Archive for June, 2012

First, a spoiler alert for The Ninth Gate (1999)—do not continue reading past this sentence if you do not want to know the film’s ending. In watching it, I did not understand why the devil revealed would issue in blinding white light. Is not evil the absence of light—of being? A Satanist provided me with the answer. “You are looking at it as a Christian would,” he said. “Dark to you is light to a Satanist.” This requires some explanation.

Most of us know the story. The angel Lucifer fell from heaven out of jealousy of all the attention God was giving human beings. Moreover, Lucifer refused to submit as a slave to God. This freedom is Lucifer’s goodness, according to a Satanist. There is thus a good aspect to evil, in this view. Hence, the end of the film shows bright light because the perspective is that of a disciple or worshipper of Lucifer/Satan (Lucifer is known as Satan once the angel has fallen, and is thus in hell).

It is the slavishness of Christians that evinces weakness, according to the Satanists. As a son of the devil asks his father in the film, The Devil’s Advocate, “’Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’, is that it?” The Satanist views himself as stronger, or more powerful, than the Christian because Satan, who is the reigning deity in hell, does not demand servitude out of free will. A Satanist claims to freely love the devil not only for this reason, but also because of what the deity stands for—namely, hate. How, it may be asked, can one love hatred? The hatred is directed only at those humans and angels who worship God. Indeed, a Satanist looks forward to tormenting the weak (i.e., Christians) in hell. They deserve to suffer, according to a Satanist, because they willingly became weak in surrendering their free-will to servitude. The Satanists hate Jesus Christ because he was teaching men to willingly become weak in servitude. This is why Satan had God’s Son killed. Is not the Resurrection vindication in the self-emptying of God in love for sinners? To the Satanist, the Resurrection of Christ is not the last word; indeed, there is to be an anti-Christ born in hell who will triumph over the weak, skinny Jew. Having free-will rather than being in servitude to the devil, the anti-Christ will be stronger, or more powerful, than even the resurrected Christ.

In the meantime, Satanists conduct their rituals, which have included human sacrifice but more commonly involve kidnapped dogs and cats. The worshipper wants (by free will) to be one with the devil, living for Him and doing His will. Is not this slavery?  Is not such a worshipper akin to a Christian doing God’s will even if the respective wills’ content differs?  The Satanist claims to freely want to become the devil embodied out of love for Lucifer/Satan. But doesn’t the Christian claim to freely want to do God’s will out of love for God? Such love makes sense where the deity itself is love, but how can one love at all if one worships and values hatred?

“God is not all love,” the Satanist replies. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. However, the Jew or Christian might retort that God as judge is ultimately functioning out of love for His people. Not being among His people, the Satanists do not view God’s wrath as sourced in love. One could also argue that even if God were not all love, a person could not love without God being present because God is love (even if God is something more than love). Essentially, how can hatred love at all? The Satanist would reply that he does not just hate. He loves the devil and even those who worship that deity.

It seems to me that God, which is defined as love, must be present in love, even if it is directed to God’s adversary. In a sense, God wins even in the worship of the adversary. This makes sense if God is the source of being. How could one exist and not have something of God? As a son of the devil says in, Devil’s Advocate, “In the Bible you lose. We’re destined to lose dad.” The devil replies, “Well consider the source son.” God is the source not only of the Bible, but also of Creation—everything that exists, even the Satanist. So when a Satanist loves, it could be asked, how could he not? Moreover, how could something that exists completely sever itself from the source of existence and thus all that exists? I suppose another way of making this point is to say that even people who love to hate are not pure hate—pure evil. This is not to downplay the severity of human evil that is possible in one who worships it by personifying or deifying it and then embodying the deity.

Once while bored on the internet, I made the mistake of watching the decapitation of an innocent man by a terrorist group. The men cutting through the screaming victim’s neck were praising God. The praising itself was unnerving. Psychologically, the utter lack of empathy belied any claim to service to God and suggested a dark psychological pathology making use of politics and a religion as subterfuges. That any human being could do that to another is beyond my grasp, but this may simply mean that my values (and innate empathy) mean that I could never be a Satanist. It is the Satanists’ lack of empathy and desire to kill (as sacrifice to a deity) that bothers me more than anything they say about the skinny Jew they love to hate.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. Somehow, many Christians, and indeed the Church as well, have gotten too hung up on the names—sometimes even just repeating a favorite name over and over in what is actually rather obsessive (and thus empty form). I suspect this is a saccarine or hypotrophic effect of having refused to engage in dialogue with others, such as Satanists, who disagree fundamentally with one’s religious view. It is perhaps like Democrats or Republicans getting too carried away with their slogans because they have never heard the arguments of the other party (from which the slogans could be refined, or strengthened, in opposition to an antithetical value-set and belief-system).

It is the instantiation of evil in concrete terms, rather than the theological words themselves, that get my attention regarding the Satanists. Listening to a Satanist use trop lines to insult Jesus pales as compared to watching a decapitation video. It is the dark “fruit” of the love for Lucifer/Satan that ultimately defines the type of tree that is hanging the innocent victim. So too among Christians, disciples can be known by their fruit rather than what they claim to believe or how many times they praise Jesus.

I suspect that apart from the different conception of strength or power which really does set them in disagreement with what Jesus taught and exampled, Satanists have more hatred for hypocrites than for what Karl Rahner calls the anonymous Christians, like the good Samaritan, who freely and spontaneously feels and acts with compassion even when it is least convenient—as in having love for the hypocrites (who are as evil as the Satanists?) and one’s persecutors, even if they love antipodal spiritual values. It is the benevolentia universalis, rather than preaching or argument, that illuminates a light existing in even the Satanist—even if he takes it as darkness, or weakness. Perhaps if the Satanist discovered such a light existing within (even if perceived as darkness), his ire would really be kindled in a sort of self-hate, for he would suppose the light to be weakness on his part.

Yet even a Satanist, in virtue of being human, cannot completely sever himself from love if it is the very essence of the source of existence. What scares me is when his love directed to his deity motivates him to take on the divine attributes, or content/values, of his deity. Therein lies the evil. A fear of evil can be as simple as fearing being taken against one’s will and sacrificed without any way of talking the devoted out of it, for it would be to the Satanists an act of love in living for Lucifer/Satan, and that of hatred too—weakness, according to the devil, deserves to suffer, die, and be tormented. Perhaps the question is not so much on the nature of love, but, rather, on strength and weakness—for there can be different kinds of power, depending on what is valued.


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Richard Riordan, who was mayor of Los Angeles, California from 1993 to 2001, wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial in line with his role as the founding president of the city’s Catholic Education Foundation. While his advocacy for more funds to enable children from poor families to attend Catholic schools is salutary, given the poor condition of the city’s public schools, the former mayor ignores a potential downside to education provided by the Catholic Church.

Generally speaking, religion and education are two qualitatively different, although not disparate, domains. A sermon or homily, for example, is not instruction even if some teaching happens to go along with the preaching. Teaching is not preaching. Nor is education a type of religious ritual. Although religious institutions may offer religious education classes to their faithful, such classes are distinct from the institutions’ worship activities, or ritual. In other words, education has its own rituals, as does religion. Therefore, it can legitimately be asked whether a religious institution should be in the business of running schools.

I contend that the religious domain has a tendency, whether due to human caprice or innate to the phenomenon itself, to encroach on other domains—essentially dominating them illegitimately in what can be seen as a form of passive aggression. If so, having a religious institution take on schools is just asking for trouble. By analogy, it is perhaps like allowing the U.S. Government, which has evinced a tendency over decades to encroach on domains reserved to the state governments, to run some of those governments. Allowing the federal government to get its hands on the machinery could be expected to result in still more encroachment.

Richard Riordan states that Catholic schools “infuse beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives.” The standard objection made by non-Catholic parents of students attending Catholic schools is that Catholicism itself will be infused—meaning Catholic theology such as transsubstantiation (i.e., the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist) and the four Marian miracles (e.g., the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary being conceived without original sin). To be sure, non-Catholic students may be exposed to such theological doctrines, but I suspect in a way in which they are not pushed on the students. The “pushing,” if there is apt to be any, is more likely, ironically, in domains in which religion tends to encroach.

Once while visiting my insipid hometown (where a pathological fear of change is ubiquitous), I spoke with a “pro-life” advocate who was attending a Catholic parish that had been taken over by what I would call a right-wing cult. For example, a priest at her parish more than once petitioned during Mass for God to have a “pro-life” (i.e., Republican) elected as U.S. President at the next election cycle. That any Democrats or even Independents might have been in attendance was doubtless of little concern to him. Such inconsiderateness can be taken as a red flag, particularly when ostensibly in a “religious” context. The unexpected brashness may even bespeak self-idolatry facilitated by ideology.

The parishioner-advocate with whom I spoke was obsessed with abortion, as if that moral-political issue were the core of her religious faith. She would not countenance any distinction between the morning-after pill (which kills cells) and a partial-birth abortion. Physically, a distinction can be made between a static clump of some cells and an organized fetus that reacts physiologically to stimuli. Ethically, a distinction can be made between killing a few cells that do not react in pain and a developed fetus that does. To overlay the theological concept of soul on the physical and ethical distinctions involves a category mistake. I suspect the root problem undergirding the assumed application (and its decisiveness) involves not understanding the distinctly theological concept in distinctly theological terms. The concept (and the “object” to which the idea refers) is simply assumed to carry over to physio-ethical matters. I should have asked the woman, “What, then, is a soul?” Do any of us really understand what a soul is?

I could sense from the woman that neither her theological ignorance nor my doctorate in ethics had any standing, so I did not pursue either avenue. That she was for capital punishment in some cases even as she was avowedly “pro-life” on human cells and fetuses made no matter to her single-minded pursuit. She could not be wrong, and consistency was extrinsic to her purpose. Within her tunnel vision, all that counted was outlawing abortion. This was religious reductionism with a few category mistakes tossed in for good measure (as religion is neither ethics nor politics).

After the woman bragged that she is a single-issue person (which is not a compliment, in my view), I decided to test it by bringing up the ethical issue of contraceptives being used in Africa to stop the spread of AIDS. At the time, the Catholic Church permitted it, but she would have none of that. “A misunderstanding of what the Pope said,” she dogmatically insisted. Suffice it to say that the woman felt that those African men who do not refrain from extra-marital sex deserve to die of the disease. I was stunned. Ideology apparently trumps compassion even under the auspices of Christianity. There was the parish’s right-wing cult, standing directly in front of me!

I should explain that I refer to her parish as having been taken over by an ideological (extremist) cult in part because its bias eclipses even fidelity to Church positions where they deviate from the cult’s ideology. For example, the woman blew right past the Church’s opposition to capital punishment and relaxation on condoms being used in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS because these positions were not in line with her ideology. Even though she used the Church to enforce the hegemony of her positions where there was a match, she could just as easily ignore (or re-interpret) the Church’s positions when they deviated from her opinions. In other words, the Church was not really her default or basis. What might seem to a bystander as dogmatic or arbitrary deviations would appear to her as necessary from the perspective of her instinct for ideological purity—a line connecting her various right-wing opinions ultimately to her basis in self-idolatry. The reactionary cult that had captured her parish (which had been in favor of Vatican II in the 1970s and 1980s) was thus not isomorphic with the Catholic Church, even if the tone and political ideology were shared by the city’s bloated bishop.

