February 16, 2014

Adventures in scriptural revision

I was just reading 1 Samuel (that sounds like a lead-in that has a back-story, but it doesn't, really), and the footnotes in this edition (New American, i.e. Catholic) are remarkable. Here's one on verse 13:1:

A formula like that of 2 Sm 5,4 was introduced here at some time; but the age of Saul when he became king remais a blank, and the two years assigned for his reign in the received text cannot be correct. Tradition (Acts 13,21) offers the round number, "forty years".
That is to say, we don't really know what this verse actually says, so we're leaving one part of it blank and actively contradicting another. This is how they actually presented that verse:
[ Saul was . . . years old when he became king and he reigned . . . (two) years over Israel. ]
The brackets are included in the main text. The weirdness of this inspired me to check out a few other translations. For comparison, the NRSV has the similar
Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.
with two footnotes to explain the blanks. "The Message" Bible, a somewhat controversial idiomatic/contemporary translation, just sidesteps the missing numbers:
Saul was a young man when he began as king. He was king over Israel for many years.
But what did they do before the era of modern Bible scholarship? Apparently, just say things that make no sense at all. Here's the KJV:
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,
What? And Douay-Rheims is even better:
Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.
What the what?

Just a few pages later, another footnote is even more eyebrow-raising in its sheer contradiction of the text. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel (the judge, who speaks for God) says to Saul (the king), that it's time to punish Amalek; in verse 3, he says, speaking for God,

Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.
A gruesome, genocidal command, with no room for interpretation. But the footnote on this passage says:
In such wars of extermination, all things (men, cities, beasts, etc.) were to be blotted out; nothing could be reserved for private use. The interpretation of God's will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral, seminomadic peoples such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.
So... God gave a command, but Samuel edited it, and misinterpreted what God meant? An interesting idea; it might be worth pondering, except that the subsequent text pretty directly contradicts it. Saul, it turns out, carried through the full genocide but held back on some of the animals (not to eat them, but to sacrifice them later), and God doesn't like that he didn't wipe out everything:
Then the Lord spoke to Samuel: "I regret having made Saul king, for he has turned from me and has not kept my command." (10-11)
Thence ensues a back-and-forth where it is fully clarified that when God says wipe them out, he means wipe them out, and wanting to offer sacrifices is not as important as obedience and submission. The closing line of the chapter reiterates that "the Lord regretted having made him King of Israel." All of which is, sure, part of the cognitive dissonance inherent in working with the Bible; and it can all be addressed with an analysis that understands Biblical history as an evolving relationship between humans and God. But that footnote is... well, the best that can be said is that it's trying a bit too hard.

'It should be a movie. A movie musical, in fact. That entire first book of Samuel screams out, "MAKE ME INTO AN EPIC. INCLUDE AN INTROSPECTIVE BALLAD."' --Jonathan Prykop

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May 17, 2012

Further and further

In the scant two months since I walked out, the RCC have doubled down on their reprehensible politicking over the contraceptive mandate, one bishop accusing Obama of being like Hitler and (more recently) a college dropping healthcare entirely in order to deny women access to contraception. Meanwhile the Vatican has smacked down 80% of US women religious (i.e. nuns) for too much focus on social justice (instead of the anti-gay and anti-contraception activism the Pope wants). And then a few days ago, the bishops decided to investigate the Girl Scouts for not conforming well enough to doctrine.

First of all, the clear conclusion here is that I picked a good time to walk out; it certainly hasn't gotten any better since then. (An alternative conclusion was that my presence was the only thing holding it all together, but I am skeptical of this possibility.)

I'd also like to draw attention to a common thread, though. What do all these have in common? Women... women... women. How on earth does anyone defend this? I feel like I've been saying and typing the word "misogyny" an awful lot lately, such that it becomes bleached of its meaning, but seriously, it's getting more and more difficult to even imagine alternative explanations.

"For years, motivational speakers and the like have been touting how the Chinese word for "crisis" is made of "danger" and "opportunity," which (1) is bullshit and (2) is a little insulting as it implies Chinese words were created to teach lessons, unlike any other culture where words are created because you need to say that thing." --Christina H

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April 09, 2012

More Catholic madness

My old diocese (Peoria) is still occasionally sending me updates because they haven't noticed I moved, and against my better judgement I just read part of one. In it, Bishop Jenky is going on about how he's willing to go to jail over resisting the mandate, saying that everyone who disagrees with him is just pretending to be Catholic, and finally has the gall to claim that "they wouldn't do this to any other religion in the country."

Yes, that's right. The Catholics are the ones that are persecuted here. That's why they make up something like a quarter of all Americans, a similar percentage of Congress, and fully two-thirds of the Supreme Court.

He, like many others in the hierarchy, is pulling out all the stops on this. They care about this issue more than they have cared about any other issue, social or political or theological, in my lifetime. They have mobilised the troops on this issue more than they do for abortion, their heretofore banner issue, and the only other issue that they've raised even close to this much fuss about.

And the thing they (claim to) care about, more than anything else, is making it harder for women, Catholic or not, to gain some measure of control over their own reproductive health.

They were often accused of having an anti-women bias over abortion, and they protested that it wasn't about being anti-women, it was all about the innocent embryos. As a surface motivation, this is somewhat plausible, and I think most of them believe it to be true (although I think there are probably subconscious motivations they may not be aware of). But there's just no analogous claim that they can be making here.

So yes, they care. Or at least claim to. They're ready to go to jail to demonstrate what martyrs they are for the deep and abiding principle of... of... not letting women exert control over their own bodies? Because granting women such access, and making everyone pay into a pool to pay for it---a tax, effectively---is the largest affront to the church that they've ever seen. Apparently. I still think that at least some of the bishops were duped into this and haven't really thought about what-all they're supporting, but they've thrown in with the Republicans in a big way here and are promoting an agenda of making non-Catholic women (who ignore them) and Catholic women (who mostly disagree with them) less able to make their own moral, personal choices.

"Sometimes one despairs of using natural language for communication of propositions between humans, when it is so manifestly not suited to the task." --Geoff Pullum

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March 12, 2012

So I walked out of church today.

So I walked out of church today. My complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic Church took a turn for the even-more-complicated when I finally got fed up with them turning Mass into yet another political rally over the contraception mandate. Today it was right in the homily, and I closed my book, grabbed my stuff, and walked out of the church, and didn't look back; I went down the street and joined the Episcopalians for their service*, already in progress.

I've been thinking about this for a while. I objected to it the first week the priest gave a little speech during the announcements at the end of the Mass; not an explanation of the moral teachings of the Church or an exhortation to follow them, but a "call your Congressman" type of speech about how terrible this mandate would be and how the bishops have declared that they will ignore it. The speech contained a few half-truths and falsehoods, but more importantly it omitted a number of significant details, and most importantly it did not admit a response. If it were an actual political rally we might be there because we already agreed; if it were a debate or a lecture we'd be able to call the speaker on his omissions. But they—meaning the RCC hierarchy—had slipped it clashingly in to the ritual of the Mass.

Not the first issue

The question I've been getting really hung up on is this: Why now? Why this issue, of all things? Many a time have I objected to something the RCC has done or said, but it's never grated on me so heavily nor pushed me away so fully. I remember one homily by Fr. Ernie at IHM in Galesburg where he ranted at length about the US being a Christian nation and accused anyone who claimed otherwise of being unpatriotic and un-American. I remember a homily during a private Mass at a cousin's anniversary celebration about how secular forces were threatening the marriages of the faithful by pushing for the state to allow gay marriage—and of course a lot of messaging outside of Mass on the same topic. I have complained before about electioneering via church bulletin inserts (in that case, on the topic of abortion, in the immediate run-up to the 2008 election). I have also complained before about the Pope's nasty little letter about gay priests. And of course, there's the entire abuse scandal, which is still playing out in some ways, with its systemic disregard for the health and well-being of children, which was singlehandedly responsible for driving away a large number of cradle Catholics.

So, why this? Why now? I have had ample reason in the past to be upset with the church (and, for the record, I have been upset with them). I've been pondering that question for weeks now, and trying to analyse the previous issues and my reactions to them.

Some of my previous complaints were about specific people. One priest, or deacon, or even bishop, would say something obnoxious in a homily or in a public statement. This is easy to brush off.

The issue of abuse is one on which I have given the RCC—as an institution—more of a pass than perhaps I should have; but I have long suspected that its substance was not unique to the American Catholic church, nor to the Catholic church, nor even to churches in general. Aside from the fact that there will always be bad people that do bad things, there is also the incredibly strong human instinct to trust someone that you know and to think the best of them even when you're pretty sure they did something bad. It's something we need to work on. But as the Catholic scandals broke in other countries, and more recently the Sandusky case at Penn State, where Joe Paterno had at least some knowledge of what was going on (but students protested in support of him anyway) and an even more recent case in a Florida church where a Baptist minister pled guilty to child sexual abuse (but the congregation voted to ban children from attendance rather than lost the pastor) have showed that this inclination is not one that we can easily dismiss, and not one that we can pin specifically on the RCC hierarchy. Certainly, the abuse scandal was a case where I could clearly delineate why it was different from the case at hand.

The pronouncements about homosexuals and homosexuality were offensive, so why didn't they drive me away? My best answer is still sort of fuzzy there; it has to do with seeing that the RCC was wrong on this issue but also knowing that it's been wrong about lots of things before—and eventually, it comes round. The timescale may be a long one, but an institution that has existed for two millennia gets, to some extent, the right to change relatively slowly. This issue does not represent a regression (or, depending on your scholarly sources, possibly it does, but if so, it's a very old regression; it certainly isn't a new development), and so there is reason to hope that they'll make the same shift that everyone else is making... eventually. It is, in any case, fairly clearly not the same as what's going on with this contraceptive mandate.

The one that's hardest to tease apart is the (ongoing) rallying over the issue of abortion. I have, in fact, complained about it before, and my complaint then was specifically that it was making the church play politics; I did see that it was an issue that the church had been involved in for a long time (the proscription against abortion for Christians actually dates all the way back to the 1st century AD), but my specific complaint and worry was that by inappropriately playing politics in church, they actually reduced their own moral authority, and appeared as subsidiaries (or worse, dupes) of the Republican Party.

And on reflection, that's a big part of my objection now. It's still not the same thing—in 2008, what I was seeing was individual priests adding inserts to the bulletins, which was both easier to chalk up to individual variation in the church and also not intrusive on the ritual of Mass itself.

So, why now? Why this? The bulletin inserts now are letters from bishops and central diocesan offices, coordinated nationally. The message is related to a message the RCC has long maintained about contraception, but the response to healthcare mandates is a new one. When a group you've already suspected of selling out to a political party starts doing nationally-coordinated rallying, helpful to that party, in an election year, on an issue they have not roused themselves about before, it's really hard not to conclude that they have, in fact, sold out to a political party.

Disingenuous, or just duped?

My conclusion was that what made this issue my breaking point was the fact that this one, finally, I couldn't see as an honest effort, a sincere misstep in pursuit of principled goals. Either the endeavour was insincere from the start, or else the USCCB was flat-out duped by the Republicans who want a good election-year wedge issue and a hit-job on Obama's healthcare initiative (what little of it even got passed in the first place). It almost doesn't matter which of the two is the case, and of course it could be both. (Especially on an individual level.) And I'm happy to consider any given person involved to have been effectively duped, because it doesn't really matter which is the case, although I suspect that most would be as angry at me for the accusation of dupe as for essentially lying to us (or, more precisely, in its technical sense, bullshitting us).

Interestingly, and most crucially, this is quite distinct from them being wrong (which they also are).

This issue is not one we've heard any fight about before; in particular, when 28 different states passed similar mandates, we didn't hear about it, and we didn't hear about any churches or affiliated entities throwing a tantrum about how they wouldn't pay even if the courts ruled against them. (There were lawsuits filed, of course, but that's legitimate if you thought the laws were unconstitutional.)

The bishops give just enough acknowledgement to this fact to make you think they're being honest. But in a USCCB-distributed memo (one of several inserts into our bulletin a few weeks ago), they say: "HHS chose the narrowest state-level religious exemption... [which] exists in only 3 states (New York, California, and Oregon)." From what I can tell, Arizona has the same narrow exemption, but they neglect to mention that there are also 8 states with no exemption: CO, GA, IA, MT, NH, VT, WA, and WI. (Another 7 have exemptions that are still narrower than what the USCCB is now demanding federally.)

A further development in the "disingenuous at best" category is that although the provision is in regards to contraception—both hormonal, meaning birth control pills, and surgical, meaning sterilisation—the bishops and those speaking for them have consistently construed this to include "abortifacient drugs", as in, "plans [that] must cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception". In speech (though I've not seen it committed to paper), this often gets put first and gets abbreviated, so that the provision will be requiring Catholics to pay for abortions (and some other stuff).

The whole issue is then put forth as one of freedom of religion—of the employer. The issue of the employee's freedom of religion does not seem to be that important to them, despite the fact that it is the employee, Catholic or not, that needs to make the decision of conscience to use, or not use, birth control. But it's crystal clear that the USCCB has not simply overlooked this issue: in their urgent memorandum they specifically point out that the exemption "excluded those that served or employed people who were not members of their religious community," and that this "failed to cover the vast majority of faith-based organizations." Underlining theirs. In the same breath that they make a freedom-of-religion claim, they actively point out that this is primarily about denying that freedom to their employees, who might (presumably) exercise it.

It's a lot that's coming together here. Any one thing? I'd have my suspicions and I'd complain, again, but at some point it becomes impossible to believe that intelligent men (and in other contexts I'd say "intelligent people", but here, of course, they really are all men) would come up with this from scratch without seeing how duplicitous it was. Which would mean that either they saw the duplicity (hence are being disingenuous), or didn't come up with it and hadn't thought it all the way through (hence duped).

On the merits

This is already long and I don't want to turn it into an essay about the merits of the actual plan—because that's already been talked to death elsewhere. I think it important, however, to cover one important fact that lays bare the awfulness of the bishops' agenda.

The USCCB is on record as objecting to the very idea that hormonal birth control is even health care, claiming that it "is an elective intervention that stops the healthy functioning of healthy women's reproductive systems." In a similar vein, one frequently sees objections to the idea of pregnancy as a "medical condition". As such, how could the pill be considered preventive health care?

