Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jesus: Inclusive, not Exclusive

I am not a biblical scholar, but I’ll bet you that words and phrases that speak of religious authority, like orthodoxy, discipline, doctrine, dogma, rule of faith, and magisterium, were not among those attributed to Jesus in any of the synoptic gospels or in John. Of course, they may have been uttered by the Scribes and Pharisees, who seemed to be fixated on adherence to the letter of Mosaic law and who missed the point of Jesus’s preaching, of his preference for association with the “unclean,” and of his way of living, all of which were about love, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. His final commandment to his apostles was “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As a simple Christian who is seeking to experience God in the Church, I find these words of religious authority to be alienating. I believe them to be exclusive rather than inclusive, divisive rather than unifying. In fact, they are often used as weapons against those within the Church who dare to profess any degree of spiritual independence. If one does not cleave to orthodoxy, one is therefore un-orthodox and, depending upon the degree of un-orthodoxy, one is less than a full member of the group. If a parishioner does not believe in all the doctrines of the Church, he or she should not presume to receive Holy Communion along with those who do believe. Heaven forbid that one should be an actual dissenter: Catholic theologians like Charles Curran, Hans Küng, and the late Yves Congar have all paid dearly for their public disagreement with tenets of Church doctrine.

A friend and former colleague, who is (or once was) an Anglican, regularly sends me a copy of the ANiC Newsletter. The ANiC (Anglican Network in Canada) is a group of parishes that split from the Anglican Church of Canada over issues such as the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex relationships. After the schism, the ANiC affiliated itself with other conservative Anglican bodies, such as the newly formed Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), of which ANiC considers itself a member diocese, and the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. The ACNA constitution blames the split in the Church on “those who have embraced erroneous teaching and who have rejected a repeated call to repentance,” referring of course to the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church (TEC), which is the Anglican Church in the United States. Both of these churches have moved toward blessing same-sex relationships and have approved ordination of openly gay clergy.

The ANiC, along with other breakaway conservative Anglican groups, affirms the Jerusalem Declaration, a set of “tenets of orthodoxy that underpin [their] Anglican identity.” These tenets include belief in the Old and New Testaments as “the Word of God written” and as containing “all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.” They also include upholding Anglicanism’s Thirty-nine Articles “as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.” And this one on ecumenism: “We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships. We recognize the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice, and we encourage them to join us in this declaration.”

Thus if I do not believe in the Bible as the literal Word of God, if I disagree with any of the Thirty-nine Articles, or if I do not completely “uphold orthodox faith and practice,” I am not a true Anglican and am therefore on the outside. Recent statements by some bishops, members of the Anglican Communion, which is the embattled umbrella organization of all Anglican churches worldwide, confirm this to be true. According to the April 11 edition of the ANiC Newsletter, these bishops believe that the authority of the Anglican primates and the Primates Meetings has been trumped by other organs of the Communion in dealing with the “sustained crisis” in the Church. The Primate of Uganda, Archbishop Henry Orombi, claims that “Anglicanism is a church of Bishops and, at its best, is conciliar in its governance. The grave crisis before us as a Communion [i.e. disagreement over ordination of openly gay clergy, blessing of same-sex relationships] is both a matter of faith as well as order. Matters of faith and order are the domain of Bishops.” Archbishop Orombi goes on to make the following recommendation:

There is an urgent need for a meeting of the Primates to continue sorting out the crisis that is before us….The Primates Meeting is the only Instrument that has been given authority to act, and it can act if you will call us together….Finally, the meeting should not include the Primates of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada who are proceeding with unbiblical practices that contradict the faith of Anglicanism [my italics]. We cannot carry on with business as usual until order is brought out of this chaos.

The same edition of the ANiC Newsletter contains excerpted information from an article in a British Columbia diocesan newsletter. The article points out that “the Anglican Church of Canada has lost almost 60 percent of its membership since 1961”; that “70% of baby-boomers are church drop-outs”; that “people under 55 constitute only about 12 percent of the average Sunday attendance at the average Anglican church”; and finally that “if the present trend continues, the last Anglican will leave the Anglican Church by 2061.”

If the hierarchy of the Church—any Church—continues its hubristic insistence that it possesses the divine authority to determine what people in the Church must believe, how they must practice their faith, and who must be respected as the sole voice of authority, and if it fails to recognize the need for Christ-like compassion and humility in an age in which many of the social and cultural contexts of the Bible are irrelevant, the members of that hierarchy should not be surprised that the pews continue to empty.

According to Church leaders, dogma and doctrine are immutable. Orthodoxy is unbending loyalty to “established teachings.” But if these leaders will only look around them at the world—at the universe—that God created, they will see that God’s creation is an ongoing symphony of change. The People of God live in a world of rapid and constant change—technological change, scientific change, environmental change, cultural and social change. We have discovered and acknowledged that men and women are different but equal; we have recognized that races and ethnicities are different but equal; we have come to understand that gay and lesbian people are different but then not different from straight people. God has blessed his creation with diversity and has blessed this modern age with unprecedented recognition of the possibilities inherent in diversity. So when increasing numbers of people under the age of 55 are claiming to be spiritual rather than religious, perhaps they are saying that they need God in their lives, but that the insistence of the Church on adherence to doctrine and dogma and orthodoxy and the conflict and division such insistence creates is either irrelevant or abhorrent to them.

