Spotlight is the new movie about the Boston Globe’s expose of the the Boston Archdiocese’s coverup of extensive child abuse by its priests.  It expanded to wide distribution this weekend, and it seems to be doing reasonably well, if the near-sellout showing I attended on a Sunday afternoon in my little town is any indication.  That’s good, because every Catholic in America should see this movie (and everyone else should see it as well, if they want to see a great movie).

Of course, my little town has reason to be interested in the movie — an ex-pastor of one of its two Catholic churches (the church where my kids had their First Communion) is now serving life in prison for molesting little boys.  It happened here, but it also happened pretty much everywhere, in the Archdiocese of Boston and around the world.  (The movie ends by showing a seemingly endless list of the places where abuse by Catholic priests has been uncovered since the Globe broke the story.)

It also happened at the high school I attended. B.C. High. (My brothers and one of my sons also went there.) B.C. High figures prominently in the movie even though, as a Jesuit institution, it was at most a sidebar to the main story of the institutional failings of the Boston Archdiocese.  The main character, Michael Keaton, attended the school, and it’s right across the street from the Globe–that’s probably why they wanted to feature it, even though, by all accounts, the Jesuits handled their scandal far better than Cardinal Law.  The scene that takes place at B.C. High is almost ridiculously person to me.  The B.C. High principal portrayed was still the principal when my son attended the school.  Paul Guilfoyle, the actor who plays an archdiocesan big-wig in the scene, went to B.C. High with me, and I acted in a couple of plays with him; he’s had a nice Hollywood career as a character actor.  (It’s interesting and sad that another character in that scene, a B.C. High trustee named Jack Dunn, is devastated by his portrayal in the movie–apparently it didn’t get everything right.)

One thing the movie brought back to me was how soon after 9/11 the Globe broke this story–its reporters were pulled off the investigation to join in the 9/11 coverage; they then refocused on the story and published it in January 2002.  In retrospect, this was a watershed moment for religion in America; it certainly was a watershed moment for me.  You could no longer believe (or pretend to believe) that religion was primarily a force for good in the world; you could no longer be a cultural Catholic who went to Mass occasionally without worrying too much about the consequences of the Church’s beliefs and institutional practices.  The Church has done little since the story broke to change my mind.

One of many things the movie gets right, I think, is to not oversell the heroism of the intrepid Globe reporters and editors.  This story had been sitting under the Globe’s nose for literally decades, and somehow it never paid attention.  But at least the Globe finally did; and at least we now have a movie that does the story justice.

“Just the facts, ma’am”: the private eye and religion

I just read Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact about the incompatibility of religion and science. The arguments will be familiar to anyone who frequents Coyne’s website Why Evolution Is TrueThe book is a full-throated endorsement of science (broadly construed) as the only way we have of finding out what is true.  That “broadly construed” is important to Coyne’s case; it’s not just “scientists” who do science, in his formulation; a plumber does science when he makes a hypothesis about why a pipe is leaking, tests the hypothesis, and either confirms or rejects it.  That’s the way we achieve truths about plumbing and, Coyne suggests, about anything.  Religion (or listening to Beethoven, or reading Shakespeare) can’t tell you why a pipe is leaking, or how the universe began, or what causes malaria.

It also doesn’t help you solve crimes.  My novel Where All the Ladders Start is, among other things, about the private eye as scientist.  Our hero, Walter Sands, is investigating the disappearance of a cult leader.  There are conventional explanations–the guy was murdered, or kidnapped, or just took off on his own.  But there is also a religious explanation advanced by many cult members: God loved the guy so much that He assumed him into heaven.  Walter is not impressed by the religious explanation, however.  He is relentlessly practical: private eyes aren’t interested in miracles; they’re interested in people — in means, motive, and opportunity.  So he does what private investigators do: he searches for facts, and eventually he uncovers the non-miraculous truth.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a bit of a twist at the end (in a private eye novel, there’s always a twist at the end).  Walter uncovers the truth, but he can’t escape religion’s clutches.  Because, he is told, in everything he has done, he has actually been following God’s plan.  And he finds himself unable to dispute this, because, really, how can he?  How can anyone?  If God has a plan, a private eye is not going to uncover it.

