Keep it Catholic, Catholics: A Response to Michael Sean Winters’ Attack on Frances Kissling in America

I debated in Catholic high school and Jesuit college. We practiced by taking positions other than our own so we would understand the ins and outs of our opponents’ ways of thinking. We were taught that gratuitous slams at the other side were never acceptable, and that they certainly were no substitute for reasoned arguments. We were coached to avoid ad hominem (in those days we did not imagine ad feminam) arguments at all costs since they insulted our worthy opponents and made clear that we were out of ideas to bolster our own positions. In the rough and tumble of real world debates, it is training that has stood me in good stead.

Imagine my surprise to read on the Jesuit magazine America’s blog a recent post by Michael Sean Winters in which he violated all the rules. His attack on Frances Kissling and her recent article in Salon began with a gratuitous slam.

If Frances Kissling is not equipped to talk about Catholicism and reproductive choice I don’t know who is, even if Mr. Winters does not like what she has to say. He ended with ad feminam arguments. Frances is a sophisticated feminist thinker who cannot be written off as outdated regardless of whether one agrees with her or not. Such attacks are bad form and do not contribute to the common good.

Frances Kissling needs no defense from me or anyone else. She is fully capable of handling her own battles. She has done so in decades of dedicated work to assure women’s access to reproductive health services over the vehement protestations of Catholic officials and others, like Mr. Winters, who simply disagree about women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies. So be it.

What I detect, however, in this blog piece is shades of the replication of a tactic that Vatican officials use when they are challenged. They imply or declare that the person who disagrees with them is not really “Catholic,” not worthy to raise hard questions that apparently only ordained Catholic men behind closed doors are able to handle. There are hints of this dynamic in the larger debates about Catholics in government service. I want to explore it in an effort to nip it in the bud among those who claim to want to work together for social change.

Claiming to be “more Catholic than thou” is a dead end and a waste of time when our plates are full of challenges to the well being of people and the planet. While we do not necessarily agree on the details, that those of us who are Catholic are Catholic is simply not up for discussion. If some Catholics want to become Unitarians or Buddhists, Presbyterians or atheists that is all well and good. But for those who claim our Catholic identity, the matter is closed.

I do not stand above this fray. I am a feminist Catholic who is committed to a full social justice agenda. This means that in addition to wanting to end war, poverty, racism and sexism, I want to create a just economic order on a sustainable planet. I am pro-sex, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ. In case that is not clear, I think sex is a human right, abortion is a woman’s legal and moral prerogative, and same-sex loving people ought to have every right, including marriage if they wish, that opposite-sex loving people enjoy. Further, it is my theological conviction that all these positions are consistent with Catholic thought and extend the tradition in ways that each generation is expected to do. This is what Catholic looks like in the twenty-first century. I welcome and respect such transparent statements from other Catholics so we know who stands where. But such statements are rare when the risk of being labeled “not Catholic,” or “not approved by the Vatican,” or for politicians, being denied Communion, is all too real.

I am an active participant in contemporary intellectual and activist work. But I will not engage, especially with other Catholics, in efforts to discredit one another at the level of faith or religious practice. Nor should anyone else. Let the arguments rise and fall on their merit, not on the particular expression of religious belief of the speaker much less on her/his mass attendance and other matters of individual conscience. I have no way to evaluate anyone’s piety and less interest. I reject efforts to judge mine.

Protestations by traditional Catholics to the contrary notwithstanding, a basic premise among the world’s billion Catholics is that we have very different views and different ways of living out our faith. This is simply a fact of life. When pressed to say what makes us “Catholic,” there is not one simple answer. I sometimes say we are the ones who laugh heartiest at Catholic jokes!

Catholicism, like every religion, is a complex reality. The sights and sounds, tastes and smells of a religious tradition mark adherents just as much as dogmas and doctrines, popes and parishes. So efforts to say one is Catholic if and only if one believes in x, y and z are vexed by complexity and fraught with dangers. What if we left someone aside? That is a decidedly not Catholic way to go.

Progressive Catholics were effectively sidelined during the Bush years. But now that we have a president who could be called metaphorically “Catholic” the way Bill Clinton was referred to as “Black,” there appears to be new space for our views in places of influence. Since priests and members of Catholic religious orders are discouraged (forbidden in some cases) from elected or even appointed government leadership, the Catholics who will serve are virtually all lay people with varying views and practices.

Some of what I would call “professional Catholics,” that is people who work for the institutional church because they can publicly espouse its teachings, are being put into positions related to the faith based agenda of the Obama administration. I have scruples about the whole faith-based approach which will await another article.

The administration is understandably intent on keeping its Catholic electoral base and at the same time maintaining cordial relations with the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops. Given that agenda, I would counsel them to take account of the diversity in the Catholic community. It is strategically foolish to put all of your eggs in the Vatican’s basket these days or to put too much stock in what the bishops think, given their track record on pedophilia and parish closings. Lay Catholics think for ourselves and increasingly exert our baptismal right to do so.

A better way forward is to think of Catholics as being as diverse as Jews, though I observe that Jews manage their diversity with a great deal more grace. Then we can lift the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that constrains many professional Catholics from saying what they believe on issues like contraception. There are solid Catholic arguments for the many approaches, not all of which I like, but all of which I have to be honest enough to admit are Catholic. Just as I would not tell an Opus Dei Catholic that I do not recognize her approach as Catholic, I do not expect to have my membership impugned either. As far as I can tell, Catholics are counted by baptismal statistics, not by litmus tests of orthodoxy at the communion rail or in print. It is not for me to judge whose Catholicism is the real McCoy. Nor is it for anyone to judge mine.

We can and will disagree in the big tent that is Catholicism. I ask for the same courtesy that I extend. Then let the debates go on among Catholics of all stripes so that the rich social justice teachings that are part of our common heritage might help to inform contemporary social policy.