Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making the Good News Bad News

Jean Jacques Olier (1608-1657) founder
of the Sulpicians, valiant foe of Jansenism
Two stories.  Both sad.
Neil Hope had  been picked up off the streets of Toronto at age 10 to play a character in a television special: The Kids of Digrassi Street.  It turned out to be a pilot for another show—Digrassi Junior High—and its sequel, Digrassi High. Mr. Hope played Derek “Wheels” Wheeler.  It didn’t take much imagination to play the part—“Wheels’” life was not that much different from Neil’s.  Both the character and the actor were children of alcoholic parents.  Both would become alcoholics themselves.  Neither had much of a family life.  Neither was to find a niche in society where they could become the “human person fully alive” that Iranaeus says is God’s Truest Glory.  For Neil Hope, the career in television offered an escape from the pain of his day-to-day real life.  He never really benefitted from it in any way.  His parents drank most of the money he made.  He was never prepared for life after television and a career beyond acting.  When Degrassi High went off the air, Mr. Hope was 19.  He went on to operate a fork-lift, to sell furniture, and to work at a pizza shop.  He did have one final contribution to make—one that hopefully was heard by kids like him—and that was that he had an opportunity to say in a documentary to other children of substance abusers: “It’s nothing to be ashamed of because it’s not your fault.”  I only hope that Mr. Hope believed this himself, but from his life story it seems he was preaching a gospel he could not himself take to heart.  Mr. Hope died November 25, 2007 alone, in a rooming house in Hamilton Ontario.  Friends or family were unknown, his body remained unclaimed and he was buried four months later in a pauper’s grave.  It was only at the end of this past year, four years after his death, that his siblings learned that he had died. 
       Another story. Also about a death.  This past Saturday, February 25, a priest, Marcel Guarnizo, the parochial vicar of Saint John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg Maryland denied communion to Barbara Johnson at her mother’s funeral, telling Ms. Johnson: “I cannot give you communion because you live with a woman and that is a sin according to the Church.”  He then left the altar during the eulogy Ms. Johnson gave for her mother.  (How she found the strength to get up and speak after this incident, I cannot imagine.)  He also refused to accompany the funeral to the graveside, pleading ill health.   
     The priest justified his refusal to give communion under canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church.  The canon states: "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.Ms. Johnson is not excommunicate nor interdicted, so she is, in Guarnizo’s opinion “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin”  She may well be.  I don’t know her.  Granted she “lives with a woman” but there is no sin in sharing a domicile and while I might be inclined to make a judgment, I do not know the particularities of their relationship.  Guarnizo must know the details, to make that call, though he cannot know them in the sacrament of Penance as he would be unable to act on the knowledge if he did.  (A priest can give no outward indication of any knowledge gained in the confessional.)  I don’t think so, but Guarnizo might have been right to act as he did.  That isn’t going to be my point.
      My point is this.  We have some real issues in the world today.  There are a lot of tragic stories about lonely people—people with all sorts of heartbreak, dysfunction, pain.  Christ continues to be crucified in member after member of his Body.  I was touched, no actually disturbed, by the story of Neil Hope.  I know Michael, a guy who comes to my door for food handouts—severely bipolar, becoming schizophrenic, a street person.  His family wouldn’t let him go to his grandmother’s funeral last week because they are embarrassed by him.  Like most street people he doesn’t smell so great.  His clothes are shabby and rarely clean.  Michael would have had a place to live and be cared for before Ronald Reagan closed the mental hospitals back in the ‘80’s, but that is another story.  Michael will end up one day like Neil Hope, an unclaimed and unmourned corpse.    How many people in our world are there who need to receive the “Good News?”  How many are there who are anxious to hear the message that God loves them.  How many are just waiting for that message?  Well, they won’t find it in every Catholic Church, that’s clear thanks to Marcel Guarnizo. 
     But day by day we Catholics seem more and more to be two churches.  You have priests like this guy (you will notice that I just can’t bring myself to call him “Father”) from Gaithersburg who is anxious to discipline and scold.  And you have Catholics who want to bring people to the Church—or bring the Church to people—to hear the message of God’s love.  I am not talking happy-clappy Christianity and clown Masses. I don’t have time for that nonsense.  Nor am I talking cheap love or as Dietrich Bonhoffer called it “cheap Grace”—but real love, hanging on the cross love.  That is the love the Neil Hope needed to have made a difference in his life and he never heard it because we, as Church, were not there to speak it.  That is the love that Barbara Johnson needed to hear at her mother’s funeral, but it is a gospel that some priests just don’t know.  She was unfortunate to get one of the priests who never heard that message himself.  And it is the most famous passage in the New Testament!  God so loved the world, Saint John tells us, that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  God did not sent his son to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.  Get with it Catholics. 
     I saw an article by a Father Jerome Magat in The Herald, the Newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.  Father stated in his article that the central message of Jesus is “Repent.”  Father obviously never had a course in the Gospels during his seminary years.  Yes, “Repent” is a message that Jesus preached occasionally in the Gospels, but it is not his central message.  No scripture scholar would say that.  Jesus’ central message is the Good News (Gospel, in Greek Evangelion—the announcement of a victory) of the Kingdom of God.  Jansenism is alive and well and flourishing among a certain set of clergy today.  Priests like Marcel Guarnizo get cheered on by their local bloggers—Restore DC Catholicism, An Archdiocese of Washington DC Catholic—and will probably be picked up by Michael Voris and other national scene people in the next week.  This style of Catholicism appeals to many.  On the other hand, there are Catholic sources like Father Barron’s Word on Fire that give us a more balanced approach to the faith.  (Listen to his Sermon 581: “Jesus Among the Angels and Beasts.”)  So shall we, as Church, be bearers of the Good News or the Bad News: the Good News of God’s Mercy or the Bad News of condemnation by the pharisees?  When it comes to Marcel Guarnizo and Father Magat and Michael Voris and the various blogs that push this sort of distorted Catholicism, I think only of Jean Jacques Olier’s (1608-1657, the founder of the Sulpicians)  description of such Catholics in his day: “they devour the heart of charity by which the Church lives.”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reversing the Kennedy Doctrine

