Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Few Notes on a Fortnight for Freedom.

I have avoided, as much as possible, entering into the ideological wrestling match in Catholic circles ignited by the USCCB's position on president Obama's Health and Human Services mandate and the subsequent actions of the bishops' conference. Although, after having read this it seemed appropriate to make a few observations.

The US Bishops' Fortnight for Freedom "rally" is many things, but arguing for it is based upon "out dated" theology demonstrates how irrelevant the Catholic "left" has become. The article argues against the position of the US Bishops towards the HHS mandate based upon John Courtney Murray's writings and, in particular, Dignitatis Humanae. Written in 1965, Dignitatis Humanae is a declaration (declaratio de libertate religiosa), not a constitution as the article's author states. The difference in classification is substantial. A constitution carries more weight and demands enforcement - a dogmatic constitution goes further and carries still more authority and demands ascent. A declaration, though promulgated by the authority of the council, does not have the same formative authority over doctrine or dogma. There was, then, a distinct caution taken when it came to promulgating Dignitatis Humanae - having no constitutional force, it was not intended to be a definitive statement of belief or a "game changer." That subsequent Western theologians have made it such is not sufficient for doctrinal revision. I would also add, Western interpretation of the document is not the only one out there - the author, in other words, betrays his provincialism.

The notion that theology can become dated is a typically Western idea, in fashion among certain sectors of Western intellectualism. If true, what theology, if any, is off the table for revision? None, they would say. In turn, every point of Christian creed would be subject to revision - the theology of Nicaea was, after all, proper for the fourth century. Theology isn't defined by being current or dated. It is defined by being either true or false and that is about it. If, however, the author was correct and theology can become "dated", then Dignitatis Humanae is fair game for obsolescence. It was written nearly fifty years ago in a difference social/political/cultural climate than today. Much as I disagree with all parties, the Catholic anarchists inspired by Dorthy Day's Catholic Worker movement and the Traditionalist rejection of the modern state inspired by Archbishop Lefebvre AND certain positions held by restorationist thinkers has advanced propositions opposed to the position of Dignitatis Humanae. These are far more recent arguments than those of nearly fifty years ago. Which theology, then, is outdated?

As I alluded to above, the fortnight for freedom was many things, none of which are particularly impressive. The fortnight for freedom represents a perpetually incoherent position of the US Bishops in relationship to the state. The Bishops want all of the benefits of being a servant of the state without any of the required obligations that come with such privileges. The Fortnight for Freedom represents an additional fear of loosing such privilege - the Bishops have no model of the Church in mind other than one that reaps benefits from the state. A Church that pays taxes or looses civil institutional clout and has to rely on its own strength and efforts to advance its causes is off the table, although, historically, its such circumstances that make the Church the most credible. Although perhaps most importantly, and most terrifying if you're a bishop or otherwise cleric who has signed off on the USCCB's neo-conservative moment in the wake of President Obama's election, the fortnight for freedom represents a nearly incontestable proof of the Bishops' irrelevance and their loss of moral authority. When a mere 2,000 people show up in support of your ideological agenda, you know you've become marginal. Unless there are some very delusional leaders among the US Bishops, the paltry turnout ought to be a wake up call.