So much depends on true democracy being allowed to broaden, deepen, and flourish in the economic sphere. That is one of the things that concerns me about Pope Francis, whom I admire in many ways. He shows great concern for the poor but does not link this with how laws currently pass or don’t pass, the role of the unelected judiciary that keeps constitutional interpretation in the U.S. locked in the past and doing the bidding of capital, and the lack of a democratic global institution accessible directly by the people in search of rights. I published this post earlier this week at my Galtisalie blog at Daily Kos because of these concerns, as well as emerging events in Spain threatening women’s right to control their own bodies. I hope that it is taken for the constructive criticism in the spirit of George Orwell in which it is intended. It was written not to insult Pope Francis but to hold him to the highest standard, which he should demand from himself on behalf of the one he follows. This standard is more exacting than promotion of the interests of any institution, including the so-called “Church.” If the Church is “the body of Christ” comprised of “Christians,” that body should be willing to sacrifice itself to create “earth as it is in heaven” and trust that it will be resurrected to the greater glory.
From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (Luke 12:48, NRSVCE)
I’m glad a global wealth tax has Jesus’s endorsement. But that is just for starters. Jesus reportedly was so socio-economically demanding that his most renowned sermon, on the mount, is some debatable combination of hyperbolic and literal impossible challenges but most certainly liberating and a rejection of any unjust status quo. If it is intended to put pressure on the low and unholy, take me for instance, how much more is expected from someone whose followers claim him to be Vicarius Christi. I am both a struggling Christian contemplative by intuitive spiritual necessity fitfully pursuing a quiet interior life and a leftist who, to use Thomas Merton’s words (Seeds of Destruction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964) feels obliged to make himself part of the sacrificing “we”–“We must dare to pay the dolorous price of change, to grow into a new society. Nothing else will suffice!”–but scratches his head how to do this but has to try the best he can anyway. As much as I want inner peace my confused interior life is no more important than my confused exterior life. I am responsible for my action and inaction each day within a given capitalist context I seek to change for the betterment of all, if I can figure out how, and meanwhile I am trying to at least take a spoonful of this or that to the poor and their allies in the global pit of human despair, aka, hell on earth, aka, the OPPOSITE of “earth as it is in heaven.” Would that I could move mountains, or at least a Congressional vote or two, that would be love that counts, the greatest of all of these Christian notions. (Meanwhile, why did I grow up in Christian fundamentalism where not cussing, not lusting, and especially not lusting after someone of the same gender, and “patriotism” seemed to be the paramount goals? What “Christian” leaders allowed that to happen? What are the roots of this navel gazing, private part fixation, and Constantinianism?)
Or take a true Titan of silence, Teresa of Ávila , whose writings I love. She was a woman of highly “suspect” Jewish heritage living during the time of the Spanish Inquisition (of which she was sometimes a direct target), which was the product of Constantinian Church officials in league with Spanish monarchs. She was driven by circumstances to take an interior journey of vibrant love as the only sincere outlet for her honesty and creativity. She turned her dilemma into a rich experience, both for herself and many others, and it also gave her strength to pursue an active life as a reformist Carmelite nun. She did her best as a human being, as far as I can tell. However, although she seems to have meant well, she does not get a pass on how much good her life, both interior and active, actually accomplished in the real world.
Nor should Pope Francis, who, like the popes in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, can accomplish much more than any other member of the Church. (And again, who created Teresa’s dilemma and condemned her paternal grandfather? The Church and its wealthy buddies.) If religion means anything positive in the real world other than solace it should be the potential to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions based on objectively loving principles applied in the real world to help transform that world in a positive manner. A Christian’s loving principles, IMHO, can be boiled down to: (1) Don’t fear “God” any longer; (2) “God is love” or, in all honesty, “God” is not worth following much less loving; (3) as would-be followers and lovers of a loving God or none at all, we all have a role to play to the maximum of our ability, however small, in creating a more loving world. Everything else external to our inner life, if it detracts in the slightest from these loving principles, is wrong/sin.
So far, in case you have not noticed it Pope Francis, Christianity has done a really lousy job in helping to create a more loving world (and I am partly to blame). That is why it has so little street cred, particularly with the young, which is something you, Francis, recognize. When Christopher Hitchens famously attacked Mother Teresa, I would argue he was doing Christianity a favor, which, of course, Christianity rejected. By then, unfortunately, Hitchens was succumbing to his own delusions in league with neocons to justify the Iraq War and other atrocities under the guise of realism. In addition, others were so engaged by his bluster, and prior reputation for honesty, that he was allowed to coast to his premature end in 2011 with a large if shifting adoring fan club intact. Mr. Hitchens is open to criticism just like anyone else, including his targets, and I think or at least hope that he would appreciate that fact. Moreover, Ayn Rand singlehandedly disproved the notion that atheism is the limiting factor for morality. The highest compliment Hitchens managed in his 211 pages on Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books 2002) was: “At best it could be asserted, even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief.” Thus, all should agree that “living” virtue, not piety or religious belief is the standard we should hold everyone to, leaving only the issue of “What is Virtue?”
