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.
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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.