On the relationship between Church and Power

8 06 2009


The Emperor, who was full of faith, now took courage to enter holy church where he prayed neither in a standing, nor in a kneeling posture, but throwing himself upon the ground. He tore his hair, struck his forehead, and shed torrents of tears, as he implored forgiveness of God. Ambrose restored him to favor, but forbade him to come inside the altar rail, ordering his deacon to say “The priests alone, O Emperor, are permitted to enter within the barriers by the altar. Retire then, and remain with the rest of the laity. A purple robe makes Emperors, but not priests. . .” Theodosius meekly obeyed, praising Ambrose for his spirit, and saying “Ambrose alone deserves the title of “bishop.”

The scene above, taken from the incident of St. Ambrose rebuking Theodosius, makes for “great cinema”, especially for us who have instinctively come to see “sticking it to the man” as the greatest feat of heroism a person can perform. We can go even further back to the Gospels themselves, where St. John the Baptist was beheaded for refusing to overlook the personal failings of another despot. That prophetic impulse, that tremendous courage to stand up to those in power who fall short of their call to be virtuous rulers, may make us proud to be Catholics and Christians. It may deflect any accusation that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of Caesaropapism. The only problem is that such displays are the exception and not the norm, and many times this is not due to cowardice, but to prudence. Just as with its secular counterpart, ecclesiastical politics can often be the art of the possible, not of the ideal.

As regular readers know, I am not one to comment on timely issues in very timely ways. The whole Barack Obama/Notre Dame incident deserves no more comment from me other than that I disapprove of the whole thing, but not in a very shocked and indignant tone. The less said about it, the better. There was a post on the Vox Nova blog that did get the hamsters in my head running on their squeeky wheels. What is far more interesting of a question is why Catholics of a “neoconservative” bent were surprised that the Vatican didn’t roll over and do what they wanted it to do: start shooting out excommunications faster than the stubby hand of an Italian scribe could write them. After all, aren’t its faithful in the most powerful country in the world supposed to determine policy and how the Vatican should think? Scratch that: only a small portion of that faithful who are actively thinking of ways to convert the white Catholic suburban church into the Republican Party in prayer (with their unthinking Protestant foot soilders in tow.) What part of “necessary” do the guys in funny hats not see up there in Rome when it comes to such a “Neo-Cath” counter-cultural assault?

Unfortunately, such people have not gotten the memo with the now cliché pithy axiom that Rome thinks in terms of centuries, while the rest of us think in terms of seconds. Of course all of this might be related to the realized eschatology and magisterial positivism of the Catholic right: the only thing that matters is the here and now, the here and now is where the Kingdom manifests itself, etc. This also goes hand in hand with the idea that religious affiliation comes with a very specific ideological affiliation: religious opinion is not just about being correct in philosophical terms, but also in cultural and societal ones. Your religion should be a full package that serves you up all of your opinions on a silver platter, making you “hip” and above a society weighed down by decadence and decay.

We should not belittle the issues involved. Abortion is indeed murder, and perhaps many of our leaders can come out with stronger condemnations of it in this society. But in the end, when these ideologues look on Rome with dismay when she sends out mixed messages, I have to really respond with a fairly annoyed, “what do you expect?!” The Vatican is still in many ways a secular power, and in many ways still thinks like one. It runs the largest international organization in the world, and has to step gingerly around the fact that it operates across borders, cultures, and continents. And to pretend that the Pope can get up on his balcony and proclaim, “confregit in die irae suae reges” is a bit silly in the 21st century context. The Vatican probably thinks that even in reaction to such black-and-white issue as abortion, diplomacy is the best policy.

The reality check is basically that if the Church goes “all medieval” on pro-abortion politicians, it would make the hierarchy look really, really bad. It would say to the rest of the world that, pardon my French, the people running the show don’t have their shit together. It would only all so obviously point out that the powerful Catholics who are wining and dining prelates and putting money in the coffers don’t have the Church call the shots in their own lives, professional as well as personal. And it would make it look as if when it comes to the Catholic Church, only such-and-such a person need apply, those who dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s of right-wing manifestos. We can argue until the cows come home about whether all of this is necessary, but with the current condition of Catholic opinion in this country and the rest of the world, you would have to exclude an ever increasing portion of our co-religionists from the fold. Catholicism is not used to thinking of things in that way within a given society. Right-wing American Catholics are since they emerge in a climate of cultural Calvinism where one is obsessed about being in the category of the “saved”. You can say that the lukewarm prelates and pundits are wrong, but you can’t say that they don’t have an argument.

