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Archive for the 'Religion & Society' Category

What drives history over the long haul is culture

Posted: Friday, January 6, 2012 (6:53 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, January 6th, 2012 – Epiphany.

George Weigel, in an On The Square article over at FirstThings.com last Wednesday, entitled The Weakness of Tyranny:

With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it now seems clear that the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 was not an act of strength but one of weakness, by a regime so incapable of commanding the allegiance of those in whose name it claimed to rule that it could only compel obedience by violence. It took some time for this to become clear in Poland, a country frequently burdened by crushed hopes; John Paul’s second pastoral pilgrimage to his homeland, in June 1983, did a lot to raise the spirits of his countrymen—who rallied their energies such that, by 1987, the Pope could spend his third pilgrimage home laying the cultural and moral foundations for a post-communist Poland, which was born two years later in the Revolution of 1989.
[…]
The lessons, 30 years later? Solidarity’s triumph ought not be universalized as a one-size-fits-all model for coping with tyrants. Still, John Paul II’s instinct for reading history through cultural lenses has much to commend it. Politics and economics are important. What drives history over the long haul, however, is culture: what men and women cherish, honor, and worship; what men and women are willing to stake their lives, and their children’s lives, on.

The truest realism, therefore, is one shaped by truths and ideals, not only by calculations of power. If you doubt that, ask General Jaruzelski.

I (re-)watched a video/drama biography of Pope John Paul II last week that my daughter had brought home over Christmas school vacation, and was glad for the opportunity to spend some time with the family appreciating the great man. What struck me most profoundly in the story was the way it presented the malice of malevolent power as incompetent; in particular how the scheming but fearful bully tactics of the Communist regime, while attempting to secure an easily manipulable client to be named bishop of Krakow by insisting upon a young, local theater wonk of a priest, ended up with Karol Wojtyla. Oops. In the end, evil-doers always end up stealing enough rope to hang themselves, though they don’t always go down without first doing much harm.

Today we celebrate, among other things, vicious King Herod being stiffed in his evil designs by the Magi, though we mustn’t forget that he responded with the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s a good day for me to ponder what it is I am willing to stake my life on, and the lives of my children.

Merry Epiphany. Now, Christmastide is over. It’s time to take down the lights, and begin the ordered cycle of the new year.

On a Nationalized American Religious Disposition

Posted: Saturday, September 3, 2011 (8:57 pm), by John W Gillis


I don’t take many calls that come in from 800- or similar area codes, but I took one this morning, because I am expecting a call-back from HP regarding a warranty replacement hard drive for Ezra, my Windows 7 desktop computer (which I had prematurely identified last week as suffering from software problems, but which were being caused by a failing hard drive).

The call was from an organization looking to add my name to a petition supposedly being submitted somewhere or another as a token of protest against the legal successes of a militant atheist group committed to outlawing the observation of the National Day of Prayer. This anti-religious campaign, I was assured, represented an affront or assault (I can’t remember which now) on my “Christian rights”. I listened to the entire recorded message from the organization’s general counsel, but hung up before I could be roped into providing a telephonic “signature” to the petition (or be hit up for a contribution, which was undoubtedly the real point of the call).

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the goal of this group: resisting the pernicious agenda of an angry minority intent on manipulating the law to enforce a practical atheism on American society in a kind of ironically inverted federal establishment of (anti)-religion. It also might not be prudent to blithely assume that such clowns, and their judicial enablers, will never be able to pull off their ultimate goal – they have made significant inroads already, after all. Moreover, every battle lost involves real casualties, even in a winning war. Making it illegal for the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer would surely strike an historically alienating and politically chilling blow against liberal society’s foundational building block of religious freedom, and even against the idea of tolerance itself, and it would teach a stark lesson to society (and to society’s children): that solidarity can and should be trumped by religiously intolerant ideology. This would be grievous, because sans the bitterclingers of atheistic denunciation, the National Day of Prayer effects nothing but a spirit of national solidarity across a wide and diverse body of people, many of whom profess religious views and affiliations that would have surely made them enemies to each other in most pre-American societies – and even still today, in more than a few places:

