There are so many more like them. There’s Father Mario Falconi, an Italian priest who refused to leave Rwanda during the genocide and bravely saved 3,000 people from being massacred. There’s Father Mario Benedetti, a 72-year-old Italian priest based in Congo who fled with his congregation when their town was attacked by a brutal militia. Now Father Mario lives side by side with his Congolese congregants in the squalor of a refugee camp in southern Sudan, struggling to get schooling for their children.
It’s because of brave souls like these that I honor the Catholic Church. I understand why many Americans disdain a church whose leaders are linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms — but the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican.
And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church. (Source: Nicholas Kristof)
Indeed, the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican. It should be obvious, but I guess there are Kristoff types who need to be surprised from time to time by encounters with people who don't fit the stereotype.
I haven't been writing about all the stuff going on about Ratzinger and his involvement in the Catholic child rape scandals mainly because I have so little affection for him to begin with. Since the 80s I've seen him as representing pretty much everything that I see as wrong with the Church, and it would be too easy for me to pile on. Nevertheless, I suspect he's getting a raw deal when it comes to many of the accusations aimed at him. It's probably a lot more complicated. It almost always is.
But I think that what I wish people outside the church understood better is that there are two Church cultures. There is the corrupt, Byzantine culture of the Vatican, which St. Peter himself, if he were to show up, couldn't clean up. Individuals come and go, but that culture remains from century to century. It's a nauseating scene, and I just hope the whole faux-medieval construct part of it collapses from its own dead weight. Maybe something saner and more Christian would emerge from the rubble. But the Vatican and the people who run it don't matter so much as they think and as most outsiders have been led to believe. It represents the public face, but not the church's deepest, inmost reality.
"The Church," as St. Augustine said, "is a whore, but she's my mother." That tension in the life of faith has always been there and always will be. There is a second culture of people who have been deeply nourished by the deeper reality, and that culture is the Communion of Saints. The first culture, the unfortunate public face, is relatively unimportant for the life of the Church; the second culture lives from a kind of Mother love that sustains and justifies its existence, no matter what else might be true about it.
Yesterday I caught the last segment of "This American Life" (starting around minute 38) in which Dan Savage, the Seattle-based, gay, sex-advice columnist, was talking mockingly about his having been brought up a Catholic and movingly about his deceased mother and his mother's Catholicism. She sounded from his description of her like a great lady. He talked about how since his mother's death, despite his loathing just about everything the Church stands for, he finds himself sitting in a Catholic church several times a week.
And his talk was his attempt to think out loud about why. The official Church still stands for things that nauseate him. He can't believe in virgin births, and resurrections, and all the other improbable assertions of traditional dogma. The Church's ideas about human sexuality are beyond ridiculous--they're dangerous and homicidal. And yet there he is, sitting in a church two or three times a week.
I think that what it comes down to is this: your ability to take the Christian faith or any of its truth assertions seriously depends on your encounter with people who have been deeply changed by it, the "it" being the inmost reality of the Church. Faith is never first about believing in certain incomprehensible and unlikely propositions; it's about feeling the mystery and having one's life turned upside down by it.
And very often, perhaps most often, that mystery is mediated by our encounter with people whose lives have been so turned upside down. Priests and nuns have conventionally committed to this upside down-ness in their vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, which are upside-down response to the right-side up values for which the pursuit of wealth, pleasure/family, and power/fame within limits are normal, natural, healthy behaviors. These pursuits are not in themselves bad; they're just so "right-side up". St. Francis of Assisi was a prodigy of this kind of upside-down-ness.
But to be a monk, a priest or nun is not by a long shot the only way to live upside down. The Amish live another form of Christian upside-down-ness in relationship to what they perceive, with good reason, to be the modern Babylon. T.S. Eliot explores this right-side up/ upside down tension among sophisticated moderns in his play, The Cocktail Party. And there are all kinds of ways that people of real faith live upside down. To live upside down is not fundamentally a negative statement. If it appears to be mostly about renunciation, it isn't. Any seeming renunciation is a consequence of one's having responded to something else, something more deeply real, that leads one to the see the things apparently renounced as having less value.
Christian ascesis is a path of liberation, and if it isn't, it's a dangerous waste of one's time. It's analogous to the discipline of the musician or athlete who doesn't so much renounce a normal life so much as she chooses a rigorous practice regime as a means to an end, which is the capability to perform at a high level of capability and freedom. If the practice is not a work of grace and freedom, it leads to a form of soul-deadening Phariseeism, or as I've called it elsewhere, the whited-sepulcher syndrome described in Matthew 23.
