Saturday, January 21, 2012


I am going to be completely offline for two weeks so I apologize in advance for any comments to which I don't reply.

I would deeply appreciate any of your prayers in the meantime.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why I am Not "Still a Catholic"

I often browse the religion shelves of bookshops, and there is a particular title, recently published, that always makes me grit my teeth. It is Remaining a Catholic After the Murphy Report.

As a matter of fact, there are a whole genre of similar books. Recalling the title Why I am Still a Catholic, I looked for it on Amazon just now and found that several books of that title have been published. There is also an Irish book called What Being Catholic Means to Me, which—though its title is unobjectionable—contains essays (written by various luminaries) pregnant with the whole atmosphere that reeks from a title like Why I am Still a Catholic.

What is that atmosphere, you ask me?

I think the word “supercilious” sums it up best. Though perhaps I would be better off being blunt and calling it pride. I haven’t read any of the several books called Why I Am Still a Catholic, and I may be maligning all their authors, but the title suggests that the authors believe the Church is lucky to keep them, that the Church doesn’t quite deserve their continued loyalty, that their refusal to apostasize is a sign of heroic forbearance and patience and sacrifice.

Would anyone write an article called Why I Still Love my Wife, or Why I Still Love my Children?

Permit me here to make the ritual protestations of horror at clerical child abuse. Of course, outrages such as those chronicled in the Murphy Report should be a source of lacerating shame for the Irish hierarcy and laity. But, equally of course, they don’t make a whit of difference to the truth or falsity of the Church’s doctrine, any more than a doctor abusing his patient would make medicine a pseudoscience.

And yet, although I think the damage that sex abuse has done to Irish Catholicism is grossly overstated—to be blunt, I think it is often little more than a flag of convenience for those who were lukewarm in their convictions already—I have some sympathy for those whose faith is sincerely shaken by these outrages. I can understand (though I do not agree with) the reasoning by which someone would decide that the Church cannot be infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit if some of its anointed ministers have perpetrated such horrors. Of course, to think this is to forget that God’s church is made of living stones, that He never abrogates human freedom for the sake of His designs, and that even one of Our Saviour’s closest disciples committed an unspeakable betrayal.

Still, as I say, I have some sympathy for those who feel this way, for those who would describe themselves as Still Catholic because of the abuse scandals.

What really irritates me is those who forgive the Church, not for the failings of some of its members and ministers and hierarchy, but for its very doctrines and Tradition and character. Those, in other words, who forgive the Church for being Catholic.

I have a confession to make. A confession that might shock those people who declare, with a virtuous air, that they are Still Catholics despite the Church’s “negative view of sex”, or its “homophobia”, or its “rigid hierarchical thinking”, or its supposed "pomp and splendour".

I like pretty much everything about the Catholic Church. I don’t “struggle” with accepting any of it.

I like that the Church allows us an opportunity for loyalty, humility and deference, in a world where advertisers and politicians and psychologists and spiritual gurus of all stripes compete to flatter us, and to assure us that our problems are not our own fault, but the fault of The System, or Society, or our parents, or some other culprit.

I like calling a priest “Father”, submitting to the wisdom of the Magisterium, and accepting that one lifetime and one blob of cerebral tissue isn’t enough to attain timeless Truth.

I like that the Church insists on celibacy for its priests, and that there are men who are willing to witness to their faith in Christ by making such an enormous sacrifice. I admire any man who does so, even those whose orthodoxy leaves something to be desired.

I like that the Church is willing to defy our era and declare unabashedly that homosexual acts are wrong—not because I sit in judgement on those who are attracted to their own sex, or because I doubt that many people are born this way, or because I think that they are bad people. But because I don’t think anybody really believes that romantic love between two men is the same as romantic love between a man and a woman, or that there is not something unique and timeless and sacramental in the harmony of opposites that is the love between male and female. I always suffered from the cognitive dissonance that our era imposes on us by having to pretend otherwise, by having to rebuke an all-but universal moral intuition as an irrational phobia. I suspect I am not the only one.

I like that the Church prohibits contraception. It seems grotesquely incongruous to me that the lifestyle of sexual liberation—which purports to be so wild and unfettered and heady and, above all, natural—can ultimately rely upon little pills and latex sheaths. It is the Church’s teaching on sex that is really romantic and heady—the acceptance that lovemaking is reserved for those who have crossed the Rubicon of marriage, who have committed to each other irrevocably, and who do not grudge the natural consequences of their love’s consummation—those, in other words, who are giving it everything. The world’s ideal of sex seems lily-livered and puny compared to that of Catholicism.

I like that the Church ordains only men to the priesthood—not because I think women are any less wise, or less capable of heroic virtue, or less competent than men in any other way, but because I feel sure God made us male and female for a reason—a reason that goes far deeper than biology, a reason of cosmic significance. I am content not to understand that reason. No, more than content—I am happy to feel the weight of the mystery.

