Some Words of Thanks
Yesterday over at the blog called Catholic Moral Theology, Professor David Cloutier posted a thoughtful reply to my take on the debate between Massimo Faggioli and co-authors Michael Baxter and William Cavanaugh in the cyber pages of America Magazine.
I want to first of all thank Professor Cloutier. It is truly a privilege to have someone engage with and comment on my work in the way that Professor Cloutier has. I thank him not only for sparking up a conversation with me but for doing so with both kindness and intellectual rigor. I have never met Professor Cloutier but I certainly hope to one day soon. I echo his gratitude for the theological blogosphere—I feel immensely grateful to be able to have this important conversation with him almost as though we were sitting across from each other at some cozy coffee shop.
Professor Cloutier has also offered me a precious opportunity to sharpen my skills as a writer and a thinker: every writer knows that what we intend to say is not always what we actually end up saying.
I also want to offer an overdue word of praise and gratitude for our interlocutors, Baxter and Cavanaugh. Although I do not know Michael Baxter personally, he played a significant role in my spiritual formation. As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I often attended Dillon Hall’s Thursday night “Milkshake Masses” over which he presided. Nearly ten years later, his homilies remain among the most powerful, inspiring, and challenging I have ever heard. I was desperate to take his class “A Faith to Die For,” but just couldn’t make it fit in my schedule. Surely I would have been better off if I had found room for that course in my life. I have never had the privilege of even occupying the same room as Professor Cavanaugh, but I count his classic work, Torture and the Eucharist, as one of my favorite pieces of theological scholarship.
And now I will just jump right into the part where Professor Cloutier claims “things got weird.” Cloutier argues that I accuse Baxter and Cavanaugh of “’tender nostalgia’ for a time when Catholics were ‘pious and united.’” If Baxter and Cavanaugh “were to rely on such nostalgia,” Cloutier concedes, “their position would certainly seem weak.” But since they don’t, my critique falls flat.
Cloutier misrepresents my argument ever so slightly. Cloutier argues that I accuse Cavanaugh and Baxter of “tender nostalgia” for days gone by. This is not true. I made this claim about “white Catholics of all political stripes.” My specific critique of Baxter and Cavanaugh is that “they implicitly contrast the unity secured by wholehearted and unsullied membership in the church with the inherently divisive and atomizing politics of the nation-state.” I referenced “the tender nostalgia” of white Catholics for three reasons: one, in order to show that they are not alone in idealizing the church in certain ways; two, in order to portray their criteria for what constitutes a united church as overly narrow; and three, to suggest that they quite likely rely upon such overly narrow criteria in large part to their whiteness.
I take partial responsibility for this misunderstanding: my writing could have been clearer.
However, while I was not accusing them of “tender nostalgia,” I do think their writing makes such an accusation reasonable, if not correct. Like Faggioli, they bemoan the fact that Catholics are divided along partisan lines. This partisan split is relatively new: prior to the Second World War, white Catholics were much more solidly on the side of the Democratic Party. Suburbanization, affluence, and the Civil Rights Movement prompted many white Catholics to abandon the party of their immigrant ancestors and ally themselves with the G.O.P.
Thus, if Baxter and Cavanaugh believe that Catholics should vote in relatively uniform fashion, then it is not unreasonable or unfair to point out that this view apparently extols the U.S. Catholic past over the U.S. Catholic present. (If they instead wish to argue that Catholics should not be voting at all, then that is another matter altogether.)
And, if I am not mistaken, Baxter’s dissertation establishes a geneology of the Catholic church’s creeping Americanization that, I believe begins around the turn of the twentieth century. If my memory serves, Baxter’s dissertation would seem to suggest two things: one, that there was an era in which the Church was not as entangled in the evils of the nation-state as it is today; and two, that in this era, the church was more faithful to its identity as the gospel-bearing body of Christ than it is today.
