Monday, August 22, 2016

Mark Shea the Ephraimite

Image Source: Mark P. Shea, I presume.
If you want an example of the damage done to the Catholic Church in America by the surrounding culture’s increasing hyperpartisanship and ideological tribalism, consider this: Mark Shea’s blog at the National Catholic Register has been dropped, and his even-Christians are happy about it. Rejoicing, even. Good riddance, Shea, you heretical librul (because, of course, to be a librul is to be a heretic and vice versa). The Circular Catholic Firing Squad has finally claimed a victory/defeat.

“Do Not Rejoice”

I have not found the official statement from NCRegister. Apologist Steve Ray posted it and linked back to a Fr. Peter West’s Facebook post. Who Fr. West is, where he got the statement, and whether he has a relationship with NCRegister, the deponent saith not.

Added Fr. West, “With this in mind, I ask you to pray for Mark Shea. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for personal reflection for him. He has many gifts that he can use in the service of the Church and the pro-life movement. Recall the words from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and when they stumble, do not let your heart exult, Lest the Lord see it, be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemies.’ (Proverbs 24:17[-18 NABRE])” I expect God to withdraw His wrath fairly soon.

Note that Mark wasn’t dismissed because of anything he wrote at NCRegister, but rather because of his social-media activity. I’ve watched with some concern as Mark’s Facebook posts became increasingly caustic, strident, and hyperbolic in his condemnations of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the pro-life PACs associated with them. If there’s anything we should have learned by now, it’s that our social-media activity isn’t private, that employers can and will fire people for their off-work behavior.

Furthermore, we who publicly proclaim and defend the Catholic faith have a special duty to be the same people in our bedrooms as we are in the public square — especially now that the line between public and private is thinning and blurry. I too have difficulty being charitable to critics, so I empathize with Mark’s frustration. However, to be anything more than a pose, charity must inform everything we do. To instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner are spiritual works of mercy; the intent, however, doesn’t justify the manner.

Politics Makes Us Stupid

This is not to say that Mark’s criticisms of what some are calling (courtesy of Eye of the Tiber) “Republican-rite Catholics” were completely without merit. Exaggerated, yes. Without foundation, no. But they weren’t really listening to his scolding, to begin with; the more angrily he scolded, the more angrily they didn’t listen. And I suspect there were more than a few of his opponents who deliberately egged him on with their responses, to see just how over-the-top he could get. Anger is a weapon; who do you want holding the handle?

The first problem is that, because the vast majority of the doctrinal dissent and liturgical abuses of the last fifty years have been inspired by liberal politics, ideological conservativism has been equated, and even conflated, with doctrinal orthodoxy. Joe Heschmeyer reminds us that “our obsession with politics is unhealthy and unholy (in that it reflects our fixation on this life rather than the next, and on worldly power instead of true discipleship).” The second problem is that American politics have become hyperpartisan to the point that more people are disengaging from both parties to register “Independent”. Says the Pew Research Center’s Paul Taylor of the millennials, “No generation in history has ever been so allergic to a party label.”

The third problem: politics makes us stupid. The more a fact appears to threaten the tribe, or our position with it, the more likely we are to deny or explain away the fact. Education merely enhances this protective bias: the more educated you are, the more scientifically literate you are, the more resources you have to defend the tribal orthodoxy against the countervailing fact. This is true not just of the left but also of the right. The one thing everyone knows about cognitive biases is that everybody else suffers from them.

The more an issue is politicized, the less either side is willing to entertain the possibility of being wrong. This explains both why conservatives are such rock-skulled morons and liberals are such smug, self-satisfied jerks. Compounding the problem is the extreme degree to which we as a culture have lost our sense of truth and its value. Both sides regularly generate false facts, and regularly accuse each other of generating false facts. Both sides are guilty, but hey! That’s a tu quoque, so we can ignore it!

Since man is a social animal, one man naturally owes another whatever is necessary for the preservation of human society. Now it would be impossible for men to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth one to another. Hence the virtue of truth does, in a manner, regard something as being due. (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 109 A. 3 ad 1)

Two Strands of Liberalism

Summing the problems up, then, conservatives write Mark Shea off as a Hillary Clinton-lovin’, sodomite-huggin’, bleeding-heart librul-heretic because he’s so aggressively challenged and mocked Catholic conservatives for upholding various Republican shibboleths. But conservative ideology is not identical to Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, precisely because it is a political ideology, Catholics ought to question its assumptions and premisses. Shea is not the first nor the only Catholic writer to do so; nor will he be the last.

