Monday, March 13, 2006

Questions on Catholic politics of peace, 1965 to present

I confess, I have something of a history for affinities to mad monks.  So it is no surprise that I am so taken with Thomas Merton, now that I am reading him at long last, after many years of saying to myself, "I really ought to read Merton one of these days."

In an email back and forth with a writer-friend this weekend, we were both talking about "how we cope" with the emotional assault of following political news. Neither of us are "news chasers" in our writing--by opting out of the news cycle and choosing to write on broader trends and bigger themes, we both give ourselves the space, and importantly the permission, to limit our personal news consumption.  I realize that to seriously engage in local politics implies a commitment to not just read but dilligently devour local news: my answer for the moment has been to recognize that my health just can not take the strain of a massive exposure to political news, and so to choose instead to disengage temporarily from local politics. 

The other part of "how I cope" with the news that I do read is to counterbalance it with readings in non-violence.  I recently read and greatly appreciated Jaques Levy's "Cesar Chavez, Biography of La Causa." Some of my favourite books which I can read again and again also include all of Pema Chodron's books,  Robert Aitken's Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, and Edward Espe Brown's Tassajara Cookbooks.

How do *you* cope?  And what books do you recommend on the topic of non-violence?

My current reading is "Passion for Peace: The Social Essays," a collection of Merton's essays on non-violence, war, and racism, penned between 1961 and 1968. Don't be surprised if you find some Merton quotes in my posts in the next while.

However, the passage that grabbed me today was not by Merton, but by his editor William Shannon.  In the introduction to Passion for Peace, Shannon writes about Merton's anquish, as an American monk after the Second Vatican council, in his struggle to decide if he should speak out against the violence of war or keep discreetly silent due to monastic obedience:

It is not easy for us to grasp the anquish that this struggle posed for Merton.  It was a new question for a monk, indeed a new question for almost any Christian of the day.  We live at a time when it is not an uncommon thing for Roman Catholics to protest against war and to lobby for peace.  Pax Christi USA has been in existence for more than twenty years.  Many dioceses and parishes in the Roman Catholic Church hav peace and justice committees that are alive and active.  At that time no Catholic priest or bishop--at least none well known--had spoken out against war.  Roman Catholics by and large were a patriotic lot.  I remember a bishop of that time who in a public talk echoes the words of Stephen Decatur, the naval officer in the war of 1812, who said, "Our country . . . may she always be in the right.  But our country, right or wrong." Thirty years ago a Roman Catholic bishop could get away with such a statement. Today such crude nationalism on the part of a bishop would be intolerable, even scandalous.

Now to put that passage into a chronological context, William Shannon wrote that introduction in 11 years ago, in 1995, about the political, social, and religious circumstances around Thomas Merton's life 30 years before.

What struck me was that Shannon's description of the American Catholic church of the 1960's seemed much more familiar to me than the church of the mid 1990's.

I don't pretend to be omnicient (blogging would be much easier if I were), and most of the Catholics I know are fallen-Catholics, not active Catholics (with the notable exception of the handful of remarkable people like John Horesji and Gina Cerasani I met in Northern Virginia who are members of the Catholic social justice group SALT based out of the Arlington parish).  My perceptions of the Catholic church in America therefore are based on reports in the corporate media--where religious issues are generally very poorly reported.  I am hoping that some readers who are actively engaged with the Catholic church can discuss with me the points that Shannon raises from a first hand perspective.

I realize that Pax Christi is still going strong as an active, international movement--but I don't recall ever coming across them in the USA, nor hearing about activities by Pax Christi to oppose the US invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq.  I am guessing that Pax Christi may be more active in Europe than in the US; and also that any activities here are very probably ignored, downplayed or misreported by the corporate media.  Can anyone comment on what Pax Christi USA has been up to in the past 5 years? For that matter, have any prominent American Catholics spoken out against the invasion of Iraq?

I also wonder about the reaction of American Catholics to the partisan behaviour of some bishops in 2004--namely, those bishops such as Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker City, Oregon who made public statements that they would deny communion to John Kerry for his pro-choice political policies.  The church is a church--they can deny to communion to whomever they choose. That's their business. However, I was astounded at the time that the Catholic church would publically profess such a politicized double standard of denying one group of predominantly Democratic candidates communion over abortion policy, and yet ignore just war theory and the teachings of the sermon on the mount to give predominantly Republican candidates a free pass on the aggressive invasion of Iraq.  How did Catholic communities react to the blatant elevation of partisan considerations over spiritual ones?  Have the positions in communities shifted as Bush administration's fraudulent case for making war has come gradually to light and his polling numbers have dropped?  Will we see a repeat of Catholic officials playing partisan politics in the 2006 election cycle?  And what are individual Catholics represented by bishops like Vasa doing about the politicization of their church?

Jingoism always worries me.  And it seems that in the prevailing crude nationalism of 2004, there were few if any stories of Catholics being scandalized by this double standard.  Note I'm not saying there were no stories to report on, but only that the agenda-driven corporate media didn't report any that may have existed. 

Fortunately, we have the blogosphere and we have each other, to tell our own stories, and escape the filter of corporate media.

So I am asking the Catholics among you to educate me.  Does the American Catholic Church of today look more like Shannon's church of 1995, or Merton's church of 1965?  What are the stories does the corporate media ignore that you'd like to tell?  And what is going on out there?

I ask out of a genuine personal interest and I appreciate any replies you'd care to share.

For further reading on public-policy issues related to Catholic moral teaching, and a comparison of John F. Kennedy and John Kerry as Catholic politicans running for president, I recommend Religion and politics: battling over Kerry’s Catholic credentials by First Amendment Center senior scholar Richard Haynes.

On a related note, in 2004 Republicans in congress were trying to remove the IRS barriers to church involvement in political campaigns by watering down IRS rules that keep churches from endorsing or opposing candidates.  Has anyone kept tabs on what happened to that effort?

Likewise, in 2004 Americans United for Separation of Church and State called for an IRS investigation of Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, charging that his pastoral letter calling for the Eucharist to be denied not only to Catholic politicians who “stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia,” but also to any Catholic who would vote for them, had a “partisan political intent” designed to win votes for Republican candidates.  Does anyone know what happened to this story?

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