Observations: The Politics of Hate

What’s Wrong With Right-wing Catholics

My wife, a devout Catholic, is healthily uninterested in ecclesiastical politics and the rhetoric of intra-Church ideological wars. Not long ago she happened to pick up a right-wing Catholic journal I’d left lying around the house and read a bit. “That’s terrible!” she exclaimed after a while. “It’s nothing but hate.”

That may be overstating it. Anger, high dudgeon, rage — that might come closer to the mark. No matter. My wife had put her finger on something important about some conservative Catholics today. Whether or not they intend it, they frequently come across as good haters.

Particularly when liberal Catholics are their target. And especially, it now seems, when the targets are bishops. “If the Catholic bishops were truly Catholic…” begins part of the pitch in a fundraising letter from a right-wing group.  “If hearers break the rule of discipline,” Newman once remarked, “why should not teachers break the rule of faith?” Hard words that fit.

Does it need saying that liberal Catholics also offend this way? Consider the systematic, continuing vilification of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and virtually every effective defender of Catholic orthodoxy in the last 20 years. Isn’t that a crime?

Of course it is. But it does not follow that two wrongs make a right. If conservatives want to uphold a higher religious ideal than liberals do, they might start by practicing a higher brand of civility, not to speak of Christian charity.

Who knows—it could rub off.

One needs to avoid becoming smarmy on this subject. There’s an old saw: “If you can’t say something good about somebody else, don’t say anything.” If everybody took that literally, a lot of us would be condemned to perpetual silence. And there are times and places where criticism is not only appropriate but a duty.

But make it criticism of ideas and policies and public deeds, please, not just ad hominem unpleasantries. There’s altogether too much of that in Catholic circles, conservative as well as liberal, already.

To a great extent, I suspect, practitioners find the original models for their Clint Eastwood Catholicism in the secular media. “Look at how they do it in the prestige press. Let’s do the same.” No, let’s not. I recall hearing way back in Catholic school that the Church and her members are meant to do better in these matters than “the world.” Something about loving enemies, if memory serves. By that standard, the op-ed invective of the secular media doesn’t measure up.

To be sure, it isn’t hard to understand where (besides concupiscence) these destructive urges in conservative Catholics have their origins. Some conservative Catholic groups focus on socio-political issues, some on orthodoxy in faith and morals, some on both. All have certain things in common.

All agree, for instance, that in the last 20 years the institutional Church in the United States has taken a sharp leftward turn in religious and political affairs. All, or virtually all, hold that a quasi-schismatic rift has opened between the “American Church” and Rome, as well as between this “American Church” and orthodox Catholics in the United States. All believe their own views express orthodox Catholicism but generally don’t get a fair hearing in official circles. All contend that Catholic officialdom by and large does not recognize abuses, tolerates abuses, or itself perpetrates abuses.

Catholic conservative activism is a particularly striking phenomenon because, for the most part, it is a fairly recent arrival on the scene. It mirrors the liberal activism of 15 or 20 years ago. And, although liberal activism clearly remains a factor in U.S. Catholicism, yesterday’s liberal activists have also, in many cases, become today’s establishment. That, as conservatives see it, is itself a large part of the problem that they now face.

The situation is exacerbated by the politicization of issues along the lines of secular politics. It’s a major theme of Catholic conservatives that many bishops and their staff are advocates of the liberal political agenda on questions of defense policy, Central America, capital punishment, family life, domestic economic policy, and a great deal else. Fair enough. But many of the people who make this charge have cast their own lot with right-wing politics and politicians. They come close to arguing that the neo-conservative political agenda is the secular embodiment of Catholic orthodoxy.

The selectivity of Catholic liberals — smorgasbord religion, as it’s called — has been an open scandal for a long time. Now it’s invading the conservative camp. In a question-and-answer column I write for a Catholic weekly I recently took up this hoary problem: “Outside the Church there is no salvation” —true or false? Attempting an orthodox reply, I cited a comment from the Holy office in the 1940s to the effect that conscious, formal, visible incorporation into the Church isn’t required of people in good faith for whom it’s morally impossible. That provoked a letter from an angry reader who began by airily dismissing what the Holy Office said as “mistaken.”

On a larger scale, one thinks of certain conservative cheap shots at Pope John Paul’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. It seems as if some conservatives find it hard to say “I disagree” without also trashing their opponents. And if the opponents happen to represent the Church’s Magisterium, so much the worse for the Magisterium.

From the orthodox point of view, of course, there’s something peculiarly Self-destructive about Catholic conservatives who indulge themselves this way. It’s a case of poisoning the wells from which the poisoner himself drinks. The Catholic right says it aims to uphold the teaching authority of the Church, but along the way it’s doing its share to undermine it.

No doubt activism has its positive side. It tends to encourage people’s interest, involvement, and sense of ownership; in the ecclesial context, it can be viewed as a concrete expression of co-responsibility. Yet even co-responsibility involves a danger if it’s politicized and polarized and acted out in inappropriate ways. That danger, in the context of the Church in the U. S. today, lies mainly in devaluing the episcopal office and weakening the essential structure of the Church.

Here’s a text for meditation from Leo XIII: “To scrutinize the actions of a bishop, to criticize them, does not belong to individual Catholics, but concerns only those who, in the sacred hierarchy, have a superior power; above all, it concerns the Supreme Pontiff, for it is to him that Christ confided the care of feeding not only the lambs, but even the sheep.”

Active disaffection is probably confined to a comparatively small number of Catholics in the United States. The passive mass of U.S. Catholics could hardly be called either liberal or conservative as those words are used here — that is, as badges of ideological identity. For better or worse, most seem to take fairly minimal interest in the controversies which exercise their ideologically committed co-religionists. Religiously and culturally, they go with the flow.

Among those who can be called liberal or conservative in some meaningful sense, however, the situation I’ve described is quite real and constitutes a serious problem. Bitterness and suspicion are widespread. Dialogue between liberals and conservatives is almost nonexistent. Catholic activists of the left and right feel more at home with sympathetic non-Catholics than with Catholics who take the other side on issues. Careers, reputations, organizational interests, and even money are at stake; so are strongly held convictions about fundamentals.

Catholic conservatives have plenty of reasons to be concerned. But they have, I submit, no right at all to imitate the viciousness, extending even to character assassination, of the left. That’s especially true where the leaders of the Church are in question. “If they be in error,” Newman said, “let us pray for them, not abandon them.” Not a bad idea, come to think of it.

  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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