Friday, December 30, 2005

Can we trade bishops?

Finally, bishops with guts: Brazilian bishops, who originally supported leftist President Lula da Silva, have publicly criticized him for first dealing with international debt obligations instead to attending to the immediate needs of Brazil's millions of desperately poor.

Whether right about Lula or not, I'm just glad there a group of Catholic bishops that are making the social gospel a priority, since ours seem completely content to remain silent, even as, need I remind you, a Congress with plenty of Catholics and even more other Christians funded the Pentagon to the tune of $450 billion while cutting spending on the poor by $40 billion.

And still, not a peep.

All in the family

Manassas, Virginia, deep in the heart of the "family values" South, has redefined what a "family" is, and is using that definition against immigrants, according to the Washington Post. The law allowed an officer to tell a Hispanic woman who shares her five-bedroom home with her husband, two sons, a nephew, and a renting couple: "Your nephew, under our law, is considered unrelated" and had to leave. The officer had responded to some kind of overcrowding complaint, but seven people in a five-bedroom house is not overcrowding. The law essentially restricts households to "immediate relatives."

While I doubt this idiocy will hold up in court--could you even have an unrelated roommate?--this is another example of how "family values" are used to ensure that only one, very narrow vision of family (middle class heterosexual married couple, 1.8 kids) has any protection. In many cultures--including traditionally Catholic ones--family responsibility extends far beyond a married couple and their children. Beyond that, how would society cope if aunts and uncles didn't take in their nephews and nieces when parents died or were abusive?

Now public Catholics and the U.S. bishops have decried gay marriage and other non-traditional family arrangements as "attacks on the family," but where are they when real attacks on families--often motivated by racism--take place? Why are they still silent on the $40 billion in cuts for Medicare and Medicaid and for those with disabilities? Those are real threats against real families.

To hell with limbo

News that Vatican theologians are going suggest banishing limbo from Catholic teaching has gotten quite a bit of coverage, but not one article seems to point out that Roman Catholics quit believing in limbo at least a generation ago. Only the most rigid could believe that God would banish unbaptized babies to semi-heaven because of original sin--though limbo was the softer position on the fate of unbaptized babies taken by Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, from whom we get the full development of the idea of original sin, was totally opposed to any intermediate "place" for the unbaptized; for him it was either hell or heaven, and baptism was the only ticket up.

Almost every story, however, has reported that limbo was merely a "tradition," not a doctrine. For people who want to deny that church teaching changes, that's a convenient way out. But the existence of limbo was taught by countless popes, bishops, and theologians, and it was a commonly held belief among the faithful. It may never have been dogma--the relatively small category of specifically defined beliefs that must be held by all the faithful, like the Trinity, incarnation, saving death and resurrection of Jesus--but limbo was certainly a doctrine, despite the fact that it did not appear in the most recent catechism.

Limbo's non-existence is another good example of the development of doctrine: As our understanding of scripture and tradition grows, our formulations of God's mystery change; sometimes we reverse course. Limbo was, in the end, a failure of belief in God's final mercy, and its departure is the result of another, more substantial change in church teaching, which no longer claims that one must be baptized or even believe in Jesus to go to heaven, made explicit in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Better still, limbo's evaporation illustrates another point about doctrinal development: Sometimes it's the sheep who lead the shepherds. The faithful abandoned limbo long ago; Vatican theologians are just catching up.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dizzy over "Daniel"

The American Family Association is condemning--sight unseen, of course--NBC's new midseason series The Book of Daniel, about an Episcopal priest with a screwed up family who happens to have conversations with Jesus. The priest evidently has a problem with pain medication, his wife drinks too much, they have a gay Republican son, and their daughter is selling drugs. Well I think they got everything in there. Oh yeah, and the depiction of Jesus is "unconventional." (He looks pretty "conventional" to me: white guy with shaggy brown hair and a beard. Now if they cast him as a first-century Palestinian Jew, that would be unconventional.)

Once again, though, I don't get AFA's quickness to take offence. After all, this is a show in which Jesus actually appears as a main character. Of course, it will be Jesus in the creator's own image and likeness (oh yeah, did I mention the show's creator is a gay "recovering Catholic" with an interest in Buddhism?), but let's be honest, we all do that to Jesus, from biblical scholars to bloggers--yes, even "fundamentalists." And so what if the creator or writer is gay; Jerry Falwell had a gay sermon writer (Mel White, now head of Soulforce, a group that protests "spiritual violence" again GLBT folk)--though I don't think Jerry knew about it at the beginning.

Unfortunately, I imagine this show will meet the same fate as Nothing Sacred, ABC's aborted show about a young urban Catholic priest, which, not surprisingly, dealt with difficult issues like homosexuality and abortion. (I think NS is probably the better show, if only because it doesn't rely on this silly visions-of-Jesus convention that the new show uses, a la Joan of Arcadia.)