If we presented to them instead an image of an open-armed Christ embracing people from across the grand spectrum of life—Christians and non-Christians, people of all colour and ethnicity, men and women, LGBT people, the young and the old—they might just be intrigued enough to want to hear more of the message of love that was at the core of Christ‘s mission.

On Ritual

A friend, a former Catholic, told me this morning that on the rare occasion that she does go to church, she almost feels like laughing because the whole liturgical pageant appears so ridiculous in its pomposity. She said that she would like to ask the priest if he could possibly not be aware of how ludicrous he looks in all his vestments and surrounded by all the trappings of the ritual of the Mass. I believe that there are many who would agree with her.

Of course I was at first deeply offended by her ridicule of something that is a hugely important part of my life. But once I got my ego out of the way, I recognized that I had never really asked myself why I found the ritual of the Mass so moving, especially when it is conducted with great reverence and skill by the celebrant. The morning Mass of last Christmas and the most recent Easter vigil in my former parish were liturgies that affected me most profoundly. Yet I had never thought of being a “liturgy queen” as anything more than having a great love of theatre mixed with nostalgia for a long-lost aspect of my childhood.

When I first returned to the Catholic Church after a long absence, one of the chief reasons for doing so was to become connected with something much larger than myself, something more significant, more meaningful, more serene than my own emotional turmoil, my own misguided and failed aspirations. I now believe that it is, for me and for millions of Catholics, the ritual of the Mass that helps to make that connection. That ritual, in all its component elements—the entrance procession, accompanied by the opening hymn, with the crucifer, the acolytes, followed by the priest in his vestments and moving slowly up the centre aisle of the church, and ending in the genuflection before the altar; the consecration of the bread and wine and the elevation of the host and the chalice before the assembled congregation; the final blessing by the celebrant—transports me to a place of peace and joy that the HD broadcast of a gorgeous opera from the Met does not, that a thrilling concert of baroque music does not, that a brilliantly written and acted play or film does not.

The transcendent effect of the ritual can easily be diminished or even ruined by any number of factors. The worst of these is, of course, the lack of true reverence on the part of the celebrant, a deficiency that can be manifested in many ways, such as a slovenly appearance, inadequate attention to the reading and proper articulation of prayers (making mistakes, mumbling, losing one’s place), poor singing (this of course may not be the fault of the celebrant), and an unsatisfying homily. This last offence may be the result of poor preparation, lack of consideration for the listener in the determination of the content, unenthusiastic delivery (the worst case of which is reading the homily from a prepared text). The celebrant can also be overly reverent, evincing a kind of “faux” piety that is nearly as offensive and distracting as not enough reverence. I have seen this phenomenon in my mother’s church, with a young priest whose ritual behaviour would be laughable if his homilies were not so reflective of a patronizing and condescending attitude to parishioners who are, for the most part, twice his age. Poor lectors, noisy children, cell phones, mediocre choirs, and latecomers are just a few of the many other factors that can mar the transcendent effects of ritual.

Of course it is not just to Catholics that ritual is important; ritual has been a critical factor in people’s lives for thousands of years. Joseph Campbell speaks of the “shaman’s song,” which is a “deep psychological summons” and a “visionary image” through which “the shamans center themselves.” He tells of Father Alberto de Agostini, “who was a priest and a scientist” and who lived among the Ona and Yagan people of Tierra del Fuego in the early 1900s. The priest-scientist speaks of “waking up in the night and hearing the local shaman playing his drum and chanting his song alone, all night long—holding himself to the power.

Now, that idea of holding yourself to the power by way of your dream myth is indicative of the way in which myth works generally. If it is a living mythology, one that is actually organically relevant to the life of the people of the time, repeating the myth and enacting the rituals center you. Ritual is simply myth enacted; by participating in a rite, you are participating directly in a myth.

The problem with Catholicism for many people—and for Campbell—is that it has ceased to be a “living mythology.” The insistence of the Church hierarchy on cleaving to medieval scholastic and neo-scholastic theology and to a literal-historical interpretation of Scripture makes the liturgy of the Mass, and all its ritual elements, appear irrelevant and therefore ridiculous. Yet as I have noted before, Campbell suggests that “it’s a good thing to hang on to the myth that was put into you when you were a child, because it is there whether you want it there or not.” But in order to breathe life into it, you have to “translate that myth into its eloquence, not just into the literacy. You have to learn to hear its song.”

And my little sermon to the churches of the world is this: you have got the symbols right there in the altar, and you have the lessons as well. Unfortunately, when you have a dogma telling you what kind of effect the symbol is supposed to have on you, you’re in trouble. It doesn’t affect me that way, so am I a sinner?

The real, important function of the church is to present the symbol, to perform the rite, to let you behold this divine message in such a way that you are capable of experiencing it. What the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost to each other might be, in technical terms, is not half as important as you, the celebrant, feeling the Virgin Birth within you, the birth of the mystic, mythic being that is your own spiritual life.