First, we can dispense with the idea that pregnancy itself isn't a medical condition. It's not a disease, but in the modern developed world nearly every pregnancy comes under the supervision of a doctor, and even those who prefer "natural" birth are typically careful to line up a backup plan. Because a pregnancy leads to, at best, a somewhat risky ordeal involving a lot of pain and a fair amount of blood; and it can, unpredictably and without warning, at any time, turn into a mortally dangerous medical emergency. As such, empowering women with a measure of control, should they choose to take it, over whether they enter this condition in the first place, is clearly within the general rubric of "healthcare", and "preventive healthcare" at that.

But even in the imaginary world where nobody wanted to take the pill for its contraceptive function, it can be (and is!) prescribed for a variety of non-pregnancy-related conditions, including dysmenorrhea, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and even certain kinds of bad acne. (Indeed, its original use was in treating menstrual problems; contraception was a side-effect!) Literally millions of women use the pill for its non-contraceptive functions.

This is not a secret to the bishops, but they do not even deign to mention it, in any publication I have yet seen. This is presumably—more disingenuousness—because it would significantly weaken their claim. Rather, they are willing to take the millions of women who use the pill non-contraceptively and throw them under the bus, because they want to decisively hinder access to contraception, for Catholics and non-Catholics both.

Above the rules

The bishops' arguments are broadly in furtherance of the claim that the rules should not apply to them. Here's where the distinction between "disingenuous" and "dupe" really matters; because that claim leads immediately to a total dismantling of any centrally regulated healthcare system. If a church-based employer can make a conscience-based objection to covering a hormone pill, then clearly any employer can, because their leadership have consciences too. (Well, presumably.) And if an employer can object to a hormone pill, there's any number of other things they could object to, too.

I'll be the first to admit that we have a dumb system here, putting each employer in charge of purchasing their employees' healthcare plans. It is a sickness upon our economy that hurts worker mobility, market competitiveness, and healthcare cost and availability. But if we're going to do this thing, and if we're going to even pretend that this is anything other than a mechanism to enforce a modern sort of serfdom, then our regulations have to guarantee that employees of different employers are getting the same basic healthcare product—whatever we agree that product to be. If you want to lobby to remove contraception from that list, try. (Good luck with that; it won't be very popular.)

But you don't get to say that you're above the law just because you don't want your money going to something you morally disagree with. News flash: this is part of living in a non-anarchic state. When you pay a tax (and make no mistake, that's what this is), sometimes some of that money goes to things you disagree with. You do get to complain, and you even get to protest; but you don't get to just say you won't pay it. (Well, you do get to say you won't pay it, as long as you eventually pay; this is why I suspect the bishops are bluffing. That, and the fact that they're already paying in more than twenty states. But I digress.)


So I walked out. This post had already been brewing in my head for several weeks now, since the first time it was brought up during announcements, originally simply as an explanation of why the church was wrong this time (in the vein of my previous posts, linked above). The second time the mandate came up, I frowned disapprovingly, and I thought about it some more.

Here was a case where the bishops' conference was going out of their way to nationally coordinate an attempt to embarrass Obama in an election year. On an issue that they hadn't cared about nearly this much when a third of the states already passed it into law. Yet another issue that disproportionately affects women, and for which more than a million women would be little more than collateral damage in this power play. An issue on which something like 87% of Catholic women actively disagree with the hierarchy. In a context where many of those affected weren't even Catholic. And all under the banner of freedom of conscience, disregarding the freedoms of the individual women, whose consciences are presumably either too weak or just irrelevant.

But it still hadn't led me to any conscious decision to leave. The church was wrong, of course—again—but that hadn't driven me out before. And I was irritated at the bishops for mixing religion and politics—but that, too, I'd weathered before. It was a sudden decision, and a very unexpected "last straw" moment as well; I had naïvely thought we were done with the issue, and certainly wasn't expecting to hear about it in the homily. I had brought my old hymnal to Mass to continue a curious conversation about an unusual chord in one of the Lenten songs, and was not at all planning to leave early. But then the deacon's homily took a sharp left turn, from urban legends into the government's contraceptive mandate, and I found myself snapping the book shut, picking up jacket, hat, and bag, and walking out. I think I said "I'm done," but I'm not entirely sure. I assume the deacon kept talking, although I don't remember that clearly; and when I say I didn't look back, I don't mean that metaphorically. I didn't look back at the pew, I didn't look back at the sanctuary, and I didn't look back at the church.

I'll miss the familiar music, I'm sure. I'll definitely miss Fr Manny's chants of surpassing beauty—his was a voice for which the Gregorian chant was designed. I would have said I'd miss the comfortable familiarity of the ritual, but they'd already thrown that away (and as far as that goes, the Episcopalian Rite I is about as familiar as the revised RCC Mass, with Rite II being more like the Catholic Mass than the Catholic Mass anymore). But as much as I'm Catholic and always will be, I'm finally fed up with the shortsightedness and increased politicisation of the church leadership.

So, I'm done.

* I originally wrote "Mass" here. But that's really not what Episcopalians call it.

"How about social conservatives make their argument without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one's values, but let reason inform one's public arguments." --Kathleen Parker

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March 08, 2011


These links came up in a recent Facebook discussion. They address points that I've mostly made myself, but they do it rather more elegantly:

Mostly I just wanted them someplace where I could easily find them again, so I can refer people to them.

"The Magna Carta... came about for the same reason so many landmarks of liberty, including the Declaration of Independence, were established in the English-speaking world---because the upper middle class balked at paying taxes." --Sarah Vowell

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March 02, 2011

Synchronicity: US vs UK

I saw the following two stories within a day of each other:

You should read both (they're short), but the upshot is this: in the UK, an aid agency told a religious couple they couldn't foster kids because they wouldn't accept a gay child (or rather, they would "accept" gay children but then tell them there's something wrong with them); in the US, religious aid agencies with public funding told couples they couldn't foster kids because they themselves were gay.

Of Stephen Colbert the character: "He's not mendacious and stupid; he's innocent and stupid. He's more like a puppy urinating on your politics." --Tom Purcell

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November 20, 2010

Condom use and the RCC

The Roman Catholic Church has long forbidden all condom use, regardless of any mitigating circumstances. Can't afford kids? Can't use a condom, just don't have sex. Scary genetic markers? Can't use a condom, just trust God. Sex out of wedlock? Can't use a condom, and stop sleeping around. HIV-positive husband? Can't use a condom, just go contract AIDS and die.

I wish I were exaggerating. I remember one Newman meeting where Fr. Bruce professed to care very much about the plight of women but adamantly claimed that all condom use was an inherent moral wrong. All of it. We even set up the not-very-hypothetical situation of a woman with an HIV-positive husband who was insistent on having sex with her one way or another, and Fr. Bruce was quite clear that it would be immoral for her to even request a condom. He said, with no irony and a perfectly straight face, that using a condom would mean that she was not making a complete gift of herself to her husband (and that he would not be making a complete gift of himself to her). Nice gift.

So wherever the line really should be drawn, the RCC has been well on the wrong side of it, and finally (but somewhat earlier than I expected) the Pope has admitted as much. In a book to come out next week, the Pope concedes that condom use may be acceptable to reduce HIV risk, at least in some cases. So, progress.

But what's really, really weird about this is the context in which he made this concession. When I first saw this in a Telegraph article someone shared on Facebook, I thought maybe it was a mistranslation or just an odd focus, but the BBC article linked above framed it the same way, as did the Trib and NYT. Here we go: the example where AIDS-preventive condom use might be acceptable is male prostitutes, starting on the path back to morality. Not spouses with HIV; not prostitutes generally. Male prostitutes.

I'm going to take a deep breath here, so I can give you a measured, rational response to this:


Look, we know that the RCC is basically misogynistic at its core and has been for basically its entire existence. And we appreciate that it's been making some progress in that regard, with fewer restrictions on what women can do and at least a handful of women in reasonably high posts in the Curia. And we know that change in one of the oldest institutions in the world isn't going to be fast. And surely by giving an example he is only giving an illustration of the principle—although based on what I've read it's not entirely clear that the reasoning is meant to apply to the spousal case I outline above.

It still manages to shock me how completely blind to women the Pope can still be about this. He went far out of his way to cite an AIDS-prevention example that didn't protect any women at all—just men. Apparently he just couldn't bear the thought that women might have even a small measure of control over their own bodies. Only in the context of sexual relations that the church already forbids on at least three separate grounds (extramarital, homosexual, and prostitutive) did he specifically concede that perhaps condoms might not be adding to the burden. And in setting the context up as possibly "a first step towards moralisation", he didn't even cast the net wide enough to include all sexual sinners. He specifically addresses this to male prostitutes.

This is at the very best a criminal level of tone-deafness from the Pope. But I'm pretty sure it's actually just another manifestation of the boy's club's continuing distrust and loathing of women.

"To many of us Brits, the cry 'keep government out of health care' just sounds a little kooky, on a par with 'keep government out of defending the nation' or 'keep government out of building roads'. In Britain one of the main things the government does, one of the main reason people pay taxes, is for health care, so naturally the revulsion at it in the States seems a little strange." --Mark Mardell, BBC

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March 08, 2009


It's stories like this that (legitimately) get the Roman Catholic Church and anti-choice activists accused of misogyny:

Rape row sparks excommunications

A Brazilian archbishop says all those who helped a child rape victim secure an abortion are to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The girl, aged nine, who lives in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, became pregnant with twins. It is alleged that she had been sexually assaulted over a number of years by her stepfather....

The anti-choice crowd tends to claim that they are not anti-women but rather pro-child; situations like this kind of give away the game, though.

I can certainly get behind campaigns to convince people to be more open to accepting unexpected children into their life, and even to persuade people of a particular moral status for abortion (e.g. that it is wrong or wrong in certain circumstances)—both can be conducted on a social level and without judging or prejudging individual situations, and without veering off into dismissing or ignoring women.

The reason this particular case is making the international news is because of the clarity of the example: this isn't even just your typical mother's-life-in-danger example, because we also have rape, incest, and abuse thrown into the mix, not to mention the extreme youth of the child involved. And yet, the archbishop claims that it is gravely wrong to save this girl's life.

Lee points out an additional irony: "I notice the stepfather apparently can still take communion." Apparently the fate of public excommunication is too harsh for rapists, child abusers, et al, rather to be reserved for truly evil people, like the scared mother of a scared 9-year-old girl, and the doctors who save the girl's life. Good job, Catholic Church!

"Ranting at others because they are 'killing babies' may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't change people's minds." --Fr. Andrew Greeley

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November 18, 2008

Last rant for a while, hopefully

I have said before, repeatedly, that I find the abortion issue to be entirely poisonous to the political discourse of this country—largely because it inspires single-issue voters on both sides to overlook huge faults in one candidate just to vote against someone who disagrees on this one point. I've also said that I wish people would just let the issue rest a while so we can get back to other issues and stop arguing over a stalemate.

And yet I keep finding myself drawn back into the argument.

I think this is, in part, because I have sympathies on both sides, and as someone comparatively neutral I get really irritated to see the sheer misrepresentation flying around. Most recently, I've been witnessing the Roman Catholic Church trying to self-destruct over the issue.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, many bishops and priests launched a full-court press to get McCain elected, using crass threats about the Eucharist and salvation to cudgel voters into voting against Obama. Having failed at that, the political wind continues, as quoted in a recent TIME article (hat tip to Whispers):

"There's more fear here than wrath," a senior Vatican official told TIME with regard to the Catholic hierarchy's attitude toward Obama. However, if Obama signs the Freedom of Choice Act in his first months in office "it would be the equivalent of a war," says the same official. "It would be like saying: 'We've heard the Catholic Church and we have no interest in their concerns."

The Vatican and the USCCB are now reaping what they have sown. When they say with one breath that Catholics should consider all issues when voting, and with the next that abortion is the most important issue and trumps all others, they set themselves up as politicians playing the game rather than voices of morality. By telling millions of Catholics that they, as Catholics, must not vote for Obama, they risked their position as spokesmen for all Catholics; and when a majority of Catholics voted for Obama anyway, they lost that position. Even if most Catholics are pro-life (and I think we are), the vote served to discredit the politician-bishops, showing that they do not speak for a majority of their members and that they do not control the votes of their members.

Of course, as soon as they lost, they tried to make nice, as politicians do. "Voting for Obama is a mortal sin" suddenly became "We need to seek a compromise position" when the bishops' political dicta were roundly ignored, but now it's too late. I at least haven't noticed large numbers of people hanging back from Communion, though admittedly I haven't been paying close attention and my sample size would be small in any case; but I'm pretty sure that the 54% of Catholics that voted for Obama did so with a clear conscience, contra anything the bishops claimed about their eternal salvation being in mortal peril. Had they stuck with their original stated position—that many issues are important and voters need to look at the whole candidate—they could make reasonably credible claims on this issue. But the quote about 'war' doesn't pass the laugh test, and the last piece of the quote, that the government has no interest in the concerns of "the Catholic Church", is a truth of their own making: having demonstrated that "the Catholic Church" really means "the hierarchy" and not "Catholics", they've made themselves politically a lot less relevant.

The real tragedy, religiously speaking, is that it makes them morally less relevant as well. When religions really do stay above politics, they retain a moral authority over their congregation and a moral influence on leaders, even leaders of other religions. When they descend into politics, they become politicians, and relinquish moral authority in the eyes of their congregation (at least those that disagree politically) and in the eyes of outside observers (who may or may not disagree)—it looks like they're saying it just to get votes for their guy.

"Chicago enjoys a myth about itself---tough, brawling, but also amiable---that's grounded in a certain amount of bad behavior. A lot of people here like the legend of corruption, if not the actual practice. Corruption makes good stories." --Mary Schmich

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November 08, 2008

An unsurprisingly disingenuous response

Responding to my recent letter, another reader of the paper responded with his own, "We can choose life or death". My response (posted in the R-M comments forum as they only allow people only one "official" letter every thirty days):

You have not addressed a single point that I made in my letter, instead using it as an excuse to write a tangentially-related letter about abortion. To recap, my points were: 1) the flyer distributed in at least two Galesburg churches was not completely accurate, 2) the flyer and bulletin together convey a clear pro-McCain endorsement, which puts the churches' tax status at risk, 3) threatening voters with excommunication over their vote is unethical and desperate, and 4) single-issue voting is counterproductive anyway. Did you intend to actually refute any of these points?

