THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY: WHO ARE WE, AFTER ALL?

By Paul M. Lewis

Whom do we identify with? That’s a basic question all of us may want to spend some time thinking about. It might seem at first to be of relatively small importance, too abstract to even mean anything in the real world. But it turns out the answer to it influences a lot about how we live our everyday lives.

Let me start off with an example from my own life. When I was young, I thought of myself as a good Catholic boy. At least, that is what I strove to be, possibly more so even than many of my classmates at St. Patrick’s Grammar School (yes, in those days, they were thought of as schools where grammar was taught, meaning not just how best to construct a sentence, but more widely, how to comport oneself in the world, how to construct a life). At St. Patrick’s, there were good boys and bad boys, the latter (mostly Italian—no one said Italian-Americans in those days) being those who flaunted the rules and wore their hair in a certain style the nuns most definitely disapproved of called a DA, or duck’s ass. They were the rebels, the tough guys, the non-conformists, the group I didn’t belong to (as much as I may have secretly wanted to be one of them).

Instead, I hung out with those who were less outwardly rebellious. But even these boys swore, spent a lot of time talking about sex, and generally didn’t take religion all that seriously. I tried to identify with them, but somehow it never came off very naturally for me. Inwardly, I disapproved of (could it be said that I feared?) their language, their topics of conversation, and their general disinterest in religious teachings. I suppose some might have thought I was a bit of a pill. The one saving grace I probably had was that, even at a young age, I instinctively knew enough about how to get along with people for them to accept me as one of their own. But, unbeknownst to them, I would often sneak off and kneel in prayer in the darkened interior of St. Patrick’s Church, or attend Friday night Benediction (a traditional Catholic devotional service). No wonder then, at age fourteen, I decided to enter a monastery.

Even there, however, I found boys who did not quite live up to my standards, which were very high! Yet people still appeared to like me because I was by nature a peacemaker and someone who tried to see the best in others, while openly criticizing no one. A big part of my not criticizing others stemmed from the awful realization that I knew I was far from the idealized self I imagined I should be. How could I blame others for not being somehow better, when the very faults I recognized in them I also saw all too clearly in myself—in fact, far worse ones? There were things the Church said not to do which I did, and many others which, while I might not have done them, I earnestly wanted to. And if I wanted it so much, wasn’t that tantamount to actually doing it? In short, the standards I believed the Church established for me, and those that I freely embraced on my own, were mountains so high I could never hope to fully scale them. In that sense, I consistently set up my own failure.

And so, my principal focus of identification in those years was with an idealized Church, one that I believed would allow me to lead a life I felt I was supposed to lead. It was a kind of umbilical cord that provided an association, a connection with an entity that I felt to be greater than myself, and which at the same time gave me a kind of scaffolding upon which to construct a life that I otherwise felt to be constantly on the verge of collapsing disastrously out of all control.

It worked, too, at least for a while, even if not completely, because I often felt I failed at the high standards I had created for myself. As such, and in keeping with Catholic teaching, I thought of myself as a sinner. Still, the superstructure did provide me with a consistent foundation upon which I endeavored to build something. Until, of course, it didn’t. The first problem with what might be called the “idealized external” is that it is, by definition, outside of oneself; and the second is that it, too, eventually shows itself to be less than perfect. Even I could see that the luster had begun to tarnish, that the Church was showing a darker, seedier, more squalid side. After all, it was made up of people, and people are far from perfect. Aside from being sometimes good and helpful and even loving, they—we, all of us—are also more than capable of selfishness, cruelty, prejudice, cynicism, arrogance, egotism, deceitfulness, anger, even violence. And the list could, of course, go on.

What I am saying is that any organization, any human group, no matter how good its intentions (in particular, its initial intentions, until time and usage begin to break them down), is so flawed we ought to think long and hard about fully identifying with it. And not just religious organizations; other groups as well could certainly be included, such as political parties, philanthropies, environmental groups, sports teams, cultural associations, as well as organizations affiliated with labor, the military etc.

