Maritain’s Donkey: American Violence and Eucharistic Incoherence
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”
In his book “The Strangest Way,” Bishop Robert Barron recounts a story about the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain had a Jewish wife and so was alarmed at the rise of Hitler and his antisemitic policies in the 1930’s. Therefore, he suggested that the pope (Pius XI) should engage in a profound prophetic and symbolic action: travel to Berlin and ride into the city on a donkey as a non-violent protest against Hitler’s regime. And, as Barron notes, there is no way to know what would have happened to the Pope had he done so. However, at the time Hitler still craved the support of Germany’s large Catholic population (especially in Bavaria) and so such an action by the Pope could have thrown a severe monkey wrench into Hitler’s propaganda efforts. The power and prestige of the papacy at that time was still such that an action of this sort would have sent a clear and bracing signal to Germany’s Catholics that supporting Hitler was not consonant with the Catholic faith. Of course, it could also have thrown Hitler into a rage and provoked a severe persecution of the Church and perhaps even led to the arrest and martyrdom of the Pope himself. It could also have led to thousands of reprisal deaths for many innocent people. These were the Nazis after all.
Of course, Pius XI did not ride into Berlin on a donkey. And probably for sound prudential reasons. But he did send a prophetic donkey of a different sort when in his 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge he denounced Nazi racial theories as a form of anti-Christian paganism and made it clear that no Catholic could ever support such theories. He also gave a resounding defense of natural law as the foundation for any true notion of the State, the common good, and human rights. He made it clear that Judaism and Christianity are deeply related on a constitutive level and so there can be no Christian theological justification for persecuting Jews. Neither the Nazis nor Hitler are mentioned by name, as the Church was walking the thin, greased, tightrope between prophecy and prudence, but it was obvious who the Pope was addressing. Most likely it was also the Pope’s way of making it clear that the Church’s concordat with Hitler in 1933 should in no way be construed as a signal of approval for the Nazi regime, which Hitler had alleged. Because even though in 1933 some in Rome thought Hitler was a flash in the pan soon to go away, by 1937 it was clear he wasn’t, and it was also clear that the Nazis had no intention of living up to their end of the concordat anyway. The encyclical was written in German, rather than the usual Latin, and was secretly brought into Germany with 300,00 copies covertly printed and distributed in order to be read from all pulpits on Palm Sunday. This enraged Hitler as it sent the clear message that the Catholic Church was not going to submit to Hitler’s yoke without a fight. Obscured and eclipsed by the horrors that came later, Mit Bennender Sorge should be remembered as one hell of a prophetic donkey.
Such are the dilemmas faced by the Church in its engagement with political cultures of all kinds. It is a balancing act, as I said, on a greased and thin tightrope as the Church seeks to negotiate the tension between being prophetic and being prudential. Because some prophetic actions can be hugely symbolic and true on a basic level, but also be deeply irresponsible and imprudent. As such, many prophetic acts can be a pyrrhic victory that end up hurting the cause of the Gospel in the long run while giving the Church a short-term cathartic self-satisfaction that she has “done the right thing.” Likewise, some prudential judgments can appear as the dulcet tones of calming reason while being, in truth, nothing more than deceptively packaged expressions of rank cowardice. Furthermore, the moral coward often hides within and behind bureaucracy – – like leukemia cells in the bone marrow – – which makes the Church’s putatively sanctified, hernia-mesh bureaucracy a particularly apt secret garden for any number of sniveling quislings.
Segue to today in the United States where the bishops are now confronted with a similar dilemma. Do we take the more prophetic path of defending the inviolable dignity of all human life from conception to natural death via the path of barring from communion those Catholic politicians who vote for anti-life policies, or do we choose the safer and more irenic “prudential” path of allowing private conscience to rule the day, especially in light of the fact that any move in the more prophetic direction will inevitably be spun as a partisan endorsement of the Republican party? Furthermore, the episcopal conference as a collective body has no canonical power to force any bishop – – for example, Wilton Gregory – – to abide by its suggestions. Thus, any such statement from the conference would most likely fall flat and be an exercise in futility. In other words – – a pyrrhic victory as mentioned above.
