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Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
December 31st, 2009

Catholics and the Culture of Hate

A plea for an end to our culture wars

by and William Doino Jr.
 
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The uproar over Notre Dame’s honoring President Obama in late May exposed the fissures within American Catholicism that will no doubt be on display following the President’s July 10 visit to the Vatican.

But while it is no secret that American Catholics have been publicly bickering with one another since the end of Vatican II (and well before then, if one reads a little history), what we are seeing now is more disturbing than a simple clash of ideologies.

It is a culture war — but not the broader, endlessly discussed “culture war” between blue- and red-state America. Rather, it is a more specific, more intense, intramural Catholic culture war. It is not pretty and, more importantly, its viciousness serves only to confirm to those outside the Church that, while we call ourselves Christians, we are unable to live out the most basic precepts of Christian compassion and charity.

Vitriol and name-calling

As Catholics who write and debate from a conservative perspective, we’ve witnessed this clash close up. The vitriol and name-calling has been raging online, all too often anonymously, for quite a while. But what was previously regarded as fringe or extreme, and confined to heated exchanges on web forums, has increasingly seeped into the Catholic mainstream. The verbal abuse among fellow Catholics has gotten out of control, and Catholics need to address it if they care about healing the Body of Christ.

The verbal abuse among fellow Catholics has gotten out of control, and Catholics need to address it if they care about healing the Body of Christ.

Just about all of us involved in the Catholic culture wars — especially those who write and blog — have, at one time or another, been guilty of rhetorical excess, or transgressed Christian charity in some way. We often rationalize our behavior by emphasizing the gravity of the situation — After all, what could be more demanding of severe rebuke than life-and-death issues like abortion and war? — or by telling ourselves that this is just the culture we live in, and everyone is doing it.

It is true that “everyone is doing it” — and that is precisely why Catholics should not be doing it. If we prided ourselves less on destroying those we disagree with and more on the Christian values of humility and charity, then we wouldn’t be emulating the secular culture by engaging in vulgar, ad hominem, slash-and-burn tactics.

Witness the response that the Rev. James Martin S.J., associate editor at America magazine and author of the best-selling My Life with the Saints, received after appearing on CNN, along with EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, to comment on President Obama’s Notre Dame honor.

In the course of the discussion, Martin said, among other things, “If anyone deserves a degree in law, it’s this constitutional law scholar”; “I don’t think you can call President Obama pro-abortion,” and, “for a lot of people in the pro-life movement, life begins at conception, but seems to end there.” He acknowledged that abortion is a “preeminent moral issue” but lamented that “some of the bishops have turned the Gospel of Jesus Christ into simply abortion.”

Arroyo immediately challenged these claims, noting that there is an abundance of evidence to show that President Obama is indeed “pro-abortion”; the honor he received was in flagrant contradiction of the stated policy of the U.S. bishops, and it was supremely ironic that Notre Dame was bestowing a law honor on a politician who, whatever his other virtues, has used the law to deprive an entire class of people — the unborn — of basic human rights.

Open season on priests

However, in the midst of making many good points about the incompatibility of Obama’s positions with Catholic teachings on life, Arroyo unhelpfully injected the name of Herod — causing Fr. Martin to properly push back.

We think Arroyo won the debate on the merits, but also think Martin, a gifted inspirational writer who has devoted his entire life to the Church, deserves the presumption of having acted in good faith. Unfortunately, that’s not what he received.

Fr. Martin, a gifted inspirational writer who has devoted his entire life to the Church, deserves the presumption of having acted in good faith. Unfortunately, that’s not what he received… Catholic commenters… questioned the validity of Martin’s vocation. One accused him of denying the Resurrection; another likened him to an apologist for slavery, and another asked simply, “Is he on crack?”

After his appearance, in the face of criticism from bloggers, he emphasized that he was “unabashedly pro-life.” But that wasn’t good enough for some Catholic commenters who, having spent weeks attacking Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, now took aim at Martin. An outside observer seeing them shift their target of anger might have easily concluded it was open season on priests — especially since several commenters questioned the validity of Martin’s vocation. One accused him of denying the Resurrection; another likened him to an apologist for slavery, and another asked simply, “Is he on crack?”

