Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Catholic Controversies

On the America Magazine blog "In All Things," Fr. James Martin, S.J., posted up the story of Commonweal Editor-In Chief Paul Baumann's sniping rebuttal to First Things editor Joseph Bottum's op-ed in the Weekly Standard about The Obama/Notre Dame controversy and about Commonweal's coverage of it.

Quoting Fr. Martin: "Don't let all that concatenation of magazine names fool you; this is important stuff... as did the Obama controversy, the CW/FT conflict lays bare some of the conflicts in the Catholic church today." 

I recommend reading Mr. Bottum's piece here.

Commonweal had, as I interpret it, two main complaints with "God and Obama at Notre Dame."

I'll start with their more valid but less central complaint.  Commonweal was naturally a little miffed with this paragraph:

On the First Things website, a young woman named Lacy Dodd published an account of her pregnancy during her senior year and the pressure her boyfriend applied to talk her into an abortion. "Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama," she reasonably asked her alma mater, "the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?" Commonweal put a notice of the article on its own website, and 83 comments later, the young woman had been called everything but a slut. Her story was "flimsy," "manipulative," "hardly fair," a "negative stereotype," "polemical"--and she was just "a horny kid," one of the "victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex" so rampant in the protesters' troglodyte version of Catholicism.


Bottum is interpreting several commenters’ respectful criticisms of Dodd’s argument as attacks on her person and her personal decisions, which were in fact widely praised. When Bottum writes, “Her story was ‘flimsy,’ ‘manipulative’…” he is apparently quoting the following sentences: “It’s a moving story, but a flimsy argument.” And “Bless the young woman for all she did to keep her baby, but her article is emotionally manipulative.”

More seriously, Bottum distorts two phrases from another comment when he writes, “She was just ‘a horny kid,’ one of the ‘victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex’ so rampant in the protesters’ troglodyte version of Catholicism.” In fact, the use of the former phrase did not refer to Ms. Dodd, and Bottum’s interpretation of the latter phrase is totally inverted. Here is the original comment (which was addressed to another commenter on the blog):

Your metaphor of the pregnant ND girl and the Blessed Mother also implies that the Holy Spirit was just a horny kid. Come off it.

Do I feel sorry for the ND girl? Of course, and also for her child and even the father. They are all victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex - take a chance! :-( But contraceptives are not fail-safe, and it does a tremendous disservice to kids to let them think it’s OK to act otherwise. The possibilities of negative consequences are simply to [sic] great to risk.

Yes, the old teaching ‘no marriage, no sex’ is a hard saying. So?

In context, the line Bottum quotes as an attack on the moral outlook of “the protesters” is in fact an endorsement of abstinence education. And his suggestion that Dodd was called “a horny kid” is simply false.

Bottum should know better than to pretend that comments on a blog post are representative of a magazine’s editorial stance. But if he insists on using blog comments to make his argument, he ought to make sure he doesn’t misconstrue their meaning.


I'll let you decide what to think about this one, but, much as I'd like to side with Bottum/First Things, on this, Commonweal's right.

There's a more important issue here, though... the main message of "God and Obama at Notre Dame."

Politics has very little to do with the mess. This isn't a fight about who won the last presidential election and how he's going to deal with abortion. It's a fight about culture--the culture of American Catholicism, and how Notre Dame, still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date.

The role of culture is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame and many other presidents of Catholic colleges don't quite get, and their lack of culture is what makes them sometimes seem so un-Catholic--though the charge befuddles them whenever it is made. As perhaps it ought. They know very well that they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?

But, in fact, they live in a different world from most American Catholics. Opposition to abortion doesn't stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn't even stand at the center of Catholic faith. It does stand, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country. Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life. And those who--by inclination or politics--fail to grasp this fact will all eventually find themselves in the situation that Fr. Jenkins has now created for himself. Culturally out of touch, they rail that the antagonism must derive from politics. But it doesn't. It derives from the sense of the faithful that abortion is important. It derives from the feeling of many ordinary Catholics that the Church ought to stand for something in public life--and that something is opposition to abortion...

for American Catholics, the Church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family--and, in that context, the centrality of abortion for American Catholic culture seems much less arbitrary than it first appeared.

