"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sainthood and Barbarity

The double canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II has received considerable international attention.  While faithful Catholics have joyfully celebrated the popes’ sainthood, secular critics have focused more on the politics of the two men. John Paul was silent during the priesthood scandals, and John was more of an institutional reformer than a religious savant or saint.  Nevertheless, the twin canonizations were attended by thousands in an expression of faith and in a resounding endorsement of the Church which, through its popes, represents an unbroken line of holiness back to St. Peter.

There is much to criticize about the Catholic Church today – the buggery scandal being but one issue. It has remained stolid and adamant about Catholic teaching and hasn’t given an inch on matters of celibacy, the role of women in the church, gay marriage, reproductive rights, and religious diversity and the right of salvation.  It is out of touch with the modern world, and there is great hope that Pope Francis will take a page from John XXIII’s hymnbook and institute needed reforms. 

Yet Catholics and religious laymen alike respect the Church for its unwavering moral principles.  In a venal world with few moral anchors, it is important that at least one world leader speak with absolute conviction, uninfluenced by popular opinion.  A bit like the Supreme Court which, at least in principle, is charged with ruling on Constitutional principle, not current politics.  Abortion is wrong, say the Popes. It is against God’s law, against Biblical injunction, and morally execrable. 

The hue and cry from American ‘progressives’ who champion the secular causes of women, is loud and insistent.  The Church is a backward, medieval institution out of touch with reality.  Cardinals swish around in their crimson robes and gold chains, convene in Renaissance splendor, but have no clue about the lives of men and especially women.

Yet even the most socially committed progressive must at least consider the Church’s position.  Perhaps abortion is wrong.  It may indeed take the life of the most innocent.  We are obliged, the Church admonishes, to weigh the moral consequences of an action which is carried out largely for personal gain and economic ease.  Abortion has become so common that it is rarely invoked in the most dire cases of maternal life or health.  It is meant to keep professional trajectories on track, to eliminate entangling alliances, and to save money.  It has become expedient, removed from all moral considerations, and wrong.

In other words, while Protestants divide and subdivide, branch into mega-churches and storefronts, continue the doctrinal squabbling that began with Martin Luther, and go on television to mobilize the faithful and their donations; the Catholic Church has remained monolithically on message regarding faith and morals.

The Church and its popes have had many regrettable episodes in the past.  Renaissance popes wielded as much power as the monarchs of Europe, and used it for their own enrichment, power, and influence.  The excesses of the Church, its disdain for civil law, and its arrogation of power were only some of the reasons that Henry VIII broke away from the Vatican.  Martin Luther had many sympathetic ears when he strove to remove the Church’s cant and ceremony and return the dialogue with God to the people.

The Church has always been involved in politics, and Pope Pius XII and his dalliance with the Nazis, allegedly to save Catholic lives, is one of the most disturbing.  John Paul II was a virulent anti-Communist, and although his proclamations and benedictions were all officially neutral, the heart of a conservative Republican beat strongly in his breast.

Serge Schmemann, writing in the New York Times (5.4.14) revisits the age-old question about the presence of evil in God’s world. How is it that we can canonize two popes, recognizing their pure goodness and saintliness, and still witness the cruelty of capital punishment, the barbarity of wars in Syria, Ukraine, and South Sudan?

St. Augustine was perhaps the first to provide an Catholic answer by saying that evil did not in fact exist in the world; just an absence of good.  Claire Carlisle, writing in the Guardian a few years ago in a three-part series on evil said:

Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God's sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine's radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a "name for nothing other than the absence of good".

Augustine thinks that our goodness is derived from God and completely dependent on him. "When the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil – not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked," he writes in The City of God.

Kierkegaard added an additional dimension to the argument. Our failure to be good, he says, is due to the way we deal with being both less and more free than we wish to be. Like stroppy, insecure teenagers, Carlisle summarizes, we crave independence, resent authority, and are scared to take responsibility for ourselves.

In other words, like teenagers who have not reached a level of maturity to analyze the ethical and moral consequences of their actions, we act impulsively.  The fear of a chaotic world of choice, unknown risk and consequence, and endless deliberation is such, that we act before we think.

Schmemann does not add to the debate; but only signals its current irony and paradox.  Most people, however, are not as reflective as Schmemann, Augustine, Kierkegaard, or Sartre; and simply feel that the Devil is among us, working his wiles.  He is not the heroic figure depicted by Milton, a Nietzschean character of Will and individualism, but a bestial demon dripping blood from his fangs, no longer defying God but wreaking havoc and mayhem in His dominions.

Other philosophers hew to the nihilist view of history.  There is no God, no predetermination, no punishment, redemption, or salvation; just a perpetual motion machine fueled by human nature.  Wars, aggression, territorial expansion, palace coups, crimes of passion, and ruthless internecine struggle are simply expressions of a slightly higher order of animal following his own primitive instincts.  There is no such thing as good or evil, just the repetitive cycles of history.

The canonizations are now in the back pages of the paper, and the only place to hear about them is from Father Murphy’s pulpit; and even he will soon return to his harangues on sex, sin, and hellfire.  He is unconcerned about the nature of good and evil. Evil is good for business.

I stopped parsing the news of civil war, religious slaughter, dishonesty, villainy, and greed for any glints of moral wisdom a long time ago.  Shakespeare took life as it is, and celebrated the great, willful, villainous supermen who saw the expression of Will as the only validation of life. The Richards, Henrys, and Johns of English history along with their counts and courtiers were simply fascinating characters, all unique in their particular expression of power and desire, but all following the same primitive instincts as anyone else.

There is no need to go back to Augustine, Aquinas, or Kierkegaard for enlightenment on the question of good and evil.  There is plenty to chew on in Shakespeare.  Rosalind, Beatrice, Hamlet, Richard III, Dionyza, Cymbeline, and Cleopatra are all one needs to understand the vitality of life in a world without good or evil.  

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