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!

Deconversion and Reconversion

The latest Radiolab podcast has an odd story called “Rocked by Doubt.”  It’s about a geologist who is having a crisis of faith.  Here’s the description:

In 2010, Lulu Miller was biking across the country, taking some time to clear her head for a new phase of life. And somewhere in Nevada, she ran into a guy named Jeff Viniard who was on a similar journey. They shared the road for two weeks, pedaling hundreds of miles together until Utah. Along the way, they got to be pretty close, and Jeff, a geologist by training, rekindled Lulu’s long-lost love of rocks. But it turns out the ground beneath his own feet was shifting that summer… and he found himself desperately searching for some rock-solid evidence to help him figure out his future.

Jeff, it turns out, was engaged to a nice religious girl, but then one night he’d had a “deconversion” experience–a strong feeling behind his sternum that there was no God.  His girlfriend doesn’t want to marry someone who doesn’t share her religious beliefs, so he goes on a long bike trip looking for a sign telling him what to believe.  He doesn’t find it on the trip.  But then, a year later, he gets another feeling behind his sternum that God exists, so he and his girlfriend get married.

And that’s the story.  Sorry for the spoilers.

Jeff in Utah

The story is told in the usual entertaining Radiolab way, and Jeff seems like a very likeable, earnest young man.  But geez.  Is the most important decision in his life based on nothing but feelings behind his sternum and signs from above?  (A ceiling tile falling onto Jeff’s sandwich at an Arby’s also figures in the story.)  Jeff is an educated guy, but nowhere in the story do we hear of him reading any philosophy or theology or history or neuroscience.  He never seems to think about what he has experienced and how it could be explained.

As someone who has never had a religious feeling of any sort behind his sternum, I find this depressing.  Because of course all the logic and science and reasoned argument in the world are not going to be able to overcome that feeling.  People are going to believe what they are going to believe.  Unless maybe a falling ceiling tile intervenes.

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.


The world is about to get a new pope–should anyone care?  I doubt it.  We might conceivably see an American or African pope, and we’ll certainly see a younger one.  But I can’t imagine we’ll get a pope who has significant doctrinal differences from Benedict.  The new pope might make noises about ecumenism and inclusiveness and forgiveness and so forth, but he won’t really change anything fundamental about the Church.  The folks who would make those sorts of changes aren’t in the College of Cardinals.

People will be interested in the conclave where the pope is elected, since it’s an inherently fascinating and dramatic process.  I did a lot of research on conclaves for Pontiff.  Here is the chapter where I describe the final vote for a new pope.  The details are always changing, but what I describe here was accurate as of the time of John Paul II.


Eligo in summum pontificem…

Cardinal Antonio Riccielli stared at the Latin phrase printed at the top of the small rectangular card. I choose for Supreme Pontiff…

He took his pen and scrawled a name on the bottom of the card. He was supposed to disguise his handwriting to preserve the secrecy of the ballot, but that hardly seemed worth the effort. Everyone knew whom he supported, whom he would support to the bitter end.

Marcello Valli.

He looked at the name, and then at the man, seated across from him in the Sistine Chapel. The hawk nose, the high forehead, the piercing eyes that betrayed nothing of what he was thinking. Another ballot, another chance. But the chance was slipping away—had already slipped away, many of his original supporters thought, and there seemed to be nothing they could do about it.

One maneuver was left, perhaps. If no one got a two-thirds majority in the next day, the rules allowed the cardinals to vote that election was to be by simple majority, thereby totally changing the dynamics of the conclave. Would it help Valli? It couldn’t hurt. Valli clearly wasn’t going to get the Third-World bloc, but if they could keep the Curial cardinals in line, plus the Europeans and most of the North Americans…

He could perhaps put together a majority. But that required them to make it through the next few ballots, with the cardinals weary and eager for a resolution. The conclave had lasted far too long already. They were tired of each other’s company day and night, while the world waited. And meanwhile Valli’s vote count had steadily slipped, as the cardinals cast about for other candidates who might attract sufficiently widespread support to claim the throne of Saint Peter. One after another, candidates had surfaced, only to fade without reaching the two-thirds majority, none able to receive enough support from the various blocs fighting for the soul of the Church.

