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Understanding and Debating the Theocratic Views of the U.S. Catholic Bishops

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 18, 2012: The American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) is my favorite thinker. However, his thought is tricky. (His family name is English; for centuries, the family name was spelled "Onge"; it is probably related to the English name "Yonge.")


Because Ong was a priest in the religious order known informally as the Jesuit order (known formally as the Society of Jesus) in the Roman Catholic Church, I would like to use his thought as a framework for reflecting on the theocratic thought of the U.S. Catholic bishops. As is well known, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been outspoken in objecting to legalized abortion in the first trimester and in objecting to same-sex marriage and in objecting to the HHS mandate regarding insurance coverage for artificial contraception. Their positions regarding these civic issues are obviously theocratic in spirit, which concerns certain people such as Rob Kall who do not agree with their theocratic positions.


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On the one hand, because of the American tradition of religious freedom, I think that the U.S. Catholic bishops should be allowed to advance their theocratic views about certain civic issues, as they themselves see fit to do.


On the other hand, I think that people who disagree with their theocratic positions, as I myself do, should debate their theocratic positions in public forums. But before I undertake to discuss debating the theocratic views of the Catholic bishops, I want to draw on Ong's admittedly tricky thought as a conceptual framework for understanding where the Catholic bishops are coming from, as we say. The Catholic bishops stand in a historically conditioned tradition of Catholic thought. Ong has perceptively analyzed the historical cultural conditioning in Western culture, including the historical visual cultural conditioning of Western philosophic thought and, mutatatis mutandi, Catholic theological thought. However, as far as I know, Catholic theologians have not drawn on Ong's admittedly tricky thought to consider the Catholic tradition of philosophic and theological thought.

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But in this connection I should mention that the famous Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1980) did publish a thought-provoking essay titled "The Transition from a Classicist World-View to Historical-Mindedness" in the collection of Lonergan's essays titled A SECOND COLLECTION (Westminster Press, 1974, pages 1-9). However, as perceptive as Lonergan's essay is, it amounts to little more than an outline of possibilities.


In a similar way, what I say in the present essay amounts to little more than an outline of possibilities. But I am not a Catholic theologian, so I am not going to undertake the ambitious task of discussing the Catholic tradition of thought in detail. That task will have to be undertaken by Catholic theologians, if it is to be undertaken at all. (Disclosure: When I was a seminarian in the Jesuit order, I studied Catholic philosophy and theology, including Catholic moral theology. But I am no longer a practicing Catholic.)


Ong's Thought

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From the 1950s onward, drawing on the work of Mircea Eliade, Ong often works with the contrast of cyclic thought versus evolutionary thought. For Ong, evolutionary thought includes linear, as distinct from cyclic, conceptual constructs about time. Linear thought (or as Ong would have it, evolutionary thought) tends to favor historical-mindedness, to use Lonergan's term, as distinct from a more mythic a-temporal and non-historical cyclic conceptual framework. (Lonergan says nothing about cyclic time versus historical mindedness.)


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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