Reinhard Marx, Agony Uncle

It is September. Time to slide out of the hammock and get going. But on what? Headlines piled up over August. Every one of them is a depth meter that gives a reading on how far down the rabbit hole we find ourselves, as an electorate no less than a faith community. And that is very far indeed. Too far for the first day back to school. 

All summer, the news read like a parody of The Onion or—on Church doings—Eye of the Tiber. It is tempting to think these two venues are the only straight news sources we have; and that the mainstream press burlesques them both. In that spirit, let me ease into this new semester with a wholesale borrowing—part piracy, part plaudit—from a blog named St. Corbinian’s Bear. The Bear prizes anonymity but he [Why am I sure it’s a he?] is deeply serious, as every good satirist has to be. And loaded for bear.

As you go, keep in mind that humor is one of the proofs of the existence of God. Be certain of it. Aquinas thought to mention only five proofs but that is no bar to a sixth. Or perhaps the great Dominican decided that humor was a subset of the Argument from Design: It works toward a goal; directs the hearer toward an end; gets to the truth of things with angelic speed. And in times like this, it could be all we've got.

Enough prologue. Herewith, lifted whole hog (but with permission) from the Bear’s August 7 posting:

Dear Reinhard: Is Sex With a Prostitute Adultery?

Once again, we look over the shoulder of Germany’s favorite advice columnist, Reinhard Marx, as he opens up his mailbag.

Dear Reinhard,

My wife and I have been married for eighteen years and have a six year old daughter. I love my wife, but for three years I have been seeing a sex worker in a Munich brothel, Magdalena. She is the only working girl I ever visit, and I have fallen in love with her. Although I realize this may be less than ideal, I love both my wife and Magdalena.

I hear some people saying that this may be “adultery,” and, further, that it could be a mortal sin and maybe I shouldn't take communion! I am a good Catholic and want to do the right thing. Surely God recognizes the stable and loving relationship I enjoy alongside my marriage? What should I do?

Muddled in Munich

Anonymous. The Prodigal Son & Cortesans (16th C). Musée de la Ville de Paris, Paris.

Reinhard replies...

Dear Muddled:

Don't be so hard on yourself. As the editors of the traditions gathered together under the name “Jeremiah” wrote: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” Pascal, though only a Frenchman, expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” What these authors, separated by centuries, agree upon is this: you cannot control whom you love.

The important thing is that we find a way for you to feel welcome in the Church in your clandestine extramarital relationship with Magdalena. Is it right to call a committed, though unorthodox, loving relationship adultery? I think not. So enjoy the blessings of love (and love!) and do not let small-hearted naysayers keep you from communion!

I am sending you an autographed copy of Pope Francis' friend and collaborator Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez's “Heal Me With Your Mouth: the Art of Kissing.” (Sounds like you could use it!)

God bless you!

Johann Opitz. Prostitutes & Idlers in Front of Church (1826). Wien Museum, Vienna.

The Bear has sat in on the agony uncle more than once. Each time, Marx has managed to regularize the oddities of modern relationships with creative efficiency. For those of us chafing under hidebound, life-denying judgments and demands that hamper our bliss, Marx is our man. All Lebkuchen; no gall, no ashes. Great thanks to the Bear for monitoring his mail.

Note: Agony aunt—or uncle, in this case—is my favorite term for an advice columnist. A Dear Abby for the sorely perplexed. It is also one of my favorite Britishisms, to which I am entitled by birth. I grew up listening to a Liverpudlian grandfather who lapsed into Cockney when the mood was on him. He'd have made a withering agony uncle himself. But then he was Dutch Reformed.

Until Later

There is a hush over August. Its quietude invites every Jackself to take as one's own Hopkins' interior monologue: “Let be, call off thoughts awhile.” Words, too, need a rest. Only in silence can we hear the psalmist: Be still, and know that I Am God.

Emile Bernard. Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour on the River Aven. (late 1900s). Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Until later. And with glad wishes for a sweet summer's end.

A Mess & How It Got There

A man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.
                                                                            Oscar Wilde

Every embarrassment is not a scandal. Egg on the face washes off. Scandal, by contrast, does not. It cuts to the core. A Church scandal poisons trust in those we look to for guidance through the thicket of our own caprices. And it negates those teachings and practices that exist to purify our own desires.

That in mind, I turn to this flurry of recent emails clamoring about the impending gay rites between the organist at St. Agnes in midtown Manhattan and his partner. Yes, that is awkward. A public relations pickle to be sure. But in itself, this news is askance of the real issue. The heart of scandal  beats elsewhere.

