Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fulfillment of a Promise...

Down below, a commenter asks me to make good on my promise to explain my application of the terms "good guy" and "bad guy" to Father Neuhaus and Sister Joan Chittister respectively.

So, here goes...

Imprimis. As I stated in my first post regarding the Easter Sunday edition of "Meet the Press" (transcript available here), my use of these broad terms was with tongue in cheek. So, before I start parsing individual aspects of the interview, let me just make it clear that I do not subscribe to the tendency to demonize dissenting theologians and hagiograph good ones. The fact is, a fairly orthodox theologian can be a bad person, and a great heretic might have a great moral code. The issues that I will take up, therefore, are not reflections of my opinion of the character either of Father Neuhaus or Sister Joan, but on the opinions that they shared in the public forum with regard to Church teaching. Generally speaking, in this interview each person's response was in keeping with the opinions that they generally express in their everyday work; that is, Sister Joan tended away from traditional teaching and Father RJH remained pretty firmly entrenched in sound doctrine. [As to the discrepancy pointed out by the aforementioned commenter: disagreement with USCCB opinion on how to bring about an end to abortion in a country's legal system is a different thing entirely than disagreement with Magisterial definitions about the intrinsic moral evil of abortion as opposed to the extrinsically evil applications of capital punishment and defense policies.] Politically speaking, Father Neuhaus' comments were relatively conservative; Sister Joan's were more liberal. Again, I just point out that I do not think this is fair grounds for calling one "good" and the other "bad," as many on both sides of the debate see fit to do; and my application of the terms liberal and conservative is in reference to national politics, not theology.

And now for my scansion of the interview.

In his first reply, Father Neuhaus made a great point that religious matters have always been linked to civil questions about how to order a society: that this is intrinsic to humanity, and that we cannot separate politics from morality.

Sister Joan seemed to pick up the same theme when Russert asked her what she meant when she warned against the emergence of a new Puritanism. As my commenter observed, both Father Neuhaus and Sister Joan's replies are refreshing in this regard, and the general spirits of their arguments seem to be kindred. But there is something worrysome lurking behind certain of Sister Joan's words:
We have to choose now... whether or not we want religion, that is this thing that binds us together, that is somehow or other genetically wired in us, that, that Aristotle talks about, that all the churches talk about. Or do we want denominationalism. What, what church, what religion do we want? Do we want the religion of the Crusades and the Inquisition and the witch burnings and segregation and slavery and the oppression of women and Puritanism that led to Prohibition, that didn't last because it was somebody's creed imposed on everybody else's creed? Or do we want the religion of the peace movement that Jesus talked about, and the, the labor movement and the civil rights movement.
Woah. Slow down there, Sister.

The religion of the Crusades and the Inquisition is the Catholic religion, plain and simple. You'd be hard pressed to prove to me that these weren't essentially good things. The evil that came about in certain quarters of these movements was not tied to the Faith of the Church, but in opposition to it; and in some cases, the perpetrators of these evils weren't even connected to the Church authorities. Now, I'm not wholly defending the Crusades - but my point is that you can't wholly condemn them. In just the same way, one might be able to selectively condemn aspects of the civil rights movement (e.g., the Black Panthers), but should not condemn the whole. Sweeping generalizations are dangerous, Sister. I'm not so ready to baptize the civil rights and labor movements. And, on the other hand, I'm not ready to condemn movements which, in a manner of speaking, have been "baptized" (by echumenical councils of the Church), such as the Crusades.

Is there a new Puritanism arising on the religious right? Absolutely. But be careful how you identify it. And stop to think what aspects of it - and of the Old Puritanism, for that matter - might now be laudable preferences over the wholesale slaughter of the unborn and legally promoted sodomy.