(For those not of a certain age, “Just the facts, ma’am” is a catchphrase associated with no-nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday of the 50’s (and 60’s and 70’s) TV show Dragnet.  Snopes tells us, though, that the character never says exactly that.)

Knee-jerk liberalism and me

I tend to describe myself as a knee-jerk liberal.  But free speech seems to be an issue where conventional liberalism and me have parted company.  The recent incident in Garland, Texas is a case in point.  Pam Geller, as far as I can tell, is a creep, and her “Draw Muhammad” contest was a deliberate provocation.  On the other hand, here is the New York Times:

Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event.

Actually, sure it can.  Here is the conservative David Frum (inventor of the phrase “Axis of Evil”) in response:

Anti-Muslim bigotry is a real and ugly phenomenon. But there’s a necessary distinction to be drawn between vilifying people and repudiating their beliefs. Blasphemy isn’t bigotry. Applying the single term “Islamophobia” blurs that difference: conflating the denial of a belief with discrimination against the believer.

Is that such a difficult distinction to make?  And later:

We owe equality and respect to persons. Ideas and beliefs have to prove their worth. Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Garland, Texas, “Draw Muhammad” contest, attracts criticism because she so often pushes up to and over the line separating criticism of ideas from vilification of groups of people. She’s an uncomfortable person to defend. But that’s often true of the people who test the rights that define a free society.

This all seems perfectly sensible to me.  I don’t think I’m becoming grumpy in my old age.  I think conventional liberalism has lost its way here, and that’s bad for the country.

Here’s another long-time liberal who is having problems with this.

I don’t think Geller’s goal was to provoke a murderous attack. Perhaps verbal attacks, but of course that’s Charlie Hebdo’s goal, too, for the reaction to its mockery of all religions was absolutely predictable. Charlie Hebdo existed to mock and provoke. By all means, says the Times, let’s not publish cartoons of the prophet, for whatever one’s motivation, it will “serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.” That goes for both Geller and Charlie Hebdo. What is the newspaper saying here? Apparently, that we should keep our hands off religion, at least those faiths whose adherents become murderous when offended.

God’s Bankers and Pontiff: Too Improbable for Fiction

A major subplot of my twisty thriller Pontiff involves the secretive Vatican Bank and a new pope’s desire to clean it up.  There’s a new book out called God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner that goes into 700 pages worth of detail on just this subject.  It’s been getting rave reviews all over the place, including the New York Times.  Much of what Posner talks image002about is familiar to me from my reading when I was working on Pontiff — for example, this:

Posner’s gifts as a reporter and story­teller are most vividly displayed in a series of lurid chapters on the ­American ­archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the arch-Machiavellian who ran the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989. Notorious for ­declaring that “you can’t run the church on Hail Marys,” ­Marcinkus ended up ­implicated in several sensational scandals. The biggest by far was the collapse of Italy’s largest private bank, Banco ­Ambrosiano, in 1982 — an event ­preceded by mob hits on a string of investigators looking into corruption in the Italian banking industry and followed by the spectacular (and still unsolved) murder of Ambrosiano’s ­chairman ­Roberto Calvi, who was found hanging from scaffolding beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London shortly after news of the bank’s implosion began to break. (Although the Vatican Bank was eventually absolved of legal culpability in Ambrosiano’s collapse, it did concede “moral involvement” and agreed to pay its creditors the enormous sum of $244 million.)

But I didn’t know this part, which seems too improbable to put into a thriller:

In one of his biggest scoops, ­Posner ­reveals that while Marcinkus was ­running his shell game at the Vatican Bank, he also served as a spy for the State Department, providing the American ­government with “personal details” about John Paul II, and even encouraging the pope “at the behest of embassy officials . . . to publicly endorse American positions on a broad range of political issues, ­including: the war on drugs; the ­guerrilla fighting in El Salvador; bigger defense budgets; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and even Reagan’s ambitious ­missile defense shield.”

I don’t suppose I’ll have the time or the energy to read the book.  The story makes wonderful fodder for thrillers, but it’s pretty depressing to realize that this is real life.

