Why the Cheap Shots?

I know: there are exceptions. You may have a cousin Georgie who attends a Latin Mass every Sunday and who thinks Howard Dean is great American. Or an Aunt Edith who agrees with Andrew Greeley that a camera would not have recorded anything out of the ordinary if placed outside the tomb on the first Easter morning, who also is great fan of Rush Limbaugh. But for the most part that is not how it works. We take it for granted that George Weigel and Pat Buchanan will take the conservative side on both political and religious questions; and that Fr. Richard McBrien and Sr. Joan Chittister will favor liberal political causes.

My question is: why? Why should someone who favors women priests and a change in the Church’s teaching on abortion also oppose the privatization of Social Security? In the same vein, why would a person who insists on a literal interpretation of the Infancy narratives also oppose affirmative action programs? What is the nexus? I submit that there is none that we can explain rationally; that our political and cultural dispositions are rooted more in emotional and psychological causes than in conclusions we are drawn to on the basis of a detached intellectual inquiry.

I also submit that these emotional predispositions lead us to give the benefit of the doubt to those we perceive to be “folks like us” — and to resort to cheap shots when dealing with those who rub us the wrong way. I’ll use a recent syndicated column by Fr. Richard McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame, to make the point. McBrien has made a career out of promoting what he would consider progressive theological views. Fair enough. What I can’t figure out is why that would lead him to harbor an animus against conservative Republicans? The animus is manifest. What other explanation is there for why he would nitpick and misrepresent recent comments made by Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania? What else could have brought Santorum’s words onto McBrien’s radar screen?

McBrien’s opened his attack on Santorum by informing us that Santorum “is a Catholic, albeit of a particular kind. He attends Sunday Mass along with Justice Antonin Scalia and other prominent Catholics of similar orientation at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Va., where the liturgy is in Latin and the priest prays with his back to the congregation, just like it was in the days before the Second Vatican Council.” McBrien finds this quirky because “Santorum was only 4 years old when the Second Vatican Council opened in October 1962.” He also feels it important to inform us that Santorum “never attended a Catholic college or university.”

Egads. What are we to make of this? Would McBrien find it curious if a young liberal Democrat in Congress was attracted to the mission of the Catholic Worker movement, even though he was a still a young man when Dorothy Day died? Would he describe Mario Cuomo as “a Catholic, albeit of a particular kind” because he is drawn to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin? Teilhard died when Cuomo was still a young man. Would McBrien cast aspersions on Ted Kennedy’s understanding of how our society should reply to the needs of the poor because he “never attended a Catholic college or university”?

There is more. It is not Santorum’s fondness for the Latin Mass that is McBrien’s major concern. It is a comment Santorum made upon the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope. Santorum told reporters, “What you saw is an affirmation by the cardinals that the Church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2000 years.”

McBrien rolled his eyes at Santorum’s comment. He wants us to roll ours as well. He informs us this is a “remarkable statement indeed from someone who has never had a graduate-level course in Church history.” He goes on to recite a litany of instances where the Church has changed its position over the centuries, everything from how bishops are elected, to its teaching on slavery and usury. The objective is clear: to make Santorum look trite and uninformed: “Santorum is surely not the only Catholic who is unaware of the lessons of Church history. Nor is he alone in mistakenly believing that ‘the Church is not going to change,’ that it is ‘going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years.’”

Come on: the fact that Santorum goes out of his way to attend a Latin Mass indicates clearly that he knows that the Church has changed. We all know what Santorum was saying. He was making an off-the-cuff comment to reporters, not delivering a theological treatise. He was making the same point that progressives in the Church made at the time, when they strutted and fretted their concerns that Cardinal Ratzinger was going to be too conservative for their tastes.

What Santorum meant was that the Church has not changed its core teachings and dogma over 2000 years. Santorum knows about the usury and the Latin Mass and altar girls and meat on Friday. He meant that the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger signaled that the liberation theologians and proponents of situation ethics and the adherents of the Jesus Project were not going to get the changes in the Church they have been promoting for decades. McBrien would have understood this point perfectly if he were reacting to a broad statement made by Nancy Pelosi or Ted Kennedy about 2,000 years of Church history validating the Democratic Party’s poverty programs.

Oh, guess what? Santorum is up for re-election this fall. Early polls indicate he will be facing a tough challenge. You can see why a Democratic Party partisan would want to hit him hard. The question is why a priest and a progressive theologian would want to pile on.

Or am I making too much of this? Could it be that what we are looking at is nothing more than an idiosyncratic peevishness in Fr. McBrien? That could be. For some reason, in this same column, McBrien thought it germane to make snide remarks about Fr. John Trigilio, the co-host of the EWTN series Web of Faith and co-author with Fr. Kenneth Brighenti of the new book Catholicism for Dummies. He calls Brighenti and Trigilio “two priests who also lack theological credentials,” but who “have a regular program on Mother Angelica’s Eternal World Television Network.” He compared their work to Santorum’s efforts to speak as a Catholic, calling both “cases of the blind leading the blind.”

I checked Brighenti’s and Trigilio’s credentials. Both have Ph.D.'s in theology. It looks to me as if what McBrien means by “theological credentials” is accepting the propositions of the theologians who are determined to move the Church in the direction he favors — as if agreeing with Raymond Brown and Gustavo Gutierrez, rather than Jacques Maritain and Avery Dulles, is the key to intellectual respectability. Which is goofy. It doesn’t make sense. Unless your goal is to propagandize rather than seek the truth.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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