This blog started out as a collection of scripts for an online radio show of the same name. It riffed off of my 2004 book, Musings from the Christian Left, now republished as The Conscience of a Catholic Radical.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Latest from Garry Wills

I am going to depart from the usual responses to Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter and insert a book review for your edification and enjoyment.  Of course, this will be cross posted onto Facebook, mainly because I am not sure anyone reads this blog anymore.  We actually have two books to review.  Both are by Garry Wills, who went to grammar school with my mother-in-law, the former Margaret Hayes at St. Mary's in Adrian, Michigan and who led her brother Bob in the the Jesuits (and after him, his cousin, Jim, who is chaplain of a Jesuit college in Boston).   I don't read Garry for the family connection, but because he is one of the major Catholic reform writers of our time, starting with Papal Sins and Why I am a Catholic, as well as What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant, What the Gospels Meant and St. Augustine.  Reciting the litany of his works in this area (he is also a preeminent American historian) is necessary because over the years, he has developed themes that go from book to book.  You can find reviews of some of these works on this blog - although they are buried responses to MSW.  I may start a "best of  Bindner" blog to separate out the book reviews from the daily march through NCR, as well as from my now defuct column at the Examiner (which has been expunged from their site).

Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (New York, Penguin Books, 2013) is being reviewed now because I stopped going to bookstores for a while.  Better late than never.  Garry lays out his argument in six parts.  The first, Priest Power, goes after the Eucharist as a latter-day sacrament in the Church that did not exist at the time of the founding. While in the New Testament, there are no priests, but there are Overseers, which is commonly translated as bishops. The claim is effectively made that Communion existed in the larger common meal and that receiving communion unworthily had to do with bringing your own food to eat rather than eating from the common fair.  The idolotry of the Host in adoration and reservation in the Tabernacle also falls under his gaze. He explores the fastidiousness of Aquinas on the Eucharist, compared to Augstine who centered the Body of Christ in the community.

For my part, I have never experienced closeness to the Lord in the Monstrance, although I certainly do when taking Communion - either at Mass or privately in the hospital.  This is whether I go to Mass regularly or not and whether I am looking at questionable websites or not.  In my experience, there is something there beyond the unity of the community - there is a direct experience of God.  Whether that experience would occur or not if I consecrated my own matzos during Passover is an interesting question I have not tried.  Since Jesus instituted the Eucharist the first time at a Passover meal, then any such meal should include it - and by the father (or mother), not by a priest.

As for the bishops, I would render Overseer as Pastor, which does give us priests.  In Christianity, the First 3000 Years, (which I reviewed) Diarmaid MacCulloch relates that the bishop would control satellite gatherings by withholding consecrated hosts. Does that justify bishops or does that mean they were pastors of local city churches that used their role in consecration as a weapon of authority? I suspect that at this point, more priests were demanded and the Pastor of a flock became a hierarchical bishop and we are still sufferig the ill effects.  I would have probably called the book Why Bishops? instead,  It would have been nice if Garry had consulted Diarmaid's sources.

Part II reviews whether Jesus was the model of priesthood.  The problem was the Jesus was a prophet in life, not a member of the priestly caste (like his uncle).  He never offered sacrifice at the Temple.  While the Church calls him a priest in the line of Melchizedek, there is no historical evidence for such a priesthood or its relation to Jesus or the Church.  His treatment of this question is exhaustive, as if it were a doctoral dissertation in theology.  Of course, there are some things that dissertation committees will not countenance, even if true - especially at a Catholic university.

Part III reviews the Letter to Hebrews.  This letter has no attribution, although for centuries it was wrongly attributed to St. Paul.  Likewise, the author appears to write it to Judaizing Christians.  According to Elaine Pagels book on Revelation which I have also reviewed), the Judaizers held a grudge and wrote Revelation as a condemnation, not of Rome or some future Anti-Christ, but of the Pauline Christians.Of course, history shows that this sect of early Christianity was not rescued by Jesus, but has almost entirely disappeared (except among the Ethiopian Coptics).  Wills exhaustively reviews each section and then addresses the question of Jesus as the new High Priest.  Jesus being crucified outside the camp is examined, but I would respond that the outside the city metaphor is also applicable to his tomb, which is a metaphor for me of our suffering before entering into eternal life, both in this life and the next. We all die and rise with Jesus in Baptism, although each Mass commemorates that fact.

Part IV examines Jesus as Sacrifice.  Wills starts by addressing human sacrifice in general, which had been going out of style when Jesus before Jesus was alive (at least in the known world) and then addresses the question of who killed Jesus?  This question has bedeviled us, and we have bedeviled the Jews, for centuries. Wills offers the Devil, the Jews, Sinners, Justice, Honor and Perfection, citing the model of the transactional sacrifice to God from St. Anselm, which was echoed by Aquinas and still grips Trads in the Church.  For me, the answer is that Jesus killed Jesus. This death was not forced upon him.  He sought it for his own purposes, not for the purposes of either Rome or the Temple Priests.  It was certainly not in service to human ideals of perfection, which we are giving to God, rather than God imposing them on us or Jesus.

