A Matter of Honesty, Part I--What Is The Problem Here?

Lots of people have lots of different diagnoses of the state of religion in general in the West and the Catholic Church in particular.  Some will say that the forces of secularism are to blame, necessitating that we retreat into protected, sectarian enclaves.  Some will say that the failures are mostly personal--if we only had better priests or better bishops (however one defines "better"), then things would be swell.  Some say it is simply a lack of faith.

I would like to offer an alternative theory.  I believe the biggest problem in the Catholic Church in 2016 is that our discourse--the way we talk to each other and to the outside world--is fundamentally dishonest.  When we talk about the issues that are affecting us or are at the front of our collective consciousness, far too often we don't talk about what the actual issues are and what we actually think about them, but instead we have this constructed, artificial discussion that is designed to be a substitute and a proxy for the heart of the matter, without actually getting to the heart of the matter, ever.  And, we have been doing it for so long that this faux discourse has taken on a life of its own, such that we get into long and convoluted fights over the terms of this  artificial debate, all of which achieve nothing and are never resolvable because, again, the artificial debate is artificial and is never about the real issues that divide us.  All "sides" of the Catholic spectrum engage in his dishonest discourse; indeed, I think there is a strong case to be made that the "liberal" or progressive side of the Catholic ledger is more dishonest than the conservative side, but the conservative side certainly has its dishonest dimensions.  I have certainly engaged in lots of dishonest talk, including in this space.

So, what is dishonest about "Catholic talk"?  Consider this article by Fr. Matt Malone, S.J., in America magazine.  Let's look at the first paragraph:

I can virtually guarantee you that if you attend Mass on Sunday morning in any parish in the United States, you will find yourself sitting in a pew near someone who disagrees with you about what the public policy should be on abortion. Or same-sex marriage. Or the death penalty. While the teaching of the church on the moral dimensions of these issues is clear and consistent, there is today, as there has always been, a spirited debate about how to apply those moral principles in the public realm, one that is democratic, diverse and nonsectarian. 

The first three sentences of the paragraph are true, but the fourth sentence is dishonest.  The implication here, and this is the classic formulation of this sort of issue from the point of view of the "Catholic left," is that everyone sitting in the pews agrees and accepts the moral authority of the Catholic Church to declare that abortion and same-sex marriage are moral evils and the death penalty to be more or less also a moral evil (at least, right now).  What we are having, in this account, is a complex and technical debate over how those particular unchallenged moral precepts can and must be converted into public policy.  So, we have quotes from John Courtney Murray, we have discussions of the significance of pluralism and tolerance in a diverse society, much talk of "prudential judgment," etc.

This formulation of the issue does not accurately reflect what is actually going on in the pews at "Mass on a Sunday morning in any parish in the United States."  At all.  It is indeed the case that you "will find yourself sitting in a pew near someone who disagrees with you" about abortion or LGBT issues.  But the reason you will find people that disagree on these issues because a majority of Catholics, and with regard to certain issues an overwhelming majority of Catholics (and by "majority of Catholics," I mean both laity and clergy), think that the official positions of the Church with regard to a discrete basket of questions that on some level relate to sexuality are flat-out wrong.  Not "sometimes I don't follow what the Church says even though I know it's right."  Not "I don't understand what the Church is teaching, so everything is confusing."  No, people understand perfectly well what the Church is saying on these topics, and they reject it, full stop.

With regard to abortion, those Catholics who favor the legality of abortion mostly do so because they think that abortion is morally acceptable, or (more likely) they have some nuanced position on the morality of abortion under certain scenarios--a nuanced position which, it must be said, is wholly inconsistent with the Catholic Church's position on abortion, which allows for essentially no nuance or grey area.  Their politics stem from their moral analysis of abortion, not from some convoluted analysis of the proper structuring of a pluralistic society.  Likewise, if there is any Catholic intellectual responsible for the fact that 60%+ of U.S. Catholics support gay marriage, it is Andrew Sullivan (who articulated the idea that gay marriage is a moral good), not John Courtney Murray.  And, in maybe the clearest example, a majority of Catholic women think that private employers should be required to provide contraceptive services to their employees, and 40% of them think churches should be required to provide such coverage.  Isn't it far more likely that this is because those women think access to birth control is a moral good for all women, contrary to Humanae Vitae and its progeny, than because they are opposed to the principle of religious freedom in toto?

