Posts Tagged ‘Benedict XVI’

Dan Savage’s Brief Shining Moment

Friday, September 30th, 2011

A few years ago I attended for a time one of the world’s best business schools, and there I confirmed in “granular” detail (a B-school word) something I already knew: that after people reach a certain age, hardly anybody drinks certain brands of beer.

I have fond memories of these brands, not because I drank them–they had a taste that I never bothered to acquire–but because of their charming old advertising jingles and logos, and because of a silly joke my late Dad taught me when I was a little boy: “Albert, does beer make you smart?” . . . “It made Bud wiser.”

From a great business professor I learned of the herculean marketing efforts necessary to get people to keep drinking these beers, with inevitably diminishing returns as people reach the age of functional maturity. Just as car insurance companies know from long-collected empirical evidence that young people cannot generally make wisely considered decisions behind the wheel until about the age of 25, the major beer companies know, based upon similar research, that young people generally stop drinking their brand of beer by the age of 29–perhaps because they have finally made a few wisely-considered decisions. Therefore the big beer companies live and die by the tiny demographic margin generated by their ads.

One might say that these beers have each been branded as: “The beer America is still dumb enough to drink.”

We’ve all seen the beer ads with young, slim, attractive people having all kinds of fun in something of a Never Neverland of youth, where beer neither makes you drunk nor fat, and where the mere choice of a brand of beer impresses buxom and scantily-clad–and recently, clever and engaging–young women. Then some day reality hits, like the actual beer party that occurred when the cast of TV’s Cheers retired from the show, and some of cast got sloppy drunk by actually downing the amount of real beer equivalent to the fake beer that they pretended to consume on TV.

I have very unpleasant memories of these beers as well, and they have to do not only with the homeless alcoholics I tried to assist for over two decades, but also with the amount of swill consumed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by my contemporaries and some priest faculty at the now defunct Niles College Seminary, the former college seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago and my alma mater of unhappy memory. “Come for the priesthood, stay for the beer” seemed to have been the watchword at Niles College.

While the priests of my early youth “took the pledge” not to drink until they were thirty, the uncorked “spirits of Vatican II” changed all that. Niles College in my unhappy college years was a particular locus of alcohol consumption by students and faculty alike, and quite a shock to my, I suppose, naively pious expectations formed in the minor seminary. I recall one day when the liquor delivery truck arrived at the Niles College rectory, and unloaded what seemed to be dozens of crates and barrels of booze for a faculty soiree. This being the Archdiocese of Chicago, I then prayed for Eliot Ness, Rico, Lee, and Youngblood to pull up in their 1930s roadster and bust the place, but my prayers went in that respect unanswered. One of my proofs for the existence of God is that somehow a number of holy priests were ordained in Chicago despite everything they experienced at Niles College during that era.

Part of the “Niles Experience,” as we then called it, included the ribald, over-sexed, curse-laden, scatological, sometimes homosexual dorm humor that persists to some limited degree today among the clergy of the Archdiocese of Chicago of a certain age and outlook. This dorm humor is very similar to the dorm humor that has traversed colleges and barracks since time immemorial. This humor was also heard annually at Niles College around a beer party in the 1970s on the night of the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the quarters of a divine, a party that had a particularly defiling name for the Immaculate Conception that was finally squelched when John Patrick Cardinal Cody, several years into the recurrent celebration, got wind of it due to a dispute among the clergy when someone passed the word to him in retribution. This party for me, despite the abundance of drink, was a spiritual Dead Sea of the Archdiocese, from which sulphuric smoke followed for Chicago. What the seminary hath sometimes wrought! O tempora, O mores. . .

The seminary system of the Archdiocese of Chicago not long thereafter played a part for a year or so in the high school education of MTV personality and sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who later completed his apprenticeship in dorm speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (coincidentally, the alma mater of Hugh Hefner).

(Let me add a disclaimer here that the fine faculty of Quigley Preparatory Seminary North, as it was then called in the early 1980s, were a stellar group who wouldn’t dream of planting into Mr. Savage’s head some of the things which have issued therefrom since. Ditto for the faculty at UIUC.)

While every college dorm seems to have a guy like Mr. Savage, he has since brought dorm humor to the world in ways the world might not have imagined possible through the means of his sex advice column and television appearances. Mr. Savage writes the way some co-workers talk together privately on the job or some college students talk together in the dorm, in a coarse manner similar to the dialogue on the current popular cable TV show about New York firefighters, “Rescue Me.”

This mode of speech represents the underside of American Catholic culture. It is the way many Americans, and many American Catholics–to the shock of our Baptist and Evangelical brethren and “sisteren”–do talk informally, so it speaks to American youth in a particularly powerful way because they think that this is the way that grownups really talk, which is to a certain degree unfortunately true. In part to counter this cultural phenomenon years ago, the Holy Name Societies were founded. I’m expecting Archbishop Timothy Dolan any day now to enlist members of the NYFD to re-up in the Holy Name Society en masse for this very reason.

Mr. Savage differentiates himself from a marketing standpoint by including in this common mix of dorm speech his own variations in homosexual humor, which apparently help to keep the curious listening to him. He dispenses advice to the lovelorn by rather gleefully engaging in intimate sexual detail and pop pseudoscience, while also from time to time publicly hurling rather direct and violent threats and insults at those who anger him for various reasons.

Dan Savage’s sometimes violent writing persona is usually not that present in his public presentations to students, where he displays more honey and less vinegar, to use the celebrated distinction of St. Francis de Sales. One reviewer called Mr. Savage a “cool uncle” after his September, 2011 UIC MTV taping. His target demographic appears to be teens and young adults who still drink that certain brand of beer and who are still struggling to make wisely-considered decisions.

Mr. Savage’s knack for describing the same old sexual plumbing in hip, kaleidoscopic detail should not deceive: he is a sexual plumber who apparently loves his work, not an engineer who deeply understands it. Witness his dumb advice for couples to have affairs to spice up their relationships, trumpeted by the New York Times this past Summer of 2011 as if it was the first time human civilization had heard such a brilliant suggestion.

(Reserved for further extended comment at another time: Dan Savage’s understanding of heterosexual intimacy is almost completely blind to the experience of committed, long-term bonding as experienced by the female, and of the complex role that hormones like oxytocin and other physical and psychological processes play therein. The pictures Dan Savage draws of female-male committed love are clumsy, sad cartoons crushed down by pathetic, strained adolescent slapstick. Like the writers of “Sex and the City,” Dan Savage from time to time superimposes a gay male paradigm on the female.

If it’s any consolation, Mr. Savage is in good company. Michelangelo had a similar problem, in that, with the exception of masterpieces like the Pieta or the lovely image of Eve wrapped in the arm of the Creator in the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, many of the Master’s images of females appeared as “males with breasts.”)

Mr. Savage gives the lighthearted secular version of the “sex talk” previously administered in Catholic circles by physicians like my great aunt to Catholic high school girls in the 1940s, by straightforward Jesuits like Francis Filas, SJ in the 1950s and 1960s, and by Catholic couples in the 1960s and thereafter of his parents’ generation, who, like his parents, would participate in Marriage Encounter or other Catholic family activities. Mr. Savage thus represents in a way the secularized terminus of this tradition.

But Mr. Savage’s admirers or fellow activists rarely view Mr. Savage in a holistic, complete manner to the point of confronting the violence of his language. Dan Savage is on record for his scatological public threat in TV journalist Paula Zahn’s direction in 2006, and for his shared popularization of a new word for the refuse generated by anal intercourse rather spitefully assigned to former US Senator Rick Santorum in retribution for the Senator’s moral and political stances. This word is designed to appear prominently when the former Senator’s name is searched on the Internet. The Senator has been reported to be asking Google for relief from this prank, which has made Dan Savage a hero to those who can’t abide the former senator. Recently, Dan Savage stated in a televised appearance that he wanted to f___ the s____ out of Mr. Santorum. While it is possible to study anal intercourse in “granular” detail and speak as many words for offal as legend claims the Arctic clans possess for snow, such a feat buries itself in piles of its own insignificance.

Again, just about every big college dorm has, and probably always will, have its own Dan Savage.

After years of writing for newspapers handed away for free and appearing as an occasional TV talking head, Dan Savage reached national prominence and a White House invitation through his anti-bullying campaign designed also to assist LGBTQ youth, It Gets Better. I have already commented in an earlier blog on the incongruence of a writer with a history of violent language starting an anti-bullying campaign.

Dan Savage’s anti-bullying campaign has allowed him to cross over from speaking at predominantly LGBTQ events to a more general audience. Mr. Savage has thus found his way into national magazines, television, and of course the college speaking circuit where he is currently touring and taping for MTV appearances in which he dispenses sexual advice in a live-question format. His MTV taping appearance at the UIC campus in September, 2011 was not well subscribed, and staff reportedly had to rope in passers-by, but the campus newspaper gave him the obligatory puff treatment, citing merely his “sarcasm” directed at certain politicians, since after all, he is a celebrity who brought MTV to the campus. In general, the college press has been very kind to Mr. Savage, and has downplayed the violence that bursts out in his writing and occasionally on TV.

(The John Paul II Newman Center at UIC–not by any means asleep at the wheel–has like many other astute chaplaincies about the country caught on to Dan Savage. The JPII Center responded to Mr. Savage’s UIC campus appearance a few nights later with a talk to students by Dr. Ken Howell and JPII chaplains.)

Mr. Savage’s promotional photos show him in his T-shirt as the familiar “jock” who may have just stepped out of his dorm or basketball court. Born in 1964 in the last year of the Baby Boom, he is 47. Like Dick Clark and Richard Roeper earlier and many other journalist-entertainer personalities who maintained the puer aeternus mystique as long as they could, Dan Savage works the youth media circuit. For this reason I predict that some day Dan Savage will host the New York New Year’s Eve celebration, and lead the countdown from 10 to 1. Valuing authenticity, I do not expect Dan Savage to wear a wig.

I also predict that later in his career, when Dan Savage can bring only an ever smaller demographic to market, he may appear late at night squeezed in between Time-Life infomercials and old Dean Martin roast highlights, perhaps hawking his own Dan Savage brand of heaven knows what (ala Mel Brooks in the film “Spaceballs”: “Dan Savage, the lunch box. . . Dan Savage, the flamethrower”), with a cryogenic Hugh Hefner propped nearby leering his frozen endorsement from within a glass catafalque graced with frolicking images of girls he may have known, but not quite loved.

While Dan Savage has pronounced his atheism from time to time, has made a gross comment about Pope Benedict XVI’s derriere in 2009, and has criticized the Canadian Catholic Bishops for their advice against anal sex in January, 2011, Dan Savage appeared again on the Catholic radar in the Fall, 2011 when his name was associated with a series of symposia entitled “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church” scheduled for Fall, 2011 at Fordham, Yale, and Fairfield universities, as well as Union Theological Seminary, where Mr. Savage is anticipated to speak on or about October 1, 2011.

Former New York Times writer and former Commonweal Magazine editor Peter Steinfels, who happens to be Dan Savage’s first cousin once removed, was chosen to be the moderator of the 9/16/11 Fordham event, and shared his reflections on the first More than a Monologue symposium on the dotCommonweal blog. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights president Bill Donohue issued a preemptive criticism of the symposia on 9/15/11, as did the Cardinal Newman Society a few days earlier.