Part V outlines Jesus as Rescuer.  Wills uses the concept of God that Augustine held, which was neo-Platonic.  God is immovable. He then writes of how this affects how we view the sacrifice of Christ.  Human sin does not diminish him, it diminishes us.  Therefore, the sacrifice of the Cross is for us.  In my essay "The Death of Jesus and its Meaning to Us" sees the crucifixion as a vision quest where Jesus felt the full extent of human suffering, including his lost divinity when he have up the mother who told him of it and his his lost mission, when he gave Mary into to John's care, rather than having him baptize the world in his name.

Part VI criticizes the Monopoly on the Sacred, which is used agaist both non-Christians and non-Catholics, primarily through the sacraments.  Of course, the Church begrudgingly admits that all Christians can baptize, The distribution of the Eucharist is held closer to the vest, although my experience in taking Communion in the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches (which do have priests and bishops) is that the Lord is there in Communion, which is not the case in non-'real pressence' churches.  Wills reviews how the Church evolved each of the seven Sacraments, especially Penance and the question of whether one may only make one confession or many (or too many).  Of course, Marriage has always taken a back seat to the state definition of it, which makes state recognition of marriage equality so problematic.  My readers know my thoughts on this issue - the Church should not fear the state imposing gay marriage upon it, but of gay priests and the families of gay Catholics demanding it.  The history of all the Sacrements shows that the Church evolved them and will evolve them still.  Regardless of whether the Gospel writers intended for Jesus words in the Synopic Gospels to become a Eucharistic Sacrifice, the fact that the sacramets do evolve means that the evolution of the Eucharist is a legitimate phenomenon, although we can argue about idolatry toward the Host.

The second book by Wills just went into paperback (I got one of the last hardbacks, bad timing), entitled The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (New York: Viking 2015). This work is in five parts.  Part I is The Coming and Going of Latin.  It traces how the Church evolved from using Greek to Latin and how Latin became a way to treat ritual and Gospel as provinces of the clergy and not the people, which ended with Catholic bibles being translated to keep up with Prostetant translations and the historic work of Vatican II. There is no mention of Francis here.

Part II, The Coming and Going of Monarchy traces what started as a martyr's Church through Constantine to the more regal papacy of recent memory to our more pluralist world, including how Pope Leo dealt with the "Freedom of the Church" and his attacks on Americanism, One can see this part as an updating of similar histories in Why I am a Catholic.  You can see that the battles over the Freedom of the Church are still going on, just from looking at events covering contraception and gay married Church employees.  Of course, this is not religious freedom we are talking about, it is religious power.  Luckily, the days of Catholic religious power are gone, although my friends in the Distributist movement would love to bring them back. Gary also talks about the City of God by Saint Augustine, which reflects his long study of the Bishop of Hippo.  There is not anything about Francis here, which stops at Vatican II.  I am not sure why not, because Francis has been the anti-monarch in the Papacy.

Part III deals with The Coming and Going of Anti-Semitism.  This is an updating and expansion of his work in Papal Sin, including how the Holocaust was a significant part of our change in tone toward the Jews.  Sadly, there is no mention of Francis here, although he has certainly reached out to several Rabbis (as did the two popes before him).

Part IV examines The Coming and Going of "Natural Law."  The three issues examined are contraception, female priests and abortion.  The papal misunderstanding (you could call it lying) about natural law is starkest in Piux IX's Casti Connubii and its condemnation of artificial birth control (this was even before the pill).  Sadly, the Church had a point in condemning the forced eugenic sterilization of the mentally ill, the ethnic and the mentally disabled.  These horrors impinged on human freedom.  To then extend this to resticting the ability of married couples to practice contaception is mind boggling, but more mindboggling is the demand for obedience to the Pope on these matters under the guise of natural law, which is a perversion of the concept.

As bad is the imposition of Aristotelean/Aquinian reasoning on sexual matters which are based on science that is as out of date as geocentrism in astronomy.  As a married (and soon to be divorced) Catholic man, I can assure you that the celibate priesthood has nothing to teach me on these matters.  I will spare you the analysis on rythem and natural family planninng, which is as bad.  No work on contraception has ever mentioned gastrulation - which has to be intentional because gastrulation is clearly the point where the blastocyst becomes an embryo and begins developing based on its own DNA, not the DNA of  only the mother.  Garry's analysis goes through to Humanae Vitae and stops.This chapter also has its roots in Papal Sin.   There is nothing here about either Evangelicum Vitae (also wrong) or Pope Francis.

