The Orthodoxies of a Cult

by Terry Scambray

New Oxford Review

Faith, Resistance, and the Future: Daniel Berrigan’s Challenge to Catholic Thought.  Edited by James L. Marsh and Anna J. Brown. Fordham University Press. 416 pages. 

Cults take part of the truth and run with it as far as their surrounding society permits. And because we in the West are relatively secure, we tolerate and perhaps even encourage such excess.

For how else does one explain the confused zealotry propagated in Faith, Resistance, and the Future in praise of the poet, priest, and protester Daniel Berrigan?

Let it be said that I admire Fr. Berrigan as a man of wit, courage, and service. He sticks by his beliefs, has suffered for them, and has been a devoted volunteer helping patients with AIDS. Let he who has displayed more of these virtues cast the first stone at the man.

That said, this collection of essays by academics and activists presents us with the black-and-white world of the utopian true believers who surround Fr. Berrigan. They maintain the predictable enemies list: American consumerist society and American foreign policy; traditional Catholicism, including Thomism and the just-war tradition; the two Bush administrations and their corporate co-conspirators like Hal­­libur­ton and Bechtel; McCarthy­ism; imperialism; bourgeois society, J. Edgar Hoover.

Opposed to these entities are the “good guys,” including Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, Manuel Noriega, Noam Chomsky, philosopher John Rawls, and historian Howard Zinn. Jesus is included in this group, though He seems to gain entry insofar as He is an emissary of Zen Buddhism, Karl Marx, and Carl Jung. Anyway, you get the picture.

Noticeably ignored in this division of demons and angels is the threat of Islam, which has been attacking Christianity and other religions since the seventh century, and by means of such aggression has established a most corrupt and unproductive empire. Yet one of the academics in this collection writes, “The waging of self righteous [sic], (so called ‘just’) wars, often in the name of various religions including certainly the Christian religion, has been one of the most salient phenomena in the history of the human race….” Why would a philosophy professor, of all people, write so obtusely? Aggressive countries have certainly justified their brutality in many ways. But using just-war doctrine as a rationalization for aggression has not been as routine as this writer indicates. Besides, only Christianity has a just-war tradition while “various religions” have never quite got around to developing one.

As one would expect, much of this book is devoted to Vietnam, including the French imperialist involvement there followed by our nation’s war against North Vietnam. However wrong or right such involvement may have been, the writers in this collection ignore the atrocities that “Uncle Ho” perpetrated in the name of “land reform,” as well as the butchering of French missionaries, Vietnamese Catholics, and others by his Marxist cadres. Also unacknowledged by these advocates of peace and justice are the murders and genocides of successfully dreadful Marxist states, including the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.

Yet, we are told, it is the U.S. with its “empire and exploitation” that is the cause of geopolitical disruption. For example, under “the American empire” of President George W. Bush there are “more than 20 million people who die per year due to structurally induced starvation,” and there are billions more who are “forced” to live on less than $2 per day. Structural is a word that appears often in these essays as it applies to the “inequities” that capitalism breeds. The opinions of the influential John Rawls are referenced here, since he has acutely described all the inequitable kinks caused by capitalism and, indeed, all the inequities in life itself.

But, according to one of the zealots in this book, even the perfectionist Rawls is found wanting because he disavowed civil disobedience as a pathway to imposing a “just society.” The über-egalitarian Rawls is written off because he makes a “monumental concession to the presumptive legitimacy of existing institutions in bourgeois, capitalist society.”

Insider cant like this appears throughout the book. Some of it is nearly inscrutable: “I argue, for example, for a legitimate, necessary, contemplative openness to the mystery of the natural, human, mar­ginalized, ontological, and religious other, but also that the contemplative articulation has to be complemented by a critique of the socio-economic system that tends to do in that otherness, exploit it, mar­ginalize it, deny it, kill it.” Such rhetorical camouflage reminds one of what philosopher Romano Guardini, who knew Nazism and communism intimately, wrote: “Too often ‘justice’ is used as a mask for quite different things.”

A species of Catholic social-justice teaching is also discussed in these pages, though it is used as a hammer to bash the imperfections of the U.S. Never is Catholic teaching used as a gauge to measure the success of the U.S. in meeting people’s needs, as opposed to the gross inequities in most countries of the world, where individuals’ lives are stunted by class, economic, and tribal divisions. Thus the word fascist is predictably used to describe America. The writers seem unaware that fascism is actually a kissing cousin to Marxism, both being top-down, totalitarian attempts at leveling out society and creating “the new man.” The concept that Marxism and fascism are opposites was ably exploited by Stalin in order to stigmatize his opponents and justify his “liquidation” of millions of people.

This mistaken positioning of fascism and Marxism as opposites represents the disabling weakness of the essays in this book — these writers are like people who arrive in the middle of a movie and attempt to choose the good guys and bad guys. Then, as leftists are wont to do, they demand that the “inequities” that they see be leveled out, albeit according to their cultish standards. This is what the Catholic left means by being “prophetic”: permitting feelings to overrule reason, history, and experience. But this is the religion of Rousseau cum Oprah, not the religion of Jesus Christ.

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