Monday, April 19, 2010

Does Hitchens Fight Fair?

He has no way of knowing whether or not Martin Luther King was a Christian, but he's sure that Adolf Hitler was.

I'm sure everyone has heard about how Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are urging UK human rights lawyers to have Pope Benedict arrested for "crimes against humanity" when he arrives for an official visit in September.

I remember the first time I saw Christopher Hitchens on TV several years ago. I forget what the topic of the program was but the ex-Marxist made my jaw drop when he drolly remarked that "Mother Teresa is just a mouthpiece for the Vatican."

After 9/11 Hitchens scrubbed away the last residues of his leftist ways and became an ardent neo-con supporter of George Bush's War on Terror, which for Hitchens is really a War on Islam. In fact, as a committed atheist he has extended his own personal battle to a War on Religion in general, with a special virulence in his heart reserved for Catholicism, a virulence he shares with his confrere Dawkins.

He's certainly one of the most visible of the militant "New Atheists" and is often seen on the circuit debating theists and Christian apologists such as Dinesh D'Souza. In the UK last year, Intelligence Squared hosted a debate on the proposition "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world." Hitchens was teamed up with the actor David Fry against Anne Widdecombe MP and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria. The Catholic side got massacred. When they polled their audience, Intelligence Squared said they had never seen such a lopsided result. If you can bear it, you can watch it here. It was a debacle.

Hitchens is a formidable and polished debater, quite capable of eviscerating his opponents with his enyclopedic knowledge of history and his sharp, keenly poisonous dry wit. My daughter T and I almost went to see him debate Rabbi David Wolpe when he was in Boston a few weeks back, but Anne had to work that night and we needed to stay home.

One thing I've noticed about Hitchens, though. When he debates someone he's not above using cheap tricks and he doesn't always fight fair. This was brought home to me quite clearly when I saw him in a Bloggingheads.TV discussion with the author Robert Wright. Wright is not a theist. He writes about evolutionary psychology and non-zero sum game theory, yet Hitchens argued with him as if he was a theist anyway. It appears to be the only thing he knows how to do. He's like an old record player that can run at only one speed.

Still, I'm amazed by his glibness and his command of the language. Despite the fact that he's clearly got a buzz on, fencing adroitly with Wright while he imbibes from a glass of red wine - his pupils dilated as large as dinner plates - he manages to talk all around Wright, even when he's on the defensive.

I'd like you to see these clips and let me know what you think. In a 2-hour discussion, Wright and Hitchens were discussing Hitchens' book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Wright was pressing him on just what he meant by everything, pointing out that religion often motivates people to do great good; people like Martin Luther King whose religion had motivated him to pursue justice in the Civil Rights struggle. Watch how Hitches responds...

Amazing. Hitchens claims that without having known the man, he has no way of knowing whether MLK was a sincere and committed believer or not. He goes on to suggest that using the pulpit in the South would have had to have been done tactically out of necessity, implying a degree of cynicism on MLK's part. I don't see why that would be so. The churches in the South were just as segregated as everything else was back then. White Southern Baptists proved they were quite capable of bombing black churches if they felt a need to.

He also claims that "Social Democrats" such as Bayard Rustin and Asa Philip Randolph, co-organizers of the 1963 March on Washington along with King, deserved at least as much credit for the success of the Civil Rights movement as MLK. That's an interesting point. It may very well be that they don't get the credit they deserve, but I'm not sure that they were as "non-godly" as Hitchens suggests. After all, Bayard Rustin went on to become the very first African-American member of the Board of Trustees of Notre Dame.

In the clip directly above, well, I'll leave it up to you as impartial observers to decide if you agree with Hitchens that "the American Communist Party's most shining record was in the Civil Rights movement" and that "heroic communists" deserve just as much credit for being willing to lay down their lives for it as Dr. King.

Things really start to get interesting, however, when Wright challenges Hitchens on how some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were sponsored by non-theists, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Hitchens replies cooly "Oh, to the contrary..."

