Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Surprised by Hope

I spent this last weekend at a retreat set up by the Gay Christian Network's Side B community.* There were about thirty people there, tucked into a surprisingly expansive resort ground in the Appalachian Mountains. Most of the community came from relatively near, though a few came from further off. Indeed, one of them, I am told, was a foreigner from the wilds of Canada.**


Pictured: A barbarian from the savage lands to the north.
(Though Seth Rogen wasn't there this weekend. That we know of.)

It was a fairly simple affair: meals cooked by a talented amateur chef of our party, some times in prayer, a hike, a few games (I still maintain that I should have won that first round of Cards Against Humanity). It felt rather homey; a feeling I don't often enjoy, and for which I thank the people who were there.

I'd been nervous about going. I don't generally do well in large groups unless I already know everybody there, and even then it isn't entirely predictable; in this group I think I'd previously met two of the people who would be there. Well, I drove down, genially cursing the bad reception. There was dinner, and some introductions, and we all talked casually for a while before going to bed. The hike was the next morning; we made our way through a surprisingly rocky path to a swimming hole and waterfall, complete with a fairly intimidating thirty-foot jump for those who wanted to try it. Rather to my own astonishment, I tried it, twice -- though both times I was only able to trick my brain into thinking that jumping was a good idea and totally not a thing that would make me die by shouting "I am titanium."


It's my coming out song.

All that time, and on the hike back, as I listened to the story of Vincent, a man of about forty, sharing his own very recent coming-to-terms experience, there was something unusual that I could feel. Or rather, the lack of something usual was what I was sensing.

At last, what it was hit me. I was sitting on the couch with Frank, another gay Christian blogwright, and I said something like, "I don't feel uncomfortable, and it's making me uncomfortable."

That, for me, is one of the primary elements of being a gay man: the perpetual feeling of otherness, of alienation even -- not necessarily hostility from the outside, but of needing to be alert and careful and on the defensive. It's so normal that I didn't even notice the feeling until it was gone; the way you can not notice an ache in your joints, until you take medicine for a cold and feel the ache go away. I'm so used to that subconscious feeling that this place is not secure that, when I finally came to a place where I was secure, I didn't know what to do with the feeling. There I was on the couch, taking huge gulps of breath, even crying a little, because I finally had some peace and yet was around people at the same time -- contrary to all of the default settings of my brain, which kept scanning for some kind of computation error. Suddenly being around people who understood, people for whom gayness did not require any explanation and Jesus did not require any justification, was almost startling.

That same feeling has expanded out into these last few days. It's just such a huge experience. Those forty-odd hours together with people who get it, didn't do justice to the magnitude of what it meant. I think it gave me an inkling of what the communion of the saints must be like -- total interpenetration of persons by knowledge and love together, pure intellectual light fulfilled with love as Dante has it. I wonder, too, whether some part of Purgatory may not consist in learning to lay down the habitual defensiveness we have here on earth, learning that it's okay to be simply receptive and open, that nothing There will harm us.

Witty readers may have cottoned on to the potential double entendres in the last couple of sentences. I am content that they should be there; we know well from St. Paul (and St. John of the Cross) that sexuality is, or can be, an image of the entry of God into the soul, tenderly and intimately filling it and bringing it both delight and fertility. I'm not at all perturbed by sexual images of the Divine operations, although, like every created thing, they are unlike God as well as like Him, and this fact must be periodically borne in mind.


Yet another reason to love Baroque art.

And, in the unusual abundance of hugs and even cuddles that I got while I was there, I discovered far more deeply, and wholesomely, what I thought I had already discovered through sex: namely, that sex, while awesome, is really not that important. It feels great -- barring conscience pangs and/or lousy performance -- but it is not, in itself, that fulfilling. Moralists and/or experienced lovers (by which I mean people who have experience in love, not people who have experience in sex) will tell you that often enough; but experienced lovers are hard to come by, and, to be blunt, moralists tend to give the impression of being experienced in neither sex nor love, and it can therefore be hard to take them seriously.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that it is really hard to get enough touch in a culture like ours outside of a sexual context, and people need to be touched. More than once, I've had sex because I was starving for that, and I won't pretend it doesn't feel good to be touched all over in that way; but this past weekend, I found that the simpler, chaste, affectionate touch I received there was not only free of the pangs of conscience: it was orders of magnitude more fulfilling than sex. It was to illicit sex what a five-course meal is to a bag of potato chips. I got less touch there than I wanted -- chiefly owing to shyness on my part, I think -- and yet, I can still feel some of the effects of the refreshment it obtained me. It's kind of amazing.


