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Liberal Pieties | The Nation

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Liberal Pieties

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John McGreevy begins his book with an emblematic story. The year is 1859; the place, Boston. The public schools, dominated by the Protestant elite who also write the law, start each day with obligatory reading of the King James Bible and recitation of the Ten Commandments. Glorious as the King James version is, it is not taught as literature but, with the commandments, is intended to build moral fiber in the students, a great many of whom are Catholic. It disturbs twenty-first-century assumptions to imagine Catholics opposing school prayer, but the church doesn't subscribe to the Protestant Bible, or to private Bible reading in general, and was even more hostile to it in the nineteenth century. Nor are Catholic and Protestant versions of the Ten Commandments the same, the latter proscribing "graven images," an affront to the whole Catholic rococo of crucifixes and icons, Virgin shrines, reliquaries and sacred art.

CORRECTION: The Fisher family
of Six Feet Under is Episcopalian, not Catholic. (10/1)

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

Returning to our story, one day a 10-year-old Catholic boy at the Eliot School, Thomas Whall, is instructed to recite the commandments. He refuses. Days of urgent meetings follow, but the school committee decides it will not compromise. Again the boy is asked to read the commandments and again refuses, upon which an assistant to the principal declares, "Here's a boy that refuses to repeat the Ten Commandments, and I will whip him till he yields if it takes the whole forenoon." A half-hour later the child's hands are ripped and bleeding from the blows of a rattan stick; by one account he faints during the torture. All boys unwilling to recite the commandments are ordered out of the school; hundreds leave. Because they had been urged in church to resist Protestant conformity, to "recite their own Catholic prayers" and "not to be ashamed," they are seen in some quarters as mindless slaves to priestcraft. The most important Republican Party newspaper in Boston (Republicans were the liberals then) editorializes: "We are unalterably, sternly opposed to the encroachments of political and social Romanism, as well as to its wretched superstition, intolerance, bigotry and mean despotism." When Whall and his father sue the assistant for excessive force, the court vindicates school authority, ruling that the child's disobedience threatened the stability of the school, hence the foundation of the state.

A neat illustration of the shifting nature of morality--today the principal would be locked up for child abuse--the story is important for the way it complicates generalized definitions of Catholic and liberal worldviews. It is McGreevy's intention to elucidate the dialectical relationship between Catholic communalism and liberal individualism in the development of standard-issue notions of freedom in America. He traces the route by which church agitation for state funding of its schools, coupled with its opposition to de facto Protestantism in public schools, led to the elimination of organized prayer in the latter. He analyzes the work of Catholic thinkers who drafted some of the first minimum-wage laws, articulated concepts of social welfarism, gave succor to early trade unionism--in effect, defined liberal reformism--and of those who made the backlash against sexual freedom, the church's latter-day mission.

Fascinating as that all is, ultimately McGreevy does something more valuable: prompting a meditation on power, and its shadow, marginality; on freedom, and its inevitable price, unfreedom; on faith, particularly the kind dressed up as secular rationalism. In the end, neither church power nor state power comes out smelling sweet, a lesson of especial import for liberals accustomed to challenging only one set of assumptions in church-state contests.

In a sense, power is Philip Jenkins's subject too, only he finds it all in the hands of gays, feminists, their supporters in the art world, the liberal media and the ranks of self-hating Catholics, proponents of what he calls "the new anti-Catholicism."

A casual peruser of the book's back jacket might see the endorsements of William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (a kind of Catholic Anti-Defamation League) and of Michael Novak, notable recently for trying to convince the Vatican of the justice of unprovoked war, and dismiss Jenkins as a right-wing crank. That would be a mistake. The author of such insightful works as Pedophiles and Priests, written after the scandals of the early 1990s, and the masterful Moral Panic, on changing concepts of the child and of child abuse through American history, Jenkins is ordinarily a cool dissector of the cultural construction of social problems. He aims to be the same here, but his book is a muddle, alternately careful to distinguish anti-Catholicism from anticlericalism, policy disputes from prejudice, and then recklessly defining political protest--most dramatically, ACT UP's 1989 action inside St. Patrick's Cathedral--as hate crime, anti-Vatican rhetoric as hate speech, discrimination against policies as discrimination against persons.

