we want to define that), then somehow he is divisive. Never mind whether the person in question is in error or lacking in charity: the offense is his being outside the norm. It makes people self-conscious of what others think of them (which, in turn, makes them obsessive about the external elements of religion), it restrains discourse to an arbitrarily small range of acceptable opinions (lest one be thought too extreme), and it leads people to think they should be scandalized by opinions different from their own (which breeds both intolerance and intellectual stagnation). Plus, it’s boring as hell.

. . . it is seriously wrong for us to say that to be a good, “unifying” Catholic, one must (or should) be a centrist. This falls into the same narrow-minded label trap that we’ve already discussed — to say nothing of disqualifying most of the saints, prophets, and pleasantly harmless eccentrics that make the Church so grand. Catholics used to understand that.

Fr. Tucker recommends as a means of guarding against this “hermeneutic of suspicion” our developng an appreciation for the history of the Church, which enables us to “see the sometimes astonishingly varied ways in which the Faith has been lived and can open us up to the possibility that some pluralism is possible, and even desirable.”

Belong as we do to a universal Church encompassing humanity in all its diverse levels and backgrounds, interaction between Catholics (and the human family in general) can be understandably messy and subject to numerous differences of opinion. While clarification and correction may be necessary in some cases, we shouldn’t be presumptious in pronouncing judgement on the state of another’s soul. Fr. Tucker’s blog reminded me of some observations by Thomas Howard in Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome:

The Holy Catholic Church looks more like the five thousand whom the Lord fed on the hillside than it does the small group of insiders in the Upper Room. That is, everyone is here: the earnest and the preoccupied; the poor and the rich; the fashionable and unfashionable (more of the latter than the former); the ignorant and the luminously wise; the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (to reach for anachronistic categories); the pathetic and the impressive. It is just “us” whom this very ancient Church comprises. None of us has any credentials at all other than the fact that we are baptized into this Church.

. . . the congregation at Mass in any parish church on any day of the year will comprise everyone from advanced saints to people whose conversation is laced with profanity and vulgarity, and whose whole approach to life, from one perspective, excludes even the smallest trace of anything that can be recognized as faith. Where are these latter people — inside our outside of the pale of faith? Only God knows. The Church’s task is to woo them, and to keep on in its pastoral efforts to fan any miniscule and lambent flicker of faith, and to keep offering them the gospel in word and sacrament. If they consciously and explicitly reject it all, then the Church can only pray for them: “Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” If judgement must fall on any of them ( or on me), the Church must accompany them all the way to the block, as it were, with the appeals of grace. . . . The Church shares God’s seeking of the lost, not his office as Judge. (p. 83-84).

Or, as another reader commenting on Amy’s blog so aptly put it:

Keep speaking the truth, continue to challenge one another, be persistent in following God’s will, but always with humility and love.

Part of the answer may just be accepting the fact that we’re stuck with each other. At some point in the future we may have an event or action that causes many on the right or the left to leave the Church, whether voluntarily or not, but for now we’re all still here, in God’s hands, for whatever His purpose may be.

* * *

Personally I would like to hope that Catholics on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can identify some ground for agreement with respect to manifesting Christ to the world. Amy inquires:

I’m trying to find a way beyond it. Not, please note, for the sake of pretending that all is well or false unity, but simply because it’s vital that we do. . . . we need voices that call us to simply heed the Good News and act on it as Jesus tells us to, voices that can cut through our politicized discourse, despite our own pride and our own resistance. Voices that are dedicated to just that task.

One reader responded to this by commenting on his experience as a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which strikes me as a potential avenue for cooperation. I can disagree with my fellow Catholic about any number of things, but to refrain from joining him in the corporal works of mercy seems to me indefensible. Nourishing the hungry & thirsty, providing clothing and shelter to the homeless, visiting the sink & imprisoned — we have an imperative for action in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the adomination of our Lord (“whatever you do to the least of these . . . “).

