Misplaced Grand Pronunciations of New England Catholics’ Practices


I’d be among the last to deny that what one believes about the world affects how one lives and what sort of politics one tends to espouse.  But it’s a tricky matter to begin making regional claims about political outcomes based on religious affiliation.

The subject comes up because Ted Nesi tweeted a link to a brief essay by Mark Silk.  Silk’s religious affiliation isn’t immediately obvious, but his bio says he’s Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, which might lead religious intellectuals (as opposed to academics of religion) to read his work with a skeptical eye.  And indeed, a quick skim of the most recent posts on his blog suggests an affinity for needling the Catholic hierarchy, particularly on the topic of same-sex marriage.

With that context in mind, we turn to Silk’s attempt to answer the question, “Why is the nation’s most Catholic region first to embrace SSM?

… New England Catholics retain a vibrant communal memory of once having been a disfavored minority subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous Yankee behavior. Rather than return the favor, they have chosen to do better unto others than was done unto them. Why should the Catholic proscription of SSM prevail against the wishes of those who have no part of it?

Such privatization — or, one might say, communalization — of Catholic marriage doctrine sits poorly, of course, with bishops who believe the doctrine to be inscribed in natural law and thus incumbent on all people at all times. But for New Englanders all politics tends to be local, which is to say less about big ideas than about reconciling your preferences with mine.

Naturally, Silk proceeds to needle the Providence Diocese’s own hierarchical pinnacle, Bishop Thomas Tobin. That is in keeping with his apparent intellectual purpose — namely, to drive a wedge between Catholics and the church structure that makes them, well, Catholic.  But there are three items of interest in the above quotation.

The first has to do with the bizarre notion that somebody would look at the push for same-sex marriage in New England, with its grand proclamations about “marriage equality” and love, and disclaim the role of “big ideas.”  Among the less-proclaimed ideas bound up with the movement was the insidious one that government is or should be about a reconciliation of preferences — rather than more mundane things like accomplishing the limited activities appropriate to government. The contrast is with the more conservative, libertarian view that the reconciliation of preferences should be the role of society writ large, with government (owner of tanks and central banks) taking the most minimized role possible.

In that regard, perhaps regional Catholicism did have some effect.  Even the hierarchy has allowed itself to see government as a moral agent and a legitimate mechanism for charitable works and social change.  Perhaps that misplaced trust has come around to undermine the Church in the region, leaving it little rhetorical defense when secular powers chose a contrary objective: namely, redefining marriage as a way of changing the culture.

Among the fears of devout Catholics and other religious Americans is that activists will now leverage the government’s new definition of marriage to wipe out alternate understandings. This will be accomplished through proselytizing government school curricula, and it will be accomplished through laws and litigation that take advantage of the fact that equal treatment within the word “marriage” now includes relationships that they cannot endorse or encourage.

Until recently, marriage was marriage was marriage, whether the employees, beneficiaries, or members within the marriage were black, white, Protestant, atheist, or whatever.  More importantly, non-marriage was non-marriage.  Religious organizations that did not offer benefits or services to non-married heterosexual couples were not invidiously discriminating by not offering benefits or services to non-married homosexual couples.  That’s no longer possible.

There’s a reap what you sow element to this, and it points to the second interesting aspect of Silk’s argument. The people with whom Catholics have been cooperating, locally, to give government its invasive role in society have, in most respects, an incompatible worldview.

New England may be the nation’s most Catholic region, but it’s also the nation’s least religious.  Play with these nifty Pew Forum maps, and you’ll see what I mean. In the combined Connecticut/Rhode Island category, 57% of survey respondents believe in God with absolute certainty, versus 71% nationally.  Nine percentage points fewer Connecticut/Rhode Islanders attend services of any tradition weekly, while seven percentage points more attend services “seldom or never.”

So, yeah, 43% of the two states’ populations are Catholic, while only 10% are Evangelical Protestant, for example.  But in Texas 24% of the population is Catholic in addition to the 34% who are Evangelical Protestants.  That’s 53% total versus 58% total.

It isn’t my intention to dive into delineations of each religious denomination’s views on same-sex marriage and politics generally. The point is that Catholics in New England are, to some degree, paired with the irreligious, not with Evangelicals or other religiously conservative communities.  Flip-flop Catholics and Evangelicals in Texas, and I’d wager you wouldn’t get New England’s social liberalism.

