Sometimes You Have To Grab a Tray

Happy Environmental Encyclical Day!  Or, as it is known in some circles, liberal Catholic Schadenfreude Day.  I recognize that I should probably take a measured tone and not rejoice in watching our conservative and traditionalist brothers and sisters squirm.  And I think with this post I have succeeded.  Sort of.

You will hear in the days to come the word "cafeteria Catholic" thrown around, and perhaps you are not familiar with that term.  Well, the ever-zealous folks at Catholic Answers say "[a] cafeteria Catholic is typically defined as one who picks and chooses what Catholic teaching he wants to believe. Catholics are not free to choose which teachings (on faith and morals) to obey."  Hmm, interesting. Sounds like some folks are bellying up to the cafeteria line, as can be seen here and here and of course here.

As a frequent and long-term diner at the cafeteria, I would point out that there are two kinds of folks that are grouped into the category of "cafeteria Catholics."  The first are people that "pick and choose what Catholic teaching he [or she] want to believe" as a product of some other, non-religious, agenda that is primary--the parts of Catholicism that fit into that other paradigm are retained, the parts that don't are not.  To return to the cafeteria analogy, these are the people that just like having choices and the freedom to pick what they want.  The other group are people that go to the cafeteria because the prix fixe menu they are presented with at the table is not fitting together, or there is a dish being served that they are allergic to, and they feel they have to go to buffet line.  And, when we are being honest, sometimes we are both.

Which brings me to Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum is the former Senator from Pennsylvania, a guy who technically finished second in the Republican primary race in 2012, and is currently running again for President (though, early signs point to his campaign being DOA).  Rick Santorum is Catholic, and not sort-of Catholic, either.  In this piece, written in 2005, a quote from a former aide describes Santorum as "a Catholic missionary who happens to be in the Senate."  He ran catechism classes in the Senate, among Senators.  He is, by every conceivable definition, a hardcore conservative Catholic.  But he also claims to be motivated by his faith to reach out into areas that are often difficult territory for Republicans, like poverty programs.  Rick Santorum wants you to know that he is the real deal.

I could pick all sorts of examples of Santorum's zealous commitment to Catholicism, but let's take a journey back in time with me to 2005.
Mr. Santorum was a member of the United States Senate at that time.  I was living in Florida at the time, and the story that dominated all of the news in Florida involved a woman named Terri Schiavo.  Ms. Schiavo had an unexpected cardiac event in 1990, and her brain was without oxygen for an extended period of time.  As a result, she suffered from profound brain damage, and was declared to be in a "persistive vegetative state"--her brain could support basic life support functions like breathing, but there was not cognitive activity.  In 1998--eight years after the heart attack--Terri Schiavo's husband went to court to have her declared legally deceased, so that her feeding tube could be removed.  Terri Schiavo's parents fought this move tooth and nail, and so began 6+ years of litigation.

The parents made no bones about the fact that their motivation for their steadfast resistance to removing the feeding tube was grounded in their Catholic faith, and the case became a cause celebre in Catholic circles.  The parents also argued that Terri Schiavo was not, in fact, in a hopeless state, and that she was aware of her surroundings and conscious, if unable to communicate. Now, this was contrary to all of the scientific evidence available, including a CT scan that showed that large sections of her brain had simply wasted away.  As it turns out, the autopsy revealed that Schiavo's brain was about half the mass of a normal human brain.  So, when neurologists stated that her damage was such that she was incapable of recovery, there is no reason to doubt that conclusion.

Well, Rick Santorum doubted.  He sponsored a bill that yanked the case out of Florida state court and in to federal court.  In the course of advocating for this bill, Santorum opined that Schiavo's condition was “close to equivalent of someone with the disease cerebral palsy.”  He defended his position on explicitly Catholic, pro-life principles.  He called removing the feeding tube an "execution," and called the people advocating for it murderers.

Rick Santorum took it upon himself to defy science, defy the normal procedures, and even defy his own political best interests (Santorum got crushed in his re-election race in 2006, and there is a strong sense it was in large part because of disapproval of his active role in the Schiavo case).  All for Catholicism, one would believe.

Here's Santorum last week:

My favorite part of the interview is where Chris Wallace, perhaps channeling the spirit of this late father, was like "wait a minute, if Pope Francis can't talk about climate change because he is not a scientist, why the hell can you talk about it?"  And Santorum's response?  "Because I'm a politician!  There are more pressing matters facing the earth!"  Like what, Rick?  Asteroids?  And he even went to the Galileo card!  A true tour de force of cafeteria Catholicism.

