Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pluralism, Communion, Open versus Closed (Fundamentalist) Systems, and the Dangers of the Latter

I've been thinking a lot lately about pluralism. Religious mainly, of course, but also in general. Specifically, I have been (in light of certain recent ideological evolutions of my own) grappling with the idea of how to reconcile pluralism with exclusive truth claims. This has always been an issue I've wrestled with, and at one point followed one sort of logic regarding the question to a very bad (fundamentalist) place. In a piece like this, I am trying in some measure to do intellectual penance for the damage of the past.

And yet the "paradox of tolerance" is true; if you adopt a system that is "tolerant of everything except intolerance" then that isn't really useful, since so many systems of belief in the world do make exclusive or intolerant truth claims, and expecting them to give those up or to adopt your not really respecting them in their integrity. It just becomes a new dogmatism, a "dogmatism of non-dogmatism." You basically wind up saying, "I can be 'in communion with' [not necessarily in the ecclesiological sense] long as they too are willing to be in communion with anyone."

This is sort of the Unitarian Universalist approach, and while I highly respect and sympathize with's always also seemed sort of naive and wishy-washy. It doesn't really lead to peace, because it does become its own sort of exclusive claim excluding other exclusive claims, albeit as a negation, a Void. I once accused some brilliant partners in debate of replacing God with this Void, thus rendering their own religion or god (and everyone else's) something like merely a Patron Saint, but not the final transcendent Truth or Good (which role was taken, instead, by the claim of an absence of one). 

This critique of that sort of attempt at pluralism (however good-hearted it may be, and I do believe it is) still stands. A claim of "no metanarratives" can itself easily become a metanarrative, and often does. If you believe in pluralism, your own belief in pluralism would (without further qualification) seemingly just become one more idea standing alongside others in the Marketplace of Ideas and thus not really accomplish anything (as competition only makes sense between actual concrete competing visions; the "meta-idea of the competition itself" cannot really compete as a player if you imagine it as the stage). But if you try to require it as a sort of metabelief for everyone as a condition of competition, then that itself has become a non-pluralistic dogma and rigged the competition, since many people do not want or hold such a metabelief; if we all have to support the free market of ideas in order to participate in it, how is this market truly free? A pluralism that is truly pluralistic cannot without contradiction exclude the idea of its own negation or destruction (the American model of democracy understands this better than others, perhaps; "free speech" has to include calls to abolish free speech!)

On the surface, this seems a contradictory impossibility. Surely the one thing an idea cannot admit is its own negation? Surely the one truth-claim that even the most open of systems cannot the destruction, the closing, of that very system itself? And yet, in my heart of hearts, I knew there must be some way to square this circle. I didn't know how to put it into words, but I have become convinced that there must be some way to think outside the box and cut that Gordian knot by attacking the very premises. I had vague notions in my head that it must have something to do with the Eastern Christian idea of God as "hyper-being" (that is to say, beyond even the Being/Non-Being duality), and I knew (in my groping in the dark) that I saw inspiration (if imperfect) for such a model in the Anglican "big tent" approach to their communion and the way they've held people together in various controversies. I knew it would have something to do with Von Balthasar's idea (in Razing the Bastions, a work I now consider very important for myself) about the Church that "when she enters into the world and becomes for the world one religion among others, one community among others, one doctrine and truth among others- just as Christ became one man among others, outwardly indistinguishable from them- her truth comes into a communism with all the forms of worldly truth: with the experiential truth of all branches of knowledge, and with the wisdom-systems of the world which attempt conclusive statements about the being of the world and its truth."

And yet what does this concretely look like in our praxis and attitudes? Is it possible to hold to a pluralism without "intolerance of intolerance" (which is thus not truly tolerance) or without requiring (of ourselves or others) renouncing exclusive truth claims (which only results in the paradox of renouncing that very renunciation itself!) I now think it definitely is possible.

To answer the question of how we can do this coherently, we must probe first the question of what exactly is the essence of the "fundamentalism" that we rightly see as in opposition to the sort of openness we desire. What makes a system closed in this bad sense? As explained above, it can't be merely the fact that it makes exclusive truth claims, or else any attempt to not be fundamentalist will be self-defeating (and, besides containing their own sort of "dogmatism of non-dogmatism," such relativist systems usually come out very hippy-dippy and wishy-washy; ineffectual to accomplish anything with conviction or substance other than their own politically correct totalitarianism). 