Peter Steinfels and I swapped exchanges on his blog from 9/23-9/25/11 on the violent and threatening nature of some of Dan Savage’s statements.

Now that Mr. Savage has reached national prominence and a bigger MTV gig, his overriding fiduciary obligation will be to bring to MTV the demographic group both dumb enough to watch him and also dumb enough, perhaps, to drink the beer and purchase other products being advertised during his programs. Since human gestation continues to generate people under the age of 25 who haven’t yet learned to make considered decisions behind the wheel of life, and won’t switch away from the swill they’ve been drinking until they are about 29, his success in this regard is almost guaranteed. However, I said “almost,” because Mr. Savage appears to not be able to contain his clever and uproarious wit.

(Here is a representative video vignette from Dan Savage’s presentations, containing his short comments on coming out to his mother within a Catholic context. Notable in the story is that the local priest rushed to the Savage home to calm Mrs. Savage down, and announced that he the priest was gay as well.

The rest of the video clip branches to a discussion of a sex act not for younger or impressionable viewers. But the quick shift of topic and mood is revelatory. Seconds after a heartfelt comment about his mother and something of a plea for understanding from the Catholic side, Dan Savage breezily advises a young woman who cannot sustain satisfactory suction in a sex act for her boyfriend to enlist the help of a mechanical pump. While this may have been just another day at the office for “America’s leading sex advice columnist” Dan Savage, this rapid, sad segue from soulfulness to hedonism bespeaks spirits restless and lost.

So tell me: To hear such a conflicted message was worth the Catholic Fairfield University to bus its students from Connecticut to New York for Mr. Savage’s appearance on 10/1/11?)

Like the old joke about the University of Chicago of the 1950s, where once atheists and agnostics taught the Catholic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas to Jewish students, Dan Savage’s MTV show features a homosexual giving sex advice to mostly heterosexuals so viewers will stay tuned and buy cars, beer, or consumer package goods, or CPGs (a B-school acronym). For this, Dan Savage will probably be handsomely paid, as long as he can keep the show going. He can then endow the charities and causes of his choice until his demographic dies off (or grows up) and his infomercials inhabit the late night hours into perpetuity.

When I taught at Chicago’s St. Ignatius College Prep in the early 1980s, I taught Dan Savage’s generation of young Catholics roughly at the time of the discovery of HIV. I told my homosexual students that they were especially loved children of God. But I also taught all my students the Church’s teaching that sexual intimacy belongs for believing Catholics within a lifelong, marital, heterosexual relationship. To my former students and advisees who trusted to me their homosexual identification, I conveyed love and affirmation of their intrinsic capability for caring creativity on behalf of their family, friends, and the common good. I deeply regret that I did not more vigorously warn more of the young people whom I knew years ago away from anal intercourse, and share with them a more detailed vision of chastity, since now unfortunately, a few of them are dead. Any intimate action that requires a series of precautions against disease and injury is inevitably subject to error, and therefore inevitably subject to disease and injury.

The message that the Catholic Church offers, that of a life of chastity, is seen by some, both heterosexual and homosexual alike, in the same spirit of the definitive poem on the subject of joy-killing clergy by the poet William Blake (1757-1827). This is the first document that I had my high school students read during sexual morality classes in the early 1980s:

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And `Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

A Catholic response to the sentiments expressed above can be based upon the knowledge that, to the Catholic, the Garden of Love is not simply the Garden of Sex, but a much more broadly defined Garden of Love in the divine image.

To some engaging in sexual love outside the bounds of Christian love, the Christian admonition to their sexual intimacy is: Stop, and find another way to love.

This admonition is consistent with John 8:11: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”

This admonition almost never goes over well initially, whether it is from John the Baptist telling Herod to stop sleeping with his brother’s wife (result, the Baptist dead), to St. John Fisher defending the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (result, St. John Fisher dead), to a parent advising a child not to cohabit prior to marriage, to a parent advising a child, “I love you and will always love you, but what you are proposing to do appears to be a sin that will harm you, to that sin I cannot agree, and I will continue to pray that you stop and find another way.”

These are not easy words to either live by or to deliver.

A number of writers, including the psychiatrist Miriam Grossman, MD, who unlike Dan Savage actually treated well over 1,000 college students, have pointed out that the same developmental forces that militate against young adults making sound decisions behind the wheel, militate against their making sound decisions about sexual intimacy.

This means that parents and grandparents and other close relatives should continue to play a necessary role in the successful growth of young adults, contra to the 1960s existential ideal of the fully-equipped 18-year-old leaving home and substantive conversations with Mom and Dad forever. With this in mind, Dan Savage’s parting advice to a UIC student fell a little flat:

“Someone will come along,” he said. “So much of love and relationship is kismet and chance. Your moment, and you will have many of them over your life, hasn’t come.

“Just chill.”

The Catholic parent’s message and the Catholic Church’s message to a young person contemplating sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage can be summed up as:

“I love you, but I cannot consent to the damage that sin may do to you. Please stop and reconsider.”

The Catholic call to conversion, heard long ago by St. Augustine when the little singsong voice called to him to tolle, lege, tolle, lege–take and read, take and read–has not changed in centuries:

And do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Romans 13:11-14

Romans 13:11-14 calls upon believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” and to leave the hedonism of orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity, licentiousness, rivalry, and jealousy–similar to the dorm lifestyle and dorm values prolonged in “alumni” singles districts in many major cities–for good.

But if one decides to stay in the virtual moral dorm, Dan Savage’s advice is right there online or down the street in a free newspaper to tell how to keep having lots of mindless fun.

The virtual moral dorm has important economic and political drivers with an interest in keeping young adults morally anesthetized and suspended without life commitments so they can remain ready, predictable consumers and contained within known and politically sure, manipulable boundaries.

For that reason, today’s young adult generation is the most heavily marketed and propagandized in human history. Little do young adults know the extent to which almost every consumer choice they face has been pre-selected from afar by sellers of clothing, entertainment, consumer goods, transportation, and housing. Similarly, political manipulators work to ensure that the strong peer orientation of teens be prolonged as far into the future life of the young adult as possible, since this trait enables easier generational manipulation by any number of Internet and media-enhanced political efforts. Likewise, this generation of young adults, with the exception of a rare TV show like “7th Heaven,” has almost never seen an intact, heterosexual family within a traditional marriage depicted on television on a continuing basis.

The humor that young adults consume has been infused with the presence of the unfortunate sitcom stereotype of the outrageous homosexual clown (which some day will be seen as inappropriate as the Stepin Fetchit character), who like the Shakespearean fool will say anything at any time to anybody. This generation of young adults has thus been carefully prepared to think that someone like Dan Savage, despite his lack of Shakespearean wit and artistry, is funny and entertaining. Because in his role as “America’s most popular sex advice columnist” Dan Savage brings together both consumer and political interests, his role as moral anesthetist and political agent temporarily has placed him in the cultural catbird seat–as long as those who like what he says don’t grow up.

Against these powerful forces of manipulation, the Catholic faith provides an invitation to grow into the fullness of human possibility through a life that values and honors procreation and the human beings who grow from it.

The Catholic message to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” does not include the incitement to violence, the permission to bully, or the rejection of personhood or integrity. It is a call to continue to grow and to love. It is in the highest sense a loving, parental duty. “To put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is the last thing postmodern parents are expected to say to their adult children, but it is in many cases both the true and right thing to say.

It is also right to oppose violence toward youth. As contradictory as Dan Savage’s own violent speech and his anti-bullying campaign might be to each other, his opposition to violence toward youth is a Motherhood issue.

But one cannot at the same time ignore the violent speech of Mr. Savage, proclaim it basically a joke with little consequence, and simultaneously assign to Catholic teaching the blame for violence against homosexual and transgendered individuals.

Despite his periodic rejections of Catholicism, Dan Savage is in many ways embedded in Catholic culture. While this may be his brief, shining, public moment in terms of notoriety and success, his obvious talents and the powerful grace of God may lead him in other positive directions.

There is an old Portuguese saying, in the Augustinian tradition, that God writes straight with crooked lines. Dan Savage’s violent speech may paradoxically and indirectly succeed now in revivifying the Holy Name Societies, provoke parents to teach their children that anal intercourse (whether for males or for females) is a bad thing, and cause a serious rejection of the work of Alfred Kinsey. But I also suspect that Dan Savage is capable of directly accomplishing a lot more good beyond the positive spin-offs of his anti-bullying efforts. This is worth a prayer or two.

(Left for another time will be a comment on how the definition of bullying is being ideologically expanded to proscribe religious objections to homosexual sex acts. Without mentioning Mr. Savage by name, President Obama referred to Dan Savage’s anti-bullying campaign during his 10/1/11 speech to the Human Rights Campaign, one of the leading LGBTQ rights organizations. If you do not think that the US is headed toward the proscription of religious objections to homosexual sex acts as the laws are enforced in parts of Canada, watch the President’s speech and think again).

Postscript:

Fairfield University provided transportation for its students from CT to travel to NYC on 10/1/11 to hear Mr. Savage say, according to the blogs:

“We have got to ignore the b___s___ in the Bible about gay people, just as we’ve learned to ignore what the b___s___ in the Bible have said about women, about polyester, about farming and about slavery. . . . ”

“They can’t see past our homosexuality to see our shared and common humanity, which is hugely ironic considering how many those priests behind those pulpits are gay. . . . ”

“For many LGBT people, faith is at once the affliction and the solution.”

Here’s an account of Mr. Savage’s 10/1/11 Union Theological presentation from the Fairfield Mirror. When a complete video or text appears, I will update the above information.

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I hope that the “More than a Monologue” series does not become simply “Another Monologue” by those who disagree with the Catholic teaching on sexual intimacy. While some have noted that the Catholic ministry Courage is apparently missing from the symposia, I should add also that Chicago’s Emmaus Ministries (for male prostitutes) also is apparently not included. To those who claim that the Catholic Church ignores ministry to male prostitutes, it should be noted that Cardinal Francis George wrote the introduction to the book, Streetwalking with Jesus, by Emmaus Ministries founder Deacon John Green.

One of initiators of the “More than a Monologue” series is Prof. Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University, who has stated, “None of these conferences has as its agenda to attack the church’s teaching on homosexuality.” Prof. Lakeland is no longer a Jesuit, but is rather stern in his own way about certain teachings of Catholicism.

In a Huffington Post article on 5/10/11, Prof. Lakeland made very clear his own differences with Catholic teaching on homosexuality:

When the Church requires life-long celibacy of all people who are not heterosexual (the demand it makes of homosexuals who wish to participate fully in Church life), it imposes a sanction which is, in effect, the imposition of a life of less love and human relationship than is available to heterosexual Christians. A call to be less loving, body and soul, is a call to be less in the image and likeness of God.

Sed contra, Prof. Lakeland. A call to chastity is to be more faithfully committed and loving with one’s sexuality, and a call to celibacy is to be more like unto Our Lord Himself. Why must we be afraid to heed God’s call to such perfection? Are not all Christians invited to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)?

