Labyrinths, bobbleheads, sex, Catholicism

lagoon pope800Christian t-shirts for dogs.

That was one of the hot story angles that the mainstream press pounced on a decade or two ago when reporters discovered the snarky glory of covering the annual meeting of the CBA, which was once known as the Christian Booksellers Association. Among the insiders, this icky side of the Christian gifts industry is referred to with the overarching term “Jesus Junk.”

At first, I thought that was where reporter Paloma Esquivel of the Los Angeles Times was going with a story the other day about the four-day training session for Catholic church educators that is held every year in greater Los Angeles.

After all, check out the top paragraphs:

In a conference room at the Anaheim Convention Center, hundreds of Spanish-speaking spectators listened intently to a scholar’s lecture on sex and Catholicism.

Upstairs, a woman meditated on the errors of her life as she slowly made her way through an elaborate labyrinth. And in a giant room two floors down, hundreds of vendors from across the country sold everything from Bibles to bobbleheads.

Ostensibly, the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress is a four-day training session for catechism teachers. But over the years, the event — which this year attracted nearly 40,000 conventioneers — has become one of the largest such gatherings of Catholics in the country. It serves as a theological training center, a spiritual retreat and a makeshift bazaar for Catholic-oriented products. All at the same time.

Whoa, bobbleheads! I am so sorry to report that I was not able to use Google to find an example of that pop Catholicism. You’ll have to settle for this classic — Pope Soap on a Rope. I actually saw some of this sold by street vendors during the late Pope John Paul II’s tour of the American West in the mid-1980s.

At first, I thought the whole story was going to be a kind of wink-wink Catholic fest.

But then it turned out that there were some serious — I think — lectures and classes going on at this event, as well. And this is where things got really mysterious and I do not know if this is a commentary on the event or on the reporting about the event. I am hoping that someone who was there, or who has attended one of these conferences in the past, might give us some feedback.

You see, the event seems really confusing. The whole think seems to lurch past diversity and into a kind of theological buffet approach. Some very serious issues are jammed right in there, along with the silly stuff. Come one, come all.

Upstairs, hundreds of conventioneers attended workshops on topics ranging from “Are Natural Disasters Really Punishment for Sin?” to “One-Minute Meditation” and “Is Harry Potter Good News for Our Young People?”

In one session, religious scholar Angel Galindo Garcia discussed the role of the church in an era of globalization. He referenced George Orwell’s Big Brother and critiqued growing inequality between rich and poor nations. Across the hall, more than 500 Spanish-speaking spectators listened intently as Gloria Cecilia Grimaldo talked about Catholic views on human sexuality.

“Can one be a homosexual without ever having sexual relations with a person of the same sex?” she asked the crowd rhetorically and then answered: “Yes, of course.”

And so forth and so on. Was this story a fair and accurate picture of this event? I have no idea and that worries me, a bit. A little help please?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Yes, tmatt, be worried for this is truly an accurate picture of the event. This is one of the most bizarre events of the Catholic world. It’s the largest annual religious education gathering in the U.S., but it’s run by Cardinal Mahony and his gang of people who couldn’t tell an orthodox teaching from a heretical one if it slapped them on their faces.

    The liturgies are a great example of this. You have the jazz liturgy celebrated around a round altar, the folk liturgy, the youth liturgies with clowns, and the dance at the main liturgy which Mahony celebrates with (hmmm… shall we say this and remain charitable?) lovely, well-proportioned young ladies clad in tight leotards dancing ’round the altar right in front of the celebrant’s chair. Needless to say, this kind of dance is strictly prohibited by liturgical regulations and common decency.

    This conference is nothing more than a place for the heterodox, the trite and the trivial to gather yearly to celebrate their idea of a church post-Vatican II. One wonders what will happen when Mahony retires in three years and (please God) Pope Benedict is still around to accept his resignation immediately and replace him with an orthodox bishop who understands the seriousness of the Church and he brings an end to the silliness. The howls that will arise from the likes of the National Catholic Reporter will be deafening.

  • Stoo

    I so want a pope on a rope.

  • James

    Pope bobbleheads

    There you go.

  • steve

    shocked about pope on a rope? Check out all the “religious” schlock peddled by some protestant “Christians.”

  • Martha

    Well, I’m tempted to say how you know an event is authentically Catholic is when the vendors of religious tat are present – I give you as an example Knock shrine and just about every single pilgrimage site in existence. I don’t think it’s possible to have tasteful souvenirs (well, maybe if you’re an Episcopalian?) ;-)

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  • tmatt

    A bit harsh, but some good info to know.

    Bobbleheads, yes, but not just.
    March 11, 2008, 11:01 am
    Posted by Grant Gallicho

    Over at his blog Get Religion, Terry Mattingly–nom de Web “tmatt”–links to an L.A. Times story on the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which I returned from last week. Mattingly, a religion journo who apparently has never heard of the nearly forty-year-old event, finds the Congress, at least as described in the Times, deeply mysterious:

    You see, the event seems really confusing. The whole think seems to lurch past diversity and into a kind of theological buffet approach. Some very serious issues are jammed right in there, along with the silly stuff. Come one, come all.

    Positively Joycian. Mattingly asks for some clarification from people who have actually been there, which occasioned the following comment: “This conference is nothing more than a place for the heterodox, the trite and the trivial to gather yearly to celebrate their idea of a church post-Vatican II.” I have no idea whether Thomas Szyszkiewicz has ever been there. (Perhaps he was the dour-looking gentleman using his camera phone to photograph the gay and lesbian outreach booth next to Commonweal’s spot in the exhibition hall.) What he writes, however, gives the strong impression that he has never attended Congress.

