In today’s “On the Square” essay, First Things columnist Elizabeth Scalia draws attention to a recent episode in the “war on Christmas” and the war on the “war on Christmas,” both of which have grown rather tiresome over the years. Scalia notes that the cynical author of a recent blasphemous exhibit at the Smithsonian understands freedom of speech to be exactly the opposite of what it is:
Depictions of atheists, communists, or exploitated Crucifixes are risk-free ventures. There will always be a Gopnik ready to call such depictions “smart” and an insecure, media-cue’d gentry ready to embrace them for social cache, and a publicly funded art establishment eager to fund them. There will always be a career to be made.
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” shows us a working-class man standing amid his neighbors. By the tilt of his gaze we know he is speaking to someone elevated, perhaps seated at a bench or dais—someone in authority. There are no nightsticks in sight, as there would have been and would be today in too many places in the world. There is no commissar, monitoring his comments, demanding either his acquiescence or his silence. There are only people, not all agreeing, yet giving a man his say. Somewhere behind him is, undoubtedly, a reporter from the local newspaper, a young Gopnik, free to write whatever he wants.
In today’s second “On the Square” article, Peter J. Leithart points out that what poets have always seen in love (“It’s a burning thing”) can be appreciated by theologians with equal attention—a lesson available to us since the Fall of our first parents.
Most offenses against love, Leithart goes on, owe to “defenses against intimacy”—intimacy that brings with it fear of losing one’s self to the existential other, whether God or man.
This has been true since Eden, but the natural post-Fall instinct to recoil from intimacy is reinforced by a culture that in its most basic assumptions and habits is a massive, systematic defense against intimacy, and this is, paradoxically, most obvious in what it tells us about will and desire. The world tells me that my choices are free only if they are entirely and completely mine. If any other person influences my decision, it is no longer free, no longer valid. Other people are obstacles to my freedom, threats to my will. The flame only consumes.
In today’s first “On the Square” essay, Joe Carter sets up a startling and original juxtaposition between two disparate characters: Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark and Frank Capra’s George Bailey. While for Roark, all roads lead to self-satisfaction, George Bailey represents—on the surface, at least—an archetype of self-sacrifice and self-giving. But the comparison requires a more thorough analysis:
…Capra’s audience flatters themselves by believing the message of Wonderful Life is that their own lives are just as worthy, just as noble, and just as wonderful as George Bailey’s. In a way, they are as delusional as the Randian Rourke-worshippers. Despite the fact that they left their small-town communities for the city, put their parents in an assisted living facility and don’t know the names of their next door neighbors, they truly believe they are just like Capra’s hero.
What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in modern popular culture is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely and repeatedly for his sacrifices.
And in our second “On the Square” item, George Weigel explains why Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s ascent to leadership among his brother bishops means “the tectonic plates within U.S. Catholicism’s ordained leadership have shifted.”
In addition to the litany of unhelpful distortions and indulgence in wishful thinking on the part of some religion opinion writers over the weekend, some of the more rigorous in their ranks have provided helpful bits of writing on the Pope’s “condom comment.” One is Dr. Janet Smith’s helpful analysis, which offers this useful analogy on the condom-use question:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
Still better is Jonah Goldberg’s excellent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, where he gets to the heart of Church critics’ philosophic error. He also reveals respect for the rationality of the Church’s view, even while he doesn’t fully accept it himself:
Over the weekend, the media (mis)reported that Benedict had renounced the Roman Catholic Church’s longstanding “policy” against condom use. I put “policy” in quotes because the media have a tendency to portray all church positions as if they were like rules for trash pickup; easily changed or abandoned upon papal or bureaucratic whim. That’s not how it works.
What Benedict said in a book-length interview is that in certain circumstances, using a condom would be less bad than not using one. To use Benedict’s example, a male prostitute with HIV would be acting more responsibly, more morally, if he wore a condom while plying his trade than if he didn’t.
The pontiff understands that not all harms are equal. Assault is wrong, for instance, but assault with a deadly weapon is more wrong than assault with a non-deadly one. Recognizing and limiting the harm you do can be the “first step in the direction of a moralization, a first act of responsibility in developing anew an awareness of the fact that not everything is permissible.”
