First appeared in First Things.
Editor’s Note: This paper was originally given as the tenth Paul Wattson Lecture at the University of San Francisco, sponsored by the Franciscan Society of the Atonement.
I was a Communist for the FBI was the title of a popular book, movie, and television series of the 1950s. In a similar manner, for fourteen years I was a Protestant moral theologian, if not for the Roman Catholic Church, at least for some Catholics around the University of Notre Dame. There is a great deal of hubris in that claim; many Catholics, both at Notre Dame and elsewhere, would be quick to deny that they ever counted me among those holding the high office of moral theologian for the Church of Rome. No doubt they are right. At best, I was a Christian ethicist who was graciously given the opportunity to live, work, discuss, argue, and, most important, worship with Roman Catholics. My stay with Roman Catholics left a mark on me for which I shall ever be grateful. I was given more than I ever got. I am, therefore, grateful for the opportunity to make some small contribution to the ongoing discussion among Roman Catholics about how to do moral theology and/or how to think and live as Catholics in the American context.
Of course, you really left yourself open when you invited me to address questions of ecumenical ethics. I did not spend fourteen years laboring in Roman Catholic vineyards for nothing. I learned a great deal while I was with you, and I have been dying to have an opportunity to unload on someone what I think I learned. It happens that this is the first such opportunity I have had since I left Notre Dame, so you are going to bear the brunt of it. You will get precisely what you do not need—unsolicited advice from a Protestant bystander, one who does not have to live under the discipline of what he advocates. My Roman Catholic friends often pointed out to me that I could be enthusiastic that Catholics at least had the sense to make authority an issue because I did not have to obey those who would exercise that authority.
That, of course, is a fair criticism. Yet it is also the case that, no doubt with a great deal of naivete, most of the time I was at Notre Dame I did not think of myself as a Protestant ethicist—I thought I was Catholic. This delusion at least partly derived from the fact that I was and am a Methodist, an ecclesial commitment I never got most of my Roman Catholic friends to appreciate since they assumed all Protestants were Baptists, especially if they were from the South. I could not convince them that, on at least some readings, Methodism is not a Protestant tradition but rather stands centrally in the Catholic tradition. Methodists indeed are even more Catholic than the Anglicans who gave us birth, since Wesley, of blessed memory, held to the Eastern fathers in a more determinative way than did any of the Western churches—Protestant or Catholic. Of course, this account of Methodism has very little to do with the reality of the contemporary Methodist church, but it means a great deal to those of us who became Christians through the rediscovery of the Catholic substance of the Wesleys. We were committed to a rediscovery of the disciplined nature of the church and thought Wesley provided some important theological and institutional expression of that—or as someone put it, “If Wesley had not been Wesley, he would have been Ignatius.”
Of course, the other reason I thought I was a Catholic was I was trained at Yale. During my interview at Notre Dame, I was asked what problems or difference I thought being a Protestant ethicist would create for my teaching. I replied I did not have the slightest idea because, having gone to Yale, I did not consider myself a Protestant theological ethicist. Aquinas was as much my theologian as he was for Catholics. (And Aquinas did not even know he was a Roman Catholic.) Moreover, I had been taught to regard the encyclical tradition as essential to any Christian theologian’s work. Father Bernard Haering and Vatican II were part and parcel of my education.
To be sure, I did not know enough then to know what I did not know, but I soon found myself thoroughly pulled into the Catholic world and into Catholic moral theology in particular. I discovered that Catholicism was a world rich with textures and colors that I literally had not known existed. As a relatively homeless WASP, I felt I had discovered a community where moral discourse still mattered. What more could someone trained in ethics ask? Couple this with the extraordinary generosity of Catholics to welcome and put up with me—even to being willing to take me seriously—and it is natural that I thought I was a Catholic.
