Posts Tagged ‘St. Peter’

Aphorism LXXXIV

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Christians who remove the corpus, or body of Christ, from the crucifix, leaving only the cross, commit the same offence that Peter did when denying the sufferings of Christ in Matthew 16:21-23, for which Christ said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Some non-Catholic Christians who prefer the cross without the body are like Muslims in this respect, in that they deny the reality of the sufferings of Christ.

Some Christians who are scandalized by the wealth and misconduct of the Church leave it after they see Rome or the residence of a wealthy clergyman. But few who carry the Cross following the suffering Christ, and stand at the foot of his Cross, walk away from Christ and His Church.

© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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Simone Weil’s Incandescent Life

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Some saints or heroes are known to us like family, with everyday foibles and failed humanity. St. Peter, the cowardly lion of the Twelve, so blustering yet in the end so true as Cephas, the Rock, is one of these.

Other saints or heroes are indeed the Other, the perpetual unknown, calling to us from a mysterious, holy, and separate place. Simone Weil, 1909-1943, for decades and until recently appeared to many of her readers as one of these Others. Weil continues to inspire, to enrage, and to challenge.

A thinker of amazing clarity, an activist of rare integrity, and among the purest of hearts who nevertheless infuriates to this day, the twentieth-century philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil grows in reputation as hundreds of books and articles multiply considering her legacy.

Now independent film artist Julia Haslett has written, produced, and directed one of the first English-language films on Weil, the documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil, premiered in 2010 and released in 2011 by Line Street Productions.

An Encounter with Simone Weil poster, with permission

Julia Haslett has just introduced Simone Weil to a new generation, a generation, like Haslett, who want “not to be an accomplice, not to lie, not to remain blind.”

Haslett’s passionate pursuit of Simone Weil parallels that of many other single-minded searchers for truth, authenticity, and justice to whom Simone Weil speaks so directly.

Weil, a brilliant, first-time teacher in a French town in 1931, found herself drawn to be the champion of the homeless and unemployed who labored at a public works project breaking stones close to her school. Weil anticipated, and in a way invented decades early, the lifestyle of the committed young activist-thinker of recent years, who might work as an educator for a time, or as an organizer, or as a writer. Weil attempted all of these simultaneously.

But Weil was more than this. She is now recognized, after the work of Peter Winch and others, as one of the most significant philosophers of the Twentieth Century, called by Albert Camus “the only great spirit of our time.”

While many on the Left are catalyzed by Weil, so are many on the Right as well. Raymond Aron, whose wife attended school with Weil, said of her–

“The message of Simone Weil is not a left-wing message, it is a non-conformist message, reminding us of truths which we were no longer accustomed to hear.”

Aron, Raymond. 2001. The opium of the intellectuals. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, pg. 50.

Simone Weil wrote with power. Her words can cast her audience into autobiographic reverie, and transform mere readers into, a least for a while, her devotees. These can recount, like the narratives of “What I was doing when Kennedy was shot,” or “Where I was when the 9-11 attacks took place,” their own circumstances when they first read Simone Weil and began to search libraries and archives for more and more obscure portions of her legacy and life.

Few match Simone Weil’s writing for brilliance, for clarity, and for pearl after pearl of insight. Even when she is terribly wrong–and she could be impetuously and stubbornly so–Simone Weil still somehow inspires. Scholars have, decades after her death, assembled multiplying volumes of Weil’s finely spun gold laced with wool that will animate and perplex poets, philosophers, and searchers for centuries. Academics already speak and write about “Weil Studies,” while bards, playwrights, and composers have generated art in her name.

Julia Haslett’s cinematic quest for Simone Weil is among the more visually compact treatments of Weil in any medium. Haslett, following Weil’s inspiration, does not separate ideas from people and situations, but directs her attention–a commitment so important to Weil–to the personal and concrete living predicament.

Haslett’s “Encounter” begins by introducing herself and her mission of universal attention to human suffering, by proposing as the first spoken words of her film, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”

In order to answer that question, Haslett sought out Simone Weil, first by seeking memories of her, starting with the New York City apartment building in which Weil and her parents stayed in 1942. Haslett tracked down photos of Weil and of her life, film footage of contemporary events, and visited many locations associated with Weil.

