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Holy Moly!

David Wojnarowicz

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Try telling some 14 year old gay kid in oklahoma he's part of a privileged class now that we've won hospital visitation rights and decriminalized consensual gay sex between adults, etc.

Nice sleight-of-hand there in shifting topics. Winning basic legal rights (i.e., what I was not talking about) and winning exemption from symbolic criticism (i.e., what I was talking about) are two very different things. The success of the gay-rights movement has been gradual at best in the former arena and spectacular in the latter. In the present American cultural zeitgeist, polemics against Catholics are commonplace, and occur throughout all social strata; a respected academic, for example, can issue a screed against the church without a moment's thought of losing his tenure. Whereas polemics against gays, if engaged in, will get the author roundly condemned as an idiot or worse.

Edited by mrmando

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In the present American cultural zeitgeist, polemics against Catholics are commonplace, and occur throughout all social strata; a respected academic, for example, can issue a screed against the church without a moment's thought of losing his tenure. Whereas polemics against gays, if engaged in, will get the author roundly condemned as an idiot or worse.

Again, go visit a middle school in oklahoma and test your theory. Or is the reality of lived experience not part of the "cultural zeitgeist"?

authoritarianism

This is the key word.

Edited by Holy Moly!

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Again, go visit a middle school in oklahoma and test your theory. Or is the reality of lived experience not part of the "cultural zeitgeist"?

Resistance to the zeitgeist still exists, to be sure. But are middle schools in Oklahoma really the opinion leaders when it comes to determining the content and direction of the zeitgeist?

Maybe I could find a middle school in Oklahoma where it was acceptable to hang an exhibit of anti-gay art, if I were disposed to do such a thing (which I'm not). But it would never be acceptable in the Smithsonian. Why then should it be acceptable to hang anti-Catholic art in the Smithsonian?

Or, maybe what I'm mistaking for zeitgeist is the left-coast, blue-state, rarefied air in Seattle?

Edited by mrmando

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Or, maybe what I'm mistaking for zeitgeist is the left-coast, blue-state, rarefied air in Seattle?

Indeed.

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Ah, but cultural shifts in this country tend to start on the coasts and work their way toward the middle.

Edited by mrmando

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It is pretty much this hermeneutical question about symbols that tilted me back to Protestantism. I am completely unconvinced that any symbol is due anything. Symbols were made for man, not man for symbols.

I'm not Catholic either, but I can understand that symbols are valuable. A symbol represents an idea. Therefore, the use of a symbol conveys particular ideas. Some ideas are worth opposing.

I was not responding to SDG's insistence that religious symbols are meaningful, simply to the particular aura of authority he ascribes to specific symbols that was indicated by the use of words like due. To me, that word connotes an authoritarianism that does not permit the corrupted use of specific symbols in public discourse, which is a notion I would want to push back against.

I don't think the same authority that governs the ritual use of a symbol in its religious/mythical context obtains in alternative public contexts. Or at least, the authority plays a different role.

Wow, I hadn't even noticed that that earlier comment was you, MLeary. Not that my earlier response would have been different if I had.

Or maybe it would. I actually started to write a reply in which I noted that "due" was a sort of shorthand, but I scrapped it as not relevant to the issue of civility and public discourse. If we are going to discuss religious meaning, I might have to revisit that thought.

At any rate, let me note, again, I am speaking here of a quest for civility, of reasonable accommodations, within limits, of other people's sensibilities, and in particular of the special heritages of of peoples and groups. "Authoritarianism" and "does not permit" are foreign to this universe of discourse.

Can you immerse a crucifix in piss in order to photograph it and disseminate the image to the public? Is it legally protected free speech, beyond the scope of civil or ecclesiastic powers to suppress? Yes. Does that legal right mean that it is appropriate, reasonable and civil to do so; that in doing so you have not given egregious and undue offense to an entire religion; that other men may not reasonably chastise you for using your legal freedom as license for boorish disrespect to others -- and, to the extent that your work or the display thereof may be beholden to public opinion, seek to discredit and marginalize your work? No. It does not.