So take a chill pill, and let's see what the show actually looks like. And besides, did you ever wonder if people don't come to church because they can't see themselves in the picture-perfect, moral majority. Maybe we all need a reminder that Jesus came to save sinners (that means all of us), not the "saved" (those convinced they don't need any help). And maybe a show about some flawed people (even a flawed Christian minister!!) trying to struggle through can help us; well, I doubt it can hurt.

Papal PR

The Washington Blade, the D.C. gay newspaper, has named Pope B16 as the "anti-gay person the year." Ouch. Along with a damning story, the article has a sidebar on Ratzinger-Benedict's written record on homosexuality. It certainly looks ugly all lined up like that. And the story doesn't even mention the 1999 sanctions against Sister Jeanine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent for their work with News Ways Ministry, a ministry for gay Catholics and their families that struggled mightily to stay within the increasingly narrow bounds of church teaching.

My posts on the document banning gay priests should make my views on this matter clear: The church's current teaching and practice is punitive, unnecessarily harsh, and lacks proper recourse to modern psychological data about sexual orientation in general and homosexuality in particular. It also generally forgets that there are many Catholics who are gay and lesbian, as well as many gay priests, religious, and lay people who have been faithfully serving the people of God for centuries. And I think it's legit for gay folks in general and gay Catholics in particular to feel abandoned, angry, persecuted, and misunderstood--and to put those feelings into print and action, as well as to oppose Vatican interventions into the secular political sphere.

At the same time, I'm not sure if hyperbole helps here. Take the comments of one "lesbian Catholic activist" associated with Soulforce: "His rhetoric is obscene. He wants gays clearly taken care of — it’s almost like the Final Solution." The Final Solution? Perhaps I'm accustomed to Vatican abuse, but that's a little over the top.

But it's hard to deny that in the popular imagination the Catholic church is "against" gays: It opposes gay marriage and even domestic partnership benefits (like spousal health insurance), adoption by same-sex couples; at times it opposes the inclusion of sexual orientation in non-discrimination laws (even those that exempt religious organizations); and Catholic parishes and dioceses have fired gay employees for that reason only (though I doubt there is a diocesan chancery without a gay employee). No amount of asserting the Catechism's teaching that homosexuals must be accepted with compassion and sensitivity can trump the systematic resistance to almost any advancement of the secular civil rights of gay and lesbian people.

I think the tide may be turning though: The recent document on gay priests landed with a thud; it had few defenders, many mainstream detractors, and a huge number of spin doctors that tried to neutralize it. That may come to nothing, but one hopes that we've turned a corner. But I grant that I'm probably being unrealistically optimistic.

Unless Catholics really want the world to think that "the church"--we baptized--are "against" gay people... But I don't think God is, and I don't think Catholics should be either.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Going ballistic on Brokeback

Here's one on the pop culture front: Under pressure from conservative groups, the U.S. bishops office for movie reviews has reclassified Brokeback Mountain--about two cowboys involved in a decades-long homosexual relationship though both are married--from "L" (limited adult audience) to "O" (morally objectionable).

Having seen the movie, which complex to say the least, I can't believe the office caved on this one. The sex in the movie is handled delicately to say the least--the straight sex scenes are more explicit than the gay--and the movie is clearly about the bond between the two men, its limits, and their regrets, as well as the effects of their relationship on their wives and families. Though there are "morally objectionable" themes in the movie--the review never mentions the most gruesome, two hate-related beating deaths, as "morally objectionable," focusing as usual on sex acts as the only "morally objectionable" things in the world--there's no reason it should get an "O."

The real question is why people are so afraid of this movie. Perhaps because they'll be affected by it? That having to deal with a difficult story may force some to rethink the blanket condemnations they issue?

Follow this link to the news story of the "Catholic News Agency" about the reclassification (God knows who is funding this, but it seems to oppose itself to the bishops official "Catholic News Service): Read the comments posted below the story, where you'll find some of the most vicious, uncharitable, and quite frankly un-Catholic comments about gay people, Hollywood, and even the U.S. bishops. Now that's "morally objectionable." If you can't make your point without calling someone a "pervert," you probably don't have a point worth making.

Two words: Grow up.

Why I don't care if "Christmas" appears at Wal-Mart

A friend and soon-to-be blogger and I have been trading arguments about the "Christmas" controversy, basically whether Christians should get in a twist about whether retail ads and public displays at this time of year should explicitly mention "the real reason for the season." Of course, since "Christmas" is over for most, this may seem too late. But I'll remind you Catholics out there that Christmas has just begun, and goes until the feast of the Lord's baptism, Jan. 9, this year.

