Catholic in America

Quite the controversy was stirred up recently when it was revealed that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island had asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) to refrain from taking communion. The reason?

Here’s the bishop himself offering a synopsis:

“He attacked the church. He attacked the position of the church on health care, on abortion, on funding,” Tobin said. “And that required that I respond. I don’t go out looking for these guys. I don’t go out picking these fights.”

You could have fooled me, Your Excellency.

“Attacked.” Pretty strong words. I think if you ask most people, “attack” brings up notions of adversary or enemy. So according to the bishop, Patrick Kennedy is the enemy of the Catholic Church, at least in Rhode Island.

Why? Ah yes, he “attacked” the position of the Church on health care and abortion. Did he really?

I don’t know. But here’s what I wonder.

I wonder if the people who seem like the Church’s greatest enemies aren’t doing them the greatest of services. I also wonder if love and devotion is always and everywhere expressed through cognitive agreement.

I also wonder who or what I’m hurting if I call into question the “morality” of holding health care reform hostage to the abortion issue. Am I really supposed to keep my mouth shut on these or other matters of morality simply because I’m no longer a Catholic?

I think some would have us believe that Catholics, Christians, or the religious in general enjoy an exclusive right to speak with authority on moral matters. They might even suggest that whenever something is done in the name of religion it should enjoy an automatic immunity from criticism or critique (especially of the internal variety).

I couldn’t disagree more.

You see, I question the genesis of the Stupak Amendment. I wonder if it was ever really designed to serve the anti-abortion cause. I wonder, instead, if its timing doesn’t reveal it to be a legislative hand grenade lobbed in the general direction of a President and his party.

And speaking of morality, I also question the morals of threatening to withdraw aid to the poor if lesbians and gays are granted equal protection under civil (not natural, not canon, but civil) law in the District of Columbia.

In recent years, I’ve come to question whether the only legitimate way to oppose abortion is to support its re-criminalization. For a bit longer, I’ve questioned whether making abortion a litmus test for membership in the Catholic communion reduces the faith to the status of a political movement, or ties its fortunes excessively to those of a particular political party.

I’ve also wondered out loud whether it’s pastorally, theologically, or morally appropriate for bishops or priests to use what Catholics consider to be a sacrament – the body and blood of their risen Lord – as a political weapon to punish dissident Catholics.

I also question whether such practices are in keeping with what many regard as the bishops’ highest function: to be a pastor.

Is it any more appropriate to withhold Communion from a seeking parishioner than it is to withhold food from a misbehaving guest to one’s home? How about from one’s misbehaving child?

When parents threaten to withhold food, does this suggest to the outside observer that they’ve got matters firmly in hand, or that things are getting a little out of control?

What would you do if you heard a parent threatening a child this way in a public place? Would you get angry or upset? And would you walk away simply because “that’s an internal family matter?”

Or would your humanity and concern for the (spiritual) child – or awareness of the significance of (spiritual) food lead you to say, “hey, bishop, wait a minute, hold on, time out!”

Lastly, back when I was a “capital C” Catholic I heard some pretty interesting things about the sacrament of Communion. Among those were its description as a transformative encounter in more ways than one.

There’s the transsubstantiation, to be sure, the mysterious conversion of bread and wine to the body and blood of someone who conquered death (and did this in order to pay the tab for everybody). But there was also something about transformation of souls.

I ask myself this: isn’t it possible that administering the sacrament of Communion might, in and of itself, change hearts? On things like abortion? Or the pastorality of using the Host in particular ways?

Now this is just a hunch, and I could be wrong, but let me share my suspicions anyway.

What if those who refuse to acknowledge possibilities like the foregoing don’t believe enough in the power of the sacrament? Logically, then, they’d have to resort to their own powers – ministrations, exhortations, and other behaviors – to make the things they want to happen take place.

I wonder, then, what would happen if they stepped out of the way a little bit and just let the sacrament do its work.

Back when I was considering becoming a priest, I had a spiritual director who said that Catholics who didn’t fully believe in the power of the sacraments weren’t bad or evil people, simply not fully converted Catholics. I’ve never been able to shake those words or their effect on me.

Anyway, those are my pastoral, moral, and theological concerns with the bishop’s actions. Here are my political ones.

Whenever any cleric applies political pressure to an elected official of their faith, it undermines a particular kind of trust. The voter in a pluralistic society which believes in the separation of church and state needs to believe in the independence of their elected officials from their church.

Not divorce. Not marriage. Independence.

Of course, in a theocracy, none of this matters. But we’re not a theocracy, at least not yet.

Let’s say you’re not Catholic. What incentive could you possibly have to vote for someone who’s at risk of having to answer to their priest or bishop instead of to you, her constituent?

Let’s say you are Catholic, and would dearly love to see more of your people elected to higher office. You thought the days of anti-Catholic prejudice were over, when people accused people like Jack Kennedy of being an agent of the Pope. But now those criticisms are back, and you’re forced to defend your faith and citizenship once again.

The harm to the political fortunes of Catholic politicians in a pluralistic society would be minimized if the pressure were applied behind closed doors. But it’s not. It’s a spectacle now.

The bishop’s actions would be pastoral if the shepherd’s staff were a javelin, but it’s not.

And the bishop’s actions would be great politics if we were a nation of Catholics, and conservative Republicans ones at that.