It would seem, at the time of this writing, that the bishops have already decided in favor of the latter path – – the path of an alleged “prudence” – – since they have stated that it is not their intent to write a document strongly suggesting that any politician be barred from communion over the issue of abortion. Instead, they are going to write a more general document on “Eucharistic Coherence” in future meetings and will, of course, task a committee with this project. I can’t wait. I bet it will be a real page-turner.
All that said… whatever this is, it isn’t prudence. Prudence is an ally of prophetic critique and not its antithesis since it truly seeks after how to make the prophetic action even more powerful in terms of its effectiveness. Therefore, any attempt to mute the Church’s prophetic voice in the name of an alleged “prudence” is an act of Gospel incoherence, and, therefore, of Eucharistic incoherence. Prudence does not mute. Prudence amplifies via a distillation of multiple options into the best option as it seeks to bring the moral good it seeks to fruition. What the bishops are doing in the current debate isn’t prudence at all but its opposite: moral indifferentism wrapped up in the shiny foil of grandiloquent puffery. Real prudence, as St. Thomas teaches, is not a compromise between extremes or a choice between lesser and greater evils. It is not at all the same thing as “doing that which is the most practical and tactically advantageous.” Prudence is an act of moral judgment wherein the moral conscience seeks after the best moral path forward, given all the circumstances at play, for bringing about the desired moral good. It is hard to see how this latest non-decision from the bishops rises to that definition of prudence. Because if we can’t even bring ourselves to say that advocacy for pre-natal genocide and the expansion of its reach isn’t cause for excommunication, I don’t know what could ever be. Seriously, what could ever be? Parking in Cardinal Cupich’s spot at his chancery?? Hacking Cardinal Tobin’s (now private) Twitter account??
Imagine if you will what the response of the bishops would be if instead of advocating for abortion, Catholic politicians were instead pushing for a reinstatement of the old Jim Crow laws. In 1962 Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated three prominent Catholics who were advocating that desegregation of the schools be resisted. And he was hailed as a hero by many liberals. And since there are many black Catholics in New Orleans his decision to integrate the diocesan schools actually mattered greatly. Furthermore, his actions were deeply prophetic and evangelical since they came with a cost. Many of the parish schools had increased their enrollments due to parents of children in the freshly integrated public schools fleeing to the still segregated Catholic schools. Therefore, integrating those schools risked losing a lot of students. But for Archbishop Rummel this was a price he was willing to pay since institutionalized racism is a grave moral evil to be resisted in the name of the Gospel. And so he let the chips fall wherever they damn well fell.
Would Wilton Gregory, who has said he will not “weaponize the Eucharist” and will not refuse communion to pro abort Catholic politicians, refuse communion to a hooded and robed Grand Wizard of the KKK should he be a Catholic and present himself for communion in full racist regalia? I suspect he would refuse it since Catholic theological liberals tend to be sentimentalists moved by optics, and a hooded Wizard is a far greater public spectacle than the quiet and hidden dismemberment of babies in our surgical death zones, or the clandestine last desperate and gasping breaths of a child without a name left to die after a botched murder. Cardinal Gregory, while still bishop of Atlanta, was shamed by public outcry into moving out of the posh 2.2 million dollar mansion he had built for himself and who then made all of the fake, dutiful mea culpas about his “lapse of judgment.” I guess it never occurred to him as he was building his sybaritic palace that spending 2.2 million on the project could be construed as a “weaponizing” of diocesan funds against the poor working classes of his diocese who could have sorely used the money.
Gregory and his allied bishops need to be reminded that murder perpetrated through the democratic process and a well-established tradition of the rule of law, remains murder. They can say to us over and over that they do not want to “interfere” in the rightful autonomy of the civil sphere, and that they want to maintain a respect for the democratic process and thus do not wish to inject themselves into the political domain or to “undermine” the rule of law through recourse to ecclesiastical thuggery which will be interpreted as an endorsement of Republicans. But I will remember that if we ever get an “Alt Right” Catholic president who, on inauguration night, holds a cross burning ceremony filled with race-baiting invective in the Rose Garden.