During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Democratic candidates John F. Kennedy—a Catholic—said in a famous talk to the Houston (Texas) Ministerium:
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” 
      Does anyone object to this statement—really?  Certainly, despite the desire of many in the Church for public support for parochial schools,  no Catholic voices were raised in objection when John Kennedy made this claim that religion should not have a direct role in the political process.  Now a prominent Catholic running for the American presidency does take exception?  Why has there been a switch?  Or has there—has Rick Santorum gone out on a limb—too far out on a limb—with his objection that the separation of Church is not “absolute?”  Is it a legitimate claim that he only wants to preserve the rights of religion in the “public square” or has he set up a straw-man with this argument?  Does the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment threaten believers with being pushed to the margins of the American political process?  I don’t know.  I have long thought that Mr. Santorum’s Catholicism was his own particular take on the Catholic faith; I now think his Americanism is his own particular take on our Constitutional heritage.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Path for the Wise

That picture of Mother Delores Hart in my last post drew an above average number of readers.  People love good old traditional nuns—I love good old traditional nuns, but then I believe that the monastic life in its various expressions—traditional and modern—is very much a hope for both the Church and the world in which we live. 
        Sister Joan Chittester, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie PA, is a great example of the contemporary monastic.  I have never met Sister Joan though we have exchanged letters on a few occasions and she was a friend of a dear cousin of mine who died several years ago.  I have read a number of her books and find that while sometimes her ideas are challenging she can speak right to me.  One of my favorites is The Fire In These Ashes (Sheed and Ward, 1995).  In The Fire In These Ashes, Sister Joan says that the raison d’etre for monastic life is “to find God.”  You don’t become a monk or a nun for any other purpose than to find God. 
      I have always been a bit jealous of those who are called to the monastic life because at the end of the day, what is there except the search to find God?  I am a busy person.  I teach.  I run a library.  I give talks, retreats, renewal programs.  I am on committees.  I advise students with their research and papers.  I see people for spiritual direction.  I do a lot of things—but to what end?  Is life about keeping busy?  Or “putting bread and butter on the table?” I am a historian.  Do I really care about the Battle of Agincourt?  Am I supposed to think there is something worth caring about in the economic bubble of the twelfth century? Why should I bother with the Pirenne Thesis?  The fact of the matter is that history intrigues me not because some event a thousand years ago happened—things happening today have more import—but  because men and women in every age run around like ants on an anthill trying to find something? The question is: What are they looking for?  God?  No, of course not. At least not consciously.  But they are looking for meaning, for purpose.  And different people find different purpose in life.  For some it is love.  For some money. For  some power. For some freedom.  For some Beauty.  And does any of it last?  At the end of the day, does any of it matter?  No.  And so most just keeping running around in their busy circles.  But for those who wake up from their manic quest and realize how transient life is, the search then continues for that which is eternal. We want to set our eyes on some beacon that shines consistently drawing us on and through the pains and the sorrows, the transient joys and passing hopes of today.   Back in the third century people who realized how empty an unfocused life can be began going out into the deserts of Syria and Egypt.  They left their business and their families and their ambitions—and their religion—to live as solitaries, haunted by the realization that there has to be something more than money in the bank, love in their bed, a fancy house in which to live, and even moving ceremonies on Sunday mornings.  Perhaps the most startling thing is that they realized that a nice ceremony on Sunday morning wasn’t answering the call of their heart.  Here they were looking for God and they saw the emptiness of ritual and rite—the failure of religion to capture and hold the Divine Mystery.  Saint Antony Abbot is a prime example: he left his home and his pharmacy shop in Alexandria and shut himself up in an abandoned fort for over twenty years—never coming out, even for Sunday Mass.  
       Now I am not against Mass.  Far from it, I attend daily.  But Antony Abbot realized that the practice of religion was not enough.  There is something more, something beyond even the most fervent practice of religion.  Eighty some years ago Simone Weil wrote an essay in which she clearly distinguished the Love of God from the Love of Religion.  (Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. By Emma Craufurd, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.)  Religion is Religion—it isn’t God.  The Church is the Church—it isn’t God.  Religion or the Church can be the path to God and while it might advance you along the way, it ultimately will fall short of the destination. And often Religion or the Church are misused as paths that only circle back upon themselves.  Even the Sacraments will ultimately fall short.  The Uncreated can never be encapsulated in the created, the Creator in the creature.  This is why monks and nuns—real monks and nuns—have an affinity for agnostics.  They know how elusive God is.  God is always one step beyond us.  We arrive at the place where God was only to find that God has slipped away leaving a trace, a scent, some intangible sign that only makes us more ardent in our pursuit.  And at the same time we are pursuing him, ever more ardently, we begin to suspect that he is, in fact, pursuing us—luring us on ever deeper into  Mysteriummysterium tremendum et fascinans.  And it is this that drives men and women into monasteries.  
        Sometimes in history the monasteries have taken on lives of their own—lives that distract the monk or the nun with the needs of administration, of building a church, of organizing the work, of feeding and clothing a community, of raising the money to do it all.  At the same time the formal prayers can easily replace the inner eros that impels the monk or nun on.  The need to practice the chant or shine the candleholders can seduce the heart away from its hunt and the monk or nun can forget the vision of their earnest years.  That is a tragic pitfall one hopes they can avoid. It is not unique to Christian monasticism—read the Dalai Lama and he will tell you the same about monks in his tradition who become lost in the superficial details and observances of their lives.   But monastic life is no place for religious people.  It is certainly no place for the pious.  Monastic life isn’t about the habit or the incense or even the chant.  All that is just icing on the cake—maybe even a seduction away from the heart of the life which is simply to seek God in his nakedness and in ours.
       And this is why we need to hear more of the monastic voices in the Church.  They have a wisdom that speaks beyond the superciliousness of the pious and directly to the dark night of the seeker.   As Elizabeth Barret Brownking wrote 