Ross Douthat also offers useful commentary on his blog, in “Condoms, Catholicism and Casuistry” pointing to a 1996 interview in which then Cardinal Ratzinger showed his deep appreciation for the human and supernatural questions raised by the culture’s contraceptive impulse:
…Today we find ourselves before a separation of sexuality from procreation such as was not known earlier, and this makes it all the more necessary not to lose sight of the inner connection between the two. . . . [Third], the Church wants to keep man human … we cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but most solve them morally, with a life-style.
Pope Benedict’s clarification of the moral theology relating to condom use has produced one of those moments in media life when journalists ceremoniously remove their thinking caps and implement a hopelessly formulaic analysis of the Church’s inner politics and theological dialogue.
CNN and others have so far breathlessly noted Pope Benedict’s nuanced statement, but only with about as much subtlety as inept opinion writers reported on his equally nuanced quotation during the “Regensburg Moment.” Others, like the Telegraph, have been positively devious, proclaiming that the Church no longer opposes contraceptive acts. And, tiresome to say, each of these articles wearily attempts to relate the condom comment to past sex abuse by priests.
The expected lines of “argument” have been drawn up: The antiquarian, stuck-in-the-mud Church is finally catching up with modern ethics, with the spirit of the age, and with progress. After all, we are at a point in human history where the vast majority of things formerly prohibited are now considered good.
There are those who see the Church primarily as a political body, which, owing only to its self-interest, tends not to change its “policies” on issues very often. Other commentators have a somewhat more accurate understanding of the Church as a messenger with an unchanging message, but still are at pains to understand moral absolutes. Then there are those who understand that the Church proclaims certain moral absolutes, and must therefore be consistent.
Fr. Raymond De Souza published a short piece today on the recent “orgy of violence in Iraq”, in which sixty Catholics and their priests were killed while attending Mass at Baghdad’s cathedral, Our Lady of Salvation. A more anti-Christian attack could hardly have been orchestrated, with the Muslim gunmen shouting “God is Great” as they systematically killed the priests, then as many of the parishioners as could be dispatched before police arrived and their suicide vests came into use. Photojournalists documented the post-mortem scene inside the cathedral, and—let’s just say the walls were covered in blood, making Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene look antiseptic.
De Souza expresses what strikes me as an entirely appropriate anger, not just at the attack, but at our apparent numbness to it. For one, it’s hard to reconcile our tepid indifference to a coordinated, systematic, religiously-themed attack on worshiping Christians with the widespread ignition of violent Islamic protest (and calls for death to Christians and Americans) in response to Rev. Terry Jones lonely, unfulfilled threat to burn Korans. He writes:
Indeed, the international community issued the usual boilerplate condemnations, most of them refusing to identify those responsible. The same statements could have been used had the Rotarians decided to massacre the Salvation Army. In the Church, too, there is often a reluctance to support vigorously Christians under attack, and to call things by name. . . .
Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. So Scripture teaches us, and so it must be for us, leaving vengeance to the Lord, and imploring the grace of conversion and reconciliation. But let us not blanch from raising our voices to the Lord, with righteous anger and hot tears, that He might visit His vengeance upon those who did this, bring down His wrath upon their heads and exact upon them a terrifying justice in full measure.
That’s not the language of imbalances; it is the anguish and agony of the shepherd when the flock is being slaughtered.
As a read through the First Thingsarchive can attest, the intersection of religion, culture, and public life is usually complex enough to require analysis, not mere observation as a spectator. New York City, the “prolepsis of the New Jerusalem,” has been a venue for quite a bit of that intersection, but rarely in such plain form as was recently executed in another great city by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
As their press release goes, they performed a “Random Act of Culture” at Macy’s in City Center Philadelphia, home of the famous (and still the world’s largest) Wanamaker pipe organ. In the flash mob style of New York’s Improv Everywhere, 650 choristers burst into an almost seasonal run-through of the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s Messiah. Thankfully, it seems the secularist police were off duty at the time of the singing.
