Friday, October 27, 2006

Damien de Veuster of Molokai

"Be severe toward yourself, indulgent toward others..."

The view from St. Philomena Catholic Church in Kalawao, Molokai.

When I was younger I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do some traveling. Several years ago my brother and I decided to take a trip together. We went with a tour group on a hiking vacation through the Hawaiian Islands. Backpacking every day and sleeping in tents, we went on excursions through Kauai, Molokai, Maui, and Hawaii (the “Big Island”). The weather on Hawaii is temperate and the tides don’t move very far in either direction.

After just a couple of nights I got tired of the tent and just took my sleeping bag and my tarp down to the beach so I could sleep out there. There are no pesky insects, the ocean crabs that come up on the beach at night don’t bite, and with the millions of stars overhead and the lulling, steady sound of the pounding surf, it was just amazing. After several days of roughing it, however, and “bathing” in the ocean or waterfall-fed pools, it felt really, really nice to get back under crisp-clean sheets again when we stayed for one night in a hotel in Lahaina. Sitting with my feet up on the courtyard veranda with a beer (I hardly ever drink) and listening to a hokey “Don Ho” type of Hawaiian band, it was one of the most pleasant evenings I think I ever spent.

In visiting most of the islands in the Hawaiian chain, I was struck by how different they all are. For me, Maui has just the right mix of civilized amenities and wild natural marvels. It was the only one of the islands I felt that I could actually stand to live on. My favorite island, though, was Molokai. It has an unspoiled feel to it, and it was the only place where I felt we had a chance to see how real native Hawaiians actually live. Hanging with some of them down by the beach, I developed an appreciation for the African reggae artist Alpha Blondy, who was very popular with the locals there at the time (click to hear Realplayer sample of Apartheid Is Nazism).

For all of this reverie about an island paradise, Molokai was once the scene of a hellish place, and there is a faith story buried here. On the long flights over to Hawaii from Boston, I spent the time by reading the biography of Father Damien De Veuster, Damien the Leper, written by John Farrow (the father of actress Mia Farrow). I was very much looking forward to visiting the site of the leper colony on Molokai where Father Damien had lived and worked.

Father Damien, the son of Belgian farmers, was born as Joseph de Veuster in Tremeloo on January 3, 1840. The seventh of eight children, he decided to follow his older brother August into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers) . He took the name Brother Damien. August was slated to work the missions in Hawaii, but came down with typhus, and Damien begged his superiors to go in his brother's place. Permission was granted, and Brother Damien spent nine years on the big island, where he was ordained. After that period of time, he was sent to Molokai in 1873 to work at the leper colony on the Kalaupapa peninsula on what was supposed to be a rotational basis in the local bishop's plan. When he arrived and saw the appalling conditions there, Father Damien impressed upon the bishop the need for a full-time priest. He spent the rest of his life at the colony in Kalawao, until his death (of leprosy) in 1889.

Looking down from the Topside Molokai cliffs above the leprosy hospital and settlement on the Kalaupapa peninusla.

The leper colony on Molokai had been in existence for some time before Father Damien had arrived. The Kalaupapa peninusla is remote and surrounded by a palisade of steep cliffs. Even today, it is inaccessible by land except by foot or sure-footed donkeys. It was thought that leprosy (commonly called Hansen's Disease today) came to the the vulnerable population of Hawaii via trading ships that had visited Chinese ports. The Hawaiian government had very litle means to deal with the victims of the disease. They were basically hauled onto boats and taken to Kalaupapa and dumped into the surf, left to fend for themselves in a lawless, squalid, Dante-esque settlement where the dead weren't even properly buried. For all intents and purposes, they were just left there to die, just as long as they were away from everyone else.

Father Damien was from peasant stock and brought solid carpentry skills with him to Hawaii. He was a man of immense physical strength and indefatigable energy. He slept outside under a tree at first, as there was little else there besides jerry-built shacks, and he tried as best as he could to avoid contagion. The first thing he did was to go about building a cemetery, so that the people there could start to build up at least the faintest beginings of a sense of self-worth and dignity as human beings. He rebuilt and expanded St. Philomena Church, and set about building homes for the people. He dug ditches and laid pipes for running water... He built just about everything that was ever built there with his own hands.

While he was a man of great personal warmth, he was also known for being somewhat brusque and didn't suffer fools well. He could become quite impatient over bureaucratic inefficiency and sloth. He was always championing the cause of the people in his care. This gave some the impression that he was a self-promoter, and caused some friction with his own superiors, the Hawaiian government, and missionaries from other faith traditions. This, more than anything else, is probably the reason why he has not been canonized yet.

Eventually of course, Father Damien contracted leprosy himself. In the everyday business of looking after his flock, he attended to them, nursed them, ate with them, dipped his hand into the same poi bowl with them, washed them, and buried them. He did all this out of his great love for them.
One morning he was pouring some hot water into a cup when the water swirled out and fell onto his bare foot. It took him a moment to realize that he had not felt any sensation. Gripped by the sudden fear of what this could mean, he poured more hot water on the same spot. No feeling whatsoever. Father Damien immediately realized what had happened. He had contacted the disease…

At the next Mass…

Damien: Fellow lepers…
(The people gasp. Father Damien has never started a homily this way. They are fellow lepers! He has leprosy. Some begin to cry.)
Congregation: No! No!
Damien: Yes, my friends, we are now lepers together. We will help one another. Together we lepers will praise and serve the Lord!

One thing that I found interesting in reading about Father Damien was the sexual stigma that people put around leprosy back then, and so by extension, to him. I'm sure that it was the same in Jesus' day, and that they did it to him as well. It still happens...

I thought this was a very good essay here about the life and mission of Father Damien, and here are some excerpts:

At the outset of his mission Damien aimed to restore in each leper a sense of personal worth and dignity. To show his poor battered flock the value of their lives, he had to demonstrate to them the value of their deaths. And so he turned his attention first to the cemetery area beside his little chapel. He fenced it around to protect the graves from the pigs, dogs, and other scavengers. He constructed coffins and dug graves. He organized the lepers into the Christian Burial Association to provide decent burial for each deceased. The organization arranged for the requiem Mass, the proper funeral ceremonies, and sponsored a musical group that played during the funeral procession.

He encouraged lepers to help him in all his activities. With their assistance he built everything from coffins to cottages. He constructed the rectory, built a home for the lepers’ children. When the colony expanded along the peninsula to Kalaupapa, he hustled the lepers into construction of a good road between Kalawao and Kalaupapa. Under his direction, lepers blasted rocks at the Kalaupapa shoreline and opened a decent docking facility. Damien taught his people to farm, to raise animals, to play musical instruments, to sing. He watched with pride as the leper bands he organized marched up and down playing the music Hawaiians love so well. No self-pity in this colony. Damien’s cheerful disposition and desire to serve touched the lepers’ hearts without patronizing or bullying them. Little by little their accomplishments restored the sense of dignity their illness threatened to destroy.

Under Damien’s vigorous lead, a sense of dignity and joy - and order - replaced Molokai’s despair and lawlessness. Neat, painted cottages, many of which the priest himself constructed, replaced the colony’s miserable shacks.

He harried the government authorities. In their eyes he was "obstinate, headstrong, brusque and officious." Joseph Dutton later on speaks of him as "vehement and excitable in regard to matters that did not seem to him right, and he sometimes said and did things that he afterwards regretted..., but he had a true desire to do right, to bring about what he thought was best. No doubt he erred sometimes in judgement.... In certain periods he got along smoothly with everyone, and at times he was urgent for improvements. In some cases he made for confusion, as various government authorities would not agree with him."

In all things his lepers came first. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Damien as a single-minded fanatic. He was a human being who was quick to smile, of pleasant disposition, of open and frank countenance...

...His superiors further accused Damien of being a "loner" because of his unhappy relationship with the three assistants they had sent him at different times. In all fairness, it probably is true that no one else could have lived with any of the three priests. But no one was more irritated by Damien’s fame than Hawaii’s Yankee missionaries.

Stern Puritan divines felt leprosy was the inevitable result of the Hawaiian people’s licentiousness. In their puritanical judgement the Hawaiian people were corrupt and debased. The segregation policy would have to be enforced to hasten the inevitable physical and moral collapse of the essentially rotten Hawaiian culture. There were medical doctors who were so convinced of an essential connection between leprosy and sexual immorality that they insisted that leprosy could be spread only through sexual contact.

When Damien entered his prison at Molokai, he had to make a decision. He believed that the Hawaiians were basically good and not essentially corrupt. And now he had to show them belief, regardless of the price. Thus, somewhere during the first part of his stay he made the dread decision to set aside his fear of contagion. He touched his lepers, he embraced them, he dined with them, he cleaned and bandaged their wounds and sores. He placed the host upon their battered mouths. He put his thumb on their forehead when he anointed them with the holy oil. All these actions involved touch. Touch is, of course, necessary if one is to communicate love and concern. The Hawaiians instinctively knew this. And that is why the Hawaiians shrank from the Yankee divines. Although these Yankee religious leaders expended much money on their mission endeavors, few Hawaiians joined their churches. The islanders sensed the contempt in which the puritan minds held them.

