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WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#253 (Reprised): Holy War Crimes

This week's news about CIA torture resurfaces a topic I've written about many times. The posting below surveys the core Catholic viewpoint:
Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963)
 The uproar about US torture reminds me of the fortified medieval city Carcassonne. In 1998, I spent two hours wandering its double-wall ramparts, its slot-window towers, its cathedral (where St. Dominic preached against the heretical Cathars in Lent 1205). But my one souvenir is the illustrated brochure from the Museum of Torture.
I knew that Joan of Arc’s prosecutors had shown her the "instruments of torture," hoping to terrorize her into confessing and recanting her heresy, but I had never seen them myself. The brochure shows them all: rack, chair of nails, leg press, pincers, iron cage, wheel, spiked helmet. All were weapons in the Crusade to stamp out the Cathars in southern France.
We Catholics inherit a tarnished moral track record. Over the centuries our Church has justified slavery, locked Jews in ghettos, promised crusaders a heavenly prize for fighting infidels, denied non-Catholics freedom of religion, forced Baptisms, and even condemned saints to be burnt at the stake.
But one saving grace of Catholicism is its ability to learn from the errors of its ways. Over time the Church finally condemned slavery, repented its anti-Semitism, embraced religious liberty for all, and rejected holy wars. Along the way, Catholicism also renounced all torture as an offense against the dignity of human life.
 For me, this history imposes a special moral obligation. The world manifests many evils to oppose, but Catholics bear a special responsibility for evils that our own Church once promoted. Part of our penance for evils we have renounced, it seems to me, is the obligation to champion their elimination.
It turns out this applies especially to waterboarding.
 As a movie-nut and child of the 1960s, I am especially sensitive to torture, since few evils have been more powerfully portrayed on screen. First I saw the "Chinese brainwashing" scenes in the Manchurian Candidate, then the Russian roulette in Deer Hunter, the electrocutions in Day of the Jackal and State of Siege. And despite my dislike for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I admit it bore powerful witness to this fact: the founder of our faith was himself a victim of "legal torture "!
But the images most imbedded in my brain come from Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) and Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963). Both treat the Algerian war, and both have terrifying scenes of waterboarding. And while most movies portray torture as a villain’s tool, Godard showed that even "good guys" do evil when they torture:
I thought the honest thing was to show friends, people for whom I would go and fight if necessary -- the Algerians I mean -- to show them torturing. I thought that torture could be more persuasively condemned if one saw one's own friends practicing it.
At the time I may have known that the Vatican had specifically denounced torture in all forms, but I had no idea  about waterboarding's history. 
I did not know Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) had waterboarded its victims. I did not know a US soldier had been court martialed for waterboarding a captured North Vietnamese soldier in 1968. I did not know the US prosecuted Japanese waterboarders after World War II. I did not know American soldiers had waterboarded Filipinos in the Philippine-American war (1899-1902). Above all, I did not know waterboarding’s Catholic roots in the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1574) and the Flemish Inquisition (1556-1559).
Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago argues that waterboarding began, not merely as an effective torture technique, but as a religious symbol:
Water as a form of torture is an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it can deliver the heretic from his or her sins...Because of the broad symbolic meaning of 'water' in the Christian and Jewish traditions (e.g., creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), and baptism as a symbolic death that gives life) the practice takes on profound religious meanings. Torture has many forms and meanings, of course, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformations drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism.( http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/121394529/HTMLSTART   )
In other words, not only does waterboarding have Catholic roots—it began as an attempt to “weaponize" Baptism itself! Thank God Catholicism eventually came to its senses.
I can understand the temptation to torture, since this particular evil is often wrapped in the camouflage of good content. 
After all, torture’s victims are nearly always "the enemy," and may themselves be perpetrators of evil deeds. Generally, they are tortured on the belief they possess knowledge we need lest our enemies do us further harm. It may seem that only torture will gain us that knowledge, that only torture can avoid that harm.
Moreover, many people believe that "anything goes" in war. They are convinced that, once war breaks out, it is futile and dangerous to quibble over techniques used to defeat the enemy.
This "anything goes" ethic is not unknown in Catholic history -- it is precisely what made crusades distinct. Crusades were not "just wars" according to Catholic teaching, for just wars have strict rules of conduct. Crusades were “Holy Wars," where one fought not merely for a good cause, but to enact God's will.
The ruins of Bézier, not far from Carcassonne, remind us that when “anything goes,” mass atrocity is not far behind torture.
Crusaders besieged this small town in July 1209. When the Catholics refused to surrender their heretical Cathar neighbors for inquisition and torture, the crusaders began a mass slaughter of 10,000 to 20,000, Catholics and Cathars alike. It is said the religious commander of the crusade, Arnaud-Amaury, declared "Kill them all! God will recognize His own!"  The massacre frightened many other towns to surrender without resistance.
We have long since renounced such “anything goes” warfare. There are Catholic pacifists, and Catholics who embrace the "just war" tradition -- but the "anything goes" of Holy War is no longer a moral option for Catholics. Catholic moral teaching has firmly established this main ethics principle: the end never justifies immoral means.
For us, then, it does not matter if defeating the enemy is our noble intention. It does not matter if we seek information that will save lives. It does not even matter if torture is proven effective at acquiring such information. If torture is a crime under US law and international treaties, then good intentions or widespread political support do not make it less criminal. If torture is rationalized because "we are at war," that does not make it less crime—that makes it a war crime.
The clinching case for war crimes was, of course, the Nuremberg trials that convicted many who were "just following orders" in committing atrocities in World War II. From now on, both the international community and the Church agree, "anything goes" no longer goes. A crime is a crime is a crime. In time of war, a crime simply becomes a war crime. And even if we think our cause is God's will, the crime simply becomes a holy war crime. 
The idea of US war crimes rooted in Catholicism’s own perversion of the sacrament of Baptism appalls me. As Prof. Schweiker writes:
Baptism is the sacrament and practice of new life. In this practice the dignity of human beings as active agents of love in the world is both announced and enacted. The act of waterboarding, conversely, is a practice of death-dealing where the victim is violently deprived of his or her power to be an active force, a responsible agent, in the world. This practice is meant to induce fear and dread to the point that the victim is rendered passive, subservient, to the torturer's power…In this respect, the practice of waterboarding, despite it roots in Christian history, is, in fact, an affront to the very nature of Christian faith.
We Catholics have disavowed the very torture that some public figures now defend. It should shame Catholics that we gave waterboarding to the world, and that shame should fuel our resolve to end the shame of American torture forever.
        © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2009