In fact, the core of the problem comes exactly down to the question of the depth of one’s identification with the external. My childhood relationship with the Catholic Church, and with the particular monastic tradition I belonged to, was so all engulfing as to obscure everything else. I took it to be all there was, and when I eventually began to realize that life was writ far larger than that, more complex, messier, dirtier, more intent, more insistent on its own needs than anything I had previously thought possible, then I saw that this first object of my identification could no longer contain everything that I was.

But what could? That is the very question I have struggled with for many years. It is a question all of us must face. What I have always looked for is a wider, a deeper, more all-inclusive connectivity. Ultimately, I came to believe that this was my own relationship with my self; or, I should say, with my Self, the capitalized “s” indicative of some part of my being (and not just mine, of course, but everyone’s), beyond mere ego identity, that both includes all the things of everyday concern and, at the same time, goes beyond that.

I take great comfort in a particular passage from one of my favorite scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita. If ever there has been a more insightful statement on identification, in the largest sense of that term, essentially on who we are, then I don’t know what it might be. Speaking of union with Brahma (the Creative Principle of the Godhead), Krishna says: “He so vowed, so blended, sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained…Who dwell in all that lives and cleaves to Me in all, if a man sees everywhere—taught by his own similitude—one Life, one Essence, in the evil and the good, hold him a yogi, yea, well perfected!”

Taught be our own similitude—that’s a very interesting phrase. The language may sound a bit obscure, but put more simply, what it means is that we see in others exactly what is already within us, namely both evil and good; actually, more to the point, some messy, chaotic intermingling of the two. That is what human beings look like, at least on the outside. Within, who knows? Perhaps something bigger, more perfect, something that connects with all of life, and at the same time transcends it. Maybe this is what it means to realize who we truly are. And, if so, that’s what I want to identify with.

JUNIPERO SERRA, A MAN OF HIS TIMES

By Paul M. Lewis

The controversy over whether Junípero Serra ought to be made a saint is not particularly new. But it has gained traction of late because of Pope Francis’s declared intention to perform the canonization ceremony while visiting the United States this coming September. In a recent speech delivered in Rome, the pontiff is quoted as noting that Serra “ushered in a new springtime of evangelization in those immense territories, extending from Florida to California,” and that Father Serra defended “indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers.”

Questions of papal assertion aside, the basic issue really seems to be: Was Serra a saint, or was he a perpetrator of genocide, as he has more than once been accused of? To an extent, the answer depends on whether you believe he ought to be judged by 21st century standards, or solely by those of the 18th century. Most Christians of the time—Catholics in particular—believed it was their duty to spread the gospel and to convert heathens to the “true faith.” Any other belief system was seen not only as inferior to Christianity, but as false, evil, and outright diabolical. Pagans in particular—indigenous peoples—were especially in need of salvation. Those who died while still believing in the tenets of their religions were assured of going to hell for all eternity. Only baptized Catholics had any hope of getting into heaven. In addition, indigenous peoples were seen as children in need of a firm hand to guide them to Christian adulthood, a state in which they would then leave behind their old ways and recognize the superiority of European mores and culture.

In those years, it was a given that missionary work led to the greater good—spiritual, intellectual, cultural, even physical, emotional, and psychological—of those who were evangelized. It was seen as a way of raising people up from ignorance and allowing them to perceive the light.

That this light came at a huge price to indigenous peoples bothered the evangelizers not at all. So little value was placed on their religions, their languages, their whole cultures that Europeans never even considered that something irreplaceable was being lost. And if Indian lives had to be sacrificed in the process, well, those who died merely “went to heaven more quickly,” as the French Jesuit, Honoré Laval, who created a “settlement of God” among the Gambier islanders in the South Pacific a century and a half after Serra came to California, so arrogantly put it.

The question really ought to be, why should Serra not be judged in 21st century terms? After all, he is being held up today for special praise, as someone who should be emulated by those of us living in 2015, and in particular (or so the pope asserted) by Latinos. Why otherwise canonize him at all? And here’s an analogy to consider: Just as lawyers can cross-examine witnesses in a trial on a particular topic, if that topic has previously been brought up by the opposing side, so it seems fair to say that the style and content of missionary work done in the past can now legitimately be examined, since it has been raised by our contemporaries wishing to canonize Father Serra. If he is to be considered a role model for people today, it is also perfectly relevant to know how exactly he conducted himself in his life, so as to understand what about that life people should emulate. Seen from this point of view, however, Junípero Serra’s life appears to be less worthy of imitation.