I'll mention in passing, here, that I entirely disagree with the opinion of my commenter as to the quality of Rabbi Lerner's comments. The man is a liberal nutcase. Gays and lesbians being deprived of marriage is not at all the same as the enslavement of blacks or the persecution of natives americans. Being black or browned skinned is not a crime against the natural law and an insidious influence on society. A nuclear family centered around homosexual partnership is, however, a vicious influence and a detrement to the common good. And we have an obligation to pass laws that protect the common good. This is not bigotry. It's justice. Period.

Moving on...

On Father Neuhaus' comments on the openness of the Catholic Church to all peoples, I would simply say this: it was a bit rambling, but sound. The question had apparently been posed in order to draw some distinction in contrast to the Protestant minister who had just spoken and revealed that personal conduct was not a stipulation for membership in his congregation. Father Neuhaus seemed to miss the point of this contrast, but did touch on the fact that we are called to be saints and must move as members of this pilgrim Church toward perfection and holiness.

MR. RUSSERT: Sister Joan... Are you concerned that some Catholics do not feel welcome in their church because they have disagreements on issues like stem cell research or on gay rights or AIDS and condoms, or abortion or death penalty?

SISTER CHITTISTER: I, I’m simply asking that all of us realize that the answers we have right now in those arenas may well not be final answers. That we’re all struggling to find the best answers... [Some] of us, out of a completely and equally sincere concern for life, answer those questions differently.

MR. RUSSERT: Abortion?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Anything. Stem cell research, abortion, any of those.
Now, for the sake of space, I cut alot of fluff out of these comments. Sister Joan's gist is, again, pretty sound. She means that we should not only be concerned with issues like abortion and euthanasia, but also the loss of life that comes of war and poverty. However, her exact answers here are very shaky. Either she was skirting the issue or not choosing her words carefully. Later in the dialogue, we see that she is confused over essential teachings of the Church as to the moral value of abortion compared with something, like, say, the death penalty. This confusion is evident in these comments as well.

Yes, Sister, everyone's welcome in the Church. But not everyone's ideas are. See, when we're baptized into the Body of Christ, we become one with the person of Christ and are called to grow in that relationship. In Him, there is no confusion, no ambiguity, about the answers to these questions. And His answers are the answers that matter. We are called to be of the Mind of Christ on these issues, not of our own minds. This might take discipline and sacrifice, until we adopt the views of Christ. But that's what we're called to do.

And as for how we know what these answers are: we stand firmly upon the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. Abortion is evil. It is murder, cut and dry. War, however, may be just. Struggle and contrive as to how you answer questions about the individual circumstances of the second case, until your heart's content. But in the case of the former issue: Roma locuta est; causa finita est.

Right on, though, as far as politicians are concerned. We need to engender a culture of life, and that means charity in all things. Being anti-abortion does not cut it. But, again, to emphasize: there is no room for floundering on the abortion issue. And if it comes down to it, no amount of peaceful tree hugging and social program excuses the freelance murder of the most innocent among us.

The next issue is the meatiest part of the debate.

Sister Joan makes a comment at some point about a double standard in Catholic policy makers: we hold Senators accountable for their votes on life issues, but not Supreme Court Justices for their decision. What gives? I regard Father Neuhaus' answer as pretty solid in this case, as well: a Justice is bound to interpret and not to push his own opinion over valid precedent, argument, and evidence. They evaluate; they do not create. Representative Senators, on the other hand, do just the opposite. They make laws using their own values and opinions, for which they have presumably been elected by their constituents. Unless they lied in the elections, then their voters knew what they were choosing. And there are checks and balances. Senators should not feel constrained to vote against their consciences by the law. And, hence, when they vote opposite the teaching of the Church, then this indicates that their consciences are formed in contradiction to Doctrine. The same inference cannot be drawn in the case of a Justice, who, in good conscience, must decide based upon what is presented to the court, not by his own belief in a particular matter.

And finally... I would like to comment upon the following exchange:
REV. NEUHAUS: But, you know, Sister, capital punishment and abortion are not at the same level of teaching weight.

SISTER CHITTISTER: Well, I don’t know that, see. I think that...

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh, really?

SISTER CHITTISTER: Yeah. I think they are at this...