Turning to the topic of homosexuality, I told the woman that a former girlfriend and I used to babysit the two infants of a lesbian couple (friends of my girlfriend at the time). I had enjoyed the babies and the couple seemed well-adjusted and good at parenting. Nevertheless, the ideologue would have none of that. “Those two women are not normal!,” the woman blurted out in spite of never having even met them. “Those babies will not grow up normal because they don’t have a mom and a dad.” Again, I was stunned; lots of people turn out bad even though they were raised by a mother and father. “When did you change to accept that?” the petulant woman demanded. “You had a mother and a father—when did you change?” I was not aware that I had changed my ideological position. It was odd that the oracle would simply presume it.

I then raised the related topic of the compromised (or discredited) credibility of her bishop interlarding himself in local politics to get foster kids yanked out of homes containing a gay person even as the “right-wing cult” parish had housed a pedophile priest just a few years before (hardly surprising, given the clerical arrogance associated with the reactionary position against Vatican II). True to form, she ignored the question of her bishop’s having any credible basis to impose himself locally on the matter of sexual ethics and children. She even went on the offensive, aggressively declaring without any hint of tolerating a rebuttal, “The bishop should pull those kids out. They need a normal upbringing!” I attempted to disagree, but she would not hear of it—so certain she was that she could not be wrong.

It occurred to me that the “devout” woman had absolutely no respect for me or my views. I was particularly concerned when she went on to use religion as a club of sorts to enforce her ideological stands and prevent any other view from seeing the light of day. “Homosexuality is against God’s law,” she insisted as though modern society were rightfully subject to ancient Hebrew norms in Deuteronomy. Never mind that we have nothing on Jesus commenting on the topic. What would he say of priests who take advantage of “the least of mine”? Ought not her bishop have been concentrating on this in his churches rather than venturing into foster homes? The ideologue simply ignored the possibility that I had a point. She presumed that her ideological opinion had taken the entire picture into account, and could thus not be wrong.

 As if the woman had not been sufficiently supercilious concerning people she had never met, the presumptuous woman said in an air of arrogant dismissiveness mixed with fake compassion that she would pray for me. “Oh,” she said hastily as though she were worried because I faced some impending danger, “I’m going to have to REALLY PRAY for you! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” There was no need for dialogue. No exchange of views. Mine was simply relegated and deemed invalid by an authority who selectively appropriated from Catholicism to back up her partisan ideology as if it were truth itself. Religious Republicanism was indeed a drug all too comfortable to her, and she was accustomed to going out from her base to impose her political stands on other people as though she were omniscient (i.e., all-knowing). This is the real danger that comes with the Catholic Church running schools: political-ideological indoctrination under the guise of “morality” and ultimately God. The operative axis here is not Protestant-Catholic; it is Democratic-Republican. The subtext is a category mistake enabled by an encroaching tendency and habit. Not exactly a religious habit, I might add.

Religion has come to be used all too often as a club by which people insist that their moral and political ideological (and thus partisan) positions are right and must be accepted under pain of going against God’s law. Given this practice, religious institutions (not just Catholic!) should not be in the business of running schools. I suspect that Catholic school teachers are not even aware of what they are doing when they are imposing their political agenda. They would undoubtedly not think twice about “reminding” students “off-handedly” that abortion is wrong and should be illegal because it is murder—period! Such an encroachment is simply too tempting and already too common for the Catholic Church to be in the business of education.

To be sure, a Unitarian-run school would face the same temptation—in that case pressuring students to accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion). A student objecting to either one would likely get a scowl and even perhaps be told that he or she is prejudiced and narrow-minded—even oppressive! In actuality, the teacher’s ideologically-based overreaching would constitute the oppression. Furthermore, the teacher’s attitude would surely impact how the contrarian student is taught. The student’s learning and self-esteem would likely suffer as a result, but this would be of little concern to the “teacher.

Unitarian ministers are told that they can believe virtually anything they want, but that they must agree to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies. Even though this ideological litmus test is extrinsic to Unitarian Universalist theology, the imposition is deemed legitimate nonetheless, rather than a dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) ideological encroachment that can and should be stigmatized as impious and ultimately grounded in self-idolatry and bloated selfishness. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church has similar ideological/political litmus tests for its potential clergy.

In my view, the passive aggression latent in self-idolatry can manifest whether from a right-wing or left-wing cult operating under the auspices of religion. In both cases, it is ironic that the native fauna of religion—religious experience and the associated sensitivity and compassion—suffer as a result of the encroachments that have become so commonplace they are taken as religion. Religion itself and its institutions would be the primary beneficiaries were the encroachments severed. But the “religious” are too greedy—wanting more. As a result, they get less even though they think they are extending their reach.

Even suggesting that religion ought to be delimited to its native fauna is apt to be rejected out of hand by those inured to the mentality and practice of encroachment. Scarcely any respect or toleration is apt to be given to anyone who attempts to prune the vines back to within the Church’s property lines. The gardener rather than the interloper is apt to be labeled the offender. This is akin to ignorance presuming that it can’t be wrong and fortifying itself by whatever authority it can aggressively muster. The hypocrisy concerning claims of humility and compassion amid the passive aggression, and the related denial on the encroachments onto ethics and politics make the tacit assumption of infallibility—especially on partisan issues!—look utterly absurd and even comical.

It is the utter rigidity and assumed infallibility of the ideological positions that makes the problem so insufferable and intransigent. That’s right, I can’t be wrong. It’s God’s law.  End of discussion. No if’s, and’s, or buts. The oracle has spoken, and it turns out that God is a Republican (or Democrat). How, one might ask, can such a mentality be conducive to, or compatible with education anywhere outside a theocracy?


Richard Riordan, “Saving Catholic Education,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204138204576600660103642184.html


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A subtle trend has been underway since 1979 in the Roman Catholic Church. Joe Ratzinger’s ascendency to the papacy after the death of John Paul II (a pious man whose piety itself is his legacy of leadership) was only one of several markers on this Roman road leading back from the Second Vatican Council. Broadly speaking, the movement has been to reverse the movement from the council wherein the laity were to take a more active role liturgically in the Church. The reactionary movement away from this has been to stress the distinction between clergy and laity. I contend that this distinction played a role in the abuse of lay children by priests.

Part of the shift since the election of John Paul II has been to go back to more of a distinction between the clergy and laity. For example, instead of making Communion available to the laity under both species (bread and wine consecrated) as much as possible, “traditionalist” priests prefer to reserve the sacred blood for themselves. Underlying this is a clerical view of the clergy as holding a unique sacrificial priesthood with Christ—the laity thus being inferior as only partaking in the priesthood of the people via baptism.  Vatican II sought to increase lay ministry (sharing ministry with Christ) by encouraging offices like the lay Eucharistic minister and (relatedly) in making the Blessed Blood available to the laity as often as possible. Put another way, a priest who refuses to provide the cup during daily Masses even as he avails himself with it is increasingly out of the norm under Vatican II.

Were “high clericalism” limited to extenuating the liturgical prerogatives of priests, the Church would be far less vulnerable to scandal due to the behavior of its clerics. In October 2011, Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese of Kansas City, Missouri were indicted, according to The New York Times, “on criminal charges for failing to report a priest found to have pornographic photos of children, including children of his congregants. The priest [had been] accused of having taken more such photographs in the months before church leaders turned them over to law enforcement. . . . Much of the anguish, then and now, concerned the decision not to inform law enforcement — or the parents . . .  — about Father Ratigan even after the school principal had written a letter detailing concerns that the priest’s behavior fit the profile of a child predator, even after church officials in December discovered hundreds of photographs on his computer that included nude pictures and ‘upskirt images’ of girls, and even after he attempted suicide. Instead Father Ratigan was sent to live in a convent and told to avoid contact with minors. But he continued to attend children’s parties, spend weekends in the homes of parish families and, with the bishop’s permission, presided at a girl’s first communion, according to interviews and court documents. Despite a pledge by the diocese to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to law enforcement, Father Ratigan was not reported until May.”  In short, the series of events points to a willful refusal on the part of Finn to abide by the law and keep his word. Like police who do not think twice about overstepping their authority, the bishop’s behavior suggests that he knew that accountability within the church hierarchy was virtually nonexistence and furthermore that not even civil law could reach him.

Accountability must come from civil authorities, as it is doubtful that the church hierarchy will turn so dramatically from its ways. Even though I suspect the church hierarchy would not change as a result, it is significant that the bishop was “the highest ranking member of the clergy to be charged with a crime stemming from the sex abuse scandals.” There is indeed much value in bringing the impervious to justice, particularly if they feel they are above the law on the basis of what is only an organizational office.

The abuse and the steadfast refusal of the hierarchy to hold its clerics accountable instead of protecting them (exactly like a club of peers protects its own) caused “disappointment and anger” among Catholics in the Kansas City diocese. Rather it being wrong to criticize a cleric, the laity have a moral obligation to do so, particularly given the lack of accountability. “Obviously we’re not O.K. with this and we don’t like the way it was handled,” said Jason Krysl, whose wife was a teacher at a Catholic school and was holding their 7-month-old son. “But it’s frustrating because there’s not much you can do about it. It’s not like you can vote for bishop.” Maggie Nurrenbern, a high school Spanish teacher and a Catholic in the diocese, said the indictment was a step in the right direction. “Nobody is above the law,” she said. “The bishop should go to jail, I absolutely believe that. He was covering this up for months and the priest kept abusing girls in the meantime.” Maggie is spot on; Finn should go to jail. To his flock, he said “it is enough to be here with you, whom I love.” Of course, he can love and be forgiven while he is in jail. It is not at all disrespectful to his office to lead him to the slammer. Nor would jail be “Christian persecution,” even if the bishop’s denial leads him to view his punishment in such distorted terms.

My broader point is that the “high clericalism” trend then well underway in the Church played a role in there being both abuse and a lack of accountability. Finn, well within that trend, was already controversial in his diocese before the scandal because he was forcing the diocese to conform to his traditionalist views at the expense of Vatican II. For instance, he cancelled a program to train laypeople to be leaders (and I suspect he was not fond of lay Eucharistic Ministers even in distributing the Host) and hired more staff to recruit candidates for the priesthood. His attitude toward the laity can be seen in this pair of changes alone. Is it any wonder, therefore, that he would place the interest of a priest above those of even innocent little girls? Moreover, is it any wonder that his arrogance would be such as to dismiss even the reach of the civil law over him? As blameworthy as he was, the related issues of clerical abuse of children and accountability in the Church’s hierarchy can be placed in the wider context of the broader trend going on in the Church.

Firstly, the extent of sexual abuse of kids by celibate priests suggests that giving up such a vital part of oneself as one’s sexual nature—created by God, by the way—is not something that can be done without paying the price psychologically in terms of diverted repression “acting out” in dysfunctional and anti-social ways. In fact, denying such a basic and natural part of human nature could even be considered to be a sin—denying something that God created. Furthermore, to view sexuality as itself something squalid probably stems from psychological issues in need of being dealt with independently. The Church itself readily admits that clerical celibacy is merely a tradition and could be reversed at any time without breaching fidelity with the Gospel.

