Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marcus Borg, James Carroll, and Faith

At Christmas and Easter Mass, when parishioners bring friends and relatives to church to celebrate with them, our pastor always voices an admonition prior to Communion. He says that only practising Catholics and only those who believe all of the teachings of the Church may receive Communion. In the beginning, this gave me pause as I knew from the time I returned to the Church that there were many teachings that I could not agree with and some core beliefs that I could not accept. Should I then deny myself the Eucharist as a half-hearted Catholic? Would I be committing a sin if I received Communion in spite of this grave admonition?

In the end, the very state of my disbelief led me to go ahead and receive Communion. First, in my heart I did not believe in the Catholic notion of sin—a list of major and minor offences for which I had to ask forgiveness and “serve time”—and second I did not really believe in transubstantiation. I knew in my heart that the bread I received from the priest or from the extraordinary minister was a symbol of the transformation that imitation of Christ could bring, not the real body of Christ. As I took the host and returned to my pew I prayed that I would be transformed, that I would die and rise again as a more loving, more forgiving, more caring person.

I did ask myself why I was a Catholic if there was so much basic stuff that I just could not buy into. At the same time, I felt God was calling me to be a priest! (More about that little contradiction in a later blog.) A friend recommended I talk about this call to the priesthood with a gay United Church minister that he knew, so I contacted the man and had lunch with him. In our conversation he recommended that I read Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. The book transformed my whole notion and understanding of faith.

The most revealing and resonant part of Borg’s book was, for me, the chapter entitled “Faith: The Way of the Heart.” Here he explains that the notion of faith as believing in a set of doctrines or teachings—the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension of Mary—is a recent phenomenon. This notion resulted from the competing claims of orthodoxy that arose out of the Reformation and from the need of the various churches for protection from the effects of the Enlightenment, which “called into question the factuality of parts of the Bible and of many traditional Christian teachings.”

For Borg, faith as belief, to which he gives the Latin name assensus, or “assent,” is a matter of the head rather than the heart.

Prior to the modern period, the most common Christian meanings of the word “faith” were not matters of the head but matters of the heart. In the Bible and the Christian tradition, the “heart” is a metaphor for a deep level of the self, a level below our thinking, feeling, and willing, our intellect, emotions, and volition. The heart is thus deeper than our “head,” deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in [our] heads. Faith concerns this deeper level of the self. Faith is the way of the heart, not the way of the head.

Borg asserts that besides assensus, there are three other meanings of faith, all of which understand faith as a “matter of the heart.” The first of these he calls fiducia. This amounts to “radical trust in God. Significantly it does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God….Rather, it means trusting in God.” The opposite of fiducia is mistrust, which leads to anxiety or worry. Borg illustrates the concept with the words of Jesus:

Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them….Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

The second meaning is fidelitas, which is fidelity or faithfulness to our relationship with God.

Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart”….[It] does not mean faithfulness to statements about God, whether biblical, credal, or doctrinal. Rather, it means faithfulness to the God to whom the Bible and creeds and doctrines point. Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.
The opposite of fidelity, of course, is infidelity, and one of infidelity’s biblical meanings, relevant yet today, is idolatry. If we worship the things of this world to the neglect of or in place of our relationship with God, which is central, we are unfaithful. We practice faithfulness through “worship, prayer, practise, and a life of compassion and justice.” Being faithful to God also means loving “the whole of creation,” which includes our neighbour.

The third meaning Borg gives to faith is visio, “faith as a way of seeing the whole, seeing ‘what is.’” We can see “what is” as hostile or threatening, as indifferent, or as “life-giving and nourishing.” The latter perception “leads to radical trust. It frees us from the anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints. It leads to the ‘self-forgetfulness of faith’ and thus to the ability to love and to be present to the moment.”

So Marcus Borg has turned the notion of faith as assensus, which we Catholics are required to subscribe to, entirely on its head. But Borg’s interpretation seems to speak to the thinking Christian, the one who may be sceptical of the literal reading of scripture and who is looking beyond orthodoxy for a faith that joyfully embraces God as divine mystery.

If we accept Borg’s understanding of faith as a matter of the heart rather than of the head, thereby putting aside what I consider our childish faith, are we then bad Catholics? In his most recent memoir, Practicing Catholic, novelist and memoirist James Carroll has a great deal to say on this topic. In the brilliant and moving last chapter of the book, entitled “A Writer’s Faith,” he says that once it was very clear who bad Catholics were.

Bad Catholics were in bad marriages, or they were openly gay, or they had had abortions, or they practiced artificial birth control.

But it is no longer as clear:

Members of Catholic reform groups, like Voice of the Faithful, Future Church, and Call to Action, are labelled as bad Catholics by some. Lay movements are generally looked on askance, even though they are thriving in the Church around the globe. In Latin America, priests who organize campesinos without permission of the bishop are bad. So are Latin-American laypeople for that matter, who organize themselves into “base communities” without a priest; Dutch theologians who evoke Erasmus; and women who preside at unofficial Eucharists without waiting to be ordained. On the other hand, Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma would seem to be a good Catholic since the American bishops appointed him head of their National Review Board on Clergy Sexual Abuse in 2002. Yet Keating had authorized dozens of death row executions, and Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, had said justification for the death penalty is “rare, if not virtually non-existent.” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is regarded as a good Catholic, yet he is openly contemptuous of the pope’s teaching here. And what about Catholics who supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and his program of torture, despite the grave misgivings expressed by Church leaders? Was Pope Benedict’s honouring of Bush with an unprecedented papal visit to the White House consistent with those misgivings? Not long ago bad Catholics were also known as cafeteria Catholics, choosing beliefs as much by conscience as by the menu of authority, but it seems now that Catholics from left to right approach the cafeteria line, eying options.

In this same chapter Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest, movingly describes an encounter with the poet Allen Tate, a Catholic, who had been a mentor to Carroll. Tate and his wife had just lost their infant child Michael, and the local priest had refused to give the child a Catholic burial because Tate was married to a young woman who had left the convent for him. The poet was devastated, and Carroll, soon to be ordained, was moved to console him.

I do not have a detailed memory of what I said to Tate on that day, but the burden of my words—their weight and significance—is very clear to me today and was then. All that poured from me showed that my faith had been transformed. The God of judgment and condemnation, so vividly incarnate in the excommunicating priest, had nothing to do with the God whom Jesus preached. Human love, Jesus said, which seeks not to command but to lure, is the great signal of who God is. And wasn’t it in Jesus’ own life, as those who loved him told the story, that we saw that?

He goes on to say this about Jesus and salvation:

What Jesus offers is not salvation, conceived only as a negative rescue from damnation. Instead, Jesus offers a positive completion of life—“life,” as he said, “to the full”— not some endless Sunday afternoon stretching on toward an omega point that never comes, but the fullness of life here and now. Past, present, and future, experienced in the light of God’s promise, change the meaning of time, and that same promise changes the meaning of space. But the point is, it happens here. Not in some afterlife. By being fully human, Jesus became God’s real presence.

And this on the Resurrection:

I do not recall discussing the Resurrection with Allen Tate, but I might have. Just as I would never have spoken of Michael at play in the streets of heaven, I would not have spoken of some miraculous resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus— as if the reorganization of molecules and atoms forms the content of Christian hope. I had learned from Tate himself the power of metaphor and symbolism, and was at home in understanding my religious impulse in those terms. Resurrection is the symbol pointing beyond itself to the intuition that, as his friends could not give up their affection for Jesus, neither could God. God’s permanent affection is for life, life over death, resurrection. It is not that God intervenes to counter the normal course of nature, but that the normal course of nature is itself the intervention.

These are not the words of a man who subscribes to the meaning of belief as assensus. There is clearly much that he does not believe and much that he believes more as matter of the heart than of the head. Yet James Carroll has not moved to a denomination that would be more welcoming of his rather unorthodox theology; he remains a practicing Catholic.

To repeat Rabbi Heschel’s words: God is greater than religion. Greater than every religion. Every denomination. Every time-bound ecclesiastical manifestation. And today many religious people see that. Certainly including many Catholics. God is greater than any language used of God.

