Thursday, May 01, 2008

Donatism is one of the oldest, most tempting of heresies. It posits that the spiritual value of a sacrament is in direct relation to the spiritual worthiness of the dispenser; in shortest form, a corrupt priest cannot give an effective sacrament. There is something intuitive -- which is not to say correct -- about this heresy, which of course makes it all the more dangerous. It is a heresy, its intuitive attraction notwithstanding, because it suggests that there are limitations on God's desire or ability to share the incredible spiritual gift that is a sacrament, and the one performing the sacrament is capable of effectively interposing some taint on God's gift by virtue of being the channel through which the sacrament is provided. Over fifteen hundred years later, we still owe St. Augustine thanks on our knees for sending that heresy screaming into the night, even if it does come back even more often than Gnosticism.

Put Donatism to the side for a moment. It'll be back. (It always is.)

Properly, but for a self-imposed and -enforced ban on commenting at RedState, this post would be a reply to this comment at RedState. The subject to which the commenter was responding was Barry Obama (just this once, I'll refrain from calling him Kitten) and his poll-tested decision to renounce, sorta, more or less, his pastor of twenty years, for that pastor's unfortunately unoriginal take on liberation theology. (More on that here.) As von isn't here to defend himself, I'll at least do him the courtesy of quoting his text in full:

I can't and won't ask anyone else to subscribe to this view.

Having backed McCain for years, and advocated for him in these virtual pages, I intend to vote for Senator McCain. Why accept Cleon or Nicias when Pericles is available?* Yet, I have always found Obama's comments on race & Wright (the two are inseparable) sincere. He has repeatedly arose above an impossible situation. You can quibble with Obama's speech in Philadelphia, but the fact that one can only raise honest quibbles with such a serious subject is testimony enough to Obama's insights.

I respect that my view may not be widely held on this site. That's fine: I never was a particularly good Republican. Still, I want this written down -- even if, in this decadent age, writing consists of electrons pausing between states:

Barack Obama is a good man. He doesn't deserve this.


*Hi, Pretentiousness? Thy namesake is in my tagline (special expanded version; all that is good about western civilization is in the Funeral Oration):

If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the better for it? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; thus our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection.
No, Barack Obama is not a good man, and he does deserve this -- this being public scrutiny and ridicule for the ills with which he has associated himself. But that's two different things, albeit ones related at some level, so let's unpack them.

Now, in point of fact, I would offer that Senator Obama is a bad man. He is a bad man because on perhaps the simplest, basic test for common humanity -- the willingness to stop others from slaughtering mewling infants -- he fails. He proudly fails. On an issue that does not remotely touch on whether a woman's right to maintain control over her body is more important than her child's right to continue living -- that is, on the simple question of what happens to an infant who escapes the birth canal alive after a failed abortion -- it is Barack Obama's position that the law should turn its eyes away as the mother is delivered of her right to a dead child. Good men do not partake in that kind of barbarity. Good men do not treat a sobbing infant's right to life as conditional, or as a matter of mere politics. Good men -- indeed, men of even mediocre decency -- stand and say The least among us deserves his next breath as much as the greatest, and when given the chance to affirm it in law, do so unhesitatingly.

Senator Obama may or may not believe that the statement is true, but he explicitly refused to enshrine it in law. For that, he is a bad man.

But put that to the side.

Good men do not stand quietly by while scandal is performed before their eyes. Ordinary men of common decency might remain silent in the face of a leader -- a political leader, a spiritual leader, what have you -- portraying evil as good, and setting moral ills forth as morally neutral or morally good acts; you would expect that of an ordinary human, because to do otherwise is to risk shame, and excommunication, and a host of ills that rational, selfish men have no desire to inflict as pain on themselves. The lesson of every demagogue's rise, every tyrant's grasp of power, every flock led astray by an unhinged priest, is that the overwhelming majority of men who might otherwise object, who might cry out This is not right in fact remain silent, and even acquiesce, because there are terrible consequences for a social animal to reject the way of the herd.

I presume -- an abundance of evidence to the contrary -- that Senator Obama does not believe that America is damned for its collective sins, and does not believe that the American government and its (white) population continue to perform acts of extraordinary depravity (and, in the creation of the AIDS virus, magic) on its black population. I do not despise Barack Obama for being a social animal, or for being a man who is -- let us be honest here about the best possible interpretation -- too weak to reject the views of those whom he loves and befriends, from his wife to his preacher to his friends to his political allies, because in that way, he is very ordinary. Expecting heroism -- or, if you prefer, goodness -- out of men is a losing proposition on almost every level possible, and it is perversely easier to expect when the only danger is to a man's life and well-being, as opposed to his social standing. Funny world.

But good men do not sit idly by while malice and evil are taught as moral goods. Taking Senator Obama on the most generous, most reasonable possible interpretation -- that he sat, for two decades, in the pews of the church he has frequently lauded as his spiritual home, with his two young daughters -- then he has not, in fact, been a good man. He has been a small man, a mediocre man, an ordinary man. Good men do not sit idly by while evil prospers.