Damien was not, as we have noted, blind to the Hawaiians’ very real faults. Many Hawaiians, by their irregular sexual habits, greatly contributed to the spread of leprosy. But Damien knew that was not the only way the disease was communicated. Above all, he rejected the insufferable notion that God had laid this disease as a curse upon these people, to wipe them off the face of the earth. Damien hated leprosy. He didn’t see it as a tool of a vengeful God. He saw it as a suffering that man must eliminate. God loved the leper. No man had the right to scorn him.

Damien embraced the leper but not leprosy. He lived in great dread of the disease. When he first experienced leprosy’s symptomatic itching, while still a missionary at Kohala, some years before he went to Molokai, he knew then that the loathing diseased threatened him. Even when the disease had run a good bit of its brutal course through his body, he still at times seemed to refuse to admit he was a victim. But leprosy finally claimed him. It was the final price God exacted from Damien to show his sense of community and oneness with his poor afflicted flock.

Some said there was a connection between leprosy and venereal disease. In order to witness against those who claimed leprosy could only be spread by sexual contact, Damien submitted to the indignity of having his blood and body examined in detail after he had contracted the disease. Doctor Arning, a world-famous specialist in the disease, reported, after examination, that Damien had no sign of syphilis. In a signed statement dictated to Brother Joseph Dutton, his co-worker, Damien wrote, "I have never had sexual intercourse with anyone whomsoever."

History has borne out the wisdom of Damien’s decision to take these embarrassing measures. Shortly after Damien’s death, a Yankee divine of Honolulu, Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde, bitterly attacked the priest’s moral life. The good clergyman opined that Damien got leprosy because he was licentious.

Father Damien was not lacking defenders. In a magnificent statement, Robert Louis Stevenson, who had visited Molokai after Damien’s death, rose to champion the priest’s cause. The author’s defense of Damien rested upon the complete sacrifice the man made of his life, a sacrifice no Yankee missionary in Hawaii had duplicated.

...very early in his apostolate at Molokai, Damien was impelled to identify himself as closely as possible with his lepers. Long before he had the disease, he spoke of himself and the people of Molokai as "we lepers." Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote his brother in Europe: "...I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say ‘we lepers’; not, ‘my brethren....’"

Father Damien was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

The Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse still tend to a handful of leprosy patients on Molokai. Shown below are some more of the photos I took in Kalawao. We had a Hawaiian patient drive us around the site in a bus. You would hardly notice that he had the disease, it is much more manageable today.

Just a sidenote to the story... I noticed quite a few mongoose running about the site. The bus driver explained that rats had arrived with the European ships, and some bright boy had the idea of bringing mongoose in to eradicate the rats. The problem is, one comes out at night, and the other during the day. So much for best laid plans and intentions!

Learn more about Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) today: The Leprosy Mission International

On a lighter note...

Going Native...

There's a contest going on at work over photos of the most adventourous moments on vacations. I was considering these entries from Molokai...

Going up the tree was a lot easier than coming down! :-O

Monday, October 23, 2006

On Rod Dreher's move from Catholicism to Orthodoxy

A few days ago on dotCommonweal, I noticed that Rod Dreher, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and the author of Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots, has announced that he has converted from Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. Mr Dreher entered the Catholic Church in 1993, and has been well-known and highly respected as a writer from the conservative side of the Catholic spectrum.

Mr Dreher was forced by events on the web outside of his control to make this announcement earlier than he wanted to. He has written a sort of apologia for his decision that was posted on Beliefnet called Orthodoxy and Me. It is a faithful, well-written explanation for his decision, written from the heart and with great honesty and sensitivity. Unlike some traditionalists who consider him an “apostate” for taking this step, I wish him and his family well. I hold the Eastern Orthodox Church in the highest esteem, and I have no axe to grind with them, so my comments in the remainder of this post should not be seen as an attack on them. While I don’t have a problem with Mr. Dreher’s decision, and although I sympathize with a lot of what he went through, I do have a problem with what I consider to be some parting shots that he took, although I don’t think he consciously meant to do so:

Back in 2001, when I first started writing about the child sex-abuse scandal in the Church, Father Tom Doyle, the heroic priest who ruined his own career by speaking out for victims, warned me, "If you keep going down this path, you are going to go to places darker than you can imagine." I thought I understood what he meant, but I didn't. Even if I had, by then, I couldn't have stopped. What brought me in touch with Fr. Doyle was my having stumbled upon a cell of clerical molesters at a Carmelite parish in the Bronx. They had preyed on a teenage immigrant boy who was troubled, and whose father was back in Nicaragua. His mother sent him to the priests for counseling, thinking that maybe being around some men of God would do the boy some good. The priests ended up molesting him. When the boy's father arrived in the States and found out what had happened, he went to the Archdiocese of New York to tell them what happened. They offered to cut him a check if he'd sign a paper agreeing to let the Archdiocese's attorneys handle the matter. This man was merely a worker from a Third World country, newly arrived in New York, but he knew what was happening. He walked out and got himself and his son a lawyer.

And that's how it began for me. At the time, as the father of a young boy, I couldn't shake the thought What if this had happened to my family? Would we be treated this way by the Archdiocese? I began reading the literature about the scandal, most especially Jason Berry's devastating "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," a detailed account of the abuse and cover-up in a notorious situation in my native Louisiana (something I remember reading about from my childhood), that revealed the profound personal, familial and communal damage that Catholic authorities were prepared to see take place to protect themselves from the truth.

A few months later came 9/11, and shortly after that I left the New York Post and went to National Review. I hadn't been at NR but for a couple of weeks when the John Geoghan trial got underway in Boston, and thus what Catholics would come to call simply The Scandal would break.

I began writing about it critically, both in the magazine and on NRO, the website. Word got back to me that Bill Bennett credited NR's cover story on the stakes in this scandal for giving tacit permission for conservative, orthodox Catholics to discuss the matter, and to say in public about the bishops' handling of the matter what they had mostly only been saying in private, but feared to voice because they didn't want to be seen as disloyal. The flood of e-mail correspondence opened.

I heard from many, many people who identified themselves as faithful orthodox Catholics, but who wrote of the pain and suffering they had undergone because either they or a close family member had been molested by a priest, and their diocese had covered it up and even attacked them when they sought justice…

…My in-box was filled with stories like these. I began to understand what Tom Doyle's warnings meant. Every day after work I'd head back home, feeling like a spiritual "walking wounded." …

What if that were me? I'd ask. And I'd look at my own little boy, and carry these things in my heart.

And then there were other blows. The prominent archbishop who told me I needed to quit criticizing the Church, and that if I didn't trust the bishops to handle the matter, he didn't understand why I was still Catholic. There was the prominent priest who yelled at me on the phone one day that if Bishop X. told me there was no scandal in his diocese, that should have been good enough for me to quit my investigation.

There was the lawyer for a top American archbishop who had heard I was looking into widespread allegations that he had sexually harrassed seminarians, and who phoned to see if I could be taken off the story (when I'd see this archbishop on TV later in the year proclaiming wounded innocence in the scandal -- "If only we had known this was going on in the Church," he'd say -- I wanted to hurl). There was the Catholic therapist I saw briefly for help in dealing with my anger over the Scandal and over 9/11, who spent an entire session literally yelling at me about how I was going to go to hell for questioning the Pope's handling of the scandal.

So far, there isn’t much that any Catholic could disagree with here. Having several children of my own, and living in the Boston area, which became the epicenter of this crisis (although I am not convinced that the prevalence of abuse necessarily exists here), I can empathize with him entirely. In what follows, however, is where I start to take exception:
…As my dearest friend, Fr. Joe Wilson, has said many times, the Scandal does not exist in isolation. It is only a part of a many-headed beast. The sex-abuse scandal can't be easily separated from the wider crisis in the American Catholic Church, involving the corruption of the liturgy, of catechesis, and so forth. I've come to understand how important this point is, because if most other things had been more or less solid, I think I could have weathered the storm. But I found it impossible to find solid ground. As most readers know, we moved to Dallas in 2003, and had a difficult time establishing ourselves in a parish. Dallas has had more than its share of problems with abusive clerics, as most people know. What I didn't understand, nor anticipate, was how difficult it would be to find an orthodox parish here. We have lots of faithful Catholic friends here, and I don't think it's unfair to say that most of them are doing what most (but not all) orthodox Catholics in this country do: grit their teeth and white-knuckle it out in their parishes, doing what they can to hang on. Without belaboring our boring saga of hunting for a parish here, we ended up in an orthodox parish in a nearby suburb, which had something rare in Catholic parishes: unity in belief. These were Catholics who really believed it, and did so joyfully. We thought we were home.

