Sunday, March 31, 2013

John Donne and the Preaching Women

Donne posed in his winding sheet

In 1630, Easter fell -- as it does this year -- on 31 March.  So it was that, one year to the day before his death, John Donne mounted the pulpit at St. Paul's Cathedral to preach.

Donne preached on Matthew 28:6 -- He is not here; he is risen.  Come and see the place where he lay.  The sermon, which runs to 24 pages the standard edition, must have taken more than an hour to preach.  It is loaded with Donne's customary intellectual theatrics, his rhetorical devices, his references to Fathers and Reformers, his bits of theological speculation.  But, for all of that, it is one of his more accessible sermons -- not easy reading for us today, but not hard, either.  It is well worth the effort.

He begins with the myrrh-bearers, the women at the tomb, and the angels who greeted them:

... Angelicall women and Euangelicall Angels: Angels made Euangelists to preach the Gospell  of the Resurrection, and women made Angels so as Iohn Baptist is called an Angel, and so as the seven bishops are called Angels:  that is, Instructors of the Church and ... messengers, publishers of the greatest mysteries of our religion

Johanna, wife of Chusa, by Egino Weinert
He digs right into to what would have seemed a paradox in those days:  women as preachers. He begins by rebutting many of the foolish ideas about women spread by the "petulancy" of men (such as that women have no souls, or are not created in the image of God), and sings at length the praises of good women, both in Scripture and in history.

Concerning Mary Magdalene, he wonders aloud why tradition has accused her of prostitution, when the Bible does not; of Chusa's wife Johanna, he calls her a "Pope Joan," superior to Peter.  Above all, he praises the women for their devotion:
Beloved, true devotion is a serious, a sedulous, an impatient thing.  He that said in the Gospell "I fast twice a week," was but a Pharisee; he that can reckon his devout actions is no better.  He that can tell how often he hath thought upon God today hath not thought upon him often enough.   
It is S. Augustine's holy circle: to pray that we may heare sermons profitably, and to heare sermons that we learn to pray acceptably.  Devotion is no Marginall note, no interlineary glosse, no parenthesis that may be left out; it is no occasionall thing, no conditionall thing --  "I will goe if  I like the preacher, if the place, if the company, if the weather" -- but it is of the body of the text, and layes upon us an obligation of fervour and of continuance.  This we have in this example of these not only Euangelicall but Euangelisticall (preaching) women ...
There's much more to this sermon, which could easily be mined by students of Renaissance sexual polemic.  People often make the mistake of separating "Jack" Donne from "Dean" Donne, the young rake from the old priest.  Donne encouraged this, but we should not be fooled.  His earliest writing was about sex and religion; so too was his latest.  From the beginning to the end, Donne was fascinated by women and by God.

He was also fascinated by death, and there is plenty of that in his Easter sermon.  Winding-sheets make their almost inevitable appearance, and so do church-bells:
There is our comfort, collected from this surrexit, "he is risen," equivalent to the discomfort of the non est hic, "he is not here," that this his rising declares him to be the Son of God,  who therefore can, and will, and to be that Jesus, an actuall redeemer, and therefore hath already raised us.   
To what?  To that renovation, to that new creation, which is so excellently expressed by Severianus:  ... "the whole frame and course of nature is changed" ... the grave now, since Christ's Resurrection and ours in him, does not bury the dead man, but death himself.   
My Bell tolls for death and my Bell rings out for death and not for me that dye;  for I live, even in death; but death dies in me, and hath no more power over me.
There is much more to this sermon; our preacher is not -- ahem -- done yet.  He has a story about  a West Indian king, some gentle poking of fun at both transubstantiation and ubiquity, citations from Luther on marriage and Calvin on several things, and for all we know hidden references to alchemy and politics.

But let's leave it here for now, as we admire and try to emulate the sedulous devotion of the preaching women, and remind ourselves and those around us of the promise implicit in Easter Sunday:  the new creation, by which we live even in death, and death has no more power over us.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Read Joelle's Post Today

Pastor Joelle provides a Holy Saturday treat:  an anonymous sermon on the Harrowing of Hell.  Read it now!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ordinary Resurrection

Here is John Donne, in a very Lutheran moment.  It is his 1625 Easter evening sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral, on St. John 5:28-29:
That then which Christ affirmes and avows, is, that he is the Son of God; and that is the first thing, that ever was done in Heaven, The eternall generation of the Son: that by which, he proves this to these men, is, That by him there shall be a resurrection of the body; and that is the last thing that shall be done in Heaven, for after that there is nothing but an even continuance in equall glory.  
Before that saies he, that is before the resurrection of the body, there shall be another resurrection, a spirituall resurrection of the soule from sin; but that shall be by ordinary meanes, by Preaching and Sacraments, and it shall be accomplished every day; but fix not upon that, determin not your thoughts upon that, marvaile not at that, make that no cause of extraordinary wonder, but make it ordinary to you, feele it and finde the effect thereof in your soules, as often as you heare, as often as you receive, and thereby provide for another resurrection: "For the houre is comming in which all that are in the graves shall heare his voice and shal come forth, they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evill unto the resurrection of damnation."
And there it is:  the unique Resurrection of Christ is a token of the general resurrection of the dead -- but no less important is that by preaching and the sacraments, we are made part of a daily spiritual resurrection.

"Ordinary," in Donne's preaching, is a word which comes up often.  Here, he seems to be using it, purposefully, in a double sense.  The daily resurrection of the soul is ordinary, in that God has ordained it, set it in order, to take place on a certain schedule and by certain means.  Like ordinary time, or the ordinary of a diocese.

But he also encourages each of us to make that resurrection "ordinary," in the modern sense of familiar and even routine, because we so frequently participate in the services of the Church, which are God's ordinances.  In a time when the once-yearly Easter communion was still common, at least among the lower classes, Donne is encouraging something more in line with the Reformation vision of frequent church attendance and widespread communion:  Come to church often, hear the sermon and receive the Eucharist.  Do not wait for the end of time, when your soul can have new life today.

Pope Reigns; Traddies Panic

Pope Francis continues to strike fear into the hearts of the traditionalist community.

On Maundy Thursday, he went to an Italian jail and washed the feet of twelve young people, including two women and two Muslims.  Most of the press coverage treated this as yet another touching instance of the new pope's personal humility, and of his desire to turn the Roman church in a humbler direction.

But the blog Rorate Coeli declared this to be "The Official End of the Reform of the Reform -- By Example."  The canonist Ed Peters remarks grimly that "we live in antinomian times." Which is their way of saying nonononononono!

Mind you, the Papist bloggers have a point.  Their church's liturgical law does indeed specify that foot-washing be restricted to twelve "select men," and although there is some argument over just why that is so, or whether it should continue to be so, there is no real question that it is so.  Popes can abrogate the law if they so choose, but they can't simply disobey it.  Except, of course, that sometimes they do.

Still, these guys may be missing the bigger picture.  For years, we have complained that the Roman Catholic church -- and especially the Roman Curia -- displays a nearly suicidal contempt for public relations.  For all that John Paul II was a master of the grand symbolic gesture, he wasn't much of an administrator; Benedict's choice of grand gestures, although endearing to scholars and antiquarians, was less than masterly.

There are two results.  The first is that, since the death of Paul VI, people seeking the "progressive" face of Roman Catholicism that emerged in his era have been consistently disappointed, at least in the papacy.  This, by itself, would not be particularly serious -- within the church, the progressives were a minority, and their gradual marginalization hasn't been such a great problem.  Some of their opponents are quietly happy about it.