Jennifer Fulwiler, atheist-turned Catholic apologist, runs Conversion Diary, a beautifully executed and winsome blog chronicling “what it’s like to be part of an orthodox faith after a life of nonbelief.” Several weeks back, she posted an audio file of her riveting yet refreshingly unvarnished conversion story.
Another good audio byte is here, where she recounts how her cultivated pro-choice mystique was, as the saying goes, mugged by reality. Another excellent post can be found here, where Fulwiler recounts a first encounter with a “real Christian”—that is, a Christian who didn’t fit the received caricature so common in secular culture:
One evening in college some friends and I were sitting around in my dorm room, getting ready to head out to go to a party, when the phone rang. Caller ID showed that it was yet another telemarketer. Our number had been inundated with sales calls, and I was getting sick of it. We had some time to kill before we needed to leave, so I decided to have some fun with the telemarketer for my friends’ amusement.
I motioned for everyone to get quiet, clicked the speakerphone button, and answered the call. Immediately a middle-aged-sounding man began his pitch, announcing that he was with a local home services company and asking me leading questions about my carpet cleaning needs.
Doing a horrible imitation of an east Texas accent, I interrupted him to say, “I don’t believe in cleaning carpets.”
He paused. “Excuse me?”
“Sir, that kind of thing is against my religion,” I said in a lecturing voice. The idea came to me to play the role of a religious zealot, to see if I could get the telemarketer to be the first one to hang up if I launched into a hellfire and brimstone lecture about how carpet cleaners were from the devil. Boy, wouldn’t my friends think that was hilarious — me, the consummate atheist, playing the character of a religious nut!
One recent addition to the same-sex marriage debate is the claim that by advancing arguments that civil marriage ought not to become gender-neutral, conservatives have “blood on their hands,” having committed the polemical equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater, especially given the tragic recent suicides of gay sexual harrassment victims.
As the argument goes, young gay teens witness the battle over the public meaning of civil marriage, and conclude that traditional marriage threatens their future—even the worth of their own lives—causing depression and suicide among the emotionally vulnerable. In other words, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes might describe it, it’s a case of deciding whether advocacy for the status quo on civil marriage constitutes a “clear and present danger” to public mental health.
There are at least three preliminary objections to the “clear and present danger” argument. First, it is highly dubious to claim that proposals for same-sex marriage have a logical connection to the gay rights movement. The nuts and bolts of same-sex marriage, after all, merely propose that civil marriage law be changed so as to be indifferent to gender; this in turn refocuses the purpose of marriage on adult preferences, and away from solidifying the archetypal environment for child-rearing. This setup is logically not “gay marriage,” because two men civilly marrying need not identify as gay for the contract to be recognized.
There are no plans to test prospective couples for gay self-identification; this, among other things, would discriminate against groups like bisexuals, or the arguable majority of others who take their “nontraditional” sexual orientations to be more fluid than to fit into strict categories of attraction. It is true, of course, that gender-neutral marriage is conducive to the novel kinds of family structures many public intellectuals are now positing, but the broad identification of same-sex marriage with the ordinary human rights of self-identifying gay people is simply a logical mistake.
Back in our December 2009 issue, we published a While We’re At It needling Conservapedia, the curious online home of the Conservative Bible Project. The underpinnings of that project, it seemed, stressed conservatism first and Christianity second. Sneering leftist hermeneuts, it’s furtively alleged, read liberal biases into Scripture, a state of affairs calling for a conservative solution not in hermeneutics but in an equal and oppositely biased exegesis of the biblical text:
. . . the Conservative Bible Project sets out ten guidelines to shape the proposed retranslation. Some of these include an emphasis on “powerful conservative terms” such as “volunteer” instead of “comrade,” “resourceful” instead of “shrewd,” or, in another case, a decidedly pragmatic substitution of “gamble” for “cast lots” to effect guilt-by-association with gambling. Even free-market principles should be brought out in the text, the Conservapedia writers insist—especially in Jesus’ “economic parables.”
