Bob Schwartz

Tag: Catholic Church

James Carroll: To Save the Church, Dismantle the Priesthood

James Carroll is the author of 20 books, including his memoir, An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, and Constantine’s Sword, a history of Christian anti-Semitism. While he left the priesthood 45 years ago, he remains a faithful Catholic.

This extraordinary essay by James Carroll is a must read—not just for Catholics or Christians or other religionists or skeptics, but for anyone interested in the place of religion in our 21st-century world.

I am not a Catholic, I am not a Christian, but I am a person who believes that religion is important and that religions of all kinds best serve and are best served when they function as human and humane enterprises, just as their founding spirits intended. When they don’t, but instead excuse or pretend or ignore their own spiritual failures, religions of all kinds not only disserve but do hypocritical harm. And turn more and more people off and away.

There is a future for the Catholic Church, as there is a future for other religious traditions, including my own. But that future, if it is to include a wide range of 21st-century citizens, must begin with institutional courage, honesty, self-reflection, and necessary change and evolution—even if that change and evolution amounts to reformation.

A very brief excerpt of the essay follows.

Abolish the Priesthood
James Carroll

To save the Church, Catholics must detach themselves from the clerical hierarchy—and take the faith back into their own hands.

…What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman Empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascetic monks and hermits, may have been put forward, early on, as a mode of intimacy with God, appropriate for a few. But over time the cult of celibacy and virginity developed an inhuman aspect—a broader devaluation and suspicion of bodily experience. It also had a pragmatic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order. When I became a priest, I placed my hands between the hands of the bishop ordaining me—a feudal gesture derived from the homage of a vassal to his lord. In my case, the bishop was Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York. Following this rubric of the sacrament, I gave my loyalty to him, not to a set of principles or ideals, or even to the Church. Should we be surprised that men invited to think of themselves on such a scale of power—even as an alter Christus, “another Christ”—might get lost in a wilderness of self-centeredness? Or that they might find it hard to break from the feudal order that provides community and preferment, not to mention an elevated status the unordained will never enjoy? Or that Church law provides for the excommunication of any woman who attempts to say the Mass, but mandates no such penalty for a pedophile priest? Clericalism is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It thrives on secrecy, and it looks after itself….

The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too. The habit of looking away was general enough to have taken hold in me back then. When I was the chaplain at Boston University, my campus-ministry colleague, the chaplain at Boston State College, was a priest named Paul Shanley, whom most of us saw as a hero for his work as a rescuer of runaways. In fact, he was a rapacious abuser of runaways and others who, after being exposed by The Boston Globe, served 12 years in prison. It haunts me that I was blind to his predation, and therefore complicit in a culture of willed ignorance and denial.

Insidiously, willed ignorance encompasses not just clerics but a vast population of the faithful. I’ve already noted the broad Catholic disregard of the Church’s teachings about divorce and remarriage, but on the issue of artificial contraception, Catholic dissent is even more dramatic: For the past two generations, as Catholic birth rates make clear, a large majority of Church members have ignored the hierarchy’s solemn moral proscription—not in a spirit of active antagonism but as if the proscription simply did not exist. Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way….

The model of potential transformation for this or any pope remains the radical post-Holocaust revision of Catholic teachings about Jews—the high point of Vatican II. The formal renunciation of the “Christ killer” slander by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality. The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished. The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged. Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now….

[T]o simply leave the Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged and its best ones unsupported. When the disillusioned depart, Catholic reactionaries are overjoyed. They look forward to a smaller, more rigidly orthodox institution. This shrinkage is the so-called Benedict option—named for the sixth-century founder of monasticism, not for Benedict XVI, although the pope emeritus probably approves. His April intervention described an imagined modern dystopia—pedophilia legitimated, pornography displayed on airplanes—against which the infallible Church must stand in opposition. Benedict’s Catholicism would become a self-aggrandizing counterculture, but such a puritanical, world-hating remnant would be globally irrelevant.

The renewal offered by Vatican II may have been thwarted, but a reformed, enlightened, and hopeful Catholic Church is essential in our world. On urgent problems ranging from climate change, to religious and ethnic conflict, to economic inequality, to catastrophic war, no nongovernmental organization has more power to promote change for the better, worldwide, than the Catholic Church. So let me directly address Catholics, and make the case for another way to respond to the present crisis of faith than by walking away.

