Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Monday, September 26, 2016

Jesus is a Loser: The Gospel Truth About Trump and the Catholic Vote

I was wearing my "Gore for President" button the year I began to attend Roman Catholic mass regularly in 2000. One morning that fall I was accosted by a weekday morning regular. He was friendly about it, but wanted to know how I could be on the Communion line every morning while planning to vote a "pro abortion" (his words, not mine) ticket. No one at church has questioned me thus, since that day, but during every presidential election since, the United States Bishops have aimed to influence how Catholics vote by means of carefully worded public statements. That came to a halt with the Trump candidacy. So why aren't the U.S. Bishops urging Catholics to vote for the "pro-choice" candidate? 
I recently asked a few priests whether there has been any pressure from the top to endorse the GOP candidate. One reported a little boostering in local races, but otherwise, it would seem that the United States Bishops are not interested in seeing their flock elect Trump. There are a few reasons for this. Pope Francis condemned the plan to "build a wall" in February 2016 and Trump called the pontiff "disgraceful." Not a smart move on Trump's part, perhaps. On the other hand many conservative Catholics don't like Francis I and have been calling the pontiff names on blogs since the day he was elevated. Trump's quarrel with the pope is probably just part of the explanation. 
Although the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is (in my opinion) institutionally sexist and misogynistic, the church as a whole is not. Catholicism is an Abrahamic faith that has, since its start, recognized he intellectual and theological contributions of women. While it is true that the Vatican continues to strain to preserve an all-male priesthood, Roman Catholics of most stripes have been comfortable with many dramatic, post Vatican II changes which endow women religious, catechists, scholars, theologians and ministers with increased political and pastoral power within the church. In our theology we have, in a sense, enshrined motherhood. Five of our church doctors are women. Even in conservative parishes today, one sees women doing everything but celebrating mass. 
Despite our many differences, we Roman Catholics tend, on the whole, to harbor a high regard for the strength of women, the intellectual competence of women, and the spiritual gifts of women. Our understanding of the passion of Jesus requires that we notice that women remained at the foot of the cross when the apostles ran away in fear. A woman greeted the risen Christ. Mary, we are taught, is the lone human being to be born without sin. Catholics many be divided on abortion, artificial contraception, economics, gender and sexual identity issues, and ordination of women, but there's a pocket of reverence for what Rev. Daniel Berrigan called the "feminine face of God" which most Roman Catholics embrace at least somewhat in some form. It's not enlightened feminism, and it's hard to characterize. Perhaps it's where the code of chivalry got its start. Whatever that pocket of reverence is, it is sufficiently compelling and even loving to render a man who calls women "pigs" and "cows" looking too indecent to occupy the Oval Office. 
Why aren't the bishops subtly urging Roman Catholics to get out and vote for the man who disavows Roe v. Wade? Because the bishops know Trump doesn't care about Roe v. Wade. They know he's posturing. Trump has changed his position once, and will change it back if elected. He's not pro-life; he's pro-Trump.
Trump's disgust for women appears to encompass a deep distaste for motherhood itself, and that pertains. A candidate who appears to view maternity itself as disgusting and wives disposable can hardly be trusted to bear the "pro-life" banner. Even conservative, sexist Roman Catholics who care little for the achievements of women in general tend to hold the work of mothers in high regard. It's built into our formation. Trump has bragged about not changing diapers. He has allowed his children to grow up with a total of three mothers. One of his children barely knows him. It appears that his children have had to win his approval by excelling at the usury and avarice in which Trump excels. For Trump, a mother is a 'bleeding from her wherever' means to an end, a vessel through which heirs come, a necessary evil. 
I happen to be a believer who would welcome more separation between church and state. I liked Bernie Sanders' religious views best. I would be happy to have an atheist president. But many of my fellow Roman Catholics would not. That Trump has no religion is a problem for some. More disturbing to many religious folk however, than the eschewing of practice and faith, is the "bad faith" appropriation of religion.
Trump's favorite books are The Holy Bible, which he appears not to have read; and the Art of the Deal, an autobiography he appears not to have written. He does not read for pleasure. He is no seeker. He seizes the fact of his daughter's conversion to Judaism as an outward sign that he is not anti-Semitic. (I believe he is anti-Semitic.) He has darkened the door of black churches in an attempt to get black people to vote for him. He pretends to have some kind of shifting Protestant affiliation himself. People of most faiths tend to agree that God is for everyone, but most agree that using God for self-aggrandizement is disrespectful. 
The 1965 papal encyclical Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) exhorted Catholics to seek and recognize the light of divinity in other faiths. (Nostra Aetate imperfect document that required and has benefitted from tweaking since the time of its publication.) Nostra Aetate makes especially clear the obligation of Catholics to recognize the divine spark in Islam. While I certainly see too many Roman Catholics jumping on the anti-Muslim bandwagon, I continue to believe that most Roman Catholics believe that prejudice is sinful and that derision of the Muslim faith goes against God. Educated Catholics who embrace the essence of Nostra Aetate have little choice but to regard the Islamic faith with respect. I believe most Roman Catholics view the kind of blanket derision of Islam Trump promulgates as a sin. 
And there is Trump's view of immigrants and the poor. Notwithstanding the Roman Catholic hierarchy's failure to teach this by example, Catholics in the pews tend to agree that respecting the poor is at the heart Roman Catholic tradition. The Gospels tell us that Jesus was at various points, poor, homeless, a refugee, a prisoner, a torture victim and ultimately a victim of capital punishment. The only time we see Jesus throw a Trump-esque tantrum, it is in response to the kind of cheating, vulgarity and profaning of the temple Donald Trump most favors.
The bishops and progressive Roman Catholics have long agreed on the importance of welcoming immigrants into our nation. Welcoming immigrants is a bit of a theological no-brainer for any Catholic guided by the Gospels. I believe that it may be his contempt for the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, that will cost Trump the Roman Catholic vote. According to Roman Catholic teaching, the poor are beloved by God. According to Trump, the poor are "losers." Were Trump to be fully candid about his religious feelings, he might characterize Jesus himself, the Jesus of the Beatitudes, as a "loser." 
That Catholics in the pews are not being urged to vote for the (so-called) "pro-life," Republican candidate means something. It's a blaring reticence. I hope every Roman Catholic is listening. To the gospel truth about Trump.
The Gospel reading for September 11th of this year concerned lost sheep, a lost son, lost coins, and the problem of breaking bread with tax collectors. On September 11th, every Catholic in the nation who made it to mass that day heard the same reading about the woman who searches everywhere in her home for one lost coin, the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in his care to search for the lost one, the lousy son who had abandoned his father but later returned to feast at the head of the family's table. We heard Jesus explain his willingness to dine with a tax collector. The priest celebrating the mass I attended on September 11th brought his homily to a close with these words: "Everyone is welcome at God's table. We build a bridge to that table not a wall. A bridge, not a wall."