The problem, of course, is that the theology of the Catholic Church says that not only are the positions of the Church on these issues not wrong, but that they cannot be wrong, because the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church and is protected from being wrong. This is an obvious and direct conflict--if it is the case that the Catholic Church is "infallible" in the way it claims to be, the vast majority of Catholics are wrong and are at least dissenters, if not heretics.  If the majority of the Catholics in the pews are right, then the Catholic Church cannot sustain the full panoply of its claims to authority, and will have to go back to the drawing board in a very fundamental way.  Or, at a minimum, the very fact that a majority of Catholics don't accept these non-negotiable moral positions means that they also don't believe in the claims the Catholic Church makes with regard to its own authority.

So, we should be having a debate about the merits of the Catholic Church's moral claims, and/or having a debate about the proper scope of the Catholic Church's authority to pronounce on moral questions in a way that binds its members.  But, instead of having those debates, both the pro-Church and implicitly "anti-Church" sides have tacitly agreed to reformat their positions to avoid that core clash of incompatible ideas.  The folks that think their Church is just wrong about a bunch of things have found various work-arounds to recast their positions in terms that allow them to articulate their views without having to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church in a formal sense--appeals to "conscience" or "tolerance" or nuanced political theories to shield them from having to admit they think that the underlying moral claim made by the Church is just nonsense.  Indeed, the article by Fr. Malone is a perfect example of this reformatting.  Rather than discuss the merits of Tim Kaine's positions and voting record (or, for that matter, Fr. Malone's views on these questions), he jumps deep into the rabbit-hole of political theory.  By pretending that the dispute is over political theory, Fr. Malone can avoid acknowledging that the real dispute among Catholics is about moral theology and ecclesiology.

But there is an equal amount of dishonesty from the conservative side of these non-debate debates.  First the conservative folks have agreed, at more or less every turn, to accept these obviously pretextual terms of this non-debate; second, and related to the first, many of the arguments used by the "Catholic right" in support of its positions are just as disingenuous and obscurantist as those from the other side.  Said another way, while the "Catholic left" has pretended to accept the authority of the Church to pronounce definitively on these moral matters, the "Catholic right" has more or less pretended to believe them, and agreed to have a debate on these terms.  Except when this debate is actually joined, the arguments advanced by the conservative side intentionally manipulate and misstate their own premises, often for the purpose of closing down any actual discussion.  For as much as the Catholic left wants desperately to avoid talking about the real issues, at least they are willing to have actual dialogue about something, whereas the right says it wants to talk and then immediately pulls out one of several contrived "I Win" buttons and declares victory.

In this series, I want to go into some depth about the specific sorts of discourse that are dishonest, but before getting to that I want to note how both sides have become completely numb to how bizarre the status quo actually is.  The idea that you would have an institution that asserts that its members must believe X in order to be members in good standing, a majority of people openly ignore that dictate, everyone just goes about their business, and no one talks about this is surreal.  But we have become so used to this that most Catholics don't even notice how strange this is.

I mean, I never thought about how strange it is until recently.  A couple of months back, I was listening to a podcast from Homebrewed Christianity, and one of the main guys (I believe it was Tripp Fuller) asserted that Pope Francis is a failure as a pastor because he tells people that shouldn't use birth control and everyone ignores him.  At first I was taken aback and a little angry by that claim, but upon further reflection he is 100% correct.  If the sheep are actively and publicly refusing to follow the shepherd, then he is not much of a shepherd, is he?  That premise would seem self-evident to many religious believers, or even people who are part of organizations, period.  But Catholics have become so accustomed to the comforting bubble of their non-debate debates that the assertion seems radical, even somewhat perverse.  We have no concept of how utterly weird and dysfunctional this looks to outsiders.

Of late, I have become skeptical that the relevant players are ever going to be willing to break out from this model.  Frankly, I think both the "Catholic left" and "Catholic right" would just assume have those who are unwilling to play along with this Kabuki theater leave, as opposed to having to put aside their constructions and get real.  But I believe, firmly, that if we don't do just that, if we don't start having the sort of honest conversation that we have tried so hard to avoid for fifty years, nothing is going to get better.  We are going to be stuck in the same spiral of useless, unproductive talk that we have engaged in for almost two generations.  If we are going to get out of this, we are going to have to name what is dishonest about how we talk.  That, I hope, is what this series is going to try to do.    


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