Heresies Welcome? And the JFK/Sebelius Option
Recently, two prominent Catholic women, Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius in an address to her alma mater, Georgetown U. and Maureen Dowd (who refers to herself as a ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’) delivered strong statements on the role of the Church in civil society.
Dowd, a pugnacious, witty, often over-the-top columnist for the NY Times, weighed in on the disciplining of the LCWR and the censure of theologian Sr. Margaret Farley. Exulting in James Joyce’s famous characterization of the Catholic Church as “here comes everybody” (taken from Finnegan’s Wake), Dowd believes that ‘Catholic’ means “all-embracing” and “inclusive;” hence, it is very sad to her that the hierarchy is thwarting that inclusivity by leaning magisterially very hard on the LCRW, wayward theologians, and pro-choice Catholics
(an oxymoron?) at commencement addresses at Catholic universities.
She concludes, “Absolute intolerance is always a sign of uncertainty and panic. Why do you have to hunt down everyone unless you’re weak? But what is this quality of a belief that exists simply because it is enforced? Not only is this narrow-minded aggression un-Catholic; it’s downright unpatriotic. This is America. We don’t hunt heresies here. We welcome them (emphasis added), she concludes.
The problem with Dowd’s reasoning, which is more a screed than a credible analysis, is her distorted view of what ‘Catholic’ means. Yes, the Church does open her arms to the world because that is her evangelical mission given by the Risen Christ. But that inclusivity does not extend to the incorporation of all beliefs and ideologies because some are not worth having. From the very beginning of her history, the Church has recognized that there is a core, deposit of Faith and that there are certain beliefs that are repugnant to its essential nature and contradictory to revelation. In the early 4th century, for example, St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers went toe-to- theological toe with a charismatic, Alexandrian priest named Arius regarding the nature of Jesus Christ (Arius, while recognizing Jesus as a sublimely elevated spiritual being, denied his divinity). The debate was theologically resolved at the Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d., which proclaimed the Trinitarian formula (the Nicene Creed, which is the proclamation of our Faith) for the nature of God and affirmed Christ’s divinity. The Church cannot be true to its mission by accommodating to heresies. To do so would fatally compromise the integrity of the Church.
That’s exactly what Dowd would have the Church do. The Church is not a debating society, but a living organism which is mystically united with the Risen Christ. The Church stands for something. A church that “welcomed” heresies would overnight cease to be the Church that Christ founded. And, as our Lord assures us that the “gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church,” the embrace of heresies could and would not happen.
Another common error was found in the heart of Secretary Sebelius’ address to Georgetown. Deftly sidestepping the HHS demand that Catholic institutions provide insurance for procedures that Catholic morality finds objectionable Sebelius cited John F. Kennedy’s memorable 1960 address to the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, TX. Kennedy wanted to assure the Protestant clergy that as a Catholic president they would have nothing to fear; that he wouldn’t, e.g., include the dogma of the Immaculate Conception into the U.S. Constitution (I jest, but you get my point). So, he dreamed of an America “in which no religious body seeks to impose its will either directly or indirectly, on the general populace” (emphasis added). Ever since that ill-advised speech, many Catholic politicians have echoes that rallying cry, which is so much political and theological nonsense.
To begin with, politics is the practice of super-imposing one’s will (either individually or collectively) on the electoral, legislative, executive, and judicial process. There’s a whole industry devoted to this practice: it’s called lobbying. Imposition of one’s will: that’s what politician do. And, every budget, policy formulation, and action is grounded in antecedent values and preferences.
Additionally, every major social reform movement has been based on religious values. Whether it be the Abolitionist movement, the Emancipation Proclamation, Women’s Suffrage, the Prohibition, and the Civil Rights movement, the motivation was to impose one’s moral and theological views on an often reluctant body politic. There is a common thread with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with LBJ’s Civil Rights Act.
The Point is this: none of these social reforms would have happened in the American envisioned by JFK or Kathleen Sebelius. Catholics have a responsibility to impose their will directly or indirectly via the electoral and governmental processes.
The Concilliar fathers of Vatican II support this claim. They proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes (Church in the Modern World) that
“…they are wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which may proves and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (#43; emphasis added).
What we’re seeing from the Obama Administration is to attempt to define religion narrowly—to reduce it to a private devotional concern, much like a hobby. There seems to be a preference, articulated by such Catholics as Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Sebelius, to take religion out of the public conversation. While individuals and secular groups may join this conversation, religious groups are not invited to participate. That preference is arbitrary and is simply not fair.
–Deacon Jim McFadden