Does a change in tone matter when it comes to the pope?

Here is Will Saletan calling Pope Francis a liberal.  Here are some of Andrew Sullivan’s readers exploding with joy over the pope’s recent interview:

Wow! I wondered if Pope Francis could possibly be for real.  He seems the absolute embodiment of what I always thought the Catholic Church was supposed to be about – promoting the ideas and teachings of Jesus, not running a corrupt organization without a shred of mercy, divine or otherwise.  Pope Francis is having a tremendous pull on me.  I rejected the Church long ago, but I’m drawn to this man and what he has to say.  I hear a voice inside me that says “yes”.

I have always been of two minds about this sort of thing.  On the one hand, the new guy is saying a lot of good things–the kind of things I had my fictional pope saying in Pontiff. On the other hand, the Church has a long long history of being dogmatic and authoritarian and, after thirty plus years of John Paul and Benedict, it is run by people who like it that way.  What is likely to change, besides tone?  And is tone enough?

The leader of the archdiocese of Boston is named Sean O’Malley, and he seems like a terrific guy.  He even has a blog!  In the blog he has a heartwarming anecdote about a relief worker distributing food to starving Africans.

At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine year old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.

Let’s all be like that little girl!  But, you know, the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control may be part of the reason why there were too many people in that line, and not enough food.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, in addition to not being so obsessed with birth control and homosexuality and abortion, as Francis put it in his interview, the Church could start remedying the damage those obsessions have already done to the world. I’m not optimistic.


When I was a lad I had a missal that I very much liked.  At the back of the missal were prayers you could say, presumably during the boring parts of Mass.  Next to each prayer was the indulgence you would get for saying the prayer–that is, the number of days that would be reduced from the time you’d have to spend in purgatory for your sins. (Here is way more than you want to know about indulgences.)

I could never figure out the rating system — why was one prayer worth more than another?  And some prayers gave you a plenary indulgence — full time off.  Why would you bother saying a prayer that only gave you 100 days off, if you could say one that would get you out of purgatory for good?  I was a very literal-minded kid.

Now we hear that you can get a plenary indulgence for following Pope Francis’s Twitter feed. This has generated snark from the usual suspects.  And I can’t really disagree with the snark.  Shouldn’t indulgences have disappeared like 500 years ago?  The Wikipedia article shows that, as with most theological issues, the modern Catholic church has tried to become more sophisticated, which is to say, vaguer, with respect to the meaning of indulgences.  But it can’t seem to quit them.

What I tend to focus on, though, are the people whose job it is to come up with the rules for indulgences.  The classification of prayers by years and days has been done away with, but somebody has to figure out exactly what the rules are for indulgences.  For example, Wikipedia says reading Sacred Scripture for half an hour can get you a plenary indulgence on any day, but only once a day.  Who came up with half an hour, as opposed to, I dunno, an hour?  Who decided you could only get a plenary indulgence once a day, as opposed to once a week?  As with the Vatican office that determines who is suitable for canonization, smart people are spending their lives going to work each day and figuring this stuff out.  Such a waste.

The pope washes women’s feet — should I care?

Pope Francis keeps breaking with tradition, and that makes the conservatives unhappy.  Should liberals therefore be happy?  Don’t see why.  By their fruits shall ye know them, as someone famous once said.  Not by their symbolic gestures.

Meanwhile Boston College has stopped students from distributing free condoms on  campus, and other Catholic colleges say they’d do the same thing.

“One of the teachings of our faith is that contraception is morally unacceptable,” said ­Victor Nakas, a spokesman for Catholic University. “Since condoms are a form of contraception, we do not permit their distribution on campus.”

If Pope Francis were to say, “Hey, let the kids distribute condoms if they want.  It’s a free country,” now that would be interesting.    But don’t hold your breath.

Hope everyone has a happy Holy Saturday!

New pope, same as the old pope

In my novel Pontiff I imagined a deadlocked conclave electing an African cardinal known mainly for standing up to his country’s evil dictator.  No one had any idea about his theology or politics.

Complications ensue.

Nothing like this happened today.  Much will be made of Pope Francis’s humility and humanity and learning.  He took the bus to work!  He’s an accomplished theologian (whatever that may mean)!  He washed the feet of AIDS victims (or something)!  He’s critical of capitalism!

But this is all beside the point.  The doctrines are the same.  The attitudes are the same.  Here he is blaming the Argentine gay marriage law on the devil:

Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just it’s form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God… Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment… May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.