And then I discovered entirely by accident -- indeed, in the process of helping bring a friend into the Church -- that a priest at the parish was not supposed to be in ministry. He had been suspended by his diocese in Pennsylvania after formal abuse accusations had been leveled against him. The priest came back to his hometown, Dallas, and got other work -- but was helping out on the weekends in this particular parish. It turned out that the pastor knew all about his past, had concluded that he had been falsely accused, and put him into active ministry in the parish -- without telling the parish, or even his bishop. Now, this priest might well be innocent -- nothing has been proved against him -- but that is not the point. The point is, and was, that he was not supposed to be in active ministry, yet the pastor and those closest to him chose to deceive the bishop and the parish about the matter. The priest in question -- orthodox and personally charismatic -- lied to me in a manipulative way about how he had come to Dallas (he said the liberals in his old diocese had driven him out), and lied to my catechumen friend, who is a liberal, in the same manipulative way (he told her the conservatives had driven him out).

This was too much. When I told Julie what Father's true background was, we were both shattered. I mean shattered. Given all that had come before, and given that we finally thought we could let our guard down, that we were among orthodox Catholics now, and we could trust them -- well, something broke in us.

It would be months before we realized how broken. We returned to our old parish, and spent months going through the motions. It's hard for me to express how spiritually depressed we were. The only strong emotion I felt about faith in those days was ... anger and bitterness.
I got into the habit of routinely leaving during the homilies -- in part because sometimes we would hear objective lies (like the time a deacon -- and this is one of the most conservative parishes in Dallas -- thanked God from the pulpit that we Catholics aren't like those nasty fundamentalist Christians, who believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation), but mostly it was simply because I felt so weak and vulnerable in my faith that I just wanted to get through mass and to receive the Eucharist and go home without having to get mad all over again. I was in such a state that the usual AmChurch banalities that orthodox Catholics learn to endure early on had the effect of setting me off. It was a rotten way to live, and I began to despair over what kind of icon of Christ I was for my children.

I also despaired over raising children in the Catholic faith. Julie and I decided not to put our kids in the Sunday School program at the parish when she learned that the parish was allowing women who didn't even go to mass to teach the faith to children, as part of their obligation to do parish service in exchange for reduced tuition at the parish school. This whole Sacrament Factory approach to living the Christian life left me ice-cold. I started to see my own faith and relationship to the Catholic Church as a purely mechanical thing. I'd go to fulfill my Sunday duty, receiving the Eucharist and then getting the heck out of there, wanting as little as possible to do with parish life. One day, in tears, Julie and I confessed to each other that we were afraid we were losing our faith entirely. This is not a place either of us ever imagined being. To know that you have the responsibility to raise children as followers of Christ, to say nothing about having responsibility for your own eternal soul -- well, to be in that position and to be so alienated from the Church you believe has the right to command your fidelity is a terrible thing.

Now, I do think that there are plenty of things for liberals to answer for. I’ll concede to the traditionalists this much - For the last forty years or so, the liberals in the American Church have pretty much had a free hand at doing catechesis the way they’d like to, and they’ve bolloxed it up completely. In popular imagination, and in some degree of reality, the 55-year-old woman with a DRE certificate who’s addicted to the enneagram and who’s tried to teach Henri Nouwen spirituality to 7th graders has made a real hash of things. You can’t teach Henri Nouwen spirituality to kids without having gone over the basics of the Faith. You just can’t do it. It doesn’t work. I’ve seen it tried over and over again.

While I do think that the liberal wing of the Church needs to be held accountable for this, I think it is grossly unfair to lay the responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis upon them. If Mr. Dreher respects the opinion of Father Tom Doyle on the matter of clerical sexual abuse, as he appears to do, he should realize the the crisis is not the fault of liberalism or modernism. It is the fault of clericalism, which spans both sides of the liberal/conservative divide. He should see this himself in the paragraphs where he outlines his sense of betrayal in what he had percieved to be an “orthodox parish”, due to the two-faced machinations of the pastor. Fr. Tom Doyle is very much involved with the progressive organization Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) and sees them as a prophetic and necessary lay movement. They are among the very few people who have been helping the actual victims of abuse and staying after bishops to hold them accountable and make sure they stay true to their promises. These VOTF people are anathema to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the rest of the neo-con set that Mr. Dreher had been running with since he entered the Catholic Church. Who are the real “orthodox Catholics” who’ve done a better job of interiorizing the Gospel?

As for the supposedly heterodox priest who allegedly “thanked God from the pulpit that we Catholics aren't like those nasty fundamentalist Christians, who believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation”, I also thank God that we are not like those nasty fundamentalist Christians, who stress their narrow, elitist orthodoxy over orthopraxis. I’m wondering if that quote was picked up quite correctly, but I’ll take Mr. Dreher at his word. The Church is the Universal Sacrament of Salvation. While there are indeed non-Christians who might be saved, anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus Christ (look up Karl Rahner’s views on The Anonymous Christian).

After this shot at “AmChurch”, Mr. Dreher then says:
I had to admit that I had never seriously considered the case for Orthodoxy. Now I had to do that. And it was difficult poring through the arguments about papal primacy. I'll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome's claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn't believe the doctrine. And if that falls, it all falls. Of course I immediately set upon myself, doubting my thinking because doubting my motives. You're just trying to talk yourself into something, I thought. And truth to tell, there was a lot of that, I'm sure.

After all of his struggles to find an “orthodox parish”, growing weary in the polarized arguments over culture-war issues, despairing how to raise his children in the Catholic faith, and gritting his teeth and white-knuckling it out in unorthodox AmChurch parishes, he folds up like a cardboard suitacase the first time he took a look at what happened at Vatican I? Come on.

Instead of decrying the sturm and drang of the culture war issues inside the Church, does he have any appreciation at all for the struggles that Catholics go though who did not enter the Church in 1993 – who are Catholic to the very fiber of their being but who struggle mightily with matters of conscience and authority and intellect… Who respect the heirarchy, but struggle with how much authority rests in the bishops and pope, and how much in the sensus fidelium? For Catholics who couldn’t possibly see any alternative to being in a Church other than the one they are in, and who STAY, hanging on by their fingernails with great difficutly and suffering despite being told by the “orthodox Catholics” that they are Cafeteria Catholic heretics who should just leave?

He just can’t accept papal infallibility. Well, gee, thanks... It’s something the rest of us never struggle with, eh?
But what I noticed during all this Sturm und Drang over doctrine was this: we were happy What's more, I had become the sort of Catholic who thought preoccupying himself with Church controversies and Church politics was the same thing as preoccupying himself with Christ. Me and my friends would go on for hours and hours about what was wrong with the Church, and everything we had to say was true. But if you keep on like that, it will have its effect. One night, some Catholic friends left after a long and vivid night of conversation, and Julie and I reflected that we had all spent the entire evening talking about the Church -- but never mentioned Jesus. Julie said, "We need less Peter around here, and more Jesus." Her point was that all this talk about the institutional Church was crowding out our devotion to the spiritual realities beneath the visible structure. And she was right. But I didn't learn that until it was too late.

Good advice for all of us, no matter what faith tradition we come from.
… I have to laugh when well-meaning people say, "Well, Rod's still looking for the perfect church, I wonder what's going to become of him when he figures out that the Orthodox Church is screwed up too." Shoot, the Orthodox Church in America is neck-deep in a financial scandal at its pinnacle! Don't they think I see that? I am perfectly aware that sexual sin and the temptation to cover it up or deny it exists in every human institution. I do not imagine that I have escaped that in Orthodoxy. I am incapable of being the kind of gung-ho Orthodox as I was a gung-ho Catholic. I've learned my lesson. What I do have in Orthodoxy, though, is a second chance to get it right. To receive the Sacraments as an aid to theosis, and to learn to love the little platoon around me, building up the community and my own family. Had I started out this way as a Catholic, maybe it wouldn't have come to this. But I did, and here I am, and God is merciful.

Good approach and humility. Eastern Orthodoxy is a beautiful faith, but I think that he will find out like other converts to EO like Frank Schaefer, that there are plenty of people going through the motions, that some of that “uniformity in belief” is just sleepwalking, and that ethnicity is a bigger issue than he thinks it is now.
As far as tradition goes, I have moved with my family to a church that I believe stands a much better chance of maintaining the historic Christian deposit of faith over time. To be more blunt, I have moved to a church that in my judgment within which I and my family and my descendants will be better able to withstand modernity. Basically, though -- and this is as blunt as I can be -- I'm in a church where I can trust the spiritual headship of the clergy, and where most people want to know more about the faith, and how we can conform our lives to it, rather than wanting to run away from it or hide it so nobody has to be offended.

Unfair. Does anyone in our ring of correspondents, or in the wider ring of Catholic blogdom, feel like we aren’t interested in knowing more about the Faith, or that we are running away from it?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Breastplate of St. Patrick

I'm feeling a bit of writer's block right now. At some point I want to read and write a bit about Celtic Spirituality, but for now I thought I'd just post the Prayer of the Breastplate of St. Patrick, interspersed with some pictures from my first trip to Ireland. I was blessed with some rare, spectacular weather the first week I was there. "The sun was splitting the stones", as they say...