Religious ritual also appears ridiculous—to many believers and non-believers alike—when the trappings of ritual are used, especially by senior members of the hierarchy, simply to impress upon others the importance of one’s ecclesiastical position and authority. In light of recent revelations about the Catholic Church and the complicity of members of the hierarchy in the most heinous of crimes, such misuse of ritual goes beyond the ludicrous to the utterly shameful.

My friend’s comments have caused me to examine and articulate a vital aspect of my love for Catholicism and my desire to continue to participate regularly in the liturgy of the Mass despite my recent decision to terminate my active involvement in the Roman Catholic Church. I am thus grateful to her for her honesty.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Doubt" is About Doubt

The film Doubt, set in the Bronx in 1964, is the story of a Catholic priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the pastor of St. Nicholas parish, and a nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), principal of the parish school. Sister Aloysius believes that Father Flynn has sexually molested a young black student from the school; the priest vehemently proclaims his innocence, but his protestations do nothing to move the nun from her certainty. In the end, Father Flynn is transferred to another parish, where he is also the pastor.

The film is based on Shanley’s award-winning Broadway play Doubt: A Parable.

After seeing Shanley’s play, many people wanted him to reveal whether Father Flynn was guilty of what Sister Aloysius was accusing him. Audience members would come out at the end of the performance with wildly opposing opinions, like “Well, he is obviously guilty” or “Come on, there is no way he is guilty. The nun is just jealous of his power.” While he knew the answer to the question, Shanley only ever told the actors playing Father Flynn whether or not their character was guilty.

The play—and the movie—is not about child molestation, it is not about guilt or innocence, it is not about the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, it is not a mystery story. Nor is it a “theological drama,” as the CBC called it. Doubt is about doubt. When Shanley wrote the play, he had already been thinking about the issues of doubt and certainty for some time. Much of the motivation for writing the play arose from the invasion of Iraq and the seemingly intransigent views of both sides of the issue. Emotions were running high after 9/11 and there were those who were absolutely certain that there were WMD’s in Iraq despite credible claims to the contrary; they were convinced beyond any doubt that invading the country was the right thing to do. The naysayers were unpatriotic and posed a threat to the security of the United States. Observing all of this, the playwright began to wonder about the ability of men to step back from their emotions—because for Shanley, doubt is an emotion—and look at the issue in all its complexity and uncertainty. In a March 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, he says the following:

I think that art describes the vacuum. Art describes what isn’t there, the thing that needs to be said, the missing element of the current dialogue that’s going on in the world. And for me, the thing that was missing in the society that I’m living in now was the ability for strong men to say, “Gee. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer to that is. I’m going to have to sit here for a while and contemplate that and talk that over with you.”

And this from an interview in 2008, when the movie was released:
Charlie Rose: And you want all of us…to come away with some sense that…there’s danger in believing that…you’re always right, or coming to some place that makes you think you have to say that.
Shanley: I want the audience to walk in, feel comfortable, have their assumptions working and working very well in confirming for instance what nuns are like or what black mothers are like, and I want their assumptions to be overturned, to not be sufficient to carry them through the story and then to have to go, “You know what? I have to rethink this. I have to look at this person with new eyes.” And maybe have it happen so often in the course of this story that by the time they walk out of the theatre they start to look at maybe other people that they will talk to after the film with new eyes and make a little more room to hear what other people are saying rather than fill in so much about who that person is.

The back-and-forth between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, in which neither is listening to the other in any sense, reflects Shanley’s belief that this lack of honest dialogue is a symptom of the dysfunction of our society at this time in history. Society has become polarized on most issues, especially in the political arena, and neither side is willing to move even slightly off its position. He hopes that the film will help people to see that there is an urgent need for all of us to return to reasoned discourse, in which one side does not believe it has a monopoly on Truth.

I saw both the play—at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre in Vancouver— and the film. While I enjoyed the play very much, I preferred the movie, both because of the calibre of the acting and because the movie provides a much more satisfying context for the story. John Patrick Shanley and Charlie Rose again:

Charlie Rose: For those who saw the play and wonder how the movie could be different, what would you tell them?
Shanley: I think you see now the story in a larger context of what the community was like that fed this situation, and you get to see what the clergy…how they lived in private and the differences in the way that the men and women of the clergy were treated. And you get to see the children and the struggle over the children and the boy in question in particular, and I think that adds an enormous emotional power to it and stakes for the actors to play.

John Patrick Shanley grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s, among families of Italian and Irish descent. He attended Catholic school and was taught by nuns, members of the order of the Sisters of Charity. In 1964, teachers in Catholic schools passed on a “code of beliefs” to their students, and “there really was no questioning of these beliefs.” But this time and this place and the characters in the film are for Shanley merely the specificity he needs to present the larger issue at work in the play and in the film. And the larger issue is this:
We can never know what’s inside the heart or soul of another human being. We can have our assumptions or our theories; sometimes they may be very solid, but we can never know. An adult has to learn to live with that, to live with doubt as a natural part of the equation of life, to never give it up and to recognize that it’s an asset to leave a place in yourself open for further discussion, for further thought, for further conclusions.
So while Doubt is not essentially a story about Roman Catholicism, it seems to me that members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church—in fact, of any religious denomination that believes it holds a monopoly on Truth—might learn a valuable lesson from a thoughtful viewing of this film. They would benefit from paying particularly close attention to one of film’s most powerful and touching scenes, the scene in which Sister Aloysius expresses to the mother of the black student her concerns about the relationship between Father Flynn and her son. But the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, lives in the real world with a gay son who is vulnerable to abuse by both his schoolmates and her husband, who does not like the boy. She loves her son and accepts his “nature.” She understands very well that her first duty is to protect him and to do everything she can to offer him a future. She understands that in the world there is no line that clearly divides good from evil and that in the evil that Sister Aloysius claims to be in the relationship between Father Flynn and her son, there may also be good because the priest may be able to provide the love that the boy’s father, who has beat him because he is gay, is unwilling to give. Tears streaming down her face, her nose running, Mrs. Muller desperately tries to make Sister Aloysius see that evil is a matter of degree and that destroying one evil may cause an even greater evil:

