Archive for op-ed

The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair

Posted in The Papal Watcher, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

WillsI have long appreciated the intelligence and wit of Gary Wills. As a historian of some prominence — he’s won the Pulitzer and holds a PhD in classics — and a literary critic whose work has regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books and other significant publications, I have admired his skilled assessment of texts and tradition. As an avowed Roman Catholic, Jesuit educated from youth and through college at St. Louis University, I’ve also appreciated Wills’s attempts to explore his own faith and its tradition through small books on the Gospels, the Letters of St. Paul, Augustine, and other subjects, including an older text that offers something of an apologia for his continued Catholic faith. His training in classics and his familiarity with the original Greek of the New Testament and Latin of Augustine offered the public intellectual insight into these materials that others might not have.

One wonders with someone whose interests are so polymathic just when does he reach the limits of his reasonably expected competence. When does he cross the boundary of well-researched personal inquiry and reflection into the territory of ignoratio?

I will make a bold claim that his recent New York Times op-ed contribution, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” marks just such a border crossing.

I should begin these comments by stating that his sentiment, namely the frustration he exhibits about seemingly archaic systems of power and structure in church leadership, is actually quite reasonable and I suppose very sincere in his case. Critical though he may be, at other times Wills (like E. J. Dionne and other public commentators who maintain their Roman Catholic identity in a public way) has time and again reflected his disappointment with what he understands to be the church, while struggling to be a faithful Christian. Such public witness, especially as an academic and intellectual figure in whose circles such proclivities might be easily dismissed, is truly admirable.

Nevertheless, if what Wills was saying had more to do with explicit theological discourse, he’d be committing what is classically understood as heresy. Heresy, of course, doesn’t mean the opposite of orthodox doctrine or even some ideological position along the continuum of heterodox thought. Heresy is holding part of the truth as the whole truth. The easiest examples to recall have to do with Christological heresies: believing that Jesus Christ is human is not heretical. The Council of Chalcedon affirms as much. But, believe that Jesus Christ is only human is a heresy.

Analogously, much of what wills says in his op-ed piece is true. However, his lack of appreciation for the complexities and nuances about which he speaks borders on the incomprehensible or irrelevant. Again, not because his motives are false (he has, I believe, good intentions), but because he doesn’t actually understand — it would seem from his writing — that about which he is speaking.

To due justice to the subjects Wills names in passing and with a sense of flip cynicism would take more space and time than I have here in this post (you’re welcome, I promise not to write 4,000+ words here and keep it short). Perhaps a few examples will highlight the deeply problematic assertions that Wills advocates by way of partial truth interpreted according to Wills’s armchair-theological perspective.

Take the theme of papal monarchical status and the question of infallibility. Yes, even to this day the pope is a sovereign head of state. The Holy See — geographically constituted by “Vatican City” —  is its own internationally recognized sovereign state with diplomatic rights, centuries of international treaties known as Concordats, and so on. While the Christendom model of monarchical papacy Wills readily admits no longer exists, historians might argue that the model he caricatures never, in fact, existed. Yes, the pope at various times over the course of nearly two millennia has exercised a certain temporal influence that is perhaps less visible in modern history. However, to refer to the pope as a monarch simply because that is how, as a single person with such metanymnic significance for a church that is made up of over a billion persons, he appears to someone on the street does not account for a great deal of theological and canonical factors left untouched by Wills’s rant.

For example, the very condition for the possibility of Benedict XVI’s resignation from his office is the fact that his is not a monarch in the same sense that Wills suggests. What it means to talk about “the pope” is simply another way to talk about one bishop who happens to be the Ordinary of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore is granted primacy as first among equals (much to the reasonable chagrin of the Orthodox Churches who understandably resent the dismissal of their primates by the Latin Church). Such is the case canonically too. The only difference between the Bishop of Rome resigning and the Bishop of New York is that, technically, there is no one to whom the first among equals tenders one’s resignation. Instead, as we saw on Monday, the Bishop of Rome does so in sound mind in the presence of his colleagues — the other bishops represented by the College of Cardinals in consistory.

Wills’s simplistic understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility is likewise misleading. He’s better than most to acknowledge, somewhat too briefly, that not everything a pope says is infallible. However, that’s a huge detail: it has only been invoked twice in history and done so within the very particular confines of a very limited exercise of magisterial office. Wills would do well to read some of Francis Sullivan, SJ’s classic work on the theology of magisterial authority or Richard Gaillardetz’s primer, By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, The Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003). The complex factors that converge to describe what this charism of infallibility actually means are too detailed to present here in this already lengthy post. However, the point to note is that Wills ties this highly technical (and widely misunderstood!) theological and canonical teaching to the monarchical authority of the papacy. It’s not that simple.

