Published August 10, 2016
George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference
My local paper, the Washington Post, is best read for its sports and op-ed pages and its often-sensible editorials on foreign policy. Alas, the Post editorial board’s IQ drops well below the Mendoza Line when the subject is the Catholic Church. After decades of grumbling about this seemingly permanent feature of life along the Potomac littoral, I realized recently that the problem here isn’t gross ignorance about matters Catholic; the problem is that the Post is all-in for another, competing religion.
The prophet of that religion—call it the Church of the Imperial Autonomous Self or, if you prefer something punchier, the Church of Me—is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. For almost a quarter-century, Justice Kennedy has preached a notion of freedom that the Post regularly applauds and promotes, dismissing other views as bigoted. The idea of freedom in the Church of Me was neatly captured by that great moral philosopher, Frank Sinatra, when he sang, “I did it my way.” Underwriting that self-centered (indeed, selfish) concept of freedom is the idea that the human person is just a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is what we mean by “human rights.”
This Church of Me has, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a sacramental system: the sexual revolution in all its forms. Thus the Post has been front and center in the agitation for giving legal protection to every imaginable icon of this extraordinary cultural upheaval, from state-funded contraception to abortion-on-demand to the latest faux-“civil rights” cause: public restrooms in which people who call themselves “transgendered” can live out their self-definition, irrespective of biology.
In a July 2 editorial (“The Pope’s welcome surprises”), the Post tried to recruit Pope Francis as a kind of deputy to Justice Kennedy as prophet of the Church of Me, claiming that the Holy Father had “charted a new course in compassion for the Roman Catholic Church.” The evidence for this was the most over-reported and mis-represented papal statement in history: the Pope’s response (“Who am I to judge?”) to a question about the appropriate pastoral approach to a priest experiencing same-sex attraction who was striving to live an upright and chaste life (the Pope repeated a modified version of the phrase to reporters in late June). “Empathy for the oppressed,” the Post’s editors opined, “has always been a hallmark of Francis’s papacy.”
Memo to editors: “Empathy for the oppressed” has been a hallmark of the papacy for a long time. To suggest otherwise—to imply that the Catholic Church has been a theologically-sophisticated Ku Klux Klan, reveling in oppression until the Pope from the peripheries began to drag it into the bright uplands of compassion—is slander. Period. And anti-Catholic slander, as the Post editorial board should know, has a long, ugly history in the United States.
Then there was the editorial’s claim that the “Catholic Church has been dodging” certain “contested issues” for a long time. Which issues, you ask? Welcome to the catechism of the Church of Me: the issues being “dodged” include “homosexuality, divorce, and contraception.”
Memo #2 to editors: The Catholic Church has emphatically not been “dodging” these issues, which are not in fact “issues” but settled matters of Catholic moral teaching, informed by both reason and revelation. Beneath the façade of a Church playing dodgeball, the real complaint here is quite different: What bothers the Post’s editors is that, unlike liberal Protestantism and Reform Judaism, the Catholic Church has not taken the Post’s advice and caved in to the cultural tsunami of the sexual revolution—a surrender the Post applauds as “compassion.”
If Pope Francis, however misreported and misrepresented, has gotten the Washington Post editorial board’s attention, good for him. Let me now suggest some follow-up for the editors. Read St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body—or, if that’s too much to ask, read the summary of it in my Witness to Hope. Then see if that portrait of human love, noble self-giving, and mature, humble self-mastery isn’t a more attractive vision of human possibility than Justice Kennedy’s twitching bundle of desires.
The editors challenged “Church traditionalists” to “open themselves to a ‘God of surprises’.” Let’s see if the Post’s editorial board has the nerve to take its own advice.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D. C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.