Ur-Fascism: A Reflection on Umberto Eco and American Politics

BACKGROUND

Politics-of-natureLet me state from the outset that this essay is not pointed at any particular political party or candidate in the United States.  I write it, not as a political scientist, but as a Catholic deacon who is trying to understand the current state of American political life; consider this a small reflection undertaken as part of my own formation of conscience.

I have written it also as a retired Navy Commander who has had a longstanding interest in the nature of leadership and in the styles of leadership exercised in any human institution.  I have written elsewhere, for example, on authoritarian leadership in religious institutions.  Therefore, I ask that readers not assume

Blurred text with a focus on leadership

or presume anything other than I find it fascinating on its face and that I do believe there are characteristics discussed herein that warrant our reflection during the current election cycle here in the United States (not to mention its possible applicability to other nations as well).

To explain a bit more, my generation was born shortly after the end of World War II.  As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was always fascinated by the history of that war, especially since most of our parents and their families and friends had gone into the service and fought against the Axis powers or took jobs here at home which supported that effort.  One of our uncles was Uncle Joea paratrooper in the “Band of Brothers” who jumped into France on D-Day, and his letter to his brother following D-Day had a strong impact on all of us. (I’ve blogged about this before.) One of the first term papers I ever wrote in high school was on the history of D-Day itself, with Uncle Joe’s letter contributing significantly to the effort.  The question which fascinated me as a child and continues to haunt me to this day is this: How could an otherwise brilliant people such as the Germans, to take just one example, come under the spell of someone like Adolf Hitler?  Couldn’t they see and understand what seems so obvious to everyone today?  What did they “miss” about him?  More important, if they could “miss” Hitler, what would prevent other intelligent people from missing the boat in the future?  “It could never happen here” just doesn’t seem to cut it, in light of Hitler and the German people; I’m sure they thought the same thing.

umbertoeco-654x404So it was interesting recently to come across a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, the great Italian author (The Name of the Rose), scholar and philosopher, entitled “Ur-Fascism.” Written for the New York Review of Books (22 June 1995),  it may be read in its entirety here.   It is on the points raised in his article that I want to reflect now.  Eco ends his article by writing,

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. [Emphasis added.]

 

Eco begins his article by recounting his own wartime experience as a boy in Italy during the final years of the war, and his own growing awareness of what was happening around him.  He then writes,

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.  [Emphasis added.]

So, taking him at his word, let’s consider his fourteen “features” of fundamental (“ur“) fascism.  Notice well his caution that these do not constitute a coherent system of thought and action, but his final caution is apt, that just one of them needs be present to create a bloody (“coagulate”) fascism. Here is his list.  I offer them in his order and with his emphases.  For some of them, I simply report them as written; with others, I offer modest commentary.

CHARACTERISTICS OF UR-FASCISM ACCORDING TO ECO

  1. The Cult of Traditionalism: Don’t Let Reason Get in the Way

anti-intellectualEco points out the first feature of Ur-Fascism is a cult — worship — of tradition.  This of course does not deny the importance of tradition itself, as I read him.  Rather it is a question of emphasis and loss of balance: when this emphasis on tradition is taken to an extreme that it becomes traditionalism, an extremist point of view.  Traditionalism taken to this extreme is found in other times, cultures and systems beside Fascism, of course.  In fascist hands, however, traditionalism becomes focused on past glories, past identities, past expressions of truth understood in radical opposition to various forms of rationalism and rationalistic thought.  Eco points out that such a response is ancient, reflected in various schools of thought that reacted negatively to classical Greek rationalism.  In fact, perhaps the best way to think of this traditionalism that Eco is talking about would be as a kind of Gnosticism.  As a result of this worldview, there is no need for new learning, and it reflects an extreme anti-intellectual stance: “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message,” Eco writes.  So, Ur-Fascism would contend mightily with those who suggest that there might be other points of view to consider: this would explain frequent criticism of “intellectual elites” and others who not only seek to uncover the Truth that has existed for all time, but who might also suggest that this Truth might be understood in various ways under differing circumstances.  In short, the Fascist says, “We know the Truth, so don’t listen to the ‘intellectual elites’ who will only confuse you.”

