Death by religion

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I wrote about Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, and how I thought it was not only so much crap but dangerous and thoroughly discredited crap as well. It received some modest attention and still gets regular hits.

There are actually a lot of these addictive ideas that are killing us. Arguably capitalism is one of them but there are many others, including communism, fascism, socialism (in its pure form) and today’s topic: religion. Lots of people, mostly atheists, have been saying for a very long time that religion is harmful. They have lots of history to prove them right, as so many wars and so many millions of people have died because of religious conflicts.

Two related stories in Sunday’s Washington Post brought this home to me. One was the influx of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including hundreds of people here in America, to fight a religious war. Related to it was a disturbing article about Anjem Choudary, a Muslim cleric based in London who is a propagandist for the Islamic State. This “state” of course is busy overrunning much of Syria and Iraq not to mention beheading people and selling women into slavery. I zeroed in on this part:

Iraq and Syria, Anjem Choudary says confidently, are only the beginning. The Islamic State’s signature black flag will fly over 10 Downing Street, not to mention the White House. And it won’t happen peacefully, but only after a great battle that is now underway.

“We believe there will be complete domination of the world by Islam,” says the 47-year-old, calmly sipping tea and looking none the worse for having been swept up in a police raid just days earlier. “That may sound like some kind of James Bond movie — you know, Dr. No and world domination and all that. But we believe it.”

In other words, none of this peaceful persuasion that Islam is the true faith crap, but lots of war, death and mayhem to make sure we are all compelled to believe his version of the truth. Christians shouldn’t feel so smug, after numerous crusades not to mention the Spanish Inquisition in which we tried (and failed) to make the infidels (read: Muslims) believe our version of religious truth.

There is not a major religion out there, including Buddhism that has not killed to promote its values, despite doing so is arguably the greatest hypocrisy against their religion possible. All these centuries later, despite our vast knowledge and understanding of history, despite technology and the Internet, large numbers of us are utterly convinced that only their religion is correct. They are so vested in it that they will wreak literally holy mayhem to make sure their religion, and only their religion is the only one anyone is allowed to believe and practice.

It’s quite clear what people like Choudary would do to those of us unenlightened enough not to become Muslims: lop off our heads like they are doing to infidels in Iraq and Syria right now or, if a woman, sell her into slavery. This is, by the way, quite similar to what Columbus did to the natives of Hispaniola shortly after discovering America in 1492, and what Cortez and many other conquerors did to the unenlightened natives of South and Central America as well. Killing infidels with the sword often had the desired effect. The natives were soon proclaiming to believe in Jesus Christ while also working as slaves for their enlightened conquerors. Infidels are going to hell anyhow for refusing to be enlightened, so they might as well be dead, is what passed for their rationalization. Choudary doubtless agrees but worse is working to facilitate the transfer of fighters into Iraq and Syria to spread this sort of enlightenment.

It doesn’t seem to matter much what the form of religion is. They all seem to have this fatal flaw, which allows zero uncertainty to come between their religion and their actions. I believe this is because the human species is hardwired toward addiction to memes. And the religious meme is a powerful one: it promises us eternal paradise and the absence of all suffering, forever, in the glory of God if we just do precisely what some people say God wants us to do. People like Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida native, who on May 25 became an American suicide bomber for the cause of Islam. He blew himself up in a Syrian café frequented by Syria soldiers. In his farewell video, Abusalha says:

“You think you are safe where you are in America,” he said, threatening his own country and a half-dozen others. “You are not safe.”

Doubtless he is enjoying paradise now with his 72 virgins. That should satisfy his sexual desires for a while. Or, much more likely, he is simply dead, another pawn cruelly used in a much larger game of pointless chess. Chess is a game and on some horrific level these religious crusades are games too. Games may be won, but winning them doesn’t really change anything. Thanks to conquerors like Cortez and the missionaries that followed him, South and Central America today are suitably enlightened, with Roman Catholicism dominating society there. But it is still as infected with evils as any other religiously “enlightened” state. If you need a recent example, try this one. Or this one.

No religion, no matter how universal, will change the fundamental nature of man. It never has and never will. Choudary and Abusalha are ultimately playing the parts of fools, helping to feed chain reactions of generational war, death, trauma and suffering wholly at odds with the religion they proclaim will solve these problems. The religious meme – the notion that one size of religion can and must fit all – that has been proven over and over and over almost to the point where you can’t count anymore as fundamentally false and destructive. Religion in this incarnation is harmful to man, creates chaos and retards the enlightenment these people profess it will bring.

I speak as a cautiously religious man. My own religion, Unitarian Universalism, is creedless so perhaps we have earned an escape clause as a toxic religion. Still, my denomination is hardly free of its own very human evils. A previous minister of my church, for example, was sexually involved with a number of women in our congregation (while married), a scandal some thirty years in our past that still affects our behavior. But Unitarian Universalism at least does not proselytize. We don’t assume our religion is the only correct one. This will occasionally drive others nuts. It resulted in some deaths some years back in a congregation in Tennessee, and more recently a very disturbing takeover of a service in Louisiana by some local antiabortion nuts.

So here’s my new rules on religion and I hope it is a new meme we can spread:

  • I will not consider believing in any religion that assumes it has all the answers about the nature of God and how humans must behave
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that thinks it has succeeded when everyone is believing in its version of truth
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that cannot peacefully co-exist with other different faiths
  • I will not consider believing in any religion that has at any time in its past caused religious warfare
  • I will actively do all I can to civilly and peacefully undermine any religion that promotes any of the above
  • I will encourage everyone, including you, who may belong to such a faith to leave it

Such faiths are not worthy of the God you claim to worship and are ultimately far more destructive than helpful. Reflect on it. Pray on it. God will tell you it’s true.

 

Why I am not a Christian

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s curious that after nearly twelve years of blogging I have never really explained my theology or lack thereof. I have given snippets of it from time to time, mostly in critiquing other religions. But I have never really explained myself fully. I thought I might start with why I am not a Christian. I hope to expand my thoughts more on other religions in future posts.