Religious Hostilities in the World, 2009 (Pew Research)

Still, I have a hard time getting worked up about defending the National Day of Prayer. Partly because I don’t like it. Contrary to those opponents who claim the practice “supports religion”, I think it undermines religion, usurping religion for secular/political purposes. Despite the finding of the U.S. District Court judge who, in April 2010, found in favor of repressing the National Day of Prayer in part because it “promote[s] a particular religious practice”, it is in reality the utter opposite of a “particular religious practice”; it is the very definition of a generic “religious” practice – at least from a religious perspective. It is “particular” only in the sense that it is national, and focused on the nation over against any understanding of the Divine – that is to say, over against religion! Hardly the kind of thing that worried Madison, Jefferson, or their compatriots.

Having been thoroughly steeped in the Old Testament, I am far from comfortable with the idea that God can and should be reduced to a generic concept, or a least-common-denominator deity, invoked for the sake of serving the interests of the state. That smacks of idolatry to me. Nonetheless, I don’t denounce the practice as idolatrous per se, since I can see how it is quite possible to build toward the realization of theological truth through the embrace of virtue inherent in the social idea of solidarity, and so I can warily accept it in Christian hope while rejecting its reductionism.

But perhaps the thing that bothered me most this morning was the acute absence of that other crucially important social idea: solidarity’s sister, subsidiarity. Here was this guy, from somewhere probably half-way across the continent, calling me – a complete stranger – to ask me to listen to a pre-recorded spiel from some overpaid lawyer who wants to argue a silly case in a federal court somewhere, and finally to place my essentially anonymous name as a quantifiable object on a petition (assuming one actually exists) to be submitted as evidence that there is some sufficient mass of people within the republic who object to the theological rape of the public square. Good grief.

Can a handful of judges and lawyers really be allowed to determine the religious character of a nation of over 300 million people? Do we really need lawyers to tell us how and when to pray at all? Is this what citizenship has been reduced to: reciting your name (in perhaps an indignant tone) into a computerized phone bank’s storage array? And what does it mean to fret about a symbolic national prayer event when local churches close for lack of parishioners; families fracture at a continually alarming rate (when they even bother to form at all anymore); the fundamental communal institution of marriage is recast as a personal lifestyle choice of the self-focused individual – until we no longer even know what marriage means; entire generations continue to be reared in a “pop culture” that stridently and effectively promotes alienation from society; employers routinely lack any fealty toward either the communities that support them, or their employees; and political speech has been largely reduced to a propaganda of binary options embracing either faster or slower centralization of power and decision making into a federal bureaucracy.

We don’t need a national day of prayer; we need to stop expecting Leviathan to fix our problems for us. We need to re-learn the idea of community, as an antidote to unfettered individualism – beginning with marriage. And we need to start building a national fellowship based not on cues taken from distant politicians, but on a broad commitment to the commonweal rooted in the social cultivation of virtue – a true patriotism, which can only take place in a society that is open to honest and vigorous religious (and moral) dialog in the public square. This, it seems to me, is not something to be accomplished through national campaigns, events, and petition drives, but by the simple practice of virtuous citizenship, and by the practice of a truly hopeful religious ecumenism: one that refuses to sacrifice truth for serenity, but insists that a real knowledge of God is possible among honest men and women.

It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future.

Posted: Saturday, January 22, 2011 (10:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 22nd, 2011:

Sociologist Peter L. Berger, concluding his 1970 book, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural:

I would like to emphasize once more that anyone who approaches religion with an interest in its possible truth, rather than in this or that aspect of its social manifestations, would do well to cultivate a measure of indifference in the matter of empirical prognoses. History brings out certain questions of truth, makes certain answers more or less accessible, constructs and disintegrates plausibility structures. But the historical  course of the question about transcendence cannot, of itself, answer the question. It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future. All too often, however, such exhilaration gives way to the sobering recognition that what looked like a mighty wave of history was only a marginal eddy in the stream of events. For the theologian, if not for the social scientist, I would therefore suggest a moratorium on the anxious query as to just who it is that has modernity by the short hair. Theology must begin and end with the question of truth.

