Friday, September 04, 2009

Dirty Laundry: a reply to Fr. John T. Zuhlsdorf

At Fr. Zuhlsdorf's place the other day, in the com-box to a post about coverage of the retirement bishop Joseph Martino, emeritus of Scranton, Pa., I suggested that we Catholics are, perhaps, airing our dirty laundry in public. I did not mean by this to object that we are conducting the debate over our Catholic identity in public (it is a public issue, finally), but to express a concern that we are conducting the debate in a way that makes it easy for those, who would see Catholics excluded from the public square, to divide us and weaken us.

Fr. Zuhlsdorf asked me to outline what I meant by this.

What follows is (the beginning, at least, of) my attempt at fulfilling his request.

I am doing it here, rather than in the com-box, for at least three reasons: what I have to say is my own, and I would not make Fr. Zuhlsdorf's blog a proxy for the airing of my own opinions (even solicited), especially when these might not immediately meet with his easy approbation (I am always happy to engage there, where many interesting discussions take place, and I am always ready to discuss the merits of various points therein raised. The present project, however, takes me into the realm of exposition and argument); the outline I have prepared is rather more lengthy and probably more cumbersome than is appropriate for a com-box; finally, and most importantly, the remarks that follow will take us too far from the discussion underway in that com-box, and I would not rabbit hole that debate, which has its own ends and merits.


Rome, Sept 4, 2009

Dear Fr. Zuhlsdorf,

Many thanks for your invitation to share an outline of my thoughts regarding the current state of the debate over our Catholic identity, and my concerns over the conduct of that same.

Though I could cite specific instances, which I consider to be failures or at least inadequate engagements in the debate, I have rather opted for a positive and general statement of my feelings. I trust that the prudence of this decision does not require further elucidation.

First of all, I recognize the importance of the debate over our Catholic identity, and I believe I share with you the conviction that we are at a critical juncture in that debate.

There is also a debate underway in our country, one over our national commitments. This debate, too, has long since reached the crisis point, and the part we Catholics shall elect to play in the great national debate will, I think, largely determine the happiness or infelicity of its outcome.

Now, our faith is an essentially public matter, and our country is grounded in and committed to the idea that man is essentially in conversation with the Divine, and that absolute liberty is the characteristic and condition of that conversation's integrity. It follows from this idea, that no man ought to be excluded from full participation in political life, because of the way he chooses to conduct that conversation.

In order for the last sentence of the preceding paragraph to be meaningful, it must be construed to entail the freedom to bring one's faith into the public square. Some people, however, do not see this. Many of our fellow citizens hold that the bracketing of one's faith is a conditio sine qua non of full, active participation in public life. This construction is not only wrong; it is wrong-headed, and extremely dangerous. It is not only, nor even primarily applicable to Catholics. It is an understated version, or better, an implicit incarnation of the proposition that religion is detrimental to and corrosive of social cohesion, and as such to be at least relegated to the private sphere. This idea, if it is allowed to win the consent of a majority for even a minute, will spell the doom of our American experiment with ordered liberty in society.

If we are to see that experiment preserved, we must recognize that its preservation depends upon the outcome of what is essentially a battle for hearts and minds.

Many of those, whose hearts and minds we must win over, are fellow Catholics. These have been led astray by the blandishments of modernity (material, intellectual and spiritual), or allowed to drift by pastors who, having imbibed an imprudent optimism that was one of the headiest wines of the Conciliar aftermath, found themselves intoxicated. Some of them in that impaired condition chose to try and govern the barque, with disastrous results. Others ceased to govern, and left their ships to drift. A few sober stalwarts kept to the wheel, though the fleet quickly dispersed, and then a fog came over, and where there were ships to be seen, it was all but impossible to tell friend from foe, and even so, the roar of cannon and fire and smoke were all around.

Some of the most basic and, we would think, obvious propositions were obscured. Who would have thought that a celebration of the Church as a communion of love could make some people unable to grasp that to be Catholic is eo ipso to be pro-life?

