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Catholic Remonstrance Now!

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Lately, the Catholic Right has unabashedly sought to impose its will on society. From its recent advocacy against marriage equality in Maine; to the inquisition of American nuns who challenge Vatican hard-liners; and now the U.S Bishops who have threatened to sabotage health care reform unless they got their way on abortion policy in the House version of the legislation.

As a Catholic, I am beyond frustration with Church leaders and lay persons who seek to replace American pluralism with an ultra-orthodox form of Catholic morality. I say it is time for remonstrance from mainstream Catholics.

Remonstrance is a word that has gone out of fashion. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers this definition:

Main Entry: re·mon·strance
Pronunciation: ri-_män(t)-str_n(t)s\
Function: noun
Date: 1585
1 : an earnest presentation of reasons for opposition or grievance; especially : a document formally stating such points_2 : an act or instance of remonstrating

I think it is a word that best expresses what we need to do now, in the face of an emboldened Catholic Right, and drawing on the vital tradition of religious liberty in America.

Perhaps the most famous use of remonstrance was in the title of one of the key documents of religious freedom in American history. James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Fortunately for us, more than 200 years later, it still contains the very logic we need to square Christian faith with religiously plural society; and the wisdom we need to address the dangers of the Catholic Right.

Madison’s Remonstrance was written in response to a bill, introduced into the General Assembly of Virginia shortly after the American Revolution. The legislation, supported by a faction led by Patrick Henry, would have required the state’s citizens to pay an annual assessment to a denomination of their choosing, for the support of religious instructors. (The legislation was defeated and instead the General Assembly enacted Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty.”) Memorial and Remonstrance was widely distributed throughout Virginia in the campaign to defeat Henry’s bill.

Over two hundred years later Madison’s manifesto is still relevant, particularly in light of the course being charted by reactionaries both within the United States as well as within the Vatican.

A mind-numbing fundamentalism has taken hold in Mother Church; one that replaces the thoughtful discussion of new ideas with the all-too-casual howling condemnation of heresy. Reason and respect is being replaced with outdated orthodoxies and intolerance. Increasingly, a police-state mentality is taking hold.

As an American Catholic, I believe the warning signs are ominous. Catholic reactionaries held up the federal oversight and funding of embryonic stem cell research for eight years with the help of the administration of George W. Bush — research that had the support of both the majority of Americans (including Catholics) and other faiths. With a sense of misplaced priorities, the Knights Columbus spends millions to fight marriage equality while Catholic schools are closed down for a lack of funds. We see parishes without priests forced to close down, but when nuns step up to seek ordination they and their supporters are denounced as heretics. And when Catholic politicians vote their conscience in support of reproductive rights, Church leaders go so far as to use the sacraments as a political weapon by publicly denying them participation in the ritual.

Such Catholic Right leaders as George Weigel, Deal Hudson, Bishop Robert Finn and Cardinal Raymond Burke would have church and state entangle themselves to the point where each could strangle the other.

Madison warned us against this. He observed, for example, that the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity for three hundred years — while the faith grew by leaps and bounds. And when the Empire and Christianity became united as one, corruption of power and ego set in.

These are reasons why Madison warned against the establishment of any one faith, let alone a single sect of Christianity:

“It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties… Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.”

But the reactionaries who call themselves Catholic seem unable to see that some things are truly the province of God and not government. But Madison did:

Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered.

Similarly, these same reactionaries are unable to trust the merits of their own faith and seek to use the power of government to enforce their notions of “the truth.” Once again, Madison understood the problem:

Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.

Meanwhile, those of us who are uneasy about reactionary trends in the Church have yet to coalesce. There are those who do bravely speak up. But I believe that there are many more who remain silent not as much out of a sense of fear of retribution but more out of a sense of no support.

While many are tempted to just walk away, I say that doing so only empowers the reactionaries of the Catholic Right. It is exactly what they want. In fact, it is their plan for conquest through schism. They want those of us who embrace religious pluralism in society and liberalization within the Church to leave a global religion, with its well-organized hierarchy and diplomatic nation-state status, and massive resources, property and prestige — solely in their hands.