However, as one of my colleagues pointed out as I was leaving Notre Dame, I was mistaken ever really to think I was such. I had taken too seriously the idea that theology defined what made Catholics Catholic. Catholicism is more than “doctrine” and theological reflection on doctrine. Rather it is habits and practices that take a lifetime to understand. I appreciate that point. Indeed, it is one on which I want to draw: The point of my remarks is to urge Catholics to stay Catholic, even in America. I have begun with this personal word in the hopes that I will be received not entirely as an outsider, but as one who was and still is at least a little Catholic. But if not an outsider, I am a bystander: I want you to be better Catholics than I can or perhaps am prepared to be.
In that respect I suspect Catholics should be a bit suspicious of Protestants who are enthusiastic about the current possibilities of the Church of Rome. For example, Richard John Neuhaus in his wonderfully intriguing book The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Post Modern World cannot say enough in support of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. He castigates Catholic liberals for following Protestants whose theology has become but a form of anthropology. In this I must admit I am in deep sympathy with Neuhaus. Despairing of the incoherence of theological discourse in mainstream Protestantism, we cannot help but think that Catholicism still possesses enough substance to mount a good argument. As Neuhaus says, prior to Vatican II, “the problems of Roman Catholicism were ‘their’ problems; now they are our problems.”
And, conversely, many of our problems have become theirs. The nature and mission of the Church, the relationship between Church and world, the role of Scripture and tradition, the question of teaching authority (the “magisterium”) within the Christian community, the connection between teaching authority and theological exploration, the meaning of doctrine and dogma the Roman Catholic Church is working through these questions on behalf of the entire Christian community. Of course there are other Christian communities addressing these questions. Some communities, however, are not capable of that. Much of liberal Protestantism has lost the points of reference, even the vocabulary, required for deliberation and debate on such questions. Most of conservative Protestantism, especially fundamentalist Protestantism, is not aware of the questions.
Catholics are suspicious of the Protestant enthusiasm for Catholicism that Neuhaus and I represent because many Catholics have spent their lives reacting against an authoritarian church. I am often sympathetic with such concerns, but those who hold them do not recognize that they rest on a false sense of security. The Church, it has been assumed, could be criticized because its structure would remain always in place—bishops would continue to be bishops, Rome would still be Rome. In like manner, the “old Catholic moral theology” could be criticized without fundamental challenge to the assumption that the distinction between moral theology and fundamental theology made sense—Catholic moral theology should no longer be “legalistic,” but yet the structure of moral theology would remain in place. As a result of this blind spot, criticism of the Church too often has represented a distraction from the real business at hand—namely, helping the church face the challenge of modernity. Catholics in the name of reform work to make the church conform to the norm of American democracy, failing to see that that cannot help but result in a church no longer capable of challenging the status quo. If I seem, therefore, too uncritical of Roman Catholicism, it is only because I have to live out the presuppositions of the alternative. However, let me try to make these remarks more concrete by attending to the question of ecumenical ethics.
Concern over issues of ethics and ecumenism has arisen because Catholics find themselves in a quandary raised by the issue of abortion. For example, Catholics in California would like to participate in the California Ecumenical Council, but the Council has taken a position that is pro-abortion, at least in terms of the public policy alternatives. The question seems to be how Catholics can continue to be good ecumenical citizens while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the Catholic moral position.
My personal response to the quandary is that I do not want you to be good ecumenical citizens—I want you to be Catholics. I also believe that there is nothing more important for the future unity of the church than for you to be Catholic. Unless you draw on the integrity of your hard-won wisdom about matters such as abortion, then you will have failed your calling to be the church that holds itself in judgment for the church’s disunity. For I take it that inherent in the Roman Catholic commitment to the magisterial office is the willingness to see the divided nature of the church as a sign of Catholic unfaithfulness—you have failed to help us see why Christians who find ourselves separated from Rome should be what you think we should be. You have been so anxious to be like us that you have failed in your ecumenical task to help us see what it means for any of us to be faithful to the Gospel on which our unity depends.