Secondly, as I intimate above, the anti-Vatican II trend of high clericalism is conducive to clerical abuse of laity (as well as hypocritical arrogance even as God is viewed as humility). I am not at all surprised that Finn cut the budget of a program on poverty and human rights while expanding an anti-abortion and anti-stem-cell office. While his action may not evince an abuse of his discretion, it certainly points to a particular slant and a willingness to use the power of one’s office to promote one’s own ideology under theological auspices. In other words, I discern in it the same attitude that is evinced by the priest who refuses to provide the cup to others even as he enjoys it himself and the priest who takes pictures of naked girls. It is ego, impure and simple, under the guise of serving. Lest it be forgotten, Jesus himself said that many of the first would be last.

In terms of organizational change, typically a step forward (in loosening) is followed by a step back (in fear), and then another step forward (once the fear has been overcome with hope). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic Church was unfortunately in the midst of a step back without any hint of the step to come. The Vatican was making sure that a step forward would not come any time soon. Accordingly, laity who loved the Church and its sacraments were beset with difficulty in having faith in those human beings who presumed worthy of authority, even if merely organizational. Sadly, we take our organizations and their offices much too seriously; we have lost perspective and power-hungry clerics have taken advantage of it.

In the grand scheme of things, it is important to remember that priests and even bishops are human beings, and thus stand in the same relation to God as do lay persons. Any distance between people in terms of sharing priesthoods with Christ pales in comparison to the distance between God and man. We are all subject to the abyss. Even the distance between the saint and Pharisee priest is like that between two adjacent roads as seen from a jet window at thirty thousand feet. For the priest who presumptively views his “clerical club” as being superior, even soteriologically, to the laity, he should know that his superiority is a self-vaunted illusion. He is still redeemable; he can still melt his pride and humbly return to his brothers and sisters above. Fortunately for clergy like Finn, the climb up from estrangement is not as great as the height (rather than depth) he imagines he himself occupies above the laity. Yet for clergy like Finn to want to make the climb—even to acknowledge it as a climb rather than a charitable descent—is like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. For such arrogance does not lose weight easily.


Laurie Goodstein, “Bishop in Missouri Waited Months to Report Priest, Stirring Parishioners’ Rage,” New York Times, August 15, 2011.

A. G. Sulzberger, “In Kansas City Churches, Tiptoeing Around the Latest Scandal,” The New York Times, October 17, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/us/in-kansas-city-sermons-avoid-mention-of-abuse-scandal.html


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In October 2011, the Vatican proposed an overhaul of the world’s financial systems with the establishment of an international authority to oversee the global economy. In making this proposal, the Holy See was seeking to bring more democratic and ethical principles into play on economic and financial matters. If the proposal is not specifically religious in nature, it can legitimately be asked whether the ecclesiastical authors were credentialed sufficiently in the domains covered by their proposal. Furthermore, the matter of any opportunity costs from the encroachment can be raised.

The New York Times reports that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace “argued that ‘politics — which is responsible for the common good’ must be given primacy over the economy and finance, and that existing institutions like the International Monetary Fund had not been responding adequately to global economic problems.” It is notable that religion does not even come into play here. Rather, it was “the Roman Catholic Church’s concerns about economic instability and widening inequality of income and wealth around the world” that fueled the proposal.

“The time has come to conceive of institutions with universal competence, now that vital goods shared by the entire human family are at stake, goods which the individual states cannot promote and protect by themselves,” Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, the president of the pontifical council, said as he presented the report. “That is what pushed us.” What is perhaps most striking from a religious standpoint is the potential collision between the proposal and the view held by some Christians that a one-world government is the vehicle used by the anti-christ to gain earthly power. Such a theological discussion would fit with the cardinal’s religious credentials. Such credentials do not convey any particular expertise in international relations, political theory, economics, finance or even ethics. To see that religion is not, or does not reduce to ethics, one need only consider the distinctly unethical divine decrees in the Torah. Besides the killing of women and children simply because they did not convert to Yahweh, Job does not deserve the harm inficted on him by the devil, which God allows.

To be sure, links to the theological or religious domain can be made. For example, the Vatican’s report states: “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest.” Rather than proposing an earthly international organization, the proposal could have preached on the nature of the Kingdom of God, which turns the world on its head. In other words, what we presume to be power may not evince strength in a distinctly Christian sense. Furthermore, the proposal could have picked up on its reference to the weakest to cite Jesus’ saying, to wit, What you do to the least of mine, you do to me. Also, the theme in Mark wherein the outsiders—the strangers—“get it” while the disciples do not understand could also be mentioned. Indeed, most of the first can be last, while the last are first—those who are presumed to be weak by the world’s standards. The Vatican officials would have been on terra firma had they pursued this route rather than ventured off into the governance of international political economy.

Bishop Mario Toso, secretary to the pontifical council, claimed that the proposal is “in line with the Magisterium of the church.” Interestingly, he pointed to reasonableness rather than to a distinctly religious criterion. It seems that he may have been unconsciously conflating philosophy with theology. Indeed, ethics is a sub-field in philosophy, and the Vatican’s report avers, “To function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind, but one that is people-centered.” Whether or not the authors had advanced degrees in ethics—whether ethical theory or business ethics—was apparently of no concern to them or their religious superiors. On this basis, one could say that a propensity to encroach without limitation exists in the Vatican.  Perhaps the operative rubric confides that religious education and authority proffers legitimacy in virtually any domain because religion or theology can be applied to anything. A similar claim could perhaps be made of the study and practice of law—it is virtually everywhere in modern society (even in the church in terms of criminal law applied to priests).

The wanderings of Vatican officials into other back yards carry rather significant opportunity costs. First, the document itself could have stressed distinctly religious points such as I have suggested above. Second, extending the teaching authority of the Church onto fields other than theology, even the latter can be related indirectly, risks relegating or even severely undercutting that authority even where it is at home in theology. Politically conservative Catholics, for example, “hastened to assure their camp that the document does not carry the full force of church teaching, since it was produced by a Vatican office, not by the pope himself.” The Times continues by observing that “some dismissed the report as nothing new, or simply misinformed.” In other words, the clerics at the Vatican risked losing their credibility not only on account of their intransigent arrogance and lack of empathy for the least of mine in refusing to hold their priests accountable for pedophilia, but also for being ideologically greedy in refusing to confine the magisterium to distinctly theological matters.

According to a survey (led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter) of 1,442 American Catholic adults, 86% say “you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church.” Only about 30% accept the teaching authority claimed by the Vatican. It could be the low number reflects the greediness of that teaching authority with respect to forays into extrinsic domains without any apparent hesitancy or humility. Alternatively, the lack of any limiting factor could risk an even lower acceptance rate in the future.

It is a paradox that in being greedy—wanting more, even in terms of ideological influence—one can wind up with less. Ignore the inherent strictures of your credentials and you will suffer in terms of credibility. Ignore the delimited nature of your knowledge and you will come off as ignorant. Ignore your own base and the floor will fall from beneath you.

In the 1980s popular business press, one of the main mantras for managers was: get back to the knitting. In other words, get back to focusing on what you do well, rather than diversifying into other businesses. It would appear that the Vatican might take this business advice to heart and return to the Church’s native fauna of religion, wherein Vatican officials are credentialed and well-studied, and thus legitimate and credible. Another 1980s business mantra was: management by wandering around. This one the officials should not follow, given their proclivity to wander into other back yards; any walking around should be assiduously delimited in the spirit of humility that enervates the insipid instinct to overreach. At the very least, it is bad form to tell a neighbor how to clean up his or her yard while one’s own could stand some attention.


Elisabetta Povoledo, “Vatican Calls for Oversight of the World’s Finances,” The New York Times, October 25, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/world/europe/vatican-calls-for-global-oversight-of-the-economy.html

Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-10-24/catholic-religious-identity-survey/50891152/1?csp=34news

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For more than two thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has endured the perennial tension between ideological exclusivism and idyllic universalism. It may be that the tacit ideal behind the hierarchy’s various actions has really been universalism applied to the dominant ideology. The tension resisting this ideal has played out as an ideological tussle of sorts between “traditionalists” and “modernists” or “progressives.” It is as though the political parties of a college’s political union had achieved sacred status by virtue of being assiduously applied by college students all too seriously to the religious domain. Along with the presumed seriousness necessarily come rigidity and the presumption of omniscience at least with respect to the ideology.

As the pendulum has swung back and forward in the Church through the centuries, linguistic changes have served as markers or perhaps high-water marks—hardly neutral or objective means of transmission as in the anti-usury view that money is solely a means of exchange. Given the complexity of human language, moreover, no translation could ever hope to attain objective or definitive status. In fact, the process alone used to select between alternative wordings, as well as the wordings themselves, inevitably involves ideological values and assumptions.

In this essay, I contend that some notable word-choices in the English translation of the Latin Missal that went into effect at the beginning of Advent in 2011 dovetail both in substance and process with the post-1979 reactionary movement against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. I am not saying that the new translation lacks any merit whatsoever. The literalness of the word-to-word translation can in specific instances heighten a sense of the mystery of the divine in the Mass. For example, the repetition of “fault” thrice in the confession can add to what should be a contrite mood. At the same time, departing from the literal Latin can also facilitate a spiritual sensibility. For example, translating homines as men, as in for us men and our salvation, needlessly excludes (or at the very least can be expected to offend) women. With respect to God, we are human (homin) beings. The choice itself of men thus implies a certain belief or attitude, rather than simply being “more accurate.”

In my view, translating the Latin should not only wrestle with the inherent multivalence of words and sentences, but also take into account the point of the Mass, which is to bring about an interior religious experience of the divine that transcends the limits of human words and syntax. For example, eliminating mention of entering under a roof (which comes from a Biblical story involving Jesus) so close to the mysterium of receiving communion could be worth not taking the literal word-for-word approach there, as recalling a Biblical passage is perhaps too distracting just before communion is received. The more intimate receive you may be better final words before the interior experience of ingesting Christ through the Eucharist. In fact, the approaching mysterium could be facilitated even more by switching from the vernacular to Latin as the consecration moment and communion approach. The shift alone might give worshippers the sense of entering the holy of holies in the Temple. That is to say, relaxing the “one language OR the other” assumption could facilitate creating a sense of sacred time and space within the ritual. Therefore, I am not providing a global verdict here even on whether the Mass should be in Latin or English, as this may be a false dichotomy. Accordingly, I recommend a line-by-line approach that includes both the word-for-word approach and the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence.” Going out of a limb, I would even say that how the understanding and experience of the Mass has changed since the Latin Missal was penned (or carved out of stone) should be taken into account.

My recommendations are undoubtedly utopian, so here I confine my argument to the claim that the translation of a text for a religious ritual should not reflect the arbitrary or dogmatic rigidity of a particular ideology or partisan agenda, whether left, right or center. I contend that the 2011 translation tends to serve a particular partisan, ideological ideal—that of religious traditionalism. Most notably, it includes clerical distinction or supremacy, hence placing the clerics approving the translation in a conflict of interest. In other words, the process and content of the 2011 translation broaches the very real possibility that Christ’s church of Rome was being dominated by resentful counterfeits who crave power in order to remake (i.e., delimit) the church in their own ideological image. This, I submit, is the bottom-line concerning my thesis here. First though, I provide a bit of background.