But if there is nothing wrong in itself with proposing an exclusive truth claim, nor even with saying that you consider such a belief as essential for "ideological communion" with oneself...where can we locate the sort of "fundamentalism" that rightly concerns so many of us (especially readers of this blog) on the gut level when we read the rabid identity-politicking rhetoric over at Fr Z, which seems so eager for a new Inquisition to bring ideological purity to the community, or see the Vatican's authoritarianism becoming more strident about conforming? To many of us, there seems to be such a profound violence in those approaches on the spiritual and mental and emotional levels. But what characterizes this sort of violent belief from valid beliefs?

Now, it's one thing to say, "It's our job to proclaim this truth we believe we have" and to expect public toeing of that line from official representatives you've hired specifically to promote it, or from people claiming to operate under the banner of your authority. And, for better or worse, it is their right and prerogative (and perhaps even their duty in conscience) to say that certain things are essential for being in communion with them, if that is what they really believe. But I suppose the problem starts with the hierarchy identifying itself as the voice of "the Catholic Church" (as opposed to just the voice of themselves) and being apparently baffled when other people try to claim a Catholic identity. It's like they're saying, "We're Coca-Cola. If you want to sell other sodas, fine, but you can't claim to be Coke, you need to make your own brand."

But the Church is not a corporation. This is the tension between the Institutional Church and the Church as a whole which it sometimes seems like they still don't get even when they pay lip service to the abstract distinction. It is one thing to say you speak for yourselves (and for whomever recognizes you); it is quite another to claim to speak for a group. That doesn't mean it's impossible or wrong, especially when the group in question is by-definition the one that is in communion with yourself, but it's certainly different than speaking for yourself.

It is, I think, this attempt to police the community identity by a subset that, more than anything, is so harmful. It's one thing to say, "This is what we believe is the truth, and we believe we speak for God" or to believe such claims. It's quite another to try to enforce a "closed" group identity when really the borders of any identity are permeable and necessarily transcend any sub-set or claim of authority within a group.

It's like, can you imagine if some people tried to set up a "High Council of Gays" (or any other identity) that claimed for itself the right to say who was really Gay or part of the Gay community (as opposed to just homosexual; if you understand the difference) and who wasn't based on whether they accepted certain philosophical premises or practices. It would be absurd. They might claim their philosophy was right, that they spoke for truth, even that they were deputized by the goddess Herself, and that if you wanted to be "in communion with" them specifically and attend their events or get the benefits of their group membership that you have to agree. But to try to claim they had a monopoly on the identity would just be ridiculous. Other homosexuals would likely continue identifying with those elements of Gay that they felt comfortable with, continue using the label, and continue socializing with other Gays. Some Gays in communion with the official Council would shun "heterodox" Gays, but others would be more tolerant or latitudinarian and say, "Even though I agree personally with the Gay High Council, I'm not going to say other people aren't Gay just because they don't" and so the boundaries of the community/identity would remain permeable or along a spectrum rather than closed.

In reality, I did recently see something like this happening regarding a debate I witnessed about a topic. One poster identified with a Conservative interpretation of a position. It was asked whether this was, in fact, acceptable for members of a certain school of thought. Some members of that school of a more moderate stripe said, "It's not what I believe, but yes it meets the minimum essentials." Other more radical types said, "No, it doesn't meet our 'orthodoxy' so it's not." However, ultimately I saw this meant the identity-boundary was permeable because the Radicals recognized the Moderates and the Moderates recognized the Conservative. Even though the Radicals didn't recognize the Conservative, the Moderates formed a "bridge" in terms of identity, which prevented a "closed loop" from forming. If A recognizes B and B recognizes C, then even if A doesn't recognize C, the identity or community remains "open" rather than "closed."

