Make-Up Orthodoxy

Even for its opponents, dogma is still man’s best friend.

One loud and raucous cheer for those Catholic academics who so loudly challenged Speaker of the House John Boehner, this year’s commencement speaker at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  “Dear Mr. Speaker,” they wrote, in a letter made public on the Internet:


We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to the Catholic University of America. It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.


The rest of the letter continues in the chipper vein of a rather large-hearted catechist instructing an extremely dull and recalcitrant child on what he should know about “matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.” After all, Speaker Boehner’s “voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings,” namely that “those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” This “fundamental concern” for the poor, the writers argue, should be animating budget discussions. “Yet, even now,” the writers continue, in their best biblical cadence, “you work in opposition to it.”


What has the Speaker done? Why, he has “shepherded” a 2012 budget through the House of Representatives that includes cuts to a number of social programs, including women, infants, and children’s nutritional care (the food stamp program known as WIC) and maternal health care grants. And, beyond this, the 2012 budget “radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare,” a move that “could leave the elderly and poor without adequate health care.” The catechists continue to warn little Johnny about the consequences of his actions, and enclose with their letter a copy of the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, which will give him the information he needs about “the principles of the common good, the preferential option for the poor, and the interrelationship of subsidiarity and solidarity.” In case this is too difficult to apply, “Paragraph 355 on tax revenues, solidarity, and support for the vulnerable is particularly relevant to the moment.”


Now there are plenty of questions one could raise about the accuracy of what the budget Speaker Boehner “shepherded” does to, say, Medicaid and Medicare, but let us leave aside such questions for now. What I am so interested in, and the reason I give the loud and raucous cheer to the letter-writers, is the fact that what they are attempting to do is to enforce a kind of Catholic orthodoxy. 

I know, I know, one is not supposed to say that “progressive” Catholics believe in the “enforcement” of orthodoxy. “I will point out,” wrote journalist Michael Sean Winters on the National Catholic Reporter website, “that the signatories do not call on Boehner to decline to give his address, nor on CUA to revoke its invitation, as many conservatives called on Notre Dame to revoke its invitation to President Obama in 2009.” So, you see, these professors are not like those troglodytes who objected to a president—one of whose campaign promises was to sign into law a bill that would remove all restrictions on legalized abortion—not only speaking at commencement, but receiving an honorary doctorate of law at a Catholic institution. No, these more enlightened professors “understand that a university should be a place where all voices and viewpoints are heard. But they are well within their right to ask Boehner to explain how his budgetary proposals do, or do not, conform to traditional Catholic social teaching.” The letter-writers’ desire for an explanation seemed more a demand for a confession of guilt, coming as it did in the familiar form of, “Will you finally stop beating your wife?” For the signatories have the orthodox answers and Boehner is a heretic when it comes to “matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.” Winters’ reference to the Obama-Notre Dame controversy—also made in interviews by Stephen Schneck, the Catholic University professor who spearheaded the letter—is important, however. For what we have here is an attempt at Make-Up Orthodoxy, a sign both of what is right and what is wrong in the Catholic Church.  

What is “Make-Up Orthodoxy”? The term is my own and derives from the habit, most commonly seen in sports with umpires and referees, of compensating for a mistaken judgment favoring one side by making an equally wrong judgment favoring the other. A baseball player is called “out” at first base when he was really “safe.” During the next team’s turn at bat the same close play occurs and the umpire now calls the other team’s runner, who is also safe, out. Make-up call. 

The make-up call is not limited to sports. Plenty of people realize only too late they’ve treated one person unjustly at the expense of another. Rather than apologize for the wrong, they try to even the score the next time by showing favoritism the other way. The key to the make-up call is the inability to admit outwardly to wrongdoing. Instead of apology and a promise to act justly in the future, the referee, boss, or parent resorts to “making up” for the wrong-doing by a mistake on the other side. One can understand the impulse; in sports and in discrete work-a-day situations it’s easy to attempt, even if subconsciously, to make-up, that is compensate, for wrongs one has committed. The problem is that in making-up for past wrongs, one has to make-up, that is, invent, a story that is not truthful. 

Make-Up Orthodoxy is no different, except that it doesn’t simply involve discrete acts, but a continuing denial of the truth of things. “Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things,” as the late Father Richard John Neuhaus put it. The good news is that the practitioner of Make-Up Orthodoxy is one who continues to insist that there is a right and a wrong about Catholic teaching. The bad news is that he or she does not usually accept or know what it is. 

There are two levels of Make-Up Orthodoxy. Both involve compensation for disagreement with the Church and the invention of truth. In the first level, the emphasis is on the invention. The individual acknowledges right and wrong in Catholicism, but simply denies that the Church’s teaching has a final arbiter in the form of the pope or the bishops in union with the pope. When challenged on teaching X of the Church, the person then generally denies teaching Y as well, in order to make dissent on X part of a consistent whole. This often seems to happen on the individual level, as attested by the proverb that when a man declares he has intellectual problems with the dogma of the Trinity, it means he is sleeping with his secretary. This sort of Make-Up Orthodoxy has been the gold standard of the Catholic Left for some time. Hans Küng, Garry Wills, James Carroll, and a host of other figures declare that they are “orthodox” Catholics and then define orthodoxy as exactly the opposite of what the Church teaches on any issue remotely touching politically correctness. This sort of thing still has appeal for the mainstream media and the disappearing mandarins of liberal Protestantism, but not many others. The atheist critic James Wood’s response to Garry Wills’ Why I Am a Catholic boiled down to a simple, “Why?”

