Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Editor, Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization
In recent weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has functioned as an icon of the state of American political discourse. The Department of Health and Human Services decision regarding a conscience clause, the reaction of the bishops, and the subsequent change in policy from HSS (still being examined) has exposed a deep divide among my friends. I’ve read posts that critique the American Catholic bishops for maintaining the Church’s teaching on contraception because of the sexual abuse scandal (as best as I can tell, the paradigm of an ad hominem attack). On the other hand, I’ve also encountered images and posts by friends, presenting a triumphalist vision of the Church. One in which the presumption is, the Catholic Church will prevail over her enemies (joyfully at that), including the political powers that have hindered her religious freedom.
For the most part, I’ve read these posts in a state somewhere between bemused and horrified. Bemused because the two sides post articles on Facebook, which receive universal acclaim by only those who already agree with the position they have posted. In this way, it becomes an online self-affirmation session. An episode of Oprah, without the free gift or the book of the month club. Horrified, because each side in the debate seems to delight in the defeat of the other. Not simply in the enactment of political truth–which should be the goal of the process–but of heaping burning coals upon our enemies. The schadenfreude has been vicious on both sides.
So what to do? Initially, I thought I have to get off “the Facebook”. It seems to bring out the worst in other human beings, who have no problem posting the most vicious attacks, without thought of who may be reading on the other end.
On the other hand, my job as director of the Center for Liturgy at Notre Dame makes that a virtual impossibility. There are articles that I must post for our readers, things I must read in order to remain informed about the state of Catholic religious life in the United States.
Happily, Lent might function as a balm for my present predicament. For the remainder of Lent, I am going to fast from suspicion, ideology, and demonization–with hopes that my fast might spread to others.
What does it mean to fast from suspicion? In my doctoral work, there were always students whose whole lives were shaped by suspicion. Every text was read analyzing the subtle “sub-text” underlying it: power, sexual coercion, mystification, etc. Further, every action of the Church was analyzed as a power grab by bishops or priests, who wanted nothing more than to control the lives of laity. No one could have a pure motive. Everything was an issue of power, sexism, racism, clericalism, etc. Of course, if one continues interpreting the world through the lens of suspicion, eventually, the whole world begins to look darker, every action more suspicious. Every human being on this earth becomes a potential opponent, who is operating according to a hidden discourse meant to subject you to his or her rule.
To fast from suspicion is to cease presuming the worst regarding others. To cease analyzing the world according to the structures of power and control alone, and to assume the best on the part of each “text” you read, each “person” you encounter. I stand with the bishops on the recent HSS decision, both theologically and politically. But, I put the state of my soul in jeopardy by looking at those who disagree with me as political ideologues and pagans. I shape a world so dark, so infected by sinfulness, that I become unable to perceive the possibility of grace breaking in even here. Thus, to fast from suspicion is to take up a lens of love, even for one’s political enemy.
This brings me to the second point: ideology. After a number of recent encounters with more progressive Catholics, who treated me as an unsophisticated troglodyte, my first reaction was “I must become a conservative, perhaps I’ll even register with the Republican party.” The danger of the contemporary political scene is precisely this move, the move toward an ideology. But, the problem with ideology is that is warps religious tradition itself. Catholic teaching, for example, is radically un-Republican and un-Democratic. It does not despise every action of big government, nor for that matter does it presume that government always acts out of a sense of the common good. Ideology disables the religious person from living out of the full depths of his or her religious tradition.
Of course, ideology can also function internally within a religious tradition itself. As a Catholic who strives to reside in the precarious “middle”, I’ve met “progressive” Catholics who are incapable of perceiving the fallacies of their positions, precisely because they have adopted a series of universal, progressive principals for interacting with the world. Likewise, I’ve encountered “traditional” Catholics, who are so dismissive of anyone from the generation(s) of the 60s-80s, that they actually fall out of the practice of love into hatred.
To fast from ideology then is to return to the depths of the particularities of the religious tradition. In my case, it will include ceasing to use such terms as “conservative” and “liberal” at all relative to Catholics (after the previous paragraph). These terms have been adopted from a political discourse that is ultimately antithetical to Catholicism itself. Catholics aren’t liberal, they aren’t conservative–but they should be holy. They should be saints. This is a very different logic than political theory.
Lastly, this Ash Wednesday, I seek to fast from demonization. As a theologian in the Church, there are theological positions that I simply disagree with. As someone involved in liturgy, there are music/liturgical practices/approaches to inculturation that I view as detrimental to the Church. And, fasting from suspicion and ideology does not mean that I must become a pragmatic, presuming that all truth is the result of democratic practices of conversation. I believe there are truths to be discovered, and I’m willing to argue about them (I’ve always been a poor postmodern).
Simultaneously, as a Catholic who enters into a theological or liturgical argument, I cannot demonize the one I argue with. I cannot hate this person, perceive them as nothing but an obstacle to the truth that I seek to proclaim. To do so is injure the bounds of unity, to operate according to a logic of violence and not love.
It seems here is where we as a society sin most today. In the act of arguing, of disagreement, we harm the dignity of the person we speak to. We vilify them, join in smaller, ideological groups, to tear the opposing person or party apart. Bishop “so-and-so” is attempting to destroy the effects of the Council. Commonweal Catholics are out of touch. We do not seek to understand why “they” think the way that they do.
I imagine if Paul were to write a letter to Christian communities today, this might be what would anger him the most. If the Christians of Corinth ate and drank unto their condemnation because of their treatment of the poor, do we not do likewise when we allow such hatred to reign in our hearts? When we approach the Body and Blood of Christ, the sacrament of unity, in a spirit of total and absolute disunity. When our celebration of the Eucharist itself is no longer about our union with the Triune God but a political action in which we manifest that we are not them.
So, beginning this Ash Wednesday, join me from fasting from suspicion, ideology, and demonization. Perhaps, this too is apart of the Church’s new evangelization, seeking to cultivate genuine love, self-gift, even in the midst of real and substantial disagreement. How much more attractive such a Church would be! How fruitful the Eucharist might become for the life of the Church, if we truly loved one another.