Monday, February 13, 2012


Atrios, Big Tent Democrat, and Jesse Taylor have addressed this E.J. Dionne column in other ways, but I want to talk about the following passage:

Those of us who are liberal Catholics have remained in the church for reasons beyond tribal loyalties or a desire to honor the traditions of our parents and grandparents. At the heart of the love many of us have for the church -- despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the pedophilia scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due -- is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

What's bizarre to me about this is that Dionne gives three reasons for staying in the church -- good works, family heritage, tribalism -- and never mentions the Church's belief system. Is that really a secondary or tertiary concern for him?

Does Dionne share the Church's beliefs on the subjects of abortion, birth control, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, homosexuality, premarital sex, and masturbation? Does he agree with its habit of being awfully quiet when it expresses its objections to the death penalty, immoral wars, and the excesses of capitalism, while shouting about so-called sexual immorality from the housetops? Is he at all disturbed by the Church's habit of always managing to find an enforcer -- some local bishop or other -- to threaten any prominent pro-choice Catholic Democrat with denial of Communion during election years, or otherwise attempting to sway swing voters against non-conservative politicians? Is the second-class status of women in the Church really OK with him?

Or does none of this matter to him? Is it all about the grandparents and the tribe and the good works, with no real concern about the actual moral code? I realize that practically every Catholic in America is a cafeteria Catholic, but once you've left the old neighborhood, as Dionne has, why do you want to remain a cafeteria Catholic? You live in a big world. If you're liberal and your church is dogmatically conservative, if you're appalled by sexual abuse and you're church isn't, if your church regards condom use by a lower-middle-class couple with too many children as immoral and you don't, why not just leave? Because you like the charities? Write a freaking check!

But it's obvious why Dionne would cleave to the Church: As a Beltway insider pundit, he knows too many people who say that being a secular humanist would deprive him of all moral authority, and he's internalized that argument. And Catholicism is a marketing bullet for him as well: Yeah, I'm a liberal, but Sister Mary Discipline whacked my hand with a steel ruler back in third grade at Saint Ignatius! Also, like too many Catholics, perhaps he dreams of a changed Church, even though the actual Church has shown no interest in his kind of change. Perhaps he's clinging to the Church he imagines, not the Church that really exists.

This isn't like sticking with the Democratic Party if you're a real progressive; in that case, you know one of the two major parties is always going to control the White House and each house of Congress, and you have to name your poison. Religion is different. It's not binary. You can choose from a thousand religious affiliations or choose none at all. And you will if you have core convictions -- unless you see some other advantage in not bothering.


c u n d gulag said...

E.J. Dionne,
Remember, you go to Culture War with the Church you have, not the Church you might want or wish to have at a later time....

And if CHRIST Inc., the Catholic Church, is your choice, you'll have a lot to answer for when you meet God in Heaven.

She will be PISSED!!!

Arturo Ui said...

Excellent post, Steve. I couldn't agree more. Why rational people insist on sticking with an irrational institution I've never understood, but your explanation makes sense.

Uncle Mike said...

Very good friend of mine, who's not super religious and isn't really sure about what she believes anymore, told me she continues to go to her church because of the sense of community there: she has friends there, her kids have friends there. I guess it helps that her church is a fairly liberal one, but still.

Tom Hilton said...

Also worth noting: if you're a liberal Catholic, Ratzinger doesn't want you in his church. He's made no secret of the fact that what he wants is a smaller, "purer" church, and his whole career has been working toward that end. Dionne isn't just staying in a church whose doctrines he doesn't support; he's staying in a church that wants to get rid of him.

Also, I would love to see Dionne answer Kilgore's question: "Should the sensibilities of liberal Catholic political elites matter more to non-Catholic liberals than the actual impact of these policies in question on the lives of millions of American women, Catholics included?"

BH said...

What the US could use about now is its own update of Henry VIII. When the Church gave him grief about his morals & maritals, he disestablished it, confiscated everything it owned in England (which, unsurprisingly, amounted to a LOT), using the proceeds to pay off his supporters and improve the monarchical finances, & started the Church of England. A current Henry could hopefully avoid the mayhem that accompanied the original disestablishment.

Ah, but I'm dreaming again. No nasty old kings for us, eh? Vox populi instead.

Anonymous said...

i loved this post personally, but i have to think that Dionne would respond that the Catholic Church to him is more than just those issues you mentioned (contraception, abortion, IVF).. also it's more than just a charity system too, even though that might be his defense of the church to liberals.

Faith isn't rational--it's faith. And i don't think any of us can know if Dionne is a true believer or remaining catholic for cynical reasons--nor should we even try.

Ten Bears said...

Faith is a tree without roots.