To preface, while I am not a Christian, I am religious. The denomination I most closely align with is Unitarian Universalism, which has its roots in Christianity. It does not require anyone to subscribe to a creed, which is typical of most faiths. I do identify with Christianity because I was raised as a Roman Catholic. So it’s a natural place for me to start this topic.

There are lots of reasons why I am not a Christian, but one emotional reason in particular is relevant. In short, I got way too much Catholicism growing up. It included nine years of parochial school, daily rosaries at home, years as an altar boy, strict attendance at mass every week and regular Catholic education classes until I turned 18. It was overwhelming and stifling. Everything in my life was viewed through the Catholic prism, which was mostly about whether something was sinful or not. When I no longer lived at home, I simply stopped going to church, cold turkey. It was an easy decision for it removed an oppressive weight off my shoulders that simply did not agree with me and was not working for me. And except for an occasional wedding or a funeral, I haven’t been back.

However, my time as a Catholic was not entirely a negative experience. I got an appreciation for the devout, the importance of ritual in life, and the comfort it gives many of certainty in an uncertain world. I will still seek out cathedrals when I travel and they usually feel instinctively holy places. As a denomination, Catholicism has some strengths over other Christian denominations. It’s one of the few denominations that truly cares about the poor and the sanctity of life and puts its money and people where its mouth is. In that sense, it reflects the Jesus one finds in the gospels, and stands head and shoulders above many Christian denominations.

Calling oneself a Christian though is kind of like saying you believe in love. What does love mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? That is open to a lot of debate. If nothing else there is a huge variety of opinions on the matter. My take is that to be a Christian at a minimum you must agree that Jesus was a human manifestation of God. Sorry, I can’t go there.

Early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God. At least that’s the opinion of the noted biblical scholar Bart Erhman in his book How Jesus Became God. But even a cursory understanding of the history of the New Testament strongly suggests that the gospels grew in their telling. The simple Jesus revealed in the first gospel, Mark, for example, is strikingly different from the mythological one revealed in the last one, John. Moreover, it’s well documented that it took hundreds of years for Christianity to define itself as a faith and the mythological Jesus, part of some trinity, simply was not part of early Christian thought. These Christians ruthlessly suppressed those Christians that did not tow their interpretation. The early Unitarians (who did not believe in the trinity) sought refuge in what is now Hungary and Romania to escape persecution. Many others died for their heresies, hardly Christ-like actions. Christians are still at it. The core of Christianity that is unmistakable from reading the Gospels is that brotherly and universal love should be the center of our behavior, something sadly absent in most Christian denominations.

There is no evidence that Jesus existed. I think that Jesus existed, but obviously I can’t prove it. It’s a reasonable enough inference, since a meme like Jesus is hard to develop without a kernel of truth to it. The Romans left no record of Jesus, nor did anyone else other than the Christians. The hazy view we have of Jesus is through the gospels, which have been rewritten numerous times and errors introduced in translation, point to an interesting and revolutionary man for his time. It’s entirely reasonable to think a contrarian and rabble-rouser like him would be betrayed and crucified. Jesus’s surreptitious behavior after his alleged resurrection though suggests to me he was not God, i.e. not Christ. He seemed anxious not to be seen, except to disciples. That’s hardly a way to convince people that you are God. If he had walked past Pontius Pilot three days after his resurrection, and the Romans had recorded that, now that would be pretty convincing.

Jesus’s divinity aside though, Christians should at least reasonably model Christ if he walked among us. When I was a young and impressionable Catholic, we sang a song that included the lyrics “You will know we are Christians by our love.” Not that there aren’t such Christians out there, but they are a tiny minority of those who claim to be Christian. The vast majority of “Christians” have so wrapped themselves around orthodoxy and warped notions of sin that they no longer see the forest through the trees. You can bet that if Jesus were alive today the whole notion of a prosperity Gospel would leave him gob struck. A devout follower of Jesus would live without possessions and minister among the poor. Know of any Christians like that?

Neither do I. The truth is that this kind of Christianity simply does not work in 2014. Christianity, as imperfectly revealed to us in the Gospels, is obsolete and generally more harmful than helpful. It doesn’t fit in our current reality. Maybe in Saint Paul’s time, when almost all of us lived short and shallow lives and lived at or just above the poverty line, it would have fit the times.

Almost any religion though has some body parts that can be reused when an autopsy is performed. Christianity has some, and those few parts I hold close to my heart, particularly the virtue of universal love and tolerance. But by themselves they don’t make me a Christian.

Give ’em heaven, Kate

The Thinker by Rodin

Religions are supposed to be about love and finding God. Sadly too many of them, if not most of them, are far more concerned about getting their believers to march in lockstep with them than embracing them in loving ways. The latest somber case in point is the excommunication of Kate Kelly, who believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons) should ordain women and allow them to direct the church.

Naturally it was an all-male panel of senior bishops that decided on her excommunication. At least they were clear about her real sin: she was promoting her beliefs, which were okay as long as she didn’t actually express them. In his excommunications letter to Kelly, Bishop Mark Harrison wrote: “You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them while remaining in full fellowship in the church.” These merciful clerics though did open the possibility that she could rejoin the church, providing she repents long enough and consistently tows the line. In other words: shut up already, keep shutting up and keep telling people you were wrong.

Dogmatic religions tend to excommunicate people all the time. Pope Francis recently excommunicated the Italian Mafia. Thus it’s not particularly surprising that Kate Kelly also suffered this fate. Still, to those of us outside this faith, this decision sure smells. What crazy reasoning justifies this belief? Well, Jesus only chose male apostles, hence there must be something unworthy about having women as clerics because men, well, must know better! How condescending this is, particularly given the poor record of male clerics within institutions like the Catholic Church. If I were a Catholic, I would sure want my kid to have a female priest. I might feel safe leaving him or her alone with the priest in the sanctuary.

Kate Kelly is guilty of a number of “sins”. These include understanding the logical fallacy of this argument, understanding that no God worth worshipping would require such a silly restriction, understanding that women are equal in all ways with men and inferior in no ways, understanding that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and understanding that the Mormon Church, like all churches, is an institution made up of flawed human beings and thus can only aspire to be holy, but is not actually holy or flawless. A church is a human institution that aspires to bring people closer to God. Given its imperfect nature, it must from time to time review how it’s doing and see if it fits the current reality.