My boy came to your school ‘cause they were gonna kill him in the public school. His father don’t like ‘im. He come to your school, kids don’ like ‘im. One man is good to him—this priest. And does the man have his reasons? Yes. Everybody does. You have your reasons, but do I ask the man why he’s good to my son? No. I don’t care why! My son needs some man to care about him and to see him through the way he wants to go, and thank God this educated man with some kindness in him wants to do just that.

Because she knows that her husband may very well kill her son, she is willing to overlook what may be sexual abuse by the priest in order to gain even a small amount of ground in the battle to protect him. Sister Aloysius is at first shocked by this and asks Mrs. Muller, “What kind of mother are you?” But the woman’s powerful love for her son and her instinct to protect him soon defeats Sister Aloysius, and she retreats. The tilted camera angle as she walks down the school hallway in one of the following scenes shows that the nun’s certainty has, for the moment at least, been shaken.

The purpose of this scene is not to condone sexual abuse by priests. Mrs. Muller knows very well that what Father Flynn may be doing with her son is wrong. It shows us rather that the moral absolutism professed by Sister Aloysius is inconsequential, even ridiculous, as a factor in the daily struggles of the lives of ordinary people. That message is what the moral absolutists of institutional religion need to derive from this scene and from this film.

So we leave the last word to John Patrick Shanley, who says of this brilliant film:

Of course that character that’s always in the room and that you never see is doubt itself. Who do I believe? What is the truth of this moment or that moment? Will I ever be able to judge these people? Will I ever be able to put this to rest, with a verdict? But of course, life isn’t like that. We can never know what’s inside the heart or soul of another human being. We can have our assumptions or our theories; sometimes they may be very solid, but we can never know. An adult has to learn to live with that, to live with doubt as a natural part of the equation of life, to never give it up and to recognize that it’s an asset to leave a place in yourself open for further discussion, for further thought, for further conclusions.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

B.C. Catholic Article

The article in The B.C. Catholic referred to in the previous two blog postings does not appear to be available online to non-subscribers, so I am reprinting it here in full. It is by-lined Vatican City (CNS), so I am sure it has appeared in many other diocesan newspapers.

Homosexuality, pedophilia related: cardinal
Most clerical abuse cases involve attraction to male adolescents, Vatican spokesman confirms

The Vatican secretary of state told reporters in Chile that no serious study has ever shown a connection between celibacy and pedophilia, but many psychologists and psychiatrists believe there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was visiting Chile April 6-12 to participate in events for the country's bicentennial and to demonstrate Pope Benedict XVI's solidarity with victims of a February 27 earthquake, made the remarks to reporters in Santiago.

"Many psychologists and many psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relationship between celibacy and pedophilia, but many others have shown and they told me recently, that there is a relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia," the cardinal said April 12 after giving the opening talk at a meeting of the Chilean bishops' conference.

Cardinal Bertone told reporters that pedophilia is a pathology that "touches all categories of people," including priests, but "in a lower percentage" than the general population. Still, he said, "it is very serious, it is scandalous" that there are priests who abuse minors.

The cardinal also confirmed that Pope Benedict is reviewing the Church's universal norms for handling accusations of sex abuse against clergy. He gave no details about what revisions would be made.

Asked to comment on about Cardinal Bertone's remarks about pedophilia and homosexuality, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Church leaders must rely on experts in psychology and medicine to understand the phenomenon of pedophilia.

The only thing Church leaders can say for certain, he said April 14, is what their own statistics tell them about priests who have abused minors and whose cases have been reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Father Lombardi said the data released by the doctrinal congregation in March showed that 60 percent of the 3,000 cases handled by the Vatican since 2001 have involved sexual attraction toward male adolescents, 30 percent involved heterosexual relations, and the remaining ten percent were cases of pedophilia, involving an adult sexual preference for pre-pubescent children.

How interesting that the secretary of state, a powerful figure in the Vatican, looks to "many psychologists and psychiatrists" for supposedly reliable information on the alleged link between homosexuality and pedophilia, yet the Church chooses to ignore the opinions of hundreds of thousands of psychiatrists and psychologists, based on scientific research, that homosexuality is not a disorder. It is interesting also that the cardinal claims to have recently spoken to these "many" experts - how many could he have spoken to?

Letter to My Parish Priest

I wrote this  letter to my parish priest this morning and sent it by e-mail, with a copy to our priest in residence.