Thursday, November 20, 2014

#424: All in the Francis Family?

The 2014 Synod on the Family offered echoes of the past and hopeful clues to the future.


Last month’s Synod on the Family in Rome is still fresh news for two reasons.  First, its work will not really be done until the end of another Synod, to take place in the fall of 2015.  Second, the work the Synod has accomplished already provides significant pointers for the direction of Catholic life.

The Synod is shaping up, in fact, as the most promising transformative event in Catholicism since Vatican Council II (1962-1965).  For me, the Synod so far is notable for four things: (1) the leadership of Pope Francis; (2) the echoes of dynamics and themes from Vatican II; (3) the echoes of Vatican II documents; (4) the struggle to accept the truth about civil marriage.

1. The Leadership of Pope Francis.  It is obvious by now that the phenomenal worldwide popularity of Francis is due more than anything else to his personal manner.  In organizing the Synod, his style once again has reminded many of us of Pope John XXIII (who convened Vatican II). 

For one thing, Francis appears decisive, and unafraid of criticism.  For another, he stresses the pastoral dimensions of church life over the doctrinal requirements:  he speaks much more of God’s mercy than of “truth” or rules.  Francis showed this in his choice last spring of Cardinal Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (Germany) to deliver an address to prepare for the Synod.
Kasper
Kasper, true to his progressive reputation, suggested the possibility of changes in the Church’s pastoral approach to divorced and remarried couples.  Francis’ style also showed September 14 at Saint Peter’s Basilica, when he presided over the weddings of 20 couples, some of whom were living together.

It showed again in his decision to have real live married couples address the Synod fathers, including one couple who spoke of their friends’ decision to accept their daughter’s same-sex partner. 

We have had many Synods since Vatican II, but none directed by a pope who acts like St. John XXIII.
Saint John XXIII in 1963
2. Echoes of Vatican II. Francis is, after all, the first pope since John XXIII who was not a bishop at Vatican II. He experienced it like the rest of us—he received its work as a challenge. He knows its history, and clearly he feels that its potential has not been fully realized.  No surprise, then, that his style reflects an attempt to complete John XXIII’s work.

