The Catholic Academy And Its Discontents

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David Brooks has to be one of the most interesting of writers to watch evolve in the pages of The New York Times.  Typically identified on the political left by conservatives, and at times the moralizing right by leftists, Brooks offers an interesting window into the mind of a political writer who tires of politics and adopts a more resourceful tone — a focus on character and culture:

As the base shifted to the right of him, carrying its banner felt disingenuous, so he shucked that duty. “When I did that, I stopped being part of the team. I lost a lot of conservative friends, and a lot of conservative readers, probably.” Right-wing Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, once asked to name his favorite liberal columnist, replied, “David Brooks,” partly in jest.

Those who conflate ideology and disposition might overstate how much Brooks’ beliefs have actually evolved. Ideology informs policy stances, like Tea Party support for tax cuts. Brooks’ hero Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish philosopher, spoke of dispositional conservatism, which Brooks defines this way: “It’s a reverence for the past, a belief in incremental change, a distrust of abstract, permanent truths, at least about political matters.”

Ah, for such conservatism today… and how this is lost on our populist friends on the right.  That, of course, is a digression to a certain degree, or at least, as it pertains to the tried and true versus the revolutionaries of the left and right.

What’s remarkable about Brooks’ transformation — and his most recent book The Road to Character is a great read — is that it is becoming more and more typical of the seasoned politicos on both sides.  Politics is a mere echo; culture is what predominates.

To that point, it is with some degree of amusement mixed with outright disgust that one watches members of the Roman Curia wander into the secular when discussing the sacred.  No better was this exemplified than at the Synod of the Family, where the German bishops — eager to keep their kirchensteuer and the billions of dollars that flow to the German churches as a result — attempted what was tantamount to a coup de catechisme in the face of serious opposition from the rising Church in Africa, as well as from perhaps unexpected quarters in North America from Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Chaput (if one is so inclined to identify these prelates as unorthodox — hardly fair).

Thus NYT columnist and practicing Catholic Ross Douthat offered his two cents on the proceedings of the 2015 Synod — the half parliament that turned into something radically different.

The op-ed piece was, perhaps, nothing different than what one might read from any host of Catholic commentators bewildered at the sudden volte face of the Catholic Church on marriage and homosexuality for mere silver.  Except, perhaps, that the criticism came from Douthat — or more precisely, was read in the pages of The New York Times by sensible people on the north bank of the Potomac in Georgetown in sunlit breakfast nooks.

This sort of dissent from the dissent, so goes the thinking, will not do.

Of course, Douthat poured some gas on the fire by mentioning the word we don’t like.  It’s not a likable word; it’s not a likable thing.  Or so saints have told us in the past.

To which, a group of highly educated Jesuits decided to put an end to that in a strongly worded letter that would wilt even the most hardened soul at Planned Parenthood, should such opportunities arise for these gentlemen again:

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.  (emphasis added)

How very droll.  That’ll show the upstarts.

This — and I cannot emphasize how disappointing this is — did not satisfy Fr. James Martin S.J., who took it upon himself to expand upon such remarks, and did so in perhaps the least pastoral way:

Worse, as R. R. Reno, the editor in chief of First Things, ridiculously interpreted it, the theologians wanted him “purged.”  That theologians who know fellow theologians who have actually been silenced would want anyone “purged” is absurd.  Worse, it is a malicious twisting of words.  Speaking of twisting words, Mr. Reno said, in the most absurd comment yet, that yours truly wanted anyone who didn’t have a Ph.D to “shut up.”

News flash to the editor of First Things: I don’t have a Ph.D. either.  And I’m now writing an article about theology.  So I obviously don’t think that people without Ph.D.’s should “shut up.”  Again, fact checking is always a good idea.  So is giving people the benefit of the doubt.

R.R. Reno over at First Things — of course — is not a publication to be trifled with, as it represents perhaps the very best of Catholic intellectual thought in North America.  Reno’s critique — the one that got under Fr. Martin’s skin — was apt indeed.  The insinuation that cannot be misread from our Jesuit friends is that Douthat is not capable of commenting as a theologian might about all the comings and goings of the Synod, ergo one should keep their mouths shut while the adults are talking.  Q.E.D.

Then there’s the invitation of Ron Dreher of Benedict Option fame, practically inviting the “civil war” (read: schism) that Fr. Martin is so very concerned about instigating.