Therefore, the reluctance of the current American bishops to issue a collective statement with “Mit brennender Sorge” levels of prophetic bravery on the issue of political advocacy for murder is not an act of prudence but is instead, in my view, an appeasement to the Zeitgeist, an act of moral cowardice, and an admission that all of their talk about pro-life causes is an exercise in empty lip-service. Likewise in my view, all of their very public hand-wringing over the issue of pre-natal homicide and communion is merely the typical response of all bureaucracies when tasked with doing something that transcends the managerial class instincts of its civil servants. The bishops are good at forming committees. And those committees are good at issuing documents that nobody reads since everyone knows that resolutions on “poverty” or “universal health care,” or “global warming,” or “the dignity of human life,” issued by men who live in affluence, have no skin in any of those games, and who meet every year in posh hotels to kick 27 cans down the road, cannot be taken seriously. But you know what the episcopal bureaucracy and its anodyne committees did give us that actually mattered, that was all too real, and which has pushed the Church into moral irrelevance? McCarrick. Bransfield. Legions of sexually abused kids. Prison. Shame. Bankruptcy.
So much for prudence. From where I sit this looks like the “abortion and communion” question is just one more can kicked down the road until such time that the issue will just die-out with the latest news cycle and let the bishops off the hook. The promised document on the topic of Eucharistic coherence will, most likely, contain many wonderful statements on the theology of the Eucharist, the importance of receiving communion worthily, and the grave evil of abortion. But it will also, most likely, avoid Maritain’s donkey, and will opt instead, as the American bishops have done for a century now, to “play nice” with the engines of American culture, thus robbing the document of any probative force as a prophetic critique of the Liberal American ordo that brought us the abortion license in the first place. Perhaps I will be proven wrong in that prediction. Perhaps the American bishops will buck the trend they have established over the past century of ignoring the deep anti-Gospel values embodied in the “American Way of Life.” But I won’t hold my breath. The donkey will stay in its stall.
And do not dismiss this as just so much “snark.” It is a serious point. In the midst of my pointed rhetoric there is an argument being put forward and a claim being made. Namely, that over the past 75 years the American bishops have been “playing nice” and have been busy making Catholicism safe for post-war, bourgeois, suburbia. Mainstreaming immigrant Catholics into the heart and soul of “the American Way of Life” was their goal and they succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings. Even most of the churches that have been built post-1965, as I have written before, look like the cul-de-sacs that inspired them. Nothing must rock the boat. Nothing must be too radical or prophetic or challenging, lest the nativists pummel Catholics, once again, for being enemies of America with an allegiance to a “foreign power.” Catholicism must not be made to look too strange or too different from the mainstream, since Catholics have “arrived” and taken their place, finally, in the strip mall pantheon of America’s various cultural totems. And all of this has now culminated in exactly what the bishops seem to have wanted: Catholics now think and act exactly as those in mainstream American culture think and act. There is nothing distinctive about us. Nothing. American Catholicism is, therefore, as tasteless and colorless as Carbon Monoxide. And you can only breathe in the toxic air of that form of Catholicism so long before you become spiritually unconscious, if not dead.
Left unchallenged by the American bishops, even as they fight abortion, is the false notion of freedom and the false, secularized, de facto atheist, anthropology of the American worldview that gave us the abortion license in the first place. The abortion license is merely a natural outcome of these errors. Conservative Catholics, favorable to the American project, are fond of saying that Roe v. Wade was falsely adjudicated and a distortion of the Constitution. I tend to agree. Nevertheless, that only underscores the fact that the Constitution is the pliant plaything of a much deeper set of gods who, through their fiat, read into the Constitution a murderous notion of freedom that was deeply consonant with the entire trajectory of American mercantile enchantments. The “Enchantments of Mammon,” is what Eugene McCarraher calls it and his entire tome on the topic drives home with force that it is not the Constitution that drives the culture, but our pecuniary culture that drives the Constitution. Reflecting on the upcoming fourth of July celebrations, the Notre Dame philosopher John Betz, in a great article in Church Life Journal (which you can access here) says something on the unchristian nature of American “freedom” that is deserving of lengthy quotation:
“Moreover, if we consider that our free market society is now more global than the Catholic Church, and that it promises to be more unifying of the nations than any religion ever could be (as its apostles confidently tell us), bringing peace to the world through its own form of free exchange, its own commercium admirabile, it is without doubt a kind of simulacrum of the kingdom of God—if not a veritable counterfeit. And this, it seems to me, should give us pause, or at least a moment’s notice, before we celebrate the Fourth as usual—as if America were the kingdom of God and American independence and Christian freedom were the same thing. So, then, let us celebrate the Fourth of July, but let us not forget what freedom really means. Better yet, let us take the opportunity this day affords to speak about real freedom to a nation that is in free fall and evidently falling apart because it has blithely disregarded not just revelation and the testimony of the saints—which are automatically thrown out of court, while various ideologies, which have the form of religions, are given free reign—but increasingly even what support reason and common sense can afford, and, as a consequence, is immuring itself more and more in its own madness.”
