March 19, 2009

What would we think if the legislature in one of America’s most highly educated states, Connecticut, were debating a law that forced Orthodox synagogues to perform mixed marriages?

What if the New York legislature were pushing through a law that made religious slaughterhouses uniquely liable for lawsuits”€”and left secular meat-packers exempt?

And what if both houses of Congress and the president had lined up behind a bill that would force all newspapers to print selections from the Gospel”€”or stop their presses?

I have a sneaking feeling that these measures might be described as “€œanti-Semitic.”€ Even if secular, humanitarian arguments were adduced for each of these bills, most people would know what was really going on”€”and the folks who were targeted would be angry and scared. Even if these bills weren”€™t actually passed, the fact that they were seriously considered, that the men who proposed them weren”€™t hounded out of public life, would send a very clear signal about the balance of power in society: It would say that Jews were in trouble; their public influence was waning; their rights were under threat; and their future in the country was deeply uncertain. Time to update your passport and get back on speaking terms with your cousins in Australia….

Well, folks, if you haven”€™t been paying attention, that’s what American Catholics ought to be doing. I”€™m not saying it’s time to liquidate assets and transfer them to other countries, and start teaching “€œleaderless resistance“€ in catechism class, but that moment might not be far off. Here’s what has happened so far:

The Connecticut legislature recently considered a bill that would have transferred control of Catholic parishes from Catholic bishops to lay committees. In the explicit language of the bill, the bishops and even the pastors would be non-voting members of such committees. The bill imposed upon Catholics (and only Catholics!) the organizational structure proper to the faith that was in Colonial times the state religion of Connecticut, Congregationalism. This was more than a power grab, or an attempt to squeeze more money out of bishops over sex-abuse lawsuits; by attacking a bishop’s control over his parishes, it tried to mess with the Catholic DNA.

How does this compare to forcing synagogues to perform mixed marriages? Simple: Jewish identity is traced biologically, through mothers; Catholic identity is traced sacramentally, through bishops. Most pious Jews see mixed marriages as a serious threat to their religious identity. (Hence the Yiddish word “€œshiksa,”€ which translates either as “€œabomination”€ or “€œleggy Polish blonde who might seduce the rabbi’s son.”€)

Sacramental Christians from Rome to Constantinople trace “€œapostolic succession”€ through the laying on of hands and the imposition of orders, going back to the Apostles”€”our very first bishops. Make bishops non-voting figureheads who can”€™t administer their churches, and you haven”€™t just crippled the Church; you”€™ve gutted it. (Thankfully, this bill was so over-the-top outrageous that it rallied Catholics to oppose it; schoolchildren were given the day off and duly bused to Hartford, and the bill was withdrawn. Who knows what will happen next time?)

In New York State, legislators are using the genuine crimes of pedophile priests to try to bankrupt the tottering Catholic school system”€”which in many places (like the neighborhood where I grew up) is the only place where students of any race can expect physical safety, much less an attempt at education. A bill pending in the legislature”€”which may pass now that Republicans have lost control of NY’s State Senate”€”would extend the statute of limitations on lawsuits against schools for students who claim abuse. Sounds like an admirable idea, right? Why should school administrators get off the hook for shuffling pedophiles around and lying to parents? Well here’s the kicker: The bill only applies to private schools”€”which are mostly Catholic. Students molested by teachers at public schools (where abuse is not uncommon; there’s a NAMBLA member teaching in NYC) will not gain any additional protection. Which leads me to ask: Is this an attempt to protect Catholic students, or close down Catholic schools? Does it discriminate against parochial schools, or public school students? This bill is exactly akin to one that imposed much harsher liability standards on kosher or halal butcher shops than on those applying to other stores. And I think we would know what to make of a law like that.

The most serious threat to religious freedom in current legislation is the so-called Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which observers agree will make a controversial medical procedure into a fundamental legal right”€”like those protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By elevating abortion to such a sacramental status, the law will make those who refuse to take part in this procedure into the equivalent of racist school bus drivers who, on their own initiative, force black folks to sit in the back. According to the lawyers at the National Right to Life Committee, the bill would invalidate any local “€œconscience”€ laws that currently allow doctors (like several of my friends) and nurses (such as my sister) or religious hospitals (like the one I use in Nashua, N.H.) to refuse to participate in the murder of unborn children. So pro-life hospitals, health plans, doctors and nurses would have face a stark decision”€”get out the vacuum cleaner, or go out of business. This is exactly like forcing Jewish Week or The Forward to publish excerpts from the Gospel of St. John. Even libertarians who support abortion rights should be chilled by the totalitarian thrust of this law. The shrewd observer can predict the likely fallout if it passes: Many Christian institutions will simply go along, and make excuses to themselves. Many others will suddenly close”€”and be bought up for pennies on the dollar by investors with ties to Planned Parenthood and the Obama Administration. Follow the money, folks….

What to make of all of this? Let’s leave aside the theology for the moment, and even the questions of moral and constitutional rights. Instead, let’s make like James Burnham and examine this in institutional terms. Viewed as an organization competing with others for influence in society, what all this legislation means is that the Catholic Church has plummeted from the heights of respectability it attained in the 1950s as part of the Cold War coalition to the status of a second-rate, vaguely disreputable cult”€”maybe one perch higher than peyote-smoking Indians and wistful, polygamous Mormons, but several notches lower than same-sex couples, and far, far below “€œprotected”€ racial and religious minorities.