The conflicts Jenkins discusses might have presented an occasion to challenge the slippery concepts of hate crime and hate speech so readily embraced by liberals, the repressive simple-mindedness at the heart of efforts to reduce socially bred antagonisms to matters of criminal punishment, and the dangerous equation of speech and action that is made by self-advertised defenders of freedom when it suits their purposes. Jenkins flirts with this, expressing skepticism that censorship or expanded prosecutorial powers can accomplish shifts in consciousness. But he is so intent on advancing his thesis--"anti-Catholicism must be seen as the great unknown 'anti-ism' or phobia, the most significant unconfronted prejudice in modern America"--that the book distills to a contest between angry, impolite liberationists and beleaguered, presumably conservative Catholics. As ever, the accent on feelings, however collectivized, rather than the push-pull of social forces, leads to terribly pinched conclusions. His argument dead-ends, as it's bound to, in the politics of sensitivity training, a watch-what-you-say political correctness, this time toward Catholics.

One could debate how "significant" anti-Catholicism is today. By pop culture's gauge, it's surely also significant that the most interesting television family, the Fishers of Six Feet Under, with their secrets and faceted sexuality, is Catholic; that the liberal icon of mainstream TV for the past four years, President Josiah Bartlet of The West Wing, is Catholic; that the Sopranos, who both confirm and confound stereotypes, are Catholic. Although they figure far larger in mass consciousness than the theatrical satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, Jenkins doesn't mention them. Instead, he catalogues potshots taken at the iconography, the clergy, the Pope--Sister Mary, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Sinéad O'Connor's Saturday Night Live tear-up of the Pope's picture, Tony Kushner's denunciation of the Pope in these pages after Matthew Shepard's murder--and notes that similarly vituperative statements would not be tolerated against any other group.

He points to the pains taken recently to argue that Islam is a religion of peace when in practice it has also been repressive and bloody-minded. But he misreads the motivations of Islam's non-Muslim mainstream defenders. Since the same government officials who flatter Islam and warn against vigilantism are also the authors of state-sponsored harassment of and terror upon Muslims, their encomia to the faith ought properly to be understood not as sensitivity but as social control. Likewise, generosity toward Islam among liberals these days largely reflects respect for civil liberties, not religion. Individual Catholics might take offense at the freewheeling criticism of their church, but among them there is no equivalent of The Muslim, The Arab, who really has become the bogeyman.

The church is in a different category, and political jabs against it are more usefully compared with those against Saudi Arabia or any other religious state except Israel. On that last point, Jenkins is right: There is a double standard when it comes to addressing Jewish power, which barely can be spoken of, and Catholic power, which inspires no such reticence. Jenkins recognizes that such power is political not religious, institutional not individual, but he quickly retreats, identifying "a very thin line between protest and blasphemy" when the target is the Vatican, between protest and anti-Semitism when it is Israel, and seeming to accept "offense to believers" as the standard for judging on which side of the line political speech falls. That is nonsense. Politics being organized conflict, offense is its nature. Tiptoeing around Jewish sensitivities to avoid plainspeaking about Israeli brutality is neither honest nor healthy. Attacks on the church's policy interventions on sexuality and reproduction may sometimes be raw, but at least they recognize power for what it is. Certainly he Vatican's seven-page multilingual denunciation of homosexuality following the Supreme Court sodomy decision, and its vow to lead a global campaign against gay rights, gives the lie to any suggestion that the church is the put-upon weak sister in the culture wars.

Like Jenkins, McGreevy recapitulates the history of anti-Catholic ugliness--the Know-Nothings and Klan attacks, the various state bans forbidding Catholic children from public schools, the scare literature and elite tracts, sometimes one and the same. But his historical pairings more effectively reveal the poisonous nature of that ugliness. Prejudice, as McGreevy shows without actually arguing the point, is a problem not because it makes people feel bad but because of the blinders it requires the bigots to wear with respect to their own, favored culture, and the way that culture, if dominant, is enforced and reproduced.