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority….

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”

In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Through devotions and prayers and rituals that perpetuate the Catholic tradition in diverse forms, undertaken by a wide range of commonsensical believers, all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Their ranks would include ad hoc organizers of priestless parishes; parents who band together for the sake of the religious instruction of youngsters; social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus; and even social-media wizards launching, say, #ChurchResist. As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal; it will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. Now is the time to make this ascendance intentional, and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—gatherings around the book and the bread; traditional prayers and songs; retreats centered on the wisdom of the saints; an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken….

What remains of the connection to Jesus once the organizational apparatus disappears? That is what I asked myself in the summer before I resigned from the priesthood all those years ago—a summer spent at a Benedictine monastery on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I came to realize that the question answers itself. The Church, whatever else it may be, is not the organizational apparatus. It is a community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to him—or it is nothing. The Church is the fellowship of those who follow him, of those who seek to imitate him—a fellowship, to repeat the earliest words ever used about us, of “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.”

Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis

Bernie Sanders at the Vatican

This kind-of-cute headline from Politico sort of says it all.

Bernie’s fanboy moment: A meeting with Pope Francis

As you may know, Bernie Sanders was invited to a conference at the Vatican on issues related to economic justice. He interrupted his New York campaign to attend, gave an excellent speech that frequently cited the Pope’s own writings, but was told that the Pope would not be able to meet with him and others at the conference.

Then, at the last minute, the Pope was able to meet for five minutes with Bernie and his wife Jane. It was thrilling to hear that. It is unimaginable to conceive what it must have been like for Bernie, who as the headline suggests, is a huge fan of the Pope and his thinking on economic issues.

In case you think this is all about electoral politics, think again.

A major American politician has met with the Pope, based on a shared vision of economic justice. That vision comes from a background of Jewish fairness and compassion in one case and from the deepest, most Jesus-based tenets of the Catholic Church in the other. This doesn’t happen every day, or month, or year.

It is a unique and sweet moment for those who care about the future of America and the world. If that sounds a little grandiose, maybe believing big is exactly what we need.

Vatican Newspaper Essays Say Women Should Preach at Mass

Calvi Alessandro, detto il Sordino, Caterina esorta Gregorio XI a tornare a Roma, sec. XVIII.jpg

When the news seems to suggest we may be moving backwards, the news seems to suggest we may be moving forward.

Vatican newspaper essays say women should preach at Mass
By David Gibson, Religion News Service:

A series of essays in the semiofficial Vatican newspaper is urging the Catholic Church to allow women to preach from the pulpit at Mass, a role that has been reserved almost exclusively to the all-male priesthood for nearly 800 years.

“This topic is a delicate one, but I believe it is urgent that we address it,” Enzo Bianchi, leader of an ecumenical religious community in northern Italy and a popular Catholic commentator, wrote in his article in L’Osservatore Romano.

“Certainly for faithful lay people in general, but above all for women, this would constitute a fundamental change in their participation in church life,” said Bianchi, who called such a move a “decisive path” for responding to widespread calls — including by Pope Francis — to find ways to give women a greater role in the church….

So what will Pope Francis do?

The pontiff has repeatedly called for women to have a greater role in the church, but he has also reiterated the ban against ordaining women as priests and has warned against “clericalizing” women by trying to make them cardinals or to focus on promoting them to higher church offices.

Then again, that the Vatican’s own newspaper would dedicate so much space to the issue of women preachers is intriguing, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

“I think it is a big signal,” he said.

Pope Francis, Kim Davis and Caesar

Caesar Coin

Pope Francis tried very hard in his U.S. visit to watch the line between moral guidance that has political effect and politics itself. He appears, maybe unwittingly, to have crossed the line. In a big way.

His visit with Kim Davis belies a misunderstanding of who she is and what she represents. It’s not that freedom of religious conscience is not an important issue. It’s that Kim Davis is the wrong poster person.

It appears from the context that he may have seen her in the line of great conscientious objectors. He reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to be strong.

Kim Davis does have a religious conscience. And she does object to authorizing same-sex marriages. But there are two problems.

