Last week, Michael Baxter and William Cavanaugh published a response to Massimo Faggioli in the pages of America magazine. Believing themselves misrepresented by Faggioli, they articulate strong arguments for what they consider to be a truly Catholic politics. While they claim that “Faggioli thinks that our approach would exacerbate divides in the Catholic Church in America,” they consider it “obvious…that encouraging Catholics not to invest all their political energies in party politics would go a long way toward healing rather than worsening divides among Catholics.”

Rather than “investing all their political energies in party politics” (something which I do not think Faggioli ever encourages), Baxter and Cavanaugh claim that “recognizing that both parties represent the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways would help diminish the animosity between Catholics who vote Republican and those who vote Democratic.” For this reason, they reject Faggioli’s proposal to renew the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and encourage us to “consider ourselves Catholics before considering ourselves Americans” (again, I do not understand why participating in party politics necessarily requires one to consider herself an American before she considers herself a Catholic nor do I think that Faggioli espouses this view.)

I do not wish to take sides in the apparent rivalry between Faggioli’s Catholic Common Ground Initiative and Baxter and Cavanaugh’s upcoming conference at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology nor do I quite understand why I should have to. But, I wonder, if the fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties “represent the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways” provides reason for Catholics not to identify with either party too strongly, then how should the average Catholic respond when the Church “represents the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways?” Should Catholics too abandon the Church for its impurity and evangelical infidelity?

They go out of their way to portray the church as a unifying force. Thus, when Catholics disagree with the magisterium about abortion, or gay rights, economic policy, or war, they do so not as Catholics but as U.S.-Americans. But the tradition has always been messy: Catholic forms of embodiment have always been a little queer, and while war may defy the example of the nonviolent Christ, it certainly cannot be called descriptively un-Catholic.

Baxter and Cavanaugh seem to want to portray both parties as equally faulty because they both advocate positions that conflict with magisterial teaching. They cast all Catholics who disagree with stated magisterial opinions as disloyal to the Gospel. Rather than recognizing the tradition as inherently cacophonous and contested, they believe that the church speaks for itself only when using magisterial monotone.

While Baxter and Cavanaugh express a sincere desire that Catholics “shift from identifying with the centers of political power and toward identifying with the marginalized and oppressed,” they imbue the magisterium with hegemonic power. Enforcing truth from the top down, it allows no dissent. This view seems to figure unity as the result of unconditional submission to magisterial authority.

Baxter and Cavanaugh also implicitly contrast the unity secured by wholehearted and unsullied membership in the church with the inherently divisive and atomizing politics of the nation-state. In so doing, they celebrate a church that never existed. White Catholics of all political stripes look back on the church of the early twentieth century with tender nostalgia, remembering it as a time when Catholics were pious and united. This might be true if we limit our vision just to the tight-knit, spatially dense communities of white Catholics.

But inter-racially, the church was far from united. No mere victim of the nation-state’s anti-black biases, the Catholic church acted to kick black Catholics out of its corporate body on its own initiative. Black Catholic children could not attend white parochial primary and secondary schools; nor did Catholic officials bother to build an adequate supply of black Catholic schools to keep up with demand. White Catholic parishes acted collectively to keep black Catholics from moving into “their” neighborhoods or worshipping in their churches. Bishops, priests, and the white laity displayed a stunning degree of agreement about the acceptability of white supremacist racial segregation. (Perhaps Catholic unity is not such a good thing, after all.) And not just in the South: Northern Catholic parishes also displayed segregationist whiteness as a casual habit.

And the Church cannot blame its segregationist ways entirely on the habituating power of the nation-state. As theologians and religious scholars like Willie James Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and Susannah Heschel have demonstrated, the nation-state learned everything it knows about race and whiteness from Christian theology. Rather than the corrupted student, the church played the role of corrupting teacher.

While the Gospel is always true, the church is not just the answer; sometimes it is also the problem.

23 thoughts

  1. This leaves a question of what do people mean by not wanting the church to be ‘political’ exactly? I hear this from political conservatives, liberals and especially moderates. There’s are many layers to fundamental disconnect when people ask regarding church and politics.

    Everything we do in general has some sort of effect on something. We are interdependent, as we should be. God made us to be in full communion with another and with him and every living thing. St basil the fool challenge Ivan the terrible, the Russian dictator, when he presented a beef with a fork to Ivan during lent season, saying “you abstain meat yet you are willing to kill men”. That’s political.

    We need to the kind of St. Basil political, that is rooted in love of humanity and God, not the moralistic American religious right, the politically wussy/apathetic religious moderate or the ‘brogressive’, justice for some/us only religious left.