Thus in the nineteenth century, the liberal intelligentsia decried Vatican authoritarianism. No quarrel there. But for priests, nuns and ordinary Catholics to be branded enemies, as they were, this authoritarianism had to be made utterly alien; and America, its opposite, made a model of liberty. In 1870 the First Vatican Council announced the dogma of papal infallibility on matters of faith and morals. Writing from Rome for The Nation, Charles Eliot Norton said that the world was now divided "between the principle of authority and that of freedom in matters of opinion." That simplistic formula would be reiterated down the decades, and in the late 1940s would form the basis of a celebrated series of Nation articles against the church by Paul Blanshard, who railed against Catholicism's "organized system of cultural and moral controls" (and whose passion for "American freedom" was matched only by his enthusiasm for anti-Communism and eugenics). Other intellectuals of the day rated those faiths or sects that fostered freedom and those that inhibited it, with the historian William Warren Sweet crediting Puritans and Calvinists with "all the great concepts for which American democracy stands today." One of those was capitalism, whose rise Weber had associated with Calvinist asceticism and whose iron logic was associated in the liberal imagination not with dogma but with dynamism.

"Our culture is a Protestant, and not a Catholic culture," Harvard University's Howard Mumford Jones wrote in describing "The Drift to Liberalism in the American Eighteenth Century." "It is a Protestant culture begun in dissent and retaining dissent as its chief characteristic." Like Sweet and Blanshard, Jones was writing in the period between the 1930s and 1950s, when much intellectual firepower was trained on defining "Americanism" and "American culture," a culture described by Henry Steele Commager as "practical, democratic, individualistic, opportunistic, spontaneous, hopeful"; by Talcott Parsons as freedom-loving and entrepreneurial; by Robert Merton as distinctly suited to reason and experimental science because of its climate of "organized skepticism"; by Charles Morris as "non-dogmatic."

The resilience of those definitions is evidenced, in a backhanded way, by the recent profusion of T-shirts, buttons and other paraphernalia of protest against the Bush Administration proclaiming "I Want My Country Back," the implicit notion of a hijacking reifying the ideal. Now as before, the problem with liberalism is the problem with any faith: Belief in the ideal necessitates delusion. For young Thomas Whall in the 1850s, dissent was not an option because for a child in the church it was unthinkable, and for an American it was allowable only within the terms of right-thinking. Catholicism was excluded from right-thinking, even from Americanism. Today the spiritual descendants of the Eliot School authorities are legion, and include George W. Bush, whose foreign policy flows from the "City on a Hill" exceptionalism that the Boston elite embraced and whose definitions of liberty and individualism are similarly situational.

We may sneer at Bush's assertion that God commanded him to invade Iraq, but the roots of that claim are deep in a tradition of American goodness. This country's overseas imperial adventure began, after all, with Calvinist missionaries from Boston, midwives to the destruction of Hawai'i, who counseled a suffering people that the cure for all ills lay in Jesus, buttoned-up sexuality and private property. McGreevy, I should note, says nothing about liberalism's role in securing relative freedom and wealth at home by imposing unfreedom and penury abroad. Whatever arguments may arise for or against liberalism or Catholicism, he leaves them largely to the reader.

