Thursday, January 08, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Apparently Charlie Hebdo, the French satire publication, whose offices were attacked by Muslim terrorists yesterday resulting in the savage death of 12, had once published a cartoon depicting Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns, sodomizing God the Father, and being sodomized in turn by the Holy Spirit. Other cartoons have depicted nuns masturbating, or the Pope wearing a condom.

This is completely vile and absolutely disgusting.

The thing is, I'd never heard of this, or any of the other anti-Christian and anti-Catholic cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. At least not until Charlie Hebdo tragically entered the breaking news cycle.

However, I did know they were one of those who had republished the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

A French publication printing something thoroughly vile and anti-Christian is hardly something that makes much of a splash. It does not provoke violent outbursts and demands for vengeance, nor does it create global news.

Let's be clear. There is nothing at all that justifies the murder of human beings, and certainly not perceived insults to any religion. Murder in God's name is an absurdity, as all our recent Popes have taught. And Bill Donohue is completely wrong: Charlie Hebdo did not have it coming. His remarks blame the victim of a horrendous act of barbaric terrorist violence. I am ashamed that he is making these remarks as a Catholic whose organization works to protect the reputation of the Church. This is a time that all Catholics must stand with all people of good will in prayer and solidarity with the victims, their loved ones, and the French people. We must work to be peacemakers, and never give in to the temptation of violence. We must pray for peace, tirelessly. Especially as the temptation rises in France, and Europe, to retaliate violently and vengefully against innocent Muslims, Catholics must show a different way, in support and solidarity with all victims of violence.

However, the questions about the limits of free speech and secularism and its relationship with Islam will once again be raised and already the debate has begun again anew.

This article I came across nails the issues at stake brilliantly: secularism is basically an epiphenomenon of Christianity. It is parasitical on Christian ideas, and Islam is really the greatest threat that it faces. Europe, with its vibrant, religious (more mosque-goers on Friday in England, that churchgoers on Sunday!), often ghettoized and marginalized Islamic minority, is at the frontlines of this clash.
But secularism is a political, legal, and cultural project that goes back centuries, with roots in the "two swords" doctrine of medieval Christianity. The target of modern secularism was (and still is, really) the Christian Church, which it sees as the instigator and vehicle of majoritarian prejudice. Secularism aims to prevent Europe's wars of religion from ever happening again, and to contain the power of Europe's churches when it comes to politics and culture.
[This project has, I would argue, been successful. Christianity as a religious force is on life-support in Western Europe. As a political force it is practically non-existent: the Church's credibility has been shattered in Ireland; in Italy, the Christian Democrats are indistinguishable from other center-left parties; Poland, perhaps, is the lone remaining country in the EU where Christianity has some political influence. As a cultural and social force, it is simply part of the background, and its tenets are often ignored: the birth rates of all Catholic countries, even Poland, are abysmally low.]
Modern secularism creates a taboo against distinguishing between religions. To judge one in any way superior to another is a step away from enlightenment and civilization, and a step toward the Thirty Years War. You are allowed to mock and hate Islam, but must make a show of doing it "equally" to other religions. You are also allowed to respect religion, but the same principle applies. This brigade of pieties exists to prevent acts of hatred and to stifle prejudice, but it inadvertently guards against any intelligent conversation about religion.
The taboos of secularism interlock in other odd ways. Modern Western secularists feel no anxiety whatsoever when they encounter harsh criticism and satire of Christianity. But if you offer a particularly barbed remark about Islam among the enlightened, someone will ask you to politely agree that Christianity is just as bad. And ironically, this instinct to protect the powerless is a leftover instinct of Christian civilization, which put sayings like "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" at the heart of its worship and moral imagination.
And so ...
The great irony of Islam's continued clashes with the Western way of life — whether its widespread riots over a YouTube video or the murderous actions of a crazed minority— is that it has revealed, to the surprise of everyone but Pope Emeritus Benedict, that modern secularism is a kind of epiphenomenon of Christendom.
I think Dougherty has absolutely nailed it. There are others who have recognized the relationship of secularism and Christianity, and the need for religion, for that matter -- Jürgen Habermas comes to mind (his dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger is worth a read, btw).

