Art and the beauty of faith

One of my favourite insights from Joseph Ratzinger’s long life in theology is that the Church does not convincingly propose the faith by the work of theology alone. Before his election as Pope he wrote that in the end the Church only has two compelling “arguments” for her faith being true. The first is the saints who have lived the Gospel fully and who the Church proposes as models of Christian witness. The second is the art that she has nurtured in her midst, her faith expressed in beauty, whether in painting, sculpture, architecture or music. Theology is necessary, but it is holiness and beauty that persuades.

Women’s time has come

When Ontario Premier-elect Kathleen Wynne is sworn into office next week, half the country’s provincial premiers will be women (in addition to the premier of Nunavut) and they will govern 87 per cent of the population.

Stop the progress insanity

In a recent blog for Cardus — the think tank that among its many other good works publishes Convivium magazine — I cited an item sent to me by a regular correspondent. It was, I wrote, a brilliant, step-by-step summary of the way in which so-called “social progress” has occurred during the past 30 years at the expense of long-standing Canadian tradition, custom and especially faith.

The summary read as follows:

o Find an extreme position calling for radical change and self-define it as moderate.

o Get your fellow travellers on The Long March through the unionized newsrooms of the nation to adopt your language.

o Define all who oppose you as intolerant extremists.

o See above re: fellow travellers, and repeat at teachers’ conventions nationwide. Concerned about their social status, teachers will adopt whatever position is portrayed as most fashionable.

o Bake in oven for two terms of government, use quasi-judicial bodies to institute pogroms against your opponents and, bingo, you have progressive social change no matter how much it might feel like a boot stomping on your face.

The only serious addition I offered was expanding item four to include professional associations: lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs.

It turned out there’s more, and it came from an academic friend:

o Argue for a supposedly moderate change that goes just beyond generally accepted conventions and principles.

o When some people raise objections, accuse them of engaging in specious slippery-slope arguments, insisting that, of course, we certainly do not mean to advocate for those alleged consequences, and it is offensive to be so misrepresented.

o All the while secretly intend the normalization of precisely those furthermost implications down the road

o Once the change argued for is effected, argue for the next supposedly moderate, incremental change that will bring us closer to the realization of the desired (but temporarily too controversial) more radical outcomes. This involves reminding society of how its enlightened embrace of the previous change should lead them to consent to the next step, and mock those who object by pointing out that the sky hasn’t fallen.

These precepts explain the “how” of surreptitious social “progress” that has led to such travesties as the de facto abolition of the constitutional rights of parents to have schools that teach their children what it means to be Catholic, and Quebec’s pending abolition of our foundational Christian understanding of what it means to be human.

Having defined the “how,” however, neither set offered a proposal for what is to be done. Still, simply identifying the steps of the process creates the expectation that someone, somewhere, has some explaining to do. And that opens the door to challenging the dangerous presuppositions at the heart of the radical upending of our society.

Those presuppositions are:

o Any self-proclaimed “progressive” measure is always an essential step demanded by the “forward movement” of history, and its achievement is inevitable.

o The onus is always on those who are hesitant to adopt such “progressive” measures to show why they should not be adopted.

The deficiencies of both become obvious. The second one is grossly unjust and requires the logical fraud of having to prove a negative. The first contains a childish tautology: we want to do this because it’s progress, and it’s progress because we want to do it.

What this means is that the following demands should be made of anyone who proposes any self-defined “progressive” vision:

o State definitively what the historic end point of your progressive vision will be.

o State truthfully your confidence in your ability to forecast that particular historic end point.

o State plainly what existing natural rights and protections must be sacrificed for your progressive vision to be achieved.

o State concretely how your vision of progress differs from a reversion to barbarism.