About twelve years ago, I was attending Mass at the church near my family's house, while I was home from college on summer vacation. The Pastor was expounding on the Gospel, trying manfully to tie it together with the First and Second Readings in a way he hadn't before, when out of nowhere, he began discussing abortion. We weren't talking about the little children, or millstones, or the rock on which I build, or anything even remotely related (if memory serves, Christ had fed the masses with bread and fish); instead, out of nowhere, this otherwise pleasant Dominican launches into what he clearly believes is a reasoned discussion on the licitness of abortion. No big deal, except he then goes on to offer that there's nothing in Catholic teaching that forbids procuring or inducing an abortion, and that there's a lot of misinformation out there. From there, it's off into a discussion about how we don't really know that an embryo (he used the words zygote, fetus, and embryo interchangeably; I've simply settled on the middle stage for this recitation) is human, so performing or procuring an abortion exists in that moral gray area in which the Church teaches that the informed conscience leads.

So I got up and walked out. I was four rows from the front, a couple of spaces in, and I left. I didn't say anything, though I drew looks. I didn't think I was doing anything heroic, because I wasn't; I simply refused, publicly, to be part of scandal. I never went back. I don't think anyone else got up.

I'm not a good man; in fact, I think I'm a pretty despicable, low, contemptible man. My act was almost certainly made easier by the fact that I had only an intermittent relationship with that Parish, and so had no real ties to break when I left. But I couldn't simply sit there and give tacit assent to a very, very bad thing.

Barry Obama never got up and left -- or more accurately, he claims he's now more or less, sort of, gotten up and left, but when it mattered, when he could have quietly refused to be part of something demonstrably wrong, he remained silent, and simply sat there. That doesn't make him a bad man; it makes him an ordinary man.

Before I go any farther, let's talk about Donatism. I'm Catholic: It is the teaching of my Church that one priest is as capable of ministering the sacraments as the next, because of the office and Order invested in them by God. (An Orthodox priest in one of the Churches in the line of Apostolic Succession is similarly empowered.) Thus, while I might prefer one parish over another, because of convenience, the presence of a cry-room, the style of the liturgy, the blessed absence of banjos, what have you, there is no greater and no lesser value to any Catholic Church I might attend.

I say all of that because I don't understand the concept of a personal, spiritual relationship with one's pastor. It literally makes no sense to me. I understand the idea of a priest as spiritual companion and to a very limited (but usually overstated) extent, intermediary; I understand the idea of a priest's words, or teaching, or example, being so important that it brings one to, or closer to, the Risen Christ. But I don't understand the idea of having one's spiritual identity so tied up in a priest's teaching that divorcing yourself from the priest is tantamount to, if not synonymous with, divorcing oneself from one's spiritual identity. Yet this was Obama's defense, until it was no longer politically expedient: I could no sooner repudiate this man than I could repudiate my left leg.

And that is Donatism. It is an explicit union between a mortal and the delivery of God's grace. And it is another sign that, at best, Barack Obama is not a good man, but an ordinary, weak one. The Change That We Have Been Hoping For is incapable of effecting the very least change imaginable to protect his daughters from venom; the only evil that can be repudiated is that of Republicans.

So don't tell me that Barack Obama is a good man. Good men are rare, incredible treasures.

And even good men deserve the consequences of their actions.

Or has not the good Senator tied himself to his pastor, in his published works, in his public image, in his speeches until the last? Has he not gone out of his way to associate with the man, and made his faith a cornerstone of his public person?

And has he not run for the Presidency of the United States, a contact sport where bean bag is not even in the exercise routine? Does he not sleep in cheap motels, eat indifferent and greasy food, sneak quiet cigarette breaks where possible, shake thousands of hands, and ritually avoid hard questions from reporters, all in the pursuit of the most powerful office in the world?

Barack Obama has pledged his health, some portion of his wealth, and years of his life grasping for near-ultimate power. He deserves scrutiny, because he wants that power badly enough to do serious damage to his life and the lives of those close to him. That last is extraordinary only relative to the general population; almost every other human to run for the Presidency does so. However, that simply means that they're all borderline insane, and they deserve the probing their psyches receive, for fear of what else lurks under that incredible ambition.

So the attempt to decouple a man's actions from their consequences -- a coupling vital to our laws, our ideas of right and wrong, the very fabric of our society -- is not merely wrong, it is insulting to the men who would trace effect to those consequences, and the good man who set them in motion.

So don't tell me that a man who has bent the last two years in a run for the Presidency of the United States, who would allow newborn children to die in trash cans, who sat silent for two decades as incredible venom was hurled at the pews in which he sat, does not deserve the consequences of his actions.

Tell me instead whether anyone can experience the consequences of their acts, if this man cannot.