Things Fall Apart in Bishops vs. Nuns

Photograph: Getty/Reuters/Kacper Pempel

A number of America’s Catholic bishops have become all but indistinguishable from the Republican Party as they appear more interested in women’s reproduction than in, say, the plight of the poor and needy or (during the Bush years) preemptive wars and the use of torture. But even though I was aware of this, I was still stunned by the following newspaper account of one bishop:

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki uses the manufactured controversy about mentioning “God” in the Democratic Platform to argue that the Democrats are hostile to faith, and went on to attack Democrats for endorsing gay rights and opposing the criminalization of abortion. He said those two planks demonstrate that the Democrats “explicitly endorse intrinsic evils,” while noting that he has “read the Republican Party Platform and there is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin.”

Paprocki concludes with a warning that while he is “not telling you which party or which candidates to vote for or against,” backing the Democratic Party may put your eternal salvation at risk: “a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”

What I find disturbing is that, even though this bishop is probably an outlier, he may be an indication of how a number of bishops have been pulled in by America’s rightwing media bubble (“epistemic closure, as David Frum calls it). That would explain why he’s not the only one seeing Democrats as “hostile to faith.”

Fortunately, there are liberal Catholics who are pushing back, such as the nuns who went on a national bus tour protesting the Draconian cuts to social programs being proposed explicitly by Paul Ryan and implicitly by Mitt Romney. Furthermore, it appears that, in spite of GOP-friendly bishops, Catholic voters apparently are moving towards Obama rather than away from him (54-39 in the latest Pew poll, which also announces a tie among white Catholics).

If there is a war in this country (although I have a problem with the war analogy as it ratchets up the rhetoric), it would be more accurate to describe it as occurring between conservative Christians on the one hand and liberal Christians allied with various non-religious groups on the other. Unfortunately in this tussle, the fundamentalists often suck up most of the oxygen in the room.

Nigerian Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe, in his masterpiece Things Fall Apart, provides enduring images that help us understand the dynamics of the conflict between the liberal and the conservative church. Set in the early days of colonialism, the book describes two missionaries, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Brown, who is liberal, seeks to understand other cultures, even while believing that he brings the one true religion to the Ibo people (he is, after all, a missionary). He is open to parallels between Christianity and animism, and he also strives to check those zealots among his new converts who want to lash out against their old religion:

Mr. Brown preached against . . . excess of zeal. Everything was possible, he told his energetic flock, but everything was not expedient. And so Mr. Brown came to be respected even by the clan, because he trod softly on its faith.

In his tireless service on behalf of his church, however—service that includes setting up schools to combat illiteracy—Brown’s health breaks down. He is replaced by Smith, “a very different kind of man”:

[Mr. Smith] condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal.

Mr. Smith was greatly distressed by the ignorance which many of his flock showed even in such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments. It only showed that they were seeds sown on a rocky soil. Mr. Brown had thought of nothing but numbers. He should have known that the kingdom of God did not depend on large crowds. Our Lord Himself stressed the importance of fewness. Narrow is the way and few the number. To fill the Lord’s holy temple with an idolatrous crowd clamoring for sings was a folly of everlasting consequence. Our Lord used the whip only once in His life—to drive the crowd away from His church.

Smith whips up the zealots that Brown attempts to calm down, so much so that one of them, Enoch, commits a major act of sacrilege. Achebe’s description of him could describe a number of our own religious extremists:

Enoch was short and slight of build, and always seemed in great haste. His feet were short and broad, and when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions. Such was the excessive energy bottled up in Enoch’s small body that it was always erupting in quarrels and fights. On Sundays he always imagined that the sermon was preached for the benefit of his enemies. And if he happened to sit near one of them he would occasionally turn to give him a meaningful look, as if to say, “I told you so.” It was Enoch who touched off the great conflict between church and clan in Umofia which had been gathering since Mr. Brown left.

When extremists are writing the script, society as a whole suffers, which is one of the lessons the book has for us. The situation doesn’t map exactly on to our own since it pits fervent Christians against fervent traditionalists, two groups that are allied (sometimes in the same individual) in the United States. But in addition to showing us how extremists of all kinds will poison the well, it shows us how a healthy society should respond to them.

When Christian zealots unmask a dancer during one of the Ibos’ most sacred rituals, the tribe rises up and burns down the church. The colonial government retaliates by imprisoning the leaders, which leads the book’s protagonist (Okonkwo) to kill one of their messengers. When Okonkwo realizes that his clan will not further support him, he commits suicide, an ignoble way to die.

One thing to note about Okonkwo is that he is not an entirely positive character. In fact, in certain ways he mirrors the Christian zealots who are attacking his traditions. He welcomes confrontation as much as they do:

For the first time in many years Okonkwo had a feeling that was akin to happiness. The times which had altered so unaccountably during his exile seemed to be coming round again. The clan which had turned false on him appeared to be making amends.

Okonkwo is so obsessed with proving that he is the opposite of his irresponsible and effeminate father that he ignores his female side. His chi, or energy, is off, which leads to a series of mishaps, one of which culminating in a seven-month exile. The tribe’s deep traditions insure a male-female balance, which Okonko keeps violating.

It is because the tribe has balance that it is able to find accommodation with Mr. Brown. They realize that tolerant Christianity brings in certain advantages, especially education. Christianity and animism have the potential to co-exist peacefully. The tragedy of the book is that imbalanced people win out.

There’s a lesson for us. If we remain balanced ourselves, and if we stand up to ideological extremists of all stripes, we will preserve the fragile compromises upon which our society is based.

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