His clear lack of the moral teaching of the church and the, again to overuse the word, “complexities” of what something like Paul VI’s Humane Vitae present and rely upon, seriously shades his vision and confuses — at least as he expresses it — some sort of unilateral authority with the teaching office of the church, which varies in degree, something unacknowledged by Wills.

This is not to suggest that Wills is incorrect with his stats from the United States. I have no reason to doubt the overwhelming numbers of those who have not “received” the teaching of Humane Vitae in practice, but I do doubt whether or not the church (which is the Body of Christ = all the baptized) has “received” the point of the teaching. It is for moral theologians and bishops to hash out the role of medication, prophylactics, and the like vis-a-vis the teaching about authentic exercise of human sexuality in its (1) openness to life and (2) unitive dimension. These distinctions about what is actually being taught in the encyclical, whether one agrees or disagrees with the practical proscription, remain absent from this sort of critique.

If you want to challenge these teachings, and they are not without reasonable and grounded critique, then go through the trouble of doing your homework.

On a final note of highlight, the line near the end of his piece, “The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy,” is simply and utterly incorrect. Any priest (or any pope for that matter) who would make such a claim is doing so apart from the church. There is no ground to suggest that the church teaches that priests, or any particular person or group of persons, are the “sole conduits of grace.” In almost every instance, from St. Paul through Augustine to Martin Luther and to Karl Rahner and beyond, grace is always and everywhere understood in the first case as referring to the Holy Spirit.

It is perhaps this single line in all of Wills’s op-ed reflecting that betrays his truly inadequate sense of theology. It is an understandable conjecture, the kind to be expected of a pre-Second Vatican Council popular piety. For someone who pontificates (pun intended) about the ills of the church, the lack of theological nuance or broader appreciation for the history of the tradition is unsettling. While I haven’t yet read his new book on the priesthood, I have a sense that I will be disappointed given the shallowness of this op-ed’s theological reflection.

If it makes Gary Wills feel any better, I too would have lost hope in the pope and church that he describes. But as a baptized Catholic, a religious, a priest, and someone with more formal theological training than anyone knows what to do with, I don’t recognize the church about which Wills speaks. I do recognize a deeply flawed community of the baptized with a mixed history reflecting our human finitude. But I still have hope.

Photo: New York Review of Books

Anti-Abortion Lenses Don’t Equal Pro-life Outlook: A Response to Bishop Tobin

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I begin this post with the assertion that what follows is done with the utmost respect. Generally, I don’t like to single-out individuals, unless that singular identification is done for the purpose of praise and congratulation. There are times when responses are warranted and a conversation must be had, so I have found it necessary to do precisely that today.

This is necessary because it is a singular voice, a public and published voice, to which I would like to respond. In an opinion piece published in the January 29, 2011 issue of The Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper of the Diocese of Providence, RI, Bishop Thomas Tobin wrote about why he thought President Obama’s words of condolence in Tucson earlier this month were problematic and left the bishop “cold, unimpressed and unmoved.”

In the opinion column titled, “The President’s Speech; Why I Wasn’t Impressed,” the bishop wrote:

As I watched Mr. Obama, though, and later reflected on his speech, I sensed there was something missing; there was something that left me cold, unimpressed and unmoved.

And suddenly it became clear. The problem, at least for me, is that President Obama’s persistent and willful promotion of abortion renders his compassionate gestures and soaring rhetoric completely disingenuous. “O come on, Bishop Tobin,” I hear you say. “Abortion’s not the only moral issue in the world.” Correct, I respond. Abortion’s not the only moral issue in the world but it is the most important. And, I confess, abortion policy is the prism through which I view everything this president says and does.

In the wake of a violent tragedy, the condition for which was made possible due to a largely unaddressed culture of violence in this nation that extends far beyond abortion legislation and into the rhetoric of self-appropriating “pro-lifers,” the President of the United States delivered what commentators on both sides of the political aisle have recognized as a heartening and healing address.

Bishop Tobin, however, found that he could not stand for such unity amid divisive political discourse because his primary issue, abortion, was not addressed and apparently the President’s political platform — which now moves from what has commonly been referred to as “pro-choice” to “abortion promoter,” thanks to his excellency’s introduction of the term — preemptively prohibits any genuine compassion, edifying or healing words to reach their actual potency.