First, unlike true conscientious objectors, she doesn’t really want to suffer for her beliefs. Civil disobedients and conscientious objectors expect to be punished; sometimes they welcome it. But Kim Davis wants to have it both ways. Martin Luther King Jr. did not write in his letter from a Birmingham jail: For God’s sake, let me out of here. As far as we know, Kim Davis didn’t write any letters from her jail, at least not ones that will be in literary anthologies for the next fifty years.

The second problem is that her objection, at its heart, is that the Constitution and the Supreme Court are wrong, and that’s why she gets to keep her job and perform her duties as she sees fit. As a public servant, she is either explicitly by oath or implicitly by understanding sworn to uphold the Constitution. If she chooses not to, she has no privilege to hold that job, nor is she privileged to be free of sanction. That’s it.

Pope Francis, who I have expressed admiration for, may not understand that or the background of the Kim Davis saga. In that event, he should have followed the advice of Jesus in these situations:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22:17-21 (NRSV)

Biden and Colbert

Whatever your politics, it was TV history last night on The Late Show. Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert talking, just two great guys leaning in and getting real, while millions watched, and many teared up.

It starts with Colbert. The question has been whether and how he would progress from being a character on The Colbert Report to a different character that is more himself. There was that moment on the final Daily Show when Colbert exposed his most sincere and unironic thanks to Jon Stewart, the man who gave him his chance.

But last night’s Late Show interview skipped all the midpoints of developing a Colbert talk show persona to transcending any idea of what a late-night host might be. Beyond showing himself as a man of faith, Colbert served almost as a therapist and priest. He didn’t stay away from the pain. He compassionately went right for it, not for spectacle, but for the healing truth, and to reveal the depths of Biden’s quandary.

Reflecting their shared history of family tragedy, it was like a reunion of two old souls. On top of that, Colbert wore not only his faith but his politics on his sleeve, something that just isn’t done in his position. It was clear that he was urging Biden to run not because it was a good idea, but because Colbert and the Nation needed him.

It doesn’t take much to get Biden to speak from his soul. Hello will usually do. But Colbert brought out an extra dimension of that. Where certain candidates now running make us cringe, Biden made me and plenty of others cry. Where certain candidates make us want to run the other direction, listening to Joe just made me want to be a better person.

In the moment, it didn’t matter that Colbert was in only the third show of his widely-covered new TV venture. Or that Biden was in the final weeks of the will-he-or-won’t-he candidacy drama. It just was what it was, and what it was was good and human, so humbly and nobly human. Something we don’t see much on TV. Or in politics.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’

Laudato Si'

The Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’, has been much in the news. Whatever you’ve heard about it, if you haven’t seen it, you really don’t know the whole story.

You’ve heard it is about the environment and climate change, which is in small part true. You’ve heard Catholic presidential hopefuls such as Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal admonish the Pope, their spiritual father, telling him to stick to religion and stay out of politics.

The encyclical is much bigger than climate change, the environment, and certainly bigger than Bush or Jindal or dozens of politicians. It is a big statement about the moral and religious shortcomings of this modern world and us modern people. You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or faithful or religious to read and appreciate it. You just have to read it.

It is full of inconvenient and uncomfortable truths. Which is probably why the coverage has focused on the environmental exhortations, rather than on the broader cultural, media, technological and social ones. In essence, it is nothing less than a call for radical evolution, in the spirit of the radical evolutionary upon whom the church is built. There are plenty of established institutions and powerful interests and individuals, including the media, who could be forced to change if such radical evolution came to pass. And many of them don’t want to change, and don’t even want us to listen to the Pope talking about it.

The encyclical is a long and deep but very readable work. Download it, sample it. You don’t have to read it all, or all at once. It is naturally grounded in theology, and in some particular theology, but be assured that the observations and conclusions don’t require you to hold any sectarian beliefs. It only requires that we believe that things are far from perfect, and that after we take a close look at ourselves and others, we believe that we have the power and obligation to make things better.

It is filled with so much quotable inspired thought and inspiration. Here is just one brief excerpt:

114. All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

Laudato Si’ PDF

Laudato Si’ epub and Kindle

Is Pope Francis the Leader of the World?

