Sunday, February 16, 2014

Calm Down John

It has been several weeks since I read John Zmirak's condemnation of Illiberal Catholicism, and I have been intending to write a response but have only now made the time to do so.  Zmirak's thesis is that Catholicism in the United States is being corrupted by illiberal reactionaries who would crush liberty in the name of the Church.

Let me start with a few vignettes. I was an eyewitness, or heard a detailed firsthand account, of each of these events, or else will provide a link to document it.
- Just after the Chinese government crushed the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, a seminarian explained to me that he wished he “could have driven one of the tanks” that ran over the demonstrators and their makeshift Statue of Liberty. “Americanism is a far greater threat to the Church than communism,” he explained.  He is now a priest — I saw him on the altar in October.

- It was a festive evening at the small Catholic college.  A hearty dinner followed Mass for the feast of its patron saint. Now the students were gathered with the school’s faculty and leaders for a bonfire and robust songs. The high point of the night was the piñata, which the school’s director of student life hung from a hook. It was full of candy and shaped like a pig.  Across it was written, “Americanism.”  The student life director held up a bat, and told the students, “Okay, everybody, let’s SMASH Americanism!” The students lined up behind their teachers, their dean, and their college president, to smash whatever it was they thought was Americanism. (They had never been taught what Leo XIII actually meant by that word.)

- At this same school, in an academic discussion, the college dean explained the greater economic success of Protestant countries that embraced capitalism (compared to agrarian Catholic nations) as the “effects of Freemasonry.”  The college president quickly corrected him, pointing out another critical factor: “diabolical intervention.”

- That same dean, in a conversation with me, waved off the possibility of democratic reform in America.  Moral reform, he explained to me, would only come in the form of a forcible coup d’état, by which “men of virtue” would impose their will “on the people, who will fall in line when they see that they have no choice.” That dean had previously criticized Franco’s Spain for being too lax.

- The historian at a large Catholic university gathered his friends and family on the day that the rest of us call “Thanksgiving.” But his clan called the holiday “Anathema Thursday,” and every year used it to mock the Protestant origins of America by hanging a Puritan in effigy.  This same historian teaches those he mentors to call the Statue of Liberty “that Masonic bitch-goddess.”

- At another small Catholic college, faculty and staff lead an annual pig roast, which they call an “auto-da-fe,” naming the pig each year after a prominent “heretic” before they immolate and eat it.

- At still another small Catholic college, one of the teachers whom I met at a conference spoke effusively of “loopholes” a scholar had purportedly found in Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom. It seems that Dignitatis Humanae only forbids the State from using physical force in matters of religion.  The Church, this young scholar explained, is not so constrained.  The Church may imprison any baptized person and punish him for heresy. “So that means the Pope has the right to throw any Lutheran in jail?”, I asked skeptically.  “I know, right?” he said, beaming a smile. “This is really exciting.”  In subsequent weeks he sent me “proof” that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.

- Over at Ethika Politika, a Catholic writer followed his rejection of American liberalism and capitalism to a different logical endpoint, and attempted to rehabilitate Karl Marx, absolving him of all the evils historically perpetrated by communists, and urging his readers to find ways to be good Catholic Marxists.

- At America magazine, a commentator wrote dismissively, even patronizingly, of that magazine’s greatest contributor — Father John Courtney Murray, SJ — for his attempt to embrace American liberty and infuse it with an understanding of natural law.  It was clear that such attempts had already failed, and that Catholics should embrace political quietism, withdrawing to separatist communities and hoping for toleration, the commentator wrote.

I could multiply such anecdotes, but you get the idea. At first sight, all these events might seem to be unconnected. What do nostalgic, Renaissance Faire Catholics have in common with neo-Marxists?  What do would-be Catholic “Amish” separatists share with Inquisition re-enactors? What is the thread linking Cardinal Dolan, who wished that he could be the “biggest cheerleader” for Obamacare, and the right-wing Catholics who downplayed the bishops’ plea for religious liberty in the face of the HHS mandate — arguing that, instead, Catholics ought to be arguing whether contraception should even be legal?

You might be forgiven if your answer was simply, “They’re all BLEEPING crazy, that’s what.” But that won’t do. In fact, there is something very serious going on in Catholic intellectual and educational circles, which — if it goes on unchecked — will threaten the pro-life cause, the Church’s influence in society, and the safety and freedom of individual Catholics in America.  The growth of illiberal Catholicism will strengthen the power of the intolerant secular left, revive (and fully justify) the old anti-Catholicism that long pervaded America, and make Catholics in the United States as laughably marginal as they now are in countries like Spain and France — nations where the cause of the Church was linked for centuries to autocratic government and religious intolerance.

These vignettes serve to illustrate Zmirak's concerns about illiberal Catholicism, but I think they undermine his argument before he even makes it.  These stories  are supposed to shock the reader, but they are shocking because hardly any of us have ever encountered anything like them.  The priest who wants to crush unarmed Chinese people under a tank is probably the only priest in the entire world with that particular desire and there are probably only slightly more Catholics who wish to jail their Lutheran neighbors.  There are on the other hand innumerable Catholics who think that God invented liberal democracy and that it is wrong to try to convert Protestants.  Instead of worrying about a few conservative weirdos, we should be concerned with the vast horde of Catholics who are slaves to modernist errors.  If the wingnuts come to burn my Protestant roommate, I'll kill them, but until then I'm perfectly happy to kneel by their side at the Tridentine Mass.

Even if Zmirak's vignettes' were at all representative of Catholic intellectuals, most of the "bad guys" he showcases don't even seem that bad to me.  Hanging a Puritan in effigy or eating a pig called John Hus are in poor taste, but they don't sound like especially diabolical activities.  The guy who thought Franco was too nice seems rather dense, but I would be lying if I said I have never fantasized about a king or dictator descending upon the liberal order with fire and sword.  I don't actually want to install a dictator, but the desire to do so is certainly understandable.  As for Dignitatis Humanae, one need not be crazy to wish for loopholes in the document.  The standard Catholic party line on religious liberty is that any state action against religious error comprises some terrible violation of the natural law.  If a Catholic nation such as the Philippines were to ban Protestant missionaries from entering the country, more than a few bishops would throw a fit and claim that Dignitatis Humanae condemns such "Medieval" proscriptions.   I don't believe that Dignitatis Humane actually says what the liberals think it does, but the document is hardly a model of clarity.  Whoever is running "The Reform of the Reform" these days should really work on clarifying the Catholic position on religious liberty, among other things. 

Zmirak's criticisms are not without merit, but I think he overstates his case rather severely.  He remains one of my favorite contemporary Catholic writers, and should I ever meet him, I will buy him a beer and then assure him that he needn't worry about the vast illiberal conspiracy.

Monday, February 10, 2014


I have been thinking about posting for a while, but I have yet to make the time.  I will try to post as soon as I am less busy.