One of the reasons that celibacy has been so hard to wrap my head around is that it feels like such a cop-out: the very tone of so many reassurances that "Celibacy doesn't mean living without love" sounds like someone trying hard to convince a pianist who's lost his hands that this doesn't mean he has to live a life without music. I had nothing concrete to connect those assertions of the possibilities of celibacy to, except the love I share with friends; and the brute fact is that, as good as that is, it isn't really the same thing.

But this past weekend, I felt that something more was hinted at: something more intimate and familial, without being at all more erotic or sexual. It wasn't so much that sex would have been "going too far" in that setting, but that it would have felt incongruous, irrelevant. I felt as if I could perceive, if only dimly, what it would be like to be happy without a husband. I feel as if God cracked my heart right open, there in the mountains, and started showing me things inside of it -- some of them nice things and some of them ugly things, all mixed up in a glorious, upsetting mess together.

I'm not surprised, though I am disappointed, to be jealous of my married friends; not that I resent their being happy, but that I'm angry and extremely apt to self-pity at feeling shut out of that possibility. My willingness to snatch at fleeting pleasures out of total despair of ever getting real and lasting affection may seem like a pitiable flaw, but my readiness to disregard the well-being of others in doing so is certainly not. Yet even in the midst of all that, it only took one graced weekend for the feeling of hope for something more -- hope, like gratitude, being something I can barely remember ever feeling in my life -- and that's heartening to me.

That hope is the strangest part of all of this. Faith I sort of get, and love perhaps more so; hope, I can scarcely understand or even desire. Having dealt with depression since I was a small child, having lost so many places and people that I treasured, having slogged my way back to the confessional with the same dismal sins over and over again, I'm so used to pain, defeat, and frustration that I literally do not know what to do with the glimmer of hope that I now have. It's a very scary feeling -- I want to smother it, so it can't trick me and hurt me. The idea that hope could actually be accurate, could be how God and reality really do work, can't even seem to present itself to my mind as a possibility. I suspect, too, that I have been misunderstanding my Carmelite guides for some time now, and interpreting the call to walk in the dark as a call (among other things) to try and do without hope, which is probably like trying to climb Mount Carmel without water.

I'm not sure where this leads. I'm inclined to think that the answer to the perplexities I find myself in with regard to celibacy may well lay in community life, although I must admit that that raises plenty of questions in its own right. For now -- for once -- I am content just to be a little grateful and a little hopeful.


Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.


*GCN, founded by Justin Lee (author of the excellent book Torn), has existed for about thirteen years now, and offers space to talk and share to all LGBT-identifying Christians, regardless of their denomination or their convictions on sexual morality. "Side A" and "Side B," terms inherited from the now-defunct Bridges Across the Divide site, signify the progressivist and traditional stances on homosexual behavior -- i.e., Side A believes that God does not forbid gay sex as such (though many do believe that it must be saved for marriage), while Side B believe that gay sex is not part of God's plan for human sexuality. GCN does not take a stance on this issue: the majority of its members are Side A, but the organization as such is primarily oriented toward community and mutual understanding, not towards promoting a specific doctrine of homosexuality, except that GCN does specifically reject the ex-gay approach.


**Not everyone who attended this retreat is out of the closet, for varying reasons, and I do not consider it my business to expose other people's private affairs for any reason whatever. I have been extremely careful in writing and editing this post to leave no tell-tale indication of the presence of any individual person other than myself (I have extended this even to people I know to be out, partly because there's less risk of mixing folks up that way, and partly because a person might be out to some people but not to others, out but not eager to be strongly associated with GCN, and so forth). Correspondingly, names other than mine are pseudonyms.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Five Quick Takes

I.

I've been gradually starting to deal with the sin of anger (and its countless manifestations -- impatience, outbursts, punitive withdrawal, hurtful sarcasm) over the last year or so. Hitherto, my anger had been so thoroughly repressed that it almost never manifested itself in any form at all, except for gigantic outbursts of frustrated wrath separated literally by years.


