Friday, September 30, 2005


I am not a Catholic. I know and admire many Catholics, including some priests, and I don't feel I have the right to pass judgment on their church. It's not my church, and for many people being Catholic is not quite a free choice; it's something they're born into, and to be loyal and committed to one's ancestral religious tradition is a praiseworthy thing, in my view. Mind you, I said loyal and committed, not blindly or uncritically obedient. The Catholics I admire see the problems of Catholicism, struggle with them, and work within the system to address them.

Despite not wanting to judge, and despite not wanting to betray the confidence of some Catholic "insiders" I know, the situation of Catholic priests fascinates me and I want to comment on it. For all that the Protestant Reformation rejected and denounced about Catholicism, there's still a sense even among Protestants that Catholic worship is the real 200-proof stuff. I've heard Protestant ministers speak that way explicitly, kind of an inversion of the way British Invasion rock musicians spoke of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Lutheran and Presbyterian preachers (some, at least) are dazzled by the solemnity of Catholic worship, the sense of an unbroken 2000-year tradition, the power of ceremony, of stained glass and incense, the priest's focal role in confession and absolution. And as little tempted as they are to a life of celibacy, they are also a little in awe of it: the way Catholic priests so utterly set themselves apart, the dedication entailed in forswearing sex and other worldly comforts. The figure and the office of the priest are so highly esteemed. It certainly must clarify many things about who is the leader, who is the follower, things which can get very mixed up in Protestant parishes.

I wanted to get that on the record: some of the qualities of Catholic life and ministry that even non-Catholics admire. Of course, there are lots of aspects of Catholicism that an American Protestant layperson like me finds strange and incongruous. Something I blogged about once or twice before, and call me a fool but I put some stock in it, is the connection I have found between being active in one’s church and being a citizen of the American republic. America was founded, largely, by religious dissenters from Catholicism and Anglicanism. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were heavily informed by the principles and structures of representative government that Congregationalists, Quakers, Moravians had followed and were accustomed to. The Catholic Church didn’t come onto the scene in American culture until relatively late, in the 19th century, brought by Irish and other immigrants. And Catholic church governance is not characterized by transparency, or checks and balances, or representation of all its members, or freedom of dissent. I don’t mean to be nativist here: I think America must welcome and accommodate immigrant cultures, but it must uphold American-style democracy in doing so. Catholicism and American-style democracy are nervous neighbors, and always will be.

The priest sex abuse scandals exposed the conflict between Catholic governance and American jurisprudence. It exposed the dark side of the church’s (how to say this non-judgmentally) rigidly pre-modern views about human sexuality. And it exposed the capacity of American priests to be incredibly self-deluded and out of touch with the larger culture and how priests were perceived in it. It showed that what priests are ordained to is not simply a life of devotion, integrity, and self-denial. It is also, to say the least, a secretive and self-protective guild. I was struck, in some of my conversations with Catholic leaders circa 2001-2002, how they tended to see priest abuse as a P.R. problem that they had to manage, rather than a huge moral failure that they ought to confess and beg forgiveness for.

Incidentally, I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. I know there are leaders and scholars (Catholic and Protestant too—Catholic controversies, including the priest sex abuse scandal, bleed into the Protestant world) who worry that overly credulous readers will take too seriously the stuff about centuries-old conspiracy and deception in the Vatican. I don’t know if this kind of paranoid speculation is a real problem (for instance, really keeping people away from or decreasing their trust of the church, not just being light entertainment), but I know that the Church’s modus operandi invites paranoid speculation.

Given the opacity of authority in the Catholic Church, the absolute and forbidding tone especially on matters of gender and sexuality, it's been hard to get my head around the idea (I’ve been working at it for five or six years now) that the Catholic priesthood is a gay vocation. (I'm sure this difficulty of mine reflects my limited view of sexuality as well as ignorance of Catholicism; I must underrate the erotic thrill of the taboo, for one thing.) A lot of knowledgeable people estimate that around 50% of American priests are gay in orientation. For centuries, "sensitive" young sons of Catholic families were attracted to, maybe even nudged toward, the priesthood. I am told that there are priests who interpret the vows of celibacy as not prohibiting same-sex activity. As long as there's no vagina in the room, anything goes, I guess, under that view.

I should qualify one statement: the Catholic priesthood in the U.S. and Europe is a gay vocation. In Africa and other developing regions, it’s a different story, which is an important bit of background. Catholicism is booming in the Third World, and stagnant in the developed world.