One of Mark Shea’s posts today brought to mind another manifestation of this misordering of first principles—what Pope Leo XIII called “Americanism” in his 1899 apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, as Shea points out. As the letter suggests, it’s one thing to be patriotic, but quite another to be “American first, Christian second.”
From the foregoing it is manifest, beloved son, that we are not able to give approval to those views, which, in their collective sense, are called by some “Americanism.” But if by this name are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name.
But if this is to be so understood that the doctrines which have been adverted to above are not only indicated, but exalted, there can be no manner of doubt that our venerable brethren, the bishops of America, would be the first to repudiate and condemn it as being most injurious to themselves and to their country. For it would give rise to the suspicion that there are among you some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.
If a politician stood before us and proclaimed, polemically, that his campaign would be entirely without polemics, would we believe him? Or, worse, if he said his campaign would try to avoid politics? Tyranny over language either works or backfires spectacularly in political movements, and each passing instance of it adds urgency to the need for “political” to be rescued from its current status as a slur.
Styled after the Rainbow Sash Movement, People Representing the Sexual Minority is a student group at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. Like Rainbow Sash, PRiSM’s favored method of protest is to disrupt Catholic Masses, as they did recently against Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The group expressed frustration after Archbishop John C. Nienstedt withheld the sacrament from them because they wore rainbow buttons and sashes signaling their support for same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality. The archbishop, who was celebrating his first student Mass at St. John’s on September 26, instead gave a blessing to members of the group, which included students from St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, as well as three nuns and a priest.
Though the group’s tactic relies upon denial of Communion for effectiveness, members nonetheless chided Archbishop Nienstedt’s withholding of the Sacrament as an “extreme statement.” And then there was the best line of all, from one of the students: “We weren’t the ones who made it political….Once the archbishop denied communion, he made it political.” Immunity from politicking aside, the protesters truly didn’t seem to grasp how thickly they had layered the irony. Plainly, a statement that a protest is not political is itself a political statement. Second, if Nienstedt’s adherence to Church law is a political statement, it was a statement coerced by PRiSM members, which, of course, means it is properly attributed to them alone. An interesting episode, indeed, wherein Nienstedt’s purported political offense—in the eyes of PRiSM activists—almost seems to overshadow the primarily sexual issue at the heart of the activists’ cause.
Popular in requiems and funereal music, 1 Corinthians 15:55 can rouse tear-sodden lids, but sees only the rarest treatment in music’s popular genres. To dispatch with this dilemma, poet David Musgrave has infused the verse with new musical nuance in a poem titled “On the Inevitable Decline into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician Who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age.”
Due to copyright, you’ll have to read the poem’s diminutive entirely after the jump, over at the New Yorker.
Google’s expanding empire has of late met with harsh criticism on the fronts of privacy and censorship, but has so far retained a magisterial air—making few concessions and continuing to push acceptance of its new technological paradigms. Amidst criticism that the company has done little to safeguard its patrons’ personal information, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said today that few appreciate the extent to which information is in public view:
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.
Sounds like a rather poor substitute for good old confession. More to his point, loosening the strictures around name changing would be a plausible, if chaos inducing, band-aid solution to the problem. What’s still more worrying is that our future marker of identity will be far too complex to be reducible to a name.
An odd article appeared in today’s Ottawa Citizen, giving account of the research of Dr. Georg Northoff, a neuroscientist at Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research. After a recent period of investigation, Northoff proclaimed that while God may well exist, the theistic domain will remain forever unintelligible to us, due to the limitations of our cognitive equipment.
While it’s defensible and common (at least in universities) to declare agnosticism due to epistemological skepticism, Northoff, a scientist and philosopher, takes things a step further:
“We will never be able to answer the existence of God,” he said this week from his office at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “There is a limit because of the way the brain functions. (That) limit . . . is the price we to pay for consciousness.
