Sunday, May 17, 2009

Anti-abortion as the Catholic marker?

Most of us understand the Catholic Faith as something eminently positive. It is not something defined primarily by what it is against, but by what it promotes: Christ and His teaching. Yet one of our correspondents has raised a serious and interesting question concerning whether this is truly the case in our public life, and what that might mean:
I have often been struck by the fact that the ONLY thing that really unifies conservative Catholics, the only thing on which there is holy indignation, is a negative: abortion.

Now this from Joseph Bottum, "Catholic Culture and the Notre Dame Protests" (First Things, May 15, 2009):
... the whole mess at Notre Dame reveals itself as a fight over Catholic culture. The protesters are certainly a minority among self-identified Catholics, but they are also the wire through which the most current is flowing in American Catholicism today. “Opposition to abortion doesn’t stand at the center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t even stand at the center of Catholic faith,” I noted in the Weekly Standard. Still, at the current moment, “Opposition to abortion is the signpost at the intersection of Catholicism and American public life.”

Should it be so? Catholic theology would be peculiar if it had at its root a negation rather than an affirmation. Catholic faith would be unreal if at its deepest heart lay opposition to abortion rather than embrace of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to travel far in theology or faith to arrive at knowledge of the absolute evil of abortion, but neither theology nor faith properly begin there.

Still, Catholic culture—and the Catholic intersection with the princes and powers of earth—must always be adversarial in some ways. We have in this world no perfect home, and if right now the adversarial element is expressing itself most forcefully in opposition to abortion, then the culture of the faithful is manifesting something that deserves respect—something that deserves agreement.

To this kind of claim, my friend, the conservative Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen,recently responded, “The singular focus upon abortion as the issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence.”

That’s right—and yet, it isn’t. The key word here is robust. I’ve been fascinated recently by the odd and interesting ways in which, it appears to me, an attempt is being made to use homeschooling as a replacement for the devices that used to transmit Catholic culture, among those most hungry for the existence of such a culture. What will come of that is hard to say.

Still, for the moment, at least, opposition to abortion remains the clear marker of the public presence of what Catholic culture exists. And as I wrote in “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”:
For the development of a new Catholicism, this doesn’t look the most-promising start. Rich local cultures may produce great works, but few people in the United States have that kind of cultural wealth anymore. Certainly not many Catholics. The number of Americans who grew up in a profoundly Catholic setting is smaller than it ever has been before—which creates a problem for a new culture. If Catholicism is something elected rather than received, can Catholics achieve what earlier cultures did?

Their children, perhaps, will come from a thick-enough world that they can write the kind of strong Catholic novels, make the kind of strong Catholic art, prior ages knew. But in the meantime, a rebellion against rebellion doesn’t escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.
A robust Catholic culture? No, not yet. Not by a long shot. But the people who are upset by Notre Dame’s honoring of a strong supporter of legalized abortion—they’re serious, and they’re on the ground, and they’re deeply moved by a genuinely Catholic principle, and they’re what we have.

Besides, they’re right.
[Hat tip to J.M.]

Of related interest:

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