Haslett also located those who had some kind of contact with Weil. She interviewed Jeanne Duchamp, a surviving student of the young teacher Weil from the early 1930s; Florence de Lussy, an editor of Weil’s complete works; Weil’s niece Sylvie Weil; Weil’s cousin Raymonde Weil (Nathan); Madame Thibaud, a witness of the small group of friends who hosted Weil in southern France in the early 1940s; and Fr. Jobert of Solesmes Abbey, where Weil had one of her mystical episodes. Along with de Lussy, peace activist and educator Anna Brown of the Social Justice program at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, and also noted literary-cultural theorist-critic Sylvere Lotringer provide their comments and reflections.

Sylvie Weil and Her Photo Album, posted with permission

Haslett’s Weil is Weil as the inviolate lonely truth-seeker activist, whose integrity separated her, in the end, both from established politics and conventional religion. While Haslett stated that Weil distrusted organizations of any kind, it is also true that Weil joined a teacher’s union and was very active in union matters during her first teaching assignment at Le Puy-en-Velay.

Haslett follows the accepted phases of Weil’s development (childhood through university education, 1909-1931, teaching and labor-political activism, 1931-1937, and religious exploration, migraines, and final writing frenzy, 1935-1943).

Haslett directs us to Weil’s student Jeanne Duchamp, who as a high-school student learned from Weil, when faced with a choice among several options, “Always do what will cost you the most.”

Haslett tells us that at six years old Weil gave up sugar in solidarity with French soldiers at the WWI front, at ten sneaked away from home to attend a labor union demonstration, and at twenty-five quit her teaching job to work at a factory.

Weil, as she has done with many others, also appears to have cast Haslett into her own self-examining narration. Haslett began her quest when after her own father’s death, and her subsequent call to witness to human suffering, she read Weil’s words, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Throughout Julia Haslett’s film we learn not only of Weil but of Haslett’s commitment to attending to human suffering, and of Haslett’s own attention for her brother Timothy and his tragic struggle with depression. Haslett takes upon herself a particular burden of attentiveness: “If I don’t pay attention, someone might die.”

Unlike many biographies of Weil, Haslett’s film does not dwell on Weil’s relationship with her own older brother Andre, one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest mathematicians, nor significantly with Weil’s strenuous rejection of much of her own Jewish heritage.

Weil had a tendency, as de Lussy noted, to “rush to the goal she had set for herself,” to perpetually forge ahead. I call it, “diving in.” Weil once convinced Leon Trotsky, his wife, and his bodyguards to stay as guests in the Weil’s Paris apartment, and then proceeded to argue with Trotsky. (Haslett does not mention that Madame Sedov (Mrs. Trotsky) reportedly heard the ruckus from another room and said of Weil, “This child is holding her own with Trotsky!”)

Florence de Lussy spoke of Weil’s “union between the most demanding intellect and the heart.” According to de Lussy, readers of Weil “do not come away unscathed.”

Haslett prominently displays Weil’s dictum, “Truth is too dangerous to touch, it is an explosive.” (Catholic Workers will recall here Peter Maurin’s “Easy Essay” about the dynamite of the Church.)

Haslett imaged Weil’s pilgrimage from child and student (1909-1931); to teacher (1931); to visitor to Germany during Hitler’s rise (1932); to factory worker and labor activist (1934); to mystical experiences (1935-8); to Republican soldier in Spain (1936) and visitor to Assisi (1937); to renunciation of pacifism after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1939); to flight from conquered Paris to southern France (1940); to work on the grape harvest and daily recitation of the Greek Lord’s Prayer with absolute attention (1941); to retreat to New York City with parents (1942); to passage to England to work on behalf of Free French government in exile (1942); and to death in Kent, UK (1943).

At several of these milestones, Haslett featured a Weil aphorism, such as, “It is not religion, but revolution, that is the opium of the people.”

While the heretofore pacifist Weil volunteered and briefly carried a rifle with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, she balked at the near execution of a priest and the summary execution of others by the anarchists. Shortly thereafter, the ever-clumsy, near-sighted Weil stepped into a scalding pot, and had to be removed from the front. The badly injured Weil then found her way to Assisi, where she experienced a transcendent, Godly presence.

Haslett highlights Weil’s reflection on how factory work makes things of workers, and bridges to Weil’s quote, “Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves. Slaves cannot help belonging to it. And I, among others.”

Julia Haslett and Soraya Broukhim, posted with permission

Frustrated at a point in her search for Weil, Haslett hired bilingual actress Soraya Broukhim to live and research the part of Simone Weil, and to speak as Weil to Haslett.

(Warning: film spoilers. Stop reading here if you prefer to see the film first.)