Like this, but without the advantage of the stylish indigo pants.

Anger is extremely scary for me. It's horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember. I hate it because it almost always has the feeling, and very frequently the real-world result, of distorting my perspective, and if there's anything I value, it is fidelity to the truth -- which is inseparable from a fair-minded perspective. However, as the ancient saying goes, that which Christ does not assume, He cannot redeem; hiding things from Him, whether by also hiding them from ourselves or not, does not unite us to Him but rather creates distance. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God: the maxim that governs the Incarnation of the Deity also, and for that reason, governs the deification of our humanity.

+     +     +

II.

I have, after some guilty months of neglect, picked up my copy of Melinda Selmys' Slave of Two Masters, a Catholic treatment of the God-and-Mammon problem. I can't believe I put it off. It brought out one element of economics that had completely escaped me before, which I'd therefore like to quote here:
Once Eve was cursed to have Adam "lord it over her," which aspects of the human endeavor did he choose for himself? It is usually assumed that Adam took the better portion and left the dregs to Eve ... 
But what is it that women produce? Men, arrogantly desiring to claim all of the credit for human achievement, have habitually missed the glaring and inescapable fact that women produce men. Society economics, science, culture, knowledge, politics, and production are all just things that serve human interests; only human persons are ends in themselves. ... 
This has dire consequences for a society in which not only men but also women have rejected women's work in favor of economic accomplishment. John Paul II, in Mulieris Dignitatem, suggests that the increased participation of women in social, economic, and cultural life could serve to positively transform those areas in the light of "women's genius." Yet this can be accomplished only if women's genius itself is preserved -- and that genius is intimately connected to motherhood. 
The economics of motherhood is governed by very different principles than the economics of the marketplace. In domestic life, the stronger do not triumph, or even seek to triumph, over the weak. ... John Paul II expressed a hope that it would be possible to reform economics so that it could be fueled by such an engine of love and affection, rather than being governed solely by self-interest. 
-- Slave of Two Masters, pp. 6-8

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III.


Our Lady of Mount Carmel by Pietro Novelli. 1641. The saints depicted below, from left to right, are:

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As I believe I've said before, she and the Carmelite Order are and have been very important to me: the poetry of Saint John of the Cross was one of my first exposures to Catholicism, and Saint Teresa, judging from what I have read of her writings, must have been looking after me for some time. She drives me nuts, mostly by being right.

One oddly persistent trend that I've noticed about the Carmelites is their propensity to attract Jewish converts. Saint Teresa (foundress of the Discalced or reformed branch of the Order), Saint John of the Cross (who helped her found the Discalced), Saint John of Avila (her spiritual director), Saint Angelus of Jerusalem, Venerable Augustine Mary, and Saint Edith Stein, to name just six, were all Hebrew Catholics -- to employ a phrase coined by another Hebrew Catholic who was also a Carmelite, Elias Friedman.


I rather like this trend. I have a drop of Jewish blood myself, though it's well over a century old, and, coming through my father, doesn't count anyway -- but I have always had a sort of irrational fondness for the Jewish people, so that the discovery of a personal connection (however tenuous) was extremely pleasing, and it was a weird and happy coincidence that the Carmelites should seem to forge another link. Why Carmel should have such a draw, I'm not sure, though I have a hunch that it has something to do with the profound theology of suffering and darkness that is a mark of their spirituality. The Jews being no strangers to suffering, I could understand how it would be more naturally sympathetic than some other Catholic traditions. But that's definitely a guess.

+     +     +

IV.

Cole Webb Harter, author of the Andalusian Peafowl, an Eastern Catholic (I think he's Byzantine? I don't know my Eastern Churches that well) pop culture critic and thinker, recently did a piece on the Anarcho-Monarchist politics that he and Tolkien (and I) largely sympathize with, as exampled on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

Fluttershy is the best pegasus ever and I will not be gainsaid. No matter how

He has since gone on to a piece on the implicitly Distributist economic system that prevails in Equestria, something that tends to go hand-in-hand with Anarcho-Monarchism. I was planning to plug his post anyway -- Catholic Anarchist bronies, being few, ought to stick together -- and the delightful tour de force of his continued analysis of My Little Pony from these perspectives, at once whimsical and really fairly convincing, is a further reason to do so. The fact that Anarchy is grossly misunderstood by most Americans, and that Distributism has sadly made so little impact in this country (despite being the sole economic theory with a serious claim to be endorsed by the Church), is a third reason for me to say: tolle lege, tolle lege.