Cloutier further claims that I categorize them as “Catholic traditionalist conservatives.” Against this alleged argument, Cloutier writes,
“It strikes me as odd indeed to accuse the author of Torture and Eucharist – an extended discussion of the Chilean church’s complicity in Pinochet’s policies of disappearance and torture – of harboring some kind of vision of the pristine, sinless, undivided ecclesial body. And I don’t see how a guy who was nearly excluded from the Notre Dame theology department because his position challenged some powerful Catholic faculty members can be characterized as having a view of the tradition as a “magisterial monotone.” Neither Cavanaugh nor Baxter fit the traditionalist mold into which they are being cast.”
But Cloutier misunderstands me. I do not accuse Baxter and Cavanaugh of slavish obedience to episcopal authority in all its forms. I do not accuse them of wishing to restore the Papal States or believing that any action a bishop takes ought to be respected as correct. I do not charge them of disapproving of Catholics who criticize their bishops for buying lavish mega mansions, for example. I instead accuse them of submission only to the magisterium, which refers simply to these officials’ teaching authority. For example, one could object to the way in which a bishop acquiesced to the murderous tendencies of the dictator that ruled his country while still believing this bishop imbued with unconditional teaching authority as a member of the magisterium.
While I admire Cavanaugh’s fierce critique of powerful Chilean clergymen, it does not serve as a piece of counterevidence to my claim. I hope this clarification also explains why my argument does not position them as 19th century style traditionalists: one can believe the magisterium (teaching authority of the bishops and pope) infallible while also critiquing the actions of particular popes and bishops.
And while I certainly do not mean to downplay the emotional angst Baxter may have suffered during his job application process, I am afraid I do not understand what almost being denied a tenure track position at one of the country’s most prestigious universities has anything to do with this issue. The members of Notre Dame’s theology department do not exhibit magisterial authority when they decide whom to hire. Even if bishops occupied every chair in the department, they would not hire and fire magisterially. In fact, Baxter’s experience looks pretty typical—every young applicant knows that their politics and theological positions play a part in determining whether or not they are a good fit for a certain position. Women of all races, people of color of all genders, and LGBT people especially know what it is like to passed over because their politics are deemed theologically unsavory.
More Thoughts About Baxter and Cavanaugh
Professor Cloutier and my debate shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the convenient ambiguities in Baxter and Cavanaugh’s argument. While Baxter and Cavanaugh admit that “voting…can make a difference,” I am not sure they believe it a morally acceptable activity. Without wanting to impugn their intentions or cast doubt on their sincerity, they seem to want to argue against voting without explicitly admitting they are arguing against voting. Exploring these ambiguities, I present my original critique of Baxter and Cavanaugh with greater clarity and depth.
Baxter and Cavanaugh claim that both political parties fall short of Gospel truths in various respects. I think all but a very tiny minority of Catholics would agree with this. I honestly do not know even one Catholic who believes his preferred party perfectly aligned with Catholic values.
Rather than mistaking Donkeys or Elephants for Jesus Christ, Catholics typically vote for a particular candidate because they think her capable of making the greatest contribution to the common good.
But Baxter and Cavanaugh do not articulate this information as though nearly everyone agrees with it.
Rather than simply reminding Catholics of each party’s moral imperfection, I think Baxter and Cavanaugh wish to make a different argument. They describe both parties and all politicians as equally disrespectful of magisterial teaching not simply to help Catholics avoid idolatry but to discourage them from voting. If both parties qualify as equally erroneous, it would be impossible to choose one over the other.
And here is where their implied submission to the magisterium comes in. Both parties can be judged equally evil only if the magisterium is right about abortion law, gay rights, economic policy, and immigration law. Dissent automatically qualifies as disunity. The fact that Catholics disagree about abortion law or gay rights qualifies as evidence of unholy division only if we hold magisterial truths to be self-evident.
Baxter and Cavanaugh’s apparent belief about the incompatibility between voting and other types of political activity also lead me to wonder what they really believe about the moral value of voting. If I am wrong about this and Baxter and Cavanaugh do not believe these two types of political activities rivals, then I am not sure what all the drama is about.
Truly, I can find no reason why Catholics cannot campaign for a particular political candidate, cast a ballot on election day, while also engaging in the activities Baxter and Cavanaugh prescribe: “advocate for experiments in local, face-to-face community where democracy is not an empty slogan—unions, buying cooperatives, houses of hospitality, credit unions, alternative schools, farmers’ markets, projects in community-supported agriculture, sanctuary for immigrants, micro-lending, [and] restorative justice.”
