“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms occur.”

—Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

On April 14, 2012, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, speaking from a pulpit surrounded by flowers, a cross, and the American flag, issued a “Call to Catholic Men of Faith” to defend their faith and country. To the congregation he recounted how “the enemies of Christ have certainly tried their best” to destroy the church over the centuries: Roman oppression, barbarian invasions, “wave after wave of jihads,” the modern, homicidal tyrannies of Nazism and communism. Catholics today who believed the church was secure in the United States were mistaken; indeed, Jenky roared, a legion of malevolence had gathered against the faithful, armed with “the hatred of Hollywood, the malice of the media, and the mendacious wickedness of the abortion industry.” This army of Satan was led by none other than President Barack Obama, demonically imposing the “radical, proabortion, and extreme secularist agenda” exemplified in the Health and Human Services mandate requiring insurance-subsidized contraception for employees of religious institutions.

It’s worth noting that Bishop Jenky left the church that day unmolested—no police or National Guardsmen burst in to cart him off to Guantánamo. No churches have been invaded, locked, or razed; no priest has been forced to bless same-sex unions, nor have Catholic hospitals been compelled to perform abortions, or even to dispense a single condom. The only inconvenience Jenky has suffered—protected by a First Amendment that has yet to be suspended by executive order—is ridicule.

And not enough of it. Far from pointing out the absurdity of comparing Obama to Attila, Hitler, and Stalin, other prominent Catholics have piled on. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has warned of Obama’s impending “despotism.” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has equated our Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of worship with that of the former Soviet Union. Others have compared the mandate to the persecution of priests in Mexico in the 1920s under left-wing general Plutarco Calles. The Evangelical author Eric Metaxas—whose fine biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicates that he ought to know better—invoked the rise of the Nazis. Speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, both encapsulated and stirred up the prevailing hysteria in asserting that “never in the life of anyone present here has the religious liberty of the American people been threatened as it is today.”

Why are shepherds of the American flock and their allies saying such preposterous things? It sometimes appears that the ancien régime of the American Church is fighting its impending senescence. Having lost much of their moral authority in the sexual-abuse scandal, the bishops have staked what remains on fighting perceived threats to religious liberty. Caught in a great historical transition in which church authority has eroded on every front, many conservative prelates and lay Catholics exhibit an array of morbid symptoms: lurid fantasies of sexual pandemonium; paranoid delusions of cultural conspiracy and government persecution; and ugly outbursts of rage at a world they no longer understand, control, or can persuade. Ashamed of the ecclesial present, the bishops seem transfixed by venerable memories of power and eminence.

While utterly forgettable on their own merits, four recently published books by prominent Catholics make for a pathology of reactionary Catholic modernism. Blending myths of the 1950s with fables of that Greatest of Centuries, the thirteenth, they reveal the panic of conservative Catholics, terrified by the waning of the American Age and the twilight of an authoritarian church, retreating to the kitschy redoubt of a suburban medievalism. 

 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of course, is president of the USCCB and the most prominent Catholic prelate in America. Primus inter pares among the bishops, in person he’s hale, ruddy, and convivial, the very avatar of Irish bonhomie. His arrival in New York in 2009 sparked hope that a new face might rejuvenate a church seen as rigid, irascible, and sclerotic. But the bloom quickly faded from the Irish rose, as it soon became clear that those pink cheeks concealed a spirit of granite orthodoxy. While no one expected Dolan to support gay marriage, many were dismayed when he dismissed it as little more than a “chic cause.” And as the HHS mandate imbroglio grew more vitriolic, he made even more outrageous remarks, at one point wailing that the White House is “strangling” the Catholic Church.

