Upside-Down or Right Side Up?: Nicholas Kristof, the Dalai Lama, and the Catholic Church

The other day I was flipping through the free copy of the Catholic Worker that had been delivered to our JVC community. (The Catholic Worker Movement was founded by Dorothy Day in 1933. Its members live in intentional communities, in solidarity with the poor, working in various ways for social justice. Their newspaper still sells for one cent, as it did in the 1930’s.) When I commented to one of my housemates about how appealing their lifestyle seemed to me, she responded, “You know, I can see you living in a Catholic Worker house.” I wondered aloud whether maybe I was a little too conservative for their tastes (I’m all for pacifism and houses of hospitality, but they do count some anarchists in their ranks…!), and she made the good point that Day herself was quite a rank-and-file, magisterial Catholic. “They’re actually pretty staunch in their beliefs,” she said, “I mean, in JVC….” She trailed off. I smiled. I knew what she meant.

I’d like to spend more time on this blog discussing my experiences at work than controversies in the Catholic Church, but lately the two have intersected a lot and dominated what I think about. JVC is a program which attracts a number of disaffected Catholics. That’s something I’m not sure my friends and relatives, who may imagine us as a bunch of zealous “Christian soldier”-style missionaries, understand. I consider myself fairly moderate theologically, but relative to my peers in JVC, I am solidly at the right-ward end of whatever political / theological spectrum our various colors represent. This has been good for me. Among the moments that have most powerfully shaken my depths this year are not just encounters with my clients, but conversations I’ve had with friends whom the Church’s treatment of women has driven away from the faith. By the end of our discussions, these friends have sometimes been reduced to tears (of hurt and of wrath, in equal measure). As a heterosexual male with nothing much to lose, the temptation is strong to reduce issues like women’s ordination and homosexual erotic love to abstract theological questions; even my basic, and at times strong, sympathy for queer and feminist spiritualities can no doubt become condescending, when it is seen merely as a question of “entertaining” progressive ideas or “allowing” them into a debate.

A few weeks ago, in commenting on the sex abuse crisis that has again consumed the Catholic Church, I cited a homily by Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, who wondered aloud why the modern world seems to hate us Catholics so. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve realized the answer to that question is a lot more obvious than I’d self-pityingly made it seem. For so many people, good works and a healthy spirituality do not require the strictures of an aged institution like ours; why, then, should they tolerate what looks to them like the Church’s homophobia and misogyny?

Nicholas Kristof

Among the decidedly leftward-leaning Jesuit Volunteers in my program, two Nicholas Kristof editorials made the rounds last month and were heartily welcomed. They’re called A Church Mary Can Love and Who Can Mock This Church?, and they’re very much worth a read. Now, I told a friend of mine, who knows me and my politics quite well, that I was going to blog about Kristof, and her gasped response was, “Oh, Nicholas, please don’t — he’s said such nice things about the Church!” She’s right. And so, a full disclaimer: I love Nicholas Kristof. His expertise in the third world, and especially women’s issues, is unquestionable, and his personal commitment to social justice is equally redoubtable, rare, and even saintly. I also greatly appreciate that while sometimes critical of the Church, he hasn’t tried to shape himself into an anti-religious demagogue as a means of scoring cheap points among readers of the New York Times. When Kristof speaks, I listen, and this would be the case even if he hadn’t, as my friend pointed out, said such beautiful things about my Church, a Church he should feel no obligation to defend.

Yet I do want to observe a few points on which my opinion diverges from his own. Briefly, his thesis is that the Vatican has strayed from the Church’s “inclusive,” “democratic” roots, becoming an old boys’ club “addicted to male domination, celibacy and rigid hierarchies.” As Kristof puts it, though:

There’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.

So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

So.

Before we even got to his “two church” thesis, we could pause a moment to interrogate his church history. A few paragraphs earlier, Kristof has cited early Gnostic texts and excoriated the early Church’s move from “proto-feminism” to “chauvinism.” These paragraphs are not really a paradigm of scholarly writing and research. Michael Sean Winters, in a very good (if uncharacteristically venomous) response to which I’ll return in a moment, points out that “citing Gnostic texts in the early Church is a bit like citing a book called How to Win a War by Don Rumsfeld.”

