Stop Killing the Wabbit! A One-Day Fast from Catholic Opera

Catholics are reminded to keep Friday as a day of penance, a little Lent all year long. Although it’s no longer the abstinence fest it was in my childhood–pining here for the fleshpots of Mom’s tuna noodle casserole and “Welsh rarebit” (Velveeta on English muffins, run under the broiler)–Friday still offers a weekly 24-hour window of opportunity to review my life and make better choices. Today, I’m giving up opera.

Not real opera, of which I am deeply fond, having been inducted into it by Mom over those tuna casseroles of yore. My grandmother Maggie Kinsman had the pipes to have been a Met soprano, if her working-class Boston Irish parents (who named her for Faust‘s Marguerite, but that was as far as it went) would have let her train, and she raised her children to love music above their station. Mom’s favorite was Madama Butterfly, and I came thisclose to playing Cho-Cho San’s young son in an LA performance when I was 4 and my aunt was the administrative assistant to the Philharmonic. My friends Donald Ham (God rest him) and Todd Berry have done lots, over my lifetime, to add to my knowledge and appreciation of this art form.
No, in spite of the less-than-uplifting plots of many operas, it’s not musical opera that’s posing a danger to my spiritual life lately. It’s what Elizabeth Scalia has brilliantly (as usual) diagnosed as ecclesiastical opera, the tendency for Catholics to take any Church news and blow it into a libretto of internecine squabbling that out-operas Verdi at his grandest. Wagnerian thundering. Death scenes, prolonged with cadenzas. Litanies of blame and countercharge that rival the elephant-studded Triumphal March from Aida. And none of it ever in a voce that’s sotto
The recent release of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s doctrinal criticism of positions taken by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious provided the impetus for Elizabeth’s analogy. Not for us the simple story–starving artist falls in love with tubercular girl, or, in this case, head office issues corrective on brand loyalty to middle management. We have to ditch the just-the-facts-Sister and go all Boheme on it. I confess to having been a chorus member in that performance, jumping onstage early to throw my spear instead of just carrying it. I made a quick reversal, a caballetta of sorts, but the opera goes on. And on. And on. Just when I think it’s quieted down, it pops up again, like that unfortunate soprano playing Tosca whose stage managers, weary of the prima donna‘s prima donna ways, replaced the mattress meant to catch her after the tragic heroine’s death leap from the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo with a trampoline. She’s gone. She’s back. She’s gone, she’s back . . .
But that comparison, with its comic overtones, doesn’t do justice to the vitriolic reality of so much Catholic opera. We aren’t content to add ruffles and flourishes; we have to declare war. There is only one theme in this Catholic opera, no matter what the topic, no matter which side of the issue, no matter who the commenter: my umbrage, and what you (he, she, they, it) have/has done to make me take it. I used to play a kind of drinking game whenever Pope Paul VI used the phrase We are deeply grieved. Compared to today’s Catholics, he was a cockeyed optimist. If I took a drink every time some Catholic admitted to being deeply grieved now (even if I limited it to being deeply grieved at another Catholic) my liver wouldn’t last the day.
There’s nothing wrong with good solid disagreement, or with expressing sincere grief at the many threats and challenges to the Church’s unity and mission that the world presents us with. But when the onstage combatants begin aiming live ammunition at one another, it’s time to turn in my tickets. This week, in the wake of the CDF-LCWR story, I saw an example of that kind of fratricide that sickened me. Fr James Martin, SJ, a popular author and blogger at America, asked his readers to tweet their messages of thanks to sisters who’ve made a difference in their lives, using the Twitter hashtag #WhatSistersMeanToMe. He was clear (though, yes, disingenuous) in saying this was not meant to be an anti-CDF campaign, and he didn’t limit the expression of thanks to “liberal” communities. The MSM picked up on it, and (naturally) tried to make it about sisters rule, bishops drool; Fr Martin resisted. Then Fr John Zuhlsdorf, a popular traditionalist who blogs as Fr Z, picked up on it and urged his readers to coopt Fr Martin’s Twitter feed, using the same hashtag to tweet examples of how liberal nuns were heretical baby-killers. Fr Z wasn’t content to have his readers weigh in on American sisters; he called Fr Martin “an acolyte of the Magisterium of Nuns.” It got ugly, but not, as Fr Martin graciously put it, because the Internet just has a natural tendency to get ugly. It got ugly because one priest incited ugliness against another.
That’s way off-key. That’s the kind of thing that, when it starts showing up in the Catholic opera that Elizabeth Scalia rightly says is conducted creatively and confoundingly by the Holy Spirit, makes me recognize that the guy in the next box over, the one eating popcorn and yelling Bravo!, has got horns.
So I’m not attending today’s performance of Agita Furiosa. And though I know myself well enough that I can’t promise I won’t come back to it, or even keep auditioning for bigger roles, I am going to try to exercise more discretion about whose performances I’ll applaud. I will, for example, no longer link to Fr Z’s blog–or anyone else’s, no matter what side they’re on or how well they swell the chorus of my own umbrage, who sings Kill the wabbit! about another Catholic and means it. And I will link to things like this post from Frank Weathers which, while on another topic, proposes harmony, not harangue, as the way to go.
Today, for my little Lent, I’ll listen to the last act of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, which intersperses the joyful singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus by French nuns condemned during the Reign of Terror with the sound of the guillotine executing them one by one. Now there‘s some Catholic opera about real heroic witness for you. Nuns rule, backbiters drool.