2. The Rejection of Rational Modernism: “All that is New is Bad”

For this reason, Eco says that this extreme Traditionalism carries with it a rejection of all that is modern.  Here we Catholics need to be cautious with the terms.  I do not believe that Eco is using the term “modernism” as we sometimes see it used in late 19th and early 20th Century ecclesial discussions of “Americanism” and the like.  Here I believe Eco is speaking far more broadly about anything that is “modern” and at apparent odds with “Tradition.”  Eco explains:

Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3.  Irrationalism: Cult of Action for Action’s Sake

fascism1Such irrationalism is based on what Eco calls “the cult of action for action’s sake”. The fascist sees action as good in itself and therefore action is taken “before, or without” any prior reflection.  In the fascist view, thinking is a form of emasculation.

Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

When we hear candidates today making promises of immediate action upon assuming office, are we listening to echoes from the past?  References in stump speeches to “real Americans” over against those “who live in ivory towers” reflect this kind of radical dichotomy between action and contemplation.  It seems to me that the real indicator of Ur-Fascism here would be the demonizing of the opponent, making “the intellectuals” into an enemy.

4.  Disagreement as Treason

Eco’s words on this point need no explanation:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

Several election cycles ago, someone published a piece — I can’t remember who or where — that pointed out the increasing use of American flags as backdrops to political speeches during rallies.  If one candidate showed up in front of four flags, the other candidate would go to ten, and on and on.  The implication is clear: if you agree with me, you are a patriot “like me,” but if you disagree with me, then you are unpatriotic and probably a traitor.  The more heated the rhetoric and the optics, even if the word “treason” itself isn’t used, the more this association is made.

5.  The Fear of Difference/Racism

feature-sidebar-police-racismYet again, Eco is succinct and on point:

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

As we continue  confronting racism in our country (and around the world), fear against “others” whether this is expressed through language about race, immigration, or terrorism.  Fear is a normal enough emotion, but language and policy that “exploits and exacerbates” fear of the other (Eco: “the intruders”) crosses the line into fascism.

6.  Individual or Social Frustration

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

In our own day, this would seem to be reflected quite obviously in the growth of certain movements, such as the “Tea Party” and in our ongoing debates about immigration policy, especially in light of a struggling and “frustrated middle class”.  Such groups make the claim that they speak for this angry and disenfranchised middle class.

7.  Nationalism and an Obsession with “Plot”

fascism quote mussoliniCertainly, sometimes people are out to get us!  Terrorists have made that terribly, tragically, and repeatedly obvious.  However, look what Eco points out:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. . . .  At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Consider that opening clause: “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity.”  Do we experience that reality in our society today?  When people feel powerless, forgotten, disenfranchised, it is easy to look for that which will give a sense of power, belonging, and identity.  Therefore, anything or anyone who threatens that identity will become the enemy who is “besieging” us.  Political rhetoric which creates, emphasizes or exaggerates “the plot” against “our people” quickly crosses into fascistic language and behavior.  Here again, we see that fear directed against the “other” which we saw earlier, this time writ large.

8.  Humiliation by Others

The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. . . . However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

What a fascinating observation!  People are to feel humiliated.  I was particularly struck by the notion of humiliation by the force of enemies.  When we discuss foreign policy today, especially on strategies about how to deal with ISIS and other forms of terrorism, people often complain of being powerless: how can a superpower be apparently powerless in dealing with such a threat?  In the heat of political debate on this issue, we hear echoes of Eco’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” in which the threat is characterized as too strong on the one hand, or too weak on the other.  His conclusion is stunningly apt: a fascist government will always lose because “they are constitutionally incapable” of an objective evaluation of the threat.  After all, if we could evaluate objectively, there would no longer be the humiliation the fascist seeks.

Hitler-Mussolini-Neo-Fascists9.  Life Lived for Struggle

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

Have you ever known a person who is always in some kind of struggle, no matter what is going on in their life?  Some years ago in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner, artist Al Capp introduced a character named Joe Btfsplk who was always down on his luck and with a rain cloud always over his head.  In fundamental Fascism, struggle is not something that is transitory leading to an eventual peace, but rather struggle is the point of life. It is no coincidence that Afolf Hitler’s prison manifesto was titled Mein Kampf: “My Struggle”!

