Growing Up Catholic

By ANDREW WIMMER Counterpunch 2/10/08

Itry in vain to comprehend the numbers. Oxfam and the UNHCR say that over eight million Iraqis are now in desperate need of emergency assistance. Fully one-third of the country’s total population.

This figure includes more than two million Iraqis who are displaced within their own country and more than two million others who have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, making this the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.”

Of those who remain in their homes, Oxfam calls four million people “food-insecure” and in urgent need of various types of humanitarian assistance. Dahr Jamail reports that whole neighborhoods of Baghdad swim in sewage and go without water for days at a time, while electricity is rarely available for more than an hour or two a day.

The reality is obscene-made even more so when we acknowledge that the utter decimation of Iraq is the direct result of our invasion and ongoing military, political and economic occupation.

I had that image in my mind when I heard recently that Aquinas Institute, a Catholic graduate school of theology here in St. Louis, had quietly uninvited this year’s Aquinas Lecturer, Peter Phan.

Phan holds the Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and has a lengthy list of books and a distinguished teaching career to his credit.

But it seems that Phan has run afoul of the Catholic hierarchy for his work on interreligious dialogue. This realm of theological inquiry is not for the faint of heart, being a literal minefield for those who fear for their orthodoxy. A non-Catholic or non-Christian reader may wonder at this point what difference any of this makes, viewing this as just another strange sectarian battle. I’d answer simply this. Phan, as a Catholic theologian, raises and grapples with the questions that one would hope any serious, thoughtful Catholic, or Christian, would want to, or need to, at the point in their life when they leave childhood and its certitudes behind. I might paraphrase Phan and ask, “What does my belief in Jesus-as savior-mean? And how can I live in peace on this planet with the billions of other human beings who do not share that belief.” I can’t imagine a more important question for people who call themselves Christians to be asking right now.

In his 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously, Phan writes, “one may question the usefulness of words such as unique, absolute, and even universal to describe the role of Jesus as savior today,” explaining that the “words are unavoidably embedded in socio-political and cultural contexts, and the contexts in which these words were used were, in many parts of the world, often tainted by colonialist imperialism, economic exploitation, political domination, and religious marginalization.” As a result, the terms “have outlived their usefulness and should be jettisoned and replaced by other, theologically more adequate equivalents.”

It’s this language that has put him at odds with Rome and the U.S. hierarchy. They like their Jesus unique, absolute and universal. Alas, so do many Christians.

Phan’s insights and questions grow out of his personal experience, himself a refugee of war. While still a young man, he fled Vietnam with his family in 1975. As a Vietnamese born in the middle of the last century, he knows something about colonialism. As a Vietnamese Catholic, he knows something about growing up schooled in the religion of the colonial power.

The Aquinas Institute says on its website that “in the spirit of Aquinas, and because theology is inherently interdisciplinary and contextual,” the annual Aquinas lecturer “may bring important cultural, political, intellectual or artistic currents into contact with theology and ministry.” Peter Phan seems to fit the bill.

In mid-January, however, the school’s new president, Richard Peddicord, wrote to board members informing them that the lecture scheduled for February 3rd had been canceled. He said that Phan had been invited long before they learned that one of his books was under scrutiny, and that after several very amicable conversations with Raymond Burke, St. Louis’s archbishop, Peddicord had decided it would be best to rescind the invitation. He was concerned that the press would make an issue of Phan’s troubles with the Vatican and kick up a ruckus. The purpose of the lecture, Peddicord wrote, is to foster “irenic theological conversation,” and having Phan talk about how we might all try to get along on this planet would not, it seems, serve that peaceful end.

At this point, I, too, would like to dismiss this as tempest in teapot and move on. But there is too much at stake. Instead of championing an opportunity to engage Catholics and others in the city in some serious conversation, Aquinas Institute took the cowardly way out, and in an act of preemptive self-censorship reinforced the popular conception that Catholics are a bunch of nitwits, unable and unwilling to use their minds to think through the things that matter.

The school’s decision is particularly ironic given the fact that its namesake, Thomas Aquinas, fought his own battles with the church hierarchy in his day, largely over the same issue. While Aquinas was engaging the ancient Greeks as well as his contemporary Arab theologians and philosophers in fruitful dialogue, lesser minds were hunkering down in the bunker. The rest is history.

Raymond Burke, who has gained some degree of notoriety for his refusal of communion to those who publicly support abortion, was able to shut down the Aquinas lecture without much of an effort. Peddicord said that he had not been asked to cancel the lecture, but after conversing with the bishop thought it best. Burke was concerned that Catholics would be led astray should they hear Phan talk about Jesus in a way that didn’t hew close to the orthodox line. This conceptualist epistemology that sees the “deposit of faith” as some lumpen mass, to be safeguarded and passed on undigested, animates fundamentalists of all stripes. We’ve seen the horrors that are wrought when the faithful march to war on the flimsiest of pretexts to defend their faith against the heathen.

Today I heard John McCain rallying the troops for the next great surge in the battle against Islamo-Fascism, and the remaining Democratic contenders don’t seem to want to risk appearing any less gung-ho. It does matter when the popular mind cannot unpack what it might mean to believe in Jesus as the unique savior. Millions of people die.