But the big take away from Santorum is the science should not be held hostage to religious interests and agendas.  The same science that stated, correctly as it turned out, that Terri Schiavo was long gone.   Ten years ago science had to give way to the dictates of faith, but now suddenly when it has to do with the environment we must allow science to be free of religious meddling.

The position Rick Santorum took in 2005 is wholly inconsistent with the position he is taking now.  The easiest explanation for this is the cynical one--all of this talk of Catholicism was an opportunistic tool to advance a purely political agenda.  That's surely true of many of the other folks freaking out about the environmental encyclical (*cough* Jeb Bush *cough*).  And there is evidence to suggest that is true of Santorum as well. But that was never my read on Santorum.  I think this business of "religion should stay out of science" is the B.S. part, not the religious commitment.  I think the 2005 Santorum is the real Santorum.

So, why would he say what he did last week?  Go back to that 2005 piece, and there is a quote that jumps out at me.

"How is it possible, I wonder, to believe in the existence of God yet refuse to express outrage when his moral code is flouted?" he asked that day. "To have faith in God, but to reject moral absolutes?"

For Rick Santorum, and for many, many people like him, the entire point of faith is to have a set of unchallengable principles that can be applied to everything and to everyone.  And, implicitly, insofar as I follow those principles, I am on the side of righteousness, and the folks that don't are opposing righteousness, and God.  It is what I have called before the Politics of Certainty.

The great heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson, when asked whether he thought that his opponent would have a plan to fight him, said "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."  Its easy to talk about moral absolutes when you are sure that you are on the correct side of those absolutes.  Pope Francis comes along and challenges the easy assurance that this is true.  The moment you begin to question whether you are indeed on the side of God, all of that certainty drains away.

And make no mistake.  Pope Francis's encyclical is not really about science; it's about morality.  It is about pointing an accusatory finger of judgment at people like Rick Santorum, and people like me, who are comfortable with taking what they can from the world around them without heeding the costs to others.  People like Santorum are not used to having the finger of judgment pointed at them by their own Church.  For the folks who have spent the 35 years of Popes John Paul II and Benedict so sure that they were the righteous, Pope Francis is a punch in the mouth.  And, like a boxer punched in the mouth, folks like Santorum are flailing around without a plan.

You will not be surprised to learn that Jesus has some things to say on this topic.  In the story of the man born blind (John 9), Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth.  Blindness of this type was seen as being the result of sin, either his or his parents' sin.  Everyone knew that.  So, when Jesus heals the man, the Pharisees have a ton of questions to ask, first of the man, and then of Jesus.  How is it that these ironclad rules can be flaunted?  Jesus, as was His way, turns the tables on them.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

In other words, "the formerly blind man is not the sinner; you are the sinner."  The Pharisees didn't want to hear it from Jesus, and we don't want to hear it from Pope Francis.  Rick Santorum's interview is two minutes of pointless talking that could be summed up as "surely we are not blind, are we?"

I understand where I think Santorum is coming from, because I have been there, and am there.  You want to be "all in" but you find you can't integrate all of the pieces of what you are being given.  It is dislocating and painful.  But you learn to find grace in the moving line of the cafeteria.  I hope Santorum finds that grace.

And, here's the thing.  Maybe Pope Francis is wrong, and Santorum is right.  I really, really doubt it, but it is certainly possible.  One of the consequences of moving to the cafeteria line is that you recognize that Catholic leaders don't actually always get it right.  The problem with the John 9 analogy is that Jesus is God and the Pope is not.  If I think Humanae Vitae is fundamentally misguided, I must accept the possibility that Laudato Si' is as well.  And, of course, visa versa for Santorum, one hopes.

Don't get me wrong--I think much of what Rick Santorum is about is scary and destructive.  And, as I said earlier, maybe he really is full of shit.  But if the actual Rick Santorum is not actually like the construct of Rick Santorum I have created, then there is someone who is legitimately in that place.  And I genuinely sympathize with that person.  It's hard to be told that you are not necessarily right and do not necessarily have all the answers.  It's not a great feeling for a dedicated Catholic to pick up a tray.  But sometimes you have to do it.

Postscript:  Here was the song playing on the radio this morning as I was driving in to work, which I found appropriate.  Also, terrifying puppets.


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