I’m spending quite a bit of time lately pondering what went wrong in Western society during the 1960s – 1970s, especially as it relates to the breakdowns which the spirit of the age precipitated in the Catholic Church. It’s a complicated matter. Reading popular theologians of the period tends to put my stomach in knots, and Berger here captures much of the reason why: the politicization of even theology in an academic environment infatuated with modern ideas of history, in what Henri de Lubac, near the end of his Splendor of the Church, identified as “the most subversive temptation” within the Church: an anthropocentrism that loses sight of the transcendent goal of the Christian faith. Theology, indeed, must begin and end with the question of the truth, not with inquiries into fashionable notions of either “relevance,” “inevitability,” or social utility.

The smoking gun we’ve been looking for

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 (10:56 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, January 18th, 2011:

Priestcraft hysteria breaking out in an AP article by Shawn Pogatchnik, as published on Boston.com this evening, relating to the release today of a 1997 letter allegedly implicating the Vatican in a “cover up” of clerical sexual abuse:

Any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the "highly embarrassing" position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome, [Apostolic Nuncio Luciano Storero] wrote.

Catholic officials in Ireland and the Vatican declined AP requests to comment on the letter, which RTE said it received from an Irish bishop.

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

"The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere," said Colm O’Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Joelle Casteix, a director of U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as "the smoking gun we’ve been looking for."

Sigh. It really is sad – pathetic even – watching this persistent group of “watchdogs” trying to nail the Catholic Church – and especially the Vatican. Casteix is right, though: a smoking gun is exactly what they’ve been looking for, and looking for… If it wouldn’t be such a cynical thought on my part, I’d have to wonder if they wouldn’t in fact be delighted to find one.

Bishops, of course, have no punishments to impose outside the confines of canon law, so I’m not sure the poor writer of this article has even the most basic grasp of the subject he is trying to enlighten the world on. But the sources he quotes (anonymously or not) should really have been given the opportunity to read the “smoking gun” letter before they embarrassed themselves with this kind of silly hyperbole – not to mention slander. I mean, I can only assume they didn’t read it, right?

Not that a mere dissociation of fact from accusation will get in the way of another round of priestcraft hysteria, mind you… But isn’t it interesting that all the publications I found promoting this story this evening printed small jpegs of the letter, instead of actually printing the contents of the letter? Hmmm… [Update: The New York Times included a full-sized, readable PDF of the letter with their article – credit to them, but they did dust off that magical “defrock” vocabulary, so I call that a wash ;-)]

The reality is that the letter advised the bishops that certain specifics of their proposed policy did not comply with existing canon law, which therefore might well produce the “highly embarrassing” result of a guilty priest having his canonical (not criminal!) punishment overturned on appeal, on account of a technicality. This is roughly the equivalent of a high court advising a legislature that a piece of draft legislation was unconstitutional and unenforceable, and therefore needed to be reworked in order to achieve its goal. Smoking gun… Oy vey!

Since left-wing tools like the AP only want to provide the public “information” that will agitate them to support the “progressive” agenda (like, discrediting the Catholic Church), the rest of us who care about life on this tender planet need to somehow pick up the slack. Here, then, is the actual text of the letter, for anyone more interested in facts than hysteria:

Dublin, 31 January 1997

Strictly Confidential

Your Excellency,

The Congregation for the Clergy has attentively studied the complex question of sexual abuse of minors by clerics and the document entitled "Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response”, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee.

The Congregation wishes to emphasize the need for this document to conform to the canonical norms presently in force.

The text, however, contains "procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the acts of the same Bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems. If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities.

In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature".

Since the policies on sexual abuse in the English speaking world exhibit many of the same characteristics and procedures, the Congregation is involved in a global study of them. At the appropriate time, with the collaboration of the interested Episcopal Conferences and in dialogue with them, the Congregation will not be remiss in establishing some concrete directives with regard to these Policies.

For these reasons and because the above mentioned text is not an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document, I am directed to inform the individual Bishops of Ireland of the preoccupations the Congregation in its regard, underlining that in the sad cases of accusations of sexual abuse by clerics, the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed under pain of invalidity of the acts involved if the priest so punished were to make hierarchical recourse against his Bishop.