On this ballot Riccielli was worried about Carpentier, the genial Canadian. The man was a moron, but he was hard to dislike, and Riccielli knew what others might be thinking: wouldn’t it be good to have someone as pope who was less, well, high-powered than they were used to? Someone who could stay away from controversy and simply make Catholics feel good about their religion again. If we can’t get our man, maybe this guy would do. And he’s old enough that we won’t have to put up with him for long. Carpentier had received an astounding twenty votes on the ballot before lunch. Was there a movement afoot? Would people suddenly decide that he was the solution to their problem?

If there was a movement, Riccielli hadn’t been asked to be a part of it. So he could only guess, and fret.

The voting was beginning. Riccielli folded his ballot and awaited his turn to approach the altar. The ceremony and rituals attached to every aspect of the conclave had inspired awe in him at first, but at this point he found them merely irritating. Couldn’t they just vote and get on with it? Nothing to be done, though. The Church lived by its rules.

He watched Carpentier walk past on his way to the altar, plump and red-faced. What was he thinking? Was his mind frothing with excitement about what might happen to him in a few minutes? Or was he utterly terrified at the prospect confronting him? Impossible to tell from the appropriately solemn look on his face. One learns that look, of course. You can be thinking about yesterday’s football match or the bottle of expensive wine chilling for tonight’s dinner, and still appear as if you are meditating about Christ’s Passion. They had all been priests far too long not to have mastered that skill.

Finally Riccielli’s turn arrived. He walked slowly down the long aisle, between the ranks of red-robed cardinals arrayed along the walls of the chapel. He undoubtedly looked every bit as solemn and prayerful as Carpentier. At the altar he knelt and held up his ballot. “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge,” he intoned, “that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” Then he stood and went up to the large chalice on the altar. He put the ballot on the paten that covered the top of the chalice, then picked up the paten and slid the ballot into the chalice, where it nestled in among the others. There, it was done, yet again. He returned to his seat, and the next cardinal went up to repeat the ritual.

Nothing to do but wait now. The infirmarii returned with the votes of the cardinals too ill to attend the session. As the last cardinals went up to the altar, Riccielli could hear the rustling in the ancient chapel, could feel the anticipation growing. Would this be the ballot when the election ended, when the new era began? Or would the black smoke rise from the chimney once more, forcing them to keep trying?

The rituals after the balloting were especially excruciating. The cardinals chosen by lot this afternoon to be the scrutineers now had to do their duty. The first scrutineer picked up the chalice and shook it to mix up the ballots. Then he brought the chalice to the table in front of the altar, where he took out the ballots and counted them to make sure that the number matched the number of elector cardinals in the conclave. When Carpentier had been scrutineer the previous morning he had miscounted, causing considerable consternation until his fellow scrutineers straightened things out. The pope should at least be able to count, Riccielli thought blackly.

After counting the ballots the three scrutineers sat at the table and began the job of tallying the votes. The first scrutineer unfolded a ballot, wrote down the name printed on it, then passed it to the second scrutineer, who did likewise. Then the third scrutineer read the name out loud. Fortunately the third scrutineer this afternoon was Cardinal Heffernan, who had given more than his share of hellraising sermons and had a loud, clear voice. “Cardinal Valli,” he announced.

Riccielli started counting mentally. It was not considered proper to keep score on paper.

“Cardinal Carpentier.

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Valli.

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Carpentier.

“Cardinal Lopez.

“Cardinal Gurdani…”

It was only after fifteen or twenty votes had been announced that Riccielli realized he hadn’t been counting Gurdani’s votes, yet the African seemed to be attracting a lot of support. Riccielli looked down to where he was sitting, on Riccielli’s side of the aisle. Couldn’t tell much from his distant profile, but then, one never could tell much about Gurdani. He could scarcely remember hearing the man speak. More of a cipher than Carpentier.

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Carpentier.

“Cardinal Gurdani… ”

But surely Gurdani couldn’t be elected, Riccielli thought nervously. Everyone said so. Few connections within the Curia. His country was too small; he’d been named a cardinal only to protect him from that insane dictator who’d thrown him into prison. And he was unacceptable to the Americans—too critical of the country and its policies in Africa. There weren’t enough American cardinals to block him, obviously, but no one could ignore the power of the American Church.