The reality of the 19th century when Mormonism was founded was that women did not have the right to vote or much else in the way of rights so it’s not surprising Mormon dogma echoed these beliefs. It found what it thought was a foundation from the Bible. These facts were also true when Jesus walked the planet. It was true in Abraham’s time when he had multiple wives and when losing your virginity before marriage would require that you be stoned to death. In two millenniums, we have come to understand that women are equal partners. Thus they have the inherent same rights as men to everything. Kate Kelly is guilty of knocking on the Mormon Church’s door and reminding them of this obvious fact. In short, Mormonism needs a little revising because it isn’t optimally serving the needs of its members, and some of its teachings are undercutting its essential message.

I wish Kate Kelly lived nearby so I could give her a hug. She could use a lot of hugs. I wish I could also get her to see that she is better off without Mormonism as it is currently practiced. Mormonism really needs a dose of Protestantism. It’s largely as cloistered and insular as the Catholic Church was prior to the Reformation. During the Reformation, of course, the dichotomy between the church’s teachings, its actual practices and the needs of its parishioners became too large to tolerate anymore. Protestants discovered that they had power greater than the Catholic Church. When enough people stand up and demand changes, new denominations emerge when existing religions won’t adapt. If enough Mormons stand up with Kate Kelly, and more importantly boycott the faith until its leaders see the light, the Mormon Church will see the error of its ways as well.

Yell like hell, Kate, but do in a loving way that shows your better nature and the truth of your position. Yell outside the gates of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Yell outside their conclaves. Reach out to every liberal Mormon you can find, and there are plenty of them. Have the nerve to worship separately and call yourself with a new name, perhaps the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Show that you offer a better way. Network. Like Harvey Milk, it will be lonely for a while, but if your cause is just and your work sincere, you will in time triumph. And if the Mormon Church insists on totally denying reality, let it shrivel. It’s better off dead than to be so fundamentally wrong.

I believe that when enough people simply vote with their feet and leave the church that they will see the light. And you, the excommunicated, will be revealed as a woman who had the courage to put the church on a path that actually makes it more inclusive and a better institution.

Yell like hell, but realize that you are actually giving them heaven, and bringing them closer to God.

A pope for the rest of us

The Thinker by Rodin

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of the Vatican right now. It’s an incestuous conclave of medieval thinkers who can barely accept that the world is round. Now suddenly it is finding itself thrust into the modern world. If I were Pope Francis, I would consider a personal bodyguard, an official food tester and maybe a bulletproof vest. The rage of institutional clerics in the place must be palpable. I can summon up the one word they must be thinking right now:

Betrayed!

Right now they are reacting like stunned bunnies to the highly unorthodox words coming from their new supreme cleric. I expect that eventually even within the highly servile Catholic Church, where masochism toward Catholic orthodoxy is a virtue, that these forces will challenge Pope Francis. That’s when things are going to get interesting.

Despite all the odds designed to prevent popes like Pope Francis from being elected, there he is channeling a stunning amount of common sense. For the most part, he appears to be someone more concerned about the state of the forest than that every tree in it be perfectly straight. Pope Francis seems to have a true grasp of the purpose of religion.

For clerics in the Vatican it must be like Gollum seeing the sunlight: “It stings! It burns!” Apparently there is more to Catholicism than the metaphorical need to avoid stepping on cracks of the sidewalk. Pope Francis seems to be saying go ahead and step on those cracks. Wander onto the grass as well. Take your shoes off and slip your feet in the stream.

I must say, this former Catholic is quite impressed by this newest pope. His election won’t be enough to make me go and rejoin the Catholic Church, at least not unless Pope Francis totally transforms it. I can’t imagine him going that far. I can’t imagine him suggesting a consecrated host is, well, just bread. Or that gays are not only welcome but should be married in the church. Or that prayer is wasted time and thought. Or that Jesus was a very wise man but not divine. In other words, if he were to transform the Catholic Church into the Unitarian Universalism I actually practice, yeah, I could rejoin the Catholic Church. For one thing, Catholics know how to do stained glass and incense. As a rule, Unitarian Universalists don’t have a clue. We are great at drinking coffee after services, however.

It’s pretty clear though that Pope Francis understands that much of what passes for Catholic thought is silly and/or harmful. Some of these statements from the pope are jaw droppers. Here are some of them:

  • Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.
  • Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.
  • Remember that the Church is feminine.
  • No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.
  • We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
  • Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
  • If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem … they’re our brothers.

To me, what is most remarkable about Francis is not that he is opening dialog with atheists or that he is showing tolerance toward homosexuals, but that he gets the bigger picture. Religion is not really about making people believe as the Church believes; religion is about loving broadly and universally. It’s about making human kindness central to everything that we do. Francis seems to be saying that it is through kindness that people connect with God and that God is not so much an abstract external entity, but the loving whole of universal kindness and compassion. By becoming kind people we pick up the godly attributes, we heal ourselves and we help heal others too.

That’s a message that most of us can hear gladly. It’s also reassuring for us to hear his humility and him confess his sinfulness. It’s reassuring to see he practices what he preaches, by embracing a young boy who strays onto the altar with him to eschewing the papal apartment to be with the people by living in a nearby hotel. Real ministry happens person to person. It does not come from being secluded behind the insular walls of the Vatican. Francis seems to be saying that walking the walk is meaningful while talking the talk is not. Implicit in what he is saying is that a lot of what the Church does is counterproductive and sometimes hurtful. It is certainly not Christ-like.

So I may have to see if Pope Francis has a Facebook account, just so I can “like” him. I don’t expect to ever be a Catholic again, but it’s nice to know that the leader of the Catholic Church is a rather ordinary person with a good heart, instead of yet another Stepford pope chained to its orthodoxy and bereft of actual ministerial capabilities.

