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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Them’s Fightin’ Words

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Them’s Fightin’ Words

What's the Catholic answer to Catholic bashing?  Our job as Catholics is not to remind people that we can’t be criticized, or to find ways to get our secular government to ‘protect’ us from nasty and unkind critiques, or to get the secular state to allow us the ‘freedom’ to practice our quirky beliefs inside their secular public order; it is instead to show secular critics that our own views on freedom, sex, and much else besides, are correct and should be adopted by the public at large.

A recent issue of U.S. News and World Report published an editorial that upset some Catholics. The essay in question was written by a writer who was rather annoyed that Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s majority-tipping decision allowed some nuns in Denver to opt out of the federal decree that requires businesses of a certain size to offer carcinogens birth control pills as part of their health insurance coverage. The editorialist in question, Jamie Stiehm, saw the Catholic Church as a domineering and meddlesome institution, and one that was usurping the hard won rights of non-Catholic and ‘good’ Catholic-Americans. According to Stiehm, Sotomayor was a ‘bad’ Catholic, in that she was unduly influenced by the authoritarian religious group to which she belonged; it seemed as if her Catholic beliefs had made her blind to the sacred, secular ideals of her own country, including those that boldly speak to the separation of church and state.


Most worrying to Stiehm was the very fact that many of these ‘bad’ Catholics, in lockstep with the draconian and misogynist Holy See, had inexplicably risen to important positions in our government (she seemed to be surprised that there weren’t laws against this). These power-wielding Catholics seemed determined to influence (or in the case of Sotomayor, interpret) law based on nothing other than the capricious rules of their own, superstitious cult. The author said, more or less, that ‘bad’ Catholics like Sotomayor are a native-born threat to Our Way of Life, and that while they might be technically American, their nefarious credulity and deference to Rome make them foreign enough to the National Project to warrant suspicion. Yes, argued Stiehm, these ‘bad’ Catholics are making life rather difficult for the rest of the good and decent American populace—folks who just want the government to pay for their birth control pills in peace. The article contained most all of the phrases needed for a good stump speech: “women’s health”, “religious bias”, “reproductive rights”, “war on women”, “we can no longer be silent”, and of course, “separation of church and state.”

Great stuff, if you ask me. The article could have been written by a ‘liberal’ article generator, given its predominance of standard lefty jargon and phrasing. Well played.

At any rate, some Catholic commentators took particular offense to this editorial, arguing that it was especially egregious. Indeed, they argued, the piece was ‘bigoted’, since if we replaced every instance of ‘Catholic’ with ‘black’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Jew’, we would end up with an editorial that looked undeniably vile and irrationally hateful, and therefore that it should be seen as falling outside of the boundaries of what U.S. News and World Report—a respectable, ‘mainstream’ magazine—themselves deemed ‘fair commentary’. Some argued that the piece was a form of ‘hate speech’, that it therefore was unfit to print in a major media outlet, and that Stiehm should be fired. They said: it’s one thing if such disgraceful, spiteful language appeared on someone’s personal blog. But a major news magazine? Unacceptable. U.S. News would never think to publish an editorial arguing something so monstrous as that the native-born ‘Blacks’ were destroying America, or that America’s ‘Jews’ were hijacking the constitution and forcing ‘their beliefs’ on the rest of us. So, surely such execrable rhetoric about Catholics should likewise be outside the range of acceptable (or at least respectable) discourse. In the same way that the rantings of a KKK member should fail to make the editor’s cut, so should anti-Catholic screeds like Stiehm’s. What these substitutions show, the argument continued, was that anti-Catholicism is the Last Acceptable Prejudice. It appears as if it is fine to say this stuff about Catholics—it is ‘fair commentary’—but it is obviously not fine to say this about any other racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural group. Stiehm, the argument concludes, sounds eerily similar to Martin Scorsese’s foul character from Gangs of New York called Bill the Butcher, that ill-tempered Know Nothing, hell-bent on removing the Catholic scourge from the American shores forever.

So goes the argument.

I’m not so sure I’d analyze Stiehm’s piece in the same way, however. No doubt, her essay is joyously unhinged, and there is also little doubt that this woman holds a roaring fire of hate for the Catholic religion. Moreover, as every Catholic blogger the nation over has rightly noticed, she’s fantastically incorrect regarding some basic facts, and she conveniently passes over others (including the rather juicy bit about Sotomayor voting against Hobby Lobby’s petition to opt out of this same federal mandate). We might also here mention that Stiehm’s definition of ‘impose’ is the most liberal thing about her piece. But I’d nevertheless refrain from calling her essay ‘bigoted’, and I’d also argue that while this piece is certainly anti-Catholic, it is not akin to racism or anti-Semitism.