Kristof also has a naive, if quite commonplace, conception of Jesus. “Jesus wasn’t known for pontificating from palaces, covering up scandals, or issuing Paleolithic edicts on social issues,” he writes, which may be true enough (thank God), but we mischaracterize the Gospels’ Jesus if we insist on seeing him as nothing more than a peacenik hippie to whom the trappings of baroque and hierarchical religion were completely foreign. Yes, Jesus was poor and concerned with social justice. He also explicitly did not come to overturn the Mosaic law (Matthew 5:17); preached in the Temple as well as on the streets (Luke 4:15Luke 20, etc.); justified the use of expensive oils and forbade the disciples from spending that money, instead, on the poor (Mark 14:1-9); wore a seamless garment rare and rich enough that the Roman soldiers wanted to steal it from his beaten, bruised, and bloody body (John 19:23); instituted a church hierarchy for the distribution of some sacraments (John 20:23); called those who disdain religious rituals “blind” — even while reminding us that the rituals are not sufficient in and of themselves (Matthew 23:19); hobknobbed with the rich (Luke 8:3, Matthew 27:57, and it is often thought that Lazarus, the dear friend over whose death Jesus wept, was wealthy); and offered strict teachings about sexuality and moral conduct which Kristof may very well consider “Paleolithic” (e.g., Matthew 5:28, 5:32, and 19:12Mark 10:6-9).

I am certainly not about to join Joel Osteen’s megachurch and preach a Gospel of wealth; for all of these citations, we could amass dozens more critiquing legalism, moralism, and ritualism and indicating a preferential option for the poor. But I would agree with a Jesuit priest who preached JVC’s recent Spring Retreat: Jesus was a pontifex, a “bridge-builder,” capable of speaking to rich and poor alike and, as importantly, breaking down false dichotomies that even we today might construct. Not only is there no Gentile and Jew, slave and free, in Christ, but the polarity between theory and praxis needs also to be bridged.

Winters writes that Kristof’s ecclesial diagnosis is “false” and “pernicious,” that “there is one Church, not two,” and that “the concern for dogma and the practice of charity are linked intimately in the life and heart of the Church.” I believe Winters is correct in theory, while Kristof’s basic observation remains valid; we could just put a positive spin on it, and translate it into Catholic terminology, and say that all Christians live a different vocation, or follow a different charism, from one another. In the sense that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has to be concerned with theological questions and the Maryknoll nuns have to be concerned with ministry in the trenches, Kristof would be correct. Where he falls astray, in my opinion, is in supposing that one calling is loftier than another, or that one can do without the theology and the hierarchy (if this is what he means — it’s hard to tell whether he opposes himself to the hierarchy tout court or just to the ideologies it holds today). St. Paul writes eloquently on the diversity of gifts that we, as different “parts,” bring to the “body” of Christ, the Church. We need both Mother Teresa in the slums and Pope Benedict in the academy (as well as all the Vatican dicasteries necessary for evangelization and governance) if we are to thrive as a Church — and if we are to find God in all things. Jesus alone seemed to boast all gifts, being at once a healer and a friend and a priest and a revolutionary and a Socrates-like philosopher holding forth in the town square. We may need to attend, a little more carefully than Kristof does, to this last identity, in particular. Jesus’ learned discourses with the Pharisees, or with Nicodemus, demonstrate that he was not just a social worker unconcerned with theoretical formulations of the search for truth.

A video accompanies Kristof’s second article and profiles Father Michael Barton, an American missionary priest in Sudan. The video (which Kristof probably didn’t edit) annoyed me by continually superimposing evil-looking pictures of the pope whenever it talked about the church’s failings. For me, the most interesting part of the video was when Kristof was complaining about the “disconnect” between the institutional church and the church of the poor, and the priest, as he’s listening, has an expression on his face — slightly defensive, slightly wary — which says, “I see what you mean, but there’s a little more to it than that.” When he responds, he doesn’t say, “You’re right — the institutional church is morally bankrupt,” but admits only that there is a disconnect between “the human” and the “divine.” Yes, the church has sometimes failed, but that’s not because it’s institutional; it’s because it’s human.