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I don't think the same authority that governs the ritual use of a symbol in its religious/mythical context obtains in alternative public contexts. Or at least, the authority plays a different role.

Well, I guess we'll have to ask Steven. To borrow again from the hip-hop thread, if we want to understand a symbol we should look first to the culture that created it. So it's logical that the Catholic Church should be first in line to help us understand the meaning of a crucifix. In that capacity, the Church can be authoritative without being authoritarian.

In determining the meaning of the video as a whole, the artist should be the primary authority ... but if an artist chooses to use pre-existing symbols, I don't think he or she gets to entirely discard the original meaning of those symbols. The Church still has something to say about a crucifix's meaning, even if the Church is now second in line when it comes to interpreting the work in which the crucifix appears.

The more symbols you use in a work, the more possible meanings it can have. Anyone who looks at "Fire in My Belly" and seeks to establish a single interpretation of it, to the exclusion of all other possible interpretations, is guilty of authoritarianism. (Kevin has referred us to three different commentators, all with differing opinions of the work, and which one of them he agrees with seems to depend on the point he's trying to make.)

I guess we need to ask Steven what he's trying to do here: 1) contribute a Catholic point of view to the discussion, so people can at least understand why he takes offense; or 2) tilt at the windmill of public understanding by attempting to shout down all other possible interpretations.

(EDIT: Note that Steven and I were typing at the same time.)

Edited by mrmando

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Well, obviously, I want to shout down all other possible interpretations and bully everyone into submission.

No, really, what I'm trying to do is to articulate, or at least contribute to the articulation of, a theory of public civil space or civil discourse, a pluralistic universe of many symbolic worlds as it were, that is accessible to all, and depends on common sense, respect and good will rather than authoritative arbitration or enforcement.

Everyone is on his own recognizance. Everyone is responsible for himself. The thing everyone is responsible for himself to do is to negotiate the intersubjective realities of the pluralistic world in which we live, to adjudicate the public value of symbols that can potentially have a variety of meanings in different contexts but which often have widely recognizable senses and which in some cases have special or unique ties to specific symbolic worlds. It takes no divine or magical theory of symbols to recognize that if someone chooses, say, to give the n-word a special meaning of his own, and then makes and displays posters with the image of the President bearing the legend "Obama is a n----", he is committing an obscene incivility for which he and his work may, quite rightly, incur severe social censure.

Contrary to Holy Moly's suggestion, I'm not proposing a theory of church history as normative for everyone. My point was not that the historical outcome of the iconoclast controversy "decides" anything one way or the other in the sphere of civil discourse (i.e., for anyone other than the Catholic and Orthodox faithful). I'm simply saying that, at this remove from the controversy, it should be publicly accessible to anyone, without appealing to authority, that sacred images in general and the crucifix in particular have in fact come to occupy a central symbolic role for the Catholic world, and that to the extent that some Protestants today reject such symbols, that rejection represents one feature of their self-distinction from the symbolic world of Catholicism rather than a question or ambiguity regarding the symbolic function of the crucifix within the world of Catholicism.

Without prejudice to the ecclesiastical and theological issues dividing Christians, or to the unique claims of the Catholic Church in particular, we may say that Christ Himself belongs both to all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. In a similar way, we may say that Muhammad himself belongs to all Muslims, Sunni, Shia and so forth. Sunni Muslims today generally reject images of Muhammad; many Shiite Muslims do not. In a not entirely dissimilar way, Catholics embrace sacred images, including crucifixes; some Protestants do not.

Within those wings of the religions that accept them, such images exercise a valid symbolic function. Those wings that reject the images cannot reasonably claim, on grounds of civility, that the images profane their own conception of their religion's founder, because it should be readily acknowledged on all sides, in the sphere of civil discourse, that the founder is not uniquely or specially a symbol of their own particular iconoclast brand of the religion over against the non-iconoclast brand.