Francis’ final address to the Synod reminds us of the addresses both John XXIII and Paul VI gave at Vatican II. He speaks of reading the signs of the times, of learning how to respond to contemporary challenges, of learning how to rethink the tradition in contemporary terms rather than reacting negatively to simply avoid reform. 

This stress on how best to reach out to the world around us, to focus on helping people rather than protecting doctrine, harkens back to the dynamics and climate of Vatican II, which Paul VI described as pervaded by a tone of “profound optimism.”
Pope Paul VI
 One Vatican spokesperson express the same outlook when he suggested that talking of unmarried couples “living in sin” or of gay people’s “disordered orientation”  is not the kind of language that attracts people to the Catholic Church.
Of course, there was a great deal of polarization among the hierarchy at Vatican II, and the same has been true of the Synod, to the point where some bishops have quietly talked about the danger of schism. This recalls Cardinal Ottaviani, the most conservative bishop at Vatican II, publicly hoping to die before Vatican II’s end.  “That way,” he said, “I will still be dying in the Catholic Church.” So too the Synod has begun to surface the misgivings of many conservative bishops about the direction Francis is taking, while also exposing them as minority voices--just as happened at Vatican II.

3. The Documents of the Synod also recall the documents of Vatican II.  When studying the Council, it is usually instructive to compare early drafts with final drafts, because they often showed movement as texts underwent debate, discussion, and finally votes.  The same thing happened in 2014.  Why?  First, because when the majority drafts documents reflecting the majority view, drafts have a reformist, progressive tone that is surprising, even radical.  Second, because the final drafts often step back from such progressive proposals.

This is not because the majority changes its mind, but because the ethos of hierarchical decision-making constantly seeks consensus. 
Synod Session
The documents are voted on, but no one wants a close vote.  Everyone wants each document to receive overwhelming approval (as did the documents of Vatican II).  But getting a “supermajority” requires that final drafts incorporate words and tone which attract the votes of conservative (minority) bishops.

Thus two lessons coming out of Vatican II apply equally well here: First, the final draft of nearly all of such documents is more conservative than earlier drafts because they water down the progressives’ main positions.  Second this means that a strong current at the Synod was more progressive than the final document reveals. So we should read the document’s tone as conservative political packaging of the Synod’s progressive pastoral agenda.

4. Accepting the Truth about Civil Marriage. This conservative shift to garner votes for the final draft was particularly significant with the Synod’s references to both homosexuals in general and homosexual unions in particular.  While earlier drafts had urged the Church to “welcome” gays, the final draft simply proposes that the Church “provide for” them.  And while early drafts suggested that homosexual unions might bring benefits for the partners, the final draft offered no such positive assessment.  In fact, the final draft reflected the bishops concern to stress:

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage.

But even here there may be hope of reform.  For even as the bishops reject equating heterosexual marriage and homosexual unions, at least some bishops are also ready to reject equating civil marriage with the sacrament of Matrimony.  This is significant, since the confusion of civil marriage with Matrimony makes people think that “same-sex marriage” threatens Catholicism’s sacramental teachings.

So far, most bishops--especially U.S. bishops--have claimed to be defending “marriage” without making any distinction between civil marriage and Matrimony.  In short, they have pretended there is only one kind of “marriage.” But of course the reality is that there are two kinds of “marriage” which differ in many significant ways.

First, they are different legally.  Civil marriage is a legal contract, a strictly civil procedure governed by state law and the requirements of the U.S. constitution.  As such, it is a civil right that the government may not deny any citizen without compelling legal justification.  It must be available to all, without prejudice.

Matrimony, by contrast, is a sacred covenant, a sacramental bond governed by the universal canon law of the Church.  It is not a right anyone may claim; rather, the Church reserves its right to determine both who is eligible for Matrimony and whether they meet the necessary preconditions.  It is available, for example, only to Catholics and their partners. 
Weddings at St. Peter's--September 14, 2014
Second, civil marriage and Matrimony are quite different institutions.  Marriages existed everywhere through all history, in all cultures; it shows wide variations in who can get married, what it means, and how it is practiced.  So civil marriage is a much broader institution than Matrimony. That sacrament appeared only since the first century, was found only where Christians lived, and has relatively fixed rules about who can marry, how they marry, and why they marry.


But civil marriage is also a much shallower institution.  It is a simple contractual agreement which may be performed by a justice of the peace without any particular ceremony or ritual.  Matrimony is a sacred covenant performed by the couple themselves (not a justice or a priest), and requires the sacramental rite of Christian Matrimony (as well as several other requirements) to be valid.