  • Melody K

    Loved the Looney Toons "Kill the Wabbit!" reference. That episode was a classic.I read about the Fr. Z incident, but didn't go over to check out the fun and games. I have been to that site once or twice, and found the discussions spiritually toxic. Not to mention I am trying to stay off blood pressure meds!I don't know if I lead a sheltered life, or what; but in all my years of being a Catholic, I haven't personally met any "rogue nuns". I've known some who wear a habit, some who don't; some who live in a convent, some who live in an apartment. Some are teachers, or social workers, or teach workshops on spirituality (and not Gaia-centered spirituality!) But none who blow off Church teaching or do in-your-face things. Well, one got in trouble with a casino gambling habit, but that's a different story.Makes me wonder if rogue nuns are a bit of a "straw woman". There are notorious cases such as the one who was an escort at an abortion clinic (I understand she left her order, or it left her). But I question that the extreme examples are representative of the membership of LCWR; they surely did get them a lot of bad publicity.Your idea of a fast from Catholic soap-opera is worthwhile.

  • Anonymous

    When you say Catholics are operatic, you remind me of HITLER! You make me want to SET MYSELF ON FIRE! O the humanity!Mark Shea

  • Anonymous

    I marvel at how the clever Jesuit could be both "clear" and "disingeuous" in his claim that he was "NOT" inciting a campaign against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Clearly, his ruse was disingenuous, and therefore "ugly." The CDF is correct in pointing out the deeply rooted problems in the leadership of the LCWR.

  • Not a wine critic


  • Ron Van Wegen

    I hope you aren't going to punish Father Z FOREVER! After all, we are supposed to forgive aren't we? Perhaps if you stop linking for a short while then reinstate him. Seems a bit like overkill to me.

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    I doubt Fr Z will be punished by my not linking to him. But I don't need to reward meanspiritedness. There's enough of that out there. I'm working on the forgiving part, though.

  • Joanne K. McPortland

    Fr Martin did not invite or publish remarks that attacked anyone. Thanking sisters–of all congregations–is hardly a ruse. Or do you think the annual Retirement Fund for Religious ads are a ruse, too?

  • Anonymous

    The problem I can be so bold as to 'define' it, is that of context: The Vatican is attempting to reform a single group that represents some 6% of the world's women religious, not "the entire world of women religious". To hear from Fr Martin or the comboxes on NCR, commonweal or America, you'd think the Vatican was dropping excommunication or 'suppression' on the entire world's religious women, declaring 'nothing they've ever done' was good. So obviously a 'push back for justice' is the counter-punch and it's dressed as "how dare you question 150 years of good works?" when in fact the Vatican is only questioning works from the past 40 years and from only a few women religious. The other issue is one of stubborn ignorance. Anyone can go over to LCWR's website and do some exploring. It doesn't take more than 2 minutes to down load some past years' texts and notice that alot of the literature is almost entirely missing reference to Christ, the Church or any recognizably Catholic language. It's "generic" spirituality. That ought to tip people off about what's going on. Take a gander at NETWORK's 40th anniversary newsletter. It's as partisan political as it gets: only Democrats are featured. Pro-abortion democrats. As if "social justice" is entirely the domain of the Democratic party and as though "the poor" can only be helped politically and personally from one ideological world view.One doesn't need to be a partisan to notice – within 5 minutes of googling research – that whatever else the women religious of the USA are up to, at least those involved in the LCWR and Nework are not conspiciously Catholic in doctrine, praxis, or even 'comfort zone' but are using essentially secular language and marketting to make their cases for 'progress'. Surely a fair minded reader can see that if this is representative of what LCWR is about and what the leadership of various major congregations are about, it's not going in the same direction as our Church which last I checked wasn't allied to specific political parties but transcends all of them.

  • pup

    a fast well neededpax Christi tecum vobiscumque

  • pup

    oh yes. why wait for a horned intermediate agent

  • pup

    Fr Martin is a gentle soul. His ingenuity is not to diss.

  • pup

    In my youth, I sang in choir of the bishop of Covington under Omer Westendof (sp?), he of World Library fame. He got us two gigs in opera – the children's song in Carmen (my grandchildren have heard me sing the soprano line of "Avec la guarde …") and also child in costume and makeup for another whose name escapes me. (It had an executioner but was not The Mikado. It was unfinished. Ah ha Google found Turandot!)Great fun! I never thought to connect that experience at the Cincinnati Zoo w/current church squabbles, though now that I think of it, the smells at the Zoo should have ….Great writing! Too bad the underlying pathology is all too real.Are Fr Z et al the New Evangelization?

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