Oh, those medieval yearnings!
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Nevertheless these nuns do show several recurring characteristics. For one thing, most of these nuns are middle-aged (possibly this is because our progressive orders are starving for vocations). For another, it is increasingly observed that those nuns who do make the front page or the evening news present at best an unflattering spectacle: Not plain (which would lend them a sort of charm), an unhealthy percentage appear, as Tom Bethell has noted in these pages, downright dykish. The hatred of all things male spewing from their mouths does little to dissuade people from the unsavory conclusions I have heard even schoolchildren make.
What we really have here, I suspect, is no more than the ecclesiastical contingent of the bored middle-aged housewife, who at least had the grace to take up relatively harmless pursuits like bad poetry. But our nuns have crusader blood in their veins. They aim to stamp out iniquity no matter what the cost. Their claims on behalf of “the people” notwithstanding, the sobering truth is that God forbid the people ever did come to power most of these nuns would find themselves in jail. Had they ever bothered to ask, they would have found that the single most common complaint lay people have about their priests today is that the latter are not masculine enough; I am not sure that the majority of lay people wouldn’t be in favor of a little male oppression. Ironically, too, criticism of an effete priesthood appears most popular among women laity.
BUT AMONG THE FUNDAMENTALIST contingent, for whom faith in the correctness of their political opinions is absolute and unquestioned, experience is rigorously excluded. It is not even considered admissable as evidence to point out the way something is. So when Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle can “say with deep consciousness of these words that the [U.S. submarine] Trident base is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound,” he is blissfully impervious to pleas that some important (and obvious) distinctions be made, not only between the nature of the Third Reich and the United States but also between the flesh-and-blood victims of Auschwitz and the alleged “victims” of the Trident. The essence here is that the Hunthausens cannot be argued with, because while they have all the answers they have no rational framework for reaching them.
Obviously, the problem with the Church is not that there are liberal, even radical, Catholics; the problem is when they equate the two words, and the deadly complacency and concomitant moralism it breeds. To prate of the “political implications of the Gospel” in terms of specific policy is sheer rubbish; such specifics as the Church does give almost always proscribe rather than prescribe, for example the condemnations of Nazism and Communism. As for the rest, it is up to people’s own adaptation of principles according to conscience.
So when commentators on the Catholic Left accuse their nonradicalized coreligionists of having no more than a misty hankering for pomp and circumstance, Latin and incense, black habits and organ music, they completely miss the boat. Because really quite the opposite is true. For many of these people their greatest peace and consolation derives from the quiet dignity of the daily Mass, a small but invaluable refuge from the carnival-like atmosphere of the contemporary Sunday big-top. There, in humble side chapels of often appalling design, they are able to worship God without distraction from a thousand liturgical gimmicks, ranging from the insipid (“Happy Birthday Jesus” birthday cakes on Christmas), to the polemical (hellfire sermons against tuna factories in Peru), to the distasteful (obese liturgical dancers in tight pink leotards bounding up the aisle at the Offertory). What the tired sinners want is not answers but a touch of the transcendent, a glimpse of things hoped for but not expected to be seen.
This was the vision, after all, that guided the Church through almost two thousand years, a vision that could exert a powerful influence even on an agnostic like Mencken. “The Latin Church,” he once wrote, “which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.” Just as artists and writers can get so close to their work as to be blinded to its beauty, impervious to its symbols, so too can priests and nuns lose their perspective, taking the drama of life for granted. They need occasionally to step back from the immediate concern to take in the whole, much as the painter steps back from his canvas and the poet reads his words aloud.
Oils, vestments, candles, wine, water, bread—truly they are all preposterous things from which to fashion worship. In fact, a faith in a Messiah born of a Virgin Jewess is preposterous as well. But the only thing more preposterous than faith in an unseen God is faith in a very visible man, who over his several millenia on this orb has amassed a pathetic record of cruelty, barbarism, and fanaticism in nearly every place at nearly every time. The ridiculous spectacle of a crotchety old pastor attempting to remove The Catcher in the Rye from his school’s bookshelf pales when placed against the manifest folly of a bloodless Sidney Webb or the lugubrious intonations of a Carl Sagan.
For what is the Bible if not great literature, its people—Abraham, David, Joseph, Mary, Judas—all characters in a divine plot, fashioned in the image and likeness of their Creator. Moses’ flight from Egypt, the eloquence of the Song of Songs, the Christ born in a Bethlehem manger, Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians, each has in common with great art the sense of something timeless and transcendent yet taken from the things of the earth. In this same sense sacraments are nothing but holy metaphors, inspiring the imagination to understand where the pure intellect comes up short.
Moral dilemmas are not new. To claim that we face greater burdens than past citizens have faced is to skate on the edge of a special kind of hubris. Certainly the spectacle of a nuclear holocaust is frightening. But what must it have been like to hear with Augustine about the fall of Rome, and all it stood for. Or to live through the Plague. Or to be around during the French Revolution when the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was first sacked and then renamed the Temple of Reason?
What the American Catholic Church needs to recover most is its unique sense of the world, that of a sacramental Church whose legions are of sinners, a Church of the flesh, rooted in the earth the Lord created and found good but not of it. What it needs least is the sort of Fundamentalism that Mencken spent a lifetime attacking. The crisis of the Church today has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with poetry. At least in the United States, it is a confusion among the poets themselves.
William McGurn is managing editor of This World magazine and contributing editor of The American Spectator.
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