19
Apr
14

Lent (Day 40) — we made it…

I did finish Breslin’s book, and I do appreciate his desire to not let the authorities and their short-sighted attempts to keep the whole sex abuse matter quiet for their own political reasons be the final word.  There are two ways of viewing the Church — the traditional view sees the clergy as the rulers and the rest of us the ruled, but the other view looks on all of us as the Church.  In that case, it is possible for the ruled to stand up and make their voices heard, and that is the best way to avoid the situation that has gone on for too long.  

But I have to admit that, on the last day of Lent, I played hooky. I watched Liberal Arts, a film starring Josh Radnor — I guess I was feeling a longing for Ted Mosby.  In the film, he plays the same sort of guy he played in How I Met Your Mother.  

I’m glad that I watched Liberal Arts. As a film about people who are very much bound by books, and what that might mean, the film did speak to me as a person who’s spent his life in education and in libraries (and book stores, too). My reflections on Lent this year were book related, as was last year’s reflections on Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. And just about anything I say or feel is likely filtered through books or film. I’m very much like Woody Allen’s film geek in Play It Again, Sam. His lover, played by Louise Lasser, leaves him at the beginning of the film because he’s a watcher, not a doer. The same might apply to Radnor’s character here, who is a reader, and not a doer. And yet, over the course of the film, Radnor, the reader, grows up and learns to say “yes” to life, a lesson he learned by a near romantic fling with a college student sixteen years his junior, who is part of an Improv Group. And I think that the # 1 rule of Improv is a good rule for living one’s life — say “yes” and add to the scene. That saying “yes” is what the “leap of faith” in my own tradition is all about. And when I think of the victims of abuse, one of the saddest things about them is that their experience as children, saying yes to an authority figure who abused their trust, has taught them to be very wary of saying “yes.” And some may never get that back, which is something no apology, however deeply felt, from their abuser, should any such apology come, will restore. But I think that some do learn to say “yes” again to life and love despite their experience.
But one of the great things about this film (which was not a great film, but a good one) is that Radnor’s character, when the college sophomore wants to sleep with him, doesn’t say yes. And though it is painful in the moment, and as we watch it, we’re thinking, “D’oh!” I think we realize that he made the right decision. The film opens with a line that “He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow!” And, in a sense, it’s true. The more we know the more that stuff can get in the way of living life. But there is such a thing as wisdom, and learning can lead to wisdom. And pain, to a good end, is better than pleasure to a bad end. There is a danger in only doing stuff that makes us feel good. Life is not all joy, and would not be much of a life if that’s all we knew.
And I thought of Improv and what it can mean to someone who’s read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies. I think that Improv can teach us (or maybe help us learn is better) how to take our life experience, but also all those words and plots and everything else we have in our heads, and play with that, to enter into a dialog with authors, and each other about ideas presented in literature. We can learn to be better in our use of language, become more poetic, and more graceful, and that’s a good thing. So, Happy Easter — a real time of new beginnings (so much more so than New Year’s Day, in the midst of winter). And my thoughts this Easter will be with the abuse victims, but also with James Martin, SJ, and Josh Radnor.

18
Apr
14

Lent (Day 39) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

In one of the final chapters, Breslin speaks of talking with a Katherine Grimes, MD, a psychiatrist regarding the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.  The conversation turns to the matter of the seminaries — Breslin notes that the local seminary is likely to only graduate two seminarians in that year (around 2004, when the book was published), and Grimes opines that the main reason for the drop in seminary enrollment is that the sex scandal has made it clear that predators will not get away with their predatory behavior so easily.  “They’re busted,” she says, and know it.  

Though that is part of the problem, I think that the matter is bigger than that.  I had a good friend who would have made an excellent priest, but he also wanted to be married.  He is currently married and has a family and seems to have done all right, and his family has all turned out quite well.  If the church had allowed (or allowed now) married priests, there would be quite a few more priests.  And a priesthood of good men (and women) would offset predators in their midst.  But many of the good people chose marriage over the priesthood.  So a lot of good people were frozen out.  And as the Catholic Church is the chief authority in the world of Catholics, when that was undermined, many people turned away from the Church, and many who would have entered seminary, chose not to do so, as they could no longer be sure of their faith.  It’s a major problem.  And I’m not sure it is one that is easily overcome.  

17
Apr
14

Lent (Day 38) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

On p. 153, Jimmy Breslin quotes his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a New York politician, and Jewish, after pointing out the Catholic (esp. Irish Catholic) obsession with the Jews as some dark force subverting everyone else, and taking control of medicine and finance.  This is a position which Breslin refutes, suggesting that he’d like to slap some Irish Catholics around to snap them out of their fixation.  

Eldridge’s quote: “Religions were conceived to ensure an orderly society.  They are pure fantasy developed to explain the origins of humanity and provide hope for a future.  Your Catholic Church and philosophers brilliantly conceived the ultimate threat of hell.  What better way to ensure obedience than to threaten people with the ultimate threat of hell.”