      Earth’s crammed with heaven
      And every common bush aflame with God
      And only he who sees takes off his shoes
      The rest sit round it
      And pluck blackberries

A lot of people are plucking blackberries—we need people in the Church today who can point and shout: “Fire!” For what a fire it is for those with eyes to see. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Good Captain for Our Team

Mother Delores Hart, a nun of Regina Laudis Abbey
and former movie star--her years in monastic life
have only increased her love for life--a good witness
of what religous faith is really about
Well I said yesterday that if the Church is to evangelize we need for it to put its best foot forward and you can bet that best foot isn’t attached to a bishop’s leg.  Frankly we need the bishops to step to the background and let others—preferably laity—come to the fore and represent the Church in the world not only because the hierarchy—as a whole—have lost credibility both for their mishandling of the sex abuse crisis but even more for the pompous arrogance with which they speak and demand to be listened to in a world that is far more sophisticated and complex than they are prepared to deal with.  We have Catholic voices that do carry weight and who credibly represent the Catholic voice.  (I will not say “represent the Church” because right now the hierarchy holds the cards as to who does and does not represent “The Church,” but whether their various excellencies and eminences like it or not  “their Church” is more narrow than “the Church” and my point about putting the best foot forward is precisely that “their Church” lacks the verve and élan to make the Gospel come alive in our contemporary world.  Like Peter stepping out of the boat, they have to overcome their fear and choose to trust that the waves won’t prevail, putting their faith in Christ’s promise rather than their own hollow power. 
       As I said in my last posting, you want something to believe in—look to a L’Arche community.  Look at a Franciscan bread-line or a Missionaries of Charity shelter for people with HIV/AIDS.  Have you seen the Jesuit-sponsored Christo Rey academies that prepare poor children for scholarships to first-rate Catholic High Schools that will be springboards to education and out of poverty?  Have you met any of the Little Sisters of the Poor and see how well they take care of the indigent aged?  And there’s more.  Go to Gethsemane Abbey, or Our Lady of the Genesee, or the nuns at Wrentham and see the Cistercian dedication to prayer and work—ora et labora.  Do you know the Carmelite nuns at Baltimore, or Cleveland, or Alhambra—great women giving their lives in compassionate prayer for and with people in every sort of need.  And then there is Catholic Relief Services and the outstanding work they do in Haiti, in Cambodia, in Guatemala and dozens of other countries around the world.  Here in this country look at the services run by Catholic Charities—pregnancy centers, immigrant centers, job-training centers, food pantries, women’s shelters and much more.  Have you ever visited a Catholic Worker House?  Up in Buffalo New York there is a wonderful group of people running Saint Luke’s Mission of Mercy.  In Alexandria Virginia we have Christ House.  You want an intelligent discussion of the issues from a Catholic perspective—you are more likely to find it in America or Commonweal than you are in a letter read from the pulpit.  Actually, at this point, the hierarchy has become little more than a millstone around the neck of American Catholicism—not because they are bishops but because of the sort of men who are most usually chosen for bishops.  We need bishops—but we need bright men who are holy, who are humble, and who look and look attentively to the needs, the struggles, and the experience of their flocks rather than to the monsignoral desk jockeys who run the Vatican and hand out advancements  based on institutional loyalty rather than the wisdom and compassion of a Shepherd’s heart.  
        There is a lot of attention these past few days about Delores Hart, a woman who gave up a promising career in Hollywood to become an enclosed Benedictinve Nun at Regina Laudis Abbey in Connecticut.   I am not going to spend a lot of time on Mother Delores—you can google her.  But a friend of mine sent me the attached link to an interview with her and I was impressed.  Here is a woman who turned away from the glamor and glitz to search for God.  When she speaks she has a lot to say.  It isn’t harsh and condemnatory.  It is frank and honest and yet so positive towards life and love and this world in which we live.   I am not a fan of the Huffington post, but check out the video in this article.  Here is someone that can speak for the Church so much better than whoever it is that writes those letters we keep getting read to us on Sunday mornings.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lions 2: Christians 0

