Rod Dreher

I’m having a tough time trying to figure out what I think of Nicholas Kristof’s column today. In it, he’s trying to defend the Catholic Church as a liberal writing to a liberal readership. Here’s the tack he takes:

Yet the church leaders are right about one thing: there is often a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole — and that is unfair.
It may be easy at a New York cocktail party to sniff derisively at a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS. But what about Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis? I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.
Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. “It’s very normal to have malaria,” he said. “Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal.”
Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest.
Anybody scorn him? Anybody think he’s a self-righteous hypocrite?

I see what Kristof is up to. He’s trying to remind his readers that if they rely on their own stereotypes and what’s in the papers to characterize the Catholic Church, they’re being unjust, and overlooking heroic priests, nuns and Catholic laymen who do fantastic work, unheralded. Yet in this column, he overcompensates in criticizing the Church, I think. Mind you, I get irritated by conservative Catholics who react as if any criticism of the Church, in particular its morally conservative policies, is motivated by bigotry and bad faith. That’s neither true nor fair; you cannot expect someone like Kristof to endorse the Church’s views on homosexuality, condoms and so forth, or to remain silent on them if he strongly disagrees, as he does.
That said, here’s the sort of slapdash rhetoric that Kristof didn’t need to engage in to make his point:

Jesus wasn’t known for pontificating from palaces, covering up scandals, or issuing Paleolithic edicts on social issues. …. a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic … antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms…

“Pontificating from palaces”? What else do you expect a pontiff who lives at the Vatican, as pontiffs do, to do? Is the 1970s culture war term “male chauvinist” really meaningful here, or does it only serve to disarm Erica Jong? The term “homophobic” ticks me off too. It means “fear of gays.” It is more correct to simply say “anti-gay rights,” if that’s what you mean; it is possible to agree with the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality, and not to want to hide behind a tree when one sees a gay person coming. And these “Paleolithic” and “antediluvian” (before the Flood) stances on women, gays and condoms were virtually universal in the Christian world until the past few decades. That doesn’t make them right, necessarily, but one expects someone as worldly as Kristof to grasp that it is social liberals such as he and his New York Times readers who, with their stances on women in the priesthood, homosexuality and condoms (but less so on condoms, I’d say) who are actually in the minority, both historically and in terms of Christianity worldwide.
I would not want conservative Catholics and their sympathizers to dismiss the good and powerful words Kristof published in defense of the Catholic Church, especially this conclusion:

And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

Still, I regret that Kristof felt it necessary to take cheap and easy shots at the Church. I certainly respect his right to disagree with Catholic teaching, and don’t begrudge him it, but I also believe his choice of buzzwords sure to resonate with secular liberal readers undermined the laudable effort at greater understanding that he undertook with this column.

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