You may want to read his side first; it's posted as a comment to this entry. Just click on the "comment" link below:

1. It's said that 95% of Americans celebrate "Christmas"--I put the quotes deliberately. What are they really celebrating. I hate to say it, but I think a healthy chunk are celebrating the secular winter holiday that coincides with the Christian feast of the birth of the Lord. Think of all the pop culture Christmas icons: the movies (Miracle on 34th St., Wonderful Life, The Bells of St. Mary's), none of which have overtly Christian-Christmas references--even the one about the priest and the nun!; the TV shows are the same (Rudolph, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, the Grinch, Charlie Brown); the decorations (trees, lights, stars)--none of them explicitly religious, all of them have non-Christian winter festival roots. And I'm not convinced that a plastic light-up nativity is really a "religious" symbol, but I could be persuaded.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are two simultaneous "holiday" celebrations: the secular (T-giving to New Years) and the religious (Christmas, only one day, or for us liturgical types, Christmas extending to Epiphany or so).

2. The ACLU: I doubt there have been any lawsuits regarding retailers use of "Christmas" in advertising; retailers can do what they want, and what they want is the most sales, and I'd be willing to bet there is market research that indicates "holiday" sells better than "Christmas" (or Hanukah or Kwaanza or Diwali for that matter). No retailer is going to get "sued" for using "Christmas"; they might just lose business. There can be no legal "war on Christmas" in the marketplace.

As for public buildings, I imagine the ACLU has opposed explicitly religious displays, and I'd say rightly so, unless the public buildings in the south suburbs of Chicago, for example--with large Hindu and Muslim populations--are also going to use public or private money to decorate those buildings for Diwali (Hindu) and Eid al-Fit'r, al-Adha (coming up), and the Prophet's birthday (Muslim). It may be majority rule, but it is also minority rights, and I think a public display of the "majority's" religious symbols is problematic unless it is totally, and I mean totally, balanced by anyone else's--and that mean Wicca, like it or not. That's why I go with none.

For instance, the ubiquitous "God bless America" on public buildings: How would most evangelical Christians feel if it said "Allah bless America," or even better, "Vishnu bless America"? "God" may be common English for the deity, but I'd argue it's basically Jewish and Christian. And I bet there'd be hell to pay from religious right if "Allah bless America" appeared in Patterson, NJ, or the suburbs of Detroit, where there are majority Muslim populations.

3. I think the real problem is that Christians have spent more time trying to defend privileged status for our holidays, texts (10 Commandments), etc., than trying to truly distinguish our "holy day" from the secular "holiday." After all, the pagan celebrations, which I think our secular one descends from, predates Christmas by centuries.

If Christians tried publicly--in the appropriate forums like newspapers, church and private property, other media, etc.--to really distinguish the celebration of Christ's birth from "the holidays" we might actually affect the secular celebration as well--which means we'd consume less, serve more. Instead, too often we choose culture war over evangelization.

A smaller pope

Not much to blog about in the holiday lull, but you can expect more papal-year-in-review stories like this one from the Australian Herald Sun. The writer's main point is that Benedict has done much already to scale down the size of the papacy since the death of John Paul II, speaking less often than his predecessor, grabbing headlines even less. If, as the article suggests, he's going to downsize the Roman Curia and do a little intellectual upgrade on the hierarchy, then he'd be doing us all a favor.

In fact, these two reforms would make B16's papacy a success in my book. The greatest damage JPII did over his 27 years was allow the Curia to go nuts, reasserting much of the control it lost after the Second Vatican Council, while at the same time using his own cult of personality to elevate the papacy well beyond its proper role. This has meant a great diminishment in the authority of local bishops and bishops conferences, a lot of backtracking on liturgical reform, and the appointment of a huge crop of Vatican sycophants to dioceses around the world, especially here in the U.S.

But the jury has barely begun to deliberate on B16. Most of what he has done--even the disastrous document on gays in the seminary--are leftovers from the previous administration. His symbolic acts, however, from meeting with liberal firebrand and Ratzinger opponent Hans Kung to a historic visit to the Cologne synagogue for World Youth Day, are promising.

Monday, December 26, 2005

But who'd want to marry him?

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, reflecting on the Stanislas Kostka controversy, makes a practical (and humorous) argument for why priests and bishops should be married. In short, it would keep him from doing stupid things like excommunicating people at Christmas, especially over money!

1,500 mortal sins

The continuing saga of St. Stanislas Kostka Parish in St. Louis, Missouri got more interesting when 1,500 people gathered for Christmas Mass, despite the excommunication of the parish's lay board and the pastor they hired last week. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke warned those attending that to do so put them in a state of mortal sin.

Burke has been in a months-long escalating dispute with the parish over its $9.5 million in assets. St. Stanislas, like many early American parishes, has been governed by a lay board for more than 100 years. Arguing that the arrangement violates current canon law, Burke demanded the parish's assets and the dissolution of governing board; he also withdrew diocesan clergy and placed the parish under interdict, meaning liturgy cannot be celebrated there, including weddings and funerals. The parish has refused to comply and has been without the sacraments for 17 months.

In an interesting twist, a Polish-born priest from the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Marek Bozek, left his current assignment without permission to become pastor of St. Stanislas, a traditionally Polish parish.