I like that bishops wear mitres and carry croziers, that priests wear chasubles, that many churches blaze with colour and splendour and ornament, and that even the plainest will contain some fragments of visual poetry—statues, tabernacle, altar. We live in a utilitarian age, one that draws a ruthless line between function and beauty. Soldiers wear khaki, workplaces are monstrosities of glass and concrete, and suburbs full of identical houses stretch for mile upon mile upon mile. Our discussions, in boardroom and parliament and newspaper columns, resolve around efficiency and cost-effectiveness and usefulness. Everything has been streamlined. Utilitarianism has carried all before it—everywhere except in the Catholic Church. Within its cathedrals and chapels and oratories, beauty still has a serious purpose, beauty still matters, beauty is indispensable.

“How can a Church preach the doctrine of Christ while luxuriating in splendour and ostentation?”, its critics ask. Well, one reason is that the poor, too, crave beauty and ceremony and grandeur—and where else will they get it, where can they actually participate in it, except in a cathedral, or on a pilgrimage to the Vatican?

I like that the Church mediates between God and me. Some people think we should take a direct line to God and we shouldn’t need anybody coming between Him and us. I don’t. I think God likes mediation. He could have invented us all from nothing, but instead we all have mothers and fathers who gave us the gift of life, and lines of ancestors stretching back untold millennia. I prefer it that way. He could have made us self-sufficient monads, but instead He contrived this world so that we need to get food and knowledge and company from others—very sensibly, I think.

Christ chose to appear to a particular group of people at a particular moment, so that the vast majority of Christians would receive their knowledge of him from others. Even when he spoke to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, he didn’t simply cram him with all the knowledge he would need. He sent Ananias to induct him into the Christian fellowship, and to restore his sight.

Why do we cherish stories, like The Karate Kid, about masters and disciples? Because we recognize there is something uniquely tender and touching and joyous in that bond; because we feel growth and discovery and flourishing should not be something impersonal, but something that happens between individuals. We even feel that it means more when it is a difficult, tentative process. The Karate Kid learning his stuff from an old book would seem somehow less meaningful.

I like that the Church requires a spoken confession of sins to a priest, even though I find this incredibly difficult and embarrassing and intimidating. God forgiving my sins through a wordless, silent, invisible process seems somehow banal and anti-climactic. That they should be forgiven at all is astounding and gratuitous enough. How could I wish for it to be any easier? And—though confession is a mystical sacrament and not a psychological coping mechanism—where is the catharsis in a purely mental confession?

I like saints. I like reading about Marian apparitions. I like relics. I like shrines. I like feasts. I even like fasts (especially when they’re over).

I like homilies. I like candles glowing before shrines. I like the poetry of names like Jesus and Ezekiel and Isaac and Melchizedek.

I like ritual, for its own sake—I believe ritual expresses something, enacts something, that mere words or thoughts never could. I've noticed that people tend to make rituals of the things they love—even if it’s something like sitting down to a cup of tea and a coffee slice before opening their favourite magazine each week.

I liked John Paul the Second. I like Pope Benedict the Sixteenth even more.

I even like the penumbral, cultural aspects of Catholicism-- things that aren't strictly Catholicism itself but that seem imbued with its spirit. I like little devotional magazines with covers showing cornfields and daffodills and stone walls, magazines that mix meditations on the Gospels with household tips and trivia about The Great Wall of China. I like gently-coloured hoIy pictures. I even like programmes like A Prayer at Bedtime. I don’t like any of those things ironically or knowingly, nor do I consider them kitsch. I like them for what they are.

I like thinking of all the millions of very different men and women, all over the world and all through the centuries, who spoke the same prayers that I speak today, who meditated upon the same mysteries of the Rosary, who recited the same Creeds, who partook of the same Eucharist. I cherish the spiritual communion with all those souls. I don’t see how watering down that continuity makes the Church, somehow, belong more to The People.

No doubt the Still Catholics who trudge reluctantly to Mass and who call for radical “renewal” in the Church would consider me otiose, complacent, brainwashed. They might even call me a sheep.

But I don’t mind that too much. After all, Our Saviour never used that comparison as a slur, did he?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Quite Ignorant: or, Don't Forget Everything You Think You Know Just Yet

For my birthday a few months ago, my brother bought me The Book of General Ignorance. This is a spin-off from the QI (Quite Interesting) TV show, hosted by Stephen Fry, with help from Alan Davies. (I've only seen snatches of the show here and there; it's a comedy panel quiz, which purports to explode popular myths.) Both of those gentlemen being fully-paid up members of the British Atheist Comedians' Front, I anticipated there would be some swipes at religion between the book's covers. (Of course, they didn't write it, but no doubt the actual writers share their ideological colouring.) I've only got round to glancing at the book today, but my suspicions turned out to be well-founded.

Under the heading Was Hitler a Vegetarian? (it claims he wasn't; but as you'll see, I'm rather wary of accepting anything this book claims), we are treated to this obiter dictum:

Nor was he an atheist. Here he is in full, unambiguous flow in Mein Kampf(1925): "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." He was to use the same form of words in a Reichstag speech in 1938.

Three years later, he told General Gerhard Engel: "I am now, as before, a Catholic, and will always remain so."

Far from being a "godless" state, Nazi Germany enthusiastically worked with the Catholic Church. Infantry soldiers each wore a belt with "Gott mitt uns" (God is with us) inscribed on the buckle, and blessings of troops and equipment were regular and widespread.