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016

Amoris Laetitia, Joy of Love, A Beautiful Sales Pitch

Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love) the book-length apostolic exhortation released to the general public about a week ago sums up the Vatican’s two year-long Synod on Family. While much like the pontiff’s most recently released encyclical Laudato Si, has the fresh and generous tone we have come to associate with Pope Francis I, it reiterates, reintroduces and reframes already existing teaching. It does not give us much that is new. This should not surprise anyone. Francis I is expert in warming up cold doctrine. Pope-watchers often look for dramatic turns whenever a Vatican document drops, but “the bigger the bus, the harder it is to turn” applies. The Magisterium changes slowly. Francis I was elevated to beat back a schism — -not to incite to one. Bottom line: Catholics are still supposed to remain married. Divorced Catholics are still considered adulterers by the Magisterium., and LGBTQ people are still, though less explicitly, “disordered,” and artificial contraception is still a grave sin.

So why all of the excitement about Amoris Letitae? The document shines a light on the principle of discernment while dusting off the the principle known (in Catholic teaching) as “Law of Graduality.” There are degrees of sinfulness, and discernment, in theory helps us know how to best address transgressions. There has long existed wiggle room for pastors counseling divorced and remarried Catholics. Divorced and remarried Catholics have been receiving unofficial permission from their priests to receive the sacraments for decades. What’s good about Amoris Laetitia is that those divorced and remarried Catholics who did not know before Amoris Laetitia now know just how commonplace it is for discerning priests to counsel some divorced and remarried Roman Catholics to go ahead and receive Communion. 

 Discernment and primacy of conscience are not new to Roman Catholicism. These principles were focal points of the Second Vatican Council. As Pope Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger) said in his commentary on the 1965 pastoral constitution gaudium et spes, there are instances in which conscience supersedes ecclesiastical law:
Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.

Amoris Laetitia contains some sound thinking on family and marriage, and seems to have drawn some modicum of wisdom from a couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola, who testified in the forum about their marriage. They reported that their healthy sex life had helped keep their sacramental marriage strong. They implied that sex had helped them to endure the trials to which most marriages are subject. Marriage is difficult and psychologically complex.The Pirolas spoke beautifully of their desire to see same-sex unions honored by the church, and I found it deeply encouraging to find that their story had not fallen on deaf papal ears. 