On the flip side, two and a half weeks before Arroyo’s point-counterpoint with Father Martin, the dotCommonweal blog took aim at him and Acton Institute’s Rev. Robert Sirico over a discussion about torture they had on Arroyo’s EWTN “The World Over” program. One blogger inferred that Father Sirico was suggesting “political motivations” should be “allowed to obscure strict principles of justice, legality, and ethics.” That sparked a flood of vitriol from commenters opposed to such “right-wing Catholics,” many of whom claimed to have inside knowledge of Sirico’s personal failings. One claimed the priest was known to be “cunning” and could “bamboozle even some of the most perceptive folk.” When another liberal-leaning blog, Vox Nova, picked up the story, pseudonymous commenters likewise piled on personal attacks. One called Sirico a “weirdo,” another gossiped that Arroyo was a “jerk.”

Martin, contacted about the CNN controversy, noted that the responses he has received via e-mail were “overwhelmingly, almost embarrassingly positive.” What does that say about the intramural Catholic culture war we have described? Though we disagree with them, Martin and his supporters represent a significant number of people in the Church — Catholics who consider themselves pro-life but do not always agree with the political strategy, or voting decisions, of those of us on the conservative side. There needs to be a way of speaking to our fellow brothers and sisters without reinforcing divisions. Venting serves only our pride — nothing else. The proper response to intramural divisions is not anger, but Christian charity.

When it comes to the kind of assault Martin received, he is in good company. Recall the vicious presumptions that mainstream reporters and bloggers alike made about Pope Benedict’s supposed motives after his “pardon” of Bishop Richard Williamson — a well intentioned, albeit badly mishandled, effort to heal a schism. Others have also been subject to high-pitched complaints from liberal Catholics for taking perceived “neoconservative” political positions. A Catholic author and friend who endured such abuse observed, half in jest, “There’s no hate like Catholic hate.”

More reason for seekers to keep their distance

Spiritual seekers who visit places like Busted Halo — many of whom were raised Catholic… are wondering how institutional faith communities are even relevant to their lives and the example we often set doesn’t do anything to convince them otherwise.

Truth be told, for the enormous number of spiritual seekers who visit places like Busted Halo — many of whom were raised Catholic — the debates raging among Catholics in the blogosphere are equivalent to discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. These seekers are wondering how institutional faith communities are even relevant to their lives and the example we often set doesn’t do anything to convince them otherwise. We should keep in mind that Christ made disciples by forgiving, healing and loving others, not by debating them.

An increasing number of Catholics have been overcome by a kind of spiritual split-personality disorder. Each week, they go to Mass, say their prayers, and perform corporal works of mercy, exuding the spirit of Christ. But then, at the witching hour — whenever that might be (often late at night, on the Internet, under the cloak of anonymity) — they turn into the most feral-minded polemicists, smiting and mowing down their opponents, especially those who happen to be Catholic.

What it means to be Catholic

The problem here, we believe, is a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Catholic. Catholicism is not a game of one-upmanship, to see who can make the most savage comment, or humiliate one’s opponent best, during an Internet “flame war,” or elsewhere. Catholicism is about reaching out and embracing people and bringing them to Christ, and to the truth which His Church teaches.

The problem here, we believe, is a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Catholic…. Catholicism is about reaching out and embracing people and bringing them to Christ, and to the truth which His Church teaches.

We are in no way trying to stifle constructive, public debate — even among priests and popes. But it should always be done in a spirit of Christian charity, not hate.

Yes, Catholics can — and perhaps even should — disagree publicly but the judgment of other’s motives and consciences should be left to God.

Surely we can agree to follow the wisdom of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which called upon all Christians to practice charity, citing St. Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.”

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004), and writes for Inside the Vatican magazine.

Originally published on July 10, 2009.