Besides, Riccielli had heard his Italian was terrible. Maybe you could elect a non-Italian to be Bishop of Rome, but how could you elect someone who couldn’t even speak the language?

“Cardinal Valli.

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Gurdani… ”

After he called out each name, Heffernan took the ballot and pierced it with a threaded needle through the word Eligo. The stack of ballots on the thread was growing, as was the rustling and murmuring among the cardinals. Riccielli glanced over at Valli, still sitting motionless and, apparently, emotionless, his eyes on the scrutineers. Then he looked at Carpentier. Was his red face a little paler than it had been? Did he sense that his moment had slipped away? Had his short-lived movement been overtaken by yet another?

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Gurdani.

“Cardinal Lopez.

“Cardinal Gurdani… ”

Carpentier would have been all right, Riccielli realized. He would have had his photo taken with nuns and told jokes at papal audiences and said comforting things after natural disasters. He would have been called the people’s pope, or some such nonsense. He would have waffled enough on the controversial issues to give some comfort to the liberals, without having the nerve to do anything that would annoy the conservatives. And he would have left all of them alone to do their business. Perhaps they should have all backed Carpentier from the beginning. In retrospect Valli was too holy, too intellectual, too distant. Certainly too identified with the Curia. He scared people. He never had a chance.

And what of Gurdani? An unknown, and therefore by definition frightening. The black pope. They used to apply that phrase to the head of the Society of Jesus; perhaps they’d have to come up with a new, less confusing sobriquet for the Jesuit. Gurdani had an inspiring story, what with standing up to the dictator and saving people from the famine and all. And there were those rumors about his healing powers… Choosing him would make people feel good about themselves and their religion. Look how universal the Church is, how modern, how enlightened! But the pope had to be more than a symbol. He had to rule, he had to lead, he had to make hard decisions.

Riccielli glanced up at Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling, at God’s finger reaching out to give life to Adam. Were the cardinals reaching out to give life to a black pope? If so, what kind of creature were they creating?

And then the counting was finished. The first two scrutineers started adding up their totals. Cardinal Heffernan tied the ends of the thread and placed the stack of ballots into a box. Soon the right chemicals would be added—for black smoke or white, depending on the outcome; they would then be burned in the tiny stove in the corner, and in this primitive fashion the waiting world would learn the results of the ballot. When the scrutineers were done, the three revisers came over to check their work. All had to be in agreement. There could be no possibility of mistake or subterfuge, no claims of unfairness or error.

Cardinal Magee leaned over to Riccielli. “The witch doctor’s got it,” he murmured. “Quite a surprise, eh?”

“Oh, I knew it would be him all along,” Riccielli joked lamely.

Magee laughed. “You and the Holy Spirit.”

The scrutineers and revisers called up Agnello, the dean of the College of Cardinals. He conferred with them for a moment, and the chapel grew quiet. Then Agnello looked up and smiled. “Habemus papam,” he said with a smile, and the conclave erupted in cheers.

Riccielli looked across at Valli. His expression hadn’t changed.

Cardinal Agnello approached Gurdani.

* * *

Joseph Gurdani watched Agnello approach as if in a dream. Absurdly, he thought of one of his prison guards walking toward him. He had the same leaden sense of dread in his stomach. It is starting again, he would think as the guard approached. The one he was thinking of always had a smile on his face, much as the cardinal was smiling now. One of his front teeth was gold, so the prisoners called him Goldy. Goldy’s boots always gleamed, and he never went anywhere without his rifle. And whenever he approached you, you could be sure that the butt of that rifle would end up in your stomach, the dread turning into a hard ball of pain.

It is starting again.

Giuseppe Agnello was a wizened but spry old man. He seemed to have difficulty being as solemn as his role demanded. He stopped in front of Gurdani and gazed at him, his gray eyes sparkling. “Hello, Joseph,” he whispered in badly accented English, bending close.

“Ciao, Giuseppe,” Gurdani replied, speaking the same words in badly accented Italian.

Then Agnello straightened and said aloud, “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?”

You can turn them down, of course. It is not like going to prison—though in fact Gurdani had had a choice then, as well. It had been an easy one for him, though not for many others. Prison or freedom. Pain or pleasure. Good or evil. So many choices through a lifetime, leading to this moment, this ultimate decision.

