Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 5: Homophobia, Pope Francis, and the Magic of Movies...

Catholicism without Apologies: Chapter Five

I have to admit I've changed my mind about the first item in this article. The prediction I made, that the Iona Institute's threat of legal action against the 'homophobia' libel would be held over their head forevermore, didn't really come to pass. In reflection, they did the right thing, as the debate would have been even more strangled than it was if the 'homophobia' charge could be tossed around without any inhibition at all. Still, I think the argument I make here is worth at least considering-- perhaps not in this case, but in others.

I'm publishing this post on a very special date, and dedicating it to my dear wife Michelle-- indeed, this whole book is dedicated to her.

John Waters

The controversy over RTE’s apology to John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute is still rumbling as I write this column. Readers of this paper will be familiar with the story, but here goes anyway…

An Irish drag artist and gay rights activist appeared on an RTE television show (I didn’t see it), and apparently accused the Iona Institute and John Waters of homophobia, on the basis of their opposition to gay marriage. Mr. Waters, along with several members of the Iona Institute, threatened legal action unless an apology and a retraction were issued.

RTE, acting on their own legal advice, rather reluctantly shelled out 85, 000 euro in compensation, along with a somewhat mealy-mouthed apology. David Norris went on a march to protest this. Fintan O’Toole wrote an Irish Times article recounting an occasion when he was accused, in print, of hypocrisy for driving a BMW home from some left-wing demonstration, despite not owning a car at all. He forbore from suing his accusers, he says, out of respect for free speech. Meanwhile, Ivana Bacik complained about the Iona institute “lawyering up”.

Fintan O'Toole. I've seen him on the bus a few times.

As far as I can see, reactions to the incident in the Catholic press were entirely supportive of the Iona Institute’s action. Most commentators argued that a serious debate on same-sex marriage could not be held while its opponents were continually having their character defamed and their motives called into question. David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute, argued in a televised debate that the Institute had no choice but to threaten legal action. Otherwise, he said, the accusations of homophobia would continue throughout the debate on next year’s referendum on gay marriage, and opponents of the referendum would find it impossible to get a fair hearing.

Sometimes Fintan O’Toole is Right

I don’t agree with him on this. I think the Iona Institute made a big mistake in taking the course they did.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased, as any sane person must be pleased, that RTE are lighter of 85, 000 euro. It's 85, 000 euro less for them to put towards more agit-prop documentaries and banal home makeover shows. I'm also a great admirer of the Iona Institute and of John Waters. And I think the personal abuse that has been dished out towards the Institute's members— especially Breda O'Brien—is utterly scurrilous. These people are defamed on a regular basis. The worst abuse comes from those nameless, faceless denizens of the Irish internet, who daily spit bile from behind their avatars and their weird pseudonyms.

Breda O'Brien
In spite of all that, I think that the Iona Institute has unwisely given a hostage to fortune, as well as gifting ammunition to its critics—ammunition which they have not been slow to use.

Fintan O’Toole, in the aforementioned Irish Times column, wrote that: “there’s a price to be paid for the considerable privilege of being granted an especially loud voice in the national conversation. With the megaphone comes a duty to protect freedom of expression and a vested interest in keeping it as open as possible.” Other supporters of gay marriage, less urbane than Mr. O’Toole, have accused the Iona Institute of fearing a free debate.

I actually agree with Fintan O’Toole on the fundamental principle involved. Free speech and the free exchange of views are so precious that even their abuse should be tolerated as far as reasonably possible. In the last issue of The Catholic Voice, as part of a very deep and thorough analysis of the controversy, Dualta Roughneen asked: “How much defamation, mud-slinging, sloganeering and shouting down is to be tolerated in the name of fairness”? I would answer: ‘A great deal’.

But aside from the basic principle involved, it would be prudent of Christians and moral conservatives to cherish freedom of speech, even beyond the point of defamation.  And here’s why.

Appealing to Caesar

The accusation of homophobia is a cheap shot, and everybody knows that it’s a cheap shot. Many people in this country already regard the Iona Institute, and indeed all opponents of same-sex marriage, as being homophobic. So it’s hard to believe that such throwaway slanders would really change how anybody viewed the spokespeople of the Institute, or indeed others who oppose gay marriage.  In truth, such childish gibes only rebound upon the accusers, since it makes them look incapable of making a sober and rational case.

But the accusation that the Iona Institute ran to their lawyers to shut down a free debate, though unfair, is less obviously unfair than the charge of homophobia. It will stick a lot easier, well after the marriage referendum is over.

This is an important issue. In our time, the traditional Christian worldview is coming more and more into official disfavour, and the expression of traditional Christian beliefs—not only regarding marriage, but a host of other subjects—is increasingly considered offensive, discriminatory, even a form of hate speech.  (The very week I write this, it was reported that a Spanish cardinal is being investigated by police in Spain after being accused of “hate speech” by a gay rights group.)   Appealing to courts and official bodies as the arbiters of what may and may not be said is, for this reason, a very bad idea for Christians. In the long run—in the not-so-long run, perhaps—they will almost certainly get the worst of it.
The time may soon come when Christians must defy the law in order to follow their consciences, and to proclaim the fullness of the Gospel. In that hour, do we really want to hear an echo of the words of Festus, in the Book of Acts: “You appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go”?