To imply that one must be sexually active in order to be fully human denies the humanity of Christ himself, not to mention those who either have lived saintly celibate lives like the Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face (a saint who is herself a great help to the sexually afflicted), or those who have struggled alone with their sexuality through a long life like Michelangelo, but whose faith, art, and creativity transcended their suffering.

Perhaps Michelangelo himself should be given a chance to speak on this very subject:

At times, pure love may justly be equated
With fervent hope; nor need it be deceived
If by all human loves the heavens are grieved,
Then to what end was the whole world created?

If I indeed honor and love you, Lord,
And if I burn, it is a heavenly calm
That emanates from you and makes me warm;
Such peace is far removed from all discord.

True love is not a passion which can die,
Or which depends on beauty that must fade;
Nor is it subject to a changing face.

That love is true and holy which finds place
Within a modest heart, and which is made,
Far above earth, a pledge of love on high.

Sonnet LX(ii), from The Sonnets of Michelangelo, Translated by Elizabeth Jennings, 1970, Doubleday, NY, p. 97.

Prof. Lakeland’s apparent teaching that one must be sexually active in order to be fully human is what I have called the “gospel according to Molly,” after Molly Bloom of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. This is an old, mistaken idea which swept through Catholic seminaries in the 1960s.

Prof. Lakeland in 2008 on the H-Catholic listserv called Humanae Vitae and Mulieris Dignitatem “two of the most destructive of recent Catholic documents,” and cited the idea of “non-reception” of dogma, a recurrent theme in his work, which also invokes his own characteristic appeals to the sensus fidelium. In my response in July of 2008, I challenged his position.

Here is a the text of my first reply to Prof. Lakeland:

Editor’s Subject: H-Catholic: Reflections on Non-reception
Author’s Subject: Reflections on Non-reception
Date Written: Mon, July 7, 2008 7:44 pm
Date Posted: Tue, 07 Jul 2008 21:59:46 -0400

Colleague,

The theory of non-reception has long intrigued me when it is invoked to justify withholding unpopular Christian teaching.

If non-reception inevitably leads to “ecclesial irrelevance,” then what are we to make of–

* “Love your enemies, forgive those who hurt you, bless those who persecute you. . . ”

* “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . ”

* “Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you shall have no life in you. . . ”

* “He who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. . . ”

* And the one that Peter initially “non-received,” which earned him the “Get behind me, Satan” comment from Christ:

“The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. . . ”

Each of these teachings has had a long history of non-reception among Christians and non-Christians alike. Does that make them “ecclesially irrelevant”? And if not, what is the difference between these controversial teachings above, and other controversial Church teachings?

As Garry Wills noted in his 1978 book _Inventing America_, the US Bill of Rights, when parsed into survey questions, is often rejected on key points by large percentages the US population. In light of this, I struggle to understand what makes the theological theory of non-reception a persuasive idea.

I have observed over the years arguments similar to Prof. Lakeland’s as transmitted to H-Catholic on 28 Jun 2008 07:59:48, “Better to let them [non-received teachings] die the death and make it easier for a future pope to unsay the damaging parts of them.” To argue in such a manner seems to counsel a norm of silence on unpopular Church teaching.

I submit that there has been indeed a norm of silence among certain Catholic leaders on Humanae Vitae for more than a generation. I have observed this silence especially among the cohort recently passed of leading “labor priests,” who prior to their deaths became much more outspoken on the abortion question, while expressing some degree of regret for their roughly two to three decades of silence on it. They were, to a degree, conforming to a norm of silence, and to a degree for a time shared agreement with Prof. Lakeland’s apparent proposed norm of silence on un-received teaching. This phenomenon I began to describe as “The Stealth Church,” which through systematic patterns of silence attempted to nullify unpopular Church teaching.

Two recent popes have now made Humanae Vitae a centerpiece of their teaching. It is being taught worldwide to tens of millions of persons through the new Catholic media. It will certainly remain a centerpiece of Catholic teaching beyond Prof. Lakeland’s generation. When I began teaching again in Catholic schools twenty-eight years ago, I re-read and accepted Humanae Vitae’s teaching, reflecting that if I were to teach in a Catholic school, I should teach the faith completely as it is officially taught, or not teach in a Catholic school. I stand by this teaching today.

Forthright rejection of certain teachings in Humanae Vitae, such as those rejections as direct as those of Garry Wills, are rare among Catholic scholars. The stealthy answers, standing behind surveys and theories of non-reception as proxies, seem to me much more likely.

. . . .

I’m actually tempted to submit a paper on community life and urban development to the Notre Dame conference. But alas, administrative duties will probably stand in the way. . .

Cordially, with All Rights Reserved,

Albert J. Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL

You can read the complete exchange over the period 7/8-7/10/08 at the H-Catholic log.

The current collision of Prof. Lakeland, Peter Steinfels, and the topic of Dan Savage in Commonweal Magazine Internet space may represent something else: that Dan Savage also may mark the logical cultural terminus of the “Commonweal Catholic,” who rejects many of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, and who, based on social justice claims, attempts to inhabit a position of moral superiority and exceptionalism within a Catholic Church he or she in fundamental ways rejects.

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Below, in case they are some day erased, are my side of the postings to the Peter Steinfels blog at dot.Commonweal:

Albert Schorsch, III 09/23/2011 – 3:04 am

Perhaps readers might consider the record of violent and threatening language invoked by Dan Savage before praising his wit. For some documentation, please see my post at–
http://sanityandsocialjustice.net/?p=4025

In Christ,
Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL

Albert Schorsch, III 09/23/2011 – 10:39 am

Left out of the response above to Dan Savage’s statement “And I will personally track down and s_____ in the mouth of the next cable-news anchor” was his statement, “Consider yourself warned, Paula Zahn.—Dan.”

Understanding rage is one thing, but naming a specific individual in print after expressing the intent to track down and commit a very defiling form of battery upon another, is by any standard a violent threat. There are plenty of other examples of violent and threatening language directed at individuals in Mr. Savage’s statements, a few of which I documented in the blog previously referenced, including his recently broadcast statement that he wanted to “f___ the s___” out of a former US senator. This former senator BTW did not take it as a joke.

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

Albert Schorsch, III 09/24/2011 – 2:44 am

Agreed that LBGT voices must be heard in the Church. The academy, including the Catholic academy, is one place to listen and to share. No argument there. But there is no way to square the circle and urbanely bracket Dan Savage without confronting publicly and directly the violence of his language. This violence must be openly, clearly, and unequivocally repudiated if useful dialogue is to continue. This violent speech does not belong in the academy, nor in public discourse. This violent and outrageous speech may just be witty schtick now to Cousin Dan, but violent and threatening speech such as his is destructive also to the cause of LBGT. Mr. Savage might consider beginning his Retractations, and do a little 12 Step to get off the violent language thing. It would certainly help the credibility of his anti-bullying campaign. (I’ll reserve the rest of my comments to my own blog at another time.)

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

Albert Schorsch, III 09/25/2011 – 1:14 am

Peter,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I want you to understand my intent, so I lay down my barbs, and regret the one directed to you above in the form of the words “Cousin Dan.”

I have contemplated long and hard and have also written about the Christian duty to “disarm the aggressor”: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm (CCC 2265).” While these words are written about the duty of the state, we each play a part in achieving this common good.

While Dan Savage your cousin has proclaimed his atheism from time to time, you know him personally, and I do not. I began to pray for him a few weeks ago, because his celebrity has catapulted him beyond the stage of a naughty niche sex advice columnist in newspapers handed out for free, and an occasional TV talking head, to a cultural figure known to tens of millions, whose every word–ever–would be scrutinized, and who very likely will be cauterized in the process because of his–at best–careless bandying of violent language. But this violent language must be opposed, and, if you will, actively “disarmed,” because of the threat that such language poses to the common good. Dan Savage, after all, speaks to millions of teens and young adults.

I have come to the position that each Christian has an immediate, positive duty to speak out and act against unjust aggression within our own frame of influence, sooner rather than later. I regret not taking a much firmer and public stand when I first read Dan Savage’s violent words several years ago. So I have recently been making others aware of Dan Savage’s violent and threatening language in the hope that this language would not enter the heart of our culture, but remain forever recognized as disrespectful to human dignity.

It is rather sad, that–like Reynold Hillenbrand, George Higgins, Ed Marciniak, John J. Egan, Commonweal’s James O’Gara, all the way to EWTN’s Mitch Pacwa, SJ–Dan Savage was for a time a “Quigley boy,” an attendee at Chicago’s now former minor seminary. What is sad is that if the wisdom of our Faith were embraced by Dan Savage, he would not say the violent things he continues to say.

You and I have most likely not had the pleasure of meeting, but I did meet your spouse Margaret a few decades ago in Chicago when she was promoting Commonweal. We share, I believe, Eugene Kennedy as a teacher. I have major differences on life and other issues with Commonweal, and I ceased for those reasons to support Commonweal as an institution long ago after years of regular readership. So we can thank the Internet, or perhaps more than the Internet, that I found your blog when I searched for “Dan Savage Catholic.”

“Dan Savage Catholic” is a rather good prayer, so I’ll leave it there.

(I’ll have more to say about this at my own blog when time permits.)

In Christ,

Albert Schorsch, III
Chicago, IL
All Rights Reserved

© Copyright 2008, 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Benedict XVI’s Important 9/22/11 Speech to the German Bundestag

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Here is a link to the full text of Benedict XVI’s important 9/22/11 speech to the German Bundestag.

Benedict spoke of the history and foundation of law and civil society, the fracture between “is” and “ought” in philosophy, politics, and jurisprudence, the destruction wrought by the Third Reich when “will” was separated from “right” in the exercise of power, and the place of faith and reason in culture and governance: a very succinct and insightful statement of the Catholic contribution to culture and civil society.

© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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The Fr. Pfleger – Cardinal George Controversy: A Guide for the Theologically Perplexed

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Writers and the Christian faithful have been perplexed since the Archbishop of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, suspended Fr. Michael Pfleger late on April 27, 2011.

Responses have ranged in a mix beginning with “Why would the Cardinal ‘go to the wall’ over this?” to “Can’t we all just get along?” to “Why suspend this priest and not suspend others?” to “A plague on both their houses.”

This article attempts to describe, for the sake of both the initiated and the non-initiated, a number of the theological issues at stake in this controversy.


Why was there such quick and decisive action by the Cardinal on Fr. Pfleger’s comment about looking outside the Church?

Basically, after years of theological training, it is less likely that a priest will make an off-handed, throwaway remark about theology that has no significance. When a priest publicly makes a theological statement about his belief or his own vocation, it is presumed that he means it.

Early Christian writers who considered the fall of Satan reasoned that because of Satan’s high intelligence and angelic nature, Satan’s rejection of God, even for an instant, was a rejection for all eternity. While priests are definitely not angels, or Satan, their statements about belief are taken seriously by both bishops and the faithful.

Because the faithful may have wondered what Pfleger meant about looking elsewhere, and the unity of the Church was in question, the Cardinal suspended Fr. Pfleger and asked him to take time to reflect, and then to state his intentions.

Isn’t Fr. Pfleger a good priest? Why not suspend the bad priests?

Bad priests are not the only priests removed from ministry. Some very good men who no longer wish to remain Catholic or priests, but who do not wish to leave their parishioners, can also be suspended.


Hasn’t Fr. Pfleger done a lot of good? Doesn’t that count for anything?