I say "it should be readily acknowledged on all sides." I am not setting up myself as the arbiter of anything. I am appealing to people of reason and good will to seek a common understanding. It is a common sense judgment, but one that should be easy to propose and grant without incurring charges of "bullying" or "selective populism." I am well aware that some will be unwilling to make such judgments in good will and will meet all appeals for common sense with charges of bullying and so forth. When and where this happens, the ideal of "civility" becomes a symbol without a shared meaning, and we are left with nothing but a naked political struggle for power -- which, of course, is how a lot of theorists see it, and like it. Is it unreasonable to hope and ask for more from reasonable people?

Ignoring the nay-sayers for the moment, we can go on to appeal to artists like Wojnarowicz -- and to museums like the Smithsonian, and to the public officials who represent us and who oversee the museums' funding -- to recognize, in the sphere of common sense and good will, the readily apparent sense in which the crucifix functions as a universally recognizable symbol of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I'm not saying that gives it magical rights or places it in a symbolic lock box. I'm saying that reasonable people negotiating the intersubjective realities of our pluralistic world ought to recognize the strong, clear, (practically speaking, for all intents and purposes, in this day and age) inseparable connection between the crucifix and the symbolic world of Catholic Christianity; that in civility toward Catholics their sensibilities regarding this symbol should be a key consideration in how they use this symbol; and that, if they decline to do so and wantonly affront Catholic sensibilities by profaning the symbol, it is reasonable for Catholics to react to this affront with offense, and to avail themselves of such social means of redress as may be available to them.

(Whew. That's more jargon than I ever want to write in one go again.)

Edited by SDG

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Boiled down, let's just say that there is a significant difference between a person who [a] dunks, shall we say, an image of Mohammed into a jar of piss for others to see, and a person who dunks an image of Mohammed into a jar of piss for others to see AND declares doing so "art." Person A is disrespectful to a symbol held sacred by a large number of people in the community. Person B is all that and also particularly arrogant. But then A and B can also be distinguished from [c] a person who dunks an image of Mohammed into a jar of piss for others to see AND declares doing so "art" AND displays his arrogant and boorish behavior in a public forum that is funded by the tax dollars of the very community of which a large number of people hold that particular symbol so dear.

The actions of A are perfectly legal and perfectly morally objectionable, if only because bad manners are wrong. The actions of B are the same as A but also arrogant and nonsensical. The actions of C are, well, finally the last straw. I see no reason why any reasonable person wouldn't rightly request his elected representative to do something about ensuring that the government uses his tax dollars for other purposes perhaps equally incompetently, but not quite so absurd.

Yes, we are talking about images, symbols and icons here. So what? Reasonable men can object to images, symbols and icons that stand for what is evil (like Nazi swastikas). Reasonable men can also object to what would be considered desecration of images, symbols and icons that stand for what is good (and yes, "considered desecration" by those to whom the symbol belongs).

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Do you really want to go there? You've got a working definition of "art" that excludes Wojnarowicz and Serrano, but includes an entirely content-free painting of some Coke cans? If you have got such a definition, I'd love to hear it.

I am willing to say after looking at page after page of his collected works that Serrano is a competent photographer but a bad artist. It had not occurred to me to claim that he is a non-artist.

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Do you really want to go there? You've got a working definition of "art" that excludes Wojnarowicz and Serrano, but includes an entirely content-free painting of some Coke cans? If you have got such a definition, I'd love to hear it.

I am willing to say after looking at page after page of his collected works that Serrano is a competent photographer but a bad artist. It had not occurred to me to claim that he is a non-artist.

No, I never said Wojnarowicz or Serrano weren't artists. But even the greatest artists in the world can still make things that are not art.

art: (1) the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. (Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, 2001, Random House, Inc.)

