On Recovering the Fearlessness of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

On Recovering the Fearlessness of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition October 3, 2019

Yesterday, I wrote of my appreciation for the Catholic intellectual tradition and what a relief it was for me to step into the wide sunlands of a Catholic Christianity that was not afraid to engage with the wide range of human culture and thought.  From St. Paul on the Areopagus down through the Catholic invention of the university to the present, the Church’s capacity for engagement with the breadth of the human experience is one of the most beautiful things about her and I have always loved her capaciousness and ability to, as Paul says, “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

I also noted that, like tofu, Catholic culture tends to take on the tint of the culture in which it finds itself. This can be both good and bad, depending on the culture. In the early English Church, for instance, when the martial virtues of the Anglo-Saxon warrior were prized by the culture, the author of The Dream of the Rood saw and celebrated the courage of Jesus’ embrace of the cross.

In the high Middle Ages of Dante, the doctrine of courtly love helped Dante to see something the ancient Greeks missed: that the love of woman could be ennobling. His Beatrice (and far more, the Blessed Virgin) are encounters with divine grace. And, of course, just a little before him, Thomas’ encounter with Aristotle vastly enriched our way of speaking about the Faith and about the world.

This has happened again and again in the history of the Church and the Church has always had within it those who seek to capitulate to the culture, those who are cautious and judicious in “testing everything and holding fast to what is good” and those who simply live in fear of the culture.

In the past twenty years, especially under the influence of American white conservative Evangelicalism and an alliance with increasingly demagogic Right Wingery culminating in the Freak Show of Trumpian Republican Rite Christianism, conservative Catholics have embraced the habit of fear, panic, and conspiracy theory as their primary reaction to cultural phenomena they deem “liberal”. Rather than thinking with the Church and with the tools of her intellectual tradition, they have come to think with the often dubious opinions of certain Folk Heroes whose judgment is spectacularly bad. As a result, they give utterly unnecessary scandal to sensible people of good will.

So, for instance, there is the absurd phenomenon of Catholic geocentrism, promoted by Robert Sungenis and endorsed by the reliably wrong Church Militant and Michael Voris. Employing a flat-footed Fundamentalism to reading certain Catholic texts as foolishly as a Flat Earther reads the Bible, they have taken the same hostility to “liberal science” that animates  Climate Change denial and hatred of environmentalism and applied it to cosmology.  In an infamous essay (now flushed down the memory hole), called the “The Fall of the Pink Einstein”, Sungenis managed to glue together a great many of the fears and obsessions of Conservative Catholics with the ingenious thesis that the relativity of the Jew Einstein was one of the sources of liberal science’s fiendish moral relativism contributing not only to godless heliocentrism but also to homosexuality and gay priests abusing kids.

No.  Really.

Meanwhile, there is also the Kolbe Center for Creation Research, a quack organization that is basically the Catholic-flavored version of Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis.  Of them, Augustine wrote long ago:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

Augustine grasped that baptism is grace, not magic, and that it did not confer competence in the sciences: study, brains, understanding and hard work do.  And all these things are achievable by Christian and non-Christian alike.  Because of this, non-Christians can tell when you are a crank and when you are competent and honest.

Augustine, who also wrote a (now tragically neglected and opposed) treatise against lying made the obvious point that Lying for Jesus is stupid. What lay at the back of his thought was a profoundly Catholic confidence that the Faith is really true and therefore does not need to be defended by tricks and lies.  Like St. Thomas, he really internalized the conviction that “all truth is God’s truth” and that the Author of Creation is the same God as the Author of Redemption in Christ Jesus. He deeply and truly believed Jesus when he said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). He did not, as so many conservative American Christians today do, live in the everlasting fear that the other shoe was going to drop, that the whole thing was a fraud, that something would turn up to show the Faith was a lie, and that he needed to be perpetually on guard against those who might discover that it was all a scam.  So he was able to grasp that the temptation to tell pre-emptive lies was just that: a temptation from hell and not, as some absurdly claimed, “being wise as serpents.”  In a word, his faith was not fragile, but sturdy, and able to stand up to one of the most rigorous and searching minds and consciences God ever created.

It precisely this jittery fragility that now characterizes conservative Christianity in the US, both Catholic and Protestant.  From Evangelicals terrified of evolution to Catholics afraid of the Pope to conservatives afraid of the brown “invader” and willing to endorse every single lie Trump tells in order to defend this most fragile of gods we see a demographic endlessly stampeded by

Most recently, on the Catholic side of the aisle we witnessed the ridiculous resurgence of the Harry Potter Satanic Panic as Fr. Dan Reehil, pastor of St. Edward Church and School, in Nashville, TN, banished the boy wizard from his school, explaining:

These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text. I have consulted several exorcists, both in the United States and in Rome, and they have recommended removing the books from circulation.

This is, to be blunt, a move rooted in fear and ignorance.  I know this, not because I am an exorcist, but because I know how to read a book.  In point of fact, there is no, none, nada, zip, zero, invocational magic in the books. Nothing and no one is ever summoned or invoked.  Literally, the worst curse in the entire series is “Avada Kedavra”–Abracadabra.  The “spells” in HP are Latin doggerel and if you think they have occult power, I recommend you try waving a stick at somebody and shouting “Expelliarmus!”  If the book or teacup they are carrying flies out of their hands I will sell you the Brooklyn Bridge free of charge.