But to the eclipse of "progressive" Catholicism we must add the second, and far more destructive, result of official tone-deafness.  In recent years, it has become possible, permissible and even popular to publicly identify Roman Catholicism with its very worst failures.  Specifically, that has translated into the assumption that every priest or bishop is somehow involved in the child molestation scandals.  Such an assumption is false, of course -- but no less common for that.  The Roman Catholic church has responded ineptly to crisis after crisis, and has allowed itself to be perceived as a corrupt, formalistic institution governed exclusively by arrogant, out of-touch old men who put their personal interests before either the law or the good of their people.  (For example.)

This perception is (largely) mistaken, and should be corrected whenever possible by appeal the facts.  But frankly, all the facts in the world will not sway the masses as effectively as a few well-timed gestures.  Francis is trying to make those gestures.

Is he wrong on church law?  Probably; but so what?  He's the freaking pope, he should get a little slack from the papists.  His instincts, so far, are on target in a way we have not seen in a long time, and which both Catholicism and the rest of Christianity need urgently at the moment.

Poor Poor Pitiful Me

Pity poor Father Anonymous.

Here he was, preparing his sermon for Sunday.  It was to be on his favorite personage from the Lutheran sanctoral calendar, John Donne.  After all, March 31 only falls on a Sunday every seven years or so, giving him few opportunities to ramble on in public about Donne.  (Did you know he told his congregation that he was their spiritual mother, and encouraged them to suck the milk of Wisdom from his breasts?)

Then Father A. checked the table, and noticed that some other feast takes precedence on that day.  Fooey!

Tongue deeply in cheek here, friends.  Make it through Good Friday, and have a blessed Easter.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

All Sex, All the Time

That appears to to be the motto of our local (and very fine) NPR station.  For days now, we have turned it on several times each day, as usual.  And every single time, without fail, we have been greeted by coverage of the two gay-marriage cases heard this week by the Supreme Court.  If there has been any further action on, say, Syria or the sequestration, on withdrawal from Afghanistan or the quashed candidacy of Ashley Judd, we have not heard it from WNYC-FM.

It's like being at an ELCA synod assembly in the years between 1990 and 2009.  And perhaps that's why we can't work up more passion for the news coverage.

These cases before the Supremes are indeed important.  In an immediate, practical sense, a re-evaluation of DOMA would have a dramatic impact upon the lives of many Americans.  There is money at stake, in the form of federal benefits, as well as the more fundamental question of human dignity.

Beyond that, there is the striking question of states' rights.  A defeat for DOMA, if it that act were reckoned to be a federal intrusion upon the prerogatives of the states, would be cold comfort for the supporters of gay marriage if it translated into stronger support for laws like Proposition 8.

These are important questions, and the answers that the justices offer will make a lasting difference.


Honestly, it won't be that lasting.  The Supremes may uphold DOMA, and it will still be repealed within a decade.  if you don't believe us, just ask Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill, only the most recent legislators to announce their support for same-sex marriage.  If the Supremes uphold Prop 8, there will be a flood of similar state legislation over the next ten years.  Most will last for a decade or so before it is overturned.

Within a few years -- possibly a very few -- the current situation will be reversed.  Today, nine states permit same-sex marriage and the rest either do not recognize it or prohibit it outright.  But public sentiment is now changing at a geometric pace, and it is all but certain that, soon enough, the states which prohibit same-sex marriage will be a small circle of holdouts.

We are as certain of this as we can be of anything in the realm of politics.  Viewed over the medium term, near-universal acceptance of same-sex marriage seems far more likely than, say, access to legal abortion.

Rhetoricians speak of prolepsis, the confident assertion of something not yet true.  ("I am a dead man," says a man who knows he will die.)  It is hard, right now, to keep from speaking proleptically of the movement toward same-sex marriage marriages.  Although they are not yet lawful in most of the country, there eventual lawfulness seems assured, no matter what the Supreme Court does.  Like laws against miscengenation or sodomy, the prohibitions on same-sex marriage are relics of another time -- even though that time is now.

And so, emotionally at least, we find ourselves moving on.  We are trying to think about the pastoral questions, of course.  Even among the most comparatively progressive church bodies, many congregations -- probably most -- are well behind the curve.  A generation of pastors will spend much of its time coaxing church members toward the future; it may fail, as after all these years racial integration has largely failed in many church bodies, preserved at best as well-intentioned tokenism.  Once in a while, pastors will summon a bit of their old fire, as we still do for racial inclusion or the weekly Eucharist.  But mostly the old guys, who will look like relics to younger colleagues already fighting the next battle.

The battle over homosexuality which began a century ago with Emma Goldman's pro-gay speeches, which was pushed forward by the Nazi extermination of gay people and which burst into the American public consciousness with Stonewall and Anita Bryant, is at last in its final stages.  It isn't over, in a decisive sense, any more than the Voting Rights Act decisively ended racism or even racial discrimination at the polls.  But the tide is turning, even as we speak.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Beaten to the Punch

Our fantasy hymnal exists.  Almost.  Sorta.

For years, we have dreamed aloud about something we call "the reference hymnal."  It would be an anthology, meant for worship planners, which presented familiar hymns in their original, unaltered form:  all the stanzas; the original texts both of the foreign-language originals and of the English translations; brief notes describing their textual history and the most frequent alterations.  Music is optional, but lists of the most common tunes would certainly make sense.

Obviously, this is a book for the pastor's shelf, not for the pews.  It wouldn't interest all that many people.  What it would do is restore to pastors and music directors some of the control that is, whether we like it or not, normally ceded to the committees that put hymnals together.  Editors, after all, make textual decisions based both on their poetic and their theological sensibilities, and while they are by no means always mistaken in their judgment, neither are they always correct.  Sometimes, a congregation wants to sing "his," "thine" and "Jehovah;" sometimes it doesn't.  The reference hymnal would allow informed decision-making.

It would also be a useful teaching tool.  A shocking number of people are genuinely interested in hymns, but fairly few have any deep knowledge of their history.  But hymns are a repository of historical theology.  One could, without much effort and to great effect, trace the differing theories of the Atonement through Patristic, Medieval and post-Reformation song.   Likewise the different visions of Christ's person, or of the Trinity.  it could make for many fun evenings in the undercroft.

One pedagogical side-benefit would also be to hush up the uninformed whiner.  Some of the most common complaints about hymnals are that "they've changed the words" and that "we always [or never] sing all the stanzas."  Many of the people who complain would be profoundly surprised to learn what the original words were, or how man stanzas actually exist.

Anyway, we've wanted this book for years.  And it turns out that it exists -- sort of.  We propose to you two approaches to the same problem:
  • The Rev. Robert Maude Moorsom's 1889 H

    istorical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern

    containing the Greek and Latin; the German, Italian, French, Danish and Welsh hymns; the first lines of the English hymns; the names of all authors and translators; notes and dates.  
  • The Rev. Louis Coutier Biggs' 1867 Hymns Ancient and Modern

    For Use in the Services of the Church : with Annotations, Originals, References, Authors' & Translators' Names, and with Some Metrical Translations of the Hymns in Latin and German. 
As you surely know, Hymns Ancient & Modern is an immensely popular Anglican collection, which has gone through many, many different editions in the course of its long lifefetime.  It has, or at least began with, a High Church spin, and -- because of the "ancient" part -- the work of John Mason Neale is evident on every page.  Of hymnal companions there has never been a shortage, but we know of very few that provide foreign-language originals, more or less intact.  That's what makes these special.