But we’re not.

As with anything I write, I reserve full permission to revise and extend my remarks on these matters in the face of new and compelling evidence.

Readers, where have I gotten it wrong? Let me know, and I’ll proudly post whatever it is you convince me of in my next post on this topic.

Puritanism and the American Project

The Puritans have received a lot of praise for being among the first and most successful American colonists, as well as for imparting a unique individualism and work ethic onto the American political landscape.

It’s been my view for a long time, however, that while individual Puritans may or may not deserve praise, Puritanism itself does not. In fact, I think quite the opposite is the case: that the noose gradually tightening for years around the neck of our political and civic discourse has been nothing other than a resurgence of Puritanism in American culture.

I should probably define my terms. I use “Puritanism” to refer to intrinsically antiseptic, at times anaphylactic reaction to life, experience, and its possibilities. Like any good Calvinist, the Puritan divides up reality between an all-good God and an all-terrible human and physical nature, and looks at life as a series of unending chores to be responsibly, humorlessly, and stoically performed.

To quote Nietzsche, Puritanism is life-denying, rather than life-affirming.

Now it’s not bad to be a Puritan when you’ve got actual chores to do, work to get done that’s not intrinsically pleasurable or otherwise gratifying, or a whole lot of sensuous temptations at your doorstep. As with anything else, we can overdose on life and its possibilities, and it’s good to take a breather from it every once in a while, if for no other reason than to organize ourselves and/or get our bearings.

It’s when that breather becomes crystallized into a moral stance that the trouble starts. Austerity, a necessity under conditions of economic hardship, gets easily generalized for some into a global virtue. Regardless of the state of the (or our) economy, we find ourselves as conservative with respect to our bodies and each other as we are with our dollars.

Conservatism is the key phrase for the Puritan, as in “be careful.” Too much food will make you fat. Too much sex will make you unfit to stand before God.

Too much compassion for others will make you weak, effeminate, drain your resources, or needlessly protect others from the liberating (and God-ordained) consequences of their own behavior.

Too much imagination will compromise your grip on reality. Too much wishing will do the same, but faster. Too much passion will dull your mind, and bring you that much closer to the animals we’re all so superior too (we have to eat them, after all).

And if you derive any pleasure at all from the exercise of the intellect…well, then…you know what to do. For Puritans, Anti-intellectualism can be as much a sacred calling, after all, as purging the art and other extravagance from your home.

In short, too much life will make you dizzy, so the message is: be careful when dipping into the sauce, literal or otherwise.

At the heart of the Puritan response to life is the cold, lonely individualism of Calvinism. In Calvin’s world, we are all fundamentally alone and cut off from one another, so we cannot depend on anyone but God for help when things get tough (it goes without saying that, others, being human and sinful, cannot possibly be coextensive with God).

It is thus that resting your head on the shoulder of another — whatever the reason or purpose — is forbidden. And there goes the social contract, replaced instead by the contract on all of us taken out by a petty, vindictive, and all-powerful celestial being who’s already picked those he’s going to save, and is just not telling us.

You know, like any good loving father would.

What Puritans are telling us is that they’re cold, they’re frightened, and that whatever love they have left feels like the precious bodily fluids of the general in Dr. Strangelove: something that could be stolen by others on a moment’s notice.

Love is a zero-sum game for Puritans: the more you withhold, the more you have. When you share it, it disappears; when you hoard it, it appreciates in value.

As with cash, a dollar spent is a dollar lost. Returns on investments of love or compassion are almost unheard of for the Puritan; in fact, the very notion of a stock market is like gambling. And we know how we feel about that.

In politics, the individualism at the core of Puritanism takes on a perverse twist. It’s not just when times are tough, economically or socially, that we have to fend for ourselves. It’s always.

That’s why helping one another out with things like universal access to health care would corrupt them: you’re giving someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish for themselves.

And there lurks another hidden fear of the Puritan: depending on others. God help you, the Puritan shouts from the rooftops, if you’re ever forced to rely on anyone for anything. Not only is this unnatural, they claim, but unholy: one should only rely on oneself and God.

For the Puritan, depending on others is like giving another sinner the keys to your house. Do you really trust that stranger? Of course not! Then see to it you never need them for anything. Ever.

Puritanism is, by that score, also deeply apolitical. If politics — at least at the professional level — is about cultivating relationships of mutual reward and dependence, then the Puritan can have nothing of it.

Unless, of course, she’s in charge of the whole colony.

In addition, helping the poor, unfortunate, and afflicted on anything but an individual-to-individual basis only interferes with God’s plan to condemn the unholy. And we know, from Calvin, that God’s held that lottery already.

This is the crowning achievement of someone like Ayn Rand: the ability to combine the uniquely Puritanical mixture of selfishness, individualism, condescension, mean-spiritedness, and authoritarianism into a single “philosophy” and market the entire package as a virtue.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. Part of me thinks you can unfreeze a Puritan by giving them the kind of love and compassion they’re so unwilling to bestow on others, but experience teaches me this can be very, very draining. Poor souls are so starved they either lick it right up or toss those cookies right back at you.

I think, rather, the Puritan spirit needs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and understood. Only then can we recognize its workings in each and every one of us; we are, after all, our own best bomb squads.