According to Wikipedia, he believes that adoption by same-sex couples is a form of discrimination against children and opposed the free distribution of contraceptives in Argentina.

The only way the Church is going to change is if the new pope appoints cardinals who are doctrinally more diverse than the current batch.  You decide if that’s good for the world (and the Church) or not.

Final thoughts about eternal damnation

Not that I’m dying or anything, I just have one blog post left in me about hell before I focus on politics for a while (which is its own kind of hell). Or maybe hurricanes.

Anyway, here is another quote from the New York Times article about hell getting a makeover:

While the catechism says that Jesus spoke of hell as an ”unquenchable fire,” it says hell’s primary punishment is ”eternal separation from God,” which results from an individual’s conscious decision.

”To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice,” the catechism says.

This argument–that a loving God doesn’t send you to hell, you basically send yourself there–is familiar to me.  But it has always struck me as completely bogus.  First of all, God makes the rules about who goes to hell.  Second, He doesn’t publish the rules.  I learned a lot of rules growing up, but those can’t be the right rules, because otherwise everyone is going to hell.  For example, I learned that missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation was a mortal sin.  Was it true back then?  Is it still true now?  Have the rules changed?  No one is going to tell you.  I read an online essay about hell where the author opined that failure to follow the Church’s rules on contraception was a grave sin, possibly meriting hell.  True?  Who knows?  This is like Calvinball, except if you lose at Calvinball, you don’t suffer eternal torment.

Speaking of eternal torment, the real reason for this post is that I wanted to quote from Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which rivals Joyce’s sermon for a great vision of who you are messing with if your are considering missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it. Those that are gone from being in the like circumstances with you, see that it was so with them; for destruction came suddenly upon most of them; when they expected nothing of it, and while they were saying, Peace and safety: now they see, that those things on which they depended for peace and safety, were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Awesome stuff.

In which I contemplate my eternal damnation

During my early morning run the other day I was thinking about this post, where I suggested that, according to standard Catholic doctrine, a pretty large percentage of Americans over the past forty years were prime candidates for eternal damnation.  And it occurred to me that, according to the standard doctrine I learned growing up, I’m going to hell too, along with a large chunk of the people I know.  Not because of anything to do with abortion, but because I was given the gift of faith and rejected it, turning my back on God’s love.

Hell doesn’t come up much nowadays–I’m sure parts of the Church find the fire-and-brimstone stuff embarrassing.  This Times article (“Hell Is Getting a Makeover”) points out that the latest Catholic catechism contains only five paragraphs about hell in a 700-page book.  And the pain of hell, we now believe, is not physical but mental:

Hell is best understood as the condition of total alienation from all that is good, hopeful and loving in the world. What’s more, this condition is chosen by the damned themselves, the ultimate exercise of free will, not a punishment engineered by God.

Of course, to get to this spot, the theologians have to go the “Jesus’ words shouldn’t be taken literally” route, since Jesus had lots to say about unquenchable fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth and so on.  But that’s theology for you.

In any case, hell is still real, and apparently I’m going there.  Maybe I’ll contemplate Pascal’s wager on my deathbed–but I doubt it.

And I can’t help thinking that the sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far more interesting vision of hell than the etiolated modern view.  Here is just a taste.

The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.

That should’ve kept those Irish lads on the straight and narrow!

Bishops and nuns, then and now

I recently watched Come to the Stable, a 1949 Loretta Young movie about a couple of French nuns who get it in their heads to come to New England and build a hospital for sick kids in a town called Bethlehem.

I didn’t go to the movies much as a kid, and that’s probably why I still remember seeing this movie on the big screen.  I have no idea why it was playing in a movie theater–I wasn’t around in 1949, so it had to have been a special showing of some kind.  I couldn’t have been very old, because I can remember being confused by the location–could there really be two places called Bethlehem?  That didn’t seem right.  Anyway, the movie is in the tradition of 1940s Catholic movies like Going My Way and The Bells of Saint Mary’s.  The nuns (Young and Celeste Holm) are holy innocents who get their way by being holier and more innocent than everyone they encounter, including the soft-hearted mobster who owns the land they need for the hospital and the practical bishop who has to approve their harebrained scheme.