DolanDolan is more careful in True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty (Image Kindle edition, $0.99, 160 pp.) and A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation with John L. Allen, Jr. (Image, $25, 256 pp.). At first glance there’s much in these books that any Catholic, indeed any sensitive and reasonable person, could affirm. It’s not reactionary, but grimly prophetic, to assert that we inhabit a “culture of death”—though I wish Dolan and other conservatives would cite militarism, as well as abortion, in their diagnosis of this culture. There is indeed “a loss of a sense of truth and objective moral norms”—though I’d contend that business schools and the State Department are the worst culprits in this regard. And yes, our culture and politics are degraded by “pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism”—though all three are virtues of capitalism, the insatiable Mammon against which the bishops have nothing but moral bromides to offer.

Abjuring such complexities, Dolan maintains that the evils he lists arise from an improper understanding of “genuine freedom.” True freedom, he argues, is not the lack of restraint on our ability to do what we want—not, that is, the liberal conception of unfettered personal autonomy. True freedom rather is “the license to do what we ought.” This view depends on an Aristotelian-Thomist, teleological conception of human nature, in which freedom is not an end in itself but rather a servant of our flourishing. Given this definition of freedom, conservative fears about the loss of “liberty” make sense—since gay marriage and contraceptives enable us to do what we want and not what we ought. 

Like other conservatives, Dolan doesn’t consider sufficiently the tyrannical implications of such a view of liberty, one being that the state can force us to be “free” by compelling us to do what we ought. But the fundamental problem with doing “what we ought” is that we don’t all agree on what we ought. In other words, we don’t all agree on the conception of human nature that freedom is supposed to foster. Leave aside that Americans of different religious persuasions (or of none) don’t agree; Catholics themselves don’t all agree—and that goes a long way toward explaining why Dolan and his fellow bishops are so apoplectic about “religious liberty.” The galling truth is that many American Catholics—perhaps a majority—do not fully share the bishops’ view of what constitutes the fulfillment of human nature. They do not believe that same-sex intercourse and the use of contraceptives are “unnatural,” and therefore do not see gay marriage or contraceptive coverage as threats to religious liberty.

Of course many laity are dissenting from the magisterium, and doing so in part because the bishops’ credibility has been so drastically diminished. We all know why; there’s no need to belabor the sexual-abuse scandal with its record of episcopal obfuscation and self-pity, or before that the damage done by Humanae vitae. Although Dolan acknowledges the disenchantment in the pews, he’s clearly impatient with the subject. Bishops, he tells John L. Allen Jr., have to “get over this sense of being gun-shy” in the wake of all the revelations. Conceding that he and his colleagues must speak with “graciousness, and a sense of contrition,” he adds that “we have to mean it.” But do they really mean it? The impression of many attentive Catholics is that they’d rather pound the crosier on the floor. Dolan himself insists on “the uniquely normative value of the magisterium of the bishops,” as though that “value” remains self-evident.

There are excellent reasons to find the bishops’ recent dudgeon unconvincing. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed plenty of outrages to human dignity in this country: the official legitimation of torture and assassination; the prosecution of a war condemned by not one but two popes; the growing attacks on governmental support and compassion for the destitute, often under cover of “subsidiarity.” The bishops’ responses to these outrages have been muted at best. Why so little prophetic ardor to battle these iniquities? Why no “fortnights for dignity” to rally the faithful against state-sponsored violence abroad? Or haven’t the bishops noticed that the United States has been at war for the better part of the past twenty years?

Dolan’s books suggest a prelate too deeply immersed in the sanctity of America’s civil religion to answer such questions. Sounding like a kinder, gentler version of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, he performs a star-spangled rendition of our covenant theology. “America is at its best,” he remarks to Allen, “when religion has a place at the table.” When opposing gay marriage and abortion, he says, “we’re speaking as Americans…on the basis of fundamental American values.” Here Dolan comes close to urging us to worship what Mark Noll once dubbed “America’s God”—the deity who compels us to speak not as Christians, but as congregants of the church called America. But as an academically trained church historian, Dolan surely knows that what is worshiped in this church is liberal freedom, personal autonomy, and choice. As Stanley Hauerwas perceptively reminds us in War and the American Difference, “America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death”; as unregulated accumulators and consumers of ever-expanding wealth, Americans share nothing in common “other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.” Hence the insatiable need for riches and for domination over the planet—an ascendency any champion of “true liberty” should contemplate with dread, sorrow, and outrage. Until Dolan and other Catholic defenders of “liberty” renounce their adherence to America’s God, their philippics against the culture of death cannot and should not be taken seriously.