Despite the mountain of sermons written by Martin Luther King, Hitchens has no way of knowing if he was a sincere and committed Christian believer, but since Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican and because Wehrmacht belt buckles read "Gott Mit Uns," then Hitler must have been. Where Hitchens sees cynicism on MLK's part, he sees nothing but the mark of a true believer on Hitler's part. Wright does his best to call him out on this, and rightly so.

World War I German Army belt buckle with imperial insignia and "Gott Mit Uns" inscription. Yes, World War II German army belt buckles had "Gott Mit Uns" (God is with us) embossed on them. They did in World War I too, and probably well before that. It was merely a continuation of Prussian military tradition. The Wehrmacht was as full of conscripts as any other army. The SS Divisions, however, were full of Nazi Party members. They were covered in pagan-influenced SS runes and deaths-head insignias. All SS troops were required to renounce their church memberships and affiliations. If the Nazis had a theology at all, it hearkened back to ancient Germanic myths and romantic notions of Aryan supermen.

If you look out on the web you will see all sorts of conflicting statements about whether or not Hitler was a believing Christian. You can take all that any way you like but to consider Hitler a Mass-going Catholic, or as someone who took Catholic doctrines seriously at all would be utterly absurd. All I can tell you is that I've looked up every indexed reference to the Catholic Church in Mein Kampf and the only thing Hitler was interested in as far as religion was concerned was subsuming both the Catholic and Protestant churches under an overarching Pan-Germanism. The German Volk was the only ideal that mattered to him.

Hitchens also brings up a reference to the basilica near El Escorial in Spain. He's referring to El Valle de los Caidos, General Franco's massive monument to the Nationalist Civil War dead, built primarily upon the sweat and blood of his defeated Republican prisoners. Hitchens says that if you look up at the ceiling of the basilica you will see a swastika and a steel Nazi helmet embedded in the mosaic.

I have found no independent corroboration of this, but I've never been there. I find it hard to believe that a consecrated basilica, even one as distasteful and dubious as Franco's garish monument, has a swastika on display inside of it, even if there are tapestries celebrating the victory of the Nationalist forces there. About half of the people who read this blog have lived in Spain. Maybe they can let me know, if they've been there themselves. Putting the best-face on it for Hitchens' sake, perhaps he is confused. Spanish army helmets, worn by both the Nationalist and Republican forces during the conflict, did not look entirely unlike German army helmets (see image in poster). Perhaps this is where the confusion lies.

Don't get me wrong. The last thing I'm interested in doing is defending Francisco Franco or the Catholic Church's role during the Spanish Civil War. I'm defending neither. Christopher Hitchens seems to me, however, to be a man very interested in words and in the precise use of words. Just as I'm irritated to see the word "fascist" being used today to describe President Obama, it irritates me somewhat to hear the same word used to describe General Franco (although not anywhere near as much).

Was Franco really a fascist? He certainly wasn't a National Socialist, as Hitchens claims. Despite having received help from Hitler during the Civil War, Franco resisted strong attempts to draw Spain into the Axis Powers and he never rounded up Jews for the Nazis. Yes, Franco was a bad man. Franco was an authoritarian military man, a believer in "law and order," a staunch anti-communist, a believer in traditional Catholicism and of his society's traditional class structures built upon latifundist lines. He was certainly vindictive and cruel towards his defeated adversaries. He was a military strongman much along the lines of what you would see in the recent decades past in Latin America, but I don't know if I'd call the drab, listless and colorless country he ran until the 1970's a true totalitarian state. Jose Antonio Primavera was the leader of the fascist Falange Espanola at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and he was executed by the Republicans. His replacement, the slow-witted and uncharismatic Manuel Hedilla was easily dominated by Franco. Franco co-opted the Falange and all the other right-wing groups that fought on the Nationalist side, such as the Carlists and Monarchists, under one umbrella he could control. The old joke in Spain was that the system could more rightly be called "cunadismo" (brother-in-law-ism) instead of "fascismo" because it was run by Franco's brother-in-law Ramon Serrano Suner (who died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 102) and various Opus Dei technocrats.