Don't know if Bozek is an opportunist, but I'm behind the parishioners. Their arrangement long ago qualified as a protected custom, and I don't blame them for not wanting to surrender their assets, especially to a tyrant like Burke, who made headlines during the 2004 elections for saying he would deny pro-choice Catholic politicians communion and more or less saying that Catholics shouldn't vote for Democrats.

Quite frankly, in this age of sex-abuse lawsuits, having parishes govern their own finances in consultation with the diocese makes good sense to me. Most dioceses currently hold all property in the bishop's name, leading many bishops to behave as if the church's assets really belong to them personally. That arrangement may have made sense at one time, but it certainly doesn't now, especially in light of the $1 billion U.S. Catholics have paid out in lawsuit settlements.

The money comes from the people, and the people ought to have a say in how that money is used.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

So you want to see Jesus?

News of a dispute over competing "Veronica's veils"--the Vatican has one, as does an Italian monastery--begs the question: Who cares? Even if the veil really wiped Jesus' face (the event is not in scripture), even if the image on it is miraculous, even if they're both "true" veils, what difference does that really make?

Don't you think Jesus would prefer we look for his image in one another, in the suffering, in the poor, in the forgotten, instead of in an old piece of silk, however cleverly painted?

It's Christmas: Go read about the little homeless boy whose cradle was a feed box, who had to flee to Egypt as a refugee, who wandered around homeless as a teacher and was eventually executed in an act of state terrorism.

Now let's go look for his face.

Heretical or hysterical?

News that the diocese of San Bernardino, California is trying a priest for heresy raises either hackles or cackles in my book. The priest in question, Ned Reidy, left Roman Catholic ministry five years ago to found a parish community that eventually affiliated with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which, as one would imagine, celebrates Roman-style liturgy while rejecting Roman positions on such things as celibacy, male-only clergy, homosexuality, to name a few, according to the L.A. Times.

Most quotable is Reidy himself, on why he refused to attend: "I just think the discourtesy level is appalling. I have moved way beyond all that and the brutality of the Roman Catholic Church, and for me to go would give a certain legitimacy to this witch hunt."

Fr. Howard Lincoln, speaking for the diocese, puts our minds at ease: "What this is not is a Galileo trial of 1633. This is based on revised canon law of 1983. No one's going to be burned at the stake." What a relief. Glad to see the Inquisition has been updated.

Of course the real question is why do such a thing at all. At best it's an unnecessary proclamation that Reidy is no longer Roman Catholic, a fact that he acknowledges. At worst it's just vindictive, and it makes the diocese look petty and mean.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Just so I'm not always a grump

This is TOTALLY boring but still worth noting: The Vatican has appointed two bishops, one to San Francisco, the other to Nashville. Both are interesting for a couple of reasons.

To San Francisco goes Salt Lake City bishop George Niederauer, a classmate of LA's Cardinal Roger Mahony and a moderate who is both intelligent (he has an earned doctorate in English) and pastoral; even the GLBT community is San Fran is cautiously optimistic. Under JPII Niederauer was an unlikely promotion, and he has commented recently that the new Vatican instruction on gay priests has more to do with the need for emotional maturity than homosexuality. I still say that's spin, but at least it's the good kind.

In Nashville David Choby, pastor of a church in Gallatin, Tennessee and curent diocesan administrator, has been named bishop. Why is that unusual? He's a priest of the Nashville diocese, and of late bishops have been coming from all over, more often than not from way outside the diocese. Don't know if this is just a fluke, but to my mind this is a good sign, an assertion of a more "local" approach to church rather than a relentless focus on the "universal." It makes sense that a local bishop should come from his own diocese whenever possible.

So, sorry this is without humor, acid, and irony, but if this approach to naming bishops continues, it would be a good sign indeed.

Now if we could get back to having the local church choose its bishop...

Rick jumps back on the HMS Beagle

Stung by intelligent design's defeat in a Pennsylvania courtroom, GOP Sen. Rick Santorum has suddenly withdrawn his support for the Thomas More Law Center, which argued on behalf of ID, saying he was disturbed by the fact that religion motivated members of the ID-promoting school board (!!), reports the Boston Globe.

Boy, I love it when ol' Rick ends up with egg on his face. He is among the nastiest, most uncharitable politicians in the Senate, regularly comparing homosexuality with bestiality while touting his Catholic credentials and boosting the most ideological conservative groups in both church and politics. (Which is why news of him appears on this blog.) Not a nice man.

And now he qualifies as a bona fide flip-flopper.

I can hardly conceal my glee.

Scrooged by Sancta Mater Ecclesia

Bad news for retired church workers in Chicago: The archdiocese will limit annual cost-of-living benefit increases to a mere 1.5%--nowhere near the rate of inflation. That means all those primarily lay women who taught in Catholic grammar schools for scant salaries will get even less in return for their years of service. Also of note: The restrictions do not apply to clergy.