In political rhetoric we hear from many candidates about “war against” this or that: drugs, terrorism, whatever — but the war is never won.  Most people want there to be a victory in these struggles so that we can live in peace; the fascist mindset, however, wants to keep the struggle going.

ubermensch10.  Populist Elitism

Ur-Fascism [advocates] a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. [The fascist leader] also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

We have had many political conversations over the last twenty years or so about “American exceptionalism”, which risks easily crossing over into Eco’s notion of belonging “to the best people of the world,” while demonizing opponents (including opposing political parties).  Notice the implied cynicism about the character (“weak”) of the people; only the Leader can save them.  He is their strong-man, their Hero.

11.  Heroism is the Norm

With these ideas of life-as-constant-struggle coupled with populist elitism, it is not surprising that what will be valued most is “heroism”: the people want and need a hero, and they are themselves called to become heroes.  Reading Eco, I was reminded of German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and his concept of the ubermensch (Super-man); his philosophy had direct influence in Hitler and others.

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the
hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. . . .  In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12.  Transference to Sexuality

In light of our highly sexualized society in general, and the often reported sexual improprieties (and sometimes outright crimes) on the part of certain politicians, Eco’s point here is insightful:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the UrFascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13.  Selective Populism

For Ur-Fascism. . . the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. . . .  There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. . . .  Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

I was immediately struck by Eco’s remark about the internet.  Consider how politicians and political parties today rely on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like.  This “internet populism” risks becoming taken as the true and proper voice of the all the people.  Couple this with the general frustration and dissatification of most Americans with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Congress, we should probably be alert for the odor of fascism (Eco: “we can smell Ur-Facism”).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_2102-09844_Mussolini_in_Mailand-464x26114.  Impoverished Vocabulary and Newspeak

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. . . .  But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

American politics has always been jingoistic, using words as slogans representing movements, goals and objectives.  Eco’s point here, though, is well worth considering: when does language become a weapon in the constant war, a weapon designed to control and coerce?  What is the language of our public discourse these days?  I think most of us would agree, regardless of political affiliation, that what passes for cultured discourse today is a far cry from that of our predecessors.

 

CONCLUSION: Where to go from here?

My point, as I stated at the outset, has been to review the characteristics of fascism as presented by the late writer, Umberto Eco.  I do so with no agenda in mind than to offer a cautionary message.  This is not about Republican versus Democrat, liberal or progressive versus conservative, Trump versus Clinton.  It is about a worldview.  There are other worldviews, of course, and as time permits I may attempt similar essays about them.

For deacons, I submit that the next step is to compare and contrast ideas such as these with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially those directly related to political life.  We need that as part of our own formation of conscience but also as we attempt to help others.  That task exceeds the scope of this particular essay, however.  I hope to turn my attention to such an effort in the near future.

I conclude this essay with a final, well-known quote from Umberto Eco.  It seems an appropriate summary statement of his comments on ur-fascism:

“Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.”

Umberto-Eco-009-600x250

 

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When Passion Goes Too Far: Crossing the Line

voris on dolanIt is nothing new for many people to be passionate about the Catholic Church, whether that passion is directed against the Church or for the Church.  However, passion should be balanced with compassion. As a theologian whose special interest is ecclesiology — the theology of church — I try to be aware of what’s going on in and around the church.  I try to avoid extreme positions on either side of the spectrum, firmly believing the ancient maxim “in medio stat virtus“, “virtue stands in the middle.”  Presuming the truth of that claim, then, we might conclude that “at the extremes stand weakness,” and perhaps even sin.  As one approaches the extremes, then, it becomes important to know where the boundaries are, the lines that one must not cross if it is truly truth and virtue that is sought.  For this reason I think it is important for us to consider the recent activities of a supposedly Catholic commentator by the name of Michael Voris.  I would not normally pay much attention to his work since in the several times I’ve reviewed it, I have found it consistently unbalanced and “over the top.”  But I was recently directed to a couple of his most recent broadcasts which seem even more so, and in my opinion, can give us a good example of how passion brought to the extreme crosses the line.  So, while I am loath to draw attention to his work on the one hand, I think that we also have a responsibility to challenge such extremism so we can all avoid it in the future.  Simply hoping that this kind of thing will just disappear if we ignore it is simplistic, dangerous and naive.