Hitchens insinuates that the origin of fascism can be found in Europe's southern Catholic countries, citing Franco, Salazar and Mussolini as examples, perhaps based upon the Catholic teachings on corporatism and solidarism. Now, maybe it's been a tepid defense of the Church on my part in regard to this particular point. I suppose it may be, but I think Hitchens is being a little more than imprecise in his use of terms such as fascism and National Socialism, especially in how they supposedly intersect with Catholicism.

After all, the first real fascist was Benito Mussolini, and he was an avowed atheist. In his Doctrine of Fascism he wrote this about religion:
The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the in­dividual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. Those who perceive nothing beyond opportunistic considerations in the religious policy of the Fascist regime fail to realize that Fascism is not only a system of government but also and above all a system of thought... The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups are admissible in so far as they come within the State...The Fascist State is not indifferent to religious phenomena in general nor does it maintain an attitude of indif­ference to Roman Catholicism, the special, positive religion of Italians. The State has not got a theology but it has a moral code.... The Fascist loves his neighbor, but the word neighbor “does not stand for some vague and unseizable conception. Love of one's neighbor does not exclude necessary educational severity; still less does it exclude differentiation and rank. Fascism will have nothing to do with universal embraces; as a member of the community of nations it looks other peoples straight in the eyes; it is vigilant and on its guard; it follows others in all their manifestations and notes any changes in their interests; and it does not allow itself to be deceived by mutable and fallacious appearances.
In that system, religion... Catholicism, in fact, is only useful in the way it serves the State. This is not how Catholicism or any other religion defines itself.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the exchange however, is that Hitchens actually felt personally insulted when Wright suggested that Hitler was a secularist... and presumably, like him. Wright was absolutely dumbstruck and incredulous at this.

Hitchens didn't think Wright meant to insult him, but suppose he had? Suppose Wright had wanted to link him personally to secular atrocities? Could he have done so?

By some estimates, as many as as seven million people were killed in China's Cultural Revolution in the years between 1967 and 1972. What was Hitchens doing during those years? He had recently joined a Marxist group called the Luxemburgists and he started writing for International Socialism magazine. Can we therefore say that Christopher Hitchens has some of the blood of the Cultural Revolution on his hands?

Unfair ad hominem, perhaps, but no more unfair than what he dishes out himself.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Color is this Wrapper?

The Grape Tootsie Pop Conundrum

And now for something completely different.

I've developed a little family ritual. Every Friday evening (outside of Lent) I bring home Tootsie Pops for all the kids. Lord help me if I should ever forget.

It actually started with Starbursts a long time ago, but I started to worry about our potential dental bills (Starbursts can just about pull your fillings out). I suppose it all began as a sort of end-of-week celebration, but maybe this little indulgence is a subtle insurance policy too. Maybe it's a way to make sure that at least one of them says something nice about me at my eulogy someday. "Dad was a real bastard, but at least he thought about us enough to deliver with the Tootsies every Friday..."

Well, while handing some Tootsies out recently I referred to a grape one as "the one in the purple wrapper." My daughter T looked at me incredulousy and said, "Dad, that wrapper is blue!" And so the controversy began....

I insisted the wrapper is purple and T insisted it's blue. In between peals of laughter she explained to me that males tend to be more color-blind than females, and anyway, men at my age tend to start losing the ability to discern colors accurately.

I take umbrage to this. Just a few years ago I took a still-life drawing class with charcoal and pastels at the Danforth Museum. I don't think my instructor thought much of me as a draftsman but she did tell me that I was a superb colorist. Most of my classmates weren't envious of my drawing ability but more than a few of them were envious of my ability to blend pastels together and reproduce colors exactly.

Besides, as I explained to my daughter, still convulsed in disbelieving mirth, why would the Tootsie people wrap a GRAPE-flavored PURPLE pop in a BLUE wrapper? Couldn't she see the logic of my position? I guess not.

