Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Peculiar Devotion and Hanging Out With Saints

Christos Acheiropoietos--the "Christ 
Not Made by Human Hands"--a Icon
from Novograd (Russia) c. 1100.  The 
Tradition of the Holy Face of Christ is
common in both Eastern and Western 
Christianity and goes far back into the
History of the Church 
My research into the Saint Vincent de Paul Society led me in a direction in which I am surprised to have found myself interested and that is the Cult of the Holy Face.  This refers not to a group of brainwashed people but to a particular devotion; in Catholic terminology “cult” refers to worship or to a particular devotion and this devotion is to the image of the face of the suffering Christ.  The connection with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society is through a man named Leo (or Leon) DuPont.  Leo DuPont (1797-1876) was the son of a wealthy French nobleman who had fled the French Revolution with his family and had come to Martinique.  DuPont was educated in Martinique and the United States before going to Paris to study law.  While in Paris he chose one day to go on an excursion rather than attend Mass for the Holy Day of the Ascension.  The penance given him was to perform some good works.  It was a wise confessor who had him aid the poor rather than simply recite some hail marys and our fathers because he found some satisfaction in aiding the poor and he continued to perform small acts of kindness and generosity towards the less fortunate.  These good works in turn set him on a path of a deepening spirituality as he matured in the balance of prayer and works of charity.  He began to associate with a circle of French working with the poor including Madeline Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (The Madames).
     Finishing his law degree he returned to Martinique and after giving up thought of becoming a priest, married.  The marriage was brief—his wife, Caroline, died after the birth of their daughter, an only child.  DuPont returned to France with his daughter and widowed mother and settled in Tours where he established a successful law practice.  It was here that he joined the Saint Vincent dePaul Society—the link by which I found out about him and his devotion.  DuPont assisted Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, in establishing a residence in Tours to take care of the sick poor.  This guy really liked to hang out with saints.  In addition to Madeline Sophie Barat and Jeanne Jugan, both now canonized, his circle of friends and associates included Jean-Marie Vianney (the Curé of Ars), and Peter Julian Eymard.  Of course all these people were priests and religious so they eventually got canonized whereas DuPont, a layman, still awaits recognition.  O well, it just shows to go ya’ that sometimes the least are still least in the kingdom of heaven; but history isn’t over yet, so perhaps Leo will get his halo someday too.  But back to the story.
     DuPont, all this time practicing law and making money—which he kept giving away to charities—also hung out at the Carmel of Tours where a nun, Sister Marie de Saint Pierre, was reported having visions encouraging devotion to the “Holy Face of Jesus”—the image of the face of Christ suffering on his way to the Cross.  This image is most often connected to an image of Christ left imprinted on the veil with which Saint Veronica allegedly wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary.     DuPont really got into this devotion.  He hung a picture of the face of Christ in his dining room where he prayed for hours each day and where he kept a candle constantly burning.  In addition to his many works on behalf of the poor, DuPont encouraged others to join him in devotion of the Face of the Suffering Christ. 
      Now for the personal side of this story and why I became fascinated by it.  Two reasons.  About twelve years ago the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a nineteenth century French Carmelite nun who is a very popular Catholic saint, were brought to the United States.   Thérèse’s name in religion was Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face and she had a great devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus.  Indeed in her monastery in Normandy, there was a picture of the face of the suffering Christ which she loved very dearly and  before which she would meditate on the sufferings of Christ.  After her death, the nuns gave the picture to Pope Leo XIII who had just recently (1895) approved devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus.  Well, you know the last thing a pope needs is more art, especially some rather mediocre (at best) engraving and so Leo regifted it (my friends criticize me for regifting but hey, look people like Leo XIII did it all the time) to a parish in southern Maryland that was the first (and I believe only) Church in the United States dedicated to the Holy Face.  When the relics of Saint Thérèse were brought to the Carmelite Monastery at Port Tobacco, the parish sent the painting there on loan, reuniting Thérèse (or what is left of her) with her beloved picture.  I have always liked Thérèse because she was devout but not pious and appreciated the sort of irony about things religious that I have always liked.  Of course, that makes her devotion to this particular picture somewhat hard to explain.  But let us move on.xxxI also knew another Carmelite, an Italian Friar, Father Riccardo Palazzi.  He was a very talented graphic artist and somewhat of a bon-vivant (which is why we were friends, both of us appreciating good food and good wine and lots of laughter) until he was struck with Guillain–Barré syndrome.  A misdiagnosis and alcoholic anesthesiologist left him quadriplegic.   Undaunted by tragedy he learned how to operate his computer via a breath-controlled mouse and resumed his work.  His bon-vivant days were over,  however, and he attained a rather remarkable perspicacity for one who in his halcyon years had been somewhat shallow. Shortly before he died he gave a remarkable talk at a conference for people who, like himself, were suffering from great disabilities.  It was a meditation on the suffering of Christ and how in the suffering face of Jesus can be seen the suffering faces of the millions who stumble beneath the weight of the cross in their own lives. It was a profound meditation.  I wish it were translated into English.  And this is what gives devotions, authentic devotions, crediblity. =
     For too many people they have, or claim to have great devotion to the Eucharist or to Our Lady or to some mystery of the faith and they wrap themselves up in a cocoon of piety and sweet dedication.  But authentic devotion always—ALWAYS—brings us to see Christ in the least of his sisters and brothers and to move us to works of charity.  Prayer that ends before the tabernacle or crucifix is no more than a form of idolatry.  Leo DuPont is the example of a Christian who knows that the Love for Christ must resolve itself in the hands on action for the least of his sisters and brothers.  I have to see if I can find a decent icon of the Holy Face and a candle to burn before it.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Apostles of Charity

Saint Vincent de Paul
model of Christian Charity
Yesterday I had some thoughts pertaining to Saint Vincent de Paul because of the homily at mass that triggered me to reflect on Paul VI’s great line that if you want peace work for justice and Mother Teresa’s equally important insight that justice is founded on charity.    But as the day went on my thoughts turned from Saint Vincent de Paul and the work he did in Paris to the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.  I haven’t heard of the Saint Vincent de Paul society for years, but I remember that when I was young it was one of the key societies in our parish and I believe most parishes.  My grandfather, an immigrant from Ireland, was devoted to the Society and every Monday evening was out at Church with the other men who belonged.   I sort of recall that the Holy Name Society—to which my father belonged—was for younger men and the old men of the parish all belonged to the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.  That may explain why one doesn’t hear of them anymore.  A society that becomes an old men’s club (or old women’s club) is doomed to extinction—something to which religious communities today had better pay attention.
      Frédéric Ozanam is generally credited with beginning the society and in the strictest sense of the matter, he should be so credited.  However there was a Daughter of Charity, Sister Rosalie Rendu, who worked among the poor of Paris in the cities slums and it was Sister Rosalie who guided Ozanam and his associates in the project of organizing poor relief in Paris.  At the time (1833)  Frédéric Ozanam was a young man of only twenty years of age studying in Paris!  He would go on to become a noted lawyer and a professor at the Sorbonne and was beatified by John Paul II in 1997.  His family were of Jewish origin and he was actually born in Milan.  Ozanam and his fellow students organized the Conference of Charity to help the poor of Paris.  The Society really understood the mission of Vincent de Paul and continued the work he had begun of motivating the urban bourgeois of looking with compassionate interest on the poor who so often were not only suffering materially but also spiritually as too often the Church was doing far too little for their needs.  The French Church of the nineteenth century was linked inextricably to the moneyed classes—blue-blood and Bourgeoisie and too often indifferent to the needs of the poor.  Clergy and many Religious were not interested in serving the poor.  The Catholic Church in France had become like the State Church of England—the ‘Conservatives at prayer.’  But at least in England one had the Methodists and the Baptists to keep the Gospel giving hope to those at the bottom of the social heap; in France they were left without any real access to faith. 
     Oznam and his associates, at the urging of Sister Rosalie and in the example of Vincent de Paul went into the homes of the poor and discovered what they needed—medical care, food, clothing, schooling for their children—and worked to provide it for them.  They did this on a one-to-one basis—not as some sort of charitable program but as a fraternal relationship with the poor.  And they used the relationships that developed not merely to provide material needs but to catechize the poor and reconcile tens of thousands to the Church.  They stood godfather to infants and sponsor to those being confirmed.  They provided wedding dinners and trousseaus for those wishing to marry.  They pleaded with the Jesuits and the de la Salle Brothers and the Madames of the Sacred Heart to take the children of the poor into their schools and give them an education.  Too often charity means writing a check but these men knew that true charity is always one to one.  True charity is far more than giving, it is a relationship.  In this way they anticipated the theology of Solidarity long before the writings of John Paul II.
    The Society spread from Paris to other French towns and cities and then across the channel to England and Wales in 1844.   Shortly thereafter it came to the United States, a country in which many of the Catholics were immigrant and poor.  But no one is ever more dedicated to helping the poor than those who are themselves poor.  The Saint Vincent de Pal Society  has always been part of the Vincentian Family, like the Daughters of Charity, the Vincentian Priests and Brothers (also known as the Congregation of the Mission, or in Europe, the Lazarists), The Ladies of Charity, and the Sisters of Charity of the Seton heritage.  Non-Catholics may join and many have come into the Church through their cooperation with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.  Today the Saint Vincent de Paul Society comprises almost a million members in over a hundred and thirty countries!  I don’t know why we don’t hear more of them here in the United States—or at least in the part of our nation where I live.  There is as much a need as ever for such an organization today when so many in our nation are without work.  When countless immigrants are being lost to the faith because the institutional Church is not capable of supporting sufficient ministries to Hispanic and Pacific Rim Americans and when many parishes—and parish priests—see liturgies and catechetics for Hispanics, Haitians, Vietnamese, and other immigrant Catholics an inconvenience.  And it is not only the immigrants, or the Catholics, for that matter who need to be on the helped end of a helping relationship.  Our “new translation” or restored communion rails or keeping women out of the sanctuary is not the greatest need of the American Church today—fulfilling the Gospel of Christ to bring Good News to the Poor is, always has been, and will be forever our first priority if we are to truly be the Church of Jesus Christ.       

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thoughts for the Feast of Monsieur Vincent

Ah, the old days when we knew what it was to be
Today is the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul, founder of the Daughters of Charity (the nuns who used to wear those incredible white winged bonnets before Vatican II came along and stole all the fun out of religion) and the Vincentians—known more formally as the Congregation of the Mission and—outside the United States—called the “Lazarists.”  (I always wondered how they got the name “Lazarists” and then I found out that they are called Lazarists because when they were founded in the seventeenth century they had taken over the old Augustinian Priory of Saint Lazarus in Paris.)  In any event, I went to Mass this morning with the Daughters of Charity (minus the winged bonnets and, for the most part, not wearing the Christian Dior designed habit that replaced the old coif and blue-gray gown) and heard the gospel of the Beatitudes which is proper to the feast.  The homilist, referring to the first reading “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those heralding the gospel of peace” (Isaiah 52:7, what a great scripture), reminded us of the saying of Paul VI: If you want peace, work for justice.  He then went on to say, quoting Mother Theresa, that if you want justice, seek charity since justice—God’s Justice (not ours which is retributive justice)—is the product of charity.  He defined justice not as “fairness” (“life is not fair nor is it meant to be” he declared) but as the virtue of seeing that God’s Will is carried out in as that each is given possession of that which God has willed for him or her.  That is an interesting concept, certainly not one that we usually hear in our contemporary world.   Conservatives, or self-proclaimed conservatives at least, speak of justice as pay-back.  The pseudo-“evangelicals” also fall into this retributive theory.  Liberals, on the other hand, keep confusing justice with some sort of egalitarian fairness—the naïve assumption that everybody should enjoy the same mindless middle-class comfort-bubble in which they have been raised.  The first idea (that God’s Justice is retributive Justice) is repugnant to the foundations of Christian orthodoxy while the second is just plain stupid.  If wealth was doled out equally to all within ten years or so we would be right back where we are today.  The trouble with liberalism is that liberals don’t believe in original sin.  Neo-Cons not only believe in original sin, they make it work for them—voila, Reaganomics and its fruit—Enron and associates, the Savings and Loans Debacle, Halliburton-Iraq, and the world economic implosion of 2008.  But I stray.  Back to the homily.  To summarize to this point: Peace is founded on Justice, Justice is built on Charity.  He then went on to say that charity is not handing out goodies to those in need or even appreciating my neighbor for his good qualities or in spite of his bad.  Charity is the love that fills the heart of God and we are called to the love of God which makes God’s love our own so that we can love others with the love that fills the heart of God.  He quoted John of the Cross about transformative union or something—the idea being that prayer brings us to love God in such a way that our union with God empowers us to love others with the same love that God has for them.  Boy, talk about not believing in original sin; can you even conceive of loving with the love that fills the heart of God? It sort of blows one away.   Why don’t we get this stuff in Sunday Sermons instead of the thoughtless crap about “try to be a better person” or why “only men can be priests” or “Catholicism is the only true religion”?  I tell you, it would be a lot easier to believe that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ if we got a little more John of the Cross and a little less “Foxe News Catholicism” on Sunday morning.  In fact, I would be happy with a  little more Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   It all boils down to the old chestnut:  “By this will all know that you are my disciple: that you have love, one for another.”  Hmmm.  Ya think that might be the key?          

Monday, September 26, 2011

Death Penalty II: Troy Davis, Mark MacPhail, And the Need for Vengeance

Massacio's Crucifixion 
Museo Capodimonte, Naples
Sorry for the break in entries!    I was called out of town for a few days—fascinating days that will give me some topics for future entries—but didn’t have a chance to get to this blog while I was gone.  I had wanted to do a follow up on the last entry which was about the Church’s evolving stance on the Death Penalty and to speak to what I find to be particularly heart-wrenching in the case of the judicial murder of Troy Davis who was executed for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer, Mark MacPhail.   Officer MacPhail, off duty but working as a security guard at a Burger King, was shot when he attempted to stop the pistol whipping of a homeless man, Larry Young, by Sylvester “Redd” Coles outside a nearby pool hall.  The day after the shooting Coles went to the police and accused Troy Davis of having shot MacPhail.  Witnesses agreed that the murderer was wearing  a white shirt.  Thirty-four witnesses testified for the prosecution; nine of those witnesses identified Troy Davis as the man who shot and killed Officer MacPhail.  Seven of those nine witnesses later recanted their testimony claiming that the police had coerced them into testifying against Davis. 
     Was Davis guilty of the murder?  I don’t know.  I certainly can’t second guess a situation about which I know only from reading media accounts.  And I don’t think that is even the issue.   Innocent or guilty, the Troy Davis case doesn’t meet the severely restricted criterion that the Catholic Church has set for a legitimate use of the death penalty.  Sadly it actually meets one criterion that the Church specifically condemns as a “justification” for capital punishment, and that is vengeance.  I understand why police are anxious to find a conviction in a murder, particularly the murder of one of their own.  But when that passion to find the perpetrator implodes into a mindless drive that someone must die—anyone, guilty or not guilty—and a prosecution becomes a matter of anger rather than justice, then use of the death penalty loses any moral credibility to which it may pretend.  What filled me with the greatest heartwrenching was seeing the Anderson Cooper interview of Officer MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail.  Mark MacPhail was twenty-seven years old when he was killed.  He had six years with the United States Army behind him.  He was married and had two small children who will never know their father.  I can understand why Anneliese MacPhail has had to cling to her conviction that Troy Davis murdered her son.  She needed answers—any answers—if she is to move on; she has said that she has had no peace since her son’s brutal death.  Will she find it now?  Only she will know.  But how sick a society we are to tell one another that one life can atone for another.  As a historian I cannot but see that this is a marker that we have not advanced beyond those barbaric days of primitive societies that called out for blood feuds and vendetta murder.  In the Law of Moses only death could repay wrongful death.  The Book of Deuteronomy, written about seven centuries before Jesus, declares:  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:21).     But Christians believe that Jesus has changed that ethic and the Church has specifically ruled out vengeance as a moral option for the use of Capital Punishment.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance.”  It continues on to say “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means.  In his 1999 visit to the United States, John Paul II called unequivocally for an end to the Death Penalty in this country.  Unfortunately the pope’s plea is only a matter of historical note and even the Church in this country remains silent on the issue of judicial murder. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Catholics and the Death Penalty--then and now

Well, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia Wednesday evening.  It was a very complex case with seven of nine witnesses recanting the testimony that convicted Mr. Davis of killing a white policeman and several of those witnesses publically stating that they had been bullied by police and prosecutors into testifying falsely.  Did we execute an innocent man?  God—and Mr. Davis—alone know.   Thirty-five people have been put to death so far this year in the United States.  Derrick O’Neal Mason is to be executed in Alabama Thursday evening at 6 pm; the judge who sentenced him sixteen years ago wrote earlier this month that if he, the judge, had tried the case as a more experienced jurist, he would have sentenced him to life without parole, not death.  Unfortunately that was then and this is now.  A third man, a white supremacist from Texas named Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed the same evening as Troy Davis. Brewer had been convicted of killing James Byrd Jr, a disabled African American in 1998. John William King is also sentenced to die for that murder.  King, Mason, and another man are convicted of dragging Mr. Byrd behind a pickup truck for three miles before dumping his body.  There were no demonstrations or appeals from world leaders for Mr. Mason.
      Among those appealing for Mr. Davis’ life was Pope Benedict XVI and this brings up the issue of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty.  For centuries the Catholic Church had no problem with the Death Penalty.   Indeed, traditional Catholic theology justified it as long as it was used as a deterrent and not exercised as an act of vengeance.   Moreover the Church, while claiming to keep its hands clean from blood, turned countless people over to the “Civil Power” for execution for crimes ranging from parricide to heresy to witchcraft.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Papal States, there was a fine line, perhaps an imaginary line, between the “Church” and the “Civil Power.”  When I lived in Rome, a priest friend of mine, a historian, showed me the home of the last executioner for the Papal States before the Kingdom of Italy replaced the Pope as King of Rome in 1870. The man piously arranged for a mass to be said for each of his victims after he had carried out his official duties.
       One of the most horrendous instances of the Church’s use of the death penalty was in the execution of Beatrice Cenci, her step-mother, and her brother (see entry of May 2nd  2011).  Beatrice was the daughter of Francesco Cenci, a Roman aristocrat with a vile temper.  Cenci repeatedly abused his wife and his two sons and raped Beatrice.  Beatrice brought her father’s crimes to the attention of the papal police but noblemen were not normally prosecuted for such crimes as domestic abuse and rape.  Beatrice, her step-mother, and her siblings murdered Francesco at their country home.  When the murder was discovered—despite the best attempts of family and friends who knew the situation to protect Beatrice and her family—Beatrice, her step-mother, and sibilings were sentenced to death.   The Romans, common folk and wealthy alike, went crazy—protesting in the streets against the injustice but Clement VIII would not tolerate an act of violence against a nobleman no matter how serious his crimes.  The younger brother, still a child, had his sentence commuted to serving for life as a galley slave.  (He was released after one year.) The older brother was savagely beaten to death with large hammers and his body dismembered within site of the papal window.  Francesco’s wife, Lucrezia, was then beheaded at the same site.  Finally Beatrice was beheaded, also at the Ponte Sant’Angelo.  There is a legend that each year she returns on the night of her execution (September 11th) and walks the bridge with her head tucked beneath her arm. 
     In the late twentieth century the Catholic position on Capital Punishment began to change.  As nation after nation eliminated capital punishment and as a greater consciousness about human rights emerged in Western society, theologians began calling into question the morality of the state executing criminals.  Slowly papal pronouncements began to question the morality of capital punishment.  It was  only with the papacy of John Paul II, however, that the issue moved from a question to a definitive teaching.  John Paul made a number of statements over the years indicating that there were serious moral issues involved in capital punishment, but it was  only with his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae that the subject came under the ordinary magisterium and even there the door was not closed completely to capital punishment.  Not closed completely—but pretty much shut.  The Pope wrote:
This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offense." Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated. xxxIt is clear that for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: In other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.” xxxIn any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."
     If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Public authority must limit itself to such means….  Hmm   there are circumstances in theory, but in practice?   The pope wrote “Today however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”  Moreover, in a variety of addresses Pope John Paul made it clear that the penal systems of Western Europe and North America were sufficiently developed as to render the death penalty unnecessary and therefore not morally justifiable. 
       That was not the final word on this matter.  Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to the American Bishops in 2004 clarifying certain issues in light of the political significance of Evangelium Vitae in an American presidential election.  Ratzinger distinguished—quite legitimately—between issues which involve an intrinsic evil (abortion, euthanasia) and a contextual evil—a decision or action whose moral character is dependent on the situation or context.  The death penalty is not an intrinsic evil.  Current Cathlolic teaching declares that there are circumstances under which it is permissible to be used.   The same applies to war.  Catholic moral teaching recognizes limited circumstances under which war is moral.  Of course Pope John Paul had clarified that he did not see circumstances under which the death penalty was morally acceptable in the penal systems of developed nations (and he explicitly referred to the United States), systems that could guarantee that a convict would not again be a threat to life.  The pope had also clarified that the Iraq War in which the United States was at the time engaged did not meet the criteria for “just war.”  Nevertheless, since both war and the death penalty are not intrinsic evils, under certain circumstances recourse may be given to them.   Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his letter: 
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Yes, there is a legitimate diversity of opinion as to the morality of a particular war or whether a given situation meets the pope’s criteria for a legitimate use of the death penalty.  One cannot give a blanket approval to war or to the death penalty and say that an individual Catholic is free to agree or disagree with the Church on these matters.  Evangelium Vitae, as an encyclical letter, is part of the ordinary magisterium and Catholics are required to give intellectual and moral assent to the teachings of the ordinary magisterium. 
       What I find most disturbing about the executions this week—even more disturbing that the possible miscarriage of justice in regards to the execution of Mr.Davis—is that there was no outcry against the execution of Mr. Brewer.  “Well,” some people would say, “Mr, Davis was quite possibly, almost certainly, innocent.  Mr Brewer is a racist who murdered a man simply because he was black.”  But for a true pro-lifer the guilt or the innocence of person sentenced to death is not the issue.  Nor does the moral bankruptcy of racism mitigate the moral character of the execution.  The issue is that God alone is Lord of Life and no one, even all of us together in the corporate body we call “The State,”  has the right to usurp that prerogative of God to take (or give) life.  It is not that the person has a “right to life” or that by their guilt they have forfeited a “right to life.”  It is about God’s right.  God alone has the right to give and take life.  Capital Punishment is no more than judicial murder.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Financial Scandals Next to Rock Church???

Will the next set of scandals to rock
the Catholic Church in the United
States be about finances?
An interesting profile appeared in the Washington Post yesterday morning.  Jason Berry, a New Orleans based investigative reporter and author of two books (Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children [Doubleday 1992; University of Illinois, 2000] and Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II [Free Press,  2004], has written a third book, Render Unto Rome: the Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (Crown, 2011).   
      Insiders have been saying for some time that the potential financial scandals in the Catholic Church could be even more devastating to Church credibility than the sexual abuse scandals.  Personally, I find that hard to believe—not because bishops and clergy are innocent of financial improprieties, but only because it is all but impossible to imagine that anything could do more damage to the Church than not only the sexual abuse allegations themselves but the organized and even criminal cover-up of charges orchestrated by Church officials from the Vatican down to the local parishes.   Nevertheless, hold on to your birettas, boys, because once the lid is off the backstairs financial dealings in the Catholic Church we will see the bark of Peter in for bigger waves than it ever knew on the Sea of Galilee.  The gates of hell may not prevail against it, but the Church will be shaken to its foundations.  The sad thing is that unless we get a wise and holy helmsman guiding the bark of Peter, the institutional Church will let scores of millions of followers leave disheartened and disillusioned and go elsewhere rather than make the needed reforms that would require massive shifts in hierarchical power.  Preserving not its moral authority but its power structures has been the first item of agenda of the Institutional Church ever since the moral fervor of the Tridentine Reforms grew cold in the seventeenth century.  Indeed, if the Church in our time is to successfully engage in Reform as it has in some of the periods at which we have been looking in this blog recently, it must make it a priority to differentiate between authority (with which we Catholics believe it has been invested by its Founder) and power (which its Founder told his apostles to eschew). 
     Of course there are those Catholic voices that criticize Berry for turning his investigative skills on the Church to which he belongs and in which he practices.  I must admit that I have not always, or even usually, liked his tone.  But that doesn’t mean that I dismiss him as a “crackpot,” much less a “traitor.” The article in the Post is nor surprise and might be a bit “sensationalistic.” I will be the first to admit that the Washington Post is no friend to Catholicism—nor is that its function.  And  Berry is no boy soprano in the Catholic choir.  The late John Neuhaus labeled Berry a scandalmonger. Many Catholic voices have decried both the Washington Post and Jason Berry.   Former Vatican ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand professor of Law at Harvard and George W. Bush appointee to the President’s Council on Bioethics, attacked Berry for his accusations against Legionnaires of Christ founder, Father Marcial Maciel who had been accused of sexual abuse of seminarians.  William Donahue, head of the Catholic League, has scored Berry for his “yellow journalism.”    Well, Neuhaus, Glendon, and Donahue all backed the wrong horse with Father Maciel; Neuhaus and Glendon out of a gullible institutional loyalty and Donahue out of his consistent thick-headed stupidity and own lack of moral compass.  Like him or not, when Berry and others like him scream “fire” we need to look and see if there is smoke and if there is, we need to put the fire out. 
      And so we had better look and see if the lack of financial transparency in the Catholic Church is problematic (it is, I can assure you) and make the necessary changes without covering up the abuses or defending them as “internal affairs” of the Church that are no one’s business except the local bishop’s.  If bishops act quickly, make changes, put good procedures in place, fire employees (cleric and lay) who have abused the system, this does not have to become a scandal.  I have no objection to sending the Holy See money, even lots of money, if it needs it for its work. I do object to having money sent secretly.  I don’t expect the bishop to live in a hovel or wear rags; I do expect him to have a budgeted salary from which his expenses are paid. And I expect that budget to be commensurate with the salaries of his priests.  I understand that angels don’t come down and pay the bills—it takes money and I am willing to contribute my share but I also expect to be told where that money is going.  And speaking of paying one’s share—that article says that Berry digs deep into his pocket every Sunday and puts three or five dollars into the basket.  I may respect you as a journalist, Jason, but for God’s sake you are a cheap bastard.  The going rate these days is 10%--don’t be a skinflint.  Little old ladies are carrying you, buster—ante up. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Humble and the Proud--Popular and Institutional Views of the Church

The Basilica of Sant' Ambrogio in
Milan, the center of the Umiliati
Peter Waldo wasn’t the only evangelical voice in the twelfth century Church protesting the clerical monopoly on preaching the Gospel and complaining about the Church’s alliance with the rich and powerful in their exploitation of the Christian poor.  The Umiliati were a movement among the working classes centered in northern Italy in the twelfth century.   They don’t seem to have had a founder but to have risen somewhat spontaneously among the dislocated workers who turned to one another for support and help.  The rich merchants and manufacturers had their guilds in which they offered each other collaboration and support but the workers were left each one for himself (or in some cases, herself).     
     The twelfth century was a time that the cities of Europe were expanding with unparalleled rapidity.  After the year 1100, much like the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest United States would see after World War II, the cities of Italy and France—and to a lesser extent, Germany and England—saw in influx of people moving to the cities and towns from the rural areas looking for work.   Farmers left their farms and villages in search of city work that would give them a better life and a brighter future.  But in the villages and on the farms they had traditional networks of family and neighbors who were there for them in times of need.  Should a breadwinner be injured or become sick or die, the social network of families connected by blood and marriage would close in around the victim and offer him and his family the support they would need to carry on.  In the cities, however, there were no such networks.  The families and friends were back in the village or scattered among various towns and cities.  Sickness and death in the city meant poverty and starvation.  And it was in this environment that communities began to spring up “in a Christian spirit” among the new urban working class, communities of people who without the obligations of blood or marriage or ancient friendships voluntarily were there for one another in mutual support.  Inspired by stories of how the early Christians were of one heart and one mind and that there was no one in need among them for they shared all things in common (Acts 4), they banded together in mutual prayer, fraternity, and support.  They met together for prayer and meals, priests among explained the scriptures to them in their own language, and using the scriptures as a reference point, they discussed matters of life that were important to them.   Unmarried members of the movement often lived together in communities that resembled small monasteries or convents.  They tried to shape their lives to their faith.  They resolved not to swear oaths but let their yes be a yes and their no, a no.  (Matthew 5:37)  They turned their poverty from a distress into a sign of unity.  They opted to live as simply as they could, getting the name umiliati or the “humble ones” from their plain undyed clothes.  They often left their employment and started what we might call workers cooperatives and, so many of them being workers in the cloth industry, gained fame for producing an inexpensive (and lower quality) wool affordable by the poor.   
     This was very spiritually enriching for them, but it was threatening to the manufacturers who employed them.  This movement  empowered the working classes, uniting workers in mutual support and making them less easy for their employers to exploit.  The Archbishop of Milan—a Umiliati stronghold—and other bishops as well as the political and social leaders of the city panicked at the growing strength of the Umiliati.   Milan had had a history of the working classes opposing the Archbishop and the upper classes in the Patarene movement and the Umiliati were suspected of undermining the political dominance of the rich merchants.  
     The group was brought to the attention of Pope Alexander III in 1179 and he commended their piety but forbad them to continue their meetings and what he perceived to be lay preaching.  They did not conform to his restrictions and Lucius III excommunicated them along with the Cathars, the Arnoldists, the Waldensians and other groups at a Council at Verona in 1184.  A reconciliation was effected with Pope Innocent III but that is a story to come in a few days.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

Peter Waldo--A Protestant 350 years before Luther

Peter Waldo, statue on the Luther
Memorial in Worms, Germany.  Waldo
lived three centuries before Luther but
anticipated his call for reform.
I am anxious to do an entry on Lateran III but before we go there we should take a look at one of the most interesting people of the twelfth century, Peter Waldo.  We don’t have a lot of reliable information on Peter—even his cognomen “Waldo” or Valdes or de Vaux—is argued as to whether it was a cognomen or a name attributed to him afterwards from his followers known as Waldensians.  (Did they take their name from him or from the valleys—valles in Latin—in which they lived.) 
Peter was born sometime about the year 1140 in Lyon in what is today France.  At the time it was not yet incorporated into that kingdom but an autonomous county of the Holy Roman Empire with the Archbishop as both civil and ecclesiastical ruler. Peter was immensely wealthy—a cloth merchant—some say the wealthiest man in Lyon which, in turn, was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.  He also was very devout.  He paid a priest to translate the gospels from the official Latin text into the French patois of Lyons  so that he could read and study them.  And he had a great devotion to Saint Alexis, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, whose story inspired many to acts of charity. 
     Saint Alexis was a fifth century Roman who left his wealthy family to become a hermit in Syria, living in great poverty while preaching the gospel to the poor.  He eventually returned to Rome in disguise where his parents—without recognizing him—took him into their household as a charity case.  He lived in a closet beneath some stairs—like Harry Potter—where he spent his life in prayer and teaching the faith to poor children.  Only after his death did his family discover his identity.
     One day, while at Mass, Peter heard the gospel text: if you would be perfect: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor—then you will have treasure in heaven—and come, follow me.  (Matthrew 19:21)  Peter came home and gave his wife a choice between his business and his cash.  She wisely chose the business—always choose the goose not the golden egg.  With his capital he endowed his daughters in the reformed convent of Fonterevault in Anjou and gave the remainder of his money to the poor.  Living in voluntary poverty he began preaching the gospel in the streets and markets of Lyons.  This did not delight the Count-Archbishop.  The last thing a wealthy prelate wants is for some layman in voluntary poverty to stand outside his palace talking about Jesus and his love for the poor.  It doesn’t look good when the laity take the gospel more seriously than the bishop.  Hmmm.  We should think about that. 
     In any event, the Archbishop forbad Peter to preach because canon law limited preaching to bishops, priests, and deacons and Peter was “only” a layman.  Lay people can’t preach.  Peter reminded him that Jesus told his disciples: "Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece" (Luke 9:3), arguing that a poor person had a great commission to preach the gospel than a rich priest or bishop.    That did not go over.  So Peter, in good faith, went to see the Pope, Alexander III.  Alexander was suitably impressed by Peter’s devotion but,  being a canon lawyer, agreed with the Archbishop of Lyons that Peter had no authority to preach.  Peter could not accept that.  He continued to preach and followers gathered around him impressed by his evangelical fervor in both his message and his life.  In 1184 Pope Lucius III excommunicated Peter and his followers.  As excommunicates they were harassed and even persecuted by both Church and civil authorities.  They fled from the cities and towns into the mountain valleys of Savoy and Lombardy where the isolation gave them peace and security. 
The Waldensians maintained the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Among Waldo’s followers were a number of priests but, at least as far as we know (and we know very little) there were no bishops.  There is just next to nothing when it comes to records.  It is unclear how sacramental ministry was maintained through this period.  In fact, we know very little about the doctrines of Waldo and his followers other than they maintained Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy.  They were not very sophisticated doctrinally—their emphasis was more on an evangelical fidelity in life than on doctrinal formulas, Catholic or otherwise.  Some sources say that they denied transubstantiation and other Catholic beliefs but it seems that their doctrines were more fringe-catholic than proto-protestant.  In other words, they probably maintained basic Catholic attitudes rather than developed sophisticated Protestant ideas.  However, in the 1520’s and 30’s they were quick to make contact with Calvin, Zwingli, and other Swiss and French reformers.  It is probably at this time, rather than before, that they accepted the ideas that have become the hallmark of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition.
      Over the centuries the movement never grew dramatically but it did survive.  Over the centuries the Waldensians were subject to bitter persecution by Catholic Kings of France and Dukes of Savoy.  In April 1655 Charles Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy, ordered a horrendous massacre of the Waldensians in which countless people of all ages and both sexes were brutally killed.  It inspired Milton to write his sonnet On The Late Massacre in Piedmont. 