You can download both --free -- at Google Books.  Neither is perfect, but both are interesting.  Of the two, it is Biggs whose work impresses us most.  Moorsom provides original texts, notably the Greek, but without English translations.  His book is elegant to look at and has good indices.  Biggs, however, offers the full monte:  text, translation, notes, all at a glance.  Here's a sample page:

You can see how it works (and readers who own Odd Hours will see why this book appeals to us visually -- we had never seen it when we laid out our own book, but the resemblance is striking).

The system isn't perfect.  Biggs indicates textual changes to hymns that were originally written in English, but in the case of translations, as the one above, he generally does not.  Nor are we certain whether his Latin originals are truly original, or instead the "corrected" versions of the Counter-Reformation breviary.

In some cases, the compilers of HA&M have adopted a mutilated version of the hymn.  Their version of Jesu lebt! Mit Ihm auch ich is one which was popular at the time, but which departed radically both from Christian Gellert's original and Frances Elizabeth Cox's translation.  Biggs notes this, but does not provide the longer version.  Grrr.

The most serious limitation of the Biggs book, of course, is that it reflects an outdated selection.  Many of these hymns have not stood the test of time; many others (and from many languages) have been added  to the common congregational repertory.

Beyond that, the book is inconvenient to use electronically; we'd much prefer a hard copy.

Still, Biggs points the way forward.  He provides a simple, easy to use format, and a core of hymns still in use.  Around this, some enterprising student of hymnody might very well construct a useful little tool for parish ministry.

"The Carnival is Over"

That is what Pope Francis is reported to have said when he declined to sport a mozzetta in his first public appearance.  "The carnival is over":  a nasty slap at Benedict XVI's use of historic papal attire, a rallying cry for those who never liked Benedict and have been longing for a dramatic change in the Chair of Peter, and a clear signal to the hard-core traddies that their time has past.

"The carnival is over."  In other words, no more making nice with the Society of Saint Pius X, no more poaching from Canterbury's forest, no more randomly insulting Muslims.  Hey, maybe Hans Kung even gets rehabilitated.

"The carnival is over."  A pivotal moment in the history of the Roman church, a moment of clarity that turns the ship in a new direction.  Aggiornamento in miniature.

It never happened.

Francis never said it.  At most, it appears, he said "I prefer not to," which is hardly the same thing.

Nor, according to John L. Allen, is Francis planning to smack the the already-disgraced Cardinal Law around by casting him out of the Lateran and off to a secluded monastery.  Nor is his use of the open-air popemobile somehow a dramatic change from Benedict's practice -- Benedict often used the very same vehicle for tooling around the piazza.

As we've said before, there are a lot of horse hockey pucks circulating in the papal infosphere these days, many of them generated by the fact-averse Italian press and picked up by a strange mixture of dreamy liberals, paranoid conservatives, and bloggers who just don't know any better.  They are hard to avoid stumbling over, but easy enough to avoid repeating.  Just stick to the big guns -- Allen, first and foremost; then John Thavis and Rocco Palmo.  These guys seem to have the best inside sources, not to mention the best hockey puck detectors.

However, blogger Meredith Gould makes another point about these urban legends, which is that they are "signifiers."  That is to say that, to somebody less interested in their factuality than in their cultural meaning, they can open a window on all sorts of hopes and fears abroad in the society which nurtures them.  Or, as sociologists Joel Best and Gerard Horiuchi put it,
Urban legends, like collective behavior and social problems construction, are responses to social strain,  shaped by the perception of the threat and social organization.
In this case, it's pretty simple.  Vatican II remains an apple of discord within Roman Catholicism, and indeed well beyond.  The argument over its "meaning" -- its intentions, its relationship to a nebulous Great Tradition and a host of very specific lesser traditions -- remains unresolved half a century later.  This argument, in turn, reflects in microcosm the far wider and deeper anxiety felt by the rapid restructuring of social consensus which began in the North Atlantic nations and has now spread worldwide.  Fifty years ago, it was hard enough to come to grips with the end of colonialism and the beginnings of Second Wave feminism.  It would have been impossible for all but the most extreme thinkers to talk about gay marriage, global jihad, or the Internet.  Never mind the brave new world promised by biotechnology, or the advance of what Ray Kurzweil calls "the Singularity."  The old order, established at the end of the 17th century and largely unchanged but for the replacement of British hegemony by American, has disappeared.  It is no longer clear to all viewers that there is a "West," culturally speaking, much less Western values, ideals or traditions.  And if those things do exist, then it seems to many people that they are under siege.

And nobody -- nobody -- so clearly bears the standard of western cultural tradition (however that term is understood) as the Bishop of Rome.

No wonder then, that many people, and by no means only the obvious ones, focus their anxiety upon the person of the pope.  The militant atheist, the cynical reporter, the fundamentalist struggling in his own way against modernity -- each of them has a stake in the emerging idea of what it means to be Westerner living in a global village.  That is why they fantasize (as their predecessors did, too, and often no less creatively) about a person who might otherwise seem irrelevant to any of their own pursuits.

All that being said, it is best to stick to verifiable facts.  For the moment, Law lives in the Lateran, and the carnival appears to continue, even if in a more muted fashion.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Not to Sound Unsympathetic ....

... but when bungee-jumping, it is best to calculate the length of your rope very carefully.  And then use just a little less.

A 22-year-old man was killed in Utah, swinging by a rope from Corona Arch.  His rope was too long, he hit the ground and was dead on the scene.

Apparently, this a popular pastime, made more popular by YouTube videos. The authorities have put up a sign asking people not to do this obviously dangerous thing, but, as one representative says,  "There’s no way on Earth you can tell someone not to climb a mountain."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Papal Popularity Rumor

There is a rumor going around that South Americans, apart from those in Argentina, weren't as thrilled about the election of Pope Francis as you might think.  Somebody close to the ground described a (comparative) silence, as though it just weren't that big a deal.  Which, when you think about just how many Roman Catholics live in South America, is pretty surprising.

Somebody else, well acquainted with the region, observes that Argentinians are not always popular among their neighbors.  They are perceived -- stereotyped, that is -- as rude, pretentious, and so forth.  Much the way Swedes are perceived in the other Nordic countries, or New Yorkers by other Americans.

We have no idea whether there's anything to this.  Likely not, or at least not much.  But it may be interesting to see how effectively Francis is able to work in, say, Bolivia -- and what obstacles he may encounter on the way.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Breasts Are Big (Business)

"Eats, Drinks, Scenic Views."  That is the slogan of a chain restaurant called Twin Peaks, and, yes, the views in question are of attractive young waitresses displaying their bosoms.

In recent months, the media has made much of a supposed boomlet in restaurants of this sort, classily dubbed "breastaurants."  (ABC News video here.)  While the market leader Hooters has sagged a bit (yes, that's ABC's pun), several upstart challengers have appeared -- Tilted Kilt, Canz, and the not-at-all-offensively-named Mugs and Jugs.  That they have launched successfully during a major economic downturn is apparently remarkable, although the jury remains out on their ultimate success.

The recipe for success is obvious:  men like beer, men like breasts, and men have proven conclusively over hundreds of years that they will fork over a few shekels for the opportunity to enjoy both at once. Throw in some hot sauce and you're golden.  It is a sign of America's cultural climate that these restaurants are working hard to present themselves as family eateries, complete with kids' meals.

We've never even seen one of these places, much less eaten at one, so we have nothing to say about, say, the quality of the food.  For all we know, they offer the Escoffier of buffalo wings.  And although the thoroughgoing  sexism (not to say ageism) bothers us, we aren't going to get overly self-righteous about it.  Hey, we read comics, go to movies and watch teevee; we've got no claim to any moral high ground.