Unfortunately, even the most insightful moments of Amoris Laetitia’s discussion of marriage bear the taint of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy’s deep-rooted sexism and misogyny. I wanted to trust in the pontiff’s wisdom on marriage and family, but knowing that out of the 279 who voted, not all of them priests, not a single one was female cast a shadow over the entire letter. Amoris Laetitia glosses over contraception, declines to notice the Zika virus, reaffirms early on that babies should be conceived as an act of love. (Exceptions for children who are adopted are made later on in the letter). Children conceived with the help of artificial means are not quite so blessed, perhaps, as the rest. I loved the repeated exhortations to love one’s children with fervent abandon; it’s good advice, but it is easy to see that Amoris was written by men with no children. At one point in the text, citing another (2014) Vatican report, Amoris Laetitia advances the notion that being born out of marriage is as tragic as a being sexually violated, which struck me as nervy:
A great number of children are born out- side of wedlock, many of whom subsequently grow up with just one of their parents or in a blended or reconstituted family… The sexual exploitation of children is yet another scandalous and perverse reality in present-day society. "(Amoris Laetitia, Chapter Two) 
Pope Francis has called for more involvement of women in (lay) leadership positions in the church, but he’s also called us (Catholic women) “strawberries on the cake.” Francis I not only opposes the ordination of women, but has also failed to lift the ban on discussion of it among clerics and theologists teaching in Catholic institutions. He asserts the rights of women to excel in their professions and careers, but the boosting feels pro forma. He reminds married men of the importance of supporting women who aspire in the workplace, but that too, comes off as perfunctory due to the roaring silence of the elephant of Women’s Ordination in the apostolic chambers.The pope is an old Latin American man who was elevated to the papacy to prevent a schism, not to detonate a feminist Reformation. I doubt that any cleric who so fervently opposes the ordination of women can be taken seriously on any aspect of feminism. Anything positive Amoris Laetitiae tries to say about the achivement of women outside motherhood comes off as lip service. 

The Vatican may not like feminists, feminist ideology or Catholic feminists, but they like our money, and they know that there are still feminist women in the church who baptize their children, and thus increase the Roman Catholic fold. It distresses me to say that I believe the chief objective of this apostolic exhortation is to keep LGBTQ and remarried Catholics in the pews where, though still technically prohibited from receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist, they are welcome to contribute financially.

I have noticed lately, in the bustling Roman Catholic blog world, a preponderance of chatter on the subject of tithing. In one piece I read recently, the the writer asserted that the refusal to tithe for reasons of principle (versus poverty) should be viewed as heresy. On the other hand, I know increasing numbers of mass-goers who have decided to continue to attend mass while declining to drop legal tender in the offertory basket. These soft boycotts, it seems, kicked into higher gear roughly around the time the child sex abuse crisis began to hit the papers (10–15 years ago). Catholics began to worry that money once used to feed or clothe the poor, or underwrite altar flowers might now be used to pay off sexually abused plaintiffs. 

About a decade ago, in Brooklyn, where I live, I saw a series of poor parishes shuttered while a half-mile away, a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to build Brooklyn’s second cathedral was under way. There appeared to be a pattern of milking parishes before closing parishes down. I believe that increasing numbers of Catholics are beginning to question tithing. Catholics in the pews are wising up to the dioceses’ practices. They now know that a fraction of their parishes’ weekly per capita contributions winds up in their diocese’s pocket. Diocese insiders know that each diocese kicks back, in one way or another, to Rome. Anyone who reads the newspapers knows that the Vatican is filthy rich. Why, then, a Peter Pence collection?

Every time I broach the question of ordaining women with a male priest, I am told it’s “inevitable” but not in my lifetime. Yet when I ask the same men how (what I have begun to call) a “Lysistrata-style” boycott would influence thinking, their answers surprise me. “What if every woman working for the church decided to boycott the basket and refuse to do church work until women were ordained? What if, at the start of Advent 2016, all women who challenge the Vatican’s position on ordaining women just decided not to tithe or work for free any longer?” Would the Vatican cave?” “Of course,” answers every Roman Catholic male priest I have ever asked.

The Vatican will shift on ordination when, and not before, economics forces its hand. Strengthening involvement at parish and diocese levels, which is a focus of Amoris Laetitia, postpones this inevitable outcome. The elevation of Jorge Bergoglio was the first step in a dramatic diplomatic approach to placating indignant, outraged Roman Catholics. I do not doubt that the pope is sincere in his belief in a less judgmental more loving church, but he has been astonishingly adept at winning great popularity while still upholding the hierarchy’s existing prejudice toward women and LGBTQ Catholics. In Amoris Laetitia Francis exhorts clerics at the diocese level to say whatever they must to divorced and remarried Catholics — -stopping short of official apostasy, of course —in order to keep pews full and diocese coffers flush. There’s almost no risk or downside to this approach because discernment and primacy of conscience are 50 year-old doctrines.

