November 2013

Desperately Seeking Satan

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is on a quest. That’s OK. Most Christians are. The difference is that, while most are seeking the kingdom of God, Paprocki is seeking the devil. Same-sex marriage has come to Illinois and on November 20, 2013 he held a Mass of exorcism in reparation for the state’s new marriage equality law.

He appears to draw his inspiration not from Jesus, but from the French poet Charles Baudelaire who once wrote: “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” That’s clever and lends itself to the drama of Hollywood screenplays. But does it convince?

There is no question that evil exists and that it is the opposite of good. The problem seems to originate with the personification of evil as “Satan” or the devil. That is simply simplistic. The result of creation myths attempting to explain the existence of evil. However, casting evil as a person, while not fully exonerating us, lessens our culpability for making poor decisions. It also tends to remove the nuance of many of those decisions. Not everything is right or wrong.

Nor is opposing evil the same as pursuing good. It is a question of focus. If one over-emphasizes evil, good is diminished. Paprocki’s crusade against same-sex marriage is on point. In Christianity, as in most religious traditions, love is a good to be sought. As I have commented in the past, the most profound statement about God occurs in the First Letter of John when he writes: “God is love.”

In fact, the second time he writes those words, in chapter 4:16, he states: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Because Paprocki is opposed to homosexuality, his screed against same sex-marriage actually diminishes love and in the process diminishes God.

Reducing love to sexuality and/or sexual orientation makes it elusive, as even many heterosexual couples have discovered. Love is greater than sex. But when sex is an expression of love the presence of God is unveiled. And revealing the presence of God should not be shunned. After all, it cannot help but make the world better.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God, cannot be about condemnation. Jesus, himself, cautions Paprocki—and the rest of us—“do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” Jesus could not be any clearer than his statement: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

There is value in looking to poets for inspiration. Paprocki turns to Baudelaire. I am tempted to invoke Shakespeare. Perhaps Paprocki protests too much? History is also a good teacher. From that perspective the bishop from Illinois reminds me of the 1950’s senator from Wisconsin. Joseph McCarthy was looking for Communists under the mattresses of every American. How poetically comical that Paprocki is also looking in people’s bedrooms. This time, however, it is to find the devil under the sheets.

Who Killed Cock Robin and JFK?

Cock Robin and John F. Kennedy are distanced by time and reality: Cock Robin the fictional subject of a poem from the 1700’s, John F. Kennedy the factual President of the United States in the early 1960’s. While both engage the imagination, they are separated by something else—confession. The sparrow owned up to killing Cock Robin. Nothing so simple occurred with the Kennedy assassination. Here we are, days away from the 50th anniversary of his death and there remains an almost 50/50 split in public opinion over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or in consort with others. One thing is certain. JFK was not killed by the sparrow.

Conspiracy theories can be fun. But they are often unenlightening. In the case of JFK, the possible conspiracies are so disparate as to be simply dizzying. Although not unimportant, the question of who killed Kennedy should not consume us fifty years after the fact. If Oswald was the sole assassin, case closed. But suppose he did not act alone. Why should it matter now? Most likely, any co-conspirators are long dead. Far more significant than who killed JFK is the effect his death had on the nation.

It has been suggested that the Kennedy assassination is the most significant event in modern American history. Perhaps that is hyperbole, but the statement sustains its own argument, for momentous changes emerged as a direct result of 11/22 (to use a current type of acronym).

On a practical level, there has been an explosion surrounding the president’s security in terms of personnel, equipment and expense. Additionally, poor communication by the Johnson Administration and the Warren Commission, left a diminished respect and trust of government in general. More philosophically, though, JFK was not the only casualty that November.

The days of Kennedy have frequently been compared to Camelot, the early 1960’s seen as another legendary time of hope and idealism. JFK was the symbol of a country rising from the ashes of war, reborn in youthful vitality. His death shattered this newfound innocence as effectively as the betrayal of King Arthur by Guinevere and Lancelot destroyed Camelot. In many ways Kennedy’s assassination scarred the American psyche leaving wounds unhealed to this day. Wounds that have grown only deeper over the years.