Of course, there is every reason for you to be confused about these matters. After all, it has been the strategy of most ecumenical movements in this century to concentrate on deeds rather than creeds. We assumed that there was little chance of reaching agreement in matters of belief, but at least we could join hands as people of good will to fight for justice, to protest on behalf of the oppressed, to stand for basic moral values. Such a stance seemed peculiarly well-suited to Catholicism, since your ethics was putatively based on natural law and thus did not require any special theological justification to be rendered intelligible. Therefore, unlike Protestant accounts of the moral life that, at least in theory, maintained a much tighter connection between theological conviction and moral behavior, Catholics seemed to have a moral tradition particularly well suited for ecumenical endeavors. It mattered not whether Protestants believed in the authority of the magisterial office or had a correct understanding of nature-grace. All that mattered was that Catholics and Protestants could agree that certain forms of behavior are incumbent on Christians and all other people of good will. We might not be able to agree about the status or nature of the sacraments, but at least we could agree that all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, ought to be for justice. If natural law means anything, it ought to mean that.
At a theoretical level this seems straightforward and clear. The problem, however, is that this kind of account of natural-law ethics failed to acknowledge or notice that in reality it presupposed a social order whose practices had been formed by Catholic habits. A story a Protestant observer at Vatican II told me nicely illustrates this. A bishop was overheard saying to his theological advisor, “Now explain to me again why only Catholics seem to believe contraception is wrong even though our position is based on natural law reasoning common to all people.”
It is tempting for me at this point to launch into a critique of certain kinds of natural-law accounts that seem to make theological claims secondary. Such accounts I think hardly do justice to Aquinas’s understanding of the meaning or role of natural law. I look forward to the yet-to-be-written history that demonstrates how Aquinas’s position was distorted by being read through the eyes of German idealistic philosophy. For Aquinas, natural law serves not as a principle that justifies a “universal ethic” abstracted from a community’s practices or its members’ character and virtues; rather natural law is a necessary exegetic principle for the reading of the Old Testament as well as helping us understand that when confronted by God’s law, we always discover we are sinners. But though I am tempted to provide a theological account of natural law, I am going to refrain because my interests here are more properly described as a theological social commentary.
In an odd way, when Catholics came to America, you learned—though it is not yet a lesson you have taken to heart—that your “natural law” ethic was community- and tradition-specific. You came to America with a moral theology shaped by the presuppositions of Catholic Constantinianism. Natural law was the name you gave to the moral practices and principles you had discovered were essential to Christian living in that barbarian wilderness we now call Western Civilization. You could continue to believe in the theoretical validity of a natural-law ethic, even, or perhaps especially, one interpreted through Kantian eyes, as long as you saw the sociological and historical center of your life in Europe. After all, Protestantism, whether in its Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican forms, still had to make do with societies that had been formed Catholic—which is but a reminder that Protestantism remains both theologically and sociologically a parasitical form of the Christian faith. Without Catholicism, Protestants make no sense, a hard truth for Catholic and Protestant alike to acknowledge.
Yet everything changed when you came to America. By “came” I mean when Catholics took up the project of being Americans rather than Catholics who happened to live in America. For when you came to America for the first time, you had to live in a culture that was based on Protestant presuppositions and habits now transformed by Enlightenment ideologies. For the first time you had to live in a society that was putatively Christian and yet in which you were not “at home.” The church knew how to live in cultures that were completely foreign—as in India and Japan—but how could you learn to live in America, a culture which at once looked Christian but seemed in certain ways more foreign than China?
It was a confusing challenge for Catholics. You came here with the habits and practices of a Constantinian ethic allegedly based on natural-law presumptions, and you discovered that to sustain those habits you had to act like a sect. Protestant Constantinianism forced Catholic Constantinians to withdraw into your own enclaves—your own ghettos—in order to maintain the presumption that you possessed an ethic based on natural-law grounds. What a wonderful thing God did to you. Contemplating it can only confirm what an extraordinary sense of humor God must possess.
For example, you came to America thinking that societies had the obligation to educate children about the true and the good. Yet confronted by supposedly neutral public education that presumed that everyone agreed that church and state ought to be separated, you were forced to build your own school system. Where else would Catholics learn that the life of the mind could not and should not be separated from the life of prayer?
