Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/11

21

The Archbishop and the Governor

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New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is greatly relieved that the pesky matter of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unCatholic (at least for now) lifestyle is finally behind us.  The divorced Catholic governor has been very publicly living with his girlfriend and taking her to official events.  An advisor to the Vatican’s highest court, Edward Peters, had called for the denial of communion to Cuomo on the ground of his “public concubinage”—a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Catholic doctrine.  

The New York hierarchy, however, immediately closed ranks around Cuomo and brushed off this pesky Vatican busy-body.  The leader of the Albany diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard, assured Cuomo and the world that the Church fathers would not dream of judging Cuomo’s domestic arrangements:

“There are norms for all Catholics about receiving communion and we have to be sensitive pastorally to every person in their [sic] own particular situation,” Bishop Hubbard said. 

Bishop Hubbard’s logic here is puzzling.  The very existence of  universal “norms for all Catholics” means that they apply to “every person” regardless of his “own particular situation.”    Not any more, it seems:

“When it comes to judging worthiness for communion, . . . it’s not something we comment on,” said Hubbard. 

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was even more dismissive of the silly idea of stigmatizing Cuomo for his out-of-wedlock relationship.  Cuomo had threatened to cancel a scheduled lunch with Dolan, possibly out of pique at the criticism of his “concubinage” emanating from distant Catholic redoubts. But then Cuomo magnanimously found time in his busy schedule for lunch with the assorted New York priests.  Dolan later reported that Cuomo’s living arrangements never came up, adding:

“Thank God it didn’t, because it was a bit of a tempest in a teapot . . . . We were just happy to be there, and he obviously was, too.”

Lots of jolliness all around, obviously.  Dolan joked that the best part of the fact that Cuomo rescheduled their meeting was that “We got lunch out of it.” 

(How the once fearsome power of the Church has shrunk!  King Phillip in Verdi’s Don Carlo complains that the “throne must always bow to the altar.”  Now the altar creeps up to the throne and is grateful for a few table scraps.) 

One of the core purposes of the “secular conservative” construct, in my view, is to show that traditional morality can be justified on secular grounds alone.   Divine revelation is not needed to argue for obedience to the law and respect for the rights of others.  More particularly, the married two-parent biological family can be shown to be superior to all other arrangements for raising children, based on evidence and on an understanding of the role of marriage in civilizing men and tying them to their children.   You don’t need to worship a supernatural deity to grasp that the rise in illegitimacy and single-parent households is the greatest problem facing American society, mitigated only by the country’s enormous affluence. 

I suppose I should thank Archbishop Dolan for indirectly buttressing the argument behind secular conservatism.  Not only is religious faith not required to justify traditional morality, religious leaders do not even have the backbone any more to stand up for traditional morality in the hard individual case, leavin’ jes’ us secular conservatives to stick our necks out.  If, after centuries of accumulating scientific triumph in understanding the causal mechanisms of our world, we still must have relics, amulets, magical potions, and incantations, the one indisputable benefit that religion could provide would be fearlessness in stigmatizing anti-social behavior.  Instead, we get an Archbishop who calls concern over a Catholic’s carnal sin a “tempest in a teapot” and who thanks God for cooling down said “tempest.”  To be sure, Cuomo has not fathered a child out of wedlock, but the depressing and sordid practice of Daddy imposing his “girlfriend” and Mommy imposing her “boyfriend” on the children of divorce is intimately related to the catastrophic breakdown of the family.  With apologies to my pro-life friends, I would argue that the epidemic of unwed fertility, divorce, and serial cohabitation is far more consequential to society than abortion. 

Dolan has shown the Church to be a follower rather than a leader of morality.  Today, no one gets booted out of the country club for divorcing his wife or for living with his girlfriend.  So he’s darn well not going to be denied his communion wafer, either. 
As religion accommodates itself to changing secular norms—even discarding the notion of eternal punishment for the wrong belief or for no belief, a  barbaric idea which a tolerant society can no longer stomach—I predict that the one irreducible religious idea will prove to be belief in an invisible Special Friend who can get us out of scrapes and misfortune by suspending the laws of nature on our behalf.