+     +     +

V.

If you all who are the praying sort would pray for my roommate, I'd be very grateful. He is in his sixties and is planning to go in for hip replacement surgery, which had to be postponed on account of a bout of laryngitis. The surgery hasn't yet been rescheduled, though he did receive Unction this past Sunday. I'll be away over the weekend, so if you would pray for his health and spirits, and for a safe, soon-effected surgery and a swift recovery, I'd be grateful.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Is There a Third Way?

Last month, Reverend Danny Cortez of the Southern Baptist Convention suggested, in the wake of his own change of views regarding homosexuality, that neither unanimous rejection nor unanimous approval was necessary on the issue -- he spoke in favor of a "third way," that of allowing Christians to conscientiously differ on the subject.* Other Baptist leaders, such as Albert Mohler, decried both Cortez's views and the suggested compromise. Plenty of Christians on both sides of the debate have objected equally.

I think the word compromise has come to have a very unfairly dirty reputation. So has the thing it represents. One thing I didn't know about Catholic culture until years after I had converted, was how fractious Catholics can be over liturgical differences -- not just the sort of differences that look insignificant to outsiders but are in fact theologically important (like whether or not to allow laymen to take the Chalice for themselves instead of having it ministered to them), but over things that are really and truly insignificant (like whether to say Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost).** The intrusive arrogance of many Roman Rite Catholics toward the Catholic Churches of the east, whose history and usage is very different from our own in some respects (such as the ordination of married men to the priesthood), is particularly reprehensible. Of course, it isn't a specifically Catholic problem by any means: not to be unkind, but the continual splintering of Protestant communions speaks for itself in my opinion. And for that matter, it isn't even a specifically religious problem -- look at the insane political polarization in this country, despite the fact that, when set against the actual political possibilities that history affords us examples of, there are fewer differences between Democrats and Republicans than between, say, a labrador and a golden retriever. I am all for a spirit of compromise, or, if the word expresses the idea more clearly, a spirit of generosity. Also, all for labradors.


See how much better this is than combox wars over gun control?

And indeed, one of my basic desires in starting Mudblood Catholic in the first place was, without compromising my convictions, to act as a sort of diplomat-interpreter in the kulturkampf between Christendom and glistendom -- to try and achieve, not agreement necessarily, but a greater understanding and rapport between queer culture and Christians, especially Catholics. I think this is worthwhile, partly because, as one of the wounded of that culture war, I'd very much like to not be shot any more, please; moreover, I think that people being kind and respectful to one another is an end worth pursuing in itself, and an end that is much more easily attained when they comprehend one another than when they don't. Above both of these is the fact that, owing to faults on both sides, there are plenty of gays who have repressed their faith, and plenty of Christians who have repressed their sexuality, because they think (I believe, falsely) that the two cannot be maintained together, and therefore choose to renounce something that was precious to them in the name of maintaing something they cannot bear to give up. That kind of false dichotomy is agonizing and destructive, and I think that some good sense, imagination, and generosity -- in a word, some compromise -- would prevent a lot of people from tearing themselves in two.***

Here, though, I have to say that I think the compromise proposed by Rev. Cortez is -- how shall I put it? -- stupid.

Compromise over mere matters of taste, or over differences that are purely cultural (e.g., slurping is rude in the West but complimentary in the Orient), is not only acceptable but positively good. Compromise over matters of principle is bad. Because of course, in the former case, the compromise is an expression of a principle, the principle of respect and kindness towards others, and recognizing that what we happen to be used to or to like is not the same thing as what is morally right. That kind of compromise is a courtesy; compromising over right and wrong is, well, wrong, and in my opinion generally proves to be discourteous as well.

For this is no mere matter of cultural differences. If, in the eyes of God, gay sex is morally equivalent to straight sex, then gay unions should be approved by all Christians everywhere, without reservation or apology. A given individual, based on a personal call to celibacy, might of course choose to abstain from them, but that's quite different from saying that they are wrong. If the progressivist stance on homosexuality is right, then allowing for two opinions on the subject is kind of like allowing for two opinions on whether racism is okay: no, it doesn't determine whether you're a Christian or not, but we kind of need a higher bar for what is acceptable than that.


