They Labor In Vain Who Build It
Biting the Bullet on the Catholic Celebrity Racket
[One of the past week's stories in the Catholic blogosphere is found in Creative Minority Report, about the curious direction of the popular blog The Cafeteria Is Closed. Its author, Gerald Augustinus, has recently expressed certain opinions about homosexual relationships and gender identity disorders, which could be interpreted as a challenge to Catholic teaching. Since its debut three years ago, TCIC has shown remarkable success, with over two million visitors, and mention in the print media on the subject of Catholic blogging. It is the opinion of yours truly, that a much larger issue can be found behind the controversy. It is that larger issue which is explained in the essay that follows. -- DLA]
In an ideal world (and those who are believing Catholics know that this one never will be), anyone who would profess the Faith, even if they stumbled most of the time, would also be forced to eschew public notoriety as a benchmark for the path to heaven. We might think that this priest or that sister or some other writer is a very devout and holy person, worthy of our admiration. But if the objects of such devotion are really who they pretend to be, they know that even Saint Paul found little reason to boast, and that when Augustine wrote his Confessions, there was obvious shame in that which he was forced to admit.
Then again, consider three examples that come to the mind of this writer:
1) Once I attended a Mass at a suburban parish where Father Benedict Groeschel was the main celebrant. The entrance hymn concluded, and the celebrant was about to begin. Just then, a concelebrating priest in residence interrupted the Rite of Greeting to introduce the friar. Now, I've been an admirer of Groeschel's work for years, and used to attend his lectures whenever he was in town. But as the priest-host went on for several minutes while standing at the altar of God, about what a privilege it was to have such a holy man in our midsts, I was genuinely embarrassed for the good friar. I was also reminded of what I hate most about Mass "facing the people." If only for a few minutes, we were not there to worship God, but Father Groeschel. Maybe if there were a crucifix in the middle of the altar, as we are seeing more often these days, something might have occurred to someone. But I doubt it.
2) A few years ago, I was in the lobby of the Federal building where I work, and who should appear, but a mother superior in full habit, of one of the new and fast-growing religious orders. We had met at Catholic convocations before, so I went up and introduced myself. After about two minutes of pleasantries, a couple of staffers from the legal counsel's office, for whom she had been waiting, came up and started to engage her, completely ignoring me. In fact, they got HER ignoring me, without so much as a would-you-excuse-me-please. It was as though I wasn't even there. I could live with having to excuse myself. But one would first have to acknowledge that I existed at all. (That's lawyers for you.)
3) Earlier this year, I was invited to an event at a Catholic facility, which featured a popular author and recent convert to the Faith. I had written about the person's work in the past, and while not a personal attack, it wasn't exactly a puff piece. There I was, minding my own business, when I was eventually taken aside by a staff member. He made reference to some sort of feud between myself and the author, about which he (and, until that moment, I) knew nothing, and which compelled the author to prevail upon him to ask me to leave. Well, I don't like hanging around where I am not wanted, so I left. But it surprised me that this author assumed the prerogative to do this. It also surprised the director of the facility, who believed that they, not the author, were sponsoring the event.
I read somewhere once that in the early Church, a convert was considered a neophyte for the first three years after their conversion, a sort of "novitiate" for the newly-baptised. (Commenters are free to clear this up for me, but I can tell you already it makes a lot of sense.) For some high-profile converts who get a little ahead of themselves, I'm wondering if this isn't such a bad idea for the present. Should recent converts be allowed to even publish about the Faith, while they're still learning about it? Or is their "need" for attention, and our "need" to give it to them, that important to us?
To put it another way, is my message to anyone reading this, worth any danger to my own soul?
