MSW Signing Off
I confess I do not remember too many Latin phrases from high school, but I remember Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell. This is my last blog posting at America as Father Martin pointed out yesterday. Starting tomorrow, I will have my own blog, DC: Distinctively Catholic at the National Catholic Reporter. (The link will only start working tomorrow.) Blogging every morning for two and one-half years here at America has required that I wake up earlier than is my wont (or my want), but I can honestly say that the work has been a joy. I am deeply indebted to my colleagues at America for their encouragement and correction and I hope to continue to write for the print magazine in the future.
I am grateful to those readers who post comments, many of whose comments on Father Martin’s post yesterday moved me profoundly. One of the problems with blogging is that I sit alone at my desk, books or articles strewn around, and then I hit the "submit" button, turn to my three dogs and say, "I hope someone reads it!" I hope that those who comment will continue to be vocal here at "In All Things" as well as at my new blog. The issues of the day are important and they are worth arguing about. I understand the need to maintain civility, but I also think the blogosphere can tolerate a sharp elbow now and then. It is important to keep the argument focused on the issues, not on the personalities, and I have tried to do so. Only three people in contemporary American life warrant ad hominem attacks: FoxNews talking head Glenn Beck, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Catholic Key editor Jack Smith. (Yes, I go to confession for such thoughts!)
Some readers have expressed their disappointment that I have not joined the comment section to reply to arguments made there by others. My not engaging the debate beyond my initial posting stems from two facts. First, I think it my job as a writer to say what I need and want to say and then let the readers weigh in with their thoughts, and a lively debate ensues. Secondly, there was a practical consideration: Writing what amounts to an op-ed every morning is time consuming, and once done, I have to jump in the car and run to the archives for my day job. (Happy to say that the research and writing of the book on Jerry Falwell are going swimmingly.) Other staff writers here operate under similar constraints of time and attention. And, besides, we have so many vigorous and well-informed readers, you all are quite capable of carrying on the debate without further input from us staff writers.
The focus of my blog posting have been politics, the Church and the estuary where religion and politics meet. I would like to leave you all with one thought on each of these topics.
As for politics, no single quote has so inspired me as these words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his book, The Age of Jackson: "American democracy has come to accept the struggle among competing groups for the control of the state as a positive virtue – indeed, as the only foundation for liberty. The business community has been ordinarily the most powerful of these groups, and liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community." Schlesinger wrote those words in 1944, when FDR and his New Deal had, with a great deal of inspiration from Msgr. John A. Ryan and other Catholics, re-framed the social contract in ways that remain critical to the success and happiness of our society. The human misery caused in the past two years due to the excesses of the business community, and in the Gulf of Mexico in the past two months because of the negligence of at least one big business, shows that this struggle is on-going and, like the "Rt. Rev. New Dealer" himself, I shall remain committed to the party of FDR and his vision of an active government protecting the common man from the depredations of the monied interests.
The intersection of religion and politics, as we have seen in the debate about health care reform and immigration, remains a critical flash point in the culture. In the years I have written this blog, no words have made a greater impression upon me than those of Judge John Noonan in his Laetare Address at Notre Dame last year. In a section of his speech referring to the decision of Mary Ann Glendon to decline the Laetare Medal because of the controversy surrounding President Obama’s being the commencement speaker, Noonan said: "One friend is not here today, whose absence I regret. By a lonely, courageous, and conscientious choice she declined the honor she deserved. I respect her decision. At the same time, I am here to confirm that all consciences are not the same...." I think those last words are critical. Well-informed Catholic consciences can reach different conclusions on many matters. Not on all: The articles of the Creed are off-limits. And, the Catholic moral tradition yeilds certain beliefs that make a profound claim on the Christian conscience. Legislating those beliefs is a complicated thing, however, and there is wide room for disagreement about how and when we should use the coercive power of secular law to advance the Gospel.
