Monday, June 13, 2011

Choosing polemic

This weekend I attended an ordination to the priesthood. Somewhat startlingly, it attracted protesters.

The candidate was someone I've mentioned briefly, a local history professor who has been serving as a transitional deacon at my parish. I like him a lot, and I'd never seen an ordination, so it seemed like a cool enough way to spend a couple of hours.

When Cosimo and I approached the cathedral and saw the cluster of people waving signs, I thought that I knew what it was about. The cathedral is the seat of the diocese, and the bishop presides at an ordination, so I supposed that any event with him in attendance was a magnet for those with some beef against the diocese or the church hierarchy. There'd been a lot of coverage about the closing of area churches and parochial schools, so that was my first guess. A distant second was that it was over some social issue.

I was wrong on both counts. These protesters were evangelical Protestants. And to the extent that they had a coherent objective, it seemed to be announcing that THERE IS NO SALVATION OUTSIDE OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST, and WE MUST ALL BE BORN AGAIN. These seemed terribly strange declarations to be making to a bunch of random Catholics on a random Saturday morning. Were they always outside the cathedral? I wondered. Out of some generalized zeal?

But then we got into the church and saw the news media and the camera crews, and remembered: this is the ordination, to the Catholic priesthood, of a married man who used to be a Protestant minister. It's a bit of a deal.

And okay: such protests are tacky, rude, and pointless. But as a lover of polemic, I also thrill a little at them. It's especially thrilling to find people who are still fighting the Reformation fight (by which I mean, I suppose, people who actually have some sense of what the Reformation was about; nothing tops the fundy protesters I encountered at a Mormon pageant a few years ago, one of them shouting through a bullhorn about faith versus works).

And the fact is, it's hard not to see conversion, and especially the conversion of a clergyman, as anything other than a polemical statement. Those of us not carrying signs can talk a good game about different routes to God, different spiritual journeys, blah blah, but when your faith or your family is losing or gaining someone--especially someone smart and thoughtful and kind--it's hard to keep up that anodyne ecumenicism. It's hard not to see this as a considered judgment for or against your own belief system.

It turns out that not all of Father Deacon's children have converted (they range in age from about seven to about 24), and it's not even clear whether his wife has converted. He teaches at a college with a Protestant identity, and he still has ties to the churches he worked at in his former clerical life. All of his family members participated in the service, and lots of his colleagues and former colleagues were in attendance. And although they were all smiling and congratulatory, some of them also looked a little stunned when they were talking among themselves.

Toleration is a good thing. Ecumenicism is a good thing. But drawing distinctions and caring about distinctions--not just in religion, but also in politics, aesthetics, and so many other areas--means, on some level, making value judgments. Unlike the fundies outside, I'm sure no one inside the cathedral thought that anyone else was going to hell because of his or her religious beliefs. But even to claim that certain doctrines or practices are more useful, more accurate, or more meaningful than others is implicitly to critique the latter and the people who adhere to them.

I don't know how Father Deacon and his family have navigated all the changes in his life and identity, but I know it wasn't by singing "Kumbaya" and pretending that their differences weren't real. Because if polemic is a limited, reductive fantasy, so too is a vague universalism. If forced to choose, I'd choose polemic.


Bardiac said...

Interesting. I think you're making a good point about how important the distinctions are. If they weren't important, he wouldn't have felt a need to convert. But he did. And that conversion is meaningful in all sorts of ways for those who believe.

It's always important to remember that people were willing to die and kill to distinguish between their dogmas within Christian groups. But it's also horrifying, of course.

Flavia said...


Yes, that's the problem--how to insist that distinctions matter without making them the only or the most important thing.

I think I've always been drawn to polemic because it implies both passion for and real knowledge about a subject (or at least, skillful polemic involves real knowledge! you have to know your opponent's arguments intimately to refute them). But it's ultimately an impoverished approach to any subject, and especially to dealing with real people in the real world.

Maybe it comes down to this: written polemic is awesome. Polemic-based protests are awesome-ish (assuming they're peaceful). But actually hanging out with polemicists is a total drag.