A Needless Distinction?

There is no sense in giving Emma-Kate Symons’s hyperbolic, over-the-top Washington Post op-ed too much attention. Riddled with factual errors and mischaracterizations, it is another in a long line of newspaper, magazine, and web-log pieces which, intentionally or not, attempt to conflate American politics with Catholic ecclesiastical politics. Give Symons some credit, however. Realizing no doubt that her anti-“far right” rant, which singles out Cardinal Raymond Burke, won’t stand on its own, she opts to reach back into the complicated history of the European Catholic Church in the 1930s and 40s in order to suggest, nay, declare a historic link between Catholicism and fascism. Given that, Symons “reasons,” Pope Francis, and indeed all Catholics of good will, must be on guard against “the virulently anti-Islam (“capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity”), migrant-phobic,  Donald Trump-defending, Vladimir Putin-excusing Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.” If only!

The truth of the matter is that though conservative to the core, Cardinal Burke barely represents anything close to “far right” or fascist. If anything, he is a continuation of the conservatism on sexuality and life issues found during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which explains why he has applauded Vladimir Putin and Russia for instituting laws intended to protect the integrity of the family. Granted, Burke’s outspokenness on Francis’s reform agenda is atypical for a Prince of the Church, but that’ because most hierarchs have taken to cravenly falling in line behind anything the Pope wishes. Whether she agrees with his views or not, Burke’s open criticisms of Francis should hearten Symon insofar as they represent a rebuke to the Pontiff’s authoritarian tendencies. And yet, in the end, Symon ironically longs for Francis to wield his authoritarian power to thwart an ostensibly authoritarian/neo-fascist Burke.

Despite all of the political turmoil currently afflicting the Catholic Church, it is safe to say that there is no concentrated movement within her walls to roll back the clock to a period before the controversial Vatican II documents Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate which, inter alia, let loose a wave of religious indifferentism that continues to drown souls to this very day. Instead, the Church continues to do everything it can to “play nice” with non-Catholic (even non-Christian) religions, particularly in the United States. Cardinal Burke, as a staunch defender of libertas religionis (rather than libertas ecclesiae), has no problem showing his liberal side out of a perhaps well-intentioned though ultimately misguided attempt to protect the rights of Catholics to be Catholics in an increasingly hostile, secularized environment. Perhaps the Trump Presidency will ease hostilities for a time, though judging by Symon’s piece, any Catholic who has something positive to say about the current administration and its policies is likely to be in the Left’s crosshairs going forward.

Still, to his credit, Cardinal Burke, along with a few other brave prelates and priests, have spoken out about the renewed threat to Christianity from Islam, both in the West and Middle East. However, such statements usually come packaged with a distinction between “radical Islam” and “real Islam,” the latter being seen as relatively peaceful and capable of “getting along” with Western liberal values. Scant attention is paid to how “real Islam,” that is, the normative Islam that has reigned supreme in the Middle East for 1,000 years has relentlessly turned Christianity into a river of blood. The price for “peace” in the region has often been Christians being relegated to second-class status (or worse), their institutions of learning closed, and their hierarchs reduced to puppets. So yes, Cardinal Burke is quite correct: “capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity.”

Most Catholics living in the West don’t see it that way, or at least not yet. While there are now heightened fears over terrorism due to the recent attacks in the United States and Europe, the dominant belief remains that if only “radical Islam” can be distinguished from “real Islam” in advance, then everything will be fine. Those Muslims adhering to “real Islam” will—so the story goes—embrace libertas religionis, too, and perhaps even lock arms with Christians to keep the forces of secularism at bay while upholding “traditional values.” This is the liberal Catholic dream—a dream that anyone with eyes to see knows won’t come true. More unsettling still are those few Catholics who have no interest in the false promises of liberalism and, perhaps out of an inferiority complex, see in Islam, including “radical Islam,” an anti-liberal force that ought to be admired. But addressing that problem will have to wait for another day.