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am aware that there were many reasons—not the least being a Protestant anti-Catholicism that is still more virulent that Catholics generally are willing to acknowledge—for Catholics to live in ghettos. Nor do I wish to invite you to wallow in romantic nostalgia for the both wonderful and terrible forms of life those ghettos produced. Rather, I simply want to call your attention to the sociological form that seemed necessary to sustain the Catholic project of a natural-law moral theology.
Of course, the problem for Catholics is no longer how to survive in a hostile environment dominated by Protestant and Enlightenment presuppositions. Now the great problem is how to survive liberal tolerance. Until recently, you could depend on Protestant prejudice to keep yourselves Catholic—it might not be clear what it meant to be Catholic, but at least you could depend on Protestants to remind you that you were peculiar. However, as Protestants have become increasingly unclear about what it means to be Protestant, it has become equally difficult to know—at least in matters moral—what difference it makes to be Catholic. From a Protestant perspective, as long as we are characterized by a generalized uncertainty about what we are about, it seems only a matter of courtesy to invite Catholics to become part of our amorphous search for identity.
This is a particularly dangerous situation for everyone. Catholics desiring to show that they have a positive attitude toward Protestants end up telling Protestants what we already know—e.g., that moral matters such as abortion and divorce are extremely complex and that it is very hard to have predetermined moral stances about them. But if Catholics end up telling Protestants what we already know, consider the plight of Protestants. We end up telling secularists what they already know. Strange results for traditions that are called into the world on the presumption that they have something to say that the world needs to hear.
My worry, in short, is not that Catholics will fail to be ecumenical, but that when they come to cooperate with Protestants, they will have become what we already are—that is, a denomination. In his book The Restructuring of American Religion, Robert Wuthnow documents the decline of mainstream Protestantism in America. He confirms what I think many have sensed: that members of Protestant churches now concern themselves less with the particular theological and ecclesial heritage of their denomination than with how that religious organization provides a means for individuals to express their particular interests. Therefore, American Protestants are no longer determined by whether they are Presbyterians or Methodists, but by whether they are “conservatives” or “liberals” within their denominations. Moreover, the meaning of “conservative” and “liberal” is determined primarily in terms of the options of the American political system rather than by theological and moral questions.
This has not happened to American Protestantism by accident; it is rather the result of our success. Conservative and liberal Protestants might disagree about the divinity of Christ, but they were in agreement that there was a pivotal connection between personal faith and the larger society. They assumed, as Wuthnow summarizes the matter, that a healthy society depends on its members acting responsibly to uphold moral and political values, and that such responsible behavior is best supported by a sense of individual accountability to the divine and by the sanctions, positive and negative, that religion provides.
In our current context this sounds remarkably conservative, so it is easy to overlook the assumption that the primary social task of mainstream Protestantism was to create and sustain a society that provided freedom for the individual. Wuthnow suggests, therefore, that it is the supermarket with its myriad consumer products more than the traditional flagwaving Fourth of July parade that has become the symbol of freedom. “Freedom means the opportunity to choose from a variety of products, to select a full complement of goods that meet our individual needs and desires. It means having the financial resources with which to purchase any gadget of seeming use in our quest for personal development and self-expression”—and, of course, it means freedom to choose our “faith.”
In short, Protestantism helped create, but, even more, legitimate, a form of social life that undermined its ability to maintain the kind of disciplined communities necessary to sustain the church’s social witness. As James Gustafson noted over twenty years ago, movement from the “gathered church” to the voluntary church almost irresistibly involves a compromised ecclesiastical form. The decisive criterion for the latter is no longer holiness of life but “the will to belong.”
The theological and experiential marks of authority on which the in-group was defined from the out-group have lost their power. The zest for purity in the churches has given way to an acceptance of the impossibility of its achievement, and consequently to a more or less open membership. Now, instead of being gathered out of the body of strangers into the family of saints, the strangers volunteer to join the community of those like themselves, who find something meaningful in religious life for themselves, their children, or their neighborhood. Men admire the saints among them, and perhaps wish to join their small number. If they fall, however, there is no serious disruption of church life.