I think we can safely say that papal virtue demands a lot beyond wearing the right shoes, and I give Francis credit for at least recognizing that. And it should not allow entry into women’s private areas, which Francis gets no credit for recognizing. And it should, if necessary, require that God’s servants die trying to stop hunger and genocides, which remains to be seen. And it should demand fighting in every loving way for a just distribution of the earth’s resources, which also remains to be seen, although if a roof on a NYC cathedral needs fixing, we all think we know how this turns out.
A retired friend of mine who was both a university chaplain at a major private university in the U.S. and a Holocaust expert used to describe himself as a post-Holocaust Christian or a Christian agnostic, because he candidly admitted that after a lifetime of study and thought, he had no good answer for why a supposedly just God would allow the Holocaust. And he did not stop there in his honesty; he also said that Christianity had to claim Germany’s behavior as its own in the Holocaust because Germany was a nation state where Christianity was the dominant religion. Likewise, Israel’s dominant religion, in it various forms, cannot expect to emerge unscathed by unjust treatment of Palestinians. Similarly, if a predominantly “Muslim” country acts a way that is perceived as inhumane, many Christians and Hitchens alike take religion as practiced as a factor if not the cause.
As a George Orwell democratic socialist, I am fond of saying how Stalin and Mao did not get it right, how it is still wholesome, and I do sincerely believe that. So, I guess it is always possible for me to be honest as a Christian and say that the Germans did not get my religion right during the Holocaust, and I do sincerely believe that–nothing that was done by the Nazis would have been approved by any Jesus I would ever remotely think of following–but still, why is my religion so easily coopted by the powerful, as in since Constantine? Many both devout and non-devout Jews are critics of Israel, and many both devout and non-devout Muslims are critics of Muslim-predominant countries. None of us should put our blinders on, although we do all the time. The point is, we each should speak out about what is unjust as loudly and as plainly as we can, even if it means pointing fingers and shouting from “the cathedral rooftops” at our own religious block and donor base, and placing ourselves in peril perched high up there barely hanging on. (Easy for me to say, as I pseudonymously write this diary.)
Which brings me to these questions: Are you listening Francis? Or are you dithering and spiking your popularity ratings? If several members of SCOTUS who generally voted as a block were atheists, might not many Christians point to their atheism as a factor in their decisions? I think the answer would be yes, but we will may not know that for a very long time because it is still extremely difficult for atheists to ascend to positions of power in the U.S. Therefore, it follows that all religious people in the U.S., who largely still control who gets offices, need to be taking responsibility for the nefarious outcomes of the religious people on SCOTUS. And one religion in particular has six members of SCOTUS, five of whom are conservative males. Should their decisions, and Pope Francis’s refusal to address their decisions, affect his street cred? I certainly think that it should.
I think that Orwell would say that popes, no less than “saints,” “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” I have waxed cautiously optimistic about Pope Francis, trying to influence all two or three people of the left who might care about what I have to say on the subject to give the Church a second look as a potential ally. But, to me as a would-be disciple of Orwell (and Jesus), Pope Francis is still guilty, with the potential, as with all living people of high saintly notoriety, to prove himself innocent. In fact, the rest of Orwell’s introductory sentence shows why I find Pope Francis extremely guilty, as much as I want to rest in his comforting words: “the tests that have to be applied to [saints] are not, of course, the same in all cases.” Pope Francis should be subjected to an extremely high test because, among other things, his most powerful “followers” in the “free” world are immoral, unloving mercenaries of capital who are doing everything within their power to impose a world view on the U.S., and by extension, the world’s poor, which is antithetical to everything Pope Francis preaches about a fair distribution of wealth.
Right off the bat, to ally with Pope Francis means to betray women’s fundamental right to control their own bodies, a right that, in the name of the Church, the women of Spain are close to losing like it was 1940s Franco Spain all over again–but naturally women and their allies cannot dare hope he would broach that subject in a liberating fashion. But, if I ignore that huge problem of solidarity with over half the world’s population, has Pope Francis called those five Catholic male “Justices” with the names Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who are personally ruining democracy in the U.S., such as it is, out for doing so? If he did, I missed it. By all means, he should talk about the need to share the wealth. But if structures of undemocratic rule in the U.S., which politically perpetuate inequality and injustice, are constantly strengthened by his followers, and he never opposes them, what good is he? How exactly is wealth to be redistributed when his followers protect the current pro-corporate status quo at every turn? Bad enough that popes convince themselves that every fetus, except those killed divinely, must be brought to term; the five Catholic SCOTUS males now tell us that corporations have personhood too.
