The Triumph of the Cross

Today’s Feast is especially meaningful because of the Church’s current excruciation. We are, at this moment, sharing in our Lord’s suffering in an intense, collective, and universal way.

Looking forward, it seems to me that we can even now see some of the elements of our resurrection triumph which the sharing in this cross makes possible.

1. A deep love for the Church’s perennial teaching on the Christian call to holiness through chastity, in every state of life. St. Paul called this obedience of faith, the offering of our bodies, “rational worship.” To people who are subject to concupiscence, often very badly formed, and swimming in a culture virtually devoid of good example, the Church’s teachings seem much more like a series of “thou shalt nots” than a joyfully exuberant path of life. A scandal of this proportion tends to simplify matters into the easy choice of Deuteronomy: life, or death. Choose life for you and your children. Choose life.

2. A renewal of the servant-leader approach to episcopal service. In every profession there comes a point of seniority after which it becomes very hard to be fired: tenure in academia and partnership in law, for example. Redress of complaints made by juniors to seniors after this point is limited. For me, and perhaps for others, the apparent assumption of this privileged status by our bishops in their 2002 agreement constitutes one of the major betrayals leading to the current outcry. Combined with this is a perception that at times some bishops may have used the power of the charter as a weapon against priests who have not committed crimes of this nature, but who are troublesome in some other way. In so many ways, this particular time is a purification for bishops as a group, for their relationships with their priests and seminarians, as well as for their care of their people. This is a moment when all of these things could be rethought and moved forward on an excellent footing.

3. The historical possibility of clearing an enormous worldwide organization of sexual abuse of minors and subordinates. Sexual abuse is not a Catholic problem. It is a human problem. For various reasons, including such practical reasons as deep pockets and such spiritual reasons as hatred of the faith, the Catholic Church is nearly alone in being called out in public regarding abuse. As an example, the Washington Post once ran an article about a school teacher who had sexually abused students. This article was not, as would have been the case for a priest, a major headline above the fold on the front page. It was instead in the local section, several pages back, with a one-inch photo. Every organization that works with young people has this problem of sexual predation, not to mention the many people who abuse the young on a personal level. The Church’s time in the spotlight is not fair, in a sense. But it is much more important to note that the terror and pain of victims are entirely unfair, and our crises give us an opportunity to make a safe place for all people. This is a world full of abuse and human trafficking and sorrow inflicted by the strong upon the vulnerable. If that one safe place–an entirely safe place–happened to be uniquely the Catholic Church, that would go a long way towards fulfilling the prayer of Jesus, that the Father’s will be done on earth as in heaven, in the place where such goodness should in fact happen, in the Catholic Church.

4. The removal of a problematic group from Church leadership. Ascending on high, Christ gave gifts to the human race. These gifts are peopleprophets, teachers, etc. If these gifts, these gifted gifts from the Giver of all good gifts, are to have scope for their exercise and fruition, this would be easier if they were not excluded for the wrong reasons. Probably everyone who has worked in the Church knows about exclusion for the wrong reasons, such as faithful and healthy seminarians who were dismissed for alleged “rigidity.” Over and above these sometimes facile condemnations, there is also a problem of falling outside the network of preferment. When, as now, one of the most powerful current networks of preferment exists because of sin, acts to support sin, and self-perpetuates by introducing others to sin, then this situation acts contrary to the gifts that Christ, ascending, gave. If the Church is a ship, this group grounds us at shoals. If the Church is a net, they tangle our exercise. If the Church is a body, we are thwarted in health. Instead of committing itself to strong and healthy forward motion, the Church is weakened and depressed–introspective. We have tangled nets. They must be loosened from those whose dispositions and ambition have made them capable of stranglehold.

5. A time of grace for repentance. If in the past there have been clergymen and even bishops who have live a twisted double life including predation and other crimes, they may have died without ever coming face to face with their sins, and sincerely repenting. This is a horrifying thought. Once someone is conceived, born, and baptized, their eternal destiny is of infinite importance. This is true even if their power was once such that no one dared to confront them until they were gravely incapacitated–like the incapacity that seems to have started the current redress. “In his riches, man lacks wisdom. He is like the beasts that are destroyed.” The eternal weight of a human soul, potentially glorious forever, potentially agonized forever, whose destiny is determined not by thought and choice but by almost unconsidered yet wildly destructive malice–this is an unendurable thought. Accountability, among its many other benefits, gives the guilty an opportunity to think seriously about important matters, to make amends, and to plead for pardon.