One scene toward the end of the film depicts Haslett and Broukhim as the Weil avatar sitting on the floor and moving the Weil pictures in an alternating montage, in a way evocative of Weil’s own characteristic kneeling in concentration over a book or set of notes.

Among other important themes of Weil are suffering and affliction. Weil’s search for knowledge was participatory, through action. She therefore sought out experiences of suffering and affliction.

Lotringer noted that Weil “Never wanted to talk about, but to be part of what she was talking about. And she could only do it if she participated in it.”

Weil wanted to join the first wave in Czechoslovakia to fight the Nazis, and later, in the early 1940s concocted a scheme in which an elite group of battlefield nurses would also parachute into France to assist the resistance, a scheme she would share with anyone who would listen until her death in 1943. Similarly, she wanted to serve in the first wave of these combat nurses. Again, Lotringer: “She didn’t want to survive. She wanted to understand.”

Haslett’s film tries to balance the narrative between Weil the philosopher-activist and Weil the religious mystic. “Not a religious person” herself, Haslett, while feeling “betrayed by Weil’s turn toward God,” tries to understand how Weil could turn away from “political struggle” to a religious search.

Haslett brings us to the very spot behind the pillar at Solesmes Abbey where Weil perched contemplating Christian mysteries. Some clergy have this same nickname for “behind-the-pillar Catholics,” those whose worship is private and contemplative, and who, like Weil, literally seek out the spots behind the pillars.

Haslett’s narrative returned to Le Puy-en-Velay, where the young Weil first taught in 1931. This town has its own statue of a Red Virgin. (Was this posting of Weil in Le Puy, a town towered over by a reddish statue of the Virgin and Child, a joke on the part of Weil’s critics in the education establishment, or of God himself, since Weil was herself nicknamed the “Red Virgin” since her student days?)

Anna Brown and Haslett appear to agree that Weil had no where else to go but religion. Brown stated Weil turned to religion when “reason had been exhausted.”

In tears, Haslett saw at this later point in Weil’s life a philosophical dead end, and here Camus’ paradigmatic choice, after Hamlet, between life and suicide.

But something else beyond this choice appears to lead Haslett’s final narrative forward. Haslett notes that in one of her final writings, Weil stated:

“You think I have something to give. I too have a growing certainty that there is within me a deposit of pure gold that must be handed on. Only I become more and more convinced that there is no one to receive it.”

(The above passage forms the fundamental theme of Prof. E. Jane Doering’s very important recent book: Doering, E. Jane. 2010. Simone Weil and the specter of self-perpetuating force. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press. Doering contends that in her final writings Weil had accomplished a paradigmatic integration of her thinking about the source of force, and thus provided a clue to the reduction of human conflict. It is interesting also to note that Weil, marginalized among the Free French government in exile, did her most significant work while working alone toward her death in seeming near despair, in parallel fashion to her brother Andre (1906-1998), who made some of his most important mathematical discoveries while imprisoned in 1940 by the French government for choosing not to serve in the military.)

In these final segments, Haslett brings forward yet more Weil quotes on attention:

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to ask him, ‘What are you going through?'”

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle.”

Haslett then recalls Weil’s Platonic notion that every separation or wall is also a potential link.

Simone Weil, posted with permission

Haslett has successfully, if not rather bravely, blended two narratives, Weil’s message and life with significant events in Haslett’s own life. While not every critic so far likes this approach, I think it is one worthy of Weil herself.

Haslett has therefore crafted a moving epiphany of Simone Weil for a new generation.

Composer Daniel Thomas Davis deserves specific mention for some of his fine compositions that grace this documentary, as well as some well-chosen compositions by others, including Oliver Messiaen and Hildegarde of Bingen.

Since research is still evolving on Weil controversies such as her probable baptism and her strident views on Judaism, the Weil encountered in Haslett’s film is the heretofore accepted Weil as the perpetual outsider, who yet individually transcended human division. There is much more to Weil than this, but several films could not adequately address her complexity and gifts to humanity.

Is there very much more to Simone Weil than time permitted Haslett to reveal?

The answer to this question is emphatically yes, because the world is still catching up with Simone Weil. Witness how, even in her style of dress, minus the hat and with more modest shoes, Weil presaged the Annie Hall style by decades.

Sylvie Weil’s Contribution

The year 2010 saw not only the premier of “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but the publication of several books which cast further light on her. I’ve already mentioned Prof. Doering’s above.

Perhaps the most significant of these books was the English-language release of Sylvie Weil’s At Home with Andre and Simone Weil by Nortwestern University Press (Weil, Sylvie, and Benjamin Ivry. 2010. At home with André and Simone Weil. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, ISBN 9780810127043 cloth, 0810127040 paper).

