Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who can’t get up in the morning until he understands the purpose of life.
Porter could easily have said the same about segments of art’s audience. There lingers a tired complaint that unless some aspect of the human condition presents itself—some scene, narrative, or vignette—an artwork appears empty, dehumanized, self-absorbed. Among this species of beholders, interest is tethered to subject matter. The art of a work is little more than a carrier for the anecdotal burden of the piece. Art itself is valued primarily as a reflection of, or window into, higher things.
Bruce Dorfman. Santa Fe Silver (2010). Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.
Such an unhappy position to take—rather like being unable to listen to music without a libretto to go with it. Hostility to philosophical modernism still overflows onto the art that accompanied it. Much loveliness is missed in the spillage.
Bruce Dorfman. Deep Past (1990). Private Collection
That brings me to Bruce Dorfman, a artist whose work has captivated me all the years I have known it. His latest exhibition opened September 4th at June Kelly Gallery in Soho. The enduring accomplishment of his art is evident in this handsome, intelligent show.
Since his works combine both painting and assemblage, Dorfman describes them as composite paintings. The qualifier places his work in a line of descent from Kurt Schwitters’ initial Merz pieces, composed in the wake of World War I. These were collages and assemblages of found objects, evocative fragments of things from everyday life selected for arrangement in what can be thought of as painting with materials.
Bruce Dorfman. Yellow Russet Drop (Nora). 2007
Dorfman has contributed to the practice built on that precedent for several decades, extending its pictorial possibilities with great chromatic sensitivity. It is precisely his gift for color that makes painting central to the work and that integrates the two techniques into a satisfying whole. Color remains the decisive element in his work. Materials, chosen for the holding power of their shapes, are left as they come or painted over to suit the harmonies of a composition. The detail, below, gives you a clearer look at the delicate transparencies and undertones he achieves within each chromatic zone.
Bruce Dorfman. Deep Past II (2015). Detail. Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.
Tucked into the upper left corner of this detail [above] is an image of Michael the Archangel torn from an old book of Russian icons. Its discreet presence—here, a droplet in a large rondel—hints at the source of the hieratic quality characteristic of my favorite Dorfman paintings: his signature vertical compositions. The heart of good pictorial art lies in its adjustment between the sense—sensation—of depth and the reality of a flat substrate. Dorfman negotiates that illusive balance with enviable agility. Your eye sinks into the surface of the materials. All invitation to movement is there, in the advance and recession of dimensional elements and in the spatial expressiveness of color. Yet the work in its entirety achieves a certain stillness. It is the poise associated with traditional icon painting. Looking at icons strictly as abstract compositions, they achieve their equilibrium through a hieratic scale of proportion that distributes color and shape according to weight. Dorfman does the same.
Bruce Dorfman. Purple & Purple (2015). Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.
Phyllis Braff, writing in The New York Times of an earlier exhibition, described him quite well:
The precision with which he uses found objects sets Mr. Dorfman's work apart. It is always clear that each item is playing multiple roles: establishing the essentials of the composition, providing tactile and reflective qualities and introducing suggestions of previous uses, personal history, or past events. . . . There is an unexpected elegance in the way Mr. Dorfman makes adjustment to scale and gives the smaller compositions the character of something quite grand.
Bruce Dorfman. Molly Bloom (2012). Courtesy of the Artist.
It should be no surprise that many distinguished artists have preferred to teach in those uncommon institutions that maintain similarity to the historic atelier system. As is natural among academics, the conceptual trumps the visual. But in the atelier—a workshop—art making remains, above all else, a labor. The Art Students League remains just such a place. And Bruce Dorfman has served it with distinction.
Dorfman began his own training there under Yasuo Kuniyoshi before going on to the University of Iowa in the late Fifties. He returned to the League as an instructor in 1964, and teaches there still. For half a century, Dorfman has provided ballast for artists drawn to painting’s means as a carrier of its own ends—beauty, paramount among them. This, during decades swollen with illusions about art’s grand aims and the artist’s visionary role.
Aesthetic modernism is too often faulted for what, in reality, is the result of the academy’s appropriation of art training. Blame the state of contemporary art on captivity of the atelier by the podium. Critical theory, reigning in the classroom, is no help inside the studio where the only ideas that matter are pictorial ones. And where words do not matter at all.
