I think of myself as a fairly jaundiced academic, unlikely to be taken aback by shrill, politically correct rhetoric. But I guess I’m wrong, because the crude pronouncements of Robert Orsi, holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, shocked me.
The occasion was a Notre Dame sponsored research intitative “Contending Modernities,” a project that wants to look at the very complex relations of religion and secular modernity. The initiative solicited short reflections from a group of scholars.
Some reflections are interesting, others more anodyne, but Orsi’s stands out. He basically ignored the intellectual question and used the opportunity to denounce the Catholic Church.
Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women¹s equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children’s autonomy, and reproductive choice. The church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom! The current papacy stands firmly and explicitly in opposition to virtually everything those of us who call ourselves liberal moderns cherish (as much as we are aware of the shortcomings and failures of liberal modernity).
Tendentious and inaccurate.
In the first place, the Church has not objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though it has certainly pointed out the perversion of imagining that democratic government equals a just society. Hitler, for example, enjoyed massive democratic support. And in any event, by the second half of the twentieth century, leaders of the Catholic Church such as John Paul II defended the moral and spiritual basis for a democratic culture that respects the human person. The late pope’s argument, also made by Benedict and many other Catholic leaders, is that secular modernity cannot sustain its own moral achievements. It’s a form of analysis that goes back to Leo XIII—ignored by Orsi of course. Though perhaps he’s simply ignorant.
“Aligning itself with repressive political regimes.” Hmm. Last I checked it was the European Left that tended to align itself with Stalin, most definitely not the Catholic Church. Nazism? Again, not something the Catholic Church supported. Yes, the Catholic Church did largely support Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, and Pinochet in Chile, but it is tendentious in the extreme to suggest that it had to do with condoms. Last I checked, there was something called Communism, and the judgment was that Franco was better than Stalin’s henchmen. Call me politically incorrect, but I think the judgment was morally sound.
And what about the shortcomings and failures of liberal modernity. Let’s look at “reproductive choice.” Millions and millions of human lives destroyed in the womb. That’s just a “shortcoming”?
Orsi continues with a predictable paragraph on the clergy sexual abuse scanadal, which, he suggests, shows that the Second Vatican Council achieved nothing.
I don’t know who Grace Craddock Nagle was, but it strikes me a craven of Northwestern University to appoint someone like Robert Orsi to a Catholic Chair endowed in her name. His basic view seems to be that the Catholic Church is a force for evil in the world. The Church fails to affirm the Holy Trinity of sexual freedom: homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. She fails to worship the god of democracy, thinking that there are moral truths that we can’t vote on. In other words, the Catholic Church is wicked because . . ., well, because its the Catholic Church and not the ACLU and Moveon.org at prayer.
I don’t believe that everyone needs to think the same way, or that all Catholics need to uncritically support the Church. There are many intellectually and morally serious ways to be in dissent. But Orsi’s effusion suggests that he’s an ideologue of the most simple-minded sort.
And that, I think, tells us more than we’d like to know about academia. It’s OK to be crude in your anti-Catholicism. In fact, it’s downright desirable in your Catholic Chair. Ugly.