For my shield this day I call:
A mighty power:
The Holy Trinity!
Affirming threeness,
Confessing oneness,
In the making of all
Through love…

For my shield this day I call:
Christ’s power in his coming
and in his baptising,
Christ’s power in his dying
On the cross, his arising
from the tomb, his ascending;
Christ’s power in his coming
for judgment and ending.

For my shield this day I call:
strong power of the seraphim,
with angels obeying,
and archangels attending,
in the glorious company
of the holy and risen ones,
in the prayers of the fathers,
in visions prophetic
and commands apostolic,
in the annals of witness,
in virginal innocence,
in the deeds of steadfast men.

For my shield this day I call:
Heaven’s might,
Sun’s brightness,
Moon’s whiteness,
Fire’s glory,
Lightning’s swiftness,
Wind’s wildness,
Ocean’s depth,
Earth’s solidity,
Rock’s immobility.

This day I call to me:
God’s strength to direct me,
God’s power to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s vision to light me,
God’s ear to my hearing,
God’s word to my speaking,
God’s hand to uphold me,
God’s pathway before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s legions to save me:
from snares of the demons,
from evil enticements,
from failings of nature,
from one man or many
that seek to destroy me,
anear or afar.

Around me I gather
these forces to save
my soul and my body
from dark powers that assail me:
against false prophesyings,
against pagan devisings,
against heretical lying
and false gods all around me.
Against spells cast by women
by blacksmiths, by Druids,
against knowledge unlawful
that injures the body,
that injures the spirit.

Be Christ this day my strong protector;
against poison and burning,
against drowning and wounding,
through reward wide and plenty …

Christ beside me, Christ before me;
Christ behind me, Christ within me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;
Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;
Christ in heart of all who know me,
Christ on tongue of all who meet me,
Christ in eye of all who see me,
Christ in ear of all who hear me.

For my shield this day I call
a mighty power:
the Holy Trinity!
affirming threeness,
confessing oneness
in the making of all -
through love…

For to the Lord belongs salvation,
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.

May your salvation, Lord, be
with us always.
(Domini est salus, Domini est salus,
Christi est salus;
Salus tua, Domine, sit semper nobiscum).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Korea on their minds... Were the Korean War vets allowed to suffer from PTSD?

Major General Wayne C. Smith of the US 7th Infantry Division decorates my father with the Silver Star for Bravery in Action - April, 1953

They say that the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea is the “scariest place on earth”. I believe it. North Korea, of course, has been in the news lately for their recent nuclear weapons test. Every time Korea is in the news, it reminds me of my father, who was a Korean War veteran. My father passed away at the young age of 49. I was only 18 at the time. One of the things that saddens me the most is that I never really had the chance to have an adult conversation with him. One of the things that I regret the most is that I don’t feel I impressed upon him enough how much I loved him. Sometimes I dream that I’m having short conversations with my father; conversations that I’d give almost anything to have in reality.

My father served in Korea during the last year of the war. He was an army artillery officer, a Second Lieutenant. He didn’t spend all of his time, however, studying maps and calling out orders from behind the howitzers. He did a lot of his work in “no man’s land” as a Forward Observer (FO). For those who don’t know what an FO does, his mission is basically to creep up as close as he can to the enemy lines and call down artillery strikes upon their positions, nearly on top of himself. It is one of the most dangerous jobs there is in the military.

He fought in the ferocious Battle of Pork Chop Hill, the last major engagement between the opposing forces before the truce was signed, and he was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action in connection with another incident (see the citation further down below).

The Korean War is often called America’s “forgotten war”, a stalemate sandwiched in between WWII and Viet Nam, but it was an exceedingly brutal war, with over 47,000 US soldiers killed in three years of combat. The number of North Korean and Chinese soldiers killed was over a million, and the combined number of South Korean soldiers and Korean civilians killed was probably more than double that. After the first year, which saw the opposing armies moving in a wild see-saw action down and up and down the peninsula, the last two years were largely a static affair, with the armies dug in across the width of the country. In that respect it resembled the trench warfare of WWI more than the mobile warfare of WWII.

The war also had an eerie, spectral, spooky quality to it, particularly after the Communist Chinese entered the conflict. The road-bound, mechanized units of the UN forces were in constantly in fear of being encircled by hordes of hardy peasant soldiers who seemed to be able to cover snow-bound mountain passes overnight on foot or on Mongolian ponies.

Much of the fighting was done at night, with the freezing, snow-covered hills illuminated by flares as the Chinese attacked the entrenched UN troops in human waves to the sound of bugles, whistles and gongs. The fighting was brutal and hand-to-hand, often coming down to individual fights with close range weapons like burp guns, hand grenades, and even bayonets.

Here is the description of the action for which my father was awarded the Silver Star.

29 April 1953

Section I

AWARD OF THE SILVER STAR.--By direction of the President, under the provisions of the Act of Congress, approved 9 July 1918 (WD Bu1. 43, I918), and pursuant to authority in AR 600-45, the Silver Star for gallantry in action is awarded to the following-named officer and enlisted man:

Second Lieutenant JOHN W. CONNORS, 02265280, Artillery, United States Army, a member of Battery C, 49th Field Artillery Battalion, distinguished himself by gallantry in action near Songhyon, Korea. On 5 March 1953, Lieutenant Connors, as a forward observer, accompanied an infantry combat patrol when the friendly patrol was suddenly ambushed by the enemy. As the ambush commenced, Lieutenant Connors fearlessly rushed from the support element to the front and delivered deadly and accurate fire upon the enemy forces. Without hesitation, Lieutenant Connors moved through the impact area to a vantage point completely exposed to the enemy fire and proceeded to rake the right flank with devastating protective fire, thus stopping the enemy. During the heavy bombardment of enemy mortar fire, Lieutenant Connors organized litter teams to evacuate the wounded and led them back to the friendly Main Line Of Resistance.

The gallantry displayed by Lieutenant Connors reflects great credit on himself and is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service. Entered the Federal service from Massachusetts.

At this point in my life, I am exploring the possibilities of Christian pacifism…. but I have to say that growing up, we were always extremely proud of our father’s service, and for the honor that he had won. In fact, I am still proud of him. I cannot imagine myself at his age (or any age) having the guts to do such a thing. I just can’t see myself in that situation at all, other than curled up in a ball in the fetal position. As proud as we were, however, it never really occurred to us to deeply ponder what his own memory of the incident was like. As clear as it was that he saved the lives of many of his fellow soldiers, he also killed people. As far as I can tell from what the incident sounded like, he killed lots of people. How did this sit on his mind? What affect did this have on him over the ensuing years? If there were times when my father like to spend time alone in the basement on weekends, and to have a few drinks, perhaps we could have cut him a little more slack, or at least made an attempt to be more solicitous and understanding.

It’s difficult for me to get an accurate read. When I was a kid, he would never talk about the war with us. I’d ask him what he did in the war, and his terse, self deprecating reply would be “I hid” (I suppose there was a bit of truth in that, considering his role as an FO). He was consciously careful never to glamorize any of this stuff for us. He didn’t allow us to watch TV shows like ‘Combat’ and Garrison’s Guerrillas” that dramatized war in Hollywood fashion for popular entertainment. The sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” would make him furious... If he ever caught us watching that, it wasn’t pleasant. “What, do you think living in a POW camp was a funny? Do you think it was some kind of joke?”. On the other hand, he rarely ever missed an episode of * Mash *, because it was in Korea, and I suspect, because the attitude of the characters was one of cynicism and skepticism regarding the war. He was a staunch Democrat, opposed to the war in Viet Nam and openly contemptuous of Richard Nixon.

Since my father passed away so young, it has been left for me to try to glean an opinion from the impressions of others. According to my mother (who also passed away quite young), my father had a certain gentleness and sweetness to him that was gone when he came back from Korea. He’d adopted the stern, no-nonsense demeanor of an officer. In her conversations with him, he’d related that he was struck by the wastefulness of war in its wanton destruction of young lives. In one telling anecdote, she mentioned his sorrow and revulsion at dispatching enemy soldiers by bayonet, saying to them and to himself - “I have nothing against you.”

According to my aunt, the impression he left was how much he hated the bitter winter cold of Korea, and how much he wanted to come home if for no other reason than to get warm.

A couple of years ago, I was relating these conversations to my uncle, my father’s younger brother. He listened all the way through politely with a wry smile on his face. Then he said to me, “Your father loved it. He was a good soldier and he never felt more alive than when he was doing a soldier’s job. There was a certain colonel who had it in for him for what he perceived as his insubordination. This colonel thought he was punishing my father for making him serve as an FO, but my father thrived on it, because he liked doing that kind of mission. He enjoyed the danger and the excitement.”

What to believe? Was that an older brother’s bravado to a competitive younger brother? An unwillingness not to discuss a soft side that he’d be willing to reveal to a wife? Is it possible that both sides of the story are true? I think the issue is complicated. He’d probably say that he’d consider all of this concern of mine to be to be soft. To be crap.