I write this not as an apologia for compromise, because in many circumstances, compromise is exceptionally foolish. When devout Mexicans revolted against the government in the Cristero Rebellion in the 1920’s, it was church diplomats who sold out the lay warriors in a backroom deal. The insurgents were promptly disarmed and slaughtered by the anti-Catholic government in Mexico, though many escaped north to the United States. The Church tried many times to condemn and ban slavery, but slavery was legal in the Spanish Empire until 1886, and wasn’t banned in Brazil until a couple of years after that. And we need say nothing about the immorality of Catholic leaders themselves… The real point is that the institutional Church, as flawed, bloated, and inefficient as it is, jumps for no man, or no cause. I would like to say that this is because it has a better strategy up its sleeve, but my general cynical self gives a big “no” for an answer to that hypothesis. “Maybe lunch at a Roman restaurant, and then a siesta?” But really, a lot of times the best Catholic answer is bland praise or condemnation, and many times the best course of action is bureacratic inaction. After all, if human beings could save the world with their firebrand speeches and their marches in the street, what place would God have in all of it, really?

Again, for myself, I have no faith in princes, sons of men, billboards, radio ads, think tanks, or PAC’s. Spectacles of holy men in funny hats sticking it to the Man make for great theatre, but real life doesn’t work that way. Real life is about a lot of prayer, a lot of routine, and a lot of small sacrifices that go unnoticed, just as a man hanging from a tree outside of Jerusalem went unnoticed by hundreds of people that fateful day over 2,000 years ago. While the St. Ambrose / Theodosius-style show downs are also a fact of life in Christian history, it is the former spectacle that is far more normal, and dare I say it, far more effective.

[The undertone in this post comes from the fact that I am the product of the “barrio” church, though my hometown was slightly more mixed than that. For these right-wing Catholic ideologues, in spite of our numbers, Catholics of Latin American origin are at best like wallpaper for the American Church: best seen and not acknowledged. At worst, you have people like John Zmirak who seem to think that our presence is destroying the American polity, and their hardy reply to our presence is a big, “you kids get off my lawn”. Which is really saying, “you kids cut my lawn, and make sure to do a good job of it. But don’t expect anything else from me.”

Sorry, that was bouncing around in my head a long time…]



11 responses

12 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

When I quoted down the thread a prominent “Neo-Cath” who says “America functions. Much of the rest of the world does not”… what am I to say? You can’t inculturate stupidity. Nor is it really worthwhile to refute it.

Far from being a straw man, it is a parody of itself.

11 06 2009

“Certainly Adrian knows, because he/she can see into their souls, and has determined that such conversions are motivated by some gain other than concern for salvation. ”

Indeed, I can!

“Is not central banking just as worthwhile as reading tea leaves?”

No, it isn’t.

“Or, does this inroad of “city-on-a-hill” cultural elitism not worthy of baptism because its associated with people like Newt Gingrich, people who have no “culture?””

I’m truly glad that he is baptised, in the same way that I am truly glad when any wicked, power-hungry person is cured of cancer or finds true love. It’s a good thing. Newt Gingich certainly has “a culture,” but it is the culture of the Enemy.

11 06 2009

They certainly don’t come as reluctant Catholics, burdened by family or ethnic traditions.

But don’t they, though? Isn’t it, as Arturo identified, the cultural of American Calvinism? And why should we, in our broad minded Catholic kind of way, not respect these these white norther European hang-ups, such as an aptitude for secular politics, and concern for the affairs of the state, as being part of the WASPness that the church baptizes and uses for her own?

Why should it only be the pre-conversion baggage of certain peoples that we acknowledge as ‘folk-ways’ with their own praxis?

Is not central banking just as worthwhile as reading tea leaves?

Or, does this inroad of “city-on-a-hill” cultural elitism not worthy of baptism because its associated with people like Newt Gingrich, people who have no “culture?”

Or is it because its just not Catholic?

Certainly Adrian knows, because he/she can see into their souls, and has determined that such conversions are motivated by some gain other than concern for salvation. After all, it’s Newt Efing Gingrich! (Talk about a Calvinistic concern over being saved.)

I’m certainly no fan of every move of the religious right in the United States, but the redundant criticism of neo-catholic tendencies has turned the image of the one criticized into a caricature resembling a straw man.

Your religion should be a full package that serves you up all of your opinions on a silver platter, making you “hip” and above a society weighed down by decadence and decay.

Please. Can you find me these mythical pack of recently converted neoconservocaths who aren’t capable of disagreeing with each other?

Or does one’s recent conversion to the faith make one incapable of stroking one’s chin thoughtfully, and seeing the bigger picture?

9 06 2009

That dude has obviously never lived in Memphis.

America functions. Yeah.

We have a suburb or two here in Shelby County that functions.

The sorry apologias of people who have never had their backs against a wall.