    To drive home how much sociopolitical implications of the Gospels and the ways of its teaching has, during the 1980s (need to double check), the Gualamala govt (which was a dictatorship) banned the Mary’s Magnficant poem which is located in Luke’s Gospel. After all, Mary did call God to have kings to be brought down in that poem.

  2. While I think your point about the messiness of the church is spot on and a good critique of Baxter and Cavanaugh, in other ways you severely misrepresent their views. For example, I am not sure why you equate their emphasis on the unity of the church with a nostalgia for the US church in the early twentieth century. Nowhere in their article do they express such a nostalgia, and in fact the early twentieth century US church is the epitome of what they criticize. The US Catholic Church became very nationalistic and bent over backwards to prove its American-ness. Also I am not sure what the point about the exclusion of black Catholics is. This exclusion, and US Catholic complicity in segregation, put the US church quite at odds with the Vatican, as both Cyprian Davis in Black Catholics and Bryan Massingale in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church make clear. It was precisely because the US Catholic Church was complicit in the power structures of the nation-state that it compromised on issues of race, whereas a greater emphasis on Catholic ecclesial identity might have turned out differently.

    1. It is evidence that the church is not always a unifying force. Although it may make us feel better to believe that the church merely gave in to the nation state’s white supremacy, as I say in my post this was not always the case.

      1. After thinking about it, my objection to your section on race is that you draw a dichotomy between the church being a “victim” of the state and acting “on its own initiative” in regards to how it responded to racial segregation. But, at least to this extent, Cavanaugh is a Foucauldian. Power is only secondarily about coercing others, and primarily about shaping the imagination. The state exercises power less through explicit coercion, for example forcing religious employers to purchase insurance that covers contraceptives, and more through shaping the way we interpret the reality in front of us (although Cavanaugh makes it clear that even this latter is always backed up by the threat of violence). Baxter draws less heavily on social theory but would basically agree with this analysis.

        So the fact that the US Catholic Church was not compelled to participate in segregation, but did so on its own, says nothing about the church’s captivity to the state, since even acting on its own, the church was acting out a logic ingrained into its members by the state.

      2. I agree with this point but it doesn’t take away from the truth of the point I was making. This is probably my fault since I was trying to summarize several chapters of evidence from my dissertation into one sentence. For now, I would encourage you to read Carter, Jennings, and Heschel.

  3. Katie this is a great piece. I’m wondering about the following sentence: “This view seems to figure unity as the result of unconditional submission to magisterial authority.” I think one of the reasons I am so concerned with what magisterial authority has to say (and one of the reasons I’ve been excited about Francis in some ways and less so in others) is that I’m not sure that unconditional submission to magisterial authority is optional. Do you find evidence of this in the tradition? Or are you not worried about evidence from the tradition to make this claim?

  4. Isn’t the point of the magisterium that it is the univocal resolution of the church’s messy life? Conciliar decision making is the very definition of messiness.
    As far as your conclusion (church as problem) goes, Cavanaugh made his name considering that very question. “Torture and Eucharist” is all about a church that fails at being church.
    Also, I’ve now read through Bax/Cav’s article. Your summary of it doesn’t seem fair in certain respects–especially to their concluding point about ‘mestijaze’ which they link with the incarnation. That sounds like an acknowledgment of messiness and discernment in Catholic identity. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by messiness, though. I only started reading WIT recently, so I’m still trying to get a feel for where its respective writers are!
    My question is how we’re to understand church unity w/r/t its cacaphanous/messy tradition? I’m also wondering about the church and faithfulness. It seems like Israel is still totally Israel when it’s sinning, because its specialness is the fact that God chose her. How is the church similar or different in this respect?

    1. Hello and thanks for your comments.

      I will think more about this but I would start by saying that the church isn’t Israel and is not special like Israel is. We should be very careful about assuming that things that apply to Israel also apply to the church.

      As far as my point about messiness… Here I am referring to what I argue is the authors’ (and perhaps also Faggioli’s) implied argument that political disagreement is necessarily a sign that something is awry or is somehow contrary to what it means to be Catholic and I am instead arguing that such disagreement is an inherent part of the tradition and not always a bad thing.

      1. Thanks for the response–great clarification on messiness.

        I’m also very much agreed about assumptions that the church is Israel. Israel hasn’t ceased to be itself, nor has the church superseded it (yay Jennings!), yet there’s plenty of similarity. The church does have to let itself be instructed by Israel, though. One of Israel’s strengths is its self-identification as almost fundamentally sinful, whereas the church often tricks itself into thinking that it is fundamentally faithful. Here’s to hoping the church can learn from Israel without trying to replace it…

  5. I have read several of Cavanaugh’s books and quite a few articles by Baxter, as well as this joint article in America, so I’m not sure where you are getting that “they cast all Catholics who disagree with stated magisterial opinions as disloyal to the Gospel” from. I don’t know if that’s accurate, since the main ways they would cast Catholics as disloyal to the Gospel would be when Catholics violate the Body of Christ (specifically when they commit torture and war crimes, as Cavanaugh stated many times in his book Eucharist and Torture).