On the subject of slavery, for instance, a key point of contention between liberal and church elites, he does not assign hypocrisy. He doesn't need to. In the same breath that it denounced Romanist mind control in the Eliot School case, the Republican Boston Atlas and Bee opposed "the monster institution of human slavery and for the same reasons." Although there were some heroic Catholic laymen and clergy who eventually joined radical Republican ranks, officially the church reckoned that slavery might not be such a bad thing--if it wasn't a matter of buying and selling, if slaves weren't "thingified," to borrow Martin Luther King's memorable phrase, if they were allowed to marry, if lynching stopped, if they were treated well, preserved as families and, especially, brought the good news. In other words, if slavery wasn't slavery. In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI barred Catholics from participating in the slave trade, though not from owning slaves. In America, Catholics of the reformist/fantasist opinion argued that there was no reason whites couldn't be slaves too, and, with respect to freemen, they rarely segregated churches and generally accepted black-white intimacy so long as it was within the holy sacrament of matrimony. Beneath this surface confusion, however, lay a crude consistency. For the issue of slavery forced a choice between love, the "queen of virtues," and authority, what Philadelphia's Bishop Francis Kenrick plainly named the "social order." Kenrick, writing the first US textbook in Catholic moral theology in 1843, bemoaned the atrocities that defined slavery but worried more that immediate emancipation would mean chaos, radicalism, institutional concessions to individual rights. In one of many reiterations of the church's original sin--its identification with power in the Holy Roman Empire--"Love thy neighbor" took second seat to preservation of order.

Now, many prominent Abolitionists held to a similar hierarchy of values, only in their case "order" was laissez-faire economics, which they called "freedom." McGreevy is helpful here, linking both mainstream liberal opposition to chattel slavery and nonchalance toward wage slavery to the laissez-faire commandment of "freedom of contract." The Nation's founding editor, E.L. Godkin, despised slavery and unions, considering the latter combinations in restraint of trade, and until about 1917 the magazine was exceedingly hostile to workers' movements, supporting law-and-order reflexes, whether in the form of the hanging of the Haymarket anarchists or the violent suppression of strikes.

The church, for its part, rejected freedom of contract, saying such freedom was an illusion where workers struggled to survive. "Free competition," wrote the Italian Jesuit Matteo Liberatore in the late 1880s, "is a terrible weapon, most effectual to crush the weak and reduce whole populations to economic slavery under a rod of iron wielded by the potent rulers of social wealth." Or, as Marx put it more succinctly, "It is not individuals but capital that establishes itself freely in free competition."

There was the rub. Protestant liberals hated and distrusted Catholics, but they hated and distrusted socialists more. The huge immigrant proletariat was drawn to both, and with less contradiction than Catholic leaders would admit. With its advocacy for a "living wage," for profit sharing or, in its absence, for unions, for government intervention where wages were "insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner," the church was the enemy of laissez-faire economics. But that "well-behaved" said it all. Old liberal worries over "the combined power of rebellion, Catholicism and whiskey" faded in the face of the red flag. "Freedom of opinion" had its limits, and even Charles Eliot Norton looked to Catholic authority to curb the "anarchic religion of the unchurched multitude." There was a class war to fight, and on that bloodied ground liberalism made its historic compromise with Catholicism.

By the 1930s, McGreevy writes, "the most obvious legacy of early Catholic involvement in the union movement was not the development of Catholic social thought but Catholic leadership in the struggle against socialism." Liberal fears of Catholic authoritarianism would resurface in the 1940s and '50s, and again be trumped by fears of Communism. Liberalism had found its calling, and the church, so easily derided in other areas of civic life, could reliably be counted on to manage dissent. Later, Paul VI would favor economic redistribution, and on his watch Latin American bishops would meet in Medellín to critique "liberal capitalism" and articulate a "preferential option for the poor." But his name would forever be welded to Humanae Vitae, the disastrous encyclical rejecting all forms of artificial contraception. Once capitalism "won," there was nothing left to fight about but sex.

Re-enter Jenkins, whose book revolves largely around contests over sexuality and seems to have been prompted, in fact, by the sex panic around priests, with its echoes of old denunciations of Catholicism as "the whore of Babylon," politically corrupt and sexually dangerous. We're inclined now to regard the Catholic Church as the sex police, and there's much evidence for that--from the "love the sinner, hate the sin" posture on homosexuality to the international bullying on reproductive rights to the criminal abuses of "bad girls" depicted in harrowing detail in the new docudrama The Magdalene Sisters. Yet another view has always run parallel, that of a hypersexual, "Italianate" (read: effeminate, pederastic) Catholicism. In the nineteenth century, anti-Catholic sensationalism (one of the most notorious such tracts underwritten by a prominent Abolitionist) provided, as Jenkins writes, "one of the few socially approved vehicles for pornographic interest," so laden was it with lecherous priests, lesbian nuns, sensual iconography and beastly goings-on in the confessional.