Many modern Indians hold him up as a prime example of oppression (if not of genocide), and as someone who disrespected and denigrated their ancestral cultures. He’s seen as a perpetrator of acts of overwhelming arrogance, puffed-up pride, and conceit. Many even believe that most Amerindians would not have readily converted to Christianity, if it were not forced upon them by a hostile aggressor who came at them with far greater military and technological prowess. The image of peaceful Indians living in the shadow of the majestic California mission buildings, happily tilling the fields, or sitting and listening to benevolent brown-robed friars preaching to them about the Christ child is not just a fantasy, it amounts to a deliberate reimagining of history. There is little doubt that Indian labor was not offered freely, but extorted from them by force. It may be true, as some historians (and popes) claim, that Serra did protect Indian peoples from even worse treatment at the hands of colonial overlords. But the fact remains that the Catholic Church condoned and encouraged the expansion of European power in the New World (new to whom?), and that missionaries like Serra benefited from the military protection of these occupiers, who imposed their own will upon subjected native peoples.

The invasion of the Americas by Europeans was devastating and utterly catastrophic to the cultures, the religions, indeed, to the very lives of those people already living on this continent. Never mind that they had been here for a minimum of ten thousand years, that they had built very successful societies of their own, and that they were quite happy without the “guiding hand” of European paternalism. All this meant nothing to the invaders. Neither is anyone saying that the Indians of the time were perfect. They warred against each other, and sometimes they killed one another, just as every other human population did in any other part of the world. Some anthropologists even believe that ancestral Amerindians may have been responsible for the killing off of whole species of animals, such as mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and short-faced bears. In other words, they were full-fledged human beings, with all of the wonders and all of the flaws each of us has.

What they were not, however, were children in need of guidance, heathens who had to be saved, or sub-humans who had to be shown how to become civilized people. The pope has the right to do as he wishes. He can make as many saints as he likes, and people can celebrate them if they want to. But Junípero Serra was a man of his times, and those times have changed—I am glad to say, for the better. He is now dead and buried, along with the values of the era he so well represented. We are no longer in need of sainted role models from bygone days when one race, one religion, forced its way, lording it over another. If Francis wants to give us a saint to model our lives on, why not instead find one who resonates better with the needs and the understanding of the time we live in? Someone, at very least, who can be seen as respecting, honoring, and celebrating the good, the positive, and the human in all of us?

LAST CONFESSION: AT THE INTERSECTION OF POWER AND RELIGION

By Paul

Last weekend, my partner and I went to see a production of Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession,” a play that recounts the events surrounding the death in 1978 of Pope Paul VI, the election of his successor, John Paul I, and then the subsequent death of the latter only 33 days after his election. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or who is otherwise unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summary.

Paul VI’s 15 year reign largely undid many of the liberal gains made by Vatican II, the General Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965) that had been called by Pope John XXIII. The election of the liberal-minded John Paul I in 1978 to succeed Paul VI held out the promise that many of these liberal reforms, scuttled by his predecessor, might be reinstated. It also became clear at the same time that the new pope might deal with some of the many scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, which had been accused of money laundering and other financial dirty dealing, as well as possible Mafia connections. John Paul I had, in fact, intended to make a number of shocking changes in regard to the Curia, the archconservative administrative arm of the Vatican, including who headed the Vatican Bank. However, the night before he was to make these changes public, he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had never complained of prior heart problems, nor did he have any medical history of heart disease. In fact, it appeared that he had been in excellent health. Additionally, there were questions as to who found the dead pope, exactly when that was, and what he had been reading at the time of his death, that is, whether it was reports on these Church problems he had been wrestling with, as the moderates believed, or the Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional book, as the conservatives maintained. Some of the more moderate cardinals, headed by Giovanni Benelli, Cardinal Archbishop of Florence (portrayed in the play by David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame) called for an investigation. But powerful members of the Roman Curia put an early stop to this, and eventually Benelli himself, and his moderate supporters, agreed that it would be better “for the good of the Church” not to insist on an autopsy, in spite of persistent rumors of poisoning that circulated in the aftermath of John Paul ’s death. As a result, John Paul I was quickly buried and no investigation was ever undertaken. Many years later, just before Cardinal Benelli, himself, died of a heart attack, he destroyed all of his notes (his “Last Confession”) on the events leading up to John Paul I’s death.