Come to the Stable was nominated for a bunch of Oscars–most of them baffling.  Back then, you were apparently guaranteed of a nomination if you appeared in a habit. (Elsa Lanchester, playing a local artist, also got a nomination for looking ditzy in a few scenes.  Claire Boothe Luce, the conservative Catholic playwright/politician, got a nomination for the dopey story.)  Seems to me that this sort of movie must have done a lot to pave the way for the country to elect a Catholic to the presidency.  The Church wasn’t this secret foreign power intent on subverting American values–it built hospitals for sick kids!

The movie seems hopelessly quaint nowadays.  I don’t think the story would work on the Hallmark channeI.  I was particularly struck by the way the nuns genuflected and kissed the bishop’s ring every chance they got.  Does anyone still do that?  It was a given that the nuns owed the bishop absolute and unquestioned obedience.  It was a given that nuns would be so unworldly they wouldn’t know what a parking ticket was, even though one of them had grown up in Chicago and the other had been a tennis champion.

So here is an American bishop nowadays:

The first American bishop criminally charged in the clergy sex abuse scandal was found guilty Thursday of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse, a conviction that extends the struggle of Roman Catholic leaders to restore trust in the church.

Bishop Robert Finn was acquitted on a second count. He received two years of probation, but that sentence was suspended and will be wiped from his record if he adheres to a set of conditions that include mandatory abuse reporting training, setting aside $10,000 in diocese money for abuse victim counseling, and instructing all diocesan agents to report suspected criminal activity involving minors.

And here is an American nun, Sister Simone Campbell, who recently spoke at the Democratic National Convention:

And at a convention that is revolving largely around an alleged GOP-led “war on women,” Campbell is a poignant feminist symbol. She has stood up to the Vatican’s criticisms of American nuns for what the church says is their fixation on progressive advocacy at the expense of promoting socially conservative positions.

“We’re certainly oriented toward the needs of women and responding to their needs,” she told Colbert in June, defending the nuns against the Vatican. “If that’s radical, I guess we are.”

It’s lot different from the post-war fantasy world of Come to the Stable.  And I think that’s all to the good.  We shouldn’t be afraid to arrest bishops who don’t protect the children in their diocese.  And we should listen to nuns who have something important to say.

“You knew full well what was right, but you chose wrong.”

That was the judge’s comment when sentencing Monsignor Lynn to 3-6 years in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial. As I mentioned before, this case is in its own way much more significant than the Penn State scandal, because the Catholic church is (some would say) more important than college football.  Andrew Sullivan notes that Pope Benedict was apparently responsible for much the same crime 30 years ago:

[T]his precise chain of events – in which a child-rapist priest was reported as a criminal to the church authorities, then sent to therapy, then reassigned only to rape again – is exactly what Joseph Ratzinger did in Munich in the 1980s. How does an institution allow a lower priest to go to jail for such an act, while allowing the chief pontiff to carry on as if nothing had happened, as if children had not been raped because of his direct complicity in protecting the rapist?

Here’s an interesting quote from one of Lynn’s supporters:

After the sentencing, Ann Casey, a friend of Monsignor Lynn for 36 years, said she believed he was a scapegoat and a victim of his intense faith in the archdiocese’s leaders. “It was his vow of obedience to the church that landed him this morning in jail,” she said.

That is to say, he was only following orders.  This is, of course, the problem that comes from being part of an institution with an absolute belief in the rightness–and goodness–of its beliefs and practices.  Nothing can be allowed to happen that might lessen people’s faith in that institution.  And if you have taken a vow of obedience, nothing can stand in the way of fulfilling that vow.

The judge’s remark is an interesting refutation of the NOMA position that morality is the province of religion. Clearly we have a common understanding of when religious authorities are being immoral.  We need to hold them to our standards, not theirs.  So why should religion be privileged in its pronouncements as to what is right and wrong?

Let’s hope Monsignor Lynn has a chance to ponder this in prison.

Why the institution is more important than the victims

The Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

This seems pretty accurate to me, although nowadays I think we need to expand the definition of religion to include football.  Probably not that much of a stretch.

Joe Paterno was a good Catholic, and as a good Catholic he was probably familiar with the idea of giving scandalHere’s a good summary of the concept.  When the sex abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, the explanation trotted out by some of the clergy was that they didn’t publicize the abuse because they didn’t want to give scandal.  Non-Catholics might misconstrue this as having something to do with the common usage of scandal–the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Watergate scandal…..  But that’s not the kind of thing we’re talking about.  Here’s the relevant Merriam-Webster’s definition:

Conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another

The bishops felt that it was their duty to keep these problem priests secret, because if the faithful found out about them, they might lose their faith.  It’s hard to disagree with this analysis, actually.