Food writer Chantal Martineau takes the same line.  As she says, she is from Montreal, a city famed for its strip clubs and the activism of sex workers. For her, as for us, the real question is not why these places exist, but why they can't be better:
What’s so tacky about Hooters and its ilk is the same thing that’s tacky about Chili’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. They’re big, sterile chains with no soul and – despite all the kitschy flair – no style. Why must breasts be Disney-fied, neutralized by garish colors, uninspired décor and uniformity? Where is the Hooters for hipsters? Don’t foodies like fun bags, too? 
In Chile, you find cafés con piernas (literal translation: “coffee with legs”). These are cafés that offer decent coffee served by long-legged, scantily-clad women. There are chains like this, but also independent ones. You can bet your bottom that the girls here make more money than in a regular café. It’s the same deal in breastaurants: if a girl has the rack to get hired here, she can clean up in tips.
Martineau wants "a breastaurant for the rest of us," and challenges hipster entrepreneurs to come up with one.  And in fact, we have a good model from which they might begin:  Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Years ago, we lived in this pleasant neighborhood, full of Polish immigrants.  We have rarely loved a place so much.  It was clean, friendly, and above all loaded with cheap, cheap, cheap Polish food, served at a multitude of mom-n-pop eateries.  Our favorite was the closest, a place that could sell you borscht, kielbasa and cabbage pierogies for about $5.  Add another buck or two for some beer.  We ate there twice a week, minimum.

And yes, the waitresses were young and shapely.  They flaunted it, too, in a modest way.  Their uniforms consisted of black pants and white t-shirts, both stretchy and tight.  No cleavage, but none was needed. No flirting, beyond a smile and an occasional refill -- but what else do you need?  We admit it:  the cheap food got us in the door, but the pretty waitresses probably helped us pick this restaurant over some of its competitors.  Over and over again.

As it happens, Greenpoint is adjacent to the hipster mecca of Williamsburg, which was already a little scary when we were in the area, and is said to have metastatized in the years since.  Still, if somebody wants a template for a less factory-farmed restaurant in which cheap eats and pretty women are equal parts of the recipe, they should look at Manhattan Avenue.

Don't Blame the Lutherans!

Perhaps you've been following the Cypriot debt crisis, which is only the latest chapter in the European Union's fiscal car-crash.  If so, you know that it is generally reported this way:  "Germans are sick of paying other people's debts, and certainly don't want to bail out the wealthy Russians who have parked their rubles in the shaky banks of Cyprus."

Meanwhile Cypriots, who are being asked to pay a tax on their own bank accounts as the condition for a partial bailout, complain that the Germans are abusing them.  Mean, mean Germans.  And yes, odious comparisons to Nazis are routinely thrown around.

Timothy Spyrou, writing in the Cyprus Mail, argues -- in broad strokes, but to our mind convincingly -- for another view.  Cypriots, and most southern Europeans, have one view of "solidarity;" Germans, and most northern Europeans, have another.  He roots these in the difference between a Catholic/Orthodox worldview and a Lutheran one.

In fact, Spyrou says, southerners ought to take notice of Germany's great generosity during the crisis, and remember that when Germany was shown similar generosity by the US after Word War II, it responded in a very specific way:

West Germany’s new democratic leadership, its industrialists, small businesses, workers and society as a whole used this opportunity in true civic Lutheran fashion-they fashioned an economic miracle....
It was returning the interest back in spades by becoming a pillar of the free world. Germany’s civic responsibility towards Europe did not end there. As part of its efforts to atone for the past, and lay the groundwork for a mutually prosperous future of a union of European nation states with strong market economies and healthy welfare states, it was ready to put its financial muscle-essentially the money of German voters and taxpayers, towards achieving that goal.

The Germans, says Spyrou, expect southern Europeans to do likewise.   They are nonplussed when this does not happen, because of that quite different understanding of "solidarity."

We are deeply suspicious of the Max Weber thesis, which is either too simple or plain wrong, depending on how you look at it.  And Spyrou is certainly jumping off of Weber here.  Protestant theology is not the root of all hard work and thriftiness, much less capitalism.  Still, darn it, his argument fits with what we have seen and heard ourselves in the relationships between southern and northern Europeans.  (Nota bene: we have seen this difference of worldviews in the relationship between the Lutheran churches in Germany/Scandinavia and Romania.)

So if the Germans are not the cause of Cyprus's problems, then who?  Spyrou names several villains:  the Cypriots themselves, the feckless Greeks and Italians, the City of London.  But first and foremost he mentions the people who have mishandled the US economy, specifically the Bush Administration and
... the radical fringe of the Republican Party, who, because they could never accept a liberal African-American president, let alone the son of a Muslim Kenyan immigrant, did everything possible to throttle the economic recovery during Obama’s first term. 

This guy may be on to something.

Body (of Christ) Ink

Queequeg, harpooner of the ill-fated Pequod
The subject of tattoos came up recently, courtesy of Pastor Joelle.

We are long past the generation in which Leviticus 19:28 was cited censoriously in this regard.  For that matter, we are past the days when Richard Gere's father could snort, "You've got a tattoo.  Officers don't have tattoos."  (Or when our grandfather could insist, as he did to his dying day, that "pierced ears are for Gypsies.")  Across the Western world, we are living in what is almost certainly a golden age of body modification.  Any part of the body that can be is now inked, studded, scarred or be-ringed, on a regular basis, and not just on drunken sailors.

As it happens, Father A.'s father and brothers all have tattoos, mostly of a very modest kind.  Your diminutive correspondent, countercultural to the last, remains tat-free.  (Also, and perhaps not coincidentally, hepatitis-free.)  His scars have been earned in the customary ways:  a combination of dumb stunts and minor surgeries.  These days, he tries to avoid both.  Needles, even in the most clinical situations, make him shudder.

But ... what if?

A number of Lutheran pastors expressed interest in mounting a Luther rose somewhere on their bodies. The image may be a little obvious, like flag pins on politicians, but one sees its appeal.  Luther's personal seal is pretty, colorful, and -- to the initiate -- instantly recognizable.  You could do worse.

We ourselves were reminded of a seminary classmate who had caused to be inked upon his shoulder the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God in Hebrew.  It was, when read in conjunction with that Leviticus, a forceful and ironic expression of our classmate's antinomian theology.

But, upon reflection, we think that we might go with the old Reformation-era monogram, VDMA.  It comes from "Verbum Domini manet in aeternum," the Word of the Lord stands forever.

But its history is complicated.  The motto and its initials were adopted by the Elector of Saxony, and became deeply identified the Lutheran side of the Reformation.  They were adopted by the Smalcaldic League, and one sees them inscribed on cannons, swords and that sort of thing.  These days, it has been taken on as a logo by The Lutheran Quarterly and various other churchy groups.

We have to admit that we are leery about the company this motto keeps.  Guns and cannon are the least of it.  The Quarterly is a fine historical journal, but it is also ... annoying.  For some people, it is still haunted by the specter of late editor Oliver Olson and his lifelong battle against the use of the Eucharistic Prayer.  A few of us still remember Louis B. Smith's stunningly uninformed and mean-spirited review of a book by Gordon Lathrop, many years ago.

But, a quick search of the interwebs assures us, the Friends of Forde Foundation is the least annoying of the groups to adopt VDMA.  Paul McCain has had it inscribed on his personal handgun.  A website called Gnesio (oy!) uses it to advertise the convocation of a Lutheran mini-denomination.  And so forth.