Caravaggio. Musicians (c. 1595). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

A newly appointed parish organist Christopher Prestia is marrying his boyfriend in an Episcopal church out of town. But for Facebook, it could be a discreet event. No Catholic priest is officiating; no scandal applies on that score. Besides, an organist’s being gay is nothing against his musicianship.

That said, what was Prestia thinking by leaving notice of his wedding up on the same public Facebook page as the announcement of his position (“officially the musician-in-chief at St. Agnes Parish, New York City”) with a Catholic parish? He knows the Church’s position on homosexual behavior in general, and on gay marriage in particular. Public broadcast on Facebook was as provocative as it was self-indulgent. A self-described “adult convert”, the man had to know it would give scandal—a quaint old phrase—to the institution that employs him.

Prestia jettisoned Charles Kingsley's “fig leaves of decent reticence” for what amounts to a gratuitous taunt destined to strike at the parishioners he plays for. The move suggests confidence that the trumpet blare would not jeopardize his job. There is logic to the assumption. A signal to abandon reserve was implicit in Cardinal Dolan’s decision to officiate at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade—the first in which participants were permitted to march under the banner of sexual preference. That nod capitulated to identity politics and relinquished all sense of trespass. It sent a coded message: The Church's tutelage is a dissolving form. 

Once the title of a Menninger Clinic book for three-year olds, Look at Me! Look at Me! has become  a rallying cry for adults. In some respects, St. Agnes' organist was  justified in expecting his exhibitionism to be greeting with an indulgent smile.

Joseph Goupy. I Am Myself Alone, a caricature of Handel (1754). Photo: Eileen Tweedy.

Count today’s trouble at St. Agnes as the latest ripple to billow from the archdiocese’s deliberate plunge into murky waters. It swells with an overt challenge that the pastor chooses—so far—not to notice. That raises the question: What kind of pastor wants on board an injudicious pup who sticks a finger in the eye of those paying for his gig?

Supposedly, Fr. Myles Murphy knew nothing of Prestia’s life or wedding plans when he hired him at the beginning of July. But Steve Skojec, at One Peter Five, reports that Prestia mentioned his partner (“my gay fiance”) on his Facebook page back in October, 2014. Maybe Murphy does not read Facebook. Nevertheless, he is up to speed by now.

The Church can survive sinners in the choir loft. After all, there are plenty of us downstairs in the pews. What it  cannot survive is the gradual seepage of credibility from its own witness and the things that sustain it. The Church has nothing to fear from conscientious dissent based on reasoned argument. It has everything to fear from the slow drip of subversion. Dissolution follows the complicity— however unmeant—of clergy too complacent or too cowed to fight for what the Church holds as normative. 


Andreas Feininger. Graffiti (late 20th C). Museum of the City of New York.

On a different note, a reader who identifies himself as M.T. claims to have come into possession of an alarming communiqué intercepted from a long-standing demonic mail route. The sender believes the letter has bearing on what has been discussed recently on this weblog. I take no position on the accuracy of M.T.'s claim. I simply offer it to you. You will come to your own conclusions. Herewith:

My dear Wormwood,

That dreadful Mystery! We must eliminate any sense of it wherever it is found so that our subjects come to believe that their faith is a perfectly ordinary affair; so much so that they stop that blasted practice of attending mass (or at least pay it no more mind than their grocery list). You see, without a sense of Mystery, “going to church” becomes just that — another thing to do, and with all the things to do nowadays, why keep doing it at all?
This is why it so pleases me that you have been able to get into the ear of that certain Father on Park Avenue who finds himself quite unexpectedly with a fearsome arsenal at his disposal. You have been brilliant in this regard, whispering to him of pride and vanity — all things that these Catholics are already predisposed to associate with great works of art. It was finely done, appealing to his desire to appeal to the common man. Yes, yes. The common man, most of all, should be protected from coming into contact with any sense of Mystery within the walls of a church. Because they are the least likely to find Mystery anywhere else and the most likely to fall away from the vile nourishment of The Enemy when that nourishment feels like nothing more than a banal routine. There are television shows to watch, after all. Keep at it, my dear nephew.

I suggest also that you try turning his mind to the poor — there is nothing more likely to provoke an aversion to art among the socially-minded than to suggest how many mouths such art could feed (you would do well to recall how our division finally won the soul of a certain Judas Iscariot). Yes, yes. Feeding mouths, not souls. You must keep his attention properly focused. You could have those horrid icons boxed-up and put in storage in no time at all! We must quietly disarm the Enemy at every opportunity.

