Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Infallibility Complex

The Infallibility Complex

Ross Douthat has a wonderful piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, The Pope and the Precipice, in which he discusses, at some length, the struggle going on in the Catholic Church today impelled by Pope Francis’ apparent desire to, in Douthat’s words, “rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life—sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.”

Douthat is a conservative, and a traditionalist, and is clearly unhappy with the less censorious direction that Francis seems to be indicating.  He is not alone in this.  A majority of the hierarchy seems to agree with Douthat, and they have apparently won an important skirmish at the recently concluded synod, where an early draft document seemed to reflect Francis’ more open views, but was materially toned down prior to release. 

I am not a Catholic and don’t pretend to understand the theological issues. They do appear to me to be strikingly similar to some of the “culture wars” going on here, with some groups hoping to be more inclusive as a way of expanding and making more relevant the faith to those who are being raised in a more permissive environment, while others see strict adherence to what Douthat calls the Church’s “historic teaching.”

Douthat wants to suppress this more liberal urge in the Church, the same way he wants to express state power to enforce his moral beliefs in the secular world.  Douthat has never suggested that the barriers between Church and State be dissolved.  Rather, he sees his religious code, at least with regard to social issues, as the correct way to govern people, regardless of their religious affiliation.  It is a position that appears to be grounded in his faith, and not mere political expediency.  To put it a different way, Douthat couldn't be a Democrat, regardless of how many tax cuts they might offer.

He writes with great precision, but there is one bit of his logic I find fascinating: How to deal with Papal Infallibility?  If the Pope is indeed Infallible, and this is the direction Francis wants to lead in, why do Douthat and the conservative hierarchy resist? Or, more accurately, how do they resist? 

Douthat reconciles this apparent contradiction by reaching the conclusion that Papal Infallibility derives from strict adherence to a Traditionalist point of view. And, in an interesting echo of modern, even Tea Party politics, he warns that unless the Traditionalist prevails, Francis will provoke a schism, presumably of the type that split the Western and Eastern Churches in 1054.  He concludes that if Francis does not move towards the conservative point of view “this Pope may be preserved from error only if the Church itself resists him.”

It would be easy for me to jump to the conclusion that Douthat was merely engaging in a solipsism, that his certainty about his faith was so great that he assumed Francis must be wrong, but the piece is so well written and so tightly reasoned it is worth reading twice, if for no other reason as to give you a glimpse into the way he would govern in the secular world, if given the opportunity.

For a different way of thinking about the centrality of traditional orthodoxy and the presumption that deviation from a conservative faith is anathema, I would also suggest you read Carly Fiorina’s Washington Post op-ed, “Companies shouldn’t cave in to the demands of climate change activists.”

Ms. Fiorina, if you recall, was CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999-2005, until she was forced out after the stock of the company had fallen by half after her highly contentious and dubious merger strategy with Compaq. In 2010 she ran against California Senator Barbara Boxer (she lost) and presently is toying with either a run for California Governor, or President. 

Her piece has less to do about climate change than it is a prolonged rant against the evils of activists daring to challenge ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group she defines as “an alliance of state legislators who advocate limited government, free markets, and individual liberty…” 

The article is a masterpiece of disingenuous garbage, wrapped up in a mock concern about  professional activists intent on chilling speech and marginalizing the voice of business and job creators in U.S. society.”

I know, it’s torture to even think about the chilled speech of the job creators.  They have been so silent in this election cycle.

Here is what ALEC does, and you can agree with it or not.  It isn’t just the alliance of state legislators that Ms. Fiorina says it is—it is an alliance of state legislators with corporate lobbyists who draft business-favorable legislation for those legislators, while offering additional support to them.  ALEC has drafted literally thousands of bills, some of which have been adopted whole, without any debate. And, it isn’t just for those who “advocate limited government, free markets, and individual liberty…” ALEC has also been funding conservative social causes, including banning gay marriage, and abortion, and it has provided model voter ID laws for 30-odd state Legislatures.  ALEC also supported the effort to expand “Stand Your Ground” after Florida’s “success” with it, and “ag-gag” bills that criminalize investigations into large-scale livestock farming and slaughter houses and classify them as “terrorism.”

As some of ALEC’s role in more controversial issues has become public, some companies (including Pepsi, Coke, McDonald’s, GE, GM, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and even HP and Wal-Mart) have withdrawn their support, and this is what seems to enrage Ms. Fiorina. She blames climate change activists, but in fact, only Google gave ALEC’s position on climate change as a reason.  The real motivation that these huge companies have been distancing themselves is pure and simple.  It’s bad for business.  They know that the public expects them to lobby for greater profits and more favorable legislation.  But they also know that their customers might be much less willing to purchase their products if they found out that those companies were backing legislation that was personally anathema to them. 

Money has talked, and bigger money has walked, and Ms. Fiorina can’t stand it.

Both Douthat and Fiorina share an appreciation for implacable certainty, and leave little doubt of where they would go if they were King (or Pope.)  But read the two pieces, and you can see the difference between two approaches.   Ms. Fiorina oozes angered contempt, Mr. Douthat is the velvet glove of reasoned explanation (albeit shielding the closed fist of schism.)

The GOP is going to romp next Tuesday, and might very well take it all in 2016.  Fiorina and Douthat are faces of a coalition of conservatives who could rule, a merger of anything-goes-capitalism with an ascetic social vision.  The question for the country will be one both of policy, and temperament.

Or, maybe it’s just a question of infallibility?  I am a person who is suspicious of the concept.  How about you?

October 26th, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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