Still, abusus non tollit usum and whatnot.  It's a powerful motto, with deep resonance.  If, for some presently unimaginable reason, we were moved to get a tattoo, this might very well be the one.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Elements of Style

Frankly, we liked the red bordello look.  It reminded us, simultaneously, of an old Nissan Stanza our parents used to drive, a favorite Indian restaurant in Manhattan, and ... well, never mind that third thing.

This gold job here was going to be our Easter look, but we have officially caved to the demands of the anti-bordello activists.  We'll refine it over the next few days -- the colors on the margin need some adjustment.  But for now, here's where we are.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Red Shoe Diaries

So it seems that some Roman Catholics of a highly traditional bent are ... concerned ... about their new pope's sartorial choices.

Zuhlsdorf posted something about the red shoes, and then something about the rumor that Gamarelli, the papal tailor, was sending over a new mozzetta, and his readers freaked.  It's a little confusing to outsiders, but the gist seems to be a concern that Pope Francis may adopt a less emphatically old-fashioned style of dress than his immediate predecessor.  This means, as a couple of readers put it, that "the man chosen to be a living symbol of tradition is disregarding tradition."

Worse yet, they are afraid that by doing this, the new pontiff may give aid and comfort to priests who don't want to wear collars, and so forth and so on.  Next thing you  know, we all singing Kum Ba Yah at the folk Mass.

The silly side of this is obvious to most people, so let's try to take it seriously for a moment.  Honestly, there is much to be said for the idea that religious officials are the bearers of tradition, and are well served by dressing in a manner that makes this clear.  We ourselves are great advocates for the collar, and have previously posted about the virtues of cassocks, amices, birettas and maniples.  (Did we ever get around to the maniple post?  We forget; suffice it to say we own one, but don't actually wear it.)  We have never mentioned our hatred of varicolored clerical shirts, but readers can probably guess how deep it runs.

But let us also remember that "tradition" is a complex thing.  Clerical togs, both within worship and without, are particularly complex; their history is long and winding, tending to disappear down rabbit holes and then double back on itself.  Whether one likes it or not, the clerical suit has replaced the cassock as street garb, so that wearing a cassock on the street today -- which some people certainly do -- is semiotically quite far removed from what it was a century and more ago.  Wearing it then didn't mean what it does now.  Likewise the flat-brimmed hat, the white cravat, and we suppose the fur lining in the cassock.  At some point in history, somebody gave up on each of those things, and somebody else cried out "Heretic!  Modernist!  Liberal!"

Popes happen to have a highly specialized closet of historic garments from which to choose.  Shawn Tribe helpfully lists several:  the fanon, the falda, the mantum; the ever-popular subcinctorium and -- above all -- the tiara.  Some popes wear them,  some -- particularly John Paul II -- don't.   The Red Shoe Brigade seems to have a strange emotional investment in such seemingly trivial items.  We expect that the cause is a sense that the paraphernalia makes a pope look old-fashioned, and old-fashioned -- meaning older-fashioned than John XXIII -- is something these guys want very badly.

And by the way, there are probably a few lefties out there, reading the symbols precisely the same way, and hoping for the opposites.  So every time Francis doesn't wear a red slipper or an ermine-trimmed cape, they do a fist pump and cry "Man of the people!"  Or whatever.

We can't help thinking that this is a load of -- well, something that gets loaded and then spread on the crops.  We agree that a pope's attire -- like that of a parish priest -- is not merely a matter of whim.  It is the result of a critical assessment of tradition, and the more-or-less deliberate decision to send a message.  But "more or less" covers a lot of area, and a lifetime of personal style is going to have an impact on what a man thinks he ought to wear.  It doesn't, in and of itself, say anything very clear about his theology in general or his position on matters of dispute in particular.

Clothes don't make the man.  They really don't.  John Paul II was a pretty plain dresser, and nobody would have mistaken him for a wild-eyed radical.  Francis seems to lean plain; this does not mean that the folk Masses are coming back.

Still, we'll check in on this periodically.  Just in case.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Our New Look --Yea or Nay? [UPDATE]

A few days ago, on a whim we changed the Egg's display to use Blogger's "Dynamic View."  It's a cool feature that lets readers change the way they see the blog.  We asked for feedback

Two readers wrote back, purty durn unhappy.  Apparently the colors were bad and the interface itself was a little buggy.  So we're trying something new, and -- once again -- asking for feedback.  So let us know what you think about this slightly Gothic look.  We're not married to it, by any means (and no, before you ask, we couldn't seem to keep the background and change the goofy pink trim).

But fair warning:  during the two days we were using Dynamic View, our hit count doubled, far exceeding any previous record.  This may simply have been a result of our resolution to feature more SEXX and more naked ladies, or it may have something to do with the interface.  We'll see how it goes.

Anyway, let us know what you think.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Our First Centerfold!

What, you thought we were joking?

According to an old legend, after she was done with her other activities (being possessed, being exorcised, abandoning prostitution, bearing myrrh, proclaiming the Resurrection, and evangelizing Provence -- nice work if you can get it), St. Mary Magdalene retired to a cave in Sainte-Baume and led a life of contemplation.  (Valerie Barrow has pictures of the cave).

Mind you, this painting by Jules Joseph Lefebvre doesn't look as though it is set in a cave, nor does Mary look especially contemplative.  Or maybe she does, in much the way that Bernini's St Teresa does.  Contemplating, ahem, holy ecstasy.

Anyway, all good centerfolds also have a back page:

1501: The More Sex Post

In August of 2005, Father Anonymous started blogging here at the Egg.  Yesterday, he punched the "publish" button on a mildly-interesting story about Pope Francis, and realized with some shock that it was a landmark of sorts:  our 1500th blog post.

This makes us reflective.  We started the Egg to get some things off our chest -- as a place to say, and be heard saying, some of the things we aren't naturally inclined to say in church.  As the subhead says, Sex, Religion and Politics.  At least two of these really are things about which the typical preacher is well-advised to shut up.

As to politics, its pulpit-related pitfalls are well known.  A surprising number of preachers seem to feel it is their duty to share their political opinions with the faithful.  This is tricky for many reasons.  For one thing, it is hard to separate your own reflections from official church teaching.  For another, we live and minister in a nation so deeply and passionately divided by political partisanship that civil discussion of hot topics is rare and difficult.  Churches, sadly, often have to make a choice:  use partisanship as a tool for binding themselves together, or avoid political discourse altogether, lest it tear them apart.  Neither of these is really satisfactory, but them's the times we live in.

As to religion, well, there are several things to consider.  The great majority of laypeople neither know nor care about theology; when exposed to the work of theologians, they are at best indifferent and at worst hostile.  It's hard to blame them, given how dreary most of it is.  They want Jesus, which is good -- and they want their own childhood Sunday School lessons enshrined as Sacred Writ, which is less good.  (And which is actually a disservice to most Sunday School curricula.  What we should say is that people want their own half-pagan misconceptions to be affirmed from the pulpit.)  Unless you are prepared to feed them Semi-Pelagianism, you should be prepared for them to crucify you.

Beyond that, there is the fact that we, like anybody else, have some personal fixations of dubious value to the typical parish.  We did not imagine, when we began blogging, how much of our time would eventually be devoted to Latin prayers, or complaining about the ELW Psalter, or sharing our jaundiced view of a small and long-defunct Lutheran church body.*  These are all things that arouse our passions, but we cannot imagine that most congregations would benefit from hearing much about them.  So they, along with our interest in the DC Comics reboot and the actual sources of popular sermon illustrations, are kept here like zoo animals, on display for the curious but unable to do any harm.

