Musings on 'Brokeback Mountain,' catechesis, secularism and celibacy from Anaheim

Anaheim, California

tIn what has become a standing annual appointment, I spent the weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center for the Religious Education Congress sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. As I said during my workshops, for me the congress is the spiritual equivalent of drinking a case of “Jolt Cola” all at once – it’s a mad, once-a-year adrenaline rush, fueled by the excitement of 40,000 catechists, teachers, pastoral workers, and rank-and-file Catholics of every stripe.

tI offered two presentations, one on Catholic mega-trends and another on Benedict XVI and Islam.

tEach workshop period at the congress usually features 25 options or so, spread over several facilities. As I’ve written before, the sheer size means that all the Catholic tribes are represented in one way or another – but that said, there’s no doubt the center of gravity tilts slightly to the left, reflecting the spirit of the Los Angeles archdiocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony. One of the keynoters this year, for example, was Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine.

Given the scope of the offerings, it’s impossible for any one person to get a sense of the whole. Herewith, however, four slices of life I was able to pick up around the edges of my own schedule.

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tI heard Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine, speak on adult faith formation in light of the National Directory for Catechesis, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Malone is a longtime veteran of catechetical efforts, and he has the disarming sense of humor of a natural teacher. For example, he began by confessing that while he urges catechists to “get with the times” and use Power Point presentations, he hasn’t yet done so himself – meaning that he doesn’t always take his own advice.

t“That’s how bishops are sometimes,” he conceded, to appreciative laughter.

tThe heart of Malone’s argument, drawn from the national directory, was that the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the program through which converts are gradually prepared for Easter baptism, should be the model for all adult faith formation in the church. Malone led his audience through a discussion about what works in RCIA, with most people stressing its opportunities for faith sharing, prayer, and common spiritual experience.

tMalone stressed the combination of faith sharing, instruction in doctrine and the tradition of the church, and the capacity to “read” one’s life experiences in light of scripture and church teaching.

tSome questioned how easily the RCIA experience could be replicated. As one person put it, in a typical parish there might be 10-15 “catechumens” (the term for someone preparing for baptism), who are served by a team of RCIA leaders, and who are usually treated as a priority by the pastoral staff. Could the same concentration of resources really be brought to bear in other areas?

tMalone conceded the point, stressing that drawing inspiration from the RCIA does not mean cloning all its particulars into other programs.

tI also saw Australian Jesuit Fr. Richard Leonard, director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, address a packed auditorium about a couple of movies which stirred considerable Catholic reaction: “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

tLeonard asserted that “Brokeback Mountain,” which tells the story of two cowboys who struggle with sexual longing for one another, “does not advocate the gay lifestyle.”

t“At the end of the film, one man is dead and the other is a shell of a human being,” Leonard said. “This is hardly advocacy for a happy gay life.”

tLeonard said that a colleague of his at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “almost got fired” for writing a review which reached the same conclusion, and, under pressure, had to “upgrade” the rating given to the film for morally objectionable content. Leonard said the reviewer received “hate mail” in “thousands of letters.”

t“Very few issues trigger a frenzy like this one,” Leonard said.

tLeonard went on to argue for development in Catholic moral reflection on homosexuality, because as it stands, he said, the church does not distinguish between promiscuous behavior and a lifelong committed relationship. The church’s blanket indictment of homosexuality, he said, means there is no “moral moment” towards which to build with regard to gay relationships.

t“We lump it all together, but I’m not sure God does,” Leonard said.

tLeonard also said that in presenting its teaching on homosexuality, the church should “remember the human beings behind the slogans.” Homosexuals merit “respect, compassion and sensitivity,” he said.

tAs for “The Da Vinci Code,” Leonard said the fairly lackluster character of the film didn’t stop it from taking in $750 million worldwide, mostly due to the phenomenal interest generated by the Dan Brown novel. He offered two explanations as to why many people took the novel seriously, despite its numerous historical inaccuracies: first, Leonard said, because the claim that the Catholic Church has “suppressed women’s leadership” came across as believable; and second, because the novel appeared at the height of the sexual abuse crisis, so “it was not hard for a cynical public to buy that the church had a covered up a sex scandal that, if true, would rock its foundations.”