Kristof fails to account, I think, for the extent to which certain very conservative and loyalist tendencies can exist in the hearts of even the most superficially liberal worker-priests. Catholics simply can’t be pigeon-holed into tidy politico-theological categories. For instance, Dario Castrillon Hoyos was a priest in rural Columbia who counted FARC agents among his personal friends even while exhorting them publicly to give up their guns; roamed the streets at night ministering to street urchins even after being named a bishop; and went, disguised as a milkman, to drug lord Pablo Escobar’s house and once there persuaded him to confess his sins. His career at the Vatican, where he was placed in charge of propagating conservative liturgical reforms and reconciling a conservative schismatic group with the mainstream Church, ended spectacularly badly when it was revealed that he had congratulated a French bishop for protecting a pedophile priest from the police in 2001. Who knew? It is also dangerous to assume that you can’t be a hierarch without contributing to a problem such as, say, the sexual abuse of children. The aloof and pastorally inexperienced academic Joseph Ratzinger, whom the mainstream media missed no opportunity to slander as “God’s rottweiler,” turned out to be the Vatican’s septuagenarian Eliot Ness in the face of the child sex abuse crisis. Again, who knew?

Let me offer the example of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, which in the 50’s and 60’s sent missionary priests, largely unsupervised, to the remote corners of Alaska. These Jesuits were very concerned with social justice and were there to do charitable work among the most poor (basically fitting the description of Kristof’s ideal priest) — but because there was no structure to the Society’s works up there, and no supervision (it looked like what the church would look like if we “turned it upside down,” as Kristof has suggested, and pretended we were all Jesus and that the only thing necessary is to be a do-gooder), dozens of children were abused over the course of decades.

It’s true that there were many problems with the institutional Church’s response even once abuse was discovered. (One of these problems was that the Vatican office responsible for processing abuse complaints was short-staffed.) It took the evil-looking Pope, sitting at the top of the ladder, to revolutionize the way complaints are processed and give jurisdiction over them to local bishops’ offices — bureaucratic, no doubt, but at an intermediary ecclesiastical level. This is not quite turning the Church upside down; it is more like folding it along the middle.

A practical question arises at the very outset. What, exactly, would it mean to “turn the Church upside down”? Kristof doesn’t say, and I’d honestly like to hear more. Does he mean that he’d like the Church’s whole catechetical (and, perhaps, liturgical) endeavor to disappear and for it to focus more on good works among the poor? Is he really only interested in a liberalization of the Church’s politics? Would he perhaps be interested in the discussion taking place among Catholics about the proper extent and form of lay control? I’m sure he knows that the Catholic Church will never adopt a more Protestant-style ecclesiology (it prefers not to see itself fractured into little communities, each with its own particular take on theological questions); nor does it want to disintegrate into a vague “cultural influence,” like “cultural Judaism,” whose profession of faith is half-hearted. In Ireland, for instance, where cultural Catholicism masks a pervasive atheism, it is rightly derided as hypocrisy.

Kristof may have some personal experience with priests whose politics he likes. (Let it not be said, by the way, that many such priests don’t have their bishops’ support, such as in African countries where even among the episcopacy, the practical need for protection against HIV/AIDS is admitted and addressed on what we in the Church call a “pastoral basis.”) But how, practically speaking, should the Vatican’s catechetical and political machines be structured? There are many — especially well educated, liberal-minded young Catholics who sometimes seem to assume that everyone in the pews has a BA in theology from a Jesuit college while the hierarchy has been stuck reading 4th century medical manuals — who advocate an increased role in Church governance for the laity, perhaps electing their own pastors and bishops, and even finding a way to give the laity some say in the election of a pope. Here, Winters makes a very good point:

Liberals should be especially aware that if there were elections for lay leaders, it is more likely than not that Bill Donohue and George Weigel and Raymond Arroyo would win at the Catholic polls. I will take my chances with the clericalist patriarchy, thank you very much. In his recent book, The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George wrote that a principal problem for liberal Catholics is their willingness to become chaplains to the status quo. Kristof’s article could be exhibit A.

There are two points being made here, and I’d like to take them one at a time.