To expand on #3, I'd also like to point out that automatic excommunication for voting for a pro-choice candidate is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church or of the US bishops; so-called 'latae sententiae' excommunication only follows from serious sin (like abortion itself). Last I checked, the official word was that one should pay close attention to abortion as an issue of top importance, but not focus on it to the exclusion of all else; and that though one shouldn't support a candidate solely for their pro-choice stance, one can vote for a pro-choice candidate for other reasons (as long as they are important and not frivolous). You claim that 'all' of the other issues are of 'this world', when there are numerous other life issues out there, including war, health care, welfare, and the death penaltywe can argue about their relative importance, and the RCC does indeed put abortion at the top of the list, but it is deeply disingenuous of you to pretend they don't exist.

"Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt." --Studs Terkel

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October 29, 2008

Electioneering in church

I just submitted the following for publication in the Galesburg Register-Mail:

Last week, in my parish bulletin, there was an insert entitled "Where do the candidates stand on key issues?" It's misleading and inaccurate in several places; for instance, it claims Obama opposed a bill "that would have provided protection for babies who survive abortions", but in fact such infants were already covered by existing law, and his votes against the relevant bill were for other reasons. Quotes on immigration and Iraq make it sound as if there were no differences between the two on these issues. And the clear slant of the flyer is pro-McCain: of the twelve "various issues" presented, six are about abortion, and the next page of the bulletin contains a full column that asserts that one's top priority "must" be "opposition to abortion" (as we also heard in the sermons of the day).

Is it illegal? Perhaps not, but it skates very close to the edge. If endorsing candidate X is electioneering, and illegal for churches and nonprofits, then surely mandating a singular focus on issue Y, while simultaneously handing out a piece of paper that says "only candidate X believes Y" is just as bad.

One priest in town reportedly went so far as to say that anyone voting for a pro-choice politician---for any reason---should not receive Communion. Threatening Obama voters with excommunication is both desperate and absurd, and mostly serves to make the church look like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party. I'd be sure I'd misunderstood, except that similar reports are coming in from across the country. This is spiritual abuse, and it's worse than illegal: it's terribly unethical. It also undermines their position as spiritual leaders.

The worst part is, single-issue voting is dumb even if one issue is your top priority. So-called "pro-life" politicians have long understood that abortion is job security: all they have to do is say they are pro-life, and they get votes from single-issue voters. Why would they want to actually stop abortion? These politicians can claim to be pro-life, while failing to actually address abortion (much less any other life issue) in any way, and on other issues they are free to do anything at all since their voting base doesn't appear to care about anything else.

It is for this reason that the wise voter---liberal or conservative, Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise---will look at the entire candidate in making their decision. Single-issue voting is irresponsible, simplistic, and counterproductive, and no church should be in the business of encouraging it.

UPDATE: Printed in full today (30 Oct) under the title "Church and politics colliding in Galesburg". I've already gotten two voicemails at my work phone from Galesburg residents who specifically tracked down my number just to thank me for writing it; it seems to have struck a nerve. Some interesting online comments on the Register-Mail posting, too.

"What justifies the [Boumediene] decision is the practical necessity and importance of reassuring the citizens of the United States and the world at large that the United States had not given up the role it assumed after World War II as the chief proponent of the rule of law worldwide." --Noah Feldman, "When judges make foreign policy", NYT

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July 08, 2008

Women bishops in the C of E

The Church of England's General Synod has just voted to eventually permit the ordination of women to the episcopacy, including separate majorities among the bishops, the clergy, and the laity (BBC article). This move has been a long time coming; the US Episcopal Church has been doing so for about twenty years, and its Presiding Bishop is currently female. The C of E has been ordaining female priests since the early 90s. Other Anglican churches either ordain no women at all, or only as priests, or permit full ordination of women; the variability in policy worldwide has caused considerable tension within the Anglican Communion.

Chris blogged about this, and his main worry is that the concomitant "code of practice" would essentially make the female bishops into second-tier bishops. I'm mostly responding to that here, though I may write more later.

The BBC says this in its article:

"However, it will not include safeguards demanded by traditionalists, such as allowing male "super-bishops" to cater for those opposing the change."

So whatever the code of practice involves, they won't have to deal with flying bishops. Ideally, the code will somehow (I don't know how!) involve pastoral encouragement to bring round the people who "can't" be ministered to by women.

There is to some extent a legitimate pastoral concern, one that I've seen in other contexts in the RCC, where cradle Catholics find that they can't deal with any RCC ministry, even priests and lay ministers that had nothing to do with the scandal. Their pastoral needs are not being met by the RCC, and they have to turn elsewhere. It's certainly not the fault of the person, and it might not really be the fault of the priests and ministers in their parish either, but they can't just be thrown under the bus and glibly say they have to deal with it. In the case of the WO-resistant Anglicans, you might argue that it is their problem, but I'm not totally sure it's their "fault"; if they really can't have their needs met, I'd rather see them shepherded forward rather than rejected outright.

And a lot depends on how the codes are written, too. It would be absolutely detrimental to the entire organisation if the women were dinged as not as good as the men in any way. However, if it's written with the understanding that sometimes the relationship just isn't working, and that any provisions are in the clear spirit of working around a dysfunctional relationship rather than a deficient priest or bishop, I think it's at least possible that they could be made to work. I wonder if they could write the rules gender-neutrally, i.e. that people could receive some ministerial attention from outside their parish or diocese for reasons other than WO-objection? That could be a can of worms, and potentially very divisive if mishandled, but potentially very healthy, maybe.

And as long as the children are brought up to not have sexist ideas about who can and can't be a bishop, this is a problem with a definite end in sight: slowly, but surely, the traditionists will pass away. Perhaps the code of practice could require that Sunday schools positively affirm the theology that women can be bishops? And that sacraments of initiation (adult baptism, first communion, confirmation—do Anglicans do confirmation?) be performed by priests and bishops who acknowledge the ok-ness of women priests and bishops?

"We will not fear any longer. We will not fear the international terrorists; we will thwart them. We will not fear the recognition of the manipulation of our yearning for safety; we will call that what it is: terrorism. We will not fear identifying the vulgar hypocrites in our government; we will name them. And we will not fear George W. Bush, nor will we fear because George W. Bush wants us to fear." --Keith Olbermann

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December 01, 2007

Much ado...

A couple of weeks ago, the following shrill notice appeared in the Sunday bulletin at St Pat's:

The movie, "The Golden Compass" is based on the trilogy of books by atheist, Philip Pullman and is geared towards kids. He wants kids to denounce God and heaven and does it in a subtle way...parents may not pick up on his true intentions. In a 2003 interview, Pullman said, "My books are about killing God." Please don't take your kids to see this movie! The following link gives more information : http://snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp

I was irritated at the idea that this movie would be too dangerous to see, that it would be such a good argument for atheism that we'd all smack our foreheads and go, "oh!" It's as though whoever wrote the noticed believed that just because Pullman said he was trying to kill God, that he'd be able to.

At the time, I hadn't read the books. I've now finished the first and am working my way through the second. Setting aside author's intent for the moment, I'd say that the books are an icy, stinging critique of corrupt secular power, especially of corrupt secular power wielded with the weight of (supposed) moral authority. He obviously has a great deal of real-world source material to draw from here; it's hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church has had its moments of deeply corrupt and evil activity, as have some other religious institutions. And it's clearly the case that some people see this as reason to reject the Church entirely. Back at Brown, Fr. Bodah was fond of saying "the only thing worse than a religious hypocrite is an irreligious hypocrite"—nobody has a monopoly on hypocrisy, and though hypocrisy and corruption can be found in the Church and among publicly religious people, they are hardly defining characteristics of religion. If Pullman's intent is to destroy religion and "kill God", he seems to be doing it by setting up a straw man to knock down.

Earlier this week, reviewers for the USCCB published a positive review that seems to understand this. It acknowledges the controversy but argues that the film "taken purely on its own cinematic terms" isn't even particularly questionable, much less dangerous. On the topic of the movie being some sort of bait to read the ever-so-dangerous books, the review also takes an eminently sensible stance against a ban or boycott: "parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens." A piece of advice that might well apply to any movie at all. Or book.

Of course, this review sent the Catholic crazies into orbit. The Catholic League is demanding that the USCCB revise the review to reflect the grave peril that the movie poses; in an interview, "the League warns that The Golden Compass is the least offensive of the three books and is bait for the books with 'sell atheism to kids in a stealth fashion.'" Stealth, eh? Isn't this exactly what every religiously-motivated fantasy author does? JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis might be said to "sell Christianity to kids in a stealth fashion", though that makes it sound needlessly shady and bad.

I'm a bit amused by their objection to the review's characterisation of the book's "very fictionalized church": "'Philip Pullman's books do not portray a "very fictionalized church," one that is "a stand-in for all organized religion." They portray the Catholic Church. That is why he uses the term "Magisterium," (for the evil empire),' said the League." So the highly corrupt, scary, evil church of the books isn't fictional? Um, try again, Catholic League. (That's not to say that it's not distantly based on the RCC. But a church where Pope John Calvin moved the See to Geneva, the papacy was later abolished, and governance is now distributed across several competing bodies including the bishops, the cardinals, and others... that's pretty fictional.)

A Jesuit blog raises many of the same concerns, complaining both that the movie's Church is too fictional and that it's not portraying the true Church, apparently. It particularly objects to the use of the word "magisterium", fretting that "some wildly imaginative children decide to look up 'magisterium' and somehow associate the great evil in 'The Golden Compass' with the Catholic Church." Evidently, one isn't allowed to write a book about a church gone bad that uses any of the words associated with any real church, because it might, in the hands of children, be interpreted as one and the same as reality. Of course, in this case that is more or less the author's intent, which is something all these panties-in-a-bunch bloggers are reiterating, but I hasten to remind everyone that the RCC is not one of the churches that asks you to check your brain at the door, and in fact doctrinally mandates that you evaluate the real world for yourself. Part of that is listening to the counterpoint; it gives you a much stronger understanding of the truth if you have heard the alternative.

I especially like the raft of comments on that page about how the bishops' conference is rife with schismatics. Those heretical hierarchs! Hee.

And then there are the even less-informed blogerati, raising the hue and cry while confessing, "I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books." This one later justifies himself because "several good friends whom [he] trust[s] have read the book". The ranting here is more disjoint; for instance, one snarky criticism of the movie is an ad hominem regarding Ian McKellen (who voices Iorek) being a "homosexual-activist/anti-Catholic"; of course, later in the same review he lauds Lord of the Rings and uses Gandalf in particular as an emblem of good.

What is most disturbing in that review, among others, is the recurring idea that if the church's authority were undermined, we wouldn't have the same moral/ethical beliefs---i.e. that these aren't inherently the right things to believe. Now that's pernicious. This idea is implicit in statements like "'Thorny philosophical issues' are constantly the proximate cause of genuine crisis among youth, and sometimes it's best to nip them in the bud, not buy popcorn and absorb them in vivid technicolor dolby surround at a theater" and "Pullman is poised on the brink of entering into what has been so carefully assembled, and blast it to pieces"; unless you think Pullman is right in these criticisms, why are you so scared of them?

"What a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people's damnation---just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord's parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time." --Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

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October 07, 2007

Where's the outrage?

In church today, during the announcements we were exhorted to participate in the Life Chain this afternoon, an event where a lot of folks stand around and hold up "pro-life", i.e. anti-abortion, signs around the public square. Once, St. Pat's had a strong representation at this, but our numbers had dwindled; and thus the exhortation: "Where's the outrage, people?"

Where, indeed?

It was pointed out that there was a lot of outrage floating around over Michael Vick and the dogs, but that this was about 4,000 children being killed every day. Here's the thing, though: the outrage at the dogfighting is directed at a person, Michael Vick, who is judged to be a bad person for his actions. When you try to build some sort of outrage over abortion, though, you get a little stuck if you try to make it personal: as soon as you bring an actual woman—or girl—into the equation, pregnant and "in trouble", it seems difficult to sustain the personal outrage. Especially when the other half of the message is, purportedly, that We Welcome You And Will Help You Out. What are we getting outraged at, again?

Well, here's something to get a little outraged about: agitating for laws against abortion does nothing to resolve the underlying social justice issues. Even if these groups succeeded at making abortion illegal—which wouldn't stop it from happening, mind you—the people who feel cornered enough to be seeking an abortion in the first place are simply left hanging. For the most part, they're resorting to abortion because they think they don't have any other options, which may be an incorrect perception, but you better believe they're not coming to you to talk about it after all of this.

Here's another: Planned Parenthood has done far, far, far more to decrease the demand for abortion than any of these Life Chains ever did. No pregnant girl walks out of a PP clinic without knowing all her options, honestly evaluated—a bit of scruple that I suspect most illegal abortionists would lack, and that I know most "pro-life" activists lack—and a fair sight less get pregnant in the first place, because PP has gone to the trouble of educating them on their reproductive systems and giving them access to birth control. This is the responsibility of both the parents and the schools, but both groups are abdicating in droves... often at the instigation of various religious institutions.

Which brings me to another thing one could get outraged about. For all the rhetoric about the sanctity of life and the dignity of all humans and all that—and some institutions don't even bother with that much—there remains this bizarre disconnect when it comes to birth control.* That is, in the course of arguing that all couples should welcome new life, and therefore should not want to use birth control, these people forget that some people are not yet on board with this program, do not welcome new life, and are having sex anyway. These people should perhaps not want to use birth control, but the entirety of their situation rather indicates that they should use birth control. Anyone who glibly responds that they should just be abstaining from sex is complicit in the conversion of new life from "something to be welcomed" to "punishment for having sex". By hollowly prescribing and proscribing actions without first ensuring that the actions follow from a consistent belief system, these deeply misguided "pro-life" activists do far more to engender some of the very social ills they claim to be protesting against.

So, that's where the outrage is. I'll be skipping the Life Chain.

*Many outside the religious establishments claim this is all about power and misogyny. While that's undoubtedly true in some cases, I don't think it's universally so—I'm convinced that some people really do genuinely hold these beliefs, and that it really is a weird disconnect, rather than a more active case of rationalising a prejudice.