We might do well to substitute “neuroscientists” for “we” in Northoff’s first quotation, and we might cheekily ask if we can know that squares are square, and that circles are round. It’s unclear whether Northoff believes that a vastly more complex human brain might be able to apprehend God’s essence, or whether all biological computers like the brain are prohibited by nature from accessing the divine. Either way, he misses the point. Proclaiming a theoretical limit to the brain’s metaphysical reach is hardly scientific, and it fails to settle what property does the thinking and choosing in human persons. Even Richard Dawkins, rash as he is with weighty ideas, was prudent enough not to allege proof of a godless universe in The God Delusion, instead dealing with the question (inadequately) using probabilities.
Interestingly enough, Northoff has a moment of clarity when quoted later in the article:
We can research the neuro-mechanism into belief, but we cannot say anything about God. That’s where we have to go to philosophy.
There’s always been a sense of dueling antithesis between the Catholic media’s two NCRs—the National Catholic Reporter and the National Catholic Register. But readers’ gripes normally center on questions of orthodoxy rather than good faith. Trust in good faith, however, can quickly be shattered by a piece of the likes of one published last week in the National Catholic Reporter, a rant which does better to earn the label “anti-Catholic” than recent offerings from the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek.
Despite the lack of evidence tying celibacy per se to the proclivity for sexual predation, the article’s authors, Fran Ferder and Fr. John Heagle, rehearse a conspiratorial argument about the supposed deviancy to which the unmarried are given.
Celibacy is mandated for male church leaders. Women are excluded from sacramental leadership, thus creating an ecclesial environment that offers a perfect refuge for those whose sexual interests do not include women. Among them are the sexually disinterested, who simply don’t pick up sexual cues in the environment. For these asexual men celibacy is easy—and so is failing to notice if some of their brothers become sexual with minors. Since asexual individuals have a minimized capacity for intimate feelings, their affectivity is stunted, limiting their ability to experience the whole range of the most normal human feelings, including falling in love and feeling horrified over the abuse of a child.
To review, then: The way we discern the depravity of child abuse is not by the use of reason or the contemplation of ethics, but feelings—feelings developed through sexual activity. Following the logic, we might conclude that Hugh Hefner, given his considerable experience, must have the keenest sense of all of the havoc sexual harm wreaks on children. Ferder and Heagle go on to suggest that those who live celibacy successfully do so on account of sexual pathology, blunting their consciences to evil, while other priests in their midst commit sex abuse with impunity. How the “asexual” ones manage to end up as bishops involved in cover-ups is left unexplained. With the explanation growing increasingly complex, little is resolved, and some Catholics might simply conclude that the authors’ experience with ordinary priests and seminarians is somewhat limited.
If Ferder and Heagle’s reasoning sounds familiar, it’s because it stems from the more commonly heard line about celibacy delivered by skeptical secularists: Not only is real celibacy unreasonable, but celibate environments are breeding grounds for sexual predation given the lack of the sexual outlet provided by marriage. That marriage seems not to solve the problem of sexual abuse in other religious groups or in society at large is lost on these theorists. Joining them are Ferder and Heagle, who seem to believe that sex and marriage serve, among other goals, to rescue their participants from the otherwise uncontrollable urge to commit sexual crimes. Heck, that makes marriage sound more repressive than celibacy. As is so often the case, allegations about psychological conspiracies operating within the Church do little but complicate the issue of sex abuse, and give Ferder and Heagle’s readers the impression that the armchair is preferable to the psychologists’ couch when it comes to understanding the Church.
I’ve never heard of a religion consultant before, but I think the United Methodists may be using one. According to a BeliefNet report, the United Methodist church recently completed a study of 32,000 Methodist congregations, aiming to reestablish ecclesial vitality in the face of a financial downturn.
According to a “vitality index” constructed by the consultants at Towers Watson, four key areas drive the life of the Methodist church:
. . . small groups and programs, worship services that mix traditional and contemporary styles with an emphasis on relevant sermons; pastors who work hard on mentorship and cultivation of the laity; and an emphasis on effective lay leadership.
The study did turn up some surprising results. According to the data, it did not matter whether ministers held seminary degrees; whether pastoral ministry was a first or second career; or how long the minister had been engaged in pastoral ministry.