These are the barebones of the story. Theatrically, there is a lot more to tell, including the complicated role played by Cardinal Benelli, who had in effect been king-maker (i.e., pope-maker) in both papal conclaves, the one leading up to the election of John Paul I, and later to that of his successor, John Paul II. In fact, Benelli came within just a few votes of becoming pope himself.   But what may be of greater interest here is to examine the general themes of the play, rather than delving into the convoluted political ins and outs of the Vatican, as played out between conservative and moderate cardinals. And what more obvious theme can we point to than that of a naked grab for power, on the one hand, and the difficulty in defining the intersection between power and religion – to say nothing of spirituality – that is perhaps the hallmark par excellence of politics in the Vatican?

The desire for power is hardly a new theme, either in the theater or in life, itself. And as one character says to Cardinal Benelli early on in the play, “Be careful of power. Your punishment may be finding it!” There is probably many a politician, looking back on a long career wielding power and being affected for good and for ill by it, who may understand this admonition only too well. Such a person would likely understand not just the admonition, but the limitations of power. No doubt, presidents often go into the White House at the beginning of their term, eager to make a difference and chafing at the bit to make use of the awesome power of the office, only to realize soon enough just how restricted that power ultimately is. Popes, too, find themselves faced with a similar conundrum. In this sense, the Holy Father is as strong, or as limited, as his Curia allows him to be. Even popes have to work with their collaborators, whether they be friendly or unfriendly, or whether he agrees with them or not, or they with him.

In his famous 1919 modernist poem, “The Second Coming,” the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats examines these notions of power. As he says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The ceremony of innocence is drowned…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not something we see over and over again related to the acquisition of power, that those least prepared for it, those most prone to its excesses, are the ones who often seek to achieve it?

Yeats was probably talking most directly about the horrors of the First World War, or perhaps even more directly still about recent unsuccessful attempts in Ireland to throw off the colonial grip that Great Britain had had on it for centuries. But, as with all great poems, his Second Coming also speaks to the millennium.

Which leads us back to the notion of the intersection between power and religion. It has always seemed to me that the two go together hand in glove. What, for example, was Jean Paul I trying to change, or to restore? For one thing, it’s clear that he was attempting to reinvigorate the debate within the Church on birth control within marriage, which many bishops and theologians attending Vatican II wished to discuss during the Council (remember that “the pill” had just come into popular use in the early 1960’s). As such, John XXIII had established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, which was to report to the Council. No one knows how John XXIII would have come down on this important issue, since he died before either the commission or the Vatican Council could complete its work. However, to be sure, Paul VI soon quashed all descent, and in 1968 issued one of the most famous and far-reaching of 20th century encyclicals, entitled “Humanae Vitae” (Latin for “Of Human Life”), which fully reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching related to sex in marriage, and roundly condemned all forms of artificial birth control. This remains orthodox Catholic teaching up to this very day, even though a recent Gallop poll affirms that some 78% of US Catholics (more in Europe) support the use of modern birth control.

Perhaps not much has changed between Jean Paul I’s uninvestigated and even questionable death and the present day when, in spite of the kinder and gentler exterior exhibited by Pope Francis, Church dogma and teaching remain the same. Which might make us question the reality of the new pope’s supposed liberal intentions. He has, after all, declared himself to be “a true son of the Church,” and who knows if he will ever address some of the sweeping changes that Jean Paul I spoke of before his untimely death?