Dear Father:

I am sure that by now you have read the most recent issue of The B.C. Catholic newspaper. I am sure also that you have at least seen the article on page 12 with the headline "Homosexuality, pedophilia related: cardinal," if you have not read it.

Nearly four years ago I returned to the Church of my baptism after more than 35 years of wandering in a spiritual wilderness. I was well aware at the time of the teaching of the Church on homosexuality but I had not read and studied as much as I have since my return. I felt that the Church is like one's family: sometimes there are issues that family members disagree about, but they still love each other and the family stays together. When I decided to choose St. ---- as my parish, I was touched by the warm welcome I received from you and from fellow parishioners, and I have grown to love this parish despite the fact that theologically I am decidedly to the left of most members of our community.

When I read the pamphlets created by the Courage apostolate (and distributed in a workshop during Priests' Study Week in November 2007) that you kindly gave me in December 2007, I was shocked at the homophobic misinformation that they contained. I was also outraged that such deliberate ignorance should be foisted upon priests who likely have neither the time nor the motivation to verify the content of the workshop and the pamphlets. I am a writer, so at the time I wrote an article on this topic. Out of respect for you, I did not immediately attempt to publish that article and only did so when I established a blog in late 2009. The article is attached to this e-mail message.

I was again deeply disappointed, offended, and outraged when I read the B.C. Catholic article. It is clearly the intent of this article (and thus of the editors who decided to publish it) to connect pedophilia and homosexuality in the minds of readers. Nowhere does the article report the almost universal ridicule with which Cardinal Bertone's remarks were greeted. Nor does it report that the authors of the independent study on clerical sexual abuse commissioned by the USCCB replied to a specific question by an American bishop by stating that the study found no link between homosexuality and the sexual abuse of pre- or post-pubescent children.

The editors of The B.C. Catholic are fully aware that many readers will only glance at the headline of an article and that many of those who do take the time to actually read the page 12 article will not be aware of the scientific facts that have resulted from studies of sexual abuse. These readers will therefore receive the absolutely incorrect impression from the article that indeed there is a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. There is no way that the editors cannot have been aware of this when they decided to publish the article. The article is, in effect, a lie.

I am profoundly discouraged by the ignorance, irresponsibility, and insensibility reflected in this article. Moreover, I feel that I am in the wilderness again because I now believe there is no one in the Archdiocese who is willing to acknowledge the wound opened by such hateful attitudes and actions, let alone to begin to attempt to heal it. I am a soul in distress but because that soul is a gay man's soul, I do not expect pastoral understanding and care from my Church.

The B.C. Catholic is, I understand, the official voice of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. If the page 12 article is a reflection of the message of love in the Gospel, a message which it is part of the mission of any diocese to deliver to the faithful, I, a simple Christian who hungers for that message, did not find it on page 12.

When you declined to allow me to be a catechist in 2007, after I told you I was gay, it was out of deep respect and great affection for you as a pastor and as a friend that I remained silent about your decision. For the same reasons, I have not told anyone in our parish that I am gay and that I respectfully disagree with the teaching of the Church on homosexuality. You must understand that this has caused me great personal conflict. After the publication by The B.C. Catholic of such an egregiously ignorant and hurtful article, however, I can no longer remain silent. As I am only one parishioner out of several thousand at St. -----, I do not wish to cause you either embarrassment or stress that is out of all proportion to my importance as a member of the community. Therefore, in order to preserve my integrity, my only recourse is to excuse myself from continued membership in St. ----- parish. You have no idea how deeply this saddens me.

I sincerely hope that both you and Father ---- experience continued joy in your ministry.

In Christ's love,


Monday, April 19, 2010


I do not like raging diatribes. I believe that it is my responsibility as a writer to criticize when I feel it is necessary to criticize but to do so thoughtfully, reasonably, and with what I humbly consider to be the resources of truth. But today I am deeply angered and profoundly saddened by what I have read in the dicoesan newspaper which arrived in my mailbox this afternoon. What has been printed in this edition is so ignorant, so irresponsible, and so insensitive that I feel I must now seriously consider whether I can be associated with a church that propogates this brand of  homophobic misinformation and still maintain my personal integrity.

At this moment I cannot decide whether to vomit or to weep.

The title of the article on page 12 of The B.C. Catholic is "Homosexuality, pedophilia related: cardinal." The subhead is "Most clerical abuse cases involve attraction to male adolescents, Vatican spokesman confirms." The reader does not have to go beyond these two lines to be alerted to the ignorance of the editors of this newspaper as it is a well-known and documented fact that pedophilia involves the abuse of pre-pubescent children, while ephebophilia, the abuse of post-pubescent children, is an entirely different disorder. It does not matter whether the editors know the difference or not; to juxtapose these two lines is egregiously irresponsible.

The article begins:
The Vatican Secretary of State [Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone] told reporters in Chile that no study has ever shown a connection between celibacy and pedophilia, but many psychologists and psychiatrists believe there is a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.

At no point in what follows does the reporter give any indication that the general response to Bertone's statement has ranged from outrage to outright ridicule. Nor does it state that when the independent report on clerical sexual abuse commissioned by the USCCB was released, one of the architects of that report was asked directly by an American bishop if the research of the reporting body indicated that sexual abuse was more likely to be committed by a homosexual; she replied that the research produced no evidence of a link between sexual abuse and homosexuality. Has anyone at The B.C. Catholic read this report?