I’m still Charlie

I’ve changed back to my regular header image, but je suis encore Charlie.

I’ve seen some people (like David Brooks and Glenn Greenwald) complain that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were stupid, racist, and unfunny, and where was the outrage when someone or other published published an anti-Semitic cartoon?  This seems to me to miss the point.

A few years ago an atheist science blogger, P.Z. Myers, got hold of a Eucharist.  He dithered about what to do with it for while, and then finally he threw it in the trash with torn-up copies of the Koran and The God Delusion.  This was a childish stunt designed to make an obvious point.  But if he had been murdered by an enraged Catholic or Muslim (or, I suppose, Richard Dawkins), it changes from being a childish stunt to a fundamental issue of what we should be allowed to do and say in our society.  Most of us don’t go out of our way to offend people, but we need to stand up for people’s right to be offensive.

Forbidden Sanctuary: The alien escapes

My science-fiction novel Forbidden Sanctuary is a first-contact thriller in which one of the aliens who have landed here learns about Christianity from an interpreter who happens to be a devout Catholic.  He becomes convinced that it is Earth’s counterpart to the persecuted faith that he secretly follows on his home planet.  This is a very high concept, and the book is well worth the $2.99 it’s gonna cost you!

Forbidden Sanctuary ebook

You can read the first chapter here.  In this excerpt we see the alien–Tenon–escape from his ship, trying to find sanctuary in the Catholic church he knows is nearby.


In the first instant he was half inclined to turn back. This world was dark, and confusing, and bitter cold. How could he hope to find refuge in it? But of course he had come too far to turn back. He shut the door behind him, and started carefully down the long staircase to the ground.

They had guards too, of course, but they too were looking the other way, more interested in keeping Earthpeople away from the ship than Numoi away from Earth. He crouched low to the stairs as he descended, and prayed that the helmeted creatures at the bottom would not turn around.

They didn’t. Five steps from the bottom Tenon leaped over the railing and landed silently beside the stairs. He looked around. There were no other guards nearby that he could see. He moved to his right until he was well outside the guards’ line of sight, and then he walked slowly away from the ship.

The area around it was deserted. Who could be outside in this cold? It was very well lit, however, and he felt conspicuous. He picked up his pace, and soon he was in the shadows of a building. He could hear the murmur of voices inside. It was probably warm in there; he longed to join the voices. But would they protect him? No, he needed a sign: something to show him that the vomurd was continuing. He walked on.

And before very long he reached a fence, long and high and fiercely metallic. He could see a guard to his left, but once again the man was facing away from the Ship. Well then, he must climb the fence.

It was difficult for his hands to get a grip, and at the top were twisted strands of wire that tore at his flesh; but it was all right, he should be able to put up with pain. When he reached the ground on the other side he stopped to look back through the fence at the large pyramid that was his past, and then he trudged off along the road he found at his feet.

Around him were dark, looming hills, and tall, hard, bare-looking plants. Over everything was a layer of crusted snow. He had never actually seen snow before, but there was plenty of it in the land of the Stani, and Argal had spoken of it more than once. White grains of ice, as far as you could see. He shivered, and looked up at the alien sky. The stars were sharp and clear, their strange patterns almost as unsettling as the snow. Was one of them their star? He was unclear on such matters. Did anyone really know? It didn’t matter now.

By the fence he had seen a few of those fast-moving mechanical vehicles other crew members had talked about in tones of wonder, but none were on this road. Perhaps they were not used at night. Perhaps no one was allowed out after dark. There was so much he didn’t know—including how much farther he had to walk before he would find what he was looking for. So far there was nothing—no sign of a village, a farmhouse, a light. He could be going entirely in the wrong direction—a town just out of sight behind him, none for a day’s travel ahead of him. They would find his frozen body in the snow, by the road, and they would say: a fit punishment for a Chitlanian, to die in a land like the Stani’s.

If he was not used to the cold, at least he was used to the walking. He had had enough forced marches to keep his legs in shape, even after the inactivity of the Voyage: rushing to the border to subdue some recalcitrant tribe, providing an escort for some minor ambassador, scouring the hillside for heretics…

He recalled that painstaking search, knowing only that they were looking for enemies of the state, going from cave to cave, sword at the ready, determined to root out the traitors.