Given these conditions, it were not easy to remember, and still is risky to act on the understanding that people who disagree with the Church (whether they are within Her or without) on any number of issues are not, ipso facto, bad. They may have a very inadequate or even seriously mistaken understanding of what the Church's position on a given issue really is - and this is extremely important, for, what appears to us to be willful opposition to or perhaps flagrant disregard for the Magisterium may be a simple matter of a more-or-less sound conscience acting on bad information. We have all found ourselves in such a situation. In short, to put a positive turn on a famous maxim of Bishop Fulton John Sheen: love bringing people to the truth more than you love being right and winning the argument, and you will find yourself winning more arguments and bringing both yourself and others closer to the truth.

We are of one mind, I am sure, in this: the Church's way of thinking about things both human and divine, is the best and most salutary possible way of thinking about them. We need to bring people back to this way of thinking, to Her way of thinking.

The work will be long and arduous, to be sure: we find ourselves in the absolutely uncanny position of having to debate with people, who, while perfectly willing to accept that almighty God became a carpenter, died the death of a criminal and then rose from the dead two days later, balk at the idea that encasing one's member in a synthetic sac before engaging in coitus might be unnatural.

This last, while rather less than perfectly politic, does provide an opportunity to clarify an important point: there are some things we know because the Church tells us they are so; there are other things the Church tells us are so, because anyone with the ability rightly to use reason does (or can) know they are so.

That the Godhead is One and Three is of the former variety; that it is wrong deliberately to destroy innocent human life at any point from conception to natural death, is of the latter.

When people's minds have been so dulled, that they cannot see the latter, they are unlikely to be aware of, much less care a whit about the former. They certainly will not be able to ace the distinction.

Indeed, the most serious problem before us is not bad faith: it is intellectual and spiritual laziness.

Most people buy into the sort of unreasoning that makes, e.g., a "belief" in a "right" to contraception or even abortion, simply because they are not used to thinking things through. It has always been the case, and will always be the case, that the lion's share of mankind will adopt the default moral positions and general outlook of society rather reflexively - which is why sane social thinkers have recognized the need to support and encourage good mores.

The present, degraded state of society requires that we give ourselves over wholeheartedly to the double task, at once gargantuan and thankless, of awakening people from their intellectual and spiritual slumber, and helping them escape their heavy cocoons of thoughtlessness.

As we work to break through the outer layers of encrusted, hardened silk, we might rouse them a little - and they might squirm. If we are not careful, we might craze them and be forced to destroy them, for in their half-wakened rage they could neither tell friend from foe, nor control themselves if they could.

Said plainly, without metaphor, we need to challenge people's presuppositions, before we indict them for holding positions they almost cannot help but hold, so long as they do not question the ground of them.

I do not mean to say that we ought not condemn, in the clearest possible terms, e.g., the unqualified evil of procured abortion. If I may speak metaphorically again, we need a scalpel to cut away the cocoon, not an axe to fell the tree.

Happily, we are not without the best of tools.

The Catholic Church is the bearer, the caretaker, the champion of the greatest intellectual tradition that ever there has been or shall be. That tradition has always inspired those in it to dedicate themselves to the task of making subtle and particular distinctions within the unity of truth; to seek and always be in awe of the infinite nuance necessary and possible within the oneness of knowledge; to live in the confidence, which comes from knowing that the world is larger, the Church wiser, and God greater than one's own powers of apprehension, indeed than the sum total of all human powers of mind from Adam's making to the end of days.

More to this: True Religion has always inspired men and women to think all the good they can of those with whom they find themselves in disagreement; to mark and toe the line between the position and the one who holds it; to pronounce judgment only in the case of gravest necessity, and only for the best of all possible motives - the good of souls.

Sadly, not all those, who find themselves on the other side of things, are there because of spiritual somnolence (or somnambulism). Some have, in an expression dear to both of us, drunk the Kool-Aid.

At the risk of too much levity, I think of Indiana Jones, who was roused from his drug-induced trance in the Temple of Doom, by a little fire.

The fire came upon him, however, almost by accident. It was applied by one who loved him, desperately and more than half by accident, and only after much pleading.

I am sure that, though I have taxed your time more dearly than your kind solicitation warranted, there remains much to be said. Given more time, and greater ability, I might have said more, and more profitably, in fewer words. Please let these, which I have written, be also a token of the great esteem and affection I have for you, an expression of my gratitude for your great work.

In Domino,


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