If the reader of this article has not looked at the facts that lie behind the crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, not to mention the scientific research on sexual abuse in general, he or she will be led to believe that both pedophelia and ephebophilia are linked directly to homosexuality. One does not have to be a genius to see that the real purpose of the article is to use the cardinal's profoundly ignorant statement as further "evidence" to support and promote the teaching of the Church that homosexuality is "disordered."

I am sick at heart and I frankly do not know where in the Church to turn for healing. If the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver can issue forth such despicable ignorance, it is not likely that my pastor or any other priest is going to acknowledge that this article is a willful and hurtful example of what is truly disordered: the teaching of the Church on homosexuality.

As I said, I do not like diatribes. I apologize for this one lapse.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Shoes of the Fisherman: A Review

Of all the “priest movies” I have collected over the past few years, The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) is the one I have watched the most. The film, which is based on a novel by Morris L. West (which I have not read), runs over 160 minutes, but I love every scene and never fail to watch it to the very end.

The cold war setting of Shoes makes the film seem somewhat dated. So does the plot involving a Russian political prisoner, a former archbishop from the Ukraine, who is released to the Vatican by the Soviet premier and is soon elected pope, only to be then roped into committing the resources of the Church to save China from famine and thus avert a nuclear war. The acting is also less than stellar, perhaps because much of the cast is attempting—unsuccessfully—to speak their lines in foreign accents. Moreover, the movie relies a great deal for its dramatic impact on the opulence of the Vatican, from the magnificent buildings to the stately rituals. Of course, as a liturgy queen, I am turned on by most of this.

I am also completely smitten by Anthony Quinn and Oskar Werner. I loved Quinn as the charismatic but avaricious Arab tribal leader Auda Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia. He is equally impressive—and larger than life—as Kyril Lakota in Shoes. Werner is poignant and believable in his role as the beleaguered theologian Father David Telemond.

It is interesting to consider this film in light of both the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church and especially the papacy. First of all, Father Telemond, introduced very early in the film as he is the representative sent by the Vatican to collect Kyril Lakota, is a theologian/archaeologist/philosopher whose “work is under study by a special pontifical commission.” He tells Lakota: “For years I have been forbidden to teach or to publish anything. I was suspect of holding opinions dangerous to the faith.” While the older man does not understand and cannot support the radical views of Father Telemond, a close friendship develops between the two men.

Meanwhile, Father Telemond is called to explain his views in front of a commission composed entirely of clergy. He is told that the purpose of the commission is to examine the content of his works “to see if they conform to fundamental Christian doctrine.” Telemond claims that he is “one man trying to answer the questions of every man…Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Is there any sense in beauty and ugliness, in terror and suffering and in daily death, which make up the pattern of existence?” Through a series of leading questions, his interrogators eventually come to the ultimate question of “good or evil, right or wrong, in the Christian sense.” At one point the young priest is accused of heresy.

The meeting is adjourned when a priest arrives to announce that the pope has collapsed. The pontiff soon dies, and the inquisition resumes only after the new pope has been elected. In the end, the commission rules that “the works of Father Telemond present ambiguities and even grave errors in philosophical and theological matters which offend Catholic doctrine.” The commission recommends that the priest “be prohibited from teaching or publishing the dubious opinions above mentioned until a full and formal examination has been made.” Pope Kyril, Telemond’s friend, has no choice but to accept the ruling of the commission and to silence his friend. One wonders how many times those words of prohibition were used during the pontificates of Pius XII and John Paul II.

The movie also gently criticizes the pretensions and perks of the Roman curia. Here is a conversation between Cardinals Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) and Leone (Leo McKern) shortly before the conclave to elect a new pope begins:

Rinaldi: We are all too old. There are not more than half a dozen of us who can give the church what it needs at this moment.

Leone: Do you think you are one of them?

Rinaldi: One what?

Leone: One of the half dozen.

Rinaldi: I know I’m not.

Leone: Do you think I have a chance of election?

Rinaldi (laughs): I hope not.

Leone (also laughs): Don’t worry. I know I haven’t. You know, Valerio, I should have been a country priest, with just enough theology to hear confession and just enough Latin to get through Mass. I would sit in front of my church on summer evenings and talk about the crops. And what am I now? A walking encyclopaedia of dogma. A theological dictionary on two legs.

Rinaldi: Each of us has his own cross….Do you know what mine is? My cross, I mean. To be rich and content and fulfilled and to know that I have deserved none of it and that when I am called to judgment, I must depend utterly on the mercy of God.

One wonders whether Leone is sincere in his desire for the simple life, but if he does covet the papal ring, he is soon disappointed. After seven rounds of voting have failed to elect a new pope, the frontrunners have all exhausted their chances. During a break in the conclave, a group of cardinals is discussing the new generation of priests who favour change, even revolution, and the Russian cardinal is asked for his opinion as he has experienced revolution first-hand. Reluctantly he offers his thoughts, and the humble but steely-willed Lakota makes a powerful impression.

Lakota: We should manufacture the authentic Christian revolution: work for all, bread for all, dignity for all men.

Leone: But without violence.

Lakota: Well, excuse me, but violence is a reaction against a situation that has become intolerable, isn’t it?