A couple of other pieces worth reading:

Thomas Macdonald at Patheos, makes a similar point:
The other thing we will need is faith. A pallid secularism can’t defend against a diseased religiosity. Only a healthy faith can drive out a sick one.
I don’t have any illusions that we’ll see a huge turning to Christ in France. Anti-clericalism has been part of that nation’s very flesh and blood for too long. But there is something deeper in there, down in the bone and sinew: the Christianity that made France great. 
All Europe and the secular west has been feeding like a vampire from that Christian heritage for two centuries without acknowledging that Christ is the wellspring of all our values and freedoms. Since that wellspring is the very living water Himself, it will never run dry, but the walls of the well are crumbling. Even the great cathedrals, built as living prayers in stone to last for centuries, are just piles of rock without faith, as the prayers that made them live fade into a distant echo. Europe is hollowed out, cherishing abstract notions and values without any transcendence or roots. It can’t survive long in this state without something breaking. 
It’s rather poignant that the #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) slogan looks so much like “Jesus is Charlie.” As much as the people of Charlie Hebdo disdained Christ, they found themselves at the foot of the cross nonetheless, as we all do. Their deaths are tragic, grotesque, and enraging, but they needn’t be futile. There is meaning even in tragedy.
A more provocative piece by the same author: Mohammed in Hell.

And finally, a beautiful piece by Fr. Longenecker on the violent backlash that may engulf Europe.
And this is where the Christian story intersects with the cycle of violence and vengeance in the world. The crucified one stands on trial and says in his silence, “You want someone to blame? Blame me.”
As they scream he regards them with compassion and says, “This is what it comes to: that you would crucify the Lord of Glory.”
And then in that sacrifice he turns the tables. In taking the blame he extinguishes the flame of hatred, fear and violence. In becoming the victim he abolished the violence and vengeance.
In this sacrifice and subsequent victory over death he defeats the cycle of violence and vengeance from the inside out.
Blessed are the peacemakers, He said. Pray for France, pray for Europe. Pray that the Holy Spirit raises up peacemakers.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Where are you god?

[Did you actually think I'd be uploading the poster of Aamir in the buff?] 
PK is a light-hearted, completely over-the-top (that's probably an unnecessary qualifier for a Bollywood production), comedic satire that takes on blind-faith, superstition and religion, all firmly entrenched in the multi-cultural, multi-religious panoply of humanity that is India.

An alien (Aamir Khan) from a distant planet (where they mind-read and so don't have language, and don't wear clothes) lands in the Rajasthan desert on a research mission, and has his ship-summoning remote control stolen, leaving him naked and stranded on Earth. His mission to recover his remote -- learning about human customs along the way -- clothes, money, and picking up Bhojpuri by holding the hands of a prostitute, and being considered drunk ("PK" is a play on the Hindi phrase, pee-kay, drunk) -- leads him to Delhi, where he is told that only God can help him.

But which God?

So the fun ensues, as the innocent Bhojpuri-speaking alien goes from temple to temple, dutifully making an offering but not getting his remote in return, showing up at a church with coconut offerings, sending the congregation into paroxysms of appalled scandal (and being expelled with a suitably obvious guilt-inducing caricature of Catholic doctrine "God died on the cross for your sins! He is watching your every move!"), and then on to a mosque with two bottles of wine, and narrowly escaping a beating.

There is of course a heroine (Anushka Sharma), a (fairly mild) love-triangle, song-and-dance sequences, exotic locales (Bruges, Belgium), thoroughly implausible plot twists, a tear-jerking climactic scene, and an opening for a sequel (where, perhaps, Ranbir Kapoor will get to show off his abs alongside Aamir).

The critique of religion is pretty standard (and, this being a Bollywood movie, preachy and as subtle as a sledgehammer) -- religion is built on superstition and blind faith, is opposed to reason, and has fraudulent hucksters that prey on and get rich off the credulity, fear of hell, ignorance and desperate desires of the poor, simple, huddled masses. There is the God who made us all, whose children we are (and who, apparently doesn't do much else), and the God of the managers of the religious-corporations, who are interested only in their own self preservation. Which human parent, in order to grant the wishes of his children, would demand that they first fulfill such bizarre and perverse tasks such as rolling on the ground uphill to a temple, or making long journeys to distant mountains? If a godman (the Indian term for charismatic religious leader) can produce gold out of thin air, why does he need donations of cash to build a new temple? Wouldn't the God who made us all rather that we give milk to a hungry child than pour it on his idol? Wouldn't the God who made us all want us to work together to end hunger and poverty, rather than build a temple? Does the God who made all the worlds of the universe need us to protect his honor (especially by killing people)? Can't he take care of himself? Where is the mark (Hindi: thappa, stamp) on the individual human being that marks his or her religion? Can you tell a naked person's religion?* Isn't religion therefore a man-made way of dividing us from each other?