The third point that I would make is one of disagreement with Silk’s phrasing acceptance of same-sex marriage as the clear conclusion of people who are communally minded and tolerant.  The traditionalist’s big idea of marriage is to bind parents with the children whom they create for the benefit of children (and parents) in challenging circumstances.

Marriage is how our civilization has encouraged couples that are capable of creating children to behave responsibly when it comes to those children.  If, at its core, marriage is about the mutual affections of two adults, and if in a final analysis, the only difference between procreation and adoption is the method of procurement, it is more difficult to make the case that people who unintentionally create children within relationships that fall short of deep romantic love with a lifetime commitment have a special responsibility to care for them.

Absent the further involvement of government, naturally.

In that context, fortifying the institution of marriage is a labor intended to help those who are less fortunate than us and to protect those who fall victim to the policies of the ideological faith that claims not to be a faith.  Unless one assumes that anybody who articulates such things must be arguing in bad faith to cover up their sinful bigotry, that’s a charitable and communal and deeply Christian approach to public policy.

Readers can agree or disagree with the conclusion, but in a better, more reasonable society, people who claim to be professors of “religion in public life” would be more able (or inclined) to draw such distinctions.

  • brassband

    Well, to begin, Silk' completely ignores the fact that SSM was forced upon Massachusetts — and thereafter all of New England — by fiat of the Supreme Judicial Court, not by a vote of the General Court or by referendum. There's no connection at all between a judicial imposition of SSM and the prevalence of a particular denomination among the electorate.

    Second, my suspicion is that when an individual is asked to identify his or her religion, there are many who self-identify as Roman Catholic who rarely attend Mass or give support to any pastor. We can all pray for their return one day, but describing New England as the "most Catholic" region is probably based on statistics that are of dubious value.

    What's going on here is that someone who does not respect the authority of the Magisterium is tweaking the Bishop's nose by pointing out that there are a lot of other folks who don't either. Hello, Captain Obvious!

    The Church is not going to change its teaching based on a popularity poll. Will some turn away — or drift away — because they can't conform to those teachings? Well, it happened to Jesus when many disciples abandoned him because of his "hard sayings," Jn. 6:60-66, so there's no reason to expect it wouldn't happen today.

  • Warrington Faust

    This is not meant to be anti-religious in anyway. Brassband is correct, regarding people who identify themselves as Cathoilic as "devout", or religious, is probably an error. The phrase that has grown up is "cafeteria Catholics". I wonder if the self identify, or are plucked from polls based on surnames or ethnicity.

    In any case, the Catholic church has managed to alter it's theology many times in the past to accomodate changing times. If I am around in 50 years, I would not be amazed to see the Catholic church accepting SSM. I would also not be surprised to see that SSM has disappeared. I am not so sure which I would lay money on. Best estimates seem to be that the gay population is 1-2% of the whole, so they will not take over the marraige business.

    Mr. Silk's article is simply frivolous.

  • helen

    The Catholic Church loses moral authority when it refuses to excommunicate those who publicly and seriously violate Church teachings such as those in positions of power who endorse and legitimize in secular law abortion and same sex marriage.

  • Warrington Faust

    Helen, I think excommunication only held power when the excommunicado would actually be shunned by the faithful. Today they would be lionized by the media. When pushed to an extreme, the Catholic church does sometimes react appropriately, such as refusing abortions in Catholic hospitals and closing Catholic Charities rather than comply with civil regulations on gay adoption.

  • brassband

    When has the Church "altered its theology many times in the past to accomodate changing times?"

  • Warrington Faust

    When has the Church "altered its theology many times in the past to accomodate changing times?"
    This is simply a recitation of well known history, I don't think of myself a anti-Catholic. I am not sure if it is theology, or practices, but here are a few:
    Trials for heresy and burning at the stake (technically the Church only tried them, after torture, and turned them over to civil authority to be killed), selling indulgences, the Albergencian Crusade (a crusade to kill heretics) which made famous "Kill them all, let God sort out his own", the "divine right of kings", the adoption of celibacy for priests around 1100 AD. I believe there are still parts of the world where this is not enforced. That was a change at the time. The closing of ecclesiastical courts with civil jurisdiction, obligatory attendance at Mass, Eleventh Century, the abandonment of the "Latin Mass", the Pope's right to grant immunity from civil law. Most of these are now ancient and stem from a time when the Church claimed authority over sovereigns, and states.
    to be continued:

  • Warrington Faust

    Remember when the Pope divided the "New World" between Portugal and Spain? Doubtless they found support in their theology for all this. If they do not find it now, I think that is a change. I think these are known to anyone who has taken Dev. of Western Civ. As to matters of truly core theology, I am not qualified to comment.