Paaaleeease Papa. Spare me the sermons. Kick some ass of the people who are kicking the poor in the teeth around the world, or spare us this detour back into potential meditative synchronicity. I am less interested in our shared oms than in what we each can do in the material world to bring relief to the desperate. I cannot do very much. You can do a lot, you are the head of the most influential religious organization in the market capitalist world. What’s important is not Catholics feeling good about themselves but earth being made like an achievable and sustainable version of “heaven.” The rest is secondary and approaching blasphemy.
Orwell wasn’t much of a poet, but he had a gift with plain words and knew why he wrote. This one’s not even a rhymer, and it has links and a couple of photos, so that’s cheating, but with revolting thoughts and heartfelt heartburn expressed as subtly as I can vertically on a page, I define it as a poem. I put these words together toward the end of last year after Pope Francis came more fully out of the closet as a person who actually cares about living human beings on our desperate boiling planet, one somewhat willing to speak the truth to power and not deluded to think that the power down heah is not mammon, and that the current state of affairs is remotely democratic, and since then things have only been getting worse, hint, the unelected Constantinian conservative RC majority of the SCOTUS, the Republican Party’s politburo, the vanguard in robes of U.S. political corruption and global neoliberalism, his humble flock, who put capital unction into the grotesque shunning of humanity that is institutionalized social repression. They go at the beginning of my holy mother of all (~30,000 word) post, A Socialized Reflection on the Praxis Implications of EVANGELII GAUDIUM, Jesuit History, and Jesuit Scholarship, which I dedicated to “the memory of the late Frs. Jean-Yves, Matthew, and Robert, who influenced me greatly; to my mentor, Fr. Bernie, who had to leave the Church and become an Episcopalian to be married; and to an honest Englishman.”
Heathens and pilgrims from all around the world (okay, by estimation several dozen, marginally accounting for the likelihood of double-counting) have read it. I’m not going to interpret it for you, it is high brow after all, meant to be enigmatic and only accessible to the initiated, and even uses real Latin in a couple of places, not from my semester of Latin in 1974 at Leesburg High School but impeccably reliable words courtesy of Microsoft Translator. Well, I will tell you that Father Louis is Thomas Merton. Spend a night dazed and confused in silence at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and you may feel like I did, and still do. Or wherever you are.
Homage and Scorn
In an Anglican cemetery lies a tombstone with an inscription profound for its simplicity:
I’d have said, “He gave us clearheaded humanitarian commitment in the moments that he had.” He did not die a hero but lived to write these words:
“They laid me down again while somebody fetched a stretcher. As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for. I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it. The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. ‘The artery’s gone,’ I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed. And that too was interesting–I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.”
Now is my turn to make choices of whether and how to be part of the dolorous sacrifice. Now is my turn to overcome the greatest untruth, a false life, and the greatest deception, that not daily bread and moments in a world which suits us so well are the gift, but ownership. Some possessions are necessities, but hoarding is self-deception.
I go to a quiet place to try to recall things read long ago, the quietest one I know, Father Louis’s home. I sit quietly and experience peace inside and see what I can learn. Hours pass … nothing may be changing outside, yet in the silence of the Abbey night I glimpse another visitor, a priest, sitting behind me in the guest section of the narrow church, out of place, long after Compline, and in our minds–“‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’” (Luke 12:15-21, NRSVACE)–and other such long-buried thoughts have a field day.
Vigils and Lauds pass then comes raw grey daylight. In his mind, the priest wanders out to the highway where he sees Lazarus, and, willing to make himself bruised, hurting and dirty, offers to cleanse sores and buy breakfast, and Lazarus cries as he receives equality for an hour, and the priest cries too then moves on to a teenager seeking medicine he has learned to shun, so he moves on again, caritas in actione … heaping dark scorn on himself all the while.
In my mind, An Gorta Mor slithers down the highway, and I leave the Abbey running after it, pick up a stick, ready to pounce if I can ever catch up to it, and I may never get to come back and will have to pay the price of heretics, and the lumpenproletariat will join me for bedraggled meals of unblessed bread, and I will grow to resemble Lazarus myself, unhealthy but not confined, not clinging to my own security, but not really knowing what to do next …
I soon have to leave the Abbey. It is beautiful. Best place I have ever been. But along with seeds of contemplation were first planted seeds of rearrangement, and I long ago received my calling and think it means to be out there sometimes lost, caritas in actione per rationem mutationis.
Book burnings are no more. I will not have to double bag them in 8 mil, super heavy weight plastic bags and bury them–those by dead socialists, those by dead priests, and the one from my Baptist youth authorized by the dead witch-hunting torturing king that says: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2, KJV)
I still love those words translated for my edification but not in time for Agnes Sampson to pray them as she was garroted then burned at the stake for the uninsured losses of the king. Why blame misfortune on a spontaneous act of God when there is an outcast wise wife of Keith who stubbornly refuses to plead guilty?
The king handing out magic puppets,