They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Denunciation

Notre Dame, Obama and the Church in Culture

ndinsideFor some it was the shot heard round the world. When Cardinal Francis George got up to preach on a cold Saturday evening more than a decade ago his message was even more bracing than the Chicago weather outside Old St. Pat’s church. “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project” he said. “Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood.”

It was a sermon that stung many in the congregation who had walked over from a nearby hotel where the National Center for the Laity (NCL) had been sponsoring a large conference on the Church in the 21st Century. This all occurred during the Paleolithic age of the internet when human activity was still primarily reported on by editors at print publications or producers at TV networks. The dawn of the blogosphere was still ages away — information evolutionists place it sometime in late 2001 — so we were spared the wildfire of invective, accusation, incrimination and virtual excommunication that characterizes much of the scorched-earth blogologue among Catholics today. Sadly the same cannot be said for the current controversy regarding President Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame, which has ignited an ugly — and too-often anonymous — call and response in the fractious choir of Catholic punditry.

Background noise

I was there that night listening to the Cardinal in a pew at the back of Old St. Pat’s, but I have to confess that, selfishly, my overriding emotion was simply relief that my presentation at the NCL conference that afternoon had gone smoothly. I had been asked to give a short talk on how I was able to reconcile my life as a secular musician and singer/songwriter with my Catholic faith. I had never addressed a religious group before and I had been struggling for weeks to articulate why my vocation — and the music that had inspired it (The Clash, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, REM, etc.) — wasn’t at odds with my faith. The approach I finally settled on was to describe how, though I was raised a Catholic, my first experience of “Truth” had come through music. As I grew older, I gradually realized that the glimpse of transcendent truth I had experienced through the arts in general was of a piece with the same “Truth” that is expressed in faith.

Sure, I was aware of — and often sympathetic to — what Cardinal George referred to as “liberal Catholicism,” but a bigger part of me felt like the fight between “liberals and conservatives” was background noise in my own battle to make sense of faith in the world. Ten years later, the dynamic tension between culture and faith on which I focused my talk has not only become essential to my own belief, it has been the source of its deepening.

For many self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” Americans, their negative experience of religious institutions frequently has more to do with the tone of our message than the content of the faith. Trust me, if the tone isn’t right, they’ll never even get to the content.

Five of those past ten years I’ve been at the helm of and if my tenure here has convinced me of anything it’s that simplistic categories like liberal and conservative aren’t helpful. In fact they are meaningless to the vast majority of spiritual seekers — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — who make up much of our readership, and who, studies show, constitute an enormous chunk of self-proclaimed “spiritual but not religious” Americans.  For many of these people, the experience of religious institutions has rarely been positive, and the stark choice between “God” and “the world” is a false one. The tragedy is that their negative experience frequently has more to do with the tone of our message than the content of the faith. Trust me, if the tone isn’t right, they’ll never even get to the content.

All cart and no horse

My experience with many of these seekers has also taught me that Cardinal George’s assertion that — in terms of faith — “you can’t pass on a critique” is essentially true. It’s not that discussions about mandatory priestly celibacy and the like aren’t valid, they just aren’t particularly persuasive to the huge number of people who already believe that spirituality and religion are not just antagonistic, but mutually exclusive. For these seekers, “inside baseball” institutional arguments aren’t simply putting the cart before the horse; they’re all cart and no horse.

The controversy surrounding Obama at Notre Dame that rages on among Catholics has made that point painfully clear. Admittedly, as a Georgetown graduate, my first thought was, “If Notre Dame is no longer sufficiently Catholic to do this, what institution is?” Initially, those who made the distinction between inviting the pro-choice President to speak and giving him an honorary degree seemed like a good compromise, until I discovered that in 2007 Pope Benedict himself honored the twice-divorced, pro-choice French President Nicholas Sarkozy by bestowing the title of honorary canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Even pro-choice Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico was honored by the Pope in Rome this past April on the occasion of his state abolishing the death penalty.

Are we now more Catholic than the pope? Are we incapable of sharing a stage with those we are in disagreement with?

Are we now more Catholic than the pope? Are we incapable of sharing a stage with those we are in disagreement with? Have we grown — as the former New York State Capital Defender Kevin Doyle has said — too comfortable in our bunkers?

Have we finally become all cart and no horse?

It is difficult to make the case for the relevance of institutional faith communities to spiritual seekers when their overriding exposure to religion involves internecine fights about who it is acceptable to be in dialogue with. We sound like fiddles competing to be in tune while Rome burns all around us.

If Cardinal George was correct 10 years ago — and I believe he was — in telling “liberal Catholics” that you can’t pass on a critique, then I also believe Bishop Blase Cupich’s warning to American bishops during the 2008 elections was equally necessary and applies to all of us now: “Keep in mind a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin, and it seems to me what we need is a prophecy of solidarity, with the community we serve and the nation that we live in.”