The L'Arche communities of Jean Vanier are examples
of Catholicism at it's best--an example of the teaching
of John Paul II on solidarity as interdependent
communities of the developmentally challenged and
those of us who have been able to achieve to full
potential learn from one another how to live the
Well, I am not sure exactly how he managed to do it, but President Obama has slipped the trap on the contraceptive-for-Catholics issue and regained his political footing to move on.  I am not happy about how it has worked out, but I have to admire his political acumen.  His “compromise” is anything but—it doesn’t address the problem—but while the bishops are still out looking for a fight, the people in the pews, or at least those who were with the President before the kerfuffle, are pretty much back in the Obama camp.  And not just the battle, but the war, has been won and not by the Church.
First—why it is not a “compromise:” 
     It is not a compromise because the bishops were never involved in the solution.  A compromise requires that both sides sit down at the table and work out a solution that both sides can live with but with which usually neither side is completely happy.  Granted, the bishops are certainly not happy with this “solution” but not because it required them to give in in any way but because they were not involved in the process and their key principle was not addressed.  Granted Catholic institutions do not have to pay (directly) for services that are contrary to Catholic moral teaching, but the principle has not been resolved that Churches or religious groups should not have to conform to legislation that directly violates their moral code—that to force them to act contrary to their beliefs would, limit the practice of their religion in ways contrary to the First Amendment.  That is an important principle and they want to get it established as there are other battles yet to come. (See Below.)  Of course there are those among the purpled mitered majesties that want far more than is reasonable—those who do not want anyone to have coverage that includes sterilization or abortifacients and they would not be happy with anything less, but that is not realistic.  Moreover it is part of the much bigger problem for Catholics and that is that Church leadership has totally blown the Defense of Human Life mission right from day one.  (But more about that later.)
My second point:  
      Almost certainly the bishops have never had anything really to worry about.  The recent Supreme Court Hosanna-Tabor case bodes well for the Bishops’ plea that Church institutions should not be required to conform to federal law that violates their religious principles.  The case is not an exact parallel, of course, but in the dispute between a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Michigan and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the Court decided unanimously that religious institutions have a certain immunity from federal legislation.  Given that it was a unanimous decision that federal guidelines did not apply in a dispute between a Church and an employee, it seems unlikely that the same court would side against a religious body when that body was striving to protect its moral or doctrinal integrity from government interference.  Nevertheless, the bishops were wise to sound the alarm before the matter even went to the courts as there is a very key principle of religious freedom here.  On the other hand, wise as they may have been to clarify the issue as one of freedom to be true to one’s religious principles, they have lost in the Court of Public Opinion as most Americans think that the President’s accommodation—it really isn’t a compromise for reasons stated above—is fair.  Pursuing this in the courts—which the bishops are bound to do to preserve the principle of religious autonomy—will only make them look obdurate and pigheaded.  A mitered pig is not a pretty sight; a herd of them (in this case, a Conference) is absolutely appalling.  So even if they win in the Supreme Court—and they probably will—the Church loses and President Obama has still won.  (Not that the President wanted a pissing contest with the Church for the sake of winning a pissing contest with the bishops.)    
And to be honest—while the bishops have already lost, the war is far from over. 
This brings me to the third point we need to consider: 
     This battle over insurance covering contraceptives is only prelude to the battle that will soon emerge over rights of partners in same-sex marriages.  What will happen when employees of Catholic institutions want coverage for their same-sex spouses?  There have already been a few minor skirmishes.  In 1997 then Archbishop William Levada (now Cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome) ended up finding an “accommodation” with the City of San Francisco on the City’s requirement that domestic partners be given the same benefits as married spouses.  It saved face, and indeed provided a generous solution, but surrendered the principle that the Church should not have to comply with legislation that runs counter to its moral teachings. This is the issue that the bishops are now fighting the Obama administration on.  Various Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Dolan of New York, have led spirited but unsuccessful campaigns against legalizing same-sex marriages in their various states.  Some critics have claimed that the efforts were less than ardent and even have wanted the bishops to excommunicate or to deny sacraments to politicians who voted for or signed into law bills legalizing same-sex marriage.   Frankly, the bishops do their duty in upholding Catholic moral doctrine but they don’t seem very anxious to block the legality in civil law of same-sex marriages.  What will they do when they have to start providing spousal benefits? 
      I will tell you what they will have to do—they will have to ante up.  They will whine and complain but they lost this battle decades ago before gay marriage was even a question.  The Church in the United States treats civil marriage as a legal reality despite what the Church thinks of any particular union.  A Church employee who is divorced and remarried without a Church annulment is granted all the benefits and privileges of a married person.  A Catholic employee of the Church who is married outside the Church—and thus who, in the eyes of the Church, is not married at all—is still given the legal benefits and recognition owed to the legal status of the marriage in civil law.  It will have to be the same with same-sex marriages as they are legalized in state after state.  But wait and see:  the bishops will lead a fight—especially after they are bolstered by a Supreme Court decision upholding their right to refuse coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients—to refuse benefits to same sex partners.  And here their hypocrisy will be exposed.  It will clearly be refusing benefits because the beneficiaries are gay and not because they are in what the Church believes to be an “invalid marriage.”  What a debacle that promises to become. 
This leads me to my final point for today: 
     We need to change our strategy as a Church on how we encounter the world in which we live if we hope to change it according to what we believe to be the values of the Gospel.  Today everyone knows what the Catholic Church is against but only a few know what it stands for.  We have become, at least in the perception of our society, a cantankerous old scold and cantankerous old scolds are not in a position to evangelize.  I am not saying that we have to bless everything that comes along, but we do need to stress what we—as a Church—believe in and not what we are against.  We would have much more credibility in our campaign to protect the unborn if we were to be known to be anxious to protect all human life against attack.  We would have more credibility in our campaign to end abortion if we were in respectful and honest dialogue with those who are concerned about the plight of women in today’s society.  We would have more credibility in our campaign to change the law if we made it our priority to change hearts first. 
      We can support marriage and sound family life without being anti-gay.  We don’t have to denigrate human relationships, gay or straight, to affirm our belief in heterosexual marriage.  We can accord each and every individual in our society respect and dignity—and equal access to social benefits and legal status—without giving our personal approval to the various relationships they may be in.   We might actually witness to the Gospel if we, like the Lord of the Gospels, encountered individuals in their particular circumstances rather than try to reduce people to categories and stereotypes. 
       The Catholic Church earned a moral reputation through the nineteenth and early twentieth century by building hospitals to care for the sick of any and all denominations, by opening schools and colleges that were as good as any in the land, by being the welcoming home for immigrants to our shores, by being the voice for the poor, by endorsing the corporate strength of the working classes against those who exploited them.  Today we are squandering that moral strength left and right and not even so much by the moral failures witnessed to in the sex-abuse crisis as much as by the pompous high-handedness of our prelates and the pharisaical hard-hearted self-righteousness of those who have allied themselves with the religious right in a political cause that hides behind the skirts of a pseudo-Christianity.  In a Dom Helder Camara, a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa, a Thomas Gumbleton, an Oscar Romero, a Daniel Berrigan, a Geno Baroni, a Horace McKenna, a Bernard Topel, I can see the apostles.  In a Catholic Worker House, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Saint Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a Catholic Charities center, a Missionaries of Charity shelter for AIDS patients, a (Jesuit) Cristo Rey Prep School, a Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged, an Jean Vanier L'Arche community, S.O.M.E. (So Others May Eat), a Saint Francis Breadline I see the Gospel becoming visible.  As a community of faith, our Catholic Church in the United States still has it—we only need to put our best food forward.  And it ain’t wearing a red stocking and a silver-buckled shoe.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