Said Carol Fowler, director of personnel services for the archdiocese, according to the Chicago Tribune: "We're facing the same kind of pension crisis that every organization is facing. Pension plans in general are under incredible stress financially because of the last four or five years and the financial picture in this country. Being millions of dollars underfunded, our plan has that same difficulty." Glad to know the church also is guilty of wildly irresponsible underfunding of pension programs; the archdiocese of Boston admitted to similar underfunding of its pension obligations in the past few months.

And it gets worse: "This is a provision that most companies don't even have in the typical private sector. But in the private sector, if a company promises a cost-of-living adjustment, it can't take it back," Ron Gebhardtsbauer, a senior pensions fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries, said. That's right, not only is the church behaving like corporate America, it's actually worse than corporate America, since through lobbying efforts religious organizations have exempted themselves from most employee protections--things like COBRA and ERISA, laws meant to allow employees to continue group health coverage and guarantee retirement benefits--as well as employment discrimination laws.

The greatest scandal of all is that this action clearly violates the church's social teaching, which speaks strongly of the rights of workers, though the bishops and pastors--from preventing unions among church employees to summarily dismissing parish and diocesan workers when regimes change--largely ignore it.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Queen of Heaven: "We are not amused."

FAIR WARNING: The more spiritually squeamish among you might find some of this post's content, um, well, offensive. An unfortunate ad snuck past the censors at the Jesuit weekly America, one that involves both a statue of the Virgin Mary and a condom. Forewarned is forearmed.

Poor America! First its editor, Tom Reese, SJ, resigns under pressure from the Vatican, and now this. The Dec. 5 issue includes an ad for a "unique contemporary religious artwork," the description of which follows: "A stunning 22 cm high statue of the Virgin Mary standing atop a serpent wearing a delicate veil of latex. $300 plus shipping from the UK."

Now you'd think the "delicate veil" would have caught someone's attention, but if that didn't work the photo of the piece--you guessed it, typical Virgin Mary with a pink condom stretched over her--probably should have, but unfortunately for America didn't. To top it all off, the piece was titled "Extra Virgin." Oh dear.

Evidently, the ad was sent in black and white, so the ad folks missed it, and since editors usually don't look at advertising (this I know from experience), they missed it too. So it took readers to notice it.

Jim Martin, SJ, one of America's associate editors, offered this for explanation: "We're Jesuits. I don't think you could have found anyone in the editors' room who has seen a condom." Aw, come on! I can't believe he said that with a straight face!

The "artist" was allegedly trying to call attention to the Catholic church's opposition to condom use to prevent the spread of HIV. While I agree with him on that, I would discourage anyone else from stretching latex over religious images--people tend to get grumpy when you do that.

I've been experimenting with putting images on the blog, but thought I ought to skip this one. But I have seen the ad... Wow, that's a BIG miss. But, being an editor myself, it happens.

And from the Prince himself

And finally, for all those Christians in a twist about Wal-Mart's "Happy Holidays" ads, here's a little reality check from the big JC:

"Then the Son of Man will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt. 25:41-46)

Now tell me again: Why should we waste money and effort making sure that the word "Christmas" appears in print advertising?

When the Son of Man does return, I doubt he's going to be checking out the state of retail advertising.

Christmas catastrophe

With news that the U.S. Senate has cut about $40 billion in entitlement programs--Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, basically the social safety net the poor, elderly, disabled rely upon--I find myself thunderstruck that the bishops of the U.S. have said nothing, nor can I find any other religious leader lamenting that this abomination should occur just days before Christmas.

Here we are about to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, and our politicians ram through a double insult: $453 billion dollars for the Pentagon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $40 billion in cuts for the "least of [Jesus' and our] sisters and brothers." So much for a "Christian" nation, so much for a Christian president and a GOP that caters to evangelical Christians. While distracting everyone with the red herrings of gay marriage and abortion, Congress just robbed the poor, with Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. And don't forget the $70 billion in tax breaks on capital gains for the super-rich.

Instead of the charming nativity stories from Matthew and Luke this Christmas, perhaps we should hear the prophet Amos: "Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way." (2:6-7)

Or how about this: "Thus says the Lord: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:21-24)

Po, Po, Po, Merry Christmas!

Doesn't he look so cheery and bright? Not sure I want him sliding down my chimney Saturday night, though. Still, I'm sure he's completely charming in person. Maybe being pope is softening him up a bit. Even I have to admit he's kind of cute and snuggly all medievaled up!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The incredible shrinking seminary

After banishing gays from the sem, a seminary in Spain has decided also to get rid of Web surfers and couch potatoes. The rector of the seminary in Granada, Spain has forbidden seminarians from using the Internet and restricted hours during which they can watch TV. Internet connections to seminary buildings will be terminated; no word on how TV restrictions will work--electromagnetic shield?

