The last acceptable prejudice in America rides again

| Father Robert Barron | April 13, 2011 | 1 Comment
Fr. Barron

Father Barron

Anti-Catholicism has long been a feature of both the high and the low culture in America.

From the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, it was out in the open. Many editorialists, cartoonists, politicians and other shapers of popular opinion in that era were crudely explicit in their opposition to the Catholic Church.

But then, in the latter half of the  20th century, anti-Cath­olicism went relatively underground. It still existed, to be sure, but it was considered bad form to be too obvious about it.

However, in the last 10 years or so, the old demon has resurfaced. There are many reasons for this, including the animosity to religion in general prompted by the events of Sept. 11 and, of course, the clerical sex-abuse scandal that has, legitimately enough, besmirched the reputation of the Catholic Church.

I’m not interested here so much in exploring the precipitating causes of this negative attitude as I am in showing the crudity and unintelligence of its latest manifestations. Permit me to share two examples.

I’m currently reading James Miller’s “Examined Lives,” a biographical study of 12 great philosophers, from Socrates to Nietzsche. I found Miller’s treatment of St. Augustine to be extraordinary, not because it shed any particularly new light on the saint’s work, but because it was so unapologetically anti-Catholic.

Miller comments approvingly on the young Augustine, the intellectual seeker who moved from Manichaeism to neo-Platonism in the open-minded quest for the always elusive truth. But on Miller’s reading, the seeker’s fall from grace was his embrace of the “closed system” of Christianity, which led Augustine to become a coldly oppressive sectarian.

Here is how Miller brings his analysis of Augustine to a close: “He lay the conceptual grounds for creating perhaps the most powerful community of closed belief in world history — the Catholic Church that ruled over medieval Western Europe as an all-encompassing, if not quite totalitarian theocracy, unrivaled before or since by any other religious or secular one party state, be it Muslim or Communist.”

The not so subtle implication (despite that little “not quite” in front of “totalitarian”) is that the Catholic Church has proven more oppressive than the Taliban and the states fronted by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot!

But Miller’s excursions into anti-Catholicism seem as nothing compared to the exertions of Mark Warren, the executive editor of Esquire magazine. In a piece on his blog last week, Warren drew attention to a recent exposé of the church of Scientology, which appeared in the pages of the New Yorker magazine. He praised the author for revealing the ridiculous beliefs of Scientology, which are based upon the wild science-fictionesque musings of L. Ron Hubbard. But then Warren commented that these claims are no wilder, no more irrational, than those of any other of the “great” religions, including, and especially, Christianity.

Childish ‘theology’

What follows is one of the most ludicrous “summaries” of Christian belief I’ve ever read. Here are some highlights: “I grew up believing that every breath I drew sent a god-made-man named Jesus Christ writhing on the cross to which he had been nailed — an execution for which he had been sent to earth by his heavenly father.” And “yet I was born not innocent but complicit in this lynching, incomprehensibly having to apologize and atone for this barbarism for all my days and feel terrible about myself and all mankind.” And “his [Jesus’] spirit had risen on a cloud into heaven to rejoin the same god in the sky who had sent him on this errand in the first place.”

One notices here something that is also on display in the anti-Christian polemics of Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens, namely, a presentation of Christianity that is informed by a painfully childish “theology,” something out of a half-understood grade-school catechism.

For example, Maher, Hitchens, Warren and many other critics speak of the Christian belief in a “sky god,” betraying absolutely no sensitivity to the dynamics of symbolic language in a religious context. The “heavenly” Father of whom biblically minded people speak is not a being who dwells in the clouds, but rather a reality that radically transcends the categories of ordinary experience.

And I can only smile at the sheer weirdness of Warren’s characterization of the purpose and meaning of Christ’s death on the cross. The correct doctrine is that God, in Christ, entered, out of love, into the depth of human misery, sin and failure in order to bring the divine light even to those darkest places. It is in this sense that he took away the sins of the world and brought us life from the Father. In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, simply, “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full”; and St. Irenaeus, the great second century theological master, said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Convinced that Christian teaching is as much “mumbo-jumbo” as L. Ron Hubbard’s silliness, Warren urges his fellow journalists to let small-fry Scien­tology off the hook and go after some bigger fish, especially the cult into which he was initiated as a child, the Catholic Church. He wants them (and here the anti-Catholicism is blatant) to target the pope in his “palace in the Vatican” who protects “criminals and child-molesters . . . with the ruthless demeanor of the CEO of a massive corporation lawyering up against the barrage of lawsuits to come.”

Well. The sex-abuse crisis is real and devastating, but in point of fact, no one in the church has done more to address it over the past 20 years than Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. No one has taken more concrete steps to deal with abusive priests and dysfunctional institutional patterns than the present pope.

In 2001, John Paul II entrusted Cardi­nal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the responsibility of handling all of the clergy sex-abuse cases from around the world. Those who know Ratzinger well say that he was shocked and disgusted by what he read in these dossiers. In a number of his writings and sermons from the last 10 years, he has spoken of the “filth” that was allowed to invade the church.

When Justice Ann Burke, head of the American bishops’ review board, came to the Vatican to discuss the crisis, she was hugely impressed by Cardinal Ratzinger, who, she said, understood the problem, listened to the members of the board with attention, and took concrete action to address the problem. More to it, under his supervision, the American bishops hammered out extremely stringent regulations in regard to clerical contact with children and the reporting of cases — as well as a “one strike and you’re out” policy concerning priests credibly accused of abuse.

Changes made

And the results of these changes, at least in this country, have been extraordinary. Last year, in a church of 70 million Catholics and 45,000 priests, precisely six church affiliated personnel were credibly accused of sexual abuse. Therefore, to identify Joseph Ratzinger as one of the “creeps” (Warren’s word) that journalists should investigate is not only mean-spirited but counter-productive in the extreme.

Again, what is most remarkable in all of this is not the unintelligence of the explicit claims being made but rather the blatancy of the contempt for the church. When this hoary old prejudice shows itself, Catholics have to stand up to it, lest it be allowed to evolve into something even more dangerous.

Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry Word on Fire and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill.

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Category: This Catholic Life, Word on Fire