Neocon Gnosticism

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The warhawks have reached a new level of desperation — and sadly, it is the level of raw sewage.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece by a Mr. Rod Dreher. The byline reads, “Mr. Dreher, a Catholic, is a senior writer for National Review.”

Now, I must confess that I have written for both of these publications. I can only wish Mr. Dreher had benefited from the critical eye of the editors I had, because we would have been spared his spiteful, cheap, and self-congratulatory little diatribe. But as Eric Voegelin once said, “I have to spend 95% of my time addressing other people’s errors. It leaves me so little time to do serious work!”

Mr. Dreher’s brief can be easily summarized: The Pope didn’t solve the problem of homosexual predators in the American Catholic Church, therefore, he has no moral authority to lecture us on war. To wit:

It is appalling to watch President Bush, who has responsibility for safeguarding 280 million of us from terrorists and terror states, being lectured on his duties in that regard by a church that would not even protect children from its own rogue priests and the bishops who enabled them.

How did the Church fail to protect these children? Mr. Dreher: Bad bishops:

One cannot help wondering, though, how much more seriously American Catholics would take church leaders if not for the sex-abuse scandal, which is still very much with us. Just this week, as Washington was preparing for Cardinal Laghi’s visit, Catholics in Los Angeles learned that their archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony, who promised full disclosure from the early days of the scandal, has been laying roadblocks for investigators. Disgraced Dallas bishop Charles Grahmann continues holding on to power, despite fresh revelations of corruption and abuse of power. And in the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., Bishop Joseph Adamec, who reportedly has been concealing abuse accusations against four priests, has now threatened to excommunicate any priest who publicly disagrees with him. It goes on and on.

And why do these bishops still serve, despite their damnable failures and despite the damage they have done to the church’s moral credibility? Because the Holy See allows them to. Accountability is virtually nonexistent. Defenders of Rome have said it is arrogant of Americans to expect a bureaucracy that oversees a billion Catholics world-wide to pay much attention to the mess in the American church. That excuse is no longer valid. We now see that when they want to, the pope and his men can drop everything and focus relentlessly on a single issue they deem gravely important. Plainly, Rome does not see the sex-abuse crisis as a priority…. The scope of the scandal has been known at the church’s highest levels since at least 1985, but you can count on one hand the number of times John Paul has addressed it in public.

Evidently Mr. Dreher wishes the Pope, and his predecessors, had disciplined bad bishops, and perhaps bad priests as well, not only for propounding or permitting sexual sins, but for abandoning the moral teachings of the Church for the past forty years. So do I. But that has very little to do with the assertions that Mr. Dreher insists follow naturally and logically from it — namely, that “the Church” has no moral authority — either to lecture Mr. Bush, or to teach Mr. Dreher and me how to achieve salvation, or anything — all because of the Pope’s failure to fire bad bishops.

Several issues arise here. First, a curiosity. Mr. Dreher is identified as “a Catholic.” Now, when I wrote for National Review and the Wall Street Journal, I was never identified as “a Catholic” (although I am), even though I often wrote about issues of ethics, religion, and politics. I have never seen other writers there identified by their religious affiliation. Strange.

This curiosity is compounded because Mr. Dreher appears to identify himself as a Catholic in order to garner additional authority to condemn the Church as an institution with no moral authority.

Mr. Dreher: “I’m not schizophrenic. Neither am I.”

Nonetheless, I believe the editors considered it necessary to so identify Mr. Dreher, because his argument, what there is of it, does not derive from the Catholic tradition, but from the gnostic tradition — sadly, a common trait these days among some (but by no means all) of American warmongers (see my earlier treatment of William Kristol and Cal Thomas, "Blessed are the Warmakers"). The gnostic departs from the Christian tradition, while continuing to use its language and symbols. He sets himself apart from the sinful nature of man and the existence of evil in the world, and blames that sin and evil on the governing authority (in this case, the Pope). He then offers himself and his sinless, idealistic party as the political (always political) alternative worthy of bringing history into a future that will be free of this hypocrisy. Mr. Dreher’s syllogism requires that the pope be a perfect administrator, able to prune away all evil from his bishops and priests, before he is qualified to teach anyone — let alone our fine president! — about morality. He gives his assertions the gnostic guarantee: “The future will be better, but you must shed your attachment to evil institutions (the Church, the Pope) and limitations on our power (the Constitution, international law, the balance of powers). These artifacts have produced the present evils. We must go boldly and powerfully into the future, and turn the world upside down.”

In Mr. Dreher’s view, the Pope is morally unfit to lecture Mr. Bush on moral matters of worldwide importance, including the fate of millions — billions — of believers. However, Mr. Dreher, “a Catholic,” is supremely fit to lecture the Pope on morals. And he proceeds to do so

To quote my dad’s old friend and colleague, Knute Rockne, “You don’t spit on a man’s head when you’re standing on his shoulders.”