And he was the one who found them; scrambling up a small slope at dusk, weary and frustrated, he had entered the low cave and shined his torch, and there they were. About twenty of them, white-robed, gentle-eyed, sitting, waiting. His sword came out, and then he was calling for assistance, and one of the white-robes had said: “Calm yourself, soldier. You have nothing to fear from us.” And they came with him peacefully, praying all the while to Someone he had not yet heard of.

He had received a promotion for his daring single-handed capture of the heretics. The promotion had made him eligible for the Voyage. But that meant nothing to him compared with the image in his memory of those faces as they went to their deaths, faces transfigured by an emotion he had never felt, but longed to feel. Soon after that he was scouring the hills, alone, looking for someone who trusted him enough to bring him to Argal.

His hands were numb. He clapped them against his side to bring the feeling back. He was having difficulty focusing his eyes. He had to squint continually to keep them working. His ears roared with pain. His legs wanted to stop, but stopping, he now realized, meant death.

And besides, there were signs now of life: lights in the hills, a dwelling, then, after a while, another. He squinted at each dwelling as he passed it. Not what he was looking for. Not yet.

Millions, he kept telling himself. There are millions.

One of those vehicles suddenly appeared, its lights like some incredible animal eyes piercing the darkness. He stopped, transfixed, as it roared past him, its occupant faceless behind the glare of the lights. He took a deep breath, and continued.

He had been a soldier all his life, and yet he had never known fear. Occasionally there would be danger, but the Numoi were always in control, and besides, to die for Numos (so he had believed) was the greatest possible glory of your life.

Now he would gladly die for Chitlan, but still he was afraid, because he was alone in the dark on a strange world, and he did not know what hazards awaited him around the corner, over the next rise, and he did not want to die senselessly, by walking on the wrong side of the road, or touching an object that was not supposed to be touched, or making a sound where silence was required.

He did not know whether the water in his eyes was caused by the cold, or by something else.

He did not want to think of the past anymore, but he couldn’t help it, to keep his thoughts in this world was to invite despair; and if he lost the will to keep his legs moving then everything would have been in vain.

He thought of Argal, who had walked the length of Numos, and all the outlands as well, risking his life with every step he took. But he had a mission, and he never complained. He thrived on it, really; how he would have enjoyed the challenge of this situation.

Tenon pictured Argal sitting in a hearth chamber, his dirty peasant robes gathered around him, his face creased and scarred with the ravages of his life. And the eyes! Eyes that held knowledge and truth, that had pierced deeper into the mysteries of all-that-is than any living being. Eyes, Tenon thought, with a shiver, that he would never look into again.

He recalled the first time: they had led Tenon to him blindfolded, at night, wary of a pure-blooded soldier with an impeccable record. He kept waiting for the feel of a knife against his throat, but these people were different (he kept reminding himself); that was why he had put himself in their hands.

When the blindfold came off he found himself in the stone-floored hearth chamber of a peasant farmhouse. In the dim firelight he saw a couple of young rustics regarding him suspiciously and, beyond, the foreigner he had struggled so long to meet, the foreigner who had a price of five thousand goldpieces on his head.

“Come and sit, soldier,” Argal had said in a low, friendly voice. “Perhaps we can learn from each other.”

But what could he teach Argal? He knew only what the Numian schools had taught him, and that, it turned out, was less than nothing in Argal’s eyes.

For some reason Argal spoke little of Chitlan that first night. Perhaps he wanted to tear down Tenon’s old religion before building a new one; perhaps it was just where his thoughts were when Tenon arrived. At any rate, he began by speaking of the Ancients.

“It is fascinating to me how little even educated Numoi know about these Ancients. It’s nothing more than myth and pious double-talk—which, you know, is precisely what the Ancients wanted. Did you know, for example, that there were exiles from Numos at the time the Ancients were putting together the hasali you are now a part of?”

Tenon, of course, had not known that.