The problem with assensus is that the critical mind questions; it wrestles with the concepts of God and of faith. It refuses to be bound to the limitations prescribed by the Catechism. Marcus Borg is just one Christian mind; James Carroll is just one Catholic mind. But what they represent to me is the freedom that can be experienced when I dare to go beyond official boundaries of Catholic teaching, when I question even core beliefs. Reading The Heart of Christianity and Practicing Catholic freed me not only to disagree—without guilt—with the official teachings of the Church but also to begin to experience God in my own unique way and to recognize that I may experience Him entirely differently tomorrow.

And still be Catholic.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Third Miracle: A Review

As mentioned in an earlier post, I love priest movies. The Third Miracle is one of my favourites. The film, directed by Agnieszka Holland, tells the story of a Chicago priest, Father Frank Shore (played by Ed Harris), whose faith was badly shaken when a popular priest he was investigating for sainthood turned out to be a Satanist and a depressive who likely committed suicide. Father Shore is brought back from the flophouse he has installed himself in and is ordered by the bishop to gather the facts in a new case, that of Helen O’Reagan, an ordinary but pious woman who is credited with causing a statue to shed tears of blood, blood which has apparently already cured one young girl of lupus. The statue only bleeds when it rains and only in November, the month in which Helen O’Reagan died.

Early in the course of the investigation, Father Shore meets Helen’s daughter Roxane (Anne Heche), who is bitter because her mother abandoned her at the age of sixteen to enter a convent. Roxane is dismissive of sainthood in general and of her mother’s cause in particular, but in their first meeting a spark is lit between her and the postulator; soon it is not only Father Shore’s faith that is in danger. Just as relations between the two characters begin to seriously heat up, however, the case for Helen’s sainthood is strengthened by the evidence that the blood shed by the statue is not only real, it is Helen’s type. The priest makes the choice to plead Helen’s cause to Rome, and Roxane is left in the lurch.

The second part of the film deals with the tribunal that is held in the Chicago archdiocese. Two cardinals and an archbishop preside. The archbishop (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a rigid and arrogant German, is opposed to Helen’s cause and hostile to the postulator Shore. During the tribunal the girl who was supposedly cured of lupus several years earlier and who is now an addict and prostitute, is brought back from death; this becomes the first official miracle attributed to Helen. In the end we learn that the German archbishop was present when another miracle occurred. He was a young German soldier in a Slovak town bombed by the Allies late in World War II. During one bombing raid, he witnessed a young girl pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the town square and the bombs immediately turn into flocks of pigeons. The young girl was Helen O’Reagan. Father Shore’s case appears to be on its way to being made.

At the end of the movie, we see Frank Shore, three years after the tribunal, as an ordinary, and obviously very content, parish priest who has just given First Communion to a group of children. Suddenly as the children run off, he sees Roxane, who now has a baby. They speak pleasantly and then go their separate ways.

The Third Miracle was reviewed by Stephen Holden of The New York Times when it came out in late 1999. I have seen the movie several times and respectfully disagree with Mr. Holden’s assessment. Here is some of what he says:

One of the problems of ''The Third Miracle''…is that it wants to have it both ways. By showing a statue of the Virgin Mary dripping with blood and portraying the sudden miraculous recovery of a teenage prostitute from a coma, it seems to confirm the faith of believers. The tone of the rest of the film, however, is deeply skeptical.
As the debate over Helen's eventual canonization intensifies, Father Shore, who argues in her behalf, goes up against Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an imperious European cleric, and the movie becomes bogged down in fussy theological arguments and an investigation into Helen's childhood in Slovakia during World War II. Even given its rich, finely shaded performances and intellectual subtleties, ''The Third Miracle'' ends up feeling more like an exercise, a carefully outlined set of variations on a challenging theme, than a movie that had to be made.

This film is not about “the faith of believers,” nor is the tone sceptical, even though some of the main characters are. Moreover, there are no “fussy theological arguments” in the movie and it decidedly does not involve “a carefully outlined set of variations on a challenging theme.” The Third Miracle is the story of a man—a priest—who has lost, and who recovers, his faith. It is interesting that the reviewer does not give us his take on the movie’s title. What is the “third miracle”? To me it is quite clear: the miracle is Father Shore’s rediscovered faith and vocation as a priest.

There are a number of serious flaws in this movie, the worst of which are several outrageous coincidences. The first of these occurs when Father Shore is visiting the police precinct his late father worked in. We hear some commotion and, lo and behold, Roxane is brought in wearing handcuffs and loudly protesting her innocence over an alleged traffic violation. This incredible chance meeting sets up the scenes to follow in which the priest begins to fall for Roxane. An entire set of coincidences involves the German archbishop who just happened to be present at the miracle which could decide the sainthood of Helen O’Reagan, and who just happens to be a prominent member of the Vatican congregation that decides on sainthood, and who just happens to be in the U.S. on a lecture tour when the tribunal is called. Another problem with the film has to do with stereotypes: Archbishop Werner is an almost ridiculous caricature of an imperious German, and Bishop Cahill of Shore’s diocese is the stereotypical well-fed, well-connected prince of the Church who cares more for appearance and his own power and position than he does for his priests or his flock.

What makes this movie work—at least for me—in spite of the rather serious issues noted above, are the performances of Harris and Heche. I never doubt for a second that Frank Shore is a good man who is in a painful struggle for his faith; the man wants to believe, to conquer his doubts, to be a real priest. Harris takes us on a tour of the symptoms and manifestations of this struggle: the anguish, the anger, the weakness, the despair, the hope, and finally the peace. Heche is both beautiful and magnificent in her role as Roxane. The combined cynicism and vulnerability of this woman can be seen in every gesture and every facial expression. Her bitterness and her need for love can be heard in every word she speaks. I have not seen Anne Heche in other films, but if this performance is an indication of her talent, she is a fine actress indeed.

The Third Miracle does not romanticize the priesthood, nor does it (intentionally) caricaturize or ridicule it. Frank Shore is a real man in a real life crisis who is given an opportunity for redemption by striving for something much greater than he is. It is in the striving rather than winning that the miracle of redemption takes place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Charism of Celibacy: A Personal Reflection

I have never really been part of the “gay scene” or the “gay life.” In other words, I don’t go to gay bars or join gay groups or associations. I have few gay friends. I have been to the Pride Parade twice, only once with another gay person. I have been closeted or partly closeted most of my life out of shyness, or fear, or for very “practical” reasons related to employment or income. Thus even though I always dreamed of having a life partner, my own, self-imposed circumstances made the realization of this dream rather a big challenge. I have had a few “affairs,” all of which were pretty short-lived because in each case I latched onto the first guy that came along, thinking he was “the one.”

I am sure this is not an unusual story.

My most recent relationship lasted four years—the longest yet, perhaps because it was long-distance. Again, I deceived myself into thinking that this was “it,” that this guy was the one I had been waiting for. As a result, I allowed myself to be taken for granted, strung along, and generally disrespected by someone who was actually a wonderful person—he was just not ready to commit.

Again, not a particularly original story.

Late in the fourth year of this relationship, two things happened that changed my life. One of these was my return to the Church, which I have already talked about in earlier blogs. The second occurred slightly earlier and was for me equally momentous, if not more so. God opened a door for me and gave me the opportunity to choose a new path.

I was walking on the street in downtown Vancouver after having lunch with a former colleague when I suddenly ran into another former colleague, from the same organization, whom I had not seen in ten years. We did the catch-me-up-on-your-life-in-the-last-ten-years-in-25-words-or-less thing, and I learned, to my great surprise, that she had just written a book. To make a long story short, I became the editor of her book and this book and my growing friendship with this former colleague both had a profound effect on my life, especially on my understanding of relationships.

The book is called Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends. The author’s name is Kaycee Jane. Frog or Prince?, which is intended for a reading audience of young women, aged 16 to 25, makes the following essential points about relationships, which for the purpose of this article I will put into a gay context. First, a relationship is not the single determining factor in a person’s happiness; it is not even the main factor. Rather a love relationship should enhance what Kaycee calls a person’s “beautiful life.” It is the responsibility of the individual to take stock of his existing relationships—with friends and family—his interests, and his personality traits and use these to build his own beautiful life. Only when this life has been firmly established should one consider a serious relationship.