Can't imagine how that would go over here in the U.S. Mundelein Seminary (Chicago archdiocese) has both cable and high-speed Internet in students' rooms; Americans, of course, see both as fundamental rights, if not marks of true civilization.

I can see some applauding the rector's move, but let's be honest: If you're worried about seminarians abusing TV and Internet, is forbidding or restricting them really the right answer? What will happen when they're back "in the world"--surrounded by the fruit forbidden them? Sounds like trouble to me.

Of course, one could rightly ask if isolating seminarians at all--Mundelein in Chicago is surrounded by acres of forest--is really all that great of an idea.

Good-bye Tookie

On a more somber note, today's funeral of Crips street gang founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams gets me thinking about the death penalty again. Though I am absolutely opposed to the death penalty, I was a little disturbed by the reasoning many of Tookie's advocates gave for clemency, primarily that he had "reformed" and become an outspoken opponent of gang violence. In other words, he deserved to live because he had made up for his crime--though he maintained his innocence to his death.

But let's be honest: You can't "make up" for killing four infinitely valuable people, and even if Williams himself was not the trigger man, he shares moral responsibility for the violence committed by the gang he founded. No reform can restore what has been lost; the best we can hope for is some kind of reconciliation, the healing of wounds whose scars will always remain and the restoration of human community. But by the same token, the death of one guilty can no more restore the loss of four innocents than a mountain of good deeds.

The possibility of conversion is a fine side benefit to eliminating the death penalty, but it's not a good reason. Who is to judge a conversion? Only God, in the end. Soon we'll be distinguishing the guilty who deserve mercy and those who don't. Talk about playing God.

No, the best reason for eliminating capital punishment is that it's simply wrong to kill any defenseless human being--guilty or not. It's a violation of human dignity, an act of blasphemy committed against God's image, even in those who have committed the foulest offenses. We should bring it to an end.

Papal fashion plate

Pope BXVI is giving new meaning to sanctuary drag this holiday season, trotting out a medieval camauro--think Santa Claus's headgear--to keep his head warm during his Wednesday audience. The fur-lined, red velvet papal bonnet hasn't seen action since the days of John XXIII--if only it came with J23's reforming aggiornamento, too! Unfortunately, the red of the velvet clashed with his scarlet cape--a big clerical fashion no-no.

Plenty will point out the irony of a pope who has condemned homosexuality yet insists on the campiest of get-ups, down to his "delicate red slippers" for indoor wear and red Prada pumps--well, not really pumps, but close, mules maybe--for outside.

But I won't.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Just how intelligent?

News that intelligent designers lost their Pennsylvania court battle today (YEAH!!) is not unexpected, but their responses are often worth a chuckle.

Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank that champions intelligent design theory: "The judge thinks intelligent design is a supernatural explanation, but it clearly is not. So the entire decision is predicated on a false perception of intelligent design." Well, Casey, if the idea that an invisible, unmeasurable "designer" is behind the universe isn't a supernatural--or at least non-scientific--explanation, I don't know what is.

And, always good for a laugh, White House spokesman Scott McClellan: "The president ... believes students ought to be exposed to different theories and ideas so that they can fully understand what the debate is about." OK. Everyone spend ten minutes trying to figure out what that means.

What I've really never understood is why the creationists--and that's what they are--have never tried to force schools to teach the second creation myth in Genesis that starts at Gen. 2:4--you know, the one about the Garden of Eden. Why not expose children to the idea that God first planted a garden, then took mud and made a man and breathed into him so he could tend the garden, then later took him apart again to make a woman? That way they can understand what the debate is all about. Oh yeah, but first God made animals for the man to provide companionship.

Of course, they can't do that because then the absurdity of their position would be clear: Religious myth is not the same as modern science and shouldn't be taught in science class.

Who said chastity was dead?

Couldn't pass this one up: The 35-year-old lead singer of rock band Weezer is now halfway into his third year of celibacy. Having originally committed to only two years, Rivers Cuomo is evidently content to be continent, as reported in today's Chicago Red Eye: "Abstinence doesn't require as much self-discipline anymore," he told Blender magazine. "We never had any serious groupies anyway. Our generation got screwed." Or didn't.

I'm not sure if that's really virtue, of course, but it is fun for a post.

So where have I been?

I'm sure all ten of my readers have wondered where I've been since Dec. 2. I have no real excuse, although last week I was in Turkey for an interreligious dialogue trip--quite an adventure. More as I think of it.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Proud to be an American?

Congrats, North Carolina. You've pushed one of our many national shames into quadruple digits. With the state-sponsored murder of Kenneth Lee Boyd, America has now taken revenge on 1,000 criminals. Unfortunately, none of the victims, including the two killed by Boyd, have come back to life.

Boyd died at 2:15 AM. Anybody wonder why executions are done in the middle of the night. Could it be shame?