 

Where Dolan speaks as an imperial cleric, Carl Anderson appeals to the Wisdom of the People. In Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street, and the Media (Doubleday, $9.99, 160 pp.), Anderson claims that “the elites” are “out of touch” with “the people,” and that the common sense of ordinary folks should prevail over greed and decadence. It’s the perennial bray of populism, an easy sell in America, where the civil religion has an economic theology that merges Christianity and capitalism: the gilded concordat of God and Mammon, the fantasy that community can thrive on the foundations of capitalist property. Though patented by Puritans and Evangelical Protestants, this gospel of economic prosperity has its contemporary Catholic evangels: Michael Novak, the Eusebius of corporate plutocracy, and Fr. Robert A. Sirico, whose Acton Institute is the horrid love-child of Thomas Aquinas and Ayn Rand.

As for Anderson, like many a tribune for the Hard-Workin’ Folks, he turns out to be no ordinary guy. In addition to presiding over the Knights of Columbus—long a nexus of petty-bourgeois moral economy and American nationalism—he’s a board member of the Vatican Bank, sits on several Pontifical Councils, and is a knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, an enclave of papal chivalry devoted to “faith, family, and property.” This knight-errant of the church is also no stranger to the Beltway: Anderson served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, worked as a public liaison for the Reagan Administration, and was a legislative assistant to Senator Jesse Helms, notorious race-baiter, gay-basher, and defender of Latin American fascists. In short, he’s a player, and during his tenure the Knights have marched more frequently and aggressively into public affairs than ever before, including spending tens of millions to assist the bishops in opposing gay marriage in both the United States and Canada.

His book, a tedious compendium of stats and platitudes, offers an extended gloss on the Moral Compass Project, a survey conducted by the Knights in tandem with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. (It also incorporates data gleaned from Gallup, Pew, Rasmussen, and Zogby polls.) Clichés such as “moral compass,” “stand shoulder to shoulder,” “tapestry of American life,” and “greatest nation in history” carry forward what passes for the book’s argument. According to Anderson, Americans believe that politics, business, and the media should reflect “the moral consensus of the American people.” And what is this “moral consensus”? The perennial bourgeois package, pretty much: faith in some religion, fidelity in marriage, hard work, education, and a belief in “personal success.” In light of this consensus, politicians should end their “partisan bickering” and “work together,” displaying “values-based leadership” and forsaking “special interests” to govern with “the common good” in mind. Got that? As for the People, they don’t favor “more regulation” of business, Anderson claims; rather, businesspeople merely need to be “less greedy” and more “moral,” working to give us “capitalism with a conscience.” “There is almost no support for the sort of personal greed that can leave our brothers and sisters stranded and in need,” Anderson reports with satisfaction.

But what about the sort of greed that doesn’t apparently leave our brothers and sisters stranded and in need? Does such a thing exist? And what constitutes being “stranded and in need”? Asking people to dilate on those distinctions would have made for a much more illuminating study—but at risk of revealing just how specious this “moral consensus” really is. No one thinks of himself as greedy, after all; greed is Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, not me and my family’s McMansion. Enveloped in righteousness and domesticity, the American Dream has always been the dream of avarice in softer focus. It never occurs to Anderson—or to other populists, right or left—that the American “moral consensus” might be the problem, not the solution; that “gridlock” paralyzes Washington because it grips the country at large; and that the shabbiness of the elites is a faithful reflection of the shabbiness of the People.

