No Comment, Quotation — March 23, 2012, 2:17 pm

Merton: The Distortion of Dogma


It seems a little strange that we [Catholics] are so wildly exercised about the “murder” (and the word is of course correct) of an unborn infant by abortion, or even the prevention of conception which is hardly murder, and yet accept without a qualm the extermination of millions of helpless and innocent adults, some of whom may be Christians and even our friends rather than our enemies. I submit that we ought to fulfill the one without omitting the other.

Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters, p. 38 (letter to Dorothy Day, Dec. 20, 1961).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently set out guidelines under which employers would be required to offer reproductive-health care to women, including coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. The nation’s Catholic bishops reacted with a concerted campaign in opposition, adopting the language of persecution and victimhood. The church, they asserted, was being forced to provide services it condemned as unethical and immoral. When President Obama pulled back from the initial proposal by stating that insurers would be required to provide such services, but that employers who objected—such as the Catholic Church and its social and health-care-service organizations—would not, the bishops continued their opposition. Their leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York argued that the government’s move was “an unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion into the integrity of the church, the internal life of the church.” He delivered a homily that was a thinly veiled appeal for Catholics to support the G.O.P. at the polls; Cardinal Francis George of Chicago issued a similarly political pastoral letter.

These developments occur just as Europe has been rocked by yet another scandal involving sexually motivated barbarism by Catholic clerics—this one related to the castration of young men in the Netherlands in the Fifties. Moreover, Americans, and particularly American Catholics, have adopted an increasingly hostile view toward the attitudes of church fathers on sexual matters. The hierarchy is seen as virulently homophobic, despite its likely being heavily populated with homosexuals, its unconscionable behavior in covering up cases of sexual exploitation involving priests, and its misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women. Catholic candidates who seem close to the views of the hierarchy, like Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, don’t actually garner much support from American Catholics—many in fact mistake him for an evangelical Protestant based on his rhetoric. With elections just around the corner, it looks like another culture war is heating up, but this time the political dynamics seem weighted against the bishops.

The term “culture war” is used by Americans today to refer to a political strategy honed by the G.O.P. starting in the Seventies of appealing to religious conservatives by spotlighting such issues as gay marriage, abortion, and contraception use. However, the term relates back to the Kulturkampf of the nineteenth century, adopted by Otto von Bismarck to help Protestant Prussia “digest” the recently acquired majority-Catholic provinces of the Rhineland and Westphalia. Bismarck’s campaign included the Kanzelparagraph or “pulpit article”, which provided for the criminal prosecution of any Catholic priest who dared to discuss political matters from the pulpit—a step designed to block the Catholic hierarchy from pressing reactionary political views on their flocks. The judgment of subsequent historians is fairly clear, however: Bismarck lost the Kulturkampf. He overplayed his hand, and the Catholic hierarchy proved more than his equal in striking back. They threw their weight behind the Center Party (Zentrum), the forerunner of the modern Christian Democrats—the party of chancellors Angela Merkel, Conrad Adenauer, and Helmut Kohl, in fact the dominant party of modern German politics. The current Pope, Joseph Ratzinger—a former archbishop of Munich and Freising, and the man who has more than any other shaped the current politics of the Catholic Church—must be understood as a grandchild of the Kulturkampf, a man who insists that the church’s role should extend to the political world and that the church should not shy away from partisan engagement. In this sense, the Kulturkampf of nineteenth century Germany is linked with the culture war rising in America today.

Thomas Merton’s observations in a letter to the Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day reveal his concern about precisely the kind of posturing we see in recent activism by Catholic prelates. He does not reject Catholic dogma related to abortion and birth control, but he questions why views expressed on these subjects are allowed to drown out other aspects of the church’s doctrine, effectively distorting that doctrine. The obsession with issues of human reproduction, pressed by men who have sworn an oath of celibacy, he suggests, delegitimizes views that might well be accepted as elements of a more comprehensive doctrine manifesting the church’s commitment to life and to the integrity and dignity of the individual.

The wisdom of Merton’s assessment is apparent in polling results today: the community of the faithful has arrived at a different view from the hierarchy. And whatever delusions the hierarchy may entertain, the community in the end constitutes the church. The current campaign risks becoming not just a test of the hierarchy’s leadership capacity, but a demonstration of the untethering of the hierarchy from the body of the church, of their loss of moral authority in the eyes of their erstwhile flock.

Listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s exhilarating and fugue-like double chorale, BWV 50, “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft,” whose text is from Revelation 12:10:

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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