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Here Comes . . . Maureen Dowd



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Maureen Dowd’s column today expresses the by now well-known disappointment of Catholic liberals at the conservatizing trend within official Catholicism. It contains all of today’s Top 40 hits of how the libs think the right-wingers are wrong: Sebelius is getting protested at Georgetown; Father Williams has fathered a child; there’s a “bizarre inquisition of self-sacrificing American nuns pushed by the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law.” But what I find striking about her column is that it offers a classic example of how the Catholic liberals can be as guilty of Catholic triumphalism as the conservatives they so intensely dislike. Here’s how she starts the column:

I always liked that the name of my religion was also an adjective meaning all-embracing.

I was a Catholic and I wanted to be catholic, someone engaged in a wide variety of things. As James Joyce wrote in “Finnegans Wake:” “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’ ”

So it makes me sad to see the Catholic Church grow so uncatholic, intent on loyalty testing, mind control and heresy hunting. Rather than all-embracing, the church hierarchy has become all-constricting.

It is true that the word Catholic has at least two different meanings, one referring to a particular group of religious believers, the other to an attitude of universal openness. But Dowd doesn’t explain why, specifically, the church group in question has to embrace, in its entirety, the other meaning of the word. I share her notion that pluralism in religious belief is a good thing, a human right, and worthy of defense. But it’s not clear why any particular organization has to harbor all possible pluralism within itself. Surely, if we prize diversity, we should not insist that Catholics be Protestants as well, or that Hindus be Buddhists, or that Sunnis be Shia? The only reason I can think of for insisting that one’s own religion embrace all other views is a sense that one’s religion is a unique public good, serving a higher religio-political purpose than other religions, and therefore subsuming them — which is rather hard to distinguish, as an attitude, from the one that liberals mean when they refer, pejoratively, to conservatives as “triumphalistic.”

I do not disagree with Dowd’s desire for a higher unity embracing the various religions, but in my theological understanding this is an eschatological hope, not a practical policy capable of short-term, this-worldly realization. (In the meantime, we are called to love our neighbor, not to be our neighbor.) Strangely enough, then, in spite of all her dissents from and criticisms of the Catholic Church, I think she is investing too much importance in Catholicism, rather than too little; the old phrase for what she’s trying to do is “immanentize the eschaton.”

Her closing lines, too, are provocative: “This is America. We don’t hunt heresies here. We welcome them.” On this, she is right; our friend (and her NYT colleague) Ross Douthat has written a whole book about it! But her column was not about America; it was about Catholicism. If she insists that Catholicism embrace, uncritically, the values of “America,” doesn’t she run the risk of a rather too-close identification of church and nation? I am reminded of how angry some conservative Catholics were when the Vatican didn’t embrace the Iraq war; many a time did I hear condemnation of the “Euro-weenie” “axis of weasel” Vatican bureaucrats who were preventing the Pope from coming out on America’s side. (There was typically, in these criticisms, the unspoken assumption that the Pope could not have made a mistake as serious as dissenting from the Bush administration’s foreign policy unless he had been misled by nefarious advisers.) I think I know what Maureen’s opinion of those Iraq-related criticisms would be; I invite her to correct me if I’m wrong. But how are her strictures against the Vatican any different? Part of the system of religious pluralism is the recognition of the prophetic — contrarian — role of religion vis-à-vis the state. Not all prophets are right, but we shouldn’t discourage them, because some, at least, of them may be telling us what we need to hear.

(Also, permit me a rather crotchety quibble about Joyce. “Here comes everybody” was indeed one of the many “HCE” phrases he used to describe his main character, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, in the Wake. And it is a very felicitous way to express the idea of religious universalism. But: that he wrote the specific phrase “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody’” is, as best as I can tell, false.)



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