Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Wednesday, June 29, 2011

One demur to Robert George's excellent interview on marriage

Robert George’s interview in National Review Online regarding “Sex and the Empire State” is essential reading for anyone interested in the crisis over the definition of marriage. I urge folks to study the great Princeton prof's remarks with care. Your time will be amply rewarded.

Here, however, I offer one demur to George’s remarks, not remarks central to his discussion of American marriage policy, but rather, a few regarding the Catholicism of NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Here’s the passage.

NRO: How significant is it that this governor is Catholic?

GEORGE: Is he? There are many devout Protestants and even Jews and Muslims whose moral beliefs and practices are far more closely in line with Catholic teachings than Andrew Cuomo’s are. Andrew’s father’s views and policies gave scandal (as Catholics use that term) precisely because people took him to be a serious Catholic. No one is scandalized by Andrew’s beliefs or conduct because no one takes him to be a serious Catholic, that is, a Catholic who is serious enough about his faith to live by its tenets. Indeed, he quite publicly flouts Catholic principles, and doesn’t even seem to wrestle with it or be anguished about it, as his father at least liked to give the appearance of being. In word and deed, he has made it clear that he simply does not believe what Catholicism teaches about sexual morality and marriage. There is no reason to suppose that he regards the Catholic Church as having the authority to teach definitively on these issues or anything else. If there is a sense in which he is a Catholic, it does not involve believing what the Catholic Church teaches or even that the Catholic Church has any authority to teach. So I don’t see Cuomo’s Catholicism as a significant part of this story. He doesn’t even pretend to be serious enough about it to make anyone care or even take much notice.

Now, some of George’s remarks above are certainly true, such his assertion that certain Protestants and Muslims hold views on marriage closer to Catholicism than does Cuomo, or that Cuomo does not regard the Church as having any special authority to teach about marriage. Other remarks by George are plausible, if more debatable, such as what really gave rise to the scandal offered by Cuomo’s gubernatorial father Mario and even, to judge from this interview, whether Cuomo himself views Catholicism as more important that he generally lets on.

But at least a couple times in the passage above, I fear that George’s rhetoric interferes with his accuracy. The problem starts with an unacknowledged ambiguity in the question itself, namely “How significant is it that this governor is Catholic?”

Before answering that question, one needs to clarify, how significant is Cuomo’s Catholicism for what? For, say, insight into Cuomo’s political thought? The answer would be, as George says, Not at all, for Cuomo does not regard the Church as having any special teaching authority on most things, not even by dint of her having watched the rise and fall of scores of nations over 2,000 years. Cuomo shows little interest in history, ecclesiastical or otherwise.

But if we were to understand NRO’s question as, how significant is Cuomo’s Catholicism for, say, the Church, or for his fellow Catholics, the answer would be very much different. If one is not alert to the different ways the question could be understood, one risks misapplying George’s answer to a question about Catholicism which he understood as referencing American polity, to a conclusion about Church polity.

To NRO’s question: How significant is it that this governor is Catholic?” George answered rhetorically, “Is he?” and developed a negative conclusion in some detail. Hit pause!

The answer to George’s rhetorical reply, “Is he [Catholic]?” must be, before anything else, a direct Yes, Cuomo is Catholic. To rush past that fact is to miss what much of the controversy is about.

For some time, now, I have reacted against the line that says, in essence, “A bad Catholic is not a Catholic”. The phrasing is not new with George (I’ve gone after Judy Brown’s use of the same slogan), but if it were really true, then the Church would consist of nothing but saints, and she would not have any special responsibility toward the mass of her quondam members long since expelled for their sinfulness.

What a tidy Church that would be, and how many hard questions we could avoid. But that would not be the Church Christ founded, nor faithful to the duties He conferred on it.

Cuomo, by every canonical marker, is unquestionably a Catholic, that is, he is one of ours. All Catholics have a special responsibility toward him, as he does toward all Catholics (c. 209). Of course Cuomo’s conduct puts him in notorious conflict with many important Church teachings, but that deplorable fact does not cancel his Catholic identity. For that reason, and precisely for that reason, the Catholic Church has jurisdiction over Cuomo-qua-Catholic and She can, and must, take various actions in his regard.

Bother what the world thinks about it. We answer to a higher Authority. And I don’t mean that rhetorically.

The Church does not dictate political policy to her members, but neither does she give politicians an exemption from following Church teaching, sacramental discipline, or canon law. Catholic politicians have to follow the same rules that apply to any other Catholic. If, given their public prominence, the conduct of Catholic politicians comes more readily to the attention of Church leadership, well, that’s part and parcel of being a politician.

Now, folks, with my small demur in mind, do go read George's terrific interview.

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