“Some of them reached the land of the Stani. They wrote about what they understood—and feared—but they were foreigners and, I’m afraid, they were at best ignored, at worst mistreated. Their writings lay unread—until I came upon them. I was just a young scholar back then, and I had not even heard of Chitlan. So the Stani leaders threw open their archives to me, not knowing what they possessed.”

“What was it?” Tenon asked, intrigued and half afraid.

“Well,” Argal replied, “here is my interpretation of it. I believe it to be true. You see, the Ancients were practical, clear-sighted, and, according to their lights, benevolent people who above all were interested in answering one question: how do you set up a lasting, peaceful civilization? You will not find this question discussed in the Chronicles of the Ancients, or any of the other writings that have been preserved by the priestesses, because all mention of it had to be suppressed as part of the answer.”

“And what was their answer?”

“Oh, there were many parts to it, like the structure of the government and the size of the nation. But the centerpiece was this: to create a religion. And the centerpiece of the religion was the Ship.”

“But isn’t—wasn’t—?”

“Isn’t the Ship proof of the truth of your religion? No, it is only proof of the genius of the Ancients. I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but I do know there is nothing miraculous about it—nothing to compare, for example, with a resurrection from the dead. But we will come to that another night.

“You see, they wanted it to appear miraculous. So they destroyed all documents concerning the theory of timeless travel and the construction of the Ship. They cloaked their work in mystical terminology, and taught their successors how to copy what they had done, but not how to understand it. Instead of using what they had learned to add to the material well-being of their nation, they used it to transform its spirit.

“They gave Numos a central symbol, a ceaseless quest that would provide a focus for all the work and thoughts of its people. They were lucky, I think, in a couple of points. Enough of the Ships returned from the black void that they have not come to symbolize utter futility. And the crews never have discovered other intelligent life—because that would end the quest, and with it the value of the symbol.”

(Tenon-by-the-hearth had circled his hand slowly in understanding, finally getting used to this strange perspective on his world, starting the slow transformation that would lead him far from his mindless orthodoxy. Tenon-in-the-cold-alien-air, product of the transformation, thought: the Voyages are too important to Numos, though. The Council will simply redefine the goal, and the Voyages will continue, more meaningless than ever. But that has nothing to do with me anymore. Tenon shivered, and tried to walk faster.)

Argal’s eyes had gleamed in the firelight, pleased at Tenon’s understanding. “Do you see?” he exclaimed. “It is an artificial religion, designed to provide stability and meaning to a civilization. As such it has been successful and, in some ways, I grant, admirable. But it is not the truth. A civilization, it seems, can be based on a lie, but now we know the truth, and the truth will destroy this civilization like a rock shattering a hollow, decayed fossil.”

Tenon noticed one of the young peasants writing down Argal’s words, and he started to realize that this was the beginning of something immense, that he was hearing words that would be remembered in a thousand generations the way the acts of the Ancients were remembered in his. But still there were doubts. “If a lie is so powerful,” he asked, “how will the truth destroy it?”

“Its time has come,” Argal responded. “The lie is not what it once was. The crews still go off every twenty cycles to meet their fate, but there is confusion and fear beneath their brave façades. The priestesses still carry out the prescribed rituals, but there is boredom behind their gestures. The Council still rules, but the people feel free to grumble at their edicts. The entire planet is ready to listen, ready to believe. And that is precisely why Chitlan chose this moment to appear in our midst. We will be victorious, and there is not a power in the Universe that can stop us.”

And how often had Tenon heard those words spoken—by different hearths, to other new believers? Yet they never failed to thrill him. Often he lacked Argal’s utter certainty in the final triumph, but he never lacked faith in him, or in Chitlan.

A cold wind cut through him, as he realized again that Argal was gone. He was on his own; he had left those hearths behind forever.

There were dwellings all around him now, but no sign of what he was looking for. Pray, he must pray. His legs must continue to move, he must fight off the tears….

And eventually he saw it—sharply etched against the planet’s bright half-moon, just as he had imagined it. Angela’s words echoed in his mind: they put Him to death on a cross. And she herself had worn a tiny gold cross around her neck. Symbol of her faith.