Such demands are not obstructionist or reactionary. They are the simple precautions any sane people will take before agreeing to changes in the makeup of their society. The final question, of course, is whether it’s already too late for sanity.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

 

Musial, Mantle and manly virtue

Baseball’s spring training is not far off, and our Catholic “spring training” — the discipline of Lent — is fast approaching too. Not a bad time to think about baseball and virtue, which was brought to mind by the recent death of Stan Musial, one of the greatest ballplayers of all time.

Musial dominated the 1940s and 1950s, winning seven batting titles, three National League MVPs and winning the World Series three times. Even today, 50 years after his retirement in 1963, he remains second all-time for total bases, behind only the incomparable Hank Aaron, and fourth in all-time hits, behind Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Aaron. He died at age 92, predeceased last year by his wife of 72 faithful and faith-filled years. His funeral was in St. Louis, at which a young boy who wanted to be like Stan Musial when he was growing up in that proud baseball city, Timothy Dolan, now cardinal archbishop of New York, was present to honour a Catholic disciple who tried to go to Mass every day.

In a eulogy given by another proud St. Louis baseball man, a moving story was told about Musial’s quiet holiness. Bob Costas, perhaps the most gifted broadcaster in sports, recalled an occasion in which Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee of the 1950s and 1960s, was visiting in his retirement. Costas invited Stan Musial to dinner and told Mantle who was coming. Mantle, a long-time alcoholic, told Costas: “I don’t know how I am going to do it, but I am not going to have a drink all day tomorrow or all evening. I don’t want to do anything foolish in front of Stan Musial.”

Tens of thousands wanted to be like Stan Musial the ballplayer. Mantle, who was almost as good as Musial on the diamond, knew that he ought to be like Musial the man.

“Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man,” Mantle told Costas.

There are few decisions men, especially young men, make that are as important as choosing their friends. Perhaps the greatest compliment a man can receive is that which Mantle gave Musial — I don’t want to do anything foolish, anything unworthy, anything sinful in front of him.

Mantle spent most of his life choosing his friends unwisely. Perhaps because of all the scandals, movies were made of his life. Musial’s life was too simple, too honourable, too pious for Hollywood. One of the best of the Mantle films, perhaps the greatest of all baseball films, is 61*, a Billy Crystal film about the 1961 home run chase between Mantle and Roger Maris.

“Maris, the North Dakota homebody who has just won the 1960 Most Valuable Player award, sees that Mantle, the Oklahoma hellion who might have been the greatest player ever had he not blown out his knee in the 1951 Series, is risking both his own and the team’s success by his compulsive boozing and wenching,” wrote George Weigel, papal biographer and accomplished baseball fan, about a key scene in 61*.

“So Maris and his apartment-mate, outfielder Bob Cerv, invite Mantle to move in with them, cut out the nocturnal craziness, and get himself back together,” Weigel continues. “That act of solidarity, matched by the way manager Houk and Maris’s teammates rally around him when both fans and sportswriters choose Mickey over Roger in the Great Bambino Record Chase, exemplifies the distinctive way men can be friends. Mickey Mantle, a tortured spirit, died in 1995 after telling a press conference, ‘Don’t be like me. God gave me the ability to play baseball and that’s what I wanted to do. God gave me everything and I just wasted it.’ ”

Weigel concludes with the contrast: “Maris died in 1985 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is buried in his hometown, Fargo. This unassuming family man, who never took advantage of the lifestyle libertinism that Gotham (and the journalistic conventions of the era) made possible, was a good husband and father who endured hate mail and death threats, fan idiocies and press barbs. Roger Maris, a Catholic whom some would argue is the real single-season home run king, is one of the quiet heroes of the American Catholic experience.”

Little boys like Tim Dolan in St. Louis look for heroes at the ballpark. Grown-ups realize that the men on field are often not heroes at all. But sometimes they are, and sometimes even a grown-up cardinal of the Holy Roman Church finds a hero there. Stan Musial was a quiet Catholic hero. As Mickey Mantle might have said: “Be like him.”

