There they go again. The usual gang of Catholic theology professors has signed a manifesto, “On all of our shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good.” It claims to warn us of the grave danger posed by Congressman Paul Ryan. The future of America is at stake! The integrity of Catholicism hangs in the balance!
Robert P. George’s recent “On the Square” takes apart what little substance there is in the statement, and he does so with his usual force and precision. There’s no reason for me to do again what George already has done so well, Instead, I want to figure out what it means for American Catholicism that liberals put forward such a partisan document with such shoddy reasoning.
For liberals, Ryan doesn’t so much represent policy options to be argued with. Instead, he’s what postmodern professors call “the Other,” the symbolic negation of all that is good, true, and beautiful.
This reaction of liberal horror, what I’ve called Ryan Outrage Syndrome, equates Paul Ryan with Ayn Rand, which is exactly what “On all of our shoulders” does. In this, it mirrors the extreme right, which equates Barack Obama with Saul Alinsky, Bill Ayers, and Jeremiah Wright, showing (in the minds of those who traffic in this sort of thing) that our President is an anti-American socialist out to destroy the country.
Serious people don’t pass off cheap, partisan rhetoric as substantive analysis. Why, then, would past presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America hurry to support a manifesto that is largely an emotive exercise in partisan rhetoric?
The answer, at least in part, can be found in the changing character of the American Catholic Church. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, liberals thought that the future was theirs. They saw the way in which the hierarchy acquiesced to dissent in the aftermath of Humane Vitae. Their way of thinking seemed natural, inevitable. But it wasn’t so. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the Church slowly solidified around a vision more traditional than trendy. Liberals went from being presumptive heirs to embattled outcasts.
One sees as much in the episcopacy and priesthood. There are no more Hunthausens and Weaklands. The priests under fifty today see their ministry as counter-cultural, and the culture they are countering is the one ministered to by liberalism.
As a result, the academic Catholic establishment, which invested so heavily in liberalism, is now very much on the margins of the Church. Can anyone imagine one of the twenty or so past presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America serving as trusted advisors for bishops today? Hardly. They’ve reorganized the CTSA into a trade union for dissent.
In this dissent, the liberal Catholic academic establishment has gotten into the habit of issuing hyperbolic, sky-is-falling declarations about the consequences of rather ordinary and appropriate actions by Church authorities. If the Vatican puts out a statement saying that Sister Margaret Farley’s book on sexual morality is not in accord with Catholic teaching, one can count on the usual suspects to tut-tut about “authoritarian tendencies” and the suppression of academic freedom. Moreover, secular political slogans seem to slide in only too easily. The Vatican is waging a “war on women.”
The reliable Hans Kung’s recent interview as reported in the Guardian offers a poignant example of how far this has gone. It’s not enough for him to disagree with the leadership of the Church. He can’t resist playing the Hitler card: “The unconditional obedience demanded of bishops who swear their allegiance to the pope when they make their holy oath is almost as extreme as that of the German generals who were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler.”
It’s this sloppy rhetorical habit that we can see carried over to declarations about secular politics in “On all of our shoulders.” Where Kung sees Pope Benedict as a Hitlerite who is undermining all that is true and good in the Catholic Church, the liberal Catholic academic establishment views Ryan as a Randian Objectivist who fundamentally (and cynically, the manifesto insinuates) betrays the true teachings of the Catholic Church.
I find this sort of thing embarrassing. Opponents of Barack Obama should weigh his policy arguments rather than accuse him being a socialist or post-colonialist out to destroy America. The same holds for Paul Ryan.
During my two decades as a professor of theology I saw how the academic Catholic left reduced itself to repeating easy slogans about the contextual nature of knowledge, the historicity of revelation, and the development of doctrine. All too often it writes off other views as “Catholic fundamentalism,” denounces criticism as oppression, polices academic hires, and otherwise insulates itself from challenges.
This same insular mentality and recourse to cheap slogans is embarrassing us in the public square. We can only cringe when a document announces: “America is at a tipping point where the traditional commitment to our government protecting and advancing the common good is in very real danger of being dismantled for generations.” That’s the sort of thing bloggers write.
I take little pleasure in the self-destruction of liberal Catholicism. We need to serve needs of the poor, strengthen the bonds of social solidarity, and defend the dignity of the human person. I tend to agree with American conservatives about how best to do that. But maybe I’m wrong. We need smart and informed men and women of faith to argue otherwise.
When we argue it’s fine for us to have partisan loyalties. It makes sense to take the side that, however imperfect, however partial, best reflects what we think serves the common good. But passing off the campaign talking points as real contributions to public debate? Please, spare us the spin.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Robert P. George, The Catholic Left’s Unfair Attack on Paul Ryan