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11 comments

  • CONSVLTVS · March 21, 2011 at 2:17 am

    An intelligent, fundamentalist friend of mine (yes, he knows I’m secular) laments that Christian churches seem to have lost the ability to censure bad behavior like divorce. Sadly, his religion cannot even enforce healthy norms like the two-parent family. If the divorce rate among the faithful is as high as it is among skeptics, where’s the social utility of faith?

    The willingness of religious people to conform their morals to the prevailing ethical wind proves that the church is guilty of moral relativism. That is, the church in practice is no more defined by so-called moral absolutes than the rest of us. Consensus is the real source of moral norms, even among believers who claim something more.

  • Black Death · March 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    “Nach Canossa gehen wir nicht!”

    -Otto von Bismarck

  • Clay Waters · March 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    “One of the core purposes of the ‘secular conservative’ construct, in my view, is to show that traditional morality can be justified on secular grounds alone.”

    Yes! My online debates with theists often devolve into an admission that yes, individual atheists can be “good,” but they have no transcendent rationale to be good. In other words, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?

    What pushed me into the atheist field a few years ago was a comment in a book of apologetics (Tim Keller, a local boy) suggesting that atheists who do good works are hypocrites because they fail to acknowledge that it is Yahweh making them do it. Literally damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • RandyB · March 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    HMD:”the married two-parent biological family can be shown to be superior to all other arrangements for raising children”

    Totally agree, and this is one of the problems I have in defining myself on the modern political spectrum.

    Conservative politicians talk about the period roughly 1946-60/65 as a kind of golden age of values, as evidenced by a record marriage rate and baby boom. But in another speech, they decry the economic conditions of the time for strong unions and job security. They don’t seem to understand that a reasonable expectation of steady income for 20 years is an important element in the decision to start a family and put down community roots. The free agent economy conservatives celebrate so much, leads to free agent personal lifestyles they hate.

    Either they don’t understand the role of income security in family formation, or they’re not interested. They need to decide whether they support having an economy that encourages the practice of values; or if values is just a tool they want to use to minimize the societal disruption of their pro-wealthy economic priorities.

  • Polichinello · March 21, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I don’t see how the Archbishop’s failure to live up to his ideal validates MacDonald’s argument for secular morality. At best, it only proves that we need another archbishop.

    Really, the the archbishop’s cowardice can be used to strengthen the argument that religion needs to take a more active role, at least in the social sphere. Had the archbishop and his church used their influence to shame Cuomo into perhaps marrying his partner-in-sin, wouldn’t MacDonald have been forced to concede credit to the Church?

    This also points up another dilemma MacDonald has discussed before. You really don’t have a figure outside of religion who could dress down a politician. Occasionally, you have writers like Solzehynitsyn, or perhaps even poets who can remonstrate, but for the most part it’s up to religious figures like John the Baptist to deal with these issues.

  • Tony S. · March 21, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Polichinello,

    Mac Donald’s claim is that the archbishop’s apparent cowardice “indirectly buttresses,” rather than “validates,” the argument for secular morality. It does this by revealing that socially beneficial authority and stigmatization are no longer part of the culture of the Catholic Church. Whether you get a better bishop in NY or not (or whether Mac Donald’s is an accurate representation of Dolan or not), this is a real problem for the American Church and for American culture.

    When we see high-ranking bishops acting as if the little culture-building things that used to matter no longer matter, then it seems that the Church is no longer willing to provide the one social benefit that (according to secular conservatives) a secular, conservative morality probably cannot provide, that is, “fearlessness in stigmatizing anti-social behavior.” I doubt Mac Donald has any illusions that secular justifications for morality will eventually be more persuasive on a mass scale than religious ones. Rather than making secular morality more persuasive, this sort of default on the part of the Church sets secular morality the task of filling the void. That’s why she’s on the secular right and doesn’t appear to be a “New Atheist.”

    “Had the archbishop and his church used their influence to shame Cuomo into perhaps marrying his partner-in-sin, wouldn’t MacDonald have been forced to concede credit to the Church?”

    I thought the point of her post was that she would concede credit in that context. That religion has in the past fulfilled this useful purpose. She would almost put up with stuff like relics if the Church still did its social job.