Why are we Undoing the Pope’s Work?

The tug-of-war over Pope Francis continues, in newspaper columns and bogs and on radio panel discussions. Some liberal Catholics, and other left-wing observers, consider him something of a fellow traveller, on account of his apparently less rigid approach to Catholic tradition—the simple robes, the off-the-cuff question and answer session with reporters on the plane back from World Youth Day, the eyebrow-raising interview with America magazine, and passages like the following from his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:  ‘A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism’.

Conservative Catholics pounce, rather triumphantly, on those passages and interviews where Pope Francis proclaims himself “a son of the Church” and re-affirms Catholic doctrine on abortion, female ordination, and other controversial subjects.

Isn’t it obvious that, in doing this, both “liberals” and “conservatives” are going against the very spirit of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pontificate?

Probably liberal Catholics

Probably conservative Catholics

There is no doubt that Pope Francis is quite deliberately frustrating the media’s attempts to paint him as a “liberal” or a “conservative” figure. His canniness in avoiding the hot-button topics that make easy headlines, and instead concentrating upon proclaiming the central message of the Gospels, can only be a conscious strategy—and, so far, a wonderfully successful one.

A Moment of Grace

Surely this is an opportunity, even a moment of grace, for the rest of us.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics—or at least, Catholics in the developed world—have been embroiled in something of a feud between left wing and right wing, liberals and conservatives, “dissidents” and “orthodox”. And—as with all feuds—the longer it continues, the more emotion and ego and personality becomes invested in it.  It becomes difficult for either faction to back down, or to admit that they were ever wrong, or that they were uncharitable, or that the other faction has even a modicum of truth on their side.

Perhaps it is time to drop all the talk of “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, to have done with finger pointing and “I told you so”, and to join the Pope in his work of reconciliation and bridge building.

We know the promise that Christ made to St. Peter.  We know that Pope Francis is the inheritor of that promise. Our faith tells us that he is not going to compromise the dogmas and sacred truths with which he has been entrusted. Let us stop fighting over every word he utters, and join him in proclaiming the timeless truths that are more conservative, and more liberal—in the best sense of both those adjectives— than any other doctrine in the world.

St. Peter

Movie Magic

All through my twenties, and well into my thirties, I was a cinema addict. I have sometimes been to see three films on the same day. I’ve seen some movies up to five times in the cinema. For a long time, the first question anyone would ask me—rather to my chagrin—was, “Seen anything good in the cinema lately?”

The fascination extends back to my childhood. The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was seven years old. (I didn’t realize that the seats folded down and I spent the first few minutes quite literally on the edge of my seat.)

I was enthralled. It wasn’t only the enormous pictures on the screen that set my imagination on fire. It was the exciting darkness all around the screen. Somehow, I had the sense that that darkness contained a great presence, a great mystery—although now I would consider it a great Presence, a great Mystery. It was not that the Mystery was any more present in the cinema than anywhere else. But somehow the drama and solemnity of the setting made me more aware of it.

I still love the cinema, and I still sicken for it if I’m away too long. But now that I am recently married, I have discovered that the small screen has a magic all of its own.  For some reason, watching a DVD with the one you love is even more transporting than a trip to the movies. Perhaps it is the lure of domesticity kicking in.

Thankfully, my wife is every bit as enthusiastic about movies as I am.

When I reach the end credits of a good movie, I feel that I’ve lived a whole other existence—that I’ve had years added onto my life (but in a good way!).

Stories and the Sacred

Human beings need stories. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity”. We carry within us a deep intuition that human life is a quest for meaning, that we were made for great things. We have an ineradicable sense that life is a drama, a journey, and that its destination is something bigger and better than any storyteller can ever imagine.

Thankfully, it doesn’t stop storytellers from trying…

I think it is wonderfully fitting that when God came into the world, he told stories, and that he himself provided the resounding climax of the great story that had started with the words, “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth.” No wonder that we, his creatures, crave narrative so much.

The Bucket List

Not that movies, even good movies, are always adroit at handling sacred themes. A recent DVD that myself and my wife both enjoyed was The Bucket List, a film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two chalk-and-cheese cancer patients trying to live all their dreams before they die. When they come to discuss religion, it is rather frustrating to hear the following exchange:

Jack Nicholson: I envy people who have faith, I just can't get my head around it.

Morgan Freeman: Maybe because your head's in the way.

As though one’s head could ever get in the way of authentic faith! (The screenwriter had obviously not read John Paul II’s great encyclical Faith and Reason.)

But some movies do better. Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, is a truly mature and profound meditation on faith. And my favourite film of all time, Groundhog Day—a comedy about a narcissistic weather reporter, played by Bill Murray, who is compelled to relive the same day over and over until he comes to appreciate his life—succeeds in awakening in the viewer a powerful sense of God’s grace, and of the infinite preciousness of His gifts. This despite the fact that the most theological line in the movie is, “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent, He’s just been around so long He knows everything!”

"I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace..."

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