More Than One Way to be Catholic

The Byzantne Chapel in the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
in Washington DC
Well, last night some of my colleagues and I were going to go out after work for some Mardi Gras festivities—nothing out of control, just a nice Cajun dinner and music but Christos from our finance office said he couldn’t—it was—for him—already Lent. Already Lent on Mardi Gras?  Christos is Byzantine Catholic and Lent for him had begun last Sunday.  It is a reminder that not all Catholics are Roman Catholic and that we should not refer to our Church as “Roman” but simply as Catholic for the Church does indeed include Ruthenian, Coptic, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Syro-Malankar, Syriac, Maronite, Armenian, Melkite, and I don’t know how many other Catholics—all of whom stand in communion with (not under) the See of Rome and its Pope as full members of the Catholic Church.        I have always been surprised how few Catholics know about the Eastern Rites.  (the Western Rites—of which there are more than the Roman—is another question and somewhat more complex).  I was always aware of the multiple ways of being Catholic given that just a few blocks away from my hope parish in New York State is a Byzantine Rite Catholic Church.  Father Peter had fled what was then the Soviet Union after World War II with his young wife.  Their four children were in our parish school and we never thought anything of a married priest.  Back in those pre-Vatican II days Father Peter and his parish would come to our parish one Sunday a year—just before lent—and sing the Divine Liturgy.  We all knew that Divine Liturgy was another word for Mass and we all went to communion. Our pastor wanted us to know that there were many different ways Mass could be celebrated.  By 1960 their liturgy was already in English and we could follow along very easily, though the music—and the entire liturgy was sung—was beyond our (at the time unused) Catholic vocal range. Nevertheless, his parishioners raised the roof with their singing.  And communion was in both kinds—with small cubes of real bread soaked in the Precious Blood and given into our mouths on a spoon.  (In those days none of us received in the hand, so communion on the tongue was nothing unusual or archaic, though this wasn’t so much on the tongue as dropped into our mouths.)  All this was a great help when Vatican II came along because we had no illusions about “The Mass of Antiquity” or ridiculous stories about how the Mass had been given in the form we knew it by Christ to his Apostles.  We saw for ourselves that Mass could be radically different in form and yet the same Mass. We saw that priests can be married and be no less holy than unmarried ones.  We saw that the Liturgy can be celebrated in various languages.  We knew that the unity of the Church did not depend on uniformity but rather on the bonds of charity that united us in diversity.  
      As I have gotten older and studied a bit I have found that there are even doctrinal differences among the various rites.  Purgatory, for example, is not a universally held doctrine among the rites for there are different eschatologies in the East than in the West.  The Doctrine of the Assumption (or what we Catholics call the Assumption) is formulated differently in the Byzantine Rites, stressing Mary’s “Falling Asleep” or death.  And my friends among the clergy in the various Eastern Rites keep telling me that it is fine with them if I keep original sin where it belongs—in the Western Church—as they want nothing to do with it.  Yet united in charity and mutual respect and around the See of Peter we are one Church—unified in our diversity.   