  • Eusebius · March 22, 2011 at 12:30 am

    I believe that the “tempest in a teapot” that Archbishop Dolan referred to was the scheduling snafu and its allegedly deeper significance – which indeed was wildly overblown in the press – and not the issue raised by Peters.

    Archbishop Dolan has been reported to have advised Rudy Giuliani to refrain from receiving Holy Communion because of his marital situation and I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t give the same advice to Cuomo, perhaps also in private if there are valid reasons for doing so.

  • Acilius · March 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    “I predict that the one irreducible religious idea will prove to be belief in an invisible Special Friend who can get us out of scrapes and misfortune by suspending the laws of nature on our behalf.”

    If you’d said this was “the one irreducible monotheistic idea,” then you might have been onto something. However, billions of people subscribe to forms of animism or polytheism which everyone calls “religions” but which do not involve any such Great Sugar Daddy in the Sky, and perhaps as many more accept monotheistic labels but are devoted to various practices and beliefs that plainly come directly out of animist and polytheistic traditions. So if we’re going to generalize about “religion,” we can’t settle for statements that apply only to monotheism.

    If you did turn to animistic and polytheistic traditions, I think you could find considerable support for the overall point of the post. Such traditions don’t usually present themselves as sources of legalistic morality. Rather, they involve rituals, myths, etc, that give structure to life, including political life, where authority figures can justify their positions in vocabulary drawn from the tradition. So there is a moral content to animist and polytheistic traditions in the sense that they reinforce the certain relationships among people, but it’s from those relationships that moral ideas come, not from any law code handed down by the gods or wood-sprites or whatever it is.

  • Polichinello · March 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Rather than making secular morality more persuasive, this sort of default on the part of the Church sets secular morality the task of filling the void.

    Sounds nice, but we’ve had secular moralists working on this issue for about three centuries (if we use the Enlightenment as a starting point), and we still have a void.

  • Tony S. · March 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    We’ve had secular moralists working on this issue for about three centuries (if we use the Enlightenment as a starting point), and we still have a void.

    I agree with you and I think we always will. All the more scandalous that the Church refuses to recognize that its authority has become bureaucratic rather than charismatic.

    Acilius makes a good point about traditional social order and household gods – the sort that is often made at Alternative Right. That is one way of building a (arguably secular, as in non-monotheistic) mass culture that cares about its ancestors and descendants. I would add that the loss of Christian charisma is partly due to Christians buying into the idea that monotheism means “Great Sugar Daddy in the Sky” or forgetting the local “magic” of the traditional parish and the cycles of sacred time.

  • dmt117 · March 23, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    One of the core purposes of the “secular conservative” construct, in my view, is to show that traditional morality can be justified on secular grounds alone.

    The Church would agree with you that most of traditional morality (including traditional sexual morality) can be known through the natural law. So what? The problem with Gov. Cuomo isn’t that he’s come to the wrong rational conclusion about morality, and that’s why he’s living with his girlfriend. His problem is that he’s not interested in what natural reason has to say about his living arrangements in the first place. And that is true with immoral behavior in general; it generally isn’t the result of a failure of logic, but of a failure to even be interested in the moral truth.

    Archbishop Dolan’s failure isn’t one of argumentation. It’s a failure to lead; a failure to remind people – including the Governor – of the moral truth and to call them, in the Name of Christ, to take up their crosses daily and follow Him. But the Archbishop’s failure shows what’s missing in secular conservatism. At least we recognize what the Archbishop should be doing. Where is the secular counterpart to the Archbishop? I don’t mean the philosopher able to construct a natural morality (Aristotle did that thousands of years ago), but a secular institution with the moral authority to draw people to make the sacrifices necessary to follow the moral law. There isn’t one; I’m not sure there ever can be one; and I’m not sure that secular conservatives recognize that without such an authority secular morality will never have cultural significance. We will have what we have now: Some not insignificant number of people who genuinely try to follow Christ, a greater number who are only nominal Christians, an even greater swath of folks who are just not interested in moral truth, and a permanently few number of secular rationalists arguing for a secular basis for morality.

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