But talking about politics and religion are easy compared to talking about sex.  Or should we say SEXXX?  Because, in modern America, sex, and anxiety about sex, permeates nearly every aspect of our lives.  We live in an era of unprecedented frankness -- it is not just gay people who come out now,  demanding both acknowledgment and respect, but polyamorists, people who dress up like stuffed animals, and the whole nation of Japan.  (Seriously.  Those people are crazy.)  But this frankness has done nothing to lessen the underlying anxiety for which Americans are famous all over the world.  Our conversation about sex is not just constant but -- like that crack about Japan -- fiercely judgmental, in a way that reveals the underlying fear and desire typical of adolescence.

And bad as this is in society at large, it is worse in the Church.  There are many reasons, some genuinely rooted in Christian tradition, others having more to do with being modern and American.  The process by which eating from the tree of knowledge came to be seen as a metaphor for sexual awakening is long and twisted, but it really happened, long ago and far away.  Likewise the process by which our patroness, Mary Magdalene, went from victim of demonic possession to reformed prostitute.  And then, after centuries of basically condemning sodomy and tolerating sodomites -- ugly now, those were the usual terms -- Christian theology has spent the last forty years or so engaged in a fratricidal combat over the nature and use of human sexuality.  Although now worldwide, this stage of the combat has its roots in America, and in our peculiar and double-sided fascination with sex.  It would not have happened, or at least not this way, without Stonewall and Anita Bryant, Roe v. Wade and Eric Robert Rudolph.

At a practical level, this means that while it is almost impossible to avoid talking about sex, however obliquely, in the typical parish, it is also immensely dangerous.  It divides communities far more efficiently than mere politics.  This is no where more true than in the person of the pastor.  It is not merely the gay clergy which is well advised to appear as nearly celibate as possible. The least hint of sexual activity, gay or straight, can destroy the delicate balance of trust and confidence that a pastor needs to serve effectively.  This includes the licit, officially-sanctioned kind.  Parishes like pastors' babies, goes the old chestnut; but they don't like to be reminded of where those babies come from.  Don't have too many or too often, don't be suspected of enjoying it too much.

Consider the irony:  seminarians are taught to think about little besides sex, and then discover (through trial and error) that they can't really talk about it.  Like theology, but more extreme.

Perhaps we're overstating the case.  But perhaps not.

At any rate, we have noticed that, even though the Egg was created 1500 posts ago specifically to ventilate our brains on these dangerous subjects, we have ourselves largely avoided the topic of sex.  Out of our two-dozen hashtags, precisely one -- Mars Loves Venus -- identifies posts about sex, and we don't use it very often.  We have, in other words, succumbed to the pervasive anxiety we criticize.  Bluntly said, we have chickened out.  Time and again, we have chickened out.

Part of this is the fact that we aren't really anonymous anymore; our Mom reads this thing.  So do our godfather, a few colleagues, and even some of the faithful.  This is all very well, and with 24 followers we're grateful for every pageview we can get, but it does encourage a little self-censorship.  Lately, we have even though about starting a second blog, under some other name.  (How about "Dirty Laundry, by Father Really Anonymous"?)  It seems like a lot of work, though.

We haven't worked out a strategy yet.  We certainly can't promise that the next 1500 posts will be full of racier and riskier content.  But we are wondering if blogs can have centerfolds.

* Nor did we expect to use the editorial we quite so obsessively.  Not sure how that one happened.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pay Your Bills!

John Thavis suggests that Francis may do things a little differently:

After his blessing last night to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and to the world, Vatican aides told the pope a limousine was waiting to take him to his temporary quarters in the Vatican’s residence building. The new pope said he’d rather take the bus back with the cardinals – and he did.
This morning, the pope’s first act was to leave the Vatican for an impromptu visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in central Rome. No doubt someone told him: “But Holy Father, we need time to plan these visits very carefully.” He wisely didn’t listen. Yes, his presence snarled traffic and caused a major stir, but the Romans loved it. ...
[On the way back,] he stopped personally at a clerical guest house where he had been staying in recent days, a few steps from Piazza Navona, to pick up his suitcases and “pay his bill,” as he told cardinals the night before. 

Cute.  We're pretty sure they would have comped him.

In Trouble

If Eleanor Roosevelt offers to help the new pope, we hope he'll accept.

Because members of the Society of Jesus have vowed never to seek high office in the church, it is customary for them to turn down honors such as the episcopate.  By custom, at least, they need to be asked a second time, or even a third.  We have no idea whether the new pope needed a second ballot to confirm the one which had elected him.  It seems unlikely, but it would make a dramatic story.

In any case, his election has set us thinking about the burden and joy of leadership.  There is a story about the day that Harry S Truman had this burden thrust upon him, told by the historian David McCullough:
... Truman was having a drink with Sam Rayburn in what was euphemistically known as the "Board of Education." It was Rayburn's hideaway beneath the House side where they would meet for a drink after work every day. And Truman on getting the message ... that he was to come at once to the White House, left Rayburn's office and ran back to his own office, his Vice President's office, on the Senate side. 
It was a long run. ... Truman said later that it ... didn't occur to him that the President was dead. He thought the President had come back from Warm Springs secretly and wanted to confer with him about something. But if he didn't think that the President was dead, why was he running? And if he did know the President was dead, what did he think he was running toward and what was he running away from? If it were a movie or a film, you could almost see a freeze frame on that moment where he's running down the hall. Of course, by then he's President of the United States, and he's running alone. He has no Capitol guards ... running with him. He's running alone. 
He had to have known if he wasn't even admitting it to himself. He had to have known subconsciously. It must have been a dreadful time for him. 
Then he arrives at the White House. He goes up to family quarters, and he steps off the elevator. Mrs. Roosevelt comes forward and puts her hand on his arm and says to him very softly, "Harry, the President is dead." 
I feel that that's a very revealing moment about Harry Truman when you think of how he might have responded. At first he couldn't say anything. But when he was able to speak, he said to her, "Is there anything I can do for you?" And then, of course, she says to him, "No, Harry. Is there anything we can do for you? You're the one in trouble now." 

It's a good story, better for being apparently true.  If you look at it from the perspective of anthropology, this is a rite de passage, and the part where Truman is running alone through the Capitol is the liminal stage, his vision quest.  Eleanor's admonition is the the completion of the ritual, and the first affirmation of his new identity.

Even without that spin, this story is worth telling.  Taking on a new position of leadership -- pope, pastor, executive, committee chair or what have you -- is trouble.  You can't, and shouldn't, do it alone. And if Mrs. Roosevelt wants to help, for pete's sake let her.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Francis in Profile

Nearly everything we were able to read about Pope Francis in the immediate aftermath of his election seems to have come (some of it verbatim) from a single source:  John L. Allen's March 3 profile posted on the National Catholic Reporter website.

Allen, as we have said before, seems to be the best-informed Vatican-beat journalist writing in the English language.  So although we could cut and paste a few of his observations here, we'll simply suggest that you read the whole piece.

Habent Papam

That is, they have a pope.

From La Capital
As we were posting that last note about the now-forgotten Otilo Scherer, the white smoke went up over the Piazza San Pietro.  From the online coverage (yeah, okay, we watched EWTN), it was a cold, wet night, but the crowds seemed pretty enthusiastic.  The flags were waving, the seminarians were running, the Swiss Guard marched in with their pikes and pointy helmets.

For a long time, nothing happened.  The commentators droned on meaninglessly, the camera shifted from long to tight focus, and nothing happened.  It was like watching golf.