Vatican II, or The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, was the 21st general council and met four times between October 11, 1962 and December 8,, 1965. The council was called by Pope John XXIII and concluded by Pope Paul VI. Whereas the First Vatican Council, held between 1878 and 1880, had a total of 737 bishops (mainly Europeans), Vatican II was the largest of the twenty-one councils with a total of 2,600 bishops from around the world. Vatican II thus had tremendous authoritative legitimacy within the Church. This is of no small matter, as the council produced the most changes in the Church since the Council of Trent during the Reformation. Particularly notable among the changes decided at Vatican II is the declaration that the Church includes all “people of God” (i.e., the laity), rather than only the hierarchy of the Church (i.e., the clerics). Accordingly, lay ministerial roles, such as lecterns and Eucharistic ministers, received more emphasis, as did making available both species of the Eucharist to the laity whenever practicable. The spirit of the council was inclusivity and the effort can be characterized as one of narrowing the distance between the clergy and the laity. Accordingly, the communal meal aspect of communion received more emphasis—though without relegating the sacrifice of the Mass. It is no coincidence that traditionalist clergy desiring to restore the distance emphasize the sacrifice of the Eucharist because only the priest shares in Christ’s sacrifice liturgically. I suspect that the 2011 translation of the Mass had as its primary purpose (or benefit) the reassertion of the clergy over the laity—an audacious task given the context of priestly presumptuous in molesting lay children.  It is this audacity that I am trying to uncover in this essay, peeling off the asseverations of fidelity to the Latin via greater “neutral” accuracy.

The election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1979 signaled or began what could be called a “counter-Vatican II reaction” in the Church hierarchy. A generation has been realized in clerical appointments handed out by in large to traditionalists who emphasized clerical distinction over the laity and a conservative political agenda centered on one particular social issue. The post-Vatican II laity used to a greater liturgical role was gradually—often subtly or imperceptibly—pushed back in the process. The increasing salience of politically “social” conservative positions—with the anti-abortion stance serving as the definitive litmus test—dovetailed with the trend of increasing the clerical distinction. In other words, cardinals and bishops (and thus priests) who leaned to the right, both as Catholic traditionalists and politically, found roads to Rome relatively unobstructed and even welcoming, while others were tacitly handed their hats or otherwise sidelined or even marginalized in the hope that the membership would be purified.

Seattle priest Michael Ryan, who launched an international campaign on the internet to have the adoption of the new translation slowed down and test-marketed makes transparent the connection between the new translation movement and the clerical reaction against Vatican II. “People are the church, and this is not the bishops’ prayer, it is their prayer.” The anti-Vatican II “high clericalism” in the new translation is detectable in how the greeting at the beginning of the Mass is translated. “And also with you,” the lay response to the priest according to the translation used from 1974 to 2011, connotes mutuality because the response follows the priest’s, “Peace be with you.” The exchange of mutual recognition—you and you—implies an equality of the two distinct roles. In contrast, the “and with your spirit” in the 2011 translation highlight’s the priest’s distinctive role as differentiating the priest qualitatively from the laity. In other words, the laity refer to the priest’s spirit while the priest still refers to the laity as “you.” In a religious context, spirit is higher than you.  This difference goes against the spirit of Vatican II, which sought to encourage lay ministerial involvement in the liturgy.

Consider how the 2011 translation came about. According to the New York Times, after the 1974 translation was modified in 1985, scholars “then began work on a new translation, and by 1998 a full draft of the new missal was completed and approved by bishops’ conferences around the English-speaking world. But Rome never approved that translation, and instead, in 2001, issued new guidelines requiring that the language of the mass carefully follow every word of the Latin text, as well as the Latin syntax, where possible. That marked a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence” that had guided the earlier translations.” Rev. Anthony Ruff, a scholar of Latin and Gregorian chant at St. John’s University and seminary worked on parts of the new translation but left after he became “increasingly critical of the clunky text and the top-down secretive process.” He claims the syntax is too Latinate—meaning that it is not good English. “Rome got its way in forcing this on us, but it is a Pyrrhic victory because it is not bringing the whole church together around a high quality product.” In other words, the new translation is the result of a heavily-ideological right-wing agenda foisted on the faithful by the highest levels of the hierarchy. Bishop Donald Trautman, a former chair of the U.S. Bishops’ liturgy committee, characterized the revision as “elitist” in the sense of being incomprehensible to the average Catholic. He could just as well have meant “heavy-handed” and “self-serving” in referring to the officials insisted on the crude, literal approach. The interlarding itself evinces the pre-Vatican II “high” clericalism that is present in the new translation particularly in “and with your spirit.”

Besides particular content-changes in the 2011 translation the way in which the English translation that had been in use for 41 years was being referred to by supporters of the word-for-word approach demonstrates the salience of a partisan agenda in motivating the translation. Gloria Ulterino, a lay Catholic of Rochester, New York, objected as much to the process as to the prayers. “Our liturgy is the work of the people at prayer, and the people of God have had no voice whatsoever in this,” she said. She was fighting an uphill battle against the anti-Vatican II traditionalist ideology that was in the ascendency at the time. Indeed, that ideology was placing its imprint on the Mass itself via linguistic changes. In this alone, laity such as Gloria were being handed their hats, or at the very least facing a more systemic headwind. Part of that wind was the chilling slap of having one’s ideology essentially ridiculed (e.g., ‘Hey, God, its me”).

Furthermore, the active role of ideological partisanship can be seen from the new translation being characterized with hyperbole as “a correction of some post-Vatican II errors done in haste.” In actuality, the 1974 translation came into effect nine years after Vatican II ended. Furthermore, that translation was modified in 1985. So much for hasty. The needless decimation alone points to or implies a belief that “the other side” is somehow an enemy deserving no respect at all. Indeed, when I published this essay, traditionalists assailed me as “uneducated.” To be sure, I can be lazy concerning proofreading, but “uneducated” is not the typical feedback I receive from people who read my essays. So from where did the “uneducated” comment come? I suspect that a partisan over-reaction manifested as an intransigent refusal to accord me or my position any respect whatsoever. I find very little Christ-like humility or compassion in the reductio absurdum and ad hominem attacks—reducing my position and me to an absurdity.

According to USA Today. “Vatican II’s key changes included invigorating the laity and shifting from strictly Latin Mass to offer the sacrament in the common language of the faithful.” This invigoration caused jealousy among some clerics in the stygian hierarchy. That emotion contributes to the way the traditionalists have characterized the 1974/1985 translation. “God merits elegant language, not ‘Hey, God, it’s me,” says Monsignor C. Eugene Morris, director of Sacred Liturgy for the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, where 185 men studying for the priesthood are training in the new liturgy.” Nowhere in the colloquial phrases is “Hey, God, it’s me.” That Morris feels compelled to exaggerate the “demon” points to his own attitude and traditionalist bias. He is making fun of a translation used by his Church for 41 years! Imagine what his students—the future hierarchy—must be like. It is probably fair to assume that the young priests studying under him are “in the club” concerning not only his stance toward Vatican II, but also his attitude toward post-Vatican II Catholics. In fact, I would wager that political conservatism, especially on abortion, is a de facto criterion for new students.

In the year the new translation went into use, a young right-wing priest two years out of seminary was dogmatically insisting in his homilies that Catholics have a religious obligation to martyr themselves for the anti-abortion political cause. Besides conflating ideology with theology, the conservative Republican priest was engaged in self-idolatry, essentially worshipping his own ideology. His asseveration had the tone of a presumed inability to be wrong concerning his ideological/political stance, which was thus accorded truth-value. Opinion vaunted as truth is as dogmatic as it is dangerous. The same attitude (and self-idolatry) was shared by another young priest in the parish. He regularly petitioned (for the congregation) during the Mass for a “pro-life” candidate to win the upcoming U.S. presidential election in 2012. That an anti-abortion candidate such as Rick Perry might favor the death-penalty and even cheer “racking em up” was apparently irrelevant even though the Catholic Church itself formally opposed capital punishment at the time. Presumably a candidate opposed to the death penalty but pro-choice on abortion would be equally preferable to the Church’s God.

Moreover, the priest’s respect for rules (i.e., authority) was curiously conditional. For example, in spite of being at the particular parish for training purposes, he dogmatically refused to make the cup available to the laity at the 8:30am daily Mass. Astonishingly, he knowingly went against the parish’s policy in his refusal to make the Sacred Blood available to the laity. I say “astonishingly” because he evinced a rather harsh judgmentalism (i.e., passive aggression) concerning laity who do not subscribe to the magisterium (i.e., the teaching authority of the Church). Ignoring Jesus’ teaching on compassion, the priest reportedly told at least one of the Eucharistic Ministers, “I’m just not going to do it. They (i.e., the laity) get it on the weekends—that’s enough for them.” That young priest did not withhold the cup from himself at the daily morning Mass. His selective acknowledgement of the parish policies (i.e.. Church authority) can be explained by his use of an ideological “legitimating” criterion. The salience of his political ideology in his religious vocation (i.e., ideology as truth) belied his participation as a priest in Christ’s sacrifice via the Mass, which is intimated in the new “and with your spirit.” Lest it be said, “he is only human,” it can also be said that not every human should be a priest.

In the context of young right-wing priests in general feeling secure enough in the Church to interlard the Mass with their partisan ideology, critics of the new translation naturally “deride the [newly translated] Missal as a throwback to the days before the 1960s Second Vatican Council.” To undo that council as if it had never happened would be pleasing, after all, to the young priests and their traditionalist mentors in the hierarchy. The sinister element can be discerned from how the 2011 translation came about in the context of the succession of translations.

According to the New York Times, after the 1974 translation was modified in 1985, scholars “then began work on a new translation, and by 1998 a full draft of the new missal was completed and approved by bishops’ conferences around the English-speaking world. But Rome never approved that translation, and instead, in 2001, issued new guidelines requiring that the language of the mass carefully follow every word of the Latin text, as well as the Latin syntax, where possible. That marked a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of “dynamic equivalence” that had guided the earlier translations.” Rev. Anthony Ruff, a scholar of Latin and Gregorian chant at St. John’s University and seminary worked on parts of the new translation but left after he became “increasingly critical of the clunky text and the top-down secretive process.” He claims the syntax is too Latinate—meaning that it is not good English. “Rome got its way in forcing this on us, but it is a Pyrrhic victory because it is not bringing the whole church together around a high quality product.” In other words, the new translation is the result of a heavily-ideological right-wing agenda foisted on the faithful by the highest levels of the hierarchy.

Bishop Donald Trautman, a former chair of the U.S. Bishops’ liturgy committee, characterized the revision as “elitist” in the sense of being incomprehensible to the average Catholic. He could just as well have meant “heavy-handed” and “self-serving” in referring to the officials insisted on the crude, literal approach. The interlarding itself evinces the pre-Vatican II “high” clericalism that is present in the new translation particularly in “and with your spirit.” John Pinette, a former Catholic priest (traditionalists will no doubt stress former here with a self-satisfied smirk that hints at a latent passive aggression just below the surface ready to pounce on “them”), situates the political context within the Church at the time of the new translation. Just days before the new translation went into effect, Pinette wrote, “the forces of the restoration [of pre-Vatican II Catholocism] are firmly in control of the Catholic Church’s apparatus at this point.” That is, the new translation is “part of their larger effort towards a “Catholic Restoration” of more traditional values and ways” and “will make more conservative Catholics happy.” Pinette observes that this “seems to be a decided inclination in the present [Vatican] administration’s ease at stepping around the Second Vatican Council’s teachings to appease those far right of center.” Pinette’s perspective resonates with how the push of the movement further and further to the right by among traditionalist clergy (and laity) was asserting itself more and more boldly and stridently through homilies.

