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Culture Warriors, Rigidity, and the Semantic Games of the Catholic Left

Peruse any number of articles and opinion pieces in any number of more left-leaning Catholic media venues, and soon enough you are likely to read the ipse dixit assertion that certain prelates or lay leaders are culture warriors. Certain bishops, for example, are supposedly culture warriors. Others are implicitly not. Culture warriors probably wear French cufflinks; those who aren’t culture warriors have an ovine odor.

The appellation “culture warrior” has become a favorite label invoked by those of more liberal tendencies against those perceived as being, well, bullies.

The alleged culture warrior does not play nicely with the Zeitgeist and its potentates and heroes du jour. The alleged culture warrior wants to do mean things like seek to avoid scandal or profanation of the Holy Eucharist. The alleged culture warrior does not understand that doctrines taught for centuries could be changed tomorrow by pontifical pen, and that the ink of said pen is refilled in the workshops known as Synods.

Who is not a culture warrior? The peaceful, loving, ebullient and effusive friend of both bunnies and barons: the person who is, in the final analysis, not rigid.

Anyone with the remotest familiarity with Catholic ecclesiastical life in the 1970s and 1980s is well aware of the connotations and implications of accusations of rigidity. How many lost vocations can be attributed to the single charge of “rigidity”? Rigidity was and now once again is a realm uniquely accessible to those of more stereotypically conservative tendencies. Those more liberal could never be accused of rigidity. After all, liberal means free, and those who are free – as opposed to those seeking to conserve and to preserve – could not possibly be identified as rigid. Just as “culture warriors” seemingly exist only on the right, never on the left. Liberal clergy and laity can never be “culture warriors.”

More accurately, one could argue that there are culture warriors on both sides of the political spectrum. The prelate who seeks to be a custodian of the traditions handed down for centuries is more precisely a defensive culture warrior, one who takes seriously the need to protect that which is a precious treasure from onslaughts external and internal. The prelate who wishes to alter those traditions or to consign them into near oblivion also merits the title culture warrior. His culture war is an offensive one, aimed at either changing or at least neutering certain teachings and practices.

Those of more right-leaning tendencies should contest, demand clarification of, and resist every gratis dismissal of this or that conservative bishop, priest, or layman as a “culture warrior.” For too long this inaccurate and imprecise label has been one of the most overused terms of opprobrium in the liberal lexicon.

Similarly, those accused of “rigidity” should demand that the charge be imputed to those on the left as well as those on the right. If clergy and laity on the right are rigid because allegedly they seek to live some fantasy of 1950s Roman Catholicism, then those on the left are rigid for wanting to live the perpetual 1968 or 1975. Already in recent years we have heard assertions both pontifical and plebeian that the liturgical reforms of the 1960s/1970s are “irreversible.” How does that assertion not drip with “rigidity”?

Semantic games have become the stock-in-trade for some in church circles. “Dialogue” and “accompaniment” are good examples of the currently fashionable preference for vapid vocabulary. Like the mania for synods that usually have predetermined conclusions that are clumsily covered in a veneer of verbiage in the service of sophistry, so the incessant calls we hear today from some quarters for “dialogue” and “accompaniment” are all too often merely cynical, semantic ploys. The game is an old one: creeping incrementalism seasoned by the occasional ambiguous declaration that the “Spirit” is behind the preconceived agenda. It has in some instances devolved into a performance of bad theater, on a stage viewed by an ever smaller and increasingly bored audience.

Those culpable for the imputation of the charge of “culture war” or “rigidity” are, one might argue, redolent with the spirit of clericalism against which they also all too frequently rail. Arguments are based more on assertion and self-referential defense than on appeals to the quintessentially Roman treasure known as tradition. There is a clear enough club of both favored clergy and laity, and they are the interpreters of the pontifical oracle.

Theodore McCarrick spoke at Villanova University some years before his fall from grace, a fall that was of no surprise to those of us with even the most transient awareness of his proclivities and practices. He spoke of the events prior to the conclave of 2013. It is a chilling speech, not least for its bald-faced arrogance. He speaks openly of his conversation with an unidentified “influential gentleman” who endorsed the candidacy of Jorge Bergoglio. The conversation as reported by McCarrick was subtly contemptuous of Joseph Ratzinger. The Church needed to be brought back on course; five years could fix the alleged problems. The future pope was not seen as custodian and defender of a precious treasure, but as the engineer who could build and launch successfully the time machine to circa 1975.

After Bergoglio was elected, Cardinal Roger Mahony posted a series of comments on the platform Twitter that were not subtly but rather blatantly contemptuous of Ratzinger. The myth of the humble Francis had found a Muse who sang not limpid hexameters but pithy tweets. Where the German had fancy shoes and lace, the Argentinian offered simplicity and a return to the Golden Age of felt banners and polyester chas-albs. Rigidity, after all, is fine when the object of one’s rigid fetish is Bauhaus and not Baroque. As the Roman poet Propertius would say, sunt aliquid Manes: ghosts are indeed real. For the Church today, those ghosts are not the elegist’s beloved Cynthia, but they carry names like Bugnini and Jadot.

“Uncle Ted” may be disgraced, but it is arguable that his spirit is in full vigor, not least in the preferred method of some prelates for interacting with the politically powerful, and in the constant application of the terms “culture warrior” and “rigid” with reference to those of more conservative tendencies. Coupled with this never ending semantic game is a serious misunderstanding of the limits of papal infallibility by all too many Catholics, a misunderstanding that for some may well be willful.

“Really therefore nothing has been passed of consequence.” That elegant and simple diary entry was made by Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman in the wake of the grappling of the First Vatican Council with the doctrinal question of infallibility. I am indebted to the writings of Father John Hunwicke for alerting me to it, and for the resultant many hours of fruitful exploration in the writings of the saint whose life spanned a century of upheaval and turmoil not dissimilar in some regards to our own. Newman’s writings on Vatican I are a good memory elixir for those who treat Vatican II as if it were Kubrick’s monolith descended from above, all the while treating Lateran IV as fodder for the ecclesiastical dustbin. Or, too, for those who act as if every word of Pope Francis is infused with the Holy Spirit, all the while giving occasion for waggish reflection on what they might say were they alive for the pontificates of Stephen VI or Urban VI (the latter no slouch in responding to cardinalatial dubia). For in the long and diverse history of our glorious Holy Mother the Church, the answer to the query “Where is Peter?” has sometimes been “the torture chamber.” History provides no better evidence of the indefectibility of the Church: it survives bad popes as well as good, and sometimes the best summation of a council or a synod is Newman’s: “Really therefore nothing has been passed of consequence.”

For Newman had his ultramontanists, and we have ours. In surviving the “culture war” waged by Catholics of more so-called progressive, leftward leaning tendencies, a good recourse is to remember that for every Catholic (red-robed or not) who struggles to reconcile a document like Amoris Laetitia with Tradition, there are a thousand who will never read its turgid pages. For every Catholic leader who seeks to impose “full, conscious, and active participation” on a captive liturgical audience, there are a thousand who could not recall Sunday’s readings, notwithstanding microphones and vulgar tongues. And for every Catholic who thinks that the current pontiff is something akin to Teilhard’s Omega Point, there are a thousand or more who live lives of quiet faith and admirable perseverance, quite oblivious to whatever has been said today or yesterday by the pope and his club of culture warrior spokesmen.

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