Questions for the Laity

First of all, while Kristof may think the Church is bad when its theology is determined by the Vatican, the truth is that when you eliminate that central teaching structure and leave morality and theology up to grass-roots communities, you get just as many reactionary conservative communities as you do enlightened liberal ones, just as many ignorant superstitions and backwards beliefs as you do scientific and rational convictions, and just as many violent revolutionaries in poor countries as you do peacemakers. The Protestant ecclesial model may be able to boast about enlightened Episcopalianism (although currently the Anglican Communion is in a pretty fractured state, itself), but it’s also responsible for evangelical creationist types who voted for President Bush (twice). The Catholic Church, moving slowly and cautiously through history, is less prone to extremism and division, and seems to find itself squarely in the middle of the spectrum of Christianity…and the middle ground is, in my opinion, normally a good place to be.

Furthermore, I think that my last post, which reveals the widespread ignorance and superstition endemic among Kristof’s cherished poor parish communities, must surely speak volumes. This is not to say that I oppose lay governance in the life of parishes; for many reasons, both practical and theological, an expanded role for the laity seems necessary to me. But I’ve had enough encounters with the parish planning committee here at Our Lady of Guadalupe to know that the loudest advocates for lay control, who usually come from those rare parishes where the parishioners may be better educated than the priests assigned to them, do not have a full, fair view of the demographic, ideological, intellectual, and political diversity of the Church. To take one example: the three priests and one brother who staff our Church have been debating whether to build a chapel for perpetual adoration of the Eucharist. While their feelings on the matter are not uniform, there is a general sense that it would be too costly and difficult to monitor. I am sure that whatever the best course of action may be, cool heads will prevail among these educated Jesuits. On the other hand, for one prominent lay leader in this community whom I ran into in the parking lot one day, it was as simple as this: “If you’re a priest and you don’t want Adoration of Our Lord Jesus in the Sacrament, it means the Devil’s got command over your soul!” I don’t mean to say that the roles couldn’t be reversed; but generally speaking, I would really rather Church governance be a meritocracy, run by those with advanced degrees in theology, than a democracy. Call it pretension, or call it a respect for education.

Secondly, Winters cites Cardinal George as saying that liberal Catholics can sometimes become chaplains for the status quo. This could mean a number of things, and I haven’t read the Cardinal’s book, so I can’t be sure of the context of his statement. First of all, the JVs along whom I have the honor of serving boast the kind of education I’d love to see behind the wheel of the Church, yet naturally it would not be fair to give them a stronger “vote” than the superstitious “masses.” But my year here has taught me another sad lesson; it is a lot easier for a layperson to cut and run when things aren’t going your way than it is for a priest or religious. Intellectuals are frequently dissidents, and while it is vitally important for an organization to hear and incorporate the voices and opinions of dissidents, it is hard to build an edifice on shifting sand. “If you only believe what you want to believe in the Gospel,” cautioned St. Augustine, “then it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” As with everything, it cuts both ways; a lot of abuse was covered up because the clericalism of many in the Church made them feel beyond questioning and led them to put the Church’s endurance over the truth. But a lot of lay people love the Gospel values without, it seems, loving the Church, and while this can be a principled decision in what concerns the ordering of their individual souls, I am not convinced that the antidote to a Church’s problems is to upend the whole structure and let the problems on the bottom find their way to the top.

If one problem with conservative laypeople is hyper-religiosity, then we should be aware that liberal laity, in their desire to “modernize” the Church, are vulnerable to hyper-secularism. It’s in this light that I see the relevance of Cardinal George’s remark most clearly: the Church is meant to be counter-cultural, both in “liberal” regards (cf. its commitment to poverty, simplicity, and the spiritual, rather than to materialism, consumerism, and capitalism), and in “conservative” regards (cf. its commitment to chaste sexuality). But again as I pointed out in my last post, the biggest problem with liberalism may not be political (and I don’t think it’s in the political sense that George talked about the status quo); it’s philosophical. There’s a deep fear of “control” or “pushiness” at the heart of liberalism, and it results in relativism, or in banal phrases like the assertion that one is “spiritual, but not religious.” If one is forced to have religion, the reasoning goes, it should be as tame and harmless as possible. In most instances, this is not a counter-cultural stance, but a position cowed by modern animosity to religious truth claims. Like the rebels in school whose fashion statements simply turn them into cliches, those who think themselves “progressive” sometimes turn out to be the most boring and stationary, and certainly malleable, individuals of all — chaplains for the status quo.