As such it is hardly earth-shattering, and is mild, compared to the earlier Bollywood film, Oh my God.

The implication of this criticism is that we'd all be better off if there weren't any religion. This is the ultimate point of the secular critique of religion after all. We need a religion of humanity, focused on mutual help and humanitarianism, and not this superstitious, ritualistic nonsense that at best distracts, or at worst, promotes intolerance and violence (or, as some critics contend, is the root of all that is evil in the world, and poisons everything). Some version of this has been internalized in Christianity over the two-hundred year engagement with the Enlightenment, and manifests itself as theological liberalism, first in Protestantism and later in Catholicism, emphasizing ethics and good works over dogma and ritual, and firmly claiming Jesus for the former over the latter.

There is enough evidence among the practitioners of all the world's religions to justify many of the claims of the secular critics of religion. Some elements or dimensions of natural religion (which is a part of human nature, and every human society) seem to be strongly connectedto  tribal, social and ethnic identity, and thus is part of the way in which one group separates from other groups. This manifests in fear and suspicion of outsiders, the need for emphasizing boundaries and ethnic identity-markers, endogamy, strict gender roles, and, quite often, the use of violence to enforce internal conformity to religio-social ideals, and against perceived outside threats or rival groups.

Certainly the practices lampooned in the movie -- superstition, blind faith, fraudulent gurus milking the credulous -- are quite widespread in India. A Catholic can in good conscience side with the secular critics here. Faith is not opposed to reason, after all. [Read Pope Benedict on the pathologies of reason and the pathologies of religion. Another view on that.] The protests that have greeted the movie in many parts of India only seem to help reinforce its central idea that religion doesn't like being questioned. One contention of the protesters is that the movie only targets Hindus, who tend not react to such things (there's a contradiction right there!), or do not react violently (not quite), or not as violently as Muslims (no contest there at all). It's not an unfair critique. The main thrust is against Hindu godmen. Catholicism gets caricatured -- there's a scene of a priest preaching to a family, while a voiceover says, "they say you must get baptized if you don't want to go to hell. But if God wanted me to be a Christian, why wasn't I born in a Christian family?" There's also a safe, mild criticism of Islam, regarding the education and status of girls. Sikh & Jain practices are portrayed in passing. Apart from a cameo by one solitary Tibetan Buddhist monk, Buddhism gets no mention.

However to suggest that this is all that religion consists of, misses the full reality of a phenomenon that is very much an essential part of unique human nature. Animals, after all, do not worship.

What is this fuller dimension?

Well, perhaps the film itself can teach us something here. The story's central plot device is PK's quest to recover his stolen remote. It leads him to search for God. God, here is the one who can give PK what he wants. Isn't this a way of looking at the religious instinct in man? What Msgr. Luigi Giussani has called the religious sense? The difference of course is that what he is looking for isn't just some thing, his property (a lost remote control device), but the meaning of everything, that which ultimately gives direction and significance to his existence, to this "I," this self, that he finds himself to be. His existence is a quest for an answer, one that he cannot escape from, no matter how much he try.

There is a poignant scene in the first half of the movie, where a deeply distressed and frustrated PK is standing in the midst of what appears to be an idol producing workshop. All around him are idols of the various gods of Hinduism, in different states of finish. He pours his heart out, begging that he be given back his remote, so he can go home. He is met with stony silence. In a frenzied rage, sobbing heavily, he tears off the various pendants, necklaces, amulets and other religious articles he has collected on his quest.

However, what if silence is not the final word?

What if God has indeed spoken and revealed Himself?

Earlier in the movie, the heroine, Jaggu, a TV news reporter, is begging her boss to let her chase this lead she has stumbled across (i.e. our hero, PK). Her boss states flatly that it is the station's policy not to meddle with religion. He takes off his pants (it's Bollywood!) and points to his rear. "I was chased by an offended mob once and have three marks here where a trident pierced me!" Then, he adds, "Man seeking god, that is religion. Now, if he finds god -- that will be breaking news."

