Summer is over, but midsummer madness continues in the church

by Eugene Cullen Kennedy

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"Midsummer madness," the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, refers to the "extreme foolishness" that was associated with the rise of mid-August's full moon when, as commemorated by writers as different as Shakespeare and Byron, lunacy (from the Latin luna, "moon") was thought to be loose on the land.

Meteorological summer has come to an end, although its seasonal contract still has a week or so to run. September's sun begins to slide down the sky, bringing slanting shadows as it coats everything with a goodbye look, a powerful signal that our license for a little vacation lunacy has expired and it is time to get back to work.

But midsummer madness might as well be a liturgical season in the we-never-close three-ring circus of the official church that, of course, is not to be confused with the People of God that it is supposed to serve.

Just as August ended and September began, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reaffirmed the Vatican's intent to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, saying that the goal is to help them "rediscover their identity," according to Religion News Service.

His statement, oozing like a Vermont maple in sugaring off time with the stuffy certainty peculiar to the high culture of clericalism, reminds me of the movie in which Spencer Tracy admonishes a man arguing down to Katharine Hepburn, "Be careful. You're in the major leagues here."

Müller apparently does not know that in dealing with America's women religious, he is also in "the major leagues."  He speaks now as if moonstruck, not realizing that his condescension toward U.S. women religious was and remains a kind of Roman madness. It is right in line with the way he apparently wants religious women to function, exemplified under August's madness-making moon by an article in L'Osservatore Romano by Mother Anna Maria Canopi of the Mater Ecclesiae Abbey at Lake Orta in Italy on the nun's veil as a "royal crown."

Müller's thinking parallels her reject-the-world explanation that the veil identifies the nun as "exclusively Christ's bride" who "must remove herself from the gaze of other possible pretenders and lovers." She adds, perhaps affected by the moon shimmering on the Tiber, that the veil "conceals her, in a certain sense, from her spouse himself." 

This hide-and-seek with Jesus is not the way adult U.S. women religious conceive of their calling to preach the Word of God to the whole world. If Müller thinks that such moonshine meditation will help U.S. women religious restore their identity, he is offering a choice example of the "extreme foolishness" of midsummer madness, Vatican-congregation-style.

Midsummer also threw moonlight on the romantic vision of Polish Catholicism as St. John Paul II's idea of the triumph of that old-time religion, pre-Second-Vatican-Council-style. Catholic World News reports that Sunday Mass attendance in that country has fallen below 40 percent. This is a drop from 57 percent in the 1980s and 50 percent in the 1990s, when that great pope was trying to turn the church back to the brilliant glory he said that it had achieved in his homeland.

This past summer, a New Jersey court -- and I hope you are sitting down when you read this -- upheld the right of the Newark archdiocese to market headstones and private mausoleums in archdiocesan cemeteries. Headstone dealers had complained that the archdiocese was engaged in an unfair labor practice that yielded $500,000 a year to the church while driving them out of business.

Perhaps Newark has needed the money to cover the seeming all-season madness of its archbishop, John Myers, who spent $500,000 adding a new wing to his $800,000 weekend/retirement home. The new wing includes "an indoor exercise pool, a hot tub, three fireplaces, a library and an elevator." You can sit down now.

Moonlight falls as well on the three-story house in which Seattle's Archbishop J. Peter Sartain lives, according to CNN, by himself. According to the King County Department of Assessments, it is valued at $3.84 million. The lavish home must have moonbeam catchers instead of lightning rods, as Sartain has been placed in charge of monitoring and reforming the way the Leadership Conference of Women Religious prepares its annual gatherings. He quickly stated that he was, as they say, "all in" with Müller on reforming the U.S. women religious.

Sartain apparently does not limit his seeming madness to midsummer. reported in May that two members of the diocesan review board, retired judge Terrence Carroll and former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, accused Sartain of making an "astonishing" claim and "serious misstatements" in explaining why a priest, Harry Quigg, "suspended from ministry for sexual misconduct with a teenager went on saying mass and conducting weddings."

Sartain refuses to release the relevant documents that "would reveal that a 17-year-old boy involved in a sexual relationship with the priest ... was passed among the priest and friends," reported. The astonishing claim issued by Sartain through underlings claimed that when Quigg was removed from active ministry, "the information was not made public because of the determination that the sexual conduct did not involve a minor." Yes, and the dog ate the calendar because Sartain is apparently so moonstruck that he does not know what 17 means.

But this summer, the Moonstruck Group Award goes to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, whose prefect, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, wrote to the world's bishops' conferences, asking them to moderate what he termed excesses in the sign of peace exchanged by Catholics during Mass. The letter, made public close enough to midsummer to qualify as madness (July 31), objects to such practices as people leaving their pews, the priest leaving the altar, and the exchange of congratulations or condolences on special occasions because they may distract people from the rite of Communion that follows shortly.

Perhaps the stiff literal new translations forced on Catholics a few years ago prophesied what we might call this effort to eradicate the human from the celebration of the Liturgy. Apparently, the congregation wants the people to be as stiff and lifeless as the language of that new translation.

Midsummer madness clouds the congregation's already-constricted vision so that its members cannot see that at the kiss of peace, a small miracle occurs as people break free of being part of a passive congregation and become a People of God before our eyes. Watch and see how their faces, held expressionless by habit or perhaps by the tension of inner sorrow that so many people bring to Mass with them, suddenly lighten and soften as they become, even for a moment, human with each other -- in short, themselves. You can then see that Revelation did not end, as claimed, with the death of the last apostle.

These Catholics drop their defenses and are transformed so that we can see them better as individuals, as people bearing every type of woe who confer a kind of affectionate absolution on each other for being human, imperfect, vulnerable and yet wonderful all at the same time. If there is a better preparation for the Eucharist than this truly mystical moment of transformation, let Cañizares write a letter about that.

But Cañizares won't be writing any more letters because on Aug. 28, Pope Francis, perhaps having read this madness-filled instruction, made him archbishop of Valencia, Spain. Cañizares claims that he asked for the transfer. Yes, and President Richard Nixon really wanted to resign, too. This moment of moving Cañizares out of Rome resembles the kiss of peace that gives us a chance to celebrate and forgive each other for being human by taking a measure of our own humanity and perhaps even a little pleasure in his departure.

[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago.]

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