Chicago's Unserious Event

CORRECTION: The article below originally stated that the event took place at the Chicago Theological Union. In fact, it took place at the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is not a Catholic institution. I regret the error and apologize for the mistaken identification. The Catholic Theological Union, which is based in Chicago and is commonly referred to as CTU, was not connected to this event.

Saturday, there was a conference, well, not exactly a conference, at the Chicago Theological Seminary titled, “Women in the Catholic Church: What Francis Needs to Know.” Conferences have a certain academic flavor. This event had all the theological sophistication of a high school pep rally. You can find the on-demand video of the event here.

One panel especially caught my attention: “Sex, Sexuality and Other Unmentionables.” I do not know about anyone else, but it seems to me that way too much time within the Catholic community has been spent discussing sex and sexuality. The subject is anything but unmentionable. There is a veritable tsunami of articles and books on the topic. But, as predicted in these pages shortly after the election of Pope Francis, this panel demonstrated the divide within the Catholic Left that Francis has made obvious, between those of us who care primarily about the poor and the marginalized and those who care mostly about pelvic theological issues. The event at CTS was a kind of political convention for the latter group.

This misnamed panel was moderated by Patricia Miller, who formerly worked at the equally misnamed Catholics for Choice, which was one of the co-sponsors of the event. I am not shy about my thoughts regarding Catholics for Choice. This is obviously a confused organization, as its name suggests, the RC equivalent of Israelis for Hamas. Catholics for Choice is also an insidious organization, dedicated to convincing Catholics that one can be a good Catholic and also see abortion, usually referred to by the euphemism “reproductive freedom,” as a positive good in society. I think the issue of how to legislate on abortion is complicated, but the starting point for any Catholic must be that abortion is a great evil and that we must seek to minimize it as much as humanly possible. There is no, repeat no, warrant in our tradition for any other stance. The Church’s opposition to abortion was one of the first things that distinguished us in the early decades of the Church’s existence. No theologian of any stature has ever suggested abortion was a good thing. The Second Vatican Council, otherwise celebrated by the Catholic Left, called abortion “an unspeakable crime.”

The first speaker on the panel was Professor Daniel Maguire of Marquette University. Given the title of his last book, Christianity without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative, I suppose it is wrong to call him a theologian any longer. If it is possible to conceive of a Christianity without God, then theology, the study of God, is no longer an occupation Mr. Maguire can undertake without fibbing.

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What is ironic is that, in response to one of the questions, Mr. Maguire had the gall to quote Blessed John Henry Newman. The quote – “a university is a place where many minds compete freely together” – was not exactly on point, seeing as Maguire was discussing ecclesiology. A Catholic university is certainly a necessary and important mission of the Church, but it is not the Church, and confusing the one, in which youth are formed, with the other, which pertains to everyone, is unhelpful. In any event, Newman dedicated his life to the proposition that ours is a dogmatic faith. He would not have taken kindly to Mr. Maguire’s latest opus.

Newman also would have parted ways with Maguire over the latter’s understanding of conscience. His talk consisted of a defense of probabilism, a cavalier treatment of what was always a difficult moral theory, one that corresponds to a basic human need, to recognize the murkiness that occurs when a moral law is applied to concrete circumstances, but which must always be balanced with a recognition that the moral law speaks to other human needs and desires, including such basic desires as to avoid causing harm to others. But, in Maguire’s talk, it is hard to differentiate conscience from whim. Certainly, conscience to Maguire has nothing to do with the characterization of conscience supplied by Newman: Conscience, for him, was the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”     

Susan Ross’ presentation was unexceptional, but not outrageous. I do not understand how Vatican II’s linkage of the procreative and unitive aspects of sex was progressive while Paul VI’s restatement of that linkage a few years later was reactionary, and Ross does not explain it. I was disturbed to hear, during the Q-and-A, her characterization of an incident that occurred during her tenure as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America. A group of more traditional theologians reached out to her and said they felt excluded from the group’s programming, and an ad hoc committee was set up to look into the lack of diversity within the CTSA. At the time, those involved in the discussions characterized Ross as very open to the discussion. Saturday, she said she thought the conservative theologians’ position was “preposterous” and the episode “distressing.” I wrote about the diversity committee at the CTSA here. One other thing bothered me about both Ross' and Maguire's presentations. Call me old-fashioned, but should not a presentation on the Church's teaching on any subject over the centuries, even one constrained by time, at least stipulate in some meaningful sense that the Church is the graced instrument of God's activity in the world?  

The last panelist, Katie Breslin, was from Catholics for Choice. She talked a lot about a poll the group had commissioned, and they certainly got their money’s worth seeing as the results directly contradict, in ways that are conducive to those who purchased those results, most other polling data on Americans’ continuing ambivalence on the issue of abortion with a definite tilt toward pro-life attitudes. As Charlie Camosy demonstrated in his book Beyond the Abortion Wars, the key thing to know about a poll on attitudes towards abortion is how the questions were posed. (This is true of polling generally.) The rest of her talk was a rambling campaign-style speech that seemed out of place in an academic setting.

No one, repeat no one, on the panel about sexuality discussed the recent videos of Planned Parenthood executives talking breezily about the dismemberment of unborn children with a view toward harvesting their organs. Indeed, the Catholic Left has been shamefully silent on the subject. Some of our liberal evangelical friends, including Jim Wallis and others, have not been so reticent and they are to be both applauded and mimicked. I am not surprised that a group like Catholics for Choice would prefer to talk about anything else, which is another reason to have nothing to do with that group. It is akin to barring one’s children from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Why face the harsh reality of what abortion, or slavery, is when euphemisms can cloud judgment and retard justice.

I was ambivalent about even discussing this event. Why call attention to something that was so unserious? But, it speaks to a larger issue facing the Catholic Left in the era of Pope Francis, a subject about which I will have more to say as we get closer to the pope’s visit in September. For me, the only hopeful sign at the event came when the camera showed the audience, which was decidedly white and overwhelmingly older. It brought to mind the joke about the visit two years ago of a dissident Austrian priest, Herr Muller, who went on a speaking tour of the U.S. The audiences that showed up for his talks were also a bit long in the tooth. The joke was a version of Catholic jeopardy, you get the answer and have to devise the question. The answer: Cliffs of Dover. The question: What is the only thing older and whiter than the audience at a lecture by Fr. Muller? Saturday’s event at CTS had a similar feel. Whatever else the event was, it was not about the future of the Church.


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