Pope Francis
The Dalai Lama is the most famous Buddhist in the world. His message is powerful, positive and universal. Even with the huge platform he has, his brand of Tibetan Buddhism is a bit exotic for many people, so still somewhat limited. He is also one of the coolest people on the planet. So as much as a basic Buddhist message would be great for the world at large to take to heart, it isn’t about to happen.

Pope Francis is also an outsized moral leader. He is the head of a church with more than a billion followers. And while there are hundreds of millions of Protestant Christians who question whether that church and its Pope can claim Christian legitimacy—and who find the Catholic Church plenty exotic too—you can’t deny the size and scope of the Pope’s Christian community. And if the Dalai Lama is cool, so is Pope Francis; he was once a bar bouncer, which is something the Dalai Lama can never claim.

The biggest argument for the supreme leadership role of Pope Francis is that he is exactly the right person for the right time, acting and speaking on a very big stage. Two of the major characteristics of the moment are that materialism seems to be failing or failing us and that our changing social universe requires some tricky balance between the old and the new, the absolute and the relative.

Pope Francis gets this and sells this from the very foundations of his faith. He has just had to deny that his is a not a Marxist, but proceeded in the same breath to appreciate the work of those who sincerely act in the name of Marxist ideals. It is not just that he seems to have a vision that synthesizes the original Christian communities with the complicated world two millennia later. He sees in the very institution he is charged with running the embodiment of the problems. If the institutional church, the church membership and the world have lost their way, it is not his job to order them around. Instead he just points to a playbook that is to be taken seriously, not selectively and strategically, and advises to live by and as its example. It’s a choice, one he has made, one he hopes others, from the church hierarchy on out, will make.

Whether the Catholic Church straightens out its affairs, whether disaffected Catholics return, whether new Catholics arrive, whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Buddhist is beside the point and beside the Pope’s point. It is about being better and getting better. Pope Francis is not the first to say that, not even the first Pope to say it. But his walking the walk in the world of 2013 is different. These are the times that try people’s souls. We seem to have a world leader willing to make that reality both an ancient and modern quest, a quest that may, in the real and not theological sense, save us all.

Saints for All

Catherine Wheel
It is All Saints’ Day, and you don’t have to be Catholic, Christian or a believer of any kind to appreciate it.

Observed in the Western Christian church on November 1, it is the day that makes All Hallows’ (Saints’) Eve, aka Halloween, possible. Many denominations, including Anglicans, Lutherans and others, find a place and meaning for the holiday. But it is most associated with the Catholic Church, where it is a celebration of all saints known and unknown.

Saints are most specifically and tightly defined in the Catholic context. Saints are those whose lives allow them a special theological position and a special relationship with the divine after death, so that they may intercede on behalf of the faithful. You’ve no doubt heard reports about the two-step process of being designated a saint by the Pope: beatification (with the title “Blessed”), followed by canonization, based on the investigation and proof of intercessory miracles. It is usually a long road, though it appears that the very popular Pope John Paul II is on the fast track to sainthood.

The Catholic Church has had an historic problem with saints, one that continues to the moment. Two related problems really. The first is that from the beginning, people had a way of venerating those who inspired and who they admired, essentially developing cults around them, whether or not it was “official.” The related problem is that this enthusiasm was often based more on legend and even on superstition, rather than on actual biography or theological fine points. Early on the Church took control of saint making, though sometimes to little avail. As for saints whose life stories were questionable or constructed out of whole cloth, in recent years the Church has begun cleaning up the database, literally demoting some and stripping them of their sainthood.

Many religions, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, hold special regard for those we might call saints, ones whose holiness goes above and beyond those of regular mortal people. In Judaism, for example, a tzadik is one whose righteousness sets him apart and allows him to serve as a channel flowing between the earthly and the divine, or better yet, serving as a model for the divine in the earthly.

Even if you don’t like religion but love good stories, saints are for you. Take Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In the early 4th century, this pious Christian scholar attempted to convince the Roman Emperor Maxentius not to persecute Christians. He arranged for Catherine to debate great pagan philosophers, but she won the argument. He tortured her. He proposed marriage, but she claimed her only marriage was to Jesus Christ. He condemned her to die on a spiked wheel that was to break her body apart. Instead, the wheel was destroyed at her touch. Maxentius then beheaded her; she became a martyr and a saint. (The wheel had its own life. Now known as a Catherine Wheel, it is used to this day as a spectacular spinning fireworks display.)