I say that now is the time for rank-and-file Catholic to revive the idea of remonstrance, and draw on the wisdom of James Madison, who provides us with timeless tools with which to understand and to combat theocratic wannabes. In this way, we can disrupt the disrupters, not rudely or condescendingly but with dignity and firmness.

Our remonstrance can help us confront clergy who use the pulpit as a vehicle to seek to restrict the rights and the freedom of conscience of others. Our remonstrance can remind the media that the dogmatically orthodox do not speak for Catholics, or for Catholicism, but for themselves. And our remonstrance can remind our elected officials that their allegiance is to safeguard the religious liberty of all from an increasingly out of touch Church hierarchy.

And our remonstrance is just the beginning.

Now is the time for bold action. Surrender or grudging compliance is unacceptable. Resistance in the form of a loyal thoughtfulness that seeks reform, not overthrow, is the only acceptable course of action. Arrogance and intolerance are our opponents’ way, not ours’. But all the same, it is bold action that will give our remonstrance collective strength.

Our bold action will strengthen the hand of our allies within the hierarchy and hearten those clergy who are waiting to speak out for the Church we believe in. We will rebuke the reactionaries. Some of us may pay a price for our actions. But sometimes such prices must be paid in order to achieve progress.

There will be those who read this and accuse me of being ant-Catholic. But nothing can be further from the truth. I am a Catholic who desires a vibrant Church, one that exemplifies the tolerant, dissenting, and inquisitive nature of its Founder. I understand that a Catholicism that uses oppression via secular government to enforce its dogmas is itself insecure in its own position. And I know that when any one set of religious beliefs become dominant over others then the free practice of all faiths is also threatened.

That is why I am calling for remonstrance – now!

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12 Responses

  1. Frank! It is me Fran, I used to be in touch with you more when we posted at Street Prophets. GREAT to see you here! And what a great post!

    • And it’s great to see you again Fran! I was wondering what happened to you.

  2. Frank, this is such a great article. I have enjoyed reading it even more now than I did when you first published it.

    I like in particular how you situate what’s often presented by its proponents as a purely religious, purely disinterested theological movement of reaction within a political context. A theocratic political context . . . .

    This is right on target. And it reminds us of the imperative need to discuss religious ideas in a political and cultural context. Even when they come to us supposedly devoid of political and cultural content or meaning, they are always imbued with that meaning–and have political and cultural intents.

    Great icon, by the way–Garibaldi? The elegance of his face makes me ashamed of my own picture on this blog, with the dumpling-shaped face beaming forth.

    • Thank you Bill.

      And Giuseppe Garibaldi it is. I sort of look like him except that I trim my beard and don’t wear hats.

  3. “Lately, the Catholic Right has unabashedly sought to impose its will on society.”

    As have the Catholic Left, the Evangelical Right, the Protestant Left, the Secularist Left, the Agnostic Right, etc. This is called, “engaging in politics.”

    Which is to say, just because people are of the same religion doesn’t mean that they will agree on how said religion should be expressed legally and socially.

    So, certainly, remonstrate all you like. You’ve got just as much right to seek to impose your will on society as anyone else.

    • Rick, you say:

      As have the Catholic Left, the Evangelical Right, the Protestant Left, the Secularist Left, the Agnostic Right, etc. This is called, “engaging in politics.”

      Let me tell you why you are incorrect.

      Much of the Catholic Right — unlike mainstream or liberal Catholics –are trying to create a more exclusionary, intolerant brand of the faith. “Catholic” means universal; these reactionaries are anything but.

      The folks against whom I remonstrate: are quick to use excommunication to stifle dissent; label any Catholic with a new idea as a heretic; tend to be neoconservative (although not always); and openly write about shrinking the Church by licking out liberal and mainstream Catholics. In fact, I truly believe that many of these folks are trying to create a schism in the Catholicism in order to make the Church mere appendage for their political agenda. Beyond that, I don not want my government to become the Vatican’s enforcer; they do.

      Let me give you an illustration. I don’t see the Latin Mass as either useful or an inclusionary celebration of Christ. If, however, there are Catholics who want to attend a Tridentine Mass, more power to them; let them go do it — just don’t impose a Latin Mass on me or anyone else who chooses not to do so. But these folks don’t want to give me the same choice I would give them. Instead, it’s their way or the the highway.