REV. NEUHAUS: Oh I, I—consult the catechism.

SISTER CHITTISTER: I think they, I think that they are not at the same level of teaching weight. I’m saying I’m not sure why.


SISTER CHITTISTER: I’m not sure why they’re not at the same level of teaching weight.


SISTER CHITTISTER: Because either, either life is of value or it’s not of value.
Wow... what a doosie.

First of all, an epistemological quickie: verbs of knowledge and of opinion. In normal parlance, the verb "think" is used to express a matter of opinion. The verb "know" is usually used to make an assertion of ascertained factual knowledge. And I'm not quite sure I know what the hell Sister Joan is trying to say here.

She either knows (fact) or thinks (opinion) that the Church teaches that abortion and capital punishment are on two different levels. She first says she doesn't know that, but thinks it is the case. Well, I'll help her out and say that that is the case - I did consult my catechism. I think she *knows* this, as well. But she disagrees. She thinks (opinion) that they should be on the same level.

So, I'll treat this as a difference in opinion. Because I *think* the teachings are pretty solid. Why? Because a state has a valid right to execute criminals if it is necessary to do so for the protection and good of society. It is the abuse of this legitimate right that makes for a sinful circumstance. In other words, the determining elements are extrinsic to the act. To bring up a dark specter spoken about earlier: the Church had people executed in the Inquisition. And the Church was operating within her rights. And most of these executions were probably goods.

Elective abortion, on the other hand (unless influenced by a mitigating circumstance which would really make the abortion a bi-product of a certain good) is intrinsically evil. There is no legitimate right to abort, per se. If it helps to illustrate: when a woman has an tubal pregnancy that cannot come to term (i.e., is not viable to live) and will only kill her if allowed to perpetuate, she may choose to terminate the pregnancy. But here the act is different. The act is the preservation of the woman's life, and the abortion is almost like a side-effect. It helps in these cases to not even speak of the act as being "abortion" in the common understanding. And this is not mere semantics. It represents a fundamental difference and the application of a very well-thought-out principal: call it a "necessary evil." But the key is that the evil of abortion is not the thing chosen. It is the thing "allowed," so to speak.

* * *

And that is my take on Easter's edition of "Meet the Press." Is Sister Joan a "bad guy?" Well, her ideologies are flawed, and are a mouthpiece for a movement of relativism and false logic in our society. On the chessboard of intellectual warfare and Catholic evangelism, I would say that she frequently plays for the opposing team. She might very well be a nice lady in her own right. She did, after all, argue for the preservation of traditions and traditional values... although the philosophy hasn't seemed to cross the threshold of her wardrobe.

My promise fulfilled, I await the barrage of hate-mail with zeal.

UPDATE: Father Neuhaus has posted his own reaction over at his blog. I loved this part in particular:
"Many... thought I was unspeakably arrogant. Me, arrogant? My chief offense, it seems, was beating up on that sweet little nun. Sister Joan Chittister is no sweet little nun."
Awesome. Please note the addition of FirstThings: On The Square to my blogroll.


Blogger Kathy O'Leary said...

I have been meaning to thank you for this analysis. It helped me quite a bit, particulary with our upcoming death penalty panel discussion

Thank you particularly for clarifying the catechism for me with regard to the death penalty and abortion. I have on thing to point out though. You left out any discussion of the Seamless Garment and the consistent ethic of life. If you take these into account Sister Joan was not so far off base although I do admit her language is imprecise. However, there is much more to being a good and dutiful servent to the Lord than being precise. Sister Joan embodies a love and compassion for all mankind that Father Neuhaus lacks. For this Sister Joan is loved in return while Father Neuhaus is respected. I would like to leave you with the words of Pope Benedict "as a community the Church must practice love."

5/1/06, 8:13 AM  
Anonymous Mykelb said...

The obviously omitted Love Thy Neighbor is really hilarious in your "analysis". What crap.

7/28/11, 1:40 PM  

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