Your affectionate uncle

Note: The blurb for this posting which appeared in First Things' broadcast email to subscribers was written by an editorial assistant who misread the posting. Mr. Prestia's announcement appeared on his own Facebook page, not on the parish's.

Treason of the Clerisy

I foresee churches with their Jesuit bureaucrats open daily from 9-5, closed on weekends.
                                                       Georges Bernanos

Jesuits are blameless here but the point stands. The debacle at Our Saviour is a symptom of bureaucratic conditions more critical than any clash of taste in church décor. Umbrage over “the integrity of the art” is a red herring. If that were the essential factor, this would be a minor local foofaraw. But it is not minor; and the breach of trust on display extends beyond locale to the temper of our clerical bureaucracy itself.

Gustave Doré. Illustration for Gargantua by Rabelais. (19 C.)

At its simplest level, the stripping of the icons is a case study in pastoral stupidity. One pastor’s distaste for his predecessor’s design decisions is no basis to eliminate elements that contributed to revival of a once-failing parish. No sensible steward destroys the heart of the renascence with which he has been entrusted. Those icons were sign and symbol of that very rebirth craved by the New Evangelization.

This disaster cannot be neatly shoehorned into the confines of rivalry between traditionalists and modernizers. Fr. Rutler introduced a Latin Mass into the parish schedule, but he himself presided at the Novus Ordo. And he never used his prerogatives to move the free-standing altar back to its original position against the east wall of the sanctuary. Ideology rears its ugly head largely in the fact that the two parishes to which Fr. Rutler was reassigned—pastor of one, administrator of the other—were slated for closure within a year of his arrival.

Nothing explains Fr. Robbins’ behavior, or supposed archdiocesan ignorance of it, except institutional rot. This is an instance of clerical corruption, a fiduciary and ethical betrayal. The treason of the clerisy is an assault on the integrity of those moral ideals they are pledged to preserve. It is an assault on their own calling and on our fidelity to it.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Pissing on the Moon (16th C). Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.

In many respects, this havoc is a reprise of last year’s Michael Hull affair. Think back. Msgr. Hull misspent parish funds on a palatial renovation of his rectory only to go AWOL with a young intern at the newly created Sheen Center. Now married, he is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Once the darling of Cardinal Egan, Hull was sheltered behind institutional silence. No word of his canonical status appeared in letters to priests or in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan house organ. (The omission was unprecedented, according to a diocesan priest.)

One high profile crack-up might be taken as an anomalous burst of opéra bouffe. A second, more virulent one, following on its heels raises worry of a pattern. How many other pastors are playing fast and loose with parish funds for the sake of power or creature comforts?

Ambroglio Lorenzetti. Avarice, detail from Allegory of Bad Government (14th C.) Palazzo Publica, Siena.

The turmoil at Our Saviour’s is neatly summarized by an open letter circulating by a prominent layman and philanthropist. It reads in part:

Father Rutler turned a bankrupt and virtually empty church into a world-famous spiritual center, paid off the mortgage and long-standing debts, virtually rebuilt the infrastructure and exterior walls and roof, installed a magnificent new organ and many other improvements (and left well over 2 million dollars in the bank) and did much of the interior painting, gold leafing and decorating himself (he never takes a vacation) and produced a record number of candidates for the priesthood.

The author does not mention that the cost of the icons and their installation was met by two major private donations. These were gifts, not a drain on parish funds. The letter continues:

Father Robbins is on vacation in his villa in the opulent Hamptons. In less than two years, Rutler's successor, Father Robbins, has dismantled much of the interior of the church, alienated most of the parishioners, and nearly bankrupted the parish, spending vast sums on virtually reconstructing the plain but comfortable rectory (where Father Rutler happily hosted as guest Cardinals and other prelates and distinguished laypeople) - but which Father Robbins told people was a “slum” - so that the rectory is now a luxurious home for Father Robbins and his organist who also resides there.

Note the excess of two million dollars depleted in less than two years by Fr. Rutler’s successor. That kind of money does not go unnoticed by the chancery. Yet in a meeting with a representative of Archbishop Dolan earlier this week, artist Ken Woo was told that this was new news—a totally unexpected revelation—at the chancery. Woo was instructed to say nothing more about the discussion.

The chancery’s innocent ear is as believable as President Obama’s claims that he never heard about this-or-that crisis until he read it in the newspapers. Equally preposterous is the imposed gag order, redolent of the secrecy and dissembling of power politics.