St. Louis has long been home to McDonnell Douglas and its military industry, and now Boeing. We build the fighter jets. We equip the cruise missiles with their “smarts.” We run the big simulator where all the electronic gadgetry of the integrated battlefield of the future can be put through its paces. We staff the Phantom Works project where we design the likes of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the 30,000-pound bombs intended by its maker to seek out Iran’s underground bunkers, dropped from the bays of B2 Stealth Bombers based just across the state. We’ve got it all, including a heavily Catholic population.

And here’s what Burke offered to Saint Louis Catholics last March at Easter time, after four years of silence about Iraq:

“Frequently, I am asked about the Church’s teaching on peace and war, and about our response as Catholics to the war in Iraq. I respond now to those questions, especially in the context of the strong grace of reconciliation, which God the Father gives us through our annual commemoration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of His only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time, I offer words of hope, securely rooted in Christ Who alone is our peace.

“Some of the faithful have asked me: ‘Why have the Holy Father or I not declared the war in Iraq to be unjust?’ Neither the Holy Father nor I have made such a declaration because the Church’s teaching recognizes that it belongs to “those who have responsibility for the common good” to make the prudential judgment regarding the justice of going to war (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2309). Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been tireless in indicating to the leaders of governments the requirements of a just war and the grave consequences of going to war. They have made clear the immorality of certain positions and practices, but they respect the office of those who govern to decide whether war is necessary to protect the common good. You and I may disagree with the prudential judgment of those who govern us, but we must respect the fact that it is a prudential judgment and that those who govern us have the responsibility to make the judgment.”

Moral bankruptcy. It rivals statements from the Catholic hierarchy in Germany during the Third Reich. Meanwhile, I think of the million Iraqis who have died since our invasion and the eight million now living on the edge of extinction-and I find myself in a white rage. Well-educated Catholics in St. Louis often smile as they hear this kind of thing from the bishop, and give you the knowing glance as if to say, “why do you even pay any attention to it?” But, just as with the suppression of serious thought at Aquinas Institute, it has the effect of dumbing everyone down. We will lobotomize ourselves and look the other way. I’d like to tell you that Burke is out in right field, and, of course, that’s true. But the willingness of those who are capable of thinking-those who are educated and trained to think-to shut down the intellectual process in the face of such nonsense is reprehensible.

Burke concluded his Easter missive with this spiritual pablum:

“As we approach the holiest days of the Church year, I am deeply conscious of the war in Iraq and of the suffering and death which it has brought to so many. I know, too, that the war and the most just way in which to bring it to conclusion is on our minds and in our hearts. As we prepare to celebrate the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus for our eternal salvation, let us unite the suffering and death of our Iraqi brothers and sisters and of our armed forces serving in Iraq and their families to those of our Lord, asking Him to grant peace in Iraq.” [emphasis mine]

Reading this pathological formulation, one can only ask whether our Iraqi brothers and sisters can find much solace in having their suffering and death bound to those of our Lord. I do, however, know quite a few Catholics who bristle at any attempt to talk about the war and Boeing in this company town.

Peter Phan holds the Ellacuría Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown. Ignacio Ellacuría was a Spanish Jesuit who spent his entire adult life in El Salvador. He became a naturalized citizen and was instrumental in the creation of the Jesuit university in San Salvador in the 1960s. He has attained a certain iconic status on Jesuit campuses in the United States since his murder in 1989, along with five of his Jesuit confrères and two Salvadoran women. The veneration, however, rarely penetrates the superficial. That Ellacuría was a radical, even revolutionary, thinker committed to the restructuring of Latin American society is rarely mentioned, and even more rarely given any serious study. He committed his life to the belief that a university exists to serve the needs of the marginalized and the oppressed in all of its intellectual and practical endeavors. At the time of his death-a brutal nighttime hit by the Salvadoran military-his writings in liberation philosophy had not been assembled in any systematic compendium, yet his work had already had a profound effect on the thinking of a whole generation of liberation theologians and social activists.

Within the controlled world of hegemonic Western thought, “try to find even a reference to the very important and courageous writings of Fr. Ellacuria and his associates,” commented Noam Chomsky, “or other Central American dissidents who had to flee from slaughter or were simply tortured and killed by U.S.-run forces” and you’ll come up short.

I’m emboldened-and humbled-when reading of Ellacuría and his colleagues at the UCA. They had the courage, both intellectual and physical, to persevere in the middle of a civil war that was claiming the lives of students, friends, and co-workers. In the face of U.S. imperialism and a church hierarchy closely aligned with the same capitalist interests, they stood in solidarity with those who were being eaten alive. We’re many years behind and not nearly as put together, but the emerging face of the new Latin America is pointing the way.

Happily a group of Catholics and others in St. Louis extended an invitation to Peter Phan to speak on Friday evening, February 8, at the St. Louis Community College, and he willingly accepted. I’m hoping that Phan, whose own life and thinking were formed in the crucible of war, will provoke and prod the rest of us to enter into the serious, grown-up work that lies before us. I’m hoping, too, that he brings with him a bit of the courage and intelligence of the man whose chair he occupies.

The choice before us is rather simple. We will either learn to use our minds in what Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan called that “bloody business” of trying to understand the world and one another, or we will find ourselves drowning in a vast sea of that same blood. Either way, there’s a cost in blood.

Andrew Wimmer is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis, a grass-roots organization for social change located in the heart of St. Louis. CTSA has been involved most recently in education and direct action around the issue of torture and victims of war. He welcomes your comments and thoughts at