Mr. Voris has recently targeted for particular attention the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan.  (For full disclosure: I have known Cardinal Dolan for many years, first meeting him briefly when we were both in the seminary, and again more closely during the years I served on the senior staff of the USCCB.)  While there may be more videos like these out there, these two will give a sense of what is going on.  Watch them here and here.  

One of my first reactions when I watched them for the first time was what I would do if someone said such things about me in such a public forum!  Certainly I would be consulting an attorney about whether such videos might constitute slander or libel.  But the legality of these videos, at least under US law, is a matter far beyond my qualifications or competence.  I can only examine them as a theologian, so let’s begin by highlighting just a few of the claims Mr. Voris makes in the videos above.

Cardinal-DolanCardinal Dolan is accused of being “a wicked bishop”, of being “under the grip of the devil.”  He is accused of not caring for or loving the Church, and that he apparently no longer believes in Hell.  He is accused of “giving your blessing to a group publicly celebrating their sin,” and that “you give your approval to mortal sin. . . You give active homosexuality a free pass in your Archdiocese.”  Then Mr. Voris expands his list of complaints, accusing Cardinal Dolan of not supporting “faithful Catholics.”  He has, according to Voris, never publicly condemned Islam as “a heresy and a false religion that does not have supernatural faith.”  The Cardinal, he claims “has been a non-stop source of scandal” and is “not fit to be a bishop.”  Voris wants the Cardinal and any other bishops who agree with him (the Cardinal) to repent their sins and resign their office.

Where to begin?  While reasonable people might certainly disagree with the actions of any bishop, just as one might with any leader, one must certainly stop there, without going on to try to infer motivation or motive.  I am sure that if Cardinal Dolan were asked about these things, he would completely and fully reject all of these assertions, and with good reason. To lump together, as Mr. Voris does, sexual orientation and sexual activity is to miss an important distinction made in the teaching of the church.  Nowhere has Cardinal Dolan ever sanctioned sinful behavior by anyone, nor does the record indicate that he has ever given anyone a “free pass” on sin of any kind.  There is no substantiation of any kind for a claim that the Cardinal has lost his faith, or that he is not striving to provide for the cura animarum of the people of New York — all the people.  To spring from a criticism of certain decisions into a full blown attempt to characterize another person’s intentions and motivations — much less that state of that person’s soul — is not only fatally flawed logic, it is seriously deficient in Catholic morality.

But perhaps most disturbing is the challenge offered by Mr. Voris toward the end of the first video: “Do not think that the punishment visited on you will not be the most severe when you die, perhaps even before you die, if you do not change.”  He then cries, “Now is the time for an authentic Catholic uprising.”  For me, these statements are most disturbing and downright frightening. I suppose coming from a person whose website is called “Church Militant,” this should not be surprising.  Still, couched in such militaristic tones and context, one could easily infer a call to physical violence against the Cardinal and other bishops.

The last point I wish to highlight is the claim made in the crawler at the bottom of the video.  It is an advertisement for a paid subscription to the site, which professes to be “100% faithful to the Magisterium.”  I must confess that when I first saw that claim, while watching the video and its assertions about Cardinal Dolan and other “wicked bishops,” I laughed out loud.  How a person could claim to be completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church while at the same time denigrating those men whose ministry includes being authoritative teachers of that Magisterium is simply nonsensical.

What are we to make of all of this?  Let’s review some basics.