Indeed it will.

Good News.

It is indeed past high time that the Church (and Christians) -- the recipient and bearer of this Good News -- stop acting simply as another sociological and cultural reality in the vast and diverse landscape of human religious experience. In my own circles in India, I've encountered this attitude -- Catholics who are concerned with maintaining ethnic purity above all things (I'm not kidding); those who lament their son falling in love with a Hindu girl, because the social disapproval is unbearable; those who lament their daughter falling in love with a Catholic boy from another Indian Catholic subculture! This is not what Catholicism is about. This is not the religion that is pure and undefiled (James 1:27). This is not the religion of Jesus Christ.** We are here to proclaim and live Good News, not act as just another tribal grouping of homo sapiens sapiens.

The controversy has only helped the movie's producers. It is now the highest grossing Bollywood movie ever, having raked in over 3 billion rupees already.

Some reviews of the movie:

The Hollywood Reporter (flattering, almost unctuous)
Rediff (laurels!)
Great Bong (disappointing)
NYT (sweet, innocent, not offensive)
* Actually, in some contexts one can. In India, male circumcision is practiced along religious lines, only by Muslims. This fact has been used in religious pogroms to find out members of the victim group who might be disguising their religious identity. 
** The whole "Christianity is not a religion" trope (Google the phrase), central to many evangelical Christian narratives (and made [in]famous by Bill O'Reilly), does have some merit. It is incomplete, and follows the errors of the liberal Protestant critiques of religion, which were, essential, critiques of Catholic religion. Two good Catholic responses -- Jimmy Akin and Marc Barnes

Dom Chautard's Eleven Truths of the Interior Life I - III

My Advent and Christmastide spiritual reading is a return to the classic by Dom Jean Baptiste Chautard, OCSO, The Soul of the Apostolate. A favorite of Pope St. Pius X (co-patron of my Archdiocese), I first discovered this treasure in seminary. It is in the list of the top 10 books that changed my life. A few semesters later, the then current house spiritual director purchased a copy for every man in the house.

Rereading it a few years later, and in the middle of my second year of priestly ministry, it is a well needed kick in the pants.

The prolific Dr. Peter Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College has a piece at the NLM blog with an edifying excerpt from the book, a commentary on the words "digne, attente, devote" (from the traditional prayer before the Divine Office, the Aperi :: PDF link ::), which is well worth a read. (Incidentally, Bl. Columbia Marmon, another early 20th century spiritual master, has a whole chapter on these three words of the Aperi, in his classic, Christ, the Ideal of the Priest.)

The central thesis of the book is the absolute priority of the interior life in Christian living, without which all apostolic efforts, no matter how zealous or organized, are ineffective, pointless, and even harmful.

In our times, increasingly there is talk within the Church of focusing our pastoral ministry and efforts on the promotion and fostering of discipleship, intentional discipleship. (I highly recommend Sherry Weddell's book on the topic). Pope Francis talks about missionary discipleship (Evangelii gaudium 119ff.), i.e. a discipleship that is fruitful, and oriented outward, to others, to the apostolate. At the same time, there is some controversy over these ideas, especially the term "personal relationship with Jesus" (See this article in the July issue of Homiletics & Pastoral Review, and a response the following month.). Reading through this spiritual classic again, I am struck by how the language of personal relationship pervades everything that Dom Chautaurd writes about. The whole interior life is oriented to living more fully the supernatural life of Jesus in me, to being more transparent to it, so that, ultimately, I can truly say, with St. Paul, that it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. It is only this kind of transparency to the principle of divine life in us that makes the apostolate truly the work of God, and not just of my own agendas, or the fulfillment of my own human, psychological or other needs. 

In Chapter One, Dom Chautaurd offers eleven truths or principles in answer to the question, "What is the Interior Life?" He is at pains to point out that these truths apply to all Christians, regardless of state of life, i.e. not just to priests and religious.

Over a few posts, I will share these eleven truths or principles of the interior life. I cannot recommend Dom Chautaurd's work highly enough. Anyone who wishes to take seriously his Christian vocation, will benefit from this indispensable work.

FIRST TRUTH. Supernatural life is the life of Jesus Christ Himself in my soul, by Faith, Hope and Charity; for Jesus is the meritorious, exemplary and final cause of sanctifying grace, and as Word, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, He is its efficient cause in our souls.