"Since we're still on our first round of batteries, we weren't sure what this meant in terms of recording time. The unit is rated to run 18 hours, but nobody who works with electronics takes these sorts of ratings as anything other than gentle fun, a brief diversion from the world of hard facts." --Shriram Krishnamurthi

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July 24, 2007

Liturgical chaos

So next year, Easter falls early. Really early—just two days after the equinox. Now, the second half of March is a comparatively active time in the liturgical calendar: the solemnity of St. Joseph is on the 19th (and is a Holy Day of Obligation in many countries, though not the US); the feast of St Patrick on the 17th, of course (an HDO only in Ireland, but well-known in North America and other English-speaking countries at least); and the solemnity of the Annunciation, on the 25th (nine months before Christmas, get it?). Obviously, these can fall on any day of the week, which is fine, but Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter, and all of Holy Week and Easter Week, trump the regular daily observances. Which then get transferred, if of high enough rank, to a different, nearby day.

That's where the fun starts. Most of the time, when a conflict happens, it's easy enough to just push the solemnity to the adjacent Monday and Saturday. But with Easter on the 23rd, and the blackout period extending from the 16th to the 30th, all three of these feasts fall under it. Annunciation gets moved to the 31st (as happens from time to time). The conflicts on the 17th and 19th are much rarer. The Irish bishops may have been the first to notice, and got it announced that St. Pat's would be on the 15th next year, and this has been reported in a couple places. However, St. Pat's is "only" a feast day, not normally moved, and in any case of lower liturgical rank than St. Joe's—except for that thing about being a HDO in Ireland. But St. Joe's (a solemnity) trumps St. Pat's, and so the 15th will actually be the solemnity of St. Joseph. I'm not sure what the Irish bishops are doing about all this, but some US bishops have just bumped the St. Pat's observance to the 14th. Which I suspect means that some places will celebrate it on the 14th, some on the 15th, and some (who aren't into all this liturgical calendar shuffling) on the good old 17th. Maybe we should just declare it St. Patrick's Week and be done? :)

"Is Mother Nature the fall gal for God, or simply a comfortable alias?" --Eric Zorn

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February 14, 2007

Power from above

Hoo, it's been awhile since I wrote anything, but I'm totally fired up about this new CD I just discovered. Dan Berggren's song "Power from above" was linked to by the Step It Up folks, and it is, as they say, anthemic; the verses have a renewable-energy message:

Sinners are you ready for a little redemption
To receive forgiveness for what we’ve done?
The time has come to break bad habits.
It’s time to turn to the wind and sun.
The chorus takes that rather religious language and draws the analogy more clearly:
Just a little more power from above,
Just a little more faith, respect and love
For this old earth our only home.
It may take strength to say no to that power from below
But there’s salvation in the power from above.
Absolutely brilliant. Note that throughout the song, it uses "we" language: the singer is certainly not exempt from his own message. We all need to work at being better—and to draw in more of the Christian context he's accessing very effectively here, we're all human and will never be perfect, but that only means we can all always work on improving.

But that'd be all for nought if not for the song. It's a folky tune that is just unbelievably catchy. A low-fi MP3 is available from Dan Berggren's website (along with the full lyrics), but you know what? Just go buy the whole CD (entitled "Fresh territory" and available on iTunes). It's all good, some is environmentalist, some is just good folk music. His "From every mountain side" is not to be missed; four new verses to "My country 'tis of thee" that are just as good if not better than the original:

Seeds of democracy,
Nurtured with honesty,
Become our liberty
When we share the load.
So, yeah, go buy it.

"It's also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness." --Michael Pollan

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January 26, 2007

Theology on Tap


I knew I'd been hearing about "Theology on Tap" events since basically forever, and that there were some places where it was still relatively new. But what I never realised until I just saw it mentioned in passing in a Whispers post (original article) was that the program was actually founded at St. James, the parish in Arlington Heights that we were members of from the time we moved to the NW suburbs until sometime after Kathy was in high school.

So, huh.

"What a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people's damnation---just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord's parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time." --Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

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January 24, 2007

So much for the consistent ethic of life

The head of the Catholic Church in England has given an ultimatum that the Church would rather leave hundreds or thousands of children homeless than to place even one child for adoption by a gay couple. Some new laws passed last year say that adoption agencies can't decide not to place a child just because of the orientation of the adopters, just as they already couldn't withhold a placement based on race.

Though often billed as gay rights legislation, it's really more about the children: it's simply awful to hold adoptable children hostage, making them wait longer to be placed, essentially just to make a point. But your friend and mine the Roman Catholic Church evidently has more important things to think about than, you know, helping children, and so they're calling the government's bluff.

In response, the government—evidently more reluctant than the Church is to sacrifice the welfare of the children—is considering an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies.

The worst part is, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is attempting to frame this as discrimination against the Church, firing up a great big martyr complex and trying to pin this one on the government.

Thanks, Catholicism! Chalk one more up for the consistent ethic of life.

"I think Solomon would agree that the only fair solution here would be to cut Joe Lieberman in half lengthwise." --Mike McCool

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December 24, 2006

Here we go again...

I really don't know why I let myself keep going to St Thomas. Well, no, I do: it's right across the street from my parents' house, and therefore convenient. But every Mass I attend there ends up being offered up as a penance, for something, because they typically range from the comical to the downright painful.

It's not even that they are liturgically abusive. There are some spots, sure, but they do better than a lot of the places I've been while travelling. It's just that the music is so awful.

Not that it has to be. The music director, Marcy Weckler Barr, is a talented musician, playing, singing, and even composing---her stuff is just the sort of thing you'd like, if you like that sort of thing. Today's responsorial (from Ps 80) had a Jewish-inspired tune that was actually pretty good. It's just that for every song she's up there playing her synthesiser with the breathy, new-age-y instruments that sound incredibly out of place in any liturgical setting. (As does the drumset....)

And the musical choices! I can forgive putting "O come, O come Emmanuel" as the processional, because although I'm not fond of the piece, it is traditional and eminently appropriate this time of year. But she managed to find a simply awful Mass parts setting to the tune of "O come, O come Emmanuel". The words didn't fit very well, and nobody knew what they were supposed to be singing, and based on what was written in the "worship pamphlet" they didn't want the congregation singing anything but the refrain anyway (didn't know there was a refrain in the Sanctus, did you?). The congregation never sings at St Thomas, though, probably because they get new stuff thrown at them every week and most of it is pretty crappy anyway.

The offertory song was an exception, in that it was actually pretty good, but not an exception in that it was performed for the congregation (we had words, but no music). It's called "The visit", by Miriam Therese Winter, and it's about the visit of Martha to Mary. As long as you get rid of the last verse (which appears to call Christ a burden (!)), it's a great and appropriate song.

Less so the Communion song: Hail Mary, Gentle Woman. I did like that they were actually playing a song I knew and liked, but a Marian song for Communion? Fr Bill would be having fits.

And then there was the closing: "Soon and very soon". I feel a little guilty picking on this one, because it's actually appropriate and all, but just two weeks ago I went to Mass at an African-American parish in NOLA, which also sang this as recessional, and I just laughed out loud at how incredibly white this choir sounded. Totally unfair, I know.

Had that been the only thing, it would've just put a smile on my face. But it was the cap to a Mass that mostly came off as comical and ridiculous. I wonder if their Masses in Polish are better?

"Uh-oh, Ryan. You're starting to base your religious beliefs on an experiential relationship with God. It's all downhill from here, y'know." --Jonathan Prykop

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December 10, 2006

God is good! All the time!

I just got back from St. Matthias Cluster Parish. It's a "cluster parish" because it has temporarily absorbed a bunch of nearby parishes, because of numbers and because of building condition. Even this one is still rebuilding. I walked in and I don't know what I was expecting, but all the pews were gone and people were sitting on an assortment of chairs, there was no heat, and the plaster was ripped off the brick up to a height of about a foot and a half. The altar majeure was ok but the active altar was a temporary wooden affair set on a big oriental rug in about the right place. The church is huge and it looks like the murals and such were safe, although currently covered with thin plastic duct-taped around the edges, so you could see them but they were protected from assorted ongoing reconstruction. In one of the chattier moments towards the end of Mass, the priest mentioned that there was a priest shuffle over at Holy Ghost, where he's staying (because the St. Matt's rectory hasn't been rehabbed yet), and he hoped that they'd let him keep staying there or he'd be homeless---at which one of the women in the row ahead of me turned to someone and gave the aside "we all homeless."

But let me tell you, black people know how to throw a (liturgical) party. As my indie friends would say, there was a ton of mojo flying around in there; a more traditional Catholic would say that you could feel the Holy Spirit suffused through that place. It's primarily an African-American parish; I saw one family I think was Indian Indian and maybe four other white people besides me. The music and the style were, well, about as different from a weekly Mass at St. Pat's as they could be and still fit inside liturgical norms. There was a lot of call-and-response stuff: the priest says "God is great!" and the congregation responds "All the time!", and then they repeat it the other way round. At virtually any point in the Mass, you might hear a chorus of isolated "Amen"s from around the church. And the music was drawn from a range of African-American sources: "Come by here", "Soon and very soon", etc. Even the Mass parts were distinctly in that style: the Memorial Acclamation was "Jesus Christ is risen, Jesus Christ has died, Jesus Christ will come again, deep in my heart I believe, Jesus Christ will come again"---to the tune of "We shall overcome", which throws in a whole extra subtext of which I totally approve.

Subtexts were actually pretty prominent in this Mass. When you hear about living in exile and missing your home, your food, your place of worship, it's more or less abstract, but for these people, it's a reality they've lived and some of their friends and family are still living. Themes of hope and anticipation and fresh starts also tend to strike rather close to home here. The priest was a master homilist, talking about all these things and making the messages of the liturgical day highly relevant to the congregation. The dominant theme was good news/bad news: the latter sells better, and people tend to dwell on it, but we need to focus on the good news (and the Good News), and proclaim that to other people---it's a message of optimism and hope that is very well received in this population.

The Mass ran to a full ninety minutes, but I didn't even notice. I'm not sure where all the extra time went; maybe all the singing (we sang at every opportunity), maybe the long homily (not that it was boring). But it was a great pick-up and motivator and spiritually awesome. I felt bad for the white couple with the baby that was in my line of sight, because they looked really dour and not into it, which I guess wouldn't look out of place at a white suburban parish but seemed kind of weird here.

So I'm really really glad I went and didn't talk myself out of it, even if it did require breaking a couple of rules. I think Emily's mad at me now: I took a van with less than five people, and I went out without a "buddy". Which wasn't entirely my fault, since I asked around and couldn't convince anybody else to go (their loss!). I did ask at breakfast if it would be ok to take out a van "with less than five people", and it was, especially because half the people weren't up yet, but she didn't realise it was just me. That was slightly intentional on my part, since I didn't feel like getting a lecture about going out alone, although at that point I was still hopeful of getting more takers. In any case, I'm not sorry, both because the buddy rule is a little extreme (the van one makes sense, but what could I do? I suppose I could've called a cab...) and because the experience is already looking like a major highlight of the trip.

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November 22, 2006

Forgiveness is not permission

In a homily several years ago—in the wake of the abuse scandals and in response to them—I heard a priest give an excellent homily that he ended up summarising in nine words: "sin is in the will; forgiveness is not permission." It's an important message of reconciliation, and even if you're not religious and have no use for the concept of sin, that second part is something anyone can (and should) take to heart. We have this idea that if we forgive someone, it's like saying it was okay to do the thing in the first place. Not so. And that attitude is corrosive; it keeps divisions in place and holds wounds open to fester and burn. It encourages a tit-for-tat race to the bottom, where everybody loses.

I think a really important first step to reducing racial tensions (as well as sectarian tensions, ethnic tensions, social tensions...) is to recognise this basic idea: forgiveness is not permission. If we can forgive someone their past faults and let them try to start from a clean slate—knowing there may be more stumbles yet to come—then we can lead by example and help them to become more tolerant and loving and cosmopolitan, rather than inciting them to anger and to lash out again.

(I originally posted this as a comment to Eric Zorn's musings on the Michael Richards situation, but I liked it and decided to post it here too. :)

"Last time I preached the Word, in Galilee, I spoke in parables. MIS-take!" --Peter Barnes, The ruling class (Jack)

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August 05, 2006


I schlepped over to Monmouth tonight to catch the last showing of Godspell. I'm glad I didn't call ahead to reserve a ticket, because they were sold out (all three shows had sold out in advance!), but as it happened someone didn't show up and I was able to claim the very last ticket.

I had never seen it before, and was keen to; I'd heard some of the music and was generally aware of it as a JCS-ish 70s rock opera that retold the Gospel according to St Matthew. Seeing this instance of reinterpreting religious text and subtext into a popular mode made two things clear: why this might ever have seemed like a good idea, and why it might not be a very good idea. It seems nice that it gets people all fired up about Jesus or whatever; but there is a danger that it can somewhat cheapen the religious experience, making it just another rock concert.

Which is not to say the show was without a few powerful moments. There were only a few, unfortunately. Seen simply as spectacle, the picture brightens a bit; there were several beautifully-executed comedic moments, and the music was fabulous. There were a few of the usual suspects up on stage, plus a few I'd not seen before. Jesus, as played by Mike Axtell, had a striking singing voice, and even showed off his piano skills, accompanying two of the numbers himself (including one where he was also the lead singer). I almost feel like the musical talent in this show was squandered, because there was so much unison singing—this cast could have pulled off music considerably more difficult than this.

It sort of made me wish this had just been a musical revue. The non-musical parts were much more hit-or-miss. As I mentioned, there were some powerful moments and many comedic moments, but for the most part the acted parables dragged considerably. There could have been lots of reasons for that, but based on the R-M article about it I'm going to blame the improv nature of the scenes and guess that they just hadn't had enough rehearsal to work out their dramatic/comedic timing. Alas.

I will say this, though: picking Matthew's Gospel for this show was certainly no accident. When the writers were putting it together in the early 70s, Matthew's hippie Jesus was certainly an irresistible show topic, with messages of peace and love laced throughout nearly every parable. The betrayal and death and resurrection, while present, are not the focus. I just wish that the calling-out of the hypocrites and the Pharisees, written 35 years ago and based on a 2000-year-old script, didn't read so strongly as an allegory of our country's current political atmosphere....