I don’t know if combat had any affect on my father, but it is hard for me to imagine that it had none whatsoever. In more extreme cases, the affects of stress under fire are well-known. In WWI, they would call is Shell shock. In WWI they would call it Battle Fatigue. After Viet Nam, they would call it PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). What about the Korean vets?

During America’s forgotten war, the WWII vets would say to the returning troops, “We plastered the Japs and the Krauts. What’s going wrong in Korea? What the hell is wrong with our army over there?” Many of their sacrifices were unappreciated. Have their traumas been unappreciated as well?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Memento Mori... I love Zurbarán, but what’s with the skulls?

One of my favorite artists is one of the great Spanish painters of the Siglo Oro, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1644).

Well-known for his pious Catholic themes, and his special knack for capturing the tenor and essence of the personalities of friars and monks, he was an acquaintance of Diego Velázquez, and a forerunner to Bartolomé Murillo, only to be ultimately overshadowed by both.

One thing I like about the dark, shadowy starkness of his paintings is that I feel like I am looking straight into real, authentic seventeenth century faces, which could just as easily be twenty-first century faces.

One thing, though, that I find curious about the paintings. The skulls. Almost every painting of a Franciscan friar has the subject contemplating a skull (as in the image I use for my “logo”. The one the Minor Friar uses for his blog is similar). Was this a spiritual aid, a pious practice peculiar to the Franciscan Order, or a wider practice that was common for the Church universally at that point in history? I don’t know a lot about it, but I’d guess that it seems to be a clear reference to Memento Mori. ("Remember that you are mortal”). It seems that the focus of the contemplation must have been on life’s transience, the closeness of mortality, the grand cycle of life, death, and regeneration… A reminder that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.

In 1569, St Teresa of Avila visited the Discalced Carmelite monastery founded by St. John of the Cross at Duruelo, and wrote:
The following Lent, while on my way to the foun­dation in Toledo, I passed by there. When I arrived in the morning, Father Fray Antonio was sweeping the doorway to the church with that joyful expression on his face that he always has. I said to hirn: "What's this, my Father; what has become of your honor?" Telling me of his great happiness, he answered with these words: "I curse the day I had any." When I entered the little church, I was astonished to see the spirit the Lord had put there. And it wasn't only I, for the two merchants, my friends from Medina who had accompanied me there, did nothing else but weep. There were so many crosses, so many skulls! I never forget a little cross made for the holy water fount from sticks with a paper image of Christ attached to it; it inspired more devotion than if it had been something very expertly carved. The choir was in the loft. In the middle of the loft the ceiling was high enough to allow for the recitation of the Hours, but one had to stoop low in order to enter and to hear Mass. There were in the two corners fac­ing the church two little hermitages, where one could do no more than either lie down or sit. Both were filled with hay because the place was very cold, and the roof almost touched one's head. Each had a little window facing the altar and a stone for a pil­low; and there, too, the crosses and skulls.

The Wikipedia article on Memento Mori claims:
To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize of the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an invitation to focus one's thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife. A Biblical injunction often associated which the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate's Latin rendening of Ecclesiasticus 7:40, "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.")

Other Paintings by Zurbarán

Paintings by Other Artists On a Theme

The Skull of Zurbarán
-- Salvador Dali

St. Jerome
--Albrecht Dürer

Head of St Jerome pointing at a skull
-- Lucas van Leyden

Andrew Sullivan on "Blind Faith"

In Time magazine this week, Andrew Sullivan has a very interesting article called When Not Seeing Is Believing (on the rise of fundamentalism and why embracing spiritual doubt is the key to defusing the tension between East and West). I’d be interested in hearing what people think about it.

In full:

Something about the visit to the U.N. by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refuses to leave my mind. It wasn't his obvious intention to pursue nuclear technology and weaponry. It wasn't his denial of the Holocaust or even his eager anticipation of Armageddon. It was something else entirely. It was his smile. In every interview, confronting every loaded question, his eyes seemed calm, his expression at ease, his face at peace. He seemed utterly serene.

What is the source of his extraordinary calm? Yes, he's in a relatively good place right now, with his Hizballah proxies basking in a military draw with Israel. Yes, the U.S. is bogged down in a brutal war in Iraq. But Ahmadinejad is still unpopular at home, the Iranian economy is battered, and his major foes, Israel and the U.S., far outgun him--for now.

So let me submit that he is smiling and serene not because he is crazy. He is smiling gently because for him, the most perplexing and troubling questions we all face every day have already been answered. He has placed his trust in the arms of God. Just because it isn't the God that many of us believe in does not detract from the sincerity or power of his faith. It is a faith that is real, all too real--gripping billions across the Muslim world in a new wave of fervor and fanaticism. All worries are past him, all anxiety, all stress. "Peoples, driven by their divine nature, intrinsically seek good, virtue, perfection and beauty," Ahmadinejad said at the U.N. "Relying on our peoples, we can take giant steps towards reform and pave the road for human perfection. Whether we like it or not, justice, peace and virtue will sooner or later prevail in the world with the will of Almighty God."

Human perfection. Whether we like it or not. Justice, peace and virtue. That concept of the beneficent, omnipotent will of God and the need to always submit to it, whether we like it or not, is not new. It has been present in varying degrees throughout history in all three great monotheismsJudaism, Christianity and Islamfrom their very origins. And with it has come the utter certainty of those who say they have seen the face of God or have surrendered themselves to his power or have achieved the complete spiritual repose promised by the Books of all three faiths: the Torah, the Gospels, the Koran. That is where the smile comes from.

Complete calm comes from complete certainty. In today's unnerving, globalizing, sometimes terrifying world, such religious certainty is a balm more in demand than ever. In the new millennium, Muslims are not alone in grasping the relief of submission to authority. The new Pope, despite his criticism of extremist religion and religious violence, represents a return to a more authoritarian form of Catholicism. In the Catholic triad of how we know truth--an eternal dialogue between papal authority, scriptural guidance and the experience of the faithful--Benedict XVI has tilted the balance decisively back toward his own unanswerable truth.

What was remarkable about his recent address on Islam is what most critics missed. The bulk of his message was directed at the West, at its disavowal of religious authority and its embrace of what Benedict called "the subjective 'conscience.'" For Benedict, if your conscience tells you something that differs from his teaching, it is a false conscience, a sign not of personal integrity but of sin. And so he has silenced conscientious dissent within the church and insisted on absolutism in matters like abortion, end-of-life decisions, priestly celibacy, the role of women, homosexuality and interfaith dialogue.

In Protestant Christianity, especially in the U.S., the loudest voices are the most certain and uncompromising. Many megachurches, which preach absolute adherence to inerrant Scripture, are thriving, while more moderate denominations are on the decline. That sense of certainty has even entered democratic politics in the U.S. We have, after all, a proudly born-again President. And religious certainty surely cannot be disentangled from George W. Bush's utter conviction that he has made no mistakes in Iraq. "My faith frees me," the President once wrote. "Frees me to make the decisions that others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next." In every messy context, the President seeks succor in a simple certainty--good vs. evil, terror vs. freedom--without sensing that wars are also won in the folds of uncertainty and guile, of doubt and tactical adjustment that are alien to the fundamentalist psyche.

I remember in my own faith journey that in those moments when I felt most lost in the world, I moved toward the absolutist part of my faith and gripped it with the white knuckles of fear. I brooked no dissent and patrolled my own soul for any hint of doubt. I required a faith not of sandstone but of granite.

Many Western liberals and secular types look at the zealotry closing in on them and draw an obvious conclusion: religion is the problem. As our global politics become more enamored of religious certainty, the stakes have increased, they argue, and they have a point. The evil terrorists of al-Qaeda invoke God as the sanction for their mass murder. And many beleaguered Americans respond by invoking God's certainty. And the cycle intensifies into something close to a religious war. When the Presidents of the U.S. and Iran speak as much about God as about diplomacy, we have entered a newly dangerous era. The Islamist resurgence portends the worst. Imagine the fanaticism of 16th century Christians, waging religious war and burning heretics at the stake. Now give them nukes. See the problem? Domestically, the resurgence of religious certainty has deepened our cultural divisions. And so our political discourse gets more polarized, and our global discourse gets close to impossible.

How, after all, can you engage in a rational dialogue with a man like Ahmadinejad, who believes that Armageddon is near and that it is his duty to accelerate it? How can Israel negotiate with people who are certain their instructions come from heaven and so decree that Israel must not exist in Muslim lands? Equally, of course, how can one negotiate with fundamentalist Jews who claim that the West Bank is theirs forever by biblical mandate? Or with Fundamentalist Christians who believe that Israel's expansion is a biblical necessity rather than a strategic judgment?

There is, however, a way out. And it will come from the only place it can come from--the minds and souls of people of faith. It will come from the much derided moderate Muslims, tolerant Jews and humble Christians. The alternative to the secular-fundamentalist death spiral is something called spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt. Fundamentalism is not the only valid form of faith, and to say it is, is the great lie of our time.