I wonder if the Towers Watson consultants are believers. Something just tells me their research for this project didn’t involve long nights at the office pouring over the Sermon on the Mount.
There seems to be a new article on the ordination of women, sex abuse, or some combination of the two every day now, many displaying theological tonedeafness and worse, scorn for the motives of Catholics who dare to take seriously the Church’s longstanding theological traditions. But there are delicta, and then there are graviora delicta. In fact, some published opinions are so bad as to make Maureen Dowd’s verses sound like a hymn.
On Saturday, The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan approached Christopher Hitchen’s level of spume when she said, of the profoundly unstable Mel Gibson’s recent hate-tirades,
Received wisdom is that Gibson cannot recover from this. But one course is still open to him. If ever priesthood beckoned a man, it is surely now. At least he apparently saves his violence for adult females. Truly, God works in mysterious ways.
It’s one thing to harbor spite for the Church, priests, or Catholics in general, but at least spitefulness is a relatively uncomplicated emotion. Willful ignorance strikes me as even more invidious. Such was on display in Tim Padgett’s positively agonizing opinion piece found yesterday in Time. Padgett’s argument, if you can call it that, holds that the Church’s repeated disapproval of mock-ordination ceremonies owes to “Dostoyevskian paranoia” about potential threats to clerical power.
If its introductory video is any indication, Cornerstone Church is the spitting image of the “Megachurch Show” meme recently noted by Joe Carter. But among dozens of ministries, from scrapbooking and Bible study to sports teams and four-wheeling outings, Cornerstone adds an unexpected niche service: Man Church.
Man Church is church the way a man expects it to be done. No singing, short sermon, time to talk with other guys, no women present, and coffee and donuts. That’s the way men want to do church. The topics of discussion will have a definite manly focus–being the best possible husband, father, employee, leader–being a real man. In fact, every aspect of Man Church is geared for men–not like any other church you have seen. This ain’t your mama’s church!
One of the first images that comes to mind at mention of a “nontraditional proposal” might be a couple’s female half making the first move, proposing marriage. But in an interview the other day, actress Angelina Jolie took the logic a step further, announcing that the only nuptial proposal she’d consider would be a plea from her children. Jolie and live-in boyfriend Brad Pitt have been raising six children sans marriage since 2005. “I think it would be hard to say no to the kids,” Jolie said. Does the same go for Brad? (I’m no entomologist, but I just may be hearing crickets.)
But don’t get your celebrity-watching hopes up; Jolie also reported to Nightline that her kids, well, “they’re not asking.” “They are very aware that nothing’s missing.” Once again, nothing’s missing—got it? Sadly enough, sentiments like this seem to be the slight at marriage currently in vogue—not divorce or unfaithfulness, but nihilism about marriage itself. If, as Jolie suggests, marriage doesn’t amount to much in the real world, who needs it? Society responds with widespread cohabitation. I suppose there’s yet another question we might pose to Jolie and those of her ideological ilk: If marriage doesn’t add anything to a family, why is it so meaningful to promote it for same-sex couples and others who seek to change it?
When critiquing American churches, opinion writers often adopt a form of historicism even Hegel would just barely accept—a philosophic stance that no doubt drives their chiding of churches as “behind the times” or “on the wrong side of history.” The same gives them the gall to patronize Christians when their churches, at long last, “catch up” with the moral Zeitgeist, yielding to secularist pressures. With wedge issues like abortion, contraception, same-sex matters, and divorce, 20th century secular culture relentlessly picked away at the integrity (especially) of mainline Protestant denominations, often forcing a choice outright between the gospel and the evanescent moral spirit of the age.
One of the more disquieting features of the progressive view of history is its subtle drive to sway opinion by brute force, substituted for reason. As the argument might go, “X will eventually happen anyway, so we might as well put it into place now.” Formally, it makes even less sense: “X is very likely to happen. Therefore it should happen.” A worse garbling of facts and values is rarely accomplished in the culture wars.
Incremental compromise has been a popular method of executing progressivist brute force aims for mainline Protestant churches, and sometimes it leads to strikingly odd compromises.