PentecostThe Magisterium is not simply a “who”; it is a “what.”  Magisterium refers to the teaching authority of the Church, a Church we believe guided by the Holy Spirit.  Every person, in some way or another, and in the broadest sense of the term, participates in this teaching authority, constantly learning and sharing this faith.  Think of parents, for example, teaching and forming their children in faith, as they are charged at baptism; they are part of the magisterium in this broad sense.  But in a very specific and particular way, the highest human teachers in the Church are the College of Bishops, always in communion with each other and with the head of the College, the Pope.  Unless and until an authoritative judgment is made by the College (always in communion with the Pope), or by the Pope himself, that a bishop is no longer part of that College, then the bishop in question remains an authoritative teacher.  It is not within the competence of someone else (like Mr. Voris, or myself) to judge when a bishop is no longer teaching authentic or faithful doctrine.  In fact, I will go further and suggest that, if there should be a presumption of veracity and accuracy in presenting the Church’s teaching, that presumption goes to the bishops, not to anyone else.  Put simply, Mr. Voris is neither qualified nor competent to make the judgments he is attempting to make.

Do bishops disagree with one another?  Of course they do, but not about the fundamentals of the faith.  They may disagree over pastoral strategies, over how a particular situation will be dealt with in their diocese, and they will be certainly be judged on the exercise of their ministry when they stand before God.  But disagreement in practice does not necessarily mean a break in communion.

God as JudgeAm I saying that bishops never make mistakes?  Of course not!  Bishops make mistakes just like the rest of us, and they also deserve the benefit of fraternal correction.  Some bishops commit crimes and should be held accountable under civil, criminal and canon law.  But no one has appointed any of us to take the place of God in judging us all for our sins.  Alone we will stand before God and take responsibility for the way we’ve lived our lives.

Let’s take just one example from the litany of complaints made by Mr. Voris, and analyze just how wrong he is.  He condemns Cardinal Dolan for not publicly condemning Islam as “a heresy and a false religion”.  While this may be what he believes, it is NOT what the Catholic Church teaches (remember the claim that he is 100% faithful to the Magisterium?).  What DOES the Magisterium of the Church teach about Islam?

IslamHere’s some truly authentic magisterial teaching, found in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution [please note that well — it is a DOGMATIC text, dealing with the most fundamental issues of faith and church] on the Church (Lumen gentium), #16:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator.  In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Later, this thought is developed in the same Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), #3:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and
subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has
spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as
Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though
they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His
virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of
judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead.
Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual
understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Vatican IIIn fact, even earlier — when talking about religion in general, the bishops of the Council (that “episcopal college” mentioned above) taught at #2:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

When a person claims to speak with complete faithfulness to the Magisterium, then, we should expect that this person would be echoing these teachings, which Cardinal Dolan has certainly done.  The Church does NOT teach what Mr. Voris teaches: that Islam is “a heresy and a false religion.”

Finally, I want to return to the threatening language used by Mr. Voris when he refers to punishment that he thinks may happen to Cardinal Dolan after he dies, “or even before you die,” and when he issues his call for an “authentic Catholic uprising.  I would refer Mr. Voris and anyone else who is interested to the following canons from the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1372 A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council [note: such as Vatican II]  or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.

Can. 1373 A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [note: such as Cardinal Dolan] because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.

It would be interesting to hear the opinion of a canon lawyer with regard to these canons as they might apply in this instance.

Many lines have been crossed in these ranting diatribes by Mr. Voris against Cardinal Dolan and any other bishops Mr. Voris decides to condemn.  Lines of civility, lines of Christian charity, and lines of faithful adherence to what the Church actually teaches have all been overstepped..  One would hope that Mr. Voris will himself be open to fraternal correction.  We just heard about this in the Gospel last Sunday.  As Christ taught his disciples 2,000 years ago, as well as his disciples today:

 If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that ‘every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

voris on dolan 2Mr. Voris is entitled and free to make his own judgments about things.  However, he is not free to play fast and loose with the truths of our faith or to challenge and mock the legitimate and authoritative exercise of servant-leadership by a bishop in communion with the Church, regardless of his own personal disagreement with those teachings or that bishop.  Yes, Cardinal Dolan will someday give an accounting of his stewardship; so, too, will Mr. Voris and the rest of us.