Don’t the “People” share responsibility for the nation’s problems? The same People who complain about “bickering” politicians routinely return them to office; they whine about deficits and bailouts, yet oppose any taxes to pay for the wars they’re so easily duped into supporting—or for the programs whose largesse many of them don’t even realize they enjoy. According to Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, 53 percent of student loan recipients, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients believe that they “have not used a government social program”!

This is just as well for Anderson, since for him talking about “morality” is a way of not talking about the structures of economic power. Funny, how morality-talk always seems to dovetail so gracefully with liberal individualism, that sacred conviction that you are the master of your destiny. Catholics used to be good at seeing through such ideological ruses, but nowadays—as Cardinal George once observed—most American Catholics are “culturally Calvinist.” For now, they’re paid-up devotees of the self-justifying covenant theology; but as the globalized economy continues to stumble and lurch, the number of heretics from the holy consensus might well multiply.

 

No fewer than four princes of the church, meanwhile, have put their seals of approval on William Donohue’s Why Catholicism Matters: How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century (Image, $22.99, 293 pp.) Archbishop Dolan blurbs it as “fresh and compelling,” affirmative of everything “good, noble, and uplifting.” The Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem—a personage otherwise known as Cardinal Edwin O’Brien—declares himself “personally grateful.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., lauds Donohue as a “preeminent voice defending the church.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia marvels at the author as triple-threat: “a scrapper,” “gifted scholar,” and “thoughtful, vivid, and compelling writer.” And lay accolades come from Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard, who hails Donohue as a “treasure” and praises his book as “a gem.”

These imprimaturs are depressing, as Donohue’s career has been an unmitigated disgrace. President of the Catholic League, he’s one of the most visible faces of the faith—and what a rancorous scowl it is. Donohue blustered onto the public stage in the 1990s with diatribes against “pornography” and “anti-Catholicism” in the arts. His targets were minor artifacts of postmodern titillation: Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic portraiture, Karen Finley’s chocolate body-smearing, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Such pretentious ephemera issued from an art world running out of things with which to épater les bourgeois, but Donohue elevated them to world-historical importance. Fearful, apparently, that a church of two millennia could be felled by a crucifix dipped in urine, he scourged “the cultural elite” and its “radical secular agenda.” Rumbling onward from there, he enlarged his ambit of outrage to include lesbians, gays, bisexuals, sexual-abuse victims, feminists, liberal Catholics, and “secular Jews.”

Considered by many a knight of the faith, he’s in fact little more than a pious bully fueled with a seemingly limitless supply of high-octane bile. Abuse victims in his view are nothing but “gold diggers” and a “pitiful bunch of malcontents.” And if it’s not the gays or “radical feminists” who are running around ruining things, it’s the Jews. During the 2004 furor over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Donohue observed that “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.” Against these and any other antagonists he is ever ready to hit back. Writing in Catalyst, the Catholic League’s periodical, he has boasted that “we specialize in public embarrassment of public figures who have earned our wrath.”

Why do bishops and other conservatives applaud such malice and paranoia? The most likely answer is that it faithfully represents what they truly think and feel. Though the manner Donohue displays in Why Catholicism Matters is plausibly civil and buttoned-up, beneath it he remains the aggressive and impolite id of conservative Catholicism. The book brims with longing for the pristine world destroyed by the 1960s, when the floodgates of moral pestilence opened and a deluge of vice poured forth. “Moral anarchy is cresting,” Donohue writes ominously—by which he means, mainly, more people are having sex without wedding rings or fear of unwanted pregnancy. (He mentions avarice and warfare occasionally, but since capitalism is good and American wars are always just, he’s not really all that concerned.) He would return us to the time before feminists, gays, professors, and community organizers ruined everything: the world in which men ruled as benevolent patriarchs, nuns wore habits and deferred to the clergy, blacks didn’t whine about racism, and queers stayed in their guilt-ridden closets. “Let’s turn the clock back to the 1950s,” Donohue pines unashamedly.

