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Catholic Theologians in a Land of Religious Anarchy

I had wanted to dedicate this post to a summation of Catholic teaching on migrants, especially given the recent legal action by the impeached (and later acquitted) and scandal-soused Texas attorney general Ken Paxton against Annunciation House. This long-established El Paso Catholic charity has a long history of helping migrants, and Paxton wants to shut them down on the unproven grounds that they are engaged in illegal human smuggling.

However, I know from my years living in Arizona that Roman Catholics will likely not be united in support of this ministry, but instead divide themselves on secular political partisan lines on this issue. This in spite of official Catholic teaching, which, while stating that countries have a right to protect their borders and regulate migration, makes it abundantly clear that that right is limited by the human right to emigrate and immigrate and that the migrant’s dignity must never be compromised. The Catholic Church, as John Paul II argued in Ecclesia in America, makes no distinction between documented and undocumented migrants regarding their human dignity and rights precisely because it knows, as Tisha Rajendra has articulated in her work on immigration, that most migrants do not want to leave their homelands. They are forced to leave, like my Cuban exile parents did after the 1959 Cuban Revolution was radicalized. This is why John Paul II argued in that same document that the single best solution to prevent forced migration is development. Now, when I argued for official Catholic teaching on migration over Phoenix Catholic radio during the Obama and Trump administrations, and how support for certain U.S. policies dissented against such teaching, that brought about Catholics cursing at me, complaints to the bishop, and people making the claim on social media that “prudential judgement” allowed them to support U.S. policy. Apparently, they did not realize that the exercise of such judgement never gave them license to contradict or ignore Catholic teaching. What they thought was prudential judgement was, in fact, what John Henry Newman would have identified as an act of willfulness. Therefore, another post on migration, when it circulates on social media, may likely do little good.

On the other hand, my experience with Catholics and their handling of the global migration crisis has helped to motivate me to think about why this polarization among U.S. Catholics exists when clearly, we should know better and do better as a Church. Why do we consistently fail to be what Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. described as a “third force” whereby our numbers, intellectual traditions, and academic institutions could provide leadership by which we help our polarized country transcend intellectually shallow ideologies fueled by the sophistry of many of our elected officials? How have we gotten to a point where too many U.S. Catholics ape and amplify those same ideologies and practice the same sophistry, often with pious overlays of sacraments and Marian devotions in an attempt to justify it all?

I shall use my annual turn with The First to offer a hypothesis, one that may bring to light one cause of this sad phenomenon. Since the Second Great Awakening, which ran from 1800 to 1830, received religious authority of any kind in the United States among the Protestant majority was swept aside in favor of the absolute primacy of the conscience of the individual Christian, regardless of how well, ill, or mal-formed one’s conscience was. A central idea of the Protestant Reformation, that individuals reading their Bibles could have an authentic, unmediated relationship with God in Jesus Christ, was pushed to the wall. What Nathan Hatch identified as the democratization of U.S. Christianity led people to think of themselves as emancipated from any ecclesial body that they thought dictated how they ought to believe. This was replaced with a semi-Pelagian self-confidence that their own understanding of the Bible and Christianity was as good as that of an educated minister or theologian. Ironically, this self-emancipation of the individual Christian made them vulnerable to self-proclaimed religious leaders whose authority was not based on a command of Scripture interpreted through the lens of a received theological tradition in the context of an ecclesial community, but on popular appeal alone. As William McLoughlin observed, this religious populism was a vital part of U.S. populism. This populism has developed to this day, whereby people now think of themselves as free to choose not only their own mode of analysis, but their own facts too. It is nominalism, without the discipline of philosophy, where the loud and the powerful do the naming. Woe to those who have the temerity to contradict them. It is a religious and intellectual anarchism.

Over the decades since the Second Great Awakening, U.S. religious populism served as a universal acid which has increasingly broken down U.S. Christians’ ability to critique prevailing political ideologies and politicians and develop alternatives grounded in received theological traditions held by our churches. Proof can be had just by driving down any major thoroughfare of any sizable community and count the number of independent congregations that exist alongside the congregations of historic Christian communions. Popular religious channels are driven not by churches but by personalities, many of whom hold beliefs which are formed by their unmediated, individual relationship with God, unchecked by theology or ecclesial discipline. Proof can also be had over how Christians reflect and amplify national differences and dichotomies instead of providing a prophetic witness critical of both, and providing fora to constructively discuss and debate our national problems and contribute to developing a consensus and produce workable solutions. U.S. Christians, including Catholics, are all too easy to divide and conquer ideologically in our current socio-political climate.

Roman Catholics used to be isolated from much of this because of our marginalized and ghettoized place in U.S. society, the latter despite the fact that Catholics were already in the mainstream in many large U.S. cities. Catholics began to pick up North American religious populist habits when they left their urban enclaves for the suburbs and, as Russell Shaw argued, began to intentionally dismantle Catholic institutions which mediated the relationship between Catholics and the larger U.S. society. We professors could not help, despite the growing production of quality scholarship. Douglas Hofstader, in his excursus on Catholic intellectual life in his still-relevant Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, was correct to say that we, unlike our colleagues elsewhere in the world, never were able to exercise as a group a consistent, essential, authoritative role as members of the ordinary magisterium to mediate between the Church and U.S. society, including critiques of North American religious populism. Instead, we suffered the same fate of our Protestant colleagues over a century before and were marginalized. Moreover, as I have directly witnessed in my own academic career as an active member of no fewer than four Catholic theological associations in the United States alone, our professional structures reflect broader divisions in the U.S. Church. Charles Curran’s correct observation that seminary moral theologians do not dialogue with Catholic college and university moral theologians, the former belonging mainly to of the Academy of Catholic Theology, the latter belonging mainly to the College Theology Society, the Catholic Theological Society of America, or the Society of Christian Ethics, is just one example.

The unspoken hope held by those who encourage polarization and discourage attempts to overcome it rests on a Pelagian confidence in one’s own command of the truth and a Manichean view of the all-pervasive error, or even depravity held by the other. This is coupled with the hope that the other will go away, or worse be eliminated. History demonstrates the naivete of this Pelagianism and the error and futility of this Manicheanism. Only God is superior and possesses perfect truth. God gratuitously shares with all human beings the capacity to discover pieces of the truth that we have to work to discover in community. Dialogue and debate to seek what is good, true, and beautiful, that is the only option God allows us to engage in this process of discovery. We theologians have to insist on our proper place in our Church and society to model this dialogical and debating culture for both. This begins by doing it amongst ourselves. This is why the initiative and the call by former CTSA president Francis X. Clooney, S.J., for all theologians in our different theological organizations to develop a sustained and meaningful dialogue is an important and must be followed through with meetings, talks, workshops, and publications.