Fr. Pfleger and his parishioners at St. Sabina undoubtedly perform many Christian good works, following Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:35-36, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, etc. Fr. Pfleger also has defended many human rights. He and St. Sabina parish have worked to advance education and community development, and to reduce urban violence.

But the question Cardinal George is asking Fr. Pfleger is not whether he is a Christian, but whether he is a Catholic, and whether he will remain a Catholic priest.

What’s the difference?

While the Catholic faith is difficult to definitively capture in a few words, I offer the following:

A Catholic–

  • is a Christian baptized by water and the Spirit in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who, after the example of Jesus’ mother, the Immaculate Virgin Mary, in union with the Pope and the Catholic bishops as successors to the Apostles, recognizes the same Pope and bishops as representatives of Jesus Christ;
  • follows Christ in union with the Trinity by living the Christian life of both faith and good works adhering to the whole of the Creed, the Tradition, and the Scriptures as continuously taught by the Pope and the bishops;
  • receives the seven sacraments at the hands of the bishops and delegated clergy, recognizing in the Eucharist–this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which Christ is offered and by which we offer ourselves in a sacrificial faith–the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ;
  • intellectually follows the path of both faith and reason, of faith seeking understanding, while holding the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in a place of honor, nevertheless holds no official philosophy or ideology, continuing to recognize the truth wherever it may be found, because the Way, the Truth and the Life is Jesus Christ Himself; and
  • while stating a preferential option for the poor as an expression of human unity with the least of our brothers and sisters in whom we find Christ, and taking a general approach of subsidiarity and solidarity in addressing social questions, remains critical of both capitalist and socialist forms of civic organization, recognizing that the reality of love is not an idea, but is embodied in the living, resurrected person, Jesus, with whom we are called to become one.
  • As St. Ignatius of Antioch stated about the year 110, “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal [katholike] Church.” One of the earliest statements about the catholicity of the Church therefore strongly linked the Church to the bishops. This teaching was also strongly affirmed in Chapter III of the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution of of the Church, Lumen Gentium.

    The Catholic Church is not a congregational church formed around a community, but a sacramental Church–a sacrament being an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace (the original meaning of “sacrament” meant, “oath to the death”)–formed around Jesus Christ, with a bishop-successor to the Apostles serving as head.

    In his book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Cardinal George described a “Catholic sense of the Church” that both liberal and conservative traditions miss:

    “. . . a Catholic sense of the Church as mediator of God’s life and teacher of God’s truth, the Church as a hierarchical communion, an organic body that comes into being as the gifts of Christ are shared, a body to which one is joined in order to be changed, to be converted, so that, with the help of God’s grace, one can accept Christ’s mission to preach the Gospel to all peoples and transform the world.”
    Francis Cardinal George, OMI, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, Crossroad, 2009, p. 159.

    A Catholic not in hierarchical communion, not in union, that is, instead in schism with his or her bishop, is on the path to break permanently with the Church.

    But aren’t the hierarchy themselves the problem? Why must there be a Pope and the bishops for a person to be a Catholic?

    Hierarchy has come to mean, in modern parlance, “top-down,” even “authoritarian and bureaucratic,” but its first meaning, from the Greek hieros, and the Greek archein, pertains to what is sacred and holy, and to one who serves as head. A hier-arch is a holy head of a church. The Catholic Church is hierarchical because Jesus, the very Head of the Church, is sacred and holy, and it is one of the missions of the Church to become holy, that is, absolutely good like God.

    In the Nicene Creed, Catholics recognize the Holy nature of the Church. To strive for a non-hierarchical church would therefore in a sense be attempting a church that did not seek holiness. A church cannot be holy if both its clergy and its laity were not called to be holy. And the clerical abuse scandals are scandals precisely because clergy were not holy as we expected them to be.

    Churches inevitably have those who exercise the role of “head.” If these heads are not holy, it is difficult for the Church to remain holy. It is the role of the bishop to call other Catholics to holiness.

    But isn’t the hierarchical, institutional Church still the Church’s root problem, and isn’t the non-hierarchical, egalitarian Church the solution?

    A friend and also fellow Niles College Seminary alumnus, the Wednesday Journal’s Ken Trainor, has in his 5/3/11 column described the theological viewpoint of some Catholics who are drawn to Fr. Pfleger:

    The beatification of John Paul II highlights the fact that the Catholic Church is, in actuality, two churches (at least): a John XXIII Church and a John Paul II Church. One is pastoral, the other hierarchical — horizontal vs. vertical. It was the hierarchical Church of John Paul II, concerned primarily with protecting the institution and defending its moral authority against perceived threats, that perpetrated the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, which, ironically, undermined that very authority.

    Fast-tracking John Paul II to sainthood at the very least looks like a desperate attempt to shore up that highly centralized, top-down, bunker-mentality Church. As Sunday’s ceremony demonstrated, this view of Church has many devoted followers.

    The John XXIII Church, on the other hand, is concerned first and foremost with living the gospel and bringing it alive in the modern world. According to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father, and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone. That is why this community realizes it is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history.” In other words, Church defined as “the people of God.”

    All the people of God.

    Ken Trainor does a good job of describing the popular preference of socially-progressive Catholics for a horizontal, non-hierarchical Church. But this view of the Catholic Church is incomplete, just as is the view of a hierarchy-only church.

    For starters, the Vatican II document to which Ken Trainor refers, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has a companion document, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Both of these important documents address what is called theologically the Mystery of the Church, an awesome and transcendent topic requiring a lifetime of reflection. Both of these two Vatican II constitutions demand to be read and studied by adults claiming to be Roman Catholic.

    The Church defies complete and definitive description structured in one “direction” such as verticality and horizontality. It would therefore be difficult to sustain a credible view that there is a free-standing progressive church of John XXIII separate from a hierarchical church of John Paul II, who earlier as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was himself one of the very drafters of Gaudium et Spes. Some of the most stirring statements ever made from a Christian standpoint about social justice and working people were made by John Paul II. When one fights for justice for workers, one often unknowingly quotes John Paul II. So rejecting the “church of John Paul II” leads nowhere sustainable.

    Unlike the blood libel trying to pin blame for the Holocaust on Pius XII, which unfortunately stuck for decades and is only now dissolving in the face of overwhelming historic evidence, efforts to pin the priest scandals on the aged and Parkinson’s disease-ridden John Paul II are not about to stick.

    The closer one looks at Gaudium et Spes, the more it is incompatible with the modern progressive point of view. Many progressive Gaudium et Spes-only Catholics pass over the fact that Gaudium et Spes itself called abortion and infanticide an “unspeakable crime.”

    Then there is the inconvenient fact that “Good Pope” John XXIII himself authorized a document on 2/2/1961, Religiosorum Instituto, forbidding the ordination of homosexuals to the Roman Catholic priesthood, a predecessor document to a similar instruction issued under Benedict XVI in 2005, an act certainly not compatible with the views of progressives claiming to be Catholic. So the separate church of John XXIII is an imaginary church of an imaginary John XXIII.

    In a way I am happy that Ken Trainor also brought up the charge that the “top-down” church is principally responsible for perpetrating “the widespread cover-up of the sex abuse scandal,” because it allows me to point out that, in perhaps the wide majority of cases, it was the theological progressives themselves who ran (in some places, into the ground) the seminaries of the 1960s to the 1990s and who approved some of the worst miscreants in the history of the Roman Catholic clergy for ordination, in some cases ignoring strong warning signals that there might have been things very, very wrong with given candidates. One need only trace back to the seminary careers of convicted-felon priest-abusers actually jailed, and one might find some of the most lionized liberals among the clergy who did not stand in the way of priesthood or authority within the Church for these felons.

    Hierarchical cover-ups were more than matched in the Church by the naivete and perhaps worse of progressive seminary educators and their colleagues serving in clergy personnel. Both bishops and the seminary educators–and a few lay leaders in the Church–have much for which to answer. But we Catholics cannot step away, and pretend that the burden of healing, seeking forgiveness for, and even forgiving these scandals doesn’t belong to all of us.

    Both the “horizontal church” and the “vertical church” got it wrong in ordaining and in retaining the bad priests. All we Catholics are responsible for cleaning up the mess, because there was always only one Church, not several severed “directional” Catholic churches.

    Which brings me to the salient point of this section: that the very nature of the Roman Catholic Church as revealed by dual teachings of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium prevents the Catholic faith from being “bracketed” and parsed like one might bracket and parse his or her politics, setting aside positions or agendas or leaders so that each person can have their own special political brand unique to themselves.

    In medicine and politics, we can take a personalized, designer approach to our DNA or our political allegiances. But in Catholicism, we must attempt to accept and believe the whole faith as taught through the ages from the Apostles to the Pope and bishops today.

    (See the modern theological summa by a graduate of Fenwick High School in Ken Trainor’s Oak Park, IL, Fr. Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, for a thorough walk through the concept of bracketing).

    In politics, one has the luxury of self-segmentation, in which one can disclaim the faults and mistakes of others, and therefore claim some form of plausible separation and therefore moral superiority, as is often done by partisans of many stripes. But in the Church, because of its organic, corporal unity, one cannot. One cannot step outside one’s body, and blame one’s body, claiming to be better than one’s body. One is one’s body. To Catholics, the Church is also our own body, shared as the Mystical Body of Christ.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one joins in unity with both the Communion of Saints and the multitude of sinners, with both the City of God and the City of Man. One is linked by an eternal sacrament of Baptism to the whole Church and the Kingdom of God: to Jesus, to His Mother Mary, to St. John, to St. Augustine, to St. Francis of Assisi, to St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to the Little Flower, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to Blessed John XXIII, to Blessed John Paul II, and to all the saints, as well as to Constantine, to the Crusades, to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, all the way to the vicious Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and to all the sinners (among whom we also include all the saints, with the exception, perhaps, of the Blessed Virgin Mary). As has been attributed to the Irish novelist James Joyce, the Catholic Church can partially be described by the phrase, “Here comes everybody.” In politics, we bracket. In the Communion of Saints, we can’t.

    When one becomes a Roman Catholic, one embraces the best and comes to terms with–more precisely, forgives and seeks forgiveness for–the worst in human nature. That is why John Paul II’s concept of the healing and purification of memory and Benedict XVI’s theme of the hermeneutic of continuity are so important. Jesus Himself spoke in several parables of a Kingdom of wholeness that could not be separated: the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), the yeast (Matthew 13:33), the drag net (Matthew 13:47-50), the wheat and the tares, or weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

    In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm noted that fanatics like Nazis had no place in their worldview or structure within their social order for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first antidote to demagogy posing as true patriotism or as true religion.

    OK, but what’s all this have to do with Fr. Michael Pfleger?

    The daily, oppressive beat of violence in certain urban neighborhoods has awakened in some places a suffering church that struggles to face urban despair on a daily basis. This suffering church faces particular challenges, not the least of which for the integrity of its ministry is the temptation of demagogy. This demagogy or demagoguery is a deceptive mimicry of authentic Christian, and especially, authentic Catholic faith.

    Wherever there is poverty, misery, and/or profound unhappiness in a large group of people, demagoguery is never far behind.