 
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The Author : Dawn Eden
Dawn Eden is author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and holds an M.A. in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Bonnie Belknap

    Father Martin was “spot on” in his statements, and it is definitely true that many American catholics are mistakenly trying to turn Catholicism into the prolife/family values church, whereas the Popes in their encyclicals speak about many other things as being equally important. Father Martin was correct in what he said.

  • Serendipitous reader

    How is the 1st comment an ad-hominem attack?
    The period in the 1st sentence came before the reference to “Father ….” Perhaps it was only gleaned too hastily and the conclusion drawn too quickly?

    The meaning, as I read it, was a suggestion that the good Father and the rest, be thankful that the Catholic news reporter challenged the conclusion and assumptions about the convictions of President Barack Obama.

    By-the-by most Catholics just don’t know scripture & Catholic Teaching, and many more just don’t understand Church teaching … focus people focus ;)

  • Matthew Rand

    It is true that both sides deviate from Catholic teaching, and Vatican II deviated from Catholic teaching as well, and so many of our modern Catholic hierarchy really don’t say anything different from what you might hear from the media.

    The current Catholic hierarchy conflates abortion, illegal immigration, and the death penalty into one big “pro-life seamless garment”, while this is not true Catholic teaching.

    Abortion is intrinsically evil.
    Nations have the right to defend themselves, and to determine who is and who is not a citizen.
    Capitial punishment is often necessary for justice, and is not intrinsically a sin.

  • Catherine Scaramuzzi

    I really appreciated the comments on this article — just as much as I appreciated the article itself. The political system in the U.S. does not align 100% with Catholic teachings and I find that individuals who align themselves with political parties first and Catholicism second find it difficult to fully embody the teachings of the church. Articles like this really help us to question what it is we really believe, are we acting like sheep when we live our beliefs? Who is the shepherd we are following?

    I find i difficult to “pick a side” in the world of political parties as there is always an issue that does not line up with what the church teaches. And it ends up coming down to the lesser of 2 evils on election day.

  • Jean

    30 million catholics walked away? That means I am not alone,Annie. How did this topic pass over everyone’s heads while they kept going with their rhetoric as if we don’t matter. That’s cold but that’s catholic.

  • thomas

    Lord, increase our love both our local parish and for the entire Catholic Church

  • jim

    How ironic-Liberalism is the political philosophy focused on individual freedom and tolerance of other points of view, it almost seems like the “conservative leaning” authors are advocating Liberalism? Unless “conservative” means Republican party loyalty? That would explain the lack of outrage when President George W. Bush addressed the Knights of Columbus convention during the 2004 election.
    Language and words and the definition of those words matter-it’s the key to communication.

  • Annie

    I have been watching the civil war in the Catholic church for years now. I am among those of a “liberal persuasion”. And, after many years of “fraternal correction” (aka – nasty judgmentalism) by those who would tell me that I’m not a “real” Catholic because I dissented on some teachings (birth control, etc), I decided that they were right. I left the church four years ago and I now attend an Episcopal church – one focused on the gospels, united through common prayer and the creed. It does not demand that I give internal assent to that which I cannot give assent to (such as the teaching that women are unworthy to receive a sacrament due to DNA). My conscience is respected in the Episcopal church.

    In recent years, more than 30 million American Catholics have walked away – I wonder what percentage of them left because of the abusive treatment they received at the hands of their fellow Catholics?

  • Diane Vella

    Thanks for a balanced article. As a “liberal-leaner” – and I don’t find that term offensive – who deplores the current culture of hate in the Church I admit to perceiving Arroyo-types as generally less charitable than Martin-types, but I suppose my “conservative-leaner” fellow Catholics would beg to disagree. They key point here is made so well: While we may question others’ interpretation of the Gospel and the meaning of discipleship, we should never question others’ motives or loyalty to the Church. And realize that Catholics of good conscience can and will at times disagree.

  • Charles Bolser

    This seems to be the appropriate place for the leaders (bishops) to step in and assume leadership in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus – and the call to love one another – rather than simply throwing stones themselves. They can lead by positive and life giving actions – if they choose to do so and therefore demonstrate (teach) real leadership to our world.

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