How refreshing and eschatologically prophetic it would be to read something like that in a document from the American bishops. Because the fact of the matter is that there is a deep contradiction between the bishops’ opposition to abortion and their “support through silence” of the underlying moral and spiritual violence of the American sacramental ordo of mammon, management, and the military. The violence of abortion has become so deeply rooted in modern American culture precisely because it is the natural expression of mammon’s need for Moloch. And here I do not mean by “mammon” money as such, which is necessary, but what Jesus seems to mean by it when he warns us that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. Mammon appears therefore in the New Testament as a cipher for an unholy “worldliness” that is directly contrary to the Gospel, as a kind of greed and an almost addictive fixation on wealth generation as the chief aim of our existence. And any culture so fixated will also need to murder some folks in order to safeguard the “treasure.” And often, as with Moloch, the sacrifice demanded are the children. But death will also come through the use of military violence to secure our access to the resources needed for wealth, and then there is also the cultural death that America always brings in her wake.
On searches in vain for a sustained critique of this sort from the American bishops over the past 75 years. And I get that many Catholics do not share the view of America from folks such as Betz, Deneen, Schindler, et. al. I have made known where my sympathies reside. But at the very least the bishops could actually take up this debate and foreground it in their deliberations. Instead of constantly reacting to this or that “issue” they might actually begin to develop a truly prophetic critique that could be turned into an evangelizing strategy. It could give flesh and bones to our pastoral efforts to fight for human life in all of its forms and to fight against consumerism, militarism, hedonism and indifferentism. For it matters little if modern American cultural and political decadence is a deformation of our founding principles or their full coming of age. Because we all agree that there is a deep rot in the modern American soul that is also rotting the Church from within. And it is that rot that the bishops need to address and then to present, as a counter proposal, the beauty of Christ as the only true champion of authentic humanity.
We are living in the twilight of the death of Christian culture in the West. And so now is not the time for more empty gestures from the American ecclesial bureaucracy. It no longer the time for more committees to issue more documents that say very little beyond what we all already know and which have no prophetic teeth, no eschatological edge, and no evangelical call to a heroic holiness. But it is also not the time for a singular focus on abortion. And by that I do not mean we should let folks like Biden off the hook. Quite to the contrary. A true prophetic critique will not only condemn the abortion license, and excommunicate any Catholic politician who embraces and promotes it, but it will also condemn all of the deep and metaphysically embedded violences of American culture which should include, by way of example, a prohibition for any Catholic to work in the nuclear arms wing of the American military. I did my Master’s thesis on that latter topic and so I could write volumes on that. But for now I will just let that assertion sit there and fester. Because my point is that even if the bishops denounce Biden on abortion (and I wish they would), it is not enough and it does not cut deeply enough. It does not get to the true spiritual deformation that fuels the engines of death in the first place. It would still leave in place the notion that America and Catholicism are totally compatible.
We need the bishops to untether Maritain’s prophetic donkey. And to ride it into the Babylons of the modern world. At the top of this essay is the quote from Jesus in Matthew 11:12 about the “violent bearing the Kingdom away.” I prefer the interpretation of this verse from Flannery O’Connor who sees it as an admonition from Christ that we cannot inherit the Kingdom passively but must actively engage in a kind of holy, non-violent violence in order to actively seize the Kingdom through spiritual assault and warfare. The antithesis of this view is the notion that the Church can make peace with the worldly world, neuter itself, mute its message, allow the whole ship to drift with the cultural currents, and still expect the folks in the pews to desire the Kingdom and to embrace all of the jagged shards that must be trod upon in order to achieve it. We have instead a Church that seems to be preaching a different kind of kingdom. One that can be reached, not over the jagged shards of a true metanoia and the spiritual discipline (violence) it requires, but through the false and easy irenicism of appeasement with American violence.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.