Then came Cardinal Tauran, to make the brief and historic announcement.  It is Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, 76,  the Archbishop of Buenos Aires.   He will reign as Francis, the first of that name -- even though he is a Jesuit.   Frances has a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy, and has shown no love for the liberationists.  His approach to social reform is of the "purify your hearts and society will follow" school. He was a contender in the 2005 conclave, but had been largely dismissed by the press this year, on the basis of his age.

He was not, it seems, dismissed by his peers.

Frances is, obviously, the first New World pope, the first Latin American, the first Jesuit.  He is also the first native Spanish speaker to serve as pope since the 15th century.  

He does not appear to have much experience of Curial service; it's hard to know what to make of this.  On one hand, he probably owes few debts.  On the other, it may be hard for him to master a deeply entrenched bureaucracy.

We congratulate our Roman Catholic cousins, and will keep their new pontiff in our prayers.

How About a Brazilian?

We at the Egg have not mentioned Odilo Cardinal Scherer, who has emerged as one of the more talked-about possible popes.

Scherer, 63, is a Brazilian of German extraction. He goes on talk shows, uses Twitter, and likes evangelism, which by the standards of the cardinals make him a wild-eyed hippie.  He was ordained in 1976 and made a bishop in 2001; the intervening quarter-century was spent largely as a professor of theology, although he did squeeze in three years of parish work.  If chosen, he would be the first pope from the New World, which is a remarkable thing.

One tidbit that you will see thrown around on the net derives ultimately from a 2007 Times article about liberation theology, written as Benedict XVI was travelling to Latin America.  Near the end of the article, it said:

At a news conference here on April 27, the newly appointed archbishop of São Paulo, Odilo Scherer, 57, tried to conciliate the two opposing viewpoints. While he criticized liberation theology for using “Marxism as a tool of analysis,” he also praised liberation theologians for redirecting the church’s mission here to focus on issues of social injustice and poverty.
He also argued that the movement was in decline. 

From this, virtually all journalists (and Wikipedia) are led to say things which, translated ever so slightly, amount to: "Scherer, although sharing the official Roman Catholic position on social issues [and here they point to abortion], once said something nice about liberation theology.  Therefore he is a theological moderate compared to Ratzinger."  This is, of course, ridiculous.

It is mere diplomacy to find something praiseworthy in one's opponent, and to praise it.  What Scherer seems to have meant is that, although the Leonardo Boffs of the world are a bunch of dirty Commies, they nonetheless managed to stumble upon traditional Catholic social doctrine, and claim it as their own.  John Paul could have said the same thing, even while he was taking away their faculties.  (In fact he did, very gently, in his 1979 Puebla keynote address.)  We ourselves have often pointed out that Pietism, despite using historically ignorant Biblicism as a tool of analysis, has occasionally produced actual piety.  It's like that.

However, there is more to Scherer than this.  As Forbes explains,
Scherer ... is also known as one of the “Vatican bankers,” a committee of cardinals who oversee the Istituto per la Opere di Religione (IOR), or the Institute for Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, as well as being a member of The Prefecture for Economic Affairs, which coordinates the finances of the Holy See. Scherer was a constant presence in Rome during the “Vatileaks” scandal, the leaking of Vatican documents allegedly exposing corruption and money laundering charges that cost the church millions in higher contract prices and cost Ettore Gotti Tedesche, the then-CEO of the IOR, his job.
In other words, Scherer is a Vatican insider.  Assuming that he is not actually implicated in the IOR or Vatileaks mess (and we gather that he is not), this might make him a candidate for those who are most concerned to clean up the Augean stables.  Combined with his non-European nationality, it is a  photogenic combination.

Ironically, this may contrast with the man often identified as front-runner (a useless idea in this context, but whatever), Angelo Cardinal Scola.  Although an Italian himself, Scola is not as closely identified with the central operations.  (Milan, it seems, is further from Rome than Sao Paulo.)  According to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, Scola -- the Italian,  mind you, not the foreigner -- is "favored by many cardinals from abroad."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cardinals Innumerate?

There is nothing strange about a bunch of bishops who have been trained, extensively, in theology, philosophy and languages.  This is about what one might expect -- and desire.

Nonetheless, Anthony Judge seems disappointed.  He has created a roster of the cardinals, indicating each man's areas of education, both in "social" and "natural" sciences.  It's worth a read.   Judge concludes (or should we say judges?) that
... very few cardinals have any formal training in the "natural sciences", most notably in mathematics. It would be an exaggeration to claim that cardinals were dangerously innumerate -- as this might however be claimed by mathematicians (or by other faiths attaching greater significance to numbers and their symbolism).  
Only eleven cardinals have training in the natural science column.  One is an economist.  The most promising of those, regrettably, is O'Brien -- trained in chemistry -- who has resigned his duties.  Several of the others are emeriti, and none have been named among the papabili.

Judge seems to think that evident the lack of training in math and science is a problem for church leaders.  While we doubt that it poses any serious problem at the level of day to day operations, except perhaps at the Vatican Bank, Judge may still be on to something.

For since the 17th century, our society has been reshaped by the progress of the natural sciences, which (particularly in the case of physics) cannot be understood properly without the use of sophisticated mathematics.  This has become far more the case over the past 75 years than ever before.

It is at least arguable, then, that a meaningful engagement with modern society must involve at least a respectable grasp of math and science.  One doesn't want to push this idea too far; it is surely possible to engage, up to a point, without a specialized degree.  While we are in an era when scientists seem to pass themselves off as a new priesthood, priests need feel no need to pass themselves off as scientists.  Moreover, there are plenty of highly numerate Roman Catholics, priests among them, so it is not as though the church has no resources in that department.

Still, one can only believe that the Roman Catholic church (and any other church, and any other cultural institution) would be better equipped for its work with a cadre of senior leaders who could grasp the power of quantitative tools, and interpret them for those among the faithful who cannot.

Andrew Sullivan, from whose blog we were referred to Judge, takes this argument even further.  He says that
... the kind of priesthood that would include that kind of experience [i.e., of science] would not insist on celibacy. If women and married priests were admitted, the range of skills, backgrounds and experience would definitely help the church convey its message more effectively. 
This seems illogical.  If married men and women were admitted to seminaries, the only thing of which one could be certain would be that more married men and women would have theology degrees.

As it happens, our own seminary class included several chemists, a rocket scientist, and (if we are  not mistaken) a psychiatrist.  But this was a function of their late vocations, rather than of their sex or marital status.   In fact, compared to Protestants, Roman Catholic bishops have a fairly easy path, since they have more power to steer their most promising priests toward graduate study.  If they want more scientists, all they really need to do is make them.

Ah, Wills

The conclave begins today.  It may take a few days, so this is a good time to catch up on your reading.  May we recommend Garry Wills?

Ah, Wills. The protege of William F. Buckley who became a scourge of the American right, the man who inspired a generation of activists to learn Greek by reading the new testament in jail after some protests, the Catholic who despises Kennedy, the friend of King and the Berrigans, the man who warned Obama about Afghanistan and wasn't invited back to the White House.

We admire his book on the Gettysburg Address, a rhetorical analysis which begins with the development of the modern cemetery, and are eager to read his books on Jesus, Paul, Augustine and (especially) Ambrose.

If you haven't read any of his many books and essays, we encourage you to do so.  For more of an introduction, here is an admiring profile by Sam Tanenhaus, and an explanation, by Michael McDonald, of why conservatives find Wills so unbearable.

Friday, March 08, 2013


The papal conclave begins on Tuesday, March 12.

The last of the cardinal electors arrived yesterday.  One bit of political speculation, then, depends on whether the start of the conclave seems early or late.  If early, then it is looks like a victory for the Italians and curial officials, who already know each other. If late, it may be a victory for those who are not italian and do not live in or near Rome, and now have a little extra time to renew acquaintances.