In a “big picture” sort of perspective, the 2011 translation provides us with a valuable snapshot of how far to the right the pendulum had swung since it formally began in 1979. Indeed, the continued movement further and further from the center was laying the seeds of the inevitable backward force even as the presumed increasing entitlement appeared to prove that the pendulum would never return to center. The traditionalists’ rendering of their extreme as the center only reinforced this appearance. The instinct behind the continued movement from the center was none other than greed, the fundamental desire for more. Under the sway of this instinct, what one has just achieved suddenly looks insufficient so one goes for still more, which paradoxically adds force to the eventual swing back to center. Additionally, the presumption that one cannot be wrong forestalls any check from self-discipline. The dominant movement is therefore utterly unwilling to hold itself back before it goes too far and inadvertently triggers the counter-force as if deterministically. This was the basic dynamic going on in 2011 as the traditionalist, Vatican II reactionaries sought to solidify their hold on the pendulum by instituting a more literal-to-the-Latin translation of the Mass. A narrower unity would replace a wider net.

Aside from the unnecessary loss of members who are not ideologically conservative, the Church suffers a cost in terms of foregone humility, compassion, and caritas seu belevolentia universalis. This phrase can translate as “love, that is, universal benevolence” or as “charity, that is universal benevolence.” Which is the accurate translation of caritas: the more literal charity or love? Charity is actually a false cognate of caritas, which means sublimated human love that includes self-love.

Beyond the ongoing tussle between traditionalists and progressives lies the eternal value of showing (and feeling) compassion when it is least convenient. Partisanship expunges this value even in the name of God. Christ’s body should be universal, with each member assuming a distinctive part. To privilege one part while severing others is at the very least short-sighted, and most probably hypocritical. I suspect that this was the underlying dynamic going on with the new translation. Perhaps this is nothing new, but it is unnecessary and unfortunate nonetheless. Yet given the nature of power (and greed), true selflessness is not likely to be chosen by those “on top.” I stand with those on the bottom, whatever their ideology. The least of mine, Jesus says, are the first, the Kingdom of God is within them, while most who are first are last. Were this principle to be applied to the Catholic hierarchy, I suspect many of the religious officials “at the top” might have reason to be nervous.


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Bishops Tout Revised Mass As More Elegant,” USA Today, November 23, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-11-22/catholic-mass-liturgy-changes/51356546/1

John Pinette, “Vatican Vandalism: The New English Translation of the Catholic Mass,” The Huffington Post, November 23, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-pinette/vatican-vandalism-new-mass-tradition_b_1110369.html?ref=tw

Sharon Otterman, “Catholic Church Uses New Translation of Mass, Closer to the Original Latin,” The New York Times, November 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/28/nyregion/for-catholics-the-word-was-a-bit-different-amen.html

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According to the Wall Street Journal, “(s)ome 40% of Roman Catholic parishes in the Boston area can’t pay their bills, and only 16% of local Catholics attend weekly Mass.” So the Archdiocese of Boston announced an overhaul plan in late November 2011 to increase membership.The plan is to evangelize—meaning “knocking on doors” to get more people into the churches. William P. Fay, a monsignor and co-chairman of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Planning Commission, said in an interview at the time, “what we’re saying is that we’ve got a responsibility to reach out to other people and get them engaged and involved. Once you’re baptized, you’re supposed to go preach the gospel to other people,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was on the front burner, but we are trying to bring it to the front burner.” In other words, Fay’s response to the decrease in church attendance was to stress an obligation of others—specifically, of the laity. His external orientation, moreover, evinces his view that the problem was “out there”—in the Catholics who were no longer attending Mass—rather than closer to home. In other words, his assumption that people need only be convinced to return ignores the very real possibility that the problem was not them, but, rather, the officials in the archdiocese. Pushing the remaining laity to go out and round people up would do nothing to correct the underlying problem, if indeed the church hierarchy had been the problem. Indeed, Fay’s approach bears all the earmarks of projecting the problem away from its source—a rather convenient albeit futile approach.

About a week before the archdiocese’s announcement of its evangelizing plan, Cardinal Bernard Law, who according to USA Today had “resigned in disgrace as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 after the priest sex abuse scandal exploded,” retired from “his subsequent job as head of a major Roman basilica”—archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica to be specific—at the Vatican. The low percentage of church attendance in 2011 can be attributed to 1) rapes of children by homosexual priests, 2) the failure of the archdiocese under Bernard Law to hold those pedophiles to account, and 3) Law’s own re-appointment at the Vatican after his resignation in disgrace. Just the seemingly ascetic priests manifesting as a new bird of prey would be enough to discredit the Catholic Church in Boston; Law’s handling of the rapists should have utterly discredited it.

According to USA Today, “(t)he abuse crisis erupted in Law’s Boston in 2002 after church records were made public showing that church officials had reports of priests molesting children, but kept the complaints secret and shuffled some priests from parish to parish rather than remove them or report them to police.” That the Pope went on to hire the rapists’ accomplice is consistent with the charge made by the prime minister of Ireland publically in parliament on July 20, 2011 that high-ranking Vatican officials had been uncooperative and even arrogant in regard to that government’s investigation of rapist papist priests in Ireland. The Prime Minister, a Catholic himself, was pained to have to acknowledge that he no longer trusted the Vatican.

Indeed, there is good reason to conclude that the Vatican’s hierarchy itself has been populated by men so arrogant as to be incapable of sufficient contrition to hold “their own” accountable. In other words, the entire organization may be infected. According to USA Today, “Law’s 2004 appointment as the archpriest of one of Rome’s most important basilicas had been harshly criticized by victims of priestly sex abuse, who charged that bishops who covered up for pedophile priests should be punished, not rewarded.” Lest it be thought that future bishops might be different, Law remained a member of a half-dozen important Vatican congregations, including the office that helps the pope select bishops, even after his resignation as archpriest.

One new bishop, David Kagan, who was ordained as bishop in North Dakota a week after Law’s resignation as archpriest, had such a reputation for arrogant coldness among parishioners at his former parish in Illinois that the resulting steady decline in membership compromised the parish’s finances. As a pastor, Kagan had regularly refused to meet with parishioners who sought to make appointments, and one of his most proud homiletic lines was, “Don’t worry if you don’t understand the Marian miracles; just obey.”  Doubtless Law had a similar “law and order” line. The obvious question is how such men ever got to become priests in the first place, much less bishops.

What is surprising about the 15% attendance rate in the Boston archdiocese in 2011 is that it was so high. It is utterly emetic to witness a loyal parishioner make excuses for clerics who enabled other clerics to continue to rape boys. It is sad that any parishioners effectively reward a corrupt organization by continuing to frequent it, as if tacitly doing its bidding. It is a sad commentary on religion itself, moreover, that the Boston archdiocese was still afloat years after Law’s resignation in disgrace, while he was able nonetheless to enjoy the pomp of ceremonial office in the Vatican.

As for Boston, presuming that the remaining beguiled herd animals have an obligation to knock on doors to bring people back (while presumably nothing has changed internally) adds insult to injury and demonstrates that the infection was indeed in denial of its own nature and in control of the patient. The only viable solution to enabling arrogance that cannot be wrong is to relieve that arrogance of any office, for such a nature is completely averse to facing itself, not to mention holding itself (and those “of its own”) accountable. It is particularly sad to witness this arrogant “can’t be wrong” attitude among the pets of the hypocrites. By the laws of nature, arrogance should not even be able to exist, as it is by definition excess beyond its underlying substance. Even so, it presumes the right to rule on stilts. If only it were as easy as simply watching those ruled walk away, freed from the hypocrisy and deceit in the name of religion. Then perhaps the old order could collapse and be replaced by another. Yet as it is, the old hangs on, even though discredited societally, forestalling any nascent rebirth.  It is as if the sordid bishops carry their crosses publicly but resist being crucified for fear that they would lose the earthly power they love. Consequently, they do not see resurrection, which is vindication of a power the world knows not.


USA Today, “Disgraced Former Boston Archbishop Leaves Rome Job,” November 21, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-11-21/vatican-cardinal-law/51328536/1

Jennifer Levitz, “Archdiocese Turns to Evangelizing,” The Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204397704577072760933178218.html



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Irony fuels a good story, at least in terms of culling interest in order to draw in the unsuspecting reader or viewer. When the irony strains the bounds of good measure or even sanity, however, one can be left staring at the absurd, with no hero in sight. I suppose that given the quotidian pretensions of the “religious” (i.e., pretentiousness regarding an assumed, unhindered access to revelation via objective—and neutral, by the way—interpretation), one can expect more than a trove full of irony in religious institutions. Unfortunately, even the absurd, which is to say, sick, can also be found there, in the most unlikely of places.

A rather obvious example of the absurd in religion is the pedophile priest who preaches family values while extolling celibacy as a virtue. No divine decree can theologically justify raping kids, so the immorality (and criminality) has nothing to fall back on except sickness. Of course, a pedophile can be either heterosexual or homosexual, so I don’t mean to relegate the latter as a sickness. Replace “preaching for celibacy” with “preaching  against homosexuality” and specify the pedophilia as being of the gay variety, and we have the alleged case of Bishop Eddie L. Long, an evangelical protestant minister. Here, the absurd takes the form: Thee protest too much, for the demon specified lies within. In this case of alleged misdeeds, the demon is on several levels: preying on the least of mine (in religious terms) and pedophilia (in sexual, moral and psychological terms).

According to the New York Times, “(a)t the height of his power, Bishop Eddie L. Long would pack tens of thousands of people into his megachurch in the suburbs of Atlanta. With his well-cut suits, passion for Bentleys, and dynamic, accessible style of preaching, he quickly climbed the list of [America’s] most powerful religious leaders. He built his ministry, which stretches to Kenya and other countries, on a strong message of conservative Christianity that included promises of prosperity and attacks on homosexuality.” By powerful can also be understood, popular. According to Timothy McDonald, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, Long could pack in 8,000 on a weekend. That’s reaching a lot of people. With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to Voltaire, and yet the inevitable temptation is also in the mix. I will briefly address that of greed, before moving on to the main thrust of this essay—on lust.

In promising prosperity, Long preached that God rewards those having true belief with earthly treasure. Lest this seem to be mixing the sacred with the profane, one need only recall Jesus’ saying about the rich man getting in to heaven  being like a camel getting through the eye of a needle (i.e., it isn’t going to happen). Long’s  greed may have been extant in his use of church members as means (rather than as ends in themselves) for his own enrichment. According to the New York Times, “ten former members who attended church investment seminars [were] suing him [in 2011], claiming he [had] coerced them into investment deals that cost them their retirement savings. He [had] recently reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a $2 million bank loan, much of which went unpaid after a real estate deal that went bad.” It is not surprising that the insipid mix of the sacred and profane in the label “church investment seminars” alone would function as a gateway from greed and the related misordered concupiscence—putting a lower good above a higher one. If Long used his “seminars” to cull additional dollars in order to “play in the big league,” then he would have evinced the operative assumption of the “camel-needle” anti-wealth stance: that holding wealth is tantamount to being motivated by greed. From this perspective, the pro-wealth paradigm is inherently compromised. To the extent that it is the dominant economic paradigm in Christianity, the ability of churches (and their functionaries) to restrain greed is necessarily compromised.

