Juan Cole and Ivory Tower Anti-Catholicism


April 9, 2012

Hand-in-hand with the Hollywood portrayals of Catholic priests and devout believers as evil, stupid, cruel, or unhinged is the academic Left’s long-established hostility to the Church. But the academic setting of its critiques doesn’t make them any less false and cartoonish.

The recent controversy over public funding of contraception, as well as Rick Santorum’s presidential candidacy, have given rise recently to a good deal of tendentious and ill-informed comment on the Catholic Church. Ironically, one of the most outstanding examples of this faulty and false commentary appeared in “Informed Comment,” a blog written by Juan Cole, a Leftist history professor at the University of Michigan. Cole clearly intended his piece, which he entitled, “Top Ten Catholic Teachings Santorum Ignores,” to be revealing of Santorum’s supposed hypocrisy; all it actually reveals, however, is Cole’s ignorance, and that of the Leftist academic establishment of which he is a part.

Cole, whose given name is John but who affects the name “Juan” in multiculturalist solidarity with the Hispanics who lived in his native Albuquerque (although his family left there when Cole was two years old), was a member of the Baha’i faith until he left it in a dispute with leadership in 1996; he doesn’t currently list any religion in his official biography, and writes mostly about Islam. His ignorance of basic tenets of Catholicism may thus be excused on a personal level, but when he opines authoritatively about the tenets of the faith, he would have been well advised to learn them first.

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Cole begins by claiming that “the right wing Republican politicians who have been denouncing the requirement that female employees have access to birth control as part of their health benefits as an attack on religious freedom completely ignore the church teachings they don’t agree with. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are both Catholics, and wear their faith on their sleeves, but they are hypocritical in picking and choosing when they wish to listen to the bishops.”

Exhibit A for Cole is this: “So for instance, Pope John Paul II was against anyone going to war against Iraq I think you’ll find that Rick Santorum managed to ignore that Catholic teaching.”

In this Cole commits the basic error of assuming that everything a pope says about any topic binds the consciences of Catholics. In reality, of course, it’s essential to distinguish between prudential advice of a pope and the actual teachings of the Church. Cole could have consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church to discover the tenets of the faith, and he wouldn’t have found a single article of faith pertaining to the war in Iraq.

Cole not only misunderstands papal authority; he then includes as evidence of Santorum’s hypocrisy a number of statements of the U.S. Catholic bishops: “The Conference of Catholic Bishops,” Cole says, “requires that health care be provided to all Americans. I.e., Rick Santorum’s opposition to universal health care is a betrayal of the Catholic faith he is always trumpeting.” Cole adds that “the US Conference of Bishops has urged that the federal minimum wage be increased, for the working poor. Santorum in the Senate repeatedly voted against the minimum wage.” Cole also notes that “the bishops want welfare for all needy families,” and say that “the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions…”. He likewise invokes the U.S. Bishops Conference on immigration policy and notes that the bishops have “denounced, as has the Pope, the Bush idea of ‘preventive war’,” and oppose an attack on Iran, while “Santorum wants to play Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove and ride the rocket down on Isfahan himself.”

Cole assumes that American Catholics are bound by every position that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops takes. He is obviously unfamiliar with the words of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, as recounted by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori: “The future Benedict XVI told me that among the unforeseen and contradictory effects of Vatican-II was the diminution in the importance of bishops, which on the contrary, the Council wished to re-emphasize. In fact, however, the autonomy and the freedom itself of a bishop over his own diocese were caged in and co-opted by the establishment of national bishops’ conferences. These conferences, Ratzinger pointed out, have no theological basis; they are not part of the Church structure as are parishes, dioceses and the papacy. They are simply institutions, of recent origin, which were created for practical reasons but which have gradually created a weighty structure of their own, becoming in effect ‘little Vaticans.’”

The point here is not the merits of the various positions that Cole thinks Santorum should endorse but is not doing so. Nor is it Santorum’s positions in general. The point is that Cole, a respected university professor, is basing the bulk of his case for Santorum’s hypocrisy on institutions of recent origin who have no theological basis and no actual authority. Cole’s abysmal ignorance of the nature of authority in Catholicism is analogous to his ignorance of Islam. In both cases, Cole manifests a surprising misapprehension of what constitutes authoritative teaching and what doesn’t. In the case of Islam, he downplays or outright denies the texts and teachings of Islam that exhort believers to violence and supremacism, and presents as reliable Western Muslim scholars who dissemble about those teachings and their authoritative character.

It is an indication of the highly politicized state of academia in America today that a scholar as sloppy and careless with the facts as Juan Cole could hold a professorship in an American university. It is apparently less important to his superiors at the University of Michigan that Cole’s analyses are accurate than that he hold the acceptable politically correct opinions: a warmly positive stance toward Islam, despite its institutionalized violence and oppression of women and non-Muslims, and a hostility toward Catholicism, even as dimly as Cole understands it.

Even worse, Juan Cole is not singular. He is one of many, very many.


  • Robert Spencer

    Robert Spencer is the author of several critically acclaimed books about Islam, including the New York Times bestsellers The Truth about Muhammad and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). He is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine and the director of Jihad Watch.

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