He had no desire for the burden they wanted to place on him. But his decisions had always been made on a simple basis: What does God want of me? If God wanted him to take the rifle butt in the stomach with a smile and a prayer for his torturer, he would do so. Sometimes, of course, it is not easy to discern God’s wishes; sometimes it is the height of pride and folly to assume you know them.

But not now, he realized. Not with the princes of the Church gazing at you, asking you to lead them. God had not brought him this far, only to see him turn into a coward.

“With deepest humility,” Gurdani said in a clear voice, “with the realization that I am the least worthy among us, but with complete trust in God’s wisdom and help, I accept.”

There was loud applause. Agnello nodded cheerily. It was the correct answer. “By what name do you wish to be called?” he asked.

His first decision, Gurdani realized. The world would interpret it however it chose. He thought of his mother. Would she have been astonished, proud, overwhelmed at this moment? No, even this would not have caused her to bend. Of course you can do it, Joseph, he could hear her say, her eyes blazing with determination. You can be better than anyone. You just have to try harder. Think of your father. Think of what he would have wanted.

His father, dead of cholera when Gurdani was only two. Nothing more than a shadow in his memory—and possibly a false one at that, woven from his mother’s stories and his own longings. Such a great man, Joseph. He loved learning. He loved Our Lord. He expected great things from you. You must not let him down.

Who, next to his mother, was more important in his life? Whom did he want more to honor?

His father, John Gurdani.

“I take the name John.”

Agnello beamed, as if this were the very name he himself would have chosen. And then he led Gurdani down to the altar. The scrutineers’ table had been removed and an ornate carved wooden chair put in its place. “Now it’s time for us to pledge our obedience to you,” Agnello explained, seating him in the chair. “I will be honored to be the first.”

The old man got down on his knees. “Your Holiness,” he began…

This won’t do, Gurdani thought. He arose from the chair and helped the cardinal to his feet. “Please, Giuseppe, there is no need,” he said.

“Not from me, perhaps,” Agnello murmured, “but from some of these fellows, you’ll want to get all the promises you can.”

Gurdani laughed and embraced him. “If they’re as bad as you suggest, no amount of promises will help,” he pointed out.

And then the other cardinals approached, one by one. Many of them Gurdani scarcely knew—just a name, a reputation. Others, like Agnello, were his friends and allies. And he knew that Agnello was right: some of the men who were greeting him and promising their loyalty and obedience were his enemies, though he could only guess who. The Curial cardinals, presumably; some of the Americans. Perhaps the defeated candidates and their backers. One in particular was important to him.

“Cardinal Valli,” he said when the man was in front of him, “you would have been a far worthier choice than I.”

Valli inclined his head. “Your Holiness is very kind.”

Valli had been the old pope’s cardinal secretary of state. He knew everyone and everything. Eminently papabile. In other times, perhaps, he would have been the natural successor to the papal throne. Now they were looking for someone new and different, apparently, and Gurdani had been the man who fit the bill. “This is a very heavy burden that has been placed on me,” he went on. “I will need your help.”

“All I have, all I am, is at your disposal,” Valli responded, with another small bow.

Gurdani reached out and shook the Italian cardinal’s hand warmly. “That is very good news,” he said. “We will talk.”

“I look forward to it, Your Holiness.”

When the new pope had finished with the cardinals, it was time to meet the world. But first he had to dress for the part.

He was escorted to the small scarlet-walled sacristy off the chapel. “This is called the Room of Tears,” Agnello said. “I can’t imagine why.”

“Perhaps one can guess,” Gurdani replied.

In it were three simple white cassocks—small, medium, and large. A tailor stood by with safety pins, ready to fit him. The small cassock would do, of course. He removed his elaborate red and white cardinal’s robes and stared down at his scrawny body. Such a frail vessel. He put on the cassock. The tailor fussed with it until he apparently deemed it sufficiently papal, and then retired. Gurdani doubted that he ever would look papal, to some at least. A small black man with grey hair and a squint. A head that habitually bent to one side, like a bird’s. A back that was no longer quite straight, due to events he did not wish to dwell on just now. To some he would look quite ridiculous, he was sure. Worse, an insult to the Church, a disgrace to the throne of Saint Peter.