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

 

25 and 40 years of shame

Canada, U.S. have world’s most extreme abortion licence

Gun control underlines neighbourly differences

About a decade ago, I was in Scotland and one person after another whom I met kept referring to me as an American, presumably because of my accent.

Living in the moment

For someone who is neither doctor nor priest, there is something spectacularly meditative about encountering death face-to-face four times in one year.

A year ago this month, my wife’s mother died after a long affliction.

In August, my colleague Michael Van Pelt’s 15-year-old son, Kenton, drowned at the family cottage in one of those tragedies that makes life feel as if all Earth has dropped into a hell of particularly inexplicable, random cruelty.

Halfway through November, my father-in-law died quickly after a diagnosis of cancer, still grieving his beloved wife’s death.

On Dec. 29, our good family friend and fellow anti-euthanasia campaigner, Dr. André Bourque, was killed by an aneurism as he shovelled Christmas snow.

With all four deaths, I was among those God favoured to stand before the deceased in prayer, and look into faces that had, mere countable hours before, smiled, laughed, talked, worried, wondered, scowled, sung and otherwise engaged in all the amazing expressions of human life.

In Kenton Van Pelt, I saw the fine strong face of a handsome young man senselessly suspended at mid-point in the arc from adolescence to adulthood. I’d enjoyed a family meal with him a week previously, and marvelled at the signs of maturing Christian character emerging from him. His death so young made a mockery of our culture’s arbitrary categories of age. It reminded me that, in the essentials, we all share one age: the marvel of the single moment we are living right now.

In Dr. André Bourque, I looked into a face miraculously imbued and embedded with kindness. It was the face of a devoutly Catholic doctor who gave his all for the care of his patients and who, when he felt those patients threatened by the encroaching evil of legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, worked tirelessly to rally grassroots Quebecers and his medical colleagues alike to stop the scourge. Not lost in the passage from life to death was his ever-present air of calm and wisdom and determination to do what is right. Sometimes, the grand gesture, yes. More often, the small touch, the encouraging word, the gracious answer, the good laugh that were all signs of Christ’s presence in everything Dr. Bourque did.

For my mother-in-law, a devotional light returned to her features after almost a decade of ravaging, darkening dementia. I will go to my own death convinced that light was the same as the one that shone when my wife asked, moments before death, if her mother wanted her long-deceased friend, Soeur Alice, to come and take her home. At the sound of the nun’s name, my mother-in-law sat up, drew her last few breaths, looked toward a corner of the ceiling and lay down with a small smile on her lips. Her light gave the lie to the pernicious belief that we ever need a euthanizing needle in the arm to die with dignity.

Perhaps because I was present at the very fragment of an instant separating his life from his death, it is my father-in-law’s passing that I encounter most often and concretely these days. It is his face I see most vividly when I ponder the cluster of deaths that marked 2012.

My wife and I were at his bedside, in the little house where he lived for 50 years, when his ragged breathing warned us he was slipping away. When he breathed, stopped, then snatched a final few gasps of air, we were holding his hand, saying silent prayers, listening with our whole being to the sound of life arising and departing.

Looking deeply into the face I had known and loved for 30 years, I felt a dizzying sense of him receding toward the beginning of his life. My father-in-law was not a tall man, though he was powerful in chest, shoulders and arms. Lying lifeless, he became first a younger man, then a little boy, then the infant who lay at his mother’s breast 80-plus years ago.

The feeling was, I’m inclined to think, God reminding me of the folly of putting all my faith in the fruits of humanly created time. It was His call to meditate on the necessity of turning my face, again and again, toward Christ as He bends from eternity into the history that is my life.

Moments are where we live. His grace in each and every one of those moments has conquered death for once and for all.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

 

Desmond Tutu and hell

Victor Chan is the Dalai Lama’s man in Vancouver, arranging the Buddhist monk’s visits to that city. In a new book, The Wisdom of Compassion, Chan documents those visits, especially an encounter between the Dalai Lama and South Africa’s Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Vancouver in 2004.