tAt the same time, Leonard argued that the book and movie “did the church a favor,” since the origins of Christianity become a popular subject “at dinners and barbeques all around the world.”

tLeonard stepped through several misrepresentations in “the Da Vinci Code.” For example, he said, Brown presents the “Priory of Sion" as a secret European society whose grand masters over the centuries have included Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton. In fact, however, its real founder, Pierre Plantard, admitted in a 1993 court case that the “priory” was actually created in France after WWII. Plantard invested the group with a fictitious past, some of which, he conceded, was dreamt up under the influence of LSD.

tLeonard also took issue with the presentation of Opus Dei, as well as Brown’s decision to make his murderous monk an albino. That choice, Leonard said, reflects a “dreadful calumny” which holds “that really evil people often have some genetic disability or disorder.” He called this linkage “absolutely monstrous” and a “scandal.”

tOn Saturday, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, made a case for what he sees as a basic “consonance” between religious belief and modern secularism. While secularism has its positives and its negatives, Martin said, most of us prefer it to the alternative.

t“Most of us would prefer living in the United States to living in Iran under Khomeni,” he said.

tPrior to his appointment to Dublin, Martin spent more than 30 years in the Vatican, working in the Council for the Family, the Council for Justice and Peace, and in Geneva as the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations agencies there.

tMartin pointed to recent data from the European Values Study which indicates that Europe is not as “post-religious” as commonly believed. Such results, he said, show that religious belief and secular culture are not necessarily opposed. In fact, he said, “democracy has offered new opportunities to religion.”

tOn the other hand, Martin said, there’s a “cult of secularization” in some circles rigidly opposed to public expression of religious belief. Catholicism is the force most likely to challenge this “cult of secularization,” Martin asserted, which is why ideological secularists have an especially “deep fear of a Catholic revival.”

tMartin said that Gaudium et Spes, the document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on the relationship between the church and the modern world, offered an effective vision for Catholic engagement with secularism.

tAt one stage during his time in Geneva, Martin said, he noticed that more than half of the senior staff of the United Nations was composed of Catholics. Martin said he asked one of these staffers how they explained that, and the answer was Gaudium et Spes.

t“If you look at their ages, it seemed about right,” Martin said. “Their religious motivation led to success in the secular world.”

t Martin represented the Holy See in the mid-1990s at international conferences on population, which featured intense debates about issues such as a proposed right to abortion under international law. He told the story of meeting with John Paul prior to one of those sessions.

t“He told me to support all that is good, and to denounce, clamorously if necessary, all that is bad,” Martin said. “The important thing was to do both at once.”

tAlso on Saturday, Fr. Donald Cozzens of Cleveland’s John Carroll University, author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, argued that it’s time to “set celibacy free” by making it optional for Catholic priests.

t“Celibacy is a witness to the reign of God, but so is married love, Cozzens said.
tCozzens stepped through what he described as three current “exceptions” to the discipline of clerical celibacy:

•tEastern Rite churches in communion with Rome who have married priests.
•tPriests in the Latin Rite who have joined the Catholic Church from another Christian denomination, such as the Episcopal church, where they were married and a member of the clergy, and who later have been ordained as a married Catholic priest with special permission of the Vatican. (Cozzens said he’s heard conflicting reports as to how many such Catholic priests there are in the States, with some saying 200, and others no more than 80.)
•tParts of the developing world where, according to Cozzens, celibacy may be “on the books,” but it is not widely practiced.

Cozzens said a priest once told him that during prayer, he found himself spontaneously crying out, “God takes no pleasure in this loneliness,” referring to his struggles with celibacy.

Cozzens then laughingly told the story of asking another veteran priest what he thought about celibacy.

“It’s okay,” the old-timer said, “during the day.”

Cozzens cited statistics to the effect that there are 20,000 active diocesan priests in the United States, but some 22,000 who are inactive – many, he said, who left to get married, but otherwise still felt the call to a priestly vocation.

Cozzens said that rather than defining the priesthood in terms of celibacy, the “signature” of the priesthood ought to be “servant leadership” and “gospel simplicity.”

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