    Modern demagoguery often builds upon a central cluster of myth that combines aspects of victim-hood with themes of superiority. This myth not only sets and strengthens the boundary for the demagogue’s group, but also reinforces the illusion that the demagogue is indispensable.

    In a sense, the more idiosyncratic and even false the demagogue’s myth is, the more useful it is in setting boundaries and establishing cohesion among those who follow the demagogue (see, the Big Lie).

    Both the myth and the demagogue tap into a profound need or longing in their followers. Typically, the myth explains to the followers why they are victims, not failures, why their victim status makes them morally superior, and how they can reclaim other forms of superiority.

    To the Nazi partisans in the 1920s and into the 1940s, antisemitism explained why the Nazis were not failures, but victims of a vast conspiracy. This racist, antisemitic myth promised the Nazi common man and woman the status of supermen previously denied their true legacy. A similar myth bound together the Ku Klux Klan, and also drives the antisemitic rants of Louis Farrakhan Muhammad.

    To the initial followers of Rev. Al Sharpton, the Twana Brawley allegations had to be true, despite the fact that a court of law found Sharpton liable for seven defamatory statements, and fined him substantially.

    To the fans of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his HIV-US government conspiracy theory explained too much about the world and Rev. Wright’s essential place in it, despite the fact that the myth, as demonstrated by science, itself hurts public health by discouraging HIV sufferers from seeking treatment. To his credit, President Obama abandoned Wright in 2008 over this wacky, but still widely-held, conspiracy theory.

    Each of these three recent demagogues, Farrakhan, Sharpton, and Wright, have found solidarity in Fr. Michael Pfleger. The reason for this solidarity is not that demagogues naturally stick together–although demagogues are sometimes mutually useful to each other, if not used by each other–but that each of them have joined, in their own particular way and style, in serving an even greater myth, the myth of transcendent nationhood, one of the most powerful themes in African American culture. More precisely, this is the myth of the return of the lost nation, denied to generations of persons of African descent by the cruel oppressions of slavery, war, and discrimination.

    The demagogue promises a worldview that attempts to sum together all aspects of life, and also offers a public platform on which to celebrate this coherence, but with a difference–the demagogue offers a myth defining its own reality that ultimately cannot be sustained or realized.

    The demagogue takes the short-cut path of outrageousness to fame, rather than the steady climb to truth and authenticity, which is based upon good works complemented both by faith and reason.

    In many urban ministries this myth of the lost nation has converged with themes of the Kingdom of God, of Dr. King’s “beloved community,” of the Civil Rights movement, of the American Dream, and of music and cultural activity, to make religion, politics, and the arts all of one piece. This convergence of mythology and activity provides a basis for public unity. In such a worldview, an ostensibly Roman Catholic parish such as Fr. Pfleger’s St. Sabina can be offering a talk for purchase on its web page by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But it is precisely this mythic convergence that conflicts with true Catholic religion, the Kingdom of God realized first in the person of Jesus Christ. A mythic convergence borders upon the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

    It would have been astounding thirty years ago to imagine Catholics on the socially progressive side of the aisle finding a hero in a man who did not speak out publicly against the antisemitism of a Farrakhan, did not strongly differ with the pro-abortion pandering of a Sharpton, or did not openly smack down the malicious HIV conspiracy theories of a Wright, and who himself publicly insulted a female presidential candidate, but that is precisely what these Catholics have done in rallying to Fr. Michael Pfleger.

    So this controversy is actually about defining “true Catholic religion”?

    In part. This controversy is fundamentally about whether Fr. Pfleger is a Catholic, and whether he decides to remain a Catholic priest.

    A secondary question, not spoken of directly by Cardinal George in this instance, remains whether Fr. Pfleger’s pastoral ministry has been compromised by his general silence on moral topics important to the Catholic tradition.

    Pastors face very serious challenges, especially about their own purpose and motivation for ministry. At the beginning of his ministry, Christ Himself was tempted in the desert:

    Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

    The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

    He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

    Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”

    Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'”

    Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

    At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'”

    Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
    Matthew 4:1-11

    Like Jesus in the desert, the religious leader is tempted by appetite, by self-serving fame and glory, and by power. Over the centuries, the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity, and obedience arose in Catholicism as a partial antidote to these three temptations.

    But to the modern, post-Enlightenment and post-Reformation mind, the most difficult of these Catholic counsels or traditions to accept is obedience.

    Thirty-six years ago this very day, 5/14/75, I was present in the back end of the chapel of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL on ordination day, when Michael Pfleger knelt before his bishop, placed his hands in those of John Patrick Cardinal Cody, looked directly into his eyes, and responded positively when Cardinal Cody asked, “Do you promise me and my successors obedience and respect?”

    At the moment of these promises at this and perhaps other ordinations of the era, “Priests shouldn’t lie,” in stage whisper came from a wiseacre priest among the group packed in the back of the chapel, followed by a few cackles from the clerical peanut gallery.

    This cynicism was typical of many Chicago clergy then, and to a lesser extent now. This very act of obedience to Cardinal Cody in particular I, a child of the times, earlier couldn’t imagine myself doing, and by 1975, I had taken another path, being already married and a young father.

    But Michael Pfleger indeed made this promise of obedience, in public, on his knees, thirty-six years ago to the day of this writing. I was there to see it. So what, indeed, does such a promise of obedience mean?

    For many at the time, this act of obedience was simply an empty formula spoken so that ordination could continue, something of a Promethean act of stealing fire from the heavens for the good of others. Once ordained, the “real” work of the priesthood, the “building of the Kingdom of God” on earth through acts of social justice could move forward.

    This theory that the church of social justice was the real church was as alive then as it is now. First, a man needed to get the power of the priesthood, in order to leverage that power to do good. So, you say a few meaningless words in front of “the Man,” so what? This rationale still remains strong among some in the Chicago presbyterate, who hold that social justice transcends all. The church of Matthew 25, of the Corporal Works of Mercy, appeared to be the “real” church.

    But I wonder. There is also the church of John 6, of Jesus’ teaching that his Body was real food without which one could not have eternal life, a teaching for which he was willing to endure many of the crowd and of his followers to walk away from him. Remaining at his side was Cephas, Peter, the rock, who said, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. (John 6:68).” Note again here the theme of the holiness of God.

    Would Jesus have spent three years teaching about all manner of things besides social justice, would he have called the Twelve to Him and taught them about His own Body and Blood as being essential for eternal life, and stress these points to the degree that people walked away from Him, if His only priority was to establish a Church based upon Matthew 25 alone? Not likely at all.

    Cardinal George’s 4/27/11 letter to Fr. Pfleger was such a “walk-away moment,” for which the Cardinal was willing to endure many levels of controversy in order to appeal to the faith of a pastor, Fr. Pfleger, to ask him in a sense to recognize that the Catholic Church is both a “Matthew 25” Church and a “John 6” Church, and to see that obedience to one’s calling, in the person of one’s bishop, is a moment both of grace and virtue, consistent with Christ’s own rejection of the temptations of ministry.

    This is the “Catholic difference” from Protestant traditions: that there is a person, a bishop, acting in the tradition of the Apostles, responsible for calling Fr. Pfleger back to the Church, and reminding him that his promise to obey and respect back on 5/14/75 was not meant for pro-forma, perfidy, or perdition, but for his own salvation, and thus the salvation of those whom he serves. Fr. Pfleger’s unity with his bishop has very much to do with not only the connection between the St. Sabina’s parishioners and the Kingdom of God, but with their connection with the Communion of Saints.

    The bishop’s calling is to anchor others to the faith. Without such an anchor and authority, it is anyone’s guess whether one is acting out of the temptation of human ambition, or out of faith. Thousands upon thousands of Protestant pastors have split away their congregations from others over individual interpretations of the Scriptures. Catholicism answers the question, “By what authority? (Luke 20; John 5:30-32)” by pointing to Christ’s obedience to the Father, and to the bishop’s, and our, obedience to Christ.

    To politicians and political Christians who see a churches like St. Sabina as institutions of social stability and the kind of church they can understand, the Cardinal’s stance is a puzzle and an irritant. Imagine, a bishop actually acting like, well, a bishop, as if theological questions really mattered, when we have gun violence and poverty to fight!

    Much could be said about the social, political, and factional forces that have aligned in the Fr. Pfleger-Cardinal George controversy, but I will refrain for now, as interesting as they may be, because they are secondary to the question of Fr. Pfleger’s faith.

    What we have here, therefore, is not “a failure to communicate,” but a Catholic priest who needs to have a bishop in order to claim to be Catholic, being confronted by this same bishop asking him to do something that he apparently doesn’t want to do.

    So, whither Fr. Pfleger?

    Fr. Pfleger has a decision to make, and the major choices involve either becoming a Protestant, a marginal Catholic, or remaining Catholic and deepening his Catholic commitment.

    Fr. Pfleger could become a Protestant or a marginal (Vatican I schism, Utrecht) Catholic, but then he would be like any other inner-city pastor, dependent on political “preacher money” from whatever politician he can convince that he and his congregation are important. He may go the way of Rev. George Augustus Stallings, Jr. and Imani Temple, and lose national notoriety, upon which his national status as a Catholic exception depends.

    Or Fr. Pfleger can reconfirm his commitment to being a Roman Catholic. To do so, he will not have to do anything like the scene in Superman II, in which Superman must “Kneel before Zod.” But he will have to accept another Church assignment as other pastors do, perhaps after a sabbatical, as other pastors do.

    Such a departure will not be the end of St. Sabina’s parish or school, or Fr. Pfleger. If the work of the parish and school are truly grounded in God the Trinity as taught by the Catholic faith, they will continue. The work of Fr. Pfleger to be transmitted to memory and tradition, as the work of so many great pastors has been transferred. If Jesus had to “go away” in order that his disciples could be led by the Spirit, so much more so should Fr. Pfleger. If what he has given to the parish has been of the true faith, the Spirit will lead his people on. The longer he stays, at this point, the more the true spirit, and purpose, of his ministry comes into question.

    Here follows also my own suggestion for Fr. Pfleger: During his time of reflection, he might consider clarifying, as St. Augustine did near the end of his life, some of his earlier statements. But this writing should be in Fr. Pfleger’s own words, and not edited by theological partisans, such as his recent biographers.

    The following statement might be among those that Fr. Pfleger might consider, and clarify in terms of his own position: A Catholicism that does not clearly, unequivocally, and publicly reject evils like antisemitism, abortion, and destructive HIV-conspiracy-theory demagogy, especially when spoken by one’s friends, is compromised Catholicism. For example, the pro-life efforts of the National Black Catholic Congress have been notably absent from Fr. Pfleger’s public work.

    The prophet Ezekiel spoke of the duty of a prophet:

    If a virtuous man turns away from virtue and does wrong when I place a stumbling block before him, he shall die. He shall die for his sin, and his virtuous deeds shall not be remembered; but I will hold you responsible for his death if you did not warn him.

    When, on the other hand, you have warned a virtuous man not to sin, and he has in fact not sinned, he shall surely live because of the warning, and you shall save your own life.
    (Ezekiel 3:20-21)

    In this case, Cardinal George, the archbishop, has prophesied to Fr. Pfleger.

    I have been praying for Fr. Pfleger, that he may choose well, and live forever!

    © Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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    Asia Bibi, Facing Death Under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, Seriously Ill

    Saturday, April 9th, 2011

    Asia Bibi, also know as Asia Noreen, a Christian woman and mother of several children who has been held in solitary confinement while facing a sentence of death by hanging in Pakistan, is reported to be seriously ill due to the unsanitary conditions of her imprisonment. She reportedly continues to fast and pray for others.

    Source: Asia News

    For further information, see Asia News and the Catholic News Agency.

    Here is a statement by Benedict XVI calling for Asia Bibi’s release. Two men who have spoken out in Pakistan on Asia Bibi’s behalf, Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, have been assassinated.

    Please contact your government representatives, and ask them to appeal for Asia Bibi’s release.

    © Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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    Collective Bargaining as a Fundamental Human Right

    Friday, February 18th, 2011

    US labor unions may have overplayed their hand politically, may have downplayed bread-and-butter wage, benefit, and workplace rights issues for elite radical social agendas that few of their membership actually support, may have advanced anti-life and anti-family positions and denied parents choices in educating their children, may have from time to time supported anti-American politics, may have marched a parade of corrupt politicians into city, county, and state positions nationally because they promised the unions everything they wanted, may have kept incompetent and even dangerous employees on the job, and may have, once upon a time, gotten too close to organized crime, but none of these egregious errors erases the fact that collective bargaining is a fundamental human right that should remain in the body politic.

    The moral imperative for collective bargaining was put succinctly in a 2/16/11 statement by the Most Rev. Jerome E. Listecki, Archbishop of Milwaukee and President of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. Archbishop Listecki drew upon section number 25 of Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, and section number 20 of John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.

    Public employee unions face a very powerful narrative-that they have captured the legislative process and turned government into a self-serving tax and spend machine for their own benefit and to the public detriment–early articulated by the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, and recently by Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

    While public sector unions definitely require limits, checks, and balances, collective bargaining should not be denied to public sector employees. The reason is a basic ethical principle: human beings should be treated as knowing subjects, rather than as objects.

    I’m hoping that those public sector unions which survive the angry public onslaught take this opportunity to get back to the bread-and-butter wage, benefit, and workplace rights issues that have made unions a fixture in society.

    The social radicals have weakened the labor movement. The number of states about to outlaw public sector collective bargaining present an historic loss, and the biggest rebuke to the unions in decades. Labor’s social radicals bear the bulk of the responsibility for this disaster because of their overreach, but they, as they have done forever, will blame everyone but themselves. St. Thomas Aquinas had a term for this kind of denial: invincible ignorance.

    I agree with Archbishop Listecki: labor unions, even public sector labor unions, are an essential component of a civilized, free society.

    © Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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    Pope Cites 1170 Vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen in Address on Abuse Scandal

    Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

    Pope Benedict XVI has been reading St. Hildegard of Bingen:

    In a vivid 12/20/10 address to the Roman Curia citing the past year’s abuse scandals, the Pope quoted at length a vision of St. Hildegard from the year 1170 about the corruption of the Church–

    We had begun the Year for Priests with great joy and, thank God, we were also able to conclude it with great gratitude, despite the fact that it unfolded so differently from the way we had expected. Among us priests and among the lay faithful, especially the young, there was a renewed awareness of what a great gift the Lord has entrusted to us in the priesthood of the Catholic Church. We realized afresh how beautiful it is that human beings are fully authorized to pronounce in God’s name the word of forgiveness, and are thus able to change the world, to change life; we realized how beautiful it is that human beings may utter the words of consecration, through which the Lord draws a part of the world into himself, and so transforms it at one point in its very substance; we realized how beautiful it is to be able, with the Lord’s strength, to be close to people in their joys and sufferings, in the important moments of their lives and in their dark times; how beautiful it is to have as one’s life task not this or that, but simply human life itself – helping people to open themselves to God and to live from God. We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.

    In this context, a vision of Saint Hildegard of Bingen came to my mind, a vision which describes in a shocking way what we have lived through this past year.

    “In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!’

    And she continued: ‘I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

    For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.’

    And I heard a voice from heaven which said: ‘This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15)” (Letter to Werner von Kirchheim and his Priestly Community: PL 197, 269ff.).

    In the vision of Saint Hildegard, the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her garment is torn – by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again. This is also the moment to offer heartfelt thanks to all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the Church, their capacity to believe her message. In my meetings with victims of this sin, I have also always found people who, with great dedication, stand alongside those who suffer and have been damaged. This is also the occasion to thank the many good priests who act as channels of the Lord’s goodness in humility and fidelity and, amid the devastations, bear witness to the unforfeited beauty of the priesthood.

    We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times. From Bishops of developing countries I hear again and again how sexual tourism threatens an entire generation and damages its freedom and its human dignity. The Book of Revelation includes among the great sins of Babylon – the symbol of the world’s great irreligious cities – the fact that it trades with bodies and souls and treats them as commodities (cf. Rev 18:13). In this context, the problem of drugs also rears its head, and with increasing force extends its octopus tentacles around the entire world – an eloquent expression of the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind. No pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart – and all this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it.

    Benedict XVI Address to the Roman Curia, 12/20/10.

    ===

    Here is the link for the Pope’s complete 12/20/10 address to the Roman Curia.

    ===

    The visions of the seer St. Hildegard of Bingen continue to speak to us . . .

    ===

    For more on St. Hildegard, please see my earlier background post, and my post on the film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.

    © Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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    True Christian love: Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis von Stade

    Monday, November 15th, 2010

    When one thinks of a touching (and doomed) medieval love story, the first historic couple who come to mind are Abelard and Heloise.

    But this same 12th Century renaissance revealed another very intense and well-documented love, the spiritual love between the Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and her protege, the Abbess Richardis von Stade (ca. 1123-1151).

    This friendship is dramatized in the film Vision: From the life of Hildegard von Bingen, as directed by the noted German artist Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Promise, Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemburg).

    First, some background on the film, which was scripted personally by director von Trotta from Hildegard’s own writings and letters, and accompanied by Hildegard’s music. Von Trotta therefore lets Hildegard substantially speak (and sing) for herself.

    The film carries the viewer through major episodes in Hildegard’s life from her eighth year to her sixtieth (Hildegard lived until the age of 81, and indeed faced and overcame many other challenges not depicted by this film). Vision presumes that the moviegoer know who Hildegard is, and something of her life story. For further background on Hildegard, please see my previous post.

    Vision demonstrates through a number of vignettes the many foundational contributions of Hildegard in music, theology, botanical medicine, gynecology, drama, and ecclesiastical polity as Hildegard strove for the foundation of an all-female abbey while seeking ecclesiastical permission to convey her visions to paper.

    The warm collaboration between Hildegard (played by the luminous German actress, and I might add, singer, Barbara Sukowa) and Richardis (depicted by the lovely and intense Hannah Herzsprung), a young noblewoman for whom her family had ambitious plans, allowed Hildegard, who despite her genius had significant gaps in her formal schooling, not to mention poor health, to finish and illuminate her books of visions, theology, and science, with a significant assist from the monk Volmar, one of Hildegard’s earliest teachers and advocates (played with occasional humor by Heino Ferch).

    Von Trotta utilizes the character of the nun Jutta (Lena Stolze), raised with Hildegard from a young age by the anchorite Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl), to bring Hildegard down to earth as the “prophet in her own country.”

    Like Robert Bolt’s film A Man for All Seasons, von Trotta’s Vision depicts in part conversations which in real life were based upon letters.

    Warning: film spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending of the film, stop reading here, see the film, then come back to this article.

    It is therefore appropriate at this point to turn to a few of the letters of the actual players in this drama. Thanks to the continuous tradition of the Benedictines, and to the work of many scholars, we can read today what these characters were actually saying to one another over 800 years ago.

    Vision dramatizes the struggle between Hildegard and the family of Richardis over the appointment of Richardis to leave Hildegard at Mt. St. Rupert to serve as abbess at Birsim (today Bassum). Hildegard made no secret of her opposition to this appointment, viewing it as based upon human ambition (presumably, to extend the influence of the von Stade family, rather than to follow a divine calling). Hildegard was not shy about her feelings, and wrote, literally, to everyone who would listen, from the Pope on down to Richardis’ mother and brother, respectively, the Margravine (played in the film by Sunnyi Melles) and Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen. Finally, Hildegard wrote to Richardis herself, all to no avail. Richardis moved away from Hildegard.

    We turn now to the collection of letters, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, ably compiled and presented by the scholar Joseph L. Baird, and published by Oxford University Press in 2006. Here are a few key excerpts.

    First, an impassioned plea from Hildegard to Richardis–

    “Daughter, listen to me, your mother, speaking to you in the spirit: my grief flies up to heaven. My sorrow is destroying the great confidence and consolation that I once had in mankind. From now on I will say: ‘‘It is good to trust in the Lord, rather than to trust in princes’’ [Ps 117.9]. The point of this Scripture is that a person ought to look to the living height, with vision unobstructed by earthly love and feeble faith, which the airy humor of earth renders transient and short-lived. Thus a person looking at God directs his sight to the sun like an eagle. And for this reason one should not depend on a person of high birth, for such a one inevitably withers like a flower. This was the very transgression I myself committed because of my love for a certain noble individual. Now I say to you: As often as I sinned in this way, God revealed that sin to me, either through some sort of difficulty or some kind of grief, just as He has now done regarding you, as you well know. Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, ‘‘Why have you forsaken me’’ [Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark like an orphan? I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?”

    “Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person— as I had for you— but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me. But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you. Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade.”

    From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 47-48.

    Then we skip ahead to the very sad turn, the sudden death of Richardis at the age of about twenty-eight within a year of her departure from Mt. St. Rupert. The following two letters are perhaps among the most forthright and touching in Christian literature, first the letter from Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen, notifying Hildegard of his own sister Richardis’ passing–

    “Hartwig, archbishop of Bremen, brother of the abbess Richardis, sends that which is in the place of a sister and more than a sister, obedience, to Hildegard, mistress of the sisters of St. Rupert.

    I write to inform you that our sister— my sister in body, but yours in spirit— has gone the way of all flesh, little esteeming that honor I bestowed upon her. And (while I was on my way to see the earthly king) she was obedient to her lord, the heavenly King. I am happy to report that she made her last confession in a saintly and pious way and that after her confession she was anointed with consecrated oil. Moreover, filled with her usual Christian spirit, she tearfully expressed her longing for your cloister with her whole heart. She then committed herself to the Lord through His mother and St. John. And sealed three times with the sign of the cross, she confessed the Trinity and Unity of God, and died on October 29 in perfect faith, hope, and charity [cf. I Cor 13.13], as we know for certain. Thus I ask as earnestly as I can, if I have any right to ask, that you love her as much as she loved you, and if she appeared to have any fault— which indeed was mine, not hers— at least have regard for the tears that she shed for your cloister, which many witnessed. And if death had not prevented, she would have come to you as soon as she was able to get permission. But since death did intervene, be assured that, God willing, I will come in her place. May God, who repays all good deeds, recompense you fully in this world and in the future for all the good things you did for her, you alone, more even than relatives or friends; may He repay that benevolence of yours which she rejoiced in before God and me. Please convey my thanks to your sisters for all their kindness.”
    From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 48-49.