Such nostalgia is widespread among these writers. Cardinal Dolan strolls rapturously down memory lane as well. Recalling his childhood to John Allen, he evokes the pleasures of coming home from school to a cup of Mom’s cocoa and chatting with Dad as he drank a beer. “It was all coherent, wasn’t it?” Dolan says. “It all blended together.” This was life “the way it was supposed to be, the way that Christopher Dawson speaks about Christendom in the Middle Ages—a kind of seamless, complete way of life that, at its best, felt more like a warm blanket than a choke collar.”

And there you have it, the mythic core of conservative Catholicism revealed: the conflation of a fabled suburban domesticity with a fabricated Middle Ages. Must we still remind people that the ranch-house mystique Dolan cherishes was a historically contingent, mainly white ideal that made millions of people—especially women—unhappy? Or that medieval Christendom was no “seamless” way of life, but rather a structure of fealty held together by a forcibly established church and riven by class struggle and incessant warfare, not to mention innumerable popular heresies and theological disputes?

Like other middle-aged right-wing fabulists—and like younger, earnest Catholics understandably confused and terrified by the maelstrom of the present—Donohue, Dolan, and Anderson desire a church untouched by recent history and a gospel that hovers in serene judgment far above the evanescence of time. But, crucially, they also want a church and gospel that can thrive in liberal, profoundly individualist America. Donohue’s potted history is an example. While polemically idealizing the Middle Ages (the Crusades, he asserts, were legitimate self-defense against Muslim jihads, and it was the secular authorities, not the clerical Inquisitors, who did all the torturing and killing of heretics), Donohue also celebrates the Founding Fathers and the lineage of possessive individualism. Catholicism, he contends, offers the “right recipe” for a good society, but it’s “hard to improve” on the “preamble to the U.S. Constitution.” The Founders, after all, “got human nature right”; they recognized “the need for religion in a free society” and laid the foundations for the nation’s moral improvement to boot: slavery, after all, succumbed to natural law as “espoused by John Locke, and made evident by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.”

I won’t even begin untangling this bit of sophistry, but the appeal to the liberal tradition is revealing, for it suggests that what our authors really want, even if they’d angrily deny it, is a right-wing—and Catholic—modernity, a misshapen hybrid of capitalist economics and patriarchal benevolence underwritten by outmoded conceptions of gender and natural law. They espouse what historian Jeffrey Herf once dubbed “reactionary modernism”: an embrace of economic and technological modernity coupled with a rejection of cultural liberalism and Enlightenment rationality. Enchanted both by the Middle Ages and by the mythic American domesticity of the suburban sublime, conservative Catholics are thoroughly modern, however long and loudly they bewail modernity’s godless, prodigal spirit.

Reactionary modernism has long been a populist phenomenon, romanticizing “the people” as a bulwark of common sense and tradition. Hence Bishop Jenky’s chintzy ensemble of flowers, cross, and flag; and hence the brazen, hysterical bray of panic at alleged attacks on “religious liberty.” When nostalgia no longer rejuvenates, there comes the desperate strategy of appealing to the wisdom of the American “moral consensus,” as Carl Anderson claims to discern it in his pentecost of focus groups. There is substantial reason to doubt that this consensus exists: more than half of all American Catholics favored the HHS mandate, and 60 percent believed that all employers, religious or not, should pay for contraceptive coverage. While the bishops protest at escalating decibel levels, their strictures and warnings about “liberty” are falling on ever-more skeptical or indifferent ears.

It’s true that no cogent successor has emerged to supplant these authors’ hybrid of American triumphalism and Catholic traditionalism; Catholics less tethered to religious and nationalistic nostalgia have yet to make a credible case to their brethren. Only the fullness of time will disclose whether such a case gets made. As for the reactionary modernists, these mandarins of despair are correct to fret about the passing of their historical era. The old order they embody may fight on, but its condition is terminal.

Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: 

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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