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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sacramental contradiction

This year, I want to greet Ash Wednesday with the observation that Lent is sacramental. I don't mean that the Church ought to make it the "eighth" sacrament—as if the Church would care if I did mean that. I mean that Lent is an efficacious sign. By signifying in small ways certain kinds of things we should be doing year round, our Lenten practices increase our power to do them year round. One of the most important of those things is repentance; the word itself is another name for that conversion which ought to be ongoing and daily. For those who follow and meditate on current ecclesial events, meditating on one such event should help us realize how we all need to be repenting, and thus converting.

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the London Times, is a "Facebook friend" of mine. In no way does that mean personal acquaintance; we have never met, and I doubt we ever will. It's more like a networking relationship for me, and I'm grateful to her for assenting to that. Gledhill's writings are timely in the best sense; her name is well-known, and her face is even pretty. But above all, her views are so predictably "progressive" that she affords a blogger like me ample fodder for comment. On her blog yesterday, she posted what was for me an astonishing commentary on the recent flap over SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson. Since it's the performance as a whole that I find so astonishing, I suggest you read the whole thing, and watch the video, before you read this post further. It won't take long.

Gledhill is angry. So am I, albeit for very different reasons. She is angry because she finds it grotesque that, on the one hand, the official policy of the Catholic Church is to deny communion to unjustly abandoned spouses who proceed to divorce and remarry, while, on the other hand, the Pope has lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust denier who has now physically threatened a reporter in an airport. In fine prog style, she thinks Williamson ought to have stayed excommunicated while remarried single parents ought to be readmitted to communion forthwith. And so:

Sadly, the Holy See will never understand that as far as the public is concerned, to the millions who will watch this unseemly brawl on television over the next few days, to the thousands of innocent men and women denied communion because of the Church's inhumane disciplines on remarriage, the Church appears to be descending into a new dark age when anti-Semitic hooded thugs with eyes shielded from the light by dark glasses are welcomed into the fold. Meanwhile 'ecclesial communities' such as my own are condemned as 'not proper churches' and Archbishops such as Rowan Williams are not permitted to receive communion in Catholic churches.

Sorry, I forgot: it's an additional outrage that Rome does not recognize the Anglican Communion as a "church" in the strict sense of the word, but only as an "ecclesial community." Apparently, the Vatican has not mollified liberal Protestants by saying only that the Church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church, rather than repeating the older formula that the Catholic Church just is the Church of Christ. Nope, it's an outrage that the Catholic Church still regards herself as "the" Church, the Church in which the Church of Christ exists as a unitary whole, with other Christian bodies united to her only in varying degrees. It's small comfort that people like Gledhill testify unwittingly to the hermeneutic of continuity rejected by the likes of the SSPX.

Collectively and in Gledhill's view, such outrages constitute a massive failure of "witness." The Catholic Church just doesn't "get" witness: "Maybe you actually do have to be a Protestant to get what witness really means." Hmmm. I thought progressive Anglicans were inclusivist and tolerant in theology. If that remark instances inclusivism and tolerance, I'd hate to see Ruth being exclusivist and intolerant. Maybe we'd see that if she saw fit to comment on the Q'uranic law which calls for killing apostates from Islam. That law is no dead letter: there are Muslim countries which carry it out in earnest. Or how about the "honor killings" of young Muslim women who happen to be caught fornicating? Or the tendency of Muslim mobs around the world to go berserk when somebody in the West publishes something snarky about the Prophet? Or when Benedict XVI himself quoted, for purely illustrative purposes, a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who, having been taken hostage by a sultan, made a bitter remark about Islam to his captor? Where's the outrage from liberal Christians about all that? Maybe I've missed it. Or maybe I just don't get the fact that witness means judging the Catholic Church by liberal Protestant standards while giving a pass to people who want to supplant all forms of Christianity with Islam.

Perhaps the most telling paragraph is the last, meant as a message to the Pope as he welcomes Williamson back into the fold:

Supping with sinners is all very well. But shouldn't the sinner show some sign of repentance first? Someone needs to buy the Pope some very long spoons indeed, and perhaps both him and Bishop Williamson some proper glasses, to make them see.

So it's taken for granted that Williamson is a sinner with whom the Pope should sup only with a very long spoon. But what's the sin, and how do we know Williamson is guilty?

