Venom From the Right

by Michael Sean Winters

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It has been a rough week for a certain type of conservative, the type who has an over-arching need for literal certainty, who worries about straying from the party line, and who inclines towards fundamentalist understandings of all issues. First, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the Supreme Court’s four liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Now, here comes Pope Benedict XVI, appointing as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, a man these fundamentalist conservatives have accused of heresy.

Yesterday, I noted that Rick Garnett had pushed back, effectively and convincingly, against those conservatives who are attacking Roberts. It can be hoped that other conservative intellectuals will think long and hard about the monster they have, if not created, at least abetted, a conservative political movement that is dangerous in part because it is not very smart. Something similar has been going on among the Catholic Right for some time, with groups like the American Life League being able to cast vicious aspersions and false allegations against good people and good works, without being called out by conservative Catholic intellectuals.

Rocco put up a link to the blog Rorate Caeli, which wrote about the possibility of Muller’s appointment before it was announced. They entitled the article “In charge of the henhouse?” The article was signed with a pseudonym, “new Catholic,” who is identified only as a convert to Catholicism, surely someone who knows more about the faith than, say, Pope Benedict XVI who has only been baptizing children, confecting the Eucharist, ordaining priests, and writing theology for decades. Poor Papa Ratzi – never blogged a day in his life. What could he know?

Evidently, according to various news reports, there was a great deal of hostility to the nomination of the German prelate to the CDF. Some were worried about his association with Gustavo Guttierez, widely seen as the father of “liberation theology.” Muller has for many years traveled to Peru every year to take a class with Gutierrez and, as NCR’s John Allen reports, while there Muller lives with farmers in a poor rural community near the Bolivian border. Proximity to the poor is one of the notes of holiness in my experience, and holiness is one of the guarantors of orthodoxy because, if I can put it this way, the faith is prior to theology. Indeed, the principal criticism of some liberation theologians, not all, was that they put socio-political analysis prior to their theology, and consequently, having started at the wrong point of departure, unsurprisingly ended up traveling down paths that led them into serious errors. Christian theology starts with the faith, and then moves outwards, availing itself of any humanly fashioned philosophic framework that proves itself compatible with the faith. I was never very interested in liberation theology. Being half-Polish, and more inclined to the study of history than abstract philosophic principles, I was suspicious of seeing anything with Marxist roots leading to anything like liberation. But, I am told by people I respect, that liberation theologians have seen the need to conform their theology, especially their Christian anthropology, to Catholic belief and it is better than it was in the mid-80s when I encountered it myself and was unimpressed.

The Rorate Caeli blog, however, passes by the liberation theology issue in haste. It is more concerned about Muller’s writings regarding the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mother, and meaning of the Real Presence in the sacrament of the altar, and his ecclesiological and ecumenical views. “New Catholic” evidently thinks such ideas are to be taken at face value and that the face that gets to do the valuing is his or her own. Because he thinks that the Real Presence must be understood in a certain way, everyone must understand it in the same way. Archbishop Muller understands it differently, ergo, he must be a heretic.

The issue of the Real Presence is the one that intrigues me. Muller wrote: “In reality, the body and blood of Christ do not mean the material components of the human person of Jesus during his lifetime or in his transfigured corporality. Here, body and blood mean the presence of Christ in the signs of the medium of bread and wine.” The fact that anyone finds this heterodox is curious because it reminds me of a conversation I had with a non-believer earlier this year. Over lunch he said that of course I did not believe that the bread and the wine was really changed into the body and blood of Christ and that a chemical analysis of the bread and the wine could prove his point. I suggested that a chemical analysis could be done upon each of us, but it could not disclose what was real and important, namely that we were friends, both interested in the world of ideas and of politics, that we had met by reason of the horrible circumstance of having to bury a mutual friend and sustained the friendship through the years, etc. I affirm and Archbishop Muller affirms the faith of the Church, that the Eucharist contains the presence of Christ. That fact tells us nothing about the chemical makeup of the bread and wine. Who cares about the chemical makeup?

I recall an interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput when he said, and I paraphrase, that his hate mail from the left was distinguished by its vulgarity but that the hate mail from the right was distinguished by its venom. Those who have called Chief Justice Roberts a “traitor” or a “coward” discredit themselves not the Chief Justice. So, too, those who hurl the charge of heterodoxy at Archbishop Muller only display their own limited grasp of Catholic theology. But, both groups do something else. They evidence malice, which is one of the seven deadly sins, and they call into question the very institutions they claim to love. A Chief Justice’s opinion can be wrong without being evidence of treason. A theologian’s writings can be not one’s cup of tea without being heterodox. Treason and heresy are serious charges and those who make them casually should think twice, and then think again. The Master said something about taking the pole out of one’s own eye before trying to remove the mote from your brother’s.

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