Tectonic Shifts

June 11, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Paul Baumann’s review essay in the June 3rd essay of The Nation is noteworthy on several counts. An article by the editor of the liberal Catholic journal, Commonweal, about a new book, Evangelical Catholicism, by George Weigel, “the neo-conservative leader of American Catholicism’s war on Vatican II,” as Baumann describes him, would be noteworthy in itself. That it is an incisive analysis of the crisis facing the American church makes it doubly so.

But to grasp the full significance of this review you need also to understand that it appears in a magazine that published some of the most anti-Catholic articles in the post-World War II period. Written by Paul Blanshard, one of The Nation’s editors, they were eventually collected in a book, American Freedom and Catholic Power. In The New Anti-Catholicism, scholar of American religion Philip Jenkins says that Blanshard’s plan of resistance against Catholicism in that book echoed the anti-Catholic proposals of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet now we have a nationally recognized Catholic journalist publishing about Catholicism in that magazine and even offering pointed criticisms of the institutional church there.

Baumann begins by situating Evangelical Catholicism within the context of the American bishops’ fevered opposition to Barack Obama’s first-term agenda, including their attack on the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama to give their commencement address in 2009. The bishops’ opposition culminated in the “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on the contraceptives mandate of the Affordable Care Act during the 2012 campaign, followed by their rejection of two successive compromises the administration proposed on same. This uproar reveals how “deeply divided and directionless the once formidable and coherent” American church has become, tutored as the bishops are by neo-conservative intellectuals. And, Baumann assures us, if Evangelical Catholicism is any indicator, the divisions are only going to get worse.

For those mercifully unfamiliar with Weigel’s legacy prior to this latest book, Baumann provides a helpful overview, noting, for example, Weigel’s rebuttals of the US bishops’ fine 1980s pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace”and “Economic Justice for All.” The much more conservative successors of those “Vatican II” bishops seem to have completely swallowed Weigel’s neo-con arguments, however, almost passing a pastoral letter in the summer of 2012 that described the economic downturn as a result of the nation’s moral failings–divorce, same-sex marriage and of course, abortion. Regulations of financial institutions or how to allocate public funds to the needy are questions of individual conscience, however. This, Baumann tells us, bears a “striking resemblance” to Weigel’s recommendations in Evangelical Catholicism.

Weigel’s “evangelical Catholicism,” we learn, is the successor to the “tribal Catholicism” of previous centuries, where bishops stressed building churches and hospitals and supporting the poor. Instead, the Catholics of the future will “speak of their faith in an evangelical idiom once considered Protestant…(in which) ‘friendship with the Lord Jesus’ will be as integral as Mass on Sunday.”

Moreover, according to Weigel, this new Catholicism is essential to the survival of human rights and democracy. Conversion to Catholic natural law morality is the only way forward.
Baumann, not exactly a Nation secularist, agrees that the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition has resources to offer American democracy. But, he assures us, that’s not all we need as we deal with our increasing multiculturalism. Weigel is the avatar of rigid and reactionary approaches to such diversity, Baumann tells us, and Evangelical Catholicism/em>is a repetitious diatribe. The cause of our current crisis is not, Baumann argues, the “permissive morality of liberal elites, but our economic system.” The Vatican II fathers taught that the only way forward for the church is to let modernity in even as we engage it critically. But Evangelical Catholicism advocates closing as many doors as possible.

The first “tectonic shift” in all of this is, of course, the publication of an article by a Catholic journalist in a once virulently anti-Catholic magazine. The second is the call by an extremely conservative American Catholic for an “evangelical Catholicism” that is seriously far removed from the sacramental Catholicism of previous millenia. And the third? That the US bishops are falling for such neo-conservative propaganda. As Baumann observes, almost parenthetically, Cardinal Dolan, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently hired as his spokesperson one of the political consultants from Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. (Palin, you may recall, is a former Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism and seems less than committed to Catholic social justice teaching.)

Jesus. Mary, and Joseph.

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2 Comments »

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  1. This calls to mind many, many garden-side discussions between my father and Dan Kane.  My Dad an avid reader of America Magazine and a few heavy duty books a year, and Dan reporting on the latest or upcoming meetings of the catholic press core in D.C. and his conversations with Archbishop Alter.  The broader implications of policies that Dan would challenge people on and a constant battle to hold the church back from the right and embrace Vatican II…lots I did not understand but truly fascinating and worth the time to eavesdrop….Pat   Dave signed on a 3 bdr on the “edge of Queens and Brooklyn” , 3 1/2 blocks from a express train to work….it’s happening !!!

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  2. Many of my friends are only Catholic because of the work of Pax Christi and the Vatican II bishops for peace and justice for all. I find it more difficult to find a parish where the sermon does not send me out the door looking for the love of God I came into the church to find. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, indeed, pray for us.

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