For every action — and this is a huge change in the Vatican — there is bound to be a reaction. It will be interesting to see if the Church can remain coherent during his time as pope. It could well fracture with some leaving to follow a new true “orthodox” Roman Catholic Church. For many devout Catholics it doesn’t matter too much where the path leads so much as that you stay on it. My time in the Catholic Church convinced me that devout Catholics were just the latter, captured by ritual and process, almost the way someone into bondage is into being controlled. But mostly the Church missing the essence of Jesus’s message. Pope Francis at least sees the larger picture. That’s a refreshing change.

The Catholic Church is easing toward irrelevancy

The Thinker by Rodin

Many of us ex-Catholics tend to share a guilty secret: we still keep up on Vatican news. This is because if you are born a Catholic, whether you like it or not it leaves a big imprint on you. You try to tune out Catholic news and pretend the church’s actions don’t matter, or at least doesn’t affect you. But you can’t help yourself and tune into Vatican news stories, such as the first papal tweet. Being such an enormous institution with about a billion members across the planet, what happens in Rome is bound to make news. So it certainly was newsworthy when recently Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the first pope to do so since 1415. The pope sites his declining health as a reason to resign. Naturally some Vatican watchers expect there are ulterior motives to this resignation, and coincidentally shortly thereafter an Italian newspaper published a lurid article on alleged gay sex scandals within the Vatican.

And so in mid March the College of Cardinals, 57% of who were appointed by Pope Benedict, will meet in Rome to decide who the next pontiff will be. Upon abdication, Benedict promises to disappear and devote himself wholly to prayer. It’s unclear what he has to pray so much about, and some of us would like to know. From recent statements he suggests shenanigans within the Vatican is much on his mind. Maybe its incestuous nature and intrigues became too much for him. Apparently he could not even trust his own butler, who ratted confidential papers to the press.

It’s hard for us on the outside to get a sense of what is going on inside the Vatican.  Depending on whose rumors you give credence to, it’s either nothing at all and business as usual or the Opus Dei clerics are duking it out the modernists. So far Opus Dei has been winning all the papal elections. That may change but Benedict has hardly proven himself to be a moderate. Betters would be wise to bet on more of the same. In an insular institution like the Catholic Church where those who can vote for pontiff have to be appointed by the pope suggest that creeping modernism will have no home in the Vatican, although gay sex within the Vatican may be as old as Opus Dei.

I ask myself increasingly if any of this really matters. In some ways it certainly does matter. The Catholic Church is a Jekyll and Hyde institution, capable of great Christ-worthy deeds while being guilty of unspeakable atrocities. I have witnessed the power of Catholic charities. Specifically back in the 1980s when we had a foster child, she was being managed through Catholic Charities. They did good work and arguably work that no one else would take on. So many religions talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. One cannot say that about the Catholic Church, through affiliates like Catholic Charities and the many Catholic hospitals out there.

Then there is the Edward Hyde part of the Catholic Church, proof positive that absolute power corrupts absolutely: children sexually, emotionally and physically abused, sometimes with the cooperation of the state, such as occurred for decades in Ireland at church run laundries. There wayward or suspected wayward women worked as slaves in cloistered workhouses. The reaction to these decades if not centuries of scandals seems to be a watered down set of apologies, but little in the way of actual recompense. The church seemed much more concerned about covering up these abuses so the institution is not sullied than addressing them and preventing them from recurring. Actual restitution if it comes at all comes from civilian courts, and not from the church. And actual prevention might involve empowering the laity to oversee the clerics, something the church is loath to do.

There are lots of reasons for declining church attendance, at least here in the United States. Surely any parent reading about what the Catholic clergy have inflicted on innocent youth should be reticent to place too much trust in their local priest, particularly where accountability mechanisms are so weak. That should explain some of the drop. But much of it can also be explained as the institution has less to offer people that they find of value. It’s hard to put a premium on genuine salvation, but that does not seem to be on the mind as much of Catholics these days, who seem more concerned about getting through this life than some nebulous promise in the next life.

Increasingly Catholics are simply exercising selective deafness, tuning out those edicts they think are silly (such as on premarital sex, birth control and gay marriage) and tuning in those that feel less ephemeral, such as the church’s charitable institutions like Catholic Charities. The church, like most denominations, preaches a one stop shopping method for living and salvation. For the most part these days the laity seems to want their Catholicism a la carte instead. They figure if it works when they go shopping, why can’t it work with religion as well?

Of course there are plenty of traditional Catholics who like the prepackaged solution that the Catholic Church offers. That is the essence of a faith: to accept aspects of beliefs that a rational person might say are ludicrous. As a percent of total Catholics, these traditional Catholics are a declining share of the whole. This suggests, at least for the foreseeable future, that Catholics are likely to decline as a percent of the religious overall. Over a period of decades, particularly here in the United States, more Catholic churches may close due to lack of adherents. Those who remain are more likely to be orthodox but like Hassidic Jews, appear more bizarre to the rest of society.

One of the selling points of Catholicism is its claim to know eternal truths. It offers moral certainty in an uncertain world. And yet real life keeps crashing down on the Catholic Church, as it is an institution managed by flawed people, made worse in its case in that these flawed people are also highly and haughtily insular. While I am convinced that after two millenniums the Catholic Church will likely be around for another millennium, I am convinced its power is waning. It wanes not so much in the size of its congregants, but in its ability to control the behavior of its congregants. On some level it must change so it becomes more relevant to those it preaches to, or it is doomed to drift toward being a sect instead of a denomination.

I will guiltily watch the color of smoke rising from Vatican chimneys next month, but I am wondering when the next papal election comes around after this whether it simply won’t matter to me anymore. It is already mattering to me less than it did when Pope Benedict was elected.

When I cast around looking for beliefs on which to anchor my life, I see the certainty that Catholicism sells as simply false, and worse, dangerously false. There is no certainty about anything in our universe, with the exception of the laws of nature. I think the Buddhists are the only ones who got it right: everything in impermanent. To the extent that we can live a truly happy life, we first have to accept that.

