Heather MacDonald is an inimitable conservative journalist. Her work on such issues as policing and immigration is sharp, insightful, and often indispensable. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for her views on religion.
At Secular Right she recently wrote about seeing an announcement from a local parish about a visiting statue of Mary, “. . . one of those creepy painted sculptures of Mary with oversized, tear-encrusted eyes and an undersized mouth; a very large crown perched on her head.”
Non-believers are told again and again that they must respect religion. I try, I really do, but I confess that such manifestations of religious faith make following this injunction somewhat of a challenge. It would be one thing if this chromatic doll were putting in an appearance in Mexico City, filled as it is with superstitious peasant believers; it’s another to figure out what the doll is doing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I ask in all sincerity: are Secular Right’s fellow highly-educated conservatives ready to prostrate themselves before, and put a toy crown on, a wooden effigy? Or do religious conservative pundits see such outbreaks of folk superstition as the price they must pay in order to preserve the higher mysteries of the faith? But isn’t such a bargain terribly condescending?
I must respect religion. I understand, but I honestly don’t see how to distinguish the worship of a wooden icon from the belief in the healing power of crystals or in the predictive power of entrails. I know I must be missing some essential distinctions here, but for the moment they elude me and I remain at a loss to understand.
While there is much I find offensive in her post, my primary contention is with her initial premise. Contrary to what she might be told again and again, she is under no obligation to respect religion. We may have a duty to tolerate religious belief and a responsibility, albeit conditional, to respect the religious believer. But there is no reason we “must respect religion.”
I respect Mac Donald and believe in showing tolerance for her atheistic beliefs. I do not, however, respect atheism; I find it to an intellectually disreputable belief-system. It would be intellectually dishonest for me to claim to hold it in esteem in an attempt to be politically correct. Better to be open about our religious disagreements than cover them in a patina of faux respect.
If Marian devotion is indeed similar to believing in the healing power of crystals or the predictive power of entrails, then Mac Donald would be warranted in her disrespect. I don’t respect rock-based remedies or intestine-based prophecies either. I do, however, respect devotion to the mother of our Lord, even though I’m not a Catholic and don’t subscribe to that particular doctrine. My disagreement and respect are both based on an honest attempt to understand the basis for that belief.
Despite living in one of the most Catholic cities in America and having access (if not in person, at least by email) to some of the greatest Catholic minds in the country, Mac Donald seems not to know much about what Catholics believe. How could an intellectual—a conservative intellectual at that—still think that Catholics worship a wooden icon? There is nothing wrong, of course, with not being intimately familiar with the doctrines of faiths you don’t subscribe to yourself. I would even say that there is nothing wrong with having a lack of curiousity about such beliefs. But it surprising to see a respectable intellectual pontificating about matters of Catholicism in which she has no understanding.
It is also rather disappointing to see Mac Donald disparge religious beliefs based on a peculiar form of class prejudice. Those backward peasant Catholics in the third-world don’t know any better, she seems to say, but this is Manhattan’s Upper East Side: Here we scoff and sneer at such folk superstition. It’s distressing enough that she intimates that the Catholics in Mexico might not be as bright as those in Manhattan. But where does she think Marian devotion originated? Does Mac Donald think the doctrine was fleshed out by day-laborers in Mexico City rather than by theologians in Rome?
I’m hoping that one of my Catholic friends will provide a gentle reproof and explain to Mac Donald what she has missed. Of course, even with a clearer understanding of this “folk superstition” she may still not repect the belief. She may still consider it is akin to butcher-shop augury or New Age metallurgy. But perhaps she’ll at least recognize that it’s a belief shared by Aquinas, Chesterton, Ratzinger, and others who are, at a minimum, her intellectual equals.