Asking you to kindly let me know of the safe receipt of this letter and with the assurance of my cordial regard, I am

Yours sincerely in Christ,

+Luciano Storero

Apostolic Nuncio

To: the Members of the Irish Episcopal Conference

Mobilizing Useful Idiots Around the World to Take Up the Cause

Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 (6:30 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, January 5th, 2011:

Stephen Kinzer, writing in The Guardian on December 31, on the professional Human Rights movement’s loss of direction since its emergence some 40 years ago or so:

The actions of human rights do-gooders is craziest in Darfur, where they show themselves not only dangerously naive but also unwilling to learn lessons from their past misjudgments. By their well-intentioned activism, they have given murderous rebel militias – not only in Darfur but around the world – the idea that even if they have no hope of military victory, they can mobilise useful idiots around the world to take up their cause, and thereby win in the court of public opinion what they cannot win on the battlefield.

This is an interesting article, and one that is commendable at the very least for its ability to infuriate both America-hating lefties, and pro-Western gunboat diplomatists of either military or cultural ilk.

Although Kinzer treads dangerously close to broadly condemning human rights interventions as inherently neo-imperialist, he makes some great points about the narcissism (my term, not his) of the human rights movement, and the extent to which its self-important nobility can be – and are – played as tools by some of the world’s worst characters.

I’m not sure if the movement has changed as much as Kinzer thinks it has, or if he has simply outgrown it. I asked myself the same question several years ago, when the shiny “Save Darfur” posters started appearing on the lawns of the guilt-ridden wealthy in the snazzy suburbs I spend my days in, and I knew instinctively that I could no more trust the hand-wringing advocates for “justice” in that conflict than I could trust the hand-wringing advocates for sillier and sillier global warming solutions in humanity’s last great battle for land to live upon!

This is not to say that there aren’t real problems in the world, which call for solidarity, and even military intervention. But identifying problems, and understanding problems well enough to construct useful treatments, are very distinct matters. Kinzer identifies the problem as a deficient definition of human rights, and suggests a hierarchy of rights to clarify priorities. I don’t disagree on either count, but would place the root of that deficiency in a widespread refusal to recognize the origins of human rights in our Creator God.

Human rights are a Western construct? Well, yes and no. They are a product of Western civilization, because they are practical outgrowths of the Judeo/Christian theology that forms the foundation of Western civilization. Stripped of their roots – that is, stripped of their true meaning – they surely can become fodder for fools, as well as anything else can.

"Santa may you help me with my family?"

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 (10:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, December 15th, 2010:

From a USA TODAY article today by Donna Leinwand, discussing “Dear Santa” letters received this year at the main NCY Post Office:

A single mother of a girl, 8, and a boy, 2, wrote that she recently lost her job. "I am unable to buy my children toys and clothes," she said. "Santa may you help me with my family?"

It’s not that I lack sympathy for this young woman, or imagine this was anything less than a desperate act, but should we really be less than dumbstruck ourselves at the notion of adults writing letters to Santa? And according to the article, this is no anomaly.

I suppose it could be construed as a rational act if they have some reasonable expectation that someone like the Post Office workers in the article might actually read and respond to their request, but is this what we’re reduced to? Can their alienation from society – and God – really be so complete? This seems to occupy a place somewhere between sending a message in a bottle and buying a lottery ticket. Then again, neither of those acts involve phony religious sentiments offered to a “spirit of giving,” or some such thing.

"I don’t think any other woman is mentioned"

Posted: Saturday, December 11, 2010 (11:25 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, December 11th, 2010:

Catherine Lawless, lecturer in the history of art at the University of Limerick, discussing her paper relating the legends around St. Ismeria, supposed maternal great-grandmother of Jesus, in a recent Discovery News piece:

“I don’t think any other woman is mentioned” as Mary’s grandmother in the Bible, Catherine Lawless, author of the paper, told Discovery News. “Mary’s patrilineal lineage is the only one given.”