Turning from greed to lust brings in the added element of hypocrisy with respect to Bishop Long. Even as he was preaching against homosexuality, the charismatic bishop settled in May 2011 with five young men who accused him of sexual coercion. According to the New York Times, the “young men claimed that the pastor offered gifts, trips, and emotional and spiritual guidance that eventually led to sexual relations. One of the young men, Maurice Robinson, said in court records that his relationship with Bishop Long began when he was 15 and that on a trip to New Zealand the two engaged in sexual acts.” A conservative Biblical hermeneutic going “down under” with a boy would have to know that the mix of hypocrisy, pedophilia, and homosexuality would be far beyond the sin of homosexuality alone, and yet Long’s alleged involvement with five boys suggests a long-standing practice. To understate the obvious, there is a huge red (not rainbow) flag waving wildly over the psychology that must undergird the sustained hypocrisy, pedophilia, and self-hatred. While it is only natural to sympathize with such suffering, that of the boys should not be slighted. Incredibly, Long’s flock did not fly away en masse amid the revelations. I want to make the less obvious point that a red flag also applies to those members of his church who stayed. Even after Long announced in December 2011 that he was temporarily stepping away from the pulpit to try to save his marriage, some members were glad the bishop’s absence would be temporary.

Frank Cook, a contract administrator who has been a member for 20 years, is not going anywhere. “It’s all about restoring, forgiving and loving,” he said in an interview on Sunday. “We love Bishop Long and we’re going to keep coming.” Even though attendance at Long’s church had dropped to 4,000 from about 8,000 at one point in 2011, according to McDonald, Long remained a powerful force. “Even on his bad days, if he gets 4,000 or 5,000, he’s still larger than 94 or 95 percent of most churches.” At the very least, 4,000 people willing to keep coming is enabling. Far more nefarious is the psychology that looks the other way, effectively relegating abuse even when it is the rape of a boy.

To grasp the severity of the personality disorder that refuses to reject child-rapists, even and especially under religious auspices, it is necessary to have a better picture of the abuser. In the case of Sandusky, a football coach at Penn State, a grand jury report made public days after Long announced his temporary leave indicated that one of the alleged victims “testified that on at least one occasion he screamed for help, knowing that Sandusky’s wife was upstairs, but no one ever came to help him.” Besides picturing the nature of a man who continues forcing himself into a kid unabated even though the boy is screaming presumably in pain and to for help, we can liken the enabling wife upstairs to the people who continued to attend Bishop Long’s services and even empathize with the rapist. “He needs to be with his family,” said Marilyn Arnold, a business manager. “It’s hard on his family. When he comes back, we’ll be here.” Lest this be taken as evincing the virtue of loyalty, one need only think of that of Sandusky’s wife amid a kid’s screams from the basement. I contend that the same twisted psychology applies to church members and clerics who enable child-rapists in the pulpit. The apparent virtue of attending church should not obfuscate this similarity.

Of course, it must also be pointed out that not every member of Long’s megachurch stayed after the rape charges were made against the pastor. Valencia Miller, a property manager in Lithonia, said she left the church after the young men who accused the bishop of sexual impropriety came forward. “A lot of us left. I mean, a lot,” she said in an interview in early December 2011. “The church needs a cleansing,” she said. “I’m real disappointed. He was a man we all looked up to.” That he should be the person to do the cleansing is like having the rapist council the rape victim from prison, or having the politicians who refused to have derivative securities regulated (e.g., Larry Summers) write the financial regulation reform after the crisis of 2008. In Long’s church, part of the cleansing should have included confronting the church members who did not leave. To be cleansed, in other words, the megachurch would no longer exist. Sadly, the members remaining were like Sandusky’s wife—hardly of a psychology healthy enough to cleanse anything, least of all themselves.


Kim Severson and Robbie Brown, “Charismatic Church Leader, Dogged by Scandal, to Stop Preaching for Now, The New York Times, Dec 5, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/us/eddie-long-beleaguered-church-leader-to-stop-preaching.html

Chris Greenberg, “Dottie Sandusky Issues Statement Supporting Husband, Jerry, Over Child Abuse Allegations,” The Huffington Post, December 8, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/08/dottie-sandusky-issues-statement-penn-state-scandal-jerry_n_1137595.html



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Even on Christmas day, television networks and local stations in the American States refer only to the holiday indirectly through “Happy Holidays.” It is essentially to ignore Christmas, or to make a statement to that effect. Either way, passive aggression is involved. Such aggression is also involved when on the very next day—the day after Christmas—the media drops “Happy Holidays” and refers to New Year’s directly. The presence of an ulterior agenda is rendered transparent when more than one holiday is continuing on upcoming even on the day after Christmas. That is to say, were “Happy Holidays” being on the level during the Christmas season, the greeting/exclamation would apply up until the last of the upcoming holidays. In 2011, the private holiday of Kwanzaa began on the day after Christmas and ended on New Year’s Day. The private holiday of Hanukkah began on December 20 and ended on December 28th.  Therefore, “Happy Holidays” should technically have lasted through New Year’s Day. That is to say: if that expression is appropriate. I contend that it is not.

I contend that “Happy Holidays” would only be appropriate were more than two national holidays in close proximity to each other. In December, the U.S. Government recognizes only one holiday: Christmas. To be sure, New Year’s Day is also officially recognized, and thus fully appropriate to be recognized by name in the public square. Yet for decades, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” fully captured both of the national holidays. To switch to “Happy Holidays” because holidays of private parties (e.g., groups) are also in December is to fallaciously treat those private groups’ affairs as national holidays due recognition in the public square. More abstractly, to treat a private group’s event as equivalent to a national holiday (national meaning officially recognized by the government, and thus by the general public) is to commit a category mistake. An unconscious discomfort with this category mistake (and the related false entitlement for the private groups’ events) probably contributes to the general resentment of “Happy Holidays” even apart from the natural reaction to the passive aggression wherein one public holiday is singled out to be ignored by name.

An implication of my argument is that there must be a secular Christmas holiday, for otherwise the constitutional separation of church and state would have been violated by the Congress when it made Christmas a national holiday. Government offices such as the post office and courts are closed by law on Christmas. This could not have been mandated because of the religious significance of Jesus. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas precisely because it is not a religious holiday—the miracle of the incarnation being associated with the conception rather than birth of Jesus. A birthday, in and of itself, is not theologically significant; it is not a miracle. Even so, some Christians are under the misimpression that atheists (not to mention non-Christians) do (or should) not celebrate Christmas. I know of many atheists who do. One need not acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Son of God in order to hang stockings by the chimney with care, decorate a Christmas tree, or believe in Santa (and Frosty the Snowman, as well as Charlie Brown). Millions of non-Christians in India and China have Christmas trees and exchange presents on Christmas; one need not attend a Christian service. In fact, a full array of festivities is regularly made of Christmas by many people without them attributing any religious significance to it.

Generally speaking, much of the “war” about Christmas is fueled by misconceptions and category mistakes. In other words, the whole thing is a bit of a mess. Straining out the confusion, we can conclude that the secular Christmas that is recognized by the general public through its government is the only such holiday in the month of December. It is thus hardly inappropriate for anyone to refer to Christmas by name in the public square. Conversely, no obligation exists to recognize an event or holiday by a private group or association, whether it be religious, political or social in nature (including the religious aspects of Christmas!). If this conclusion be ignored, then at least the “Happy Holidays” should not suddenly end on the day after Christmas unless there are no private events through or just after New Year’s.

Adding a personal observation, the pushy passive aggression, invisible category mistake, ignorance that cannot be wrong, and sheer fakeness of “Happy Holidays”—all seeking to monopolize public discourse like a drill Sargent—had me counting the days during “the season” of 2011 until Christmas. This was not because I could not wait to wake up on Christmas morning (remember how exciting waking up on Christmas morning was as a kid?—and how hard it was to get to sleep on Christmas Eve?). I suspect that as the profit-seeking retailers stretch the Christmas season ever longer and longer, more and more people will suffer such burnout midway through December—and not just because we have allowed the retailers to eclipse Thanksgiving. The mere recognition that a secular Christmas exists for many and that it is recognized by the U.S. Government (and thus perfectly appropriate to refer to by name in public!) is sufficient to clean away much of the rubbish and perhaps restore some of the innocent excitement that many adults had as kids on Christmas. We could then turn our collective sites on those sordid retailers who (conveniently) don’t seem to know the expression, “too much of a good thing.” Hopefully, clear thinking will come out ahead of confusion and resentment.

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The Illinois legislature voted in November 2010 to pass The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which legalizes civil unions for same-sex couples. In the following year, most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois were closing down rather than having to comply with the requirement that same-sex couples be included among potential foster care and adoptive parents. “For the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, the outcome is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people,” the New York Times reports. In other words, the Bishops wanted the issue to be viewed in terms of a clash between religious freedom and group rights. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer whom the Times reports “helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.”

According to the New York Times, the bishops were “engaged in the religious liberty battle on several fronts.” The clerics asked “the Obama administration to lift a new requirement that Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charity groups cover contraception in their employees’ health plans.” At the same time, the bishops were protesting the denial of “a federal contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking, saying the decision was anti-Catholic.” An official with the Department of Health and Human Services told “a hearing on Capitol Hill that the bishops’ program was rejected because it did not provide the survivors of sex-trafficking, some of whom are rape victims, with referrals for abortions or contraceptives.” Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel and associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed with the decision. “It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,” he said, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.”


To be sure, “political rights vs. religious beliefs” is a difficult nut to crack. It is like having to solve for both x and y in an algebraic equation. Both sides enjoy formidable legitimacy in the West, and the political and religious dimensions are difficult to relate or compare, as they are different domains of the human experience. That they can impact each other does not mean that they have the same substance. If we could get “political” or “religious” on both sides, however, it would be easier to compare the sides and, moreover, to which domain was driving the conflict. I contend that the conflict was at root political. Obscuring this realization is the long-standing habit of overextending the domain of religion from its basis in religious experience.

In late 2011, the Catholic archbishop of Chicago remarked in an interview that gay activists are like KKK members because both groups oppose the Catholic Church.  My immediate reaction in hearing of the remark was that the man was doubtless a partisan, being in a political fight. Lest the bishop’s protestations to the contrary be taken seriously (as if there were nothing in the remark that could reasonably taken as offensive), I want to make his distinctly political impetus (as well as the implied opportunity cost in foregone religious experience) transparent. If I am correct, the wolf in sheep’s clothing took after the Pharisees more than the lamb. My approach in this argument is to relegate the apparent religious and even moral alternative bases of the bishops’ motivation.

