Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Wicked Priest

The President [of a witches’ Sabbath] was occasionally the local leader, but usually he was more; and if he were not more, yet he was felt as more … He was called the Devil; he was adored as the Devil; and, metaphysically, he may have been the Devil. —Charles Williams, Witchcraft

Father John has a generous bent:
his tipping is thirty percent;
he smiles at waiters
in cassock and gaiters,
showing teeth that are white and unshent.

Father John has a heart and a mind
for the needs of the lame and the blind.
When his eloquent voice
stirs the heart to a choice,
it is ever to service mankind.

Father John is a scholarly man:
all his sermons are preached to a plan,
to excite true devotion
and harness emotion
and save any soul that he can.

Father John is austerely correct
to discountenance schism and sect,
to adhere to the GIRM
in each rubric and term,
and the name of the Church to protect.

Father John has a most modest air.
He submits to his bishop with care,
And to laity too
When their judgment is true.
To his purity, none can compare.

Father John says the loveliest Mass:
his reverence none can surpass;
and when he confects,
his reflection he checks
in the chalice as if in a glass.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Part I

‘We agree about a lot of things,’ the priest said, idly dealing out his cards. ‘We have facts, too, we don’t try to alter—that the world’s unhappy whether you are rich or poor—unless you are a saint, and there aren’t many of those. It’s not worth bothering too much about a little pain here. There’s one belief we both of us have—that we’ll all be dead in a hundred years.’ He fumbled, trying to shuffle, and bent the cards: his hands were not steady.
‘All the same, you’re worried now about a little pain,’ the lieutenant said maliciously, watching his fingers.
‘But I’m not a saint,’ the priest said. ‘I’m not even a brave man.’ He looked up apprehensively: light was coming back: the candle was no longer necessary. It would soon be clear enough to start the long journey back. He felt a desire to go on talking, to delay even by a few minutes the decision to start. He said, ‘That’s another difference between us. It’s no good your working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward—and all the rest. I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same—and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me.’ 
—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

✠ ✠ ✠

The ecclesiastical scandal of sexual abuse and official concealment have been on the minds, lips, and hearts of every practicing Catholic (and many others) for almost two months. Wrath, despair, gossip, and scapegoating pervade op-eds and Facebook statuses and homilies.

I’ve not said much so far; not as much as I’d have expected me to, anyway. I wanted to process a little, and I’m glad that I did, since some of the things I was originally intending to write, I would’ve had to retract or modify beyond recognition. But I’d like to put forward my—necessarily tentative—analysis of how we got here as a Church, and how we can get out.

Lesson number one is that we can’t get out. There is no policy, no safeguard, no system, and no group that can be trusted absolutely, because the world is fallen. Our collective forgetfulness of that fact as it applies to the clergy is a part of the reason the scandal developed as it did. We can place our trust in the God who redeems evil; we cannot trust any human being, ourselves included, never to do evil.

It may be said that that is not much of a lesson, since we knew it already. Apparently knowing something is not much good if we do not act on it: Show me your faith without works, and I shall show you my faith by my works

Secondly, there have been lots of explanations of how the scandal is the fault of laxity and heresy, or gay men in the priesthood, or clericalism, or the discipline of celibacy, or the Sexual Revolution, or Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, or lizard people from outer space (I may have dreamed this). Any, all, or none of these deeper-cause-oriented explanations may have some merit, and I’ll be going into my own moderately educated guesses on the subject later. But we must remember the straightforward fact that the persons responsible are, first of all, the abusers themselves and the people who covered for them; and that the primary victims are the victims of sexual abuse, not innocent clergy or the Church’s credibility or anything like that. This scandal, like all scandals, is first of all about people.