Second, a relationship with a Prince can only be built on respect—respect for self, respect for others, and mutual respect between the two parties in the relationship. Third, we have to break apart old belief systems—“all is fair in love and war,” “you have to love your boyfriend and stick with him in spite of his warts,” “it’s better to love than to be loved.” And hundreds more, like“my boyfriend’s jealousy is a really cute sign that he loves me.” It’s not; his jealousy means he doesn’t trust you. Fourth, relationships are about recognizing needs and getting them fulfilled. You have needs, he has needs—lots of them—and if they are not getting fulfilled, he’s a Frog. Which doesn’t mean he is a bad guy; he just isn’t the right guy for you. He is not your Prince and don’t try to fool yourself into thinking he is, that you just have to make him change—he will not change.

Working on this book, I realized that I had been expecting a boyfriend to make my life beautiful; I knew now that this was never going to happen. I had to build myself a beautiful life. I also realized that my boyfriend was a Frog. The respect was not there, I was operating on false beliefs, and my needs were certainly not being met; I am sure his were not being met either. Yes, he was a really nice guy—wonderful to his family, loyal to his friends—but not a Prince to me. So I terminated the relationship.

And then I began to think seriously about my life so far and about how I had not made it beautiful. It was somewhat attractive in many ways, maybe even a little pretty. But it was definitely not beautiful. I had to start again, even while I missed terribly the boyfriend I had just shown the door. Again, God intervened through a friend who guided me onto the path where I now find myself and where indeed I am able to “follow my bliss.” I have built a beautiful life for myself, where I read, I study, I reflect, and I write on a subject that is endlessly fascinating.

A big part of this new life is the decision to remain single, a decision which seems to have been partly conscious, partly unconscious. I live in a rather unusual situation in that I own a house with my best friend, who is female (and straight) and several “homestay” students, international students who stay with a Canadian family while they are in this country studying English. One of the students is actually no longer studying; in fact, he has graduated from university, achieved CMA certification, and gained landed immigrant status in Canada; altogether this young man has been with us for about six years and is truly “a member of the family.” For him and for the other students we try to create as much of a family atmosphere as possible. As I am at home all the time, I cook, clean, and generally take care of the students. They are also my present source of income, along with a small amount of editing work.

As with most people, I decided after my relationship ended that I did not want to again go through what I had experienced for the previous four years. Of course, many of us sooner or later forget that we made this decision and start searching again, usually getting ourselves into the same kind of relationship we just got out of. After a while, however, and once I found myself firmly on a new path, I recognized that I was no longer feeling the need of a partner. My work and my journey were now my joy; I had, over the period of a few years, gradually created a kind of semi-cloistered monastic existence for myself, which I find satisfying in every way. I have built an office in the garage at the back of our house; this is my “cell,” where I work and sleep.

So celibacy has become a conscious choice, but it is a choice guided by God. In his book Freeing Celibacy, Father Donald Cozzens, referring to men and women religious and to secular clergy, says the following about the charism of celibacy:

Some few men and women appear to possess the charism of celibacy, a graced call from God to pledge themselves to celibate living for the good of others and for the building up in history of the reign of God. For these individuals, celibacy is their truth—the right way for them to live out their lives. Without disparaging marriage and with regard for the goodness and wholesomeness of human sexuality, they sense a mysterious pull of grace toward singleness that seems to fit with their inner life and spiritual journey.
Charism is defined in the book as “a gift freely given by God to a person or community, for the good and service of others in bringing about the reign of God.” Father Cozzens later goes on to say that there are many who feel themselves powerfully called by God to the priesthood but who do not possess the charism of celibacy. He believes that these men should be allowed to marry—as their charism is for the married life—so that they may be happy and effective ministers like their successfully celibate brothers.

I make no claim to priestly celibacy, which, according to Fr. Cozzens, “implies sexual continence, the foregoing of all deliberate sexual experience.” I do believe, however, that my decision to be single, taken not because I am “tired of the stress and tensions of dating,” but rather because I am happy and fulfilled in another kind of relationship, is a kind of charismatic celibacy, a gift from God. And I sincerely hope that I am using this gift “for the good and service of others in bringing about the reign of God.” One recognizes that one has a part to play, however small, and assumes responsibility, joyously, to play it to the best of one’s ability.

Without a partner in it, my life—at this moment—is complete. I do not feel the urge to seek out a relationship. Nevertheless, I am aware that at any time I may meet someone with whom I could make a life. Thanks to Kaycee and Frog or Prince? I will be able to determine without a great deal of difficulty if that man is indeed my Prince. If he is, I would not only be foolish but also sinful to turn him away because he would have been sent to me by God.

We cannot say “no” to God.

A plug for Frog or Prince: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends: You can buy this book at or for Canadians at Kaycee Jane has a website for the book:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Enter Where There Is No Path

The other day I quoted from the Introduction to one volume of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Here is how the Introduction ends:

Here is a story that seems to me to embody the essential image of living one's life, finding it and having the courage to pursue it. It comes from an Arthurian romance, La Queste del Saint Graal, by an anonymous thirteenth-century monk.
There's a moment there in Arthur's banquet hall when all the knights are assembled around the Round Table. Arthur would not let anyone start to eat until an adventure had occurred. Well, in those days adventures were rather normal, so people didn't go hungry for long.
They were waiting for this day's adventure, and it did indeed occur. The Holy Grail showed itself to the assembled knights - not in its full glory but covered with a great radiant cloth. Then it withdrew. All were left ravished, sitting there in awe.
Finally, Gawain, Arthur's nephew, stood up and said, "I propose a vow to this company, that we should all go in quest of that Grail to behold it unveiled."
Now we come to the text that interested me. The text reads, "They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the Forest Adventurous at that point which he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path."
You enter the forest at the darkest point where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's path; each human being is a unique phenomenon.

The idea is to find your own pathway to bliss.

I believe that God calls us to seek the Holy Grail so that we may unveil it. He calls us from the dark forest where there is no path except the one we create for our unique journey. I also believe that if we have the courage to make that journey, God will guide us to the Grail.

The Grail is within.

A well-known Jesuit historian and educator, in an article written in America magazine some time ago, called Joseph Campbell, who was brought up Roman Catholic, an apostate. I respect the intelligent broad-mindedness of that writer, so I have to think that his tongue was in his cheek (or on his cheeks covering his ass). I can only say, thank God for this wise and blessed apostate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Doublespeak Reflects Double Standard?

An item from the Catholic News Service recently appeared in my local diocesan newspaper, The B.C. Catholic. The article concerned remarks made by Benedict XVI to the bishops of England and Wales on the Equality Bill currently under debate in Parliament.

...the Pope said some legislation designed to guarantee equal opportunity for all people would impose "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs."

Catholic bishops have said the bill means churches could be sued by anyone who was turned away as a candidate for the priesthood on grounds of gender or sexual lifestyle.

A recent vote in Britain's House of Lords, however, supported an amendment that protected the existing rights of churches to insist that clergy and  high-profile lay employees live in a manner consistent with Christian moral teaching.

The Lords are saying, in effect, that if a parish administrator or the chief financial officer of a diocese were a gay man or lesbian woman who during the time of his or her tenure openly entered into a same-sex relationship, that employee could be fired for failing to "live in a manner consistent with Christian moral teaching." So the Church insists on, and the Lords validate by their amendment, exemption from the law that protects LGBT people from employment discrimination.

The article goes on to say the following:

Pope Benedict urged the bishops to continue defending Church teaching in the public realm, adding that they have a right "to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society."

By being vocal participants in public discussion, the bishops are maintaining Britain's long-standing tradition of freedom of expression and are giving voice to the similar beliefs held by many people who are unable to express them, he said.

The pope adds the following:

To bring a coherent, convincing message to the people, the Church must ensure the Catholic community speaks with one voice, he added.

In a culture that encourages the expression of a wide variety of opinions, the Pope said, "it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate."


So the Church, represented by its bishops, has the "right to participate in national debate," and by doing so is upholding an admirable tradition of freedom of expression and giving the ordinary person a voice. Participating in a debate in order to express an opinion that is contrary to the legally established status quo, in this case, the full rights of LGBT people, and in order to actually gain exempt status to that law, could reasonably be called "dissent." In a pluralistic society, dissent is allowed; in fact, some might say it is welcomed as it gives everyone, including those who might not otherwise be heard, the chance to gain an understanding of all sides of an issue. Moreover, the dissenting voice of a powerful institution like the Catholic Church (as well as other churches and conservative organizations and individuals, I am sure) can bring tangible results, as we see here.