Yeats says, “The darkness drops again,” and at the end of his poem he asks “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Bethlehem was the place of Christ’s birth, but the poet speaks here instead of some rough beast. Could this be a reference to the lower parts of ourselves, filled with desire and fear, eager to control others and the world around us? Is this, once again, the intersection of power and religion that has plagued us from the beginning?  Or, instead, might a visionary poet not equally be speaking of a rebirth, a Second Coming, admonishing each of us, churchmen and laity alike, to rise above our humble beginnings, our primitive urges, and to live a life beyond that all too human need for power, or even perhaps for religion itself?

WHAT POWER POPES ONCE HAD, OR HOW A PAPAL BULL EFFECTED THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF AMERINDIANS

By Paul

There’s been a brouhaha of late in tony Santa Barbara County, California, between the Chumash Nation and many of the locals. The Chumash want to build a bigger and better gambling casino, including more hotel space, for those who like to loll away the hours depositing money in electronic slot machines. The locals very much want things to remain the way they are, and fear that proposed changes will alter the nature of the area – more traffic, more outsiders (read, the hoi polloi?), less bucolic peace and quiet, which they pay a lot for. And, to be completely fair, I ought to add that there are no doubt other factors at work, as well, in terms of zoning laws, environmental regulations etc.

So, I’m not exactly taking sides on this one, since I admit to feeling very torn. First off, I’m not really much of a fan of gambling.   Sure, in a sense it’s like drinking alcohol, or any other thing that some consider to be a vice. If done in moderation, what harm can it really do? And while that’s true, it’s also the case that there are those who get hooked on it and ruin their lives, as well as the lives of those who love them. Personally, I can’t even stand going into a casino. Just the ping-ping noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge, and somehow I get this feeling of a vast aura of desperation. For me, it’s an uncomfortable place. On the other hand, it seems to be one of the only ways that Indians have ever been able to accumulate a degree of wealth in a society that has long considered them to be second and third class citizens. There’s definitely nothing glamorous or virtuous about being poor, so who can blame the Indians for latching onto a thing that works? The money gambling brings in can be used for education, healthcare, housing, and a whole host of other necessities that much of white society takes for granted, though not always all people of color.

Looking back at history, there’s no doubt that Indians have gotten the rawest of raw deals from Europeans, and later on from white Americans. In fact, as a measure of how invisible Indians are, most people don’t even think about or bother to educate themselves regarding what has happened over the years. In a short essay, I certainly won’t attempt to encapsulate the enormous, sad history of Indian-white interaction ever since that fateful day on Oct. 12, 1492, when Columbus “discovered” the so-called New World. Even the use of the term “discover” highlights the arrogance and high-handedness with which native populations have been treated. After all, the word means to find something new, something that no one had seen before, a place that was not known to exist. When, in fact, it was only the Europeans who didn’t know.   Depending on which anthropologist and which theory you believe, Indians have been in this hemisphere anywhere from between twelve and twenty thousand years.

Naturally, once word spread that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria had landed everybody wanted to get in on the act. That meant that everyone wanted a piece of the giant pie that had been “discovered.” The indigenous population of Indians, so called because Columbus was so turned around he thought he’d somehow landed in India, counted for very little. They were, in fact, pretty much just in the way. And besides, they were pagan savages, so Europeans were duty-bound to convert them to the true religion and in so doing to civilize them.

The very briefest of historical sketches might help to set the stage for that day when Columbus and his men first set foot on Guanahani Island, and the whole world changed for those who lived there, as well as for all other native inhabitants of the Americas. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what is called a Papal Bull (a kind of official “letters patent,” granting an office, a right, a title etc.) to the King of Portugal, allowing him to declare war against non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christians and their possessions. Later on, the King of Spain, who was not to be outdone, demanded one of his own, and got it. The Bull “inter Caetera” was issued in May of 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had “found.” This included all rights over peoples so discovered, who were to be “subjugated and brought to the faith itself.” Pope Alexander went so far as to draw a line from the North Pole to the South Pole, stipulating that the Spanish Crown could take any lands to the west of this line of demarcation, unless, of course, such lands had already “come into the possession of any (other) Christian lords.” Indigenous peoples were considered the “lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.”