Perhaps I’m guilty here of shooting fish in a barrel, but I’d think anyone publishing papers on the lineage of Jesus Christ – even art historians – would at least take the trouble of the five minutes required to check the claims of the New Testament concerning  the matter, and not be reduced to offering guesses. To be fair, I suppose if you have no idea where the New Testament claims concerning the matter are, it may take you more than five minutes to scan the entire collection looking for the evidence. Still, that effort hardly seems more trouble than it’s worth for someone who’s actually publishing.

Call me silly, but it seems to me that if you don’t have a working knowledge of the primary source for a subject you’re publishing on, you’re likely not much of an historian – or any other kind of scholar. Nonetheless, according to the article, George Ferzoco, a research fellow at the University of Bristol, commented that the new paper analyzing the legend is “brilliant”. Wow. I have to wonder how many other fields of study would not only tolerate such shameless ignorance, but find a way to call it “brilliant.”

For what it’s worth, Ms. Lawless, your blind guess is correct: no other woman is mentioned in the Bible as being Mary’s grandmother – in fact, even her mother is not mentioned. However, her father is not mentioned in Scripture, either, so I’m not sure where you come up with your assertion in the following sentence that  her “patrilineal lineage” is given in Scripture. But why split hairs over things like facts when there are brilliant claims to be made – and published? Oy!

Yet by the Goodness of God, We Are So Far from Want

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2010 (6:37 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2010:

Mayflower Pilgrim  Edward Winslow, from A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England (aka Mourt’s Relation), published in England by George Morton (aka Mourt) in 1622:

[O]ur governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week,  at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty. We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us.

The transcription into modern English spelling belongs to Caleb Johnson.

Today, let us happily give thanks- especially those of us, by the goodness of God, so far from want.

Benedict XVI on Condoms & Gigolos

Posted: Saturday, November 20, 2010 (4:08 pm), by John W Gillis


Benedict XVI, quoted on the possible justification of condom use in an upcoming book by German journalist Peter Seewald: "Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times," as excerpted in today’s L’Osservatore Romano:

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”

Boy, is this likely to grow legs! The AP has the story, and the Boston Globe is spinning it with the headline: “Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases”.

No doubt, this comment will be welcomed by many on the left as a kind of Trojan Horse (couldn’t resist!) introducing contraceptive mentality into the Church’s moral reasoning, beginning with an interpretation that asserts the comment “condones” condom use in some situations. But by the same logic, we could also say that the pope is condoning male prostitution, at least in some circumstances.

Of course, neither claim would be true. What Benedict said is not very remarkable at all. He is merely indicating that evil comes in degrees of complexity, and one may find the path toward the good entails several steps of reasonable yet still deeply flawed standing, before reaching something that could be identified as an objective moral good.

BenedictXVI kids This may appear to be an acceptance of the concept of embracing a lesser evil, but it really proposes just the opposite: the embrace of a lesser good. There is an important distinction in the subjective sphere between choosing a recognized evil – no matter how “lesser” – and choosing to mitigate evil, even according to a consequentialist calculus. Nonetheless, the limits of subjective understanding do not provide a license for suppressing the reflective critique of objective reality, especially in the realm of moral truth. The contraceptive use of condoms is still objectively immoral, as is prostitution – male or otherwise.

Despite what folks are bound to encounter ad nauseum in the mainstream press over the coming days (not to mention from the dissident wing within Catholicism), Church teaching has not changed. One can always hold out hope that the coming kerfuffle will prove to be an occasion for many to come to see the Church’s moral doctrine to be not so much a set of prohibitions as a guide to genuine personal and communal fulfillment, both now and forever.

For a perspective on Benedict’s teaching on condoms in Africa commendably lacking in hysterical short-sightedness, see medical anthropologist Edward C. Green’s much-discussed WaPo article from March 2009.

Shaved Off with Occam’s Razor?

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010 (4:12 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day, from Joe Carter over at First Things:

Many of us fool ourselves into believing that we can approach our vocations from the position of religious neutrality. What we fail to understand is that we either bring the Logos to bear on our areas of expertise and fields of study or we reject him as irrelevant, a useless appendage that can be shaved off with Occam’s razor.

Shaved off with Occam’s Razor, indeed… What a great line.