Catholic and American in New England


What does it mean to be Catholic in America? In the terms next week’s Portsmouth Institute conference at Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Abbey school (June 7-9), what is the balance of “Catholicism and the American Experience”?

About a half-century ago, people who feared the presidency of Massachusetts Catholic John F. Kennedy presented it as a sort of dual citizenship or split loyalty. The concern was that the governing structure of the Church would not remain merely parallel to the governing structure of the country if a believer held the top executive office.

Nowadays, one is more likely to hear people with a conservative perspective expressing concern that the Church is too comfortable with government encroachment into morality and charitable services.  It does seem as if the Church’s call to do good works has sometimes been confused with a call for a faceless government to confiscate money and curtail freedom.  That’s the lure that a progressive state casts out for well-meaning people.

So it is interesting to see a professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College suggest that it was Catholic tolerance that made New England the first region in the nation to redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex couples.  That’s what Mark Silk did on his Religion News Service blog, although reading his other posts, one might conclude that his primary purpose is to tug Catholics away from the institutional Church that in large part defines them as Catholics.

Silk contrasts New England Catholics’ tolerance with the “monitory mood” of the Church hierarchy. He lets slip from view, however, another hierarchy: the judiciary that created civil unions in Vermont in 1999 and same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004 and Connecticut in 2008.

The political travel of same-sex marriage through the capitals of the New England is a messier matter than that, as politics always is.  But mightn’t it be that New Englanders’ tolerance for the authority of others over them was more critical than their tolerance of different systems of belief? And to the extent that New England’s status as the most Catholic region in the country played a role, could it have been that the American Church has not adequately explained (or maybe understood) distinctions in the application of authority?

Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin illustrated appropriate religious authority well when he advised those under his pastoral care that they should “examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies.” Like Silk, some in Rhode Island have taken this as a command to shun the joyous occasions of loved ones’ lives if they involve same-sex ceremonies.

But Tobin’s words are better chosen than that. As bishop, his authority is to explain the Church’s teachings to its people.  “Examine your conscience” is not a universal writ that implies a mandatory answer for everybody; it is a warning to tread carefully.  The General Assembly and governor have no power to change the will of God, and Catholics need to keep that in mind as they make their way through the complicated paths of this life.

By contrast, the same qualities that make government an attractive tool to redistribute wealth give it a much different sort of authority. In the case of marriage, with narrow exceptions, the state government has essentially issued a command: “Thou shalt treat same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex relationships.”

That will be the policy when it comes up in schools, and it will be the policy for anybody who interacts in the public sphere — in employment, in the rental and sale of property, in the provision of services.

In Catholicism, the individual’s conscience is sacrosanct, and to be shaped by the Church’s teachings. In government, the individual’s conscience receives only that space which government officials have deigned to carve out for it.

To some extent, the Catholic Church has set the conditions for this turnabout, by the more-European attitude of many clerics.  More important in New England, however, is probably the fact that the “most Catholic” label shares the map with the “least religious” label.  According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the percentage of New Englanders who say that they are “absolutely certain” in their belief in God is in the mid-to-high 50s. Nationally, it’s 71%.

Treating government as a more expedient tool for morality, guided by a higher authority, paves the way for a different result as more people come to believe that there simply is no authority higher than government.

Such notions may or may not be the subjects of talks by eminent speakers like George Weigel and Peter Steinfels when they come to Portsmouth next week. One suspects, however, that Bishop Tobin’s most difficult task, in preparing for his own presentation at the conference, has been narrowing down the topics that Rhode Island has provided him under Governor Lincoln Chafee (a left-wing “independent,” now Democrat).

Same-sex marriage is the most recent and the most dramatic.  The ObamaCare health benefits exchange, implemented via executive order because abortion language kept it from passing the General Assembly, is another.  Also on the table have been debates over holiday trees and prayer banners, and now a push to make universal pre-kindergarten a taxpayer-funded right, edging government even farther into the realm of private institutions and parental relationships.

What should our relationship with government be?  What mediating role should the Church play in a representative democracy?  Questions upon questions.

  • suibne

    america as an idea, a dream, a future has been crushed. we are entering the dark years. am i allowed to use the word dark without being accused of racism?