      And that is why I call for remonstrance.

      • I’ve never understood what’s so threatening about Latin masses. I’ve never been to one. I’d like to, as I have enough of a rudimentary understanding to enjoy it. But it’s not that big a deal with me. Why is that such a hot button issue, that the incremental availability of what was, of course, THE mass for about four hundred years is somehow the triumph of reaction?

        I agree, I don’t like people making their conservative (or liberal) politics the touchstone of their Catholicism. But of course they do, especially those for whom politics is a passion approaching religious fervor. But that’s certainly not a monopoly of the right.

        I have little fear of anyone making the US government “the Vatican’s informer.” That smacks a little too much of Al Smith’s famous “secret tunnel to the Vatican.”

        • Rick, I agree that it should not be a hot button issue – but it often is, for people on both sides. Personally, I like the Latin Mass. I had six years of Latin at school, and regularly try to take myself through a refresher course, to avoid losing it. I am old enough to remember when I first joined the parish altar server team, before, starting Latin lessons, and was required to memorize all the Latin responses – without any understanding, whatever. I enjoy an occasional Latin Mass, as I do the Latin hymns – because, more or less, I can follow the sense.

          My difficulties with the Latin Mass lobby is with the connotations that too many of them bring to it. It becomes, too often, a symbol of the rejection of Vatican II, and the “modernization” of the church. This completely overlooks the fact that Latin was not the original language of the Christian church, or of the Bible: Greek was. The Latin Mass, like the Latin Bible, came from exactly the same foundations as the much later replacement with vernacular translations at Vatican II: to use language that ordinary people could understand. Remember that the Latin Bible is also known as the “Vulgate” – i.e. of the common people. If the common people of Rome deserved a Mass and Bible in their own language, why should the same not apply today?

          There is also a second issue around the Latin Mass: this is not the language itself, but the particular words therein – which I understand incorporate some attitudes towards the Jewish people which are now considered outdated and offensive. Of that, however, I confess to insufficient knowledge and make no further comment.

  4. Rick, it’s not the issue of the Tridentine Rite per se; it’s that some advocates of that Rite say that unless you worship in that fashion, you are not truly Catholic, and some will go so far as to say you lose salvation. But the Rite is really just the hot button, as you say, for those who believe that the changes of Vatican II that resulted in a more accessible church meant a more inclusive church, and THAT is what bothers them the most. It’s not about the worship. It’s about including and excluding people. I’ve been in some Catholic forums where a person told another person that singing Taize chants (the texts of which were LATIN quotations of Scripture) was a sin because they were not Catholic, and implied that they would ‘lose’ their salvation by participating in such services. The Latin Mass is just a rallying point. Where you and I might say “OK, if worshipping in that Rite helps you become a more faithful person, more power to you”, some of these advocates would say to me, “The Rite is the only way to worship if you are a true Catholic” and since we ‘know’ that being Catholic is the only way to salvation, if you don’t use the Rite to worship, you’re SOL.

  5. Frank, I enjoyed this article – I’ll be pondering remonstrance.

  6. “The Latin Mass is just a rallying point. Where you and I might say “OK, if worshipping in that Rite helps you become a more faithful person, more power to you”, some of these advocates would say to me, “The Rite is the only way to worship if you are a true Catholic””

    I suppose people may say that, but if they do, they are at odds with what every pope for the last thirty years has said. Benedict has made clear that SSPX is not coming back in till it recognizes the binding authority of Vatican II and the licity of the new form.

    ‘ I don’t see the Latin Mass as either useful or an inclusionary celebration of Christ.’

    Interstingly, the Council had this to say about language:

    “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.”

    Vatican II, in effect, decreed a certain retention of the Latin. You may disagree with those who prefer it, but they are certainly not trying to “turn back” any norms of the Council.

  7. […] that conversation of resistance (or, to use Frank Cocozzelli’s marvelous provocative term, that tradition of remonstrance) is, in my view, what Open Tabernacle is all about.  The passages […]

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