A bar about this high, for instance.

And if, by contrast, the teaching of the Catholic Church in particular and of Christendom throughout history generally is true, then engaging in a gay union isn't just a faux pas, like using the salad fork to eat a steak. It is something that God has told us not to engage in because it is bad for us. Not arbitrarily, but objectively.**** Making pastoral allowances might still be acceptable for difficult cases, but that's quite different from saying that the standard itself is the problem. If the traditional stance on homosexuality is right, then allowing for two opinions on the subject is kind of like allowing for two opinions on whether polygamy is okay: no, it doesn't determine whether God loves you or not, but we kind of need a higher bar for what is acceptable than that.


A bar about, eh, you get the idea.

In a situation like this, I have more respect for my opposite numbers in the debate -- men like Ben Moberg, Justin Lee, Andrew Sullivan, or Matthew Vines -- than I have for the kind of compromise represented by Cortez and those like him. For that matter, I have considerably more respect for Dan Savage than I do for that. For the progressivist idea is at least an idea. The "third way" suggestion is not an idea, but a refusal to have an idea; it is a declaration that this issue, in which the happiness and holiness of millions of human beings hangs in the balance, is insignificant enough to dismiss without giving it a real answer. Frankly, I find that dishonest and cowardly. Either way, it is a disservice to people who need, deserve, and were made for the truth; and I have no respect for that.

That's not to say that everybody has to have a belief from which they will never ever swerve and they must arrive at it right this instant. Going from one view to another is perfectly acceptable as long as it's done honestly; indeed, if it is both done honestly and involves coming to a view that is in fact more correct, it is called "becoming wiser." But refusing to admit the importance of the issue means refusing even the possibility of wisdom -- it removes the terms under which progress can be made. Changing direction may or may not get you closer to your goal, but declaring that every direction is an equally valid way of getting to your goal is more or less bound to get you lost, and frustrated. (Trust me, I live in Baltimore.)

TL;DR: Nut up and have an opinion. Gabriel out.


Maybe I'm being harsh, but in my defense I added this to my movie library recently. Been
re-watching the tragically snuffed splendor that is Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, too.


*This should not be confused with the video titled The Third Way, which deals specifically with the Catholic approach to the question, and in which the excellent people Melinda Selmys and Joseph Prever appear. Of that video I have very mixed feelings -- which is not code for "I hate it," it really does mean simply "mixed feelings" -- but there is no time or space to do that justice in a footnote.

**Holy Ghost is better. #anglicanusenerd

***As a Catholic Christian, I think it infinitely more important that a person remain or become a Christian than that they identify with their sexuality. Nonetheless, repressing sexuality is in my view never a good thing: learning to restrain sexual desires is just part of being a grown-up, but repressing them -- i.e., insisting that they aren't there or aren't an important part of you -- is unhealthy, and in fact makes it more difficult to deal with them, because of the element of dishonesty and resulting ignorance about yourself that repression entails.

***This doctrine is not the same as the claims, made by some people who profess it, about exactly why it is bad for us, a why that I for one do not claim to know. Some people do claim to know, and I think there are some explanations that seem more illuminating than others; but I have yet to come across an explanation that I find totally satisfactory. I therefore accept, as a matter of faith, that homosexuality is wrong, without necessarily knowing why -- just as many Christians, perhaps most, accept that Christ was born of a Virgin without necessarily knowing why, and indeed the full reasons why may not be knowable.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review: "All Souls' Day" by Youngest Son

All Souls' Day is the fittingly titled sister EP to Youngest Son's 2012 release All Saints' Day. It's my first exposure to their work, and me likee. It will be available on the 29th of this month -- I am not altogether sure where ... but you can follow Steve Slagg on Twitter, he being one of the minds behind the band, and I'm sure he'll be promoting it.

The Strong Points

Usually contemporary Christian music bores me*: I tend to stick to chant and sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century church music, except for a handful of artists like Phil Wickham, and some super fringe folks like mewithoutYou (C-Minor is a good sample of their sound) or the woefully neglected Psalters (Trisagion being a good sample of theirs). I've gotta say, Youngest Son definitely seems to be a cut above the normal run of saccharine, lyrically timid pop-worship.