    Anyone who has been to Congress (or perused the Congress Web site, where the schedule and speakers have been available for months) knows that there are lectures and exhibits for every kind of Catholic. You can attend a talk on Harry Potter by a Jesuit film critic (I missed it, but doubt it focused solely on the young wizard), and you can listen to Fr. Robert Barron discuss the centrality of the Eucharist in the 8,000-seat arena. You can hear Fr. Bryan Massingale talk about how the church has dealt with the issue of racism since the civil-rights era (as I did), and you can listen to Fr. John Cusick deliver catechetical pointers to a crowd of about 1,000 (as I did). John Allen spoke. So did Timothy Radcliffe, OP, and Kathleen Norris, and a cast of hundreds. (You can find the full listing here.)

    Or you can shop the exhibit hall, which also houses everything Catholic under the sun. Interested in stones from the Holy Land? You got it. Vestments? Check. Free copies of Commonweal? Check. Chastity magazine? Check. What about Fr. Barron’s books? Available at the Crossroad booth. Maybe you’re interested in graduate work in theology or ministry–Loyola Chicago is there for you. So is Notre Dame. Feel a calling to religious life? Several booth staffers are ready to discuss your discernment. Maybe your school is in the market for new textbooks. You’re covered at Congress. Or you want to know more about LifeTeen. That’s covered, too.

    Point is: 40,000 Catholics show up for Congress (and the vast majority are laypeople, contra the suggestion of the L.A. Times). It’s a big event. It’s a big church. Nothing confusing about it.

  • Stuart Buck

    “Mattingly, a religion journo who apparently has never heard of the nearly forty-year-old event,”

    That seemed uncalled-for, no?

  • Mollie


    I thought that line was over the top, too. I get very frustrated (see my latest post) about mainstream media ignorance of my church body. But I’m not so clueless as to expect all reporters to have in-depth knowledge of particular events related to my church body.

  • Maureen

    I know I just finished complaining about reporters heading straight for the freakshows, but… everything I’ve ever heard from anybody (especially those who love it) about this LA thing has been… unfortunate. And when the Masses celebrated _by the archbishop_ are the freakshows in question, it does not seem unfair to think the thing is a freakshow in toto. Bobbleheads are the most normal thing about it, apparently.

    Now, if there are indeed many good speakers and panels, it would behoove the organizers to quit running the place as a freakshow. Then the good stuff would get some attention instead of the liturgical abuses. You can’t control or know what every attendee or vendor is up to, but you surely can raise the tone at your main worship events run by the archdiocese’s leader and chief teacher of doctrine.

  • Julia

    Amen, Maureen. And people wonder why Benedict thinks there needs to be some tightening up in how the Mass is celebrated, much less how our Faith is taught.

    Mahoney is a joke. Worse, he was among the worst of the pedophile coddlers and is getting away with it. He understands PR and has no shame.

  • V.J. Parson

    Have you seen the museum of idolatry over at a little leaven? The jesus junk exhibits that they continue to add are depressing and outrageous all at the same time. It’s like a circus of the absurd things done in the name of religious merchandising.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    More than a bit harsh, tmatt.

    I will come clean, though. I have never been to the L.A. Religious Education Congress. Nor do I ever plan to go. (So, no, I wasn’t the dour-looking gentlemen photographing the gay/lesbian booth next to Commonweal’s booth.) My comments were based on watching quite a few years of reporting on it from Catholic News Service and other sources, as well as looking online at the conference programs.

    Forgive me if I gave the wrong impression that I had been there.

    What I wrote, though, is still true, and Grant Gallicho actually supports me in it. I said at the outset, “it’s run by Cardinal Mahony and his gang of people who couldn’t tell an orthodox teaching from a heretical one if it slapped them on their faces.” Hence you get a Father Robert Barron (an orthodox priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago) teaching at the same conference as a Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, the former master general of the Dominicans whose theological leanings, shall we say, do not tend toward orthodox teaching.

    Mr. Gallicho apparently sees no problem with this. I do. One of the key roles of a bishop is to provide sound teaching for his flock. He is to be on the watch for whatever is heterodox, pagan or downright heretical and to try to eliminate that from Catholic life. Or at least warn against it so that people know what to look out for. But it is certainly not to invite such dissent into his diocese.

    We must remember that the Congress is a gathering for religious educators. Most of the people who attend this meeting are people who are charged with either educating the youth of the Church, those who are seeking entrance into the Church via RCIA, and those few adults who are trying themselves to become educated on the faith.

    With that in mind, what we have at the L.A. Congress, though, is exactly the opposite of what the cardinal should be doing. We have him and his staff inviting people in who are known dissenters and are given a prominent place to air their disputes with Catholic doctrine. They’re put in there alongside the few orthodox who are brought in (in my opinion) as mere props to show the more orthodox bishops around the country that it’s OK to send their religious educators there since Father Barron is going to be teaching, after all. Nothing like being made a prop in order to get a few more warm bodies in the hall and a few more dollars into the coffers. (My guess is that someone like Father Barron goes along in order to be able to at least get something orthodox out there.)

    If I sound cynical, I am. And I have reason to be. The main financial supporters of the Congress (outside of the L.A. Archdiocese) are groups like the National Catholic Reporter, Loyola Press, GIA Publications, Oregon Catholic Press, etc. Not exactly bastions of orthodoxy.