Yet in practically the same breath, the pope tells the bishops that dissent is not a "mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate." One only has to look at the history of the Church, and in particular the history of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, to know what kind of dissent is being referred to in this statement. It is the kind of faithful dissent within the Church expressed by moral theologian Father Charles Curran, who was banned from teaching in any Catholic university by the very cleric who is claiming the right for his bishops to dissent from the laws guaranteeing equal rights for all.

Reading an article such as this that in all seriousness reports such obvious and laughable doublespeak only reinforces my belief that the Church is not the papal monarchy or the curial bureaucracy; it is not even the bishops that have been chosen and appointed over the past thirty years more for their loyalty to Rome than for their holiness. The Church can only reside in the hearts of the people of God, people who recognize that the Jesus of the Gospels opened his own heart to everyone, that his teaching was love and that love is acceptance.

BTW, what exactly is "sexual lifestyle"?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scholasticism and Neo-Scholasticism

I have seen these two terms used often in reference to the dominant post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Vatican I, anti-modern theology of the official Church. I have, however, been unable to find a clear definition of either term, and I have obviously not done enough reading and research in theology and Church history to be able to make my own definition.

Can anyone help me out here?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Dominican Sisters of Mary - on Oprah

On Thursday, February 12, Father Jim Martin posted on the blog of America magazine the first part of a four-part YouTube video of the appearance of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The reader/viewer was instructed to go to YouTube to watch the remaining three parts.

According to the website of the Sisters, their Order was founded in 1997 with four Sisters. There are now around 100 Sisters, whose average age is 26. The average age of women who enter the Order is 21. The site introduces the Order with the following statement:

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist is a Roman Catholic community of women religious. Our community was founded in the Dominican tradition, as a response to Pope John Paul II's call for new religious foundations to embody the graces of the New Evangelization of the third millennium Church.

Through profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, along with a contemplative emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and Marian devotion, our community exists for the salvation of souls and the building of the Church throughout the world.

Oprah's staff had apparently contacted numerous religious women's communities requesting access to their convents and inviting representatives to appear on the show, which is filmed in Chicago, and were turned down by all of them before the Dominican Sisters of Mary agreed to do the show. Reporter Lisa Ling was invited to the Sisters' convent in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was actually permitted to spend the night in one of the cells, the first non-religious ever given access to the cloistered part of the convent.

Ling expected that on arrival at the convent she would find all the Sisters in prayer but was surprised to see them playing cards and Scrabble instead. The four nuns, especially the two younger Sisters, that made the trip to Oprah's studio and appeared before the cameras belied the image many hold of cloistered nuns as serene, other-worldly, and silent. The two young Sisters who sat with Oprah on the stage were lively, candid, and funny. They did not flinch or dissemble when asked about sex and they were honest in their personal accounts of their vocations. Several nuns were interviewed in the convent as well, via Skype, and they too appeared confident in themselves and in their choice of a way of life.

The women of this Order, as they appeared on Oprah, seem to be genuinely happy. They love God, they love each other, and they love their vocation and the life it has given them. The most often mentioned factor in their choice to become religious, besides a call from God, was the overwhelming materialism of our society. Many of these women had left good jobs and promising careers, as well as significant material wealth behind to pursue a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a cloistered life of prayer and service. All those that appeared on Oprah - postulants, novices, and fully professed nuns - seemed to be deeply satisfied with their choice.

I was surprised and moved by this show. In my opinion, Oprah and Lisa Ling were both very respectful of the Sisters and of their choice of a way of life. The candidness of the Sisters and their obvious joyous devotion to their Order and to Christ were touching indeed. I admire the courage and the reflection involved in their decision to renounce the pursuit of material and carnal satisfaction and to respond to a higher calling. I pray that their joy will only deepen as they grow in years.

The young women who enter cloistered communities like the Dominican Sisters of Mary have made a free choice, one which they can undo at any time until they make their final vows. They reflected intelligently on their secular lives before making the decision to leave those lives behind and pursue a life that is still very much a mystery to them. One can only hope that they are only required to leave their material treasure in the world, that they can take with them into the convent their God-given intelligence and creativity.

It seems to me that of the three vows taken by all religious, obedience has the most potential to cause spiritual damage. Authority wielded by unwise hands can lead to the kind of bitter disillusionment that Karen Armstrong experienced. While perhaps today's postulants are somewhat more sophisticated than the young Karen was and the authority that commands obedience at the convent in Ann Arbor appears charitable and wise, one wonders whether the absolute obedience to the magisterium commanded by John Paul II and his successor, who are so admired by many of those entering the priesthood and religious life nowadays, will bring about a restoration of the kind of Counter-Reformation regime that Armstrong experienced in the 1960's.

I pray that it will not.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Joseph Campbell: Translating Mythic Tradition into your Life

Because I have chosen to return to the Church in which I was baptized yet have irretrievably lost much of the faith I took for granted as a child, I am constantly in search of a way to reconcile my Catholicism with the call to be who I really am. Joseph Campbell shines a light on one possible path through the dark forest.

In the Introduction to the book Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Campbell says the following about bliss:

These deities in myths serve as models, give you life roles, so long as you understand their reference to the foot in the transcendent. The Christian idea of Imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ - what does that mean, that you should go out and get yourself crucified? Nothing of the kind. It means to live with one foot in the transcendent, as God.

As Paul says: "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." That means that the eternal thing works in me. And this is the meaning of the Buddha consciousness, the consciousness that is both the entire universe and you yourself.

The myth tells you that if you engage the world in a certain way, you are under the protection of Athena, under the protection of Artemis, under the protection of this, that, or the other god. That's the model. We don't have that today. Life has changed in form so rapidly that even the forms that were normal to think about in the time of my boyhood are no longer around, and there's another set, and everything is moving very, very fast. Today we don't have the stasis that is required for the formation of a mythic tradition.

The rolling stone gathers no moss. Myth is moss. So now you've got to do it yourself, ad lib. I speak of the present as a moment of free fall into the future with no guidance. All you've got to know is how to fall; and you can learn that too. That is the situation with regard to myth right now. We're all without dependable guides.

Yet even now you can find two guides. The first can be a personality in your youth who seemed to you a noble and great personality. Y0u can use that person as a model. The other way is to live for bliss. In this way, your bliss becomes your life. There's a saying in Sanscrit: the three aspects of thought that point furthest toward the border of the abyss of the transcendent are sat, cit, and ananda: being, consciousness, and bliss. You can call transcendence a hole or the whole, either one, because it is beyond words. All that we can talk about is what is on this side of transcendence. And the problem is to open the words, to open the images so that they point past themselves. They will tend to shut off the experience through their own opacity. But these three concepts are those that will bring you closest to that void: sat-cit-ananda. Being, consciousness, and bliss.

Now, as I've gotten older, I've been thinking about these things. And I don't know what being is. Ands I don't know what consciousness is. But I do know what bliss is: that deep sense of being present, of doing what you absolutely must do to be yourself. If you can hang on to that, you are on the edge of the transcendent already. You may not have any money, but it doesn't matter. When I came back from my student years in Germany and Paris, it was three weeks before the Wall Street crash in 1929, and I didn't have a job for five years. And, fortunately for me, there was no welfare. I had nothing to do but sit in Woodstock and read and figure out where my bliss lay. There I was, on the edge of excitement all the time.

So, what I've told my students is this: follow your bliss. You'll have moments when you experience bliss. And when that goes away, what happens to it? Just stay with it, and there's more security in that than in finding out where the money is going to come from next year...

