Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Culture Wars?

I have just finished reading a book by Bernard Goldberg titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (it was in the bargain bin at the bookstore). The book is basically an attack on those people (mostly liberals in this case) who do not share the political viewpoints of the author. I have read a similar book by Rush Limbaugh and another from a liberal viewpoint by Al Franken. The purpose of each of these books is to ridicule and attack people who are political opponents. To a certain extent such a way of thinking is understandable. I recall a story told of the long time rivalry between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (When Lady Astor said that if she was married to Churchill she would put poison in his tea Churchill's retort was that if he were married to Astor he would drink the poison). However, because of the intensity of these attacks I think that these books point to a malaise in American politics (and to a lesser extent in Canadian politics) that seems to be carrying over to "politics" within the Catholic Church in the USA.

The reason that denigrating attacks on political opponents is damaging to the political process is simply because such attacks make any kind of political compromise less and less likely. The people who were attacked in such a way are not likely to want to cooperate in any way with the attackers and nobody is likely to want to be seen as "soft" on the political opposition. This is damaging to the political process because the basic mechanism of democracy is compromise. In a "pure" democracy citizens would discuss a question of what ought to be done until some kind of a consensus was reached. Citizens might not get exactly what they wanted but would still get something that they could agree on. If this consensus was not possible, only then would the majority rule theory be applied. This suggests that the ability to seek consensus - to compromise - is key to the democratic process. Now, I am not an expert on American politics but it seems to me that what we are seeing is increasing polarization between "liberals" and "conservatives." It seems to me that this polarization is making it increasingly unlikely that the American government will be able to deal with the important issues facing the nation in the future.

When I read religious blogs by Catholic "liberals" or "conservatives" I think that I see a similar polarization. Here the damage is not to a process but rather to the very idea of what it means to be a Church. Jesus prayed "that they may be one," and Paul over and over again urged unity in the Church. Anything therefore that damages the unity of the Church would seem to be a bad thing. The Church is like a family in the way that just as you do not choose who is in your family so you do not choose who is sitting next to you in Church. At the same time in both the family and the Church our faith requires us to accept everyone (maybe especially those we might not agree with).

However, it is true that there are some times when compromise is not possible. The issue of abortion for example, polarized as it is between the issue of respect for life and women's rights, does not seem to readily allow for compromise. Here is where there are no easy answers. Jesus did not send people away. Think for example of the story of the rich young man. The young man clearly wants to follow Jesus and Jesus gives him the invitation with one challenge - to sell what he has and give it to the poor. The young man went away because he was rich and unable to respond to the challenge. The point is that Jesus did not directly send the man away - and neither should we do so with people who dissent from the church. The Church (and those in the Church) does not need to act as a "gatekeeper" to the sacraments. What the Church needs to do is to faithfully proclaim the challenge of living a life that is faithful to the call of Jesus.

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