The news of the last couple of weeks is that the Vatican is preparing to issue an order that gay men (even sexually inactive gay men) will be barred from entering seminary to study for the priesthood. Obviously, this would be big, and lots of Catholic writers and commenters are voicing objections. As Michael Sean Winters points out in Slate, some bishops seem eager to make gay priests the scapegoats for the sex abuse scandals, when scheming, buck-passing bishops themselves are more culpable.

Winters suggests that a valuable reform would be for the church to restore the rule that bishops cannot “job-hop,” cannot be transferred to plummier bishoprics. This would eliminate one motivation for a bishop to duck accountability for problems in his diocese, since, to use Winters's example, the bishop of Bridgeport cannot angle to be appointed Bishop of New York.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, observes here that the Catholic Church follows Italian conceptions of the law as an expression of ideal behavior, and doesn't expect its priests to live up to the letter of Catholic doctrine. A ban on gay priests would be enforced flexibly and with discretion. Well, that would explain a lot-—Allen’s piece made some light bulbs go off for me-- but my Protestant American self objects: Laws that are enforced unequally are no better, arguably worse, than no laws at all. Which brings us back around to the strangeness of Catholic authority in the American context.

If it comes to pass, a ban on gay seminarians will worsen one significant practical problem: the steady decline in numbers of American men who want to enter the priesthood--a decline that, judging by this and other actions, the Vatican seems not to be terribly concerned about.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Some interesting news in North Carolina today. We just got a lottery, with the Governor's backing--it passed in a narrow vote with a strange-bedfellows coalition of liberal Demos and social-conservative Repos opposing it. And there was some chicanery and resulting bad feelings with the final vote: basically, the legislative session went into overtime and a couple of No votes had already left town and were unavailable to cast their votes.

I was opposed to it. I lived in New Jersey as a teenager, where there was a lottery. One summer I worked on a landscaping crew and one of the older guys, doing pretty much the same work as me for not much more money, with no better future prospects than mowing lawns, who I'm sure lived paycheck to paycheck and struggled to make his rent, was an inveterate Lotto player. That's my image of the typical lottery-ticket buyer. As a grown-up in North Carolina I took pride in being from a state that was one of the few holdouts against the lottery. I pretty much agree with the old joke that the lottery is a tax on poor math skills, and the hypocrisy of using a lottery to fund education just angers me. The numbers racket also nurtures a something-for-nothing or get-rich-quick ethic that I think society would be better off without.

But it's a done deal. Now it'll be a test of my principles, or self-righteousness or whatever, if I resist the temptation to buy the occasional ticket. "Maybe just when the pot gets really big...."

Anyway, to chair the new-lottery commission, Gov. Mike Easley appointed Charlie Sanders, who was a prominent opponent of the lottery bill. Sanders seems to want to have a "humane" lottery, with limited advertising, and an effort to inform people about the odds against winning. The argument you always heard in favor of the lottery was that people from NC were driving to SC or VA to buy tickets anyway. Sanders's attitude is, let's capture those people who are predisposed to play the lottery, but not expand the pool of ticket buyers through hype. Probably it'll never happen that way, but I thought it was a very good gesture. And exactly the kind of thing a Republican administration would never do after they had just won a bitterly-contested vote.

Double Helix in the Low Block

Who's ready to talk NBA basketball? Huh? Huh?

Chicago's Eddy Curry had an episode of cardiac arrhythmia last year, and before Chicago signs him to a $5 million contract, they are demanding a DNA test to see if he's susceptible to genetic heart problems.

It's interesting stuff, and I'm not sure where I come down. Curry's agent is spinning horror tales, that this is the first step toward all of us having to give DNA samples before we can get a job. On the other hand, is signing an NBA contract "getting a job" or selling your body at auction? One thing the Chicago front office is guided by is insurance--it may be that no one will insure a contract to a guy with a heart condition of unknown severity. And the linked article quotes the late Reggie Lewis's agent, reminding us that the downside here is Eddy Curry winding up dead. This is not a knee ligament we're talking about.

This points to one factor that may finally compel the United States to guarantee universal health coverage. Genetic screening will advance to a point where people's risk factors will be so measurable and projectable that lots of people will be unable to get private health insurance.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


My daughter and I signed up for Indian Princesses at the local YMCA. (Actually, in our town they drop the word "Indian" and call it Y-Princesses, but Indian Guides (for boys)and Princesses (for girls) are the more widely-known names.)

