Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicholas Kristof on "Tussling Over Jesus"

Readers who have followed the controversy within the Catholic Church over the abortion done at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix to save a pregnant woman's life should read Nicholas Kristof's powerful op ed in today's New York Times.

Kristof correctly locates the St. Joseph's controversy in the struggle in every faith group between dogmatic fundamentalists and compassionate humanists. "Faith group" is not limited to religions. The controversies about the U.S. Constitution between strict constructionists and those who - correctly - recognize that the Constitution was designed to be a living document, rests on the same dynamic.

Here are the key paragraphs from Kristof's piece:
To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness.

With the Vatican seemingly as deaf and remote as it was in 1517, some Catholics at the grass roots are pushing to recover their faith. Jamie L. Manson, the same columnist for National Catholic Reporter who proclaimed that Jesus had been “evicted,” also argued powerfully that many ordinary Catholics have reached a breaking point and that St. Joseph’s heralds a new vision of Catholicism: “Though they will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.”

(My own posts about St. Joseph's can be seen here, here, here, and here. My most recent post on the topic shares Kristof's admiration for the noble Catholic traditions of commitment to the poor and to social justice.)


Ken Kleinman said...

I think it's typical of believers to try to put the Constitution on a level with faith. That's an absurd equivalence that makes sense only because the behavior of judicial reactionaries-- denying the obvious facts and asserting their own (obviously incorrect) version-- resembles so closely the requirements of faith.

While the Constitution was expressly constructed to make our system of governance flexible, religions are constructed to promulgate "truths" and are therefore fundamentally opposed to change or interpretation. Thus, while purported "original intent" theorists, like the odious Antonin Scalia are wrong, religious fundamentalists are right, each within their context.

In contrast, the vast majority who see the Constitution as a living document are right, within the setting of the constitution, while religious humanists who want to ignore the parts of their scriptures with which they disagree are subject to an unbearable cognitive dissonance.

For Catholics there is the additional layer of Church teachings that have little to do with the scripture and the hierarchy that's such a big part of the faith. The very notion of reform within the church or of "pushing to recover their faith" is directly at odds with the whole notion of the religion, as I see it. You require a priest, and the priest belongs to the church. How do you take your religion back from that?

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Ken -

Thank you for your very interesting reflections!

I'm not a scholar of religion, but in my (admittedly limited) view, your characterization of the essence of religion is a characterization of the fundamentalist strain in religion. I know from surveys that the majority of U.S. Catholics do not accept the Church's teachings on reproductive ethics. And in terms of personal experience, many of the people I've admired most over the years hold religious views that steer them into what I've seen as compassionate humanism.

It may be that underlying and perhaps innate variables of temperament lead people to shape their religious practices in accord with their temperament, rather than vice versa. Part of the problem is that the fundamentalist folk, by definition, claim that their version of their faith (including views of the Constitution) is the TRUE view. That's what the heirarchy is claiming about St. Joseph's Hospital.

Elsewhere in his column Kristof writes - "If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation." Here he's invoking Jesus the radical humanist against the heirarchy of the Church, to argue that the TRUE Catholic perspective is not what the Bishop says, but what, in his view, Jesus would have said.

With regard to your comment about priests - there are priests and priests. They don't all agree. My Catholic friends pick and choose among them. They would regard Bishop Olmsted as a "false priest," who happens to have positional authority (Bishop of Phoenix) but lacks moral authority.

Thank you for taking the discussion to a deeper level!



Ken Kleinman said...

I don't know, Jim. I am an alien with respect to all sorts of faith, but it seems to me that "invoking Jesus the radical humanist" means just as equally "ignoring the Jesus who "comes not to send peace but a sword", who wants his enemies brought "hither, and slay them before me," that wants disobedient servants "beaten with many stripes," among many other statements from the Gospels that could hardly be described as humanist.

My point is not to criticize, and I agree with you that many people find inspiration to do great and good things in religion. Others find inspiration to great and terrible things, of course.

My point _is_ that the intellectual contradictions inherent in faith, it seems to me, are at least present for people whose moral compass is swayed by humanist thinking than for fundamentalists who disavow all responsibility. Christian humanists, at least, must decide which parts of the Gospels they choose to follow, and which to ignore. Fundamentalists can attempt to follow all parts of the teachings, and may even convince themselves that they succeed.

Catholics are special, as I mentioned. I think Catholics probably ought to acknowledge the fact that Catholicism is what the Church says it is. If you want to pick and choose which priests are correct, why not just choose a Episcopalian priest? Or a Baptist preacher? What is it that makes you not a Protestant, and why? If you regard Bishop Olmsted as a "false priest" wouldn't you also have to regard his Archbishop the same way? And the Pope as well? I assume at some point, if you start to actually think about it, you would find yourself feeling that cognitive dissonance.

The abortion question is particularly interesting in this regard-- in the first Google entry for "what does it mean to be a Catholic", Jim Heft a "teacher at a Catholic University" says, citing the Church's position: "What is now legal, Catholics see as profoundly immoral." So I guess he doesn't think that majority of American (self-described) Catholics really are Catholic after all. Similarly, other references expect Catholics to believe all the Dogma of the Church.

Finally, I note that your sense that Kristof is saying what the TRUE Catholic perspective is would tend to make him, by your definition, a fundamentalist. I'm not making that argument, but I think it is a tendency of religions and arguments based on religion, to define truth. I think faith is a lousy way to find seek the truth.

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Ken -

You raise a number of deep and important points.

I agree that religious traditions, whether about Jesus, the Hebrew Bible, Shiva, and the many others who are revered and worshipped, generally contain contradictory elements. Christians who are drawn to making love and compassion their guides will identify Jesus with those values, and Christians whose sentiments are organized around condemnation of what they regard as sin will identify Jesus with harsh judgement.

With regard to your comments on what it means to be Catholic, drawing on what Catholic friends have said, I believe that many distinguish between the bureaucratic heirarchy of the church, under which Bishop Olmsted can claim authority to say what is TRUE, and what they see as the spirit of the church, which they see him as deviating from.

Over the years I've been especially interested in the concept of "calling" in health care. When doctors and nurses say - "this isn't a 'job,' it's a 'calling,'" - where is the call coming from? Within a religious tradition the call is accounted for within the particular theology. But secular clinicians have more difficulty explaining where their call originates.

In my own view, the "call" ultimately comes from within the individual, but we explain the grounds of the call within the framework of our beliefs. I don't know how I'd try to prove it, but I see the "call" as primary, and the beliefs as our way of rationalizing the commitment we feel.