Dorfman is an artist who understands that. The animated tactility of his work testifies to the obstinate fact that art comes to us from gifted hands in service to an eye. At the end of the day, sensibility is everything.
You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don't need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don't need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free.
Paul Simon, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover
The pope, too, has a pen and a phone. Has Francis’ motu proprio trumped the Synod? Or handicapped conservatives? Hard to say. But one thing now is certain: Marriage is indissoluble except when it is not. Put another way, indissolubility is revealed to be more soluble than we had previously understood.
Anonymous. Illustrated Police News (19th C.). British Library Board.
Analyses of this latest twist of the mercy spanner have been piling up. Papal apologists offer their expected apologias; critics beg to differ. Among those with differences are some very serious, informed voices. Some insist nothing has changed; neater and kinder is all. Others discern a material shift: The language of endurance—until death do us part—still stands but the substance can be had gluten-free. Annulments are on track to be dispatched in short order; even, according to some commentators, in cases where one spouse contests. And a slam dunk is anticipated if both parties want out. Craft the right narrative, and your marriage never existed.
Ibsen's Nora tells Helmer she wants to leave him. Ad for an extract of meat (c. 1900).
It is better to leave judgments on the complexities of canon law to others. But impressions are admissible. And, given the range of responses, the overriding impression is one of calculated incoherence and premeditated chaos. It is disquieting, this sense that the confusion is intended—that the Year of Mercy is a feint. Disarray begins to look like the opening move in an endgame designed to bring the Church into more congenial conformity with the world it was charged to leaven.
Are we witnessing the Cloward-Piven strategy adapted for pastoral ministry? A prized demolition tool of the Left, it was developed by two activist sociologists at Columbia University and published in The Nation in 1966. Roughly summarized, the maneuver proposes to overwhelm a system with a surfeit of demands; the resulting crisis can then be used to reshape the system according to a desired agenda. For Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, the system targeted for collapse and total reconstruction was welfare. For Pope Francis, it appears to be the Church’s historic ordering of the obligations and consequences of an enduring marriage bond.
Cloward-Piven sought to eliminate poverty by first expanding welfare rolls and benefits. Sacramental marriage can be channeled along a similar route, propelled by easier, quicker, and less costly annulments on the mart to all comers. Cardinal Kasper has said that Francis estimates that upwards of half of all Catholic marriages are invalid. That is a bitter—to me, disingenuous—guesstimate, one that points to impatience with traditional insistence on permanency. If Church prohibition against divorce is seen as an impediment to evangelization, then increasing access to annulment can be considered self-justifying.
Leseur Brothers. Republican Divorce: Reconciliation Between Spouses (18th C.)
The casuistry already rife in annulment proceedings, worrisome to John Paul II, is poised to worsen. Incentive to conjure grounds for annulment out of the common regrets, resentments, and intangible strains of marriage has been given a boost.
The Diocese of Brooklyn under Bishop Francis Mugavero bears remembering. During his tenure, from 1968 until his retirement in 1990, Brooklyn was a recognized annulment mill. Word was: If you want your vows dissolved, establish a residence in Brooklyn and register with a local parish. The annulment process descended into the functional equivalent of back-dating a check to avoid penalty.
Streamlining, as it is called, risks normalizing the old Brooklyn approach. Worse, it gambles with the Church's credibility on sexual ethics overall.
Achille Beltrame. Signing Petitions Against Introducing Divorce Law. La Domenica del Corriere, 1902.
On my mind lately are the divorces I have known over the years. I was intimate with some, and watched others from a friendly distance. Of the twenty or so divorces familiar to me, only one could be called “no fault.” (Barbara and David simply found dating more satisfying than marriage. They jumped ship in less than a year.) All others were exceedingly sad.
Two women quit faithful spouses to pursue careers unencumbered by husband and child. One neighbor exchanged a decent man and a young son for a flashier mate. Another left the steady, conscientious father of her two teenagers when, one fateful day, she realized her heart sank when she heard his key in the door. She did not know why; she knew only that it did.
In every other instance, it was the husband who left. One was an ex-priest who walked out on his wife and two toddlers to live with another man. Each of the rest abandoned his wife for a younger woman. All had children.