Or so the story goes. Despite her importance as one of the most revered of saints in the Middle Ages, this is now regarded as legend, with no evidence of the events or even of Catherine’s existence. Though she still has a place in Church tradition, her feast day was removed from the official Church calendar in 1969, only to have her day restored to the list in 2002 as optional.

Besides good stories, and besides the miraculous aspects that some find outside the circle of their own tradition, rationality or belief, the saints often provide some inspiring modeling in their lives. It isn’t necessarily the difference between the sacred and the profane, although there’s plenty of that in cases such as Augustine, where the base and worldly give way to something greater. It is the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary—no more or less than we might admire athletes, artists or anyone who excels in ways that make the impossible seem possible for us too.

In a way, it is a back door path to redefining exactly what miracles are. We might not be martyrs, we might not make a deadly instrument of torture disappear at a touch, we might not heal the incurably sick. Saints reach beyond grasp, and besides asking them for help when no help seems available, that is why people are excited by them. We have arms, we can reach too. We can help, even if it isn’t the kind that gets us listed in some official church roster.

Good stories. Some fireworks. Plenty of inspiration. Maybe every day can be All Saints’ Day.

The Saints Francis

St. Francis of Assisi
Right now, there are millions of words being written and spoken about who Pope Francis is and what kind of Pope he will be. Read and listen with care and a bit of skepticism, knowing that some (but not all) have an agenda or a bit of rosy vision, and knowing that almost all of the “experts” got this papal selection wrong. The fact is that predictions are all we have at the moment, but they will fade in the shadow of what the Pope actually does or doesn’t do and accomplish.

Instead or in addition, spend some time with the saints, particularly the various Saints Francis. Even for us non-Catholics and non-Christians, the saints are an enormously interesting, educational and in some cases enlightening phenomenon. If you don’t have some appreciation for the saints, whether or not you believe the intrinsic or underlying theology, you cannot understand the Catholic Church. Besides that, in the world of religion, not just Catholicism, the lives of the saints are just plain entertaining and their teachings often edifying and inspiring.

Here is the list of Saint Francis variations, taken from the SPQN site, a go-to location for summary saint information and references:

Francis Gil de Frederich
Francis Isidore Gagelin
Francis Jaccard
Francis Jerome
Francis Johnson
Francis Man
Francis Mary Paul Libermann
Francis Page
Francis Palau y Quer
Francis Patrizzi
Francis Pontillo
Francis Possenti
Francis Regis Clet
Francis Rogaczewski
Francis Seelos
Francis Solano
Francis Solanus
Francis Trung Von Tran
Francis Webb
Francis Xavier
Francis Xavier Bianchi
Francis Xavier Can Nguyen
Francis Xavier Mau
Francis Xavier Seelos
Francis de Capillas
Francis de Geronimo
Francis de Hieronymo
Francis de Montmorency Laval
Francis de Sales
Francis di Girolamo
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Girolamo
Francis of Nagasaki
Francis of Paola
Francis of Saint Michael
Francis of Sales
Francis, Caius
Francis, Gaius
Francisca Aviat
Francisca de Ambrosia
Francisca Salesia
Francisca Salesia Aviat
Francisco Castells Brenuy
Francisco Ferro, Ambrosio
Francisco José López-Caamaño García-Pérez
Francisco Marto
Francisco of the Child Jesus
Francisco Palau y Quer
Francisco Pascual Sánchez
Francisco Shoyemon
Franciscus de Hieronymo

The most-discussed and obvious of the lives behind Cardinal Bergoglio’s groundbreaking choice of name (he is the first Pope Francis) is Francis of Assisi. His turning from a worldly life to a mission of simplicity, service, peace and, of course, living with nature led to his founding of one of the Church’s most significant orders (the Franciscans) and indirectly to the founding of another by his star student (the Poor Clares). He is also a patron saint of dozens of occupations, causes and places, including

against dying alone
against fire
animal welfare societies
lace makers
lace workers
needle workers
tapestry workers
Ahuacatlán, Mexico
Assisi, Italy
Freising, Germany
Massa, Italy
Nambe Indian Pueblo
Quibdo, Choco, Colombia
San Pawl il-Bahar, Malta
Sante Fe, New Mexico
Sorbo, Italy
Denver, Colorado, archdiocese of
Kottapuram, India, diocese of
Lancaster, England, diocese of
Metuchen, New Jersey, diocese of
Salina, Kansas, diocese of
San Francisco, California, archdiocese of
Sante Fe, New Mexico, archdiocese of
Viana, Angola, diocese of

