The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

“Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

The average American parishioner is more faithful to the Democratic and Republican platforms than the Credo. Alasdair MacIntyre pithily noted this (classical) liberal creep in his classic Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

Our political picture isn't red or blue, it's more like grey.

Our political picture isn’t red or blue, it’s more like grey.

If you want proof the unity of opposites (on the classical liberal spectrum) then go no further than the recent ecclesiological suggestions of Ross Douthat and Anthony Paul Smith.

First, pay careful attention to the wording of Smith’s latest bit of writing for a general audience:

“To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.”

Now compare this with the takeaway from Douthat’s February takedown of the Neuhaus Catholic Moment:

“Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.

But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.”

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

Are we seriously supposed to entertain the possibility that a fight where the laity slays the hierarchy is the only tactically viable maneuver for the Catholic Church?! This sounds like suicide through competition to me. It echoes the fight between the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The film is a comedy for those of you who missed it.

Michael Sean Winters, in a recent repost of a long-lost article, proposes the work of David Schindler as one possible way to do an end-around the whole classical liberal Hydra represented by Smith and Douthat: 

“The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that ‘in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.’

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not ‘articles of faith’ but ‘articles of peace.’ But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively ‘neutral’ state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a ‘privatization’ of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world ‘as Church’ (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being ‘Christian’ is reduced to being kind.”

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

Working out his project seems to be the only viable alternative to this:

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20 thoughts on “The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

  1. I see we’ve gone from creepily and obsessively sending me Facebook requests to misrepresenting me on your blog. But let’s leave that aside. First, the opening remark you quote refers to the very simple fact that religion is a big, messy object of study. That it isn’t reducible to either the idealist version of “just the theology” or the positivist fantasy of “just what people do”. To recognize that these things exist within the same object is a pretty common fact of studying religion as such, though all too often theologians ignore studies in ethnography or only look to studies in ethnography that support their vision of how “those in the pews” actually are. I wasn’t suggesting that there are 1.2 billion liberals compared to the small hold out of conservatives in the magisterium. That would be idiotic. Clearly the political and social beliefs and actions of Catholic believers is quite varied. Pointing out this difference had two ideas behind. 1) To introduce the general reader to this idea that religion, including Catholicism is “not one thing” and 2) open up the very different material concerns and realities for those in the magisterium and the vast majority of Catholics. Second, as your own quotation of me suggests, my short op-ed piece wasn’t about American Catholicism at all. Nor am I suggesting that the Catholic hierarchy needs to become more liberal in the technical sense of liberalism. I’m not a liberal and don’t advocate for liberalism as a political or ethical system. Indeed, much of my issues with those who advocate some Catholic third way-ism is that they end up advocating a liberalism de facto, while disavowing that advocacy (Poland, your home country, actually contains perhaps the most perfect example of the Catholic third-wayism ending in the perfect storm of liberal economics and reactionary biopolitics, a truly disturbing culture has emerged there as Agata Pyzik has argued in her articles). I realize this messes with your nice neat little fantasy of what critiques of the magisterium have in mind, but unfortunately if you ever get outside your little RO/RC ghetto you are going to have to deal with your fantasies being messed with by reality. This little blog post would be sort of pathetic with pathetic its nerdy attempts at humor, if it wasn’t that you are repeating the same old shitty nonarguments we have been having to hear from the Catholic right for the past two decades and that have been hegemonic in amongst the Catholic intelligentsia. You don’t need a weatherman…

  2. I was just thinking that in the interest of developing of truly critical geopolitics, the contested processes of cultural geographical formation should be highlighted in ways that resist hegemonic cultural ideologies instead of reinforcing them.

      • Which one? They’ve been changing them like Liza Minnelli changes shoes, including a long run of former Communists in the SLD government. You are clearly out of your element, Orientalist.

      • Thanks for admitting your earlier remarks were driven by anti-Polish prejudice rather than by any substantial knowledge. APS: It’s time to hit the books.

      • While I agree that state policies are aimed to create certain forms of governmentalities, my sense is that the agency of the governed is seldom stripped by policy, but redirected in quotidian practices that co-opt policy structures for the construction of lifeworlds that may in fact turn out inadvertently (and perhaps even unintentionally) to resist state hegemonies. If indeed the agenda is to uncover the agency of people thought to be subjectified in certain ways (either by religious or secular state institutions), then certainly one should differentiate between the policy geographies advanced by the state and the quotidian spaces constructed by pied-à-terre citizens.

    • So it turns out you were talking out of your posterior on two fronts (three if we count the kenotic op-ed, but why would we)?

      That’s some talent. You should make a career out of it. There’s always a market for it.

  3. Excellent! Schindler is the real deal and you do well to point out Blessed Alasdair Mc on “liberalism”….though it is important to point out
    that the kinds of “liberalism” are as many and various as kinds of “catholics”….The idea of an American Catholicism as something separate and alive is like trying to give a separate meaningful existence to a severed limb.

    ITB (15 k from Lourdes)

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