Indeed, we might say that the disagreement that is most necessary is not between Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals. I would submit that the social doctrine of the Church, and specifically its humanism, it emphasis on an integral appreciation for human dignity, is the necessary tonic for the excesses of both left and right in American political life. Michael Gerson once wrote that the most important debate among conservatives today is that between libertarianism and Catholic social doctrine, that only a comprehensive teaching, with years and years of study and application, is capable of affecting political life over the long haul, apart from the vagaries of individual politicians and the whirlwind of crises that bear down upon our political leaders. I believe my book made essentially the same case for the Democrats. Precisely because the Church concerns herself first with the human person and derivatively with politics, her teachings transcend the debates of the day in compelling ways. Both sides of the aisle have much to learn from the Church.
Finally, regarding Holy Mother Church, we are living in a very interesting time in the history of Christendom. (There is a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times!) What is no longer interesting is the tired debate between unreconstructed 1960s liberals and the purveyors of a moralistic Catholicism that is little more than Republican agitprop. Contra the ecclesiastic liberals, we do not need to embrace a Protestant ecclesiology, Humanae Vitae reads better every year, the clergy sex abuse crisis is not the only thing worth knowing about Catholicism, and serving as "chaplains to the status quo," in Cardinal Francis George’s fellicitous turn-of-phrase, is a dull assignment, unworthy of the Gospels or of Vatican II. Sometimes the Catholic Left puts me in mind of King Charles II of England. It is often recalled that he said, "Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman," but it is more important to the contemporary dicsourse to recall that he also said, "Anglicanism is no religion for a Christian." I do not mean to ruffle the ecumenical feathers, but it is unavoidable. The Anglican Communion is not the model for the future of Catholicism.
Contra the conservatives, yes, morality is important, but the reduction of all political considerations to "five non-negotiables" is a ridiculous enterprise. More ominously, the persistent reduction of religion to ethics results, inevitably, in the privatization of religion, its removal from the public realm of culture, and a diminishment of its dogmatic claims. The problems here are deep. I love the separation of Church and State. I love the First Amendment. But, there is a problem when our embrace of Americanism leads us to overlook the miserable inequities of capitalism and, what is more, the way it creates a spiritual poverty that is precisely coincident with its generation of material wealth. There is a status quo to which the conservatives aspire to be chapains also, and it is just as dangerous as that found on the left.
The interesting theological examinations are happening among those associated with the Communio school. The implications of Gaudium et Spes 22 – "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" – is the most urgent theological question of our day. This holds true not only for theology but for other areas of ecclesial life. The new ecclesial movements such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Focolare and Communion & Liberation are the new wine of the post-Vatican II era, and we must be sure that we have new wineskins for this precious treasure. The Church is a communion of persons centered upon the event of Jesus Christ and these new ecclesial movements are finding ways to provide that deeper relationship with the Master and with each other that the word "communion" demands. For the Communio school, Catholicism is never an add-on, not to a liberal ecclesiastical agenda, not to a conservative political agenda, but the place where we encounter the only genuinely new, genuinely liberating and genuinely conservative starting point: Jesus Christ.
In the Creed, we say that we believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. I think the last adjective is the one that all of us, but most especially the hierarchy, must most concern itself today. The bishops are the successors of the apostles, and the authority of the apostles is rooted in the fact that they are witnesses to the death and resurrection of the Lord. That is their only source of authority. In the recent controversy surrounding the decree of excommunication rendered by Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix against Sister Margaret McBride, whatever you thought of the complicated and debatable issues involved, theological, moral and canonical, surely all can agree that there is a problem when a bishop issues a multi-paragraph, two-page, public statement that does not once mention the Lord. Not only the bishops, but all of us, must return again and again to the central dogmatic claims of our faith. Only in the shadow of the Cross do we find the light to guide us. Only in the empty tomb do we find the presence that fills the empty moments in life. Only in the Risen Lord do we discern a justice that does not have to be fought for generation after generation and a Gospel of Life that is immune to court decisions and political pamphleteering.
Let us engage in vigorous debate about politics, religion and the many ways they intersect. Let us read and think and argue: There is a moral obligation to be intelligent and none of us has all the answers so all of us need to read, think and argue. But, most of all, let us strive to become chaplains to the empty tomb. Thanks for reading and God Bless you all.
Michael Sean Winters