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Back to the Future: Saint Peter Damian

Pope Gregory VII--sponsor of the Gregorian
Reformation in the 11th century
Today is the Feast of Peter Damian—one of the most important reformers n the history of the Church and one of my favorite saints.  Peter lived a thousand years ago (1007-1072) at a time when there was an even greater need for Church reform than there is today.  The Church had become hopelessly entangled in the political scene as the Ottonian emperors (Otto I, II, and III as well as Henry II) used their imperial power to reform the Church but in the process had subjugated it to imperial politics.  What had begun as reform threatened to make the Church little more than a slave of the State and it became necessary for Church to both undertake internal reform and seek independence from the Crown.  The struggle would culminate under Gregory VII, the pope for whom the Gregorian Reform is named and who would challenge Henry IV and begin a long struggle between the papacy and the Salian (and later Hohenstaufen) Emperors.  It was not a good time for anyone—kings, popes, or faithful, but it ended with the Church asserting its independence and having benefitted from the Gregorian and then the Innocentian reformations.  Although Gregory VII (the monk Hildebrand) is credited with the Gregorian Reform there were a number of others equally important and one of these is Peter Damian.  Damian is most noted for insisting on the Reform of the clergy, especially as regards enforcing celibacy and his demands that the clergy be purged of all those whose lives did not conform to traditional moral norms.  I want to reprint some material (edited) from an earlier blog posting. 
      There was reason for Peter Damien to insist on reform with a passion. The secular clergy were not taking celibacy seriously. This was a time in which the Church was drawing more seriously on canons (church laws) derived from various early regional church synods (Elvira 306, Carthage 387, Turin 401, Orange 441) that prohibited bishops, priests, deacons, and subdeacons from being married. As we discussed in some earlier postings (July 21, 23, 24 2011) the concern in the eleventh and subsequent centuries was primarily the protection of church property from being alienated to clergy families and many bishops turned a blind eye to the fact that most of their clergy were living in what we might call common-law marriages. To Peter Damian, however, this was not marriage of any sort but concubinage. The clergy wives were, to his mind and in his vocabulary “whores”; the clergy themselves men who had given themselves over to base passions.
     Speaking of base passions, if Peter Damian thought little of the secular clergy for their loose morals, he thought less of his fellow monks. Monasteries, whether in fact or in Peter Damian’s perception (and probably to some extent in both) were filled with homosexuals, and monks, when not busy with Divine Worship, gave themselves over to the most gross of sexual practices. Peter Damian wrote a book, the Liber Gomorrhianus, (The Gomorrhean Book—named after the famous Gomorrah, twin cities with Sodom) outlining the same-sex practices of the contemporary clergy with the most explicitly vivid detail.) By the way, he did not limit his accusations of clerical homosexuality to the monks but extended it to the papal court (the Curia) whom he thought were nothing more than a coven of mincing catamites. (Now that is a word you don’t hear often.) 
      Peter Damian was even more intolerant of gay clergy than married clergy. He wanted men inclined to same-sex relations barred from ordination and those who were ordained stripped of their Orders and reduced to the lay state. When Leo IX (pope from 1049-1054 and himself an ardent reformer of the Church) refused, Peter Damian turned his anger on the pope and wrote an angry letter accusing the pope of neglect in his duties. 
      Peter Damian was by no means a stupid man, but he was quite anti-intellectual. Steeped in monastic tradition—and the tradition of the ancient desert monks more than the urbane Benedictinism, Damian rejected the importance of secular studies, even (and perhaps especially) Philosophy. For him, as for Cassian and the early monks of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, the monk was a “man of one book”—the Bible. This no doubt contributed to his zeal (some would say fanaticism) in “purifying” the Church. He was one who, like the Gnostics in early Christianity and the Puritans in the English Reformation could simply not bear compromise with what he believed to be the Christian ideal. 
       Surprisingly, while such a “puritan” and anxious to rid the church of what was its biggest problem, simony (the buying and selling of Church offices or positions), he was not nearly as rigid with simonical clergy as with sexually active clergy. He wrote a second book defending not simony, but the validity of the ordination of bishops and priests who had purchased their offices. Some in the Church were saying that simoniacs (those clergy who had obtained their position by purchase) were not validly ordained. (The subject of valid orders is an interesting one and one that we should take a look at sometime as it has impact on contemporary ecumenical affairs.)
To his credit, Peter Damian was a monk and not a man of ambition; nevertheless, he was forced by Pope Stephen IX in 1057 to accept nomination as a Cardinal. Stephen and subsequent popes frequently used Peter Damian as a legate to conduct business in the pope’s name in various places where the Church was having difficulties. His most important legation was to Milan in 1059, representing Pope Nicholas II to decide the dispute between the clergy of Milan—who openly violated the canons on celibacy and who, for the greater part, had obtained their various benefices through purchase. One of the cathedral canons, Arialdo of Cucciago had allied himself with Bishop Anselm of Baggio, the Bishop of Lucca, to form the pataria, an organization that motivated the faithful to reject the ministry of married clergy. Arialdo and Anselm mobilized the middle and working classes against the Bishop, Guido da Velate, and the nobility who supported the married (and simonical) clergy. It was a very complex issue, as married clergy were still the norm through much of the Church and as for simony—well that too, if wrong, was a well-established practice. Beneath the surface there were other issues. One was the attempt of the papacy to establish control over the independent dioceses such as Milan who often were allied with the Emperor and his policies.             

     Another issue was the social conflict between the working classes that supported Arialdo and the propertied classes that supported the bishop. In any event, Peter Damian effected a compromise. The archbishop agreed that no church position would be given in return for money or gifts. He then imposed penances on all who had purchased Church office, but agreed that they should keep their positions if they accepted the obligations of celibacy. The rigorists were furious, because they wanted the offending clergy—both simoniacs and married clergy—permanently deprived of office, but Damian’s compromise held—temporarily. It was to break out again under Alexander II. 
        When Nicholas II died in 1061, the Cardinals met per his instruction (Nicholas was the pope who in 1059 had designated the Cardinals to be the sole electors of the pope; see blog entry January 12, 2011) and elected the aforementioned Bishop of Lucca, Anselm da Baggio, as pope. Anselm, as we saw, was a proponent of reform. Several weeks later, an anti-reform group of bishops met at the summoning of the Empress Regent, Agnes of Poitou, and elected Pietro Cadalus as Honorius II. This created a schism in the Church as the Reform Party and Imperial Party struggled for control. This shows what the real issue for the Gregorian Reform was to be—not Church reform per se, but imperial control of the papacy. Was the pope to be free to exercise his authority unimpeded by the Emperor or was he to administer the Church at the Emperor’s bidding? Peter Damian was on the side of a free papacy and did his best to resolve the schism in the Church in favor of Alexander. He was unsuccessful in the short run, but at a synod convoked in Augsburg by the Archbishop of Cologne, Anno II, in 1062 Peter Damian made a spirited defense of Alexander and the autonomy of the papacy. Through the influence of Peter Damian, Alexander was determined to be the authentic successor of Saint Peter.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lions 1, Christians 0