Am I color blind? If I ask for impartial answers on this, I know I'll probably lose the debate. Now look... I know that it clearly isn't this color. It's just as obvious, however, that it isn't this color either. It's more along the lines of this color. The thing is, what do you call it?

I'm willing to concede that one might want to call it a bluish-purple, but I'm afraid that most people will say it's a purpley-blue.

If so, I declare that purple doesn't get enough credit as a color in its own right. I remember when the LA Lakers basketball team and the LA Kings hockey team wore purple jerseys they called "royal blue." Royal blue my eye... Those shirts are purple. Of that I'm sure.

Marcel Dionne in a PURPLE royal blue uniform

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


When 19th Century men are sent to do 21st Century jobs

"I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."
-- President Harry S. Truman
Have we reached a tipping point? Are we nearing the end of the days of imperial papacies?

I do get a sense that we've reached a crossroads of sorts. Things are so bad right now, I feel like things can go one of two ways.

Either we're reaching the end of the period of conservative retrenchment and Vatican II-rollback that started in the late 1970s and has intensified markedly since 2005, or we are heading into a period when just about everyone but the staunchest traditionalists may feel compelled to leave.

On March 14th Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, director of the Vatican press office, said "It is obvious that in recent days there are people who have tried -- with a certain tenacity in Regensburg and Munich -- to find ways to personally involve the Holy Father in the matters relating to the abuses. For every objective observer it is evident that these efforts have failed."

If only it was that easy.

At around the same time, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano thundered that there was a "clear and despicable intention" to strike at Pope Benedict XVI "at any cost."

That's not really what I see. What I see is the Vatican calling all-hands on deck and mounting a full court press to defend the pope "at any cost."

It isn't just the obtuse, bizarre, and in some cases, inflammatory remarks we see coming out of Benedict's close circle of Vatican advisors such as Gabriele Amorth, Angelo Sodano, and Raniero Cantalamessa. Just this past Sunday I picked up a copy of Boston's archdiocesan paper The Pilot (which seems ever more like an Opus Dei publication), and in addition to George Weigel's blistering attack on the New York Times coverage of the abuse scandal, Scoundrel Time(s), there was this smattering of headlines.

Vatican intensifies defense of pope on sex abuse decisions

Bishops restate concern for abuse victims, praise pope’s leadership

Priest who presided at Murphy trial calls news reports inaccurate

Vatican defends action in case of Wisconsin priest abuser

Pope John Paul was model of untiring love, pope says

Is that the most important thing to do right now? To defend the pope and the memory of recent popes?

None of this stuff is particularly helpful at this point. Self-pity, hunkering down, and blaming the media is not what we need from the Vatican and it's battle-ready apologists right now. Watch, there will be a spike in reports about visitations of the Virgin Mary too. We are already hearing more about Medjugorje these days.... Rallying the faithful against an external threat and fostering increasing devotion to the Virgin Mary has worked for them many times in the past. It won't work anymore.

It's a tough time to be the pope? It's a tough time to be a priest? I'm sure it is. It's a tough time to be a layperson too, let's remind them of that. The humiliation we endure, and the questioning we get from people who wonder how in the world we can still remain Catholic is intense, but the pressure felt by clerics and laity alike is nothing compared to the pain that is still being felt by the victims of sexual abuse, and there still appears to be a massive blind spot in the Vatican on that count.

I've even seen conservative luminaries like Peggy Noonan, who once wrote a laudatory biography of "John Paul the Great," being taken to task and branded in some circles as a traitor for her column The Catholic Church's Catastrophe, in which she said:

All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press—the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe—has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the church face it. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn't be saying j'accuse but thank you.

Without this pressure—without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts—the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.
For this, there was a post labelled Noonan Iscariot? in Whispers in the Loggia.

Do you know what I say? Enough of whispers! Enough of whispers in the loggia or anywhere else in the Church! Enough of "Clerical Whispers" and all of this junk in the life of the Church that celebrates and revels in this lacy Romanita culture of silence and secrecy. This culture is killing us!