    1. Hello
      Yea they definitely never say that explicitly and that is not a direct quote. That is an argument I am making about what I believe they imply. They seem to find fault with Democrats for supporting abortion and I believe their quote about the culture wars also implies support for the conservative position on LGBT rights. And they of course take issue with conservative stances on war and torture. In other words, they seem to believe both parties equally disobedient to church teaching.

      If they take issue with any aspect of magisterial teaching, I would love to be corrected but they have not to my knowledge done so.

  6. Thanks Katie, this is a critical topic.

    I don’t have a strong enough background in scripture to do it, but imho part of this theological conversation is about the pluralism built into the New Testament about basic economic rights.

    Matthew 25:31-46 (sheep and goats) is especially important to those of us who believe Xtianity comes with a “preferential option for the poor.”

    Capitalist leaning Xtians gravitate to these:

    “Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.”

    —Matthew 25:27

    “Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest..”

    —Matthew 25:27

    “…Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow. Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?”

    —Luke 19:22-23

    Socialist leaning Xtians gravitate to these:

    “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

    —Matthew 5:42

    “And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

    —Luke 6:34-35

    “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

    —Luke 6:38

    Xtians who want a federal job guarantee will point to Matthew 20: 1-11

    “…And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and jthe scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, k‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take lwhat belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you…”

    Those of us who want greater investment in renewable energy can point to Matthew 25 the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

    “….8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut…”

    W/R/T taxes Mark 12:17 Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

    I’m sure I’m missing plenty of others in the four canonicals. Bringing in the rest of the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures will imho inform this pluralism.

  7. IMHO reproductive issues are relatively manageable in the sense that I don’t think it’s key to winning US elections. Republicans win local, state, and federal elections because they’ve branded Dems as the party of “pity-liberalism (If you can’t make it on your own, vote Dem, is their mantra). GOP wins, because they’re the party associated with “lower taxes.”

    IMHO, there’s plenty of room in the middle for Francis and the hierarchy if they support Modern Monetary Theory. #MMT @stephaniekelton and @wbmosler are two outstanding proponents.

    Unlike the oligarchs who are destroying the world economy via austerity, MMT understands that capitalism runs on “sales.”

    Republicans are right. Starting with the (federal) payroll tax, we need much LOWER federal taxes on the 99%. That’s what drives DEMAND.

    Democrats are right. We need much MORE federal investment in health care, education, and green infrastructure. See Eisenhower, Republican.

    From 1946 from NY Fed Chair Beardsley Ruml:

    “(Federal) Taxes for revenue are obsolete”

    “…The necessity for a government to tax in order to maintain both its independence and its solvency is true for state and local governments, but it is not true for a national government. Two changes of the greatest consequence have occurred in the last twenty-five years which have substantially altered the position of the national state with respect to the financing of its current requirements.

    The first of these changes is the gaining of vast new experience in the management of central banks.

    The second change is the elimination, for domestic purposes, of the convertibility of the currency into gold.”

    Despite what you hear from Obama and Paul Ryan, it’s not the FEDERAL budget that has to “balance,” it’s the THREE economic sectors, public, private (domestic), and foreign. When the private sector and the foreign sector are broke, the public sector, that’s the FEDERAL government has to SPEND.

    Dr. Stephanie Kelton, economics professor at UMKC, explains it very well in this very accessible 49-minute video.

    The charts really help.

    Wall Street already understands Modern Monetary Theory and are using it to its advantage. They never have any problems getting money from both parties and the President.

    “Bank Of America Dumps $75 Trillion In Derivatives On U.S. Taxpayers With Federal Approval”

    To put $75 trillion in perspective, US GDP in 2012 was around $16.5 trillion. We blew a lot more than the $6 trillion, they’re claiming in Iraq and Afghanistan. Social Security’s Trust Fund is $2.3 trillion. Bank of America is just one Wall Street bank. They all have derivative exposure, but they won’t disclose how much. I’ve seen estimates of $700 trillion.

    continued below

    1. “IMHO reproductive issues are relatively manageable in the sense that I don’t think it’s key to winning US elections.”

      I don’t in any way mean to minimize reproductive or gender issues. IMHO, this theological discussion evolves naturally into a discussion of the oligarchs’ control of the media.

