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A brief polemic against an insidious Catholic parochialism

| Friday, November 22, 2019

For the love of God, please knock it off already. Stop trying to pass right-wing orthodoxy off as Christian dogma and quit pretending your private interpretation of Catholic theology is final.

I for one am sick of seeing Christianity being co-opted by self-appointed guardians of the faith to advance right-wing projects. I won’t defend contemporary liberalism, which gives free rein to capital and minimal protection for the poor and marginalized, or the “liberal anthropology” against which a recent columnist has inveighed. But to leap from the failures of liberalism to a denial of any concept of liberty as individual self-determination is a perversion of Christian ethics and social teaching.

The hand-wringing of some of our self-appointed defenders of natural law has unsurprisingly concluded in a bitter parochial form of Christianity. It is mere parochialism to claim that one’s own understanding of the place of humanity and individuals in the broader context of creation constitutes the only possible application of Christian faith to social life, and that the divinely appointed order it supposedly grounds just happens to be something that sounds suspiciously like right-wing theocracy.

After all, is it so impossible for individual self-determination to coexist with, or even be an (albeit imperfect) expression of, the full meaning of liberty as participation in divine creation? Why should a Christian anthropology not include individual freedom?

Revealingly, this same columnist includes a Youtube link to a recent talk from Attorney General William Barr, with the hyperlink text “faithful Catholics.” Evidently the author takes Mr. Barr to be an example of a faithful Catholic with the right understanding of liberty. I wonder whether Mr. Barr’s faithful Catholicism was shown in covering up the Iran-Contra affair and hiding the powerful from any semblance of justice. Perhaps it was expressed by his work in the ‘90s to abolish parole in Virginia; for as we all know, mercy, forgiveness and restorative justice are by no means consequences of Christian social thought. Or perhaps it was best expressed by recently re-instating the death penalty for federal crimes, with the first five inmates slated to be murdered within the next two months. Surely, our crucified Savior loves state-sponsored executions.

At the risk of over-simplification, I would suggest that there are two broad traditions in recent American history of Catholic engagement with civil society: that of Dorothy Day, Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Sister Helen Prejean … and that of William Barr. The former tradition proudly bears the mark of the liberating force of the Gospels in its work to free individuals from unjust systems of oppression, to ensure that they have the individual liberty of self-determination within the broader context of the miraculous freedom of being God’s creation. The latter executes prisoners, covers up crimes and self-assuredly pronounces to the masses ethical commandments from the pulpit of power and privilege; it is an ineliminably bourgeois and white-collar Catholicism, drained of life and true liberty, that takes the side of the powerful and dares to justify oppression in Christ’s name.

James Anthony Stoner


Nov. 19

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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