There is also the faith that is once born and never experiences a catharsis or "born-again" conversion. There is the faith that treats the Bible as a moral fable as well as history and tries to live its truths in the light of contemporary knowledge, history, science and insight. There is a faith that draws important distinctions between core beliefs and less vital ones--that picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience.

There is the faith that sees the message of Jesus or Muhammad as a broad indicator of how we should treat others, of what profound holiness requires, and not as an account literally true in all respects that includes an elaborate theology that explains everything. There is the dry Deism of many of America's Founding Fathers. There is the cafeteria Christianity of, say, Thomas Jefferson, who composed a new, shortened gospel that contained only the sayings of Jesus that Jefferson inferred were the real words of the real rabbi. There is the open-minded treatment of Scripture of today's Episcopalianism and the socially liberal but doctrinally wayward faith of most lay Catholics. There is the sacramental faith that regards God as present but ultimately unknowable, that looks into the abyss and hopes rather than sees. And there are many, many more varieties.

But all those alternative forms come back to the same root. Those kinds of faith recognize one thing, first of all, about the nature of God and humankind, and it is this: If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know--because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren't, it would not be God.

That faith begins with the assumption that the human soul is fallible, that it can delude itself, make mistakes and see only so far ahead. That, after all, is what it means to be human. No person has had the gift of omniscience. Yes, Christians may want to say that of Jesus. But even the Gospels tell us that Jesus doubted on the Cross, asking why his own father seemed to have abandoned him. The mystery that Christians are asked to embrace is not that Jesus was God but that he was God-made-man, which is to say, prone to the feelings and doubts and joys and agonies of being human. Jesus himself seemed to make a point of that. He taught in parables rather than in abstract theories. He told stories. He had friends. He got to places late; he misread the actions of others; he wept; he felt disappointment; he asked as many questions as he gave answers; and he was often silent in self-doubt or elusive or afraid.

God-as-Omniscience, by definition, could do and be none of those things. Hence, the sacrifice entailed in God becoming man. So, at the core of the very Gospels on which fundamentalists rely for their passionate certainty is a definition of humanness that is marked by imperfection and uncertainty. Even in Jesus. Perhaps especially in Jesus.

As humans, we can merely sense the existence of a higher truth, a greater coherence than ourselves, but we cannot see it face to face. That is either funny or sad, and humans stagger from one option to the other. Neither beasts nor angels, we live in twilight, and we are unsure whether it is a prelude to morning or a prelude to night.

The 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne lived in a world of religious war, just as we do. And he understood, as we must, that complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy. As he put it, "We cannot worthily conceive the grandeur of those sublime and divine promises, if we can conceive them at all; to imagine them worthily, we must imagine them unimaginable, ineffable and incomprehensible, and completely different from those of our miserable experience. 'Eye cannot see,' says St. Paul, 'neither can it have entered into the heart of man, the happiness which God hath prepared for them that love him.'"

In that type of faith, doubt is not a threat. If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed? True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt. Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognize our fundamental duty with respect to God's truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe.

In this sense, our religion, our moral life, is simply what we do. A Christian is not a Christian simply because she agrees to conform her life to some set of external principles or dogmas, or because at a particular moment in her life, she experienced a rupture and changed herself entirely. She is a Christian primarily because she acts like one. She loves and forgives; she listens and prays; she contemplates and befriends; her faith and her life fuse into an unself-conscious unity that affirms a tradition of moral life and yet also makes it her own. In that nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important than theory, love is more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle.

And that is how that kind of faith interacts with politics. If we cannot know for sure at all times how to govern our own lives, what right or business do we have telling others how to live theirs? From a humble faith comes toleration of other faiths. And from that toleration comes the oxygen that liberal democracy desperately needs to survive. That applies to all faiths, from Islam to Christianity. In global politics, it translates into a willingness to recognize empirical reality, even when it disturbs our ideology and interests. From moderate religion comes pragmatic politics. From a deep understanding of human fallibility comes the political tradition we used to call conservatism.

I remember my grandmother's faith. She was an Irish immigrant who worked as a servant for priests. In her later years she lived with us, and we would go to Mass together. She was barely literate, the seventh of 13 children. And she could rattle off the Hail Mary with the speed and subtlety of a NASCAR lap. There were times when she embarrassed me--with her broad Irish brogue and reflexive deference to clerical authority. Couldn't she genuflect a little less deeply and pray a little less loudly? And then, as I winced at her volume in my quiet church, I saw that she was utterly oblivious to those around her. She was someplace else. And there were times when I caught her in the middle of saying the Rosary when she seemed to reach another level altogether--a higher, deeper place than I, with all my education and privilege, had yet reached.

Was that the certainty of fundamentalism? Or was it the initiation into a mystery none of us can ever fully understand? I'd argue the latter. The 18th century German playwright Gotthold Lessing said it best. He prayed a simple prayer: "If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this--the pure Truth is for You alone."

That sentiment is as true now as it was more than two centuries ago when Lessing wrote it. Except now the very survival of our civilization may depend on it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Catholics and the Democratic Party: Mike McG Steps Into the Fray on dotCommonweal

From N.C. Wyeth’s Treasure Island

A little while ago, Mike McG called my attention to a post on dotCommonweal called Homework Assignment. It included a link to a superb, fascinating article by John T. McGreevy called Shifting Allegiances. Catholics, Democrats & the GOP. It gives a good, comprehensive history of the complicated relationship between Catholics and the Democratic Pary in the United States, and as always, the third-rail issue is the issue of abortion. Mike McG steps into the lively discussion on the thread with some good comments. Mike also presents the question:

Is conversation among Democrats possible, or do we have to endure a reenactment of 2004 in 2008?

Some excerpts from McGreevy’s article:
True story: It is the day before Pope John Paul II’s funeral, a year ago last April. Assembling in Rome are the members of the official delegation of the United States government, including President and Mrs. Bush and a number of Catholic senators and representatives. Two of those Catholic senators are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

As the two of them walk across St. Peter’s Square, bystanders stop Kerry every few steps to bemoan his defeat in the presidential election just a few months before. Some of these admirers-including a few Italian priests-drape themselves enthusiastically over Kerry’s lanky frame for group snapshots.

Then a single priest stops Kerry and Durbin. He warns Kerry that he will have to answer, perhaps in hell, for his position on abortion.

That priest is from Minnesota.

How did we get here? And are we stuck?

…As late as 1968, two of the three Democratic candidates for president, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, were serious Catholics on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and support from white Catholics in the North almost pushed the eventual Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, past Richard Nixon. As Howard Dean recently put it, “The Democratic Party was built on four pillars-the Roosevelt intellectuals, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and African Americans.”

…George McGovern proved incapable of sustaining this Catholic backing in 1972, in part because the Democratic Party in the heady years between 1968 and 1972 became associated with a cultural liberalism that some Catholic voters, especially working-class whites, found unsettling. (Humphrey, during the bitter days of the 1972 Democratic primaries, inaccurately but effectively tarred McGovern as favoring “abortion, acid, and amnesty [for Vietnam era draft evaders].”)

…Much of this uneasiness with the national Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s revolved around race, with working-class white Catholics appalled by Democratic support for forced busing programs to alleviate racial imbalance in the public schools, and suspicious of efforts to integrate lily-white (and heavily Catholic) construction and trade unions. The sympathy for African-American civil rights displayed by many priests and nuns in the late 1960s evoked among some white Catholics a raw sense of betrayal…

…Roe v. Wade made everything more partisan. The unexpectedly sweeping consequences of the 1973 ruling-eliminating most state restrictions on the procedure, with the number of abortions rising to over 1.5 million a year by 1980-jumpstarted a grassroots antiabortion movement, arguably the largest social movement of the post-civil-rights era, led, funded, and supported in its first years by Catholics. At the same time, abortion rights became central to the modern women’s movement in the United States (more so than in most of Europe) and these activists called the Democratic Party their home. Now no politician could dodge the issue (as Robert Kennedy had in 1968) and a generation of Catholic Democrats, some principled, some pragmatic, adopted a prochoice stance…

…In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, Democrats began to pick up the pieces. As part of this effort, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg-famous for his analysis of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan-and an associate, Matt Hogan, polled white Catholics…. Greenberg and Hogan paid special attention to Democratic defectors, the small but crucial group of white Catholic Democrats, especially in Ohio and other battleground Midwestern states, who voted for Clinton in 1996 but supported George W. Bush in 2004. (Clinton carried white Catholics by seven points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry lost white Catholics by fourteen points in 2004). In an election where notions about morality played an important role, these Catholic Democrats named abortion as their “single greatest moral concern.” Indeed, Galston, a onetime Clinton aide, recently argued that vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban was the “single worst political mistake that Bill Clinton made in his eight years....If there was ever an issue to take off the table, that was it.”

…John Paul II, despite his extraordinary charisma, did not stem the drift away from official church teaching on most of the hot-button sex and gender issues. More Catholic couples now use birth control than at the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy, and the Greenberg/Hogan polling data highlight the sympathy of Catholic voters, even practicing Catholic voters supporting President Bush, for same-sex civil unions.