Your bliss can guide you to that transcendent mystery, because bliss is the welling up of the energy of the transcendent wisdom within you. So when the bliss cuts off, you know that you've cut off the welling up; try to find it again. And that will be your Hermes guide, the dog that can follow the invisible trail for you. And that's the way it is. One works out one's own myth that way.
You can get some clues from earlier traditions. But they have to be taken as clues. As many a wise man has said, "You can't wear another person's hat." So when people get excited about the Orient and begin putting on turbans and saris, what they've gotten caught in is the folk aspect of the wisdom that they need. You've got to find the wisdom, not the clothing of it. Through these trappings, the myths of other cultures, you can come to a wisdom that you've then got to translate into your own. The whole problem is to turn these mythologies into your own.
Now, in my courses in mythology at Sarah Lawrence, I taught people of practically every religious faith you could think of. Some have a harder time mythologizing than others, but all have been brought up in a myth of some kind. What I've found is that any mythic tradition can be translated into your life, if it's been put into you. And it's a good thing to hang onto the myth that was put in when you were a child, because it is there whether you want it there or not. What you have to do is translate that myth into its eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song. (My bold and italics)

I know that I have found my bliss, and now I try to follow it every day. I also know that I sometimes cut off "the welling up of the energy that is the transcendent wisdom [God] within" me, as I go about the more mundane and sometimes frustrating tasks and events of my daily life. That I know these things is key; consciousness or awareness is also part of the wisdom within.

The song of my faith can be heard in the beautiful voice of the young priest who sings "Lift up your heart" in Gregorian chant so that it makes me shiver and brings tears to my eyes; it is in the in the transcendent symbolism (or in the reality) of the act of transubstantiation; it can be heard in the words of Henri Nouwen when he reminds us with such passion that we are not what we do or what others think about us, but we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.

Joseph Campbell, Eckhart Tolle, Henri Nouwen, Father Bob, my wise and loving friends Richard and Kaycee, and others have all helped me to realize and to be who I really am. Yet as a gay man and a "faithful dissenter" on many issues, I still feel a longing for a more welcoming and inclusive Catholic Church. This is what I told a friend in an e-mail I sent earlier today:

I would love to go to Mass on Sunday or on Wednesday night, or at Christmas or Easter in a church where all are accepted and loved, where the priest, man or woman, openly gay or straight, celebrates the liturgy lovingly and reverently and preaches the gospel of love. I would love to be in a church that welcomes young people and does not condemn them for doing what is natural for all young people to do; that welcomes and blesses the union of all loving couples, gay or straight, married or unmarried; that does not exclude or condemn those that respectfully disagree.

Will I ever realize this dream in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church? Will I ever be able to be truly myself - and be accepted as such - in my local parish community? I have to admire the Roman Catholic Womenpriests about whom Obie Holmen wrote in The Open Tabernacle. These women have decided not to wait for the great wall built by the Vatican over the centuries and fortified in the last 30 years to fall so that they might be taken in as full members of the Church.

Someone had to have courageously taken the first step to blaze a new path that travels under or over or around that wall.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tradition and Scripture

Last night I received the following e-mail from William in Dallas. He kindly gave his consent to my publishing it here, along with my reply.

Good Evening,

My name is william and i am not catholic but i do subscribe to the newsletter "Queering the Church" and this is where i found out about you.

I would like to ask you a question as a catholic man and please do understand i am not singling the catholic church out by any means.

I have wondered why after reading the post on Queering the Church about tradition and how many in Rome and in leadership positions within the catholic church seem to hold tradition with the same reverence as the word of God? Please understand that most if not all protestant churches including the one i am a member of are guilty of the same thing. Surprisingly our sunday school lesson was on this very subject with reference to Mark 7:6-8. Where the pharisees had confused and made the commandments of man more important than the commandments of God. I do know that all churches and all denominations have traditions but at least to me the catholic church is the most visible of churches that hold onto and follow traditions. I guess my question is two fold. Why do catholics put so much emphasis on all the liturgy and traditions of the church and little or no emphasis on the word of God? This question also could be used of protestant churches as well. And how has man in general been able to completely miss the true message of God and teach a message of man and calls it God's message?

I am a gay christian man and a member of a protestant gay church in Dallas. Those like me would not be welcomed into most conservative christian churches today and yet God's message of love is to all people without regard to their orientation, language, nationality, social standing,etc.

How and why did we all mess things up so bad?


Here is my reply:

Dear William:

Thank you very much for your e-mail (It’s the first one I’ve received from anyone reading my blog.) Your question is an interesting and valuable one. But first a huge disclaimer: I am in no way a qualified theologian or expert on scripture. I am just a guy who decided to go back to the Catholic Church after a very long time and who has since that return thought and read and written about the experience. I hope that my blog does not give the impression that I actually know what I am talking about.

Having said that, I offer two propositions in answer to your question. The first is quite simple: I think that there is a huge range of opinion out there about Revelation, so it is likely that no two answers to your question are going to be the same.

The second is somewhat more complex.

In our local diocesan newspaper, a parish priest writes a regular column on the scripture readings for the week. A recent column touches directly upon your question. Here is what he says:

“Accordingly, ‘the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from holy Scriptures alone’, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Vatican IIs Dei Verbum (The Word of God). She relies on Sacred Tradition: the ‘living transmission’ of God’s word by the apostles and their successors, a process demonstrated in the New Testament accounts themselves.

“The content of Sacred Tradition is what was ‘handed on’ (in Latin, ‘traditum’) by the preaching of the apostles, their example, and the institutions they established, even before anything was written down.

“Indeed, the criterion of the Church used in deciding what writings to include in the Bible was their agreement with the content of Sacred Tradition. (The canon, or catalogue, of the inspired books to be included in Sacred Scripture was not formally drawn up until 382 AD, at the Council of Rome.)

“The Catechism says that the Holy Spirit entrusted the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, both written and oral, to the Church, that is, the bishops in communion with the pope.

“It is this Church, founded by Christ on Peter, as on a rock, which Christ promised to guard from error: not the Bible, except insofar as the Bible would be backed by the Church’s Christ-given authority to teach. We call this authority her ‘magisterium’, from the Latin ‘magister’, meaning ‘teacher.’”

The priest goes on to instruct his readers on how to read the Bible, in light of the above information. There are some problems with the idea of Tradition and where it comes from, just as there have always been questions about the interpretation of Scripture. I have quoted Hans Küng quite a bit in my blog as he is a highly respected theologian and as he was a major figure in the formulation of Vatican II documents. In his The Catholic Church: A Short History, he says, of Peter: “But today even Catholic exegetes accept that the famous saying about Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:18-19; the statement is in the future tense)—of which the other gospels know nothing—is not a saying of the earthly Jesus but was composed after Easter by the Palestinian community, or later by Matthew’s community.”

We also learn from Küng that the councils of the fourth century, including Nicaea, were as much political as they were religious. I do not know of the Council of Rome, but the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, at Constantinople, which was at the time the centre of political power as well as of Church authority, was convened by the emperor Theodosius the Great. Here is what Küng has to say about Theodosius: “…a strictly orthodox Spaniard, who at the end of the fourth Christian century decreed a ban on all pagan cults and sacrificial rites and accused of lèse majesté those who broke this law. That made Christianity now formally the state religion, the Catholic Church the state church, and heresy a crime against the state.”

The issue of the source of Revelation—Scripture or Tradition, or both; if both, how much emphasis should be placed on one or the other?—was hotly contested at the Second Vatican Council. The progressive bishops, who were the majority in the council, argued that Revelation must be based on Scripture, which is the revealed word of God; the conservative Roman Curia vehemently argues otherwise. In the end, the progressives won, but of course Vatican II itself has been steadily reinterpreted by John Paul II and by Benedict XVI, especially when the latter was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So what to believe? What to do? I am still forming my faith (In my blog there is an essay called “The Pilgrim and the Path,” which you might find useful. It is the story of my faith journey so far.), but I would tend to go with Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

There is an article in today’s New York Times, by Eric Lax, entitled “Have Faith in Love.” You might enjoy reading it.

I wish you joy and many blessings on your journey and hope we will correspond again.



I would be interested in further comment on this question.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Karen Armstrong

I have only read one of Karen Armstrong’s books on religious topics: The Bible: A Biography. I found the book to be dense and difficult, the product of much thought and much research, some parts of which I am still trying to understand. I made notes (or at least copied sections) while I was reading The Bible and have referred to them on occasion since; looking at what I have copied frankly makes me dread reading other books by this author—but that’s not about her; it’s about me.