Sure, there are anti-Catholic elements in the press that are revelling in this, but sorry, we are just going to have to take it and bear it. The press was handed by the hierarchy a great big sword to skewer us with. We have no one to blame but ourselves.

The Boston Globe, which Cardinal Law once famously called down the Hand of God upon, actually did us a huge favor in doggedly sticking with the story and exposing these crimes. They forced us to deal with it here in the USA, even if Cardinal Law still holds a cushy post in Rome and continues to sit on dicasteries. At least we forced him out of here.

Personally, being from Boston, I'm offended. I'm offended by both the Vatican and by the European press. We went through all of this in 2002. It's painful for us to go through it again. Where was the European press in 2002? Did they think this was a peculiarly American problem? They must have thought so. We thought the curial officials in the Vatican got the message in 2002, but apparently they didn't. Apparently, they were convinced that this was just an American problem too. It clearly isn't. These problems around sexual abuse and concubinage are wordwide and have been going on for centuries.

Is the news coverage and focus on Ratzinger/Benedict fair? For the most part, I think it is. His record in Munich is fair game, and quite frankly, I'm surprised that no one looked at it more closely before. He's been tougher on abusing priests than his predecessor, that is certainly true, but until this crisis burst into the open in the USA in 2001-2002, he was as clueless and/or indifferent to the issue as the rest of them. Yes, he eventually came down on Fr Maciel harder than John Paul did, but not initially. Remember him swatting and dismissing a reporter who had the temerity to ask him about Maciel?

Okay, he seems to have "gotten religion" about clerical abuse around 2001 or so, but one still gets the sense that it was more about protecting the reputation of the Church and quashing scandal than it was about the victims or about protecting children. His response was the same as it was for everything else. Send it all to the CDF. Centralize everything to the CDF. As with every other piece of "petty gossip" he ever heard about in those years and didn't like, it was a reaction of "I'll handle it myself!" He still told the bishops to keep things secret, and it rings hollow for the Vatican to say now that this was not an admonition to the bishops to avoid going to civil authorities. Even so, are bishops being disciplined in any meaningful way? Are any doing time? No.

He's getting a lot of mixed reviews for his letter to the Irish. I thought it was reprehensible. He chided the bishops strongly for behavior he apparently engaged in himself prior to 2001, and he had the gall to lay blame on the Irish themselves for having become secularized and for the laxity that supposedly was introduced with Vatican II. In a pastoral letter to the Irish people he managed to squeeze in political references to his two favorite whipping boys, secularism and the Spirit of Vatican II. Too bad for him that there was never any liberation theology spoken of in Ireland. He could have beaten up on that hobby-horse too. The fact of the matter is, if there was one place in the world where clerics were held in the unquestioningly adoring esteem that Benedict likes to see, and where the Spirit of Vatican II never took hold, it was Ireland.

In light of where we are today, I think it might be a good idea to post up this call for reform that was written by Henri Boulad SJ, the Rector of the Jesuit school in Cairo. (Hat tip to Enlightened Catholic).

I wouldn't have agreed with all of this in years past, but now I'm more inclined to do so.

Holy Father,

I dare to speak directly to you for my heart bleeds upon seeing the abyss into which our Church is falling. Hopefully, you will forgive the filial frankness, inspired by the liberty of the children of God to which St. Paul invites us and for my impassioned love for the Church.

I will be pleased also that you forgive the alarmist tone of this letter for I know that little time remains and that the situation remains dire. Let me first tell you a little about myself. I am an Egyptian Lebanese Jesuit of the Melkiterite. I will soon turn 78. For the last 3 years, I have been the rector of the Jesuit school in Cairo. I have also carried out the following responsibilities: superior of the Jesuits in Alexandria, regional superior of the Jesuits in Egypt, professor of theology in El Cairo, director of Caritas-Egypt, and vice president of Caritas International for the Middle East and North Africa.

