Katie Grimes at WIT has posted a thoughtful reply to Bill Cavanaugh and Michael Baxter’s reply to Massimo Faggioli’s original article. Blogs are valuable because they can in theory encourage an ongoing set of essays that “respond” fairly quickly to one another. That is, in theory, they can be like TV series in the post-Sopranos/Wire era – far more substantial than the “movies” of books and articles, but only if pursued.

Let’s give that a try here. Grimes, unlike Faggioli, does not repeat the familiar, tired claim about the dangers of “withdrawal.” Indeed, she claims that she is not interested in taking sides in the “apparent rivalry” of these projects. Instead, she turns the tables on C/B’s appeals to the Church as the alternative:

if the fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties “represent the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways” provides reason for Catholics not to identify with either party too strongly, then how should the average Catholic respond when the Church “represents the Gospel in only fragmentary and distorted ways?” Should Catholics too abandon the Church for its impurity and evangelical infidelity?

Grimes’ point, brought out most strongly by her example of racial injustice and segregation actively perpetuated by American parishes and dioceses, is that the Church itself is a compromised institution. She writes, “While the Gospel is always true, the church is not just the answer; sometimes it is also the problem.” Therefore, we (presumably) only live among various compromised institutions. Advantage Faggioli?

Grimes’ response seems to me to rest on two further claims that she suggests are at least implied in the C/B position. It’s here where things get weird. First, the position is accused of “tender nostalgia” for a time when Catholics were “pious and united.” In so doing, they “celebrate a church that never existed.” While the claim that such a church “never existed” seems overly strong and dismissive of the real achievements of pre-Vatican-II immigrant Catholicism, it is fair to say that such pictures can be overly rosy. Were C/B to rely on such nostalgia, their position would certainly seem weak.

Secondly, she claims the C/B position assumes a unity of voice that is contradicted by ongoing theological contestation within the tradition. As she puts it,

Baxter and Cavanaugh seem to want to portray both parties as equally faulty because they both advocate positions that conflict with magisterial teaching. They cast all Catholics who disagree with stated magisterial opinions as disloyal to the Gospel. Rather than recognizing the tradition as inherently cacophonous and contested, they believe that the church speaks for itself only when using magisterial monotone.

These are a different set of charges than those of Faggioli – they do not portray the position as one of withdrawal. Rather, the problem with C/B is a false triumphalism. However, even though the charges differ, the strategy is the same: restate the C/B position, so that C/B can be identified with obviously “bad” forces. Instead of the Amish, C/B are now squarely identified with language that is usually attached to Catholic traditionalist conservatives. The magisterium contains all truth. Obedience in everything is necessary. Love that old-time Catholicism. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was a little bit more… 19th century?

I see three problems with her charges. First, as with the withdrawal claim, it’s a strange misstatement of the actual position which ignores obvious counterevidence. It strikes me as odd indeed to accuse the author of Torture and Eucharist – an extended discussion of the Chilean church’s complicity in Pinochet’s policies of disappearance and torture – of harboring some kind of vision of the pristine, sinless, undivided ecclesial body. And I don’t see how a guy who was nearly excluded from the Notre Dame theology department because his position challenged some powerful Catholic faculty members can be characterized as having a view of the tradition as a “magisterial monotone.” Neither Cavanaugh nor Baxter fit the traditionalist mold into which they are being cast.

So, how to explain this mischaracterization? It seems to me Grimes’ response is trying to get at some genuine points of contrast. There is a different attitude toward tradition, one more skeptical and suspcious. (Here, rather than risk mischaracterizing C/B, I’ll just shift to my own voice.) I am persuaded that the Catholic vision of human social life broadly conceived is both different from the broad vision offered by any party in present-day partisan politics, and is, in its differences, correct. The body of 20th century magisterial documents articulates this broadly-conceived vision correctly. I have used the term “broadly conceived” intentionally. It seems both fruitless and intellectually dishonest to make claims that every word of magisterial teaching is somehow free from any error whatsoever. This kind of “magisterial fundamentalism” (if anyone actually holds it) is clearly untenable. But it does seem that there is a different vision.

It is a mistake to think that the difference in vision is simply a matter of not being able to get the laundry list of issues to match up quite right. It means that in fundamental ways – and I would say most fundamentally in the libertarian tendencies of BOTH parties, as well as the increasing tendency of both parties to affirm the military/security state we have built – Catholic social thinking conceives of the relationships among individuals, families, intermediate associations, the state, nations, and the church in ways that are (increasingly) incompatible with the dominant conceptions of the parties. And, broadly, the Church’s vision is right, the party visions are wrong – and in some cases, deeply wrong. The cases that might be cited as exemplifying “deeply wrong” are not exclusive to either party.

Because of these differences, C/B rightly say, “we should consider ourselves Catholics before considering ourselves Americans.” Considering ourselves Catholics first doesn’t mean being blind to the sins of the Church. It doesn’t mean “withdrawing” (Cavanaugh, for example, has backed the good of ad hoc cooperation). It does mean, however, giving up deceptively utopian visions of what American politics can accomplish. In saying “deceptively utopian,” have I mischaracterized the opposing position? Faggioli writes:

The crisis of the engagement of many Catholics in politics is one of the symptoms of the crisis of the idea of politics as one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. But the Catholic Church is one of the last defenders of the potentially humanizing effect of politics, and of the potentially dehumanizing effect of a community of Christians closing in on itself.