On the other hand, I have just finished reading Ms Armstrong’s two memoirs*, Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Life in and out of the Convent and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, both for the second time. These are two of my favorite books, and I am certain that I will read them many more times before I die.

Through the Narrow Gate first tells the story of the young Karen’s decision to pursue a vocation as a nun and the reaction to that decision of her family and of the headmistress of her school, Mother Katherine. The main focus of the book, however, is the process of formation and training that Armstrong underwent at the convent and how she responded to that process. As she entered the convent in 1962, the changes to religious life prompted by the Second Vatican Council had not yet taken place. Becoming a nun was still a very rigorous, self-destroying journey, especially for a young woman of great talent and sensitivity like Karen Armstrong; talent and sensitivity were in fact anathema to the Order’s view of what a good nun should be. The postulant and the novice were expected to empty their hearts of all self-indulgent tendencies—like the desire for human friendship and love, the desire for self-expression, the desire for personal intellectual development. This emptying was effected by relentless self-examination, mind-numbingly repetitive and useless tasks, constant scathing criticism by the nuns in charge of training, and humiliating punishments. Karen entered the convent expecting to find God, to welcome him into her heart, and to serve him joyfully for the rest of her life. Instead, her youthful and hopeful heart withered, even as she eventually became Sister Martha. And God never made an appearance despite seven years of prayer and sacrifice. Of course, there were moments of joy and warmth during her years in the convent but these were as rare as words of praise or encouragement from her superiors.

In early January 1969, Sister Martha left the Order and was suddenly once again Karen Armstrong. She now faced an entirely different journey, one which is chronicled in the second volume of her memoirs, The Spiral Staircase. Because Armstrong had been cut off from healthy human interaction and from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, returning to the secular world and finding her place was not easy. Moreover, while she was in the convent she began to suffer from bewildering and frightening attacks that involved light flashing at an ever-increasing rate, a terrible sulphuric stench, and finally blackout. Her superiors attributed these episodes to hysteria, “pure nerves, and attention seeking.” The attacks continued and were ultimately a significant factor in Sister Martha’s decision to leave the religious life. She was confident that once she returned to the secular world they would stop, but in fact they did not, and she was to live with them for years to come, all along doubting her own sanity, until she was finally diagnosed as epileptic and given proper medication to control the seizures.

Meanwhile life in the world presented other challenges. Armstrong had been accepted to Oxford while still a nun and had shown promise as a scholar; she felt that academia was the key to success and stability in her life and pursued a doctoral degree in literary criticism. But her dissertation was failed by the external examiner and her career as a university scholar was over. She also had a short-lived career as a high school English teacher and department head. During this period she lost her belief in God and ceased being a Roman Catholic.

When Through the Narrow Gate was issued in paperback in 1983, Armstrong was asked to do a pilot for a planned television series called Opinion. She was required to speak extemporaneously on a religious topic in front of a camera for twenty minutes. This exercise was turning point in the life of the former nun. Not only was she able to speak without hesitation but what she said in those twenty minutes came for the first time wholly from her own creative mind. Later she was asked to host a six-part series on St. Paul. It was the travel and research for this project that launched her journey into studying and writing about the world’s religions, especially the three Abrahamic faiths. She has since become a renowned religious historian with several books under her belt.

And since then, Armstrong has in a way come full circle in her search for God. Once she recognized and accepted the unique path she had chosen for herself, she also realized that she was “gradually, imperceptibly being transformed.” Through her understanding of her own pain and suffering she discovered compassion for others; through her need to immerse herself in other cultures and societies in other times, she learned the ecstasy that results from going outside of self, “beyond the ego.” Karen remained single (she jokingly calls herself a “failed heterosexual”) and to this day lives alone in a house in London. The long hours of research and writing in silence in her study began to have a profound effect on her:

I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and walk around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no longer expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity. I was no longer just grabbing concepts and facts from my books, using them as fodder for the next interview, but learning to listen to the deeper meaning that lay quietly and ineffably beyond them. Silence itself had become my teacher.

Finally, Armstrong came to the understanding that “to believe or not to believe” was not the religious question.

To my great surprise, I was discovering that some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated….The reality that we call God is transcendent—that is, it goes beyond any human orthodoxy—yet God is also the ground of all being and can be experienced almost as a presence in the depths of the psyche. All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality.

In the Preface to The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong says:

…I have never managed to integrate fully with “the world,” although I have certainly tried to do so. Despite my best endeavours, I have in several important ways remained an outsider. I was much closer to the truth at the end of Through the Narrow Gate, when I predicted that I would in some sense be a nun all my life. Of course, it is true that in superficial ways, my present life is light years away from my convent experience. I have dear friends, a pretty house, and money. I travel, have a lot of fun, and enjoy the good things of life. Nothing nunnish about any of this. But although I tried a number of different careers, doors automatically slammed in my face until I settled down to my present solitary existence, writing, thinking, and talking almost all day and every day about God, religion, and spirituality….For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that—I now believe—I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God.

There are a number of reasons why I like these memoirs so much. The first is simply that they are beautifully written. Armstrong has a gift for narrative. In Through the Narrow Gate, rather than having to endure a dull litany of the indignities and deprivations she faced in the convent, I was transfixed by an unfolding psychodrama whose outcome I was dying to see revealed. Would Karen find God? Would she discover the source of those mysterious attacks? How would she ultimately break with the Order?

Armstrong says that she is able to remember verbatim conversations from years long past. This may be true, although one suspects that a certain measure of imagination also went into the reconstruction of scenes and dialogue. Regardless, the characters in both books and what they say never appear less than real. As an amateur screenwriter, when I first read these memoirs, I instantly recognized their cinematic potential and began writing a movie script. Writing a film adaptation of a book is essentially selecting which scenes to put into the script and writing dialogue that faithfully tells the story on screen. In writing the screenplay for these two books, I found that my only task was selecting scenes; the dialogue could not be improved upon.

Armstrong also writes with great poignancy without indulging in sentimentality. The passage in Through the Narrow Gate in which the school-aged Karen and her parents visit her secretly gin-drinking grandmother is both touching and hilarious. In The Spiral Staircase, the story of her caring for the autistic and epileptic son of an Oxford professor in exchange for a room in the eccentric academic’s family home—while Karen herself is unknowingly suffering from epilepsy—is heartbreaking and fascinating. The passage in which Armstrong describes the boy’s baptism is worth quoting in full:

Later that year, I traveled up to Oxford one afternoon and walked through the city streets to Blackfriars to meet Jenifer Hart. She wanted Jacob to be baptized. “But why?” I had asked. “You don’t believe in any of it! Why do this?”

Jenifer had sighed. “I want him to have the whole thing” was all she could say. “I want him to do it properly.” Jacob wouldn’t understand the theology of baptism, of course, but maybe the rite could speak to him at some other level. The Dominicans, who were no fools, had agreed to do the christening, and the ceremony was to be held that afternoon. As a final twist in this strange story, I was to be Jacob’s godmother. I was the person who had brought him into this world of religion, even though I had done it at a time when I was losing my own faith. Jacob seemed doubly my alter ego. I had now discovered that we were also bound together by an illness that could make our environment appear demonic, and was grateful that the experience of looking after him had prepared me for my own diagnosis. Now he was taking my place in the church.

Geoffrey Preston had decided to perform the ceremony in a small chapel upstairs. Jenifer was already waiting there, tense, hands clasped tightly in her lap, and clearly ill at ease. But Jacob was sitting quietly, his head to one side in a listening posture, his face thoughtful. “This is a special occasion, isn’t it, Karen?” he hissed as I went and sat beside him. Nobody else was present. We made a strange quartet of belief, unbelief and—for Jacob—something else that had nothing to do with theological conviction. “Jacob,” Geoffrey said, “would you like some incense for your baptism?”

His eyes lit up. “Oh, Geoffrey,” he breathed, “can I make it?” I smiled at Geoffrey. We both knew that this was a long-cherished dream.

“Come over here.” With his hands on his knees, Jacob bent low over the thurible, his blond head close to Geoffrey’s tow-colored one. “Snap, crackle, and pop!” he whispered gleefully as the charcoal spluttered. “Karen, watch this! Just watch me now!” He carefully spooned incense onto the glowing pellet, and a cloud of fragrance rose up and filled the small room. I glanced warily at Jenifer, fearful that this popish flummery might be one step too far. But she was watching Jacob, as he swung the thurible to and fro, with a rather sad smile, acknowledging that he had gone to a place where she could not follow. His face was transfigured, his head flung back as he snuffed histrionically.