Perhaps this is what Hans Urs von Balthasar was getting at when he spoke of the universal appeal of Mother Theresa:

Where should one look to see a dawn? One should look to where in the tradition of the Church something truely spiritual appears, where Christianity does not seem a laboriously repeated doctrine, but a breathtaking adventure. Why is all the world suddenly looking at the wrinkled but radiant face of the Albanian woman in Calcutta? What she is doing is not new for Christians . . . but suddently the volcano that was believed extinguished has begun to spit fire again. And nothing in this old woman is progressive, nothing traditionalist. She embodies effortlessly the center, the whole.

* * *

So, altogether a good fruitful discussion at St. Blog’s, which provided much food for thought (and I hope, impetus for action as well). While I wanted to cover what were for me some highlights, I recommend reading the whole thing (comment boxes especially) when you have the time. Additional participants include Peter Nixion, Gregory Popcak.

God bless.


“Christ in the Breadline”, by Fritz Eichenberg

Margaret Sanger, meet Dorothy Day

Interesting meditation by Stephen Hand — like me, another reader of periodicals on both ends of the ideological spectrum — on the strange juxtaposition of Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) and Dorothy Day (co-founder of The Catholic Worker) on the front cover of the liberal rag The Nation. I wonder what would have happened if these two radically-different ‘American rebels’ met each other face-to-face?

Qualifying labels and the ‘Hermeneutic of Suspicion’

Amy Welborn’s blog ‘In Between Naps’ has hosted an ongoing debate (initial post 7/8/03) those who feel compelled to use ideological qualifiers when speaking of themselves and/or others (“orthodox”, “progressive”, “conservative”, “liberal”, et. al.), expressing her concern over the disruption that such politicized factionalism has on the unity of the Church. It’s a perplexing issue and, like Amy and many of those who responded to her blog, I’m not really sure what can be done about it.

Perhaps there used to be a time where by simply describing one as ‘Catholic’ you knew implicitly what that meant, and what Catholics stood for. After all, the Church identifies herself as ‘holy, Catholic, and apostolic’ and lays out quite clearly what it believes in the Catechism, a concrete expression of faith around which one would expect Catholics to rally. However, it is all too often my experience that the opposite is the case, when I encounter both online and in everyay life those who may refer to themselves as “Catholic” and at the same time express differing opinions on all matter of subjects including contraception, abortion, capitalism & U.S. foreign policy, priestly celibacy and the prospect of female clergy, etc. — in which case recourse to qualifiers in conversation may be an unfortunate necessity.

An example of such a situation raised by one commenting on Amy’s blog was that of a child informing her mother that she’s been invited by her Catholic classmate to attend a “Voice of the Faithful” meeting with her parents. How does one respond to such? I found myself in a similar predicament recently when a family member and recent convert to the faith forwarded me the URL to a wonderful “Catholic” website he discovered which, upon further investigation, turned out to enthusiastically endorse the Society of St. Pius X and other schismatic groups and condemn the Holy Father and Vatican II. Presented with such concrete experiences the question “What’s the problem? They’re Catholic too, aren’t they?” absolutely calls for such qualification and clarification of just what it means to be “Catholic”.

Ultimately, it’s kind of a ‘Catch-22’ — for those who use such qualifications as much as for those who eschew them, as Lawrence King noted in his comment on Amy’s blog:

. . . I do not think it’s possible to be an unlabelled Catholic and at the same time be outspoken on controversial issues. If you are asked straight-out if you feel that contraception is wrong, or asked if praying the Rosary every day is just a waste of time given all the homeless folks who need food, then you have to either give a “liberal” answer or a “conservative” answer or a “wishy-washy” answer.

If you give a liberal answer, you alienate the conservatives. If you give a conservative answer, you alienate the liberals. And if you give a wishy-washy answer, those on the left and the right will feel a mild degree of pity and disgust, but you won’t actually alienate anyone! (That’s why far too many priests and bishops choose this third option.)