When a bishop says that gay men or women should not have sex, not to mention form a civil union that legitimates the “sordid” sexual relations, should intimates that the claim has a moral or normative dimension. Lest thou shalt not be taken as subsuming morality under religion, as in the moral half of the Decalogue, the immoral treatment of Job and the divine decrees to the ancient Hebrews to kill even the children of the tribes refusing to convert from worshipping Baal both suggest that religion is not confined or reduced to morality. Theologically speaking, divine omnipotence (i.e., God’s power) cannot be limited by a moral system by definition alone. Nor can immoral be treated as synonymous with sinful. Harm to others is not the same as distancing oneself from religious experience, even though one can affect the other. To the extent that the Catholic bishops were applying “should not” to particular issues that can be viewed as essentially moral in nature, a category mistake was likely involved in characterizing them as “religious beliefs.”

Were the clash between political rights and religious belief more accurately between political rights and moral standards (or ideology), we are still left with the uneasy job of relating the political to the moral—another case of x and y. As in algebra, it would be easier if we could substitute an equation of x’s for the y so we could solve for x. Fortunately, the “political vs. moral” relation may not go far enough in getting us to the root of the conflict. Specifically, the moral aspect may be a subterfuge for a political motive.  

That both the anti-gay and anti-abortion (as well as the anti-stem-cell) stances of the American group of Catholic bishops line up with political conservatism in the Republican Party suggests that a “right-wing” political push may have been the bishops’ true motive beyond (though related to) their traditionalism. Lest the bishops’ call for more economic redistribution be cited as an outlier or counterexample, Christian charity dovetails with the Republican platform. The ill-fate of liberation theology in the Vatican of John Paul II suggests that even there mandated economic redistribution was receding in value. In my view, the theological de-emphasis was due to shifting political ideology. To be sure, the Vatican’s call in 2011 for greater financial regulation—though notably coming from the Vatican in Europe rather than the American bishops—is either an exception or something the American bishops could easily advocate in lip-service out of a traditionalist view of obedience to the Vatican, especially relative to their opposition to abortion, which even renders them as “single issue” (i.e., reductionist) voters. In terms of the traditionalist bishops’ political ideology generally, I submit that the bishops themselves were by 2011 much closer to the “right-wing,” social-conservative branch of the Republican Party than to Obama’s Democratic Party. Liberation theology had lost out to abortion (and gay marriage). I contend, in other words, that the bishops’ personal political ideology was in the driver’s seat—with their social ethic and even theological interpretations occupying the back seats even in their official roles as bishops. Claiming that the particular incumbent should not matter, Max Weber would no doubt object to the salience of the personal in the bureaucratic role.

The salience of political ideology even in an ecclesiastical office could also account for the subtle presence of passive-aggressive anger in the Christian clerics whom one would naturally expect would be compassionate peace-makers rather than incendiary partisans. Additionally, ideology could be behind the “single issue” orientation wherein the “pro-life” issue has been pushed so in homilies and petitions. The near-obsession over the issue of abortion, even though Jesus says nothing on the issue itself in the New Testament, may suggest that something other than following Jesus or even religion itself is involved. At least with social welfare, passages in the Gospels can be found in which Jesus advocates feeding or caring for the poor. The hypertrophy of abortion (and even gay marriage—the secondary political issue in the Church) does not pass the smell test from the standpoint of what a follower of Jesus would prioritize politically. My point is that something else is in the mix, and it is rooted neither in religion nor ethics.

Furthermore, the increasingly extreme positions since 1979 taken by the traditionalist clergymen could reflect the nature of a distinctly political ideology. Without a viable check to arrest it, a political agenda is apt to take more and more for granted until the movement is finally upended by the opposition finally having had enough.  This pattern can be seen by comparing the U.S. House Republican majority in the mid-1990s with that in 2011. A similar pattern was extant among Catholic priests (and their lock-step epigones) through the same period. The issue of  stem-cell research, for example, can be viewed as going beyond abortion to a more extreme position, which in turn could only find enough of a solid constituency once the traditionalists had effectively taken over the hierarchy and the vast majority of parishes. I suspect that a similar trajectory can occur in theological matters, as in going from Mary as an intercessor to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though without any obvious associated moral or political movement. In both cases, the lack of any internal check is evident (and perhaps lapses in the human mind’s ability to keep perspective on its own trajectory). Similarly in the case of greed , that which looked like a good deal achieved an hour ago suddenly looks hackneyed next to the possibility of an even better deal. The perceptual switch implies a dis-ease with limitation.

In Illinois, the Catholic hierarchy has at times been astonishingly blatant in both its extremism and overt political partisanship. The blatancy alone may say something about the formation of a dominant coalition in political terms (i.e., that the traditionalists had already infiltrated the hierarchy and enough parishes). In 2011, for example, a young priest in Rockford, a rather conservative city ninety miles northwest of downtown Chicago, openly petitioned God in Mass for a “pro-life” candidate to be elected as president of the United States in 2012. A “pro-life” candidate necessarily meant a Republican candidate, as Barak Obama was clearly pro-choice and no other Democrats were contesting him in the primaries.

Another priest, also a year or two out of seminary, declared (without any hint of a possibility of being wrong) in a homily at the same parish that the Catholic laity have a “religious obligation” to martyr themselves for “the pro-life movement.” Notably, that movement is political in the American lexicon. The lay leader of the parish’s anti-abortion group interpreted that “religious” obligation as implying that lives would be saved if there were fewer doctors. Aside from the clearly political nature of homily despite (and undercutting?) the religious context, the sheer extremism (without any hint of being recognized as such!) matches the tendency of political movement to go too far, as if it were entitled to do so.  

In short, both of the young traditionalist priests had the same distinct political orientation, which dovetailed with their traditionalist anti-Vatican II ideology.  Although subtle, both priests were said to have evinced a seething anger, just below the surface of a peaceful humility. Beyond being against modern society itself (one of the priests advocated in a homily that the parishioners replace their televisions with Jesus’ sacred heart), the anger was directed against liberals as a group (under the antiquated rubric of “heretics”). The priests’ subliminal message was that any politically-liberal Catholics were not really welcome at their parish. In other words, only socially-conservative (Republican) Catholics could truly feel at home there. I contend that this distinctly political prejudice is the counterforce to “political rights” in the dichotomy introduced above.

In brief review, I first replaced the “political rights vs. religious beliefs” distinction with that of “political rights vs. moral beliefs (or standards).” Beneath the moral dimension in this case is a political ideology. Now, the bishops refer to their claim as that of “religious freedom,” which would render the clash as “political rights vs. political liberty.” As a right is simply the protection of a freedom, the tension can be rendered as between liberties. However, the bishops’ “freedom of religion” may have been a red herring, as no right to receive government contracts exists in the U.S. Furthermore, the practice may compromise the “establishment of religion” clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. federal Constitution. Even if the “freedom of religion” claim applies to social services (which I doubt), the expression does not sufficiently capture the bishops’ push against gay marriage and abortion beyond the Church’s social services—that is, beyond the Church’s liberty being infringed. Hence, the “x” may not reduce exclusively liberty. To be sure, the “political rights” position may also include a “remaking of society itself” beyond ones’ own liberty. In other words, political ideologies are also in the mix. Beyond the clashing liberties may be clashing societal ideals presumably to be instituted and enforced by political means. It should be evident that we have left the domain of religion, even if religious beliefs may be related to one or both of the contending political visions.

To cement this conclusion and uncover an implication regarding the bishops’ religiosity, I turn now to distinguish religiosity from moral and political issues. I contend that pruning of what we somewhat carelessly take as the religious “tree” is long overdue. We have lost a sense of what the core of religiosity is, having been long distracted by interlarding moral and political agendas (as well as by the expansionary trajectory of religion itself).

At least in the United States, abortion and gay marriage (as well as economic redistribution) are within the lexicon of political issues, even if the two are also moral and ostensibly religious in nature. The religious nature is tenuous at best, even though linkages are possible. The phenomenology of religion literature, such as Otto’s Idea of the Holy, describes the phenomenon of religion as being an experience whose referent transcends the limits of human cognition and perception. Meditation, adoration, prayer, and worship (e.g., through ritual) are just a few of the possible manifestations of experience whose referent is transcendent. In contrast, moral and political issues are contended within these limits—in the human realm. In other words, yearning for union with the divine, as per Augustine’s pining for God as love, is sourced beyond our grasp, and is therefore qualitatively different than declaring a moral or political position (which we typically presume cannot be wrong, even apart from any link to something taken as religious).

For example, to believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in dynamics in the world is very different than claiming that having an abortion, engaging in sodomy, going on the pill, and using human stem cells in research are wrong. Most significantly, the Holy Spirit is inherently transcendent even as it is immanent, whereas the activities are not—the stances on them being at best indirectly linked to beliefs on a transcendent concept. In other words, the question of whether the Holy Spirit is acting in the world must be left at “I believe” and “You do not.” In contrast, stances on the activities, which—and this is crucial—are not transcendent, can get beyond such unknowability. An advocate would not say, “I have faith that abortion is wrong.” Rather, he or she would declare, “Abortion is wrong because . . .” The typical reason given—that of “harm to the fetus”—is itself a distinctly moral reason (i.e., harming the innocent is wrong). The issue is thus within Catholic social ethics, rather than being a theological doctrine on the nature of the divine. It is problematic to conflate the two, as if a stance on an “issue” were itself a theological belief on the nature of the divine. Yet this is perhaps the major fallacy being committed by the Catholic hierarchy in the post-1979 anti-Vatican II traditionalist movement, which have pushed “social ethics” on to political stances—the “pro-life” movement being distinctively political.

Lest it be retorted that a linkage can indeed be established from religious experience or even Christian theology to a prohibition on gay civil unions or abortions, a relation of affects does not constitute identity. In fact, two discrete entities or concepts are needed just to say “X affects Y.” Therefore, even just insisting that one’s religious experience or one’s faith in that which one believes is transcendent impacts one’s moral and political stances implies that on treats the religious domain as distinct at least conceptually from the stances. To the extent, moreover, that moral and political stances (e.g., the anger involved against contending partisans and their positions) eclipse religious experience and any ensuing sensitivity to existence itself (and people—i.e., compassion), the overgrowth of what we take as religious can actually suffocate that tree of spiritual life. One might ask, therefore, whether the bishops and their priests (and laity) truly value religious experience, given the opportunity cost that is involved in an expansionary interpretation of the religious domain as including particular moral and political stances (and advocacy).

If religion has indeed become too distended for its own good, then some of the clerics who portray themselves as religious may actually be enlivened a political motive that operates subtly at odds with the portrayal itself. That is to say, the clergy may have been tacitly undercutting their own claim of religiosity in general and more specifically in following Jesus, who taught us to value the good Samaritan, who tends after his enemy, over the priest, who passes by the injured as if religiously impure. The proof, as it were, is in the pudding.


Laurie Goodstein, “Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion,” The New York Times, December 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/us/for-bishops-a-battle-over-whose-rights-prevail.html?_r=1&hp

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“The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal.” This statement from an American scholar of religion belies the conventional opinion that 94% or so of Americans believe in God—that, moreover, Americans are a relatively religious people (when we are not at work or in the stores). I suspect that there are at least three Americas when it comes to religion.