Leone (dubiously): Oh?

Lakota: Well, in the camps in Siberia, we were starved and brutalized. I stole…I….I stole some bread. I fed it crumb by crumb to a man whose jaw had been broken by a guard. I…I fought the guard to save my friend. I could have killed him. That was a terrifying experience. I, a bishop, could have killed a man.

Rinaldi: So as a bishop you would give your approval to social disorder.

Lakota: I might be forced to accept it as a price for social change, yes.

Rinaldi: You are walking a moral tightrope.

Lakota: We all have to walk it. That is what we pay for being men.

Rinaldi: But what if you had killed the guard?

Lakota: I don’t know. I…I don’t know, Eminence. I do know we’re in action in a brutal world. The children of God are ours to protect, and if we have to fight, we fight.

In the voting session that follows this conversation, Rinaldi stands to offer his vote to Lakota, and soon enough cardinals follow suit that the Russian is proclaimed pope. It is from this point, and throughout the second half of the film, that the movie’s ideal image of a modern pope is presented. We should keep in mind that the film was released just three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council.

Shoes  of the Fisherman strives to depict the new pope as a man of simplicity and humility. Upon his election he introduces himself to his private butler as "Kyril Lakota." He prevails upon that same butler to find him a black cassock and hat so that he can sneak out of the Vatican and explore the alleyways of Rome as an ordinary priest. In one of the more touching scenes from the film, he brings medicine from a pharmacy to an English doctor who is treating a dying man. When he sees the condition of the man, Kyril immediately begins to administer the last rites, but is quickly told that the man is not Christian; he is a Jew. The Holy Father puts his hat on, covers his face with his hand and begins to chant the Hebrew prayer for the dying.

When Kyril I meets the Soviet premier Kamenev on the way to negotiate with the Chinese leader in an effort to avert nuclear war, Kamenev says, “You are changed.” Lakota responds, “I do not feel changed.” Kamenev tells him, “There was a pride in you once. More, an arrogance, as if you carried the truth in a private purse and no one could dispute it with you. When I hated you—and I did—it was because of that.” Lakota says, “I am a low man who sits too high for his gifts.”

Yet Pope Kyril recognizes both his power—as religious leader of 800 million people—and his terrifying responsibility to embrace and carry out the charitable mission of the Church. In spite of the opposition of many in the inner circle of the Vatican, he pledges all of the wealth of the Church to save the Chinese people from famine.

At his coronation, in front of half a million people in St. Peter’s Square, he rejects the Triple Tiara that has been a papal symbol since ancient times and says: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose Vicar, I am, was crowned with thorns. I stand before you bareheaded because I am your servant.”

He then recites the famous verses from Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing.”

As I said, the film offers us its version of an ideal pope, one who has the humility to recognize that he is the servant of the people of God, in other words, of all people. Yet is this such a lofty ideal that it is just too difficult for our modern pontiffs to realize? Humility does not reside in papal letters or in symbolic acts; it lies in the soul of the humble servant.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Church and Empire

Further to my comments in yesterday's blog posting, here is James Carroll's view of the Church as power structure, taken from the Introduction to his moving and brilliant memoir Practising Catholic.

Apart from the museums that anchor the great cities of Europe and America, the Roman Catholic Church is what remains of "Christendom," the generating aesthetic and intellectual tradition of Western civilization. Offshoots of the Protestant Reformation claim that same Christian heritage, but the Catholic Church, in its institutional DNA if not in its ideology, has served as the vehicle for carrying key elements of the Roman Empire forward into history, much as Rome carried the achievements of ancient Greece forward. Even today, in its organization, judicial system, official language, attachment to material culture, and elevation of the classic virtues, the Church embodies that first Romanitas.

Leaving theology aside for the moment, this worldly rootedness has been a source of the Church's exceptional longevity as well as of its global reach. The diocesan structure of its organization, for example - with bishops and cardinals exercising over local churches an authority derived from the transcendent power center - is a repetition of Rome's proconsul method of governance. The way the Church's finances are organized, with independent dioceses feeding support to that center; the way the Church's diplomacy is structured, with papal legates dispatched to world capitals; the way the cult of the leader is maintained, with the bishop of Rome regarded as the deity's vicar - all of this echoes the methods of the imperium, a system that is otherwise long gone.

St. Peter's Basilica, after all, is an architectural duplication of the palace of the emperor; indeed the word "basilica" derives from the basil wreath with which, in primordial Rome, the ruler was crowned. Meanwhile, Catholic doctrine is grounded in philosophical propositions that came into their own in the ancient world, which is why any revision of that doctrine - is it even posssible? - would amount to an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual transformation. Down through the ages the tension between the papacy and the councils of the Church, which across two thousand years were convened, on average, once each century, can be seen to have been analagous to the tension between Caesar and the Roman Senate, which ended tragically. Indeed, the Church has, if only accidentally, carried forward the internal conflict between republic and empire, a tension which, in the Church's case, while yet to be resolved, has become dramatic in the contemporary push-pull between the laity and lower clergy on one side, and the hierarchy on the other. For all these reasons, Catholicism continues to be an object of fascination. And, admittedly, of repugnance.

