Thursday, September 8, 2005

The Difference Between “Organized Religion” and Authentic Religion

The envelope addressed to me, marked personal and confidential, came from Vatican City with all kinds of official seals on it. With a bit of a cardiac tremor, I opened it and read the following opening line: “I am writing to you at the request of the Holy Father (Pope Paul VI)……..”

When the Pope was Cardinal Archbishop Montini of Milan, one of his dearest friends was an Italian Jewish intellectual named Max Ascoli. This intimate of the Pope emigrated to New York where he founded an influential and highly rated journal called The Reporter. In early l964, Max Ascoli, the darling of the Chic set, for some reason unknown to the New York Times, decided to become a Catholic.

He wrote to His Holiness in Rome requesting help in this matter and by a series of strange convolutions, I, the half-Jew, the dirty neck from San Juan Hill in New York City was “selected” for the challenging task of guiding this Intellectual Icon to the Baptismal font. With a faint and terrified heart, I recalled the story of G. K. Chesterton and his own Road to Rome. The intellectual giant of English literature, reportedly, knocked on the door of the local Church to request instruction and reception into the Catholic Church. The local priest, simple and relatively unlettered, was likewise “terrified” at the request of the great GKC and stammeringly suggested to the caller that it might be more appropriate to contact the prestigious Jesuit House not far away. After all, they are the elite of the Church, the scholars and luminaries. G.K. asked the little cleric whether or not he believed the same doctrines which the Jesuits did. Upon a predictable positive reply from the country priest, G.K. said “I want YOU to instruct me.” The rest is, as they say, history. God chooses the simple and the weak for His instruments, chosen not for their skills or charm but for His own Great Plan. I forthwith, enthusiastically accepted Max Ascoli as my “student.”

He came twice a week for his “lesson” arriving in a long, black chauffeured driven limo. He was very tall, leaned unsteadily on a cane, and assessed me up and down with his one good eye in a kind of Long John Silver style. He sat opposite me in my little office and lectured me with a rich and deep grasp of Catholic history and theology. Throughout his superb presentations he inserted the phrase “I love Chriiiiiiist”, said with unmistakable sincerity through his heavy Italian accent. Recognizing that he knew more Catholic theology than I would ever know, I shortened his “lessons” and baptized him in the great Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City.

Just after the ceremony, Max hugged me publicly in the Great Italian Embrasio and said for all to hear: “Father, you must excuse me. I am, Italian. I am anti-clerical.” His remark did not and does not upset me. I was, too, and am, on some levels, anti-clerical even though I am a cleric myself. This position is that of the Pope Benedict XVI variety who, as scholars are discovering, is in the Curia but not of the Curia. The distinction is significant. This Pope does not have the careerist logic which so many others cherish. Nor does he view life and the Church and religion primarily through the “prism” of curial politics or bureaucratic logic. Rather, he stands back and approaches life and problems objectively on the basis of genuine conversation with principles, not rigid preconceptions. This insight is taken from the recent book by John Allen Jr. called the Rise of Benedict XVI.

And its application can be enormously important for a balanced Catholic spirituality. I remember my extreme irritation in the Eternal City of Rome when a paunchy, sullen priest, in his food stained soutane and his ridiculous round hat, elbowed me in a crowded bus. I was nauseated by this “organized” religion symbol. I am angered by the arrogant, white cuffed clerical personnel of the various Bureaux (called Dycasteries in the Vatican) who dispense permissions and “favors” as if they were the Lords of some Medieval fiefdoms. I am sickened by the ambitious cleric who longs to wear the purple or some mark of “distinction” to prance around sanctuaries like a strutting popinjay.

Of course, I know of the homosexual priest who has used his exalted status to prey sexually on teen aged boys and of underdeveloped priests who have exploited naïve women. I know of drunken priests and power crazy priests and egotistical priests. I know lazy priests and ineffectual ones[1]. But I also know what Graham Greene describes in his classic book “The Power and the Glory. The Glory of Christ’s priesthood carried in weak vessels of clay, a priesthood which is powerful and beautiful and loving. Greene’s priest is a drunk who fathers a child, who wrings pesos out of poor peasants but who can offer the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, absolve the sinner and teach people how to pray.

I knew a priest in the Balearics who was paid by the State. He was bored, lazy and empty and “did” the Mass mechanically because it was a job. He was despised by the local community which was largely uneducated and simple but hungering for a lively Faith and not getting It. They had religion. He had Organization. Anti-clerical? In this instance I certainly am. Yet, my religion teaches me that even he was a valid conduit of God’s Grace through the great Sacramental system provided by the Catholic Church Which I love and defend.