John Everett Millais. Retribution (1854). A bigamous man. ©Trustees of British Museum.
One particular divorce still hurts to think about. Maggie and Bruce were an impressive, lively pair with four children, one of them adopted. To younger couples in their neighborhood circle, they were a spirited model of marital generosity and parental good sense. In their twenty fifth year of marriage, Bruce met a younger woman. Life fell apart. Maggie consented to divorce but not to annulment. Bruce remarried without it.
Divorce was sorrowful enough for the couple’s children, the younger ones still in their teens. Annulment would have inflicted on the three biological children the added wrench of knowing that, in the Church’s eyes, they were bastard products of an invalid—nonexistent—marriage. The adopted daughter, discarded at birth by one set of parents and again by her legal father, was already schooled in the fecklessness of men. Annulment would have provided added lesson in the skewed sympathies of clerics.
Bruce and his second family are the coveted objects of this current fever for mercy. But where is the kindness—or even courtesy—to Maggie and her children? To the many more Maggies? To all relinquished, humiliated spouses on the receiving end of these discounted annulments?
The law of unintended consequences is cunning and relentless—a true god of surprises. Something unsavory inhabits papal cooing about “Church, as mother” as a rationale for streamlining annulments and for lifting canonical penalties from second civil marriages contracted while the first still holds sacramentally. There is reason to fear this Year of Mercy will yield its own cruelties.
Adulterous Couple Paraded Through Town (11th C.) Bibliotheque municipale, Agen, FR.
Note: After posting this, I read yesterday's Rorate Coeli essay that quotes from a September 9th article in L'Osservatore Roman by Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, Dean of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota. Pinto, who headed the Commission for the reformed annulment protocols, wrote this:
Francis makes a real beginning to his reform: by putting the poor at the center, that is, the divorced and remarried . . .
In other words, the divorced and remarried have been rebaptized as a victim class, like the poor. This pushes papal politics beyond leftism. We are into crackpottery now.
Peronism is the highest level of consciousness reached by the Argentine working class.
Statement of the Movement of Priests for the Third World, 1971
We mustn’t pay too much attention to people who talk to us of prudence. We must be fanatical.
By whatever varietal name you call it, populist leftism is experiencing a rebirth, with the Vicar of Christ as an attendant midwife. Jorge Bergolio grew up amid extravagant devotion to Juan and Eva Perón. The agitated history of those years and the collapse of the peronato into violence and economic ruin is well documented. What matters here is that Pope Francis brings to the Chair of Peter an embrace of the Peronist mystique untempered by its lessons.
Argentina’s historic self-immolation illustrates that good intentions are not sufficient for good politics. Neglect of productivity—the means of creating income—in favor of income redistribution (between industries and occupations, between skilled and unskilled workers) proved lethal to the economic growth needed to achieve durable long-term prosperity. Yet the peronato is being revived, this time on a global scale. Peronism rebounds under the pretext of climate change.
Achille Beltrane. Mussolini in Cathedral Square, Milan. Published in La Domenica del Corriere (1930).
Benito Mussolini served as a role model for Perón in the 1930s as he had for Hitler in the '20s. A student of Mussolini's control of the Italian economy and an admirer of his oratorical hold on the populace, Perón acquired shrewd appreciation for populist gestures. Eva adopted her husband’s politics and dedicated herself to advancing his social goals. A charismatic pair, they ruled more by force of personality—personalismo—than democratic procedure. Ushers of an “option for the poor,” they glorified the lower classes and denigrated the wealthy. [This, while amassing a huge personal fortune from the welfare foundation Eva created. And, it seems, with no sense of contradiction.]
Roland Kirby. “We Know We're Good” (c. early 1940's). Satirical comment on Tammany Hall.
Evita incarnated the enchantments of populism. She held weekly audiences and was routinely photographed kissing the sick, the leprous, the syphilitic. The Fundación Eva Perón ballooned into a mammoth patronage machine, insuring Eva’s status as a peronista heroine. The glittering First Lady wore her own wealth as a pledge of impending affluence to all. As she wrote in her autobiography:
I wish them [the poor] to accustom themselves to live like the rich . . . For
when all is said and done, everyone has a right to be rich on this Argentine soil . . . and in any part of the world.”