Edme-Gustave Brun. God Rewards His Own (1874). Musée des Beaux Arts, Dôle, France.

By law, any capital improvement costing more than $30K has to be approved by the archdiocese. The COS rectory, gutted to its shell, rebuilt and redecorated over the course of one year, ran significantly over the discretionary limit. Either Robbins did not disclose the amounts—in which case disciplinary action is in order—or the archdiocese approved. One way or the other, this is a scandal of prodigality and, it would seem, complicity. (A blind eye is a species of collusion.)

And the live-in organist? Rumors of domestic partnership have been loud and angry enough to have reached the chancery. They were sufficiently vocal to cause Fr. Robbins to complain from the pulpit about attacks from parishioners. It is an easy bet more than one of these “attacks” were forwarded to the archdiocese. If they are unfounded slanders, the chancery should say so.

The philanthropist’s letter concludes:

. . . but the mystery is why Cardinal Dolan favors and promotes him [Robbins}. If Cardinal Dolan does not intervene to stop this literal iconoclasm, the real guilt is his. As a layman of many years, active on the boards of several charities, I am beyond being scandalized by some of the things I see in the Church and especially here in New York, whose archdiocese is shrinking as fast as the city is expanding and thriving, but I am quite bewildered to explain this.

Francesco Bartolozzi. The Alderman's Dinner (18th C). Guildhall, Southampton, NY.


tuart Chessman, on his lovely weblog at St. Hugh of Cluny, has the single most incisive commentary from an architectural/historic standpoint. [I learned Fr. Rutler is not guilty of those gingerbread Stations of the Cross. Carved versions of cut-paper silhouettes, they pre-dated his tenure. They could have gone.] Chessman’s July 22nd posting examines Fr. Robbins' frail apologia for the remodeling, and closes with this:

It is an indictment of the organization and management of the Roman Catholic Church that entirely optional and decorative projects like this are cleared based exclusively on the decision of the pastor. This, at a time when so many Catholics are losing their own parishes allegedly because of financial difficulties of the Archdiocese. . . . We know of other, very recent abuses of clerical power in this region. With such clericalism the Catholic Church is only continuing the long-term process of digging its own grave.

Digging its own grave. Just so. In his 1985 Report, then-Cardinal Ratzinger deplored a “hedonistic and cynical upper bourgeoisie.” He might have been describing a class of ecclesiastics.

Vandalism With Intent

Something unedifying is under way at the Church of Our Saviour, on lower Park Avenue in Manhattan. This alert from a knowledgeable source came Tuesday morning and has been circulating:

I am informed that having [been] officially appointed Pastor of COS, Father Robbins is in the process of removing the other icons and also wants to remove the large Pantocrator. The demolition is in process, and the intention is to finish it before anyone can protest. So immediate action is needed. The Cardinal must be flooded with messages, and there should be notice on as many liturgical/arts websites as possible. Any delay will be too late.

For those of you unfamiliar with the backstory:

Fr. George Rutler was pastor of Our Saviour from 2001 until he was transferred in 2013 across town to St. Michael’s, a less prominent location. In the twelve years of his service to COS, he proved himself a gracious and effective steward. He reversed the parish’s decline, eliminated its debts, enlarged and revivified the congregation. Most visibly, he renovated the church building with great sensitivity.

View of the renovated sanctuary as it stood when Fr. Rutler left Church of Our Savior.

The cornerstone of that renovation was the suite of contemporary icons that graced the sanctuary. Ken Woo’s stunning magnification of Christ Pantocrator (based on the original in St. Catherine’s, Sinai) was a technical tour de force that presided in triumph within the architecture of the sanctuary. In concert with a series of icons of individual saints on four enveloping pilasters, the Pantocrator set a tone of majesty.

And the ensemble was gorgeous. The gilding, the patterning of costumes, the hieratic gestures—the sum of this lovely assembly of panels conspired in drawing attention toward the high altar. Far from diminishing the altar, the splendor of the surround ennobled it. Woo’s icons were not conceived to function as separate decorative entities. They were meant to function together as an atmospheric unit. And they did, until Fr. Rutler was reassigned and Fr. Robert Robbins took over.

The new pastor began his tenure by making liturgical changes and, to the dismay of parishoners, by removing fourteen of the most prominent icons. In a gesture mimicking the iconoclasm of sixteenth century Reformers, the denuded pillars were white washed. On Tuesday we learned that the remaining ones, included the magnificent Pantocrator, are slated for eviction. Why? Is Fr. Robbins acting on his own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups? Certainly, a pastor has both his druthers and his prerogatives. But the severity—the totality—of this de-adornment gives off an odor of reprisal. It is hard not to sense malice at work. Whose? To what end?