I’m not sure that I agree with Eldridge entirely.  I think that religion does serve as a means of control, and certain people and institutions use the threat of eternal damnation as a means of  keeping people in line and to intimidate others.  Even for those who believe in hell or other form of post mortem punishment, I’m not sure the threat aspect always works — e.g. Dante, who seems to have believed in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, does not endorse the idea that those whom the Church condemns as going  to hell, actually end up there, while popes and other church leaders, who were not so condemned during their lives, do end up there.  Even assuming there is a place of punishment, the Church has no power to determine who will end up there.  What the Church does have, and certainly did when I was a kid in Irish Catholic Dorchester, is to declare someone persona non grata, so that the person is shunned by the community.  That is a mighty power to have.  But even outside of a Church community we can isolate or label someone who doesn’t “fit in.”  

And that not fitting in, but sticking out, that’s pretty scary.  That intimidation has been used for groups that have been marginalized for millenia.  One of the things I don’t fully get is what the tipping point is — for some people known to have done wrong are lionized in the press, or on the Internet, and come away with reputation intact, while others are demonized and their reputation is in tatters.  Chris Christie seemed unstoppable at the end of last year, but with the Bridge scandal and other things now being reported more widely, his reputation is now tanking, and he seems stalled, if not stopped.  Certainly public opinion has changed for Christie, but what was the turning point, and who is responsible?  I’m not sure that any one person is responsible.  The Greeks would look to chance or fortune which would change, so that a powerful individual would reach a peak of some sort and then fall.  And that force seemed somewhat impersonal, and something that might or might not hit, and when it hit, it might or might not be deserved.  In the case of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church — that stuff had been going on forever, and people knew about it at some level.  The reputation of the Church gave priests and other church officials the benefit of the doubt, which gave them cover, publicly, for a while.  And that was wrong, but was the way things were.  And now, when every priest is viewed with suspicion, we have a situation that may also be wrong (in that the assumption of guilt is there, even if undeserved).  For Breslin, once the veneer of respectability and near-infallibility began to wear off, it had a ripple effect.  If a lot of what he had been taught was not TRUE in some big way, there seemed no reason to believe in a lot of what the Catholic Church preached.  And I think that Breslin wanted to hold on to some of those beliefs, and a belief in the Church, which seems to be why he’s wrestling with all of this throughout the book.  

16
Apr
14

Lent (Day 37) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

The thing that really jumped out at me in today’s reading from Breslin’s book was his discussion of the impending sainthood of Mother Teresa.  At this point, she is still Blessed Mother Teresa, with one more attested miracle required for sainthood.  Breslin spoke of when he met Mother Teresa, at Holy Cross College in May of 1976.  She received an honorary degree from the college for her good works and Breslin delivered the speech to the graduating class.  As I knew several people graduating that year (I graduated in 1977) I was in attendance for Mother Teresa’s degree and Breslin’s talk.  Like Breslin, I am amazed that two people I saw in the flesh, Mother Teresa and John Paul II (when he did his first US tour, I attended Mass in Grant Park [about half a million in attendance]).  And I keep recalling Cassius’ lines about Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play that a guy that all the senators knew, a guy they hung around with, was now considered almost a god.  Tough to believe for people who knew the guy way back when.  And Breslin says he did some research on the attested miracle, the disappearance of a cancerous growth from the stomach of some Indian woman.  And it turns out that the miracle may not have happened, that the woman may have had only some stomach ailment that passed naturally.  Breslin mentions it, not to discredit Mother Teresa, though he does point out that some of her positions did not help the poor of India, and that stuff should be better known, but to point out how the Church largely ignores stuff they don’t want to hear, which is convenient for them, but does not advance the cause of truth. 

15
Apr
14

Lent (Day 36) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

In the next few chapters, Breslin tells the story of how he learned the story of some of the worst of the serial abusers, John Geoghan and Paul Shanley.  In the case of Shanley, he indicates that failure to act on removing Shanley by Archbishop Medeiros may have had something to do with “dirt” that Shanley had on the archbishop.  That’s something I’m going to have to look into.  Even assuming that is the case, what is the excuse for the rest of the church hierarchy who knew something about Shanley not coming forth.  Did they all have some dirt on them?  Were they just following orders?  Any explanation seems pretty weak.  After all, they had a responsibility to the children of the Archdiocese of Boston, and to other areas to which these priests may have been sent.  And they failed that responsibility.  To what extent is the system corrupt, with priests looking out for one another no matter how bad?  To what extent is a system that puts so much authority in the head of a diocese bound to fail, as the archbishop, if compromised, will result in all sorts of bad decisions in the levels beneath him?  For what would keep the church (or the church hierarchy) keeping such a guy in any position of authority?  After all, this is the same church that puts the kibosh on anyone who challenges church teaching in written form.  Hans Kung, a reputable Catholic theologian, lost his “Catholic” theologian label, though he continued to teach theology at the University of Tubingen, because of writings of his challenging church authority.  But he was not a monster in human form.  And how significantly do the misdeeds of people like Geoghan and Shanley put the lie to everything the Church teaches, and how significantly do the misdeeds of the Church leaders who fail to take corrective actions undercut the authority of the Church and its teachings? 