Frankly, we've got no idea about this one.  The whole question seems a little ridiculous; they all got there as soon as they could, and then picked a start date that lets them get home before Holy Week.

Smart money is that the conclave will be quick -- three days, maybe less.  The cardinals want to look decisive.  (Compared to the typical vacancy in a Lutheran congregation, which can run 6 to 18 months -- and 4-6 months even once a suitable pastor has been identified -- this is like lightning.)

Incidentally, if you really dig conclave news with intelligent analysis, follow Rocco Palmo's Whispers in the Loggia.  Although he isn't in Rome himself -- hotels were boooked and crazy expensive -- Palmo is among the best-informed observers.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Beware the Zombie Apocalypse!

It's not just for Canadians anymore.

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency.

Yes, this is a real campaign from the real Centers for Disease Control.  And yes, it is also going to be the theme of Father A.'s sermon come Sunday.

Because the time has come to take a stand against the living dead.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Men Who Will Not Be King

There are three related bits of pre-conclave news today.  Together, they paint an interesting picture.

1.  The first is that the American cardinals have been told to shut up.  It seems that they had taken to giving daily press briefings, and that today they announced -- via email -- that these would not continue. Their colleagues seemed to feel that the briefings violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the oath to keep the details of a papal election secret.

NPR (or perhaps it was the BBC) spun this as a victory of old-fashioned, Italian-style omerta over modern, press-savvy American transparency.  That is probably right, up to a point, although there are some other factors to consider.  Chief of these is that the Americans are under particularly severe pressure because of the sex scandals.  Further, they truly do operate in a social environment that is radically different from many of their peers.  Whether or not "openness: does come naturally to the American cardinals (a highly debatable idea, given their past behavior), they know that they need to display some if they are to appear credible at home.

Frankly, we think that the Vatican could learn a lot from the American cardinals, who have themselves learned some hard lessons lately.  Yes, the oath of secrecy is binding, and probably essential to a good election.  But if the overall task, and the mission of the new pope, is to restore public confidence in the Roman Catholic church, then at least a little more transparency will need to be the new normal.

2.  Before the gag order came down,  Francis Cardinal George spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the deliberations, and indicated that the cardinals are making a serious effort to exclude from consideration any of their number who have been tainted by scandal, or who are known or even believed to have moral skeletons in their closets.

Frankly, we're not sure how many this leaves them to choose from.  We're not being glib, or even cynical.  We are reflecting upon the fact that, as we have said many times, these are old men, who have served their church for a long time according to its customs -- and they have been caught off guard by the pace of change in the society around them.  Some have behaved immorally and knew it all along, but others were simply unable to recognize immorality when it appeared before them in an unfamiliar guise.

But one way or another, it will be easy for a close examination to disqualify many candidates.  Among the progressives, it is likely that there are more like Keith O'Brien, whose open-mindedness on sexual questions extended even to inappropriate expressions of his own. Among traditionalists, it may be difficult to find a candidate who did not at one time or another show some support for Marcial Maciel Degollado.  And so forth and so on, ad infinitum.

3.  SNAP, the organization for those who have survived abuse by a priest, has released a list of cardinals whom it considers tainted and unacceptable .  The list can be found here; it includes brief explanations for each man's inclusion.  It is tilted somewhat toward cardinals from the English-speaking world, which reflects SNAP's constituency, and we aren't especially impressed by some of its explanations. Nor are we are not sure that releasing it was tactically wise, as there may well be some cardinals who take it as a challenge to their authority. But there it is.

The most instantly notable thing about SNAP's list of twelve cardinals is that several of them -- specifically, cardinals Oellet, Scola, Dolan, Sandri, and Turkson --  have indeed been mentioned as potential pontiffs.

Taken, together, these three items do paint a picture of what is going on behind the scenes.  The cardinals recognize, at last, that they are in a time of immense crisis, principally because they no longer live in an age when sexual misconduct can be handled privately.  They feel the pressure, both from within their ranks and from the world outside.  One one hand, they want to make a wise choice; on the other, they do not want the process by which they make that choice to look as though it has been directed by anyone but themselves.

We wish them well.

What About the Crucifixions?

Saudi Arabia, as perhaps you've heard, has recently agreed to postpone the crucifixions and firing-squad executions of seven prisoners, all of them convicted in a string of jewel thefts.  Some of the convictions  were based on confessions extracted through torture, and some of the convicts were minors at the time of their arrest.  For most Americans, the big news is that our Saudi allies actually crucify people.

Number one: ick.  Number two: allies.

Writing in Forbes,  Mark Adomanis makes a simple argument that American foreign policy is inconsistent.  On one hand, Congress believes that Russia should be punished for its abuse of human rights, and passes the Magnitsky Act.  On the other hand, the Saudis torture people and then crucify them, and are rewarded with many billions of dollars of our most sensitive military technology.  He concludes that we have a choice to make, between a foreign policy based on human rights and one based on naked self-interest, and that we have not actually chosen:
But what we have now is a completely incoherent mishmash of both schools, a “selective Wilsonianism” in which the United States uses values against its strategic adversaries while studiously ignoring the far more grievous human rights violations of its close allies and partners in the Middle East. .... [If the U.S.] keeps the Magnitsky bill on the books it should take similar legislative action against the Saudis, the Bahrainis,  the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, and all of the other repressive and dictatorial governments with which it is allied. 
Adomanis glosses over some important side questions.  For one thing, our overall foreign policy is the awkward product of both the executive and legislative branches, which -- to put it mildly -- do not always share a vision.  For another, politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. The strain of do-gooderism in American foreign policy has never been thorough or consistent, but it has made a vast contribution to the common good.  Other nations resent our frequent displays of hubris, but when the chips are down they also chide us if we fail to "display leadership" by toppling some dictator.

Still, Adomanis has his ginger on something worth saying.  For many decades, it has been our custom to make alliances with despotic regimes in order to build barriers against larger enemies.  Although FDR's famous remark about Somoza -- "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch" -- is spurious, it reflects a foreign-policy truism.  Along with Somoza, we have allied ourselves with the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, the Duvaliers, Hailie Selassie, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein. (Here's a list of some others.)  Sons of bitches all, but our sons of bitches.

America's special relationship with the Saudis is among the most outrageous of these alliances.   Saudi Arabia's official form of Islam, Wahabism, played a major role in the emergence Al Qaeda and similar movements. The most destructive terrorist attack in American history was committed by a team of Saudi Arabian citizens, backed by a Saudi billionaire.  To this day, there are questions legitimate questions about just how much responsibility Saudi institutions and officials may share for the 9/11 attacks -- and the US government has joined its Saudi allies in trying to shut down the people pressing for answers.

It is worth remembering that the House of Saud has only ruled over a united kingdom since 1932, and that for most of the history of that kingdom, American government and business interests have been a major player on the peninsula.  They've never really existed without us, and our development over the same period would have been very different without them.  Simply put, we want their oil.  We sell them our guns (and planes and rockets and God knows what else) so that nobody can come and take the oil from them.  It is national self-interest at its most naked -- and symbiotic.  They are our sons of bitches, and we have become theirs.

But come on.  Russia, for all its abuses (and they are many) has abolished the death penalty.  On the list of nations that execute people, Saudi Arabia comes third, after those human rights giants China and Iran.  The Saudis torture people -- including, in the case at hand, minors -- then cut off their heads.  Or shoot them or crucify them.

A country, like a man, is often known by the company it keeps.  Maybe we should rethink this particular friendship.