  • brassband

    I don't think any of the things you mention would constitute theology.

    The Council of Nicea occurred around 325 A.D., and the Nicene Creed hasn't changed so far as I know.

  • Monique

    "Well, to begin, Silk' completely ignores the fact that SSM was forced upon Massachusetts — and thereafter all of New England — by fiat of the Supreme Judicial Court, not by a vote of the General Court or by referendum."

    THANK YOU! Couldn't trust the voters to do the … er, "enlightened" thing, dontcha know.

  • Warrington Faust

    I don't think any of the things you mention would constitute theology.

    Does that matter? As far as theology is concerned "to each their own".

    The Council of Nicea precedes my examples, in most cases, by about a thousand years. Can you imagine a modern day Catholic priest announcing "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live". That was acceptable theology once (Exodus). Now it is believed that it was a mistranslation. The original Hebrew word, long translated as "witch", is now thought to translate to "poisoner". Is that a change?

  • brassband

    Exodus, if I recall my dates correctly, was written many centuries before Jesus founded the Church, so it would be right to describe your example as a change in Church theology.

  • brassband

    Sorry, I meant "it WOULDN'T be right to describe your example as a change in Church theology."

  • Warrington Faust

    Exodus was accepted at the Council of Nicea, while many Gospels were not. On the strength of the original belief, many witches were executed at the behest of the Church. I assume they thought they had a theological basis. Today, that belief is regarded as erroneous, or mistaken.

    Let's let it go. I think things have changed, you do not. I doubt the Pope is listening to either of us.

    Let's change the subject. Why do the Knights of Malta (formerly the Knights Hospitallier) have "permanent observer" status at the United Nations? Should we resurrect the Knights Templar and extend them the same? How about the Dragon Court?

  • Warrington Faust

    Monique: ""Well, to begin, Silk' completely ignores the fact that SSM was forced upon Massachusetts — and thereafter all of New England — by fiat of the Supreme Judicial Court, not by a vote of the General Court or by referendum."

    THANK YOU! Couldn't trust the voters to do the … er, "enlightened" thing, dontcha know. "

    What the Court did was find a right that was always there, just sort of hiding itself from the public.

  • Mike678

    I hope that was sarcasm, Warrington.

  • Warrington Faust

    Mike: "I hope that was sarcasm, Warrington"

    That is the legal theory which is always used, no "rights" are ever "created" (other than by Amendment) they are discovered, or re-interpreted. For instance, who ever heard of a textual "right of privacy" in the Constitution before Roe v. Wade. Now, references to a "right of privacy" are commonplace. Can't say that I always agree.

    Sometimes this leads to disastrous consequences. The Constitution was tortured over the issue of slavery. There were political battles to ensure that sufficient "new" states were "slave states" in order to prevent an Amendment ending slavery. That, in the end, gave us our Civil War. So, perhaps there arre times when alittle "liberal interpretation" is the better alternative.

  • Mike

    Great article Justin! I recommend you read the journal "First Things" for a more favorable and interesting dialogue about religion and public life.

  • Mike678

    Warrington–I wish you had heard Justice Scalia last week in Newport. You might think less favorably about the wisdom of "liberal interpretation."

  • Warrington Faust

    Mike678 ·
    Warrington–I wish you had heard Justice Scalia last week in Newport. You might think less favorably about the wisdom of "liberal interpretation." "

    "Liberal" means different things at different times. While I think of myself as a "strict constructionalist" I am not convinced that "a well ordered militia" is firmly tied to the "right to keep and bear arms". I think the right to keep and bear arms exists independently of the militia. So, perhaps I am "liberal" there. While I approve of the result, our Civil War created a Constitutional nightmare. Nothing in the Constitution, then or now, prevents a state from seceding. So, how could we launch an invasion to "preserve the union". There is a goal overcoming the Constitution,