"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two peeks that obscure

Consider this AP story, dated yesterday, about the opening of the Apostolic Penitentiary to public view. I've long been amused by that official title of the oldest, and one of the most secretive, of Vatican departments; to this American, it conjures images of aging clerical heretics and pederasts unable to escape from an ill-guarded prison. I suppose the ApoPen was overdue for some sort of corrective publicity; but I'm afraid that, given its stated purpose, this peek will be self-defeating. And I'm afraid the same goes for the widely anticipated report from the Congregation for Catholic Education on the state of American seminaries.

The stated purpose of the first peek was "to explain what the Apostolic Penitentiary actually does, and thereby encourage more of the faithful to go to confession, said Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti, the tribunal's No. 2 official." The ApoPen's main work is to deal with sins whose absolution, if sought, must ordinarily come from the pope—which, according to the story, include defiling the Eucharist, breaking the seal of the confessional, or offering absolution in exchange for sex. A fourth type of case considered by the ApoPen is that of men who, having once formally cooperated in abortion, seek ordination.

Having inquired about this, I find that such a man can get ordained if he no longer has financial obligations to born progeny. A related irony surrounding the recruitment and deployment of priests is the one described by this story about foreign (mostly African and Asian) priests brought into the US. Apparently a man can have bad English, a rudimentary theological education, and no familiarity with American culture, but still serve as a priest in an American parish, so long as he doesn't have really serious baggage such as a wife and/or minor children. This while thousands of Roman Catholic American laymen with great theological educations, pastoral talent, and a keen desire to give their lives to the Church (leaving aside, of course, the thousands of priests who left to marry) cannot get themselves considered for ordination simply because they do have such baggage. I find the irony a bit much to appreciate.

But I digress. Notice that all of the aforesaid matters reserved to the ApoPen involve the sins of priests or of those who aspire to ordination; only "defiling the Eucharist" is something any ordinary layperson can be guilty of. Yet how many lay defilers are there who would be held to account for the deed and care enough to appeal to Rome for absolution? Even the case of Eucharistic defilement seems to draw the Vatican's attention only when a priest is the guilty party and seeks absolution for it. How is this focus on those actually or potentially in the clerical state going to encourage the run of laity to go to confession more? All it's going to do, if it does anything, is draw attention to the fact that the papacy allows common murderers and child molesters to be absolved at a lower level than itself. That hardly advertises the sense of priorities that the Church ought to be inculcating. The only people who will "get it" will be those who don't need to get it. And I say that as somebody who celebrates the sacrament of reconciliation at least twice a month because he follows the only prudent course and regards himself as an inveterate sinner.

Then there's the seminary report, the second in a little over a decade. The "apostolic visitation" whose results are therein reported was apparently thought to have been necessitated by the sex-abuse scandal that peaked in 2002-3. But what does the report conclude? "This visitation has demonstrated that, since the 1990s, a greater sense of stability now prevails in the U.S. seminaries. The appointment, over time, of rectors who are wise and faithful to the church has meant a gradual improvement, at least in the diocesan seminaries." Now I do not dispute that conclusion; even if I were inclined to, I would be in no position to come up with enough counter-evidence. My disappointment is over the fact that it's been made available to the general public. The countless people who were, and in many cases still are, outraged by the scandal will not be mollified by said conclusion. The somewhat fewer people who know that homosexuality was at the epicenter of the scandal are not going to be reassured by the nuances that qualify said conclusion. And I doubt that the report's call for a greater emphasis on orthodox "moral theology" is going to address whatever spiritual diseases still afflict seminaries. Being told "the rules" does not, by itself, increase either the willingness or the desire to abide by the spirit of the rules. What we need in the seminaries are more and holier men. The report has nothing to say about how to meet that need. And its release to the general public will only give that public impression that the hierarchy still doesn't "get it." That impression wouldn't be universally true; some fine bishops are attracting more and better men to their seminaries. But the impression retains more than enough truth to resist being dispelled by reports such as this one. Worse, there will now be less impetus to weed out those insiders who still constitute the problem. The pressure is off even if that was not the intent.

