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‘Muscular Christians’ could use some ‘soul logic’


Just before Thanksgiving we celebrated the 88th birthday of the mother of a close friend. After dinner, as our octogenarian prepared to leave, I offered her the roses decorating the table. Yes, she would take them -- not for herself, but for the “Blessed Mother” (whose icon has pride of place in her bedroom).

I found myself humbled by her unaffected piety and I liked, too, her use of the title Blessed Mother rather than the ideologically freighted Virgin Mary. She also got me thinking about the difference between her faith -- which I find so compelling -- and the religion proclaimed by the “muscular Christians” now strutting arrogantly in the American public square.

In a piece he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in October, journalist Andrew Sullivan described these people as “scolds,” their belief system symbolized by the wagging index finger and a joyless censoriousness.

This difference between faith and religion is worth exploring. But first, a few details about my devout friend’s life. One might begin with the fact that she is as Polish (and as Catholic) as the pope. In spite of having been born in this country, she always made her confession in Polish; I use the past tense, because a few years ago a priest told her that she was too old to sin.

There is also the fact of her widowhood -- nearly 30 years long. She kept the wolf from the door until her late 60s by working as a maid in one of the residence halls at the University of Notre Dame. Before she married, she shared a bed with a sister who was soon to die of tuberculosis.

Her manner is formal; she never uses my first name, always my married title, as I use hers. The one big regret in her life is not having had the opportunity for a “real” education.

Much of her day is now spent in prayer. Her rosary seems a permanent extension of her fingers. She prays constantly for the poors, always adding that quaint s to the collective noun. An avid reader of the local newspaper and of a progressive Catholic weekly -- NCR -- to which her daughter subscribes, you may well find yourself buttonholed by her and required to listen to a peroration on, say, the CIA’s involvement in the drug trade or some other evil in contemporary American life.

On those issues that preoccupy the scolds, she is tolerant, inclusive and, because she is not burdened by fear of difference, open-minded. Talk to her about homosexuality and she doesn’t understand the fuss. One of her birthday celebrations was to fly to New York to be the guest for a long weekend at the home of a gay ex-priest and his partner.

The men in the church hierarchy -- including the pope -- would be forced to conclude (heaven forfend) that she belongs to the ranks of “radical feminists.” Truth be told, if her daughter could be ordained, this most Catholic of mothers would be the happiest woman alive.

I do not recall discussing abortion per se with her, though I would think she is bound to be orthodox. However, her spirituality would not permit the harassment of anguished women entering abortion clinics. She is far more likely to want every possible support in place for the unintended pregnancy as a way of preventing abortion. In other words, she would be for a generous and comprehensive welfare state -- a solution unlikely to please the scolds for whom the fetus is primarily a weapon in their war against feminism and all its works.

Faith has facilitated this old lady’s search for that examined life that Socrates said was the only one worth living. What makes such a faith so impressive is that it works through persuasion and love, presenting no threat whatsoever to the freedom and liberty of others.

In his Times piece, Sullivan, an editor at The New Republic (and a conservative homosexual known for his Thatcherite economic views), maintains that the new breed of moralist -- the scold about which he writes -- is “inherently pessimistic.” The agenda is elitist and the aim social control of an American demos perceived as immoral and anarchic.

Sullivan names names, outing the guys leading the blue-nosed crusade. Some of the most vociferous among those who want to make us one nation under an unforgiving “Christian” god are Roman Catholic. The list includes Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things (the scolds’ in-house journal and quite frightening in its antidemocratic proclivities); Michael Novak, chief circuit rider for the neoconservative gospel of greed is another; also William Bennett, author and huckster of Victorian morality tracts.

These men have the mentality of the schoolyard bully -- the aggressive certainty, the need to dominate and control. The Freudian would recognize such characteristics as defense mechanisms produced by unacknowledged fear of violation from sources outside the self and of unruly primitive drives within.

The mature ego deals with fear through some combination of reason and faith. University of Chicago philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear says that the key is open-mindedness. Lear calls it “the logic of the soul.” If prohibition and dogma have a hammerlock on the mind, the soul suffocates.

The biblical Jesus is an obvious example of the logic of the soul. His fearlessness and openness allowed him both to befriend the prostitute and confront those with political or religious power. On the other hand, an unrelenting scold like Neuhaus represents the diminishment of soul-logic. The closed mind, by definition, resists the change necessary for spiritual development.

While this old Polish mother lacks the formal learning of the scolds, her soul’s logic has brought her a wisdom that eludes them. She recognizes injustice when she sees it and has no difficulty, for example, in understanding that the maldistribution of wealth around the world is wrong. Laying up one’s treasure here on earth she regards as very bad form.

Her God is too busy caring for “the poors” to waste time fretting about the lax sexual mores that religious scolds spend their days scheming to control and punish.

Ann Pettifer was Notre Dame’s first woman undergraduate and now publishes Common Sense, an independent monthly at the university.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999