      My parents, who were both anti-choice, voted for Ronald Reagan. A lot of Roman Catholic Dems/labor did the same. After Vietnam the oligarchs began a “long-con” of buying the media (especially AM radio) to relentlessly bash government and labor.

      They learned from the 19th century robber barons that they could “hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

      IMHO, the easiest way to see the outline of the oligarchs in 2014 is on three issues upon which there is wide spread agreement among “moon-bat” liberals and “wingnut” conservatives: prosecuting Wall Street CEO’s, legalizing marijuana (Big loss for Big Pharma), and ending the foreign occupations (Big loss for military industrial complex).

      Oligarchs are deathly afraid of left and right uniting on any one of those three. I would never encourage anyone, who did not already have a serious illness, to use pot, but the prohibition against alcohol didn’t work either. Progress on legalization is a positive.

  8. Bringing back a full holiday on the federal payroll tax would put back money in the pockets of U.S. consumers and employers. That increases demand and that’s what drives employment and wages.

    High federal taxes simply cause “demand leakage.”

    Another critical step for the hierarchy would be demanding a federal job guarantee.

    “… The government could serve as the “employer of last resort” under a job guarantee program modeled on the WPA (the Works Progress Administration, in existence from 1935 to 1943 after being renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942). The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legislated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No minimum education or skill requirements….”

    Any government that issues its own currency can do this. The Euro creates special issues for Europe in this regard.

    continued below

  9. Below is what Warren Mosler was proposing for health (and dental) care back in 2009:

    “Mosler Health Care Proposal

    Government funding for a full time, $8 per hour job that includes full federal health care coverage for the worker and dependents.

    This immediately triggers market forces that will result in all businesses providing health care benefits as a matter of competition.
    As a matter of economics and public purpose it is counter productive for health care to be a marginal cost of production.

    No economist will disagree with this. Unless going to work makes one more prone to needing health care, making the cost
    a marginal cost of production distorts the price structure and results in sub optimal outcomes.

    Therefore government should fund at least 90% of health care costs paid for by businesses.
    Long term vision subject to revised details:
    Everyone gets a ‘medical debit card’ with perhaps $5000 in it to be used for qualifying medical expenses (including dental) for the year.
    Expenses beyond that are covered by catastrophic insurance.
    At the end of the year, the debit card holder gets a check for the unused balance on the card, up to $4,000, with the $1,000 to be spent on preventative measures not refundable.
    The next year, the cards are renewed for an additional $5,000.
    Doctor/patient time doubled as doctor/insurance company time is eliminated.
    The doctor must discuss the diagnosis and options regarding drugs, treatments, and costs with the patient rather than an insurance company.
    Individuals have a strong incentive to keep costs down.
    Doubling the time doctors have available for patients increases capacity and service without increasing real costs.
    Total nominal cost of approx. $1.5 trillion ($5,000×300 million people) is about 10% of GDP which is less than being spent today, so even when catastrophic costs are added the numbers are not financially disruptive and can easily be modified.
    Eliminates medical costs from businesses, removing price distortions and medical legacy costs.
    May obviate the need for Medicare and other current programs.
    Eliminates issues regarding receivables and bad debt for hospitals and doctors.
    Eliminates the majority of administrative costs for the nation as a whole for the current system.
    Patients can ‘shop’ for medical services and prices as desired.
    Disadvantages: Those more in need of the rebate at the end of the year may elect to forgo treatment beyond the $1,500 not subject to the rebate.
    Doctors may be able to more easily convince patients of unneeded treatments and expensive drugs vs insurance companies.”

    Below is a nice three and a 1/2 minute video that illustrates the way modern money works.

    Even Forbes is catching on.

    “Four Reasons You Should Consider Washington’s Deficit As Your Surplus”

    Because we’re not investing in green infrastructure (solar/wind…mass transit), we’ve got cost-push inflation. The oligarchs have bought up all the oil, gas, coal, metals/commodities and are using their wealth to block sustainable alternatives.

    AFAIK, the last time we had demand-pull inflation (too many dollars chasing too few goods/services) was World War II. It’s no coincidence that was the last time we had full employment.

    “If you can have full employment killing Germans …”

    If you have too much demand-pull inflation, one option is to bring back the payroll tax (which only hits folks making less than $113,000/year). Given the amount of slack in the economy,
    I don’t think that’s going to be the case.

    US is also the world’s reserve currency, which lessens the chances of demand-pull inflation.

    Mosler/Kelton/#MMT are essentially arguing that there’s stuff we can run out of: potable water, clean air, safe food, metals, minerals,…. What we can’t run out of is currency.

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