Furthermore, this more generous repackaging of Vatican II teaching paves the way for increased involvement of lay workers. The push to include lay workers — -women in particular, enables pastors and bishops to include women while excluding them. Increased power without ordination. It’s slightly analogous to awarding a title change without a pay increase. The hierarchy needs more women working because priestly vocations are low and expected to get lower. By inviting more women to do the work priests and women religious (nuns) once did — -bringing Communion to the infirm and elderly, teaching Catechism classes, serving as patoral counselors — -the bishops are able to both reduce the workloads of their already overburdened priests and placate those who complain about the Vatican’s exclusion of women from positions of power in the Church. 

Nuns have historically done much of the heavy lifting in the Church for very little money. In the U.S. and Western Europe at least, women are no longer becoming nuns. In regions wherein feminism thrives, the Vatican is likely glad to see convents close, especially since it is in certain communities of women religious that the Women’s Ordination movement got its start. Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation stresses the importance of increasing involvement on the part of the laity, because without the low-cost labor of women religious (nuns) and its predominantly female volunteer workforce, parishes would not be able operate as smoothly as they do at present.

Many Roman Catholic parishes in the U.S. have Parish Pastoral Councils. Their members are lay people, but these are headed by pastors. Pastoral Councils are very much not Boards of Directors such as one finds in temples and other churches. Parish Pastoral Councils do not make policy. So what are they for? What do they do? When I sat on one, the great push was for creating strategies for making parish life more attractive and welcoming to lapsed Catholics (especially families with children.) The John Jay College study of the child sex abuse scandal was released a year or two before I joined my Parish Pastoral Council. Per capita Sunday contributions were down. Brick and mortar exigencies loomed. Poor churches in neighboring parishes were closing, and the bishop of our diocese was laying groundwork for a long-term goal of merging our parish with a neighboring one. Every month for three years, discussions about increasing membership in the parish ensued. “Why aren’t people coming to mass?” many asked, puzzled. “Where are the teenagers?” I thought it a no-brainer. People were didn’t want to rear daughters in a church with a male-only priesthood. LGBT Catholics didn’t want to hear they were “disordered” every Sunday morning. Catholic parents of young children, and survivors of sexual abuse didn’t want to support a Vatican that was going easy on bishops who abetted raping pedophile priests by shuffling them from diocese to diocese. Fix all that, I used to sit there thinking, and parishes the 9 will be Standing Room Only.

At parish and diocese levels, there is immense pressure from on high, to increase attendance, baptisms, preparation for sacraments and tithing. This canonical year’s “Year of Mercy” was designed, in part, I believe, to bring lapsed Catholics back. I believe the apostolic exhortation is part of the larger plan to bring lapsed Catholics back and prevent disgusted ones from departing. I believe the pontiff’s predecessor stepped down because he was too personally mired in the Vatican sex abuse crisis to be an evangelizing force. (Josef Ratzinger was head of the CDF — -Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while the events we saw chronicled in the film Spotlight ensued.) Francis I was chosen to stave off a the start of a schism and to unify the warring factions. In Francis I deftly changes the spirit of Catholic law without interfering with its letter.

Amoris Laetitia does not create more lenience. It shines a spotlight on lenience that has existed for 50 years. We saw an example of this kind of reframing of teaching when Pope Francis I, recently, announced his wish that churches would include women in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual. The traditional view of this, it seems, is that only a man (a priest, ideally) emulating Jesus and the 12 men assuming the roles of apostles should properly take part in the foot-washing. Yet women have been washing feet and having their feet washed at every Holy Thursday mass I’ve attended for the last 20 years. I am a woman. I’ve both washed feet and had my own washed in Holy Thursday masses. This is old news, but with Amoris, the pope dusts it off and pops a new headline on it.

About a decade ago, I spent a few summers in a parish led by an extraordinarily creepy priest. His sermons were hateful and stupid. His masses were robotic and joyless. The parish was not welcoming, the sort that push each other out of the way before the Recessional hymn to get to the parking lot while still masticating the Eucharist. I left this God-forsaken assembly and began to attend masses in Spanish one town over. The assembled were joyful in their worship. Their Mariachi-style music was lovely. But I found it difficult to get used to watching two lines form at Communion: one for those receiving the sacrament, and another for those prohibited from it. Those who were banned from Communion crossed their arms across their chests asking for a blessing, while those receiving Communion held their hands clasped in the traditional prayer position. A great number of the men in attendance chose not to go up at all.