When I ponder the Church's prospects, I do not go quite so far as the French bishop who, in response to Napoleon's boastful threat to destroy the Church, replied: "You cannot succeed where so many generations of bishops have failed." But I sometimes veer perilously close to such cynicism. One of the best signs of the Church's divine origin is how she keeps on managing to survive her leadership. We happen to have a very good pope; but he is after all only a man, and he lived in an ecclesiastical bubble for too long. So, apparently, do many of his lieutenants.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The undying light in the darkness

Today, in the calendar for the Roman liturgy according to the ordinary form, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. In the New Testament, the Baptism of the Lord affords the only occasion when all three persons of the Trinity were sensibly manifest. I love that partly because I love trinitarian theology, but more because our world is in ever-more desperate need of the undying light that pre-existed and, for those with eyes to see, suffuses it.

Two news items today bring home the darkness for me, and a third brings out the light.

The first bit of darkness that enveloped my spirit, out of the countless ones that could have, is what's been going on in Gaza this month. It seems like pure darkness not because either side is purely evil—as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through each human heart—but because the evil in each side so much obscures what's truly good about them.

The Palestinians cannot be faulted for desiring their own homeland, or for resenting the Israeli blockade of Gaza that persisted even during the fragile cease-fire of the last six months of 2008. But the Gaza Palestinians are governed—if one can call it government—by people whose avowed aim is to destroy Israel, not to live alongside it. They hate Israel more than they love their own children whom, forsooth, they educate to glorify "martyrdom" for the cause. One Hamas leader has agreed with an al-Qaedist's proclamation that "we are going to win, because they [the opponents of radical Islam] love life and we love death."

When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it tore down synagogues and left behind greenhouses. Instead of turning the greenhouses into farms, the Palestinians tore them down too. Instead of turning other buildings into factories for goods to be exported for sale, Hamas turned them into factories for making Qassams to rain down on Israeli homes and schools. As soon as last year's ceasefire expired, they started shooting other rockets, imported from Syria and Iran, that reach further and explode in a wider radius. Now that the Israelis have become so fed up that they've gone into Gaza to destroy Hamas' military capability, the Palestinian civilian toll mounts because Hamas fights mostly from civilian areas and structures. If you want to attack Hamas militants, you often can do so only at the cost of shooting or blowing up the children and women all around them. It's a brilliantly, fiendishly cynical Hamas tactic—as evidenced by the fact that there's far more media attention to and world outrage about Palestinian civilian casualties caused collaterally by the Israelis than about Israeli civilian casualties caused deliberately by Hamas.

Not that the Israelis avoid all sin, mind you. Not everything done by the soldiers of a country at war is right. But exactly what, in the grander scheme, is Israel supposed to do about an enemy that attacks its territory daily as a putative religious duty, sometimes causing civilian deaths? Another ceasefire that leaves the Hamas infrastructure intact will only allow Hamas to rearm for the next round while being protected and motivated by all the outrage over this one. And that's exactly what most of the world seems to want. Once again, the Jews are expected to acquiesce in their own slaughter. Only Satan is laughing.

Another bit of darkness is of interest mostly to that minority of the world's population which either loves or hates the Catholic faith. Apparently, the Dutch foreign minister has summoned the papal nuncio for that country to "explain" the Pope's opposition to the proposed UN declaration on human rights and homosexuality. Now I doubt that the Dutch government is particularly concerned about the Vatican's stance on homosexuality; rather, the homosexualist lobby is so angry that it's become politically necessary for the government to appear concerned about the Vatican's stance. This is really depressing. I have only recently digested the fact that, in my lifetime, the majority of Westerners with higher education have moved from regarding sodomy as immoral to regarding opposition to its sanctification by the state as immoral. The Netherlands in particular has had gay "marriage" for years. But now the Vatican arouses fury there by suggesting that countries which still penalize sodomites should not be penalized in their turn by the United Nations. All pretense of tolerance is dissipating. It won't be long before churches which still preach against sodomy, or even use the term, are persecuted in the name of an enlightenment which is really an endarkenment.

There is a bit of light, however. With hat tip to Taylor Marshall of Canterbury Tales, I note that Dr. Carl Djerassi, a co-inventor of the birth-control pill, has now repudiated it. Dr. Djerassi merely points out the obvious: we now have a "demographic catastrophe" in Western Europe. Of course this is not a bit of light. The light shines from the fact—on which I have often remarked—that by the end of this century, the only surviving Westerners will be those whose parents had enough faith in God and creation to replace themselves. Next to its parents, that generation will have the Catholic Church to thank for its existence. For she is the only Christian body that has not only maintained the ancient ecclesial consensus against contraception but also articulated the purely spiritual reasons for that consensus.