9 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

One thought related to this post is on the American Catholics’ obsession with church annulments of their marriage. Perhaps the wildly disproportionate numbers of annulments granted to Americans is merely due to the wealth of the faithful here and their access to the institutional outlets that would allow them to seek such alternatives. On the other hand, perhaps it is easier for an American Catholic to lay blame for his failed marriage on the “imperfection” of his understanding of the institution, or the fact that they didn’t “do it right” the first time. Since the American Calvinist mentality expects that “the elect” can do not wrong, it is therefore not the fault of the couple if the “indissoluble” bond of marriage failed to form. It must have never been possible in the first place.

Canonist Edward Peters perhaps unwittingly crystallizes this opinion in a comment in this essay that I found on-line. For him, the increasing number of annulments is due to people having a “contraceptive mentality” at the point of entering the sacrament (I would like to know what mentality they had when entering the sacrament prior to the mass availability of artificial contraception. It is nice to know that some people have a time machine that can go back in time to read the minds of typical Catholic person back in the day. It would be nice if they shared such inventions with others. But then again, he is a canon lawyer, so what else is he going to say?)

When confronted with the fact that 80% of the world’s annulments are given to 5% of American Catholics, his cyncial yet droll answer is very enlightening:

He called citing the fact that Americans, who compose only five percent of the world’s Catholics, are granted 80 percent of the world’s annulments the “shallowest of all tribunal criticisms. Americans make up 6% of the world’s population, but they account for 100% of the men on the moon. So what? America functions. Much of the rest of the world does not.”

America functions, yet for Americans it is nearly impossible to enter into a proper marriage. And this guy is a pillar of the Neo-Catholic establishment, on Catholic radio, and is a minor celebrity in their media.

In the rest of the world, either people don’t care enough or don’t believe what the Catholic Church says about the indissolubility of marriage. But at the very least, they don’t seem to be as eager as American Catholics, even the conservative variety, to be in good with the institution. Keeping up appearances? Wanting to have your cake and eat it to? Not wanting to look bad in your own church since it might look bad for your reputation? In any event, others do not seem to have that exclusively American neurosis.

8 06 2009

That last anoymus comment is from me. I forgot to sign it. Sorry.

8 06 2009

“For these right-wing Catholic ideologues, in spite of our numbers, Catholics of Latin American origin are at best like wallpaper for the American Church: best seen and not acknowledged. At worst, you have people like John Zmirak who seem to think that our presence is destroying the American polity…”

I think that the presence of blacks and Latino Catholics in the United States is inherently problematic for writers like Zmirak, because it contradicts this notion that the Church is the fountainhead of European values. To put the matter bluntly, these two races are the bastard children of the West, and like all illegitimate offspring they must be kept out of sight as much as possible in the eyes of history, lest the offending parent be embarrased. Most individuals in these two races would not exist were it not for forced carnal relations between Europeans and subjegated women, which messes up the mutual self-admiration view of history that many right-wing neo-Catholics espose.

In any event, the concerns of the Catholic blogosphere constitute a very small percentage of the total Catholic population. This is why I think the Latin Mass movement and the general Liturgical Movement aren’t going to make any real changes. Unless you can convince Catholics in the barrios, ghettos, and rural areas why they should care about the difference between a dalmatic and a chasuble, these movements aren’t going to extend their influence outside of the armchair theologians.

8 06 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Very thoughtful and perceptive, Arturo. I find the same tendency to secular power in Orthodoxy, but it is mitigated a good deal by the strong ascetical aspect.

8 06 2009

Nicely said, Arturo and Adrian!

8 06 2009

When affluent, culturally-Protestant North Americans select Catholicism from the wide shelf of religious “products” we have in this country, they rarely come to the Church desperate for miracles or heavy with sin. They certainly don’t come as reluctant Catholics, burdened by family or ethnic traditions.

Instead, these Right-wing New Catholics, who never doubt their own salvation and consider themselves natural leaders in temporal affairs and card-carrying members of the heaven-bound Elect, adopt the Church as a kind of weapon against their political enemies or, like pharisees, master its official doctrines so they can loudly and learnedly pray (or bray) in the synagogue.

Others adopt it as a fashionable lifestyle accessory. Newt Gingrich has told us that he basically converted because he thinks Medieval stuff is really cool and Gothic churches really “resonate” with him. Well that’s nice. But Why not put a family crest on some stationary or, like Ignatius J. Riley, sign his name with a fucking fleur de lis!

8 06 2009

I find what you wrote above engaging–and, well, just plain smart.

Then I read this as I was perusing your blog:

There is no reason to believe that theology had anything to do with it. If anything, what was really at fault was fundamentalist ultramontanism that is a general outgrowth of realized eschatology; not so much a theological principle, but a religious ethos. In the midst of an increasingly persecuted Church, the hierarchy was seen as being able to do no wrong. Needless to say, the institutional Church in many places took that principle and ran with it, often over the backs of the innocent.

This is a more sophisticated, more nuanced version of what I was trying to get across regarding the Pius XII Holocaust matter over at that other blog. I’m linking to yours, at my livejournal. You probably are my kind of Catholic.

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