At the time I am writing this, LaCrosse WI priest, Fr. Altman, was asked to resign by his bishop. The bishop stated that his reason for asking Fr. Altman to resign had to do with his ‘divisive and ineffective’ behavior, which most likely referred to Altman’s YouTube video titled: “Fr. Altman: You cannot be Catholic & a Democrat. Period.” I love to make fun of Democrats as much as the next person. There’s lots of reasons to criticize the Democratic Party. Their refusal to make drastic systemic change to achieve racial justice, their refusal to cancel student debt and their continuous warcrimes are just a few reasons to criticize them. Yet, to deny someone’s Catholicism based on their political alignment is wrong. One’s Catholicism is an intricate part of their identity, their body, their soul. Even bad Catholics are still Catholics. And guess what, we’re all bad Catholics in one way or another.
It can be seen throughout history that those who strive for purity often fall into pits. We so often become the thing we wish to destroy, it’s human nature. When we separate ourselves from other members of our own group whom we disagree with, declaring that we are not like “those” Catholics or we are not like “those” Christians, we are falling into a logical fallacy known as the “no-true-scotsman” fallacy. We also fall into this fallacy when we declare ourselves the “true” manifestation of Catholicism and the others as “false” ones. This doesn’t mean we don’t have unifying theology and this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have baseline requirements to become a member of certain groups. What it means is that when those baseline requirements are met, that individual is a member of the group. The political right is not the only political alignment that falls into this fallacy, the political left falls into it too. The progressives can say that conservative Catholics aren’t true Catholics because conservatives are unwilling to help the poor. This is not helpful. Not only does it prove nothing, it also relieves the accusing party from the need achieve more justice for the poor, because why should they strive to be better, they’re on the right side.
Ironically, secular people can see the idiocy of these petty debates more than we can. What does it matter if not all Catholics are evil when enough of them with institutional power perpetuate hatred that impacts millions of people around the world? Do we deserve a prize for our virtue when there is so much vice? What is the point of public gestures of solidarity when in private, the oppressed go unheard? Are we not called by the Lord to do good in private (Matthew 6:1)? Who are you to know the salvation of your siblings in Christ? Who are you to know their hearts? Who are you to be their judge? The Church belongs to the Lord, not the other way around. We should be praying for one another, truly praying for one another, privately, not in the form of snide, passive aggressive social media comments. We should always be advocating for each other’s Catholicism, not diminishing it, even if we think our neighbor does not deserve it. As one of my spiritual heroines, the Servant of God, Dorothy Day, once said: “God help us if we got what we deserved!” Dorothy Day was a pacifistic anarchist and a devout Roman Catholic who is currently on the path to sainthood. She often clashed with her bishop over the treatment of the poor and the American Catholic Church’s involvement in war. Dorothy Day was considered to be so radical that she was on an FBI watch-list and was suspected as being a communist infiltrator of the Catholic Church. The bishop once asked Dorothy Day to remove the word “Catholic” from her newspaper, the Catholic Worker. She refused this request.
The debate on whether one is Catholic or not further emphasizes the culture war within America. I, like many of you reading this, have witnessed my family be torn apart at the seams in the name of Donald Trump, a man Michael Voris, the senior executive of Church Militant, compared to the emperor, Constantine. Voris wrote, “…Trump has fallen the role (whether he yet realizes it or not) of Constantine, the ambitious man who wanted to be emperor of Rome, but who was ignorant of the fact that Heaven would step in for him for Heaven’s own reasons. God had additional plans for him once he was undisputed emperor.”
I think Voris was comparing Trump to the wrong emperor. Trump compared himself to a different Roman Emperor. He alluded to himself as the Emperor Nero, the emperor who fiddled as Rome burned. The Emperor the underground Christians referred to as “666”. Sounds like anything other than heavenly. I remember when Trump issued this infamous tweet, a tweet Bernie Sanders later referenced in August of 2020 during the elections: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned. The president golfs.” I remember being on the set of a film. Since I’m the de facto religious “expert” among my artsy often secular friends, my friends ran to me and asked “what does Trump mean, what does this mean, who is Nero?” I remember how my stomach sunk. “That’s 666,” I said to them. I knew nothing good was coming. It was no surprise to me that Donald Trump hid the severity of Covid-19 from the public as exposed by Bob Woodward. I predicted that Trump knew and hid the severity just by the cryptic tweet. You don’t compare yourself to an emperor akin with the anti-christ without reveling in some sort of evil; only about a week or so after that tweet, my world was devoured by a fire we couldn’t see, by an enemy that entered lungs, destroyed livelihoods and left morgues overflowing.
The emperor has no clothes.
Though I ardently disagree with Trumpism and I am critical of the Traditionalist Catholic movement, I would never doubt my opponents’ Catholicism. Who am I to doubt such a thing? I, too, have committed idolatry against God. Dissent is what keeps the Church alive and it is good for us to be exposed to positions that we disagree with, even within the context of the Catholic Church. This isn’t to say that there is not objective truth; there is truth and there is falsity. What I am saying is that we are all on a pilgrimage together discovering what is truth and getting to know Him. The Truth is love and mercy, the Truth is God. We must pursue the truth in honest humility and in conscious incompetence. We will never be given all the answers; we know not the mind of God. So, in our ignorance, it is our charge to love one another and to disagree, but never to the point of violence or sin.
