The End of the Ostpolitik?

Todd Hatch wrote an interesting account of his experience finally standing up for traditional marriage (once he got tenure) at a public university.  The experience sounds like it’s been brutal but edifying: mostly, he’s just been yelled at and called all sorts of names for not thinking-the-popular-thing.

In the midst of all this, while reading George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning, the second volume of his biography of Pope John Paul II, it occurred to me that John Paul might have something valuable to teach me. His predecessors, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, treated the Soviet bloc as a permanent fixture in modern Europe. Their so-called “Ostpolitik” sought to preserve what could be preserved of Catholic life behind the Iron Curtain by avoiding confrontation and cooperating as much as possible with the demands of Communist governments in Eastern Europe. This was a modus non moriendi, a way of not dying, not a way of fomenting Christian growth and expansion. Despite the pleas of many bishops behind the Iron Curtain to adopt a stronger stance and despite the Paul VI’s own anguish about Communist perfidy, the policy lasted through the 1960s and 1970s. Pope John Paul II, of course, ended the policy and began a vigorous spiritual campaign against the Communist domination of his homeland, Poland, and the other eastern European countries. The rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the eventual fall of Soviet communism owe much to the more confrontational approach of John Paul. “How many divisions does the pope have?” Josef Stalin had once asked. The Polish pope demonstrated that he didn’t need armies, that personal example, words of truth, and the creation of a culture of life were more important than guns and tanks. John Paul’s example and my own experiences at EKU have convinced me that it is time to end Ostpolitik on campus.

For at least two generations, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives have sought to “get along” with the prevailing American campus culture of relativism and moral license. We have dedicated ourselves to academic excellence, to fair and balanced teaching, and to keeping a low profile. We have kept quiet in department meetings, in the faculty senate, and on university committees. We have bitten our tongues when colleagues disparaged our religion, our morality, and our most cherished beliefs. We have convinced our colleagues that religious conservatives can be surprisingly thoughtful and urbane.

In the end, what have such actions won for us?

Answering his own question, Hatch concludes that the “Ostpolitik” engaged in by morally conservative university professors has saved their jobs (and permitted them a very small soapbox), at the expense of letting the broader university fall into moral decay at a startling pace.  He reasoned that it’s time to stop figuring out how we can best get along with an increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-Christian university culture, and start trying to win back our college campus, and the souls of our college-aged men and women.

I was reminded of this essay when I read USA Today’s reaction to Abp. Dolan’s election to President of the USCCB, quoted in USA Today.  First, here’s how they characterized the distinct between Kicanas (who was expected to win) and Dolan (who did):

Kicanas was a protege of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who was known for his “common ground” approach and emphasis on a broad spectrum of Catholic social teaching. Dolan is closer to the traditionalist approach, defined not only by opposing abortion but also by publicly slamming Catholic politicians for pro-abortion rights votes. Veteran Church-watcher David Gibson, blogging at Disputations, called it “a shocker.”

This is a pretty inaccurate description of Dolan’s views, but a pretty accurate description of Kicanas’.  As regards Dolan, the article doesn’t demonstrate a very good understanding of what goes on between bishops and pro-choice Catholic politicians.  As the example of Bp. Tobin and Rep. Kennedy made clear, bishops try and quietly correct errant Catholic sinners.  It’s not a “defined” part of Tradition that bishops have to “publicly slam” sinners.  At some point, however, if a nominal Catholic continues to (a) claim he or she is Catholic, and (b) openly advance an agenda directly at odds with the Church, then the bishop has a moral obligation to speak out and dispel the myth that this is an acceptable Catholic position.  It’s not about slamming the politician, but protecting the flock, and doing what’s necessary to try and bring back the errant Catholic in question.  It’s also not a very good description of what the author calls the “traditionalist” approach – are conservative bishops really only concerned with abortion and abortion?  Can anyone who’s read Dolan’s blog or press releases really say the man’s interests are single-issue?  Can anyone say this about any of the conservative Catholic bishops?  That said, some conservative Catholic bishops do take pains to signal that abortion is a bigger deal than immigration, death penalty, and the like, because that’s how the Church understands it.  Immigration policy and death penalty are areas on which faithful Catholics may disagree.  Abortion is not.

Still, it’s fair to say that Kicanas is cut from the same Ostpolitik cloth as Bernadin, seeking to find “common ground” with the culture, while Dolan is more like his predecessor, Cardinal O’Connor, willing to take on the culture in a full-frontal assault.  The article makes this clearer, by quoting Michael Sean Winters:

The bishops have certainly shifted politically, but fundamentally Dolan’s victory shows the bishops’ desire to have a forceful personality at the head of the Conference. This was an endorsement of Cardinal George’s willingness to take highly visible positions and a commitment to maintaining that vigorous style of leadership.

Yes, the “common ground” approach has been supplanted as an organizing principle by a desire for a clear Catholic identity.

Archbishop Dolan is not [a] right-wing culture warrior. He is smart, gregarious, something of a lion in the mold of Cardinal O’Connor, unafraid to state the Church’s teachings clearly and unapologetically. But, there is never the kind of “in your face” attitude you see from some of the more extreme bishops.

If MSW is right, and it’s probably too early to say for sure, it would be a huge relief.  I have little doubt that many of those in the Bernadin camp were men of good will, seeking what was best for the Church, but that Ostpolitik approach has a truly sorry track record.  And it seems that the US bishops are starting to get that.  In particular, it seems that the controversy over Obamacare was what did it for many of them.  They were faced with the possibility that the US government would pass a law trying to force Catholic hospitals and insurance companies to provide “emergency” abortions, provide contraception, and provide sterilization. This, along with seeing their flagship university defy the local bishop and honor the president responsible for this legislation, seems to have been enough to turn the hearts of at least a few of the bishops “in the middle,” as it were.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *