Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Faith Your Don't Find In Catechisms

Saint John of the Cross
I had planned on going back to the subject of Peter Waldo, Cathars, etc so that we could bridge into the Innocentian Reformation—the Reform of the Church under Pope Innocent III which I think was the most successful Reformation of the Church to date, but then I found myself in a fascinating conversation that has made me stop and think anew about some contemporary issues especially as there is a link between this new topic on which I hope to reflect and the success of Innocent’s attempts to restore vitality to the Church in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. 
       This conversation came up at dinner on Tuesday when a Brazilian friend of mine was talking about his doctoral thesis in Spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.  He is writing on a reexamination of the spiritual doctrine of Saint Francis de Sales from the perspective of the personalist philosophy of John Paul II.  His point is that “conversion” must involve not merely an intellectual assent to doctrine but a person-to-person encounter with Jesus Christ.  We had a fascinating conversation as I know relatively little about either Francis de Sales or the philosophy of the late and now Blessed Pope.  I know them both as historical figures, but not as intellectuals, but I was struck by the similarity with the ideas being attributed to them by my friend to the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross with which I am somewhat famiiar.  I guess I should not have been so surprised, at least in regards to John Paul, as I believe he wrote his doctoral dissertation on John of the Cross and Faith.  In regard to the subject of Faith, John of the Cross makes a clear distinguishing between knowing about God and knowing God. 
       I am struck by how many people know a lot about God without necessarily “knowing” him, or more to the point, without knowing Jesus Christ because no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him.   Faith to them is a matter of an assent of the intellect to theological propositions defined by the Church.  As I am writing this, I think in particular of a woman I had known some years ago when I was frequently in Leesburg Virginia.  This lady  was the local doyen of orthodoxy.  She rigorously critiqued every sermon, taped various priests and religious education speakers who had come to her parish to report them for suspicious ideas, and for years had controlled the religious education program in the local parish.  She had her small group of disciples and she used them to make sure the parish didn’t stray from what she perceived to be sound doctrine.  But alas, new brooms sweep clean and a new pastor displaced her stranglehold on things.  I have no doubt that she was (and perhaps, if yet alive, still is) a sincere person.  The problem was that for her faith equaled orthodoxy, or what she took for orthodoxy.  She could tell you all about what the Church (for her that meant the magisterium) taught about the faith, at least from Trent up to 1960, but I can’t say that I think she was a woman of faith.  She was a person of doctrine—but that is not a woman of faith.  Prayers were something one said.  “Spirituality” was comprised of no more than devotions—we had an argument about that once when she told me that “meditation is dangerous and you shouldn’t be practicing it, much less teaching it.”  Her fundamental moral compass was off in as that she had no scruples of taping a speaker without his (or her) permission, quoting them out of context in letters to the bishop, or even bearing false witness when she thought a religious education director, a speaker brought into the parish, a music minister or liturgical director was going off in what she thought to be a wrong direction.  Faith was orthodoxy; orthodoxy was faith.  There was no evidence of anything more than rigid doctrine and a rigid relationship to a rigid deity in her life.   She fit that description of Henri Bremond regarding Jansenism that I cited two or three days ago:  “Before penetrating into the depth of the mind Jansenism ruins the peace, condition of all true religion.  Before making converts it makes partisans, sectarians, whom it fatally severs from the mystical currents of their time.”  
       Unfortunately this woman is by no means unique.  The fault of classic Protestantism—at least the American variety—has been gross subjectivism: the triumph of emotion  over intellect.  But Catholicism, again at least the American variety, is no better off in its opposite of being strait-jacketed into doctrine.  All the doctrine in the world does not lead one to change of heart that is at the center of Jesus’ call in the Gospels.  That is why I was delighted to hear this Brazilian priest talk about Benedict XVI’s emphasis on evangelization as this personal encounter with Christ that is so transformative of the human person.  It is certainly not to be that raw subjectivism that I just attributed to the American Protestant tradition.  (I will do a few entries some day on John Wesley and how his own crisis of faith brought about this bizarre doctrine-less “faith” that marks American religion.)
       Now as to how this ties into our upcoming entry on the Innocentian Reformation.  The reign of Innocent III was marked by figures such as Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman and others who, working within the perimeters of Catholic doctrine and just on the frontiers of institutional Catholicism  brought their contemporaries to this personal encounter with Christ that revived a religion that had been fading from the lives of everyday people and made Christian faith an exercise in actually shaping one’s life to the demands of the Gospel.  That is what we need today for renewal and that is what we rarely have.   At the end of the day the issue of faith is: do I take the Gospel for my rule of life.  Do I try to live not the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Documents of Vatican II, but the Gospel.  All due respect to those ICEL and Vox Clara people but it looks like their latest work isn’t succeeding in bringing faith to life any more than had the Latin Mass or the previous translation of the liturgy,  but if we are to be people of faith we had better find something that will.    

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Turning Religion On Its Head

Don't ever go to Rome without
seeing Caravaggio's "Inspiration
of Saint Matthew in the Church
of San Luigi Francese.
I had a fascinating conversation on the airplane last evening with a man who teeters between agnosticism and atheism.  He identified himself as an atheist but when he actually outlined his beliefs he is more at the rationalist perimeter of agnosticism than pure atheism in as that he admits, indeed somewhat warmly embraces, the notion of a spiritual dimension to reality by which he posits the existence and immortality, after a fashion, of what a Christian would call the “soul,” though he himself refrains from that word.  He actually more closely resembles the rationalist Deism of the American Founding Fathers such as Jefferson or Franklin in as that he denies the existence of a personal—or as he said personalist—deity but does subscribe to some sort of what one might call an “Eternal Order” of being.  I have met atheists before and found them, without exception to be fools.  I don’t think atheism itself is foolish; I believe that one must be very intelligent or very stupid to deny the existence of a god.  (God being the deity of the three monotheistic religions; god referring to some sort, any sort, of a deity including the Jewish-Christian-Islamic deity.)  As I said, one must be very intelligent or very stupid to deny the existence of a god and to date I have only met the stupid ones.  By stupid I don’t mean uneducated—education has long ceased being a bulwark against ignorance, much less stupidity, once it abandoned requiring philosophy as a foundation and allowed the houses of the sciences, mathematics, and technology to be built on the sand  of data rather than the rock of metaphysics.  To what purpose is knowledge if it does not impart understanding?  Agnostics, on the other hand, I often find to have the best minds because they are not afraid of the great and important questions but go fearlessly into the dark night of the unexplored queries that relentlessly lead the soul to deeper and deeper searching.  I have much more confidence in the faith of the true agnostic (as opposed to the intellectual sluggard whose laziness leave him or her indifferent  to the search for truth) than the rattler of dogmatic formulae—whether that be the Mormon missionary with his prepared answers or the catechism toting Catholic who thinks all theology lies digested in his (or her) brain once they had memorized the old Baltimore claptrap and calendar of saints.   
     This fellow on the plane is no fool.  Though he works in the technology field he has a Master’s degree in French literature from a prestigious east coast university.  In our wide ranging discussion—most of the way across the Atlantic—I found myself fascinated by his insights on politics, economic, sociology, anthropology and even religion.  It was our discussion of religion—where he confessed he was an “atheist, or perhaps an agnostic”  where I found myself articulating some basic beliefs, the methodology of belief rather than dogma per se, that gave me an interesting insight into my own way of thinking about religious faith as well as why there is tension both between believers and non-believers and among believers who see things from (at least) two very different perspectives. 
     When Patrick—his name—mentioned that he rejected religion and didn’t want his children exposed to it except as a sociological phenomenon, he said that religion claims to be authoritative over the human intellect and thus stifles the human mind in its pursuit of truth.  I know what he meant.  There are plenty of people who think “God said it; I believe it; that settles it, end of discussion.”  This might reflect an “evangelical” (I prefer to say pseudo-evangelical as I don’t think most evangelicals today are true evangelicals, i.e. those who shape their life according to the Gospel.  I think too many take the “Good News” (evangelion in Greek) and make it bad news, something with which to hit  people who disagree with them over the head.  Or it could reflect a lot of super-Catholics who agree unflinchingly with Church authority, or at least as long as Church authority agrees with them.  You know: the Pope is dead right on abortion and same-sex marriage, but when he talks about capital punishment, economic  justice, health care, war, and distributive justice—well that’s just his personal opinion.  What these “evangelicals” and “faithful” Catholics share in common is a highly vertical understanding  of how God communicates himself (I am not into inclusive language when we talk about God, though I don’t have a problem with those who are as long as they don’t get silly.) 
     Now before I go further, let me reaffirm that this blog is not a theological blog and I am not going to approach this question as a theologian, but as a social scientist—that is from a historical/anthropological point of view. 
     The books of Scripture all had historical authors.  Whether or not the Holy Ghost came down and sat on their shoulders, whispering words into their ears as their pens glided across the papyrus and parchment sheets, is not relevant to the historian.  They had human authors and they were written in historical contexts.  The Book of Daniel, for example, was written, or at least much of it was written, in the context of a Hebrew society that was being religiously challenged by Graeco-Syrian political overlords who were trying to move the Jews of their time from traditional belief to a more universal synchronistic religion that would unite the diverse peoples and cultures of their rule.  The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community of Jewish Christians who were trying to harmonize their ancestral faith with some startling new insights developing among the disciples of the lately crucified religious leader, one Yeshua from Nazareth and Capernaum in the Galilee.  And nobody has ever been able to figure out what the author of Revelations had in mind, though there are plenty of theories.  This historical context issue is not limited to Judeo-Christian revelation.  Mohammed wrote in the context of sixth century Arabia with is warring tribes, religious strife, and a society in which alcohol abuse was a significant problem.  He also wrote with a personal exposure to Judaism (less than favorable) and Nestorian Christianity (which was overall a positive experience for him).  The Buddha came out of a Hindu society and culture where he was veddy veddy upper crust and he seems to have had a traumatic introduction to the question of human suffering that shaped his life and doctrine.  Ignatius Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises in an attempt to share his own spiritual awakening with his followers.  Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith is rooted in Saints Paul and Augustine but also was profoundly influenced in the way it was formulated by his own scruples and crises, not to mention his alleged digestive tract issues.  We could go on but there is no need.  The point is clear.  While some of these writings may claim to be of “Divine Revelation” that question is of no concern to the historian but only to the religious believer.  There is no objective way to determine with any objective certainty what is and what is not of divine revelation—if there were then faith would not be a required component of the equation. 
      Now, again, I am not writing from a theological perspective but solely from the historical/anthropological point of view, but religion, viewed from the social sciences, is not a matter of “Truth” being imparted from the top down—from God to the Pope, or some Chief Rabbi or Grand Mullah, or even the Dalai Lama (whom I admire tremendously.)  From a historical/anthropological perspective, Truth rises from human experience and crystallizes in the shared experience of a community of believers who shape it into doctrines and practices that reinforce it.  That is not to say that God is not involved but the historian or social scientist (in their role as a historian or social scientist) cannot speak of God but only of what he or she observes.  Of course, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and others can be men or women of faith as well as professionals in their fields.  As men and women of faith they can supply the God-piece to the puzzle but not in their work, at least not directly.  So while as a historian I believe that Christian Revelation –as all other religious systems—rises from human experience, as a man of faith I believe that the truths of Christian Revelation reveal themselves through human experience by the Grace of God.  What is the faith of the faithful is the crux question for me.  In the Catholic Tradition this called the consensus fidelium   and while it has generally been ignored for the last five centuries (some would say the last fifteen) it once was the crucial element in defining Christian orthodoxy. 
      Does this mean that all religion is on a level playing field?  Is the “truth” of Buddhist experience equal to the “truth” of Muslim experience and equal to the “truth” of Christian experience?   As a historian I affirm that each must be taken with the same respect and openness as the others.  I can also see, however, as a historian, that not all religious doctrines have the same success rate in articulating well the core human experiences.  Why has Buddhism lasted when Celtic religion died?  (I think the current revival of paganism is little more than a very ahistorical playing at nature cults.)   Where is Osiris now?  Where is Athena now?  While a host of deities have disappeared,. Jesus has lasted so far.  So have Allah, Shiva, and the Great Spirit.  Time shows that not all religions capture the Truth with equal resonance.  As a Christian, I believe that the religious experience around the teachings and person of Jesus of Nazareth have a unique depth of human truth, that is to say that they reflect the Divine inbreaking into human experience with a unique and superior authenticity.  In other words, I believe they are Divinely Revealed, or better, capture the Divine Revelation, with a unique truthfulness.  As a historian, however, I can only observe they are one of the major religious traditions and comment on how they function in comparison to other belief systems. 
      This view of revelation as rising from human experience is problematic for Churchy people because it moves the cheese.  It takes power from the select few and distributes it through the whole body of the faithful.  It overturns power structures—casts the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly, so to speak.  This is why I think, as a Catholic, that we must restore the balance of power between the magisterium, the theologians, and the consensus fidelium.  Do you remember in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the image of Professor Snape dressed up in Neville’s Grandmother’s clothes?  I am afraid, as a historian, that that is what the magisterium looks like when left unsupported by serious theological research and rooted in the everyday faith experience of the everyday believer.  And that is why so many people walk away from religion—it has just too often become ridiculous looking to too many good thinkin’ folk.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Of Gnostics, Carmelites, the Incarnation, and Communion in the Hand

Two Carmelites, sisters by blood as well as in religious
life, at the Detroit Conference
I mentioned in the last entry that heresy sometimes lurks just beneath the surface of trumpeted orthodoxy.  Let me give an example.  Some years ago I was in Detroit to do some research on the infamous Father Coughlin who had a very popular radio show in the 1930’s which he used as a platform to attack Franklin Roosevelt  as well as to proclaim his anti-Semitic views.  I was staying, courtesy of a friend of mine, at a retreat center run by the Passionists.  Coughlin was very popular with a large segment of the American people though he was a huge embarrassment to the Church.  Coughlin had no endorsement from the Archbishop of Detroit –to the contrary.  The Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper condemned him in 1935, but Coughlin remained popular with anti-Roosevelt Americans, Catholics and Protestants alike.   Cardinal Pacelli, papal Secretary of State discussed the matter with American officials on his 1936 visit to they United States but was unable to silence him.  Cardinal Mooney was appointed to Detroit in 1937 with the mandate to silence him but was unable.  American Catholics are notorious for listening not to the Church but to those voices in the Church with which they agree.  There must be something in the water in Motown as we currently have Michael Voris setting himself up against the hierarchy with his “Real Catholic TV.”   O well, I digress. 
     While I was staying at the Passionist Retreat Center there was a conference of Carmelite nuns going on—a meeting of about a hundred cloistered nuns—mostly the Prioresses (mothers superior) and Formation Directors (novice-mistresses) of various monasteries in the United States and Canada, though I did see some younger nuns with the white veils of novices.  It was interesting seeing these women outside their monasteries.  They were anything but a somber group.  There was much laughter and a strong sense of family.  They looked very traditional—almost all in the same habit their predecessors had worn  for centuries though a few had modified veils that showed a wisp of hair.  They were very serious when it came time for prayer and it was a privilege to attend their Mass each morning.  I served the Mass—or rather I served the old priest who celebrated the Mass for them each morning.  I was surprised to note that at communion not a single nun received communion on the tongue.  Young and old, reverent all, but each nun extended her hands to receive Holy Communion.  I mentioned this one day at lunch—I had my meals with them in the retreat dining room—and the nuns at the table all thought for a moment and then began to discuss it.  They had never given it much thought, they agreed, it just seemed natural to them.  Then one older nun—the prioress of a Carmel on the West Coast—said “Well, why wouldn’t we?  The Incarnation is the central mystery of our lives.  Holy Mother (Saint Teresa of Avila) says that we should meditate on either the Passion or the Incarnation.  When you meditate on the Word Becoming Flesh, you burn with desire to hold the Flesh of the Lord for yourself.    In this sacrament, his Flesh becomes our Flesh and our Flesh becomes his.  Why should be afraid to touch him?  He is our Spouse, the deepest Desire of our being.”  I was impressed at her fervor as well as her insight.
     Several years before while in Minneapolis I had been taken to hear a young priest, a Father Robert Altier, who at the time was something of a seven day wonder.  Father Altier drew huge crowds to Saint Agnes Church where he celebrated what at the time was the “indult” mass.  A college buddy of mine who had just returned to the Church after three “marriages” (only one of them with a woman if you get my drift)  would go only to Saint Agnes.  Saint Agnes with the Latin Mass facing the wall represented the Church he had left forty years ago and it was the only Church to which he was willing to go back now that he had religion again. (That is the danger in being a historian: the temptation is to restore the past, a futile effort, rather than build the future on the past.)   Father Altier told us in his talk that day—it wasn’t a sermon but a talk in the hall after mass as I recall—that receiving Communion in the hand was “an abomination, a sacrilege”  The Blessed Mother, he assured us, had never received Communion in the hand.  I almost laughed out loud.  She who had changed Jesus’ diaper (I could use a more graphic phrase) was too awestruck to take his flesh in her hand in Holy Communion?   Who is this Christ in Whom this young priest believed?  Is it the Christ of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Christ whose human nature is preserved intact in the hypostatic union?  Or does this Christ have a different sort of human nature than we do?  Sure he is “consubstantial” with the Father according to his Divinity.  What I wonder if people believe is whether he is “consubstantial” with us regarding his humanity?  Here again is Gnosticism lurking behind orthodox piety.  It is perfectly all right to receive Communion on the tongue if that your choice, but can we say that it is wrong or sacrilegious to receive Christ in our hands?   If so, what is that implying about human nature?  What is that saying about material creation?  Beneath such “orthodoxy” lurks some very dark beliefs. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cathars, Jansenists, and Today's Submariner Heretics

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, built by Jacques
de Fournier as Benedict XII
Jacques de Fournier was named bishop of Pamiers in 1317 and he undertook a campaign to root out Catharism from his diocese.  Fournier had studied at Paris while a Cistercian monk and then had been abbot of Fontfroide—an important abbey on what is today the border between Spain and France.  This was an area, the Hautes-Pyrenees, where the Cathars had remained strong.  It is not far from the modern pilgrimage center of Lourdes.   Named Bishop of Pamiers, Fournier determined to do something about the survival of Catharism in his diocese.  The Inquisition—not the Spanish Inquisition, just the local diocesan process—interviewed hundreds of people in an attempt to discover and uncover this heresy among a population that for the most part seemed outwardly to conform to the Church.  Fortunately for historians—and to the relief of the local population—Fournier was elected Pope in 1334 and he took up residence in Avignon (then the papal court) with the regnal name of Benedict XII.  He brought all his records with him, but being Pope is a full time job (well, at least for the serious ones and this fellow was serious) and the records just more or less sat around until they eventually ended up in the archives where a historian, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie (born 1929), discovered them and wrote a fascinating study: Montaillou, village occitan.  This book is a detailed and fascinating look into life in the fourteenth-century village of Montaillou, a hamlet of 250 people, outwardly  Catholic but secretly given to Cathar belief and practice.  Even the village priest,  Pierre Clergue, was a secret Cathar.  We see that Catharism was not something always distinct from Catholicism but, like many heresies, could infect outwardly faithful Catholics and remain almost undetected.   Montaillou is a very important book historically as it shifted historians from big-picture history to micro-histories which are far more nuanced and give us fascinating details.  You don’t have to be a historian to read it—it is an interesting read on its own.   But the point I want to make is how heresies survive beneath the cover of orthodoxy.  Let me give you an interesting example.         
      Today in the United States we implement the new translation of the missal.  The monastery where I often attend mass has been using it for over a month now and I am getting used to it.  There are features that I like, and there are features with which I am not impressed.  Ok, that is one man’s experience and I don’t expect the world to revolve to my preferences.  But I do see two curious things.
       One is a strong distinction between the sacred and the secular in language—the use of a language that is not the language of us mere mortals.  We don’t speak of “the dewfall,”  ineffable is a word that my electronic thesaurus doesn’t recognize, and I am a bit taken aback to hear a carpenter’s cup called “a chalice.”  And then there is the entire matter of “and with your spirit.”  Why is there a need for sacred/secular—body/soul dichotomies?  I am all in favor of elegant language and graceful vocabulary but I am suspicious of dichotomies that undermine the mystery of the Incarnation in which the Divine enters fully into our human experience.  There is always something of the Gnostic in everyday Catholicism that suspects the world and denigrates human experience.  It is subtle but this dichotomizing ultimately undermines the mystery of the Incarnation.     
      Equally problematic is the issue of he “for all” and “for many.”  I have written on this before but it is hugely problematic as our Catholic faith condemns as heretical any idea that Christ did not die for all.  He did not die for some, nor even for many, but for all.  The Jansenist heresy taught that Christ only died for those who would ultimately be saved.  Like Catharism at Montaillou, Jansenism is alive and well beneath a veneer of orthodox Catholicism among many American Catholics.  This was not the time to put into the liturgy that Christ died “for many.”  It will be used to reinforce the unhealthy piety of those who have deceived themselves into believing they are the “elect” culled from a world that stands outside salvation.    Just check out some of the (supposedly) ultra-Catholic websites and blogs and you will see a Catholicism riddled with Jansenism and other very uncatholic ideas.   There are other heresies alive and well beneath the veneer of pious and traditional Catholicism—Quietism is one, illuminism another—but Jansenism is the one that scares me most because, as Jean Jacques Olier said about four centuries ago—Jansenism eats charity out of the heart of the Church.  I see that today in figures such as Michael Voris and his “Real Catholic TV” who promote a Catholicism of anger and self-righteousness.  I see it too in the “vigilante” Catholicism represented by self-appointed arbiters of the faith such as the “Catholic Media Coalition” or “Tradition in Action,” or Trinity Communications/Catholic Culture.  Henri Bremond wrote of the Jansenists of his days as “Before penetrating into the depth of the mind Jansenism ruins the peace, condition of all true religion.  Before making converts it makes partisans, sectarians, whom it fatally severs from the mystical currents of their time.” As it was in the past it is now too.     

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Baptists, Cathars, and Dominicans

San Domenico Guzman
Fresco in Cantarana
Denise Schenardi, 2007
The Church’s initial response to Catharism was to launch a missionary campaign and Innocent III sent preachers into the Occitan to refute the heretical doctrines.  He also prohibited translations of the scriptures into the vernacular as popular interpretations of the bible were at the root of the heresy’s spreading.  The preaching crusade was not particularly successful due to the support the Cathars had from many of the local nobility who saw that breaking the power of the Church also weakened the power of the French Crown (and thus strengthened their local power of the peasants and the towns) and when one of the coordinators of the papal effort, Pierre de Castelnau, was assassinated, Raymond, the Count of Toulouse, was suspected of ordering the murder.  This led to a change of papal strategy and in 1209 a Crusade was launched to wipe out the heresy by destroying the nobles and the city governments that supported it.
     The failure of Innocent’s  preaching mission was due in great part to a gross miscalculation on the part of the Church as to what would work at rooting out this heresy.  The pope sent Cistercian Abbots as preachers.  Now the Cistercians were a reformed religious order and known for their integrity and austere life, but abbots are abbots and these prelates saw themselves as emissaries of the Pope rather than as preachers of the Gospel.  Huge mistake.  Huge.  The abbots came on horseback with their retinue of chaplains and liveried servants and they stayed in the homes of the rich, the great, and the powerful and they lived well.  This did not impress the converts to Catharism who had been drawn to the sect because of the austerity of the Cathar perfecti or holy ones.  It is a bit like the Tridentine revivalists who think the way to appeal to people today to come back to the Church is for bishops to wear long trains of scarlet silk while conducting elaborate ceremonies in an arcane language.  Duh!  It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.  Anyway, back to the Crusade for a moment. 
     Innocent called a crusade and offered any Catholic nobleman who fought the heretics title to the lands of the various Occitan nobles who were protecting the Cathars.  This involved the French Crown who saw this as an opportunity to extend royal power over this region of what is today southwest France but at the time was a collection of independent baronies.  The French King himself, Philip Augustus,  did not become involved but one of his vassals, Simon de Montfort, led the successfully brutal war in which over 20,000 men, women, and children were killed.    
     Let me just make an aside here.  There are some Protestant groups whose poor knowledge of history allows them to trace their supposed roots back to Jesus and the apostles by identifying themselves with any group that the Catholic Church has ever persecuted.  If you were persecuted by the Catholic Church than you must have been a Baptist!  Won’t earn you a degree in history but sure will make those hymn-singin’, lemonade drinkin’,  bible readin’ po’ folk down in Arkansas and Tennessee feel a might more righteous.   Years ago I was at a rural Baptist Church in Texas—Independence Baptist Church where Sam Houston was baptized.    A gentleman there described the history of the Church, giving us what is known as the “Trail of Blood Baptist” history and according to his story anyone who was imprisoned or killed for their faith in those Catholic Centuries had been Baptist.  He talked about the Cathars as Baptists, unaware that not only did they not practice immersion baptism, but they didn’t even use water.  Nor did he know, even more seriously, that they believed in two gods, a god of light and a god of dark, who were locked in this eternal struggle for men’s souls.  But they weren’t “those Catholics” so they must have been “us Baptists.”  Most Baptists take a more historically critical view and recognize that their tradition comes out of the English Radical Reformation of the seventeenth century and can’t be traced historically to apostolic times. 
     Well, the Albigensian Crusade was pretty much of a failure from a religious point of view—Catharism managed to hold on in Languedoc though often under a veneer of Catholic Orthodoxy.  The fighting was over by 1255 though the Inquisition lingered on to ferret out heretics.  The French Crown eventually triumphed over the nobility and brought the area more and more under central control.  When the French wars of religion broke out in the sixteenth century this area was particularly hard hit as a suspicion of Catholicism remained even after Catharism had apparently died out.  Sometimes, in fact often, religiously divisive movements such as Catharism are not so much about proposing new doctrines as they are about opposing old power structures.  Catharism seems to have been much more about rejecting a Catholic faith that had become over-identified with the power and wealth of the movers and shakers than dangerous ideas of dualism and Gnostic revival. 
     A more positive factor that came out of the Cathar movement was the Dominican Order.  Dominic de Guzman was a canon regular in the suite of the Spanish Bishop of Osma who had been sent on a Diplomatic mission by the king of Castile to Denmark.  As they travelled through the south of France Dominic encountered the Cathars and converted a number of their women members whom he organized into a monastery of nuns at Prouille.  The mission to Denmark completed (unsuccessfully as the marriage they were to arrange fell through due to the untimely death of the proposed bride), Dominic and his bishop returned to France on their way home to Castile.  Dominic saw the papal legates in all their pomp after their preaching had failed to stop the Cathar heresy.  He admonished them:  “The Cathars do not win people to their heresy by the show of power and pomp, by trains of servants and caparisoned horses, by their gorgeous robes—but by zealous preaching, by being humble like the apostles, by poor and simple lives, and by genuine and apparent holiness.  Zeal must be matched by zeal, humility by humility, the pretense of holiness by genuine holiness, preaching lies by preaching truth.”  Dominic decided to stay in France and to do precisely that while his bishop returned home.  Dominic gathered several other priests about him to establish a community of preachers of evangelical truth who, like the Cathar perfecti, would live poor and simple lives as a witness to their faith.  Their preaching was not a huge success in winning back people to the faith, but they did make a difference.  In 1217 Dominic would establish his preaching priests as a new religious Order—the Order of Preachers.  We know them today as the Dominicans.  More about them in future blogs. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Cathars--The "Perfect Ones"

The wealth of the Church was a
lightening rod for grouips such as
Well, it was way back in September—September 20th to be exact—that we left off our series on Church Reform.  We had been talking about dissent in the medieval Church with the sagas of Peter Waldo and the Umiliati—two different expressions of frustration and anger with the wealth and power of the Church.  The sagas ended up quite differently if you remember, Waldo and his followers were forced into schism by a medieval papacy unable to grasp that genuine Reform might come from lay leadership and the Umiliati ended up becoming a religious order due to a papacy that knew how to harness lay charisms for the good of the larger Church.  We will talk more about the very charismatic pope, Innocent III, who cut through the morass of canon law to empower laity to take an active voice in preaching the Gospel, but first we need to look at another group around at the same time, the Cathars.
       The Cathers (Catheri in Latin) were also known, popularly, as the Albigensians because there were so many in and around the city of Albi in France, but its influence spread far beyond the Languedoc.   Cathars were prominent not only in the South of France but the Rhineland and Italy and not unknown elsewhere.  It is a mystery to historians how the sect originated but, although there is no historical connection,  it does bear certain similarities to the Manichean sect to which Saint Augustine had belonged before his conversion in the fourth century.  Like the Manicheans, the Cathars proposed the idea that there are two Gods—a spiritual god who created our spirits and an evil god who created the material universe into which human spirits have been tricked and entrapped.  The soul must escape this created universe and return to its pure spiritual nature.  It does this by renouncing material realities, especially any of those things that have to do with sexual intercourse and generation as it supposedly is by a sexual curiosity that souls are entrapped into generation into the physical/material world.  Another ancient heresy that taught this same doctrine as the Manicheans is Priscillianism but there is no historical evidence for a survival of either Priscillianism or Manicheanism that would explain the Cathars.  By the way—both Manicheanism and Priscillianism were Gnostic sects and Catharism, while a medieval and not an ancient theology, should also be seen to be in the Gnostic tradition.  
       Another ancient heresy with which Catharism shares some similarity of doctrine is Donatism.  Donatism taught that the validity of the sacraments as channels of grace depended on the worthiness of the minister.  A bishop or priest who was himself sinful therefore could not effectively minister to others.  Donatism was widespread, especially in North Africa, in the fourth and fifth century but this particular doctrine about the worthiness of the ministers resurfaced among the Cathars as it would surface again during the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 
        Catharism spread like wildfire in the eleventh century in great part due to dissatisfaction of the common people with the wealth of the institutional Church and lax morality of the clergy.  The use of Latin in liturgical celebrations had reduced the rites of the Church to vague and unintelligible rituals that appeared as superstitious and even magical.  That these rites—baptisms, marriages, funerals, blessings of fields and crops and other rites of everyday life—required offerings of either money or in kind to an often undisciplined clergy from ordinary and even impoverished faithful while the wealth of the Church was vigorously displayed in its buildings, art, vestments and vessels eroded the faith of intelligent if uneducated people.    Lay ascetics who practiced the highly disciplined life of the Cathar holy men—sexually abstinent, economically poor, vegan in diet (food coming from sexual congress—both meat and dairy—being forbidden) impressed many far more than did the too often indolent clergy.  The simple rites—a “baptism” by laying on of hands and a holy communion of bread blest only by the recitation of the Lord’s Pryer—spoke effectively to simple people.  While most converts were unwilling to accept the full discipline of the sect—vegetarianism and celibacy being two of the notable stumbling blocks—large numbers of initiates flocked to the movement remaining at a catechumenal stage until their last moments of life when they would seek the  “consolementum” or laying on of hands.  Of course, it should not be presumed that all Cathar holy men lived up to the demands of their ascetic vocation any more than all priests live up to theirs, but there is a consensus that the rumors of debauchery and charlatanism were more polemics by the institutional Church to destroy the credibility of the movement than serious and credible charges.  While there certainly would have been some charlatans among them, their widespread success in making converts indicates greater credibility than some Catholic historians allow. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Altar Girls? A Question Once More? Only in Arlington

O c'mon, do you realy think the
gates of hell are going to prevail if
girls are allowed to serve at the
The Diocese of Arlington has made the news again—it’s never good and this time downright foolish.  It seems that a local pastor, Father Michael Taylor, has decided to disallow girls from serving mass in his parish.  Almost two-thirds of the parishes of the diocese do not permit girls to serve mass despite Vatican assurances that there is nothing in Church law that prohibits it.  I really must admit that I am a bit baffled by this.  If we said that only white kids could serve at the altar we would see the arbitrary injustice involved but hey, it’s ok to discriminate against girls because we have a tradition that upholds that custom.  In Virginia they had a tradition that discriminated against blacks too, but fortunately that has been done away with, at least in the more visible situations.  Come to think of it though, how many black priests does the Diocese of Arlington have?  About as many as they have women priests, I would guess.  After all there is no law against ordaining blacks as long as they have the biological equipment that certifies a candidate as fit for ordination.  And that brings us to the crux of the problem in the Arlington Diocese.       It isn’t Father Taylor’s fault, at least not at the root.  I know Father Taylor.  When I lived in the DC area back about ten years ago I attended mass at the parish where he was the parochial vicar.  He is a sweet man.  He is the sort of priest you want for confession.  He is just good.  The problem is that he is also, well, to put it bluntly, stupid.  That’s ok, God doesn’t always choose the best and the brightest and—by the way—I do think that Father Taylor is among the best, just not among the brightest.  He could never grasp the big question but would always get hung up on some semi-relevant (at best) detail in any situation.  He tried so hard to do the right thing but would have a failure of moral courage because someone somewhere told him some obscure law or theological detail or papal whim (real or imagined) and without checking it out, he would make the wrong decision.  It was never from an uncaring heart, only from the confusion of super-ego and conscience.  And where were those super-ego tapes—those little “voices of authority” in one’s head coming from?  Well that is part of the problem in the Arlington Diocese too.  There is the magisterium of the Church  and then there is the shadow magisterium of a group of self-appointed mentors who have too long shaped the minds of many of the younger priests of that diocese, confirming them in ignorance and disinformation.  When Father Taylor would say some of the outrageous things he would say and I would ask him for his source it was always Father Fasano or Father McAfee, or Monsignor O’Brien or Father Pokorsky or someone else in the “Gang of Thirteen.”  Once when I was at the AAR convention I was having lunch with several professors from Saint Mary’s Seminary Emmitsburg, and in relating to them various stories about the Arlington clergy, I asked them—teasingly—what they were teaching up there at the Mount.  “O, they’re not learning that from us” I was assured.  Amidst laughter they told me “They have a special post-graduate program in the diocese where they bring in the ‘experts’.”    
      Much of the Arlington quagmire dates back to the episcopacy of John Keating (1983-1998).  Well actually the problem is rooted in the fact that the Arlington diocese, like all of us except the Blessed Virgin, was conceived in sin and born in iniquity, but we won’t go there in this entry.  John Richard Keating was a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and had been, I believe, administrator of the Archdiocese between the death of Cardinal Cody and the appointment of Joseph Bernardin as Archbishop.  Bernardin knew he was on a very different page than Keating and so to remove him from power (he had been Vicar General prior to Cody’s death) without humiliating him, Keating was named the second Bishop of Arlington.  He reminds me of an eleventh century bishop of Reims in France, Manasses II (1096-1106), whose famous quote, describing the office to which he was called, was “This wouldn’t be a bad job if you didn’t have to sing Mass.”  Bishop Keating was an administrator, a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.  He was a superb canon lawyer and responsible for introducing the “psychological maturity” argument into the annulment process.   He wasn’t a bad man, at least as far as anything I have heard.  He just wasn’t very religious.  Nine o’clock Sunday Morning would find him, most weeks, not in his cathedral but out on the links at the Washington Country Club.  After his death, a crypt was constructed in the cathedral to hold the remains of the Bishops of Arlington and Keating’s body was removed from the mausoleum at Fairfax Memorial Park where it had been temporarily entombed and properly put in the episcopal crypt.  The joke was circulated among the clergy of the diocese the following Easter that this had been the first Holy Week the Bishop had spent in his Cathedral.  While he would show up at the Cathedral for the Mass of the Chrism and the Easter Vigil, he would not permit baptisms and confirmations at the Vigil and would only allow the minimum number of Old Testament lessons so that the liturgy would not go over an hour and a half.  “This would not be such a bad job if you didn’t have to sing Mass.” 
     Bishop Keating was a great delegator of responsibility which is to his credit, but he seems not always to have followed up.  He really didn’t care much if individual priests or parishes were conforming to Church practice as long as they weren’t actually breaking any canons.  This led to a lot of idiosyncrasies in Arlington.  Some places had “Solemn High Masses” which were the (at the time required) Novus Ordo Rite but which were counterfeited with Deacons and “Subdeacons” and an ad apsidem posture to masquerade as the old Tridentine Solemn High Mass.  Birettas and cottas and even maniples were salvaged from closets and drawers, altar-rails were installed and kneeling for communion restored, and old time religion, Catholic style, became somewhat normative in the Arlington Diocese.    And when the clergy informed the bishop that should he permit girls to serve Mass as was being done in other dioceses, they were “outta here”—well, Keating was not one for confrontation and so “altar girls” were on the verboten list. 
     This preconciliar Shangri-la was bound to attract vocations from other dioceses where seminarians were afraid that they might not be permitted as priests to do the grocery shopping in their soutanes or required to take a Latin exam before being permitted to say Mass in the language.  There was a very enterprising vocation director, Father Jay Gould, who scoured seminaries around the country for men who would be thrilled to be part of this ‘50’s revival and for years Arlington had an abundance of vocations.  Conservatives in the diocese, clergy and laity alike, look back on the “Golden Days of Gould” when vocations abounded and cassocks were de rigueur.   A prominent Washington Archdiocesan Monsignor who had served as driver/Master of Ceremonies to the late Cardinal Hickey (Archbishop of Washington 1980-2000) told me that he had once ribbed the Cardinal saying: “What’s wrong with our Archdiocese?  Keating is ordaining twelve priests this year, you’re ordaining two.”  Hickey’s response to the disparity of vocations was “We don’t want the lawsuits.”   So much for screening.   
      All this is background to the issue of female altar boys in Arlington.  About five years ago, Bishop Loverde, the current bishop, lifted Bishop Keating’s ban, allowing pastors—with the advice of the Parish Pastoral Councils—to permit girls and women to serve Mass.  Rome had no problem with it; the Bishop had no problem with it.  But there are always those like Father Taylor, who know better.  I am not saying that sometimes priests and even lay folk don’t know better than bishops—or even the Pope.  History bears out the facts.  I am only saying that a smart priest doesn’t come into a parish and stir up a hornet’s nest over an issue as inconsequential as this one.  But then, as I began, while Father Taylor may be no less intelligent than many of his colleagues, he sure didn’t demonstrate street smarts, much less pastoral sagacity, here.   

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Church and a Culture of Power

Our old friend, Cardinal Burke, (then Archbishop)
dressing up for another trip into his fantasy world
of bygone days of glory.  Perhaps he needed a strong
masculine figure earlier in his younger years. 
The final reason I want to give for the deterioration of papal authority, indeed Church authority in general, during—and since—the pontificate of John Paul II is the perceived wealth of the Church.  Note: perceived wealth.  I am reluctant to say that the Papacy or the Catholic Church is wealthy.  It is a bit like saying that the United States is wealthy.  There are wealthy States and there are States where there is much poverty.  The Catholic Church is not a single entity.  Financially each diocese is self-administering as is each religious order.  There are dioceses where there are considerable assets and there are dioceses with few assets.  Just as even poor States have budgets measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, so too even poor dioceses have huge budgets—though, of course, not at all comparable to any State budget.  One would say that relative to other nations, we are a wealthy nation and our citizenry are—by comparison to much of the world—wealthy.  So too the Catholic Church is a much bigger financial organization than other religions, but relative to the size of its membership probably not out of the same ball park as other religious groups.  The central administration of the Church, the papacy, is an enormously costly operation but then its expenses are also enormous.  The Holy See, as the administration is known, maintains diplomatic missions with over a hundred nations.  It was one of the oldest entities to send and maintain embassies and probably the oldest to do so on a continual basis to the present.  I don’t see where Jesus explicitly authorized embassies as part of the mission he entrusted to his disciples, but I would have to admit that over the centuries papal diplomacy has often played a crucial role in history  (not always to the good) and papal diplomatic channels were very important in both World War I and World War II as well as the Cold War, so they could be subsumed under the Church’s commission for peacemaking (Blessed are the Peacemakers—you remember that one from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: something or other) if not always for evangelism.  In other words, I am not criticizing the Church for its actual wealth of which I think it is a pretty good steward.  The problem is its perceived wealth.  I have lived in Rome off and on over the years and still go there frequently (like next week) and I continued to be dazzled by the splendor of the Churches.  By and large I detest baroque style but you know it was costly to build (and costly to maintain, but that is the Italian Government’s, not the Church’s, problem).  I have been to the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, the British Museum and dozens of other art collections.  The Louvre and the Hermitage are comparable to the Vatican museums but nothing else.  “The pope should sell all this art” some people exclaim and maybe he should. After all,  Jesus didn’t need art—“the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head,” if your remember.  But the problem is that great art doesn’t belong to the Vatican or the Louvre or the Prado.  Great art belongs to civilization as a whole and whether it is the French Government or the Russian Government or the Holy See—they are only the custodians.  I wish we had never gotten into the art business but now that the Church has it, they also have a responsibility.  And as long as it pays for itself (and the Vatican Museums are not cheap for entry)—well, it is a bit like babysitting a kid: you can’t put it up for sale just because it becomes an embarrassment. 
     I think the problem is not the budgets it takes to run a diocese or a religious order or even the Vatican.  I don’t think the problem is the basilicas or the Michelangelo’s.  I think the problem is the “culture of wealth” that the Church inherited from a previous generation when bishops were princes and the Church itself was a monarchy and which needs to be dismantled and replaced today.  During the Renaissance and Baroque eras until the French Revolution the alliance of “Throne and Altar” made bishops princes and endowed prelates with all the trappings of great men of monarchial states.  Cardinals and bishops and prelates and abbots lived in palaces with leagues of servants and carriages and silver and gold plate off which they dined.  They wore ermine and silks and were accustomed to have people kiss their hands on bended knees.  They were entitled to titles: Excellency and Eminence and whatever.  I doubt Jesus was impressed but the whole idea was that everyone else would be.  The bishops and great men of the Church were drawn from the noble families and they moved comfortably in the corridors of power.  (Karol Wojtyla, aka John Paul II, was the first Archbishop of Krakow not to come from the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)  The Gospel was something read at Mass, not something generally believed or preached, but the system worked—at least according to the norms of the world in which the Church found itself.   
     Of course the Church paid dearly for this alliance at the time of the French and subsequent revolutions.  But peace was made, monarchy and Church restored at the Congress of Vienna, and while the earthly powers gradually learned the lesson and moved away from the monarchial models—the Queen of the Netherlands keeps riding around on a bicycle as did her Queenly Mother and Grandmother in their reigns—the Church seems slow to understand that model has changed.  The various monarchies that survived World Wars I and II drastically reformed their courts in the 2oth centuries reducing the pageantry (and expense) and Paul VI did the same in the late 60’s with the papal household.  But damn if that stuff doesn’t come creeping back.  Cardinal O’Malley sold the Archbishop’s Palace in Boston (in part to pay the settlements against the Archdiocese for the sex-abuse suits), but how many other Archbishops and bishops have spent considerable funds buying and furnishing very elegant homes for themselves.  When a priest I know complemented Archbishop John Myers of Newark on his matching Episcopal ring and cufflinks—antique Roman coins—“His Grace” (as he like to be known) dismissed it saying: when you’re the Archbishop you never pay for these things.  In order to simplify the public ceremonial of the Church and to move it away from the baroque courtly appearance of earlier centuries, Paul VI did away with any number of prelatial accoutrements such as the monsignoral and episcopal mantelletta or the fur hood of the winter cappa magna (and discouraged the use of the cappa magna itself though he only banned it in Rome) but that hasn’t stopped the Tridentine Revivalists of Summorum Pontificum from raiding the closets of their dead predecessors to dress up once again in princely finery.  The result is not only to turn sacred worship into a costume ball but to focus on ideas such as “power,” “pomp,” “majesty” attributed not to God—with which no one would have a problem—but towards the Church and Churchmen.  That model reduces Catholicism to an anachronism and trivializes our faith.   
       We need new models to express our identity as a Church, but even as most bishops, thank heavens, turn away from this ridiculous prince-bishop model, too many seem to choose the corporate CEO model instead.  We don’t need shepherds in eight-hundred dollar suits who belong to the Country Club and the University Club so that they can entertain bank presidents and County Executives.   You go to a chancery office these days and it looks like a prestigious law firm or advertising business.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we need a certain professionalism in how the Church is run, but we don’t need the corporate culture. 
        Last week I had the occasion to attend an event over which a Byzantine Rite bishop presided.  I was embarrassed because during the preliminaries I was speaking with him and didn’t know he was the bishop until after he walked away.  I had thought I was speaking with some simple priest or other.  (I mean “simple” here as “unassuming” neither as “mere” nor “stupid.”)  During the Liturgy—which is certainly not ritually bland—he comported himself with an unassuming reverence and attention to prayer.  Afterwards he mixed very easily with parishioners, waiting in the buffet line chatting with those around him and unselfconsciously telling some jokes and making amusing and self-deprecating observations.  There was nothing of the great man about him.   Of course the various Eastern Rite dioceses are smaller in numbers but far more widespread than our Roman Rite dioceses.  Nevertheless I was impressed at the more simple and pastoral impression the bishop gave.  Simple and humble would have much more impact than the self-important style we too often see. 
      Ironically, I wrote this before seeing the gospel for today with its sobering reminder that stone will not be left upon stone.  We need to remember that too—that the earthly and institutional dimensions of the Church are not destined to last.  Something to think about, Your Grace.