While I'm sure this broad definition could still be used to argue that a lot of garbage is actually art, it does still have its limits. And throwing a crucifix in an ant hill or a jar of piss does not make the definition (regardless of whether it's you or me, Wojnarowicz or Serrano, or Michelangelo who does it).

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Kind of disappointing to see a dictionary definition rather than a personal one here, but let's roll with it. I'd opine that the vast majority of Serrano's work says nothing at all, other than "Gee, doesn't my ejaculate look interesting when it's smeared on a glass slide?" I would have a hard time maintaining that Piss Christ is "beautiful" or "appealing," but it's one of the few Serrano works that does say something "of more than ordinary significance," even if what it says is abhorrent.

In a similar vein, the Wojnarowicz piece might be bad art, but I wouldn't participate in a passionate discussion about what it means if I thought it was non-art. The audio track pushes it in the direction of propaganda, but that was ill-advisedly added by the editor, not by the artist.

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In this case true, as the Hide/Seek exhibition was paid for by private donors.

... and whose exhibition was in the Smithsonian National Portrait gallery, currently paid for by American tax dollars.

I was not responding to SDG's insistence that religious symbols are meaningful, simply to the particular aura of authority he ascribes to specific symbols that was indicated by the use of words like due. To me, that word connotes an authoritarianism that does not permit the corrupted use of specific symbols in public discourse, which is a notion I would want to push back against.

Is the American flag due respect? Are the elderly due esteem and courtesy? Is there anything at all in the world that is due reverence and honor? If so, I don't see how all of these things don't still apply to a public forum. Isn't saying that, in public discourse, certain civilized treatment is due, or that certain respect ought not to be discarded (towards particular persons, symbols or ideas) simply making a defensible moral claim? I like your distrust of anything that smacks of authoritarianism, but that doesn't mean there still can be rules in public discourse.

I say "it should be readily acknowledged on all sides." I am not setting up myself as the arbiter of anything. I am appealing to people of reason and good will to seek a common understanding. It is a common sense judgment, but one that should be easy to propose and grant without incurring charges of "bullying" or "selective populism." I am well aware that some will be unwilling to make such judgments in good will and will meet all appeals for common sense with charges of bullying and so forth. When and where this happens, the ideal of "civility" becomes a symbol without a shared meaning, and we are left with nothing but a naked political struggle for power -- which, of course, is how a lot of theorists see it, and like it. Is it unreasonable to hope and ask for more from reasonable people?

That paragraph, (and whole post actually), looks like it was a struggle to put together. You sound like you're straining for something, SDG. (Actually, that post is probably eloquent enough to read out loud at a town hall meeting.) I agree with you, but would point out that the one place that appeals to "common sense" or "common decency" will fall on dismissive ears is circles that look down their noses on the "common" in the first place.

The reason so many Americans are distrustful of things like the National Endowment for the Arts is because for years they've had this air of elitism. Conistently funding projects demonstrably considered by the majority of regular people to be against "common decency" is evidence of being tone deaf to the outside world. Make an appeal to "common sense" in a blue collar, working class bar or pub, and everyone there will immediately understand you. Make an appeal to "common decency" for civility to the elite art circles that are now all currently displaying Wojnarowicz's video as a middle finger (essentially against the majority of Americans), and they will probably just laugh.

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Make an appeal to "common sense" in a blue collar, working class bar or pub, and everyone there will immediately understand you. Make an appeal to "common decency" for civility to the elite art circles that are now all currently displaying Wojnarowicz's video as a middle finger (essentially against the majority of Americans), and they will probably just laugh.

But he's making it here at A&F, where the elite and the blue-collar are free to commingle. That's probably why it's so difficult to find the right words.

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I would have a hard time maintaining that Piss Christ is "beautiful" or "appealing," but it's one of the few Serrano works that does say something "of more than ordinary significance," even if what it says is abhorrent.

Let's just say that it doesn't fall under the "according to aesthetic principles" part of the definition. That is the part of the definition that excludes the "anyone can do it" stuff, because learning "aesthetic principles" takes considerable time, skill and study.