"I buy Cosmo occasionally. I get a kick out of finding out what men are really thinking." --Neal Groothuis

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June 28, 2006


A moment ago, just outside SMC, I gave directions to a priest looking for the main library here at Knox. That would be unusual enough, if perhaps not worthy of special comment. But after he'd gone, I thought about the fact that he was wearing a big blingy cross on a chain around his neck, which I think is an episcopal privilege. (Wikipedia confirms, and says Anglican practice is the same; though if he were an Episcopalian bishop he'd be wearing a purple shirt instead of black.)

All of which leaves me wondering why a bishop would be on Knox's campus looking for the main library. The pectoral cross could always be a red herring, of course. Still, not an everyday occurrence.

"Many of the adjectives that come immediately to mind begin with the letters 'sl.'" --Eric Zorn

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June 18, 2006

Catholic ritual in South Carolina

When I got here, I checked out masstimes.org to see what my options were for Saturday evening Mass, only to discover that the Clemson church doesn't do evening Mass during the summer, and its sister churches are miles away. Since we have to work on Sunday morning just like any other, it looked like I'd be completely unable to attend this week unless some group with cars got announced. Ah, well.

But such a group was mentioned during announcements yesterday, meeting at the dorm at 5pm. Nine of us drove off in two cars; we got really lost on the way to Walhalla (that's the town the church is in, but the jokes certainly write themselves), but cruised in towards the middle of the second reading.

It's always interesting to see Mass at a church you've never been to, in an area you've never been to, since there's always something different, if only in the exact configuration of aisle, altar, and lecterns. This church was in the auditorium arrangement that I don't like, although not that bad for all that. What really got me was its liturgy.

It really drove home how much changed in the last ten years or so, not so much in terms of what's required as in what's allowed, because this Mass clearly took place in about 1995. Some things were actually changed in the rubrics but ignored here, like when to stand after the priest starts with "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice...". Others were clarified but ignored here, like the fact that Extraordinary Ministers of Communion are not supposed to stand around the altar as if concelebrating. But mostly I had forgotten how fast and loose priests used to play with the liturgical text itself. It's been years since I heard a priest that, I guess just to mix it up a bit, rephrases some of his "lines in the script" while more or less (usually more, often less) preserving their meaning. It puts you off-kilter and makes you think too much to make it work as ritual, and used to be very much in vogue (under the name "dynamic equivalence"), but it is now pretty clearly discouraged.

In light of the bishops' vote that just happened this week, I wonder how much longer these parishes (and it could be a diocesan thing for all I know) will take to get up to speed on the new rubrics than everyone else. Not that everyone else will be sped through them—the RCC seems to have learned their lesson on changing things too quickly—but I suspect it'll be not quite the same here.

"But it doesn't matter if we named her Cordelia, or Jennifer, or Peggy Sue, or Hildegarde. It won't make a difference if we dress her in overalls or pink, frilly dresses or if we send her to school with Barbies hanging from around her neck like talismans. You can't disguise having a brain. Or perhaps you can, but it means giving it up, which is even worse." --Jeff Vogel

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May 06, 2006

Happy are those who are called

Tonight's offering in the Studio was The fifth sun, a play about assassinated archbishop Óscar Romero. Had it been a play being workshopped, I would have said "right on": the premise was solid, the topic was interesting, and there were many instances of good lines and good acting. As a finished work, though, I found it a bit lacking.

It was handicapped from the start by the script. Though sprinkled with some great one-liners and a few good dialogues and monologues, it really needed a lot of tightening up. There were several places where the writing got a bit tedious, and some awkward interactions between the characters that no amount of good acting could have saved.

And there was a bit of good acting, but not as much as I'd've liked. I was surprised how few of the Studio Theatre regulars were involved in this production; with, I think, two exceptions, most of the actors were very inexperienced. It showed. Romero himself kept doubling over in what I gather was pain from an ulcer, but it was pretty unconvincing. The papal nuncio could probably have been played either as evil or as aloof or even as self-absorbed; there were stabs in these directions, but a lot of it just felt like he was reading lines. Many of them still hadn't overcome the beginner instinct to stick their neck forward and move their hands awkwardly. Nearly everyone had a few nice moments, but then fell back into reading lines again.

Emily Richardson was lucky enough to get a part with a lot of witty lines, and she really came through as a slightly sarcastic feminist nun, flawed and human but full of compassion and concern for the social injustice the Salvadoran people were being subjected to. She served well as Romero's conscience, the angel on Romero's one shoulder against Jon Gripshover's devil on the other. The character dynamic between these two was among the most interesting and effective in the show, with the debates between her pragmatism and his marxism providing some good exposition of the ethical, religious, and political tangles through which they navigate their common cause.

The staging was interesting. The stage itself was a dais on the long wall of the studio, extending out in a thrust configuration with seating on three sides. That presents many of the usual in-the-round difficulties, but there were only a few instances where the actors did any weird and unmotivated walking around (that I noticed, anyway). The top of the dais was a pulpit, which Romero took on a few occasions for a homily or a Mass; good dramatic placement. Most interesting, though, was the everpresent group of dancers, a sort of Greek chorus—four of them, switching between playing Mayan goddesses, villagers, and the occasional bit part, and sitting in quiet observation for the rest of the time. They frequently spoke in unison, and did modern dance during their parts that highlighted their otherworldliness. For all that I diss modern dance from time to time, it was deployed very effectively here.

The director, Chris Storey, had mentioned to me a few weeks ago that he was doing this play, and he especially recommended that I come; he thought I would find it especially relevant and interesting since I'm Catholic. Which was probably an accurate observation, but particularly given that he was aware of this important aspect of the show, I think the most disappointing thing about the show was how thoroughly it dropped the ball on its Catholic ties. While the show clearly has its merits for non-Catholics and even non-Christians, there are many, many places that draw on Catholic experience and can be quite a bit more dramatic and powerful for those familiar with Catholicism.

For instance, in the last scene we see Romero celebrating a Mass, working his way through the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There is all sorts of powerful symbolism in this scene, and major tension because the audience all knows that the archbishop is about to be assassinated. And yet, it is painfully obvious that the guy who played Romero has never seen a Mass celebrated. It's a little distracting, and it robs the scene of the transcendent power it could have had.

Speaking of distracting, the costuming was bizarre. Post-Vatican II priestly garb has got to be the easiest costume in the world—black shirt, black pants, and a white tab folded over the collar, but nobody wore that. One of the priests wore this poncho thing that looked a little bit like a Franciscan habit (but he was a Jesuit, I think) and a little bit like Salvadoran native garb. The archbishop and the nuncio were wearing billowy black PhD robes with, respectively, a red stole and a white stole. Meanwhile, the nun wore more-or-less modern street clothes (which given the character was probably accurate, but certainly marks the proceedings as distinctly post-Vatican II). Now, I'm not looking for a perfect facsimile of bishop's garb, not even if the show had a budget to work with. But especially for the priests and arguably for the other two, they'd've been much better served to simply go with all-black plus a roman collar. If they felt they had to go with something cassock-like, something that actually resembled a cassock would've been good, maybe with purple sash and skullcap as easy and cheap accessories. As it was, the costuming was distracting and gave the (possibly inaccurate) impression that the nearest any of them had been to a Catholic priest was hearing someone tell them about a movie about Baptist ministers.

All of which is not to say that it was a terrible show. Disappointing, yes, but still worth seeing. Particularly if you find it thematically interesting—for Catholics, for social-justice progressives, and for those interested in Latin American history, this show is one you really ought to see.

"God is a good marxist, Monseñor. He takes from each according to his ability, and gives to each according to his need." --Nicholas Patricca, The fifth sun (Hector)

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January 06, 2006

The Book of Daniel

Jonathan is on the AFA list—that's the "American Family Association", damned if I'm going to lend them my Google karma—for laughs, and from time to time he posts some of their funnier stuff. The latest was a dire alert about needing to boycott NBC for a new show called Book of Daniel that none of them had seen but they were sure was going to be very very bad and nobody should see it.

Why? Because it depicted Christians, of course.

But they're real people too, and so of course they aren't perfect; it is prime time TV, so there has to be drama of some sort. Turns out, it's actually pretty good. The AFA notwithstanding, I think this is actually a pretty positive portrayal of Christians. (I can understand if the Episcopalians get their noses slightly out of joint, but I don't think the show ever meant to say that the ECUSA had a lock on imperfect people.) It reminds me of a slightly edgier Seventh Heaven. I think 7H has dealt with drugs, racism, and end-of-life issues, anyway, though I'm not sure about homosexuality. (The BoD writers throw in some really funny scenes with the gay son, though; not to be missed.)

In any case, I've season-passed it on my Tivo, at least for a few weeks. We'll see where it goes from here. Thanks, AFA! You always pick the best stuff....

"I have found this to be true in 90%+ of all applications I've used: command line IS faster, more robust, more flexible, less resource intensive and less conducive to error and physical [health] problems such as RSI, than GUI. It's just not as 'pleasant'." --Hans Forbrich

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January 05, 2006

On Catholicism and catholicism

Sunday I was in Urbana, and rather than going to St Pat's as usual, I attended St Mary Magdalene's, the Church of Antioch congregation that Chris has joined. They are, as they put it, an "independent catholic church".

Thinking about it in advance, I had understood that this was the culmination of a conversation from months previous, about the Nicene Creed and its individual parts—and whether in fact we believed them. A phrase near the end caught particular attention:

Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam.
We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church ....
In this context, “catholic” refers to the universality of the church (note that it is not usually written “Catholic”, and non-RCC churches use the phrase too), and “apostolic” to its continuity from its founding. And I do find these important. So much so that it seems to me that the exclusivism of the RCC is a little inconsistent; if there's only One Church, and all the different congregations aren't just manifestations thereof, then what are they? It was easier when people believed that members of other sects didn't believe in the true God, of course. But we acknowledge now that, say, Catholics and Anglicans worship the same God, and participate in a larger community of Christian faith. This seems to me to be the very meaning of there being one catholic church.

The prohibition of the RCC on Roman Catholics participating in Communion in non-RCC Masses is based on the following parts of I Corinthians 10:

20 But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God. I would not that you should be made partakers with devils. 21 You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils; you cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils. ... 27 If any of them that believe not, invite you, and you be willing to go; eat of any thing that is set before you, asking no question for conscience' sake. 28 But if any man say: This has been sacrificed to idols; do not eat of it, for his sake that told it and for conscience' sake.
“But wait,” you say. “Heathens? Idols? Devils?” This is a passage about sacrifice to other gods. Using it to justify a closed Communion and forbid Catholics to take Communion with others seems like a relic of the bad old days, not exactly in tune with the modern ecumenical sensibility.

So on Sunday, I attended the 10am Mass at St Mary Magdalene's (hosted at the Channing-Murray Foundation at the UIUC campus). I feel that the liturgy got a lot wrong, but it got a lot right, too; Father Gary is trying to work in Gregorian chant call-and-response formulae and generally make congregational sung participation a larger part of the Mass. Would that more RCC congregations did likewise; it's actually called for by all the relevant Vatican documents, but most priests just plain ignore it.

The downside of the St Mary Magdalene liturgy was that it just doesn't go far enough to take a stand, and works very hard not to offend anyone. The “Our Father” was barely recognisable, and it was kind of a joke for the priest to introduce it as praying “as Jesus taught us”. There was a Sanctus and a Benedictus, but rather than the traditional

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of [power and might],
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
there was some self-congratulatory thing that I don't remember and bore little relation to the original other than following the form “Holy.... Blessed is he who....” It wasn't even good as liturgical poetry.

That was probably the biggest single problem with their liturgy (one that the RCC is not entirely innocent of itself): in their mad rush to make everything modern, they have entirely lost any poetry, so that you're left just saying a bunch of stuff. Which makes it a lot less effective. (For an RCC example, consider which is a more poetic and effective phrasing: “This is the Lamb of God, ...”, or “Behold the Lamb of God, ...”? That's what I thought.)

The consecration approached, and it became quite clear through the liturgical prose that this church has a sacramental Communion with the Real Presence, though not totally clear whether it was conssubstantiative or transsubstantiative. (That particular theological debate is a lot more subtle than most people realise, anyway; it's mostly a sectarian political thing.) I've complained before about the bells some RCC churches ring at the consecration, but in this Mass it definitely added to the liturgical power of the moment. Communion itself was self-serve (as in, walk around the altar and take the host yourself, intinge it, then eat it), which was feasible because of the small congregation, but they really need to rethink this because it makes it feel a lot less personal and a lot more like a cafeteria.

Certainly an interesting experience all around. As Reverend Jack would put it, this priest definitely had the mojo to perform the sacraments. He and his congregation were clearly worshipping the same God as Roman Catholics, if perhaps according to a somewhat different liturgical norm. He, and they, participate in a long and continuous path following scripture and tempering it with tradition.

And that is what it means to belong to the church catholic.

"I believe it would be much healthier for society, for the poverty situation, and for the effectiveness of social welfare programs if instead of all poor people having a shitty job and a miserable life, half of those poor people had decent jobs and the other half were on the dole." --Zach Miller

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December 22, 2005

Christmas at war?

We're spending this Christmas at war, but there certainly isn't a "war on Christmas", despite what Bill O'Reilly and the AFA may find political advantage in claiming. See my letter to the Register-Mail that was printed Wednesday.

"What matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed." --British Medical Journal

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September 25, 2005

De sacerdotibus homosexualis

Of course I had to write about this story; the people who wrote me requesting my take needn't have worried.

My very first reaction was, "Hey, um, good luck with that."

I put off responding further, partly because I wasn't much looking forward to it, but partly because I needed a block of time to sit down and really hash it out. This is an essay in the original sense: I am trying out ideas, and though I have some idea of how it will end, nuances will not come clear to me until I write them out.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was first elected, I officially reserved judgement. He had authored the letter On the pastoral care of homosexual persons, a nasty little piece of work and some cause for concern. But, as I said in an email at the time: "God will forgive, and we have yet to see the tenor of his papacy."

I think we've now seen quite enough of the tenor of his papacy to begin to judge it. He has already made a number of pronouncements that, while disappointing, were essentially continuing existing church policy. This pronouncement, however, is a significant departure from existing policy. It has no support from Scripture (as opposed to the "thin" or "arguable" support of some other policies), and not really any support from tradition, either---homosexuality was reviled in general, but there was never a specific policy regarding priests, and never a dual standard.