The process described here is now taking place among Roman Catholics. You are becoming like Protestants, one denomination among others. No true church here, but rather one more association of people who at best share a common search for meaning. No doubt there is little you can do about this, as you are subject to economic and social forces that make this process almost inevitable. What I find odd, however, is that the kind of moral theology you are generating in the name of freedom underwrites this process as a good.
Let me turn at last to issues I suspect you wanted me to address in the first place—namely, how should Catholic moral theology be done if Catholics are to be full participants in ecumenical dialogue and action? I have not begun with that question because I think it makes little sense to try to answer it in the abstract. The question only makes sense in the context of the forces that have produced it. Moreover, it is exactly those forces that make the question of how Catholics relate to Protestants of relatively little moment compared to the issue of how Catholics and Protestants alike can maintain communities in the American context capable of disciplined moral discourse as Christians.
Yet it is exactly that challenge that most Catholic moral theologians, whether of the left or the right, fall to make central to their work. Catholics on the left want the church to be a morally disciplined community in order to speak in a determinative fashion about war and economic justice, but they prefer that it speak less decisively about abortion, contraception, and divorce. Catholics on the right want the church to speak decisively about abortion, sexual ethics, and divorce, but with some reticence about war and economic justice. One would think that this difference would be the result of some fundamental disagreements about the substance of moral theology, but I think that is not the case. Rather I fear this kind of dispute reflects a church that has already lost its theological moorings for ethical reflection.
Indeed I want to put the issue in even starker fashion. I would maintain that the natural-law basis of Catholic moral theology was insufficient to prepare Catholics for the challenge of negotiating a society like America. As a result, disputes between conservative Catholic moral theologians and liberal Catholic moral theologians do little to help Catholics locate the challenge they faced and continue to face in America. For natural law underwrote the assumption that Catholic moral theology could be written for anyone, irrespective of his or her relation to the faith in Jesus of Nazareth. But that “anyone” in America turned out to be the “individual” of the Enlightenment, whose very being depended on the refusal to acknowledge or spell out a particular history.
Thus Catholic moral theologians have embraced the American project as part and parcel of what it means to do faithful moral theology. For example, consider some of the titles of recent works by Catholic moralists Charles Curran, American Catholic Social Ethics: Twentieth Century Approaches; John Coleman, An American Strategic Theology; David Hollenbach, Justice, Peace, and Human Rights: American Catholic Social Ethics in a Pluralist Context; Dennis McCann, New Experiment in Democracy: The Challenge of American Catholicism; Joe Holland and Anne Barsanti, eds., American and Catholic: The New Debate; and George Weigel, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy. It would be a mistake, of course, to read too much into titles, but it is at least interesting that Catholic thinkers seem to think that Catholicism can and should be modified by the designation “American.”
This emphasis on “American” might be interpreted in a purely descriptive manner meant to denote the unavoidability of the American reality. No doubt at times it does mean simply that. Yet it also means more, as there is the suggestion, not only in these authors but in American Catholic moral theology in general, that “American” is a normative recommendation that should change how moral theology is done. Moreover, it is a recommendation that is in continuity with the deepest well-spring of past Roman Catholic moral theology—namely, that grace completes nature, and thus moral theology can be based on the assumption that there is no fundamental tension between a general societal ethos and specifically Catholic moral conviction.
For example, Dennis McCann in his New Experiment in Democracy argues that the Americanist heresy condemned by Testem benevolentiae was not a heresy at all. Rather Americanism
is not shameful “indulgence” but, as Max Stackhouse has . . . pointed out, “a liberation to new duty given by the grace of God, which leads to voluntary community, disciplined personal life, lay intellectuality, and social outreach.” Indeed, as Leo XIII feared, this liberation is a liberation from the church; but he failed to grasp the Americanists’ hope that such a liberation also occurs for the sake of the church. At stake in the “certain liberty” for which Americanists stand condemned is, in Stackhouse’s terms, the revolutionary American principle of “selfgoverning association” and its extension to all the institutional sectors of society. America thus is an experiment in which the basic, primordial freedom of the church to order its own life is taken as the basis for the organization of political, economic, educational, familial, and other aspects of life.