O, lucky people, who could display their symbols so openly! He rushed over the banks of snow to the building with the cross, joy and anticipation warming his frigid body. Across the walk, up the short flight of stairs…

And the door was locked. Tenon stared at it in disbelief. That could not be. Then he reasoned: not everyone on the planet was a follower of Jesus. Perhaps there were still people who wanted to harm them. Of course they would lock their place of worship in that case. But certainly their chief priest or priestess would be inside—asleep, most likely, but eager to help a believer in trouble.

He pounded on the door. No one came. He pounded again. His hands, already cut and raw from the wire of the fence, ached with the effort, but the door remained locked. Finally he gave up and started to walk around the building, looking for other entrances. They were all locked. There were windows, of course. He could break a window and get inside. But that would be desecration. That would not be allowed.

He came around to the front again and sat on the steps, exhausted and fearful. Perhaps someone would open it up in the morning. But how long would it be until morning? He could not survive much longer without shelter. How much worse a death that would be—frozen on the very steps of their temple, his goal reached but meaningless.

That could not happen. He struggled to think things through. It was clear that he had to get indoors. There were plenty of dwellings. Most of them were probably occupied. What he needed was one occupied by a follower of Jesus. But how would he know?

He would have to take a chance. Which one?

The one nearest the temple, obviously. Would someone who was not a follower of Jesus want to live next to one of His temples?

Tenon got up and walked across a short pathway to the nearest dwelling. It was in darkness, like the temple. He stood in front of the door for a long time, summoning his courage. It has to be done, he told himself. There was no other way. He knocked.

And knocked. And after an eternity a light appeared behind the door. He saw the shadow of a person through the small, curtained glass panes and heard a brief, gruff sentence. There was nothing he could say, so he knocked some more.

Finally the door opened a crack—still locked with a chain—and a face appeared.

They looked at each other through the crack, and Tenon dimly realized that the man was as frightened as he was.

With his trembling hands Tenon tried to form a cross. “Jesus,” he whispered, hoping it sounded right on his alien tongue. “Jesus.”

The man kept looking at him, and the chain remained in place, and suddenly Tenon could take no more, and the tears came streaming out of his eyes. “Jesus,” he moaned as he felt his legs giving way, and then he heard the chain move, and the door swung open, and he fell forward into warmth and light.

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.

“Pontiff” and Pope Francis; thrillers and reality

Life is kinda boring.  That’s why thriller writers are required to amp things up.  There are some vague parallels between Pope John in my novel Pontiff and Pope Francis in the real world.  Both were elected to the papacy at least somewhat for geopolitical reasons–my Pope John because he was an African; Pope Francis because he’s from South America.  In both cases the new papacy seems to some to be a breath of fresh air after the previous pope: liberals get their hopes up, conservatives start fretting.

But that’s about where the comparisons run out of steam.  In real life, Pope Francis has said some things that have gotten liberal hearts a-flutter, but on closer inspection they don’t represent any kind of real change in policy or dogma, just a slight change in emphasis, maybe just a rhetorical device.  His recent remarks on gays are an example. It’s nice that he doesn’t want to judge gays; on the other hand, his remarks didn’t hint at changing the Church’s stance on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, as traditional Catholics (almost gleefully) point out. A change in rhetoric is interesting (and may conceivably affect someone’s life for the better), but it doesn’t make for a thriller.

Anyway, here’s the big speech I give to the new Pope John about change in the Church.  He has been asking a bunch of cardinals what they think is the biggest challenge facing the Church–they mention obedience, money, the decline in vocations.  Then his secretary of state, Cardinal Valli, asks him what he thinks.  We see the scene through the eyes of Cardinal Riccielli, who is head of the Vatican Bank.  (It was the scandal around the Vatican Bank that Pope Francis was addressing in his remarks on gays.  The Vatican Bank is one area where life is as interesting as fiction.)

What would Valli say when his turn came? Riccielli expected that others were wondering the same thing. Many of them looked to Valli for guidance, for a sense of how to deal with their new leader. But Valli was saying nothing. Finally the pope asked him directly. “Cardinal Valli, surely you have some thoughts on the challenges facing the Church. Would you share them with us?”