"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

This is the third time in less than a year that I feel truly sad to hear of the death of a public figure. One of the other occasions was Bill Buckley's death last February; the other was Cardinal Dulles' death just over a month ago. I should have met both men, and could have, but never did. But I did meet Fr. Neuhaus once.

I was just getting my PhD and told him, at a Christmas party for conservative Catholics, that I needed a job. He suggested I send him a résumé and even granted me an interview at First Things, which I blew because I didn't mention more than one of the many solid people we both knew. In retrospect, I realize that he intimidated me and made me tongue-tied; I had, after all, just observed him dealing with the noisy protesters against Cardinal Ratzinger at a 1988 lecture the latter gave in New York about biblical exegesis (of all things). Apparently, RJN had the same effect on a lot of people. Some of them needed, and still need, to be tongue-tied.

The eulogies have been pouring in, of course, from the White House and the Vatican on down. Even though I've read several of the man's books including his memoirs, I continue to learn more about him. What I most loved about RJN in life was the unflappable wit he displayed as he managed to make all the right enemies. That's mainly what I loved about WFB too. But I loved RJN more because he was making all the right ecclesial enemies, not just those in secular politics, where he offended plenty who dissed him as a mere "neocon" apologist for the Bush Administration, which he wasn't. Within the Catholic Church, both trads and progs reviled him: the former, for being such an ecumenist; the latter, for his being such a staunch friend and supporter of Pope John Paul II and the traditional moral teachings of the Church.

What they were really objecting to, of course, was RJN's suave advocacy of what many, including his circle, called "the hermeneutic of continuity." I've written about that whole topic often, including in my obit for Dulles; indeed, a 2003 article by RJN is what first convinced me that the basic division in the Catholic Church is between those Catholics who do, and those who do not, believe that the Catholic Church after Vatican II continues to be...well, the Church. In the latter category we find both the far Right (the rad-trads) and the far Left (the progs), though of course for opposite reasons: what the former disapprove, the latter approve. But as suave and centrist as he was in theological terms, RJN did not hesitate to offend when he felt that offense was called for. He once told Andrew Sullivan to his face, in an elevator, that he is "objectively disordered." The thing needed to be said. It was said right where and when it needed to be. And the same holds for much of what he said.

I feel just as comfortable asking RJN to pray for me as I do praying for him. And that's probably the most important thing that remains to be said about him. All else is a conversation that he advanced well enough to make it continue without him.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Even THEY are getting it...

Every religious conservative of a certain age knows William Butler Yeats poem "The Second Coming" and can recite its best-known line of all: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." We know and love that line because it expresses how things have always seemed to us. Morals and the weather, at any rate, have been getting worse for what seem like millennia. I suspect that, to people like me, things always seem to be getting worse—and today, apocalyptically so. Yet we rarely imagine that other kinds of people will go all apocalyptic on us—at least those indisposed to "drink the Kool-Aid."

Yet they do get premonitions, even secularists like Roger Ebert, the movie critic. See this from his blog last week; the post has already garnered hundreds of comments. The only post of mine that's ever come anywhere close to that number of comments was about the prospects for Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism, and that's only because most of the Orthodox rejected my moderate optimism with contumely. I suppose that anything likely to happen only close on to the Parousia—such as Orthodox-Catholic reunion, or the collapse of the ecosphere—is going to excite a lot of emotional speculation; but I can find nothing to disagree with in Ebert's post, save his lingering, implicit, touchingly naïve belief that a political solution is possible.

Those who believe in prayer, pray that we get more Eberts. Even when he's wrong, he's headed in the right direction.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Harold Pinter: R.I.P.?

See David Pryce-Jones' blog for the best obit of the boring, boorish playwright I've seen. The best lines about him: "Pinter is a man of few words, most of them bad" and his work is "a pause followed by a non-sequitur."

It drives me crazy that guys like Pinter are successful. But I suppose that's exactly the effect that Satan wants them to have on me.