We should notice how odd it is to conflate race and religion. One cannot help being a certain race. Moreover, one’s race is not a determining factor for behavior or belief. Thus, if some author paddled on about how African Americans, as a race, held to certain beliefs that were ruinous to the fragile fabric of the American Way, we’d rightly call out the author as a maniacal racist of the most wicked sort, and we should rightly accuse any ‘mainstream’ news magazine that felt such discourse was ‘fair commentary’, as being a vile contributor to the perpetual plague of racism.

Religion, as opposed to race, consists of a set of propositions. Propositions concern what is true about the nature of reality, and therefore what is in some such way falsifiable. Moreover, a set of propositions is chosen through deliberation. Certainly, some people are ‘born into’ a religion, but one can always take or leave it. Race reduces to biological traits that one cannot help having, whereas religion reduces to what one believes about the nature of things. Beliefs are hardly so permanent or determined. Stiehm is wrong in aggressively disagreeing with the Catholic position, and she might be unduly relying on cliché phrasing and fancy rhetoric instead of syllogism (though we should give her a pass here, given her word-count and the general state of main-stream print journalism); but her anti-Catholicism is not akin to racism, and therefore her essay isn’t bigoted. Quite frankly, making this conflation is potentially insulting to racial minorities, who have had no recourse to counter-argument. After all: it seems rather impossible to argue with a racist, since he holds to unfalsifiable beliefs and seems reliant on irrational emotion. Yet religion, unlike skin pigment, can be wrong. Stiehm is arguing (or emoting) that Catholic beliefs are not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. Stiehm is herself wrong (obviously), and lamentably, embarrassingly so at that; but she’s not a bigot.

It is almost as if we are all falsely assuming that the Catholic religion, along with its particular, peculiar morality, is based on a conception of ‘faith’ that transcends rational discovery. One might even think that both parties, not just Stiehm and her ilk, but also those taking offense, seem to be assuming that natural law is a chimera, or at least that it’s invisible. We might also suggest that the charge of bigotry is a tell-tale sign of the ways that ecumenism has wrecked the Catholic Church here on the far side of Vatican II. After all, the assumption in play here seems to be that the Catholic faith, like other protestant faiths, assumes both nominalism and voluntarism. After all, it is only if the Catholic moral belief system were so superficial and arbitrary—or if it was merely a cultural treasure and nothing more—that a spirited criticism of it should be followed not with rational retorts (perhaps equally as joyously cutting as Stiehm’s own), but merely with talk of hurt feelings, tearful cries of ‘hate speech’ and ‘bigotry’ and the violation of ‘rights’, and calls for firings.

To assume, by contrast, that the Catholic bases his morality not on the arbitrary whims of a capricious god, but on the ways that created nature reveals intrinsic essences, immanent striving, and real ends, and therefore that creation is saturated with real value and real norms…is to see that there is nothing about ‘Catholic morality’, as opposed to so much protestant faux-equivalents, that is anything other than falsifiable, arguable, and therefore defendable. For this reason, there is nothing about Stiehm’s piece that should be called bigoted. It should merely be calledwrong. Stiehm’s essay is anti-Catholic in the same way that I’m anti-secularist. I think secularism is not only philosophically wrong, but dangerous to society (though perhaps I’d be nicer about it if I ever felt the need to write about it at length), and I am rightly worried about secularists who wield political power. Stiehm thinks that my religion’s moral propositions are at least partly incorrect, and that those who hold to them faithfully while wielding power are a threat to our nation. Moreover, Stiehm thinks that many of these Catholic propositions are not only false, but based on nothing whatsoever.

We beg to differ; yet we can ironically forgive Stiehm for assuming that our religion was as nominalist and voluntarist as any protestant sect, since Catholics have been conflating their own faith to align with these other groups for years now.

It is reasonable, that is, that she should be wary that Catholics who, unlike Jews, WASPS, Quakers, Baptists, and other protestant groups, seem to meddle in jurisprudence. Certainly, I’d want to see what this worry was based on, given that the bishops here on the far side of Vatican II seem quite happy to capitulate to constitutional rhetoric (which is why Catholics have been relegated to speak merely of ‘religious freedom’ at best). But I can nevertheless understand how such meddling would be worrying, given what she assumes. After all, if Catholicism was indeed as nominalist and voluntarist as these other religions, such an ‘imposition’ (even if only hypothetical) would be harmful to what she sees as a secular public order that defines the American project, and that (to her mind) benevolently allows for irrational ‘religious’ beliefs to exist privately. Indeed: it would be quite dangerous if a religion that was based on nothing but blind faith and emotion insisted that the law of the land should match that of its dogmatic and irrational private world.

