Yes, I'm a wuss...

When I woke up yesterday morning, the cold that had been on the way out the door decided to come back and fill my sinuses solid...the epidemiological equivalent of morning sex after a one-night-stand. I spent most of the day in bed. My only hope for a good result from the last week and a half of cold-relating living is that this will encourage my biographer to add the clause, "Though his health was always fragile, he still managed to ..."

And yet, at the same time, the one thing I always realize when I get sick is a) how much of a wuss I am when it comes to illness, and b) how amazing the people who actually do things with their lives while suffering from chronic illness really are. My productivity, my reading, even my ability to be pleasant, all go into the trash as quickly as the boxes of generic facial tissue I'm abusing. (Might I recommend Puffs Plus???) Perhaps, perhaps, if I were faced with more chronic illness, I'd have a moment of courage and realize that my options were to remain curled up in a sickly ball or to get going, and would then triumphantly stumble, à la Hallmark movie, out of my bed and to my desk to begin penning my life story of triumph over disease. But I doubt it. I'd spend even more time than I already do surfing the Web, skimming New Yorkers for the cartoons, and otherwise stumbling through life in a DayQuil induced haze. I'm amazed by the people who, when faced with their joints falling apart or their muscles atrophying, actually get up and do things. You're braver, and stronger, than I. It only takes a few days of filled sinuses for me to remember that.


From the sublime to the mercantile...

So, while I still need to reply to StrangeSojourner's comment below, I do have one small vent regarding topics far less sublime than papacies and elections: my continuing frustration with my banking situation.

In the beginning. Many years ago, when I was a fresh-eyed graduate student and first moved to Boston, I proudly opened my account with Bank of Boston....remember their shiny green signs, reminiscent of the Celtics and a tenacious Boston identity? Obviously Bank of Boston was not a small, mom-and-pop bank, but it had enough of a local flavor to make one feel slightly invested in the region. Well, if you've been in the Boston area, you know that Bank of Boston was eaten by Fleet, which has in turn been eaten by Bank of America. (You'll notice that I won't be hyperlinking to the latter...)

In addition to losing its shiny green logo, B of A also started moving jobs out of Boston, laying off tellers, etc. Now, in my heart of bleeding hearts, I would love to say that I jumped ship at that point and switched to a more community-oriented bank, but I didn't. You see, I (and I expect many of you) am a fundamentally lazy person, and so the effort of switching accounts, changing paperwork, etc., particularly when it's not as though I have tons of moolah to begin with, seemed too much.

I have to admit that I may have reached a decision today, based on something rather stupid: the one advantage I saw in staying with a larger bank is that they would generally be more prepared to respond to your needs than a smaller bank, and yet today my local B of A branch didn't have any quarters. At all. Won't have them until the end of the week. Maybe. So this dirty-laundried unsatisfied B of A customer is moving on.

I'm particularly interested in Wainwright Bank. They sponsor free space to allow my church to take donations online, and do a lot of community investment. But I worry that I may be getting sucked in to the lefty marketing strategy of "Banking on Values"...which is just another way of being taken to the bank, so to speak. Does anyone have any experience of Wainwright, and/or any other ideas on whether attempting to bank more locally even makes sense or makes any difference in 2005? Is my attempt to bank with a locally owned, socially responsible bank simply a more sophisticated exploitation of my consumer preferences than the bottom-line marketing scheme of larger institutions?


Habemus Papam...

In the words of Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts...we're in for a rocky ride.

So, I've been reflecting a lot in the last day about our new pope, and, if you know me or have been following this blog, you know that I'm not exactly thrilled. In a spirit of faith in the Holy Spirit, however, here are some points for hope, even in the midst of what many have found to be a very disappointing choice.

