The Last Rhetorical Refuge of an Intellectual Scoundrel

The Last Rhetorical Refuge of an Intellectual Scoundrel

A writer in the National un-Catholic Reporter outrageously compares the Church’s refusal to ordain women with a Muslim mob’s murder of a young woman.

[Phyllis Zagano is the “recovering neo-Catholic” equivalent of the “recovering Conservative” Garry Wills, who first got his fame by writing for National Review in the 1950s and 1960s; she got hers by writing for Crisis Magazine in the 1980s]

June 2016

Pulitzer Prize-winner Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once called anti-Catholicism “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” True, most Catholics today are basically indistinguishable from other Americans in their habits and beliefs, but if you think that this renowned Harvard historian was speaking about some bygone era in American history, then you haven’t been keeping abreast of current events.

It means you haven’t tuned in to ABC on Tuesday nights, where you can watch The Real O’Neals, a new primetime sitcom about an Irish Catholic family that harbors dark secrets: the police-officer father (no, no stereotypes here) is contemplating divorce; the oldest son has an eating disorder; the youngest daughter is a grafter and losing her faith; and the middle child is gay and just waiting for the right time to come out of the closet. The show’s executive producer is Dan Savage, a syndicated sex columnist and a “married” homosexual provocateur, whom Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has called a “foul-mouthed, raging anti-Catholic bigot.” An anti-Catholic bigot executive producing a show about Catholics? Yes, and it hardly seems surprising.

Still not convinced that anti-Catholicism is alive and well in America? Just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are fighting the federal government’s attempt to restrict their right to live according to the demands of the Catholic faith. They’ve taken their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which has heard arguments in their lawsuit against the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that all employers must provide insurance coverage for “contraceptive services.” Although the HHS mandate exempts churches automatically under the “religious employers” category, the Little Sisters did not receive an automatic exemption. A U.S. presidential administration forcing its favored brand of immorality on a small band of religious sisters? Yes, and we expect this to be the first of many such battles to come.

Anti-Catholicism remains part of the fabric of American life, and it’s woven into some of our most powerful cultural institutions: the studios of Hollywood and the offices of Washington, D.C. But this is as it should be. If the Church isn’t facing some form of discrimination and disdain, then she’s not fulfilling her role as a sign of contradiction to the world.

But what are we to make of anti-Catholicism within the Church? That exists too, and while any form of anti-Catholicism is inherently troubling, Catholic anti-Catholicism might be the most troubling kind. Where can you expect to encounter it? At the National Catholic Reporter, of course.

In its December 30, 2015, issue, Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University, tells us about the violent death of Farkhunda Malikzada. This 27-year-old female Afghani theology student was beaten with poles and planks of wood, stomped underfoot, run over with a car, and finally set on fire by a mob of Muslim men in Kabul who accused her of burning a Qur’an at a local shrine. According to The New York Times, an investigation into the events revealed that Farkhunda had in fact “confronted men who were themselves dishonoring the shrine by trafficking in amulets and, more clandestinely, Viagra and condoms” (Dec. 26, 2015). As often happens in criminal cases in male-dominated Muslim cultures, where women are seen as, at best, second-class citizens, the perpetrators of Farkhunda’s brutal killing got off easy. “The fortuneteller who several investigators believe set the events in motion was found not guilty on appeal,” reports the Times. “The shrine’s custodian, who concocted the false charge of Qur’an burning and incited the mob, had his death sentence commuted. Police officers who failed to send help and others who stood by received slaps on the wrist, at most. Some attackers…avoided capture altogether. Afghan lawyers and human rights advocates agree that most of the accused did not receive fair trials. Farkhunda’s family, fearing reprisals and worried that the killers would not be held accountable, fled the country.”

Any rational Westerner would agree that this was a reprehensible crime, a human-rights violation, and a gross miscarriage of justice — problems that plague societies where Sharia law is in force. But according to Phyllis Zagano, what the frenzied Muslim mob did to Farkhunda “is metaphor for what the Church does to women.”

Come again?