The contradictions of American conservative gnosticism of the twenty-first century do not end there. To illustrate, allow me to adopt entirely and verbatim Mr. Dreher’s logic and language, but to make some substitutions in the lineup.

One cannot help wondering, though, how much more seriously Americans would take Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld if it were not for the military’s sex-abuse scandals, which are still very much with us. Just this week, as Washington was preparing for Cardinal Laghi’s visit, Americans learned that the Air Force Academy, which is directly under the responsibility of the Department of Defense, and which provides the moral and professional training to those who will be charged with the defense of our children (as well as the rest of us), has been concealing dozens of rapes by cadets who are under the direct supervision of the military officers in charge of the academy. Senators demanded a review of earlier investigations, conducted by military superiors who promised full disclosure from the early days of the scandal, which commenced years ago and might have been inspired by the behavior of the disgraced previous commander-in-chief.

Moreover, the Defense Department has belatedly begun investigating long-standing practices of American troops in South Korea, where houses of prostitution frequented by US armed forces personnel are routinely surrounded by armed guards and vehicles provided by the U.S military — reportedly to protect the American servicemen from terrorist attack. The prostitutes, according to experts on sex trafficking, are “primarily blonde, blue-eyed women from Russia and Ukraine who are either slaves or spies.”

It goes on and on.

And why do these officers still serve, despite their damnable failures and despite the damage they have done to the military’s moral credibility? Because the Secretary of Defense and the President allow them to. Accountability is virtually nonexistent. Defenders of Rumsfeld have said it is arrogant of Americans to expect a bureaucracy that oversees millions of employees world-wide to pay much attention to the sexual crimes in the American military. That excuse is no longer valid. We now see that when they want to, the president and his men can drop everything and focus relentlessly on a single issue they deem gravely important. Plainly, Bush does not see the military’s sexual crimes as a priority. The scope of the scandal has been known at the highest levels since at least 1993, but according to the New York Times, both the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff “have now conceded that the system was an utter failure and that new safeguards are needed to ensure that cases are properly investigated and that women can bring their complaints with assurance of confidentiality.”

Mr. Dreher’s contradictions don’t end there. He is still hung up on Church authority. Even though the Church has no moral standing to lecture Mr. Bush, Mr. Dreher asserts that “The Vatican has been resolutely unmoved by arguments based on Catholic just-war doctrine that defend war on Iraq.” Again we find the gnostic fingerprint: first, Mr. Dreher is forced to rely on the Church’s authority to find such arguments compelling, when he has just confirmed the Church’s lack of authority. This is possible because the gnostic recognizes the manipulative power of traditional religious symbols, even as he cynically empties them of their original content and fills them with the elements of his ideological program. Second, the arguments he refers to are actually major alterations of classic Catholic just-war teaching, alterations whose authors consider the situation in Iraq so important that the doctrine’s fundamental prohibition of offensive wars of aggression must be amended because of the new and unprecedented character of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Dreher appears to anticipate that a reader or two might look it up, and expose his deception, so he contradicts himself again to throw us off his trail: “Now, Catholics are not obliged to agree with the pope on this issue. The rightness or wrongness of this or any particular war is a matter of opinion.” Principle or opinion, Mr. Dreher? Consistency comes at too high a price for the warriors, poor dears, so they indulge in Mao’s “principle of dialectical contradiction” instead. Do you like principle? We’ve got principle. Is principle too burdensome? It’s just a matter of opinion. Is the opinion offensive? Slime the pope.

Mr. Dreher does refer to the arguments of a couple of principled grownups, however, and I take these people seriously. Admittedly, I find their conveniently re-tooled “just-war” arguments to be an indulgence in situation ethics at its worst, but let me make a personal comment: the two most prominent proponents of this view are friends of mine. And they are fine men, with whom I disagree on this point. These men, and some other fine Catholics, support the war on Iraq. But they do not feel compelled, as does the “appalled” Mr. Dreher, to personally attack and otherwise slime the Holy Father in order to make their argument. For instance, when Michael Novak returned from his recent trip to the Vatican, unsuccessful in his attempt to see the Pope and to change the mind of His Holiness on the war, he didn’t come back to the US and attack the Pope out of spite.

Mr. Dreher obviously feels a greater sense of desperation. He lurches on, and next perverts history, alleging that “the Vatican’s monumental efforts, both diplomatic and pastoral, to avert war with Iraq have focused the attention of the Holy See and summoned its energies behind a cause like no crisis in living memory.”