The foremost pilasters denuded.

Last August, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf—our online Fr. Z—articulated what Catholics familiar with the situation were thinking: that this was not a renovation at all but an ideological move. Fr. Z wrote:

What’s going on there? Is this “Get Rutler!” time in NYC? Deface Rutler’s work at Our Saviour? Slate St. Michael’s and Holy Innocents for closure a year after he arrives? By next year he’ll be pastor of a cardboard box over a grate near the Hudson.

Suddenly, the erasure is worsening. A company named Renovato Studios has been contracted to remove the remaining icons, including—according to reliable voices—the great Pantocrator. This latest move follows on the heels of Rutler’s essay “The Pope’s Off the Cuff Remarks in Turin” appearing in Crisis on June 30th. The essay took issue with Pope Francis’ impromptu aim at the weapons industry in what read as a naïve replay of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning against the military-industrial complex. Rutler wrote:

The Pope’s comments did not engage the issue with the perspicacity and experience of Ike who seldom spoke off the cuff. Inasmuch as papal guards carry Glocks and Sig 552’s, the earnest Pope knows that weapons are necessary. The problem is that he called those who manufacture them un-Christian.

Ken Woo. St. Chrysostom. Among the first panels to be removed.

Having written a book on the moral reasoning behind military actions in the Second World War, Rutler knows considerably more about the issue of arms than does Francis. In a deft marriage of courtesy and rebuttal, he underscored Francis’ deficit:

As for the hypocrisy of those who invest in such manufactures, that would seem to be an unqualified criticism of a large number of investors in a complicated and interlocking world of investments. For example, the Pietro Beretta Company, which is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, is now controlled by the Beretta Holding S.p.A. It is also probably the oldest. The Republic of Venice, in consort with Pope St. Pius V contracted the company to provide the arquebuses that helped to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. One was used to shoot Ali Pasha. During his reign (1823-1829), the della Genga pope Leo XII, enlarged the papal artillery and, a skilled marksman himself, often relaxed by shooting birds in his gardens.

The essay puts paid to simplistic indictments of Allied actions based on superficial understanding. It deserves to be read in full. Read it for its intelligence; and also for the illustration it offers of why a priest like Fr. Rutler might run afoul of establishment progressives. Was his unapologetic conservatism a thorn in the side of the archdiocese and, possibly, beyond? Impossible to say. But this gratuitous vandalism at Our Savior is not a small thing.

Here, with the white washed columns after the first round of removals.

And it is not about Ken Woo or the imagined “moral rights” of an artist, however sympathetic. Woo was paid for his work just as Richard Serra was paid for the popularly rejected Tilted Arc. Neither is it an issue of the award-winning status of the icons. Aesthetics is a secondary matter here. No, above all else, this is about what appears—on its face—to be a calculated effort to delete evidence of a particular priest’s presence in a place that he served and transformed.

Fr. Rutler drew congregants to a house of worship that was a model of prayerful decorum, an oasis in a debased liturgical climate. That, in addition to conservative sensibilities and candor in expressing them, can raise hackles in some quarters.

Ken Woo. Christ Pantocrator in situ behind the altar.

Our Saviour’s website devotes a page to the church’s tabernacle and the sanctuary marble (“quarried in Pakistan near the Vale of Kashmir, a focal point of the war in which our nation is now engaged”). But nothing is said about major elements added during Fr. Rutler’s term. You have to enter Ken Woo’s name into the site’s search function to find any reference to the commission. No image of the interior appears on site. A small reproduction of the original Sinai panel floats free on the page, but there is no image of the artist's enlarged version installed in the sanctuary.

Physical evidence of Fr. Rutler’s tenure is being erased in the fashion of Soviet-style historiography. This is not remodeling. This is hierarchical politics on display. Nicholas Frankovich, writing for First Things, named it seven months ago in his essay “This is What Clericalism Looks Like.” The most instructive commentary to date on the lamentable destruction, it closed with this:

All sensible Catholics join the pope in deploring clericalism, but definitions of it are necessarily broad. We also need descriptions of it. Its faces are many. This is one of them.

The hope, now, is simply to save the Pantocrator. Interested readers can reach the chancery by email: or by phone: 212.371.1011 Ext 2935. Letters marked “Personal and Confidential” can be sent to His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 1011 First Avenue, New York 10022.