The Chapter entitled "Male God" starts with always humorous analysis of St. Thomas on how babies are male and female.  This analysis starts with Paul VI's insistence that women cannot be priests because they do not appear to be like Christ. Garry looks to St. Paul to correct such ideas, including the fact that the original ministries of the Church, which we no longer see, were for both sexes.  He is careful to separate Paul for Pseudo-Paul and the latter's call for wifely obedience.  There are stains of Why I am a Catholic here and he does mention Pope Francis - both how he will not reopen the discussion on women priests (ask him again when Benedict dies) and how he treats women with equality (including washing their feet on Holy Thursday), including a friend from home who is a female priest.  Of course, there are now deaconnesses in the Greek Metropolitan Church.  This would be a good place to start.  I expect that eventually a division of the Roman Church into individual patriarchies will produce some new Great Churches, especially in America, where women will be ordained.

"Right to Life" examines abortion.  Wills quickly shows that there is no biblical prohibition on abortion.  I add that aborting a pregnancy is a test of adultery in Torah.  Of course, there are instances where Joseph and Jesus do not resort to it.  Joseph refused to use this procedure when Mary was pregnant, even before his dream annunciation), while Jesus followed suit with the woman who had been found in the act of adultery.  He did not condemn the law, but he did not follow it either. Wills continues with the natural law discussion of Aristotle and Aquinas, which is totally absent any science, save the fact that at some point babies kick. If scientists have a say in natural law, they have certainly done so by affirming a right to abortion. St. John Paul answered back with his sloganeering about the Culture of Death.  Wills then brings in embryology in terms of embryonic morbidity, although he does not mention gastrulation.  He then goes on to examine the question of when a fetus becomes a person and how uncertain we are, which should guide policy.  Of course, Aristotle does teach that if something could be a person, it should be protected, although he was not talking about the unborn.

I respond that the human soul is not mental, its energetic and begins at gastrulation.  That does not imply, however, that the law should treat the embryo or fetus as a person before it can be born safely (assisted viability, but only when the prospects for decent survival are assured).  First trimester embryos can certainly not be protected, because miscarriages occur at the same time - and these should not be treated as a public event.  That can probably be said for early second trimester fetuses as well. The pro-life movement has a problem.  Constitutional law says that personhood begins at birth and before personhood, privacy means that abortion may not be prohibited.  While the Congress can change when personhood begins, it cannot ban abortion without making it murder - and the country has no stomach for treating women who seek abortions as murderers, even though equal protection would demand it. We have come a long way since women were property, at least among most voters.  There is no mention of Pope Francis here, although Francis did say that we should not focus so heavily on this issue, instead focusing on the environment and especially the poor.

Part V is The Coming and Going of Confession.  Wills examines the recent history of Confession, including the belief that all sins must be confessed and that in the old days, one must fast before Communion even from water, and especially confessing mortal sins before receiving.  Of course, the most minor sexual thought was a mortal sin, rather than simply a normal part of being human.  The link of the "dark box" to sexual abuse by priests is also obvious and historical, including in convents. Of course, confession in the Reconcilation Room could be worse. There is some talk of not subjecting younger people to Confession.  My wife and I had my daughter go once, but have not focussed on it as  frequent thing, which is very different than how I was raised with the weekly question of whether I wanted to go to confession.  Confession has changed, first from only being baptism to being an end of life one-time sacrament to the frequent confessions prompted by the Irish monks.  The concept of confessors to Kings is also explored, which some thought as an encouragement to abuse.  Whether priests are necessary for forgiveness is debateable.  Garry indicates not, based on the Gospels, and I agree.  Wills says that Francis seems to as well.

It is in the Epilogue: The Future, The Church of Surprises really goes into deal about Francis. The Pope who asked "Who am I to judge?" regarding gay cardinals and priests in the Curia was more authoritarian when he was a Jesuit Provincial in Argentina.  He was certainly less of a social activist, although was charitable. He was a recognized failure when he went to Germany to work on his doctrate (in Chemistry). It was as a bishop that he came back and got the smell of the sheep. As all know, this humility has carried over to his papacy.  One need only look at how he dresses and does not dress.  He accepts popular piety in himself and the people, as Evangelii Gaudiium shows. At the writing of the chapter he had promised to continue investigating sexual abuse and spoke with an acceptance of change in the Church.  How much was a question and still is.

This book came out before the Year of Mercy was announced and its major event, the Synod on Marriage and the Family and publication of its Exhortation..  It would have been good to have this book wait until after this event - but perhaps this will be the topic of a new book.  The Exhortation spoke of changes in practice, but not in doctrine and did not include the language of infallibility.  The question that raises is whether these teachings are optional or whether that imperial language has been consigned to the past.  My bet is on the latter.