Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame

A War of Words That Folds Neatly into the New Century's War of Weapons

President Obama goes to Notre Dame University this Sunday to deliver
the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, the ninth U.S.
president to be so honored. The event has stirred up a hornet's nest of
conservative Catholics, with more than 40 bishops objecting, and
hundreds of thousands of Catholics signing petitions in protest. In the
words of South Bend's Bishop John M. D'Arcy, the complaint boils down
to President Obama's "long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as
sacred." Notre Dame, the bishop charged, has chosen "prestige over

Not even most Catholics agree with such criticism. A recent Pew
poll, for instance, shows that 50% of Catholics support Notre Dame's
decision to honor Obama; little more than one-quarter oppose. It is,
after all, possible to acknowledge the subtle complexities of "life"
questions -- When actually does human life begin? How is stem cell
research to be ethically carried out? -- and even to suggest that they
are more complex than most Catholic bishops think, without thereby
"refusing to hold human life as sacred."

For many outside the ranks of conservative religious belief, this
dispute may seem arcane indeed. Since it's more than likely that the
anti-Obama complainers were once John McCain supporters, many observers
see the Notre Dame flap as little more than mischief by Republicans who
still deplore the Democratic victory in November. Given the ways in
which the dispute can be reduced to the merely parochial, why should
Americans care?

Medievalism in Our Future?

In fact, the crucial question that underlies the flap at Notre Dame
has enormous importance for the unfolding twenty-first century: Will
Roman Catholicism, with its global reach, including more than a billion
people crossing every boundary of race, class, education, geography,
and culture, be swept into the rising tide of religious fundamentalism?

Those Catholics who regard a moderate progressive like Barack Obama as
the enemy -- despite the fact that his already unfolding social and
health programs, including support for impoverished women, will do more
to reduce the number of abortions in America than the glibly pro-life
George W. Bush ever did -- have so purged ethical thought of any
capacity to draw meaningful distinctions as to reduce religious faith
to blind irrationality. They have so embraced a spirit of sectarian
intolerance as to undercut the Church's traditional catholicity, adding
fuel to the spreading fire of religious contempt for those who depart
from rigidly defined orthodoxies. They are resurrecting the lost cause
of religion's war against modernity -- a war of words that folds neatly
into the new century's war of weapons.

the Catholic reactionaries succeed in dominating their church, a
heretofore unfundamentalist tradition, what would follow? The triumph
of a strain of contemporary Roman Catholicism that rejects pluralism,
feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism,
historically-minded theology, and the scientific method as applied to
sacred texts would only exacerbate alarming trends in world
Christianity as a whole, and at the worst of times. This may especially
be so in the nations of the southern hemisphere where Catholicism sees
its future. It's there that proselytizing evangelical belief,
Protestant and Catholic both, is spreading rapidly. Between 1985 and
2001, for example, Catholic membership increased in Africa by 87%, in
Europe by 1%.

In their shared determination to restore the medieval European
Catholicism into which they were born, Popes John Paul II and Benedict
XVI became inadvertent avatars of the new Catholic fundamentalism, a
fact reflected in the character of the bishops they appointed to run
the Church, so many of whom now find President Obama to be a threat to
virtue. The great question now is whether this defensive,
pre-Enlightenment view of the faith will maintain a permanent grip on
the Catholic imagination. John Paul II and Benedict XVI may be
self-described apostles of peace, yet if this narrow aspect of their
legacy takes hold, they will have helped to undermine global peace, not
through political intention, but deeply felt religious conviction.

Something to Cheer

No one can today doubt that the phenomenon of "fundamentalism" is
having an extraordinary impact on our world. But what precisely is it?
Some fundamentalists pursue openly political agendas in, for instance,
Northern Ireland, Israel, and Iran. Some like Latin American
Pentecostals are apolitical. In war zones like Sudan, Afghanistan,
Palestine, and Sri Lanka, fundamentalism is energizing conflict. Most
notably, after the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003, the
insurgent groups there jelled around fundamentalist religion, and their
co-extremists are now carrying the fight, terrifyingly, in the
direction of the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. Catholic fundamentalists
in the U.S. are far from being terrorists, but an exclusionary,
intolerant, militant true belief is on display this week in their
rallying to denounce President Obama in Indiana.