In general, that's how identity works. Identity in any group has three factors: self-identification, group recognition, and the "official" or "objective" criteria. But you only need two out of the three for identity to hold. So, for example, with Race. There is self-identification, group recognition, and then the "objective" feature like certain ancestry, skin tone, or physical features. But, you only need two of the three to make a credible claim of the identity. If someone recognizably black said they were Black, the fact that some (even many) Blacks tried to say "No, you're not" for whatever reason (maybe they don't like his politics) wouldn't invalidate his identification (and, besides, others in the group would likely accept it). Likewise, if someone recognizably Black tried to say, "I'm not Black!!" this would be a delusion if most Blacks said "Yes you are" (a similar delusional phenomenon occurs among the "SSA" homosexuals who try to disavow being "gay," I think). Finally, if someone wasn't recognizably Black on the "objective" level, but identified as such and the others recognized them as such...then this person, too, cannot have their identity questioned, because no one has any right or standing to question it at that point (since outsiders don't get to define the group they're not a part of; at most they could recognize the person as White, leading to the interesting phenomenon of someone being both Black and White by different criteria! Which also, by the way, proves that Race is a social construct and thus doesn't admit of mutual exclusivity.)

The same is true of "Christianity," which is something the hierarchy has already had to concede. Originally at the Reformation, the Catholic hierarchy tried to similarly limit "Christian" identity. Obedience to them was essential to Christianity, anyone who wasn't couldn't even be called Christian. Eventually this attempt to "contain" or monopolize the identity fell apart. First, because these groups didn't care what they said. They said, "We don't believe that obedience to you is essential to be 'Christian.' In fact, we claim to be the true Christians. We believe in Christ, after all." Second, because later in history, even some Catholics started to agree.

In other words, there were Catholics holding to a "closed orthodoxy" who wouldn't recognize anyone but those holding their beliefs as Christian, who saw those beliefs as essential. But there also came to be a "bridge" in the form of "openly orthodox" Catholics who personally met the "essentials" that the "closed orthodox" demanded, and thus had their recognition, but who also did not personally believe these things were in fact essentials, and so recognized the Protestants or whatever as also meeting the minimal definition of Christian.

So there was no "closed" mutual-recognition-society, because some of those recognized by the attempted-closed-circle in turn recognized people beyond it. Today, "Christian" identity is largely recognized as existing validly outside the visible church institution (even if it is still thought to "subsist in" that institution uniquely or exclusively by those who dictate the "official" criteria). But now, having conceded "Christian" cannot be "contained," it is simply "Catholic" which is the label the fundamentalists are trying to "close."

The problem I see today is that there is a miscognition recarding the "two out of the three" criterion for validly claiming an identity. It seems fundamentalists (on both the conservative and liberal sides) have tried to collapse the "objective criteria" feature into the "group recognition" factor, leading to some bizarre outcomes. On the one hand, as I mentioned, this seems to have something to do with the strange phenomenon of homosexuals who think they can honestly deny that they are Gay just because they try to unilaterally refuse the identity/social construction into this category (even though they have the "objective" feature, which is the attractions, and are thus recognized by the rest of the Gay group as one of our own for that very reason). On the other hand, we see fundamentalist Christians and Catholics trying to "burn the bridges" and thus, if we're not careful, they might actually succeed at creating a "closed identity." (And I don't think it's odd that I keep using Gay as an example, given that, as in response to my "coming out" post, so many conservative Catholics seem to have a great desire to assert that Catholic identity and Gay identity are incompatible, mutually exclusive, a very demonstrative case I think.)

In other words, I think the essential problem is: they're trying to make dogma "recursive." It's not just that you have to believe their truth-claims to be in communion with them (which is fair enough, their prerogative), it's that you have to believe that you have to believe it. It's not enough to believe all their essentials personally, it seems now like they're trying to say that you also have to believe that they are, in fact, essentials. It's not just that you have to meet their essentials for communion with them anymore. It's that they've made it one of their essentials that to be in communion with them, it's not enough just to personally share their first-order essentials, but you also must believe (on the meta/second-order level) that holding those same things is, in turn, essential for communion with you too. Thus trying to "close off" the system or identity.
Of course, this sort of "recursion" becomes hard to defend/sustain epistemologically, and leads to an "infinite regress of dogmas." That the Immaculate Conception is true may be a dogma we must believe to be in communion with Rome. Fine. But is the fact that "the Immaculate Conception is a dogma," itself a dogma? And is the fact that the-dogma-that-"it-is-a-dogma" is a dogma...also itself a dogma? And is the fact that the-dogma-that-the-dogma-that-"it-is-a-dogma"-is-a-dogma is a dogma...also a dogma??

