Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Myth of Neutrality: Deeply – or vaguely – Catholic? | 2010

I am thinking about the liberal myth of neutrality--the liberal-secularist orthodoxy that hides, even from itself, the fact that it is an orthodoxy--as it affects Catholic institutions. More to follow, but meanwhile here is an essay from the excellent (if unfortunately named) website, The Catholic Thing.

Deeply – or vaguely – Catholic?
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI
n his book Religious Freedom, Truth and American Liberalism, David Schindler makes a rather provocative assertion that institutional liberalism "draws us into a con game, inviting us to dialog within the (putatively) open and pluralistic market of religions, all the while having, hiddenly, filled the terms of that dialogue with a liberal theory of religion." When I first saw these words in 1994, I thought: he has a hold on something, and then I filed and forgot them.

But I’ve gone back to them lately. The events of the past year – the presentation of an honorary doctorate to President Obama, revelations of the Campaign for Human Development’s continuing involvement with organizations that work against Catholic teaching, Catholic Charities’ battles to remain Catholic while accepting government monies, the Catholic Health Association’s support of Obamacare, the appointment of the new president of CUA (who as dean of the Boston College Law School went out of his way to portray a colleague who worked against gay "marriage" as only expressing "his own opinion"), the struggles of genuinely Catholic (by which I do not mean fanatic traditionalist) educational institutions, and so on – make abundantly clear that some members of the Catholic Church are adopting the liberal view of institutions, with hidden and sometimes not- so-hidden effect.

In crude terms, the effect is to aim for the vaguely Catholic rather than the deeply Catholic. The English Dominican Aidan Nichols, for example, has argued that "a deep Catholicism is not simply sure of its dogmatic basis and at home in its corporate memory, though these are essential. It is also profoundly rooted in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the great doctors and spiritual teachers, and receptive to whatever is lovely in the human world of any and every time and place, which the Word draws to himself by assuming human nature into union with his own divine person." Reading Schindler’s framing of the problem of liberalism through the lens that Nichols gives us, brings us at a minimum to the following:

Catholic institutions need to be deeply Catholic and not just package what they imagine Catholicism to be as a commodity. In practical terms, this means that institutions need staff who think like Catholics and behave like Catholics, in short who are Catholics. Everyone from the secretary answering the phone, to the spokesperson, to the head of the institution needs to think and act as a Catholic. There is no neutral institutional frame that is able to operate in a Catholic way without having well-informed functional Catholics at all levels. It may be thought broadminded to hire a Moslem as a researcher, for example, but from a theoretical and practical point of view it makes no sense, unless the employee happens to be researching Islam.

The liberal vision is that an institution is some kind of neutral collection of people all of whom – with the best will in the world – will do the best for the institution that is paying them. Unfortunately there is an old maxim, tried and tested, that says: nemo dat quod non habet – you cannot give what you ain’t got. Employing secretaries, presidents, directors, spokespeople who do not firmly believe what they are saying means that the institution has in fact consciously decided to buy the liberal view of the institution wholesale. Then the institution is not doing what it says it does. The kind of liberalism that Schindler is referring to is not Catholicism. George Weigel, coming at the question from a different angle, terms it Catholic lite.

Catholic institutions who appoint officials who do not see Catholicism as the wellspring for every hire, every communication, and every decision, have bought the vision of the liberal institution as neutral. In doing this they have introduced a "logical ambivalence" (Schindler’s phrase) into the Catholicism being expressed by their institution. They are saying, in effect, that Catholicism needs to be completed by the secular culture, which is a better expression of truth and freedom than Catholicism is. The ambivalence wreaks havoc with the actual mission of the Catholic institution, which is to present a witness of Catholicism to the world. The ambivalence becomes part of the message.

Never mind the simple logic that if you work for IBM then you do not sell Apple! The liberal idea of the institution is that it is value-free. Schindler has argued very cogently that the very notion of a liberal institution embodies all kinds of values and very often these are the ones that contradict Catholic values. What is at issue is the connection between the apparently secular (such as an institution like a bureaucracy) and the sacred (the world redeemed by Christ). For example, Schindler says that for the great modern theologian Henri de Lubac, even the secular, "everywhere and always retains an ordering that is first from within, towards God in Jesus Christ." A bureaucracy run by the Church may look like any other bureaucracy. Catholic bureaucracy has a different inner principle because it has a different goal. It is not embarrassed about being Catholic and desperately trying to look like a liberal institution. Now that is deep Catholicism!