I am not sure what the “potentially dehumanizing effect” is. But the depiction of our existing politics as potentially “one of the highest forms of charity” in “serv[ing] the common good” is extremely unrealistic, far more so than the kind of grass-roots action and engagement that C/B recommend. I wish this were not the case. I wish that something like the kind of homegrown, genuinely populist, honest, decent progressivism of the upper Midwest (yes, that’s nostalgia) had a more viable space in our politics. But in the big-money battle between Silicon Valley and the Koch Brothers, I’d like to hear more about why it is reasonable to hope for that space of charity to open up. Indeed, if anything would wake up the parties to their errors and open up that space, it would be Catholics en masse getting on board with their own vision of social life, trying to call each party to account for its failures of charity.

So why hang on to these imaginations about the promise of politics? Why not just accept “Catholic first,” and perhaps suggest that C/B are just a bit too grim about what ad hoc cooperation can accomplish? I think this goes back to a difference in trust of the tradition, and the unity of its vision “broadly conceived.” The obvious question is, what does “broadly conceived” mean? I’d like to work that out, but I’ll share an example from my own education about what I mean. The example that kind of changed my world in grad school was reading an article by my colleague David Matzko McCarthy (“Procreation, The Development of Peoples, and the Final Destiny of Humanity,” Communio, 26 Wint 1999, p 698-721). It was one of those articles that forced you to rethink everything. It suggested Paul VI was conveying the same social vision in both Populorum Progressio and in Humanae Vitae. I had been trained and inculturated to think this could not be the case – that there was this unexplained disjunction between Populorum (yay!) and Humanae Vitae (boo!). McCarthy showed me that this was at least hasty, but probably also erroneous. There was a consistency. The point of this reference is not to make Humanae Vitae a litmus test or get into a debate about absolute norms. It suggests rather that the broad vision of Humanae Vitae – the vision of sexual life that it sought to protect and worried would get swamped by a “contraceptive mentality” – is probably pretty much correct. And Populorum Progressio. I learned it’s OK to trust the tradition broadly conceived.

This answer tends to make me sound “unreliable” to many other Catholic theologians. It sounds to some like I’m fudging on the precise teachings; to others, it sounds like I’m overconfident in the magisterium. But I’m heartened that a great deal of Pope Francis’ rhetoric is clearly aimed at this spot. When he emphasizes the need to place particular teachings within the larger vision, and emphasize the larger vision of the whole, when he tirelessly promotes mercy and accepting messiness – he’s not changing the teaching, but he’s also not satisfying the fundamentalists. Rather, he’s trying to communicate what I’m here calling “the vision broadly conceived.” Perhaps more fruitful conversations could be had if we proceeded with this kind of trust. But I also wonder whether this difference in trust does come down to real differences, not about exact teachings, but about the whole vision.

The third problem is related to the second, but may run theologically deeper. At the end of their article, C/B write:

Put more positively, Latinos in the U.S. have a sense for mestizaje, mixedness, a sense that they can be both American and Mexican, for example. Mexican-Americans love their U.S. home but stay in close touch with their communities in Mexico. And they have built a remarkable network of care for the needy. Here we see an important signpost about being Catholic in this country today. Not just Latinos but all Catholics can embrace the reality of mestizaje, because it characterizes Jesus, who is both God and man, who forged a community from both Jew and gentile, who embraces all peoples regardless of—and indeed in spite of—the politics of nation-states, and who is gathering the nations from all earthly cities into a vast pilgrimage to our true home.

C/B suggest that weakened, “mixed” national allegiances undercut the tendency to believe that any national community is ultimate. But to what end? The last sentence is key. Is the Church this gathering of all from all the nations, into one body destined for one Eternal City? Is the Church, as Lumen Gentium calls it, the “sacrament of  intimate union with God, and of the unity of all humankind… a sign and an instrument of such union and unity” in Christ? Is it a body that genuinely effects the eschatological unity that can still only be signed at this point in the journey? This sacramental imagery is not an image of purity – either of pure, sinless members or of pure, unmixed identities. We live in both earthly and heavenly cities. But only one of these is ultimate, enduring, forever.

This kind of thing, I think, worries Grimes in the face of the church’s own sinful practices, in every age. It is a fair worry. But the perfection – in the sense of “completion” – which C/B depict is not a matter of nostalgia, but of eschatology. Henri de Lubac, a man now central to three consecutive papacies, developed in Catholicism a vivid vision of the social salvation and the unity of the human race as the hope that ought to animate the Church, as opposed to all-too-often narrow, individualist hopes for “heaven.” Pope Benedict full-throatedly affirmed this in a section of Spe Salvi, his overlooked encyclical on the contrasting visions of progress that animate modernity and Christianity. The Church simply is God’s people on its way to this glorious destiny, groping to be an effective sign of God’s ultimate reconciliation, and (like the saints) all the more aware of its current failures when its ultimate destiny shines brightly. To believe, trust, indeed hope in the kind of reconciliation that is signaled in the sacraments – this is all so much bigger, so much more real, than the front pages stories of 2016 partisan jockeying.

Does such “pie in the sky” visioning lead to a social quietism, where we sit around in our privileged universities and sanctuaries debating the finer points of our strategies of engaging “the world”? Maybe so. Grimes (and whoever else observes such excuses at work) should call Catholics out. I admire the work of Grimes and Faggioli, as I do the work of Cavanaugh and Baxter, for insistantly and uncomfortably pushing us to action.  But why not a call out that’s based on (as Vatican II put it) the need for moral theology to show “the nobility of the Christian vocation” and our “obligation to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world” (Optatam Totius, 16)? When we see sin in the Church, why not call out Catholics to become better… Catholics?