I haven’t read the book, but the reporting of that meeting gives us an illuminating example of how the mainstream media covers religion. The headlines on stories about the book contained this eye-catcher: “God is not a Christian, says Tutu.” An excerpt appeared online at The Huffington Post and created quite a buzz.

Desmond Tutu, a man of admirable courage, was indispensable to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent truth and reconciliation commission. Yet as a theological thinker, Archbishop Tutu is rather unimaginative and predictable. On any controverted question, he reliably takes the position adopted by the fashionable view of the secular liberal consensus. So when he declared in 2004 to the Dalai Lama that “God is not a Christian” it was perhaps newsworthy given that he is a Christian clergyman, but it was not new. In fact, it is not even that remarkable, for God is not a disciple of Jesus Christ, which is what a Christian is. If Archbishop Tutu was to say that Jesus Christ is not God, or that He did not reveal who God is to us, that would be something different, for it would mean that Archbishop Tutu is not a Christian.

The archbishop did say something remarkable in that encounter, but it was not what was highlighted in media reports.

“The glory about God is that God is a mystery,” Tutu said. “God is actually quite incredible in many ways. But God allows us to misunderstand her but also to understand her.”

This too was given wide play, noting that the reference to God as “she” produced wild applause in the audience.

“I’ve frequently said I’m glad I’m not God,” Tutu continued. “But I’m also glad God is God. He can watch us speak, spread hatred, in His name. Apartheid was for a long time justified by the church. We do the same when we say all those awful things we say about gays and lesbians. We speak on behalf of a God of love. The God that I worship is an omnipotent God. He is also incredibly, totally impotent. The God that I worship is almighty, and also incredibly weak.

“He can sit there and watch me make a wrong choice,” Tutu continued. “But the glory of God is actually mind-blowing. He can sit and not intervene because He has such an incredible, incredible reverence for my autonomy. He is prepared to let me go to hell. Freely. Rather than compel me to go to heaven. He weeps when He sees us do the things that we do to one another. But He does not send lightning bolts to destroy the ungodly. And that is fantastic. God says, ‘I can’t force you. I beg you, please for your own sake, make the right choice. I beg you.’ ”

When Tutu speaks about God not being Christian, or God being “she” or about how Christians are beastly to gays and lesbians, it is trumpeted as extraordinary and courageous, even though it is neither, as witness the laudations in the hall.

What is remarkable though is that Tutu speaks about God’s respect for our freedom to the point of making Himself weak. Some may think it bold to say that God is “impotent.” From St. Paul onwards the Church has preached Christ crucified. That God makes Himself “impotent” before our freedom was commonplace in the preaching of the Fathers of the Church.

The news in the excerpt is that the impeccably liberal Desmond Tutu believes in hell. Hell means that God respects our freedom to the extent of honouring the consequences of our choices; a cosmos without hell is also without freedom. It is likely that Tutu’s comments about hell were not met with rapturous applause, which is a good sign, because the preacher who always gets rapturous applause is not a preacher at all, but a panderer.

The mainstream media prides itself on being bold in challenging orthodoxies, both sacred and profane.

The Huffington Post thought it was doing just that in highlighting the apparent Christian heterodoxy of a great liberal hero, Archbishop Tutu. But he was just echoing the secular liberal orthodoxy. The actual news was that, whatever his views on gender and sexual orientation, Tutu was perfectly orthodox on the reality, and necessity, of hell in his conversation with the Dalai Lama.

The headline should have been: “Tutu reminds the Dalai Lama about hell.”

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

 

Catholics Come Home sparks debate, interest

Among the most ambitious media outreach programs in recent years involving religion is Catholics Come Home (CCH), an independent, U.S.-based, non-profit Catholic apostolate. Founded in the late 1990s, it creates media messages to invite lapsed Catholics back to church and to inspire and educate others, including non-Catholics, in religious knowledge in keeping with the magisterium.

