For the first time in about 35 years I took a winter break last week, five days in Mexico. I don’t mention this to boast of my work ethic but to confess my foolishness in not having done it more often. The five days are a little like a pleasant black hole in my memory—eating, drinking, schmoozing, sleeping, all framed by the daily office and saying Mass.
And the bull fight, a quadruple-header with four valiant bulls taken down in a display of balletic panache and horsemanship that was breathtaking. No, you’re not going to get me to come out in favor of bullfighting. I have enough controversies on my hands, thank you. But it was my first experience of the real thing and there was no way of not entering into the ruminations of Hemingway and others on the tragic romance of the spectacle. I do wish the ritual did not include treating the vanquished bull with such disdain. It is not as though he had a chance of prevailing, and he defiantly fought to the end. Would it be less cruel if he had been killed in a slaughter house with one blow of a power hammer between the eyes? I don’t know. And there I will leave the discussion to the aficionados of bullfighting and intelligent defenders of animal rights such as Matthew ( Dominion ) Scully.
Oh yes, and I read, for the third or fourth time, Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge . This is a big and, admittedly, sometimes difficult book that I’ve been pushing on friends for years. His “post-critical philosophy” makes more sense than almost any book I’ve read of how we come to know what we think we know.
Polanyi was a scientist (chemistry) and philosopher, and the first section is heavy going for those of us untrained in mathematics and the several sciences, but the effort required is amply rewarded. Published in 1958, I suppose I first read it about twenty years ago. It was transformative then, and powerfully clarifying now. As Dr. Johnson said, mankind is in greater need of being reminded than of being instructed. Reading Personal Knowledge again was both. Some day we’re going to find just the right person to do a major article for F IRST T HINGS on the achievement of Michael Polanyi.
Ross Douthat of the Atlantic was briefly guest editor on Andrew Sullivan’s site and I previously noted several of his contributions. There is also this on the very successful Broadway play Doubt .
Doubt won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, and after seeing it this weekend (the last weekend with the original actress, Cherry Jones, in the lead role, unfortunately) I think it richly deserved the win. The play deals with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and what’s particularly remarkable about it, in this year of hectoring works of art (most of them involving George Clooney), is its steadfast refusal to filter its story through an ideological lens. Set in 1964, Doubt follows a nun who suspects that a priest in her parish is molesting students, and given that description, it’s easy to imagine a bad, fashionable play about a heroic feminist nun taking down an evil, repressed, pre-Vatican II priest. But the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, is smarter than that: he makes the nun a tough-minded, old-school Catholic who sees the world in black and white, and the priest a young, hip, progressive figure who embodies all the ideas about religion that a Broadway audience is likely to find appealing. She seems heartless, tyrannical, and prejudiced; he’s questing, broad-minded, charismatic. But over the course of the play, the audience is invited to recognize the virtues contained within her old-fashioned attitudes, and the weaknesses at the heart of his charm . . . .
Not that the priest ever entirely forfeits the audience’s sympathy, or that the nun is without her faults—again, the play is too intelligent to fall into a schematic view of its protagonists. What it does instead, more effectively than any work of art I’ve seen, is dramatize both the weaknesses of old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the legalism, the occasional cruelty, the seeming heartlessness—and the ways that the 1960s reforms went so quickly wrong, good intentions and all. It dramatizes, as well, the central paradox of the entire sexual abuse scandal, which is that it partook of the worst of both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism—the former’s sexual permissiveness and contempt for time-tested traditions, rules, and safeguards; and the latter’s clericalism, its insistence that the hierarchy knew best and the laity should just “pray, pay, and obey,” its willingness to use authority as a screen for irresponsibility. In the name of freedom and progress and experimentation, priests justified their own sins and those of their fellows; in the name of order and tradition and obedience, their superiors protected them.
That gets to a large part of what happened. But there were also bishops and religious superiors who were fully supportive of, indeed part of, the company of progress and liberation. And charming young priests, and not so young priests, who went unchallenged precisely because their superiors were afraid to invoke “order and tradition and obedience.” Some of them became, in turn, the superiors of a new generation to whom the practices of order, tradition,and obedience were but rumors from “the bad old days.”
As I’ve said—some complain I’ve said it ad nauseum—the sex abuse scandal was and is about three things: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. The lack thereof is the cause and the recovery thereof is the remedy. This is said to be hardline and reactive, but the opposite is the case. Fidelity is the high adventure of promises made and promises kept, of surrendering oneself to truth not of one’s own making.
There is, of course, a “universal call to holiness,” and the only final sadness is not to be a saint. A call is a vocation, and the vocation of the Church is to evoke and sustain many vocations. The ordained priesthood is to exemplify a response to the call that evokes and sustains many different responses. The priesthood is not for everybody, and, most particularly, it is not for myself. Put differently, the priesthood is for everybody, and therefore not for me.
That was something understood by that tough-minded old-school nun of Doubt , and quite missed by the charming young priest.
In addition to which :
Who are the major figures who have shaped contemporary evangelicalism? Some of the answers—and the reasons for the answers—offered by Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, may surprise. His article “Evangelicals and Others” is must reading in the February issue of F IRST T HINGS . Among many other articles in the issue, is Avery Cardinal Dulles on Benedict XVI’s critical relationship with the Second Vatican Council, Stephen Barr summing up recent discussions of design and evolution, and Father Neuhaus on the hostile reactions to the recent Vatican instruction on gays and the priesthood. To subscribe to F IRST T HINGS , click here .