Currier & Ives. A Changed Man (1880). Museum of the City of New York.
She railed against “the rich and powerful exploiters of the people,” adding “[God] will make them pay for all that the poor have suffered, down to the last drop of their blood.” In Paraguay, Pope Francis echoed the incendiary Peronist note. He instructed audiences “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
Philibert Debucourt. Parisian Shopping Arcade (1807). Musée de le Ville de Paris.
Eva’s image is said to have replaced the Virgin in many homes. Her titles included The Lady of Hope, The Mother of the Innocents, The Workers’ Plenipotentiary, The Bridge of Love, and crowning the litany, Spiritual Leader of Our Nation. Even today, she remains a semi-sacred figure. Her legend is still a force in Argentine politics.
This in mind, I turned to a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 The Return of Eva Perón. The title applies to a single essay out of four in the book, one evoking the alchemy that turned Eva into a saint and Peronism into a religion:
The Peronist revolution was going bad. Argentina’s accumulated wartime wealth was running low; the colonial economy, unregenerated, plundered, mismanaged, was beginning to founder; the peso was falling; the workers, to whom so much had been given, were not always loyal. But she [Eva] still cherished her especial pain that “there were people who were rich.”
Naipaul skims details of the cult of Evita—“the public passion play of the dictatorship”—to summon the atmosphere surrounding the pageant that was essential to the authoritarian mystique. Writing some twenty years after her death, he describes a villa miseria, not far from Buenos Aires’ proxy for the Bois de Boulogne:
[It was] a shantytown with unpaved streets and black runnels of filth .... Seventy thousand people lived there, nearly all Indians, blank and slightly imbecilic in appearance, from the north and from Bolivia and Paraguay; so that suddenly you were reminded that you were not in Paris or Europe but in South America. The priest in charge was one of the[marxisant] “Priests for the Third World.” He wore a black leather jacket and his little concrete shed of a church, over-simple, rocked with some amplified Argentine song. It had been whispered to me that the priest came of a very good family; and perhaps the change of company had made him vain. He was, of course, a Peronist: “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism. I can talk to you for five years about Peronism, but you will never understand.”
But couldn’t we try? He said that Peronism wasn’t concerned with economic growth; they rejected the consumer society. But hadn’t he just been complaining about the unemployment in the interior, the result of government folly, that was sending two Indians into his shantytown for every one that left? He said wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano; some people were concerned only with GNP. And, leaving us, he bore down, all smiles, on some approaching Indians.
The river wind was damp, the concrete shed unheated, and I wanted to leave. But the man with me was uneasy. He said we should at least wait and tell the father I wasn’t an American. We did so. And the father, abashed, explained that Peronism was really concerned with the development of the human spirit. Such a development had taken place in Cuba and in China; in those countries they had turned their backs on the industrial society.
Rollin Kirby. “Trying to Turn Out the Light” (early 1930s). The Tammany Tiger.
Today’s climate change zealotry—its romantic hostility to development, to democratic (distinct from crony) capitalism and entrepreneurial culture, its appetite for state-controlled economies —replays Perón’s failed biases. The Thirties die hard. Karl Marx’s much-quoted comment on Louis Bonaparte comes straight to mind:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
Marx himself forgot to note that, however much farce informs the second time around, the repetition also bears the rancid seeds of tragedy.
Note: This post is an addendum to an essay of mine that appears today in The Federalist.
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.
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.
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.
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 man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.
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.
I foresee churches with their Jesuit bureaucrats open daily from 9-5, closed on weekends.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
I counted indulgences when I was a child. Quite likely, some of you did the same, though maybe not as fastidiously as I did. Every First Friday and First Saturday, there I was indemnifying myself against the wages of sin. My insurance agent was St. Helena’s Church on Olmstead Avenue alongside the IRT Pelham Line; my carrier, Catholic devotions in all their gaudy splendor.
Heinrich Voghherr. A Preacher Reading Out an Indulgence (16th C).