I wondered how the women must have felt when returning to the pews where they sat with their children. What kind of impression is made? (I guessed that most of the women were living with men they hadn’t married in a church, contracepting.) How did the children regard their parents lack of spiritual fitness? It was their Sabbath. What kind of message was that conveying about Jesus? Was this treatment consistent with the church Jesus instituted? I thought about the white, Irish Catholic priest celebrating the mass. How free of sin was he, actually? Had he reached out to any of these families about discernment or primacy of conscience? 

It’s too bad the Vatican needed the fear of mass exodus of Catholics from the church and a slow but steadily approaching schism in order to feel some urgency to share more enthusiastically Vatican II’s good news about discernment and primacy of conscience. It can not be denied that Amoris Laetitia has delivered good news to many. All Catholics who read it will come away more aware of the generosity the principle of discernment provides. Still, I find the timing disturbing. One can, as so many do, as I do, rather like Pope Francis I, and still worry about his motives and agenda. 

Whatever one’s feelings about the church, the Vatican and the pope himself, one will not find anything truly new under the sun in Amoris Laetitia. It might taste a bit salty and sweet, but it’s warmed up leftovers, not a meal prepared fresh. It’s old news with a new headline, more advertorial than editorial. Amoris Laetitia appeals; I wish it didn't read like a sales pitch. I don’t quite buy it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Pope Vs. Trump. Let The One Who Is Without Walls Throw The First Stone