“Right,” Geoffrey nodded, and Jacob instantly replaced the thurible on the stand. “Did you see me, Karen? Mummy, did you see me?”

Geoffrey cut the ceremony to a minimum. There was no complicated creed for me to recite on Jacob’s behalf, an affirmation of faith that, as Geoffrey knew, I could not honestly make and which had no relevance in Jacob’s case. The exorcisms were omitted: Jacob was not to be frightened by the idea of a demon trapped inside him. Instead, we had just the bare essentials. I stood behind Jacob and made the responses; Jacob knelt on a prie-dieu, bolt upright, his hands joined and his eyes fixed sternly ahead.

“What do you ask of the church of God?” Geoffrey asked.

“Faith!” I replied in Jacob’s stead, catching Geoffrey’s eye for a moment. He smiled at me, kindly, accepting the irony. What did faith really mean? If you could leave out the creed as we had just done, could faith be liberated from belief? Could it mean that we sought the kind of trust and confidence we feel when we say that we have faith in a person or an ideal? Maybe the church could give Jacob this kind of faith—I looked at his rapt face—but it had signally failed with me.

“What does faith bring to you?” Geoffrey continued.

“Life everlasting,” I replied. No, I couldn’t believe in the prospect of immortality. But could faith not simply bring an enhanced life, here and now? A more abundant life, as Jesus had promised, even though my so-called faith had seemed to have diminished my own mind and heart?

“If, then, you desire to enter into life,” Geoffrey went on, “keep the commandments. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Put like that, it sounded so simple. Why [in the convent] had we tied ourselves up in such knots, sewing at needleless machines, performing archaic penances, and treating one another so coldly? And how could we have loved our neighbors and sisters in religion, when we had been taught to despise ourselves? At each phrase, Jacob nodded to himself. There was poignancy in the phrase “with your whole mind,” but Jacob did know how to love, and Blackfriars had welcomed him lovingly. He approached Geoffrey slowly and stood quite still, while Geoffrey made the sign of the cross on his forehead and breast. I quailed slightly when he put a few grains of salt on Jacob’s tongue: at any other time, he would have spat it out with scant ceremony, but now he swallowed it gravely, while Geoffrey said the prescribed words: “Grant, we pray you, Lord, that your servant who tastes the savor of salt may no longer hunger but be filled with heavenly nourishment.”

Jenifer had been right. Jacob did hunger for something that he could never have put into words. And I too had once had a similar hunger. I had wanted to be filled with God, transformed by a holiness that would bring me a fuller and more satisfying existence. But instead I had starved my mind and my heart, and that hunger had atrophied, died, and been replaced by a malaise with all things religious. Yet when I looked at Jacob, I felt nostalgia for what I had once been. Jacob did find something at Blackfriars, though none of us could explain what that was. His face was clear and peaceful; he was enjoying a little respite from the demons that plagued us both.

“Now bend forward, Jacob,” Geoffrey said gently. Sprinkling a few drops of water on Jacob’s head, he raised his voice, which filled the little chapel triumphantly: “Jacob, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Jacob gave a long, audible sigh of satisfaction, while Jenifer and I, excluded from the source of this peace for very different reasons, exchanged glances and smiled slightly.

Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase are unfailingly honest revelations of Armstrong’s weaknesses and follies, and of her struggles—with faith, with bad health, with failure. At no point in either book did I feel that her plight was over-dramatized or exaggerated; in fact, for the most part she looks at herself and her journey with a clear and critical eye as well as with humour. There is in the end a sense of wonder that her journey could have bought her the depth of understanding that researching and writing such books as Muhammad and A History of God provided.

I am no Karen Armstrong, but reading her memoirs led me to reflect on the similarities between her life and mine—apparent vocations to religious life, doors closing in chosen careers, and finally arriving in one’s own myth—and thus to be inspired not so much by what she has accomplished but more by what she has learned, about herself, about the world, and about God.

I set aside unfinished the screenplay I was writing from these two books, but I hope some day to complete it and to send it to Ms Armstrong. Perhaps she will like what she and I have written and will agree to a film version of her fascinating and inspiring journey.

*Armstrong wrote another memoir, Beginning the World, shortly after Through the Narrow Gate was published. Of this work she says: “It is the worst book I have ever written and I am thankful to say that it has long been out of print. As the title suggests, this second volume attempted to tell the story of my return to secular life. But it was far too soon to write about those years, which had been extremely painful, even traumatic. I had scarcely begun to recover and was certainly not ready to see this phase of my life in perspective.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Conscience

How many people, whether Catholic, Jewish, or Sikh, actually have a relationship with God or experience God in their prayers, in the mundane events or tasks of their daily lives, in their work, in their relations with their fellow human beings? If there is some kind of connection, a form of discourse perhaps, with God, how is it manifested? I wonder whether the communication that takes place is direct, as in the voice of God speaking to the believer, or if it is metaphorical, through signs. A young seminarian based his whole vocation on just such a sign. He told God that if he sent him a sign in the form of the sighting of a black rose, he would take that as a divine message that he should become a priest. The next day he saw a black rose in a shop and knew there and then what God intended for him. I am sure that there are countless stories like this young man’s.

I must admit that I have never experienced the presence of God in my life. Yet I do believe in God. Maybe I just have not had my receiver turned on or at least tuned in; perhaps God indeed does speak to me—when Butterfly sings “Un Bel di Vedremo” or when I see the snow-covered mountains in Vancouver on a sunny winter’s day. As Eckhart Tolle tells us with such beautiful simplicity, the constant chatter of our thinking mind prevents us from becoming aware of and truly experiencing the stillness that is the space between our thoughts. Is it in this space, this stillness, that we will find God?

I wonder if one of the ways that God does speak with us is through conscience. I do not mean the conscience that is trained and guided by the dogma and doctrine of any organized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, but rather that voice, governed neither by passion nor by reason, that tells us, in any given situation, what is morally right and what is morally wrong.

Let us indulge in a slight digression for the moment and look at the Catholic discussion of natural law. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, natural law is “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” The explanation goes on:

According to St. Thomas [Aquinas], the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law”….Like all the rest of creation, man is destined by God to an end, and receives from Him a direction towards this end. This ordination is of a character in harmony with his free intelligent nature. In virtue of his intelligence and free will, man is master of his conduct. Unlike the things of the mere material world, he can vary his action, act, or abstain from action as he pleases. Yet he is not a lawless being in an ordered universe. In the very constitution of his nature, he too has a law laid down for him, reflecting that ordination and direction of all things, which is the eternal law. The rule, then, which God has prescribed for our conduct, is found in our nature itself. Those actions which conform with its tendencies, lead to our destined end, and are thereby constituted right and morally good; those at variance with our nature are wrong and immoral.

How do we know, then, whether an action conforms with our divinely endowed nature or is at variance with it? The Church would have us subscribe to its interpretation of natural law in considering the morality of our actions:

Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires. For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong. It is wrong to drink to intoxication, for, besides being injurious to health, such indulgence deprives one of the use of reason, which is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct. Theft is wrong because it subverts the basis of social life; and man’s nature requires for its proper development that he live in a state of society.

Here is where we get into a few problems because there is now a mediator between God and the individual natures of human beings. In the “rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher,” for example, who decides what is lower and what is higher? How has it been determined—and by whom—that reason “is intended by God to be the guide and dictator of conduct”? It is rather simplistic to say that theft is always wrong; when a man steals from a wealthy exploiter in order to feed his starving family, surely this cannot be called wrong.

If my God (or yours) is a God of love, reason should tell us that an action is only wrong if it causes harm to self or to others; if we love God, ourselves, and others, we do not intentionally cause harm to be done. I do not believe that we need a set of laws, either religious or secular, to tell us this because we participate in the “eternal law” through the working of conscience, which tells us whether an action is harmful to ourselves or to others. Nevertheless, as humans are weak—or sinful—they do not always act out of love or according to the dictates of conscience. The seven deadly sins do indeed reflect the dark side of human nature, and because many of us act on that aspect of our nature, we need to prescribe consequences for failure to listen to our conscience when serious harm results from that failure. Naturally, there are also those who are so damaged that the regulating function of conscience is disordered; the rest of the world needs to be protected from these broken souls.