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.

(c) 2010 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Comments (6)
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The Catacombs within the Church
written by Anonymous, July 22, 2010
Father Bramwell's article is all too true, which is why there are now catacombs within the Church populated by those working in ostensibly Catholic institutions who suffer because of their orthodoxy at the hands of those in positions of authority who are heterodox.


Human yet divine
written by Tom Cabeen, July 22, 2010
In a post-modern, relativistic, pluralistic society, it is increasingly common for us Catholics to think of our religious beliefs and practices as representing one particular perspective out of many, perhaps just as valid as others. We could think of them as having been worked out by a few men (and even fewer women), most of whom lived out of the mainstream, a cloistered existence in the Vatican or some monastery or convent. It takes real faith to see our faith as representing revelations given for our guidance and instruction, and as having the power to free us from sin and bring us into full intimate relationship with God. It is particularly hard because they are administered through imperfect humans. Yet they originate with and are protected by the Triune God. This is exactly what our faith purports to be. May we all embrace it fully and increasingly come under its transforming power. Thanks for the reminder, Father Bramwell!


Personnel is policy
written by Patrick McKinley Brennan, July 22, 2010
Father Bramwell is right -- personnel is policy. To the extent the personnel aren't Catholic, it's not clear what it means to call the institution Catholic. I do believe there are sometimes very good reasons for Catholics to involve non-Catholics in running their Catholic institutions, but those reasons must be carefully articulated and justified. As Fr. Bramwell makes clear, the liberal neutrality model is the kiss of death for authentic Catholic institutions. At the very least, non-Catholics working for Catholic institutions must be deeply committed to supporting what is distinctively Catholic about those institutions; in addition, they must also bring something else that specially enhances the Catholic mission of the institution. To give one example, where I teach (Villanova Law), the serious scholarship of an Orthodox Jew on Jewish law greatly enriches our collective dialogue on law's relationship to religion. I've often told the story of a perverse interview I had some years ago for a position on the law faculty of a (nominally) Catholic university. The dean prodded me to say something about what "Catholic identity" entailed. I resisted, knowing that I was being entrapped. Knowing that I wasn't going to get out alive, I finally capitulated, opening with the careful conditional, "IF you claim to be a Catholic law school . . .", and was interrupted by my interrogator: "But we don't claim to be a 'Catholic law school.' We claim to be a law school in a Catholic university." Surer than ever that the fix was in and was final, I replied: "You have a problem with your Venn diagrams." Needless to say, I didn't get the job. More recently, I have tried to say something constructive about what it means to be a Catholic law school in my essay "Bologna Revisited," which is available at On the Square over on the First Things blog.


Misguided paths heading for a Masonic world view?
written by Mrs. M. Marinoni, July 22, 2010
Thank you for this! I have just finished reading an ex-Mason's explanations of the one world-one religion Masonic cult that appears to have successfully reached into many Catholic institutions and also into the Vatican. I was wondering how much truth is in the assertions and five minutes ago I read your article, so clearly expressed, and all the dots joined up. We have to fight back at our individual level; mine is that of an elderly housewife. At the very least fight with the Rosary, with faithfulness to Holy Mass (protest when your friends describe it as: "Wasn't that a lovely service?"!! Praise your PP when he gets things right but ask for clarification when he shows ambivalence and political correctness in his sermons.


Reasonable Objections
written by Joe, July 22, 2010
In the post-modern era, those in charge wish to be or at least appear to be reasonable. Given a polarity such as secularism on the one side and "fundamentalism" on the other, the contemporary civic leader attempts to find a center position between the poles, a reasonable compromise. A Catholic civic leader who thus promotes abortion because it seems reasonable under the contemporary circumstances is in essence a modern Philistine (some are indeed scribes and a few are Pharasitical). Jesus was very clear about the dangers of being salt that has lost its taste. Faith must be in concert with reason, but it can not contained by reason because too many fundamentals are beyond our intellect. For those mysteries we have revelation, however imperfectly rendered by human transmission. Reason is a toolkit, not a blueprint. Excellent article.

Deeply – or vaguely – Catholic? | 2010

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