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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.
  • Sara

    I think the problem comes when people convince themselves that their *opinions* are true Church teaching, and then further convince themselves that being right about Church teaching gives them the right to *override charity* in their discussions with others.

    So, at the risk of doing just that myself, Arroyo is out of control. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I flipped to his EWTN show hoping for Catholic NEWS! Thank God for BustedHalo, which truly gives a voice to everyone and ridicules no one.

  • Cathy Fasano

    I think you have missed the common and often confusing aspect of the battles — they frequently are raged over utter trivialities which are hiding deeper issues. I’m a choir member, and so I get to meet the people convinced that singing in the liturgy is some nefarious plot to undermine the faithful. Probably the most absurd accusation I have faced personally was that singing a Gloria which is antiphonal rather than through-composed is somehow unorthodox.

    Enduring the four years of the pastor who forbade the singing of any songs with the word “bread” in them would have been funnier, except that it was very clear that he was willing to disband the choir and fire the (unpaid volunteer) music director and organists to enforce it. (And yes, in case you are wondering, Holy Thursday without Pange Lingua is pretty lame…)

    And we are headed into a major war over the new translation of the mass into English…

  • AnPiobaire

    I understand that your policy of insisting that comments be accompanied by real names is designed to guard against trolls who would hide behind anonymity to make vicioius attacks and then run.

    There are, however, more legitimate reasons why on might comment under an assumed name. One goes right to the heart of the instant discussion.

    I know Catholics who have church related jobs would never dare comment under their real names, for fear of endangeing their positions.

    A big problems behind the culture wars in the church and the lack of civility and, yes Christianity in these discussion is the disparity of power between the two “sides”. We, on what me called the “left” are not in a position to have an equal exchange of ideas with our brothers and sisters on the right.

    A certain overreaching by the “right”, stems from an imbalance of power between the “left” and the “right”. One side, the right, has all the big guns, or at least the big threats on its side.

    For instance, a sincere and practicing Catholic who is a politician might take a position supporting the appointment of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Most Catholics, even if they did not support that position would not equate the politician’s stance with a renouncement of his faith, but if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time a bishop might deny him the Eucharist for having done so. I suppose he has the force of his argument, his eloquence and the power of public relations to support his side, but, in the meantime, he’s been, in effect, excommunicated from his church. That’s a tough one to counter.

    Too many on the right are not satisfied with a mere exchange of ideas wherein they argue that their opponent’s opinion is merely incorrect. They actually question the opponent’s fidelity to the faith, in the course of even the smallest of issues, but wheeling in the ‚ÄúO‚Äù word. You’re not just wrong, you’re not Orthodox, i.e., a heretic.

    I don’t see people on the left, even when they strongly disagree with the opinion of right wing Catholics, doing this. The other side goes right away for the “nuclear option”.

    Maybe that’s because the right potentially has the option potentially available to them and the left does not. Maybe if the left could have opponents on the right silenced, removed from their position, denied the right to teach and write, denied communion, or just cowed by the potential of a deluge of digitally organized opponents crying ‚ÄúUnorthodox, unorthodox! Unlcean!, unclean!‚Äù, they would use it too.

  • Pamela

    The first thougt that comes to my mind is .. Let those among you who is without sin cast the first stone…all of us are different and have opinions based on our own experiences and upbringing and the hand of our Lord is also on each and everyone of us we should spend more time honoring our differences and the right to have a different opinion
    then tearing down any person….What would Jesus have done?

  • Margot VanEtten

    Thank you so much for your insightful aqrticle. we so deeply shame the Lord and our faith when we fail to act in a Christian manner towards those we oppose. I will never forget (or get over)a conversation I had with an Israeli man who had grown up on a kibbutz and never really interacted with Christians before. watching some of htis stuff, he asked me–”these people believe in Christ?” Yes, I said. “They believe in the same God?” Yes. “They believe the Bible?” Yes. Several more similar questions. Then he asked me—”***If the things they beliive were true, how could they treat eavch other this weay?”***

  • Anthony Warren

    Catholicism has room for room for much diversity. One of the biggest proofs of that is all of the different Rites or Chruches we have, another is all the different Orders or spiritualitis we have. I like the image of the church being one big wrench that fits every nut. Lets pray for one another that we remain open to one another and to the Holy Spirit.

  • William Doino Jr

    As we discuss the contemporary Church, and what it means to be a Catholic, I think we should recall Hugo Rahner’s famous remark: “The Church is God’s strength in human weakness.” The Catholic Church, in essence, is the Mystical Body of Christ, and, as such, on that level, always reflects the divinity and perfection of Our Lord and Saviour. But those who run the Church, and are members of it, are imperfect, sometimes very imperfect. Recognizing that fact, we should always approach those we disagree with in a spirit of Christian charity, and with the hope that God will bring good of it–for ourselves, and for the Church.

  • Tom Burke

    For a church that frowns on democratic debates, this one is quite lively! If the goal today is to become a smaller, purer church at the expense of having open and even charitable disagreements, then we are well on our way. I only hope, as Karl Rahner did, that we don’t become an ecclesial ghetto in the process.

  • Janice Smith, SP

    I very much appreciated your well expressed reflection on what it means to live a life of Christian Charity especially when we disagree with each other. If in fact we believe our God created a beautiful and diverse creation, we will naturally see issues differently and through our own filters even and especially with those of our Catholic, ie “universal” faith tradition. You are correct in how meanspirited we have become among ourselves. Rather than spitting venom at each other to “prove our point,” we need to remember that we are created by a God of relationship and we are shown by the Creator’s gift of Christ among us what it means to live in unity even within our diversity. Rather than trying to destroy that gift of diversity and instill conformity, we should be embracing and learning from each other’s unique vantage points. Only then when we accept the indwelling of the Spirit of God in each of us can we begin to embrace that which is different among us. If we can’t do this among ourselves who profess to love our faith and its many expressions, how can we reach out and share this with the rest of the people of God?