The Dalai Lama

I’ll recount an anecdote. A friend once found me torn between two bits of reading material: Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx’s brilliant, revisionist treatise on the Eucharist, and a “chicken soup”-style collection of tidbits by the Dalai Lama that someone else had lent me. When I held up my two choices, my friend said nothing about the Schillebeeckx book — true, most tomes on the Eucharist are a lot more mawkish and pietistic than Schillebeeckx’s, though we laity would be a lot more impressive if more of us knew who Schillebeeckx was  — but her eyes lit up upon seeing the other one. “That looks so good!” she exclaimed. (I eventually read it. It wasn’t.) Case in point: one of the reasons Kristof’s article was popular was because it tried to strip religion of everything but the tepid injunction to be nice and do good things…just as the Dalai Lama’s recent op-ed in the New York Times seems to do. This is the spirituality (sans religion) of our times.

The Dalai Lama’s piece is entitled “many faiths, one truth,” and consists of a generous plea to religious open-mindedness. I agree with the main point of the article, I in fact believe that its message is crucially important, and as someone fascinated by ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue (I got a few raised eyebrows at church for taking the youth group on a bunch of field trips to different religious services), I find genuinely touching the Dalai Lama’s invocation of his friendship with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. This photograph of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Merton’s grave, praying alongside a modern-day Trappist, is a classic:

But I am afraid that the Dalai Lama’s laudable core message — that one can persist in one’s own religious faith while still learning from others — will be taken entirely backwards by a reading populace desperate to hear a religious figure say that all religions are the same and that being particular with dogmatic tenets is just going to cause us some unnecessary headaches. Many faiths, one truth? No. One faith, many truths: if I come to the conclusion that abortion or extra-marital sex or profligate substance abuse or prayer-less individualism is all right, then who can challenge me? The only real sin is ruffling each other’s religious feathers, because shouldn’t we all just get along?

Buddhism may be a great spiritual force elsewhere in the world, but in the United States, land of consumerism, it has been handily commodified. I am not inordinately fond of Bill Maher, but I think he hit the nail on the head in making fun of a picture of a young woman on a beach with Chinese lettering tattooed on the small of her back…just above a thong that revealed, suffice it to say, a lot more than it covered. “Just because your tattoo has Chinese characters in it doesn’t make you spiritual,” he lectured the iconic sex symbol.

Slavoj Zizek puts it like this:

The problem is that such a satirical exaggeration is actually taking place. Today, many ethnic, sexual or racial minorities rewrite their past in a more positive, self-assertive vein, i.e. African Americans who claim that long before European modernity, ancient African empires already had highly developed science and technology. Along the same lines, one can imagine a rewriting of the Ten Commandments: Is some commandment too severe? Let us regress to the scene on Mt. Sinai and rewrite it! “Thou shalt not commit adultery—except if it is emotionally sincere and serves the goal of your profound self-realization.” Exemplary here is Donald Spoto’s The Hidden Jesus. In this New Age “liberal” reading of Christianity, we can read apropos of divorce:

“Jesus clearly denounced divorce and remarriage. … But Jesus did not go further and say that marriages cannot be broken. … Nowhere else in his teaching is there any situation where he renders a person forever chained to the consequences of sin. His entire treatment of people was to liberate, not to legislate. … It is simply self-evident that in fact some marriages do break down, that commitments are abandoned, that promises are violated and love betrayed.”

Sympathetic and liberal as these lines are, they involve the fatal confusion between emotional ups-and-downs and an unconditionally symbolic commitment that is supposed to hold precisely when it is no longer supported by direct emotions. “Thou shalt not divorce—except when your marriage ‘in fact’ breaks down, when it is experienced as a unbearable emotional burden that frustrates your full life.” In short, except when the prohibition to divorce would have regained its full meaning (since who would divorce when the marriage is still blossoming?).