Finally, there’s the fourth option of strongly holding some conservative views and some liberal views. Garry Wills, for example. But that just gets you the label “eclectic” (or in Wills’ case, “schizophrenic”.)

So Amy, as long as the Catholic people remain divided on issues and consider those issues important, no one can take a stand on these issues and be an unlabelled Catholic.

* * *

While use of such qualifiers is helpful and even necessary at times, indiscriminate labeling carries with it the danger of cultivating a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, as Fr. Tucker of Dappled Things notes:

The whole problem with the labels is that they reduce the Faith to a handful of pro and con positions (litmus tests, if you will) that presume to present the essence of the Catholic Faith. Until the stranger in the pew next to you answers your questions correctly, his faith is suspect (whether that be a liberal faith, conservative faith, traditionalist faith, or whatever). Such a hermeneutic of suspicion is poisonous. If a person professes the Faith with us in the official Creeds of the Church, receives the Sacraments in communion with the Church, and takes part in the Liturgy of the Church, we are supposed to assume his orthodoxy and accept him as a Catholic without qualifiers. He may not be a perfect saint, and maybe he can’t explain the difference between the Virginal Conception and the Immaculate Conception, but we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt. [7/8/2003 12:39:33 AM]

One is thus tempted, says Fr. Tucker, to adopt a mediate position between the liberal and conservative camps within Catholicism by avoiding those aspects which are not embraced by the mainstream. But promotion of “centrism” may only exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem, in that:

[centrism] does not eliminate polarization: it merely moves into a situation where there are, perhaps, two antagonistic extreme camps, and it opens a third camp, just as intolerant and exclusionary as the first two, even if its appeal might be broader. It, too, slaps labels on people and excludes them from the number of the elect, generally for the flimsiest of reasons (this person is a Catholic Worker weirdo, that one a mantilla-wearing doily head). If a person is outside the norm (however we want to define that), then somehow he is divisive. Never mind whether the person in question is in error or lacking in charity: the offense is his being outside the norm. It makes people self-conscious of what others think of them (which, in turn, makes them obsessive about the external elements of religion), it restrains discourse to an arbitrarily small range of acceptable opinions (lest one be thought too extreme), and it leads people to think they should be scandalized by opinions different from their own (which breeds both intolerance and intellectual stagnation). Plus, it’s boring as hell.

. . . it is seriously wrong for us to say that to be a good, “unifying” Catholic, one must (or should) be a centrist. This falls into the same narrow-minded label trap that we’ve already discussed — to say nothing of disqualifying most of the saints, prophets, and pleasantly harmless eccentrics that make the Church so grand. Catholics used to understand that.

Fr. Tucker recommends as a means of guarding against this “hermeneutic of suspicion” our developng an appreciation for the history of the Church, which enables us to “see the sometimes astonishingly varied ways in which the Faith has been lived and can open us up to the possibility that some pluralism is possible, and even desirable.”

Belong as we do to a universal Church encompassing humanity in all its diverse levels and backgrounds, interaction between Catholics (and the human family in general) can be understandably messy and subject to numerous differences of opinion. While clarification and correction may be necessary in some cases, we shouldn’t be presumptious in pronouncing judgement on the state of another’s soul. Fr. Tucker’s blog reminded me of some observations by Thomas Howard in Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome:

The Holy Catholic Church looks more like the five thousand whom the Lord fed on the hillside than it does the small group of insiders in the Upper Room. That is, everyone is here: the earnest and the preoccupied; the poor and the rich; the fashionable and unfashionable (more of the latter than the former); the ignorant and the luminously wise; the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (to reach for anachronistic categories); the pathetic and the impressive. It is just “us” whom this very ancient Church comprises. None of us has any credentials at all other than the fact that we are baptized into this Church.