    And then, here follows Hildegard’s restrained and irenic response. But note, however, her parting turn on the concept of obedience, with which Hartwig began his letter–

    To Hartwig, Archbishop of Bremen

    “O how great a miracle there is in the salvation of those souls so looked upon by God that His glory has no hint of shadow in them. But He works in them like a mighty warrior who takes care not to be defeated by anyone, so that his victory may be sure. Just so, dear man, was it with my daughter Richardis, whom I call both daughter and mother, because I cherished her with divine love, as indeed the Living Light had instructed me to do in a very vivid vision.”

    “God favored her so greatly that worldly desire had no power to embrace her. For she always fought against it, even though she was like a flower in her beauty and loveliness in the symphony of this world. While she was still living in the body, in fact, I heard the following words concerning her in a true vision: ‘‘O virginity, you are standing in the royal bridal chamber.’’ Now, in the tender shoot of virginity, she has been made a part of that most holy order, and the daughters of Zion rejoice [Zach 2.10, 9.9]. But the ancient serpent had attempted to deprive her of that blessed honor by assaulting her through her human nobility. Yet the mighty Judge drew this my daughter to Himself, cutting her off from all human glory. Therefore, although the world loved her physical beauty and her worldly wisdom while she was still alive, my soul has the greatest confidence in her salvation. For God loved her more. Therefore, He was unwilling to give His beloved to a heartless lover, that is, to the world.”

    “Now you, dear Hartwig, you who sit as Christ’s representative, fulfill the desire of your sister’s soul, as obedience demands. And just as she always had your interests at heart, so you now take thought for her soul, and do good works as she wished. Now, as for me, I cast out of my heart that grief you caused me in the matter of this my daughter. May God grant you, through the prayers of the saints, the dew of His grace and reward in the world to come.”

    From Joseph L. Baird, Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 49-50.

    While von Trotta’s film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen is beautiful and inspiring, the letters above complement the film in a profound and touching way. I highly recommend close study of Joseph L. Baird’s collections of Hildegard letters.

    Indeed, such close examination of Hildegard scholarship reveals that it is very possible that Richardis was dead by the time Hildegard’s morality play, The Play of Virtues, or the Ordo Virtutum, was performed in its final form. Therefore, the lovely “play within the play” within von Trotta’s Vision, with a prominent role played by Richardis, may or may not have ever really happened with Richardis personally playing the part. The brilliant Hildegard scholar Barbara Newman astutely pointed out (Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, U. California Press, 1997, p. 223) that the very same words of praise for Richardis’ virginity contained in Hildegard’s letter to Richardis’ brother the archbishop appeared again in the very final version of the Ordo Virtutum. Therefore, who else but Richardis, according to “Central Casting,” would ever play the virtue Castitas, as inspired by Hildegard’s vision? Director von Trotta, by getting history probably wrong, more likely got a truth of the vision right.

    How do I support my assertion that the love of Hildegard for Richardis was true Christian love? It is clear from the letters and the testimony of herself and others, at least on Hildegard’s part, that she loved Richardis completely and complexly, in all commonly describable ways, as a friend, a sister, a religious superior, a teacher, a student, a surrogate parent, an admirer, as a seer, as a patient to a caregiver, and by way of sacrificial Christian love, except for the love of sexual intimacy. This relationship appears to make concrete the teachings of Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. This multifaceted love might only be successful across a lifetime between two very strong and talented colleagues.

    This kind of relationship would also probably not be tolerated in modern religious life! Even in her own time, Hildegard was asked, “What are you doing?”

    I also can’t help recalling, however, that Jesus had his own Beloved Disciple.

    To the modern witness, it may make perfect sense that Richardis would step away from Hildegard to lead another abbey shortly after the great project of Scivias was completed, especially since, to the modern understanding, the child must step away from the parent, no matter how loving. But we may never know Richardis’s mind on this subject to the degree that we know Hildegard’s. Whether Richardis received a spiritual call, had her own ambitions, was forced into accepting the abbey by her mother and her brother the archbishop (his letter points in this direction), or was seeking to put distance between herself and Hildegard (the timing of waiting to leave after Scivias was finished may indicate a planned departure), or all of the above, will remain an open question.

    I am grateful that, into these open questions, such a director as von Trotta did not fear to step!

    ==

    I end this post by sharing a number of reviews of the film, which are, as evidenced also by their titles, rather, if not humorously, divergent in their attempts to apply paradigms of various ages and interest groups upon the film and to Hildegard.

    To the New York Times reviewer, Hildegard, known otherwise to history as a polymath, or universal genius, was the “multitasking nun.”

    The Boston Globe applies in an otherwise perceptive review, the post-Freudian saw of “repressed eroticism.”

    The dignified review from the National Catholic Reporter carefully relates that experienced nuns would recognize the “special friendship” (years ago also called, a “particular friendship”) that the film depicts in the story of a woman who “humbly initiated change.”

    To the Christianity Today reviewer, the film did not convey enough of a “sense of the transcendent.”

    Variety’s reviewer appears eager to end the review since the subject of the film is so obviously Catholic.

    The San Francisco Chronicle thinks that Hildegard was a “very cool nun.”

    NYPress.com sees “female will and independence” in the film.

    The LA Times sees a “feminist centuries ahead of her time.”

    Flip comments from the NPR reviewer, whose knowledge of the subject of the film (e.g., nuns, history) appears to be gleaned from. . . other films.

    Roger Ebert sees the love between the characters as sublimated lesbianism, and is apparently unaware that Benedict XVI, like other recent Popes, explicitly recognized the sainthood of Hildegard in two Fall, 2010 general audiences, linked at my earlier post.

    America Magazine, the Jesuit publication, saw Hildegard “caught in a riptide of lesbian love.”

    Finally, two interviews with the director–

    From FilmMaker Magazine, and from the Huffington Post.

    Director von Trotta, in her FilmMaker Magazine interview linked above, explains why in this film she depicted participants kissing each other on the mouth in many different situations. She refers to a scholarly theory about mouth-kissing being more common prior to the Black Death, but it is probably safe to say that she is making a statement about a less inhibited and perhaps idealized “wholesome” approach to human love.

    One final tale of the book Scivias, produced by Hildegard in collaboration with Richardis and Volmar. One important original manuscript of Scivias was taken to Dresden for safekeeping during World War II, where it was lost. Copies remain.

    Vision as of 2011 is available for viewing on demand from Netflix.

    Here is the link to the official website for the film at Zeitgeist Films.

    © Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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    A letter to seminarians

    Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

    As a former seminary teacher, I found the recent letter by Benedict XVI to seminarians both an inspiration, and a gateway to memory.

    © Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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    “The greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ”: Cardinal George at the Catholic Charities Centennial

    Sunday, October 17th, 2010

    On September 25, 2010, Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago, gave the homily in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC, during the Eucharist celebrating the centennial of Catholic Charities USA.

    His Eminence is one of the most thoughtful and insightful witnesses within contemporary Catholicism, whose contributions are often obscured from hearing by the media controversy of the day. His 9/25/10 reflections on charity and generosity within the context of the Catholic faith are worth lengthy consideration. I offer this report of them to you, first by this link to the official text of his homily, and then by my unofficial text below, which I transcribed from a television recording. The edition below includes a few of the Cardinal’s verbal insertions (there were only a few) into the official text, but is laid out visually closer to the way the homily was delivered (according to this witness):

    Unofficial Transcription
    Catholic Charities USA
    Centennial Mass Homily – September 25, 2010
    Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC
    Francis Cardinal George, OMI:

    Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

    It’s a great pleasure and a true honor, together with all of you, with Sr. Donna Markham, the chair of the national Catholic Charities Board, with Fr. Larry Snyder the president of Catholic Charities USA, and with all those associated with Catholic Charities in this country, all of us gathered today in our national shrine.

    This centennial Eucharist is possible first of all because of a virtue. The Pope, in sending his congratulations for this anniversary, said that it will be an occasion for gratitude to Almighty God for the “abundant harvest of generosity, solidarity, and good works reaped.”

    Generosity: Generosity is a virtue that has made possible the extraordinary record of help, and the even more extraordinary outpouring of hearts that we celebrate today.

    The case statement for Catholic Charities is in the Gospel just proclaimed–the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the prisoner, the least of Christ’s brethren–
    We are commanded to see them and to respond.

    But behind the cases and the case studies, behind the plight of the poor, behind the well-organized response to their needs through Catholic Charities, there is the Gospel and its imperative to love.

    It is always important to give to a good cause. It is even more important simply to give, to be generous in imitation of the Lord himself, of Jesus who is generous to the point of self-sacrifice for our salvation. No matter the cause, disciples of the Lord Jesus have to give, are impelled toward generosity from the power of God’s grace working in them, in us. Salvation depends on this virtue.

    St. John of the Cross reminds us in the evening of life we will be judged by love, examined in love. Made in God’s image and likeness, and created therefore out of infinite love, we will be asked how we have grown into the mind and heart of Christ, who saves us out of love. The One who loves us far more than we love ourselves will ask how we have loved those whom He also loves, and therefore have shown how we love Him.

    If love, which is the form of every virtue, informs our life and our actions, we have nothing to fear in this life or in the next. So we are here, dear brothers and sisters, because of a virtue: generosity.

    We are here also because of a motive: faith. It’s a particular faith, a faith, as St. James reminds us, that sustains works, a faith that becomes visible in works, a faith demonstrated by good works.

    There are tensions, as we know, particular to such a faith and the good works that it motivates:

    There is a tension between humanitarianism–helping the poor for the sake of the poor–and evangelization: helping the poor for the sake of Christ.

    There is a tension between professionalism–helping others from the knowledge and skills that have the poor come to us on our terms, the terms of our social work, of our profession, of our health care–a tension between that kind of professionalism and ministry, which is going to the poor on Christ’s terms, and helping them as they want to be helped.

    There is a tension even between charity and justice, especially when justice is interpreted as vengeance.

    Pope Benedict solved this conceptually in his first encyclical, God is Love, Deus Caritas Est, when he pointed out very aptly, and very obviously when you think about it, but what the world has often forgotten, one cannot be just to someone you don’t love, and one cannot love someone without seeing to it that they are treated justly.

    These and other tensions familiar to you are the stuff of many conversations–good conversations–but most of all, they are the stuff of daily life for Catholic Charities directors and staffs. And they are resolved in practice each day by many thousands of well-prepared and well-formed men and women who have put their lives, their careers, and often risk their livelihood in service to the mission of Catholic Charities.

    Pope Benedict mentions them as well in his encyclical:

    The personnel of every Catholic charitable organization want to work with the Church and therefore with the bishops so that the love of God can spread throughout the world by their sharing in the Church’s practice of love [the diakonia that Cardinal Cordes mentioned]. They wish to be witnesses of God and of Christ and they wish for this very reason freely to do good to all.

    I take great pride in the Catholic Charities workers, the directors, those who are responsible for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese I serve. I take great pride because I see men and women could work in many places but who are in Catholic Charities because they know what the mission is, and more than that, the mission has transformed their own heart, and their lives in such a way that they they are trustworthy, that they can work out the tensions, that they can respond to the individual and keep the principles in mind and do so day after day, year after year. I take great pride in them, and to them especially, we owe a debt of gratitude today.

    There remains always, of course, the temptation to resolve these conceptual and existential tensions by doing the works of charity–good works–as if God did not exist.