Adrift in the Sea of Relativity

The Thinker by Rodin

There is lot of twittering among the denizens at DailyKOS over Republicans and their recent convention. Particularly humorous for us was not Mitt Romney, who comes across as a generally decent but vacillating and contradictory buffoon, but his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. What makes Ryan particularly interesting to us progressives is his ability to hold two completely contradictory notions in his head and pledge fealty to both.

This is hardly news among Republicans, but in Ryan’s case the choice is so stark that it is hard for us Democrats to not feel glee at the resulting contrast. Paul Ryan is simultaneously a big believer in Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and claims to be a devout Catholic. Anybody with even a surface knowledge of both Objectivism and Catholicism has to ask: WTF?

Long time readers of this blog may remember my little treatise on the ridiculousness of Objectivism. I too was briefly under its spell. Fortunately, I sobered up pretty quick once I realized it was both crazy and unworkable. Yet Objectivism stuck to Ryan like superglue, but of course being conservative and a Catholic he couldn’t just stop going to mass and confessing his devotion to the Catholic faith. And yet Ryan is the same person whose budget plan passed the House in 2011 and consisted chiefly of the cutting the poor off at their kneecaps (well, actually more like the waist) while lavishing tax cuts on the rich.

Wags on DailyKos wondered how a true Objectivist like Ryan could run for office in the first place: politicians are supposed to address issues for the benefit of their constituents, but a real Objectivist would only take an action if it was solely in his selfish interest. Moreover, Ayn Rand was an atheist. The Catholic bishops, hardly examples of shining virtue, quickly cut Ryan down to size, reiterating, among other things, that Catholics must care about the poor and work for social justice. Ryan, of course, remains tone deaf to the church’s criticisms and calls the controversy a mere “difference of opinion”.

Everyone seems to have pillars of truth that they anchor their lives around. In Ryan’s case they are weirdly self-contradictory. Be it Objectivism, or Catholicism, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or secular treatises like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, there is comfort to be had in going with an off the shelf solution. Many, many years back I opined on what it might be like if we all built our own personal philosophy, perhaps by pulling pieces from elsewhere. That appears to be Ryan’s approach. Something about Objectivism he found very appealing, but there must be some nugget of Catholicism that he found appealing as well. Apparently it wasn’t the social justice part. Maybe it was the no divorce ever part. Whatever. Glue them together and with whatever bastardized shape emerges label it “my truth”.

And why not? Because in the end, we all end up dead. So you might as well grab onto some philosophy or religion to get through life. Your life will likely be too short for your tastes anyhow, and you probably don’t want to spend most of it wallowing in an existential angst. We may be compulsively driven toward faith, for the same way we are driven to eat and sleep. We need some faith, even if it is not a religious faith like Communism, to make sense out of a life that would otherwise appear pointless, random and very chaotic.

We get occasional reminders that we keep barking up the wrong trees. Harold Camping’s revelation that the world would end on May 21, 2011 proved incorrect, but at least for a while it got him some attention. When he does pass his fallacious prediction will at least warrant him a real obituary, rather than a death notice. The world will not end this fall when the Mayan calendar resets itself either. One of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is that we don’t profess to a creed and thus we never suffer the shame of looking ridiculous like Harold Camping. If we have a creed, it is that our creed is changeable depending on what science discovers. However, Unitarians are weird. We are like people who never want to get off the roller coaster. Most people prefer the solid feel of terra firma under their feet.

The evidence is overwhelming that our lives are accidental rather than a part of some grand design. In that sense, life really is like riding a roller coaster. So you might as well enjoy your random ride through life for the time that you have. If you get the opportunity to enjoy it, consider yourself fortunate. However, be aware that you probably have this chance only because your parents invested time and money in you, and shepherded you through many obstacles so that you could thrive in the jungle called life. For those of us fortunate to be in the canopy, the view is nice, but down on the jungle floor life is hell. Most people on this planet live lives that, if not in hell, are deep in purgatory. When your life is mostly hell, faith anchored in an afterlife has a lot of appeal, which probably explains why faiths have been so overwhelmingly popular. That religion is diminishing in places like Europe suggests a critical mass there has truly achieved enlightenment. So perhaps their time on earth will be decent overall, but we all share the same fate: death.

What do the faithless like me do? Do we live each day like Hugh Hefner? Do we attempt to alleviate suffering even though such efforts are microscopic in the grand suffering going on around us? Should we feel no sanctions against murder, or fleecing our neighbors, or chasing our neighbors’ wives? Is there a point to anything we do when we die and everything else dies as well, and when a thousand years from now we can infer with great confidence that our lives and times will be wholly forgotten?

For me, despite being over fifty, this reality is still pretty scary. Some part of me still longs for the certainty by which the faithful anchor, or seem to anchor their lives. There are no real guideposts for people like me, only our own confused and flawed consciences. We keep trying to do the best for ourselves and those we live with. We are adrift in a Sea of Relativity, and we know it. We also know why so many of those around us, like the Paul Ryans of the world, prefer the delusion of certainty to the uncomfortable angst of being awake.

Break out the condoms

The Thinker by Rodin

Miracles do happen in the Catholic Church, but it turns out they are much rarer than even the Catholic Church would acknowledge. I’m not talking about alleged miracles of weeping Madonna statues. I am talking about the unexpected fit of common sense by the Catholic Church this week regarding condoms. What’s next? Women priests?

Not that Pope Benedict is expressly approving use of condoms. They still prevent conception, when used as intended, so using them is still a sinful act. However, according to Pope Benedict, the use of a condom may mean that the person is on a path toward more moral behavior. I’m guessing this means using condoms is now a venial sin, instead of a mortal one.

I figure this fit of common sense from a church doggedly insistent on not using any when it contravenes previous teachings is something of a miracle. For a church that supposedly is all about the sanctity of life, it was hard to square its devotion to life with the ability to take it away by passing a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS through an unprotected sex act. Yet until this week, that was the teaching of the church: do not use any form of artificial contraception ever! It was a policy so bat shit insane that in a matter of just decades, rather than centuries, the Catholic Church actually got it.