Abruptly he sat down on a small bench. Was he supposed to cry now, in the Room of Tears? Well, he wouldn’t, he decided after a moment. He wasn’t worthy, but then, no one was, no one could be.

He slid from the bench and knelt stiffly on the tiled floor. He was certain that many of his predecessors had knelt here like this, praying for the strength to do the impossible. It was all you could do—ask for some of God’s strength, so that you could carry out His will.

After a while he got to his feet and left the room. Again he was escorted, this time outside, to the loggia overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, filled now with a writhing, jostling, banner-waving throng. Agnello presented him to the multitudes waiting there in the twilight, clearly delighted at the opportunity to shock them. And Gurdani could hear—no, he could feel—the gasp as people caught their first glimpse of the small black figure who was now the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

He approached the microphone and paused, waiting for silence. “I don’t speak Italian well,” he began finally. “But I promise I will learn. There is so much I need to learn. I need your help—I need the world’s help—to do this job. But most of all I need God’s help. I ask you to pray for me, and for our Holy Mother the Church. And in return I will give every ounce of my strength to this role that has been thrust upon me.”

And then he sketched a blessing in the chilly air while the crowd cheered.

Domine, non sum dignus, Gurdani thought as he gazed out at the sea of faces. Lord, I am not worthy. You just have to try harder, his mother’s voice echoed in his mind. There would be no tears. What would his father have said? He thought of Goldy—dead of AIDS, he had heard. He thought of all who had shaped him, for good or ill. And his blessing was for them, as well as for this crowd filled with the curious and the devout, and the billion Catholics whose leader he had just become.

God is in us all, he thought. The evil and the good. The torturer and the tortured. Let us come together in His spirit, to do His will.

And thus began the reign of Pope John the Twenty-Fourth.

In which I review “Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story” using upgoer5

This is the book I’m talking about. And this explains the words I’m using (and not using). Why am I doing this? Because this is my writing place!

Why is the world here? Why is there something instead of nothing? We’ve talked about this before. In this book, a man goes around talking to men (they are all men) who have thought a lot about this question. They all have different ideas.

Some people believe that God made everything. But then who made God? Where did God come from? Is God just “there”? Where is “there”? And why is God the way He is and not some other way?

Some people think that something just pops out of nothing. But if this is possible, why is it possible? Why is the way things are exactly this way and not some other way?

Some people believe there are many, many worlds — many “everythings” — and each one may have a different way that things are. Maybe everything that could be, is. But why? Why isn’t there just nothing, which is the most simple way for things to be?

Some people think this has something to do with us, and the way we can think. Maybe there is something instead of nothing just so we can be here. Some other people think this idea is really stupid.

The man writes about what these people look like and where they live. He eats with many of them and he talks about what they eat. Most of them know each other; none of them agree with each other.

In the book, he also talks about his dog dying and then his mother dying. This makes him sad and it made me sad, but I’m not sure what this has to do with why there is something instead of nothing.

In the end, I don’t think he knows the answer to this question. And we don’t, either. Probably we will never know. Should that make us sad?

Oliver Sacks, “Proof of Heaven”, and Newtown

Here is Oliver Sacks in The Atlantic denying the supernatural origin of near-death experiences like the one described in Proof of Heaven:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

And here is Father Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut last night:

“Thinking about those little children, we now have 20 new saints looking over us in all the days to come.”

I am dubious about the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes, but if religion does any good, it is to provide consolation to people like the families whose children were senselessly murdered yesterday.  They don’t need Oliver Sacks; they need Father Weiss.  They need hope, no matter how ephemeral and unproven it may be.

Death with Dignity

Massachusetts has a “Death with Dignity” or “Assisted Suicide” ballot question this year.  The discussion about it didn’t get much oxygen for a while, with the focus on the presidential and senatorial election here.  But now we’re seeing the ads run on both sides, and the Globe has an article about it this morning.  The Ballotpedia article I linked to above gives the details of the procedure, which involves a diagnosis of six months or fewer to live, confirmed by two separate physicians, two separate requests fifteen days apart, and confirmation that the patient is mentally capable of making the decision.

