Cardinal Stafford, a prominent American Catholic close to Pope Benedict XVI, launched into a vicious tirade against the newly elected President of the United States, Barack Obama, last week. He incorporated some boilerplate conservative attack on the state power reminiscent of Ronald Reagan (implying socialist tendencies in the President-elect); he stated that America would be experiencing the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before it’s Crucifixion and destruction in the coming years, comparing America to Jesus and Barack Obama to Pontius Pilate; he stated that America as a nation was suicidal and has been “thrown upon the ruins;” and then, he used three curious words to describe Barack Obama: “aggressive, disruptive, and apocalyptic.”
As a Catholic I am offended by Cardinal Stafford’s extreme politics delivered without distancing himself from his official capacity as a “prince of the church” or official rebuke from the church. It is not just what he said – but when and who he is. One thing that surprised me in the aftermath of this election was the number of Republicans, conservatives and other McCain supporters who came to me – as a person who had argued with them in favor of Obama – and expressed their cautious optimism about Obama and their pride in America for having elected him. Cardinal Stafford though seems to lack such common grace.
He joins the small cadre of movement conservatives who – rather than giving President-elect Barack Obama a chance to govern even for a few days before declaring the end of civilization – has decided to preemptively attack Barack Obama, the American people and our democratic choice. Rush Limbaugh has begun to call the financial crisis “the Obama recession” – because he clearly can see that Obama caused it by running for president. Steve Marlsburg, while talking to a prominent Israeli, encouraged her to press her leadership to launch a preemptive strike on Iran – so America would already be embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East before Obama comes into office. Michael Savage proclaimed that all competent white men would be fired from their jobs at fire and police departments and that America had been destroyed by this election. While most Americans, and many in the world, hope and pray that Barack Obama will have the strength and resolve to face the challenges that face us collectively, these men choose instead to fan the flames of fear and violence in uncertain times. They are demagogues whose latent anger at America has been unleashed by the election of a progressive in a time of crisis.
Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Steve Marlsburg are all radio shock jocks though – whose job it is to be outrageous. The fact that an Eminence has outstripped all of these men for sheer outrageousness and for blatant fear-mongering is telling. Pope John Paul II’s long reign had many legacies – but the most lasting may prove to be his politicization of the clergy, and especially the hierarchy of the Church. In America, he encouraged a culture that rewarded conservative ideology and encouraged a hierarchy-centered approach whose focus on minimizing scandals to protect the church’s power led to child abuse scandals. But the more direct result of this politicization has been the gradual movement of the church hierarchy away from the Body of the Church and its transformation into an arm of the Republican Party. Bishops, using their sacramental authority as a political public relations tool to aid the Republican Party, have publicly stated their desire to deny Communion to John Kerry (while he was running for president), to Kathleen Sebelius (after she endorsed Obama) to Republican lawyer Douglas Kmiec (after he endorsed Obama on pro-life grounds) to Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden (in the lead-up to the 2008 election). Now, post-election, some priests have begun to equate Catholicism with voting Republican so completely that they see any support for a Democrat as a mortal sin, and are denying Communion to anyone who voted for Barack Obama. And now we have a cardinal warning of the Obama apocalypse.
The Church – 54% of whom voted for Obama in America and a greater percentage who wished him to win abroad – sees it differently than the old cardinal and the politicized clergy.
For many years, the Catholic clergy have had their radical leftists and their reactionaries – but the great mass of priests have been moderates of various sorts. Today, we are seeing the fruits of thirty years of promotions of the most conservative ideologues, the fruits of a church hierarchy that no longer has any appeal except to the sexually repressed, morally corrupt, or fanatically certain, and the result of the gradual dying of the older generation of priests from a less ideological era and the emergence of the Baby Boom generation into leadership positions among the bishops – prolonging the 1960s culture war within the American Church. We are seeing the politicization of the church hierarchy. Sometimes it seems as if the more radical elements are deliberately attempting to provoke a schism, to sow disunity in the Church, so that they, with their monopoly on the institutional power of the church can declare themselves the uncorrupted Remnant.
I have never felt more distant from the Catholic church than I do now; yet I have rarely felt more one with the community of Catholics around the world and in America, more hopeful about the future, or more certain of my path and America’s path.
The Catholic Church has survived far worse men than Cardinal Stafford and the current hierarchy – it has survived popes and cardinals driven by an insatiable lust for power; it has survived warmongers and thieves who claimed their evil was done in the name of God; it has survived the greedy and corrupt, who used the institutions of the church to protect themselves; it has survived it’s war on reason and science in an age of reason and science – until it came to terms with these forces; it has survived it’s condemnation of democracy and freedom – until it came to terms with them; it has survived as popes and cardinals and bishops transparently used their moral authority to profit for themselves – until these rules promulgated for private purpose became enmeshed in tradition; it has survived it’s attempts to declare itself the sole source of Truth in the world; it has survived a plague of child molestation – enabled and covered up to the highest levels of the church. The Catholic church has survived – and it will survive this too.
The corrupt institution – through all of this – has survived because of the faith and good sense of the Church, the people and their sensus fidelium.
As Cardinal Stafford misuses his office to promote fear of apocalypse and as reactionary priests use the sacraments to provoke a schism, it should be remembered that this too will pass, and that as Christ challenged the Pharisees, so we too must challenge the corrupt institutions of our church. What we need to get past with Baby Boomer church politics is a new generation of leadership for the Catholic church, an Obama-like figure able to move past the debilitating culture wars and partisan politics to focus on the true business of the church.
It’s hard to see new leadership arising from the politicized clergy – but God does work in mysterious ways. Remember – just four years ago, it was almost inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could be President of the United States. Yet here we are. Know hope.