If there’s one surefire way to tell that a person has run out of legitimate arguments to support a cause, it’s when he resorts to comparing his opponents to Nazis. It’s the last rhetorical refuge of an intellectual scoundrel. Nazis, of course, are quite passé. The contemporary trope is to compare one’s rivals with the Nazis’ modern-day equivalents, fanatical Muslims — remember all those insults about the “American Taliban” hurled at religious conservatives in the 2000s? The fallacy of false equivalence that says that all religions are equally inherently violent is frequently employed by atheists and other secularists. Even President Obama got in on the act early last year when he said that Christians need to get off their “high horse” about Islamic violence in our time because “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” during the Crusades — centuries upon centuries ago! The ignorance of outsiders is excusable to a certain extent, but what excuse do Catholics have for parroting these risible polemics?

Zagano is exercised over an old controversy: the ordination of women. And she’s obviously exhausted all legitimate defenses of her cause. She condenses the long and complex history of the Church’s reasoning in favor of the all-male priesthood into a short, simplistic, linear progression. She claims that the notion that “a woman cannot image Christ” began as a mere “opinion” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1975. Pope St. John Paul II then glommed onto the idea and inserted it into his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), raising the CDF’s “opinion” to the level of an “iconic argument.” From there, she says, it “crept (without attribution) into the 2002 International Theological Commission’s study document on the diaconate.” Even today, “a few writers” are still banging the drum.

Zagano offers nary an explanation of, or justification for, her outrageous, laughable comparison of the Church’s refusal to ordain women with a Muslim mob’s murder of a young woman. She merely concludes, “That is how it is for Afghan women, derided, despised, abused and sometimes killed for speaking truth to even the most insignificant of power — a fortune teller with a shady business. How similar is the place of women in Catholicism. To say a woman can image Christ is to risk derision by angry defenders of some imaginary ‘faith’ and genteel avoidance by pampered princes of the Church. Or worse.”

In Zagano’s alternate universe, the princes of the Church are no different from fortune tellers. Both run shady operations that peddle “imaginary” faiths. And, oh, how these big bad male bullies deride, abuse, and even kill little women who dare to object!

The Reporter describes Zagano as “an internationally acclaimed Catholic scholar and lecturer on contemporary spirituality and women’s issues in the church.” Yet her column makes us wonder why she would allow herself to be called a Catholic. Why would she want to admit to membership in a religious body that she would have us believe treats women like herself so poorly?

We can’t help but think that there’s more than a little self-aggrandizement going on here. Zagano appears to want to hoist upon herself the mantle of bravery and courage; she seems to want to envision herself as another Farkhunda Malikzada — a martyr for women’s rights in the religious realm — as if by “speaking truth to power” about a woman imaging Christ, she has knowingly put herself at risk of a similarly bloody death. How else to interpret her coda that women risk derision by angry defenders “or worse” for doing what she herself is doing?

Fortunately, for Zagano’s sake — though she might not see it this way — she’s in no real danger of being beaten with poles and planks of wood (that’s almost Freudian in its symbolism), stomped by angry male boots, run over by an enraged male driver, and finally set on fire (à la Joan of Arc) for writing a column in favor of women’s ordination. That’s just de rigueur fare at the National Catholic Reporter — it’s what’s expected. She needn’t peek out from behind the curtains of her bedroom window for a procession of torches and pitchforks bee-lining for her front door. It’s tempting martyr-fantasy for sure, but, sorry sister, it ain’t gonna happen. Just ask yourself: When was the last time you saw a mob of frenzied Catholic men ganging up on a single, solitary female for offending their religious customs or their sense of sexist superiority? When was the last time you saw a mob of frenzied Catholic men running amok in any fashion? During the Crusades? Heck, when was the last time you saw a mob of peaceful Catholic men gathered anywhere but outside of a pro-life event or at a parish picnic? It just doesn’t happen.

We all have dreams of grandeur, but few of us have the chutzpah to put our fantasies on display in a public forum and try to pass them off as acts of brave heroism. Zagano hasn’t shed any new light onto the state of the Church; she’s merely exposed the limits of her cause’s intellectual integrity and the excesses of her own ego. More than that, she’s dishonored the memory of a woman who suffered actual, physical death at the hands of violent religious zealots, and she’s dishonored Farkhunda’s legacy by attempting to marshal her into a bankrupt cause.

If only the entertainment hucksters in Hollywood and the policy wonks in Washington knew that anti-Catholic Catholics like Zagano are doing their dirty work for them from inside the citadel, they could shelve their respective campaigns against the Church.

“Anti-Catholicism is as American as Thanksgiving, apple pie à la mode, and chocolate malts with two butter cookies. It has been part of American culture from the very beginning and…it persists even today.” — Andrew Greeley

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