ACORN and the Roman Church: A Sermon on Hypocrisy

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the 42nd anniversary of his assassination

This is a tough subject for an Easter morning, even if you aren’t religious. It isn’t that people haven’t done a lot of thinking about our unfortunate double standards, they have. It’s just that — to me at least — almost all of it seems incomplete. I suppose I ought to read more post-modernists, since they seem to be the current experts in the morphology of meanings unmoored from their original foundations.

My difficulty with post-modernism up to now has been its confidence, bordering on arrogance, that it’s found a sure way through the veil. (It doesn’t help, either, that some of the conclusions of individual pomos seem to me to be true but irrelevant — and that’s putting it as kindly as I can.) In any event, when I look at two parallel stories like the sad vilification and destruction of ACORN, and the Church’s even sadder defense of priestly pedophilia, where the noun in each case is portrayed as being so much more important than the verb, I find myself scratching my head. Why isn’t it obvious to many more people that there’s a double standard lurking in the difference between the conclusions drawn about ACORN, and those about the Roman Church hierarchy?

The simplest answer, I suppose, is that a cultural institution often defines its own limits, and its own distinctiveness, by what it chooses to lie about. Unless the concept of a single God is defended, if necessary at the point of a sword, the Church is just one more merchant of abstractions. If His rules aren’t held to be inviolable, no matter how often they’re violated, the Church is just another costume drama. Likewise, if a society doesn’t defend its own cultural institutions, no matter how iffy their original provenance, it ceases to be what it is. (The Church, The South, The Senate.) People are well aware of this, which is why attacks even on corrupt institutions make them extremely nervous, and rightly so. Why should they be expected to welcome the threat of chaos into their beliefs, let alone into their lives?

If there was anything unique about the United States early on, it was the promise that here our government wouldn’t invest in propping up institutions simply because its people were familiar with them, but would instead invest in the stewardship of change, would do its best to create and defend a space in which institutions which developed nasty habits — such as using our children as unpaid prostitutes — could be done away with more or less quietly and replaced with something more suitable.

Needless to say, that project never came to complete fruition, and probably never could have, given human nature, but we did have a pretty good run at it. Even today, many of our simplest souls still consider themselves the masters of their own destiny to an extent which would be inconceivable anywhere else in the world.

ACORN got the axe because it was new, and because it exposed the founding lie of a more established institution — our government. And what lie was that? I hear someone asking. The one about democracy, the one about the truths we hold to be self-evident. That lie. The Church didn’t get the axe because anyone who actually had an axe had been welcomed into the fold long ago.

I suspect that this time, if we’re patient and humble, we may finally get to see the Holy Contradictions implode. The Church has been around a long time, longer than any of us, which may make it as hard as ever for anyone to declaw its predators, but that unhappy fact shouldn’t stop us from trying. Whether the Church has finally worn out its welcome or not, there’s no reason for any of us outside its doors to be polite. On the contrary.

I’d put it this way. If Jesus died for our sins, so did Martin Luther King. On this Easter Sunday, I think that a reverence for the truth should compel us to admit that of the two institutions in question, ACORN in recent days has done a far better job of honoring their sacrifice than the Roman Church has done.

(An earlier, and somewhat more typo-ridden version of this post was first published as a comment on this OpenLeft Diary by Paul Rosenberg.)

6 Comments

  1. cocktailhag says:

    I don’t intend to be polite about it; not one bit. Lawless, secretive elites are something I’ve had quite enough of, although there’s always more where that came from. Any practicing Catholic ought to be quite embarrassed and just as loud. It’s already happening here; because Levada is from Portland, we got some coverage in the Oregonian, and the current Archbishop called for Catholics to cancel the newspaper. The noive of these people….

  2. Karen M says:

    Hey, William! I’m inclined toward the notion of the church imploding. I have a good friend at work who’s a fairly observant Catholic. Her husband is even more devout, having been raised in a very large, Irish-Catholic family.

    They are having doubts and feelings of disgust, lately, though, because of the pedophilia in the “Church.”

    When an institution begins to lose its most observant and devout believers, it is on the way down.

    And I’m completely with you on your compare/contrast of ACORN and RC! …as well as the way you bring MLK into it all.

    • William Timberman says:

      Thanks, Karen. Well, the Church is many things to many people, not all of them bad by any means. It’s also true that its hierarchical organization has allowed it to survive longer than most other human institutions. That, and its flexibility, the lack of which at this late date is, oddly enough, what seems to threaten it the most.

      Back in the time of John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, and Pacem in Terris, the Church seemed on the verge of turning itself into a genuinely forward-looking institution. I don’t know what happened — a failure of nerve perhaps, a circling of the wagons against any threat of the Church becoming something which the old geezers at its head could no longer control.

      It reminds me a little of the reaction of Israeli conservatives to a Jewish diaspora which is showing signs of lessening fervor for the Israeli cause as the Likud understands it. Strike first, issue a false apology later, is their reaction to very nearly everything and everyone these days, just as it seems to be with Benedict.

      Ah, well, neither is really what I was thinking about here. Taking my cue from Paul Rosenberg, who wrote the diary I was responding to originally, I was concerned more with the hypocritical reaction of my fellow Americans, who ought to be able to see an injustice and call it what it is, than with either the Democratic Party or the Church per se.

  3. Daniel De Groot says:

    William,

    Just discovered you have a blog. Apologies for not noticing and stopping by sooner. I see the quality of your commentary does not suffer from having your own place to post it. The insight about cultural institutions is a good one.

    • William Timberman says:

      No apologies necessary, and thank you for the compliment. I’ve been promising myself for years that someday I’d find a place to say all the things I wanted to say that I couldn’t say to anyone I knew. Academics are about the only ones I know who get to do that as part of their ordinary lives. Fiction writers do too, I guess, but only if they can convince a publisher that there’s money in it.

      So along comes the Web, and in due course, blogging software and cheap hosting services. Hooray! And then, of course, I had to actually sit down at the keyboard and make an honest man of myself. Once I did, I found that there was a value in it that I hadn’t suspected. In the course of all that pondering and scribbling, I somewhat belatedly discovered what it was that I actually thought. There were a few surprises, too — good ones and bad ones — but in any event I learned something that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

      Of course, it’s also nice to know that occasionally the result reaches people like yourself, who’ve always been the intended audience. Whatever they make of it, life is good.

  4. Casual Observer says:

    Nice one, WT. You know, I’ll bet the Catholic Church was but a little acorn, once. As was our mighty and diseased nation.