It is a pronouncement of immense hubris. The previous line---that homosexuality is not sinful, but homosexual acts are---is open to disagreement, but its import was to forbid certain actions. The new pronouncement is much more direct. It announces that when God created certain people, he screwed up. Oops! And the "defectives" are now not fit to do a job they've been doing just fine for the last couple of millennia.

For it's obvious that gay priests have existed for a long, long time. Why wouldn't they? We wouldn't even be able to tell, because of the discipline of celibacy the RCC has imposed for the last thousand years or so---if they're refraining from taking a partner and marrying them, it doesn't matter who that partner would have been. The identity of their forbidden fruit is irrelevant to the task of ministry and leadership that the church sets out for them.

The RCC has for some time referred to homosexuality as "objectively disordered", but even if we stipulate on that point, its use as a justification for the new policy falls apart on the briefest inspection. There are a lot of "objectively disordered" states listed in the DSM-IV and various medical journals---homosexuality not being one of them, incidentally---and with a bit of careful management, most do not prevent people from living normal lives. I expect there are a lot of priests out there who are epileptic, or clinically obsessive-compulsive, or diabetic, or alcoholic, or any number of other disorders which range from totally minor to major-but-manageable. So "objective disorder", even if true, would not be a sufficient justification for the new policy.

An even flimsier justification is given in some of the other articles covering the story. An unnamed church official is quoted as saying that "the difference is in the special atmosphere of the seminary; in the seminary, you are surrounded by males, not females." Of course, after seminary, unless you are in some sort of monastic order, you are surrounded by both males and females; heterosexuals are not exactly off the hook here. So, are homosexuals just judged to be worse at fending off temptation? That's very interesting, considering that the church's message to lay homosexuals is that they're all called to celibacy---whether that's what they're hearing from God or not---and that Paul's command to the unmarried that "if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire" (I Cor 7:9) doesn't apply to them. So if you're gay, the message is that God made you that way and you're meant to be celibate and He doesn't ever give you a task unless He knows you can handle it; but if you're gay and called to the priesthood, the message is that God messed up when He made you, messed up when He called you to the priesthood, and we don't think your kind can manage celibacy anyway. Hmmm.

This pronouncement is unusual for the Vatican. Most of the church's policies---whether one agrees with them or not---are very well-thought-out, grounded in long tradition as well as Scripture. The RCC is also normally very self-consistent; all the various aspects of their "culture of life" (a phrase co-opted to horrible effect by our Republican Party, echhh) knit together very tightly into a cohesive whole. It is not, I think the only self-consistent philosophy on these issues, but it is very difficult to use the church's own arguments in one culture-of-life issue against them in another. The edict regarding gay priests, on the other hand, bears at most a surface consistency with other church policies, and all the explanation that we've seen so far has the unmistakable air of---how you say, "making shit up"---to defend a policy rooted in thinly-veiled homophobia. Not the first bigoted word to come down from a guy wearing a funny white hat, but it's been a while, and such words are (despite what outsiders may think) relatively uncommon.

A Roman Catholic Pope is a monarch of sorts; he isn't God, and he isn't the church catholic. There have been a lot of men, Popes and Antipopes both, to sit on the throne of St Peter and say incorrect things, bad things, even evil things. Ratzinger wouldn't even be the first Antipope to take the name Benedict ("blessed", ironically). There's a reason not all past Popes have been canonised as saints....

Meanwhile, we have the actual Catholic Church. Here in America, and in many other countries around the world, the church is making progress on understanding homosexuality as it is, rather than being stuck on how it used to be viewed. Gay men will continue to go to the seminary; the same routine that worked when it was bad to be gay will again work now that it's just bad to be gay and called to the priesthood. The gay men who are already priests will sigh, roll their eyes, and continue ministering just like they always have. Catholics will continue to form their own consciences, not just according to what they are fed by the Church, but also according to their own thoughts and prayer. And eventually, that guy over in Rome will die, and we'll try it all again.

"Hold this fragile world in your hands. Don't drop it." --Yevgeniy Yevtushenko

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June 12, 2005

Politics, religion, and morality (again)

It's been said in a variety of places that there is a natural alliance between leftist political groups and religious (or at least Christian) groups, regarding serving the poor, working for peace, and so on. I've said it myself, in fact.

What troubles me about such an alliance, however, is that in its own way it's just as bad as the alliance between the we-control-your-life rightists and Christian groups. Once again, they are using the machinery of politics to impose religious beliefs on everyone else; a tyranny of a (perhaps temporary, coalitional) majority.

And, truth be told, the reasons I support my various progressive causes are not at all religious. Religion is a reason for me personally to go out and help feed the hungry and help provide shelter for the homeless. (Something which I'm regretfully not very good at.) But if I say that the government should do those things for religious reasons, that's no good at all; it's a violation of the establishment clause, and just generally bad policy, since it would mean that a decrease in subscription to certain religions should decrease government services, which is madness.

No, I believe the government should be in the business of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on, because the government's business is to serve the people. The imperative for the government to provide social services is not particularly a moral one; to the extent that government is not just of the people and by the people but also for the people, basic services like keeping people from having to eat cat food is just part of the job description.

The fact that good Christians should be helping out on the side is just gravy.

You can't legislate morality. When you try, it doesn't make people suddenly start making moral choices, whether they be to give food to a soup kitchen or decide not to have an abortion. It just takes the decision away from them; such people aren't acting morally, they're just tooling along in an amoral state, following the law because they fear punishment or literally can't do otherwise. If you give people real choices, sometimes hard ones, they will surely make mistakes; but only through those choices and, yes, those mistakes, can they graduate to the highest levels of moral decisionmaking.

"The radical criticism of the myth is due to the fact that the primitive mythological consciousness resists the attempt to interpret the myth of myth. It is afraid of every act of demythologization. It believes that the broken myth is deprived of its truth and of its convincing power." --Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

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May 30, 2005

Ministry retreat

Friday afternoon I drove over to Urbana for a retreat, the third-annual Midwest Discordian Ministry Assembly. The attendees were mostly people I knew who in some way "minister" spiritually to people, though I use that term a little loosely. The faith traditions represented there were relatively diverse and not at all restricted to Christianity.

In particular, it included a number of disaffected Christians and some who were actively anti-Christian; the main reasons, for all of them, had to do with the churches being seen as bigoted, hypocritical, exclusionary, and chiefly interested in power. This is a difficult perception to counteract, because in the case of a lot of the Christians in power and that get the most press, it's pretty much entirely true. I don't know how we can solve this problem, but until we do, we'll only see an acceleration of the current trend where the good, smart, examined-life people leave, which of course just makes the problem worse.

A major theme of the weekend, as indeed of Discordianism as a whole, is the idea that seeming or even actual contradiction is not necessarily the end of the world. Especially when dealing with ephemeral, spiritual matters, as soon as you try to express a truth, you've made a simplification that makes the expression not quite right. If you make a different simplification, you have a different approximation that seems to contradict the first, and yet, both are expressions of a larger truth. The summary of this by "Saint Syadasti" is:

All things are in some sense true,
in some sense false,
in some sense meaningless,
in some sense true and false,
in some sense true and meaningless,
in some sense false and meaningless,
and in some sense true and false and meaningless.
To which the good Discordian should mentally append the doxology "including this", which really sums up the whole thing in a nice two-word nutshell. And although this sort of thing infuriates a lot of Protestants, it's quite compatible with a Catholic understanding of truth; our theology is riddled with seeming inconsistencies and contradictions, but each half of the contradiction can separately impart wisdom, and so the whole is useful, even if it is in some ways false and/or meaningless. Jesus himself said "it is all presented in parables, so that they will look intently and not see, listen carefully and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven." (Mk 4:11-12)

Another theme was the constant questioning of authority. How much do you believe just because someone said so? Why should you give anyone that much power over your beliefs? And again, this is entirely consonant with a Catholic understanding of spirituality and belief. We don't regard the Bible as the sole source of truth and literally correct in every detail. It goes hand in hand with our centuries of tradition to interpret it. And even when the RCC has an official line on something, it is still contingent on a personal formation of conscience: the RCC says all sorts of things, but, at least officially and doctrinally, all of it is tagged with an implicit "but don't take our word for it"; you must form your own conscience through thought and prayer, and it is this conscience you must follow, even if it is in discord with the (thus presumably incorrect) Catholic doctrine.

So, it was a really interesting and productive weekend. And now I've spent enough time writing and really need to get back to grading and other school-related things....

"I know you're usually more prone to reading things like the History of the Romanian Basketweavers Revolution and shit like that, but Potter's on par with LOTR and much less longwinded. It's kind of a "Chronicles of Narnia" for pagans. It's a must-read, if you want to keep up with the state of the mythological arts." --Jonathan Prykop

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May 20, 2005


A Catholic school named Saint Jude Educational Institute, in Montgomery, AL, is yet another example of the complete misogyny of a lot of people who bill themselves as "compassionate" and/or "pro-life". They banned a student from graduation because she was pregnant.

Indeed, they had told her back in March that she was no longer allowed to even attend the school. The school claimed that it was for "safety", though it's not clear what kind of safety risk a pregnant 18-year-old would cause. And their refusal to even list her in the graduation program belies their real intentions: to pretend she didn't even exist.

They can't even claim that it was for any sort of moral reason; the father was allowed to continue going to school and to participate in graduation. It's just misogyny, pure and simple.

Worse, it's an extremely anti-life policy. By telling girls that visible pregnancy is grounds for dismissal (aka the "you-show-you-go" policy), the school is practically pushing them into the abortion clinic. It is FUCKING OUTRAGEOUS that a Catholic institution has policies so actively encouraging of abortion. (The misogyny is something we've come to expect from the Catholic Church, although this is more egregious than usual.)

"The fact that Cuba is poor may have something to do with the US blockade and with the state-controlled economy; the fact that everyone appears to eat all right and to have clothes and full, free medical care, however, does have to do with the social and economic priorities of the Cuban government." --Anis Memon

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May 10, 2005

On work (and slack)

Monsignor Swetlund spoke today at Knox on the topic of work and social justice from a (Catholic) theological perspective. It was an interesting take on the issues, and I hope to work these ideas more into my own rhetoric. It really is a shame that liberals have as a group become so disdainful of religion---there is quite the natural alliance there.

He started off with an analysis of Genesis. Although people frequently say that work is part of the curse of the Fall, he pointed out that Man was created to work; it's just that work became toilsome after the Fall. Right from the start, though, God sets Adam to naming the animals, and grants dominion over them. This stewardship is not something to be taken lightly, and definitely counts as work. When Genesis says that man was created "in His image", the word that is used (S-L-M) is the same as for the statues of themselves that kings of the ancient era would place in their provincial capitals to remind people who was boss; the king's viceroys would be appointed to rule in his name, always reminded of the authority of the king. We are God's viceroys; over our own little slice of God's creation we hold dominion, and we are called to the responsible stewardship thereof. Part of that responsible stewardship is doing the work we are called to do---Catholics say we must follow our vocation.

And remember the third/fourth Commandment: "Six days you shall work." (There's also something about resting on the seventh in there.)

It's an interesting contrast to a creed held dear by a number of other people I know (not Christians): that the highest calling of Man is to slack. I'm pretty sure the idea was originally proposed in jest, but Church of the Subgenius and related traditions thought about it and realised that it's not so silly as it may at first sound. We work to pay the bills, but why let work steal our soul? Our humanity is found in the times when we are at leisure.

However, I'm not sure the two ideas are so much in opposition. I've heard a fair amount about slack from a friend of mine (he goes by "Reverend Jack" when he's ministering), and it strikes me that the chief characteristic of work that makes it not slack is the fact that the worker doesn't want to be doing it. If it's something you'd do anyway, then it doesn't seem to particularly count as "work" on the work-slack continuum. It can, however, count as work on the work-sloth continuum. So it really does strike me that the two systems are moderately compatible; meaning that the pinnacle of metaphysical place-finding would be to land a job that lets you do slackful work (or, alternatively, to have buckets of money and do slackful work, but that's harder to arrange). Which is just another way of saying "find a job doing what you love", which isn't very novel or surprising to anyone, I suppose.

But anyway.

After a fascinating rundown of the Catholic work ethic, the monsignor moved on to address the question of how this fits in to the larger issue of social justice. He framed it in linguistic terms, though I'm not sure he thought of it that way: work is a transitive action; it has both a subject and an object. The objective side of things is what we've already covered, regarding creativity and the (co-)creation of things both tangible and intangible. It's important that most members of a society produce more than they consume; that's what makes a society prosper. (He referred to himself as a notorious exception, since priests don't "produce" much, but I would disagree---it's just that his production is almost entirely in intangibles.)

As soon as you consider the subjective side, though, the social justice issues naturally fall out. Sure, this factory is producing lots of good things, but what about all the employees that are getting injured? Sure, this company improved its bottom line, but what about all the workers without health care? Sure, we're meeting our production quotas, but what about people that are working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks? Any complete discussion of the rights and duties of work must necessarily include these subjective components as well.

The bishops (and I wasn't clear on whether this was an American bishop thing or more widespread, but it's certainly consistent with the larger RCC position) laid out a three-point plan for reviewing any work decision, whether at the company level or at the public policy level:

  1. What will it do to people?
  2. What will it do for people?
  3. How will it affect the least well-off in society?
If you can't come up with a satisfactory answer to all three, you should be rethinking your decision.

The Genesis theology that justified the duty to work also justifies a right to work; Man was made to work, the reasoning goes, and we should make it our business to help enable that. What is it, exactly, that people have against "make-work" programs? The very term is loaded with negative connotations, yet few declaim the many achievements of New Deal programs that had the government paying people to build parks and roads and bridges and monuments. Many of them still exist in reasonably good shape today. While certainly not appropriate for everyone on welfare (and it would be a disaster if this sort of work were required of everyone on welfare), it might make a lot of people more fulfilled if they could actually do work they could take pride in. I mean, it might be hard to feel fulfilled if the fruits of their labour did not contribute to corporate profits, but I'm sure they'd find a way.

