Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 09 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

Sourpuss Catholicism?- Notes from ‘The Future of Catholicism’ Symposium

Note: the sections in red were written later that night after a few drinks; I’ve kept them to as a penance, to remind myself that I’ve got problems and not in the future to drink so much coffee (even when it’s free). Please read them in a spirit of charity, or better yet, ignore them altogether.

I spent a great afternoon at the NYU Catholic Center at a symposium put on by the Thomistic Institute, an offshoot of the Dominican House of Studies in DC.

I’ve been feverishly engaged in my own 8-part blog series, which shares the same title as the symposium, “The Future of Catholicism”.

I took the bus, and it felt exciting to be in such a big city- I could live here! Then I ran into this crazy lady, and I decided not to be so jaded and look her in the eye and say ‘hello’. She asked me to drag two oversized crates to the next block for her, and I said ‘sure, I’d be happy to!’, but then I started to feel like- what am I, some kind of ‘green-horn’ from the backwoods who’s going to get taken advantage of five minutes after getting off the bus in the ‘big city’? So I dragged the crates by their bicycle-inner-tube ‘handles’, and was trying to figure out whether this would end up with me getting mugged or sodomized or something. Trying to seem less like a greenhorn, I looked down at the crates to assess the situation more circumspectly and noticed that they were just filled with garbage, like empty potato chip bags and stuff. Didn’t assuage my nervousness exactly, but I guess it could’ve been worse. I decided just to drop them off and move on, which I did- no sodomy. I guess she just wanted her garbage crates on the next block- who was I to be able to assess why a crazy lady had crates of garbage, nevermind where she should want to put them?


The symposium opened with introductory remarks by Rev. Thomas White, O.P. He situated the symposium as a response to a perceived cultural shift in America, epitomiized by recent legal battles over President Obama’s HHS Mandate (especially the ongoing legal case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor) and the Obergefell Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. Father White saw these battles as part of a new historical situation which he called ‘post-Protestant America’, characterized by the dramatic rise of the ‘Nones’, the rapidly growing demographic of Americans who would claim no affiliation with organized religion. Anecdotally, Father White related that, in a recent conversation, a professor remarked that, whereas 30 years ago Christian academics bore the stereotype of being unintelligent, Christians in today’s academy are presumed to be ‘dangerous’ because of their presumed bigotry.

All four speakers, as well as the two moderators of the symposium, followed Father White’s lead in seeing the situation in rather grim terms.

The Intellectual Self-Immolation of Professor Phillip Munoz

The first presentation was by Phillip Munoz, a law professor at Notre Dame, and a wonderfully engaging and intelligent speaker. In his presentation, Professor Munoz first articulated and then argued against the what he called the ‘Neo-Catholic’ (I prefer the term ‘Paleo-Catholic’) critique of the American Project, especially in regard to the founding fathers of the Republic.

Professor Munoz’s summary of the Paleo-Catholic critique was fair-minded and owed much to Patrick Deenan, Munoz’s colleague at Notre Dame. I have articulated a version of this critique in my post on ‘Neo-Conservative Catholicism’, a group in which Munoz seems firmly at home. Munoz characterized this critique in three main areas: that Enlightenment thinkers, including our Founding Fathers, replaced three key traditional concepts with Modern substitutes, to devastating effect. First, they replaced the traditional concept of truth as objective with the Liberal concept of ‘neutrality’ in matters of ultimate truth, which amounted to nihilism. Secondly, they scrapped the Natural Law tradition in favor of the enlightenment notion of Freedom. Thirdly, they dropped the notion of teleology in favor of the Autonomous Self. A bit of a straw man, but a fairly solid summary of the Distributist critque.

Then the acrobatics began, as they always do with Neo-Con Catholics.

Professor Munoz thankfully conceded the Liberalism of the Founding Fathers, so we were spared the intellectual torture of arguments that the Founding Fathers were profoundly traditional Christians or even crypto-Catholics in their thinking. He then marshalled a number of historical quotes to refute the claims of the Paleo-Catholics, claiming that Liberal founders like Jefferson and Madison had essentially retained the notions of objective truth, Natural Law, and teleology in their thinking about America, and therefore had nothing to do with the state of affairs that America finds itself in now.

During his presentation, Munoz quoted, as an example of the insanity of modern thinking, the majority opinion in the landmark Casey vs. Planned Parenthood Supreme Court case:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Later in his presentation, in defending the Founding Fathers’ thinking as being free from this craziness, he quoted James Madison, who in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments stated:

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.

Look at these two quotes carefully: they may use different language, but you cannot help but recognize: they are essentially saying the same thing: what is “religion”, after all but “a concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. In making his point, icherry-picking a quote to support the Founding Fathers’ traditionalism, Professor Munoz accidentally proves the Paleo-Catholic critique!

I was all set to make this point at the end of the good professor’s presentation, but they ignored my raised hand and called (by name) on two old guys who asked the kind of questions you ask if you just want to seem smart and professorial, unlike my observation above, which was an intellectual SMACKDOWN of the highest order. Oh well–I guess that’s what blogs are for- to make the point you were going to make to real human beings but you got ignored because nobody knows you and you look weird and a little scary and you keep staring at the hair of the college girl sitting in front of you (she really had nice hair).