  • As they say here in Boston, "He's a smahhhtie." Benedict XVI is a very capable theologian. His work before becoming the head of the CDF as a private theologian and even his doctrinal statements as Prefect might be controversial, but they are anything but stupid. Further, unlike JPII, his theology is rooted not so much in a particularly 20th century blend of personalist philosophy and mystical thought, as in the long scholastic and Augustinian theologies of the Catholic church. In this sense, he's more traditional, in a good way, than John Paul.
  • He is a master bureaucrat. Some observers have suggested that he was primarily chosen due to his age or to his words in the last few weeks, and that no doubt played a major role. But I think perhaps even more determinative might have been the cardinals' desire to see the curial house put in order. One can expect that, given full authority, we'll see a curia firmly under the hand of the pope. On things you might disagree with, this might not be so good, but at least there will be someone attempting to rein in the influence of various curial officials. If he couples this with a commitment to episcopal collegiality (which is possible, given some of his remarks this morning at his first mass as pope), this could be a real benefit for the universal church. We're not going to see any major changes in the doctrinal commitments of bishops, but I think we're also going to see an increase in the appointment of capable administrators and pastors to episcopates.
  • Only Nixon could go to China. One challenge that whoever succeeded JPII was going to face was the watchful eye of numerous Catholics so formed by the vision of John Paul that they would be in danger of going sedevacantist at the slightest indication the new pope was betraying John Paul's legacy. Ratzinger is immune to this; his street credibility is too high (as one pundit commented, he may be the closest the Catholic church gets to human cloning...). While I'm not expecting any radical breaks with John Paul's positions, Benedict has the freedom to be a moderate, or simply to do something slightly differently than John Paul, without being accused of heresy. It was at least a smart move to deal with the lingering effects of John Paul's cult of personality, and at best it could open the door to some necessary movement in the church that another pope couldn't even begin to address.
  • He's not a rock-star. On a similar point, Ratzinger may share many of John Paul's beliefs, but in style he may be the least JPII-esque cardinal. Ratzinger is a bookworm and a deskman, and very good at both. Unless I'm very surprised, it's not in his temperament to be a pilgrim pope like John Paul. This is a good reminder, especially for those of us who have only known one pope, that there are various ways in which the pope can be the pope. Again, this might help wean the Catholic church from the idea of the papacy which JPII imprinted so firmly in our minds.
  • Ecumenism will still be crucial. Again, Benedict signalled this morning his continuing commitment to re-establishing visible unity among Christians. You might see a shift in his ecumenical focus, however, back towards the Lutheran churches and other Western churches. He was one of the main political and doctrinal forces behind the Joint Declaration on Justification with the Lutheran World Federation, and his own experience of the divided church in Germany might help move him to put some more fuel in that engine.
  • The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. My political scientist partner reminds me that the cliche in organizational studies is often "where you stand depends on where you sit." I would imagine that Benedict is firmly aware that his role as pope will have to be entirely different from his role as Prefect of the CDF. How he might act and/or think differently in a different role is up for grabs. (I'm showing Romero to my class right now, so I might be biased in terms of the potential for conversion...)
So...I may add more later, but these are just some first reflections on what might be good about this papacy. That being said, I'll be heading to mass at noon with a lot of different aspects to my prayer...


Happy Patriots' Day!!!

Today is Patriots' Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- celebrating the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. I was, and still am, a big Revolutionary War history buff, and in high school and college I played fife with the Pawtuxet Rangers, Rhode Island Militia, pictured here. Not coincidentally, today's the running of the Boston Marathon. We had some visiting runners at church last night, it's beautiful today, if a bit warm, so I hope everyone has a good race and a relaxing, educational Patriots' Day.

God save the Commonwealth, and God save Rhode Island!

Collegiality and Communio

In addition to John Allen and Joan Chittister, NCR's "Church in Transition Special Report" (which, honestly, by numbering the days makes it seem a little less like an interregnum and more like a hostage crisis), they've been calling in other authors and theologians periodically to pitch an inning.

Today, my dissertation director, Dr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M., has a thoughtful piece on her hopes for the new pope's commitment to collegiality. I have to say with the tiniest bit of pride that some of my own research might have helped at least one line of her article: her brief mention of how slippery the words "communion" and "communio" are in contemporary Catholic ecclesiology. JPII and the CDF, following their other ecclesiological presuppositions, definitely see communion primarily in the sense of hierarchical communio, that is, the communion one has with one's bishop. This is a great distance from, say, Leonardo Boff's understanding of communion. Now, that's not to prejudge the question and decide that Boff is right and JPII wrong, or vice versa. It is important, however, to point out that in contemporary Catholic theology, "communion" is a word like "Christian" or "People of God" that relies more on the speaker's other theological and philosophical commitments to be understood than any common agreement on the concept's meaning. (This point has been made by a number of people, including, most forcefully, Nicholas Healy in his work Church, World and the Christian Life.) Perhaps by the time I finish my dissertation everyone will see clearly the way things ought to be...

So, at any rate, bravo Mary Ann!


The things you find in the blogosphere

If you're having some low blood pressure issues, check out the debate on all things gay and Catholic over at Chuck Currie's blog. It's always fun when a U.C.C. seminarian is defending my right to be in my own church...and even more fun when people with whom I'm trying my dardnest to be in communion are dragging him over virtual internet coals for it...