The only difficulty, according to McCann, is that the “certain liberty” valued by Isaac Hecker and later by John Courtney Murray has not been fully realized by the church’s “search for self identity” after Vatican II. Yet McCann is convinced that the future is with the Americanist, as it is the “consistent tendency of Catholics to define their own integrity in terms of this nation’s ongoing experiment in self governing association.” In this sense, the Americanist heresy is rooted in the very foundations of Christianity in this country, a heritage common to the whole spectrum of American Protestant and Catholic communities of faith. It has become, and inevitably must become, the agenda for American Catholicism whenever Catholic people consider fully the logic of their circumstances here how it is that their habitual patterns of organizing themselves for participation in our common life are religiously significant.” McCann thus argues that it is the task of the future not only to make America more American by fuller institutionalization of that “certain liberty,” but to make the church itself American by transforming it into the kind of voluntary, self-governing institution characteristic of American life.
According to McCann, the primary virtue for a church so constituted, internally and externally, is civility. Appealing to Murray, McCann suggests that civility should be understood as “a disposition to conduct politics not as open warfare among conflicting interest groups, but as skilled and self-disciplined public ‘conversations.’” As such, civility is not just a political necessity, but a religious virtue.
Its faithful exercise makes each of the communities participating in the American “public church,” as well as their respective members, more disposed to regard each other in public as mutually interdependent, as bound to each other, in Martin Marty’s terms, “by explicit or tacit agreement to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life . . . .” “Civility” thus is the ecumenical virtue par excellence ; for in our pluralistic context, it is an indispensable precondition for building the Kingdom of God in America. Pluralism may exist without “civility,” but a pluralistic society cannot if it lacks the sense of social interdependence which this virtue fosters among diverse communities who, both because of and in spite of their differences, remain pledged to one another for the sake of the common good.
I must admit I thought that after John Murray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi Strauss and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, no one would be able to recommend civility without apology again. For as Cuddihy points out, civility is that part of the modernization process that requires the separation of private affect from public demeanor. It is the great bourgeois project to adapt the individual’s inner life to the socially appropriate.
“Niceness” is as good a name as any for the informally yet pervasively institutionalized civility expected—indeed required—of members (and of aspirant members) of that societal community called the civic culture. Intensity, fanaticism, inwardness—too much of anything, in fact—is unseemly and bids fair to destroy the fragile solidarity of the surface we call civility. Civility, as the very medium of Western social interaction, presupposes the differentiated structures of a modernizing “civil society.” Civility is not merely regulative of social behavior; it is an order of “appearance” constitutive of that behavior. This medium is itself the message and the message it beamed to the frontrunners of a socially emancipating jewry came through loud and clear: “Be Nice.” “The Jews,” writes Maurice Samuel looking back on the epoch of Emancipation, “are probably the only people in the world to whom it has ever been proposed that their historic destiny is—to be nice.”
Of course, you may well object that being nice is not a bad alternative to being killed. But if Cuddihy is right that the “tribal, rather than the civil, nature of Jewish culture” means that Jewish Emancipation put Jews on a collision course with the differentiation of Western society, then the Holocaust is but the other side of assimilation into the new and oppressive order of civility.
The differentiations most foreign to the shtetl subculture of Yiddesheit were those of public from private behavior and of manners from morals. Jews were being asked, in effect, to become bourgeois, and to become bourgeois quickly. The problem of behavior, then, became strategic to the whole problematic of “assimilation.” The modernization process, the civilization process, and the assimilation process were experienced as one—as the “price of admission” to the bourgeois civil societies of the West at the end of the nineteenth century.
It may well be unfair to juxtapose Cuddihy’s account of civility to that of McCann’s. McCann would certainly protest that he is concerned to save particularity in the name of healthy pluralism. But it is not enough to affirm pluralism. You must be able to show, given the context of the Enlightenment ideology and institutions indicated by Cuddihy, that the forces of modernity which grind all genuine disputes into calm “conversations” can be resisted.
