Saturday, December 6, 2008

Catholic and spitting the truth?

I was at homeless ministry at the cathedral here in Washington one morning when I overheard a gentleman talking to another volunteer. To summarize, the gentleman was a bit crazy (but he is one of the nicest, most sincere people to come through the doors every week). That morning he was telling this volunteer all about some conspiracy with cell phone SIM cards and the government and some invention of his and the social services agencies are in on it too. It was quite fantastical and rather entertaining; I give credit to the volunteer for taking it all with a straight face. What struck me is that when this gentleman said that he was always being watched and the powers-that-be were trying to control him, the volunteer suggested that he best be silent and not tell others about the conspiracy. The man’s response was simple, Being silent is the worst thing you can do, you gotta speak up.

Conspiracy theories aside, he hit on a rather salient and continuous narrative of modern culture: the whistleblower, the revolutionary, the voice in the wilderness, Jefferson Smith. All those who “speak truth to power.”

Standing up for what’s right is so ubiquitous in all its forms (including Bob Marley’s sing-along anti-Church version) that it’s rather cliché and frankly we’re all a bit confused. Part of the problem is that we can’t all agree on what’s “right” and part of the problem is that it isn’t always fun to put oneself out there. For Catholics, an example from this election season should prove thought provoking.

When prominent Catholic legal scholar (and former Notre Dame professor) Douglas Kmiec, a Republican, endorsed Barack Obama for president he ostensibly felt as though he were speaking truth to the hierarchy and wrote a book defending his position against the Catholic hardliners who would never consider casting a ballot for a pro-choice candidate (or in Obama’s case truly pro-abortion). Not to be outdone, an unnamed Catholic priest at a Catholic business event denied Kmiec the Eucharist, eliciting a brief exchange with another Church go-er: “Are you judging this man, Father?” “He has judged himself and been found unworthy.” I’m sure that statement and accompanying actions were thought by the reverend to be some kind of truth telling against the evil forces sweeping the country, Catholic and otherwise. Little did he know that his religious superior, Roger Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles would call him into the diocesan office and reminded him of the truth in Canon Law 915 that his denial of Eucharist to Kmiec was “shameful and indefensible.” Nice of the man who openly instructed his churches to violate immigration law and settled sexual abuse lawsuits for $660 million to throw his guy under the bus and not offer much of an explanation about theology, politics or the Church’s role in America. It’s no wonder that many people are confused about Catholics and their beliefs.

Doubtless, all three men thought they were doing the right thing by not remaining silent in the face of some opposition. We could squabble about the merits of their individual beliefs and actions but the bottom line is that everyone wants to be some kind of honest, All-American hero going down to old Pharaoh and telling him to let the people go, from the chains on their hands or more often on their minds.

Kmiec may or may not be right about Obama being more Catholic than his opponent (his remarkably shoddy reasoning for a law professor is unconvincing but genuine) yet he put himself out there. The good reverend did the same. No one really won, though given the sit down with the archbishop, the priest may have lost. Their willingness to stand up for what they think is right gives us opportunity to reflect on how we conduct ourselves as Catholics.

From the daily-Mass-going, old school-to-the-core Latinist who still believes in weekly absolution and 12 child families as the standard to the eco-spiritual, twice-a-year New England crowd that wouldn’t get caught dead at a prayer vigil unless it was for gay marriage, Catholics run the gamut. Thankfully, most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. This philosophical diversity gives Catholics a great opportunity to dialogue with each other on our role in American society.

Obviously, there is only one light, one truth and one way; but while theological tenets are more rigid than fluid, there is no standard for Catholic engagement in civil society. In the United States we are nominally bound by the Catholic Bishops’ ambiguous harping on a properly formed conscience.

Some take that ambiguity and stretch it to mean that they can support and do anything as long as they can sleep at night, while others clamor for more of the rigidity found in doctrine. Kmiec is one of the former, though not as extreme and understandably upset that his public support for Obama, in spite of acknowledging and condemning Obama’s unmitigated support for intrinsic evil, resulted in the denial of communion. If there is to be open debate and dialogue on Catholic issues, shouldn’t there be protection against that kind of retribution? Though Kmiec was outside the realm of academia in making the endorsement, isn’t the idea of higher education some how aligned with free thought and inquiry? Shouldn’t Catholic academics embrace that paradigm and be the first ones on the scene interpreting the situation rather than just giving Kmiec a soapbox in the form of a book?

These are questions that I haven’t heard asked enough. Indeed, the whole Kmiec affair hasn’t been addressed enough in the Church. It should be known and thought about by all Catholics. To have one of our archetypal intellectuals shot down by a priest who was subsequently shot down by the archbishop is actually an incredible occurrence. Particularly at a time when the Church in America is hemorrhaging native-born Catholics, it is important to give young people the opportunity to question, struggle and learn about their commitments as religious and secular citizens.

We should all be wondering what it means to speak truth to power and whether within our own Church and government that is possible, reasonable and respectable. Certainly the Church isn’t perfect and has needed peaceful insurrection to correct itself before. Certainly our political arena isn’t perfect and has needed reformers to correct itself before. Woefully, that cowboy priest in Southern California and Clintonite-loving Obama are not as truthful and revolutionary as we might have hoped.