(Incidentally, I discovered Chuck's blog by doing a quick google for "gay catholic blog"....seems to me there might be a bunch of us, and there might be a need for some sort of informational clearing house. This is, of course, entirely unrelated to avoiding my dissertation...)

Speaking of which, Dreadnought here has glossy pictures of the pope and of some half-nekkid guys...not something you see together outside of certain establishments....

Conclaves and the Holy Spirit

Yesterday in my department, I had the privilege of leading our grad students' weekly Friday prayer, and focused on praying for the Roman Catholic church, and particularly for the Holy Spirit's guidance of the cardinal-electors and, as these cardinal-electors, properly understood, represent all of us within the Sistine Chapel. We were able to share both our numerous fears and our flickering, yet present, hope in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph Ratzinger, who according to recent reports may be more papabile than previously thought, has some great words of wisdom on the role of the Spirit in a conclave, responding to a question of how the Holy Spirit can be said to "pick" the pope:

“I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. ... I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined." Then the clincher: “There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked.”

This is from John Allen's column from yesterday on the coming conclave and "negative campaigning." He (along with his colleagues) is doing a stellar job reporting daily on the conversations he's able to hear in Rome, and is doing a great service to English-speaking Christians as a modern-day (and less anonymous) Xavier Rynne.

Regarding the Holy Spirit, it's helpful to remember that during the first descent of the Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost, they were also locked in their rooms and scared out of their wits...


Are you a resister or an engager?

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, in an article in Commonweal provocatively entitled "Is the Pope Obsolete?", suggests that the polarization within the contemporary Catholic church is not so much between conservatives and liberals, but between two smaller, passionate groups of Catholics. She writes:

Finally, there is a polarized church usually described as divided between conservatives and liberals. That is not wholly wrong. But increasingly it seems to me that the polarization is between two smaller groups both deeply committed to the church and the Catholic tradition. The first group we might call resisters. They regard the church and tradition as bulwarks against a culture enthralled (as they see it) by consumption, technological fixes, and novel social arrangements. Their remedy is resistance to the power of the culture (and sometimes the state) and preservation of a Catholic ethos centered on family, religious devotion, and an integral intellectual framework for defending the tradition. Certainly many of these can be described as conservative or traditionalists, but there is a left-wing version developing, including those who style themselves “radical orthodox”.

The second group we might call engagers. They do not buy the “culture of death” analysis on which the resisters argue their case, though they too may be critics of some of the same economic and cultural practices. They see in the culture and the outlines of modernity (and post-modernity) a challenge to which the church and tradition bring rich and powerful ideas, analysis, and counter-practices. Dialogue and engagement are their primary responses, though preservation of Catholic practice is important to their endeavors. Many of these can be described as liberals, but they are increasingly joined by moderates and some conservatives who, at least in the United States, are reluctant to join the more integralist resisters. (It is paradoxical that the resisters take John Paul II for their hero, though in many respects he is a model for the engagers.)

While "resisters" and "engagers" might be nicer terms, or at least less ideologically or politically freighted terms, than "conservatives" and "liberals", I'm not sure that Steinfels' attempt to stretch these terms as an alternative structure of analysis really works. While I have no doubt that there may be left-wing resisters (e.g., my Catholic worker friends), they're not exactly thick on the ground. In fact, most of the more intelligent "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics seem to fall within the "engager" camp; but then you no longer have a source for contemporary R.C. polarization, which is far more rooted in mainstream Catholicism than in the splinter groups one finds at either end of the spectrum. Even as ideal types, I'm not sure that the categories work. Readers (all two of you), show me where I'm wrong.

Where I think O'Brien Steinfels hits the nail on the head perfectly, though, is on her analysis of how the shriveling of authority at the level of the local church has contributed to the decline of energy in contemporary Catholicism. She writes that many of our most pressing issues "are best addressed by the local church, if only it had more guts and gusto. But it's precisely where the local church meets the Vatican that the engine of Catholicism has seized up." Amen. When bishops are looking over their shoulders for their next promotion, when they know that their stay in Providence or Manchester is a trial-run for the "big leagues" of Boston and New York, when a bishop can't make decisions regarding the pastoral or liturgical life of his church without being subject to intense scrutiny from above, we have a real problem. Many of these points were made in admirable fashion by Fr. Michael Buckley, S.J., of Boston College theology, at a talk sponsored by the B.C. Church in the 21st Century Project in 2002. Entitled "Resources for Reform from the First Millenium", you can view the webcast of the talk, with co-speakers Michael Himes and Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M., by clicking here. (If you want to hear the audio only, or learn more about the event, it is on the C21 Project webcast page as "Legitimate Expectations", a panel on "The Laity and the Governance of the Church", from September 30, 2002.) Fr. Buckley's talk is also available in the recent volume Common Calling: The Laity and Governance of the Catholic Church, which brings together many of the best papers from the first two years of the C21 Project's existence.