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones 
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

The Catholic Church resented the Waldensians deeply.  Many Italian nationalists converted to Waldensianism during the Risorgimento  (the Italian Unification movement of the 19th century).  When Pius IX lost Rome to the new Kingdom of Italy, one of the first acts of the anti-papal administration was to build several Waldensian churches in Rome.  (Under papal governance, no Protestant worship had been allowed in the city.)  One of those churches, albeit a small one, was built within site of the Pope’s window at the far end of the Ponte d’Angelo leading from the Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber.  It is now the English language Methodist Church in Rome, but a plaque on the façade recounts its history and ties to Garibaldi, the notoriously anti-Catholic leader of the Italian armies in the reunification of Italy.  The prejudice was so strong that as late as the 1950’s the normally urbane Pius XII refused to acknowledge the presence of Waldensian congregations in the city.  That began to change with the election of John XXIII and the convocation of Vatican II to which the Waldensians, like other Protestant Churches, were invited to send a representative.  Today there are approximately 50,000 Waldensians, nine tenths of whom live in Italy. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ecclesia Semper Reformans--Back to the theme of Reform

A freso in the Basilica of San Martino in Rome
of Saint John Lateran Basilica as it appeared in
the Middle Ages.  In the eleventh century three
Councils met in this Church. 
I mentioned in my last entry about the need for Church leadership who can “think outside the box” to meet the crises in which the Catholic Church—and I think organized religion in general—finds itself in today’s secularizing and increasingly hostile society.  “Outside the box” thinking is a natural segue into our next Reformation—that of Innocent III, probably the most creative and innovative in the Church’s two millennia. 
     We left off our saga of the Ecclesia semper reformans  semper reformanda (The Church, always reforming, always in need of reform) with Gregory VII.  Gregory died in defeat, an exile from Rome where his nemesis, the Emperor Henry IV, had declared Gregory deposed and had installed  Guibert of Ravenna as (anti)Pope Clement III.  History,  however, doesn’t give the laurels to the winner of a battle but only to the winner of the war and Gregory’s cause of making the papacy independent of (and to some extent superior to) the Empire would prevail.  Had Gregory not succeeded, posthumously of course, the Catholic Church would have been no different than the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople and Russia—a pawn of their respective imperial crowns.   This victory of the papacy over empire has implications far beyond Catholicism.  An imperial Church would never have tolerated a Luther and perhaps even Calvin and Zwingli may not have been able to escape the clutch of the crown.  Who knows?  The What-ifs are great fun to play but since any one variable opens up dozens of alternative doors for history to have gone through, one really cannot trace a new path for humankind should any one factor have been different.  Anyway, let’s move on towards Innocent. It will take us long enough as it is to get there because while there is a natural progression from the Gregorian Reform to the Reforms of Innocent III, there is a good deal of historical development to span.
       One of the effects of the Gregorian Reform was a renewed interest in canon law—actually almost an obsession with canon law.  There was at the time no unified code of canon law (that would come only in 1917 and again in 1983).  A canonist had to know the decrees of a wide spectrum of councils and synods ranging from the great Ecumenical Councils to numerous local synods that spanned a thousand years of European history.  The same canonist would also have to know countless papal decrees, unwritten traditions from Rome and elsewhere, and have familiarity with the Church Father’s whose teachings bore great authority.  As all these sources were often in contradiction with one another, they had to be balanced out and weighted with regard to the relative authority they bore.  Canon law was not unlike the rabbinic arguing over the Talmudic tradition in medieval Judaism and like rabbinic authority among orthodox Judaism, canon law came to have more and more bearing on the daily lives of everyday Catholics in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  
      The twelfth century saw a procession of canon-lawyer popes and ecumenical councils.  Callistus III convoked the First Lateran Council in 1123 to solidify the gains of the Gregorian Reform, particularly in regards to the independence of the Church from Imperial and Royal control in the naming and investing of prelates.  In 1139 Pope Innocent II convoked the Second Lateran Council. Over a thousand churchmen—bishops, abbots, theologians—clerical and lay—attended.  It called on the clergy to dress simply and modestly and it reinforced the requirements of celibacy.  Forty years later in 1179 Pope Alexander III summoned the third Lateran Council which reaffirmed the exclusive right of the College of Cardinals to elect the pope and introduced a wide variety of reforms.  (We will have to do a separate entry just on Lateran III  because its legislation is so extensive and so important).  Lateran III also tried to deal with some current dissent in the Church that was rooted in the widespread financial excesses and moral failures of clergy and religious.  There were devout laity who were genuinely shocked and distressed by the condition of the Church and many bishops lacked the moral credibility for effective leadership.    It was a dangerous situation and we will talk about it in our next posting. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Voices Past and Present