We heard lots about the two walls earlier this week: the wall of Trump's dreams, which would protect the United States from illegal immigrants, and the wall that contains and protects the sovereign nation that is Vatican City. Pope Francis finds Trump's wall-erecting aspirations disappointing. I agree with the sentiments, but I don't think the pontiff has much standing in criticizing Trump. Not only does Francis live in a walled city, but also he heads up an organization that uses its power and obscene wealth to erect and maintain metaphorical walls. 
My politics are to the left of those of Bernie Sanders and I am an active, practicing Roman Catholic. It pains me to defend Trump. But Donald Trump is right to characterize Pope Francis's criticisms as "disgraceful." No one Christian has the moral authority to decide who the real Christians are, not even the pope. 
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico. 
By this definition, one could question whether the pope is Christian. What happened to "Who am I to judge?" 
Francis lives in a sovereign state surrounded by a wall. He is the Supreme Pontiff of a church that excludes many of its faithful from the sacraments on a daily basis. He upholds the misogynistic and theologically unsound doctrine that bars women from ordination. These are walls of a kind. Francis did not build them, and anyone paying any attention at all to the pope notices that often the pontiff uses his words to chip away at those walls he inherited. The walls, however, are still standing. 
Francis continues to uphold the exclusion of married LGBTQ Catholics from the sacraments. His hierarchy's animosity toward LGBTQ Catholics is no less hateful than Donald Trump's enmity for Mexican immigrants and Muslims. Are the pope's determination not to take part in the conversation about women's ordination or the Roman Catholic Curia's misogyny any less disgraceful than Trump's penchant for calling women "pigs"? I don't think they are. Both behaviors are misogynistic and exclusionary. Exclusion is a wall. When it comes to walls, the Vatican is the capo wall-builder of tutti wall-builders.
I don't doubt that the pontiff's objection to Trump's dream of building a wall high enough to keep Mexican immigrants out of the U.S. is in part sincere and deeply felt. He's a Latin American man. He clearly loves people and his own Christian feeling appears to move him to a "Christ-like" respect for the poor, the persecuted, the imprisoned. However Francis's condemnation of Trump is in strong keeping with the hopes the Vatican has for Latin Americans in North, Central and South America. Latin American Catholics are the Vatican's last hope in the Americas. North Americans are abandoning the Church. Protestant sects are flourishing in Latin America and their campaigns to convert disaffected Catholics have been immensely successful. Latin American immigrants are the Vatican's great (not quite white) hope in the U.S. The Church may want to honor the dignity of Mexican and Central American refugees in the United States, but the U.S. Bishops and the College of Cardinals want more; they want those new arrivals working, breeding, baptizing their children into the Roman Catholic Church and, most of all, tithing. 
The College of Cardinals and U.S. Bishops are in a tough spot with 2016's presidential campaign.
The U.S. bishops are progressive on immigration, but conservative on most social issues. Martin O'Malley would have been their guy on the immigration front (alone. On all other fronts he is technically self-excommunicated, as he publicly supports a woman's right to choose.) The Bishops are probably sorry to see Jeb Bush go. Not only is Bush soft(er) on undocumented immigrants, he's a Roman Catholic with a convert's fervor. 
The pontiff was not going rogue when he lashed out at Trump. Trump has been the Vatican's least favorite candidate from the start. There's nothing in it for the Vatican if Trump wins. Pope Francis may have been speaking from his heart when he characterized Trump as a poor Christian, but he was also exhibiting his readiness to stump for the Vatican's 'to be determined' GOP candidate of choice. 
The Catholic hierarchy's most pressing desire is to see a man in the Oval Office who will strain to overturn Roe v. Wade. They also want to see the defense of marriage effort revitalized and they want (and need) a president who will look kindly upon Roman Catholic immigrants. 
Trump doesn't fit the bill. he's not Catholic. He was ardently pro-choice until his presidential ambitions demanded that he ...experience an epiphany. It's an understatement to note that the sanctity of marriage hardly seems a focus for him, and my guess is that on the matter of same-sex marriage, Trump doesn't care who marries whom. The Vatican and U.S. Bishops fervently any Republican but Trump to win, and I think we will soon begin to see the Bishops engage in a carefully-coded campaign against Trump. The cornerstone for this effort is now in place. Trump insulted the pope. It's Onward Catholic Soldiers time. 
It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Bishops decide. Cruz and Rubio are both of Cuban heritage. Traditionally, politically conservative Cubans have exhibited less solidarity with fellow Latinos than have other Latino groups. Then there's religion. Ted Cruz is a wealthy evangelical who has been stiffing the collection plate. Marco Rubio is a faith-hopping (Catholic, to Mormon, to Evangelical Protestant to Catholic) as a sign of vibrant religious exploration, but it is hard to imagine the bishops seeing it that way. I think the Vatican will wind up blowing on Ted Cruz's dice. 
I think Trump is a spiritually empty sleaze, but Christianity doesn't demand perfection of anyone. Christians are sometimes mentally unbalanced. Christians fall in and out of grace. Christians sin. An atheist friend, a scientist, asked me who I thought the most "Christian" person in the presidential race was. I answered with a joke--and with all appropriate respect for the fact that he is not by any means a Christian--"Bernie Sanders." But the bandying about of the word "Christian" itself troubles me deeply. 
"Christian" should never be used as a synonym for "morally good." This exchange between Trump and the pope with its tossing about of the word "Christian" concerns me. It brings to the surface some very backwards notions about the moral fitness non-Christian presidential candidates (We saw plenty of this in 2008 with President Obama's candidacy.) In the (I believe) unlikely even that Hillary Clinton does not win the Democratic nomination, I believe Michael Bloomberg may enter the race. Were this to happen, we'd have two Jews running. Whether by design or by accident, the pope, in choosing to single out one candidate for a Christianity quotient assessment, adds his voice to the voice of the many who feel that being Christian is a de facto requirement for an American president. This offends my Christian sensibilities deeply. 
Does the pope have more moral authority than Donald Trump? Most human beings in the universe probably do. It was irresponsible for the pope to say what he said, and Trump was correct (though not wise) to call the pope's attack "disgraceful." The pontiff has the charisma needed to pull off this show of indignation. Jorge Bergoglio was chosen for 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' moments like these, but he and the Vatican are in no position to object to walls. Let the one who is without walls throw that stone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Little Lord Trump (Le Roi) and His MVP, Jesus

Jerry Fallwell, Jr. endorsed Donald Trump today. Anyone who watched the video footage of  Trump's speech at Liberty University last week saw this coming. What was especially harrowing about the Liberty speech was how it put Trump’s lack of spiritual development on full display. Liberty is a Christian University. Students were required to attend. Whatever one thinks of these students, one must concede that they take the Christian Bible seriously. News outlets had a great time with Trump's “Corinthians 2” moment, because Trump’s blunder, his manner of citing the pinch of biblical text he felt he needed to incorporate into his Martin Luther King Day address, revealed that Trump is not a churchgoer. Trump has called himself “an Evangelical,” identifies as Presbyterian, and has lied about being a regular worshipper at New York’s Marble Collegiate. He claims he has received the “cracker” (as he calls it) and the “wine” as part and parcel of his Presbyterian worship. For those who hold Holy Communion sacred, this characterization of Christ’s feast at the altar is (at least) some kind of low-grade desecration. 

Poking fun at one’s own religion is, in the view of most people, less disrespectful than lampooning one's neighbor’s religion. Yet Trump, who does not really have a religion, appeared before a large group of tuition-paying students who care enough about Jesus to matriculate at a Christian university and cracked wise, characterizing a verse of the Second Book of Corinthians as "the whole ball game."