Working with Young People

His induction into the NBA Hall of Fame yesterday has brought to mind again Maurice Cheeks’ most perfect assist.

It was a playoff game in 2003, and a young singer sang the wrong words to the National Anthem before the game, and got off track. Her confidence failed, and in spite of the audience’s support, the song was in danger of implosion.

Cheeks was head coach of a competing team. One might think that he had more on his mind than supporting a middle schooler who was suffering a temporary setback. But that was not his attitude.

This brief video is a snapshot of how billions of adults support young people all over the world. The young lady was doing something very difficult, and the adult helped her to complete her action, not by lessening its difficulty, but by providing structure and time, accompanying her so that she could do the difficult task well.

Charles Cole of the London Oratory and The New Liturgical Movement has published this year’s list of Children’s Choirs, in which adults likewise support young people in doing something very difficult, not by lessening the activities’ inherent challenges but by providing the training necessary to help them grow.

Some Helpful Fiction

For those who would like a fruitful way to both think about the recent Church news and at the same time distract themselves from it a bit, I’d like to recommend one of C.S. Lewis’ lesser-known works, his Space Trilogy.

The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is an enjoyable read and serves as an introduction to the rest.

The second book, Perelandra, is Lewis’ masterpiece. He thought it was worth “twenty Screwtapes.” I agree. Imagine a virgin world, a planetary paradise, with its Eve all alone with two Englishmen: one a tempter, and the other a Christian. The book is a long and lavish parable about the choice between obedience and prideful lawlessness.

The third book, That Hideous Strength, is much different and very dark, and engages themes of marriage and the use and misuse of sexuality, professional loyalty and its abuse, propaganda, coercion, and Christian community.  In particular it engages some ideas about professional life that are also found in Lewis’ lecture entitled The Inner Ring.

I offer these suggestions in case they are helpful. There are audio versions which are excellent.

Bad advice

Recent events have prompted the following personal reflections of a non-musical character.

A bad advisor is one of the worst things that can happen to a leader. Some people with an agenda get close to him or her and help him strategize, not according to what will benefit the organization or even the leader, but according to the needs of the hidden agenda.

In a complex world that is almost unnavigable, advisors are definitely necessary. But when they are “yes men” with hidden agendas, they must be excluded, no matter how comforting they are. This is a mental and emotional asceticism required of leaders.

On the other hand, there is no need to give these yes men any legitimate cause for complaint. Some would say that the news outlets most responsible for inquiring into the Holy Father’s response to sexual abuse are partisan or ideological. To the extent that this is true, it seems to me that this element should be excluded as well. This is an ascesis too: focus on the truth. Focus on the faith.

Regarding partisanship, the U.S. situation is unusual in the world, because of its perpetual division into exactly two major political parties. This admittedly has the effect of demonization of the “other.” It also lends itself to an unconscious responsiveness to the other. If the left goes farther left, the right goes farther right, and vice-versa. We’ve been this polarized before, in 1800 for example. But what makes the national-ecclesial situation particularly tense now is the decision of one of the parties to insist on cooperation with evil on non-prudential, non-negotiable matters such as abortion.

Catholics actually can have a say in this aspect of the polarization. Once in a Q and A, I heard EJ Dionne say that there were districts in Pennsylvania–Pennsylvania–in which the Democrats were forced to promote pro-life candidates, opposed to abortion, because Catholics in Pennsylvania would not vote for a pro-abortion candidate. In order to win elections, the party eased its usual obligatory policy of 100% abortion support.

What I have found most heartening over the last week is the number of times I have heard people say they are praying and fasting. What a beautiful and biblical response to a situation that is in many ways frightening.

Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant?

From the Gospel of the day:

“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant,
whom the master has put in charge of his household
to distribute to them their food at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant whom his master on his arrival finds doing so.
Amen, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property.

But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is long delayed,’
and begins to beat his fellow servants,
and eat and drink with drunkards,
the servant’s master will come on an unexpected day
and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely
and assign him a place with the hypocrites,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”