My best friend from high school has suggested that we all should have to take turns pushing the button or pulling the switch, since this crime is, after all, on our collective national head.

I could quote Catholic teaching, but I think I'll pull a Gump and quote my mother: Two wrongs don't make a right.

No gay priest, part 9: Keep talking...

I know this is ridiculous thing for blogger to write, but some people should know when to shut up--although I want these guys to keep at it, since they're making my argument for me.

First, from Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, the prefect of the Congregation for Education, on the difference between "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" and the other, "passing" kind: "For example, some curiosity during adolescence; or accidental circumstances in a state of drunkenness; or particular circumstances, like someone who was in prison for many years.” According to the Table article this quote appears in, "[Grocholweski] even provided the case of homosexual acts that one engages in to obtain favours." Okay ... uh, is that like prostitution? Well, it has to be at least three years since you turned your last trick before you can be a deacon. (Incidentally, the Tablet's editorial on this issue is world-class.)

My daily fave, though, is a Zenit interview with Cardinal Georges Cottier, who was until yesterday the theologian of the pontifical household; the interview is hilariously titled, "Document Shows Homosexuals Much Sensitivity," and includes these gems, among others:

"In general, homosexuality is accompanied by this emotional immaturity. It is an affirmation that is going to be criticized, but that is based on experience." Whose experience? Yours?

"I would like to add something to what is much talked about -- too much, perhaps, I don't know: pedophilia and homosexuality.There is a word that is never used and that, however, is important when we see the work that priests do; it is the word "ephebophilia." [Huh?] It is not pedophilia, which is attraction to small boys, but refers to attraction to adolescents. It is a very ambiguous and decisive age for every one. And I think it is a very extended form of homosexuality. I think it is necessary to present this clarification, as families entrust adolescents to priests -- scouts, summer camps, pilgrimages, groups. In those cases, these boys [and girls?] must be totally respected" (emphasis mine). Wow. A theologian telling us what he thinks about psychology, along with an embarrassing omission of females.

But finally, honesty. This instruction is about sex abuse, and its purpose is to blame the gays. Even though no healthy, well-integrated gay man wants to have sex with adolescents, just as no healthy, well-integrated straight man does.

There is a clear explanation for why most of the abused were males: access. Female altar servers were not common in the U.S. until 1990; most abuse occurred well before then.

Cottier is right in saying the ephebophilia has something to do with getting "stuck" in adolescent sexuality, it just doesn't have any direct connection with homosexuality, even though the behavior may be with a member of the same sex. In therapy, ephebophiles may end up heterosexual or homosexual. Their issue is not orientation but integration.

These distinctions, of course, are lost in this mess, especially since this document mixes psychology and theology with abandon.

It's a bad document. It should be withdrawn.

No gay priests, part 8: They really mean it!

Well, I thought I was done with this, but in the news today is the cover letter that accompanied the Vatican instruction forbidding gays from the priesthood, which directs that gay priests should not teach or head Roman Catholic seminaries. This despite the assurance that the new directives do not apply to those already ordained.

The content here is not what's creepy; it's the logical extension of the policy. If you don't want gay seminarians, it's likely you don't gay priests teaching seminarians either. What's really disturbing though is the attachment of this kind of extra directive as a cover letter, which is basically an attempt to give the cover letter the authority of the actual instruction. But a cover letter is just that: a letter. It doesn't have any binding power of its own.

And so the big question: Who is pulling the strings? This cover letter is a dirty trick by someone trying to sneak something else in on the coattails of an already bad document. Is that how we want our church to operate?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Warren saddles up for HIV/AIDS

And it only took him 20 years.

Of course, I should be more positive toward Rick Warren, head pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California, and the other evangelical and megachurch pastors that have decided that they should be doing HIV/AIDS work here in the U.S. and not just in Africa.

But then Warren says dumbass, though well-meaning, things like this: "The Gospels repeatedly show that Jesus loved, touched and cared for lepers--the diseased outcasts of his day. Today's `lepers' are those who have HIV/AIDS." Diseased outcasts?

This, of course, is part of the problem, since it is precisely this attitude in the right-wing religious groups and the Reagan administration that stigmatized those with HIV in the first place. In fact, we might be a lot further along in the fight against HIV had Reagan--the first president to openly court evangelicals--had actually been able to utter the word "AIDS."

People with HIV are "lepers" only if those who are HIV-negative make them so; their "leperhood" is not their issue, though they certainly suffer the consequences. "AIDS victims," after all, still figure prominently in evangelical tracts against homosexuality.

Warren's wife, Kay, gets points for honesty: "The evangelical church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands over our eyes and mouths shut completely. . . . We're not comfortable talking about sex in general and certainly not comfortable about talking about homosexuality--and you can't talk about HIV without talking about both of those things."

Maybe if we Christians could do only one thing this World AIDS Day it would be to quit associating AIDS with some kind of moral failure. Just because something can be sexually transmitted doesn't mean there's some kind of sin involved.

