Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

What’s the mission of the Apostolic Visitors who, the
Vatican announced
last week, will be parachuting into the Emerald
Isle next fall? According to the official press release, they are
supposed to deal with the abuse crisis:

The Apostolic
Visitors will set out to explore more deeply questions
concerning the handling of cases of abuse and the assistance owed to the
they will monitor the effectiveness of and seek possible improvements to
current procedures for preventing abuse, taking as their points of
reference the
Pontifical Motu ProprioSacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela
and the norms contained in Safeguarding Children: Standards and
Document for the Catholic Church in Ireland
, commissioned and
produced by
the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church.

according to a report
in yesterday’s Irish Independent, the real mission is to
reestablish the auld time Irish Catholicism: doctrinal strictness,
regular sacramental observance, and ancient devotional practices. Not to
mention “to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary
Catholics for
their priests” and “counteract
materialistic and secularist attitudes.”

That does seem to be
the approach being promoted by the Visitor responsible for seminaries,
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who recently  told a
gathering of
Irish priests “to return to basics” and to ground their ministry in
humility and a rediscovery of identity.” Not surprisingly, his talk
pleased the Irish Primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, the staunchest defender
of the past.
On the other hand, it seems profoundly out of step
with the ideas of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has become the
champion of progressive reform in the Irish church. A few days ago, he
gave a talk
at the Newman Club at Oxford University in which he called for greater
lay participation and, indeed, leadership in the church, to challenge
“any remnants of a culture of clericalism.” The church, he emphasized,
could not and should not expect to play its old role in Irish society.

renewal of the sacramental and spiritual dimensions of the
Church does not mean that the Church intends to retreat into the
sacristy. The Irish Church may once have dominated social reflection.
Those days are gone and the Church must recognise that the weight of its
voice in a much more secular society has changed. To return to my
friend’s analogy, the Church must change its clothes, not just as
cosmetic change or to look more fashionable, but to have clothes which
make us more agile for the task that is ours.

Visitor for the Archdiocese of Dublin is Boston’s irenic Cardinal Sean
O’Malley, but whether he’s there to strengthen or stay Martin’s hand is
hard to say. O’Malley, as Lisa Wangsness suggests
in today’s Boston Globe, is Rome’s go-to guy when it comes to
dealing with abuse-plagued dioceses. But, as Michael Rezendes also makes
in the Globe  today, Martin’s the odd bishop out in

The Vatican can’t have it both ways. So which is Ireland
to have once the mess is cleaned up, a reinvigorated clericalism or a
lay-led revival? You’d have to give me very good odds to bet on the

Is the Tea Party a religious movement? Over at Religion Dispatches, Louis Ruprecht says no, it’s an old-time rebellion against taxes and centralized government authority–as in the original Boston Tea Party and the post-Revolutionary disturbances in Western Massachusetts (Shay’s Rebellion) and Western Pennsylvania (The Whiskey Rebellion). On the contrary, responds Joanna Brooks; at least in her Mormon neck of the woods, the Tea Partiers seem motivated by traditional LDS views of the Constitution, resentment of the ir ownchurch establishment, and perhaps as well, a desire to recover some of that old Mormon fire-in-the-belly.

I’m with Brooks, and not just with respect to the followers of Joseph Smith. We know from polling data that the Tea Party movement includes a disproportionate number of white evangelicals. And while taxes and big government are the manifest motives, virtually all the politicians supported by the movement are on board with the agenda of the religious right. 

If we’re looking for historical precedents for the conservative, anti-establishment populism of the Tea Party, I’d propose the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s. Officially called the American Party, it was a semi-secret movement arrayed against the existing political powers-that-be (Whig and Democrat). While their agenda varied from state to state, the Know-Nothings shared a deep hostility to the Roman Catholic immigrants who had begun flooding into the country from Ireland and Germany. They called themselves Native Americans, and they represented a white Protestant longing for the imagined stability of their forebears’ pre-industrial communities. For them, religion was of part-and-parcel of the program.