Obviously, these manifestations are so varied as to resist being
defined by one word in the singular, which is why scholars of religion
prefer to speak of "fundamentalisms." But they all do have something in
common, and it is
dangerous. The impulse toward fundamentalism may begin with fine
intentions: the wish to affirm basic values and sources of meaning
which seem threatened. Rejecting any secular claims to replace the
sacred as the chief source of meaning, all fundamentalisms are
skeptical of Enlightenment values, even as the Enlightenment project
has developed its own mechanisms of self-criticism. But the discontents
of modernity are only the beginning of the problem.

Now "old time religion" of whatever stripe faces a plethora of
threats: new technologies, a shaken world economy, rampant
individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility -- all that makes for
twenty-first century life. The shock of the unprecedented can involve
not only difficulty, but disaster. And fundamentalisms will especially
thrive wherever there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark
poverty. This is so simply because these religiously absolute movements
promise meaning where there is no meaning. For all these reasons,
fundamentalisms are everywhere.

In contemporary Roman Catholicism, whose deep traditions include the
very intellectual innovations that gave rise to modernity --
Copernicus, after all, was a priest -- Catholic fundamentalists are
more likely to be called "traditionalists." They are galvanized now
around the moral complexities of "life," at a time when the very
meaning of human reproduction is being upended by technical innovation,
and once-unthinkable medical and genetic breakthroughs are transforming
the meaning of death as well.

Like other fundamentalists, they are attuned to the dark consequences
of the Enlightenment assumptions implied in such developments, from the
Pandora's Box opened by science unconnected to morality to the
grotesque inequities that follow from industrialization and, more
recently, globalization. Where others celebrate new information
technologies, traditionalists, even while using those technologies,
warn of the coarsening of culture, the destruction of privacy, and,
especially, threats to the family. In nothing more than its emphasis on
a rigorous and comprehensive sexual ethic -- anti-feminist, radically
pro-life, contemptuous of homosexuality -- does this brand of
Catholicism echo a broader fundamentalism.

In the immediate aftermath of the liberalizing Second Vatican Council
(1962-1965), Catholic traditionalists, with their attachment to the
Latin Mass, fiddle-back vestments, clerical supremacy, and the entire
culture of the Counter-Reformation, were rebels. That was why the
anti-Council sect, the Lefebrites, including the notorious Holocaust
denier Bishop Richard Williamson, was excommunicated in 1988.

Today, as indicated by Pope Benedict's lifting of that excommunication,
the Vatican is the sponsor of such anti-liberal rebels. Instead of
reading the Bible uncritically, as Protestant fundamentalists do,
Catholic traditionalists read Papal statements that way. To affirm the
eternal validity of prior Papal statements, as in the case of the
on-going Papal condemnation of "artificial birth control,"
traditionalists willingly sacrifice common sense and honesty.

If the Catholic Church is as opposed to abortion as it claims, why has
it not embraced the single most effective means of reducing abortion
rates, which is birth control? The answer, alas, is evident: the
overriding issue for Catholic fundamentalists is not sexual morality,
or even "life," but papal authority. As Protestant fundamentalists
effectively make an idol of biblical texts, Catholic fundamentalists,
in obedience to the Vatican, make an idol of the papacy.

When it comes to Notre Dame, ironically, American Catholic
fundamentalists, including the bishops leading the charge against
Obama's appearance, are not going to be backed up by the Vatican. In
Rome, a tradition of realpolitik
tempers the fundamentalist urge of the current establishment. The
highest Church authorities have long been accustomed to putting issues
of theological purity second to the exigencies of state power.

So, no insults of the American president will be coming from the
Vatican this weekend, and its silence on the Notre Dame controversy
will speak more clearly than any official statement on the subject
might. Indeed, the long history of Roman Catholicism, where Puritanism
has steadily lost out to robust earthiness, and doctrinal rigidity has
regularly bent before the pressures of lived experience, is itself
reason to think that Notre Dame University has found the truest
Catholic response to the world's present moment: its brave decision to
honor President Barack Obama.

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