For example, despite my relative political inactivity, in the last decade of my life I have voted in several political elections, helped run a polling center on election day, belonged to an intentional community, banked with a credit union, bought goods from several different farmers’ markets in multiple locations on many occasions, shared a subscription to a CSA, marched in Chicago’s historic 2007 immigrants’ rights protest, protested a pro-torture member of the Bush administration who came to my university to give a speech about his commitment to “pro-life” principles, wrote letters to my local newspaper defending Latino/a immigrants from editorial anti-immigrant slander, attended Occupy Boston protests, and belonged to my campus’ Pax Christi group as an undergraduate.
None of these activities discouraged me from getting involved in any of the others. I did not walk out of my local polling station sated and politically satisfied: each of these activities extended from me like branches on a single deeply-rooted tree. I did them all because I was Catholic; I did them all because I hungered and thirsted for justice; I did them all because of love for particular people and particular places.
Baxter and Cavanaugh also seem to portray voting as inevitably idolatrous, an act of elevating the authority of the state above the authority of the church. Even if Baxter and Cavanaugh do not deem voting inherently idolatrous and immoral, they surely seem to believe them morally dangerous in a way that their preferred list of political activities are not. I am of course open to them telling me they believe otherwise.
Of course, party politics, especially presidential elections, do indeed present a temptation to idolatry, but they are not in themselves necessarily idolatrous. (Indeed, human beings possess an uncanny ability to make almost anything into an idol, including the church).
Indeed, I can find no reason why voting qualifies as inherently less Christ-like than buying food at a farmers’ market, marching in a protest, or engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Jesus never voted but neither did he do any of the activities Baxter and Cavanaugh sanction. He did not organize the Roman Empire’s exploited workers into a union, he did not go on strike, he did not boycott, and he did not buy local– even though he lived in a society founded on exploitative and morally dubious international trade.
Discipleship will always be anachronistic, approximate, and bastardized. We can only be like Jesus by sometimes being un-like him. We can only act as Jesus would by doing things he never did.
Admittedly, when we vote, we may indeed recognize the authority and legitimacy of the nation-state. Founded on genocide and enriched by slavery, we ought to question the United States’ right to exist. But these white supremacist evils do not make the church look good by comparison. The church promoted the sins of African slavery and indigenous conquest even before there was a nation-state. (And the United States’ unlawful conquest of this continent’s indigenous people would also call into question the right of non-indigenous people to continuing living in the space their ancestors stole. White Catholics especially should be careful about pronouncing the nation-state irredeemably evil unless we are also willing to turn the land we are living on back over to its original “owners.”)
And we are right to remember that representative democracy does not qualify as a Catholic invention. This system of government undoubtedly came from outside the church. Indeed, if the magisterium had had its way, relatively democratic forms of government along with the right to religious freedom would have remained dangerously anti-Catholic ideas.
But aren’t Baxter and Cavanaugh’s political activities just as un-Catholic as conventional forms of participation in the nation-state? We got civil disobedience from Gandhi after all. When we engage in Gandhi-style nonviolent cooperation, do we necessarily pledge allegiance to the Vedantic ideals that inspired it? Labor unions we owe mostly to atheistic Marxists and anarchists. When we fight for the right of all workers to unionize, do we automatically affirm all aspects of socialist thought?
Of course not.
If we use Gandhi’s tactics as Martin Luther King did, we do so because we find them politically useful and resonant with our particular theological commitments. Why can’t we do the same with voting, campaigning, and lobbying? Voting and campaigning, like shopping local or protesting en masse, represent strategically deployed acts of power aimed at bringing society into alignment with discrete moral principles. Like voting, these forms of political activity can be deployed improperly or unjustly.
I echo Professor Cloutier’s sagacious exhortation for moral theologians to respond to the presence of sin in the Church by “calling out Catholics to become better Catholics.”
But there is no purely Catholic politics. Nor should there be.