There are two issues that need to be discussed here. I realize that these are sensitive matters and that this post might engender some strong responses from a variety of opinions. In the Bishop’s op-ed we read of the discounting of the President’s remarks, suggesting that they were invalid or meaningless because of the President’s political affiliation. We also read that abortion is, and I quote: “not the only moral issue in the world but it is the most important.”

I think the first issue can be addressed rather succinctly. When one speaks words of prayer, healing, unity, peace, justice and comfort with sincerity, such words have inherent power and value. That someone could deliver such an address that touches the hearts and lives of so many is itself a sign of the working of the Spirit in our world at a time of great division, suffering and fear.

With the exception of the Incarnate Word of God, every single human being throughout the millennia of human existence has been imperfect. The Apostles were imperfect, the Saints were imperfect, I am imperfect, and you, Bishop Tobin, are imperfect. As is this president and every leader of any nation. One’s actions, as grievous as they might be (like, let’s say, denying Jesus Christ — I’m talking to you, St. Peter), cannot be the only lens through which we judge one’s entire life (like, let’s say, leading the nascent Christian community after Jesus’s death — still talking to St. Peter).

I’m not saying that everything President Obama has done or has been connected with is right and worthy of exoneration from moral culpability, but at the same time where was Bishop Tobin and others who toss these accusatory remarks in the face of the sitting president during the Bush presidency? The transgressions of that administration are too numerous to name here but certainly include promotion of torture (like abortion, an intrinsic evil), the waging of unjust war (x2), the infringement of citizens’ freedoms, the benevolence to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the hubris of power bolstered by fear, among others.

I suppose President Bush’s “compassionate gestures and soaring rhetoric” after the 2001 attacks, after hurricane Katrina and in other instances are also rendered “completely disingenuous.” Yet, I don’t recall the leveling of such accusations. But that’s right, President Bush’s political affiliation — the GOP — runs on a platform that, at least rhetorically, claims to be against abortion legislation. And that, we are told by Bishop Tobin, is the “most important” problem in the world.

Which leads me to the second point: how is it possible to make such a claim?

I would certainly agree that it is a problem here and abroad, and one that should receive attention, but it is not the most important problem in the world. At least, Bishop Tobin has not explained how in fact it is the most important problem.

It’s an easy problem to name, perhaps that’s why it gets such priority. It’s an invisible problem that draws on the discourse about babies, perhaps that’s why it gets such a priority. You don’t have to walk past abortion like you do with the homeless, abandoned and the mentally ill (although some politicians work hard to make that invisible too).  You don’t have to be educated as you do to understand different religions and cultures in a violent world split by these factors.  You don’t have to feel guilty — that is unless you are a would-have-been-unwed mother or a nurse who works at planned parenthood — about it like you do when you see the genocide in Africa, the daily hunger and starvation of 1/3 of the world’s population or the destitution of what people all over the world, like in Haiti or Bolivia, suffer.

Being pro-life is a responsibility far greater than simply being anti-abortion. It is very, very easy to be anti-abortion, to wear lenses that judge people and policies through the paradigm of unseen unborn. It’s not so easy to be pro-life when it means that you have to fight so that Jared Loughner doesn’t receive the death penalty (which AZ does have) because you believe in the dignity of human life. It’s not so easy to be pro-life when you are called “unpatriotic” or “disgraceful” for speaking the truth about the injustice of war and the sin of torture. It’s not easy to be pro-life when you have such conviction for the dignity of human life that you fight for healthcare for all and providing the basics of human flourishing for all people.

Those who dare to self-appropriate the title “Pro-Life” better think hard about whether it’s true or not. Curiously, the word “abortion” never appears in the moniker, suggesting that to be pro-life is to truly stand for all life, period.

I was disappointed to see omitted from the bishop’s opinion piece any explanation for why he feels abortion is the most important issue in the world — more important than hunger, disease (like AIDS), genocide, natural disasters and war, to name a few. He does, however, offer several points that he feels concretizes the President’s status as “the most pro-abortion president we’ve ever had.” How, without any statistical analysis or evidence to present, one can make that claim is beyond me.

I truly believe that Bishop Tobin is, at heart, a good man who entered ordained ministry to do the work of God. But I don’t see how he is living up to his own mission, as found on his diocesan website, and explained as “working hard to build the Church, spread the Gospel of Christ and proclaim the Kingdom of God,” while he ostensibly adds to the divisive and contentious polarization of our society.

The Kingdom of God means good news for the poor, freedom for captives and all that Christ announced following the mission spelled out by the Prophet Isaiah. How does the dismissal of the good news shared by the President in the wake of tragedy proclaim that Kingdom?

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