Obviously this becomes unwieldy as an epistemology (this recursion becomes a problem with all "closed systems" and leads to a fundamentalism which is spiritual death; trust me, I've been there). And it isn't even enforced in the Church, thank god. For example, I've heard several Eastern Catholic hierarchs say something along the line of "We accept the doctrine of papal infallibility, we personally believe it, so we meet the standards of Rome's dogma and for communion with them, we meet their essentials. But what we nevertheless do not believe is that this belief of ours is a dogma for us. We believe it personally, yes, but we do not believe it is itself essential for communion with us."

And so some of these even consider themselves also in communion with some of the more moderate Orthodox who don't personally hold to papal infallibility, but who accept that it could be a valid "theologumenon." And these more moderate Orthodox (because they don't personally hold that idea) are in turn acceptable to those more radical Orthodox who believe holding papal infallibility is totally anathema even as a theologumenon. So there is a "continuum" of positions, with people or groups who personally hold to one group's essentials, but simultaneously won't say they're essential for them, thus acting as the "bridges" in a sort of "overlapping circles of communion." Openness is actually maintained, because A and B are in communion, B and C are in communion, C and D are in communion. Even though A and B are not directly in communion with D, and C is not directly in communion with A either. So the dichotomy of "open versus closed" communion sort of breaks down. There seems to be a phenomenon here of communion that is both limited to those sharing essentials (and thus "closed communion") that the communion is at the same time "open" in the sense that there is still a chain of "mutual friends" rather than strictly closed embattlements, based on the fact that people or groups can agree on a position (and thus be personally in communion) while also disagreeing on whether that position is essential (and thus have personally different standards for communion).

I think this model of "open webs of overlapping communion" based on the distinction between holding a teaching personally and holding a teaching as the only realistic way forward for Christian unity, and indeed human unity, as long as the "bridges" can be maintained, and as long as those of us who want to be bridge-builders maintain (for ourselves, at least) a concept of unity that remains "open" in this way rather than "closed." That doesn't mean we can't have our own exclusive truth claims or even standards for what is essential for ideological communion with us, our own "dogmas" long as we do not let dogma become "recursive" (ie, dogmatizing the fact that something is a dogma; saying that the fact that something is an essential for itself an essential for communion). I think "recursive dogma" is how the evil of "dogmatism" should be defined or understood.

This maintenance of bridges is, I think, really the only thing "ecumenism" can or should ever hope to be or accomplish. It may lead, in its own time, to full corporate communion with other groups (personally, I hope very much for full communion one day with the Orthodox, and think it could be possible to hammer out the differences there in a substantial sense). But with many other people or groups that might never occur this side of the eschaton. Yet if we can maintain a system where A recognizes B, and B recognizes C, even when A and C don't recognize each other, then I think this is great, and what Christian "open" unity is supposed to look like (and blessed are the "B"s in that formula!) We don't give up our own exclusive truth claims or even our "closed communion" towards people who don't meet our essentials, but we recognize that there may be mediating individuals or groups who meet our essentials and yet don't hold them as essentials and who can, thus, in turn, be in communion with others whom we ourselves can't be directly, and so keep the system as a whole interdependent and "open."

In a more general sense beyond just the ecclesiological, I think this is how Pluralism and Exclusive Truth Claims (as all truth claims of any substance ultimately are) can ultimately be reconciled without sacrificing either. It's fine to say something is essential to sharing our identity or ideology, to "being right," to make that sort of non-recursively exclusive truth-claim and even fight for it when we think it's important to do so. The problem comes when we say that it is not enough just to share that truth-claim, but additionally say that believing that sharing it is also an essential, in an attempt to create a "closed" system or community or identity of people who not only agree, but whose boundaries of "flexibility" are likewise rigidly identical. That becomes a "recursive" system closed in on itself, a hot-house. And that's very dangerous and unchristian and makes "in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" impossible.