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport,
spokesperson for the Bishops'
Conference regarding the
contraception mandate in the Healh
Care Law
There they sat: Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport William Lori, President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Dr. Matthew Harrison, Union University Professor of Moral Philosophy Dr. C Ben Mitchell, Yeshiva University Director of Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Ethics Professor Dr. Craig Mitchell—five men testifying before Congress on the pressing question of the implications on Religious Freedom for the Health Care Mandate for Contraceptive Coverage.  What is the problem?  Well the problem is this: appearances.  The battle is won not by facts but by emotions and whoever thought to put an all-male panel of witnesses up on a question that is not only about protecting religious freedom but also about women’s health must be a secret agent for the other side. 
     The debate about requiring religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in their mandated health care programs for their female employees is not unlike the debate about the legalization of abortion that had involved many of the same parties and which has divided our society for decades.  It is not a one-issue question.  I wish some of my fellow pro-Life Catholics would listen—LISTEN—to some of my friends who are pro-choice.  We on the pro-Life side of the argument are concerned about unborn babies.  And yes, we will use that language—babies—because that is what they are and we will not mask the critical implications of this debate with euphemisms that take away the personhood from these victims of intra-uterine slaughter.  Having said that, we need to sit down and listen to the pro-choice camp speak of their concern for women and for the complexities with which unplanned and unwanted pregnancies often confront women.  And we need to let them choose the language for their argument. Fair is Fair and we need to admit that pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing present women with limitations to their educational opportunities, to their careers, to the economic security of their families, to the stability of their relationships.  At times pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing even present serious threat to their health, if not even to their lives.  I have found that when I sit down and talk about abortion with my pro-choice friends that we are not even talking about the same agenda.  And if I want to protect the lives of unborn children then I have to be involved in protecting women from being put in the difficult positions that make abortion the only practical solution to their dilemmas. 
    This debate about the Health Care Mandate for Contraception is very much the same.  I am concerned about religious groups not being forced to provide services which they regard as morally unacceptable.  But that is only one side of the question.  I must also be concerned that women have access to services which my religion may say is morally wrong but which is legal.  Being legal doesn’t make something right.  I am not saying that.  But neither do my religious beliefs  make it wrong.  We have reached a social consensus on the legitimacy of birth control—as indeed we have on abortion.  I have the right to work to change that social consensus; indeed if I believe something is wrong I have an obligation to work to help my fellow members of society see why it is wrong, just as its advocates have a right to work to try to convince me.  But neither do any of us have a right to force society to live under the minority opinion and neither should any of us be forced to act against our consciences because the majority believes differently than do we. 
     This debate gets messy because there are those who in their religious zeal would wish to prohibit women from having access to contraception under any and all circumstances.  And here, we should say "prevent people from having access" as there are male contraceptives as well as female.  To proscribe contraception entirely is clearly an extremist position but there are some in the Church—bishops, clergy, and laity—who would have contraception be illegal and generally unavailable.  Such a position does not help any rational discussion. 
      Then there ere are those who realize that contraceptives are a part of modern medical protocols but who believe that they should be in the realm of private choice and paid for by the consumer out of her or his own pocket.  They may believe this because of religious reasons or, more likely, because they do not favor publicly funded health care of any sort for anyone.  They need to be honest and admit that their oppositoin to "ObamaCare" is not moral, it is purely political.
      Neither of these is a good position for us Catholics to be in.
      Then there are those who recognize that universal health care is—in general—in accord with the fundamental values of our Christian faith/  Among these are many who may or may not  be opposed to contraceptives but who recognize that contraceptives are a part of modern medical protocols and and as such should ordinarily be covered by health care as are other protocols; but who also believe that those religiously owned institutions (though not individual employers) whose religious traditions consider contraception to be immoral, should not be required to offer that coverage.  At the same time they should not begrudge their employees to have access to contraceptives provided through and by other means for which the religious institutions do not have to pay or be involved. 
     That might sound like I agree with “The Obama Compromise”
      Well, I don’t.  For one thing, it isn’t a compromise.  Eleanor Holmes Norton, the “Delegate” to Congress form the District of Columbia claimed that the Administration had worked out a compromise between the religious institutions and the insurance companies.  That is not quite the truth.  The Administration did not sit down with representatives of the religious organizations involved and with the insurance companies and hammer out a solution to which all could, admittedly with some reservations (that is how compromises usually work), agree.  But it is too late now.  The president slipped the trap into which incompetent advisors had led him.  The Church will not have to provide—directly—contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to employees of its schools, universities, administrative offices, hospitals, and other institutions.  I have doubts that the insurance companies will provide these out of their own generosity; it seems more a shell game, but what can we say?  I am not back in the Obama camp but I am sure that most of my friends who had concerns are. The President is to be congratulated on creating an appearance of reasonableness.  Bishop Lori, on the other hand, by sitting with an all-male panel has been left with egg on his face—and the Church’s—for not understanding that perception has more to do with winning than reality and thus the Church has lost.  More on this to come.  In the meantime, would their purpled mitered majesties please get some professional advice  on how to handle public relations?   

