Questions about Political Catholicity and Plurality
First, let me say that it’s been a few days since I last posted here — my apologies to the regular readers of DatingGod.org — I’ve been on the road leading some retreats and delivering lectures. I’ve had the great opportunity to meet so many wonderful people along the way, folks whose faith is inspiring and whose interest in questions of import are challenging, in the best possible way. This sort of interest in the questions about our faith and the way Christianity — particularly in its Roman Catholic form — is lived out in the public square and private lives of the faithful has been a ‘hot topic’ in recent weeks (if not months) to say the least. That the three leading GOP presidential hopefuls this election cycle include two catholics and a mormon is a situation the founding fathers and mothers of this country could never have imagined in their wildest imaginations (Catholics were largely an oppressed minority in the colonies and, well, the Mormon faith did not yet exist).
The political rhetoric of the Catholic politicians has indeed captured the attention of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Elsewhere on this blog I have discussed some of the problematic positions that Rick Santorum maintains that stand in opposition to Church teaching (see “The Counter-Catholic View of Santorum on Religious Liberty,” for example), despite the candidate’s touting his orthodoxy in matters of faith and morals. I’m not so interested in rehashing that subject here, instead I want to call attention to an interesting op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times titled: “Many Kinds of Catholic,” by Frank Bruni.
Despite what one makes of his conclusions, the questions with which he engages are important today. The impetus for his piece was yesterday’s Illinois GOP primary (which Romney ultimately won) and the role that religion — particularly one’s affect Catholicity — might play in that political race. One of the more interesting reflections present in this column is the insightful distinction made between what the Catholic faithful actually believes (in other words, the sensus fidelium) and what certain politicians and church leaders have advocated.
The case and point centers on the subject of birth control. After abortion and perhaps same-sex marriage, birth control has been a polarizing issue for the Catholic community since 1968, if not before, with the publication of the now (in)famous, if often misunderstood and caricatured, encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Humane Vitae. Bruni keenly notes that time and time again polls and studies show that an overwhelming percentage of Catholics (in the 90%+ range) who are sexually active are in favor of birth control.
It is for this reason that Church leaders as well as politicians for whom this is a campaign centerpiece, cannot appeal to the prohibition of birth control outright: the US population simply would not tolerate that. Instead, the birth control issue becomes subsumed under the guise of a “threat to religious liberty.” This is something about which more people are much more willing to be concerned.
For months now the adjective Catholic has been affixed to the country’s strange contraception debate, which began when many Catholic leaders took offense at a federal mandate that Catholic institutions provide insurance coverage for artificial birth control.
But most American Catholics don’t share their appointed leaders’ qualms with the pill, condoms and such. These leaders have found traction largely among people — Catholic and otherwise — concerned about government overreach. And the whole discussion has opened the door to plaints about morality from evangelicals, who warm to Santorum more than Catholics do.
It is curious to note that for all of Santorum’s ostensibly über-Catholicism it is the self-identified evangelical population that most resonates with his “Catholic” message. What does this mean for our understanding of contemporary Catholicity?
What makes a politician Catholic? Better still is the question: what makes the political agenda of a particular politician Catholic?
There is oftentimes the critique leveled against so-called liberal Catholics that their appropriation of issues related to faith and morals is a form of “cafeteria Catholicism,” an a la carte selection of this or that official teaching. Yet, the same is clearly true about the so-called conservative Catholics as made evidently clear in the campaign agenda of Santorum and others.
One of the things that might be worth further reflection is the title of Bruni’s column — “Many Kinds of Catholic.” My sense is that lots of folks might take offense at the suggestion that there could be a multiplicity of the affective expression and personal commitments of Roman Catholics. We like to believe the myth of the monolithic and hegemonic “Church” to which one either belongs or doesn’t. But conservatives and liberals alike are guilty of incarnating the religious plurality we so wish to ignore.
Curiously, as scholars and historians have shown, diversity and unity have always been held in creative tension throughout the two-thousand-year history of Christianity. One only has to look at the canonical Gospels to note the diversity and unity of the Jesus narrative presented by the four evangelists. Likewise, look to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles to see the dispute over gentile admission to the Christian community. What does this mean for us today? How do we understand Catholicity?