With that said, Trumpism is a plague upon the Church. The fact that Catholics fear coming out as anything other the “conservative” or “Republican” when making Catholic content is horrible. There are some progressive-leaning Catholic media personalities who do not even dissent with Church Teaching, such as Fr. James Martin who are defamed as being “not true Catholics” whereas Church Militant, the platform mentioned previously, was actually denounced by the Archdiocese of Detroit. You will also find that those who subscribe to SSPX sects are often regarded as “true Catholics” while SSPX is not in communion with Rome.
SSPX is a society that was founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Their relationship with the Church is complex and developing. Pope Benedict XVI made clear, the SSPX “does not possess a canonical status in the Church” and its ministers “do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church” (March 10, 2009, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church). The priests are validly ordained, but the practice is illicit which means that the ordination was given by a bishop with no authority to ordain. Even though SSPX priests are ordained, they are not permitted to exercise ministry as they do not have permission from the Catholic Church. Their Masses are also valid, but illegitimate. The society itself was founded as a reaction to Vatican II just as the Traditionalist Movement at large was founded to oppose Vatican II. Those who subscribe to the positions of the SSPX movement often wear it as a badge of pride (as I’ve noticed in my hate comments) and this arrogance puts them at odds with the Church, which is not something to be taken lightly. It is one thing to dissent with particular teachings, especially if they’re “lower-rung” truths; its another thing to call an entire council illegitimate.
I mention these examples to call attention the hypocrisy. While I starkly disagree with Church Militant and SSPX, I don’t want to fall into the category of someone who whines when the referee calls foul on my team, but cheers when it falls on the other. Choosing which dissents are valid and which are not is more difficult than it may appear. That is why I don’t think we should be using Church authority as a battering-ram to silence anyone we don’t like because sometimes the holy fools are the ones who are right.
In my opinion, what we should do is test ideas on their own merits with Church teaching always in mind, even when in dissent. The Church has the authority to teach, since she is the teacher, even when we believe she is teaching something incorrectly. It is important to address the teacher with respect. Because I respect the Church as the teacher, I do not “leave her class”, so to speak, even when I disagree with her, she’s still a very good teacher. No one said that unity is easy and unity is not synonymous with conformity. I stand politically as I do because of what she has taught me, not the other way around. I think that every politically active Catholic can say the same thing regardless of what area of the political spectrum they fall. As a student of religion and philosophy, this fascinated me.
How can people of the same faith, who are taught the same core dogmas, land on different, sometimes oppositional, political positions?
I am not the only one to take notice of this phenomenon within Catholicism. French political philosopher and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about this variance within the Catholic faith in America in his work Democracy in America, a work that was originally published in 1835. Tocqueville notes that about fifty years prior to releasing Democracy in America, Irish Roman Catholics poured into the United States, resulting in many Roman Catholic converts. Tocqueville writes, “These Catholics show a great fidelity to the observances of their religion, and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; however, they form the most republican and most democratic class that exists in the United States.” He goes on to say that Christianity has always favored liberty and opposes violent force in its doctrines. Converting minds and hearts are the aims of Christianity, not domination by physical force (though we know that conversion by force did occur during colonization). Tocqueville also mentions how amongst Catholics there’s two main distinctions: priest and laity. He even goes as far as to say that Catholicism is like “an absolute monarchy”. Yet, he also points out that once you “remove the prince” (the priest) republics form amongst the laity.
Tocqueville concludes that, “Catholics in the United States are simultaneously the most submissive faithful and the most independent citizens [that there are in the world].”
It may be because Catholics have a history of discrimination in the United States or it may be because many were poor. The separation of Church and State may also be responsible. Today, secularization has had an interesting impact on American religion as a whole. As public religious obligation becomes less favorable, private religion devotion increases. Perhaps this is the power the Chair of Saint Peter has. After all, the Pope is the closest thing to a king Catholics have. The Pope is the descendant of St. Peter, a man informally known as the “foul-mouthed Apostle”, a man who denied Jesus three-times and was crucified upside down. That’s the paradox, that’s why we love him. A chaotic Catholic friend of mine once told me that a Catholic should first be able to kiss the papal ring, but then be able to proceed to look at the Pope in the eye and tell him he’s being an idiot when he’s being, well, an idiot. Dissent within the Church is a good thing, it is what prevents our institution from becoming a cult. The spiritually monarchal structure of the Catholic Church can be a liberating one when not intertwined with civic government. I think that the separation of Church and State and the varied political ideations of Catholics will lead to greater contemplations of divine mysteries. It is the future of religion and our Church.
This debate is nothing new. It’s very American. And it probably isn’t going anywhere. Vote where your conscience leads you. The Holy Spirit speaks to us there.
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xoxo, the HippieCatholic