    This form of self-secularization arises because the Church, especially in a time of great difficulty, can fall back on works that make sense on the world’s terms, on the critics’ terms. The Church is often praised for her schools, her hospitals, her charitable organizations and institutions–although not always. Two days ago I had to respond to an irate lady who was saying that Catholic Charities should close down its food kitchen in her neighborhood because the people made a mess when they came to eat there and her life was disturbed. We know as we try to sponsor low-income housing that this is always a very difficult kind of conversation, sometimes because people are genuinely afraid and that must respected–people have a right to security in their own homes. But often it is for other reasons as well that are hard to sort out.

    So not every work that you do and Charities sponsor and I try to help in my own way, not every work is praised, and yet, yet, the Church is recognized for her works.

    But concentrating on the good works doesn’t always save us from the comment that they are somehow in conflict with the Church’s doctrines, retrograde as they are. And that it’s just too bad one cant’ take only the works and forget the teaching, not to mention the teachers. However, we take what we can get from a world too often marked by self-righteousness that is, in Gospel terms, the sin against the Holy Spirit.
    And we use the works to give us an opening. An opening for what?

    We could not come together for this centennial Eucharist but for the virtue of generosity and the motivation of faith, both of which, however, are sustained and confirmed by a vision:

    It is a picture of the Spirit of the Lord at work in the world, bringing good out of evil, hope from despair, life from death. It’s a picture proclaimed in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn, to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a listless spirit.”

    This is the text, as you know, that was cited by Jesus himself in the synagogue at Nazareth when he first returned to his home town. In the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus, having finished the reading, speaks to his friends and neighbors: “Today–Today–this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

    Today–it’s a long day, a day that will last until Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is His day, and in Christ, in Him, it is our day.

    Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ.

    And the greatest challenge is to serve the poor in Christ’s name, with complete respect for their dignity and their personal freedom.

    Today, then, on this anniversary date, our hearts are filled with gratitude to God, to our benefactors, to directors and staffers of Catholic Charities–to all of you–and all those whom you represent. And most of all, most of all, our hearts are filled with gratitude to the poor, without whom no one enters the Kingdom of God. God bless us all.

    Catholic Charities USA
    Centennial Mass Homily – September 25, 2010
    Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC
    Francis Cardinal George, OMI
    Unofficial Transcription by Albert J. Schorsch, III

    The Cardinal’s words call us to reflect, and to act:

    “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the greatest poverty is not to know Jesus Christ.”

    “And the greatest challenge is to serve the poor in Christ’s name, with complete respect for their dignity and their personal freedom.”

    Also, His Eminence’s concept of “self-secularization” is worth pondering.

    © Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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    The Sibyl of the Rhine

    Sunday, September 19th, 2010

    September 17 marks the date on which several places in the world recall Benedictine Abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), one of the only medieval composers to win a Grammy award centuries later, in her case for the 1982 album (recorded in 1981) A Feather on the Breath of God.

    Source: Public Domain, Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.

    But Hildegard was much more than a great composer of music of incomparable beauty. She stands among the most extraordinary polymaths, or universal geniuses, in human history. Hildegard served as a fountain-head of European music and drama, of gynecology, of psychology, and mystical theology.

    “No woman previous to Hildegard revealed such a wide range of knowledge and creative thought. The extraordinary breadth of her writing skills, which ranged from music to drama, to scientific texts on the classification of stones and herbs, to theological speculation, to language games, to the philosophy of psychology, reveal a genius unparalleled by a woman and matched by very few men up to the twelfth century. The additional discovery that Hildegard was the first person to develop an original theory in support of the philosophy of sex complementarity makes her contribution to the history of the concept of woman in relation to man all the more significant.”

    From Prudence Allen, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250, 1985, Eden Press, p. 295.

    “Among the countless ‘firsts’ and ‘onlies’ to her credit, Hildegard was the only woman of her age to be accepted as an authoritative voice on Christian doctrine; the first woman who received express permission from a pope to write theological books; the only medieval woman who preached openly, before mixed audiences of clergy and laity, with the full approval of church authorities; the author of the first known morality play and the only twelfth-century playwright who is not anonymous; the only composer of her era (not to mention the only medieval woman) known both by name and by a large corpus of surviving music; the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective; and the first saint whose official biography includes a first-person memoir.”

    From Barbara Newman, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, 1998, University of California, p. 1.

    Prudence Allen described Hildegard’s pioneering work in medicine and psychology:

    “Benedictine monasteries often had a hospice for pilgrims and for the sick. Hildegard worked as a nurse-physician in the hospice connected to her monastery. As a result of her acute powers of observation and organization of information, she wrote a scientific treatise classifying the curative powers of herbs. More germane to the question of sex identity, Hildegard also wrote a text in which she analysed the biological composition of men and women and the effects of these factors on personality and human interaction. In Causae et Curae, one of the earliest books on the psychology of personality written in the west, Hildegard produced numerous personal observations on human nature. In this way, she functions as a philosopher who supports her views with empirical evidence. Therefore, although Hildegard claims to have received her knowledge directly from God, when the texts she wrote are examined in some detail, they reveal a sophisticated philosophical mind generating fresh and original hypotheses in new areas of thought.”

    Prudence Allen, Ibid.

    But Hildegard was also a visionary, as can be seen from her parable of the feather:

    “A strong king sat in his hall, high pillars before him covered in gold bands and adorned with pearls and precious stones. And the king chose to touch a tiny feather, so that it soared up marvelously, and strong wind bore it up so that it did not fall. . . .

    Listen now: a king sat on his throne, high pillars before him splendidly adorned and set on pediments of ivory. They showed the king’s vestments in great honor everywhere. then the king chose to lift a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly just as the king himself wished. But a feather does not fly of its own accord; it is borne up by the air. So too I am not imbued with human doctrine or strong powers. Nor do I desire good bodily health. Rather, I depend entirely on God’s help.”

    From Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, 2001, Penguin, p. xxvi.

    In her book Scivias, (Scire or vias Domini, or vias lucis, to know the ways of the Lord, or of light), Hildegard views the human person within both a theological and anthropological perspective:

    “A human being contains three paths: namely, soul, body and senses. On these three paths, human life runs its course. The soul fills the body with life and brings forth the senses; for its part the body attracts the soul to it and opens up the senses; in turn the senses touch the body and draw the soul to them. The soul provides the body with life like fire flooding the darkness with light; it has two major powers like two arms: the understanding and the will. Not that the soul has these limbs to move herself about; rather she reveals herself in these two powers like the sun manifesting itself in the splendour of its light. Therefore human being, you are not a bundle of veins; pay attention to the knowledge of the scriptures.”

    Atherton, Ibid., p. 7.

    Hildegard possessed great insight into human behavior. She generated a typology of both male and female personalities. According to Prudence Allen, Hildegard “developed a unique theory of the complementarity of woman and man both within the internal structure of their personal identity as well as in the external dynamics of their interaction in either married or celibate relationships.” Hildegard deeply understood the role of friendship in successful relationships between women and men, whether these relationships were physically intimate or celibate.

    Hildegard also considered the physical effects of celibacy on men and women. She concluded that some types of men and some types of women needed an intimate relationship with a member of the opposite sex to that point that these suffered in terms of their health and happiness without it. She also held that social, non-intimate relations between men and women contributed to their general health and happiness, and that of a certain personality group of women, “when they do avoid the company of men, they are quite difficult and unbearable in their manners.”

    One fiery type of man was to be avoided by women:

    “[These] love coition with women and are anxious to get out of other men’s way and to avoid them, for they are more inclined to women than to men. . . . As soon as they get sight of a woman, hear of one or simply fancy one in thought, their blood is burning with a blaze. Their eyes are kept fixed on the object of their love like arrows as soon as they catch sight of it.”

    Prudence Allen, Ibid., p. 305

    Hildegard considered another type of man as being hateful of women. But she regarded a second, more balanced personality type of man who:

    “tames the fiery power within themselves. . . That is why one refers to them as a golden edifice of sexual embrace. . . With women they can have an honorable and fruitful relationship. The eyes of such men can meet squarely with those of the women, much in contrast to those other men’s eyes that were fixed on them like arrows.”

    Prudence Allen, Ibid.

    There is so much more to Hildegard of Bingen than the short excerpts above. I highly recommend Prof. Barbara Newman’s edited volume herein mentioned, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Of Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM’s multi-volume work, The Concept of Woman, the several pages (292-315) of the first volume devoted to Hildegard of Bingen provide an essential summary of Hildegard’s views on sexual complementarity and personality.

    I might add that Sr. Allen’s magisterial multi-volume work, the Concept of Woman, provides a critical resource for insight into human society and ideas, and is too often the intellectual road not taken by those who begin their expositions on “race, class, and gender” without sufficient study or reflection.

    I must in addition emphatically state that Professor Barbara Newman is a stupendous scholar who has opened up new views of the medieval world. Her earlier book on St. Hildegard, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, merits close study and reflection.

    The following resources also provide useful introductions to the significance of Hildegard of Bingen–

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07351a.htm


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildegard_of_Bingen

    One partial online edition of: Scivias.

    Atherton’s edited: Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings.

    Benedict XVI recently spoke about St. Hildegard during his 9/1/10 General Audience and his 9/8/10 General Audience. Multilingual videos of these audiences are also available:

    9/1/10 audience video

    9/8/10 audience video

    In his 9/8/10 General Audience, Benedict XVI referred in several ways to St. Hildegard as an example for today’s Christian faith, witness, and for church reform. I think it better to combine the entire 9/1/10 and 9/8/10 audience statements below to keep these reflections in context:

    Saint Hildegard of Bingen

    Dear Brothers and Sisters,

    In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

    Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

    During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

    I shall speak again next Wednesday about this great woman, this “prophetess” who also speaks with great timeliness to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today has been reconstructed, her love for Christ and for his Church which was suffering in that period too, wounded also in that time by the sins of both priests and lay people, and far better loved as the Body of Christ. Thus St Hildegard speaks to us; we shall speak of her again next Wednesday. Thank you for your attention.

    BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Papal Summer Residence, Castel Gandolfo
    Wednesday, 1st September 2010

    Dear Brothers and Sisters,

    Today I would like to take up and continue my Reflection on St Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the Middle Ages who was distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

    Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

    From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

    The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centred on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

    Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

    The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” (ibid., p. 412).

    With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

    BENEDICT XVI, GENERAL AUDIENCE, Paul VI Hall,
    Wednesday, 8 September 2010

    Let’s let St. Hildegarde speak in her own words:

    O choruscans lux stellarum,
    o splendidissima specialis forma
    regalium nuptiarum,
    o fulgens gemma,
    tu es ornata in alta persona,
    quae non habet maculatam rugam.

    Tu es etiam socia Angelorum
    et civis sanctorum.

    Fuge, fuge speluncam antiqui perditoris,
    et veniens veni in palatium Regis.

    If you search the Web on any five or six consecutive words of text above, you will surely find a translation.

    For Hildegard events and items of interest, consult the website of the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.

    (The name Hildegard refers to a battle stronghold. I offer this post in honor of my great aunt, Hildegarde A. Schorsch, MD (1903-2000), a pioneering female physician in Chicago and faithful Catholic.)

    © Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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