I am well acquainted with the Catholic hierarchy of Egypt having participated over many years in meetings as president of superiors of the religious orders of Egypt. I have very close relations with each one of them, some of whom are my former students. I also personally know Pope Chenouda III, whom I saw frequently. As far as the Catholic hierarchy of Europe goes, I had the opportunity to meet personally with some of its members such as Cardinal Koening, Cardinal Schonborn, Cardinal Daneels, Cardinal Martini, Archbishop Kothgasser, Bishops Kapellari and Kung, other Austrian bishops and bishops of other European countries. These encounters occurred during my annual trips to give conferences throughout Europe, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, France, Belgium, etc. During these visits, I spoke and engaged with diverse audiences and the media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.) I did the same in Egypt and the Near East.

I have visited 50 countries on 4 continents and have published some 30 books in 15 languages--mainly in French, Arabic, Hungarian, and German. Of the 13 books in German, perhaps you have read Sons and Daughters of God which was published by your friend, Fr. Erich Fink of Bavaria. I say this not to brag, but rather to tell you simply that my intentions are grounded in a realistic knowledge of the universal church and its current situation in 2009.

Returning to the reason for this letter, I will try to be as brief, clear, and objective as possible.

In the first place, there are several topics [the list is not exhaustive].

Number 1
Religious practice is in a constant decline. A continually shrinking number of seniors [who will soon disappear] are those who frequent the churches in Europe and Canada. The only remaining remedy will be to close these churches or change them into museums, mosques, clubs, or municipal libraries as is now being done. The thing that surprises me is that many of these churches are being completely renovated and modernized at great expense with the hope of attracting the faithful. But this will not stop the exodus.

Number 2
Seminaries and novitiates are emptying out at the same speed, and vocations are in sharp decline. The future is very somber and one has to ask who or what will bring relief. More and more African and Asian priests are in charge of European parishes.

Number 3
Many priests abandon the priesthood. The few who remain--whose median age often is beyond that of retirement--have to be in charge of many parishes in an expedient and administrative capacity. Many of these priests, in Europe, as well as in the Third World, live in concubinage in plain sight of the faithful who normally accept them; this occurs with the knowledge of the local bishop who is not able to accept this arrangement, but who needs to keep in mind the scarcity of priests.

Number 4
The language of the church is obsolete, out of date, boring, repetitive, moralizing and totally out of synch with our age. The message of the Gospel should be presented in all its starkness and challenges. It is necessary to move towards a "new evangelization" to which John Paul II invited us. But this, contrary to what many think or believe, does not mean repeating the old which no longer speaks to us, but rather innovating and inventing a new language which expresses the faith in a meaningful way for the people of today.

Number 5
This is not able to be done without a profound renewal of theology and catechesis which should be completely reformulated. A German religious priest whom I met recently was telling me that the word "mystic" was not even mentioned once in "The New Catechism." I could not believe it. We have to concede that our faith is very cerebral, abstract, dogmatic, and rarely directed to the heart and body.

Number 6
As a consequence, a great number of Christians are turning to the religions of Asia, the sects, "new-age," evangelical churches, occultism, etc. This is not unexpected. They go to other places to look for nourishment that they don't find in their own home. They have the impression that we give them stones as if it were bread. The Christian faith in another age gave a sense of life to people. It appears to be an enigma to them today, the remains of a forgotten past.

Number 7
In the moral and ethical areas, the teachings of the magisterium repeated " ad nausaeum," about marriage, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, married priests, the divorced who remarry again, etc. etc., no longer affect anyone, and only produce weariness and indifference. All of these moral and pastoral problems deserve something more than categorical declarations. They need a pastoral, sociological, psychological and human treatment that is more evangelical.

Number 8
The Catholic Church, which has been the great teacher of Europe for many centuries, seems to forget that this same Europe has arrived at its maturity. Our adult Europe does not wish to be treated as a child. The paternalistic style of a church "mater et magistra" is completely out of touch and no longer works today. Christians have learned to think for themselves and are no longer inclined to swallow just anything that someone else proposes.