But he is not the only Saint Francis with a substantial presence in the Church. Saint Francis de Sales, for example, is the namesake of schools worldwide, founder of his own order (the Salesians), and in 1923 was named patron saint of writers and journalists (and presumably bloggers) by Pope Pius XI.

However you are celebrating the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day—if you are—you might start your study of the saints with him.  But don’t stop there. Take this opportunity of a new Pope to learn about the Saints Francis, from the big names to the lesser known but still worthy ones. You’ll find it a special experience, no matter what your spiritual perspective, and maybe much more fun and useful than listening to the earnest babble of certain media talking heads.

Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

A postage stamp honoring Ayn Rand was issued in 1999; that’s the image used in the National Review cover above. It was issued in the usual way, following a roughly three-year process of being proposed, recommended by the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, and then approved by the Postmaster General.

The most famous controversy over any stamp concerned the Elvis Presley commemorative. There was disagreement about which Elvis to depict, the younger leaner one or the older heavier one, and disagreement about whether Elvis should have a stamp at all. In the end, the stamp was issued, and went on to become the bestselling in U.S. postal history. There is no record that there was disagreement about Ayn Rand, though there might well have been.

Paul Ryan honored Ayn Rand too, at least until recently. He stated that her books were the most pivotal in shaping his public life. He gave them to interns as gifts. He spoke frequently about how the decline in America looked increasingly like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.

He is not alone among public servants in his admiration for Ayn Rand. Politico reported last April on 7 Politicians Who Praised Ayn Rand.  Among these are Sen. Rand Paul (coincidentally named), Rep. Ron Paul (who should know about Rand Paul’s name), President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Ron Johnson, Gov. Gary Johnson, Sen. Mark Sanford and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas has his new law clerks watch a screening of The Fountainhead (1949), starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, an adaptation of Rand’s second most famous novel. Maybe the most famous acolyte of Ayn Rand is former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in the 1950s was part of her inner circle and a close confidant.

Rand’s novels are overlong, didactic, questionably artful embodiments of her very particular philosophy. It is a philosophy fed by her early experience as a child in Soviet Russia, a member of an intellectual and professional Jewish family that was reduced to dire circumstances by the forces of collectivism, Communism and totalitarianism.

She came to America and created her own ism. The Atlas Society,  one of the intellectual keepers of the Rand canon, summarizes:

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was set forth in such works as her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, and in her brilliant non-fiction essays. Objectivism is designed as a guide to life, and celebrates the remarkable potential and power of you, the individual. Objectivism also challenges the doctrines of irrationalism, self-sacrifice, brute force, and collectivism that have brought centuries of chaos and misery into the lives of millions of individuals. It provides fascinating insights into the world of politics, art, education, foreign policy, science, and more, rewarding you with a rich understanding of how ideas shape your world. Those who discover Objectivism often describe the experience as life-changing and liberating.

One problem with Objectivism, as with the isms Rand left behind and hated, is that pure systems work well on paper and in the mind, as long as you don’t have to wrestle with the complexities and consequences of the actual world. This is probably why Ayn Rand has always had an appeal to younger people, particularly teenage boys and young men, who are empowered by the idea of their individual greatness waiting to explode, ungoverned by the limitations that the world tries to place on them. The world is filled with people who want something from us, who are jealous of us, who don’t understand our specialness, and who will do anything to hold us back and keep us down.