Mutatis mutandis, the Tea Partiers are the Know-Nothings of today: latter-day Nativists who long for an imagined past of small government (with Medicare, to be sure), of Christian values, of heterosexual white people running the show and people of color knowing their place. Yes, Virginia, it’s a religious movement. 

souter_harvard_commencement_2010.JPGThere’s a spiritual dimension to last week’s commencement speech at Harvard by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter. As celebrated by the liberal likes of E.J. Dionne and Linda Greenhouse, the speech constituted a sharp critique of the originalism of Antonin Scalia et al. Souter rejects what he calls their “fair reading” approach, in which constitutional judging is imagined to be a straightforward process of looking at the text as the Founders are presumed to have intended it and applying that to the facts of the case. “The Constitution,” said Souter, “is a pantheon of values, and a lot of hard cases are
hard because the Constitution gives no simple rule of decision for the
cases in which one of the values is truly at odds with another.”

Behind the originalists’ “simplistic” critique, Souter continues (in a sympathetic mode), “there lies a basic human hunger for the certainty and control that the
fair reading model seems to promise. And who has not felt that same
hunger?” But it is important, he suggests, to put away such childish things.

Where I suspect we differ most fundamentally is in my belief that in
an indeterminate world I cannot control, it is still possible to live
fully in the trust that a way will be found leading through the
uncertain future.  And to me, the future of the Constitution as the
Framers wrote it can be staked only upon that same trust.  If we cannot
share every intellectual assumption that formed the minds of those who
framed the charter, we can still address the constitutional
uncertainties the way they must have envisioned, by relying on reason,
by respecting all the words the Framers wrote, by facing facts, and by
seeking to understand their meaning for living people.

That is how a judge lives in a state of trust, and I know of no other
way to make good on the aspirations that tell us who we are, and who we
mean to be, as the people of the United States.

From a gentle man, these are very tough words. In Souter’s view, Scalia et al. suffer from a failure of nerve. They cannot abide an indeterminate world that cannot be controlled, and so look for simple rules to control it. They do not trust that a way can be found to resolve the uncertainties the Framers saw–one that addresses the facts and meanings of the present time. They do not make good on our
aspirations as a people.

Reid.jpgFor months and months, Harry Reid seemed about as likely to be reelected to the Senate as the Orioles are to win the American League East. But a new poll now shows him leading all three of his main Republican rivals. What gives?

As the folks over at TPM point out, the GOP candidates have done an excellent job of knocking each other down. But there may be a bit of a hidden religious factor at work as well. At the Mormon History Association meetings in Kansas City last weekend, the word was that the leadership of the LDS Church was putting out quiet signals that it would be a good thing if Reid retained his seat. No Mormon has ever held a higher position of authority, and even if virtually all of the church’s general authorities (as they’re called) are Republicans, keeping a Mormon Democrat as Senate Majority Leader is preferable to having him replaced with a first-term Republican.

None of the three leading Republicans are Mormons, and though a latecomer to the field, Chad Christensen, has been playing the LDS card for all it’s worth, he’s not given much of a chance. Anecdotally, Reid–who is an active and enthusiastic member of the church–seems to enjoy considerable LDS support.

How much of a difference does the LDS vote make in the Silver State? According
to the 2008 Trinity ARIS, Mormons constitute only 5.2 percent of the population. (Thanks to emigration from
California, that’s down from 9 percent a decade ago.)
Still, in a close election, a few percentage points matter, and turnout among Mormons is always high. 

Mitt Romney scored a huge and unexpected victory In the January 2008 Republican
, racking up over 50 percent of the vote to Ron Paul’s 14 percent and John McCain’s 13 percent. Later that year, Obama beat John McCain handily, 55-43. With the quiet blessing of Salt Lake City, I wouldn’t count Harry Reid out this year.