A new Catholic blogger

So, I wanted to send a shout-out for a new blogger, over at the Garden Party, whom I've never actually met, but we appear to share a number of mutual friends in common, one elderly maiden aunt in particular...
He's a Latin scholar, and organic food nut, and has a piercing theological mind. I've heard. I figure that even if these two blogs are simply a continuing dialogue, eventually there will be enough fire and heat to attract some lurkers in the wings...


The Church and conscience

Fr. Jim Keenan, S.J., of the Boston College Theology Department (whose students, I understand, are more intelligent, hardworking, and goodlooking than those in other theology departments...) has an essay on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe. He does a great job of focusing the questions confronting contemporary Catholicism about how we as Catholics might use the resources of our understanding of "conscience" to both temper a conservative absolutism and, for those of us who tend to think as "progressives" or "liberals", to pay attention to how we form our consciences so as to best search for the truth. One excerpt:

This tension between what the church teaches and what the conscience dictates is itself a long-standing traditional debate. In the high Middle Ages, for instance, Thomas Aquinas disagreed with his great predecessor, Peter Lombard. Lombard upheld church teaching as the last word; Aquinas the conscience. It is a tension we are destined to live with.

I might sound like an old fuddy-duddy here. I am a progressive Catholic who, particularly in my life as a openly gay man, relies upon an understanding of conscience in order to guide and justify my attempts to lead a morally authentic life. Even more personally, I find that my wrestling with my conscience in prayer is one of the more spiritually privileged moments of my life. In some ways, my daily failures to live up, not to a set of external rules, but to my own conscience's (and ergo the Holy Spirit's, in a very real sense) demands and expectations, are for me a constant sign of God's loving and challenging presence. ("BEWARE OF GOD", reads the sign on my spiritual director's door.) I've been reading Bonhoeffer with my students, and Bonhoeffer's response to a libertine reading of Luther's pecca fortiter is
"Yes, and become a sinner again and again every day, and be bold about it. But to whom can such words be addressed, except to those who from the bottom of their hearts make a daily renunciation of sin and of every barrier which hinders them from following Christ, but who nevertheless are troubled by their daily faithlessness and sin? Who can hear these words without endangering his faith but he who hears their consolation as a renewed summons to follow Christ?" In the terms of a theology of conscience, there's a real way in which the sacrality of conscience must be defended." (The Cost of Discipleship, 52-53)

Again, as a progressive Catholic, the threat to sacrality of conscience in the face of an external set of rules, undermining any distinctions in a hierarchy of truths, seems obvious to me and many of my friends. But I am concerned, and I think we who are suspicious (on the basis of hard-earned experience) of the teaching of the church in its hierarchy and in our fellow Christians, need to also be concerned with our own self-deceptions, our own unwillingness to form our consciences well...not correctly, in the sense of matching up our vision with another's as though it were as simple as hanging wallpaper, but well, in the sense of fruitfully, healthily, virtuously, humbly. We can't use the theology of conscience as Bonhoeffer's targets used Lutheran thought on grace as an escape hatch from the difficult work of forming and following our consciences, of paying attention to best revere in our consciences the mission of God as Holy Spirit, rather than the mission of our own ego. To use good Lonerganian language, we need continued conversion. To be clear: I'm not trying to undermine the sacrality of conscience, but I'm particularly conscious that as a gay man trying to be a faithful Catholic Christian, I'm very aware that my action has to stand not on external standards, whether those of the Vatican or those of modern America, but on my own discernment of the voice of the Spirit in the midst of all those many voices. Anything less is too shaky a foundation for authentic discipleship.

Jim Weiss, also of B.C. theology, is on today's op-ed page as well.



So, this article from Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle is fabulous. He brings in some of his readers' remarks, including the following (unsourced) quote from Umberto Eco:

Insufficient consideration has been given to the underground religious war that is transforming the modern world: the division between users of the Macintosh computer and users of the MS-DOS-compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the methodical path of the Jesuits.

It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the Kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation.

As a Roman Catholic and a mac user, especially in this week when so many papal commentators have been arguing that the Protestant/Catholic divide has lost its relevance to analysis, one wonders if the power of differing theologies of salvation is still working itself out in stranger places....


Between Easter, the Pope, and some other life issues, been sort of overwhelmed lately, which has cut down on my blogging time. Sorry. For all two of you who are out there listening, I'll be back in full swing soon.