Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bigotry and the Times

The New York Times' The Ethicist blog, written by Randy Cohen, has a rather whiny question today, in a post titled "Can't We Talk about Religion, Please?" It's clear from the get-go that what Cohen really wants is free license to bash Catholicism for the simple reason that he doesn't much like it--but don't you dare call that "bigotry...":
Last week the Vatican invited Anglicans who are, as The New York Times put it, “uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops” to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church. If a secular institution, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, for example, made a similar offer — Tired of leadership positions being open to women and gay employees? Join us! — it would be slammed for appealing to bigotry. Some criticism was directed at the church, but it was faint. Are we right to speak softly when discussing a subject as sensitive as religion? [...]

And so it is disheartening that the editorial pages of our most important newspapers did not castigate the Vatican’s invitation to misogyny and homophobia. Some blogs did so. Daily Kos headlined its coverage, “Vatican Welcomes Bigoted Anglicans.” But the discussion provided by, say, network news barely rose above the demure. That’s not courtesy; it’s cowardice. Perhaps the networks fear being charged with anti-Catholic bias. This is not an unreasonable concern. When I reproved that real estate agent, my surname was no shield against accusations of anti-Semitism. But surely it is possible to disagree respectfully. To criticize a particular practice of Orthodox Jews need not be anti-Semitism. To denounce this Vatican policy need not be anti-Catholic bigotry. Criticism is not contempt.

One group has produced a lively discussion of this pronouncement — the religious press. (You can find a roundup of opinions at Headline Bistro under the banner “Because Catholics Need to Know.”) Some of the sharpest writing comes from those critical of their own church — the Rev. George Rutler, for example, a convert from Anglicanism who wrote: “It is a dramatic slap-down of liberal Anglicanism and a total repudiation of the ordination of women, homosexual marriage and the general neglect of doctrine in Anglicanism.” Incidentally, Father Rutler does not think the secular media are too timid but too thickheaded: “The press, uninformed and always tabloid in matters of religion, will zoom in on the permission for married priests.”
Mr. Cohen betrays his own deep ignorance about Catholicism in thinking that the Rev. George Rutler's quote indicates at all a criticism of Catholicism, let alone in his persistent characterization of Catholic opposition to a female priesthood or the sin of homosexual activity as "bigotry." But deep ignorance by New York Times writers about the teachings of Catholicism is de rigueur; even once-Catholic Maureen Dowd was stunning in her recent NYT-levels of uninformed unintelligence about Catholic matters.

The truth is that anyone who brushes aside centuries-old Church teachings about the nature of the ordained priesthood or the importance of sexual purity as "bigotry" is himself a bigot. Only an irrational, prejudiced perspective could possibly dismiss things of that level of importance out of hand, as if it were impossible for a religion to have a sincere and meaningful tradition, in the first instance, or a well-developed moral theology, in the second. But to seek to understand either means laying aside such knee-jerk anti-Catholicism and actually exploring the traditions and the teaching, not viewing them through the lens of contemporary political liberalism/radical feminism and then throwing them aside in highly-cultivated and progressive-snob disgust.

As for the charge that the media is too soft on Catholicism out of some sort of cowardice--oh, please. It costs nothing to bash the Church, and every journalist or other media employee learns this early on in his career. It's hard to find a group more consistently misrepresented in the press than Christians of any sort, and the Catholic Church is perhaps the biggest target for that sophomoric wrath--the wrath that comes, deep down, from knowing that here is one institution immune to their pressures and lectures and scoldings. Compared to the Church, the modern media (including the "modern" newspaper) arose yesterday, and the end of the newspaper age may already be in sight. The Church will still be around when only the collectors of historical curiosity knows what it means, this odd phrase, "The New York Times," and what it once signified. The mass of humanity will forget all about it, long before the Church faces a different sort of end times.

So journalists like Cohen want to whine about how unfair the mean old Church is, while they can still collect a paycheck for such dull displays of enlightened whimpering. But they want their whining to be classed as Serious Criticism, because they have the Right Sort of opinions, just like they want to be able to try and convict the Church of misogyny and homophobia in the court of public opinion, because the Church has the Wrong Sort. Remind me again what part of this juvenile dribbling counts as anything serious?


j. christian said...

But to seek to understand either means laying aside such knee-jerk anti-Catholicism and actually exploring the traditions and the teaching, not viewing them through the lens of contemporary political liberalism/radical feminism and then throwing them aside in highly-cultivated and progressive-snob disgust.