I know the Catholic Church has misceants, both clerical and lay. But I know this Church is the One of the Second Chance, the Church of mercy and forgiveness. It has been said that the Catholic Church is not a museum of saints but a clinic for sinners. The Church is not self absorbed, puffy, red faced clerics with piggy eyes. Nor is it the superficial uninformed “social” Catholic who might go to Mass on Sunday for human reasons. Perhaps there are hypocrites who go to Sunday Mass to “show off” their Couture or to exhibit how reverently they carry their Bibles like some Lens lice politicians. But without any rash judgment I know that there are scores of decent and honest Catholics who worship God and not organizations. Their reasons for attending Mass are honorable and adult.

I am aware of the “We are the Church” attitude wherein every shade and level of “Catholic” wants a share of the control and policies of the Church. Clearly, on some level this is true. On another, it is not. The Church is the Faith of History, articulated by the Pope, Christ’s Vicar. It is the Sacraments, the vital prayer life, the rich Catholic tradition and the confident dependence on the Holy Spirit Which has suffused and guided this Church for hundreds of years. This is authentic religion. It is about loving and obeying God. One honestly cannot blame religion if neurotics twist God’s love into hatred. How often I have heard the superficial remark that religion causes wars and holocausts. 9/11 was not caused by religion but by sick minds which distort and pervert. Sick accretions and narcissistic trappings belong to the “Organization” and not essentially to Christ’s Church. During the painful scandal exposures of 2002, Fr. Benedict Groeschel CFR, a noted and valiant champion of Catholicism, said that he would never defend the over bureaucratized offices of the Vatican but only Jesus. In effect, he distinguishes between the “organized Church” which can, at times be corrupt and the authentic Church. One cannot in conscience defend the indefensible. Don’t even try!

That some Archbishop in Ireland fathered a son and supported him for years with Church money or that some high ranking Monsignor in New York will imprudently squire a married woman around to his fancy summer home or that some ambitious Pastor will steal from Parish finances for his memberships fees in elegant Clubs angers and saddens me. But how can it affect my Faith? What have those things to do with my Belief system? Apart from my emotional distress, these things of the Organized Church have nothing to do with me. Those people have to answer to God for what they do. I have to answer for my own misdeeds, not theirs.

Of course, we are angered, enraged and feel betrayed by the sinful behaviors of leaders we have trusted. Yet, it seems hypocritical of the non-Church goers to gleefully point their fingers at human weakness as they, the accusers, now try to justify their own miscreant behavior which caused them to leave the Church in the first place. I don’t think it is cynical to recall the brilliant insight of Sigmund Freud and his highlighting the “alleged motivation” question. The human psyche will allege that the primary reason one acts as one does is a highly noble and rational one. For example, one might say: I leave the Catholic Church because of all the hypocrites in it and all the stupidity and the insensitivity of its leaders. However my real reason is that I am conflicted between the stringent requirements of the Church and my own desires for forbidden behaviors such as abortion, or homosexual lifestyle among others. A nice convenient emotional juggling act! But as it is with phonies in the Organized Religion Crowd so is it with the finger pointers . Hypocrisy and lying to oneself eventually come home to roost!

In the words of the old time talk show host, Jack Paar, “let’s be honest…” The motivations for evil behavior are not religious but psychological. The beautiful motivations of authentic religion do not lead to wars and persecution. Distorted and underdeveloped psyches do. Don’t preach to me about religious wars and the wild eyed shouting of Salem witch hunting ministers or clerics of the Inquisition or fiery incantations of Imams. Let us use our intellects and make distinctions. Authentic religion—let us support and practice it. Let us name distortion for what it is.

As for Max Ascoli. When he, the anti-clerical, was dying, he sent for me that he might receive the Sacrament of the Dying, then called Extreme Unction. He met his God as a truly religious man, fully believing in the Fullness of Revelation in Catholicism maintaining his autonomy as an educated, intelligent and adult man. Perhaps, the clue is that he was grown up and had no need to prolong adolescent rebellion. Max Ascoli, in the opinion of this Jewish, Irish, Catholic priest, is a credible model of imitation. I am delighted with the Catholic Faith and I do enjoy my freedom to be a rational anti-clerical.

[1] Or am I speaking of mankind in general? Might all groups of males be broken down in a similar way?

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