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trouble Right Here in River (Tiber) City II

Melozzo da Forli: Angel Playing a Lute
The only angels in the Vatican are in the
the art museum
Yesterday’s posting was an interesting article by Philip Pullella and published by Reuters claiming that there is an internal war, or as Pullella puts it “a sinister power struggle”  going on in the Vatican for control of the Catholic Church.  It talks of corruption, intrigue, financial irregularities, prelates backstabbing one another, plots to control the next papal election and even a possible attempt on the pope’s life.  If you have read various entries on this blog—especially about the medieval and renaissance papacies (see entries for  January 15, April 18, June 6, 9, 18,  2011)—you will know as we pray: sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper in saecula saeculorum, or in the vulgar tongue: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. 
      At the root of the problem seems to be a deep ideological division between Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the current Secretary of State and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the previous Secretary of State.  (Papal Secretaries of State are more like Prime Ministers in terms of the power they hold; they are not just Foreign Ministers as in our country.) 
     Sodano ran a notoriously corrupt machine when he was in office.  He protected Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, from his accusers who were charging him with sexual abuse of seminarians. In the event the Maciel saga was far more sordid than anyone had ever thought. (see entries for June 2, Sept 22, October 27, 28, 2011)  Not only were the charges of abuse against young men substantiated, but Maciel apparently fathered two illegitimate children.  Maciel threw vast amounts of money at Vatican officials to not only shield himself from investigation but to enhance his reputation and influence.  Cardinal Sodano was a key player in this scheme, protecting the wayward priest even from the reaches of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) who was one of the few in the Vatican who seemed genuinely interested in cleaning up the sex abuse crisis and restoring the Church’s reputation.  Bertone’s appointment to replace Sodano was seen as an attempt to clean up the Vatican, but as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Bertone now seems to be no better than his predecessor. 
      As Benedict has aged word has it that Bertone has eased the reins of power from the pope’s hands into his own.  The debacle surrounding the Vatican’s turning down the re-election of Dr. Lesley-Anne Knight as Executive Secretary of Caritas International (see entry for June 7, 2011) shows just how much power the Holy Father has ceded, willingly or unwillingly, to Cardinal Bertone.  According to Pullella (and common gossip in Rome) Bertone is stacking the College of Cardinals with his cronies as he readies for the next papal election.   He certainly has pushed forward a disproportionate number of his fellow Salesians (the Religious Congregation to which he belongs) to various posts in the hierarchy.  It’s Bertone’s Church these days.  
      I remember when Benedict was elected that a priest being interviewed from Rome by RTE (The Irish National Television Station) referred to the Curia as “That rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignors.”  It evoked a reaction from several commentators but to those of us who live in Rome, it was an understatement, almost an euphemism.  We had hoped that the change of regime would sweep it clean.  Benedict, or rather Cardinal Ratzinger, was—for all his harshness—one of the few prelates with an unquestioned integrity.   Nevertheless, I have thought from the get-go that the election of Benedict was a poor choice.  Despite stories to the contrary, he wanted the election and he worked hard to get it.  I was living in Rome during the final years of John Paul’s papacy and one could see then-Cardinal Ratzinger slowly and patiently (and much less conspicuously than Bertone today)  constructing the machine that would carry a conclave in his favor.  I said that Cardinal Ratzinger was a man of integrity and I don’t believe he was seeking the papacy for power but rather that I think he believed that John Paul had taken the Church down some paths that needed to be corrected, if not reversed.   He was painfully aware that John Paul was weak theologically.  He saw John Paul as far too open both to other religions and to other Churches within the Christian fold.  (As a historian, I prefer not to use the theological distinction between “churches” and “ecclesial communities.”  It may be theologically precise, but it’s snotty.)  I think Benedict had some ideas on Liturgical Reform he wanted to implement as well. He seems to have wanted to restore a Pius XII sort of mysterious majesty to the papacy after the grandfatherly John XXIII and John Paul I, the Hamlet Paul VI, and the ol’ soft-shoe John Paul II.   And he was more ready than John Paul to give room—or I should say “even more room” to the “Traditionalists” who rejected Vatican II in an attempt to corral them back into the Petrine fold.  At the same time, I think he wanted to be somewhat less polarizing than John Paul and use a more dialogical model of reconciliation.  Like most academics, Benedict was naïve and I think he achieved very little of his agenda.  The Church is no better off at the end of his regime than it was when he became Pope.  In fact, I think it is considerably worse.  His olive branch to the Traditionalists has been met with only more demands from them.  His rigidity on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue has only isolated Catholicism more at a time when secularism has taken up its holy war against the public face of any and all religion.  His liturgical plans have not materialized (and for that I am grateful).  Instead of austere majesty, the Papacy is just sinking into archaic irrelevance.  And even as a lean and hungry Benedict once stood next to an aging and increasingly ineffective John Paul II, now the lean and hungry Bertone  guides the tremulous hand of Benedict.  The Church deserves better.  I don’t mean the Curia Romana or the Papacy deserve better.  Pullella’s article makes it clear that much as in Catherine of Siena’s day, the Curia Romana and its ambitious officials deserve the stench and fury of the everlasting fires.  I mean the Church—you and me, the People of God—we deserve  better.