In a similar vein, the Wojnarowicz piece might be bad art, but I wouldn't participate in a passionate discussion about what it means if I thought it was non-art. The audio track pushes it in the direction of propaganda, but that was ill-advisedly added by the editor, not by the artist.

Right, I won't fight against calling the entire video "art." But again, that's the next step - distinguishing between good and bad art. Bad art is on the level of most of what I saw created, by both myself and my classmates, at the art class I attended in college. Again, this is because none of us had taken very much time and study yet in order to aquire much skill at painting, sculpture, or filmmaking.

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Make an appeal to "common sense" in a blue collar, working class bar or pub, and everyone there will immediately understand you. Make an appeal to "common decency" for civility to the elite art circles that are now all currently displaying Wojnarowicz's video as a middle finger (essentially against the majority of Americans), and they will probably just laugh.

But he's making it here at A&F, where the elite and the blue-collar are free to commingle. That's probably why it's so difficult to find the right words.

An lot of my work as a writer, from my early essay on Last Temptation to my recent blog post series on the "Ground Zero mosque," could be interpreted as an attempt to translate or moderate between populist piety and elitist critiques thereof. I don't usually get as jargony as this, though. (Actually, though, the paragraph cited came pretty easily. A couple of bits higher up were harder to work through.)

Edited by SDG

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Let's just say that it doesn't fall under the "according to aesthetic principles" part of the definition.

Well, you can say it, but I say the precise reason that it's such an arresting and controversial image is that unlike most of his works, it does observe aesthetic principles.

Edited by mrmando

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The reason so many Americans are distrustful of things like the National Endowment for the Arts is because for years they've had this air of elitism. Conistently funding projects demonstrably considered by the majority of regular people to be against "common decency" is evidence of being tone deaf to the outside world.

I really need to bow out of this thread for a week or so while i focus my energies on work, but I have to say that critiques leveled against the NEA on the basis of "elitism" are usually made by people without much detailed working knowledge of how the NEA works, what projects they fund, who is involved in crafting their funding guidelines, who is involved in making granting decisions, and hear about the NEA mostly through accounts of a handful of historic controversies. Most people don't know, for example, that Lee Greenwood, country crooner, author of "God Bless The USA" is on the national council for the arts, which oversees the NEA. (That said, as someone who works in arts administration, there are ways in which charges of elitism within the arts sector as a whole are not without truth, but this is mostly about what genres and forms they choose to support, not about the content of individual works.)

I also feel like it's necessary to point out that the NEA was not involved in this recent controversy in any manner, and is only relevant for discussion in the context of it being another stage where debates about arts funding are happening.

Make an appeal to "common sense" in a blue collar, working class bar or pub, and everyone there will immediately understand you. Make an appeal to "common decency" for civility to the elite art circles that are now all currently displaying Wojnarowicz's video as a middle finger (essentially against the majority of Americans), and they will probably just laugh.

This is puzzling to me because I thought earlier you said that "good art" should be defined by private consumers and collectors, never governments. Since only wealthy people are generally able to have the kind of cash necessary to be a fine art collector, privatization of art museums and facilities that currently receive public funding would push the standards of what is considered good art MORE in the direction of the aristocracy.

When you say that "blue collar working class" folks understand what you call "common sense" and "elite art circles" don't, I think you're again helpfully illustrating this Umberto Eco concept of "selective populism." The reaction you're describing is basically the emotional reaction of a subset of the population, which you're representing as the point of view of Authentic Americans. (I think you'd find different answers to your question if you went and asked about civility at like, Lindas, the blue collar working class lesbian bar where I sometimes have a beer. The proximity of one's experience with oppression may have an impact on how one defines civility, tolerance, etc).

Look, it's fine to disagree about this. Artists disagree about it. Catholics disagree about it. Shouldn't it be possible to do that without the broad stereotypes? It's significant that the "elite art circles" you claim are showing the video now as a "middle finger" include, for example, the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, which is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition.