This entire paragraph is well written, and it gets to the crux of the problem. These outsider critics of the Church are misunderstanding the Church's teachings, prefering to view them in isolation instead of as part of a theological whole. We need to point this out to them as charitably as we can, that by labeling the Church "misogynist," "homophobic," or some other knee-jerk epithet, they are completely misreading things. The next time someone says the Church is homophobic, for example, pose to them this hypothetical: If I discover that my teenaged daughter is having sex, and I tell her it's a sin and that she should stop, do I hate my own daughter? Is it really hatred, bigotry, or phobia to insist on some moral standards, challenging though they might be?

If only the Church's critics would engage the substance of the teachings instead of the superficial. Of course it might sound misogynistic if women aren't to be ordained priests, but that's the surface reading! Delve deeper into the Church's real attitude toward women, get to know why the priesthood is the way it is, and then come back to us. It's not hard -- it just takes work. The critics are lazy; they need to sit down with the Catechism and really think things through.

Maybe that's too much to hope for, but maybe it's not too much to pray for.

LarryD said...

It's interesting that in their push to demand the Church be open-minded, they betray their own closed-mindedness in refusing to honestly report on the whys and wherefores of Church teaching.

c matt said...

Does the Jewish faith allow female rabbis? I suppose some reformed group might, but I am curious if the more orthodox branches of Judaism allow them. If not, why are they not criticized?

Amy said...

Or other Christian denominations which do not allow female clergy. The WELS and Missouri Lutheran Synods, for example, would not allow female clergy (and I know this because I was raised WELS Lutheran and my dad is Missouri Synod).

c matt said...

Out of curiosity, I googled "female rabbi" and apparently there are some. From what I could find, there appear to be three major divisions - reformed, conservative and orthodox. It appears it is in the more liberal sects (reformed, and oddly enough what is labelled "conservative") where female rabbis are allowed, with the orthodox not allowing it right now but apparently it's under discussion. However, modern "ordination" as a rabbi seems to be different from ordination as a priest (and apparently, Mosaic ordination) - there is no "laying of hands" and conferral of some sort of sacramental authority, it literally only means teacher - someone to go to for answers on questions about talmudic law, etc. So, even if they do allow it, it really is not a parallel to Catholic Holy Orders. It is more closely akin to getting a doctorate in theology, which, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition in the RC for women. In fact, several Doctors of the Church are female, which seems to be an even higher position than a run-of-the-mill rabbi.

c matt said...

Oh, and let's not forget the "Religion of Peace". How many female Imams are there? Is Mr. Cohen brave enough to criticize their "misogynistic" practices?

c matt said...

Mr. Google says:

A few sects of Islam allow females to act as an Imam (lead in prayer) only other females or in their household. None allow them to lead mixed congregations, and penalties seem to be a bit more severe than harsh letters to the editor.

c matt said...

Criticism is not contempt.

Not necessarily. But for criticism not to be contempt, you must fully understand what you are criticizing.

Magister Christianus said...

The following is my reply posted on the NYT site. Thanks, Red, for alerting us to this.

Dear Mr. Cohen,

I agree that religion does not need to be handled with kid gloves. Truth, if it be true, has nothing to fear from honest discussion, debate, and dialogue. If person A asks a question of person B in a genuine attempt to discover something, then person B need not fear, even if the question person A asks is difficult. Likewise, person A should not claim to have scored a point in some sort of intellectual tennis match if person B does not have an immediate answer, but agrees to pursue the issue further.

That said, I do not think your opening analogy holds up. You write, "If a secular institution, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, for example, made a similar offer — Tired of leadership positions being open to women and gay employees? Join us! — it would be slammed for appealing to bigotry." While this is accurate, I do not see what it has to do with the issue at hand. The analogy is based on the assumption that a secular institution and a divine institution are sufficiently alike to allow such a comparison. Regarding the Church, this is simply not the case. Christians believe that the Church is the body of Christ on earth. From such language and understanding alone it can be seen that we are talking about an inherently different sort of institution from Wal-Mart. To miss this is to make the same mistake that certain followers of Jesus did when they misunderstood his talk about a kingdom. Some incorrectly assumed he was talking about a temporal kingdom that would follow the overthrow of the Romans, but he was talking about something else entirely.

You may want to challenge the root understanding of what "church" means, and this is indeed an area of theological pursuit. What you cannot do is assume an understanding of a term that is different from those who have defined it, and then use that term as the foundation for an argument against those very people.

eulogos said...

How amazing that the writer actually took Fr. Rutler to be criticizing what he was praising!

Talk about writing about an issue when you don't know who the main players are and where they stand on the issues!

I wonder if anyone has informed this writer what Fr. Rutler actually meant?
Susan Peterson