Bishops, Blogs and the Clergy: Accountability and Obedience

Holy SpiritThe recent fracas over a blog hosted by a deacon in England has revealed some interesting fault lines in the development of communications strategies in the contemporary Catholic world. Add to the normal ecclesial relationships involved based on our sacramental theology of Holy Orders and canon law, the American penchant for seeing everything through the lens of personal rights and freedom, and you have a fascinating matrix of meaning. What follows is not intended as in any way comprehensive or exhaustive on the subject, but I would like to raise certain things for reflection and consideration.  It is also important to remember that these comments are focused on the Latin Church of the Catholic Church.

First, let’s consider two points about the relationship between a cleric and his bishop.

Point #1: The cleric has become a cleric because he was ordained by a bishop. This ordination has certain effects, both sacramental and canonical.  The sacramental effect configures the ordinand in a particular way with Christ; I will address the canonical effect shortly.  Since 1972 and the revisions made to the sacrament of Holy Orders by Pope Paul VI, one enters the clerical state by ordination as a deacon through the laying on of the bishop’s hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. (Prior to 1972, one entered the clerical state, not through ordination at all, but through the liturgical rite of “tonsure”; the new cleric was then considered “capable” ( “capax” in Latin) of receiving sacramental ordination. The analogy might be with farming: one first plows a furrow and prepares the land to receive the seed and be fruitful; tonsure was that necessary first step.)

Deacon-2Point #2: During the liturgy of ordination, and prior to the moment of ordination itself, the ordinand makes a series of promises to the bishop. The most dramatic promise comes when the ordinand approaches the bishop, puts his hands in the bishops’ while the bishop asks: “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?” (If the ordinand is being ordained by a bishop other than his own, the words are changed slightly to reflect that he is promising obedience to his own diocesan bishop and not to the ordaining bishop.) Through this promise and subsequent ordination, the newly-ordained deacon is sacramentally changed at the core of his being, and also becomes linked permanently in relationship with his bishop and the diocesan church. This particular effect of ordination also has a canonical effect, and is referred to as incardination. For example, on 25 March 1990, I was ordained into the Order of Deacons by His Eminence James Cardinal Hickey, then the Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington, DC. I made the promise of obedience to Cardinal Hickey and his successors, which has now included Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl. Over all of the years since, although I have served in a variety of places outside of the archdiocese as well as within the archdiocese, I have always remained incardinated in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. That is my ecclesiastical “home”.

Concerning the notion of obedience, this is no mere profession of blind obedience to the bishop, nor is it simply a legal requirement to preserve good order and discipline.  Holy Orders, as we are told repeatedly in Vatican documents on the diaconate and the priesthood, is at its core about relationships: the relationship of the ordained with Christ, the relationship of the clergy with their bishop, for example, and the relationship of the clergy with the people we serve, or with each other. Ordination is not simply about the individual being ordained, but is actually about the entire Church. For example, it is often helpful to state that a person is not ordained “a deacon” or “a priest”; rather, he is ordained into the Order of Deacons or into the Order of Presbyters. We never operate alone: we are called into a community of service. Therefore, obedience sets the standard for this community. Obedience, in its theological roots, refers to listening and hearing (Latin: ob + audire) the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit working through others, and in the case of ordination, that means recognizing the Holy Spirit working through the bishop. It acknowledges in humility that the ordinand recognizes that, through the Bishop’s own ordination into the Order of Bishops, he has received the Holy Spirit in a unique way, the same Holy Spirit he is about to invoke upon the ordinand. The “promise of obedience” then is a profound theological as well as legal moment of that new relationship. Both our theology and consequently our law abhors the notion of a “vagus” cleric: an “unattached” cleric who is not incardinated somewhere, a cleric who is not somehow attached to a particular Church and exercising ministry under the “oversight” (episkopē” in Greek) of a bishop or other legitimate ecclesiastical superior.

IncardinationBefore turning to this particular example, one more technical point to make.  There are two broad categories of clergy: so-called “secular” (or diocesan) clergy, where the relationship is focused on the particular geographical community known as a diocese, headed by a diocesan bishop.  The other broad category are “religious” clergy, who are members of various religious communities that are most often not geographically restricted.  Vows are made (unlike diocesan clergy who do not make vows) upon entrance into the particular religious community, and the religious superior is not a diocesan bishop, but a religious superior; religious clergy serve wherever their congregation serves, and that might be worldwide.