Grave moral failings of the Church became evident in the era since my birth, and those moral failings were compounded by further mistakes in recent years. I reflect on this dark legacy, showing what it meant to me as I was repeatedly forced to confront it. But I aim less at judgmental criticism than at a loving act of remembrance, recalling Catholics - and myself - to what they have been at their best. A tradition centered on social justice, accommodation of immigrants, the work of peace, sacramental respect for creation, liturgical beauty, a global vision, and the consolations of faith - all of this weighs as much in the scale of history as spiritual imperialism, scandal, and hipocrisy.

"Meanwhile, Catholic doctrine is grounded in philosophical propositions that came into their own in the ancient world, which is why any revision of that doctrine - is it even posssible? - would amount to an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual transformation." It is not difficult to imagine, in light of this statement, that Vatican II was perhaps a mere "chipping away" at this ancient doctrinal edifice and that more chipping is needed before the Church can be brought into the modern world.

Here is what Carroll says, in Chapter One of Practising Catholic, about doctrinal change:

Jesus was a peasant of no social standing, but his actions and words were compelling. His friends, responding to him as a teacher of Jewish faith and as a resistor of Roman occupation, were devoted to him and continued to revere him after his death. Because the first followers of Jesus let him down when he needed them most, the community that grew out of their inability to let go of their affection for him was defined above all by its awareness of failure. Yes, what we call sin is a fact, but so is forgiveness. Those followers had forgiveness from Jesus himself, as so many of the stories about him declare. Therefore the Church is the community in which forgiveness is always necessary and always possible.

It matters that only gradually did his friends come to think of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and, even more gradually, as the Son of God. It matters that their sacred texts evolved slowly out of oral traditions, and then that the sacred texts themselves were only gradually selected from among many others, equally honored but never officially deemed "inspired." This book will take up the story of these developments. The point here is that once we understand that doctrines evolved over time, we stop regarding them as timeless. The evolution of doctrine can continue.

What Carroll is saying here seems to make so much sense. But then, unlike the current pope and most before him, I do not consider myself to be the guardian of sacred tradition.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What's Next?

With each subsequent revelation of curial negligence in cases of clerical sexual abuse, and especially with allegations of calculated indifference to victims of abuse aimed at then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the calls for the resignation of Benedict XVI increase in number and in decibel. The Vatican and bishops throughout the world continue to vigorously defend the pope and excoriate the press for misrepresenting the crisis and attributing blame where it does not belong. Meanwhile, the pundits - journalistic, clerical, or otherwise - offer up celibacy, homosexuals in the priesthood, or clerical culture as underlying causes of the crisis; global warming has not yet been cited, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. My point is that, as in any crisis, few wise voices and words emerge until the crisis has passed and there has been time for reflection and study. I do not pretend to be one of those voices; there are others far wiser and more experienced and knowledgeable than I. I only offer a humble opinion - or two.

In the unlikely event that Benedict does "retire," who will replace him? Is there an eminence among the members of the College of Cardinals who would have the courage as pope to first acknowledge that the current crisis, tragic and painful as it has been for victims of sexual abuse and their families, is a symptom of a chronic illness rather than the illness itself? The disease from which the Church suffers is complicated and difficult to cure because it has afflicted her for a very long time and has spread throughout her body. What is this illness? It is the loss of humility and compassion in the leadership of the Church; it is the lust for power and the desire to exercise unquestioned authority over others; it is the failure to recognize and to accept the pastoral role of bishop to love and to nurture and to protect his flock.

After many years away from the Church, I was advised that the best way to fully become Catholic again was to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In my first confession after thirty-five years, the confessor told me that one of the keys to being Christian was to make a commitment to imitating Christ. What does imitating Christ mean? I do not think it means fostering a cult of royalty and a culture of exclusion. To imitate Christ does not mean that the Church needs a monarchical leader; it does not mean that the Church should exclude women from ministry; that it should marginalize priests who have married, those who have divorced and remarried, and unmarried couples who live together; or that it should refuse a place in Catholic school for children of lesbian (or gay) parents. These attitudes and actions are anathema to the teachings of the Jesus we see in the Bible.  I have failed again and again since that first confession to imitate Christ. I am not alone.

Is there a cardinal who would have the courage as pope to begin to cure this complicated disease? The humble John XXIII had such courage. His curial bureaucracy was aghast at his decision to call a council whose purpose was aggiornamento, an updating of the Church, a throwing open of the windows to let in fresh air (and to sweep away the dead air), and they did everything in their power to thwart that purpose and to guard the status quo. Yet this man, of humble peasant origin, held his ground and inspired bishops from around the world to begin to reform the Church.

While the crisis may eventually bring about the retirement or resignation of the current pope, the election of a new pontiff will be of no significance if the one elected is not a man of extraordinary vision and courage. He must have the strength, as did John XXIII, to take a stand against the prevailing forces in the Roman curia and to maintain that stand with a balance of authority and humility until others have been inspired by his vision and change is initiated. In the present hierarchically organized Church, only the pope can create the conditions that will bring about reform. We have seen time and again that courageous theologians, individual priests or bishops, and organized lay groups that call - usually respectfully and lovingly - for change have been shut down and marginalized.

Let us pray for a pope who truly understands the meaning of imitatio Christi.