Kennedy understood that we are part of a bigger picture, a bigger world. In Germany, in solidarity with that world, he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) Today, we have become more insular. We see only America. Within that America, we see only ourselves and we trust no one, not even each other.

During the Kennedy Administration Americans shared a common vision and purpose. From his oft-quoted inauguration address, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”, to his challenge to reach the moon within a decade, no president since, not even Ronald Reagan, has so united or stirred the common imagination. To the contrary, we seem to have very little in common these days. Arguably, we have not been this polarized since the Civil War.

In the early 1960’s America was birthing a rising and enviable middle class. Today that middle class is disintegrating. The disparity between rich and poor is greater by orders of magnitude. There is little concern for one another as our political world and daily life are turned into self-centered greed and a disdain for the less fortunate. Who is left to lead, to call forth our better selves? Is it any wonder that today seems so forlorn, that we look back so longingly on America’s Camelot?

Nothing since JFK’s death, not even revelations of his personal or professional weaknesses has managed to steal his image from the heart of the nation. John F. Kennedy has passed into the world of myth and legend, his memory still evoking a world of hope and idealism. He is honored best by reaching for the same future he envisioned and worked for.

The end of the poem reads:

All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor Cock Robin

We, like the birds of the air, are a people left a-sighing. Mourning our president, our loss, ourselves. So what does it matter who killed JFK? Whoever it was, we must not let him kill our dreams as well. Maybe it was the sparrow after all.

Democracy in the Catholic Church

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a moment. We’re not there, yet. Pope Francis has asked that every parish, meaning every practicing Catholic, weigh in on significant issues of faith—same-sex marriage, birth control, divorce, to name just three. He’s taking a poll. But what does this mean?

First of all, it signifies that all the people have a voice in church teaching. Now before conservatives get too worked up, this is not really radical. Merely unusual. For too long, there has been a tendency to confuse the “Church” with the Vatican, or its institutional structure; a tendency to confuse the authority of the pope and bishops with the “faith” of the church. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the church is the people of God. Underlying every Catholic doctrine is the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the people. In the simplest of terms, this means that the entire people cannot err in faith—they cannot believe something contrary to the truth. An individual, a parish, a diocese, even an entire country can be in error, but not the whole people. Collectively they have been given the deposit of faith.

Although possibly only an academic distinction, it should be noted that not even the pope can declare something infallible that the people themselves do not believe.

It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares that the keys of the kingdom belong to Peter. But in context, Jesus places Peter in charge as “first among equals”. It was not a power play. Peter was to be the source of unity, who would exercise authority in order to hold the church together. Scholars note that in all the Gospels, when any list of apostles is given, Peter is always mentioned first and only Peter speaks for the entire group. That indicates the position Peter enjoyed among the twelve. But even then, it was not absolute.

In the Acts of the Apostles we see that Paul, also an Apostle—though not one of the twelve—challenges Peter. He does so not to usurp the authority of Peter. He does not even attempt to. Rather, Paul makes sure that Peter exercises his authority correctly. That he embraces the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Catholic theology, the pope is the successor of Peter. So he possesses that same role of authority and unity. But there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the authority. A good example is the church’s teaching on birth control. Pope John XXIII established a commission to examine whether or not artificial contraception was intrinsically evil. Following his election, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72.

It remains a sad historical reality that at the conclusion of the study two reports were presented to Paul VI. The official report was signed by 65 members—including every lay person on the commission, hence anyone who had received the Sacrament of Marriage. Their conclusion was artificial contraception is not intrinsically evil. But there was a minority report (isn’t there always?). The minority report was signed by 7 clerics (4 priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops), none of whom was married. Paul VI promulgated the minority report. Where was the sensus fidelium in 1967? By the way, for any Americans reading this blog, we have additional reason for shame. Two American priests drafted the minority report!

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that Paul VI was wise enough not to claim infallibility! That would have been a mess, for the best studies indicate that the number of married Catholics who practice artificial birth control may be as high as 80%. Pope Francis has decided to give proper weight to the sensus fidelium.

Does this mean the Catholic Church will become a democracy? Perhaps not. But for the long suffering, this is the same excitement that stirred in people from the American Revolution to the Arab Spring. Pope Francis has welcomed the Holy Spirit back to Rome after far too long a vacation!