From what I can tell, the ballot question has run a predictable course.  Polling shows people strongly in favor of it.  But now most religious groups and professional medical associations have come out against it, as have the Globe and the Herald.  The opposition appears to have much more money to spend, and I expect the measure will probably lose.

The religious argument against it is, of course, that life is a gift from God and it’s not up to the patient or the physician to decide when to end it.  Well, OK, if that’s what you believe, don’t do it.  But why prevent others, with different beliefs, from acting differently?  In this sense, the religious argument against assisted suicide goes further than it does for abortion, where a second life is at stake.

Here are some medical arguments.

  • The doctor’s role is to heal, not to harm.  Well, OK, but I have the same response as I had to the religious argument: If you don’t want to participate in assisted suicide, don’t.  Don’t prevent others with different beliefs from doing so.
  • Medicine isn’t an exact science, and who’s to say that any particular diagnosis will turn out to be wrong?  Obviously the bill includes a safeguard against misdiagnosis, but miracles happen.  The question is whether we should forbid all patients from taking their own lives because of the possibility of miracles or misdiagnosis.
  • The patient could be depressed. I don’t really know what to say about this one except: well, duh!  Maybe a skilled clinician can sort out someone who has a medical case of depression from someone who is just depressed because, you know, he’s going to die in a few months of a horrible disease that will rob him of all his mental and physical abilities and cause him incredible agony.  I personally would find that difficult to sort out.
  • The patient could be pressured into killing himself.  To avoid expensive medical bills, for example, and preserve the estate for the heirs.  This makes some sense to me.  On the other hand, two doctors must verify that the patient has the mental capability to make health care decisions.  This isn’t really that much different from the current situation, where the patient gets to say whether or not heroic lifesaving measures should be taken on his behalf.  The problem to me is the pressure, not the financial concerns themselves–seems to me that, in a country where healthcare costs can easily ruin a family, you can’t ever just ignore them.

This kind of issue is hard, morally and practically.  For me, the best argument in favor of the ballot question is the relief it will give a lot of people just knowing that the option is there if they need it.  But, as in Oregon, relatively few people will actually end up taking advantage of it.

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!

Americans like their candidates religious, but not really religious

So the Republican senate candidate from Indiana has gotten himself in hot water for saying that pregnancy resulting from rape is the will of God:

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

On the one hand, God intended the baby to happen.  On the other hand, God didn’t intend the rape that resulted in that gift from God, which is sort of confusing.  This is somewhat different from the “legitimate rape” comment that got another Republican senate candidate into trouble.  The latter was just bad science; the former is theology.  As I say, I find the theology somewhat confusing, but not absurd, from a Christian perspective.  Bad things (like rape) happen as a result of free will; God permits them even if He doesn’t approve of them.  But God is in favor of life, and He is certainly opposed to the unjustified ending of life.  And presumably that is the case Mourdock was trying to make.

Kevin Drum makes the point that this is a pretty conventional religious belief. It’s just not the sort of thing a politician (in particular) is supposed to say out loud:

What I find occasionally odd is that so many conventional bits of theology like this are so controversial if someone actually mentions them in public. God permits evil. My faith is the only true one. People of other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. Etc. There’s a lot of stuff like this which is either explicit or implied in sects of all kinds, and at an abstract level we all know it. Somehow, though, when someone actually says it, it’s like they farted in church. Weird.

I don’t find it particularly odd, though.  Americans like religion, but most of us are not especially religious when it comes to actual dogma.  So people like Mourdock or Rick Santorum who are really religious make us uncomfortable.  And they make the mainstream media, who are even less religious, even more uncomfortable.  So good politicians always skate around the implications of their (supposed) religious beliefs, because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

I see all of this from the perspective of a lapsed Catholic.  For example, Catholic theology is about as clear about abortion as it is about anything.  Abortion is murder.  Murder is a mortal sin.  People who commit mortal sins will go to hell. So, to a true believer, the fifty million or so American women who have had abortions since 1973 are going to hell (except for those who subsequently repented).  So are the doctors and nurses involved in the abortions.  Maybe all the politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights are going to hell too.  It would have been great if someone at one of those primary debates had asked Santorum about all those people going to hell.  (Santorum, by the way, thinks the Mourdock controversy is “gotcha politics.”)  I wonder if Santorum would have been a good enough politician to skate around it?