This is how (although the modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in the Jewish notion of the love for one’s neighbor) we tend to establish today a negative link between the Decalogue (the traumatically imposed divine Commandments) and human rights. That is to say, within our post-political, liberal-permissive society, human rights have, ultimately, become the rights to disobey the Ten Commandments. “The right to privacy”—the right to adultery, done in secrecy, where no one has the right to probe. “The right to pursue happiness and private property”—the right to steal and exploit others. “Freedom of expression and freedom of the press”—the right to lie. “The right of free citizens to bear weapons”—the right to kill. And ultimately, “freedom of religious belief”—the right to worship false gods.

The greatness of John Paul II was that he personified the disavowal of the liberal, easy way out. Even those who respected the Pope’s moral stance usually accompanied their praise with the caveat that he nonetheless remained hopelessly old-fashioned, medieval even, by sticking to dogmas out of touch with the demands of modernity. How could someone today ignore contraception, divorce or abortion? How could the Pope deny the right to abortion even to a nun who got pregnant through rape (as he effectively did in the case of the raped nuns in Bosnia)? Isn’t it clear that, even when one is in principle against abortion, one should consent to a compromise in such an extreme case?

One can see why the Dalai Lama is a much more appropriate leader for our postmodern, permissive times. He presents us with a feel-good spiritualism without any specific obligations. Anyone, even the most decadent Hollywood star, can follow him while continuing their money-grabbing, promiscuous lifestyle. In stark contrast, the Pope reminded us that there is a price to pay for a proper ethical attitude. It was his very stubborn clinging to “old values,” his ignoring the “realistic” demands of our time, even when the arguments against him seemed “obvious” (as in the case of the raped nun), that made him an authentic ethical figure.

Incidentally, with the passage of John Paul, the only immediate reference to Benedict that I can find in any of Zizek’s writings is when the iconoclastic critic chastises him for being too “warm and sympathetic” because he eliminated the antiquated teaching on limbo. (Only Slavoj Zizek….!)

What is my point? My point is that for all of the Church hierarchy’s problems, just doing away with the whole kit and caboodle and enjoining people to be good and spiritual won’t do the trick. We need structure. And offering empty rituals without a real intellectual basis leaves us with a few options most Catholics find unappealing: the legalism of the Biblical Pharisees, a Protestantism unable to speak with a unified voice, or the easy, empty conveniences of a watered-down Buddhism for the New Age. (By contrast, I’m told that continental Buddhism is quite rigid and strict, as well as academic. My guess is that “the real deal” would turn many Americans off.) Personally, I am proud to belong to a religion whose leader is capable of a magisterial critique of contemporary capitalist economies such as the substantive encyclical Caritas in Veritate, rather than one whose leader is more inclined to pen nice but boring paeans to harmony and understanding which, to be quite frank, I could have written by the time I reached middle school. Besides, the feel-good sugar of relativism lacks moral substance; it is, after all, the ever-smiling Dalai Lama, and not the ever-pensive Benedict, who was capable of saying something as selfish and cruel as this (italics mine):

Of course, abortion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is an act of killing and is negative, generally speaking. But it depends on the circumstances. If the unborn child will be retarded or if the birth will create serious problems for the parent, these are cases where there can be an exception. I think abortion should be approved or disapproved according to each circumstance.

Coda

My good-hearted and brilliant friends in JVC may not agree with my basic points here. Whoever edited the Kristof video to make Benedict look like a ghoul most certainly does not agree. This year has been a true gift for me precisely because those who disagree with me have tested me, expanded me; and if my position on lay control seems arch-conservative, I can honestly say that my views on a host of other issues have become a lot more liberal in the last few months. I’m grateful for that. Still, I find that the women and men who feel most like my sisters and brothers are those who don’t just agree with me on this or that point, but who love the Pope and the Church enough (and yes, it is a question of love) to give them a fair chance. I am thinking, for instance, of the French historian Alain Besancon, whose analysis of Benedict’s tenure as pope I found on a very interesting Catholic blog:

After five years, to me his pontificate is sorrowful. John Paul II fought against a monstrous political regime: Communism, but he had society and all of humanity on his side. Benedict XVI has the whole of modern society, born out of the crisis of the 60’s, with its new morality and new religiosity, against him….[He] finds himself in a situation similar to that of Paul VI after Vatican II, in confronting what he called ‘the self-destruction’ of the Church. This time the self-destruction is of all of society, nature and reason. The glory of his pontificate is not visible: it is that of martyrdom.

