Praying the Post

Reading the newspaper with a cup of coffee in one hand and a rosary in the other.

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Friday, May 31, 2002
You say blas-phe-my, I say hy-per-du-li-a

To be honest, I think I've encountered a few Mary worshipers -- or at least people whose exaltation of Mary appears to be formally heretical -- in my web travels. But I believe most of the 83% of non-Catholic Americans who think Catholics worship Mary have in mind, not these few fringe folks, but the common or garden Catholic with a rosary on the dresser and a plaster statuette of the Madonna and Child on a shelf in the den.

For such a Catholic, though, the idea that he worships Mary is difficult to fathom. His prayers -- even the ones directed to Mary -- begin and end, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Only God is to be worshipped, and Mary isn't God, so Mary isn't worshipped. Seems straightforward, doesn't it?

I suspect that the problem is that non-Catholics try to fit Catholic practices into non-Catholic categories. What is a statue in a house of worship if not "an idol"? What do you call praying to someone you think is in Heaven if not "worship"? What do you call believing in the infallibility of the Church if not "checking your mind at the door"?

There are lots of Catholic apologetics sites on the web that answer the charge of mariolatry. A good place to start understanding the role of Mary in Catholicism is with Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church produced at the Second Vatican Council. Chapter 8 of that document is titled "The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church;" it states in part:
Placed by the grace of God, as God's Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men, Mary intervened in the mysteries of Christ and is justly honored by a special cult in the Church... [which] differs essentially from the cult of adoration which is offered to the Incarnate Word, as well to the Father and the Holy Spirit.... The various forms of piety toward the Mother of God, which the Church within the limits of sound and orthodox doctrine, according to the conditions of time and place, and the nature and ingenuity of the faithful has approved, bring it about that while the Mother is honored, the rightly known, loved and glorified and that all His commands are observed.

As I've implied elsewhere, believing that Catholics worship Mary does not necessarily imply opposition to Catholicism. However, the cult of Mary ("cult" here must obviously be understood in the sense the Catholic Church intends, that of a shared and public form of veneration) is so closely associated with Catholicism, in both common thought and in reality, that if the former be rejected the latter must be as well; and if the cult of Mary is actually worship of Mary, then according to all Christian thought it must be rejected. Genuine belief among genuine Christians that Catholics worship Mary therefore entails a dogmatic rejection of Catholicism -- and not for any subtle theological reason, but for blasphemy.

In a sense, then, assuming that a Protestant who thinks Catholics worship Mary is an anti-Catholic is a sign of respect for the integrity of the Protestant's reasoning. People being people, though, the one doesn't imply the other in practice.

A couple of words in response

Martin Roth has two questions:

1. Do Catholics worship Mary?


2. Doesn’t ‘anti’ mean “opposed to” or “preventing”?


I am always happy to be able to clear things up like this.

Thursday, May 30, 2002
Episode Umpteenth: Attack of the Cohens

Somehow, when I saw the title “Personhood in a Petri Dish,” and the byline “Richard Cohen,” I knew it would yield a Praying the Post entry.

Mr. Cohen does not display careful thought in this opinion piece.

How does he characterize the cloning debate? “It is, at bottom, about sex -- how to control it, how to punish it.”

But if it’s about sex, then why does he write that “this bill is nothing less than an attempt to impose a religious doctrine on the rest of us”?

But if it’s about religion, then why does he write that people “will suffer or die -- all in the name of personhood for a bunch of cells in a petri dish.”

On his third and final attempt, he gets it right.

Opposition to theraputic cloning is not about sex; on what possible basis could it be about sex? Nor is it about imposing a religious doctrine, since the arguments are not based on religion. Defending the value of God revealing truths that are, in principle, knowable by human reason, St. Thomas points out that “the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” [Summa Theologica I, 1, i] Similarly, Catholic doctrine helps Catholics come to a sure and certain position against human cloning, but the truths against it such as reason could discover are there to be discovered without reference to or dependence on Catholic doctrine.

The cloning debate is about personhood, or rather the relationship between human beings, personhood, and value. Richard Cohen makes two fundamental mistakes in arguing his side: First, he thinks it suffices to say, “I don't think a cloned cell is a person,” as though, “A cloned cell is a person,” is the complete argument against theraputic cloning.

Second, he writes, “But what you should notice above all is that my goal -- my sole intention -- is to alleviate human misery.” This is the moral fallacy that intent defines act, that the end not only justifies, but morally characterizes, the means.

In making this fallacy, he expresses another ubiquitous error: that alleviating human misery trumps all other considerations. This is the underlying basis for many of the arguments for abortion, and for perhaps all the arguments for euthanasia. It is true if and only if materialism holds, if there is nothing of any moral weight beyond the physical phenomena of this world. It also demands of its adherents an extraordinarily shallow concept of the meaning of human life.

Speaking of extraordinarily shallow, how can one characterize this comparison: “It [the Brownback bill] is not that far removed from the Vatican's attempt to silence Galileo because he supported the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun.”

This is such a staggeringly senseless comparison I have to think that Mr. Cohen was not actively thinking when he wrote it. I suspect his mind simply wandered down a path of associations like this: cloning, science, opposition to cloning, opposition to science, religious opposition to science, Galileo. Once a mind like his recalls the word “Galileo,” I think it believes itself to be wielding an intellectual club before which all Catholic opposition must retreat in shame.