Sparkhill Dominicans assured me His eye was on the sparrow. But that was no guarantee it was on a latchkey kid in the Bronx. Lest the Creator of all things visible and invisible be preoccupied elsewhere, I kept a ledger for tallying up my earned assets. (Just in case He lost track and needed a reminder.) It was one of those black-and-white marbled Mead composition books that had been a staple of classroom technology in the analog days.
Like any childhood game, my variant of double-entry bookkeeping was played in earnest. Saturday afternoon confession took care of the debit side. My little ledger memorialized the credit side. Pages were ruled in half to make two columns. I pored over them both: one for partial indulgences, the other—marked in the margin with a star—for plenaries. It added up to an enviable reckoning.
Five years for every Apostles Creed; three years for each Act of Faith, Hope, Love and Contrition. (That last was a favorite back then. Still is.) The Angelus, though, defeated me. What was a ten-year rebate against eternity? That was not sufficient motivation for the job of reciting it three times a day. At dawn, I was still asleep; at noon, in school; eventide was time for Black Beauty or Heidi. So you can see how impossible it would have been to try for a plenary indulgence by saying the Angelus every day for a whole month.
Albrecht Durer. The Lamb of God from the Apocalypse suite (1508).
The Memorare came more easily. It brought only a three year indulgence for hit-or-miss recitations but promised a full reprieve if recited daily for a month. That I could do. Quite a few gold stars racked up next to entries for the Memorare. All the approved litanies were another good investment: seven years for the Holy Name of Jesus, seven for the Blessed Virgin Mary; five for St. Joseph. (Only five? There began my sympathy for the underdog.)
Lent and Advent were a time to luxuriate in a riot of penances. The Forty Hours Devotion was a carousel that spun from St. Helena’s to St. Raymond’s, on to St. Mary Star of the Sea, and back again. Trekking across neighborhoods from one church to the next, a brass ring in view, absorbed the loneliness of a solitary child.
Indulgences accumulated. Years of remission turned into centuries. If my ledger was telling the truth, my collected IOUs stretched into the eons. It was a cache that no one person could ever empty. No glutton, I began signing them over in secret to other people, bequeathing them where they might be in demand.
Grandpa Powey was old. He would be needing them soon. Grandpa Harry was not Catholic so he probably really required some. Did anyone bother about Crazy Aunt Mary who kept a kitchen knife in her bedroom? No doubt she could use an indulgence or two. On it went. My philanthropy was as exhilarating as delinquency.
Inexorable and merciless as the tides, the sins of childhood slowly receded. The sins of an adult advanced. The Cross lengthened with them; it grew larger and blistering hot. Incandescent, it scorched my ledger to ash. The soul’s green eyeshades fell away. I stopped counting.
It has been years since I remembered my childish account book. It came to mind yesterday during the Missa Cantata of a newly ordained young priest. After Mass, the priest invited the congregation to come forward and kneel for his first blessing. It is a gracious ritual. There is something in the laying on of hands that reaches to the marrow, touches the blood.
Fr. Sean Connolly bestowing his first blessing to the Latin Mass congregation in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
The blessing ends with the congregant kissing the priest’s consecrated fingers. On queue to the altar, a shadow fell; something in me balked. I could not do it. I stepped suddenly off the line. Might I accept his blessing without kissing his hands? For reasons too many and too dense to explain in this context, the kiss would have been dishonest—a fraud enacted in display of a piety that I neither felt nor assented to.
I brought my question to a second priest standing in choir. Yes, it was permissible to kneel for the blessing yet omit the kiss. No slight to the priest was involved. But, he reminded, an indulgence attaches to the kiss. That would be forfeited without it.
Adult sins have consequences felt in the lives of other people. It is rash, unfitting, to presume to erase consequence to ourselves when we cannot, in charity, undo the realities of cause and effect. We will be judged in relationship to Christ, to Him Whom we meet—fail to meet or wound—in others. Those failures stand and others' wounds still bleed, no matter the total of indulgences.
This was a forfeiture I owed.
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
—Daniel J. Boorstin
“Religions die.” Those two words open Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. It is a stark beginning. We prefer to keep our eyes on the West’s relics of a not-so-distant Christendom and avoid the sweep of Christian history filled with reminders of the transience of human affairs.