Professor Munoz went on to breezily equate the above Madison quote with the thinking of the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae. Now, to be honest, that is a difficult document to interpret, and I hope to do a post soon summarizing recent attempts to do so, but to imagine that any Catholic could conceive the conciliar teaching as harmonizing with the above quotes is frankly heretical. As Dignitatis Humane clearly stated right at the outset:

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church… On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (1)

The later appeals within the document to the rights of conscience and freedom from coercion, while admittedly confusing, can only be read from within a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ as protecting the rights of the Church from the encroachments of secular government.

After this monumental gaffe, Munoz closed his presentation with a less egregious but far more amateurish piece of logic: If, he reasoned, the Founding Fathers were wrong in their thinking, and the logic of that thinking has lead us to this dire situation, why should we bother trying to make things better?–why not hide our heads in the sand and wait for it all to crash?

Let’s unpack the logic here: unless I am living in a society which is based on principles which are in harmony with the Catholic faith, it is pointless to try to evangelize that society?

Despite his erudition, Professor Munoz must not be aware of the little-known story of the conversion of Roman Empire by the early Church. Or the reconversion of Communist Poland, spurred in great part by Pope John Paul II. Come on, you’re way smarter than that!

Another SMACKDOWN for the Paleo-Catholic Cause! Blogging RULES!

I can’t friggin’ believe this guy is a professor and I’m just a nobody who can barely afford a bus to New York City because I quit teaching high school because I was too depressed by it and got fired in EIGHT DAYS when I tried teaching again last month. All because I decided I couldn’t deal with the academic bullshit of getting a doctorate so I could be a fancy, good-looking, normal guy like this guy, who I’m obviously smarter than. 

But I probably wouldn’t have gotten a professor job anyways because I don’t have a cool minority name like Munoz. And because I say stuff like that.

George Weigel: The Unflagging Champion of Guaranteed Failure

The room was packed for the next speaker, perhaps the leading light of Neo-Conservative Catholicism, and the bestselling author of the definitive (though unofficial) two-volume English biography of Pope John Paul II: George Weigel.

Though I had read Mr. Weigel’s writing since my conversion in the 1990s, I had never before heard him speak. And yet his voice was uncannily familiar. Halfway through his presentation, it dawned on me: he sounded exactly like the older Tom Hanks! But, a little later on, I recognized his true progenitor as a presenter: the now-deceased Andy Rooney, of ’60 Minutes’ fame. The charming old crabby guy.

Mr. Weigel analyzed the current state of America through the lens of John Courtney Murray’s Four Propositions, as described in his classic 1960 articulation of the Neo-Conservative Catholic position, We Hold These Truths, and found that America had failed to live up to Murray’s propositions on all four fronts.

Next Mr. Weigel attempted a similar analysis by holding up America to what he saw as the four pillars of Catholic Social Teaching, a subject on which Mr. Weigel’s Neo-Conservative Catholic acrobatics are legendary. However, very little acrobatics were on display here, as his analysis wasn’t flavored with optimism, but rather pessimism, about the state of things.

Mr. Weigel is a great writer and a charming speaker; nonetheless he appears to be plagued with a strange intellectual illness, which I would like to term neo-Conservitis. This disease manifests itself in the penchant of certain otherwise intelligent people to, first, respond to a crisis by taking an already failing paradigm,  repackage it, and propose it as a new solution to the problem, which of course inevitably fails. This disease first manifested itself in Mr. Weigel’s writings (along with other First Things folks) in the 80s: If today’s symposium had been held thirty years earlier, Mr. Weigel would have advanced a very different prognosis: that the American Catholic experiment was chugging along wonderfully, and that the secularism which was then laying waste to European Catholicism would have the opposite effect here in America, thanks to our unambiguous embrace of the Enlightenment political and economic thinking (see his article here).

Of course, that very same strategy, of embracing America uncritically, had already been tried by Catholics for the first half of the 20th century under the inspiration of leaders like Cardinal Gibbons; by the 1980s this experiment had failed spectacularly, as the waves of ethnic Catholics who had succeeded in the bourgeois culture abandoned Catholicism in favor of the comforts of secularism, a phenomenon I refer to as ‘Zombie Catholicism’.

Despite being uniquely unqualified to speak about ‘The Future of Catholicism’ by the utter failure of the ‘Catholic moment’ project to Christianize the ‘public square and lead to a Catholic revival, Mr. Weigel seems to have ignored this failure completely, and even recently published a book subtitled ‘The Future of Catholicism’. Its main title, however, articulated the latest manifestation of his Neo-Conservitis: “Evangelical Catholicism”. We need to get excited about our faith, like the Evangelical Protestants. We need to celebrate the day we were baptized in the same way that Evangelical Protestants.

Again, the embrace of an already-failing proposition: the poor man can’t seem to help himself! The very same polls that show the secularization of Catholicism show the very same trends occuring in evangelical Protestantism! True- the evangelicals are hanging on better than their peers in the mainline Protestant churches; but a less-loserish loser is hardly a winner!

