Que Sarah sera: The Nat'l Catholic Prayer Breakfast

I was out of town yesterday, so I was unable to attend the so-called National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. I say "so-called" because the event is mostly misnamed. It is more partisan than it is national, the GOP at Matins you might say. It is more sectarian than Catholic, drawing exclusively from those sectors of the Catholic faith which prefer a most conservative liturgy or theology. But, they do serve breakfast, hence the "mostly."

This year, the group heard from Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. (The text of his talk can be found at Whispers in the Loggia.) The choice was appropriate for the audience. Cardinal Sarah has not exactly been enthusiastic about the winds of change unleashed by Pope Francis. Like some U.S. prelates, he cherry-picks sections of Pope Francis' talks and writings, choosing only the more traditional things the pope says and ignoring the way those traditional items are balanced in the texts by other more forward-thinking items. This tactic will not work over the long haul: If Pope Francis was as conservative, even hide-bound, as Cardinal Sarah makes him out to be, there would not be so much fuss!

The talk had some fine moments. He employed one of my favorite Augustine quotes: "If you see charity, you see the Trinity." One of the principal failures of much preaching and catechesis in the post-conciliar era has been the inability, or unwillingness, to link our moral precepts to their doctrinal roots. In this regard, the church has been of mixed mind, wanting the language of natural law which is accessible to all people, but then also sensing that if our moral teachings are not related to our core doctrinal beliefs they will over time sink, unable to withstand the tosses and turns of a secular culture. So, I can do nothing but applaud the cardinal when he said:

Every human being, like the persons of the Trinity, has the capacity to be united with other persons in communion through the vinculum -- the bond of charity -- of the Holy Spirit. The family is a natural preparation and anticipation of the communion that is possible when we are united with God. The family, as it were, is a natural praeparatio -- written into our nature.

And, when he tackles the individualism of contemporary society, I also applaud. Right at the beginning of his talk, the cardinal said:


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Rapid social and economic development in the past half-century has not been accompanied by an equally fervent spiritual progress, as we witness what Pope Francis calls globalized indifference. It is the result of giving in to the delusion that we are self-sufficient, that man is his own measure in a pervasive individualism. It is manifested in the fear of suffering in our societies, our closing our eyes and hearts to the poor and vulnerable, and, in a very despicable way, in how we discard the unborn and the elderly.

This is all undoubtedly true, although the linkages of individualism, consumerism and ethics are more complicated than the cardinal allows, and much more complicated than a roomful of Republican Catholics would acknowledge.

But, then everything gets very dark as the cardinal paints a narrative steeped in Manichaeanis, in which all that is good and true and beautiful is on one side of the disputes in contemporary society, and all that is base and evil is on the other. This "us vs. them" language was surely a hit in the room, but I would submit Cardinal Sarah simply did not sound very much like Pope Francis when he said things like this:

Today we are witnessing the next stage -- and the consummation -- of the efforts to build a utopian paradise on earth without God. It is the stage of denying sin and the fall altogether. But the death of God results in the burial of good, beauty, love and truth. Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts, and truths are all relative.

So all manner of immorality is not only accepted and tolerated today in advanced societies, but even promoted as a social good. The result is hostility to Christians, and, increasingly, religious persecution.

Or this:

Do we not see signs of this insidious war in this great nation of the United States? In the name of 'tolerance,' the Church's teachings on marriage, sexuality and the human person are dismantled. The legalization of same-sex marriage, the obligation to accept contraception within health care programs, and even 'bathroom bills' that allow men to use the women's restrooms and locker rooms. Should not a biological man use the men's restroom? How simpler can that concept be?

How low we are sinking for a nation built on a set of moral claims about God, the human person, the meaning of life, and the purpose of society, given by America's first settlers and founders! God is named in your founding documents as 'Creator' and 'Supreme Judge' over individuals and government. The human person endowed with God-given and therefore inalienable rights to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' George Washington wrote that 'the establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the motive that induced me to the field of battle.'

In the first passage, there is no sense that God is active in the lives of all people, no sense that people who, for example, think same-sex unions, while different from traditional marriage, should nonetheless be seen not as demonic but as an appropriation of healthy values into a situation that is different from that conceptualized by moral theologians for most of the last 20 centuries. There is no sense that even if those who think the use of artificial contraception is justified, or is no big deal, are misguided, they are not intentionally taking part in a diabolical plot to subvert the Christian faith. As for the "bathroom wars" I would love to see the look on the cardinal's face if, while using the men's room, Caitlyn Jenner walked in. And, finally, there is very little in the way of compassion in this section of the talk or, indeed, throughout.

The second passage quoted above is simple strange. I am not sure why a Rome-based cardinal who is not from the United States and who has never lived here was so free in offering an assessment about our circumstances and our history, neither of which fall within the scope of his official duties as the head of the liturgy office. The Holy Father came to America and spoke about our nation's history, but he is the universal pastor of the church. If a Roman cardinal is going to do the same, surely he has some kind of responsibility to sound like the pope he represents. Curial cardinals are, after all, staff, exalted staff, but staff nonetheless.

I have written so often about the sheer falsity of the conservative Catholic narrative about the American founding. That falsity, in fact, exposes what was so misguided about the cardinal's talk. The time of the American founding was a time of explicit and deep anti-Catholicism. Anti-Catholic ideology played a central role in shaping the political ideas of the founders and, most especially, of the men in the street who fought the revolution. In his ridiculous book Tea Party Catholic, the Acton Institute's Samuel Gregg was rhapsodic about Charles Carroll, the one Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence. How anti-Catholic could the founding fathers be if they permitted a papist to sign that document? Carroll was, of course, seen not as a Catholic so much as he was seen as a fellow gentlemen, indeed a wealthy fellow gentlemen. That social fact overcame the religious bigotry of the time, which suggests that "secularism" is not a diabolical plot begun with the sexual revolution of the '60s, still less with the Obama presidency. Secularism was an intrinsic part of the American founding. I will swear to it on Thomas Jefferson's Deist Bible. Princes of the Church are well advised to look to people other than the thinkers at Acton or the scribes at the Knights of Columbus for a truthful understanding of the American founding. 

It doesn't bother me that a group of conservative Catholic Republicans gather once a year for breakfast in Washington. They do far more nefarious things the rest of the week! But, it does distress me that a cardinal would participate, indeed a cardinal whose job is to help the pope accomplish his ministry as the universal pastor of the church. Cardinal Sarah's talk will only embolden those who quite obviously resist Pope Francis, those who twist his words or profess themselves "confused" by his clarity, those who minimize and relativize everything the Holy Father says. And that is emphatically not his job.  

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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