The fundamentalists do not like this idea of "open unity," of course, they'd totally reject it and continue trying to build their closed systems and excommunicating anyone who doesn't accept their "recursive" dogmatism. And that's fine, that's the beauty of this approach and why I feel it "squares the circle" and eliminates the contradictions laid out at the beginning of this post. For, lo and behold, I don't consider this sort of openness "essential" for ideological communion with me (though I personally hold it)! So (ala Edwin Markham) while they may draw a circle to shut me out, I draw one to take them in, and the system as a whole (even in spite of their attempt at self-enclosure or division of the world into 'us' and 'them') remains open for me by refusing to "return in kind" the division or exclusion! I can't force them to recognize me (as being in essential agreement with them, or as being part of their group) but they can't force me to not recognize them either (This is sort of how the Catholics currently treat the Orthodox: we respect the fact that their communion is closed to us, but officially make our communion open to them; as there's no reason why it needs to be a two-way street.)

Isn't this what Christ teaches us on the Cross? That if our system, can, in fact, accept its own negation as part of that very system, that this is ultimately the power of Resurrection? I'll close with a quote by Rowan Williams (whom I've recently gained immense respect for) that I've shared before, I think, where he's talking about Von Balthasar's theology of Holy Saturday, which I think illustrates this vision of things nicely (rooted, as I hinted at in the beginning of this post, in God being beyond all dualities, even the God/Not-God duality):
God must be such as to make it possible for divine life to live in the heart of its own opposite, for divine life to be victorious simply by ‘sustaining’ itself in hell. But this directs us clearly to the conclusion that the divine identity cannot be a straightforward sameness or self-equivalence. God’s freedom to be God in the centre of what is not God (creation, suffering, hell) must not be grounded in an abstract liberty of the divine will (such a contentless liberty would only divide the divine will from any coherent account of divine consistency and thus personal dependability), but in the character of God’s life. If God can be revealed in the cross, if God can be actively God in hell, God is God in or even as what is other than God (a dead man, a lost soul). Yet that otherness must itself be intrinsic to God, not a self-alienation. If we are serious in regarding God as intrinsically loving, this otherness must be something to do with divine love. Once again, we cannot think of God’s presence in the otherness of death and hell as if God initially lacked something which could be developed only through the process of Jesus’ experience [...] 

But if the otherness within God is true otherness and if it is in no way conditioned from beyond, then it can only be imagined as the action of love and freedom; and an act of love and freedom that causes real otherness to subsist can in turn only be imagined as a self-emptying, a kenosis. Balthasar several times draws on the theological writings of the great Russian thinker Sergii Bulgakov for this language of an eternal kenosis in the life of God which itself then makes possible the kenosis involved in creation: God the Father pours out his divine life without remainder in the Son; his identity is constituted in this act of giving away, which Bulgakov dramatically describes as ‘self-devastationand Balthasar as a ‘divine godlessness’: "In the Father’s love there is an absolute renunciation of any possibility of God being for himself alone, a letting-go of the divine being, and in this sense a (divine) godlessness (a godlessness of love, of course, which cannot be in any way confused with the godlessness found within  this world, although it is also, transcendentally, the ground of the possibility of this worldly godlessness)."


Nominally Catholic said...

"If you believe in pluralism, your own belief in pluralism would (without further qualification) seemingly just become one more idea standing alongside others in the Marketplace of Ideas and thus not really accomplish anything (as competition only makes sense between actual concrete competing visions...

But if you try to require it as a sort of metabelief for everyone as a condition of competition, then that itself has become a non-pluralistic dogma and rigged the competition, since many people do not want or hold such a metabelief; if we all have to support the free market of ideas in order to participate in it, how is this market truly free?"

For any doctrine that one wants to believe, there is an infinite amount of arguments one can make to support it. Kolakowski calls this the "Law of the Infinite Cornucopia." I don't think pluralists claim anything more than this. Pluralism itself is simply an approach to philosophical thinking. To make it and relativism into an all-encompassing "meta-philosophy" is to commit an existential fallacy methinks.

Nominally Catholic said...