I unfortunately wasn't able to take a listen to All Saints' Day, but I was able to look over the lyrics of that album, and poetically it's an arresting composition. The stated themes of that album are grief, memory, nature, and faith. Saints' thus transitions very naturally into Souls', which picks up on several of the same concepts and motifs, linking them largely, as its predecessor does, through the imagery of water and specifically of Baptism, with the appropriate accompaniment -- though we often forget how and why it is so appropriate -- of many allusions to and reflections on death. The words remind me at times of Sufjan Stevens: they have something of the same strange, vivid quality his so often possess. To this, Youngest Son adds a direct, even here and there a raw, expression of feeling that resonated with me. Two songs that All Souls' Day reproduces, "Hole In the Sky" (my personal favorite) and "Long Year," both bring this out particularly boldly. To give you the idea, the haunting refrain of the former runs thus:

There's a hole in the sky
Where his body should be
There's a hole in the ground
Where his body should be
There's a hole in my arms
Where his body should be
There's a hole in the sky

Musically there are some parallels to Sufjan Stevens, and others -- Linford Detweiler, Aqualung, and Bon Iver spring to mind. The instrumental "Anticipate Your Arrival" is, I feel, one of the finest tracks on the album, swelling with a slow beauty, and almost calling to mind the tuning-up of an orchestra. The structure of "Quiet Revival" may be the most striking and successful: beginning with the melancholy, gentle sound that characterizes most of the EP, it breaks into an energetic combination of piano and violin, almost as if the instruments are recalling the church fire that the song in part commemorates, and then returns smoothly into its point of origin, suiting the closing stanza ideally.

It may sound odd to bring up, but once you see it I think you'll agree that it's not odd at all: one of my favorite things about this EP is the artwork. I feel it shows the medium of collage at its best, using some photographs that are taking in their own right and combining them, to excellent effect, with a large selection of images early Mediaeval religious paintings, chiefly angels and saints. In addition to being compelling works of art in their own right -- I'd happily hang framed versions of the pieces that accompany "Hole In the Sky" and "Lake Superior" -- they suit the matter and manner of the album itself very well. Its themes of finding God in ordinary experience, especially nature, are superbly illustrated by the apocalyptic illuminations these collages provide.

The Weak Points

There are, I'm happy to say, few of these. However, I do feel that the artists could have been more boldly experimental with the music at points: there are a few places where riffs are repeated that could, I think, have been subtly altered from one iteration to the next, to bring out alternate aspects. "Quiet Revival" has this feel in the first of its three sections, and I'd say the same of "Blank Face." I get the sense, in listening to this EP, that the band is still finding their sound: they strike out here and there, but on the whole one can hear their sources in their music. I'd greatly like to see them assume a more independent musical character.

Aside from that, I could only really suggest a good polish -- though that may be because I'm so accustomed to listening to post-production music.

Is It Worth Buying?

Totes. It's a solid EP. Go forth and purchase. I mean, once it comes out.


*Looking in your direction, MercyMe, and to a lesser extent Casting Crowns. Hillsong gets a pass because they are in my opinion uncommonly talented at doing what they're doing, even if what they're doing is something for which I happen to have little taste.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Confession and the Law


Objections to the inviolability of the confessional, in cases of the abuse of minors at least (and perhaps more), have been broached here and there since the original scandal broke in the early years of this century. This is hardly surprising, though, in my view, it is most definitely ominous. This constitutes a breach of religious liberty of the first order -- far more profound than the HHS policy on contraception, in my view: for, while the latter insists on what theologians call in technical language material cooperation with evil, this is a demand that the sacred ministers of a religion violate their oaths as priests, interfering directly with their religious duties as such. Essentially, it gives them a choice between being imprisoned and being excommunicated -- for violating the seal of Confession is one of the few sins upon which the Church imposes an automatic ban of excommunication.


The fact that the issue has been raised in this specific case is a little stupid, to my mind, given that:

1) there was certainly inappropriate conduct towards a twelve-year-old girl from an adult parishioner, but not, apparently, sexual contact as such;

2) the priest is not the accused party;

3) the victim is testifying freely;

4) the accused happens to be five years dead.

If one were trying to argue that trampling on the sanctity of religious rites and Catholic consciences were necessary in extreme cases to bring criminals to justice -- a tenable position, though I don't accept it -- one could hardly have chosen a less compelling example.