Third, these two institutions have quite different purposes and expectations.  The church has developed a clear teaching that Matrimony has two purposes: procreation and the unified life of the couple.  Thus couples must be willing to have children (and raise them Catholic).  Any intention to remain childless nullifies the sacrament.  So does any intention to preserve divorce as an option.  Moreover, the sacrament is not consummated until and unless the couple has (unprotected) sexual intercourse.  (Couples intending to remain celibate require a dispensation.)

Civil marriage, by contrast, has no such requirements.  It is valid whether or not people intend to children or even intend to have sex.  The private life of civilly married couples is not relevant to the civil contract, whose purpose is rather to access a long list of legal and social benefits and privileges (as many as 37 in some states) that only married couples have.  Once a couple completes the civil contract, they are eligible for those benefits and privileges, regardless of their intentions about sexual intimacy or children or family life.  People often think that civil marriage aims at promoting family life, but while that may be a societal benefit of civil marriage, it is not a legal requirement. So civil marriage confers many legal benefits but does not require any family intentions.  Matrimony does require both sex and the intention to have children--but it confers no legal benefits or privileges.

In many countries, these differences are made obvious by having two different ceremonies, but they are masked in the U.S., where the priest performs the civil marriage (acting as an invisible agent of the state!) During the same ceremony when the couple performs the sacrament of Matrimony.

Why do all these differences matter?  Because they totally alter the debate about same-sex marriage.  If marriage and Matrimony were the same thing, then the campaign for same sex marriage would directly  challenge a Catholic sacrament.  If marriage and Matrimony are the same, then “redefining” marriage equates to “redefining” Matrimony.

But if these are two separate institutions, one can redefine one without redefining the other.  Marriage can change while Matrimony stays the same.  This of course, has happened before, when some states prohibited mixed-race couples from marrying even when the Church accepted them for Matrimony.  Eventually these bans changed, but Matrimony stayed the same.

Thus same-sex marriage only threatens Catholic life directly if we insist on pretending that there is only one “institution” of marriage.  For more than 10 years I have been baffled watching the U.S. bishops maintain this pretense, and I’m relieved to see that some of them have finally realized that this does more harm than good. 

The best way to protect the sacrament of Matrimony is, on the contrary, to insist on the truth: Matrimony is not the same as civil marriage.  Thus the sacrament of Matrimony will remain the same no matter what happens to civil marriage.  Any changes in the sacrament would be decided in proper church channels, not by any court or government body.

When the Synod on the Family returns in 2015, we can hope that its work will advance in several ways. 

First, we can hope Pope Francis’ leadership has gathered even more followers (especially among bishops).  Second, we can hope that the optimism of Vatican II is rekindled once and for all.  Three, we can hope that people will treat the Synod documents respectfully but also realistically, so their conservative packaging does not blind us to their reformist core.  And fourth, we can hope that discussions about changes in civil marriage will not be confused with discussions about the sacrament of Matrimony.

   © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

#156: Our Most Generic Holiday?

It is eight years since I wrote my first lament for the loss of Armistice Day. My feelings have not changed: Veterans Day is our single vaguest national observance, and it squanders the opportunity to truly honor those whose sacrifice led to this holiday in the first place. So I reprise this piece from 2006:

This year I had special reason to notice that, of all our holidays, perhaps the holiday most diluted of all meaning arrives a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving: November 11.

For most Americans under 50, November 11 is simply “Veterans Day” –a legal holiday largely indistinguishable from “Memorial Day” in May, and generally understood as a sort of blanket remembrance of all those who have served in war. The subtle difference endures, I suppose, that while Memorial Day honors the war dead, Veterans Day focuses especially on those still surviving.

But of course the holiday’s origin is anything but generic, as Europeans know all too well. For it was on “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” of 1918 that the “War to End all Wars” finally ended after the signing of an Armistice. Hence the original holiday for November 11 was “Armistice day.”

For me, Armistice Day 2006 held a doubly nostalgic significance.

First, it was the first time since my junior year in college that I spent the holiday in France, where that war had largely been fought. In fact, my year there (1968) happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Armistice itself.

The lady from whom I rented my Paris room in 1968 was a war widow, and accordingly she received an invitation to attend the Armistice Day solemn high Mass and Te Deum at Notre Dame Cathedral in the presence of “Monsieur le Président de la République,” Charles de Gaulle. But she had family plans in Caen, so she offered me the invitation and I gladly accepted.