If there is for me one defining characteristic for what it means to be a Christian, it's this way faith inverts one's values and world view, so that one must see the world from the bottom up, and that's precisely what has always been wrong about the Vatican world view--it sees things top down, and thinks of itself as having some privileged possession of the truth unavailable to others who don't stand with them at the apex of the hierarchy.
That sense of privileged position is almost always an indicator or Phariseeism. The truths of the Faith are the community property of the Communion of Saints in its long, evolving history, from the patriarch Abraham to the present day--it's the possession of all those who have had this inverted relationship to normal, right-side up reality. They are people who have had an encounter of one kind or another with the Mystery, and they have submitted to have their lives turned upside down by it. Theology is simply the attempt to make some sense of the world in the light of this having been turned upside down, and the theology of the great figures in Church history can make no sense unless you have some sense of what this upside down relationship to the world is.
So the test of "faith" should not be whether one believes in certain propositions, or whether one behaves according to some conventional moral code, but by whether there is a certain upside down-ness that characterizes his or her life. And that upside-down-ness leads to behaviors and attitudes that have a deeply moral character, deeper, more wholesome, and life-giving than any conventional morality allows for, because in the end it is a morality that is governed by the logic of love.
And I recognize that upside down-ness in Dan Savage's mother, and to the degree that her life was lived by the upside-down logic of Divine love, she represents that deepest, inmost reality of the Church, which is the life of the Communion of Saints. He told the story about his mother's reaction when he came out--she called a priest. Yes, she was the kind of Catholic that would be shocked to learn her son was gay, but she recovered, and then she let it be known among everyone in the family that if anybody had a problem with her son's being gay, they were going to have a much bigger problem with her. For some people, people without an upside-down heart, learning this about one's son would force a choice--either to reject the son or to reject the Church. But Savage's mother is interesting because she loved both and found a way to be fiercely loyal to both. Listen to the full recording to get a better sense of the woman than I can render here. She is a living example of someone living in the creative tension I write about in the post entitled "Metaxis."
Religious dogmatists, fundamentalists, and priggish Pharisees on the one hand, and rigid rationalists, materialists, and cynics on the other, are what they are because they can't live in the tension between two seemingly opposing things being possibilities. It's easier to submit to one side or the other rather than to live in the tension between them. But living in that tension, especially when it is a tension created by the logic of love, is what makes us most deeply human because of the way it stretches our souls.
Savage's mother clearly was big-souled in that way, and because she was, he has to take the faith seriously that she took so seriously. He can't dismiss it even if he can't make any sense of it. Savage clings to his rational, right-side up view of the world and is challenged by his mother's irrational upside-down faith-centered view. And ultimately he or anybody cannot make any sense of the faith unless he first submits to the necessarily upside-down, irrational, improbable logic of divine love. Once that becomes more than an abstraction; once it becomes a reality in one's life, the head trip becomes secondary, and quite frankly, not really much of an obstacle. It makes sense even if one can't explain it to right-side up people. But it can only begin to make sense, once your life has been turned upside down and experience the world with that perspective. First things first.
Savage's mother's life and faith have forced such an encounter for him. It's forcing him to live his own metaxis, and that's what I see as the impetus behind his TAL talk--his need to understand this tension and his hope of resolving it. The nuns and priests that Kristof met and describes in his column are big-souled in that way, and so force Kristof into a metaxis that he feels compelled to think out loud about as well. Because that's the way it works. If we're lucky in life, we meet people who force these tensions on us and in doing so give us the opportunity to grow our souls. That's what the Communion of Saints is all about, this massive collection of life stories of ordinary people who have been open to this upside-down-making encounter and who live with the discomfort that comes with it.
So Savage is wrong to think that Christian faith is primarily about finding comfort. I'm sure there are several layers of reasons for his being drawn into that church, and to be comforted in his grief is certainly one of them, and legitimate. But something deeper also is at work I suspect, and comfort is not the main thing he'll get if he keeps sitting there, because he'll have to continue living in that tension, which will not be easily resolvable for him.
And so he's mistaken if he thinks sitting in a church is only going to bring him the comfort he longs for--if anything it's intensifying a fundamental tension in his soul and in doing so forcing the choice between either/or and both/and. So long as he keeps sitting in that Church, even if he does nothing else, he's in 'both/and' territory, i.e., metaxisland, and that's a good thing, and I hope he keeps living there and explores its topography.