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.