In a town like Washington, where it seems nothing is spared the preoccupation with status, there are a few other stories I could tell. They occur to me in the wake of the Holy Father's visit, and the usual pundits still coming out of the woodwork trying to explain it all. There is a certain paradox to being Catholic, I think. On one hand, you are not in it alone. You are part of a communion of souls on their way to heaven. And while you obviously cannot be personally acquainted with all of them, you're in "the same boat" with them. You speak a common language. You would almost expect to know each other on sight. Maybe we need a secret handshake. On the other hand, each of us meets our Maker alone, answers for our sins alone, and is judged alone. At that moment (which I was always taught was the one that mattered the most), will our celebrity status help us, or hurt us? Does the answer to that eventual question dictate our present actions?
Every now and then, I run into practicing Catholics who act as though they are more a part of "the club" than others. Never mind that you go to Mass on Sunday and try to raise your children in the Faith, in the midst of a world that would persuade you to do otherwise. No, that's not good enough, because "the Missus and I have had famous Jesuits over to the house for dinner, and one of them told me I could sit on the board of Planned Parenthood with a clear conscience." Oh, well, that makes it all better, doesn't it??? Not to be outdone are those who wrap themselves in the mantle of orthodoxy, then act like complete jerks when push comes to shove. Besides, they might say, the President comes to speak at our event every year. How much more credibility do we need?
The answer depends on where you look for it. If someone uses their status as a public figure to witness to the Faith, that's fine. You can give them credit for putting it all on the line, at the risk of losing it. But is it their Faith to which they bear witness, or the title they wear in so doing? With a few of the more prominent Catholics in Washington, it is through the use of the same criteria as in political life, as their Catholicism is simply a shell of righteousness grafted onto their message. This incongruity is not confined to political conservatives. A year doesn't go by when a book isn't published about the Catholic experience as seen through the eyes of some political figure, whose public position has little or nothing to do with being Catholic. Invariably this list of intellectual giants includes a member of the Kennedy family.
Faithful Catholics were outraged when men and women in public office who profess to be Catholic, but who openly support legalized abortion, were able to receive communion at the Papal Mass celebrations in Washington and New York. Recently, Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, issued a stunning rebuke of former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani's reception of the sacrament: "The Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a grave offense against the will of God. Throughout my years as Archbishop of New York, I have repeated this teaching in sermons, articles, addresses, and interviews without hesitation or compromise of any kind. Thus it was that I had an understanding with Mr Rudolph Giuliani, when I became Archbishop of New York and he was serving as Mayor of New York, that he was not to receive the Eucharist because of his well-known support of abortion. I deeply regret that Mr Giuliani received the Eucharist during the Papal visit here in New York, and I will be seeking a meeting with him to insist that he abide by our understanding."
The truth is, none of this should have come as a surprise, least of all to the prelates themselves. While you and I watched the events on television, or took our chances with parish lotteries in the DC and NYC areas for the few tickets available, these political luminaries were all treated to special VIP seating. What other message could possibly have been sent, other than that their public conduct was being given a pass? What compromises with Mammon are made to lead to moments like this? Were they worth it?
It was not so with Saint Ambrose in the fourth century. Back in his day, the Emperor Theodosius quelled an insurrection by ordering the deaths of everyone in the rebellious town, sparing no one, including women and children. Not only did Ambrose deny him Communion, but as the Emperor and his entourage were arriving for Mass, they were met at the door by the saintly bishop himself, who refused entry to the lot of them. Under penalty of excommunication issued on the spot, the Emperor withdrew. After doing penance, Theodosius was returned to the Sacraments.
All of the above becomes a big deal in an election year, as some politicians court the twnety-one percent of the population known as "the Catholic vote." This is not the same thing as "the conservative vote," although it may appear similar. Pro-life Catholics could be (once again) led down the garden path by a Presidential candidate who can talk a good game, only to let them down (once again) through Supreme Court appointments, taxpayer-funded "family planning" programs, and continued approval of embryonic stem-cell research. Those who champion the cause of the unborn will wonder in amazement how this could happen -- as they have repeatedly for more than a quarter of a century.
Maybe the answer will come to us, once we learn to get over ourselves.