Controlling the Catholic Brand

For about a decade and a half, there have been no Conservative Catholics in America. Looking at the media during … Continued

For about a decade and a half, there have been no Conservative Catholics in America. Looking at the media during that span, conservative Catholic organizations managed to appropriate the term “Catholic” for themselves while using adjectives like “Liberal,” “Left-wing,” or “Cafeteria Catholics” to describe those with different opinions.

Now, non-conservatives seem to be fighting back. Three issues have raised my awareness of a developing struggle for the Catholic middle ground. Each merits a column on its own, but cumulatively they point to a wider struggle to control the Catholic “brand.”

First on my radar screen was the support letter for Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius, a Catholic, as Obama’s cabinet nomination to head Health and Human Services. The headlines designated her supporters as “prominent Catholics,” leaving bloggers like Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, and Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, to be described with the adjective “conservative.”

Next was the consternation over Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Obama to deliver the commencement address. Georgetown/On Faith blogger Father Thomas Reese argued convincingly that Obama should speak. As a professor for many years, I have always believed that commencement speakers should be decided internally among college faculty, administration and students, rather than by noise from outsiders, whether from the political right or left. But why is this an issue at all?

Patrick Reilly, president of the Virginia-based Cardinal Newman Society, was outraged that a Catholic University would invite on campus someone not in complete agreement with Catholic teaching. Now, Cardinal Newman was the famous convert who wrote The Idea of the University to partner the faith with academic freedom. Mr. Reilly seems determined to prove that he has no idea of the university. National Catholic Reporter’s Joe Feuerherd pointed out that the Cardinal Newman Society had no problem with speeches at Catholic University by pro-torture, pro-gay marriage Vice President Dick Cheney. There was a time, however, when Reilly’s protests would have caused the university to back down. No more. In fact, the more notorious of the conservative Catholic bloggers had best be prepared to a taste of their own vitriol. (Feuerherd called Reilly a “self-appointed ayatollah.”) The gloves are off. Not even the “I’ll-take-my-ball-and-go-home” response of the Bishop of South Bend has proven effective. Boycotting bishops may find themselves boycotted.

Perhaps the most unexpected of the recent reversals for conservative Catholicism was in the recant made by Rome-based Archbishop Raymond Burke. Last year, the former head of the St. Louis Archdiocese had been “kicked upstairs” – an ancient tactic of the Vatican, as previously discussed in this column. A critic of those opposing his hard-edge interpretation of canon law, the archbishop spoke disparagingly of Faithful Citizenship, the document on politics issued by the all the U.S. bishops, and he managed to tag President Barack Obama as an “agent of death.”

Now, as noted here previously, there are such things as red bishops (Republicans) and blue bishops (Democrats), but the Constitution of the Church states that their teaching authority “can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” In effect, they are obliged to act democratically, i.e., by majority vote (see Lumen Gentium 21-23) and documents prepared by regional bishops’ conferences are approved by the Vatican before being issued. Hence, Archbishop Burke’s frank comments attacking Faithful Citizenship put him into dangerous waters, swimming alongside the sharks who denied the authority of the Magisterium such as heretical Bishop Lefebvre. Surely Burke’s rapid retraction was motivated by a desire to avoid such company. But foot-in-mouth disease is usually remedied only by long periods of silence.

What does all of this mean? I think we can expect all or some of the following:
• Ad hoc Catholic coalitions rebutting one-sided ecclesiastical pronouncements with which they disagree.
• Media coverage of “equal time” exposure for the two sides of every Catholic issue.
• Reacting to outspoken bishops by inviting debate rather than following their dictates in blind obedience.
• A refusal to contribute to bishop’s fund drives from faithful who reject a prelate’s political stance.

While the struggle to claim middle ground may prove contentious, those with faith in Catholicism know that such grappling with human motivations generally strengthens the Church. Such would be my hope as a result from this struggle to reclaim Catholic freedom of expression.