The second level of Make-Up Orthodoxy offers more hope. For it emphasizes less the action of inventing doctrine whole-cloth and more the compensation for some wrong position by emphasizing that we are really the orthodox party on some other topic. For many years some Catholic politicians and their defenders had attempted to argue that one could support the legalization of abortion, euthanasia, and, more recently, same-sex marriage at least as a prudential matter and still be Catholics in good standing. We are, they said, personally opposed to such things, but smart enough not to impose these beliefs on our fellow citizens. While official Church documents continued to contradict such a position, noting that these were non-negotiable topics, the absence of any action by the bishops allowed Catholics to continue to claim that Catholic politicians could treat these as matters of prudence. But as the new millennium dawned, a few American Catholic bishops began, on the basis of canon law, denying Holy Communion to politicians whose votes and support for legalized abortion and/or euthanasia had not changed after episcopal attempts at some remedial catechesis. These were mostly Democrats. Desiring to be both faithful Catholics and “good” Democrats, these politicians neither made much effort to change their party nor declared themselves the Magisterium. Instead, they changed the subject and asked why other politicians who supported the Iraq War or capital punishment—mostly Republicans—were not also denied Communion. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s doctrinal office, responded in a 2004 document titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles”:


Not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

This brings us back to the Boehner letter. One of the first comments posted at the National Catholic Reporter website when the letter was published there came from an individual who said that the letter was “good,” but that “conservatives” would easily be able to answer that these Catholic academics had sent no letters to former Speaker Pelosi or other Catholic politicians flagrantly voting for abortion, euthanasia, or “gay marriage” who had spoken at various Catholic colleges’ and universities’ commencements. Nor had they sent any letters to President Obama about the justice of the pro-life cause, the sanctity of marriage, or any other topic on which Catholic teaching claims to interpret the natural law properly. And of course they hadn’t. 

The non-negotiable topics Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in his instruction, abortion and euthanasia, are precisely the topics that Catholic progressives have continued to treat as topics on which there is a “legitimate diversity of opinion.” In the absence of orthodoxy on these topics, a make-up job is demanded, and the strategy is to claim for applications of Catholic social thought in the economic sphere a degree of certainty that they don’t have. 

It so happens, though, that besides Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on participation in Holy Communion, another Roman document was released in the year 2004. It was the Compendium of Social Doctrine, the same volume sent by the signatories to Speaker Boehner. In that document, we have two paragraphs that very closely track Cardinal Ratzinger’s distinctions in his letter.  Paragraph 570 informs us that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” Here one thinks of laws and programs concerning abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Paragraph 571 provides a contrast: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.” Here we can locate not only questions of capital punishment and just war, but budgetary concerns. If questions about the feasibility of Medicaid and Medicare or the necessity and wisdom of food stamps as they currently operate do not count as “contingent decisions,” it’s not clear what exactly does. Catholics are manifestly responsible for seeking the relief of poverty; however, what kind of government programs are needed is not something that can be read out of the Compendium

What is right about this latest manifestation of Make-Up Orthodoxy? What could make it deserve any cheers at all? That the signatories, many of whom teach theology and Catholic social thought, don’t seem to know or acknowledge the distinction between non-negotiable Catholic moral teaching and the application of principles to contingent issues is a continuing problem. That naïve Catholics will continue to be morally burdened or unburdened concerning the wrong issues is a problem. 

Yet the Catholic progressives who wrote the letter chose to make their argument on the basis of the Church’s teaching as a matter of an authority external to themselves, no matter how little they understand it. Let us make no mistake about the significance of this fact. In this age of what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the new individualism,” many are the Catholics who, in Joseph Komonchak’s words, find it “nearly incomprehensible that one’s spirituality might need itself to be tested against any external reality or authority.” For them, the disputes about what is authentically Catholic teaching aren’t something they bother themselves about.  The first type of Make-Up Orthodoxy really collapses into this position. And for all too many Catholic theologians, an assumption about modern Catholic life is that Magisterial teaching is contingent and continually open to dissent and revision under their own authority, yet “Medicare as we know it” can never be changed. For them, Chesterton’s witticism about the liberal theologians of his day applies: their “vision of heaven is always changing” in order that their “vision of earth will be exactly the same.” But the letter-writers take a different approach. Here they are appealing to Magisterial authority, to a document issued from Rome no less, to chastise Speaker Boehner. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, Make-Up Orthodoxy is the coinage in which real Catholic doctrine will be paid. In this case, tainted as the coinage was, it was a very rich payment.

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About David Paul Deavel 36 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.