How the hell did this happen? How did the largest single religious organization in the country, the oldest continuously functioning human institution on earth (after the fall of the Chinese monarchy in 1905), the heir to Roman law, the preserver of Classical learning and the creator of the university system, end up toothless and humiliated, basically begging for basic rights? Should Catholics see this as the fruit of an ugly conspiracy? Are the Protestants finally getting their revenge? Or are these just first hints of the persecutions to come pursued by the evil secularists whose creed is the “€œCulture of Death“€? 

There’s some truth in each of these notions, but giving them credence is really just a way for Catholics to let ourselves off the hook. The fact is, we had power and influence which we could have used in the service of the community, uniting Christian witness with civic duty. And we blew it.

Our decades-long self-sabotage is best explained by longtime Catholic journalist Philip Lawler (he used to edit the Boston Catholic paper for Cardinal Law). I plumb all its implications elsewhere, but in brief, Lawler says that the men leading our Church, the bishops and clergy, let the trappings of worldly success distract them from the vital source that fueled the Church’s growth in the first place: the stark demands and glorious promises of a supernatural Faith. At every turn, this failure to focus on the purpose of the Church as an organization (administering the Sacraments and saving souls), in the name of “€œpracticality”€ and prudence, turned out in fact to be disastrously impractical, catastrophically imprudent. God has a strange sense of humor.

The most obvious example of stupid Machiavellianism on the part of our Church’s leaders is the fact that two-thirds of current U.S. bishops engaged in cover-ups of sex-abusing priests”€”all in the service of avoiding expensive lawsuits that threatened Catholic institutions, and the possibility of “€œscandal.”€ Yeah, that worked out real well. Had bishops done their job and called the cops, thousands of middle-aged men today wouldn”€™t be on skid row, in therapy, or taking AZT.

By the way, only a tiny percentage of sex abuse cases involved pre-adolescent children; the huge majority consisted of lonely homo priests seducing teenaged boys”€”who subsequently thought this meant they were gay, so they persisted in the “€œlifestyle.”€ But the problem, liberal Catholics assure us, had nothing to do with ordaining all those homosexuals. No, not at all. Tell that to the Boy Scouts of America”€”who have suffered a storm of persecution for resisting pressure to hire openly gay scoutmasters to take groups of boys out for weekends in the woods. Surprisingly, the Scouts have largely avoided any major sexual scandals. I wonder how that happened….

But we have more to answer for than the pederasts. Our bishops have, for a generation now, tolerated Catholic politicians who flout basic teachings of the Church, who cozy up to abortionists and sterilization cranks, who have taken up sentimental liberalism as their primary religion, then sprayed it with a can of “€œCatholic”€ scent. Leave aside the theological significance for a second; viewed through the lens of simple politics, this was seen as a piece of craven weakness, which deserved only contempt. If the Israel lobby, for instance, or the “€œcivil rights community,”€ overlooked comparable crimes against their creeds, they too would be justly viewed as paper tigers, and laughed from the public square.

It also isn”€™t helpful to the cause of Catholic civic influence when our leaders encourage disregard for duly passed, just and constitutional legislation”€”such as our immigration laws. It’s true that, as Thomas Aquinas taught, an unjust law is “€œno law at all.”€ Our bishops were right back in the 1920s to thumb their noses at Prohibition”€”just as abolitionist preachers had scoffed at the Fugitive Slave Act. But can anyone make a serious theological case that limiting the number of new Americans is by definition unjust? Or that deporting illegal immigrants (many of whom have committed other crimes, such as identity theft) is a violation of their rights? So far no one has; instead, bishops who favor open borders waft clouds of sentiment and rhetoric, and try their best to convey the false impression that our immigration laws are somehow inhumane. A few even harbor illegal immigrants and help them flout enforcement, claiming to offer “€œsanctuary”€ to people who are patently not refugees and in no danger for their lives. Instead, most illegal immigrants in the U.S. are simply people in search of a better life. Well, I would like a better life myself”€”and I know I could have one in Switzerland, a country that’s actually free. Should the Bishop of Basel help me elude his country’s police? (NOTE TO BISHOP KURT KOCH OF BASEL: If you can indeed help me with this, please contact me via the editor.)

Part of what underlies such contempt for our just laws and civic culture is a deep-seated sense of disaffection from this nation, and a lingering sense that America is a WASP country where we are on the outs, and have to stick together with other “€œoutsider”€ groups against a harsh and intolerant majority. Now, there may have been some truth in such a stereotype when my first Irish ancestors got here”€”in 1860. But Catholics have lived comfortably in an amazingly tolerant, free America for over 100 years since the last Nativist mob attacked a convent. It has been legal to say Mass in Massachusetts since the late 18th century. Given that this country was founded in large part by the most radical “€œreformers of the Reformation,”€ Catholics have done very nicely in America. Perhaps it’s time we took the chip off our shoulder and put the latter to the wheel.

If we clean up our act and act like good citizens, with strong views we live by and material interests we”€™ll fight like bobcats to defend, no one will even think of messing with Catholic Americans. Till then, we”€™ll reap the harvest that we sow. 





Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!