...Within the church, John Paul II’s frequent condemnations of contraception, his fiat against discussion of women’s ordination, his refusal to appoint as bishop any priest not willing to defend Humanae vitae, and his characterization of the modern United States as a “culture of death,” fostered a more sectarian mood. Just this August, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois, solemnly (and offensively) listed the “sacraments” of the Democratic Party as “abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation.” These Democratic positions, Doran cheerfully informed Rockford Catholics, “place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people.”

...More politely, Denver archbishop Charles Chaput described Catholics as “timid” in a “culture that grows more estranged from the gospel with every year.” Or, as Chaput explained last year to the New Yorker’s Peter Boyer: “We’re at a time for the church in our country when some Catholics-too many-are discovering that they’ve gradually become non-Catholics who happen to go to Mass. That’s sad and difficult, and a judgment on a generation of Catholic leadership. But it may be exactly the moment of truth the church needs.”

…To Chaput and other like-minded Catholics, the primary obstacle to a new evangelization is a “liberal culture” entrenched in the media, the universities, and, crucially, within the church itself. In an eerie echo of the 1960s, these spokespersons urge their coreligionists to reject not just the mainstream media but the Catholic mainstream as well: Protect your children at Steubenville, instead of throwing them to the wolves at Boston College (or Notre Dame). Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum even blamed Boston liberalism-instead of, say, Cardinal Bernard Law-for that archdiocese’s implosion during the sexual-abuse crisis, a dubious claim given what the Philadelphia district attorney has recently told us about sexual abuse in that archdiocese….

…This more apocalyptic ecclesiastical mood blended with the waning of the Catholic subculture over the past thirty years, and the felt need of a significant minority of young Catholics for more familiarity with the faith they professed. Catholic leaders of the 1970s and 1980s, to their shame, ignored the plight of these young people, and never solved the larger puzzle of what serious catechetical education might entail in a mobile, fragmented society. (See John Cavadini’s April 9, 2004, Commonweal cover story, “Teaching Theology: What Young Catholics Don’t Know.”) At Notre Dame, where I teach, one colleague claims that some of her advanced students, almost all Catholic, cannot identify Pontius Pilate.

The most committed of these Catholic young people now lurch between an attractive (even brave) love for the faith and the church, and a defensive circling of the wagons. Who can but admire young Catholics immersing themselves in serious study of Catholic intellectual traditions and choosing service to the church through volunteer programs? Who can but sigh when reading the following headline in a conservative Catholic student newspaper: “Can Women Be Priests? A Full Defense of the Authoritative Church Position, and Why It Cannot and Will Not Change”?

Given these three contexts: the relationship of Catholics to the Democratic Party, the partisan cast of the abortion debate since Roe v. Wade, and the more sectarian tone in recent Catholic life, perhaps the real surprise is that the priest from Minnesota didn’t insist on escorting John Kerry to hell himself…

…Can we do better? How should we actually decrease the abortion rate, given that federal policies on access to abortion matter less than the socio-economic plight of women seeking abortions? How should we understand low abortion rates in Western Europe (where abortion is legal) and high rates in putatively Catholic Latin America (where it is not)?

…here’s the final exam question: Can Catholics and other people of goodwill agree to make abortions rare, and mean it, or will the issue remain a rhetorical ploy Republicans exploit and a moral scandal to which Democrats are blind?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

What's in a Name? Benedict the Peacemaker

When early rumors first started coming out of the 2005 papal conclave I was surprised to hear that Cardinal Martini was drawing sizeable support on the progressive side and that Cardinal Ratzinger was drawing heavy support on the conservative side. In the case of Martini, I was surprised because of his poor health and the fact that he was a Jesuit. In the case of Ratzinger, I was surprised because of all the baggage he carried in his past as head of the CDF. I’d thought that he was too much of a lightning rod to ever be elected pope. I’d thought that the cardinals would look for someone who would be able to heal the wide breach between the two sides, and that it was unlikely to be him.

By the time Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, I was no longer surprised, but I do confess that I was disappointed when I heard it announced from the balcony of St. Peter’s that he was going to take the name of Benedict. He didn’t choose John, Paul, or John Paul.., any of the names that would have suggested that he was as committed to the Second Vatican Council as was claimed by his most immediate predecessors. The name Benedict suggested a great leap backward over that Council to the far past. His appearance and early style suggested that he was also interested in bringing back the royal trappings of pomp, finery, and splendor associated with the papacy long ago, quite unlike the stolid, manly simplicity of John Paul II.

Most commentators suggested that the choice of the name Benedict was meant to hearken back to St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism, and a man given great credit for keeping the flame of hope alive for re-christianizing Europe. This is certainly the impression the commentators could have been forgiven for taking from having read (Ratzinger) Benedict’s critiques of western society for its relativism, loss of faith, and lack of appreciation for its Christian roots.

Is that impression correct? Is that really why he chose the name? Perhaps not entirely. Reportedly, he told Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, just before appearing on the balcony, that he would take the name Benedict because Pope Benedict XV tried to stop World War I, and he, the next Benedict, wanted to be a pope of peace.

What is the history of the name Benedict in the Church, and more specifically, who was Pope Benedict XV, this peacemaker who not only wanted to stop world War I, but a civil war and reign of terror raging within the Catholic Church itself?

Every heresy produces a counter-reaction, and sometimes the counter-reactions go too far in the opposite direction. The “Pian” popes (Pius IX and Pius X) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were deeply concerned about the trends in western thought; Pius IX with liberalism and Pius X with the heresy of Modernism and both wrote vigorously against them in turn. In support of that effort, the most extreme opponents of Modernism described themselves as Integrists (or Integralists).

To the Integrist, all tradition supported all other tradition, and to question or change any of it was to call all of it into question. All of it was to stand together or fall together. There was a tendency on their part to confuse incidentals (accidents) with essentials. For example, if one papal encyclical or another had maintained that black vestments must be worn at funerals or that an organ was the only musical instrument that could be played during a Mass, these were lasting affirmations for all time with an aura of infallibility around them. To question them or to suggest change would be disloyal. As Gary wills put it:
To understand the Syllabus of Errors, and the mentality behind it, we need to look at a phenomenon that would be given a name under Pius X but was already present in Pius IX's circle - Integrism, or Integralism. This saw Catholicism as a systematic whole, each part connected with all other parts, and therefore all of equal weight. Criticize one part and you have denied the whole. Each outwork is as precious as the inner citadel. The Scholastic philosophy is as important as the Gospels, because it has perfected the defense of the Gospels' authority. The hierarchical state is as important as the monarchic papacy, since each supports the other. The ban on freedom of speech is as important as the creed, since the latter is endangered by indulgence of the former. As Pius put it in the encyclical accompanying the Syllabus (Quanta Cura): "If human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist the truth and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling. ''

Those who took this position tended to see their opponents as their mirror image. They too are mounting a coordinated system, all parts of which are at enmity with the true faith, so all parts must be equally feared and rejected. What Pius was attempting in the long exercise of drawing up the Syllabus was to connect the many dots of this organized opposition. When they were properly connected, they would reveal the face of Antichrist, the church's vast and single foe. The face never came quite into focus, though Pius knew it was there. That is why he labored so energetically to draw and redraw the picture. But the sketch was clear enough for him to damn all parts of it with equal emphasis. As Quanta Cura put it: "Therefore, by our Apostolic Authority, we reprobate, proscribe, and condemn all the singular and evil opinions and doctrines severally mentioned in this letter, and will and command that they be thoroughly held by all children of the Catholic Church as reprobated, proscribed, and condemned."

When Pius X, died in 1914, Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa became Pope Benedict XV just as World War I began. He pled for peace, he pled for truces, he pled for reconciliation, all to little or no avail. The scandal of Europe’s Christians at each other’s throats was a heartache to him. As author Robert Blair Kaiser describes the last year of it, “it was a conflict in which American soldiers wearing St. Christopher medals were killing and being killed by German soldiers wearing belt buckles with the legend Gott Mit Uns (“God with Us”)”.

The body of this Litany to the Lamb of God In Time Of War was written about 1915 by or under the auspices of Pope Benedict XV during World War I.

Although he was uncompromising on Modernism as Pius was, Benedict also looked towards making peace in the Church. Here is an interesting post taken, interestingly enough, from L'Effort Camerounais (The Newspaper of the National Bishops Conference of Cameroon). It deals with the history of the name Bendedict, and I have lifted excerpts from the section that specifically describes Pope Benedict XV.