Nor is it enough to appeal, as McCann and Hollenbach do, to “justice as participation,” as if the very evocation of that phrase represents a coherent social theory or policy. Hollenbach, for example, notes that the disagreements between John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer concerning justice might represent to some a vindication of Alasdair Maclntyre’s and my analysis of the moral anarchy of our society and our allegedly sectarian social strategy. But rather than a confusion about justice, according to Hollenbach, what we have is the beginning of a genuine argument about justice. We do so, that is, if we realize “that there is not one meaning to justice in some univocal sense.”
All of the interlocutors in the current disputation have got their hands on some part of the reality we are in search of. Socrates knew this phenomenon well: dialectic, that is argument, is a process of sorting through a host of opinions to discern what is true in each, in search of that which is most true, most good. The argument about what justice means is as old as Western civilization. The quality of the argument today may well determine whether this civilization has a future, or whether its future will be in any sense civilized. In the face of these high stakes, I think the sectarian retreat of Maclntyre and Hauerwas is ultimately, if unwittingly, a failure of nerve. It falls to appreciate new possibilities present today for expressing love of one’s neighbor by engaging in the long march of cultural transformation.
“Justice as participation” turns out to be another way to say Catholics should be good Americans.
Of course, I do not mean to imply that everyone who calls for an “American Catholic moral theology” agrees with McCann’s and Hollenbach’s understanding of that project (indeed, I assume that there are significant differences between the two of them). In particular, I find John Coleman to be especially sensitive to the challenge facing American Catholicism. As he notes, “What seems abundantly clear is that the American Catholic Church cannot have its cake and eat it too. It cannot hunger after unitary prophetic strategies which presuppose authoritarian patterns within a largely hierarchical church or a restricted lay autonomy and, simultaneously, foster a human relations and voluntary model premised on pluralism and a personal freedom. . . . It [the church] cannot accept the game of pluralism and still expect to impose its unique agenda on the societal outcomes.” Coleman thus urges the church to explore all the creative possibilities of the human relations and voluntary model of the church, even if it might thereby risk being captured by a class based moral consensus. As he puts it, “with the collapse of the immigrant church and the increasing education of American Catholics, the church is fated to that model in America”—a sobering prediction indeed.
At stake in these sociological observations is not only the question of the church’s accommodation to this society, but the further question of how moral rationality is understood and practiced. For in the interest of joining the arguments about such matters as abortion, the church is tempted to underwrite those forms of Enlightenment rationalism that deny their traditioned character. Catholics, more than any other people, must resist the presumption of modernity that those from other traditions are “really just like us” since we can make their behavior intelligible because we putatively speak a universal language. What must be faced up to is that Catholics and non-Catholics live in different worlds. That is why Christians finally do not seek to convince the other; we seek to convert. These are complex matters involving questions of relativism and truth that cannot be explored here. Suffice it to say, however, that at least one of the signs of the truth of the Catholic faith is its unwillingness to substitute the reality of the church for insubstantial universal reasons for knowing and worshiping God rightly.
I am aware that I have said little about how abortion fits into this picture. Indeed, it may seem I have said little about moral theology at all but have instead only been talking about the historical and sociological situation of Catholicism in America. Some might suspect that I have seized the opportunity to criticize the Americanism of Catholic social ethics—to suggest that there is nothing wrong with Catholics that could not be fixed by overcoming the temptation to be “nice”—in order simply to defend my own “sectarianism.”
