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

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Father, Do Not Forgive Them For What They Do–Some Things Simply Don’t Deserve Forgiveness

Billy Phelps was brought up in a devout Catholic family who went to Confession every Saturday, Mass every Sunday and High Mass at Christmas, made the Stations of the Cross at Easter, and said grace before every meal.

This is not to imply that the Phelps were simply for-show Catholics who did the right thing, prayed when called for, and celebrated piously.  On the contrary they were well-schooled in Early Church history, Biblical exegesis, and versed in the teachings of Aquinas, Augustine, and Clement of Alexandria.  They took religion seriously.

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They were unlike many Catholics who remember only the punitive side of the Church; and who were badgered by old priests, hectored by nuns, and warned about the ‘occasions of sin’ which, according to them was just about everything in New Brighton - Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, for example, a seedy, smelly place on Main Street which sold tobacco, newspapers, girly magazines, and bus tickets to New York.  Despite Father Brophy Billy and his friends sneaked past Jimmy, by then half-blind and stooped, but who wouldn’t have cared even if he had seen them riffle through Cunt!, Hot Stuff, and Come!. As long as they bought something, they could spend as much time as they wanted back in the racks.

Billy never seemed to pay any attention whatever to Father Brophy, and he hung out with New Brighton’s worst sort -  Marilyn Pucci from across the tracks; Frankie Dolan, playground bully and last in his class; and Petey Brogna, graduate of Cheshire Reformatory. 'An unholy alliance”, said his father; but he didn’t know the half of it.  Billy and his buddies had gotten into everything they never should have before he was out of grade school, and he barely made it to junior high.  However, by the time he graduated from high school, he had reformed enough to be admitted to a community college and then surprisingly a year later to be accepted at St. Francis of Loyola Seminary in Baltimore. 

This turn of events was not entirely surprising.  After all, he argued to his surprised New Brighton friends, Jesus spent most of his time with sinners, reprobates, prostitutes, and non-believers; and the lesson of his ministry was one of salvation not retribution or punishment.  Billy was a good Catholic who saw himself as one of Jesus’ sinners who welcomed his grace and charity.  His irreverent, dismissive years were the best preparation for his vocation that he could imagine.

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Loyola – the only seminary willing to consider a boy with such a scattered and questionable past – was on the progressive end of the ecclesiastical spectrum.  Loyola of course taught theology, Church doctrine, and the teachings of the Church Fathers; but it also prided itself on its application of the teachings of Christ to modern issues. Jesus was a man of compassion, tolerance, and love; and for all the logical clarity of Vatican bulls, encyclicals, and proclamations setting forth the rules of right Catholic worship and belief, it was Jesus’ homilies and parables about considerate living that were often overlooked and vitally important.  

The Jesuit brothers of Loyola, schooled in Augustinian logic, were rigorous in their application of classical Church teaching to neo-liberal, social movements.  Many of the elder members of the seminary had served in Latin America as part of the Liberation Theology movement which had allied itself with Salvador Allende and other socialist reformers of the region, and their classes emphasized the importance of ‘faith-based reform’.

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By the time Billy graduated from the seminary, the country had become a progressive heaven, and those who chose not to be immediately ordained became stalwart supporters of the street protests of the day.  They were seen on the front lines of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Progressives for Radical Change, and Revolutionary Justice.  Those who chose to go immediately into the priesthood became clerical advocates for secular justice.  Just as the Berrigan Brothers, ordained priests, had been at the barricades of civil rights in the Sixties, the priests of Loyola were equally committed to the radical movements of the 2020s.

As time went on, and as life would have it, the religious premises on which foundation Billy had built his uncompromising support for progressive causes began to fade; and his engagement became little different from the unschooled around him.  Everything was about passionate cause, solidarity, community, and universal hatred of the enemy in the White House.  There was no compassion, understanding, tolerance, or especially forgiveness and redemption in the angry, hostile attitudes of those in the movement.

The demonstrations, originally based on principles of justice, fairness, equality, and respect devolved into thuggery, vandalism, and mayhem.   All is permitted, movement leaders said, when the enemy is evil.  In other words, Jesus and his disciples were left on the curb, irrelevant, insignificant historical remnants of an unenlightened, unwoke reality.

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At first Billy had found his place in the movement rewarding.  There was something particularly satisfying about the confluence of religious faith and secular principles.  Justice and equality were expressions of Jesus’ promise of salvation, and while there were some regrettable excesses in method, the goal was important.

As the months wore on, however, Billy became more and more disabused of this collaborative notion.  Jesus has proposed nothing of the sort – no social movements, no popular insurrections, no militant resistance.  His doctrine of faith and grace was personal, individual, and profoundly spiritual.  In fact, many of Jesus’s parables illustrated how secular concerns could distract from spiritual righteousness.  The rich man has every chance of gaining the kingdom of heaven; but his road to salvation will be much harder than the poor man whose simple life is focused clearly on the salvation of his soul.

Billy’s ultimate abandonment of the social justice movement was precipitated by one unmistakable error in judgement – absolutism and Jacobin terror.  Not only was there right and wrong, but those on the side of wrong could never be forgiven.  Their crimes of racism, misogyny, homophobia, capitalist greed, and rank individualism were unpardonable, permanent, and indelible.  Once convicted, these sinners can only be exiled and removed.  The hysteria of the progressive Left was even more hateful, arbitrary, and punitive than that of Robespierre and the Jacobins after the French Revolution.  Heads rolled willy-nilly as zealots of the Parisian slums demanded the death of the most innocent.  There were no conditions to their hatred, so egregious had the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette been. In retrospect, even the most patriotic Frenchman has had to admit that The Terror was indeed so – a time of unbridled, blood-thirsty, vengeful, murderous mayhem.

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Although there were no guillotines erected in Portland, Seattle, New York, and Washington, not a few movement leaders thought that public execution would indeed be right and fitting for the President, his lackeys, the CEOs of manipulative corporate oppressors, financial rogues, and redneck, right wing Southern bullies.

There might have been some of Jesus in the civil rights marches of the Sixties.  Martin Luther King was a profoundly religious, spiritual Christian who believed in non-violence, collaboration, and peaceful confrontation.  He never lost sight of Jesus.  Social change must come to America, he knew, and at some high price; but never at the cost of civility, compassion, and forgiveness.

Many critics have suggested that the mob violence, disrespect for civil institutions, and inchoate anger expressed in the streets of American cities is in fact the result of the loss of respect for Christian principles and the teachings of Jesus Christ.  America is Christian country in name only, they suggest; a country in its hurry to become multi-cultural, diverse, and inclusive has been untethered from its roots.  Social unrest will always become social anarchy once God is removed.

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Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov said it best.  “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”

Billy Phelps did not return to the seminary, nor did he choose to be ordained; but his experience in the movement encouraged his return to the Church.  Of course Christian history is filled with stories of false jurisdiction, flimsy justification for immoral acts, arrogance, high politics, and dereliction of duty; but the principles enunciated by Christ and codified by the Early Church Fathers would always be pertinent and valid; and it was to those that he turned.

It is only a question of time to see how far this erosion of Christian principles has gone; and whether or not a more tolerant, spiritual, forgiving attitude can ever return.  Many say that it was never in America, for not long after the Mayflower, those very Christians who fled religious persecution in Europe presided over the Salem witch trials; and their descendants spread the doctrine of harsh, punitive Calvinism throughout New England.  We are simply that kind of Christian. 

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