When we were children and we did something which we clearly knew was wrong, like striking a younger sibling or taking the possession of another against his or her will, our parents would say to us, “You know that’s wrong. Why do I have to tell you?” As adults we also know that actions that harm others or potentially harm others—directly or indirectly—are wrong. As we are social creatures, we have a fairly sophisticated understanding of our responsibilities toward ourselves and others. We do not need God or conscience to tell us that running a red or “nearly-red” light is wrong or that dropping garbage on the side of the road is immoral or that smoking will likely kill us and maybe a few others along with us.

But what do we do when the line between right and wrong is not so clear? I believe that if we allow ourselves to be guided by the voice of God—which is in all cases the voice of love—intoned through our conscience, we cannot fail to arrive at the answer that is right for us. Let us take, for example, the recent controversy sparked by the decision of Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution, to invite pro-choice President Obama to give the 2009 commencement speech and to bestow on him an honorary degree. Conservative pro-life groups, including nearly three score of Catholic bishops, denounced the invitation. Moreover, Harvard Law professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon, who was to receive the university’s Laetare Award at the commencement, sent a letter to university president Father John Jenkins declining the award.

The Laetare speech was delivered, in Glendon’s place, by Judge John T. Noonan, who had been recipient of the award in 1984. An article on the website of America Magazine lauded this choice: “In the event, he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of any commencement, one that should rank with Secretary of State George Marshall’s commencement address at Harvard in 1947, not in terms of their immediate political significance but in terms of the way both men used the moment to raise the intellectual climate of the nation.”

Here is what Noonan had to say in his speech on the rights and demands of conscience:

By conscience, as you graduates of 2009 know, we apprehend what God asks of us and what the love of our neighbor requires. More than the voice of your mother, more than an emotional impulse, this mysterious, impalpable, imprescriptible, indestructible, and indispensable guide governs our moral life. Each one is different. You may suggest what my conscience should say, but you cannot tell me what my conscience must say. That's the rub when your moral vision is clear and the other fellow's is cloudy. You become impatient, the more frustrated if the other fellow is a friend - an old friend or a potential friend. Why can't he or she see it? To satisfy that frustration by shunning or denouncing your unseeing companion will accomplish little beyond expressing your own exasperation.

The Catholic Church teaches that man’s conscience must be educated and that the primary source of instruction is the “authoritative teaching of the Church.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1783-1785) states:

Conscience must be formed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness, and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.

In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Again we have a mediator, in the form of the “authoritative teaching” of the Church, prescribing exactly how we are to adhere to “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” In other words, God speaks to us through the Church, which in turn interprets and codifies his law in all its complexity and minute detail and passes it on to us, who are expected to obey. Failure to obey constitutes sin, either mortal or venial, and could result in our being condemned to the everlasting fires of hell.

There can be no question that the Church, especially at the local level, is a force for good in that through the ritualized enactment of the liturgy of the Word and of the Eucharist it serves to remind us of our need to recognize that which is greater than we are, of the need to love God and to love our community, and of the need to acknowledge and provide comfort to the less fortunate in our world. The sacraments, “visible signs of an invisible grace,” enrich our lives and bring us closer to God. The Church can also be a powerful moral guide, when the issue involves social justice or a clear choice between good and evil (cause harm or do not cause harm), both for us as individuals and for the world at large.

When it comes to our relationship with God or our experience of God, however, I would argue that as intelligent adults we must also recognize that the Church is made up of men—imperfect men often committed to the preservation of power, both their own and that of the institution. It is sinful and imperfect men—men who may indeed be well intentioned—who interpret God’s law and require us strictly to agree with and obey the dogma and doctrine that result from their interpretation. In the process of submission to the earthly authority of the Church, we seem to have lost the awareness that God does—through our conscience—speak directly to us. If we can quiet the constant calculating, judgmental, and anxious activity of our thinking mind, we will hear—or rather feel—the voice of God telling us what is right for us. In order for us to lead peaceful, truly productive lives, this voice must assume primacy over any other, including that of Church, state, society, or parents.

On July 25 1968 Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae, the long-anticipated encyclical on birth control. The essence of the encyclical’s message was “The Church, calling human beings back to the observance of the norms of natural law, as interpreted by her constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Upon learning that the pope had gone against the recommendations of the commission he himself had appointed, Catholics began following the advice of Catholic University theologian and professor Father Charles Curran: “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.” Writer James Carroll, about to be ordained a priest at the time, recalls in his book Practising Catholic:

Eight other CU theologians were first signers of Curran’s statement. It was a shot heard round the ecclesiastical world. Within days, hundreds of other theologians and Church officials joined them, including some of the most admired scholars in all of Catholicism, like Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and Bernard Häring. Most of the Paulist priests who had been my professors over the previous six years affirmed the Curran position. Very quickly, Canadian and European bishops’ conferences issued statements saying that Catholics should consider contraception a matter of conscience….As far as I knew, not one of my classmates accepted the encyclical, and not one of our professors indicated that we should. No sooner had the encyclical been issued than vast numbers of Catholics instinctively understood that they could reject it without thereby becoming bad Catholics. This became as essential part of Catholic self-understanding, though bishops would rail against it for the next generation.

In spite of the reinstatement of monarchical papal authority following the election of John Paul II and repeated reaffirmations of the principles espoused by Humanae vitae, Catholic couples all over the world continue to listen to their conscience when it comes to the issue of artificial birth control. Many of these couples, fully aware of the doctrinal prohibition against this practice, must ask themselves if preventing contraception does harm and is thereby an evil action. They must wonder how it became an imperative of natural law that the act of making love to the one they love must “be open to the transmission of life.”

Just as Catholics understand that they can reject the teachings of the Church on contraception without becoming bad Catholics, as a gay man, my conscience tells me that the doctrine on homosexuality as reflected in Joseph Ratzinger’s 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” is one which I and all other gay Catholics—in fact, all Catholics period—can ignore without guilt. The letter states the following:

In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration [the "Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics" issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on December 29, 1975], however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.

Love between two people of the same sex in no way contravenes “the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” In fact, homosexuality constitutes part of my divinely endowed nature, so God and I are just fine with it. Moreover, a gay relationship based on mutual love and respect can under no circumstances be considered evil. I can live a peaceful and productive life as a gay man—even if I am in a gay relationship—and still be a good Catholic because what God says to me through my nature and through my conscience trumps the teaching of the Church.

If our conscience is to be educated by the authoritative teaching of the Church, we must be able to insist, in this modern age, that the Church be educated by the authoritative teaching of the modern natural and social sciences. As Catholics we need to adopt a mature faith tempered by integrity and healthy skepticism and recognize the tendency of Church leaders to resist change and cling to a medieval, anti-modern view of the Church as a hierarchical institution. As Hans Küng states in his The Catholic Church: A Short History, “In this view the pope stands at the head as absolute sole ruler; then comes the aristocracy of the bishops and priests; and finally, in a passive function, the subject people of the faithful.”

These words of Cardinal Ratzinger in his “Letter to Bishops” reflect the arrogance and distortion of truth to which this tendency leads:

Naturally, an exhaustive treatment of this complex issue cannot be attempted here, but we will focus our reflection within the distinctive context of the Catholic moral perspective. It is a perspective which finds support in the more secure findings of the natural sciences, which have their own legitimate and proper methodology and field of inquiry.

However, the Catholic moral viewpoint is founded on human reason illumined by faith and is consciously motivated by the desire to do the will of God our Father. The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.

While these words are personally offensive to me, I am secure in my conscience that they do not reflect the will of God, that in this case the “authoritative teaching” of the Church is an oxymoron. I am also confident that those who chose in 1968—and those who to this day continue to choose—to follow their conscience rather than the doctrine affirmed by Humanae vitae, recognize that the will of God does not necessarily correspond to the “authoritative teaching” of the Church and that when God speaks to us in a voice unmediated by any agent, we are hearing the Truth.