The way Trump speaks tells us so much about him. He consistently exhibits an inability be precise, a penchant for reductive fallacy and a sophomoric approach to building a logical argument. He appears not to read for pleasure or edification, which, I suppose matters only to those of us who like the idea of a president who reads. Trump’s favorite book is one he appears not to have much read and his second favorite is one he claims to have written.  

Trump has no grasp of international relations. He has floated the idea that his attendance at an expensive Northeastern military school is a near substitute for military service. His over-reliance on puerile superlatives not only reveals him to be a weak statesman but also forces his audiences to wonder why a wealthy white man who managed to pick up a degree from an Ivy league school orates as if he were running for the captain of the prep school’s JV football team? 

I wouldn't call Trump stupid. He is an astute businessman and seems to be a facile grifter (if his Trump University scam is any indication)  and he has managed to go far in a presidential campaign without the advantage of rhetorical elan. The linguistic flair we are accustomed to seeing in “snake oil” peddlers is missing entirely. Does Trump believe his fan base too slow-witted to understand anything beyond “make this country great?” If “yes,” is Trump correct in that assessment? If “no,” why does he speak to his supporters as if they are children?

I think the problem is Trump his spirit and psyche, not his English language aptitude. Here's an illustration. When I taught Middle School and High School English I used to use a fast trick to ascertain where a student's education had stopped. I'd give the English student in question a math problem. I had taught 6th grade math. I knew there was a good chance a 10th grader who couldn't do a 5th grade math had stopped learning before or shortly after 5th grade. Trump is probably good at math. But his use of language strikes me as indicative of some kind of delayed development. 
Often linguistic development and psychological development are closely linked. My theory is that Trump stopped growing at some point. He stopped developing at an age at which greed, desire to have sex with hot girls, lack of empathy and lack of spiritual depth are perfectly normal and in high drive. What 13 year-old heterosexual boy wouldn’t look at very woman in his presence with an overarching concern for her degree of pulchritude? Who but a 13 year old boy would retaliate by calling her unattractive? What 13 year-old boy doesn’t want to win every contest, beat the best, dominate the game? 

I would be happy to have an atheist president. Indeed, I often think an atheist president, a leader untethered from the tyranny of organized religion would be very good for our nation. On the other hand, I am a Christian, and I find the promiscuous tossing about of God’s name for no purpose beyond getting votes repugnant. Donald Trump is ramping up his Christian status while dismissing most of what Jesus taught. “Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame” is a not even funny mockery made for political gain. Ironically, there's truth n that artless quip. To Trump the presidential race itself, as a game, and Jesus as a Most Valuable player.

Donald Trump is pimping out Jesus for props. Well-conceived blasphemy can be positive and I believe there's a place for even very irreverent jocularity in faith, belief and even ritual, but when I hear Trump, a man who so flagrantly embodies all that the Jesus of the New Testament is not, call Communion a "cracker," not I am offended. Not because I am sensitive to Holy Communion jokes--We make those at home-- but because it is clear that Trump has little use for Christianity beyond its potential to help him rack up votes. 

Back when I was in Catechism class, we called breaking the third commandment “using the Lord’s name in vain.” Trump, the rich man who can pass into Heaven as easily as a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, takes the name of Christ in vain when he plays at being a man of faith in exchange for votes. Trump has done the opposite of selling all he owns to follow Jesus. Trump has contempt for refugees. Trump is a warmonger and a scam artist. His acolytes may think he is the “Way” but even they know he is neither the “Truth” nor the “Light.” I don’t know whether Trump is a Christian--no one can know such a thing about another--but I can see that to Trump, that Jesus is his tool.

Catholic theology places much importance on the connection between words and creation, and holds as one of its truths that incarnation a is a culmination in which the word is made flesh. “In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.” (John, 1:1) As a Christian with a religious practice, I find the Donald's bible trumping appalling. As a writer, poet and educator who has taught students ages 5 through 83 to write, argue, and speak persuasively, I note that Trump’s puerile manner of speaking should alarm us. I fear Trump's struggle with rhetoric suggests the possibility of profound arrested development or something worse. 

Trump orates like a 12 year-old. He views women as a 12 year-old might---or perhaps as a slowly maturing Frat boy might.  His conception of God is like that a 12 year-old would be expected to have. He fears strangers ('the other') as a 12 year-old who hasn’t been taught to value differences does. Trump approaches religious faith like a 12 year-old forced to go to Hebrew school or Catechism class in order to get the big party and prizes that come with a Bar Mitzvah or First Holy Communion. 

