Newsletter #2: Catholics love fighting
The bi-weekly newsletter: a religious liberty seminar, Catholic orthodoxy, a new logo, pet insurance, whiteness as property, the Capitol siege, and more!
It’s time for the next newsletter!
So far, the transition over to Substack feels really good. I’m still getting my feet wet. But after reading some tips on how to engage readers well, I’m setting up a schedule: you can expect to get a newsletter every other week, with essays and other content published in-between.
I do have a question for you. Would you rather get the newsletter on Mondays to start off your week, or on Fridays to kick off the weekend? Let me know in the comments!
Included in today’s newsletter:
Consider this: a seminar on religious liberty, Christian infighting, and staying Catholic
A new logo
What I’m reading: whiteness as property
What I’m watching: the Capitol siege
LGBTQ Discrimination and Religious Liberty Law
The new seminar series has begun! In our bi-weekly meetings, we’ll be exploring religious freedom and LGBT discrimination in Catholic Social Teaching, USCCB legal briefings, and American law. Last week we discussed a bit of the Summa Theologica and a set of encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII. Much of the conversation centered around the nature and foundation of political authority. The Catholic tradition places the foundation of political power and authority in God, in contrast to many modern theories that place it in “the people.”
One especially interesting feature of Pope Leo XIII’s teachings is the way he frames the nature of “religious liberty.” In Libertas, he writes:
“This [false] kind of liberty [clearly implies]… that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing... But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false… Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness—namely, to treat the various religions… alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty.”
The conception of religious liberty promoted by Pope Leo XIII does not guarantee an equal freedom and protection across all faiths, but a more specific “freedom of the Church,” something which not only allows but requires preferential treatment of the Catholic Church. That is not how religious liberty is talked about by American Catholic bishops today. Our seminar group will be paying attention to the development of the idea of “religious liberty” and how it has changed over the last 150 years. Leo XII argues for preferential treatment, in part because he sees the truth of the Church as obvious. In Immortale Dei, he writes:
“Now, it cannot be difficult to find out which is the true religion, if only it be sought with an earnest and unbiased mind; for proofs are abundant and striking. We have, for example, the fulfilment of prophecies, miracles in great numbers, the rapid spread of the faith in the midst of enemies and in face of overwhelming obstacles, the witness of the martyrs, and the like. From all these it is evident that the only true religion is the one established by Jesus Christ Himself, and which He committed to His Church to protect and to propagate.”
Some in the seminar took umbrage at this. Certainly, other religions also claim prophesies, miracles, rapid spread, martyrs, etc. The audience for Leo XIII’s encyclicals, Catholic bishops and other leads, can help explain what otherwise comes off as a naive view to many. But one wonders about the limitations of some of Leo’s arguments for readers today nonetheless.
At our next meeting we’ll be discussing Dignitatis Humanae, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. If you’re interested in the seminar, it’s not too late to join!
The Nature of Our Disagreements
American Catholicism’s most recent controversy, over using brokeraged cell phone data to oust a high-profile priest who had been on dating apps, has been a good opportunity to examine the dynamics of contemporary conflict. Some have praised The Pillar for exposing clerical and institutional deception and hypocrisy. Others question the ethics of using data in this way and allege that this is a gay “witch hunt.”
The sharp division between these groups help demonstrates how the lines are drawn in contemporary conflict. Consider, for example, this Tweet:
It’s one thing to say:
“The Post alleges that X boundary has been crossed. I disagree with their assessment because...”
It’s another thing to say:
“I can’t even imagine what the Washington Post is trying to say.”
Mr. Franck is saying the latter, that he can’t even consider what the Washington Post is trying to argue. Mr. Franck can’t identify an error of judgment or disagree with the assessment in the Washington Post article, because all judgment and assessment of the article are precluded by the limits of his imagination. Mr. Franck basically accuses the Washington Post of speaking gibberish.
For the most part, these groups have not been disagreeing with one another, so much as they have been refusing to even entertain one another’s ideas. This is partly due to the tendency today to, once a public controversy has erupted and the sides have identified themselves, see each side as an all-or-nothing position. This is a bad state for the Church, and for American discourse generally. In the current state of affairs, discourse is more about power and tribe creation/maintenance than it is about… discourse. (If you want to further explore these dynamics, I’d highly recommend Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.)
Catholic Orthodoxy and Staying Catholic
In last week’s introduction to this Substack, I wrote about how orthodoxy will always be subversive to our conception of “orthodoxy”:
I still want to have a faith that is integrative, that sees the Church as possessing a powerful dialectical continuity across the ages and as having meaning and significance in its structures and histories. But I also know that lived realities are the spaces where the Church dwells. I want to live as God wants me to live, to work with a Holy Spirit who has been alive and active throughout history. So if I want to be “orthodox,” I may need to critique or challenge prevailing “orthodoxies” that, regardless of their conceptual value, function so as to harm, marginalize, and hide the Good News. If I am to live as a Catholic and want to integrate “orthodoxy” as a good, I need to go out in search of “new orthodoxies.”
One question I’ve been considering is the ways in which orthodoxy, as a concept, can be used and abused by Christians. Christian “orthodoxy” is often presented in a way that affirms those who already agree with it and further pushes away skeptics and dissenters. This is a big problem for the Church if we want our teachings to be able to speak to and convert the broader culture. I have a number of friends who have left the Church, in part, because of the ways in which “orthodoxy” was used to bludgeon them at various points in their lives. (I myself have done this, and I’m sorry if you have been an object of my bludgeoning in the past.) Whether intended or not, the term “objective disorder” is often used in this way, functioning to bludgeon others in a way that (ironically) obscures its meaning.