This highlights another facet of the problem, which thankfully I have seen a good number of commentators cottoning to: this is a problem for you and me. It can’t be adequately dealt with by episcopal chanceries, religious institutes, or bishops’ conferences. If the light which is in thee is darkness, how great is that darkness! Obviously the coöperation of the clergy will be required—a dismaying thought—and obviously we will continue to depend upon our bishops and priests, however corrupt or incompetent, for the sacraments, without which the Church can hardly subsist. This reform is going to require not only boldness, but delicacy, humility, patience, and clear-headedness. It’s going to take a long time, of which some will be discouraging and a great deal will be dull, and some people are going to give up on it.

But. I’d point to two precedents, one from the Mediæval Papacy and one from the Catholic missions in East Asia, that I think provide us with models of what our Lord the Spirit may do to effect this reform.

The late ninth to early eleventh centuries were an ugly age for the Holy See. A string of corrupt, arrogant, violent Popes reigned: for instance, Sergius III, who was credibly (though not certainly) reputed to have had two rivals to the papal throne murdered, and to have fathered the future Pope John XI on his mistress; Stephen VI, who had the corpse of one of his predecessors exhumed and ‘tried’ for ecclesiastical misconduct, a notorious farce known as the Cadaver Synod, after which the body of the deceased Pope was mutilated and thrown into the Tiber; or Benedict IX, who was twice expelled from Rome by popular revulsion at his depraved, unpriestly conduct, and eventually consented to abdicate on the condition that he be reïmbursed for the bribes by which he had originally been elected. We might well have expected that the Catholic Church would collapse under the weight of its own scandals and stains, or at least that the Papacy would.

But, from the early tenth century, a new development—favored at times even by the immoral and self-aggrandizing pontiffs—had been taking place in the Church, too. In the year 910, William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, had donated a portion of his land to a group of monks who wanted to live according to a more rigorous interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict than was normal at the time. These monks founded Cluny Abbey, and the Cluniac branch of the Benedictine family of monastics soon became well-known for its purity of conduct and the vigor of its spiritual life. In Pope St Leo IX, the Cluniac Order found a more permanent ally, and a run of several reform-minded pontiffs followed, until the two movements were united in the famous St Gregory VII. From his reign forward, the Papacy and the Church experienced a revitalization that led to the founding of the Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite Orders, full reunion with the Maronite Church of Lebanon, a decisive end to secular interference in papal elections, and, indirectly, the career of St Thomas Aquinas and the composition of his Summa Theologiæ.

Hundreds of years later, during the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, the Jesuit order was founded, and St Francis Xavier carried the gospel from Europe through the Near East to India, China, and even Japan. He had the greatest hope for Catholic Christianity in Japan, and his missionary successors (principally Portuguese Jesuits) maintained the community there for decades, centered in Nagasaki. It made a lasting impact on Japanese culture; for instance, tempura is descended from the tradition of four times dedicated to fasting from meat, during which Catholics would fry seafood and vegetables in batter to make them more satisfying cuisine, which was the first exposure of the Japanese to frying—and because these four fasting periods were called in Latin the quatuor tempora, the Japanese referred to the foods that signified them as tempura. Anyway, the Christian community in Japan enjoyed peace and even a certain caché through the sixteenth century.

But in the seventeenth (for reasons we needn’t go into), the state’s outlook on Catholicism soured. The Kirishitan, as Christians were known, came to be regarded as agents of Portuguese and Spanish colonists, and Christianity was finally outlawed. The decision was accompanied, at first, by such persecutions as the Church was familiar with from history. But the Japanese daimyō were smarter than the Roman emperors, and as soon as they saw that mere martyrdom was more apt to encourage the Kirishitan than to break them, they began aiming not to kill, but to compel apostasy through torture—especially, whenever it could be obtained, the apostasy of priests. The Japanese persecutors must be given credit; they took seriously the Christian idea that sin is worse than death, and accordingly sought to procure sin rather than death, in order to suppress Christianity.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Church in Japan had no visible presence; anyone suspected of Christianity might be ordered to renounce it, particularly by trampling on a fumie, a depiction of Christ or the Virgin designed for the desecrating act of being stepped on.