This is what the leaders of Notre Dame need to grasp. They do not necessarily have bad theology when they equate the life issues with other concerns. They do not necessarily have bad faith just because they say that war and capital punishment outweigh the million babies killed every year in this country by abortion. But they lack the cultural marker that would make them Catholic in the minds of other Catholics. Abortion is not the only life issue, but it is the one that bears most directly on the lives of ordinary Catholics as they swim against the current to preserve family life. And until Catholic universities understand this, they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existential sense.

To which Commonweal said

If you had a penny for every time a First Things writer has pronounced this or that Catholic (and especially this magazine) “out of date”–well, you’d have almost as much money as First Things gets each year from right-wing foundations. To be sure, Bottum takes pains to inform his readers that the Obama/Notre Dame controversy was not about politics, but culture. Reaching for the highest rhetorical notes in his impressive register, he argues that legalized abortion is irrefutable evidence of America’s corruption and decline, if not impending doom. “For American Catholics,” he writes, “the church is a refuge and a bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families.” Notre Dame’s alleged squishiness on abortion, exemplified by its invitation to President Obama, means it lacks “the cultural marker that would make [it] Catholic in the minds of other Catholics.” Until Catholic universities understand this, the essay pronounces, “they will not be Catholic–in a very real, existential sense.”

Bottum’s writing has always been brightened by a wonderful indifference to mundane facts, a winning embrace of the fantastical. Still, it is rather stunning, in the aftermath of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, to read that Catholics find a refuge and a bulwark for their families in the church. (That must be why every parish in the country requires anyone involved in church work to attend a “safe environments” workshop. And you have to attend in the real, not merely the existential sense.) Just as problematic is the attempt to define who is or isn’t Catholic. Granted, reading this or that person or group out of the church is a passionate hobby for some. But doing so in the “existential sense” seems a bit squishy for the editor of a magazine that prides itself on its gimlet-eyed defense of “orthodoxy.”

Apparently, Commonweal still doesn't get it.  They're still more interested in claiming they're right to understand why many of us believe they are so wrong, and until these Catholics are willing to listen to their Catholic brethren, the rift between these camps is only likely to grow larger.  They'll sink to trying to open the old wounds of the sex abuse scandals in their fit to insist that the feelings of other Catholics are just partisan screams, and that's not it at all.

Here was my comment on the "In All Things" blog:

It seems to me like Baumann either missed the point of the First Things article, or deliberately misrepresented it.  Bottum was writing about the way many Catholics FEEL about the Church.  A big part of his point was that this was not necessarily entirely a matter of "orthodoxy."  Bottum was trying to classify the very real sense of betrayal many Catholics felt over Notre Dame's actions, and I believe that his point was that no matter what defense you can erect of Fr. Jenkins' decisions, many of the Catholic faithful feel wounded, nonetheless.

The whole point was that even though Fr. Jenkins didn't see any contradiction between his decision and Catholicism, and even though CW agreed when it came to all of the documents of the Church, canon law, etc., that, in itself, is indicative of the fact that they're out of touch with the Catholic identity and culture as it exists for many of us.

Baumann can try to thrown insults back, but Bottum was right.  In the setting of an ultra-secular university, I go out every day and find myself under siege.  For standing up for the rights of the unborn, and not even in an in your face or aggressive manner, I've been smacked, spit on, publicly cursed out, etc.  I've been asked my opinion on the abortion issue and then shunned for expressing it. I count on my Church for support.  When my beliefs are under attack, I fall back on the Church.  And, when Notre Dame selected Barack Obama as its commencement speaker, it encouraged those who oppose my beliefs, as they made very clear, and I felt betrayed.  I know that there are many more like me.  Baumann can write off our beliefs, feelings and experiences, claim we're partisan hacks, etc., but once again, it only shows that he doesn't understand the realities of many Catholics.
Long post, I know.  I hope it gives you something to think about.  I also hope that the two sides in this debate can rediscover what it means to be united with the Church.  While, as I wrote before, I think the whole "common ground" line regarding Obama is pretty empty, as Catholics, we DO hold a lot of common ground.  The Commonwealers would be doing themselves, the Church, and us a service if they would listen to us instead of trying to see everything as part of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and, going the other way, misquoting and misrepresenting the "more liberal" side is not helpful... it doesn't exactly make them more receptive.

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