To resolve the "fundamentalist" issue, I simply follow Blessed John Paul II's notion of absolute and relative importance, as well as the phenomenological realism of Roman Ingarden. These are rich philosophical notions with much existential (that is, "ontological") import.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

"Most traditional category systems, such as Aristotle's, lay out a single dimension of categories supposed to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Ingarden, by contrast, develops a multi-dimensional category scheme by dividing ontology into three parts: formal, material and existential ontologies, corresponding to three distinct aspects that may be discerned in any entity (its formal structure, material nature, and mode of being respectively). These different formal, material and existential aspects of the object, studied by the different types of ontology, may thus be used to classify an object in any of three interpenetrating dimensions (although not all combinations among formal, material and existential modes are possible).

The modes of being are defined in terms of different characteristic combinations of ‘existential moments’. The existential moments mostly concern either an object's temporal determinations (or lack thereof), or the different dependencies it bears (or does not bear) to other sorts of object. Indeed in drawing out his existential moments, Ingarden goes beyond Husserl's influential work on dependence to distinguish four different existential moments of dependence (and their contrasting moments of independence): Contingency (the dependence of a separate entity on another in order to remain in existence); Derivation (the dependence of an entity on another in order to come into existence); Inseparateness (the dependence of an entity that can only exist if it coexists with something else in a single whole); and Heteronomy (the dependence of an entity for its existence and entire qualitative endowment on another). In so doing, Ingarden develops one of the richest and most detailed analyses of dependence ever offered, providing distinctions in the notion of dependence that can clarify many philosophical problems including but certainly not limited to the realism/idealism problem.

Ingarden's four highest existential-ontological categories or ‘modes of being’ are: Absolute, Real, Ideal, and Purely Intentional. The absolute mode of being could be exhibited only by a being such as God, which could exist even if nothing else whatsoever ever existed. The ideal mode of being is a timeless mode of existence suitable for platonistically conceived numbers; the real mode of being is that of contingent spatio-temporal entities such as the realist assumes ordinary rocks and trees to be; while the purely intentional mode of being is that occupied by fictional characters and other entities which owe their existence and nature to acts of consciousness. Thus the realism/idealism controversy can be reconfigured as the controversy over whether the so-called ‘real world’ has the real or purely intentional mode of being."

In a retreat John Paul II gave to students at the Jagiellonian University while still Archbishop of Krakow, the deceased now blessed former Pope clarified that matters pertaining to God of absolute intentional importance, whereas those regarding relative truths are only of relative importance. Thus you can reconcile Absolute Truth with relative truths and truth cannot contradict truth. The error in belief occurs when we in our praxis attribute absolute importance to relative truths.

Anonymous said...

It's like, can you imagine if some people tried to set up a "High Council of Gays" [...]

That's classic! I'd fail the 'authentic gayness' test for sure. I can't snap (slightly bent index fingers), I wear jeans from Costco, and the only time I say 'honey' is when I'm looking for sweetener for my oatmeal.

The problem I see today is that there is a miscognition recarding the "two out of the three" criterion for validly claiming an identity. [...] On the one hand, as I mentioned, this seems to have something to do with the strange phenomenon of homosexuals who think they can honestly deny that they are Gay just because they try to unilaterally refuse the identity/social construction into this category (even though they have the "objective" feature, which is the attractions, and are thus recognized by the rest of the Gay group as one of our own for that very reason).

The SSA/ex-gay movement is also a crisis of group recognition as well as identity rejection. In fact, identity rejection is merely a vehicle certain (mostly Christian) groups employ in an attempt to restigmatize homosexuality. The goal of the SSA/ex-gay movement is not just to put individual homosexuals back into the closet, but re-conform (restore?) society so that all homosexuals are re-stigmatized.

A much more visceral psychosocial reality has blocked the SSA/ex-gay attempt to re-create stigma. Many persons have realized that "traditional" attempts to integrate "gay" people into society, such as loveless and faithless marriages, have often destroyed families and communities. The new consensus is to simply recognize that forced gender/sex unions (so-called objective human relationships: "an honourable estate") carry a great degree of collateral damage. Perversely, SSA/ex-gay groups actively seek to increase their group recognition through the cultivation of ill-fitted mixed orientation marriages, for example.

As a result, SSA/ex-gay groups have destroyed their identity credibility across all three criteria. Queer people see right through the pancake makeup of public lies (Haggard?). There has been no fundamental society shift back to LGBT stigmatization. And finally, mounting consensus suggests that a large part of human sexuality is genetic or determined early in life.