Sylvie Weil’s book goes a long way to revise our view of Simone Weil away from the Other I referred to at the beginning of my essay above, toward that of a very loved, gifted, and eccentric family member.

Sylvie Weil, whose graceful, self-effacing intelligence and beauty shone forth during Haslett’s interview with her, writes with irony, wit, thoughtfulness, and regret:

My insufferable aunt, my saintly aunt, that amazing one-woman outfit perpetually grinding out publicity about poverty, misery, and misfortune!

Silvie Weil, At Home with Andre and Simone Weil, 2010, Northwestern University Press, p. 154.

Sylvie, who is as we Americans put it a “dead ringer” for Simone, spent moments of her youth freezing Simone’s devotees in their tracks as if they had seen a ghost. But the young Sylvie Weil, torn between the moral paradigm of Aunt Simone, and, well, the other paradigm of Brigitte Bardot, took a very different path from that of her aunt, had her own bout with pneumonia and at a similar age to her aunt nearly died, but instead found not only love, but in the end the Jewish faith.

Sylvie Weil merited her own national recognition in France both as a student and as a writer-playwright. Sylvie provides an essential account of Simone, a lament of sorts, but also, most importantly, the healing of a memory.

Like cousin Raymonde in Haslett’s film, Sylvie repeats the family tradition that Simone’s mother went to heroic levels of deception to convince Simone that filet mignon was dog food, and that Madame “Selma” Weil had waited in line for hours with working women to get Simone the food which only they ate.

In many ways, Simone needed her parents–the effervescent Selma and her quiet physician father Bernard–to survive, just as she apparently somehow yearned to separate from them in order to die. From Sylvie we learn that Simone’s cult was established by Simone’s parents, who spent the rest of their days transcribing her notebooks, conveying them to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and making her, and their own Paris home a public shrine, consecrated by Camus’ visit prior to his Nobel acceptance speech. This cult split the family apart, with Sylvie’s father Andre substantially separating from his parents amid disputes and lawsuits over Simone’s literary legacy. Sylvie, who grew during these sad times of family separation, comes to terms directly with these difficulties, and in the end transcends them.

Sylvie Weil also confronts head-on the “Jewish question” as it pertains to Simone Weil, and reveals, like other critics, Simone as the disconnected heir of the Jewish tradition of charity, righteousness, and justice, tzedakah. Sylvie was livid with Simone for not writing directly of the Shoah when she was almost certainly in the know about it. It is Sylvie Weil, separated by two generations from the family rift with Simone Weil’s observant Jewish paternal grandmother, who reconnects herself, and thus in a way Simone and her admirers, with the gifts of Judaism.

With Sylvie Weil’s account, and with the credible story of Simone Weil’s baptism securely on video-tape (see my future post), Simone Weil as the perpetual Other has thankfully been brought back to earth.

Yet ironically, placing Simone Weil back onto the earth brings about the possibility that, with several more turns of the world, the world and even the Church may indeed formally recognize her, but much more soberly and realistically, for her heroic virtue.

Sylvie Weil is living proof of family love’s ability to heal memories over generations. As she aged past the death-age of Simone and joins the age of her own parents and grandparents, and as she researched the generations of her own heritage, Sylvie has, through the process of psychological re-parenting–the process of reviewing one’s own development as one plays out the role of parent–made a major contribution to the human family with her book.

Simone Weil studies will never be the same thanks to Sylvie, and that is a very good thing. After Sylvie’s contribution, it may not be necessary for so many young gifted geniuses like Simone to immolate themselves to seek the truth and to witness to it. The world makes martyrs of enough of these young gifted ones beyond their own doing.

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Other Sanity and Social Justice blog posts in preparation on Simone Weil:

Simone Weil and Judaism

Simone Weil’s Probable Baptism

Simone Weil and Lanza del Vasto

Simone Weil and the Question of Asperger’s Syndrome

Reflections on Simone Weil’s Eating Disorder

Trending Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone Weil, Attention, and the Ethics of the Nursing Profession

Simone Weil, Secrecy, and her Rejection of Sexuality

Answers to Some of Simone Weil’s Questions in “Letter to a Priest”

Links to reading with and about Simone Weil

And perhaps more. . . when I can get to them!

Please see my earlier post on Simone Weil.

For more about Simone Weil, see the website of the American Weil Society, and the online Simone Weil Bibliography in progress.

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

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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
    All Rights Reserved

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