Minneapolis’ Star Tribune reported the other day that Presbyterian Church (USA) leaders have bestowed their blessing on noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy, but have nonetheless withheld approval of same-sex marriages within their denomination. The fact this is an incremental compromise is evidenced by the logical incompatibility of the two decisions: If gay romance is not only ethical but healthy and appropriate for spiritual leaders, how can it not be enshrined in a church marriage?
Still stranger is the somewhat, well, presbyterial impulse at work in the church leaders’ close vote: Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) could, if they felt strongly enough about the issue of gay clergy, simply start a new denomination and avoid the cumbersome process of clergy straw polls on matters of natural law. One supposes the confines of Riverside Drive feel too much like an ideological ghetto, though, and that uprooting the moral theology of Christianity is the real heart of the affair.
Mark Shea penned an excellent primer on clericalism yesterday at Catholic Exchange, identifying it as a prominent culprit in the “cover-up” mentality among some members of the episcopacy. While the Church does not operate on the principle of vox populi, vox Dei, Shea argues, neither has it ever claimed holiness is reserved for the ordained.
Clericalism is basically the bad idea that only the ordained and religious are fully Catholic and that laypeople are more or less second class. With that idea comes a host of other bad ideas, such as “Father is always right,” “Never disagree if a bishop does it,” and “Don’t question anything a priest or bishop does.”
It’s this conception of the ordained office as a place of power that gave us the scandal of priestly abuse and episcopal cover-up of same. Priests like John Geoghan used their office to dominate and abuse kids. Bishops, many of them thorough-going clericalists as well, saw their office as a place of power and, when that power was threatened by the Heaven-heard cries of victims, attacked the victims and protected the power. And mysteriously, many parents, police, and prosecutors—laity all—let them because they somehow had become convinced that the mere fact of ordination trumped the natural law, which says you should protect a child from a rapist, and call the cops.
Clericalism plays on the tendencies of Americans in a particularly poisonous way, since we’re so given to drawing up sharp political battle lines:
Americans are incorrigible about dividing everything up into “conservative” and “liberal” tribalisms. The standard media template of “Plucky Rebel Liberal Alliance vs. Evil Conservative Hierarchical Empire” lends itself easily to such simplicities. Some would have us believe that “conservatives,” being “poor, uneducated, and easily led,” are suckers for clericalism while “progressives” question authority and prize open discussion of the issues.
Real life is nonetheless more complex than simple conservative-vs.-liberal cartoons. Clericalism cuts across such neat categories ruthlessly. Yes, it was a “conservative” cardinal who rightly resigned in Boston. But it was a “liberal” bishop in Phoenix who—two weeks after cutting a deal with the prosecution to avoid indictment on obstruction charges for protecting child-molesting priests—killed a man with his car and somehow got the impression that his first duty was to hide the evidence from the cops who were looking for him.
And as it turns out, laypeople who misapprehend the clerical office as primarily a seat of power are just as prone to clericalism as clerics.
Clericalism, it turns out, is an equal-opportunity sin. It’s not reserved just to conservatives. Some of the most clerical people I know have been staunchly “progressive” dissenters and despisers of Church teaching who use their office to muzzle any attempt to question them when they “renovate” a Church, improve the liturgy into a festival of St. Narcissus, or transmute RCIA into a cell group for chanting slogans against the Magisterium on their favorite pelvic issues.
For such people, the watchword is “Question the Tradition, but don’t you dare question me!”
At its rotted root, Shea suggests, clericalism stems from a gross misunderstanding of the priesthood’s nature and place in the Church. Peter Kreeft once put it another way in a lecture on the male identity of the priesthood: “Priests are not power brokers or managers. They are sewers. Like Christ, they drain off the world’s sins. They are spiritual garbage men. Like Christ, they clean up our spiritual garbage.” Clericalism’s cure, Shea says, is found in faithfulness to the priesthood’s role of service.
The error of clericalism (and its real desire) is not ministry, but power. Clericalists, both lay and ordained, see the priesthood as a place of power, and hunger for it. But Jesus saw the priesthood as a place of service. So does the Holy Church. That is why the sacrament of Holy Orders is described by the Catechism as a “sacrament at the service of communion.”