But arguments about violating the seal of Confession really and truly don't work even from a purely utilitarian perspective, to the point that I cannot understand why people suggest it in the first instance. What criminal would avail himself of the sacrament of Confession, knowing that his deeds would thereafter be brought to light? -- unless it were a criminal capable of turning himself in anyway. Moreover, in this case, the victim is testifying of her own free will, but the right of the victim to privacy must be respected as well (and in this case the demand is to know about the victim's Confessions).

One point that is often lost in these discussions is that this prevents priests from defending themselves quite as much as it prevents the law from catching penitents who have spoken of crimes in the confessional. Coincidentally, this is just such a case: the only person who stands to lose by keeping silent is the priest himself; for it must be admitted that the counsel he is reported to have given the young victim looks bad, and the only witness who can bear testimony is the girl herself. If the priest wanted to challenge her testimony or give further information or nuance, he can't. That SNAP's Director has spoken of this as "deliberately and deceptively exploit[ing] confessional confidentiality" is utterly ridiculous in that light.


This is what comes of the decline of classic cinema.

All this is on the civil and merely practical plane. But when we turn to the specifically religious dimension, the impossibility is yet more emphatic. The priest himself, in a sense, does not forgive in this sacrament: he is, by virtue of his office, a minister of the forgiveness of God, not of his own native powers. The seal exists, and has existed for centuries, because the sins of the penitent are not the priest's own business -- he must be told them in order to give guidance, comfort, and a suitable penance, and (in extreme cases) to help him judge whether it is within his authority to administer the Divine absolution*; but none of that is his own personal affair. It is a secret even from him; even, in a sense, from God, who drowns forgiven sins in the deeps of mercy.

This is part of what the separation of church and state means. Interfering with a religious ritual on state grounds is a breach of the First Amendment of the first order. The only real recourse here is to say that the Founding Fathers, and correspondingly the Constitution, were wrong about this, and that religious liberty is neither a natural right nor appropriately a legal privilege.

To address my fellow Catholics specifically, however, I think we must be prepared -- terrible though the phrase may sound -- to get used to this. Protest and legal action in response to such attempts at violating the rights of the Church are appropriate; but I think we have gotten too cozy in the assumption that all will be well and manner of thing will be well for Christianity in the purely political sphere. We may have to acclimatize to the idea, and even the fact, of priests being jailed for refusing to divulge the existence or contents of Confessions. I say this not because we ought to apathetically resign ourselves; not even, like Job, because The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the name of the Lord.


Caravaggio's Crucifixion of Peter

I say this because persecution is the natural habitat of the Church. I expect it to come around, not because our nation is specially depraved, but because it always comes around. The Church was born into persecution; nay she was conceived in the midst of it. There is nothing more persecuting that the cross. Even if we go further back, to the Incarnation itself, we find the holy Theotokos fleeing from a dangerous disgrace in her native village, with a song of joy and glory flowing from her lips; we find the Holy Child brought into the world only to escape, under St. Joseph's vigilance, into Egypt, as the shadow of Herod's soldiers fell upon the Holy  Innocents. And when the Holy Ghost had fallen on the Apostles, persecution began almost immediately at the hands of the Jewish council of elders: And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. If we are persecuted for our vices, we have no legitimate complaint to make; and if we are persecuted for our virtues, then we are blessed. We must learn to expect and accept suffering, whether at the hands of the state or not; and we must pray for those who spitefully use us and persecute us, so that, as our Master said, we might be sons of our Father who is in heaven.


*The Catholic Church teaches that, as the Mystical Body of Christ animated by the Holy Ghost, she has the authority to forgive every sin. But of course, the Church is not summed up in any one person, and no one person possesses her fullness independently -- we belong to her, she does not belong to us. An example of this in the realm of administering sacramental forgiveness is that the pardon of a few sins, in the Roman Rite, is reserved to the Pope alone; breaking the seal of Confession is one such sin. (I don't know how this works in Eastern Churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox. I would suppose, on analogy, that the Patriarchs -- e.g. the Patriarch of Constantinople for Greeks or that of Alexandria for Egyptians -- probably possess something like the authority in difficult cases, but I know next to nothing about Eastern canon law.)