After 33 American campaigns, CCH has begun its first Canadian outreach, in the dioceses of Vancouver and Victoria. While the campaign is bigger than TV advertising — parish welcoming committees, special events and other outreach initiatives are also important — the media component tends to attract the most attention.

Such was the case in The Globe and Mail on Jan. 3. In a column titled “Does Catholics Come Home campaign have a prayer?”, Gary Mason gave his assessment of the “controversial” program, complete with lots of detail about his own lapse from Catholicism and his view of what the Catholics Come Home program is likely, or unlikely, to achieve.

Citing Archbishop Michael Miller’s estimate that a quarter million Catholics in the archdiocese are no longer practising their faith, Mason rather cynically estimated that if the campaign enticed even 10 per cent of them back, “that’s nearly 25,000 new(ish) parishioners and a far heavier collection plate. And you’d certainly have to think that declining revenue is playing some sort of role in this membership drive.”

In fairness, the article also included some thoughtful insights on why church attendance is down, and not only (or even principally) in the Catholic Church, including lack of interest, lack of time, a perception that the Church needs to get with the times, teachings on sexuality that many do not accept or find difficult, and the sex abuse scandal. Of course many people raised in the mainstream Protestant churches have also stopped attending. The only difference I’ve ever noticed is that most of them continue to identify themselves loosely with the tradition in which they were raised.

I’ve visited the Catholics Come Home web site and viewed the TV spots, which discuss charitable and educational works, sacramental life and community life. I think the only people who would regard the package as controversial are those who regard the Church itself as controversial. Evangelization is part of what Christianity is about. While there will always be legitimate questions about one outreach program or another, there’s no getting around the fact that attempting to share the Good News is a good and necessary thing, provided it’s done with respect and courtesy.

The CCH cites American evidence to demonstrate the need for outreach, but the data is comparable to Canada. No more than a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. The number of Americans identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” with a religious tradition continues to increase dramatically, and now makes up more than 15 per cent of the population.

Despite the growth of the Internet and social media, television continues to consume a huge proportion of our entertainment time, with the average Canadian household tuning in for 24 to 26 hours a week. Even though youth spend more time glued to their iPads or computer screens, they are often using them to watch television shows.

CCH founder Tom Peterson is kinder than many people about media coverage of the program, and religion in general. According to the B.C. Catholic, he says that despite some negative reporting, most of the media realize the good work of the Church in the world.

“We can’t take the credit, but we can thank the Holy Spirit, for starting hospitals and universities, and for being the largest charitable organization on the planet.”

He added that he enjoyed talking with the Canadian media about the Vancouver initiative when he was visiting in October, stating that Canadian journalists showed respect and kindness even when asking tough questions. Local coverage of the CCH program included criticisms, but has been generally well-balanced.

Advertising on television or elsewhere is only a tool. The content of any ad is unlikely to sway people who have already been well and truly “turned off” by an institution or product. For the sizeable group who have drifted away from Church for no particular reason, however, this type of program may be effective in re-igniting interest.

The CCH claims their program results in attendance bumps of 10 to 18 per cent. Whether these gains are sustainable is more difficult to document. But the initial surge of interest sparked by the CCH program is important and shouldn’t be discounted.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

 

Glimpsing holiness through the joy of sport

AVE MARIA, FLORIDA - Notre Dame football brings together religion and sports in a particularly pleasing way, and for this football chaplain to be on hand in Miami for the college football national championship — Notre Dame vs. Alabama — was a blessing most pleasing indeed. It was a more conflicted blessing after the opening kickoff, from which point Alabama administered a severe beating to Notre Dame en route to its third national championship in four years.

A presidential holiday season

This New Year opened with a distinctly presidential flavour. First, I saw the two hit movies about U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. (Both I highly recommend, especially Lincoln.) Second, I received two fascinating books: The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson and The Words Lincoln Lived By from Lincoln historian Gene Griessman.