I had the honor of sponsoring two of my nieces in Roman Catholic Confirmation not long ago. Each girl was about 14 years old at the time,  highly intelligent, uncommonly imaginative, healthfully oppositional in their challenging dogma and doctrine. Their religious director was a stickler for keeping some meaning in the preparation, so I was required to engage in a protracted dialogue with both girls leading up to the sacrament itself. These discussions of faith Baptismal vows, which they endured and in which I savored,  constituted some of the most affirming moments of my life. The developmental role of intelligent, independent adolescents is to push back against the conditioning of religious education, to be annoyed with God, to mistrust the whole thing, to recognize that religious conditioning has led them to the point of the Bat Mitzvah, or confirmation. There is fire and holiness in that struggle. 

I think Trump is like the 12 year-old who wants to sleep late on Sundays. He'll stay in Sunday School with Jesus because right now, Jesus is a winner and there are parties and big prizes at the end of the Liberty ball game.Trump's use of Christian text for use in the service of xenophobia, greed and bellicosity suggests that he is either spiritually tone deaf or has no clue at all about what Christians believe Jesus the rabbi of Nazareth is believed by so many to have said. There’s something sociopathic in this pandering.  

It is disturbing to see how disingenuous to see so many so-called "Christians" compromising their "Christian"values in order to follow the weirdly messianic Trump with his promises to make "America great again." Tea Party patriots who champion Trump now confirm what those of us on the left have always suspected. They don't care about Christ, or "pre-born" children, or keeping "Merry Christmas" in the retail lexicon. They care about keeping their money and guns, and the Good Lord Jesus was just a means to that end. 

And what does "make America great again" even mean? A grown man with some facility for language and even a scant grasp of American history would be telling us when it was that America was great. What is that New Jerusalem of the past Trump to which Trump in Pom-Pom girl booster mode alludes? Besides which, Donald Trump has racist contempt for much of the Americas. 

A grown man does not stand on stages and call military opponents “very bad people.” A grown man does not describe the mass murder and torture of Christians as "very bad things happening in Syria," especially while mangling texts from their sacred book as a means of getting votes. Often stunted psychological growth and arrested spiritual growth go hand in hand. I think we are seeing both in Donald Trump and we should be alarmed. If Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination, the GOP will be throwing down with a petulant and fickle child. 

I disagree with Cruz on almost every issue but I can almost imagine Ted Cruz functioning normally in a congregation, caring about the person beside him in the pew. In Trump’s case, I can not see this. I see him sizing up the guy next to him in the pew. If she is a woman, he is assessing her pulchritude and assigning her a number between 1 and 10. Donald Trump has no interest in the divine light in all  people. With the Donald, people are either "great," "losers," or "pigs."  

As a progressive Roman Catholic, I am surprised to find myself in relative solidarity, in this, with those ultra Orthodox Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians who resist the Christian Right’s acceptance of Donald Trump. They are far less interested in whether “Christmas” returns to the Starbuck’s cup than they are in helping a thrice-married preppie grifter who, not so long ago supported “partial-birth abortion” hijack the  Republican party. They know a man who doesn't believe in anything but himself is likely to go rogue once in office. Most of them believe calling female colleagues “pigs,” cheating on one’s wife and children, bragging about one’s extramarital sexploits and divulging fantasies of dating one’s own daughter are not really compatible with Christian feeling and thinking. Many believe a tax-shelter “university” designed to relieve na├»ve working people of their 401Ks is both something upon which Jesus of Nazareth would frown. Most think the filthy rich should belong/tithe to a church make charitable donations. Many believe Trump should have used his clout to support efforts to obtain more help for 911 first responders.

It’s a stretch to call that the event at Liberty a worship service. On the other hand, it might be legitimate to call a multitude of Christians discussing Christianity an assembly of "two or more gathered in His name.” A crowd so record-breaking large had gathered at Liberty U to hear Trump speak on the day our nation chooses to honor Martin Luther King Jr., that Trump was moved to "dedicate the record" King (No further mention of King was made). But Trump wasn't there for justice. He was there, among those gathered in his name, to close a sale. To throw some money around, to hawk some doves. As I watched that video footage, I half expected to see some onward Christian soldier take a lash the Donald.

Like most progressives, I don’t much like Ted Cruz either. But I suspect Cruz may, in his personal and in his political life, try to allow his Christian feeling to inform his conduct. I have a hunch—there’s never any way to know—that Cruz is at least holds some conception of Christ in mind. 

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has put Jesus on his team because Jesus is a good guy. Jesus is a the best religious guy. Moses is good, but Moses can't won. Allah? Forget about it. Jesus is very big with the people. Jesus is the best for getting rid of the Muslims. Jesus is popular. Jesus is a real winner. Jesus is the Most valuable player. Trump’s fervent prayer is that Jesus might blow on his dice