In essence, this document, and the legal reasoning found therein, was used for the next several centuries as a blueprint for how to deal with Indians. It has come to be referred to as “The Doctrine of Discovery.”   In the United States, it was the basis for a Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1823. In this ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that Christian nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the Americas during the so-called Age of Discovery. As a result, all Indians living within those lands had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” Marshall specifically gave the U. S. government the right to occupy lands previously controlled by “the natives, who were heathens.”

The logical result of these legal documents can be seen in how Indians have been treated in this country. If their lands were not simply taken from them by force, if Indians were not killed off by smallpox or other European diseases against which they had no natural defenses, if their cultures and ways of life were not decimated by alcohol, then so-called treaties were made, which were largely legal conveniences that were never meant to be upheld, once it came time for white people to make their move. And all this was done in the name of civilizing and Christianizing them, a logical and legal throwback to the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Alexander VI.

No apology has ever been forthcoming from the Catholic Church (or from the American government, for that matter) for these injustices done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, no admission of wrong, no acknowledgement of pain or suffering or loss, no compensation, no acceptance of guilt, no mea culpa. This is a fact of history, a thing that most Indian peoples have simply learned to live with over the years. The best lands were taken from them and given to white settlers, and what was left was “reserved” for them. For many years, it was forbidden that their languages be spoken, their religious traditions were belittled and condemned, and their wonderfully varied cultural expressions denigrated and disparaged. They were put into servitude by Franciscan friars, and their children were forcibly taken from them and placed in boarding schools hundreds of miles away, where they could be taught to “behave like civilized white people.” While those left on the reservations came to know the meaning of poverty, want, and cultural dispossession.

So, fast forward to the 21st century, and we wonder whether or not the Chumash of Santa Barbara County, California, ought to be given permission to expand their gambling casino. Should the Chumash really take into consideration the rich people who live around them and their desire for peaceful country living? And what about the zoning and environmental regs? I still don’t claim to know the answer to all this, but if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a member of the tribe, I guess I could imagine myself thinking, why shouldn’t it be my turn now? The Doctrine of Discovery, after all, did what it was intended to do. It “civilized” and Christianized the heathen Indians. So, why is everyone complaining now that those same Indians want to take advantage of an opportunity to make money? You know, just like those good, civilized, white Christian folks, who live in the beautiful country surrounding them, have always done?

 

“PHILOMENA,” THE CHURCH, AND THE NATURE OF FORGIVENESS

By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.

WHAT HOLD DOES RELIGION HAVE OVER SO MANY?

By Paul

I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people.  Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory?  And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own.  When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery.  That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things.  And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.

Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate.  Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths.  I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.

One further clarification first, however, if I may.  In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets.  This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not?  What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings.  For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.

So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence.  By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning.  Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do?  Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know?  After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty.  Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.

The second reason is, simply, fear.  Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life.  And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.

A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief.  This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own.  As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma.  Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.

But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory.   Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith.  This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith.  These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many.  Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.

Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory.  Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval.  There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world.  There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings.  But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.

So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion?  Not to worry.  Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can.  Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way!  Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma.  Go within and discover for yourself.  After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.

POPE’S PREMISE: GAY PEOPLE ARE NOT THAT BAD (provided they behave themselves)

By Paul

I guess it’s better than being told that we are “intrinsically disordered,” or that being gay is an “intrinsic moral evil,” as Benedict XVI used to say.   And no one is arguing that Pope Francis I isn’t a much humbler man, and a more human and humane individual than the previous pontiff, who was as stiff and as formal and as rigid as the crosier he carried.  Still, the hullabaloo made over the new Pope’s recent comments about gay people seems a little overblown to me.

First of all, he did not say, “who am I to judge gay people?”  That seems to be the way that it has too often been portrayed by many news sources.  In fact, what he did say was that, if there are gay priests, and so long as they remain completely celibate (as all priests are supposed to, at least in theory), then in that case he would not judge them.  And, yes, that is something.  As mentioned above, it’s better that this be his first statement about gays as the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, than to condemn all gay people as evil and disordered.  But it’s not as earth shattering as it is being made out to be.