It might seem that the sin is racism: Ruth does brand Williamson as an "anti-Semitic thug." But anti-Semitism is racism against Semites, who include Arabs as well as Jews. As far as we know, Williamson is not anti-Arab. He's anti-Jewish. That's a religious prejudice, not a racial one. But why is Williamson anti-Jewish? Well, it might have something to do with his traditionalist theology, which is "supersessionist" on the question how the Old Israel relates to the New, the Church. But that doesn't explain much. For not all supersessionists are anti-Jewish—certainly not to the point of being willing to blind themselves to the Holocaust. So, what might explain Williamson's being a Holocaust denier?

I'm not sure. Everything I've read and heard about the man suggests that he is thoroughly dotty, like many conspiracy theorists. Perhaps, then, Williamson is just mentally ill. Another bit of evidence for that hypothesis is that he clearly has a lot of anger to manage. Of course, the evidence is not a slam-dunk. It doesn't prove he's mentally ill. But the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the hypothesis that he is a sinner worthy of staying excommunicated for being anti-Jewish. We don't know that Holocausts deniers are sinners just for being anti-Jewish; probably some are, but some are mentally ill as well or instead. Often, a person's being mentally ill diminishes or eliminates their moral responsibility for their beliefs and/or actions; so if Williamson is mentally ill, then there is room for doubt that he is guilty of mortal sin for his holding admittedly contemptible views about the Jews. How, after all, does anybody know how morally responsible he is for this nonsense of his, which he shares not only with the Supreme Leader of Iran, but also with not a few Palestinian Muslims, a people with whom the religious and political Left are very sympathetic? Is it anti-Jewish to sympathize with a people the majority of whom think it's perfectly alright to rocket Israeli civilians daily? I would not venture to say that. But I've read pieces by Jews who do say it; and after the very real Holocaust, I hesitate to blame them.

It would be easy to say that, once again, I just don't get it. Gledhill, a liberal Protestant, believes it's wicked of the Catholic Church to adopt the juridical presumption, defeasible by annulment, that divorced Catholics who remarry are living in adultery; but she thinks it obligatory to judge and sentence Catholics like Bishop Williamson, whose anti-Jewishness is indeed quite objectionable, but might be explained just by his being very dotty. I hate to say it, but what we have here is anti-Papist religious prejudice. It's just assumed that the Catholic Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, which is the key premise of her policy about divorce and remarriage, is false—and not only false, but wicked to believe and act on. That assumption is religious prejudice. But Williamson's religious prejudice is deemed wicked because it's—what? Religious prejudice? Maybe that's the reason, maybe not; but I do see that the question why the prejudice is held doesn't matter to the Ruth Gledhills of the world. Whoever holds it is ipso facto "a sinner."

On second thought, however, I do get it. Gledhill is merely expressing the values of her set, i.e. the values of religiously progressive Western journalists. That her values don't quite cohere rationally makes her no different from most members of her set. And it's at just this point that the lesson for each of us during Lent comes to the fore: it makes her no different from most of us.

Most Catholics, most Christians for that matter, have values and attitudes that do not cohere with the faith they profess. Of course they are unwilling to admit as much; if they were, they'd be motivated to change. Having emerged from the immigrant ghetto and joined the "mainstream" over the last fifty or sixty years, American Catholics are as guilty of incoherence as anybody, and more than many. For many of us, worldly values and attitudes are now prejudices taken for granted. We judge the Church by the values of our "set" in the world, not vice-versa. Usually, such values and attitudes have never been exposed to informed, objective examination themselves. That's easy to explain, but impossible to justify. People don't like examining and critically evaluating their prejudices. That would mean thinking, as opposed to quite a number of more entertaining activities; worse, it would mean admitting that what we like being may not be what we ought to be. That is why the discipline of Lent is so vital. By denying ourselves things we like, and using the space created thereby to love more sacrificially, we get out of our comfort zones and admit that we need repentance—not just for a season and ritually, but every day of the year.

And so I feel no sense of moral superiority when I savage Ruth Gledhill and her set. She and they are merely one illustration, and not the most important one, of a universal human tendency that Lent exists to help root out. By observing our Lenten rituals with the humble yet acute awareness that we are all wretched sinners, we might open ourselves to the grace of being taught just what our most insidious sins are. Being taught as much takes grace because the sins in question are more deeply rooted than we think. But the truly serious Christians will often seem a bit dotty for wanting to root out of themselves the kinds of sins most people are happy to live with. The truly serious Christians willingly embrace the sacramental contradiction of dying to self in order to live more abundantly. In other words, they live the Paschal Mystery. That's the kind of dottiness we need more of.
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