It’s like God himself sent a thunderbolt of common sense directly into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is the miracle part. The Catholic Church, after all, is an institution organizationally aligned to tune out all common sense when it contradicts its teachings. I am sure God never swears, but if God were to swear the message to Pope Benedict would be something like this, “You stupid asshole! People are dying needless and painful deaths. They are leaving orphans to fend for themselves by the side of the road. All because you tell them I say that it is sinful to use condoms! And you claim life to be sacred? Don’t you realize this makes no sense whatsoever? Don’t you realize that you are driving away the very pro-life Catholics we are trying to keep? Change this policy and change it now!

The new policy is currently written in pencil rather than into stone, since it was not ex cathedra. At first, the ruling seemed qualified. In an interview for an upcoming book, Pope Benedict gave an example of a male prostitute using a condom, saying using it would be a “first step” toward moral behavior because it shows concern for his sexual partner. (He might also be showing concern for his life, but that’s selfish, so I imagine is not a good reason to use a condom.) Today we learn that the Vatican spokesman (well, obviously not a spokeswoman) Rev. Federico Lombardi personally asked the pope whether condom usage when having sex with a women was also okay. Two thumbs up from the holy pontiff! “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

So, just for the heck of it, use a condom tonight, and if you are a Catholic why not break out the champagne as well? Miracles don’t happen every day. Pope Benedict may not be a particularly personable pope, but when his obituary is written, this one act may be the one that is most remembered and celebrated.

Perhaps its popularity will inspire the pope toward even clearer thinking. Maybe miracles can come in clusters. For an ex-Catholic like myself, there are still many things to admire about the Catholic Church. Catholic, after all, means universal. One thing you can truly say about the Catholic Church is that age, income and race don’t seem to matter. Granted, we have not had a black pope yet, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.

I am a Unitarian Universalist and like many denominations, we suffer from the same problem: we are a lot alike. Specifically we are left-brained, predominantly white and predominantly overeducated. The Catholic Church does not have our diversity problem. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian: the Church has all the colors of the rainbow. Their ranks include peasants and presidents. Moreover, it is one of the few Christian denominations left that is insistent about doing unto others, feeding and caring for the poor, as well as working on unsexy things like income equality and health care for all (albeit without abortion services).

With condoms no longer a major moral problem for the Catholic Church, perhaps it could loosen certain other ridiculous practices. Being more expansive with birth control would be nice, but is unlikely to happen. However, the church has a real problem on its hands filling its staff. Its policy of not allowing priests to marry is not only counterproductive; it also goes against most of the church’s history. In addition, of course, there is the church’s policy of allowing only male clergy. Like its now vanquished no condom policy, it is counterproductive and makes no sense. Given how many Catholic congregations no longer have priests, changing this policy may be necessary for the survival of the church in a secular age. As a practicing non-Catholic, I am hoping more miracles like this one quickly follow.

Perhaps I should thank Pope Benedict, but my feelings remain mixed. This policy should have been done away with decades ago. It resulted in many people dying needlessly, although I suspect those who rigorously follow Catholic birth control policies are relatively few. Not only was the policy deadly, it was also sinful, hurtful and generated a lot of pointless guilt. It caused adherents to choose between their faith and their common sense. While condoms will still not come with a seal of Vatican approval, at least their use in some situations is understood to be more moral than not using them at all.

It’s a miracle, all right.

Act of conscience

The Thinker by Rodin

Recently I went back and reread parts of the New Testament to make sure they were still correct. Yep, that part in there where Jesus says not to judge others lest you be judged is still in there. Also still in there is the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are many instances of Jesus talking about universal brotherhood.  Overall, Jesus comes across as a pretty inclusive guy, walking among the sinners and heathen alike and treating almost everyone with universal love, brotherhood and respect. As best I can tell, the only ones he ever really got upset with were the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem. He called them “broods of vipers” and other nasty terms. Even as he hung on the cross dying a miserable death, he asked God to forgive his enemies.

How then did the church that he founded some two millenniums later devolve into snippy episodes like this:

In an interview published Sunday, [Rep.] Patrick Kennedy told the Providence Journal that [Bishop Thomas J.] Tobin had barred him from receiving communion and instructed priests in the diocese not to administer the sacrament [to him] “because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official.”

Bishop Tobin seems to have a personal vendetta against Representative Kennedy, because on October 23rd he publicly admonished Kennedy.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) “is irresponsible and ignorant of the facts” about the Catholic Church’s views on health care reform and “continues to be a disappointment to the Catholic Church and to the citizens of the State of Rhode Island,” said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the diocese of Providence in a statement released Friday in response to an interview CNSNews.com conducted with Kennedy.

What drove such a high authority of the Catholic Church to deliver this sort of stinging public rebuke? Apparently, Kennedy sees a wee bit of inconsistency because the pro-life Catholic Church would rather see health care reform fail altogether than allow any health plan in it to cover abortion services. Mind you that neither the House nor the Senate envisions spending any federal dollars to cover abortion services. Proposed bills (at least prior to the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House) merely allowed health insurance companies to cover abortion services with their own premiums, as many do now. The Catholic Church opposes any legislation that maintains the current compact. When asked by a CNS reporter of his response to the Catholic Church’s position, Kennedy apparently had the audacity to say:

I can’t understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured.”

“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care?” said Kennedy. “I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don’t think it’s productive at all.”

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Catholic Church, the bishop’s position is nothing new. What is new is the vendetta Bishop Tobin appears to be waging publicly and personally against Patrick Kennedy. It’s like an episode of The Prisoner. Kennedy has become an “unmutual” so he must be shunned, or at least denied Holy Communion within his diocese, as well as publicly admonished. Mind you, Kennedy is not being denied communion because he is an abortion provider, but because his votes as a public official are at variance from Tobin’s interpretation of Catholic theology. Kennedy’s uncle, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was also threatened periodically by his bishop for his liberal positions on abortion rights. At least in Senator Kennedy’s case, it appears that while there was a lot of saber rattling, at no time was Senator Kennedy publicly denied communion. It appears that on some level his Massachusetts diocese recognized that the good that Senator Kennedy did because of his position and influence somewhat mitigated positions he advocated that were at variance with current Catholic theology.