I think that, when you hear of all this, you certainly think that Shanley and Geoghan are monsters, but they are clearly sick individuals.  What is the excuse for those who saw but did nothing?  The church martyrs bore “witness” (what martyr means) to the truth of the Christian message against persecution.  But what happens when the church leaders, all of whom should be martyrs in some way or other, fail to live up to that role, and become accomplices of those acting criminally and using the church as cover?  And what happens when those leaders flee to Rome (as did Cardinal Law of Boston) to remove themselves from criminal prosecution and even from answering questions?  It is enough to make one quite angry. 

14
Apr
14

Lent (Day 35) — last week — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

In Chapter 5, Breslin recalls that he once was invited to a dinner at which Bruce Ritter, the founder of Covenant House, who was seen almost as a living saint.  He chose not to go, and feels now that he may have had some misgivings, felt but not articulated in his mind.  Ritter later had to resign from Covenant House and go into retirement in upstate New York.  He was kicked out of the Franciscans, but retained his priestly status.  He never did time.  Ritter was touted by people as high as Ronald Reagan (who cited him for his private charity work — no need for government to do that, when private individuals and faith groups are doing it already).  I remember getting literature myself from Covenant House in the mid-80s (at the point where Ritter’s stock was highest), and I remember being shocked when he was accused of molestation and then of resigning from Covenant House.  I didn’t know anything about him, but I recall his stock being quite high.  All this was before the big story came out in the early 21st c. First in Boston, and then elsewhere.  It seemed, at the time, an anomaly, and I didn’t put much more thought into it. 

What does surprise me about the story, and I’m guessing surprised Breslin, is that the church didn’t do anything until the outcry was loud.  And the outcry happened because of the pieces penned by Charles Sennott, then of the New York Post and later of the Boston Globe.  Sennott wrote a piece and then the wealthy contributors to Covenant House threatened to sue him and the paper over slander, and then he wrote again, and the funders began to dry up, and then he wrote again, and Ritter was done.  That level of exposure eventually pulled away the mask from Bruce Ritter and people could see him as other than a saintly man helping the poor.  But Sennott must have been very much an outlier at the time.  But where was the Church that could have taken steps?  How much did they know, or care?  It is clear that they fell down on the job.  And Breslin faults himself as well.  He knew (or heard some of this), but didn’t give it enough attention, and didn’t want to shake things up at the paper, so he let matters slide.  Sennott was doing the job that Breslin feels he also should have been doing. 

12
Apr
14

Lent (Day 34) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

Breslin concludes Chapter 4 with a visit to Queens.  On his way, he thinks of his school days and of his aunt Harriet, whom he has already mentioned as one who looked on her religion as her support, but who did not equate the Church hierarchy with that religion.  His example here was of his aunt during WWII getting a telegram, but not buckling because she was sure that her husband had only been wounded, because of her belief.  Though a touching story, such a belief I find a bit troubling.  I recall someone saying to Abraham Lincoln about the North winning because God was on its side, and that Lincoln responded that those on the South must have believed the same thing.  Both sides could not be right.  And though I don’t begrudge people beliefs that help get them through the day.  Certainly Christian faith (and Islam too) did a lot to get African-Americans through the difficult years leading up to the Civil Rights movement.  But the idea of God taking a personal interest in our doings seems alien.  If God took personal interest, how is it that the monstrosity of the Nazis was not crushed before it took so many lives?  And what about Joseph Stalin, who killed more than Hitler, and who died of natural causes (maybe he was killed by Beria, but only after he had done so much damage)?  And what about cases where two people are praying to the same God?  And only one can get his/her prayer answered?  Who wins then and why?  But I think one can believe in humankind (generally) — Anne Frank did, even though she died in a Concentration Camp. Even though she was not saved by her own belief, I’m not sure that her death invalidates her belief, a belief in the goodness of humans.  It may be aspirational and not actual, but it is something that offers hope, and that hope can become reality, if we all believe it, at some level.  So, I don’t quite see where Aunt Harriet’s belief that God protected her husband affects Breslin’s love and affection and wonder at the faith of his aunt.  Her belief was strong, and her faith didn’t depend on the Church (a pretty radical idea, but not unique with her), and in that faith, there is some hope of change in the Church (though most of the SNAP groups spoke of getting very little help from the bishops in whose diocese they lived, which argues that the change in the Church is likely to be that the Church shrinks rather than it reforms).  




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