Newly-minded Bishop Robert Barron made an effort to synthesize the whole, and it is worth reading in its entirety, if for no other reason than the now-kids-don’t-make-me-come-in-there tone:

(T)he suggestion that, because he doesn’t have a credential from the academy, Douthat isn’t qualified to enter into the discussion? Please. If a doctorate in theology were a bottom-line prerequisite, we would declare the following people unqualified to express an opinion on matters religious: Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis, William F. Buckley and W. H. Auden—or to bring things more up to date, Fr. James Martin, George Weigel and E. J. Dionne.

Echoing the title of Bishop Barron’s op-ed regarding the so-called Catholic Academy, Douthat takes up his pen and engages again in the public square — taking direct aim and clearing up any confusion our prim Jesuit friends might have on Douthat’s thoughts:

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

. . .

(N)either is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.  (emphasis added)

There’s something else to reflect in this, and that is best illustrated so far by Andrew Haines over at Ethika Politika, perhaps my favorite online Catholic publication to date.

Yes, it is true that we are trapped in a 24/7 news cycle, and that “gotcha” politics and the politicization of everything is having a terrible impact.  Secular religions impose upon sacred religions, and bring their own creed, praxis, and liturgy along with it.  So as the German bishops, in an effort to keep their government revenue, have chosen to play politics, the language and art of political combat introduces itself to the Catholic Church.

That having been said, the language and art of Catholicism should have had an answer — and remarkably, does:

At least one Austrian that I know of got it right concerning the final resolutions of the synod: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein was hardly a Christian apologist, but neither are Catholic intellectuals (at least those who wish to remain either Catholic or intellectual) very well suited for playing politics. Concerning alarm at the synod—at worst an obscure, intermittent, and ritualized quasi-street fight—many American Catholics have shown that they cannot speak well. And for that reason, they should, instead, have remained silent.

Hence the problem.  Our German bishops are playing politics at the Synod, and when the bishops become politicians, expect the bishops to be treated as politicians rather than as princes of the Church — plain and simple.

Douthat does have a resilient point in all of this though, that being the Catholic Church is not meant as some sort of esoteric religion understood only by those who occupy the halls of academia.  Nor should the Catholic Church be held in thrall to government subsidies, taxes, and other forms of compensation.

Nor should the teachings of the Magisterium be put up for sale, nor should development of doctrine be abused as a concept that dramatically alters what has always been.  If comparisons to contemporary Islam are to be drawn, this point right here is the dramatic turn on which Islam — perhaps rightly — rejects the development of doctrine as a pernicious wedge that divides what is from what the opinions of the day would prefer to be.   Certainly this is not a true development of doctrine as understood by Newman, nor is it the development of doctrine religious thinkers such as Pope Benedict XVI have encouraged others to adopt in their own faith traditions.

* * *

This brings us back to David Brooks — culturally Jewish, not entirely enthralled with the idea of God, but perhaps in his own way has arrived at a moment where the fetish of political activity has been replaced with a deep and abiding concern for the moral and cultural.

If the political currents of modern American culture are starting to bend towards a rejection of the mummery of politics and lending themselves to the Chestertonian defense of tradition, then perhaps we are not terribly far off from a revivification of culture among political prognosticators.

Should this prove to be the case, one certainly hopes that the Catholic bishops and the Catholic Academy learn from l’affaire Douthat and learns to spit the political bile back out, not just in its more immediate forms regarding opinion pages, but in the underlying problems that brought such bile to the top of our throats — the kirchensteuer, the open attachment to American federal grants, trading charity for mere social work, and the like.

For the bishops to truly be rid of political sentiment, they have to ditch the political.  As one can plainly see, the attachment to worldly government has worldly consequences — ones that attempt to radically alter what the Magisterium teaches.

If examples such as those of David Brooks have anything to teach us, it is that political mendacity ultimately is a boring, pedantic, and vicious pursuit.  The appetite for character, morality, and virtue remains  — and people are ultimately starving for it.

To turn the old Jesuit aphorism of it being difficult to hear the Word of God when one’s stomach is rumbling, it is quite another to refuse to hear the Word of God because one’s belly is full.  That is the pull of Mammon against Christ, and why we are admonished not to serve both masters, as we will inevitably fail both.