  • Maclin Horton

    This is an excellent piece. I linked to it from my blog and a lively discussion ensued there, in which we quickly found ourselves vigorously denouncing Catholics who vigorously denounce each other. William Doino’s 7/13 12:35 comment summarizes the case very well, I think. One particular thing that really bothers me is the alacrity with which we often read people out of the Church, branding them as heretics, rather than engaging the arguments. There are some extreme cases where this is justified, but it’s way overused. In general we should leave the excommunications to the Vatican.

    On the side issue of the right-left liberal-conservative terminology, I think Dawn’s 7/13 9:27 comment is correct. Most people who think about it very far recognize that the terms don’t have scientific precision–liberals are not necessarily generous, conservatives do not necessarily conserve, American conservatism has a large component of classical liberalism, etc. Yet there are socio-political realities “on the ground,” so to speak, in which the terms have a definition which most people recognize.

  • Kevin Gregorek

    In reply to Bob above, yes and no. It’s important for people to represent the Church’s teachings as honestly and objectively as possible, not simply according to our own individual preferences or beliefs. I am against capital punishment in the same sense that the Church is against capital punishment, i.e., not as an intrinsic evil (the Church does support the right of the state to protect the common good, including a legitimate right to take the life of dangerous criminals if that is necessary to protect its citizenry), and the Church has never declared capital punishment an intrinsic evil as it has done with abortion.

    A voter can certainly vote against a candidate who supports capital punishment because of that support, but he or she should do so for the right reason, not because of a mistaken belief that capital punishment is always evil or sinful, because it simply is not. I have come to believe that capital punishment is generally not necessary in the Western world with the development of “supermax”-type prisons where it’s basically impossible for a truly dangerous person to escape and threaten others. I also believe that life imprisonment allows for at least the possibility of true repentance and conversion to Christ in the heart and soul of dangerous criminals, even if the great majority perhaps don’t repent or convert before they die.

    In short, capital punishment is not intrinsically evil or forbidden by Church teaching, while abortion is. Let’s all try to represent the Church accurately.

  • Barbara Heitz

    Just wondering if we have read Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “Common Ground” or ‚ÄúCalled to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril‚Äù? This is a very short text, dealing with the importance of respect and civility in dealing with the others, especially in our many faceted Catholic Church.
    The statement “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril” was developed in 1996. The statement proposes working principles for dialogue within the church and expresses the conviction that such an effort will transform those who engage in it as well as strengthen the church for its mission in the new millennium.

  • Bill McGarvey

    We ask that all comments posted here are accompanied by real names (BOTH first and last names please) instead of anonymous screen names. We reserve the right to delete any comments that don’t adhere to this standard.
    Thank you.
    Bill McGarvey
    Editor-in-Chief
    BustedHalo.com

  • Bob

    One thing is for certain – the Bible (and God) states “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. There is no disputing that. So, if you are a true Catholic, you will not kill, nor vote to kill, nor condone actions which result in killing.

  • Bob

    Look, its very simple. If one is truly Pro-Life, he or she would believe, and vote, that both abortion and capital punishment should be illegal.

  • Marissa L

    “…for the enormous number of spiritual seekers who visit places like Busted Halo ‚Äî many of whom were raised Catholic ‚Äî 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‚Äôt 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.”

    This is the truest paragraph in the article. I stayed away for a long time, in large part because I didn’t want to associate with people (on both sides), who would rather be right and alone than merciful and among many.

    However, many of the above comments exemplify the attitude of hate that makes me question whether I am in the right place.

  • Michael

    We are either Catholic Republicans or Catholic Democrats. Simply being Catholics makes no sense to most of us as we are so completely co-opted by the American political paradigm. May God have mercy on us.

  • William Doino Jr.

    Thank you, Fr. Martin, for the link to your important exchange with Carl Olsen. One document I have found immensely helpful, to guide us in debates like these, is John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici (On the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world, 1988). It is, after Holy Scripture, the Catechism, and the papal encyclicals, one of the most important sources of truth in the Church. Section 38 of this declaration, entitled, “Respecting the Inviolable Right to Life,” contains a passage fully relavent to our discussion: “The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights–for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture–is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

  • James Martin, SJ

    Rather than responding some of the critiques of my appearance on CNN, and especially the comment above that I’m, let’s see, “lying,” “lying to mislead Catholics” and setting forth “lies” (the threefold accusation is helpful in case anyone is missing the point about my being a liar) I thought I’d give you a link to a lengthy online discussion between me and Carl Olson, who runs Ignatius Press’s lively blog. He had posted first; then I respond to him; he responds to me; others respond to me; and so on.

    We two pro-lifers ended up having a very friendly discussion on the matter.

    Here’s the link for the curious: http://insightscoop.typepad.com/2004/2009/05/father-james-martin-sj-responds.html

    Peace,
    James Martin, SJ

  • Kathy Powell

    I would love to see a follow up to this about how young adults are debating with compassion and charity. Like hearing from a pro-life club president at a Catholic college and how they work to present their side without just saying those who disagree are not true Catholics. Or like a young professional that actively supports Obama- real examples of the rhetoric they use to inform people of their view, not just saying that the other side only cares about the unborn. I’d love to see a personal essay on what some young adults do to actively present their views and live out their Catholic faith without submitting to name calling.

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