With some difficulty, I found the side entrance to which my invitation entitled me, waded through the mob to squeeze myself into a spot just next to the cathedral’s great sanctuary, and then climbed a wooden barrier propped against the wall that enabled me to stand a good 4 feet above the crowd.

It so happened my perch placed me in direct line with the prie-dieu reserved for the president. And so it was, after great fanfare and a solemn military procession, that on “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” of the 50th year following the signing of the Armistice, I found myself attending Mass at Notre Dame directly before the gaze of Charles de Gaulle. In a year when rioting students nearly toppled his government, he did not seem pleased to see me there.

But this year, for Armistice Day 2006, I was not at Notre Dame. Not even in Paris. I was in Chartres—and Chartres was the source of my second nostalgia.

You see, when I arrived as a student, the program I was enrolled in sent us all on a one-week field trip, which began by transporting us directly from Orly Airport to Chartres. The result: the Chartres cathedral, long considered the most beautiful of all gothic cathedrals, was the very first building I entered in France!

Sitting awe-struck near the rear, knowing full well that medieval Chartres was a modest town of 20,000 people – the same size as my own hometown—I wondered: What sort of people, what sort of culture, what sort of faith could ever have produced this marvel?

Now in 2006 I found myself seated once more beneath the famous deep blues and reds of Chartres’ glorious stained glass, but this time for the solemn chanting of the Te Deum in honor of those who died to make the peace of 11 November 1918.

Michel Pansard, Bishop of Chartres, presided over the service, and preached the homily. He wasted no time pointing out that the gospel just read was the gospel for the Mass of the day, for the feast of St. Martin—and he pointed out that Maréchal Foche, leader of the allied forces dictating the armistice terms, had chosen St. Martin's day deliberately. For St. Martin, long established as one the most beloved saints in France, began his 4th century adult life as a Roman soldier. Only later did he convert to Christianity, become a priest and then Bishop of Tours renowned for his simplicity and his devotion to all who suffer (he is, in fact, not only the patron saint of soldiers but also the patron against poverty).

Bishop Pansard used St. Martin’s conversion as the focal point of his homily. Those who died in 1914-1918 died hoping to build a lasting peace, he said, and that left but one choice for Christians who wish to honor their memory and sacrifice. “We must become Artisans of Peace and Justice,” he said, “to construct the future they hoped for.”

That challenge, as St. Martin's example shows, means devoting ourselves to the suffering, to those Jesus called “the least of these”—that is, all who suffer anywhere. In the face of their cries, the bishop said, “it cannot pass that we who have eyes do not see them, that we who have ears do not hear them.”

Peace, he observed, is not the mere absence of war. It is a thing built on virtue. In France, of course, the chief civic virtues are “Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité.” And the bishop linked those patriotic ideas to Gospel values, pointing out that liberty and equality cannot work if fraternity is lacking.

We cannot ask, like Cain after killing his own brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—since Jesus has already answered the question for us. For us, all war is fratricide.

Fraternity is, of course, the opposite of fratricide—so if war is fratricide, then fraternity requires a dedication to peace. But fraternity cannot be legislated. It must be inspired.

What does it take, he asked, to become “artisans of peace and justice?” It is not an easy task, nor is it a passive thing. Above all, it requires a commitment to the common good, a good that goes beyond the good and the interests of individuals or groups or classes. This means thinking of the greatest good for all, whatever the sacrifices. It also requires a dedication to dialog that never shrinks from using civil discourse as the main instrument of peace—a dialog that never yields, no matter how grave the conflict, to the despair that leads peoples to take up arms.

For me, this Armistice Day gave renewed proof that my faith—our faith—speaks loud and clear to our age as it groans for peace amid the sad memory of those dead in war.

And while many Americans passed the generic “Veterans Day” in passive idleness, I found renewed inspiration in retrieving the original tradition of honoring the millions who fell right up until “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” in that horrendous, anything BUT generic "war to end all wars."

As I listened to Michel Pansard share the wisdom of our faith, I thought: our country could use this holiday. Our country, torn for forty years between isolationism and reckless interventions (like Iraq and Vietnam), could use the lesson I was hearing. We need not choose between a “going-it-alone” or “staying the course” of invasion and occupation. There is a third way: we can choose instead to join other peoples as “artisans of peace and justice.”

But I also thought: “Veterans Day” as we observe it will not teach us this lesson—and I regretted our national amnesia about the “Armistice” of 1918.

 © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2006

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

#423: Beware of dangerous knowledge!

A history book that is likely to become the default resource for many Catholics is full of dangers perspectives. 


We’ve all heard “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”--but wrong knowledge is even worse.  And too often that’s exactly what Catholics get about their own faith. 

Last month, during a weeklong vacation at a family-owned seaside cottage, I came across a new addition to the cottage bookshelf:  James Hitchcock’s A History Of The Catholic Church: From The Apostolic Age To The Third Millennium. After examining it for a couple of days, I realized that this is a very dangerous book. 

Hitchcock is written a 500-page, single volume history of Catholicism aimed at a broad readership of educated Catholics.  Catholics need a resource like this, since few of us have the time or energy to plow through dozens or even hundreds of history books in examining specific periods of Catholicism’s 20 centuries.  A general overview like this can be invaluable in helping Catholics grasp the “big picture” of catholic history. 

Moreover Hitchcock’s 2010 book has little competition among recent publications, so it is likely to become the “default” church history for millions of people, finding its way onto the bookshelves of parish priests, parish libraries, book discussion groups, Catholic schools, and even the hands of ordinary Catholics.

All these people need such a big picture Catholic history.  The trouble is, Hitchcock’s picture seriously distorts the reality.

Many readers may not realize how reactionary and misleading this book is.  They will not know that Hitchcock is peddling a partisan history full of ill-grounded opinions parading as established facts.  But as the saying goes: he is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

One way to grasp how Hitchcock has skewed Catholic history is to survey his index, which supplies several clues about his priorities and prejudices.

Look up “contraception,” for example, and you find 11 references; under “birth control,” the same 11 references appear, as if Hitchcock feels the topic needs  double billing.  By contrast, “anti-Semitism” has zero (0) references.  Those familiar with  Father Edward Flannery’s classic The Anguish Of The Jews or the words of Vatican II or Saint John-Paul II on this subject will find the omission very troubling.

Look up “sin” and you find 15 references, but “God” gets only 11, and “Trinity” gets zero!  “Consecrated virgins” get 6 references, but the “just war theory” gets only 1, and “evangelization” gets only “see missionary activity.”

There are 12 references to “abortion,” but only 1 reference to “gospels,” no reference to the canon of the Bible, no reference to “fundamentalism,” no reference to the poor or poverty.

“Sexuality” rates 24 references, but “Eucharist” gets only 4, under “Eucharistic practices.”

Thus the index reveals Hitchcock’s preoccupation with certain hot button issues that raise red flags for so-called “traditionalist” Catholics--and then he turns a blind eye to several significant elements of Catholic history.  Clearly, Hitchcock is writing history with his own personal agenda.

I am no expert on church history, but if I focus my attention on things I do know, Hitchcock’s agenda becomes even clearer.

Treating Vatican Council II (1962-1965), he asserts “Why the council was summoned remains somewhat uncertain,” since “the Church at that time seemed quite healthy.”

He then describes pre-Conciliar Catholicism in glowing terms.  His nostalgia for 1950s Catholic life is no doubt genuine, but it is nostalgia for a “golden age” that never existed.  He mentions high church attendance that packed churches, for example, but avoids the fact that 85% of such mass-goers avoided Communion.  Younger Catholics might be seduced by Hitchcock’s skewed account, but millions of Catholics are old enough to remember that era’s guilt-wracked spirituality, and its reduction of Catholicism to a set of rules.  Such Catholics can simply say: “Mr. Hitchcock, I was there.  I knew that time.  It was no golden age.”

This example is high revealing, for Hitchcock’s “golden age” myth renders his entire account of Vatican II and its aftermath suspect.

He claims, for example, that the Council’s attention to church renewal was “contrary to what John apparently intended” and produced a grave crisis--even though we know that John and his successor Paul VI carefully planned the Council’s direction and managed its agenda.

He claims that Catholic life since Vatican II has pushed collegiality even though the council itself “scarcely touched…the question of how the idea…applied to other levels of the Church.”  Thus, he says national Bishops’ conferences “formed themselves,” as if filling a vacuum left by the Council.  But in fact Vatican II was quite explicit in its call to establish councils at all levels of church life:

Councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church…should be established as far as possible also on the parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan levels. (Second Vatican Council, Decree on Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), November 18, 1965, Art.26)

But Vatican II is not the only target of Hitchcock’s skewed history.  He derides the Latin American bishops conference for endorsing the “preferential option for the poor,” implying that its link to liberation theology reflected a lack of orthodoxy.  He wrote this in 2010, three years before the first Latin American pope confirmed the idea, in his first major teaching, by quoting John-Paul II:

Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.”