But the Kakure Kirishitan, the ‘hidden Christians,’ continued. Their outward apostasy, painful though it surely was, did not extinguish the light in their hearts. Without clergy, without Scriptures, without sacraments save baptism alone, these communities in southern Japan maintained their existence for two hundred desolate years. We know this because, when Japan was reöpened under the Meiji Emperor in the nineteenth century and foreign religions were again declared legal, some of the Kakure Kirishitan met with Catholic priests, to profess their interest in seeing a Mass celebrated. It eventually came out that, not only did the Kakure Kirishitan still exist after two centuries of isolation, not only had they clung to their few precious relics—pieces of rosaries and cassocks, memories of the celibate priests—but even their rudimentary calendar commemorating Christmas and Good Friday was still correct.

The Church persists, because God never ceases to dwell among us. The creation saw him not only ordering the world by his Word, but brooding over it by his Spirit, a presence consummated in his personal appearance in the first-century puppet kingdom of Judæa: a peasant from a shabby village in the most backwards part of the Mediterranean. That is where God chose to live, in poverty and disgrace and, at length, a rushed and cruel execution.

This is the world he recklessly adores. Whatever else happens to, in, because of, the holy Catholic Church and her ministers, he will not abandon us.

But that same holy Catholic Church is, mystically, his Body: i.e., the organism by which he is normally pleased to effect his will on earth. Which means that you and I are his chosen instruments. And if we are to reform and reïnvigorate that Body, we must call for certain specific qualities in the reform.

1. Prayerful. Any change we call for from the hierarchy must be rooted in God and oriented to him. Without this, nothing else we do will matter.
2. Non-partisan. Any reform must be genuine reform, not the mere triumph of one sect or style of Catholicism over its rivals. Abuse and concealment do not map to the leanings of bishops, priests, or diocesan cultures, and strict traditionalists are no less guilty than pastoral progressives. (Heresy, to be sure, must be dealt with—but that would be true regardless of any link it had to the scandals.)
3. Concrete. Any reform must be both achievable (for instance, “Get rid of sin” would not be a practical goal as applied to the Church’s structure) and specifiable: e.g., meeting or exceeding legal standards for reporting is not concrete, but notifying the local DA of all accusations deemed credible is; disciplinary measures are not concrete, but deprived of faculties to hear confessions is.
4. Public. Whatever reforms are advocated, they must be a matter of public record and accountability. The culture of deceit that has befouled the Church is not going to go away spontaneously, and those clergy that are hiding their own wrongdoing, of whatever kind, are counting on this to just blow over. That must not happen. Rather, for every change the laity call for, there must be an accompanying means of our independently investigating whether and how it is really being implemented, and whether and how it’s working.
5. Sustainable. Every reform we demand must include a plan for maintaining its work. This may or may not mean a way of perpetuating specific policies or institutions: the key thing here is preserving a purified culture among the clergy, and every reform is a means to that end; and few means are so perfect that they will never admit of change. In any case, we need such reforms as will outlast popular attention to the scandal and the current generation of the clergy.

✠ ✠ ✠

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Three Poems

I recently began working on a series of autobigraphical, free-verse poems, dealing with my Reformed, or Calvinist, upbringing. My plan is to write one for each of the five points of the famous TULIP acrostic (which represents the distinctively Reformed doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints; we won't stop to explore their meaning here, but this Wiki article gives a fairly good theological and historical summary), plus at least one introductory poem and at least one concluding poem. I don't have the whole thing mapped out, but I have the first three poems written, and I thought I'd share them here. I may still alter them further, I don't know.

It should be, but isn't, unnecessary to add that I'm writing about my personal experience of Reformed theology. I am not talking about anybody else in the world.

Trigger warning: spiritual and sexual abuse.

✠     ✠ ✠

The Garden

When I was a child I walked in the garden in the cool of the day.
The trees, gravid with fruit, hung branches low against the sky,
Offering, encouraging;
The flowers clustered close along the moss-soft paths,
Roses, lilies, clove blossoms, irises,
Nectar and incense over smooth stones.
There are footprints left on the path,
Mingled with strange, polished markings, curved or coiled,
And insubstantial or mutating shapes,
As if in imitation of those feet.
Keening, crying,
A cockerel calls the alarum.