Yet I do think that what I have said is important for how Catholics think about abortion as well as for how they articulate their concern about abortion to the wider society. Michael Schwartz has persuasively argued in an essay in American and Catholic: The New Debate that abortion has become the test case for the honeymoon between “Americanist Catholics—who are usually well educated and upwardly mobile—and the secular culture to which they have surrendered.” These are the Catholics particularly subject to the paradoxical attitude that secular culture has adopted toward postconciliar Catholicism. That is,
Catholicism is still despised to the extent that it claims to teach with authority, but that contempt is no longer mixed with fear, only with condescension. The pope is unable to assert his authority effectively over even the clergy, much less the laity. And so we have the new strain of anti-Catholic sentiment expressing itself by praising those Catholics who separate themselves from the beliefs and practices of their church. To the extent that the reality of the church is despised, so individual Catholics who subordinate their Catholicism to some secular ideology are held up as models of intellectual honesty, courage, and all around decency. The only good Catholic, it would seem, is a bad Catholic.
Schwartz observes, however, that for such Catholics a crisis was occasioned exactly when their “new found ecumenical friends decided that the next great step in the advance of civilization was to authorize the killing of babies. We were tolerant, and we desperately wanted to be accepted. But we were still Catholics, not barbarians. We drew the line at murdering the young.” In opposition to those in power, Catholics knew this was not just another question to be resolved by interest group politics. Catholics knew they had a duty to stand for life, to choose, as Schwartz puts it, Christ over Caesar.
This seems to me to put the issue just right. The point of my argument is that opposition to abortion involves much more than just opposition to abortion. It in fact does nothing less than to put Catholics at odds with the primary ethos of the liberal culture that has just accepted you. To be against abortion means that politics as usual—to be for or against George Bush—is no longer possible. Schwartz understands what is at stake.
The unfortunate truth is that most Catholics in America look to something other than the church for their basic direction in life. There are among us today people who call themselves Catholics but who are, above all, something else: feminists, Marxists, Republicans, evolutionists, pacifists, or whatever. Not everything in these ideologies is in conflict with Catholicism, and not everything in them is in harmony with Catholicism. But where these secular ideologies are in conflict with Catholicism, those who have placed their faith elsewhere insist that the church must change to conform itself to the higher truth proclaimed by the ideology of their choice. [But] no secular ideology can save. None of them, ultimately, is the truth. Only the Catholic faith answers the hunger of the human heart. Only the Catholic faith is true. Only the Catholic faith can bring us to the wholeness which consists in seeing God as God really is. It is not, I am saying, the church which must change to accommodate to the things of the world, but the world that must be transformed, folded under the mantle of the Bride of Christ.
I have resisted using this occasion to critique the methodology of past Roman Catholic moral theology except for offering a few generalizations about natural law as the presumed starting point for Catholic reflection. But if Schwartz is right, as I think he is, it means that moral theology cannot be divorced from those practices and virtues that derive their intelligibility from theological convictions. After all, Catholic convictions about abortion have never been derived from abstract principles about the “right to life,” but rather have been rational just to the extent that Catholic people were formed by practices that made them a community capable of welcoming children. What is “natural” about that is that it is the way we were created—which is a claim about “nature” that unavoidably requires acknowledgment that there is a creator. As a way to make these issues concrete, let me suggest a different way to test the issue of ecumenical ethics. Rather than thinking about how Catholics can participate in the California Council of Churches, ask whether the bishops ought to commend to all Catholic people participation in Operation Rescue.
There is a test for you. You would have to associate with the most despised of our society—Bible-believing fundamentalists—in non-violent action. It would be good for you to have to deal with people who take the Bible seriously. An article by Charlotte Low Allen in the Wall Street Journal (December 8, 1988) describes tensions between Catholics and Protestants already active in the movement and thereby suggests my point.
Evangelicals rely exclusively on the Bible for moral authority. “I don’t see how someone could believe abortion is murder without believing in the Bible,” says Michael Hersh, director of Operation Rescue in Atlanta. This can be disconcerting for those who believe abortion violates natural law as well. Catholics have a long tradition of incorporating natural law principles into their theology, which makes it easier for them to discourse on moral issues with Jews, atheists, and other non-Catholics.
Yes, far too easy, and serious engagement with fundamentalist Protestants might afford a wonderful opportunity for you to rediscover the richness of being Catholic and in so doing help call us all to the unity of God’s good kingdom. Such are the paradoxical blessings of particularity.