Indeed, the confessional was one of the few places where sexuality could be plainly discussed. And if, as Foucault suggests, the penitential rite was another "scheme for transforming sex into discourse," thereby controlling it, it also provided a zone of privacy in which, as a practical matter, people could unburden themselves of their secrets. Not ideal, but what is? In that aforementioned 1843 moral theology, Bishop Kenrick also instructed confessor-priests that it was a married woman's right to coax herself to climax "by touches" if she didn't experience orgasm during intercourse, that a man who ignored his wife's pleasure was guilty of a venial sin of omission and that--contrary to some Victorian counsel urging women to distract themselves during lovemaking to avoid orgasm--the woman should yield to her body, the intentional avoidance of orgasm being a mortal sin. This recommendation, Peter Gardella observes in his intriguing book Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure, "reflected normative Catholic teaching" at a time when the Calvinists spoke only of sin.

Jenkins offers no brief for the church's sexual agenda or its errant priests, but he rightly suspects games of "gotcha." He notes that the soundest study of priestly sexual misconduct--involving 2,252 priests over forty years--indicates that 1.7 percent behaved badly, such behavior ranging from inappropriate speech to rape, and in only one case involving a true pedophile: i.e., an adult sexually interested in prepubescent children. Obviously, some 1,500 priests accused of any sexual abuse between the 1960s and 2002 indicates trouble, but Jenkins argues that honesty demands a recognition that (a) incidents of pedophilia are rare, (b) priests hold no monopoly on such behavior and (c) "there is strikingly little evidence that clergy of any kind are any more or less likely to abuse than non-clerical groups who have close contact with children." A 1998 study by Education Week, for instance, cited 244 incidents of teacher-student sex over a six-month period, ranging from unwelcome touching to consensual relations to serial rape, an average of nine cases a week. The press has not elevated this to "social problem" status. As Jenkins puts it in Pedophiles and Priests, "there is no cultural home" for the pedophile pedant.

In the heat of the scandal, Jenkins was verbally pummeled for such views, by liberals who found fuel in the crisis to push for an end to celibacy and the ordination of women; by conservatives who saw their chance to purge gay priests. Garry Wills attacked him for making the unpopular but sensible distinction between sex with children and sex with teenagers, which Wills lumped together under the curious label "boy-sex." Given the near-totalitarian perception generated by the scandal, Jenkins's chapter on the subject here is most important. If he weren't otherwise so focused on gays and others demonizing Catholicism, he might have noticed, though, that the target of this sex panic was as much homosexuality as it was priests. Why else would newspapers wallow in stories of priests and boys, priests and men, when most targets of unwanted priestly attention are girls and women, and most sexual violence occurs in the heterosexual home? He might also have challenged the Boston Globe's legal-rights-be-damned approach to the story, its retailing of false assertions (which he and McGreevy repeat in the case of one Father Paul Shanley) and its prime role in making monsters, to which the unlamented jailhouse murder of John Geoghan now stands as grim testament.

There is far more to say on the scandal, on the contradictions of Catholic homoeroticism and homophobia, the elision of accusation and guilt, the opportunism and disingenuousness of the press, the church and lawyers than can here be accommodated, or than either book explores. It is perhaps enough, for now, to let the century-and-a-half-old image of Thomas Whall, faint and bleeding, provoke us to more complicated considerations of the latest power struggle between the church and liberal Boston than the received narrative of perfidy versus righteousness provides. The church is surely disgraced, but what of liberalism when its victory comes at the price of truth, fairness, privacy rights, proportionality, the presumption of innocence, all of which were trampled in last year's media frenzy? As ever, in the contest between Catholicism and American freedom, neither side has much to preen about.

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