That is foolishness, of course; but what else can one make of the opinions of Richard Cohen?

Tuesday, May 28, 2002
When is an anti-Catholic not anti-Catholic?

Martin Roth has a very perceptive take on my comments about the article on anti-Catholic opinions: "Praying the Post wonder why erroneous attitudes toward Catholics are called anti-Catholic."

What makes this perceptive is that, while what I wrote about calling certain erroneous beliefs anti-Catholic was, "I think that's great," what I was thinking as I wrote it was, "I'm not sure even I would equate belief that Catholics worship Mary with anti-Catholicism."

But then, that's because (contrary to my training) I haven't really defined the term "anti-Catholicism." For it to mean anything more useful than "the state of being not Catholic," I think it needs to connote some sort of active judgment that Catholicism is bad.

What makes someone judge that Catholicism is bad depends on what values that person holds. Non-Catholic Christians, I suppose, would think that Catholicism is bad if they think it adds to or subtracts from the genuine Gospel. Non-religious humanists might think Catholicism is bad if they think it infringes on human freedom or impedes human progress.

So a statement like "83% of non-Catholic Americans believe that Catholics worship Mary" does not imply that 83% of non-Catholic Americans are anti-Catholic. Some fraction of this 83% may think there's nothing wrong with worshipping Mary, if that's what Catholics want to do [note to non-Catholic readers: it's not]. Some may even think worshipping Mary is a good idea and do it themselves.

But we can't really understand this survey taken out of historical context. People would not believe that Catholics worship Mary if they weren't told that Catholics worship Mary, and the people who tell people this are explicit and avowed anti-Catholics, religiously opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. We may not be living in the days of the Know-Nothings and Thomas Nast, but Christians who deny that Catholics are Christians, who call the pope Antichrist and consider all practicing Catholics damned, are by no means found only in enclaves in Idaho.

Moreover, it's hard to know what to make of the 52% of non-Catholic Americans who think Catholics "really are not permitted to think for themselves." Set aside their opinions about Catholicism; what of their opinions of Catholics? To half the U.S. non-Catholic population, nothing Catholics say about ethics, morality, social priorities -- anything the Catholic hierarchy might happen to comment on -- matters, because none of it is "really" the thought of individual Catholics. This, far more than ignorance of the role of art in Catholic worship, is worrisome. In a country that takes individual liberty as seriously as the U.S. does, this is a measure of a widespread judgment that Catholicism is bad.

Sunday, May 26, 2002
A simple experiment

They say that the social sciences aren't real sciences, but it is still possible, sometimes, to make hypotheses about our society and test them experimentally.

One hypothesis is this: Any piece of commentary that appears in the Washington Post whose author bills herself "as a lifelong Catholic and as a clinical psychologist" is going to conclude that the Church needs to allow a) optional celibacy among her priests; b) women priests; and c) gays to express themselves sexually.

A test of this hypothesis can be found in Patricia Dalton's "Is Anybody in There Listening?"

Dalton's conclusions -- by "conclusions," I mean the assertions with which she concludes her commentary; she derives them from no arguments as such -- are completely unnoteworthy, but she does have a distinctive and trying habit of name-dropping. Well, not name-dropping so much as "no-name dropping"; she quotes from "a former nun"; "a recent e-mail"; "Bridget Mary Meehan, an active member of my church"; a "priest and psychologist" who spoke to "a friend of mine"; "my Catholic friend Donna Maglione"; "my 87-year-old Filipino piano teacher."

This succession of regular folk testimony -- leading up to her final "Here is what this lay Catholic woman [i.e., Dalton herself] would recommend to the hierarchy." -- is necessary to impress the reader with the evident truth of her thesis: "The Catholic church is out of touch with its people, its flock."

Now, there are several things that can be said about this. One is that Patricia Dalton's circle of friends is not necessarily representative of the twelve hundred million lay Catholics she claims to be speaking for. Another is that this is a strangely clerical way of expressing herself, as though the Church were distinct from its people. (I've noticed this habit among some Catholics who were raised in the Baltimore Catechism tradition, only to adopt "progressive" ideas about how the Church needs to grow: despite their rhetoric, they never seem to shake the idea that "the Church" equals "the priests and the nuns;" therefore all the faults they can find among priests and nuns can be ascribed, ontologically, to the Church; therefore the Church must change ontologically to rid itself of these faults.)

What strikes me most about this article, though, is an almost desperate attempt by Dalton to establish her Catholic bona fides. She is a lifelong Catholic, you see, and she has many good friends who are also Catholic, you know, and therefore you have to conclude, don't you, that she must be right.

The idea that earnestness and sincerity guarantee truth is not a Catholic idea.

I think a key to the article can be found in these words: "And our anger reaches back before the current crisis. Take my experience." This seems to explain why Dalton uses the current crisis as a launching pad to both blanket criticism of the hierarchy and the same laundry list of "progressive" goals for the Church. She has not learned anything from the molestation scandals, nor from the diocesan coverups. All of her ideas are old ideas, reheated over the fires stoked by the Boston Globe and served with a superficially fresh garnish of topical concern.

There has been much discussion about whether child-molesting priests are developmentally stuck in an adolescent stage of sexuality. It seems that some "of us who came of age in the '60s" are also stuck, believing that the only way for the Church to move forward out of the 1950s is to embrace the 1970s.