The presence of Our Lord by this supernatural life is not the real presence proper to Holy Communion, but a presence of vital action like that of the action of the head or heart upon the members of the body. This action lies deep within us, and God ordinarily hides it from the soul in order to increase the merit of our faith. And so, as a rule, my natural faculties have no feeling of this action going on within me, which, however, I am formally obliged to believe by faith. This action is divine, yet it does not interfere with my free will, and makes use of all secondary causes, events, persons, and, things, to teach me the will of God and to offer me an opportunity of acquiring or increasing my share in the divine life.

This life, begun at Baptism by the state of grace, perfected at Confirmation, recovered by Penance and enriched by the Holy Eucharist, is my Christian life. 

SECOND TRUTH. By this life, Jesus Christ imparts to me His Spirit. In this way, He becomes the principle of a superior activity which raises me up, provided I do not obstruct it, to think, judge, love, will, suffer, labor with Him, by Him, in Him, and like Him. My outward acts become the manifestations of the life of Jesus in me. And thus I tend to realize the ideal of THE INTERIOR LIFE that was formulated by St. Paul when he said: "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me."

Christian life, piety, interior life, sanctity: in all these we find no essential difference. They are only different degrees of one and the same love. They are the half-light, the dawning, the rising, and the zenith of the same sun.

Whenever the expression "interior life" is used in this book, the reference is not so much to habitual interior life, which we may call the "principal" or "capital" of the divine life deposited in us, by sanctifying grace, as to the actual interior life, which invests this capital and puts it work in the activity of our soul, and in our fidelity to actual graces.

Thus I can define it as the state of activity of a soul which strives against its natural inclinations in order to REGULATE them, and endeavors to acquire the HABIT of judging and directing its movements IN ALL THINGS according to the light of the Gospel and the example of Our Lord. 

Hence: a twofold movement. By the first, the soul withdraws from all this opposed to the supernatural life in created things, and seeks at all times to be recollected: aversio a creaturis. By the second, the soul tends upwards to God, and unites itself with Him: conversio ad Deum.

The soul wishes in this way to be faithful to the grace which Our Lord offers to it at every moment. In a word, it lives united to Jesus, and carries out in actuality the principle: "He liveth in Me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit." (John 15:5)

THIRD TRUTH: I would be depriving myself of one of the most effective means of acquiring this interior life if I failed to strive after a precise and certain faith in this active presence of Jesus within me, and if I did not try to make this presence within me not merely a living but an extremely vital reality, and one which penetrated more and more into all the life of my faculties. When Jesus, in this manner, becomes my light, my ideal, my counsel, my support, my refuge, my strength, my healer, my consolation, my joy, my love, in a word, my life, I shall acquire all the virtues. Then alone will I be able to utter, with sincereity, the wonderful prayer of St. Bonaventure which the Church gives me for my thanksgiving after Mass: Transfige dulcissime Domine Jesu.

The "Soul of the Apostolate" is available in a handy paperback edition from TAN books

Monday, January 05, 2015

Goencho Sahib

Every ten years, the sacred relics (i.e. the incorrupt body) of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) are put on display in Goa. The exposition draws millions -- four million, this time, over the 45 day period, 200,000 on the last day alone. The exposition is a massive effort, with hundreds of staff, volunteers, government and security officials working tirelessly for months to make it all go off smoothly. Pilgrims include people from various religions, not just Catholics. In India, a saint is a saint, for everybody.

The line of devotees on Saturday afternoon (photo courtesy Harry Thompson)
My friend Harry had the opportunity to venerate the relics at Sé Cathedral (the historical seat of the Primate of Goa), across from the Basilica of Bom Jesus, on Saturday. He stood in line for 3 hours, and got to spend maybe 20 seconds in front of the casket itself. "Intense," is how he described it. "India intense, but very well organized." He also remarked that he was one of very few Western faces he saw in the crowd. Another friend, Ben, was also there on Saturday, with an elderly, wheelchair-bound, aunt, because of which he got fast-track access, and got to kneel for a full minute in front of the relics. Others were more fortunate -- according to Ben, Vijay Mallya, one of India's business tycoons -- arrived in a motorcade, and was whisked right into the Cathedral. Any Indian function has its separate protocols to deal with VIPs and VVIPs!