I read Adam's recent post about his son's interest in Cub Scouts, and Adam's mixed feelings since he has long disliked (for good reasons) the institution of Scouting. Maybe he and I can trade notes. I didn't know too much about Indian Princesses, other than it was roughly equivalent to Girl Scouts, until I went to the first dads-only orientation meeting. We heard the Creation Myth of the Indian Guides and Princesses program: the story goes, a white businessman in 1926 went on a fishing trip and got to talking with his Ojibwa fishing guide. In the course of a long meaningful discussion, the guide said that the problem with the white man is he lets his women-folk raise his sons. That chance encounter planted the seed, and the White Founder cooked up a plan for fathers to spend one-on-one time with their sons (daughters got their corresponding gig 30 years later) and for eight to ten father-son pairs to get together in "tribes" for bonding and wilderness tramping and stuff, and the rest is history, leading up to the venerable program that dads and their kids enjoy today.

That's fine. You got your condescending stereotype of the wise shaman-like Indian, plus your outdated sexist and classist assumptions that the wife is home with the young'uns while the husband earns the income all day then retires to his Barcalounger and his newspaper when he gets home. And therefore Dad needs an assignment in order to spend quality time with his child. Then there's a vague Christian overlay on the whole thing (the "C" in YMCA). That's all fine. For an opportunity for your kid to have fun, you overlook stuff like that. And though it's a little jarring to volunteer to join an institution you find politically incorrect and a little ridiculous, you rationalize: hell, if I boycotted every unfair or ridiculous social institution, I wouldn't have a drivers' license, I wouldn't use deodorant, my wife would never have consented to live with me, etc.

Here's the weirder thing. There was more testosterone in that room than anyplace I've been in a long time. Fathers only, remember, maybe 50 or 60 of us. The meeting was led by these YMCA employees, local or regional rec directors, who were all 30ish or older, but if ever a job didn't really require a guy to grow up, YMCA rec director is the job. Each of them had a nickname: the barrel-chested guy was Moose, another guy was Big Hair which was amusing because he's had that name for years but now he's balding and crops his hair short. We're all actually supposed to have Indian-like nicknames, but my ideas for my own name are things like Otter or Surfing Bird that pop into my head from "Animal House" or silly old rock 'n' roll songs. There's a strong whiff of the college fraternity about this meeting: Moose and Big Hair lead us in chants and songs and pledges and other little rituals. ("How-How" is the greeting--we are expected to shout it in a hearty fashion.) In fact, in my little tribe the experienced Y-Princess dads joshed the newbie dads that we were going to be hazed, like deprived of sleep for a week, ha ha.

So Moose and Big Hair gave their spiel, cutting up and teasing each other all the while, half-sincerely going through the motions. It was like watching George W. Bush saying what a shame about the suffering of poor people, but hey, Trent Lott's house will rise again and my friend Brownie (nicknames again) is doing a heck of a job. Trying to be serious but undercutting the message with jokes and backslapping.

Apparently a major challenge of Y-Guides and Princesses is keeping the fathers in line. Moose implored us to follow the correct format for meetings, follow the rules for awarding patches, etc., without seeming to believe we really will. He actually said that one of the rules is "no firewater," ha ha ha, but apparently some irrepressible dads will turn the father-daughter campout into a cocktail party.

The locker-room atmosphere surprised me, but what also surprised me was how out of place I felt. I've been in quite a few locker rooms in my life, I used to work in high-technology sales (though granted, I sucked at it), I was in a college fraternity myself for crying out loud--when did I lose the ability to hang out with a crowd of manly men? All I can figure is it's down to 11 years of having daughters, no sons, and almost as many years working in the de-gendered metrosexual atmosphere of a university. Plus having cats in the house, no dogs. No-dogs was probably what did me in.

Anyway, I'll try to keep you updated. And may the Great Spirit rise like the dawning sun in all your hearts, ha ha.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

John Scopes Rides Again

Very good article in the Hartford Courant from a couple of weeks ago. It's about Dr. Kenneth Miller, who is my number-one hero in the controversy over Intelligent Design, and about the pending lawsuit by the ACLU against the Dover (PA) school board, which is going to be a major milestone in said controversy. The article gives a good outline of the Scientific Creationism, later Intelligent Design, movement, and the resistance to it.

I blogged last spring about a talk I heard Miller give.