Lent (Day 26) — Jimmy Breslin, “The Church that Forgot Christ”

Jimmy Breslin, who had been a lifelong Catholic, in the face of the sex abuse scandal, and the coverup from the Church hierarchy, and in the face of the insistence on abortion as being the key, almost sole issue, to be hammered home at every church ceremony, decided that he could no longer support that institution, though he still considers himself a Catholic.  

A lot of what he said, in the opening chapter of The Church that Forgot Christ, resonated with me:  like Breslin, I went to Catholic grade school, and much of my Catholicism is based on what the nuns taught me and what they taught through their example.  Ultimately, some of the lessons I could not accept (Christ as human rather than as divine always seemed to me the most fruitful and sensible path to go;  though I took great comfort in the Eucharist, I never thought that I was eating the Body of Christ in any real sense, though the symbolism of sharing a meal with hundreds of people, and adhering to certain ideals inspired me, and continues to inspire me.  But growing up in the 60s (Breslin must have grown up in the 50s, and coming of age as an adult in the 60s), the church, for me, was the church of John XXIII and the promise of Vatican II, which offered hope of a church in people’s lives more than of rigid dogma.  And it was that promise, more than anything else that kept me a Catholic, even a lapsed one.  Ultimately, in my case, leaving the church turned more on two things: 1) it made no sense that priests were male and obliged to be celibate — I knew some priests who left the priesthood because they felt too strongly the need to be in a relationship and a marriage, and I could tell that many of the nuns I knew would probably be better priests than some, but entrenched sexism kept them from that path; 2) much of the Church’s symbolism, which seemed to me symbolic and not real in the technical sense, though it moved me, did not convince me to accept those ideas as truth.  And I did believe, and do believe, that one must be true to the truth understood from within, that one cannot take a ready-made truth and make it one’s own.  The truth of Jesus as part of the Trinity, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and matters like transubstantiation, were ideas I could not take (even on faith) as literally true.  And I felt that it was wrong to belong to an organization whose credal statement I could not accept.  Let me be clear here — I don’t think that those who do believe are fools.  We all believe “truths” that we cannot prove in any scientific way (even hardline humanists hold positions that cannot be scientifically proven), and so I believe that those friends and family I have who remain Catholic are following their paths, and that their paths are right, just not for me.

The telling moment in the chapter I read was Breslin at a baptism, where he heard the priest inveigh against abortion, and where he enjoined the infant in the cause of fighting abortion.  When Breslin asked him about this, about what seemed a heavy-handed attack on abortion in a setting that didn’t seem appropriate, the priest told him that he had to do as he did, that he was following orders.  And what bothers me about that, and what seemed to bother Breslin, is that this focus on abortion (he jokingly says of John Paul II that he had four focuses: abortion, abortion, abortion and Poland) caused the Catholic Church to be an arm of the Republican Party, whose economic positions are at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church going back to Leo XIII on social justice.  But by making a litmus test of abortion (being opposed to it absolutely), the church had given up on those other positions that made them one with the people they served.  In a way, I think one can make an analogy with the Vatican of Pius XI and Pius XII which made Concordats with Mussolini and Hitler.  Though neither pope was sympathetic to or supportive of the Fascists, such agreements seem to give tacit approval to a political system that the church ordinarily would speak out against.  

And I have no doubt that many of the bishops in the US do support the good life that capitalism “promises” to people.  Many live in palatial surroundings and enjoy the good life that the 1% enjoys.  But the Church, by focusing on the one issue, and forcing those on the local level to so focus, lost sight of the bigger picture, and seemed not to realize (or care) that such positioning was giving tacit approval to a system that is, in its core, contrary to the message of the Gospels (“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”).  And I’ve heard the argument — abortion is inherently evil, and so it must be fought first, and other evils are more relative (not inherently evil) and so can be winked at.  But clearly war machines are inherently evil, and capital punishment, and other things approved by the state, but these are matters that the Republican party does not question at all (and many Democrats don’t either).  And I do believe that most Republicans are not opposed to abortion, other than that such a position gets them certain key portions of the electorate.  So the Catholic Church is in bed with a group that ultimately has no use for, or any respect for, the core principles of the Church.  It’s a mess.  

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