Benedict XV

Finally, Benedict XV was elected the 256th Pontiff from September 3, 1914 to January 22, 1922, during the First World War. After the war, Benedict XV pleaded for reconciliation among the nations and gave general support to the League of Nations. On June 28, 1917, he promulgated the new code of Canon Law, whose revision had been initiated by his predecessor, Pius X. only two months after his election in 1903, Pius issued an encyclical in which he announced his determination to protect the Catholic clergy from “the snares of modern scientific thoughts.” What he was referring to was primarily the application of new techniques to the study of scriptures – techniques which revealed that the teachings of the Bible, including those of the New Testament, did not record events with the same kind of literal accuracy as modern historians do. This implied that even the Gospel narratives could not always be accepted at face level, which in turn suggested to some people that many of the Church’s dogmas might need to be revised in the light of a more accurate understanding of the evangelists’ true meaning. Thus the French priest, Alfred Loissy, denied that Christ had intended to institute sacraments or even to found a church. In July 1907, a decree entitled Lamentabili condemned a collection of 65 propositions grouped together under the heading of modernism – a most unfortunate choice of words, since it could easily be interpreted to mean that the Church was opposed in principles to all modern ideas. What Lamentabili particularly objected to was the assertion, expressed or implied, that the very concept of religious dogma is incompatible with the discoveries of modern scholarship. Two months later, in the encyclical Pascendi, Pius X ordered the establishment in each diocese, of a committee to guard against the spread of Modernist ideas. And in 1910, he ordered every Catholic bishop, priest, seminary professor, and religious superior in the world, to take an anti-modernist oath. Loissy and several others were excommunicated, and many scholars were forced to make formal abjurations of their teachings.

The Catch

But the worst aspect of this anti-modernist crusade was that it set loose within the Church hundreds of what can only be described as intellectual vigilantes. The most notorious of these was Monsignor Umberto Benigni, an official of the Vatican secretariat of state, who created a clandestine international organisation dedicated to destroying the reputations of those whom it suspected of modernist tendencies but whose guilt could not be proved. Members of the organization, the Sodalitium Pianum, operated secretly and communicated with one another in code. They used the columns of local Catholic publications to vilify writers, professors and Churchmen who deviated in any way from the Sodalitium’s interpretation of Orthodoxy. And they transmitted excerpts from articles and speeches by people of whom it disapproved to Rome, where Benigni published them, along with defamatory commentaries in his own newspaper. The Sodalitium also channelled information to the Holy Office, the modern successor to the inquisition, which kept detailed secret dossiers on everyone even remotely suspected of having Modernist sympathies. Since it was never completely clear what the term “Modernism” actually referred to, the Sodalitium and the Holy Office were able to intimidate almost every Catholic engaged in scholarly pursuits. No one was burned alive by the Sodalitium, but its methods were in some respect, even more vicious than those of the medieval inquisition. Its victims, many of whom were not even aware that they were under suspicion, were dismissed from teaching posts, refused ecclesiastical promotions, and exposed to vicious and anonymous public calumnies. Since they had not been formally accused of anything, they found it impossible to clear their reputations. Even worse, perhaps, with the chilling effects which all of this had on Catholic intellectual life – especially in seminaries, where original research in philosophy, Church history and scripture practically ceased.

The Flaw

The existence and activities of the Sodalitium Pianum were finally brought to light during World War I, when the German army discovered some of its documents and a copy of its secret code in the Belgian city of Ghent. Pope Benedict XV, who succeeded Pius, ordered the group disbanded in 1921, bringing the worst features of this reign of terror to an end (cf. William A Herr, This our Church, The Thomas More Press, Chicago, 1986, P. 292 ff). On the missionary front, Benedict XV pursued a more creative course, urging in his encyclical, Maximum Illud (1919) that missionaries receive better spiritual and theological preparation and that missionary bishops form a native clergy as quickly as possible and never place the interests of their native countries ahead of the pastoral needs of the people they serve. Perhaps the most important and abidingly relevant achievement of his pontificate occurred within two months of his election. On November 1, 1914, he issued the first encyclical letter, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, in which he called a halt to the internecine warfare between the so-called integralist Catholics and progressive Catholics that had developed and intensified during the previous pontificate. The Pope insisted, without using the name intergralist, that the noun “Catholic” did not need a qualification by “fresh epithets”. In the end, he was a pope dedicated to healing and reconciliation. It thus seems that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had Benedict XV in mind, when he chose to be called Benedict XVI.

The article mentioned above makes reference to a certain Monsignor Umberto Benigni who had the ear of Pius X, and to his secretive organization, the Sodalitium Pianum. Here’s a charming tidbit from Monsignor Benigni, who kept alive the calumny of the ritual murder of Christian children by Jews:

"Either Judaism will be checked by something resembling (with adjustments to our time) the medieval legislation that checked their unquenchable instincts for oppression and exploitation or they will be subject to a reaction of popular fury that will make the night of Saint Bartholomew fade from memory.”

Here is additional material culled together on Benigni and his organization:

Msgr. Umberto Benigni and his Sodalitium Pianum, or Sodality of Pius V which went by the nom de guerre of La Sapiniére, or the Piney Woods. Benigni, with a passion for intrigue replete with code words (the reigning Pope Pius X was "Lady Micheline," and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, was "Miss Romey."), and in collusion with high figures in the Vatican, forms a network of collaborators to track down the least hints of subversion. No one is safe. Mercier is accused, as is the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. Benigni will not be reined in by the Vatican until 1921 when documents, seized by the Germans in Belgium in 1915, finally surface in the press, and he will go on to work for Mussolini…

The term "modernist" was applied as a term of abuse to priests, bishops and even cardinals suspected of introducing modern critical thinking into church teaching: for example, the notion that the Bible might not be strictly, literally true, but in places metaphorical. The chief anti-modernist spy master was a neurotic prelate, Umberto Benigni, who had the ear of the then pope, Pius X. As a young man, Benigni had run three newspapers and a news service and was skilled in modern communications, which he developed into unprecedented systems of espionage. He persuaded thousands of seminarians, priests, monks, nuns and prelates to spy on each other and report back to his office in Rome. A chance word in a refectory, or being seen with a "suspect" book, might be enough to be "delated", or reported to Benigni's office in Rome. Dismissals were instant, but the charges and "witnesses" were kept a secret. Those who attempted to defend someone who had been delated were usually themselves punished. An English modernist, Father George Tyrrell, was even denied a Christian burial. In the last days of the campaign, Benigni became acutely paranoid and began charging cardinals in the Vatican with modernism. The campaign ended with the death of Pius X in 1914 and the arrival of a new pope, Benedict XV… the consequences of his plotting were far-reaching, discouraging new scholarship and any debate within the church for decades…

This repression casts a deep shadow over the development of Catholic theology. Even those who escape censure suffer from the limitations on what they can write. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, despite his traditional Dominican Thomist nurturing on the Summa and his loyalty to the church, must navigate carefully to safeguard his scriptural work and his École biblique. But he still suffered silencings, exile and refusals of permission to publish his Old Testament studies. Karl Rahner suggests that Romano Guardini was profoundly affected by his own brush with the anti-modernists, and thereafter might have carefully selected areas of theology to avoid.

"The church was eating her own children. The majority of those whom Pius and the men around him destroyed were loyal and faithful members of the Roman Catholic Church ... Seminaries were closed. Those that were allowed to remain open to teach the next generation of priests were carefully monitored. In one encyclical the pope declared that everyone who preached or taught in an official capacity had to take a special oath abjuring all errors of modernism. He further declared a general prohibition against the reading of newspapers by all seminarians and theological students, specifically adding that his rule also applied to the very best journals.” -- David Yallop

There are vestiges of this organization and its sympathizers that exist to this day. Please see this online magazine called Sodalitium as an example.

Although Benedict XV shut down this organization, the effects were long lasting, and the Integrists had friends and influence in the highest levels of the Curia for decades to come. It wasn’t until Vatican II that their power was somewhat broken. Many of the theologians whose work provided the backbone for the Council, such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and John Courtney Murray had been silenced at one time or another in their ecclesiastical careers, but found a measure of vindication.

I’ve had many dialogues and debates with extreme traditionalists on the web. I was always a member of the “continuity” camp in stressing that the bishops at Vatican II had been careful in building its documents upon references to previous councils like Trent and to the early Church Fathers and Sacred Scripture... The extreme traditionalists claimed that it was a revolution.

I have to say that in a way they have convinced me that it was a revolution. I do not agree with them, however, about the type of revolution it was. They mean it in the sense that the values and philosophy of the French Revolution were brought in to poison the Church. I mean it in the sense that for the first time in centuries, the bishops had the guts to stand up and act like bishops in their prophetic roles as servant leaders, and not like local branch managers. They stood up to the ossified curial mandarins in the papal court, and they had a pope who was on their side and was willing to hear them. Unfortunately, there remain elements in the Curia that have been fighting a rear-guard against it ever since.

There is a certain group that has named themselves after Pius X that makes this claim in their condemnation of Vatican II.

We are what you once were.
We believe what you once believed.
We worship as you once worshipped.
If you were right then, we are right now.
If we are wrong now, you were wrong then.

Not so. Their extremism was wrong then and it is wrong now. This was never mainstream Catholicism as practiced and lived out by the vast majority of religious and laity, but in the interest of fairness and equal time, here is their defense of Umberto Benigni.