And Valli slowly shook his head in response. “Holiness, what I think is of utterly no importance. All that matters is what you think. I ask you to share your thoughts with us.”

The room was silent. Would the pope think Valli was being impertinent? The pope continued to smile, staring at Valli with his large brown eyes, and finally he nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Of course, your Eminence,” he said, so softly this time that Riccielli had to lean forward to hear. “I am not a philosopher, though. I am not a theologian. Some would even say that I am not an especially worldly man. I have spent too much time fighting minor battles in a faraway land. So I am not prepared to make any grand pronouncements. I do want to listen, and learn.

“But I will say this. I believe that the Church’s problem is not that its members are insufficiently obedient to its teachings, but that the Church is insufficiently responsive to the needs of its members. We are in many respects a powerful and effective body, but too many people no longer listen to us; for too many people, we no longer matter. And if we do matter, it is because they believe we are an obstacle to the fulfillment of their humanity and the true expression of their faith.

“I believe this has happened because the Church has become too focused on matters that are not central to the truths we espouse: the reality of Our Lord’s death and resurrection, and our witness to it in this world.

“I have had to counsel a young priest in tears as he petitioned to be laicized. He loved the Church, loved his vocation, but the burden of celibacy was just too great. He was sinning, and he did not want to sin. We have seen far too much of this lately.

“I have talked to young mothers terrified that they would become pregnant again and be forced to bear children they could not afford to feed.

“I have visited AIDS clinics and listened as doctors told me how many of those ravaged people I saw would have remained healthy if the Church had eased its prohibition against the use of condoms.

“We cannot be blind to the very real consequences of our actions and pronouncements. And we must try to find a way back into the hearts of our people. That is what I think I must do as pope.”

Silence again. The uncomfortable silence, Riccielli realized, of people whose worst nightmares have just come true. Krajcek looked as if he were about to have a stroke. Valli stared at his hands and said nothing in response. Did he regret asking the question? No, they needed to hear this, even if most of them disagreed profoundly.

It was left to Rattner to break the silence—Rattner, the sallow, outspoken Austrian, whose resignation from his congregation had been tendered and accepted, and who therefore had nothing to lose. “The Church is not involved in a popularity contest, your Holiness,” he observed. “We have a sacred obligation to protect the Deposit of Faith, and not to bend with every wind that blows.”

Krajcek revived enough to add, “The Church’s positions on contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy—they are long settled. If they cause some people pain—well, perhaps that is because God’s law is not always easy, and people today are always looking for the easy way out.”

Pope John shrugged. “As I said, I am making no grand pronouncements. I wish only to share some of my thoughts. I don’t ask for your agreement, I ask only that you hear me out, and keep an open mind.”

Keep an open mind. Did the pope think this was merely an abstract theological discussion? Riccielli wondered. Didn’t he realize that his every utterance in this room would be dissected and interpreted like a passage from Revelation, that they would go flying to the far corners of Christendom, repeated and amplified and distorted? In his soft-spoken way he had all but declared war on most of these men, challenging their most basic beliefs, their views of themselves and their Church. They were not likely to keep an open mind.

No one seemed inclined to offer further challenges, however. Were they too shocked? Or too frightened of what he might say next? Rufio offered some pious babble in an attempt to improve the mood, but he didn’t get much response. Finally the pope thanked everyone profusely and brought the meeting to a close.

And this is the setup for the thrillery stuff that follows.


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.

What do the Upanishads, the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and Carl Sagan have in common?

They were all sources of readings at the Tufts Baccalaureate Service, which took place the day before its commencement.

A baccalaureate service is explicitly religious, so the inclusion of Sagan is interesting — especially since Tufts doesn’t appear to have a Humanist Chaplaincy (as Harvard does).  I have no insight into the process for deciding what quotes to include, the order of the quotes, who gets to read them, etc. The sequence was chronological, so Sagan came last.  So we begin with the Upanishads asking for us to be led from fear of death to the knowledge of immortality, later we have the New Testament telling us to lay up treasures in Heaven, and finally we have this bracing piece of wisdom for the graduates:

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.  Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability is to look Death in the eye and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Good for Tufts!