Number 9
The most Catholic nations of the past, for example, France, "the first-born daughter of the church," or ultra-Catholic French Canada, have made a hundred and eighty degree turn and have fallen into atheism, anti-clericalism, agnosticism, and indifference. Other European nations are proceeding down the same path. We are able to state that the more a nation was dominated and protected by the church in the past, the stronger is their reaction against it today.

Number 10
The dialogue with other churches and religions is in a worrisome decline today. The great progress made over the last half century is on hold at this time. Facing this almost devastating situation, the church's leadership reacts in two ways:

1. They tend to minimize the seriousness of the situation and to console themselves by focusing on a resurgence of the most traditionalist factions and on growth in the Third World countries.

2. They appeal to their confidence in the Lord who has sustained the church for over 20 centuries and who is able to help them overcome this new crisis.

To this I respond.

Neither relying on the past nor holding on to its crumbs will solve the problems of today and tomorrow. The apparent vitality of the churches in the Third World today is misleading. It appears very probable that these new churches eventually will pass through the same crises that the old European Christianity encountered.

Modernity is irreversible and having forgotten this is why the church today finds itself in such a crisis. Vatican II tried to reverse four centuries of stagnation, but there is an impression that the church is gradually closing the doors that it opened at that time. The church has tried to direct itself backwards towards the council of Trent and Vatican I rather than forward toward Vatican III. Let's remember a statement that John Paul II repeated many times, "There is no alternative to Vatican II."

How long will we continue playing the politics of the ostrich hiding our heads in the sand? How long will we avoid looking things in the face? How long will we continue turning our back and rejecting every criticism rather than seeing it as a chance for renewal? How long will we continue to postpone a reform that has been neglected for too long a time?

Only by looking forward and not backward will the church fulfill its mission to be the light of the world, salt of the earth, and leaven in the dough. Nevertheless, unfortunately what we find today is that the church is the caboose of our age after having been the locomotive for centuries.

I repeat again what I said at the beginning of this letter. Time is running out! History doesn't wait especially in our era when it its rhythm flows ever more rapidly.

Any business when confronting a deficit or dysfunction examines itself immediately, bringing together a group of experts, trying to revitalize itself, and mobilizing all its energies to overcoming the crisis. Why doesn't the church do something different? Why doesn't it mobilize all its living forces to have a radical aggiornamento? Why?

Because of laziness? Lethargy? Pride? Lack of imagination? Lack of creativity? Culpable passivity in the hope that the Lord will take care of things and because the church has weathered other crises in the past.

In the Gospels, Christ warns us that "the children of darkness manage their affairs better than the children of light."

So then, what needs to be done? The Church of today has an urgent and compelling need for a three-pronged reform.

1. A theological and catechetical reform to rethink our faith and reformulate it in a coherent way for our contemporaries. A faith that has no significance and gives no meaning to life is nothing more than an ornament, a useless superstructure that eventually implodes upon itself. This is the current situation.

2. A pastoral reformulation that re-thinks from head to toe the structures inherited from the past.

3. A spiritual renewal to revitalize the mystical and to rethink the sacraments with the view of giving them an existential dimension, one that connects with life.

I would have much more to say about this. Today's church is too formal, too formalistic. One has the impression that the institution suffocates its charisma, and in the end what one finds is purely external stability, a superficial honesty, a kind of facade. Don't we run the risk that Jesus will describe us as the "whitened seplechres"?

In conclusion, I suggest convoking a general synod at the level of the universal church in which all Christians would participate-Catholics and others-to examine with openness and clarity the issues raised above and their ramifications.

Such a synod would last three years and would conclude with a general assembly-let's avoid the word council-which would synthesize the results of this exploration and draw its conclusions.

I end, Holy Father, by asking your pardon for my outspoken boldness and I ask for your paternal blessing. Let me also tell you that in these days I live in your company thanks to your extraordinary book, Jesus of Nazareth, which is the focus of my spiritual reading and daily meditation.

With the utmost affection in the Lord,

Henri Boulad