There’s the attorney-client privilege and the confidence of priest and penitent, but apparently no such expectation of privacy between the president and U.S. citizens. Such was learned the hardest possible way by Caroline Jamieson, who recently penned a personal letter to President Obama pleading for intervention after exhausting legal options available to her husband, a Cameroonian immigrant facing imminent deportation.
The letter’s federal response, however, didn’t come on presidential letterhead, or even as a form letter. Instead, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials showed up outside the couple’s New York apartment, arresting Jamieson’s husband Hervé as he left for the gym. The officers explained their presence owed to Caroline’s letter, and held Hervé, chained and shackled, in a New Jersey jail for felons for over two weeks until he was finally released last Thursday.
Formerly political fans of President Obama, the couple are reported to have begun having second thoughts. Perhaps they should have tried email instead.
It should be taken as a compliment to Catholicism that, at least within the domain of pop culture, the most acclaimed cases leveled against it do not engage it with arguments, but instead with contrived historical narratives, many of which rise barely above the level of pure myth. Following the lead of “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels and Demons,” and “The Golden Compass” is a new film released in Germany on the grotesque but apparently fascinating yarn of PopeJoan.
“Die Päpstin,” as the German filmmakers titled it—is a rather banal reworking of “Pope Joan,” meaning, literally, “The Popess” or, as someone suggested to me, “The Popette.” As the Telegraph reports today, the film has—as was surely its intention—fueled controversy over the status of the Pope Joan fable. Count me among those who think the question of evaluating the legend should be left to historians of the upright variety, not Hollywood directors.
The old saying used to be, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” but in the case of modern-day soccer, it may be something like, “I went to a vuvuzela concert and a soccer match broke out.” Such is the word proffered by today’s Onionin its trademark, almost-believable tone, that “spontaneous high-caliber soccer games have thus far plagued every orchestral vuvuzela performance of the season.”
Pope Benedict XVI is known to have the highest form of discerning taste in music, which means intellectual jousting about the literally monotonous vuvuzelas may be inevitable during the pope’s upcoming visit to Britain. But if Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols has his way, vuvuzelas may go the way of liturgical dance when the pope arrives:
“I have had enough of them already,” says the Archbishop of Westminster. “I hope they stay in South Africa. Personally, I think the football would be more enjoyable without this constant cacophony.”
He is concerned that some people have got into the habit of using the plastic horns during the World Cup in South Africa and might not be able to resist using them when Pope Benedict XVI, pictured, addresses crowds in Britain. The pope is due to arrive in September for a state visit when he will meet the Queen and beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman.
But does Pope Benedict really care about the crowds’ penchant for vuvuzelas? We might look to Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, where we find mention of the perennial choice between Apollo and Dionysus—the sober, rational Apollo of liturgical music versus soccer’s patently Dionysian horns:
The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of God and man. Now what this choice came down to concretely was a choice between two fundamental types of music. On the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being. But then there is the music that Plato ascribes to Marsyas, which we might describe, in terms of cultic history, as “Dionysian.” It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses.
Damian Thompson writes in today’s Telegraph that Cardinal George Pell’s loss of his anticipated appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops owes to “black propaganda” and a “smear campaign” stemming from long-discredited misconduct allegations and dubious charges of poor health:
I now have good reason to believe that Cardinal Pell—a man of towering presence and intellect, utterly faithful to Pope Benedict’s vision for renewing the Church—is the victim of a smear campaign endorsed by certain bishops, especially Italian ones, who are desperate to stop Pell cleaning up what are in effect the “rotten boroughs” of their dioceses. We must pray that the Holy Father ignores the campaign.
Rumors and whispers from other journalists confirm Thompson is not alone in suspecting political motives behind Pell’s downfall. If the rumors prove true, we can seek consolation knowing such political machinations are not mere products of our age—they are, rather, the stuff that has proved the Church’s survivability, even since the first disciple injected politics into the spiritual economy, asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”