The ways in which “Church teaching” has been used to harm others came up during the Q&A portion of a talk I gave last week at my local parish. We discussed the topic, “Why remain Catholic?” In preparation, I posed the question on #CatholicTwitter and received hundreds of responses. Some shared that “Church teaching” was the reason for staying Catholic, but there were many other answers as well. You can read some of the Twitter answers here. And stay tuned for the audio of my talk to come out later this week!
If you check out my Substack site, you’ll see that I’m trying out a new logo! It’s a mixer! Maybe one day I’ll hire a professional to design a logo for me, but I’m actually quite proud of what I can achieve in twenty minutes on Microsoft Paint.
I once had to do a peer assessment, where respondents answered questions like, “If Christopher were a household appliance, what type would he be, and why?” I got a few different answers. Some said I was a coffee maker because of my passion and the way I bring energy to things. A couple said I was a refrigerator because I’m full of ideas that can be pulled out when necessary. But the most common response was that I’m a mixer, because apparently I’m “good at blending everyone together and making the end product be cohesive.” I really love that. It’s something I try really hard to do!
What I’m Reading: Whiteness as Property
I've seen a number of people share Dr. Carol Swain's brief essay, "What I Can Teach You About Racism." Dr. Swain is highly critical of ideas arising out of Critical Race Theory and thinks that the proper response to today’s racial disparities is for black Americans to work harder. There's a lot that can be said about her essay, but I'll focus on just one piece: her claim that the idea of "whiteness as a form of property" is "poison."
Dr. Cheryl Harris addresses this question in her 1993 essay, "Whiteness as Property.” (I read the essay as part of a collection on Critical Race Theory.) In the essay, Harris shares the story of her grandmother, a single mother of African American descent who was able to hide her lineage because she had fair skin and straight hair. At the time, it would have been illegal for her to present herself as white, but she took the risk because only white women could get the sorts of jobs she needed to be able feed herself and her children. So she "stole" whiteness as an identity, along with the benefits that "possessing" whiteness could provide her.
When people talk about "whiteness as a form of property," they're talking about how "possessing whiteness" has allowed people in American history to be given social privileges and benefits that were denied to "non-whites." For Harris's grandmother, "Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival." Harris’s grandmother "stole" whiteness at great risk, knowing that she could get into legal trouble if her racial lineage was discovered.
In American law, the category “property” is not limited to physical objects, but also applies to legal rights and privileges. You can sell many intangible legal rights as “property,” such as the right to profits from a company. And you can be the recipient of another’s intangible property through lineage, such as when copyrights are transferred from deceased parents to their children. Though whiteness is not alienable like most forms of intellectual property, its status as property is strongly suggested by the fact that it could be “stolen” by those who are “passing,” like Harris’s grandmother. In this way, whiteness is property in a way similar to how the law considers professional degrees or licenses to be property, things that cannot bought or sold but the benefits of which can be stolen through fraud. For Harris’s grandmother, whiteness, when “stolen” through fraud, could grant someone the legal right to pursue certain jobs that were barred to black Americans.
In the American system of slavery, a doubly perverse form of property was established. White persons could possess both whiteness (with its benefits) and black persons. Black persons (those possessing even “one drop” of “black blood”) were prohibited from possessing whiteness, and usually even themselves.
In a way, I agree with Dr. Swain that "whiteness as a form of property" is "poison." It's poisonous to people who have been denied social benefits only available to those possessing whiteness. But I disagree with Dr. Swain’s condescending dismissal of important concepts that help us explain the experience of people like Dr. Harris's grandmother. Dr. Swain is wrong. It's not learning about "whiteness as property" that is poison. It's refusing to learn, and forgetting our history, that poisons us.
You can also follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
What I’m Watching: Capitol Siege
I recently watched Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the US Capitol, the result of a six-month investigation by the New York Times. The documentary gives a play-by-play of the events of the siege on the Capitol (after watching the documentary, I think “siege” is a more appropriate term than “riot”). The documentary highlights key figures and groups during the siege, the security personnel defending the Capitol, and the progression of events. You can watch the documentary on YouTube.
The documentary was very eye-opening, revealing to me how the siege was much worse and better planned than I had thought. Some key takeaways from both the documentary and a bit of my own research:
In addition to an entire branch of the US government, the nuclear launch equipment had to be evacuated as the building was taken.
More people died in the several hours of the Capitol siege than in months of protests and rioting in the Twin Cities following the killing of George Floyd. Also, more Americans died than in the 2012 Benghazi attack.
The rioters caused more than $30 million in damages.
Many Congressional staff members couldn't escape in time and barricaded themselves in offices, while rioters screamed and pounded on the doors, trying to break in. The staffers silently hid under desks and called for help that wouldn’t come for hours. They worried that they would soon be killed.
Police were stabbed and beaten with American flags. More than 140 police officers were injured. One officer shares how a Trump supporter tried to gauge his eyes out. You can also watch the testimony of four officers on their experiences during the siege here.
The National Guard arrived 3 hours after requested by the Capitol Police, because the Pentagon made an intentional decision to wait, allegedly worried in part about optics.
As the crowd was finally driven out, they screamed, "Hang Mike Pence!" and, "I was invited here by the President!"
Many say American Christianity played a critical role in the siege, pointing to flames stoked by the “Jericho March” and the apocalyptic language used by both Catholic and non-Catholic Christian leaders when it came to the 2020 election.
To switch to a lighter topic (sort of)… Earlier in the summer, I visited my veterinarian uncle who highly recommended I get pet insurance. I didn’t know that such a thing existed, but apparently most major insurance carriers have pet insurance plans that can cover up to 100% of emergency and surgical costs (which can be thousands of dollars). So there’s your pet tip for today: look into whether pet insurance is right for you.