First of all, there is the laughable naivety-- in a book dedicated to debunking myths, no less!-- of taking Hitler at his word. I seem to remember a few statesmen ended up rather red-faced for doing just that. Hitler said whatever it took to attain his ambitions, and he poured scorn on old-fashioned notions of honour; for instance, when he betrayed the Soviet-Nazi pact with his sudden, undeclared war on the USSR.

Then there is the scandalously bald assertion that "Nazi Germany enthusiastically worked with the Catholic Church". Presumably this refers to the Concordat Hitler signed with the Vatican in 1933. Of course, signing a Concordat with the Vatican cannot be defined as "working with" the Church, since a Vatican Concordat showed the Church had a problematic relationship
with the State in question.

Last year, getting tired of the frequent swipes about Catholic complicity with the Nazis, I invested in a book called Hitler, the War and the Pope by Ronald J. Rychlak. It is a thorough and painstaking response to books like John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, whose title speaks for itself. (Even the cover photograph of Cornwell's book, it reveals, is manipulated, to make it look as though Pope Pius XII is being saluted by Nazis; they are, in fact, Weimar soldiers, and the picture was taken when Pope Pius XII was not Pope, but the Papal nuncio to Germany.)

Amongst other things, the Rychlak book thoroughly demolishes the myth of a Catholic Hitler (also invoked by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion). Many passages could be quoted, but this one puts it quite succinctly:

Hitler did not receive Communion as an adult and had essentially excommunicated himself. The events surrounding Hitler's suicide make it clear that the Catholic religion had no influence over him, even at the time of his death. His wedding ceremony was carried out by a justic of the peace, not a priest. In addition, suicide has always been in violation of Catholic doctrine, and would have meant almost certain damnation to a devout Catholic. In 1945, cremation was also in clear violation of the Church's teaching. Moreover, despite his planning and the numerous directions that were left for others to carry out, Hitler made no arrangements for the last rites or any type of Christian burial. If the Catholic faith had meant anything to him, he certainly would have made some type of arrangement along these lines.

(Although, considering how little attention many professing Catholics pay to the requirements of their faith, one wonders if even this can be as definitive as we would wish it to be.)

Aside from the ridiculous claim that Hitler was any sort of Catholic, it is a cheap slur to assert that Nazi Germany "worked with the Catholic Church". Here is a sample of this close working relationship, according to Rychlak:

By 1935, Church leaders in Germany were regularly subjected to physical violence; hundreds of priests and other Church officials were arrested, driven into exile, accused of immorality, or charged with violating currency regulations. The trials, which ran for years, were designed to destroy the reputations of monks and nuns by showing their "perverted and immoral" lifestyles. Many of the trials were designed and publicized as a propaganda campaign to convince Catholic parents not to send their children to Catholic schools...The New York Times reported one incident in May 1936: A priest was summoned to a "sick call" at a hotel room, and when he arrived, photographers were there to film him with a prostitute hired by the Gestapo.

Enthusiastic? I guess so.

This is what Herman Goring had to say about his supposed enthusiastic bedfellows:

Catholic believers carry away but one impression from attendance at divine services and that is that the Catholic Church rejects the institution of the Nationalist State. How could it be otherwise when they are continually engaging in polemics on political questions or events in their sermons...hardly a Sunday passes but that they abuse the religious atmosphere of the divine service in order to read pastoral letters on purely political subjects.

And then, of course, there is the famous encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety) which had to be smuggled into Nazi Germany and was read from pulpits on Palm Sunday, March 12, 1937. (The encyclical caught the Nazis off guard; by the time worshippers were leaving Mass, it was already being confiscated, and even mentioning it was eventually made a crime.)

The encyclical contains such pro-Nazi sentiments as:

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and raises them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God

Pope Pius XII, "Hitler's Pope", continually condemned racism and anti-semitism from Vatican Radio, gave refuge to thousands of Jews within the shelter of the Vatican and ordered convents and monasteries to do the same, and even met and encouraged the conspirators of the failed "General's plot" dramatized in the recent film Valkyrie. When he died, this is what the Jewish Post of Winnipeg had to say:

It is understandable why the death of Pope Pius XII should have called forth expressions of sincere grief from practically all sections of American Jewry. For there probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope.

The Jewish Chronicle of London had this to say:

Adherents of all creeds and parties will recall how Pius XII faced the responsibilites of his exalted office with courage and devotion. Before, during, and after the Second World War, he constantly preached the message of peace. Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion.

Pinchas E. Lapide, the Israeli consult in Italy, said this:

The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the achievements of the International Red Cross and the Western Democracies....The Holy See, the nuncios, and the entire Catholic Church, saved some 400, 000 Jews from certain death.

Rychlak's book is packed with similar tributes, statistics, and facts, all of them exhaustively annotated and sourced. The Book of General Ignorance has no bibliography and I can't see citations or sources for any of its (mis)information.

An afterword states: "QI stands for Quite Interesting. We do not claim to be Quite Right."

Rather good thing, that. But then, what's the bloody point of the book (or the show) in the first place?