Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Culture Warfare

The culture war is, in my perception, a psychological fact in American Catholic consciousness.  The distinctive sensitivity we have to such an apprehension of our Church is perhaps made most obvious in such situations as Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama as the keynote speaker for its 2009 commencement exercises.  In that episode, many U.S. bishops publicly voiced their opposition (or endorsement) of Obama's visit to the campus, and the collective consciousness of the American Church was swept into side-taking on this particular battlefield within the interminable war between rightist and leftist Catholic cultures.  Many rightists begged for the Vatican to make a public statement denouncing the invitation, while the Vatican's own Osservatore Romano acclaimed the invitation as an opening to dialogue.  The papal household itself responded with silence, which I took to be more an expression of their wise indifference regarding the politicized nature of American Church affairs than a concession to the left wing.  Or, to take another example: the supposed "novelty" introduced by Benedict XVI in including concerns over "life issues" in a "social encyclical."  In what alien parody of a Christian community do we live when the logical connectedness between the spiritual battles fought in protecting the issue of a mother's womb and those waged to stave off hunger and cruel neglect of the poor is considered something courageous and unprecedented? (I am here thinking of NYT columnist Ross Douthat's commendable op-ed on Caritas in veritate.)

In terms of ecclesiology, any self-styled "culture war" can be considered nothing other than a grievous sin and a tragedy.  Never mind trying to advocate a middle position based on "dialogue" or to rally the Church around a pilgrimage back to basic "orthodoxy" - both of these terms, essential to the Church's own self-understanding as Christ's single body composed of plural parts - have been territorialized by one or another faction of the culture war, such that the use of these terms raises a flag in the consciousness of most semi-knowledgable ecclesial observers.  The same goes for other such terms as "tolerance," "compassion," "devotion," "adoration," "tradition," "dogma," "women in the Church," "life," "catechism," etc.  As soon as one of these words or phrases is used, we brace for battle, knowing just what our foes mean by them.

This is what happens in war.  Language is co-opted.  Messages are distorted.  The resulting suspicion is not only the moral failing of individuals, but the distinctive quality of the entire thought worlds into which people are bred.  Warfare quietly, but totally, consumes the entire imagination of those who choose to engage in it - not to mention those who are so constituted as to belligerently, credulously and unthinkingly join in the fight.  Given the power of "culture war" in the American consciousness, it is difficult to find intellectual and spiritual spaces where these categories do not reign.  Where once was unity now reigns little but territorial claims over language, embedded hostility, and the lack of common reference.  When language is militarized, the religious imagination suffers, for it is only a contemplative environment, not a militarized one, that offers human beings the ability to wield the aesthetic and contemplative weapons that build up our species rather than debase it.   Perhaps the most irksome outcome of these conflicts is the the wearisome predictability in the discourse between these two factions.  Any new arguments proffered in the culture wars are simply re-processed instantiations of the party arguments, and we all know that nothing sucks the life and dignity out of human creativity more than partisan propaganda.

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