HIV is a resilient little organism that has a devastating effect on the human immune system. The moral failure is not related to its transmission; the true moral failure lies at the feet and in the hearts of all of us who have not mustered the political will and financial resources to care for those affected; people of faith, knowing full well the demands of compassion but failing to meet them, have sinned doubly.

No gay priests, part 7: Out with it!

I've really beaten this one to death--this may be the last post on this topic, or not--but there is one more interesting question related to the whole gay clergy thing: Should priests come out?

Actually, a number have in the past few days, including a Chicago pastor--which is a hell of a thing to do when your bishop is Francis George. Other priests in Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Toronto have as well.

All I can say is thank God. For one thing, the people of God need to know that they have been faithfully, often extraordinarily, served by gay priests, not to mention gay, lesbian, and bisexual lay people like me. (If it isn't obvious that this is personal.) This issue needs a face, and I'm pretty sure once Catholics see the dedication of these men, they'll realize how wrong-headed this policy really is. It may cause some uncomfortable conversation, along with inordinate attention on whether the priest in question has ever had sex, but it's time for this whole thing to quit being an open secret.

What we need is an honest, authentic, grown-up conversation about what we want out of our ordained ministers. I'm willing to bet that high on the list will be integrity, authenticity, compassion--all hallmarks of true holiness. Absent by and large, I think, will be a checkbox on the sexual orientation of the pastor.

Just when you were ready to give up on him

Today in his Wednesday audience, Papa Ratzi's reflections on Psalm 136 included an affirmation that those "without biblical faith" can be saved. Of course, that is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium, but I find it interesting that he comes up with this stuff from time to time. Many of those in the "Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club"--both the official and the unofficial--wouldn't agree. Remember, this is the guy that wrote Dominus Iesus, an August 2000 instruction that referred to other religions as "gravely deficient"--not very nice.

I keep hoping that the reasonable Ratzinger, the incredibly incisive though conservative theologian, is going to find his pastoral stride. He's definitely not anywhere near there yet, although a visit to Bishop Dowling's AIDS clinic in Restenburg, South Africa might make a good start.

On another positive note, signs are that B16 might abolish limbo from Catholic teaching, especially since he obviously thinks that you can be saved without baptism. (I thought it was gone long ago.) Where will all those unbaptized baby souls go? They'll be homeless. Hate to be one of those to die unbaptized before they changed the teaching.

Oh, that's right. There was never any limbo in the first place. Of course, as a cardinal, Papa Ratzi said it was only a "theological hypothesis." Funny, though, how things once believed by most Catholics turn out to be only "hypotheses" when we decide they weren't very good ideas to begin with.

No gay priests, part 6: They need the gays

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men has now issued a statement praising gay priests for their contributions to the church, according to the Boston Globe, and said that the practical application of the Vatican policy is ''best understood and defined by major superiors in dealing with individuals in their communities." This is the closest thing you can get in official church circles to outright rejection.

The necessity of all this spin--that it doesn't mean what it really says--reveals the obvious reality: If the Roman Catholic Church wants to maintain a male- and celibate-only priesthood, it simply cannot exclude what is probably the largest group of men who do not marry (women, anyway), and that's gay men. Their numbers may shrink as same-sex relationships receive wider acceptance, but the church simply cannot rely on heterosexual men (unless they want to restrict themselves to those that are celibate only because no one would marry them).

After all the mass exodus from the priesthood in the '70s and '80s was largely due to heterosexual men who left only because they wanted to marry. If there are "too many" gay priests, the hierarchy has only itself to blame for driving out the straights.

If the Vatican was really concerned that gay men are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the clergy, it would relax clerical celibacy. Hell, if they were concerned about the people of God's access to the eucharist they would do it. And if they were concerned about a clergy shortage, they would ordain all those the church (that is, the people of God) call to orders, which would include women and men married and single, of probably every race and ethnic group and sexual orientation. But they're not concerned about any of those things; it seems the only thing they're really concerned about is the priesthood's bella figura--its image, nothing more, nothing less.

Pope plays dumb on World AIDS Day

Sorry, but this really burns me up. In his World AIDS Day message, the pope is touting the "effectiveness" of AIDS prevention programs that promote abstinence and fidelity in marriage--while at the same time forbidding condom use, even for married couples.

Now let's think about this: If you want to promote sexual fidelity in marriage, but you won't allow serodiscordant couples (couples of different HIV status) to use the best (though imperfect) protection available, what choices do people have? Do we really want to put women at further risk along with the children that may be conceived?

Surely the answer to that question is no. And, as Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa points out, most recently in an NPR profile, when used to preserve life (rather than as a contraceptive), condom use is prolife. Being against condom use in this instance is, quite frankly, part of the culture of death as far as I'm concerned. The interests of life--especially of poor women and children--trump the maintenance of a teaching that most Catholic married couples have judged unhelpful in practice if not in principle.