With this as background we come to the current situation of a cleric and his bishop and the deacon’s blog.

The deacon in the current situation is member of the diocesan clergy, bound by his promise of obedience to his bishop.  Someone asked about Deacon Greg Kandra and his famous “Deacon’s Bench” blog: yes, if Greg’s bishop were to decide that Greg should no longer host his blog, he would be expected to give it up.  As clergy, we surrender a certain amount of freedom which lay people would have in a similar situation.  According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), #18, all clergy exist for one reason: to build up the Body of Christ.  It is one of the responsibilities of the diocesan bishop to assess this “on the ground” and to make determinations about the building up of the Body of Christ in his own diocese.  As clergy, we are public persons.  As such, we cannot really say that “in this activity I am operating as a private person” with regard to the church.  We give that ability up upon ordination.  We now represent Christ and we also represent the Church.  St. Thomas Aquinas famously taught that a cleric acts “in persona Christi et in nomine ecclesiae” (“in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church”).

Dolan at Santa CruceCardinal Dolan, in a recent talk at Rome’s University of Santa Croce during a conference on communications, pointed out that we must “adhere to the best and highest standards. . . .  How we say something is just as important as what we say.”  In this observation he is echoing St. John XXIII, who frequently spoke of the permanence of religious truth on the one hand, and the ways in which those truths are expressed on the other.  How we communicate is just as important as the content of what we have to say.  As a screenwriter once put it, “Is coarseness a substitute for wit, I ask myself?”  Truth is one thing; a Christian should be communicating that truth in a Christian manner; there is no room for “snarkiness”, demeaning characterizations, ad hominem arguments or anything of the like.  This is so much more than just “being nice” to others.  For clergy in particular, it is about doing what “builds up” the Body, not acting in a manner which derides and  tears down the Body.  That’s really the gold standard: When I write, when I speak, am I building up the Body of Christ, or serving to tear it down?

If we are not building up the Body, and we are clergy, then it is the obligation of our bishop or religious superior to take corrective action on behalf of the diocesan church.  So, when we come across a blog hosted by a member of the Catholic clergy, consider the following points:

1) How well is the cleric in question reflecting a positive, constructive, and energetic vision of the Church?  If the blog is characterized by negative, hand-wringing, woe-is-me attitudes about the Church, find another blog to visit!

2) How does the cleric communicate, especially about others with whom he may disagree?  For example, Cardinal Dolan stressed the importance of “never caricaturing or stereotyping those who oppose the Magisterium and bishops at every opportunity.”  Even in the face of  “mean, vicious, and outward attacks,” he said, we must “always respond in charity and love,” he exhorted.  “We follow the instruction of Jesus by not responding back to with harsh words of our own.”  The use of demeaning, sarcastic and mocking language has no place in Christian communication, especially by members of the clergy, and the cleric should be rightly taken to task if this is part of his communication “style”; it’s simply not consistent with being Christ-like in the community.  If you find this on a blog supposedly run by a Catholic cleric, find another one!

3) As public ministers of the Church, no member of the clergy should be reticent about being transparent and accountable about his own ecclesiastical “credentials”: who is his ecclesiastical superior, for example, and how does his blog relate to his overall ministry within the broader communion of the Church?  Obviously, I’m not suggesting disclosing information which might be dangerous to his safety, but certainly his public identity as a cleric in a particular religious community or diocesan church is not unreasonable.  If a cleric is unwilling or unable to provide such bona fides, it will probably be better to visit someone else!

ottawa good friday xviThe bottom line, in my opinion, is the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.  We clergy do this as part of a larger context, not as a collection of individual ministers, but as a communion of ordained ministers who share in the sacrament of Holy Orders.  It is no coincidence that “communio theology” has become one of the most paradigmatic forms of ecclesiology since Vatican II, an ecclesiology fully embraced by the papal magisterium.  Unlike other forms of Christianity, in which everything revolves around the individual’s relationship with God, our perspective is different.  While we certainly hold for the individual’s profession of faith, we do so as part of the larger Trinitarian communion of disciples.

As summarized at Vatican II, we are the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

It’s all about relationships.