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.