First, there are those people, most explicitly the Christian evangelicals, for which religion is almost always on their minds. Try changing the subject with an evangelical from religion and you may observe a sudden impatience then several attempts to not-so-subtly jar the conversation back to the topic (e.g., “religion as selflessness”). This group steadily grew through the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the next. Second are the secularists. They may have grown up attending religious services, but their adulthood knows no religious dimension. This group was growing too, particularly during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The two groups could be living in different worlds for how different their orientations are. One could even say there are two Americas in this respect. Even conversation can be difficult between them, as even the matter of general topic would be in dispute due to the one party’s sheer indifference regarding the interests of the other. This dichotomy is too simplistic, however, for there are millions of Americans who lead basically secular lives and still attend weekly (or less) services of a “mainline” (i.e., established) religious institution. For example, a Catholic might attend Mass on Christmas and Easter, or even dutifully every Sunday, and that would be the extent of religion in his or her life. The quotidian nature of such religiosity can itself be taken as secular in that there may be very little actual religious experience in the “same old, same old.” It is merely what one does—how one was raised. Once the Mass is over, there is no hint of religiosity.

I suspect that Europe consists overwhelmingly of the second two groups—the secularists and the relative few (15%) who attend religious services weekly. To the vast majority of Europeans, religion is simply a part of the historically-given culture (Europeans tend to value this component of culture more than do Americans, who are more apt to value newness). Consequently, most Europeans have a great deal of difficulty understanding the evangelical wing of American politics (many Americans do too).

Having established the three American groupings—the different worlds in a sense—I want to focus on the secularists, as their substantial presence is typically ignored except when Christmas comes around and charges fly that secularists are commercializing Christmas—leaving Jesus out of it. Actually, as any Jehovah’s Witness will admit, the birth of Jesus is not a theological, or religious, event. Jesus is said to have been born the same way you and I were born. The two Christian miracles are the incarnation (conception of Jesus, before the birth) and the resurrection. Misunderstanding also surrounds the secularists. Most notably, they are often misconstrued as atheists.

According to USA Today, 44% of Americans told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey that they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom” and 19% said, “It’s useless to search for meaning.” Forty-six percent told a research agency (LifeWay Research) that they never wonder whether they will go to heaven. Twenty-eight percent said, “It’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” Eighteen percent said they did not believe that God has a purpose for everyone. In 2007, 6.3% of Americans were found by Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey as “unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.” I suspect this last percentage is understated, given the higher percentages above. In the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS), the people who checked “no religious identity” leapt from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. Nearly half of the 15% said they believed “nothing in particular.”

I think we have to take these people at their word, rather than assume that they are misguided and simply haven’t “gotten it” yet. The great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, was at ease refusing even on his death bed to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. It would be presumptuous for the rest of us mere mortals to assume he had made the wrong choice even though the evangelicals insist that one must have faith in Jesus’ identity (and thus salvific role) in order to avoid hell after the death of one’s corporeal body. It would also be reckless to assume that Hume and the people in the percentages above are necessarily atheists simply because they are secularists and reject institutional religion.

Unlike atheists, the people represented in the percentages above don’t reject religion; they simply are indifferent to it. It is said the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Put another way, atheism—the creed that denies the existence of God as conceptualized by man—is a reaction against theism and thus in the religious domain of theses and antitheses. The indifference, on the other hand, is simply to be without religion, and thus to be neither theist nor atheist.

Suhas Sreedhar, for example, is mentioned in USA Today as having grown up with a Hindu mother and an atheist father. “I was saturated with both views, and after a while, I realized I don’t need either perspective.” Significantly for our purposes, he relegated both views—both being in the religious domain. “God? Purpose? You don’t need an opinion on those things to function,” he says. This is not agnosticism, for he is not saying that God may exist. Rather, the matter of having an opinion—yes, no, or maybe—is itself set aside with indifference. “There may be unanswerable questions that could be cool or fascinating . . . but they don’t shed any meaning in my life,” he added. The question of God simply never comes up; one is immune and utterly indifferent to it because it does not offer any meaning.

To people like Suhas Sreedhar, scripture and tradition are “quaint, irrelevant artifacts,” according to USA Today. This is not to say that materialism or even licentiousness is the default. Many for whom the (or an) Almighty is off the radar can nevertheless love their families, care for their kids, and value friendships. Suhas Sreedhar would be offended by the following passage from the Pope’s 2009 Midnight Mass homily: “Origen, taking up one of John the Baptist’s sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God’s love. Origen says of the pagans: ‘Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood’.” (see Lk 22:9) In seeing Christ, however, “God who became a child,” the Pope goes on to say, “our hearts are opened.” In other words, people such as Suhas’ Hindu mother lack feeling and reason. Suhas’ mother is incapable of loving her own child. In other words, by including the quote from Origen in his homily, Joe Ratzinger was essentially saying that anyone who is a polytheist (e.g., any of the nearly 900 million Hindus around the world) is incapable of loving even a spouse or sibling (and of thinking).  If you are like me in shaking your head in utter stupefaction that such a statement would be made at all, least of all in the twenty-first century and by the head of the Roman Catholic Church (and broadcast around the world on television), you may be getting the picture on how institutional religion has facilitated the growth of the “Nones.” That is to say, the lack of “feeling and reason” might be on the religion side of the equation, and the indifference (rather than hatred) of the “Nones” being a kind of charity toward the “religious” birds of prey.

Generally speaking, institutional religion may be on a trajectory of discrediting religion itself and even spirituality by getting them so utterly wrong even while claiming to be infallible. The sheer arrogance in the presumption among many of the most proud in the ranks of the clergy may be enough for some people to comfortably check the “None” box and move on with their lives rather than argue (or engage) with those who presume that they are somehow superior to other human beings (in terms of being related to God) by virtue of a specific calling (or laying on of hands). What if people with authority (i.e., power) in the institutional religions have made convenient choices that essentially sideline religion itself from the lives of an increasing number of people? What if the “officials” have been getting religion wrong, spreading their lapses by means of their exclusive right to the pulpit?

Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., for example, may have it wrong even in how she defines “the whole purpose of faith” as “to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times.” This seems too rationalist to serve as the “whole purpose” of faith, which could alternatively be applied to a transcendent-based (i.e., faith in a transcendent being, or in transcendence itself beyond the realm recognized by the “Nones”). In other words, “difficult times” may already be extrinsic to religiosity if the latter’s core (or domain) is religious experience. Finals week may be a difficult time for a student, but religious experience is intrinsic to that busy week, much less practiced at a time of such time pressure. Budde herself may thus have missed or at least mistaken the core of religiosity for something only indirectly linked to it. A dearth of meaning in religious terms could be expected among those to whom she is preaching.

Blithely unaware that she might be at fault, Budde conveniently blames society. Referring to the “Nones,” she easily opines, “We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable.” What if “unacceptable” were applicable to the supercilious clergy instead? What if “society” were just a natural reaction, or verdict, against the decadence that has rotted institutional religion from the staid, wooden pulpit, rather than from the “lazy” back pews? The failure by most clergy to even consider this point as a mere possibility makes my point. As one church historian said, “We can’t underestimate the power of the collapse of institutional religion in the first ten years of [the twenty-first] century. It’s freed many people to say they don’t miss rituals or traditions they may never have had anyway.” While collapse is perhaps too strong of a word to describe a general decline, particular given the “counter-example” of expanding megachurches, the decade may represent a turning point in it being generally acceptable for a person to say to strangers that he or she is not only not affiliated with any institutional religion, but also is simply not interested in (discussing) the subject.

To be sure, some people are undoubtedly just not interested in religiosity. Were they to experience religious experience without the distractions, they might say, “oh, that’s what it is,” or “Ca m’est égal,” returning to their own pursuits. It is likely that some of us more than others are genetically “hardwired” or more attuned by environment to find religious experience to be inherently satisfying or fulfilling. To push this on everyone may ignore real differences and, moreover, misunderstand the nature of religious experience itself. It may not be like breathing air or eating—things we all must do. Particularly in institutional religion, religiosity is conveniently treated as a common underlying trait or even basis in human nature. This assumption is wide-spread enough that it is taken as the default in society at large. Moreover, religion itself has been distended such that it has come to be misunderstood by us all, as if an error had unwittingly become the default. In other words, things extrinsic to religiosity have come to be deemed as lying within its domain, inherent to it even above that which lies at its core by its own internal logic.

For example, abortion is generally recognized as a religious topic, but is it really? Particularly relative to religious experience, “the issue” looks pretty “manmade” at least in the degree of emphasis (given the opportunity costs in terms of religiosity). Religious ritual is generally recognized as the point of “doing religion,” but what if ritual is merely the “prep” for religious experience, which is religiosity? Furthermore, how often does one have a numinous experience while listening to a carefully-prepared (and delivered) sermon or homily? Even so, the sermon is a staple in religion, particularly in Protestantism. One goes to church to hear the sermon, rather than explicitly to enter into distinctly religious experience.

Beyond the “likenesses” are the interlarding abuses that have tainted institutional religion itself as well as its “authorities.” Most notable as the “Nones” were growing in number was the serial pedophilia taking place or discovered among some Protestant clergy but many more Catholic priests during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Indifference may represent a bit of a lucky break for institutional Christianity, given its lax regulation of itself even as its clergy preached Jesus’ line, “what you do to the least of mine, you do to me.” Walking away from religion in a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” indifference may be the healthiest move for an onlookers to take; meanwhile, the “flock” that continues on with the “same old, same old” as if nothing had happened—rationalizing “it was just one man”—may be just as sick as him. In short, the “society” at fault may not be that to which secularists have flocked, but, rather, those perpetuated (or enabled) by the flocks that have been unknowingly misled by what Nietzsche calls the new bird of prey.

In conclusion, more than sheer boredom with religion lies behind the rise of the “Nones.” Rather than being about “nothing,” those people who are indifferent to religion may be saying something affirmative in having voted with their feet—namely, that institutional religion deserves indifference (or worse, actually) because its “leaders” or authorities have mucked it up so bad while presuming near infallibility in so doing. While surely not all of the secularists, I suspect that some of them, plus even many current congregants, would be surprised to discover that religiosity is not what the “expert” practitioners have been saying and doing for at least a century or perhaps several. In other words, those humans in institutional religion have not sufficiently restrained themselves from getting in the way; they have been loving religion to death by contorting it to fit their own image. Indifference, even more than disgust, is what they and their edifices to self-idolatry may indeed deserve. Were religionists to “get back to the knitting,” a higher proportion of people who are innately oriented to religious experience might partake. However, the notion that every human being is or should be so oriented seems mistaken to me. It may stem from a misunderstanding of both human nature and the nature of religiosity, with religion having become human, all too human even while retaining the name of the divine as a sort of game flag.

Perhaps it is actually self-idolatry under a ruse that has been fueling the indifference that has been fueling secularity. As per their nature, the proud are wont to blemish the natural reaction of indifference into some sort of demon, wholly unaware that the stygian culprit lies within themselves. The natural reaction of others to such darkness is simply to walk away, back into daylight. The transparency afforded by the disinfectant sunlight effectively dissolves the supercilious edifices in the new world—the city on the hill called secularity. It is not indifference to meaning itself that is evinced here—the popularity of Hollywood films alone demonstrates this; rather, it is indifference to purported meaning gone wrong: self-vaunted meaning on stilts under the subterfuge of humility. How’s that for a mouthful! Now go out and feel alive—play like comic dancers too adult to be so serious, and forget all about, rather than deny, this sordid religious stuff.


Cathy Grossman, “For Many, ‘Losing My Religion’ Isn’t Just a Song: It’s Life,” USA Today, January 3, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-25/religion-god-atheism-so-what/52195274/1



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