2 thoughts on “Upside-Down or Right Side Up?: Nicholas Kristof, the Dalai Lama, and the Catholic Church

  1. Salut Nicholas,

    As-tu deja songe a une carriere dans le journalisme ?
    Je ne plaisante pas. Tu y apporterais “un peu” de douceur dans un monde de brutes, un monde qui commence a perdre ses valeurs d’une maniere catastrophique. Tu aimes ecrire. Tu as des opinions a partager et il serait dommage que tu les gardes pour toi ou que tu les contiennes dans un cercle restraint.

    Comme je suis d’accord avec toi sur la majorite de tes points ! Je t’approuve lorsque tu dis (du moins, c’est comme cela que je l’ai compris) que notre societe de consommation aboutit a des elucubrations. Bien sur, je fais reference a l’idee absurde de reecrire un des dix commandements (celui de l’adultere qui pourrait etre accepte, selon le cas) ou a cette suggestion de justifier le divorce quand les choses se corsent. Comme il est facile de dire “stop” ou de reculer sur une difficulte au lieu de l’affronter.

    Il y a certains points sur lesquels j’ai tout de meme, je dois l’avouer, un peu de difficultes a etre convaincue. Certaines decisions du Vatican restent encore un ch’tio peu (c’est du picard pour dire “un peu”) radicales. Mais je pense que c’est mon ignorance qui me fait reagir ainsi.
    Notre societe nous donne tres facilement le droit a la parole. Parfois cela se convertit en un droit de dire un peu n’importe quoi, du moment ou l’on adhere a l’opinion publique et ou on nous laisse nous exprimer en paix !

    L’eglise catholique, malgre ses souffrances et les differences d’opinion, reste soudee, je le pense vraiment. Neanmoins, elle est en train de subir a nouveau (un situation qu’elle connait la nuit des temps !) une periode difficile qui defie ces principes fondamentaux sous pretexe qu’ils sont “errones”.
    Comme l’a dit si bien dit le Pretre de ma paroisse, ici a Malden, en reprenant les paroles de Roosevelt, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Ainsi, je prononce haut et fort qu’il est necessaire pour des hommes comme toi et notre ami de l’Indiana d’aller vers les autres humains, ceux qui, par ignorance, ne comprennent pas assez bien le fondement de certaines decisions emanant du Vatican.

    Seuls vous, jeunes individus, mauvais ambassadeurs du monde “paleolitique”, etes en mesure de bien faire comprendre l’importance de la defense d’un dogme qui nous guide si bien.

    Votre role est difficile, mais tellement utile et necessaire.
    Toi et notre ami de l’Indiana et les autres jeunes comme vous, par votre modernite, votre intelligence, votre foi sincere et profonde, etes capables de faire comprendre les actions de l’eglise et d’expliquer pourquoi elle prend toujours le chemin difficile, celui qui va a contre-courant.
    Peut-etre qu’ainsi, les detracteurs verront enfin (dans de nombreuses annees) pourquoi l’eglise catholique reste toujours un pilier indestructible dans l’histoire de l’humanite et dans le coeur de nombreux chretiens.

  2. Merci enormement, Nathalie, pour tes mots si encourageants et gentils! Mais je replique: si mon anglais atteindra un jour le niveau de l’eloquence de ton francais, je serai tellement content! Je pense que tu devrais creer un blog, toi-meme, car je trouve tes opinions et ton ecriture tres, tres belles. (Sinon, il faudra que tu rediges plus de commentaires sur le mien! haha.)

    Je ne sais pas si je suis d’accord avec tout ce que dit Slavoj Zizek…il est un provocateur, ca c’est sur. Mais oui, il identifie une tendance generale dans notre culture qui n’est pas forcement la bonne (a mon avis).

    On verra, en tout cas, ce qui se passera chez notre chere eglise, qui a meme emprunte une expression des protestants et qui s’appelle donc, surtout des le Second Concile du Vatican, une “ecclesia semper reformanda”…

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