It’s unclear exactly what Bishop Tobin expects to accomplish with his actions. It is possible, although unlikely, that Patrick Kennedy will have a change of heart and advocate policies and positions fully in line with Catholic theology. If he does, they will likely not align with the values of the very progressive state of Rhode Island that he is supposed to represent. In fact, Kennedy might have to look for other employment next November, because it is unclear if he toed the Catholic political line whether he would survive reelection.

Certain Catholic bishops are more authoritative and outspoken than others, and Bishop Tobin appears to be one of the egregious cases. It is disturbing, but not surprising, that he would make a public case out of Kennedy. Kennedy makes an easy example that perhaps can be used to keep others in line, or at least mum, perhaps creating a deterrent effect.

I hope Kennedy remains true to his convictions. If there is an authority higher that the Catholic Church, it is the right of individual conscience. For most people raised Catholic, the idea of leaving the church is heart wrenching. If Tobin is going to continue to single out Kennedy in a vindictive way, I hope he has the courage to leave the Catholic Church for a religious community where his freedom of conscience is embraced, not debased. Actions after all should have consequences and it was Tobin who acted first with his edict prohibiting Kennedy from receiving communion. If I were in Kennedy’s shoes, I would not leave this one unchallenged.

If he does leave the church, Kennedy may discover, as I did, that it was an action long overdue. In my opinion, any church that requires you to violate your own conscience is unworthy of your time, money or participation. I am confident that if Jesus were present among us today he would agree wholeheartedly because that is the Jesus that I have found in the Bible.

Bless her father for she has sinned

The Thinker by Rodin

Way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sister Monica was principle and eighth grade teacher at my parochial elementary school in upstate New York. When I first knew her, she almost looked like a Talibani woman. Like all the sisters, she wore ankle-length black dresses, black shoes with black hose, a belt with beads and a crucifix on one end, and a habit so severe that you could not see a hair on her head other than on her eyebrows. After Vatican II, they literally had a change of habit, which got considerably smaller to the point where we could make out actual hair. Today, even modest habits are history. I doubt there is any way I could tell a Sister of St. Joseph from any other woman on the street.

Sister Monica had to deal with two hundred or so of us pupils who suffered from the sin of being, well, children. Yes, amazingly we had not mastered adult skills such as not squirming in our seats or talking in class. Sister Monica would permit none of these childish things. From our uniforms (pressed black pants, white shirts and a green tie for the boys, and really ugly plaid green dresses with a white blouse for the girls), the idea was to extinguish all signs of difference. Sitting in our squat and tiny desks, we looked like budding Catholic Dilberts destined to spend our lives in cubicles, which way back then had not yet been invented. Sister Monica took it as her personal mission to obliterate all signs of personality from us. She had two hundred plus students to deal with, dammit (not that she would swear). We were but sausages in her grinder. She had to turn us into good little Catholic sausages, educated but obedient. We were destined to be interchangeable gears for the betterment of society but far more importantly, good, dutiful and faithful Catholics. We were to be the type who went to mass every Sunday and never miss a Holy Day of Obligation.

In short, in Sister Monica’s universe there was virtually no room for either tolerance or deviation. Absolute conformity and obedience were required. Silence was required during class. If you had a question, of course, you first had to raise your hand and be allowed to speak. Being children, we tended to tune out a lot of her teaching. We fidgeted. We spent inordinate amounts of time sneaking peaks out the window, doodling, watching the clock and waiting for the liberation of recess or the final bell. If our attention ever wavered, she would call out to us in her sharp raspy voice. Her long, wooden pointer with its rubber tip was her constant companion. She would smack it down loudly on your desk to get your attention. We were there to learn and generally, that meant a lot of lecture, rote memorization and few questions.

It is hard for me to give Sister Monica her due, but I will try. In fact, she was a pretty good teacher in that it was hard to leave her class without having learned the material. I remember her primarily as my math teacher. By the end of the eighth grade, we were already doing algebra. Homework certainly was turned in on time and was promptly graded. Since she was so vigilant about students looking out the window most of us realized we had best pay attention. Moreover, Sister Monica liked having an audience. Her pointy stick was one way that she expressed her personality since with all that black garb on, there wasn’t much else of her to see.

Back in the 1960s, and in particular, in parochial schools, someone like Sister Monica had near absolute and unchecked authority. The only liberal aspect of Sister Monica that I can recall was that she was liberal at meting out punishment. I am sure a class full of elementary school children could be a handful. It was not natural for us to stifle ourselves or give the teacher our full attention.

A teacher certainly has the right to maintain order in the class. Sister Monica though was a big believer in spare the rod and spoil the child, and it was hard to find any infraction too trivial for her justice. Her preferred instruments for meting out punishment were two yardsticks held together. Her preferred location for executing sentence was her desk at the front of the class. Her instructions were simple: “Form a right angle.” There in front of the class the recalcitrant student (in my memory, always a boy) would receive a dozen or so sharp whacks with her doubled yardstick, sometime but not always inducing tears, but often involving a lot of wincing. If it was painful to endure it was perhaps more painful to repeatedly witness. Publicly meting out punishment also had a deterrent effect. I cannot recall ever being at the end of her yardstick. Yet for every student who endured her yardsticks, it was as if I could feel their pain. It made me angry but of course there was no way to express it. My own mother was much like Sister Monica, so I would find no sympathy at home.

Many of us got worse than Sister Monica at home. This was an age when, if your father beat your bums and back black and blue with his belt, child welfare workers (to the extent they existed) would generally look the other way; he was your father, after all, and society assumed he knew best. Perhaps some of the frequent victims of her yardstick grew inured, since many of them were repeat offenders. Yelling in the halls or in class, repeatedly looking out the window and arriving in class sweaty from running around too much during recess were typical violations that required swift justice.

