Saturday, February 11, 2012

Infidels! Circle the Wagons!

Joan Walsh has a fairly good piece on the Catholic hierarchy's battle against covering birth control in their employees' insurance plans. She's an apostate Catholic from a working-class background -- sort of like me, except that I didn't know I'd been baptized until I was in my forties, so I never consciously abandoned the Great Whore of Babylon, as the Church is affectionately known in serious Protestant circles. She admits that despite her personal break with Catholicism, and her support of Obama, it makes her uncomfortable when "secular" types bash the church, and she wonders where that defensive reaction comes from, even in someone like her, let alone among the still faithful.
There’s a vestigial impulse to circle the wagons and protect our right to practice our persecuted religion (even if it’s no longer persecuted, and many of us don’t practice very much of it anymore). Where does it come from?
Walsh notices what many have missed, that this controversy is not about the religious freedom of ordinary believers, but "the 'freedom' of the Catholic hierarchy to impose rules that even most Catholics don’t live by", and indeed to impose Vatican doctrine on non-Catholics who work for Catholic institutions. She warns about the "many Catholics receptive to GOP blathering about out-of-touch 'elites' who supposedly disrespect their religious freedom" -- well, who's more out of touch than the Catholic hierarchy?

That Catholics, especially the elites, should accuse Obama of persecuting them should surprise no one. It's not a specifically Catholic tactic; even overwhelming majorities (gentiles, Christians, heterosexuals, whites) like to present themselves as endangered species, a pitiful few under siege from the powerful Jewish, secular, homosexual, Negro conspiracies to take over and remodel our society. Anyone who uses this tactic should be called on it, that's all.

I think Walsh gets some details wrong, though. True, as Walsh says, we secularists shouldn't judge all Catholics by the misconduct of the hierarchy; but when the hierarchy demands that they, and not the much greater numbers of the laity, be regarded as the standard for Catholicism, it's perfectly correct to judge the Church by them. Besides, even a more focused critique won't be welcome: focus on the bishops and the Pope (who was personally involved in the coverup of the child abuse scandal), and you'll still be called unfair. And I've often found that lay Catholics (including LGBT ones) who whine about mean outsiders picking on the Church don't hear it when I do distinguish between the elites and the laity; if I say "the Vatican," they hear "all Catholics." (Analogously, when I criticize antigay bigots, many people accusing me of lumping all heterosexuals together. In both cases, it's my critics who are doing the lumping.) I'm still staggered by the person I was debating online, who dismissed the Pope and the College of Cardinals as "marginal figures"; in a monarchical institution like the Church, such people are a numerical minority, but they are anything but marginal.

This is relevant when Walsh complains,
While the child abuse scandal makes most Catholics sick, sometimes even I wince when non-Catholics judge the whole church by the corruption of a comparative (though very powerful) few. I have cousins and uncles and aunts who’ve joined religious orders (though, truthfully, most of them left). I don’t like seeing all of them considered perverts or pedophiles, or people who cover up for predators.
First, it seems to me that a lot of this kind of overgeneralization, when it occurs, comes from Catholics, including lapsed Catholics, not non-Catholics. But again, when I've attacked the Vatican and the Bishops for protecting predator priests, Catholics tend to hear it as an attack on all Catholics -- that "circling the wagons" reflex Walsh mentioned. It's a perfectly natural, human reaction to get defensive in this way, but we shouldn't let it get past us. We who criticize Catholicism, or any sect, should be careful not to lump all its adherents together. Nor should we let Catholic apologists do it.