Bishop John Carroll, the first United States
Bishop and a model for bishops who can
think "outside the box" to effectively
evangelize in new and uncertain situations
I am on the road this weekend giving a workshop in the History of the Church in the United States and don’t have access to my library so  let’s do a divergence from our saga of the building of Saint Peter’s.  I had dinner the other evening with a group of seminarians—several Catholic and several Protestant.  Each was asked to introduce himself or herself and say something about their experience in seminary and how they realized their vocation.  One young man, an Episcopalian Seminarian from the (Episcopal) Diocese of South Carolina,  mentioned in his introduction that his bishop had identified him for “church planting and evangelization.”  “Church planting” is the process of establishing a new congregation in an area where there is no existing congregation of the particular denomination that is sponsoring the mission.  We Catholics begin plenty of new parishes—especially in the south and the west of the United States where the Catholic Church is growing;  not so much in the north-east and upper mid-west where the there are often more churches than are needed and we find parishes being closed or  amalgamated with other parishes.  But we Catholics don’t usually engage in “church planting.”  We simply divide the existing parish or parishes and split off a new parish.  Church planting is something different.  It really requires beginning a new parish or congregation “from scratch.” 
     What impressed me in this conversation with this seminarian is not that he is being prepared for this challenging and creative mission.  What impressed me is that his bishop is thinking so creatively about how to make the best use of his present and future clergy.  The bishop is “thinking outside the box,” seeing possibilities that do not yet exist.  There was a time in the history of the American Church when our bishops had that sort of creative leadership.   One of the seminarians present at the dinner, a Catholic, is a recent immigrant from Germany.  He asked a question about the “chapter” providing guidance for the bishop.  The other Americans, at least the Catholics in the group, all looked at him blankly.  “Chapter?” they asked, “what is a chapter?”  He was surprised when I explained that we don’t have chapters in the American Church.  The Chapter is composed of the canons of the cathedral and they have certain rights and duties in the election of the bishop and in advising the bishop in his ministry.  Chapters are—had have been for fifteen hundred years—standard operating procedure in European dioceses.  But when the American hierarchy was established with John Carroll’s appointment in 1790,  Carroll told Rome that chapters were not practicable in the United States.  We could not afford to tie up seven or eight priests to serve a cathedral when we needed every available priest to go out and “ride the circuit,” saying mass, hearing confessions, baptizing, blessing marriages, anointing the sick, preaching, and teaching catechism in the dozens and dozens of rural communities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and along the Canadian border where there were Catholic settlements.  Carroll and his priests found many creative ways of meeting the challenges of a small and minority denomination in a large and then rural society.    
      It would be interesting for today’s  American (Catholic) bishops  to think outside the box how to meet the pastoral challenges of an expanding Catholic population in some parts of the nation while it is shrinking in others.  It would be great to see them come up with some creative solutions to the vocation problem and how we can keep our Catholic communities tied to the Eucharist when we just don’t have enough priests to go around.  It would be wonderful to see them address the complex problems of a Church that is so heavily immigrant and non-English speaking before there are more Latino “evangelicals” than Catholics.  If only they could repair their moral credibility and speak with authority rather than from what has become a very shaky power.  This is the time to think creatively and try new solutions.  When you know the History of the Church, creativity is the Catholic response.  Just ask Augustine of Canterbury or Innocent III or Hildegarde of Bingen, or Bernard of Clairvaux, or Charles Borromeo, or Ignatius Loyola, or Mary Ward or Vincent DePaul, or Madeline Sophie Barat, or Catherine McAuley or Mary MacKillop.  These were creative thinkers.  We have been blessed in more recent times with people like Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, and Dom Helder Camara,  and Gino Baroni, and Joseph Bernardin, and  Monika Hellwig.  Today we have among us Elizabeth Johnson, and Richard Rohr, and Thomas Keating, and Joan Chittester, and Daniel Berrigan, and Tom Gumbleton, and Ronald Rohlheiser.  It isn’t that the Holy Spirit isn’t trying to open our eyes, our hearts, and our imagination to challenges of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.   It is just that the hearts of this people has grown dull.  Let us beg for the grace to listen to the Holy Spirit with the ear of our hearts.