The assumption, of course, is that the institution, and people’s faith in it, is more important than individual lives.  If you want to apply this belief to your own life, you can become a martyr.  I expect that some of the bishops involved in the scandal might in fact be willing to become martyrs, if circumstances required it.  Who knows?  But they were willing to apply this belief to innocent young lives that were placed in their care.  And that’s where Weinberg’s quote applies.

So here is Joe Paterno, by many accounts a secular saint–an upright and moral man beloved by one and all.  His institution was a clean, successful football program–not exactly the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but close enough in Happy Valley.  And in the end, his institution mattered more than anything, more than morality, more than human lives:

The consequences of the lack of action by Mr. Paterno and others, whatever its explanation, were grim. Mr. Freeh said that by allowing Mr. Sandusky to remain a visible presence at Penn State following his retirement from coaching in 1999, he was essentially granted “license to bring boys to campus for ‘grooming’ as targets for his assaults.”

“Good people” doing evil.

The other Pennsylvania sex abuse trial

I have lived in my bucolic Boston suburb for twenty years.  Not much happens.  The police report in the weekly newspaper features OUIs and shoplifting charges.  People worry about zoning changes and the naming of schools. Everyone gets along.

It turns out that the two worst people who have lived in my town in recent memory were priests at the Catholic church just down the street from me.

One of them, who doesn’t merit a Wikipedia article, was the pastor of the church; he is currently serving a life sentence in prison for sexual abuse of minors.

The other priest, the infamous John Geoghan, was strangled and stomped to death in prison.

In both cases, there is strong evidence that the Archdiocese of Boston knew what was going on and hid the information from the police and potential victims.  But no one in a position of power in the archdiocese was ever charged with a crime.  Cardinal Bernard Law was pulled back to safety in Rome, where he remains influential.  Reports suggest he was behind the recent crackdown on American nuns who were too interested in stuff like, you know, social justice and helping the poor.

But now we have this:

In the first conviction of a high-level Roman Catholic official in the nationwide priest sexual abuse scandal, a monsignor in the Philadelphia Archdiocese was found guilty Friday of child endangerment for covering up allegations of abuse of children.

Msgr. William J. Lynn, who supervised priests for the archdiocese, was accused of reassigning pedophile priests in an attempt to protect the church’s reputation and avoid lawsuits. A jury acquitted him, however, of conspiracy and another endangerment charge.

The Sandusky trial and conviction had a higher profile, but he’s just a guy, and Penn State is just a place.  Lynn is a representative of one of the most powerful institutions in the world. His conviction matters.

After the Church sex abuse scandal exploded in the early 2000s, we took the kids to New York City and popped into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to take a look.  Turns out Mass was being celebrated, and the priest was giving a homily about the scandal.  And of course he blamed the media.  WTF?  Hollywood has been glamorizing pedophilia?  But he’s not alone.  Here is Pope Benedict’s insightful analysis of the problem:

But in his festive speech – which he traditionally uses to impart key messages to senior Vatican figures – he insisted the abuse scandal should be placed in a wider social context. “We cannot remain silent about the context of these times in which these events have come to light,” he said, citing child pornography, “that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society.”

Sexual tourism in the third world was “threatening an entire generation”, he added.

Returning to a theme he had discussed in the past, Benedict said the modern world’s moral relativism was at fault. “In the 1970s, paedophilia was seen as a natural thing for men and children,” he said, arguing that the Catholic church had the task of taking on and defeating relativism.

In what universe is child pornography considered “more and more normal by society”?

I enjoy disputations about theology and science, but let’s face it: religion isn’t going away anytime soon.  But can’t we hope for a religion that is better than this?  The depressing thing is that Bernard Law once represented that kind of religion:

Law was a civil rights activist. He was a member of the Mississippi Leadership Conference and Mississippi Human Relations Council. For his civil rights activities and his strong positions on civil rights in the Mississippi Register, of which he was editor, he received death threats. The newspaper lost many subscribers for whom his civil rights stance was repugnant.

Charles Evers, activist and brother of Medger Evers (activist assassinated in 1963), praised Law and said he acted “not for the Negro, but for justice and what is right.”

If we had more priests like that, it would be harder to make the case for atheism.