His feet among the tulips, his hands brush the roses and the lilies.
‘This is love,’ he says, laying his fingers on my throat,
Forcing me down to bow.
‘I know it hurts, I know it’s harsh,
I know it feels nothing like any loves you know,
But you have to trust me,’
As I writhe and gasp and my eyes blur:
‘This is what real love is.’
The thorns scrape on my skin
And I cannot feel my knees or my wrists.
‘This is love. Stop crying.’


I am fifteen and I know much of metaphysics.
I know the subtleties of Scripture, and there is nothing in Saint Paul
That for me is hard to be understood.
Hold a prism before the mystery’s light,
And I shall define the sevenfold color of being:
Sovereignty, holiness, truth, omniscience, justice, power, and mercy.
All things are in his will and are his will,
From the starlit glories of the galactic pillars,
To the dirty bathroom where someone tasted salt
On the head of a twenty-year-old cock.
It was not me
Because there is no me:

There is only the will of my God.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee: 'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.
✠     ✠ ✠

Generally, I put my blog posts on my Patreon for funding. I'm not doing that with this one, for reasons I expect will be clear once you've read it.

I've written several posts over the last month, criticizing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual members of it, together with the whole hierarchy. I've put out a number of tweets and some particularly forceful Facebook status updates (tremble, ye princes), expressing my own personal sense of betrayal and anger at the irresponsible, self-centered, corrupt prelates who would not or could not act to protect young victims of clerical abuse. I have fulminated, warned, and prophesied. And of course I knew very well that I'm not perfect, but consoled myself that at least I have no position of responsibility to shirk, the way they had been doing apparently for decades.

Yesterday afternoon, I was walking home, and I went past the bus stop near my house. Maybe thirty people were scattered along the sidewalk, one cluster at the bus stop and another a little way up the block. In between them, there was a little boy leaning against the railing outside the church—he couldn't have been more than five years old. I smiled at him.

A man came up who seemed to be the boy's father, and, seemingly apropos of nothing, started hitting him. The first time was weird and ugly, but of course some parents do use corporal discipline, and that's hardly my business (even if it did seem to be discipline for literally nothing). The second time was weirder and uglier. The third, still more so, especially since the boy wasn't reacting at all, as though this were perfectly normal. The fourth was a kick, which swept the little boy's legs out from under him, and at this he did begin to cry. The man yelled something, I don't know what, and took him by the arm and started marching him toward the bus stop.

I did nothing.

Oh, I said something like, 'Hey, whoa!' I was stunned that a person would just do this, in broad daylight and among all those people—and nobody said anything, I wondered whether I were just being a busybody but I knew I wasn't. It was child abuse.

But rather than follow up on anything, I just ... turned up the sidewalk, went to my door, and went inside. I didn't even think of calling the police until hours later, when it was utterly useless to do so.

If you admire or like me, and you're thinking of extenuating circumstances and reasons this isn't as bad as it sounds, or you want to reassure me because you think I'm torturing myself or something, then do me a favor and shove all that stuff where the sun don't shine. This is no better in me than it is in a Cardinal. The bystanders were no worse than I was—they just did what I did. We're all obligated to each other. My inaction was gross hypocrisy, and worse than that: it abandoned a child to violence. If I am going to publicly write one single word of moral judgment, and ask others to listen to it, then I need to own my own shit publicly too. That isn't heroic or impressive. That's the most elementary form of fairness and honesty that we all need to start with.

And no, I don't need to make a dramatic confession on the internet every time I do anything wrong. But when I do something that is so intensely relevant to the very things I'm calling other people out for then I sure as hell need to call me out too.

Seriously, don't give me any comments about this being brave or whatever. I fucking mean it, I will not publish them, I don't want to hear them—this right here is penance, don't encourage my pride.

✠     ✠ ✠