Jenkins’ book turns attention back to the catastrophes and extinctions that brought ruin to ancient Christian communities. For those who believe, as Christians do, that God speaks through history, these annihilations are tidings. But of what? Remembrance is the axis of discernment:
Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging. To break the silence [of God], we need to recover those memories, to restore that history.
Mazarine Master. Sassanian King Shapur II Persecuting Christians (15th C.) Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
On the face of it, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber’s appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is incomprehensible. We can only make sense of it if we ask ourselves an unwelcome question: Is the Academy risking—if not engaged in—guerilla war against the pro-life movement?
The sole scientist participating in the unveiling of Laudato Si, Schellnhuber is a member of the Club of Rome, an international clique of Malthusian alarmists. (Obama’s advisor John Holdren is a former member.) Acolyte of Gaia and a darling of George Soros, Schellnhuber is a zealous promoter of the theory of man-made climate change and advocate of population control.
He has lobbied for an Earth Constitution to replace national constitutions and the UN Charter. He seeks creation of a Global Council, and establishment of a Planetary Court. This last would be a transnational legal body with enforcement powers on environmental and population issues. Everywhere. [Not without cause does Czech physicist Lubos Motl label him “a doomsday crackpot who calls himself a physicist.”] In short, as I wrote for The Federalist, Schellnhuber is the Vatican’s advance man for bureaucratic tyranny on a global scale. His appointment is as contradictory as it is ominous. The “global regulatory frameworks” desired by Laudato Si will crush orthodoxy without scruple when it suits.
Notwithstanding the encyclical’s affirmation of the Church’s traditional position on abortion, elevation of Schellnhuber saps—subverts—the pro-life movement. Vatican confederacy with highly placed population control sages and bureaucrats negates the very thing that Laudato Si affirms. Joel Kotkin, writing on The Daily Beast, put it well:
It is dubious that the Church's credibility will be well served by a neo-feudal alliance dominated by those who abhor the Church's other core values.
Add Vatican courtship of Canadian journalist Naomi Klein and we are through the looking glass. Klein is a pro-abortion, anti-corporate, anti-free enterprise agitator with no expertise in science or economics. Her credential is the ideological bias that brought her to Liberty Plaza in 2011 to address her soul mates in Occupy Wall Street. “I love you,” she shouted to the crowd. “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world.” Now she is a Vatican-ordained evangelist for our evolving green Church and its vision of a this-time-sustainable Eden.
Among several cherished mottoes at my house is a venerable bit of street wisdom: “Lie down with dirty dogs, you get up with fleas.” Usually attributed to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, it is also believed, in some corners, to date back to Seneca who might have said it this way, if he said it at all: Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent. Pick the English vernacular or the Latin. Either way, the dictum is eternally applicable to machine politics, whether in Vatican City or Brooklyn Borough Hall.
Green ambition aligns the Vatican with such eco-thinkers as Jonathan Porritt, environmental advisor to Prince Charles. Porritt recommends that Britain work to halve its population as a means of emissions reduction. Having more than one child—if that—is irresponsible. Also among the Vatican's new friends will be Peter Kareiva, head scientist for the Nature Conservatory. He caps Francis' caution against breeding like rabbits with an insistence that the best way for those in the First World to reduce emissions is not to have children at all.
Whether the smoke of Satan or the ghost of Deng Xiaoping, something dark hovers.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Gambling Dogs (early 1900's). Private Collection.
Catholics are neither accustomed nor disposed to resisting their pope. We incline toward a code of obeisance that permits criticism aimed in all directions but one. It is permissible to fire at advisors, courtiers, and apologists—the attendant lot of ambitious retainers that buffer the crowned head from challenge. But toward the sovereign himself, politesse is mandatory. And comfortable.
For some, this is a practical matter. Careers are at stake within the Church bureaucracy, its corresponding network of lay satellites, and the Catholic commentariat. Nevertheless, the greater part of reluctance to demur, let alone oppose papal behavior and utterance, is respect for office. But if a man strays from the contours of his office—bends magisterial capacity to purposes for which it is not intended—what then is tact?
How do we distinguish between the office and the office holder? Is it wise to try? Might effort at distinction be little more than a shield against the inadmissible? William Butler Yeats offered an answer posed as another question. “Among School Children” closes with the words: How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Hans Holbein the Younger. Danse Macabre (16th C).