. . . the congregation at Mass in any parish church on any day of the year will comprise everyone from advanced saints to people whose conversation is laced with profanity and vulgarity, and whose whole approach to life, from one perspective, excludes even the smallest trace of anything that can be recognized as faith. Where are these latter people — inside our outside of the pale of faith? Only God knows. The Church’s task is to woo them, and to keep on in its pastoral efforts to fan any miniscule and lambent flicker of faith, and to keep offering them the gospel in word and sacrament. If they consciously and explicitly reject it all, then the Church can only pray for them: “Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” If judgement must fall on any of them ( or on me), the Church must accompany them all the way to the block, as it were, with the appeals of grace. . . . The Church shares God’s seeking of the lost, not his office as Judge. (p. 83-84).

Or, as another reader commenting on Amy’s blog so aptly put it:

Keep speaking the truth, continue to challenge one another, be persistent in following God’s will, but always with humility and love.

Part of the answer may just be accepting the fact that we’re stuck with each other. At some point in the future we may have an event or action that causes many on the right or the left to leave the Church, whether voluntarily or not, but for now we’re all still here, in God’s hands, for whatever His purpose may be.

* * *

Personally I would like to hope that Catholics on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can identify some ground for agreement with respect to manifesting Christ to the world. Amy inquires:

I’m trying to find a way beyond it. Not, please note, for the sake of pretending that all is well or false unity, but simply because it’s vital that we do. . . . we need voices that call us to simply heed the Good News and act on it as Jesus tells us to, voices that can cut through our politicized discourse, despite our own pride and our own resistance. Voices that are dedicated to just that task.

One reader responded to this by commenting on his experience as a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which strikes me as a potential avenue for cooperation. I can disagree with my fellow Catholic about any number of things, but to refrain from joining him in the corporal works of mercy seems to me indefensible. Nourishing the hungry & thirsty, providing clothing and shelter to the homeless, visiting the sink & imprisoned — we have an imperative for action in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the adomination of our Lord (“whatever you do to the least of these . . . “).

Perhaps this is what Hans Urs von Balthasar was getting at when he spoke of the universal appeal of Mother Theresa:

Where should one look to see a dawn? One should look to where in the tradition of the Church something truely spiritual appears, where Christianity does not seem a laboriously repeated doctrine, but a breathtaking adventure. Why is all the world suddenly looking at the wrinkled but radiant face of the Albanian woman in Calcutta? What she is doing is not new for Christians . . . but suddently the volcano that was believed extinguished has begun to spit fire again. And nothing in this old woman is progressive, nothing traditionalist. She embodies effortlessly the center, the whole.

* * *

So, altogether a good fruitful discussion at St. Blog’s, which provided much food for thought (and I hope, impetus for action as well). While I wanted to cover what were for me some highlights, I recommend reading the whole thing (comment boxes especially) when you have the time. Additional participants include Peter Nixon, Gregory Popcak.

God bless.


“Christ in the Breadline”, by Fritz Eichenberg

"Summer Break"

I will still post on occasion, but overall blogging on Against the Grain will be somewhat diminished for the rest of this summer.

Much as I enjoy blogging (and reading other blogs), I’ve been spending too much time lately in front of the screen — an all-too-easy habit to fall into, given the nature of my profession (web designer). Consequentially, I’ve been neglecting some of my other duties and favorite pasttimes.

I also realized that there are several books on the shelf I’ve been intending to read that I will never actually finish unless I pull myself away from the computer. Among those on my ‘summer reading list’:

Not to mention accumulating issues of The Chesterton Review, First Things, and selected documents of Vatican II. Being a post-Vatican II convert, I’m also interested in reading a general history of such. I’ve been looking for something a little more objective than the gushing optimism of Xavier Rynne, which I’m halfway through already — but at the same time nothing quite so damning as some radtrad tirades I’ve encountered online. (Please recommend if you know one).

So, postings will be sparce and far between for the next few months. God bless, and may all of you have a restful and productive summer as well,

Christopher