Msgr Swetlund closed with two (unfortunately-)controversial points:

  • We have a duty not just to see that all people work, but that they be paid a just, living wage. That means paying them enough money to keep a small family above the poverty line; despite all the corporate barons that cry whenever people demand a raise in the minimum wage, it still is quite a bit less than any reasonable living wage. In Champaign County, in order to support a family of four at just the poverty line, working 40 hours a week, a worker needs to make $9.25 an hour, and that's if health care is included on top of that. It would easily break $10 in a big city like Chicago, and yet the national minimum wage is still just $5.15. (Happily, the state has raised our minimum wage to $6.50---that's progress, but it's still not enough.)

    And of course the barons cry: right now, all the growth and prosperity goes straight into their pockets. In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times what an average worker made. Now they make more than 500 times what the average worker makes.** Think about that every time they say companies can't afford to pay their workers....

  • Americans work way too much. Even when you exclude the French with their famously short weeks and long vacations, we work a lot more than other first world nations. In 1973, we worked about 40.6 hours a week on average. Now it's more than 50.*** On average. And while in 1977, dual-income couples worked a collective 70 hours a week, they now work 82; and if they have kids, the numbers go up rather than down: the average dual-income couple with children now works 91 hours a week. We've gotta fix that.

"Leisure," said Msgr Swetlund, "is the basis of culture. Not work." Sounds like slack to me.

Thing I need to investigate further: There is a economic philosophy called "Economy of communion" that has apparently been used to great effect in some third world countries. The idea is, you convert a held company to a co-op, and profits get split in thirds, with one third each going back to the company (as capital improvement), to the workers, and to the community. Because this is a philosophy and not a legal definition, co-op leaders are able to use judgement and discretion, as when a Brazilian co-op used part of the "workers" money to hire an on-site doctor, vastly improving the local health care situation, or when the same co-op took one day a week for its workers to build houses, Habitat-for-Humanity-style, to replace the shantytowns that people were living in until then. Healthy, happy workers are vastly more productive, so this sort of model really is viable.

Other thing I need to investigate: evidently, Pope John Paul II wrote a number of plays in his younger days. One, titled "My God's Brother", is a rather subversive (for postwar Poland) dialogue between a Marxist, who wanted to help the poor by overthrowing the government, and a Christian, who wanted to help the poor by, y'know, helping the poor. The icing on the cake is that the Marxist turns out to be Satan in disguise. This is about how I feel about the anti-choice activists that spend all their time, talent, and treasure on making it illegal, as opposed to those few* that actually work at providing good, free prenatal care and other support services for the unexpectedly pregnant.

* By "few" here, I'm referring to those who are anti-choice and work to support the unexpectedly pregnant. I know lots of people who provide material support towards prenatal services, but strangely enough, most of them don't want abortion to be illegal. By their fruits ye shall know them, eh? In many parts of the country, Planned Parenthood is still the only place women can go for cheap or free prenatal care.

** Said he; I'm getting between 300 and 419, 300, and 458, depending on who you check and exactly when they were calculating, but the point stands regardless, eh?

*** Not sure where he got these numbers, and don't have time to chase them down. So, grain of salt and all that.

"It strikes me that Bauer's guess was pretty lucky--I have two axes in my garage but have yet to inscribe either with the word "axe." But hey, when the high priest tells me, "Inscribe the word 'axe' on this axe, chop-chop," I'm not about to wait around for him to axe me politely." --bibliophage

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March 22, 2005


A few days ago, news broke that the Bishop of San Diego had forbidden all parishes within his diocese from holding a funeral Mass for one John McCusker, on the basis that he owned a nightclub and a gay bar. Denying funeral rites to (the family of) someone the Church disapproves of happens extremely rarely, on the order of once a decade, notably for people like mob bosses and such. News of this sort of specific dig at specific people is about the most frustrating thing for me to read about as a Catholic; the general policies like forbidding birth control or denying marriage to same-sex couples are things that I know will change, in time, and I can be patient. But the sheer nastiness in pronouncements like this, coming from reasonably high up in the hierarchy, is almost too much to bear.

But when I see, a few days later, that Bishop Brom has apologised and will in fact celebrate a Mass in McCusker's memory, that sort of news is eminently reassuring. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the bishop's offices over the last few days. But in any case, I can accept that human nastiness will surface occasionally, even if we try to fight it. When the good men in the church hierarchy realise what a horrifically awful thing they've done, and rectify it as best they can, I have a great deal of hope for the future.

And hey, if he hadn't so thoroughly denied the funeral in the first place, none of this would have been even remotely national news. Now, though, if anyone on a more local level---a pastor or other priest---was thinking of trying something like this, it's been made clear that that shit don't fly.

On Unbreakable: "It's times like this when I wonder why everyone else's taste in movies SUCKS. Tori, I can find you many beautifully filmed movies that don't drag on like a homily in latin." --Jonathan Prykop

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March 20, 2005

On human nature

In Catholic churches, part of the Palm Sunday liturgy is the communal reading of the Gospel, broken out into four parts: Jesus (taken by the priest), Narrator (taken by the deacon or a lay lector), Voice (other individual people, e.g. Pilate, Peter, taken by a lay lector), and People or Crowd (taken by the congregation). This is one of the very most disturbing things that we are ever asked to do, liturgically; remember the things the crowds say during the Passion? They're downright nasty. They are the ones that provide evidence to convict Jesus, demand the release of Barabbas instead, and taunt Jesus then and while on the cross. The congregation is also given the part of the woman who calls out Peter for being "one of them".

For a few years running, I refused to say it at all, because I reject that whole mentality. Lately I've treated it as acting; obviously an actor doesn't agree with every line he's given, or every character he plays, and someone needs to be reading the lines---what if everyone refused to say those lines? Of course, I'd be pleased if everyone at least went through a phase where they refused to say them, as a rejection of that mean, nasty part of human nature where our lizard hindbrain pushes us to call for the blood of the people who wrong us, or maybe just scare us or disturb us.

I really wonder what goes through everybody's head when they read along with that part. Do they just read along, since it's the part in bold? Do they at least get to step one, which is "how can they say those things about Jesus?" How many get to step two, which is "they didn't know he was the Christ---how can they say those things about anyone?"

And yet, human nature hasn't changed a bit. Crowds still routinely get whipped up into a frenzy of nastiness. I read "the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus", and I think of Fred Phelps and his evil little "God hates fags" cadre, or of Rush Limbaugh and his apologetics for the Abu Ghraib sadists, or of the so-called 'pro-life' activists that go around and scream at and attack, even kill, people who have anything to do with abortion clinics.

This reading of the Passion should inspire everyone to ask themselves: "Have I ever said things like this? Have I ever let myself get caught up in a group that drove me to call for the death of an innocent person---or even one I thought was guilty?" The mockery, the call for vengeance, it all comes too easy; it is part of human nature, and that's why we must be all the more vigilant for it.

"Sadly, the G.I. Joe cartoon never really bothered to tell us what the other half the battle was. Perhaps it is composed of a dozen or so smaller things, all individually negligible in the face of knowing." --Chris Sedlack

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January 15, 2005

Evolution vs. God

Years of arguing on imsasun has prepared me well for arguing with a local minister on evolution and God. I suspect it'll get printed; we'll see if it gets a response. I only wish the R-M put its letters online, so I could link to the column I'm responding to.

Meanwhile, I'm watching TV, and I still think "Jurassic Bark" is the best, saddest episode of Futurama or for that matter, of pretty much any other show, ever. I even thought that before I had a dog of my own.

"When I see patterns in my programs, I consider it a sign of trouble. The shape of a program should reflect only the problem it needs to solve. Any other regularity in the code is a sign, to me at least, that I'm using abstractions that aren't powerful enough---often that I'm generating by hand the expansions of some macro that I need to write." --Paul Graham

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November 28, 2004

A homily and a conversation

I went to the STA 7pm Mass here in Ames tonight. Among other things, I wanted to see the difference between their normal Sunday morning parish Mass and their more college-student-targetted Mass.

The chief difference I noticed was a penchant for difficult music that was confusing and hard for the congregation to tell where exactly they were supposed to sing. I'm always frustrated that these even exist; they're set up so that a good choir can perform them for an audience, which is liturgically terrible, since it discourages the congregation from actually singing. Sigh.

The homily was interesting, though. After sermonising for a while on the topic of being prepared for the end times and living like Judgement Day were tomorrow, he moved on to the topic of the greatest threats to Catholicism. They were: mobility, individualism, and the redefinition of marriage. That last one might actually have been a subtopic under "individualism", but he talked about it at least as much, so I grouped it separately.

He was making some good points on the first two, but then I about lost it on this last one. His oblique references to the marriage rights movement (I thought) served no purpose but to alienate.

After Mass, I walked up after most of the congregation had left and inquired whether he really thought that the marriage rights movement was the third most dangerous threat to the Church. This touched off a really interesting conversation in which I discover his point---which he admitted he made better in the earlier Masses---was actually more general, regarding the growing tendency to blow off sacramental marriage in favour of being married next to a favourite waterfall, blowing it off entirely in favour of living in sin, ignoring the nonsacramentality of "remarriage", as well as the more politically current topic of gay marriage.

Furthermore, he seemed much more interested in having the conversation than dictating ways of thinking. As he said, he wants to make people think about it; the conversation can be after Mass or at a discussion group on Wednesday night or some other time, but it is so much better to have the conversation than to walk out angry.

Is it a conservative position, or liberal? It's catholic. I'm glad that I didn't just walk out angry.

Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words. --St Francis of Assisi

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November 21, 2004

"I guess so"

Imagine, if you will, the following conversation, and form an opinion about it:

"Do you believe that priests actually change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ?"


"It's what your Church says happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Isn't that terrible? How can that person not even know what he believes? He guesses that he believes something? And just because some church told him so?

Contrast with the following conversation:

"Do you believe that your blood carries oxygen from your lungs to your heart and then to the rest of your body?"


"It's what all the biologists say happens."

Then, yeah, I guess so.

Hmmm, indeed. Even the smartest humans can't hold all the world's knowledge in their heads at once, from which to devise and evaluate theories that explain it, whether scientifically or spiritually, or from any other cognitive framework. When we're little we trust what our parents say; as we get older we find other people of authority over various domains of knowledge. If you decide to give credence to what a certain scientist says---whether because you've evaluated his credentials or just because you think he has an honest face---then when he asserts something, you may believe it, based only on the authority he lends to the proposition.

So it is, at least for some, in the religious world. Once someone has decided to belong to a religion---whether raised in it or a later convert---they have implicitly or explicitly decided to believe what it says. Presented with an issue they've never thought about before, and then presented with their religion's stance on that issue, such people will suddenly discover and assert that they agree with their religion. They guess.

Of course, good religions don't just make assertions, they explain the reasoning behind them. (Cynics would call this a rationalisation of the assertions.) The best religions go on to say, "but don't take our word for it---think about it, pray, whatever; we're confident that you'll come to the same conclusion (after all, it's the conclusion we came to), but we want you to eventually come to it on your own terms." Roman Catholicism, by the way, is one such church; that's what the doctrine of Formation of Conscience is all about, as I understand it (though I really need to read up on the details of that, one of these days).

This has sort of been bouncing around my head for weeks now, and I wanted to write it down. Basically, I think that "I guess so" is a perfectly reasonable first response in both of the hypothetical conversations, though I think many would find it less acceptable in the religious context. And I think as a long-term belief strategy, it's not ideal, but I think that putting continued faith in your church's positions is no better or worse than trusting the results of science. And how many of you have personally verified that oxygen is carried from your lungs to your heart and thence onward by your blood? Of course, I think that everyone should think about why they believe things, just as I think a strong sense of curiosity and scientific inquiry is something that every adult mind should possess. But I suspect that a lot of relatively intelligent people have chosen to simply trust their spiritual leaders, and I fear that a lot of Very Modern people who are above plebeian pursuits such as religion spend a lot of time condescending to and underestimating them.

"If AIDS is punishment for promiscuity, are colds punishment for shaking hands? Is cancer punishment for smoking or just living too long? Is heart disease punishment for eating meat? How far does this go?" --Michael Kimmitt

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September 26, 2004

It worked!

My little plan that I hatched seems to have worked beyond my wildest imaginings. I figured, more people would sing in church if I made a specific point to ask them, and if we practiced. And if we worked the music in gradually. So this week I gave a short little speech before Mass, sang the Holy Holy, exhorted the congregation to sing it with me, and then went back to the choir.

Not only did the whole congregation sing it during the Mass, we also had much higher than usual participation in other songs, like offertory. It was amazing! I can't believe something so simple worked so well.

In other news, an odd juxtaposition: I got an envelope in the mail with three peelable stickers on the front: "Free lunch", "Free love", "Free issue". It was a typical mail offer---if I wanted to get a risk-free free issue, I affix the third sticker to the enclosed postcard and send it back. At the top of the blurb, it says, "Did you make the right choice?" All pretty standard fare, right? The text of the blurb begins: "If you like making up your own mind, Utne magazine is the magazine for you..." Nice. They let you make up your own mind, but only one choice is correct. :)

"He tried to kiss me. And he kissed like a PEZ DISPENSER! His head fell back 180 degrees, and his tongue popped out!! Like I'm s'posed to give him Communion!!" --Judy Tenuta

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August 12, 2004

Two homilies

Last Saturday, I drove down to Peoria, as did my mom and sister, to attend a family gathering in honour of a cousin's 50th anniversary. It was exciting to meet all these relatives that I barely remembered or had never even met before; contacts were made and I hope to be able to make plans and see them again.

That's not what this post is about, though.

Prefatory to the dinner, the brother of the couple (well, her brother, his brother-in-law), who is a priest, said Mass in the living room. This was in and of itself pretty neat. He brought in vestments and the necessary props (a chalice, unconsecrated wafers, etc.), and they pulled up a nice endtable with a pretty white doily to serve as ersatz altar. There were a number of liturgical misfires (as in, sitting through the whole thing, except for the Our Father, and skipping other non-optional bits), but hey, it was an unusual setting.

What really got me going, though, was that this priest used his sister's 50th anniversary as an occasion to lecture on the sanctity of marriage. And it wasn't an acceptable "they've made it through and taken seriously what so many today do not", either. Throughout the homily, he kept making totally inappropriate sideways digs at the current gay marriage debate, and the meddlesome government, and people trying to undermine the church's ancient and universal definition, and on, and on, and on.

I very nearly walked out.