About

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • mreiter72

    This is very encouraging. I love the Catholic Church, but as a Democrat I am turned off by much of what I see in the news and on the Internet from far-right conservative Catholics who have a hard time even seeing another point of view. It isn’t realistic to have a church with millions of members and expect to everyone be like-minded. People can love their church and have their opinions, and should not have to choose. Italy is 97 percent Catholic and has made no bones about not always agreeing with the Pope, but they’re still Catholic. They still love their faith and their church. One of the strengths of the Catholic church is its remarkable ability to gather the poor, rich, Republicans, Democrats, professionals, laborers, and people of all nationalities together to worship despite the differences that potentially divide them. If the church becomes so afraid of dissenting opinion that it drives huge groups of those people away, what will it have left? If it only wanted members who were in lockstep with the vatican on all issues, including contraception and masturbation, of all things, the Catholic Church would find itself with six members and one very disillusioned pope. So let’s let in some fresh air and other points of view.

  • usapdx

    THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF THE CHURCH LEADERSHIP ARE GONE FOR WE THE MEMBERS NOT ONLY HAVE MOVEABLE TYPE ( the printing press ) AND NOW THE COMPUTER WHICH WE ALL GET INSTANT NEWS. THE YOUNG MEMBERS ARE NOT BUYING THE HELL,FIRE, DAMNATION THAT WAS DISHED OUT NOT TO LONG AGO BACK TO ALMOST THE FALL OF ROME. ROME SHOULD OF GAVE MARTIN LUTHER A SECOND THOUGHT. TODAY THERE IS A REFORMATION GOING ON TODAY WHERE MEMBERS VOTE WITH THEIR FEET. JUST LOOK A EUROPE AS WELL AS HERE BY AMERICANS. IN THE USA, THE CHURCH & INSURANCE COMPANIES PAY OUT OVER $2.5 BILLION SINCE 1950 ON DAMAGES. THIS IS UNCALLED FOR ACCOUNT IF PREIEST WHERE MARRIED WITH FAMILY, THEY WHOULD NOT BE WILLING CHURCH PROPERTY TO THEIR FIRST SON LIKE BACK IN 1100 A.D.. WHY AT THE MASS AT THE OFFERING THAT THE PRIEST DOES NOT SAY ” SO SINS will BE FORGIVEN ” INSTEAD OF ” SO SINS may BE FORGIVEN “? WHY NOT HAVE A GENERAL COFESSION SERVICE AT EACH MASS? THE HISTORY OF CONFESSTION IS VERY INTERESTING. I ALWAYS WONDER WHAT RIGHT DOES A HUMAN HAVE TO MAKE A RULE WHERE AS A VIOLATION IS SIN. WHAT CHRIST SAID AND DID IS NOT WHAT THE MEMBERS SEE OVER THE AGES IN HIS CHURCH. HELLO POPE PAUL the 4th. THE CHURCH IS IN GREAT NEED FOR A JOHN XXIII FOR THERE IS GOING TO BE EMPTY PEWS IN THE OLD CORRAL. THAT MAN MAY HAVE THE NAME MARTIN IN EIRE. TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE AND CHANGES ALL. KNOW YOUR HISTORY AND ASK QUESTIONS. GOD BLESS.

  • coloradodog

    “For about a decade and a half, there have been no Conservative Catholics in America. Looking at the media during that span, conservative Catholic organizations managed to appropriate the term “Catholic” for themselves while using adjectives like “Liberal,” “Left-wing,” or “Cafeteria Catholics” to describe those with different opinions.”Funny, the same thing happened to evangelicals who highjacked the term “Christianity” for themselves using adjectives like “Liberal, “Left-wing” or “non-believers” to describe those with different opinions. Both of these theocratic movements are a dangerous treat to America and our religious freedoms. Americans voted them out of office in November but they continue to bray behind “entertainers” like Rush Limbaugh and his inbred cousins at RNC Fox News.

  • washpost18

    “What does all of this mean? I think we can expect all or some of the following:You can “expect” this? You’ve had this for years with Bill Donohue! The BillDo even takes it further and manufactures outrages when there isn’t enough happening to be self-righteous about.This is disturbing, however:Need people be reminded that there is no religious litmus test for government service?That said, the older I get the more I wish there was, in that anyone espousing a belief in Bronze Age mythology as fact be immediately deemed unsuitable to serve.

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