Either Mr. Dreher is still young enough to be in school, or else he indulges in convenient and voluntary amnesia, another classic gnostic trait. Most Catholics today acknowledge and welcome the efforts of John Paul II over many decades to bring down Communism. This effort was ultimately successful well within “living memory” because the entire world (excepting the younger Mr. Dreher, it appears) recognized the commanding moral authority of this very unique and historical pope and his leadership of the believing free world.

No matter. For Mr. Dreher’s manipulative gnostic enterprise, the war against Iraq must be seen as an even more monumental than the Cold War, a cause “like no crisis in living memory” precisely because the entire world recognized the danger of communism, and the morality of the common cause against it made by John Paul II and an earlier American President, Ronald Reagan.

Quite in contrast, in today’s monumental crisis, the entire world decidedly does not see things our way. And so, Mr. Dreher and his ideological cohorts have been called into battle, to discredit all the countries, institutions, leaders, powers, and dominions that dare to question this war, while chasing after renowned moral authorities like Angola and Cameroon with billions in promised bribes, more popularly known as foreign aid and trade concessions.

Meanwhile, the American people who dare to think about the war are scratching their heads at the “bait-and-switch” routine of announced goals of the war. It’s like watching a game of three-card Monte in Central Park: “Why, if the public won’t buy the WMD argument on the basis of self-preservation, we’ll give them regime change. If they don’t buy that, we’ll appeal to their ideals and predict a Wilsonian democracy in some far, foggy future for Iraq. If they don’t buy that, we’ll threaten to brand them with dark and subterranean and totally unprovable anti-Semitism. And if they don’t buy that, well, we’ll slime the Pope!”

It is a classic ingredient of the gnostic lust for power, the promise of the peaceful, unfettered future after the conflagration, most familiar in Karl Marx’s prediction of a post-revolutionary socialist paradise, that predicts perfection in the future — always a bit imprecise in detail but a matter of ideological faith — only if the gnostic program comes to power and if the barriers posed to it by traditional moral authority are discredited and destroyed. Like Marx’s attacks on his left-Hegelian competitors, Mr. Dreher’s attack on John Paul II is unusually personal, vituperative, and preening. Like other gnostic apparatchiks, Mr. Dreher’s professes to be morally appalled by a particular immorality, in this case the well-known malfeasance of American bishops. But he is able to employ this minor moralism because it does not get in the way of his major premise, which is war. He will not, I reckon, begin complaining (but the Pope will) when USAID, America’s foreign aid agency, pushes programs in “free Iraq” that expropriate property in the name of “land reform.” Or will he object when AID imposes mandatory artificial birth-control programs and free, government-funded abortion in Iraq, as it has tried to implement in Afghanistan? This will constitute an official element of U.S. policy, of course, and will offend the traditional Moslem population of Iraq the way it has the Moslem population of Afghanistan. But the warhawks won’t mind. You always have to break some eggs to make an omelette.

I would be surprised if any U.S. Catholic — except possibly Mr. Dreher and his ideological cohorts — believes that the Catholic Church actually condones homosexual rape as a matter of policy. Nor does any sane American believe that Secretary Rumsfeld approves of heterosexual rape or prostitution. No, the very real and outrageous incidents that have come to light (and all the rest that haven’t) are the results of the sins of sinful men, some of them in powerful places. As Cardinal Newman put it, “being a great theologian doesn’t make you more holy; it only makes you more guilty when you sin.”

Most Americans understand that. Most Catholics do, too. Mr. Dreher chooses to ignore it, in order to browbeat (one can hardly say “persuade”) Catholics and others who admire and even follow the Pope’s moral teachings. It might also serve to appeal to those dark, powerful, subterranean, and totally unprovable currents of anti-Catholicism among the millennialist ranks of fundamentalists who support Mr. Bush. Either way, it is a sign of the desperation of the warriors, that they strain for moral authority, even if it can be grasped only by sliming the world’s most admired and authentic moral authority.

Even after all this, if Mr. Dreher hasn’t convinced you, no sweat, it’s just a matter of opinion anyway. Logic and reason really don’t apply. Of course, Mr. Dreher gilds his opinions with a patina of reason, and rhetoric, but ultimately it boils down to assertions, passion, anger, and bombast, because rational discussion comes at too high a price — someone might actually persuade too many Americans to question the war. And, as Dick Nixon would say, “that would be wrong.”

And it isn’t that Mr. Dreher doesn’t approve of authority — he’s just against the moral authority of the Holy Father, the Successor of Peter, whom Catholics see as an unerring teacher of faith and morals, a moral leader (as Stalin observed) with no political power. That’s the authority Mr. Dreher resents and rejects. He doesn’t mind at all that Mr. Bush, the most powerful politician in the world, might claim unlimited Divine authority, personally, privately, and directly anointed from God.

Brace yourselves.

Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. He avoids Maryland whenever possible.

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