Political Culture: Hell Week for Catholics

Written by Current Events, DVD Reviews, Political Culture

When the long-awaited, religiously incendiary sequel to The Da Vinci Code arrives in theaters and the anticipated uproar is reduced to a low roar, you know it’s gotta be a rough week for the Catholic Church.

The church’s most dedicated followers of dogma have bigger post-Lenten fish to fry at the moment than the debut of a film – even if that film is Angels & Demons, an anticipated blockbuster that features a poisoned pope, kidnapped cardinals, a threat to annihilate the Vatican, and a secret Catholic sect as the presumed bad guys. No, the threat posed to the church by another Dan Brown-Tom Hanks-Richie Cunningham collaboration is nothing next to the menace of abortion-rights infidel Barack Obama receiving an honorary doctorate from Catholicism’s most prominent academic outpost this weekend.

Venerable South Bend, Indiana, had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere nearly a week before Obama addresses Notre Dame graduates on Sunday. It’s entirely likely that the number of antiabortion protesters on hand this weekend will dwarf the 2,600 graduates in attendance – and the demonstrators already include such revered figures as never-elected-to-anything Alan Keyes and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry.

Randall Terry!!! Who exhumed that guy? Anyway, if Terry’s in the house you know the show is going to be classy – and true to form, throughout the week somebody’s been paying for a plane to be flown over South Bend, trailing a banner that depicts an aborted fetus. After all, why stop at holding up yucky posters at a rally that people can avoid, when you can put fetal remains up in the sky where everyone can see them?

Of course, these protests are aimed only partly at Obama; they’re also targeting Notre Dame’s own president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, who invited Obama in the first place, and the substantial majority of seniors at the university who are happy, even thrilled, that he’s coming. The protesters (and the 75 or so bishops who’ve whined publicly about the invitation) don’t care that presidential speeches at Notre Dame commencements are a longstanding tradition; they don’t care that pro-choice presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter addressed the graduates, shortly post-Roe v. Wade, while facing nothing like the firestorm that Obama’s encountering.

But Ford and Carter came to town before politics and religion became so intrinsically linked, particularly among those who are desperate to use the nation’s laws to stop the doctrinally challenged from exercising rights and freedoms that don’t sync with God’s own law (as they interpret it). Those presidents were invited to South Bend and were given appropriate respect by the university as well as the church; unfortunately, the same is not true this time. Rev. Jenkins, by all accounts, has been a stand-up guy through all this, never wavering from his decision to invite Obama – but the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, has called Obama’s appearance an “extreme embarrassment” and suggested Jenkins and Notre Dame “didn’t understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation.”

Really, Cardinal? Please, then, by all means, explain “what it means to be Catholic” to the university’s administration, and explain it to those seniors who are having their achievement trivialized – not by the President of the United States coming to speak to them, but by those 75 bishops and those protesters storming campus with images of mangled fetuses. And while you’re at it, Cardinal, explain “what it means to be Catholic” to the solid majority of Catholic voters who pulled the lever for Obama in November, and the 59 percent of them who support him today. (They also support Notre Dame’s invitation by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a recent Pew Research poll.) And explain it to the countless members of all faiths (and no faiths) who were more than a little disgusted by the bishops’ complicity in that little pedophilia scandal of a few years back.

The cardinal’s problem, of course, is the profound and growing disconnect between the narrow set of values demanded of parishioners by most of the Catholic clergy – from Pope Benedict on down – and the diversity of opinion among the laity on subjects like abortion, birth control, embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage and the death penalty. Sometimes lately it seems downright bizarre how detached the church, as a shaper of opinion, has become from much of its own membership on these issues – even as that membership has remained relatively stable in numbers over the last couple of decades, compared to other Christian faiths.

Sadly, this isn’t the first, or even the worst, instance of conservative Catholic clergy injecting themselves into the political debate. The worst came in 2004, when talk of denying Communion to John Kerry was all the rage – despite the fact that fully 72 percent of Catholics nationally opposed using sacraments to extort dogmatic fealty from politicians. Now many of those same out-of-step clergymen are demanding that Rev. Jenkins be reprimanded, fired, or even defrocked for failing to provide by-the-(good) book moral leadership, and instead surrendering his university to what Pope Benedict himself once called “the dictatorship of relativism.”

Well, relatively speaking, the Catholic hierarchy is still struggling to recover its moral authority after its recent spate of scandals – while the trend among mainstream Catholics to ignore the church’s strict doctrines on a variety of social issues has revealed a laity both steeped in the faith’s best traditions (family, charity) and forward-thinking in their regard for science and their tolerance and goodwill toward their fellow men. I don’t want to be too sweeping in my generalizations here – there is also a difficult-to-ignore evangelical movement among conservative Catholics, growing numbers of whom are identifying themselves as “born again” and some of whom are becoming less, and not more, tolerant toward those who don’t share their rigid values.

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Still, I’d like to think it was for the mainstream Catholics who might be interested in the film, and not the loud but small minority who would ban it if they got the chance, that Ron Howard toned down some of the more inflammatory elements of Angels & Demons. Gone, apparently, is the suggestion that the dead pope fathered a child via artificial insemination, and gone is much of the novel’s exposition about the secretive, evil Illuminati and its onetime vice grip on the church. Anyway, Angels & Demons was never quite the blasphemy-fest that its sequel-turned-prequel, The Da Vinci Code, was, either in print or on film. But the Vatican still barred Howard’s crew from any location shooting within its walls.

You’d think the church would be relieved that the Da Vinci Code film didn’t, all on its own, send a critical mass (sorry) of Catholics screaming from the pews. (Leaden as it was, it sent a lot more moviegoers grumbling from theaters – it’ll be interesting to see whether Angels & Demons manages to atone for that sin.) Instead, church officials will go through the motions of their indignant protests this weekend, and we’ll be left to witness another escalation (however brief) of the culture wars.

This time, however, it won’t be so much a conflict between Catholics and Hollywood, which will happily exploit any controversy over A&D to make an even bigger pile of money, or between Catholics and Obama, who likely will sail through the weekend the same way he sails through everything else. No, this time the battle pits devotees of the faith against one another, in a contest for the future direction of the church. Is it primarily an instrument for enforcing doctrinaire purity, or is it a vessel into which millions of believers can pour their hopes, dreams and faith, regardless of their opinions on social issues?

That struggle may be only beginning. As for the sturm und drang over Obama’s visit to Notre Dame and the box-office prospects of Angels & Demons, the Catholic hierarchy can at least take comfort in that ancient Hebrew admonition: This, too, shall pass.

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