This will not stop a dwindling number of diehard believers in "reparative therapy". For these persons, the reality of absolute identity dissonance must be denied at all costs unless a person experiences a crisis of faith and confession.


A Sinner said...

Interesting take on it! This was in the NCR today:

"New religious groups in the United States, along with some young members of older orders seem eager to wear a religious habit in public, not just on the grounds around a school but at airports or on the subway. What does a monastic habit or a cassock in public say to Americans at the beginning of the 21st century? It is not at all evident that the general public knows who this strangely dressed person is or even connects the clothes to religion. The symbolism is not clear and a message is not evident. The person does stand out, but as a kind of public oddity. Eccentric clothes instill separation. While some argue that odd clothes attract people, the fact is that more often than not they repel. Normal people are not attracted by the antique or bizarre costume, and ordinary Christians are not drawn to those whose special costume implies that others are inferior. Sometimes wearing clothes seems to be a substitute for real ministry.

It is not clear how men wearing dresses and capes proclaim God's transcendence or the Gospel's love. A man's identity is something complex; the search for it lasts a lifetime. A celibate cleric gives up things that form male identity, like being a husband and a father. One cannot overlook possible links between unusual clothes and celibacy. Does the celibate male have a neutral or third sexuality that can put on unusual clothes? Are special clothes a protection of celibacy? Or are they a neutralization of maleness? Why would a man want to wear a long dress or a cape in public? Are spiritual reasons the true motivation?"

Nominally Catholic said...

The clerical collar makes the priest. It's simply another identity that nobody really cares about until it is time to die.

Nominally Catholic said...

If only you were more Baroque in your views, A Sinner...There is really nothing odd about liking Candelabras and cherubic glory. If only you could embrace Eurocentrism, you would make a powerful ally...

Nominally Catholic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

via Fr. Thomas O’Meara's NCR article: Sometimes wearing clothes seems to be a substitute for real ministry.

This is an apt observation. It's simply wise nowadays to avoid wearing a collar or habit outside of a religious residence, monastery, or rectory. the lay brothers and priests of my high school wear street clothes outside of the school grounds. The Fordham Jesuits often wear business suits and ties when lecturing. Many priests (even "traditionally" inclined priests) I know only wear the collar like a business suit, and change into street clothes when not working in ministry. The decision to wear street clothes rather than a collar or habit has long been entrenched in the "Catholic world" I grew up in.

I agree with Fr. O'Meara that a de facto laicity is more pastorally appropriate in a postmodern, even postchristian society. If I were in a supermarket or airport and saw a man or woman in religious garb, my first reaction would be that the person is perhaps unbalanced. Perhaps this is mere prejudice. I used to harbor a similar suspicion towards women in niqab (the full black hijab, eyes only visible) when at U of T. In any event, secular clergy and religious are not absolutely required by religious practice to wear the habit, unlike women and certain forms of hijab in Islamic jurisprudence.

What I don't get is why rectors and spiritual formators admit men and women to seminaries or houses of formation who show signs of an eventual intention to wear their habits all the time. A desire to place the self on a superior level of authority or esteem is not only counterproductive pastorally but also psychologically suspect.

Reap and sow. "Ban gay priests", receive sexually malformed men as candidates for the priesthood. Insist on a "public Catholic presence", court narcissistic candidates. Every day is opposite day for the Church's HR department.


Nominally Catholic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nominally Catholic said...

At the end of the day a priest has to wear a clerical collar (or in the case of Orthodox priests, a Muslim tunic - also a purely historical development) simply because it comes with the occupation, just like a police officer, court marshall, army officer or judge ought to look more "authority-like" than the plaintiff or defendant. The authority comes from the person of the priest and not the garb, and you ought to judge individuals with respect to their "ministries," or rather, sacramental effectiveness, rather than focus blame simply on attire. Priests are also alter christi ministerially whether we like it or not, and a priest is good in my opinion, if he maximizes sacramental outreach regardless of his own weaknesses, opinions, training or professional or "ministerial" effectiveness. The priesthood IS just a job with a Divine twist.