No photo description available.

I do not know what exorcists the good Father consulted with.  I am frankly sceptical he has consulted with any beyond the opinion of Fr. Gabriele Amorth (of whom more in a moment).  But whoever he consulted with, they simply cannot have read these books if any of them seriously claim the books invoke demons.  Magic is treated as a sort of super-power in the books, exactly the same as the powers used by super-heroes in Marvel comics and precisely the same as the powers used by Gandalf or Elves in the Approved-by-Righteous Catholics Lord of the Rings.  Father’s simplistic declaration about a work of literature that any presentation of magic as anything other than evil being a “clever deception” condemns the work of Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, E. Nesbit, LeGuin, the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, Greek myths, and a host of fairy stories, not to mention a good portion of the works of Shakespeare, to the flames.

Which reminds me, Shakespeare (whom we are reminded by Joseph Pearce, was a Catholic):

does actually write a chilling Satanic invocation in Macbeth as Lady Macbeth prays to demons:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

Here’s what does not happen and has never happened to any actress playing Lady Macbeth when she says these words that were written specifically to be spoken aloud: no demon has ever come. Why? Because this is fiction and Lady Macbeth is not real and the actress is playing a part.

That does not mean I disbelieve in demons.  Demons (and angels) are both real and we can wilfully open our hearts to their influence to disastrous or blessed effect.  But, to paraphrase Claudius in the occult ghost story Hamlet, “words without thoughts never to heaven (or hell) go”.  It is one of the more telling traits of panic-driven Christianism that it believes God must be begged and implored to respond but the devil will show up instantly if you even accidentally say some wrong magic word.  And (more to the point) it believes that such fear authorizes the Christianist to tell wanton lies about the author of a series of pretty good books in order to accuse her of seeking to involve children with Satan.

So here’s the thing: instead of panicking about catching demonic cooties from works of J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare, what the Catholic intellectual tradition does is engage such books as the works of literature that they are and see how to “test everything and hold fast what is good.”

Fr. Reehil’s assessment of Harry Potter is a compound of ill-informed rumor, ignorant opinion, and lies that have spread everywhere in conservative Christian culture, both Protestant and Catholic. On the Catholic front, the lies come from Lifesite News who, in 2005, chose to lie that Benedict XVI “condemned” Harry Potter. Jimmy Akin, no fan of the books by the way, but an honest man, does the autopsy on that lie.

Then there was the opinion of the late Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the alleged “Chief Exorcist of Rome” (that there is not and never has been such an office as “chief exorcist” is already a warning that the fanboi who grew up around him were inclined to exaggerate his authority and his often crackpot opinions):

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses.”

This is, again, the words of a man who either has not read the books or who does not understand even elementary things about literature. It is also the words of a man who is notorious for saying absurd things (such as his ridiculous claim to have performed 30,000 exorcisms in the space of nine years, totaling nine exorcisms every single day including Sundays), as Jimmy Akin and others have also shown on more than one occasion.

Now it is true that there is evil and black magic depicted in the books. Just as there is evil and black magic depicted in the works and authors mentioned above. But it is also true that the entire point of the depiction, as with the works and authors above, is to show the triumph of virtue. And the real battle in the books is, as in those other works and authors, a moral struggle. Indeed, every book–and most especially the culminating book in the series, is a recapitulation of the Paschal Mystery of self-sacrifice, death, and resurrection. In fact, asked if she believed in magic, Rowling replied that she did not and that she was a Christian and a member of the Church of Scotland. She even noted that she did not discuss it too much because she did not want to give away the ending of the series.

Are the books perfect? No. And indeed, moral critiques can be made of the characters and it is clear that part of what Rowling is doing is struggling with aspects of her own Christian faith–a faith she has lived with beautiful generosity to the least of these. My strongest objection to the book is that Dumbledore attempts a consequentialist (“end justifies the means”) solution to the problem of the main conflict in the book. It fails, as perhaps Rowling intends, but I find it troubling. All of that is legitimate fodder for ordinary literary criticism as the Catholic intellectual tradition has done for centuries. But banning the books as “demonic” and then giving a rationale that is both ignorant and false, not to mention vicious and slanderous, is a dreadful way to address a series that is, on the whole, a fine collection of stories.  And it is a sure-fire way to teach a generation of kids that their Faith is stupid and fearful and afraid to test everything and hold fast to what is, in this case, obviously good.

Unsurprisingly, parishioners at the parish report the pastor is a man with Right Wing Culture War and control issues:

  • Psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse of the school children through his messages in and outside of the church, including in the confessional, that has resulted in children seeking professional counseling. This is including, but not limited to, public assertions at school Mass that Lady Gaga made a pact with the devil for fame and suffers from fibromyalgia as a result
  • Bullying of students, teachers and parents who disagree with his views
  • Irresponsible administration of the school, resulting in plummeting school enrollment and mass departure of long-term faculty

And last, but not least, they report he “hates Pope Francis and views himself as ‘a soldier of God.'” Their rather sensible response to him was, “‘Our school, however, consists of children, not soldiers.'”

And thereby hangs a tale, of which more on Tuesday.  Tomorrow, we switch gears slightly and look at another manifestation of related phenomena coming to a theatre near you.

 

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