Edited by Holy Moly!

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It's significant that the "elite art circles" you claim are showing the video now as a "middle finger" include, for example, the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, which is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition.

Uh. And your point is?

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It's significant that the "elite art circles" you claim are showing the video now as a "middle finger" include, for example, the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, which is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition.

Uh. And your point is?

There is real diversity of thought about this issue among faithful catholics, and claims that the Bill Donahue view is representative of American Catholics, or that anyone with a knowledge of the sacred symbol and its history would take it as an affront against catholicism are just false.

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It's significant that the "elite art circles" you claim are showing the video now as a "middle finger" include, for example, the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University, which is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition.

Uh. And your point is?

There is real diversity of thought about this issue among faithful catholics

And your witness regarding this "real diversity of thought among faithful catholics" is Seattle U?

A school where a Planned Parenthood legal director teaches law? Where the sociology department chair is a lesbian who specializes in "queer culture"? Where two professors of philosophy have published A Brief, Liberal Defense of Abortion? Where events such as Transgender Awareness Week are observed courtesy of the Office of Multicultural Affairs -- and the Trans & Allies Club? Where the administration has openly defied the U.S. bishops by inviting former Governor Gary Locke, "a consistent support of legal abortion and same-sex unions," as commencement speaker -- and giving him an honorary degree?

Evidently you know very little about either universities "in the Jesuit tradition," or what it means to be a faithful Catholic, or both.

Edited by SDG

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Evidently you know very little about either universities "in the Jesuit tradition," or what it means to be a faithful Catholic, or both.

Or else, I just disagree with you and agree more with say, Stephen Colbert, or my catholic boyfriend about what it means to be a faithful Catholic.

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Evidently you know very little about either universities "in the Jesuit tradition," or what it means to be a faithful Catholic, or both.

Or else, I just disagree with you and agree more with say, Stephen Colbert, or my catholic boyfriend about what it means to be a faithful Catholic.

Nope. That's not one of the possibilities. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is not in dispute, nor is it up to you, me, Stephen Colbert or anyone else to decide for themselves what it means. We aren't in the realm of personal recognizance here; here we are in the realm of "authoritarian" answers. Within the Catholic Church, the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God in sacred scripture and sacred tradition has been entrusted solely to the living Magisterium, commissioned by Jesus Christ through the apostolic succession of bishops. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is set forth in the teachings of the Church.

Edited by SDG

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Nope. That's not one of the possibilities. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is not in dispute, nor is it up to you, me, Stephen Colbert or anyone else to decide for themselves what it means. We aren't in the realm of personal recognizance here; here we are in the realm of "authoritarian" answers. Within the Catholic Church, the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God in sacred scripture and sacred tradition has been entrusted solely to the living Magisterium, commissioned by Jesus Christ through the apostolic succession of bishops. What it means to be a faithful Catholic is set forth in the teachings of the Church.

Right, I know you believe that. Stephen Colbert doesn't and neither does my Catholic boyfriend. They're still catholic by self-identification and by every sociological measure. They have a different view of authority than you. And a lot of catholics are like this. It is, as Colbert notes, the hallmark of American Catholicism. This is perhaps an inconvenient truth for you, but it IS the truth.

And speaking in terms of civil society, I don't know why their views on what is offensive to Catholicism or isnt are worth less than yours.

Edited by Holy Moly!

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And speaking in terms of civil society, I don't know why their views on what is offensive to Catholicism or isnt are worth less than yours.

Any individual Catholic's view on what is personally offensive to him or her is worth as much in the public sphere as the view of any other individual Catholic on the same topic.

But if an individual Catholic doesn't accept the authority of the Church, then expecting him or her to speak on behalf of the Church makes about as much sense as asking an anarchist to draw up a congressional redistricting plan.

Edited by mrmando

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