Stiehm can be forgiven for not knowing that the Catholic faith, unlike the very religions that Catholics seem all too happy to celebrate since Vatican II, spurns nominalism and voluntarism, and rightly asserts the logos of Christ and the total rationality of its tenants. It is understandable that Stiehm would be ignorant of the fact that the Catholic insists on the Kingship of Christ and the rather unfashionable proposition that error has no rights, since Catholics these days seem rather embarrassed of these ancient and unchanging tenants.

The Catholic project, much to the chagrin of many bishops who are happy to merely speak of the ‘freedom’ to abide by our charming, antiquated views on sex, is utterly opposed to the privatization of religion, partly because he is opposed to the privatization of The Good. He is as wary of Locke’s insistence that philosophy should not be let loose into the vast ocean of being, as he is of Rawls’ idea that the political is not metaphysical. In other words, Stiehm is very astute to notice how the ‘bad’ Catholic seems more meddlesome than other religious organizations when it comes to defining The Good; but this is because, historically, the Catholic has rightly seen the American insistence on nihilistic freedom and the ‘separation’ of church and state, as dangerous propositions, since they adversely affect the common good.

So, at the end of the day, despite Stiehm’s rhetorical handling of this issue, (involving some nuns who simply didn’t want to pay for dangerous pills) and her rather clichéd writing, she should be given credit for criticizing a set of propositions that she sees as objectively wrong. After all, we all do the same thing. It is not bigoted to attack views that you think are false. If it were, most everyone in the world, save someone who held to the ‘Celebrate Diversity’ mantra with schizophrenic consistency, would be a bigot. Indeed: we should see that talk of bigotry is simply disingenuous. After all, conservatives are quite happy to see editorials speak raucously and acerbically against the barbarism of female circumcision and the burqa, and in general we would not feel it untoward or outside the bounds of reasonable discourse to discuss the vicious thuggery of certain Islamic sects; nor would we feel it unreasonable or impolite to read bellicose rhetorical critiques of fundamentalist Mormon compounds, or screeds that viciously ridiculed their predatory, cruel, and despotic religious leaders.

We do not feel it bigoted to speak against these religions, knowing well that their beliefs are not just wrong but disgusting, irrational, and dangerous. We would not call ‘hateful’ an essay that spoke to the threat of fundamentalist Islam, or in general the ways in which any growing religion that held to irrational, cruel, and draconian practices might impinge upon our own way of life. Stiehm makes it clear that she thinks that Catholic views on the nature of the good are not only wrong, but potentially as dangerous as these other aforementioned religious views. She is no doubt fantastically incorrect in her opinions, but she is not a bigot for saying so, any more than we’d be bigots for criticizing female circumcision. As Socrates might say, our job is to educate her, not to condemn her.

Ironically, Stiehm herself seems to circumvent the Rules of Liberalism: she speaks rightly of the need of a just and good nation-state to look after the health of its citizens. Her talk of women’s health is entirely laudable. The problem for the liberal project, however, is that health is a particular thing. We cannot subjectively construct health, or argue that it is relative to a culture. Health is real, and it is particular. The Catholic would say that health is discovered, not created. Stiehm seems to think so too, and this seems to give evidence that she is not so much interested in merely preserving certain freedoms as she is in promoting what is objectively good. The Catholic should find this aspect of Stiehm’s thought quite laudable. Stiehm’s problem, as it turns out, is not that she insists on promoting women’s health and the real good at the expense of religious belief, but that she is wrong about what is in fact healthy and good. In other words, Stiehm is so critical of Catholicism because she thinks that Catholics are not only wrong about the nature of the good and the nature of health, but also that they stubbornly, dogmatically, and irrationally, cling to their false beliefs about them.

The Catholic can simply show Stiehm that he does not defend his contrary notion of the good because he is following some capricious directions written on Golden Tablets, but because of the law that is not only written in our hearts, but also revealed to us in reality itself. That is, the ‘bad’ Catholic has both epistemological and metaphysical justification for his counter-cultural views on contraception, and he is damn well ready to defend his conception of the good using sound reason, metaphysics, and empirical science.

This bears repeating. The Catholic religion is different than other false religions not just in that it’s true while the others aren’t, but because it's rationally defensible. Our job as Catholics is not to remind people that we can’t be criticized, or to find ways to get our secular government to ‘protect’ us from such nasty and unkind critiques, or to get the secular state to allow us the ‘freedom’ to practice our quirky beliefs inside their secular public order; it is instead to show secular critics that our own views on freedom, sex, and much else besides, are correct, and ours should be adopted by the public at large.

Last modified on Wednesday, January 15, 2014