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!

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Miracles and sainthood: Kateri Tekakwitha

Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God got me thinking about miracles, because Miller believes in them and believes he understands how they can occur. And now we have the Catholic Church canonizing a bunch of new saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks.” She becomes the first Native American saint.

Kateri was noted for her chastity and her “mortification of the flesh”:

Tekakwitha’s dedication to ritual mortification became more intense and consuming over the remainder of her life; she included prolonged fasting, flogging, cutting, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and burning herself with hot coals

Good job, seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries!

I can recall her name from my parochial-school history book long ago–she probably showed up in a sidebar as an example of how even American Indians could become good Catholics.  (I recall the name, I think, because it has a nice rhythm to it, like an Indian chant.) There’s a Church of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha down the road from me in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the parishioners are of course excited.

The Church, like Miller, also believes in miracles, and it requires them before making someone a saint.  Nowadays you need one to be beatified, and another to be canonized.  The miracle that brought Kateri over the finish line happened to a kid from Washington state, who recovered from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria after his family prayed to her.

I read a good book once called Making Saints about the careful process the Vatican undertakes to investigate the miracles needed for canonization.  It is one example, among many, of very smart, very dedicated, very religious people spending their lives doing something entirely worthless. The miracles, as I recall, were pretty much all inexplicable medical cures, like the one attributed to Kateri.  The problem, of course, is that inexplicable medical cures happen all the time.  Why?  Because we have only an imperfect understanding of medicine.  For the stuff we do understand–like, you don’t grow a new leg when one gets cut off–well, there aren’t any miracles in that neck of the woods.

I read a few news accounts of the canonization and the related miracle, and none of them questioned the miraculousness of the miracle.  The family was convinced, the Vatican was convinced, so what more do you want?  People, in fact, want miracles.  They make life more interesting; they give us hope.  I will note that my novel Pontiff is suffused with miracles — they make novels more interesting, too!  So I guess I’m not one to complain.  But it does seem like some reporter should quote a medical authority expressing some skepticism about the whole thing.  I suppose an editor would just lose the quote, though.

(A person I work with has been to one Mass in her life — the canonization of one of her relatives at the Vatican. That’s pretty cool, although her relative’s death was anything but cool.  Saints don’t generally lead happy lives, or have happy deaths.)

“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.

The night they burned the convent down

Senator takes place in a city and state dominated by Irish Catholics.  Rereading it reminds me that it wasn’t always like that.  Here is an account of the night in 1834 when poor Yankee laborers burned down a Catholic convent in Charlestown:

Boston’s Irish Catholic population doubled in the 1830s; religious, ethnic, economic, and political tensions mounted almost as fast. Stories of papist plots were everywhere — in sermons, on street corners, at taverns and bars. The mysterious doings at the Ursuline Convent were the subject of endless rumors. The tales of kidnappings, forced conversions, murders, scandalous sexual activity mimicked a popular new literary genre, the gothic novel. A superstitious public already viewed Catholicism as a dangerous realm of secret rituals and mystical powers. However far-fetched they were, stories of women held in dungeons and crypts filled with infants’ skulls stirred up fear and anger.

The convent’s strong-willed, imperious Mother Superior did not help matters. A community of women led by a woman was a novelty, and one that most Americans found alarming. Her assertive, even arrogant manner — so far from the submissive, domestic norm — only reinforced the view that something unnatural was going on within the convent walls.

August 11th was an oppressively hot night. An unruly, drunken mob of laborers, sailors, apprentices, and hoodlums gathered at the gates of the convent. They demanded to see one of the sisters who figured in a number of the rumors. When the Mother Superior refused, the men began to tear down the convent’s fence and used the wood to feed a roaring bonfire. The fire alarm was sounded, but Charlestown’s Protestant firefighters did nothing to fight the blaze.

The rioters shattered the convent’s windows, broke down the front door, and burst into the building. They went on a rampage, destroying furniture, musical instruments, books, and religious items, and then set the building on fire. The nuns gathered their terrified students and barely escaped out the back, fleeing through a hole that the Mother Superior ripped in the back fence. Dressed only in their nightclothes, they ran through the fields to a farmhouse a half-mile away, where they watched the convent burning. By daybreak, it lay in smoldering ruins.

I can remember the pride we felt when Kennedy was elected president in 1960, but of course I had no sense of the long, long history that led up to it.  We lived in a big city, but it was very tribal; I don’t recall knowingly meeting a Protestant kid until I was in the sixth grade and had to go to public school.