Let us remember, first of all, that the Catholic Church still preaches that any sexual expression on the part of gay people is a mortal sin, which, if unconfessed  (and if you believe such things), means that your “soul” will be condemned to hell for all eternity, should you die in that state.  So, the message, as much as it may currently be couched in a slightly more palatable package, remains exactly the same.   The most that a believing, practicing gay Catholic can hope for is to live a life of enforced celibacy (more or less like Catholic priests, again, at least in theory), and never experience the joy of sharing him or herself intimately with another man or woman.  To put it, in fact, more bluntly, the message basically is: keep your mouth shut and your pants on and don’t touch anybody, and then we won’t judge you.

Well, thanks but no thanks, Your Holiness.

The mark of the papacy of Francis I so far, there is not doubt, has been one of social justice.  The Pope scolded the elites of Brazil, clerical and secular alike, in his recent visit to that country, and he seems truly to relish being a man of the people, among the people.  He said he wished he could knock on every door of every person in the country, ask for a glass of cold water or a cup of coffee, and sit and talk with families.  We have no reason to doubt the sincerity and the compassion that is clearly behind such an extraordinary statement, especially inasmuch as what Francis does and says as Pope flows naturally from what he did as a simple priest, and then later on as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  Whether this scolding of the rich and powerful will do much good in the long run remains to be seen.  A great deal will depend on whether he can ultimately convince his brother bishops in Latin America and around the world to take on his own love of the poor and the dispossessed, a thing that has not been seen for a long time among many Catholic prelates.

His simplicity of manner, and his preference for living a normal life, has shown itself in many ways.  Not the least of these has been his eschewing of the lavish papal apartments in the Vatican in favor of living in the nearby guesthouse.  As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment, and took public transportation to work every day, a path not followed by the great majority of cardinal archbishops of the world, who live in elaborate mansions and travel about in chauffeur-driven cars.

All of this, we understand, he does and has done not only because it seems to be his own personal preference, but out of solidarity with the poor of the world, who know pretty much by definition, and by force of circumstances, know how to live simply.  All these are good things, and bring to mind some of the better qualities so admired in the late Pope John XXIII.  And no doubt, as with Pope John, they cause a certain amount of consternation not only among the current pope’s security people, but more to the point among the conservative elite of the church, who believe that the Supreme Pontiff ought to be more admired from afar than accessible to the many.

But would it, in fact, be too much to hope that Francis I might show as much love and compassion to the gay people of the world, as he does to the poor?   I think we have to admit that there is virtually no chance whatsoever that the Pope will change his mind on the idea of gay marriage.  That is a bridge too far, to be sure, for this, or for any pope in the foreseeable future.  The Catholic Church is too locked into a literal reading of the bible for that to happen, even if it has no problem dismissing the notions of slavery, or some of the more stringent dietary regulations the bible teaches, as no longer being applicable or appropriate for the modern world.  This picking and choosing of what is essential, and of what is really God’s immutable word, is a hallmark of most Christian faiths.  The same bridge too far, or at least a parallel one, could be cited in regard to the marriage of priests, or to the Church’s ever allowing women to become priests.  Still, even so, the Pope has said that it will be one of the important tasks of his papacy to make the voices of women, and their role in the governance of the Church, much more prominent than they every have been before, and that too is a good thing.

If he shows some movement in regard to women, then, is it too much to wonder if he will do so when it comes to gay people?  My prediction is that we will see little change in this regard more than the slight shifting of tone that we have already witnessed, and beyond that, there will be little if any substantive difference.  Francis I may be a man of the people, he may honestly express and truly feel compassion for and solidarity with the poor of the world, but doctrinally he is as conservative as all of the other modern popes who have been his immediate predecessors.

The message is, and will remain, that gay people are not in and of themselves sinful, but that any actual expression of who they are, any attempt at living a normal life of love and of companionship will be condemned by the Church as an offense against the law of God.

And no slight modification in tone, no simple adjustment in verbiage can, in the end, make up for the intrinsic evil done by this rigid, unbending, and ultimately un-Christ-like doctrine, and its vilification of gay people, or of how they live and love in the world.