Mr. Weigel, I’m sure quite inadvertently, contradicted his own revulsion for vulgarity by employing the term “sloppy seconds”, a term which I’m ashamed to be familiar with from my own vulgar conversations. But the term, vulgar as it is, could aptly describe Mr. Weigel’s own intellectual perversion…

Only in the sphere of theology do we tolerate such incompetence: I’m sure if he were working for Bell Telephone in the 1980s he would’ve been telling them “land-lines are here to stay!”, and would now be arguing that Smartphones are a fad, that flip-phones are the way to go…

Michael Hanby: A Breath of Fresh Air

The third presenter hails from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Washington, DC, which is run by the greatest philosophical thinker of what I call ‘Paleo-Catholicism’, David Schindler. Communio. B16

Professor Hanby yanked the symposium out of the murky, convoluted intellectual waters into which the Neo-Cons had dragged it, and brought the discussion to the realm in which it belonged: metaphysics.

Professor Hanby brilliantly argued that American Catholics were fundamentally flawed in trying to understand the current crisis in legal or political terms: the problem, he noted was rooted in the basic Enlightenment philosophical mentality, which he called the Technological Revolution. By ‘technological’, Hanby wasn’t referring to all the fancy gadgets…, but rather to a way of thinking which ignores the nature and being of things and instead sees everything in terms of control and manipulation. Right on.

I spoke briefly with Professor Hanby after his presentation, to clarify: beauty and humor. Brought up The Office. What a nice guy- he was hot (I mean, like, atmospherically hot), so I let him get a drink of water. He wasn’t trying to blow me off ’cause I seemed crazy.

My five take-aways: depth, beauty, humor, action, community

creative, playful, humble, joyful

Russell Hittinger: Academicism as Obfuscation?

The last speaker was Russell Hittinger, who began by giving Professor Hanby the (presumably unintentional) backhanded complement that his talk was ‘by itself worth the price of admission’ (the symposium was free).

Mr. Hittinger gave a long, dense, ponderous analysis of Catholic Social Teaching from the pontificates of Leo XIII through to Francis. Maybe my brain was fried from the previous presentations, but I really couldn’t understand what the point of Mr. Hittinger’s presentation was, or how it conributed to the symposium’s theme.

The only point that I could begin to wrap my brain around was Mr. Hittinger’s insistence that all of the popes from Leo XIII in 1891 to Benedict XVI just recently, didn’t understand the nature of global Capitalism. I’m not sure what exactly they didn’t get about it, and asked that question at the end of his presentation: after all, folks like Chesterton, Dorothy Day, etc., seemed to think the popes understood Capitalism quite well, and were proposing an alternative, the alternative called ‘Distributism’. Mr. Hittinger’s response was that he wasn’t talking about Catholics, but about popes (?),

Different take on Pope Francis- “activist” stance

My best guess is that Mr. Hittinger is a Neo-Conservative who is trying to cloak his rejection of the popes’ teaching on economic matters in what he sees as the less offensive critique that these brilliant and holy men were a bunch of stupid old guys (FIX).

Which I totally get- I worked for several years for this mean bastard Christian Brother who was the principal of the school where I was teaching. I couldn’t tell him or anyone else directly that I thought he was an asshole, so instead I taped up a picture of him from the school newspaper that made him look like a jerk- and had the caption ‘Warwick Wonderland’ describing our school, which was ridiculous because our school was incredibly ugly factory-style building from the 1950s that bordered a shellfish-processing plant. I think everyone got the insult/joke without me having to stick my neck out and get fired, like I did at my recent teaching job.

Wrapping Up: Rusty Reno and Mary Eberstad

The editor of First Things is a very nice guy named Rusty Reno. No really- that’s his name. I know it sounds like the stage name of a dancer in a gay bar in Vegas- but it’s his real name.

Had to leave a little early. I had taken a bus in the morning, during which time I was kind of nervous and I think creeped out this pretty girl who was sitting across from because I kept glancing at her which I used to do before I got married and she caught me kind of staring once. Anyways, I didn’t buy a round-trip ticket because I was hoping to meet and talk to some people in the breaks between presentations and maybe end up getting a ride home, but all I ended up doing was sitting in the ‘refreshments’ line and getting frustrated because, really, can’t we keep this line moving people. Plus when I eventually got to the line I had too much coffee and I got annoyed by the fact that they had little cookies- I mean, I understand that this symposium was free, but do you think you’re going to save money by giving out small cookies? I decided to make this point by taking more total ‘cookies’ (by weight) so next time they’d maybe think about giving normal-sized cookies and not be so niggardly (which is not a racial slur, by the way). 

I fantasized, during lapses of attention in the last presentation, that I should have put out a ‘feeler’ for a ride on the whiteboard behind the speaker. It would have said:




PROMISE PROMISE PROMISE I’M NOT A CRAZY* SERIAL KILLER OR ANYTHING (though I don’t blame you from the description)



*at least not ‘officially’ crazy- my first appointment (LONG OVERDUE!!) with the psychologist is next week and it’s probably just massive depression or bipolar- nothing psychotic per se

One Comment

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