Had he been any more direct, I really would have. Mom and Kathy were in a separate car (though Kathy was saying that she, too, was considering walking out, so she might well have come with me). And I long ago decided that I was perfectly able to walk out of a Mass during the homily if the priest or deacon said something ridiculous. Mom asked later (as I was discussing this) if I'd stayed because it was a family occasion, but that really wasn't it. The priest managed to skate just inside the line. And I was gratified to know that the Eucharist is sacramental, and symbolic of our full communion with the worldwide church, even if it was consecrated by an intolerant jackass like this one.

The next day, I went to Sunday Mass at St Pat's, where Fr Bill sermonised on the fraying morality of our society, and all the people trying to pass into law various immoral stances. Oddly enough, though, he spent a lot of time stressing the fact that we shouldn't keep quiet just because we held an unpopular moral viewpoint; he said specifically that we should not throw away the influence we hold within our families and social circles. Fantastic, thought I, because for all his martyr complex, I find that within most of my family and at least the religious social circle, it's my viewpoint (viz, what the hell are we doing trying to legislate on moral grounds) that is the minority. I'm glad he agrees that it's my duty to speak up about it! I feel that I've been a good influence on my young cousins and on the after-Mass coffee-and-donuts crowd, and I intend to continue on that path.

In the meantime, though, this cold weather has just got to stop. It's like it's October or something.

"For Friday's game, Tribune Co. installed safety netting, which, in the event of an emergency, I'm guessing, could fall and trap fans trying to flee the falling concrete." --Burt Constable

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July 12, 2004

Church, or Quonset Hut?

The church I went to on Sunday was St Malachy in Burlington, the one closest to the hotel I was staying at. It is certainly the most uniquely-constructed church I've seen; the architect seems to have had a love affair with the parabola. The main length of the church was like a parabolic prism (probably technically a saddle, but the roof line's parabola was very shallow). In the front of the church was a little room that was a tightly-focussed paraboloid with lots of stained-glass windows. Inside, about two-thirds of the way up there was a wall of (mostly) glass that separated the main church from a smaller chapel in back.

The Mass itself was nice, and they selected good music, but nobody sang, alas. The congregation was mostly older, though I'm not sure that was related. Maybe it's better at their later Mass; I was at the 8:00 in order to get to the Brenners' Sunday brunch.

"The only phrase in Klingon I know is "Where is the bathroom?". I keep trying to work it into a joke hinging on "going where no man has gone before" but decided it was too geeky." --Sam Walker

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July 03, 2004


Driving down Hicks this morning, I saw a sign on a church for a summer institute, of which one workshop was entitled "Would Jesus have been a Democrat or a Republican?" There is so, so much wrong with this. What's to say he'd be either one? What would it mean to be a Dem or Rep in 30 CE? Especially considering the ideology of both parties has changed considerably over their century-plus lifetimes. Even casting it as "If Jesus weighed in today, what would he be?", I know what I think, but even if this particular church agreed with me, I still think it's inappropriate to use the pulpit to preach politics.

Also, I hate blog spam. I think I'll have to install the MT spamblocker plugin sometime next week.

"I'm pro-abortion for Republicans. Does that count?" --Michael Kimmitt

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June 27, 2004

On preparedness

In the homily Deacon Jim gave today, much attention was given to the permanency of marriage and the casualness with which it is entered into (and exited from) these days. A subject which, for the record, I mostly agree with him about. As one of his arguments, though, he discussed the pre-nuptial agreement, and asserted that people that are bothering with a prenup ought to rethink getting married, because obviously they aren't committed enough. It is, he said, like preparing for disaster.

Of course, it is preparing for disaster. People write wills with some regularity, and we run through fire drills and tornado drills, and in none of these cases do we hope for or necessarily even expect the disaster to occur. But it might, and if it does, we'd rather have it be a minor disaster than a major one, or at least to make it less major than it otherwise would be. So it is with prenups: if it turns out that despite everyone's best effort the couple needs to undergo a civil divorce (which is not necessarily a spiritual divorce!), then at least there won't be the further disaster of a messy dispute over what goes to whom.

This attitude that preparing for disaster equates with desiring it is not a new one. It's the same thing we hear from the abstinence-only idiots, who argue that arming kids with information about birth control and safe sex will necessarily grant permission to go forth and be promiscuous. It's not so; there are many ways to transmit the knowledge about things like condoms and birth control pills, and at the same time that having casual, premarital sex is immoral (not to mention usually a bad idea). We have the numbers to show that poorly informed teens are vastly more likely to get pregnant and/or contract STDs. Not preparing for unintended circumstances doesn't prevent them; it just makes them worse when they happen.

In the bulletin was a photocopied statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Catholics in Political Life. I have pretty mixed feelings on the document, which despite its title is entirely about the politics of abortion. I'm annoyed at the disingenuousness of sentences like "The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law." I object to their positive assertion that lawmakers "have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws." Again with the moral=legal argument.

On the other hand, I was encouraged to see them say explicitly that "as bishops, we do not endorse or oppose candidates." They do reserve the right of individual bishops to decide about denial of Communion (and the rest of that paragraph makes it clear there was a very contentious debate about this), but their concluding paragraph pretty roundly condemns the practice:

The polarizing tendencies of election-year politics can lead to circumstances in which Catholic teaching and sacramental practice can be misused for political ends. Respect for the Holy Eucharist, in particular, demands that it be received worthily and that it be seen as the source for our common mission in the world.

Hear that, guys? Sacraments are not to be misused for political ends. It's divisive and it's disrespectful to God and the Church.

"This is like worrying about Bin Laden trying to get nukes. Sure, it would do a lot of damage, but terrorism is about terror, not weapons of mass destruction. If there is anything to be learned here, it is to stop layering on more armor on our helmet and notice the fact that we have no protection below the knees." --Kevin Colby

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February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

The Knox Newman Club organised a group to go to the 6:45 showing tonight of The Passion of the Christ. A lot of people have been saying it's a major faith-building experience. It didn't affect my faith much either way; mostly it just made me angry.

Angry because I know that humanity is still just like that. There are a lot of people in power who will do anything at all to maintain the existing power structures, and destroy anyone or anything that threatens their influence. There are always people that enjoy participating in the suffering of others. It remains easy to incite a mob of otherwise indifferent people to do all sorts of bad stuff.

If Jesus existed today, he wouldn't be treated any different. And you can be damn sure it wouldn't be the Jews, or the pagans, or the atheists that would do it---it'd be the Christians. A certain sort of Christian, the sort that persecutes and spreads a message of hatred and exclusion, all in the name of Jesus Christ. Cheers, folks.

The real heroes of the movie are not who you might expect. Jesus is the centrepiece, but we know his story. No, the real heroes are people like Simon, and Veronica, and Claudia---not disciples, not even particularly believers, but people who are just decent human beings that see suffering and do something to alleviate it, even just a little. They may be pressed into it or do it of their own accord, but in the end, these are the blessed ones.

Mary is also a major player here, as you might expect. No Protestant could have made this movie. Throughout, Mary is presented as a source of constant strength and support to Jesus, and at times almost seems a co-redemptrix. The real emotional moments of this movie are not the blood and gore (of which there is plenty, as billed), but the personal moments---again with Veronica, and Claudia, and with Mary Magdalene, and with Mary the Mother of God.

One of the things that hit me over and over again, though, was the reminder that Jesus' message focussed so little on dogma and fine-grained theology. How stupid is it that we get into this perpetual debate over trans- vs. con-substantiation? I'm not saying I don't believe in the transsubstantiation, but the actual debate is incredibly subtle---more subtle than you probably realise---and yet we split churches based on it. Some Protestant churches are pretty far off from the Roman Catholic Church, but a lot of them are so close it's not even clear what they're "protesting" anymore. I don't think it's unreasonable to mark a few things as "theologically debatable", and work on the ecumenism. Is Christ actually comprising the host, or is he merely in, on, and around every particle of the host? That's an issue for the theologians to debate in comfy chairs by the fire over a good bottle of wine, not something to maintain division among people over.

Anyway, the movie's good. Go see it. (But don't bring your kids, seriously.)

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Twenty, if they're doing a foxtrot. Goes down considerably for polkas." --Michael Feltes

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October 26, 2003


I went to Mass today at the once-a-term Newman Mass, held in the Common Room of Old Main; there were 15 people there (including the priest). It was pretty neat. I don't think I've ever been to one with so few people, especially not a Sunday Mass. Several of the people there seemed not to be Catholic, too---I don't really know what their deal was, but they didn't take Communion. I think I was the only Catholic there who didn't participate in more than a congregational role. I'm definitely glad I went, despite worries that it would be primarily for students---there were two staff members there, and a parent, too.

In other news, I'm so sick of grading this damn midterm. Most of the class seems to have ignored my encouragement to make use of the lecture notes, homework solutions, etc, in working on their exam, and aside from making their own lives more difficult, it makes my life immensely more difficult, when they get stuff crashingly wrong. Arrghhh.

"It is very likely that you will not realize, say, that your tomboy sister is now a dyke, or that your brother's early interest in Cut 'n' Style Barbie has prepared him for considerably more than his lucrative career in the hairdressing industry, until s/he actually tells you these things." --The Plaid Adder, "The Fine Art of Being Come Out To"

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March 21, 2003

ARGH. I had bought lunch,

ARGH. I had bought lunch, brought it up to my office, and taken exactly one bite before remembering it was Friday---and it was a ham and turkey sandwich. Had I remembered before I got up here, or even just before I'd unwrapped it and taken a bite, I could've just given it to one of the homeless folks that reside on Thayer Street, and gotten something else. But as it was, I would've had to throw it out, and I hate being wasteful. So I ate it. And it didn't even taste good, then. Why couldn't I have remembered after I'd eaten it? :P

(For those unfamiliar, not eating meat on Fridays during Lent is a suggestion/command for Catholics. Some take it more seriously than others, obviously, but I've been trying to follow it. And no, to forestall the inevitable objection, I don't think I'm a bad person or going to hell or anything so cliché now, but it's still really annoying.)

"All punishment is arbitrary, or has the potential to be arbitrary... and with the death penalty, you can't take it back." --Janet Reno

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August 19, 2002


UGH. I finally got around to looking at the website of these Catholic anti-Disney people, and my feelings could at this point not be more mixed.

They are the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Browsing through their website, I found the tone familiar---it has the same sort of “sustained outrage” that I have come to expect from a lot of progressive sites. Of this, I approve; too many people have become totally apathetic in their acceptance of things they disagree with, and sustaining the outrage and calling others to action is important.

As for the things they get outraged over... some are pretty straightforward---many of their items are in protest of someone making fun of the Catholic Church, or its major players (Jesus, Mary, the Pope). I'm sort of annoyed that they think this sort of “blasphemous” discourse shouldn't take place, or shouldn't be broadcast or displayed; but whatever, they have a right to say their piece and convey their outrage. Fine. There's something about an anti-abortion rally---fine.

Then I get to two very interesting items: one, from last January, was a letter to Bush and Rumsfeld in support of not granting the Al Qaeda detainees POW status. Their basis is that these people are not honorable, therefore don't deserve any protections. WHAT?? I'm not even going to go into this, it was hashed over enough back in January, but suffice it to say that in addition to being wrong this struck me as really out of place for a Catholic organisation.

The second eyebrow-raiser was last December, when this group wrote a letter to Bush praising his decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty. Come on guys, what are we, Protestant fundamentalists? Last I checked, Catholics weren't hell-bent on bringing about Armageddon.

But now for the flyer that started all this. Apparently it's one of their older campaigns, from 2000. The title of the flyer is “Disney's next victims?” with a picture of two cute little kids. What, are we supposed to think that all those evil gay people are going to convert them or something? In what sense exactly are they supposed to be Disney's “victims”? Ah, but further down we see a quote from Matthew 18:6:

But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.
This is an odd choice of translation, talking about someone who would “scandalize” the children, whereas (go click on that link above) all the versions I can find refer to either offending the little ones or causing them to sin. (The New American Bible, which I'm given to understand is the Catholic standard, uses the latter interpretation.) Any one of them, though, is problematic, as kids aren't scandalised or offended by depictions of gay people on TV and in movies, unless their parents teach them to be, and such depictions aren't very likely to lead the little ones to sin---but it might lead them to be a little more tolerant of others, or a little less self-loathing if they turn out to be gay themselves.

But that's just the cover. Inside, there are some examples of what's so bad about Disney (preceded by the sentence “Did you know that each time we buy from Disney, we help destroy the family?”---Yeah, whatever.) The problem cases seem to be the TV show Ellen, Gay Day at Disney World, the book Growing Up Gay, and the movies Priest and Dogma. One of these things is not like the other... the objection to the movie Dogma is that it's blasphemous, which, well, it is. The others, though, all evidently are bad because they are accepting of homosexuality. (My favourite comment is about Gay Day, which “turns Disney premises into a modern day Sodom and Gomorrha[sic].”. I have to giggle at that---what exactly do they think those gay people are doing at Disney World??)

So many things about this irritate me, but I think most of it boils down to the inherent assumption made in the flyer, which is that merely being homosexual is bad, or at least that being a practicing homosexual is vastly worse than being a practicing heterosexual---or else why aren't these people boycotting, y'know, all the entertainment companies that depict unmarried relationships between straight people? I.e., all of them? According to actual Catholic doctrine, being homosexual is not a sin, and having gay sex (out of wedlock, which is at least for now tautological) is no different than having straight sex out of wedlock. But you never see TFP or any of these other morality groups getting their panties in a bunch over all the unmarried relationships all over the popular media.

Actually, there's another thing that irritates me about this, which is the assertion that homosexuality is somehow inimical to “the family”. But there's nothing about the fact that two people are of the same gender that will make them automatically worse at forming a family than any other two people. And one thing that's particularly bad for “the family” is when one member thereof discovers his or her homosexuality (or bisexuality, or transsexuality) and lives in fear of the disapproval of the rest of “the family”, or gets forcibly ejected from “the family” for being the way they are. My thoughts return to the two cute little kids on the cover, and wonder: if one of them turns out to be gay, aren't they a bit more likely to become TFP's next victims?

"I'm sure we could manage a reasonable middle ground, what with that "intelligence" and "flexibility" stuff going for us as a species." --Jonathan Prykop

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