The meaning of both liberalism and conservativism have shifted in the last seventy years. Neo-conservativism, as Patrick Deneen points out, is “better designated market liberalism” for its laissez-faire approach to economic and social intervention, while the progressive left is liberal only so far as they still maintain “individual autonomy in … the social/personal sphere”.

Ironically, conservativism began in the 1950s as a movement to protect the sociopolitical order to which the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers gave birth. Prior to then, the Republicans were the more liberal party, while the Democrats were more populist. After World War II, however, the Democrat élite began associating with more avant-garde philosophical and social movements hostile to the established order. Since thinkers like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr. had chosen conservativism to distinguish their movement from what liberalism was becoming, liberalism was left to stand for an ideology that over time would become more statist and more authoritarian.

Classical liberalism, however, is premissed on a view of the human as an isolated, autonomous agent; that is, with no natural ties or obligations, making temporary agreements or “contracts” based on utility. This is fundamentally at odds with Catholicism, which holds that humans are born into and form relationships entailing natural mutual obligations and that certain institutions like family, community, and church are organic relationships rather than artificial constructs. Says Deneen, “Because America was founded as a liberal nation, ‘radical’ Catholicism [thinkers critical of First Things-style conservative Catholicism] tends to view America as a deeply flawed project, and fears that the anthropological falsehood at the heart of the American founding is leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe.”

The Passing of the Cold Warriors

To call such critics “liberals” or “heretics” is a knee-jerk reaction, an ad hominem attack born of tribal allegiances that have stood for half a century. If you’re not with us, you must be one of them. It doesn’t try to refute, or even understand, the criticism so much as it seeks to smite the Ephraimites:

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. (Judges 12:5-6)

Both Deneen and (more recently) Fr. Dwight Longenecker have pointed out that the New Left’s attempts to corrupt the Church in America are at an end. “Liberal Catholicism,” says Deneen, “has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation.” But Fr. Longenecker also asserts that conservative Catholicism, as it’s understood right now, is also headed for extinction. “The young people who have kept the faith are, for the most part, simple, by the book, faithful Catholics. They view the church differently and don’t see it in such stark ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’  terms.”

There’s more to it than the good padre’s ipse dixit. For one thing, the US’ center of political gravity has been shifting to the left for the last three generations. I am at the front edge of Generation X and get a lot if not all of the Boomer references. At the back edge of my group, and following us, are a new group who has no memory of Richard Nixon or Leonid Brezhnev, who don’t know what the Berlin Wall meant to us but are skeptical about the wall going up on the Mexican border, for whom the word socialism has no power to anger or terrify. This presidential cycle will be the first to have voters who have no real memory of 9/11, just as my group has no memory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Trump’s voter base is part of the “White Christian America” that is dying. All of us who were formed by the Cold War and the tumult of the Vietnam years are passing, and with us will go the ideological bugbears and dog whistles of our time.

In Re Mark Shea

Frankly, in re Mark Shea, there’s enough blame to pass around. However, no one else, as far as I know, lost a source of income for their lack of charity; when you own the site you blog on, you can’t be kicked off it for gloating over someone else’s misfortune. If it’s true Mark was free to choose to tone down his rhetoric on Facebook, it’s true for everyone, even LifeSiteNews. No one gets a pass on this.

Enjoy your sordid, picayune victory, folks. Eat a nice, big helping of Schadenfreude. But remember that the clock is ticking on our generation, both strands of liberalism, and most likely the American Era.

We’ve done a shitty job of witnessing to the Faith; a little bit of prosperity and we lost our freakin’ minds. We lost the culture war because we forgot that the gospel message was about changing people’s hearts and minds, changing the way we treat each other, not changing the language of the liturgy or owning the levers of political power. Say what you will about St. John Paul II, thank God he came along to start us back on the road to recovering it. Thank God his witness and example started bringing in the converts you so condescendingly sneer at as “neo-Catholics”, like Mark Shea. We dropped the ball; they picked it back up.

See you in the catacombs.

POSTSCRIPT: Mark still has his blog at Patheos, “Catholic and Enjoying It!”, where he’s gracefully commented on his departure from NCRegister.