But Hitchcock also targets an important Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, by claiming that he was the inspiration for a “new theological approach” called “aggiornamento” (updating or modernizing) that “moved in the direction of modernism,” a heresy:

Aggiornamento owed much to…Lonergan…who distinguished the “classical” from the “historical” mentality, arguing that the former…was now discredited and that theology had to operate within the historical mode.

Hitchcock is wrong twice here. 

First, “aggiornamento” was actually coined by Saint John XXIII (the pope who called Vatican II), not as a “theological approach” but as a purpose of the Council itself. So to imply we should dismiss it for bordering on heresy is simply wishful thinking, not history. 

Second, the Council ended in 1965, and Lonergan first published his paper on “historical consciousness” in 1967--two years too late to impact the Council! 

Hitchcock also goes after the Dutch Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx, citing the many times between 1979 and 1994 he was summoned by Vatican officials to justify his views. But he avoids telling readers the conclusion, as this commentator does:

Schillebeeckx behaved with civility and docility, never provoking his inquisitors, submitting to each inquiry no matter how demeaning the procedures against him became.  And the bottom line is this: no matter how threatened officials felt, and no matter how many times they cautioned him against such controversial views, he was never found guilty of heresy or even penalized, even while other theologians lost their jobs, their priesthood, or were actually silenced.

Hitchcock also attacks the Jesuit Robert Drinan, who served in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1981. Summarizing his legislative career, Hitchcock describes Drinan as “a passionately pro-abortion Congressman.” Hitchcock is certainly entitled to his opinion, which is shared by many.  But he presents this opinion as if it were established fact.  Yet a case can be made that Drinan, while opposing many abortion bans on legal grounds (he was previously dean of Boston College Law School) never supported abortion itself, as evidenced by his words from 1996 and 1997:

I write this as a Jesuit priest who agrees with Vatican II, which said abortion is virtually infanticide…I do not believe that every moral evil should be outlawed. I do, however, see abortion…as a grave evil and can understand why Church leaders are urging lawmakers to ban it.  I do not want anything to impede that effort. On the contrary, I join in that effort and stand ready to promote laws and public policies that aim to protect vulnerable human life from conception until natural death; I support the Catholic bishops in their efforts to exercise moral leadership in the fight against abortion.

Hitchcock even targets John F. Kennedy as “denying that his religion could or should have significant influence on public policy.” But JFK’s famous 1960 speech to the Houston ministers reveals a different position, as I wrote in CrossCurrents #305:

“I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy he said, “and the church does not speak for me.” He said that…he would always make his decisions “in accordance with what my conscience tells me…” Finally, Kennedy acknowledged the possibility of a circumstance where his Catholic conscience might conflict with his oath of office. “And if that time should ever come,” he said, “when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office.”

 In fact, Hitchcock’s book is laced through with rash historical judgments paraded as facts and character attacks masking his personal bias (Hitchcock was a well-known adversary, for example, of Robert Drinan).

For the most part, Hitchcock is preaching to a like-minded choir of reactionary Catholics, but objective readers with historical insight of their own will dismayed by his accounts.  His portrait of Eastern Catholic churches, for example, has drawn the sharp criticism of Eastern Catholic expert Adam DeVille:

In…treating the Christian East, we see a picture little short of disastrous. Not only are hugely important events given no mention at all, but even very basic factual matters are dead wrong.


For one thing, Hitchcock insists on calling such churches “Uniates”—a pejorative label long since banned from scholarly use. 

Such cringe-worthy mistakes and oversights appear as well when Hitchcock describes Pope Paul VI’s encyclicals, his 1965 speech to the United Nations, his work on evangelization, and his role of Vatican II.  He also misses almost entirely the point of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, God is Love

I’ve focused on late 20th century Roman Catholicism because that is what I know best.  I can only imagine the errors that Hitchcock applies to other centuries! 

With all this in mind, dear reader, you will not be surprised if I (1) advise you to avoid this book like the plague, and (2) express my hope that some competent historian will soon write a reliable one-volume Catholic history to fill the vacuum that otherwise might suck Hitchcock’s dangerous “knowledge” into our parishes, schools, libraries, and homes. 

  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2014