R. Joseph Hoffmann

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
December 16
R. Joseph Hoffmann is a Boston-based entity who prefers Deer Isle, Maine, where he piddles with restoring the oldest house on the island (1806), scrapes ice from inside windows, wishes for a new furnace. Profession-wise, he's taught at Oxford, Ann Arbor and parts of the Middle East and Africa. He was scholar in residence at Goddard College and lectures in liberal arts at the New England Conservatory. More of his stuff--rants and lessons--and links to still more can be found at the New Oxonian. Email: joseph.hoffmann@keble.oxon.org


NOVEMBER 18, 2009 1:28PM

Catholic Choice: The Politics of No

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In 1960 everyone able to vote in my Catholic family voted for JFK because Catholics (like most Jews and African Americans) were Democrats.  Catholics believed in the Trinity, going to confession, the rosary, and the special license of nuns to inflict bodily damage on adolescent knuckles. 

On Sundays they were treated to hideous renditions of Mozart and Palestrina by undertrained choirs with shaky voices and priests whose anguished faces at a sung Latin mass left no doubt about the existence of Purgatory.

There was a "thing" called Catholic Culture, preserved in parish schools, loosely enforced by diocesan bishops, reinforced by the anti-communist television sermons of Bishop Sheen in Life is Worth Living. Being an American Catholic was easy because your Church and your country had a common enemy, even if no one could quite figure out what to do about it.


In 1960 John Kennedy wasn’t kidding when he said that, if elected, Rome wouldn’t tell him what to do--the so-called “Protestant Scare.”  For most American Catholics, the Vatican was far away (especially for Irish Americans) and the pope had the same status as meatless Fridays:  he came with the territory as the price of baptism.  But in general the authority of the pope was pretty obscure and the non-existence of satellite television and the internet made his authority more theoretical than real. 

There was a picture of John XXIII in my eighth grade classroom, positioned close to the crucifix, close enough to encourage the belief that perhaps he had lived at the same time as Jesus. 

Nobody talked about abortion, homosexuality (of the clergy or in relation to marriage rights) or (much, anyway) about divorce, though all of these things were part of a darker culture that we knew about—usually in the form of an “unmarried” aunt who came to Christmas dinner but didn’t go to mass regularly. 

Politics was easy because protestants didn’t talk much about these things either.  When modern conservatives talk about a “broad moral consensus” missing in American society they are talking mainly about a religious convergence of social-sexual attitudes that existed before 1968, or thereabouts. 

That’s when Paul VI spoiled our theory of the non-existence of the pope by publishing Humanae Vitae forbidding Catholics to take advantage of new techniques of contraception—the pill. It was a tough year to be an undergraduate dating a liberal Episcopalian.

From that day on, Catholicism was less and less about frequent communion, the trinity, and the virgin, more and more about hating abortion and strongly disapproving of gays—despite the irony of an emerging pedophile culture in seminaries and rectories.

Sad, that when this consensus broke down, Catholics by and large were forced into an ethical corner-- forced to choose between church and conscience, between a kind of laissez faire allegiance to the principles of Catholic teaching and a strangely robust “moral” voice coming from a church in liturgical disarray and sacramental crisis. 

All of a sudden, your best religious friends were not the ones who shared your tradition (tradition?) but the ones who agreed with you that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is a sinful, correctable practice, and that sex between loving but unmarried individuals of different sexes is morally wrong. 

All of a sudden, the weak voice of faraway Rome and meatless Fridays seemed preferable to the New Church, a church that had decided to take its stand not at the altar but in the bedroom.


But the real problem in all of this is one our culture doesn’t yet have its head around.  It is the way in which the Catholic Church has forced some of its most loyal sons and daughters, especially those in political life, to leave home. 

No one knows whether, given the same set of moral variables in 1960, John Kennedy would have been the first Catholic president or could have achieved the delicate balance between convincing Catholics his religion mattered and non-Catholics that it didn’t.

But the balance is gone, thanks in part to changing social realities and changed laws and attitudes, and in part to a cultural backlash that hasn’t stopped lashing. 

Unlikely as it seems, confronted with a progressive Catholic candidate in 2012, as we had in 2004, the claim of the Church’s non-interference and disinterest in American politics will no longer be convincing.  We see that in the brokering of "acceptable" bishop-approved health care legislation in the U.S. Congress.  We saw it in the sad final days of Ted Kennedy, in his letter of "qualified" contrition to Benedict XVI.

It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Catholic lawmakers now feel the need to apologize to their church for the free exercise of conscience and the right to frame their ideas within the liberal tradition of American politics. 

The issue in 1960, when the phrase had everything to do with belief and almost nothing to do with personal ethics, was whether a candidate was “Too Catholic.”  For Catholic voters in the future, unless dramatic change occurs in a Church not known for upheaval,  the question will be “Catholic enough?”

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Great analysis. (Didn't a decree come down in 2004 basically saying that John Kerry should be refused Communion ? And this latest story out of D.C. too.)

From what I have read, the only places that the Catholic Church is growing are in Latin America and Africa. Americans and Europeans seem to be unable to reconcile the church and conscience thing anymore.
Churches of all kinds...and other forms of superstition...are a hindrance and danger to society. The most beneficial thing any church can do for our country and humanity in general…is to marginalize itself as much as possible. I give special thanks to the Catholic Church for taking its responsibilities in that regard so seriously.
The Magisterium lost its credibility in the wake of disclosures about child abuse. Note that just today the Church announced that homosexuals were not responsible for most of the abuse, so let's dismiss that gay panic.

This is an issue that goes back a long time, and the arthritis suffered by today's adults as a result of that abuse (hitting kids on the knuckles with wood or metal rulers, forcing them to kneel on rice, etc.) isn't the half of it. Rent "The Magdalene Sisters" for a picture of the nasty things done to Irish girls for the sin of being pretty. That's another piece of the puzzle.

The Roman Catholic Church has, at its core, the protection of the patriarchy. After all, if a man doesn't know who his children are, how can he effectively capitalize on their labor? Must control women and children so that men can exploit them.

The financial bankruptcy being experienced today as a result of some of that abuse is just the flowering of the ethical bankruptcy that has been part of the church for too long. May it die a painful death.
Well said, well examined. Rated.
Fascinating. I hadn't considered recent Catholic history in this way, and didn't realize Humanae Vitae was the turning point. Thank you for this post.