This phenomenon was wryly captured by Michael Sean Winters in the National Catholic Reporter:

As one wag once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Winters was writing in the context of the Ryan Budget. Paul Ryan is devoted to the Catholic Church, which is founded on the sort of collectivism, anti-individualism, self-sacrifice and charity that Rand abhorred and rejected as immoral. This led in May 2011 to questions about how the Ryan Budget, with reductions in government help for the poor and others in need, squared with the teachings of the Church. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who had previously been Bishop in Wisconsin, made clear in a letter to Ryan that the budget was completely in line with the Church’s mission. Winters wrote:

Ryan’s budget certainly reflects Rand’s weltanschauung more than it reflects the vision Pope Benedict XVI put forth in Caritas in Veritate. That is why I think it was a mistake for Archbishop Dolan to write a letter that, however unintentionally, gave political cover to policies that are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. And, whatever frustrations Ryan – or anyone else – has with the modern, social welfare state, I think it can be said that the social welfare state is to social justice what democracy is to government: The worst form of administration except every other form.

Ryan can assert that his budget is built upon Catholic concerns about human dignity, but there is no dignity in Rand’s crimped vision of humanity. There really is no need to wrestle with these so-called ideas.

Paul Ryan’s distancing from Ayn Rand began last spring when he said that his supposed embrace of the author and her philosophy was “urban legend.” (If so, it is the most high-minded and intellectual urban legend of all time, since those stories are usually sordid and lowlife, as in the flushing of baby alligators into the New York sewers.) Then just yesterday he explained that while he enjoyed the novels for a long time, it was only later that he became aware of her philosophy.

As mentioned earlier, Ayn Rand’s novels are not works of art that have to be savored and investigated so that their meaning can be coaxed out. They are pages and pages of speeches and ideas, with some plot and characters hung on them like ornaments on a tree. There are only two explanations for Ryan’s assertion: he is either dull-witted, which he isn’t, or he is…being disingenuous.

Why all this effort to run away from Ayn Rand anyway? Most people, meaning voters, have never read those novels, and all this fuss is not about to move them to throw away weeks of their lives trying to plow through them.

Here’s why.

First, Ayn Rand was an atheist. In her philosophy there is no higher power than man, no life other than the objective life in front of our faces, no morality other than the morality of rational self-interest. There are plenty of atheists who embrace the moral and ethical concepts at the heart of religious beliefs, such as the Golden Rule. Ayn Rand was not one of those. This is more than inconvenient for anyone, especially politicians, who base their lives and careers on their religious foundations.

But there is something deeper and more significant going on. In 2010 the National Review, America’s most respected conservative journal, published a cover story on Ayn Rand.  In it, Jason Lee Steorts writes about going back to reread Ayn Rand, given her renewed popularity following the election of Barack Obama:

Our president seems to have inspired — which is not quite the word — half the country to read Miss Rand, and I wanted to remind myself what she was teaching them. He finds that he can’t get through the books, because he sees the author for who she was and, therefore, what she espoused.

Steorts relates a scene from Atlas Shrugged. The prime movers, those who are literally the brains behind the success of the country, have gone on strike. This leaves the inferior, parasitic people to fend for themselves. In this scene, a train is stopped before an eight-mile unventilated tunnel. There are no diesel engines, no one to properly operate the train. But facing a demand to make it move, the station officials, writes Rand, “call in a coal engine, procure a drunken engineer, and condemn every passenger on the train to death by asphyxiation.”

The passengers comprise an array of losers, including a professor “who taught that individual ability is of no consequence” and a mother “whose husband held a government job enforcing directives.” They are, in essence, riding a train into a gas chamber. “But that isn’t why I stopped reading,” Steorts writes. “I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.”

That is at the heart of this running away from Rand. Rand’s world is not one where unbridled individualism can co-exist with a diversity of other moralities and abilities. It is either/or. There are producers, there are freeloaders, and the immoral role of government is to stifle the producers and reward the freeloaders with stolen spoils. As soon as government is gone, the producers will be free to shape the world in their image, and the others will learn how that world works or they will, ultimately, perish as their punishment.

If that sounds harsh and heartless, it is. If that sounds like an extreme version of some of the rhetoric we may have been hearing lately, it is. But even the softer version, tempered by compassion, still makes us uncomfortable. That is why, hopefully, Ryan and others will distance themselves from Ayn Rand—not just for political show, but for real.  That is why, when Sheorts in the National Review looked to find out why Obama-haters were reading Ayn Rand, he recoiled at what he found. He discovered a bloodless train, and he couldn’t bear to see where it was heading.