Fencing with bigots

George Weigel

…being an imaginary dialogue between a nominee to a Federal appeals court and members of the Committee on the Judiciary of what once imagined itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body”…

Senator Proudie: I note, Professor Valiant, that Catholic dogma plays a considerable role in your judicial thinking. That bothers me, frankly, because it would seem to threaten rights many people have worked long and hard to protect. Perhaps you could relieve my anxieties?

Professor Valiant: “Catholic dogma” plays no role whatsoever in my theory of judging, Senator. It’s the job of the legislative branch, in either the states or the national government, to enact laws within the bounds set by the Constitution. It’s the job of a federal judge to determine those bounds and to give statutes their proper meaning. This approach to judging has nothing to do with “Catholic dogma.”

Senator Proudie: Do you believe that Roe v. Wade was rightly decided?

Professor Valiant: As a lower-court judge, Senator, I would apply all governing Supreme Court precedents in cases that come before me. Beyond stipulating that, I do not think it appropriate for a nominee to the federal bench to comment on issues on which I might have to rule.

But if you were to ask me a more general question, Senator, as to whether I think that the Supreme Court can get it wrong on occasion, I would say “yes.” I think the Supreme Court got it wrong in 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sandford, when it held that an African-American whose ancestors had been brought to the U.S. as slaves could not be a citizen and thus had no legal standing. I think the Supreme Court got it wrong again in 1896, when the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld segregated public facilities in the states. Would you agree that the Supreme Court got it wrong in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, Senator?

Senator Proudie: [Incoherent muttering.]

Senator Gantry: Professor Valiant, I went to Catholic schools for years; loved those dear, sweet sisters, just loved ‘em. So I think I know what it means to be a good Catholic. Do you think you’re a good Catholic, Professor?

Professor Valiant: Senator, the state of my soul is surely a matter between me and my pastor, and between me and God. As I understand it, this committee room is a place for public inquiry by the Judiciary Committee into my qualifications for the federal bench. It is neither a confessional nor a rectory parlor for spiritual direction.

But I do remember, Senator, that, in the course of my own education in Catholic schools, we were required to read the Constitution of the United States; perhaps you were, too? And there I find, in Article VI, the unambiguous statement that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.” So if you will permit me, Senator, I regard your question as not merely impertinent but unconstitutional, and so I decline to answer it.

Senator Gantry: [Splutters.] Well, I certainly didn’t mean to apply some sort of “religious test” to your qualifications for the federal bench, Professor….

Professor Valiant: Thank you for clarifying that, Senator. As an expression of my gratitude let me suggest that, out of respect for the Constitution, we just drop the subject. So I won’t inquire into precisely what you did intend.

Senator Gantry: [Inaudible; something to do with “…da Bears.”]

Senator Defarge: Professor, could you tell us what you think of Senator John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960s presidential campaign?

Professor Valiant: It’s not altogether clear to me, Senator, what my views of that speech have to do with my qualifications for the position to which I have been nominated. But I will say this. John F. Kennedy faced deep-set, anti-Catholic bigotry in his run for the presidency. Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., who can hardly be accused of special pleading, once called anti-Catholicism the most entrenched prejudice in American history. So whatever I think of the way in which then-Senator Kennedy handled the bigots of his day, perhaps we could all agree that such bigotry has no place in the 21st-century United States?

Senator Defarge: [Unintelligible expletive deleted].

COMING UP: The transmigration of theological nonsense

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During the Long Lent of 2002, Sister Betsy Conway, who lived in the Bostonian epicenter of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, spoke for many self-identified progressive Catholics when she told syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Mr. Kelly, a thoughtful liberal columnist who died tragically in Iraq a year later, agreed. But they were both mistaken.

The Church is not “ours;” the Church is Christ’s. As I wrote at the time, the Church “was not created by us, or by our Christian ancestors, or by the donors to the diocesan annual fund – a point the Lord made abundantly clear himself in the gospels: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’” [John 15:16]. As a friend put it at the time, “the Church is not ours to take back because it never belonged to us, and the instant we make it ‘our own’ we are damned. No merely human institution, no matter how perfectly pure and gutsy and dutiful to its members, can take away even a venial sin. That’s the point St. Paul takes sixteen chapters to get across to the Romans.”

In a fine example of the maxim that what goes around comes around, this familiar progressive trope of a Church that “we” must “take back” has now migrated to the opposite extreme of the ecclesiastical spectrum, as exemplified in a Remnant TV video, “Catholics Rising” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh1sK7TdYEo) announcing a “Catholic Identity Conference” to be held in late October in Pittsburgh.  The call-to-arms is identical to that which the Catholic left was broadcasting in 2002: “Many Catholics have had enough. They want their Church back…. Join us and let’s take our Church back.”

The strange symmetry at the opposite poles of the twenty-first century Church is neatly demonstrated by the messaging tactics of this brief video. The woolier parts of today’s Catholic Left insist, in a false and exaggerated way, that the reform of the liturgy has been hijacked by reactionaries; the Remnant TV video, in a similarly false and exaggerated way, suggests that sacrilegious, goofball liturgy is the norm wherever the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated. The Catholic left is nostalgic for the days when Catholic Lite ruled the roost, and somehow imagines that the 1970s can be recreated; those who made the Remnant TV video manifest a deep nostalgia for the Catholic 1950s, which they, too, seem to imagine can be recreated, and not just in bunkers and catacombs. The Catholic left has long indulged in the conspiracy-theorizing encoded in secular progressivism’s DNA; the unstated but unmistakable subtheme of “Catholics Rising” is that malign and clandestine conspirators have hijacked “our Church.”

Moreover, both polar extremes in the Church today seem locked into the same meta-narrative of Catholicism and modernity, in which the paramount question is, “How much should the Church concede to modern culture?” The farther reaches of the Catholic left are willing to surrender a lot, to the point where Catholicism fades into the dull incoherence of liberal Protestantism; the farther reaches of the Catholic right aren’t willing to surrender an inch. Neither side seems much interested in the real question, which is, “How does the Church convert the modern world and the post-modern world – like it converted the world of classical antiquity, similarly beset by the collapse of ancient truths and venerable institutions?” 

The Pittsburgh “Catholic Identity Conference” promises that “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” will address the question, “Where do we go from here?” Were I asked (which I won’t be), I’d suggest that “where we go from here” is back to the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the Romans. No authentic renewal of Catholic life, and no effective response to the untruths that bedevil Catholicism today, will begin from the premise that “this is our Church and we must take it back.” It is Christ’s Church, and if any of us proceeds from any other premise, we are part of the problem, not the solution.

I hope someone among those “two bishops and priests from every major traditionalist fraternity in the world” makes that point in Pittsburgh – and then links it to the imperative of missionary discipleship in the Church of the New Evangelization.