As a child, I found her behavior hard to reconcile. While it was consistent with what I saw outside of the school, it seemed cruel and vindictive. Yet, the faith I was given told me we should look at clerics like Sister Monica with respect, if not something bordering on adoration. By contemporary standards, she would be fired on the first incident with the yardstick. Today, civil suits seeking damages for physical and emotional abuse might even succeed. Once in high school, when our bus rolled past our elementary school I found that I had to deliberately look away. It was thirty years before I found both the time the courage to examine my old haunt of a school. A haunt it remains to me, although the school has long been vacant.

As for Sister Monica, I assumed she had gone to her reward, or was close to going there. I did not think she was web savvy. I did not think I could find her, but last week filled with mild curiosity I left an inquiry on her order’s website. To my surprise, they provided me with Sister Monica’s email address! She is still affiliated with her order but is now semi-retired. I inferred her last name from her email address and Googled her. Google pointed me to a fairly recent online article where she is featured. There in glorious color on the World Wide Web was the now habit-less Sister Monica, much aged of course, heavier, but with much the feisty look that I recalled.

From reading about her online, I got the feeling she has mellowed quite a bit. She held the job of principal in a number of other parochial schools, helped developed curriculum for her diocese, and was involved in at least some charitable work running a food donation center. There are likely many layers to Sister Monica and perhaps I saw her least Christ-like layer.

Although I do not plan to email her, I do fantasize from time to time on what I might say to her. I would ask if she felt bad about the way she treated us. My suspicion is that she would say no. I would suggest to her that she should repent by asking forgiveness from those she hurt, including me. She would probably say these sorts of sins, if they occurred at all, are easily absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. I would reply that there are two types of forgiveness. God can forgive some sins but those against other people can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. If she were to ask my forgiveness, I would grant it. It might heal her soul, presuming it is troubled, which I doubt. Moreover, it may help me put these sad past events forever under the mattress.

Unquestionably, they affected me profoundly as a child and still somewhat as an adult. She likely affected hundreds of other students of hers over the years, and most I suspect have few charitable memories. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons, but in part because I could not as an adult be a member of a religion that would look the other way while people like her abused so many children. I worked hard to be firm but tolerant parent, never raising a hand to my daughter and trying, but not always exceeding, to never to throw a deprecating remark her way.

Today virtually all schools, except in a few Southern states, are free of faculty-induced violence. This is particularly true of parochial schools, although in numbers they are today a small fraction of what they were in their heyday. This may be in part because Sister Monica was one of many sisters, as unfortunately there were many Catholic priests, who crossed the lines. I doubt her behavior gave her any qualms. She was probably instructed by her clerics to mete out corporal punishment. She may have witnessed it herself had she spent her childhood in parochial schools. It may have seen as natural as eating and breathing.

In the grand scheme of things, these sins were probably of the venial variety. No one died. Many bottoms may have gotten a bit red, but only temporarily. Sister Monica might have induced a blister or two, but she also succeeded in making us learn. As best I can tell none of my classmates grew up to be axe murderers. Still with me, my friend Tom who was also there and I am sure many others, she did leave scars, scars that do not always completely heal even so many decades later.

I imagine someday the pendulum will swing back and teachers may be empowered to mete out punishment again. I can only hope that if this happens, future parochial school teachers will retain nonviolent ways to discipline their pupils. Given the certainty of Catholicism about so many things, I am not entirely convinced those days are gone forever. Absolute power allows these transgressions to occur, and at the very least in Sister Monica’s case, the Catholic Church watched askance.

Review: Doubt

The Thinker by Rodin

Doubt director and writer John Patrick Shanley can be forgiven for framing his movie inside the insular world of a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better setting for this movie. Catholicism of course has little room for doubt or uncertainty. Its priests and sisters are expected to have a finely honed sense for the presence of sin. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principle of a parochial school in the parish. From her long experience among the unwashed and sinful masses, she can sense a fire long before there is any combustion. For a Sister of Charity she has few things charitable to say about the students she oversees. It seems that without her constant vigilance all her pupils are doomed to lapse further into a life of sin. She rules the school through fear and intimidation to such an extent that even her fellow sisters are cowed and silent in her presence. She makes no apologies for her methods and cannot conceive of any other way of governing.

Meanwhile over in the rectory Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hard at work trying to become a more liberal and expansive priest. He is full of enthusiasm for Vatican II and wants to be known as a warm and accessible priest. This naturally raises Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. What does it mean when the school’s only African American student is called into a private conference with Father Flynn and he returns smelling of communion wine? For Sister Aloysius, this means something sinful and unnatural must have been going on. She plunges headfirst into these dubious moral waters, determined to make Father Flynn accountable for his behavior. After all, she has spent a career witnessing it among her pupils. Confirmation of her suspicions is rather beside the point. She must bring a stop to whatever immorality is occurring, no matter what the cost.

Streep and Hoffman provide fine performances as you might expect. What you do not expect is that Amy Adams (who plays Sister James) will rise to their level and by many measures give the finest performance in the movie. Sister James is deeply troubled because the boy is in her class. She becomes anguished and feels pulled both ways by Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Her inability to resolve her feelings, which are amplified by both the stakes and the clarity of Catholic theology, nearly destroys her. Adams gets far less camera time than either Streep or Hoffman but in many ways her performance is the most memorable. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Are Sister Aloysius’s suspicions unjustified? The film magnificently explores the issue of reasonable doubt in a climate where none is permitted, and the havoc the dichotomy can cause within such an insular community.

If you enjoy fine character driven and human stories then without a “doubt” you should see Doubt. If you are a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you also might enjoy inhabiting again the world of the American Catholic Church in 1964, which is flawlessly rendered. As a result a number of those Catholic hymns that I had thought I had purged from my brain are now running around in my mind again, along with long forgotten memories of my own time as an altar boy.

I spent nine years in parochial schools. We had our own Sister Aloysius, so I can attest that Meryl Streep’s portrayal as school principle is dead on for the period. We had our Irish priest too, whom we secretly suspected of drinking too much communion wine. Consequently, I found the plot entirely plausible. The Catholic Church, like many moral institutions can run but not hide from the moral squishiness and ambiguity of life. Doubt captures it brilliantly.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

P.S. The metaphor of the windows in Sister Aloysius’s offices so often being unexpectedly open is, I am sure, quite intentional.