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Papists abound, but who’s keeping lists?


Having been raised in a list-keeping church that once included a Catholic All-American Football Team in its almanac, I still can’t read an obituary without asking myself if the deceased was a papist. I recall how proud we were in school to learn that Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy (1940-49) also ate fish on Friday. Today, the court has three Catholics (Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas) and we don’t seem to care.

Bill Clinton has six Catholics in his cabinet but George Bush once had eight, just one short of the total number of cabinet Catholics who served from 1789 to 1940. Does it matter? Are the legal and administrative decisions of these Catholics laced with holy water?

When the 100 U.S. senators stood individually to announce their vote on the impeachment issue, I wondered if the scapulars once near to the hearts of the Catholic members were making any difference. Twenty-five senators claim Roman Catholic affiliation -- 14 Democrats and 11 Republicans. There was a time when Catholic and Democrat were synonymous. Today, of the 153 Catholics in the Congress, 95 are Democrats and 58 are Republicans. Now, Henry Hyde of Illinois and Bob Livingston of Louisiana, each with skid marks on their souls, are Catholic Republicans. We own the Congress. But does it matter?

Fifteen Catholic senators, including one Republican (Susan Collins of Maine), voted no on impeachment. Eleven -- all Republicans -- voted to send Bill back to Arkansas. Did they vote party or faith affiliation? How would 25 randomly selected bishops have voted on this issue? President Kennedy used to say that bishops were Republicans and that nuns were Democrats. Was he right?

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Don’t get too impatient with your local bishop. Consider the alternative. Sure, I know of a few bishops whose porch light burned out years ago. Not long ago, one who has lost all the dots on his dominoes declared that all Catholics living in irregular marriages were adulterers. But how many Roman Catholic bishops would proclaim that Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, is gay?

The February issue of the National Liberty Journal, edited and published by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, carried an article warning parents that the rotund creature may be a gay role model because of his purple (a gay color) suiting, the triangular antenna (a gay symbol) and his pocketbook (actually a magic bag).

Now, we’ve got hundreds of purple clad (yikes!) ecclesiastics out there who wear triangular hats (yike! yike!), but even the most paranoid of them, who live out where the bus doesn’t run, do not see gay Teletubbies in their quiver of moral outrage.

(Still, it might be a good idea to appoint a Teletubby Task Force in each parish. Paranoia needs our prayers and support.)

However, Falwell has now denied everything, proclaiming that his readers never got it right. This is a recurring theme among church leaders. Their simpleminded laity never get it quite right.

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“It’s because the bishops are scared stiff that the laity might come up with something they don’t want,” a good bishop informed me as to why so many successors to Peter proclaim that the simple lay folk never get it quite right.

Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, appears to feel that liberal Catholics in particular never get it quite right and that liberal Catholicism just isn’t muscular enough to foster the self-surrender required for a good Christian marriage or a vocation to religious life or the priesthood.

At least twice now he has proclaimed to listeners that liberal Catholics are parasitical, i.e., people who grow and are fed by their fellow Catholics while contributing nothing to the survival of the church. Parasites habitually take advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return. George seems to feel that liberals are guilty of this sin.

It’s just a guess, but I would suggest that the cardinal is living in a diocese where the majority of practicing believers are liberal parasites. The bulk of his priest and deacon corps appear to be making liberal pastoral decisions. The teachers at every level, the scholars at the theologates and universities, the religious education and catechumenate volunteers, the parish and school councils, the staff involved in the complex annulment process, the work of resigned priests in unofficial apostolates -- in short, the vast majority of those who make the Chicago church work so well -- appear to be liberal parasites.

One observer estimated that only about 7 percent of involved Catholics are conservatives, and most of them expend their best energies yelling at the parasites. But the conservatives appear to be pulling the church to the right, often with the support of their local prelate. I’m afraid that if the liberal parasites shook the dust from their feet, the cardinal would be able to fit his diocese on a lighthouse.

But I’m sure that I didn’t get this right.

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Then there’s this business of the present state of Catholicism at Catholic universities. It has been several years since John Paul II brought out his pastoral letter “From the Heart of the Church,” in which he planted the seeds for implementation of such protocols as having all college presidents take an oath of loyalty to the local bishop and that trustees of these institutions be practicing Catholics and that the credentials of all theology teachers be checked for doctrinal correctness.

The bishops have booted this Vatican hot potato around for several years now. They are supposed to vote on this issue at their November meeting in Washington.

Here is the parasite in me again, I guess, but are we inching closer to bar coding all Catholics? Do the bishops realize that their discretion to preach the faith in their diocese is gradually being reduced to that of a church usher? How long will it be before a bishop rises on the floor of the annual meeting to impeach another bishop?

Frankly, as one who has visited numerous Catholic colleges and universities, I haven’t found a lot of heresy in the air. But if implementation of this pastoral letter goes along present lines, can book-burning be far behind? Or will a bishop’s moral leadership become as irrelevant as a senator’s?

* * *

I keep running into those pastoral decisions again. I’m still finding pastors willing to quietly bend the rules to find room in Peter’s barque for one more soul.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a pastor when an associate interrupted to inform us that he had a woman in the parish center who had made an ash of her mother. She was crossing the country with her mother’s cremains in an urn. She wanted a eucharistic liturgy in each city where her mother had kin.

“Sure,” the pastor said. “She’s doing no harm. I’ll say the Mass if you don’t want to do it.”

Still another funeral involved a wonderful soul who had left the Roman church, most likely because an impediment to her marriage could not be set aside. But her funeral was held in a Catholic parish with an Episcopal priest presiding and a female Episcopal priest at his side. That’s enough to give a chancellor the vapors, but the local pastor had made a pastoral decision, not a flabby ecumenical yes statement followed by an infinite series of noes.

Finally, there’s that pastor who recently hosted couples at a Valentine’s Day liturgy in his parish. Now, among the most popular days in the calendar, the feast of St. Valentine is no longer celebrated as a memorial or feast in the liturgical calendar. The saint was impeached some years ago. But the charismatic pastor made a pastoral decision, one that warmed the hearts of some 300 faithful parasite couples. He knew the value of image over substance.

There were two St. Valentines, it seems. One was a priest reportedly beheaded in 269 for refusing to worship Roman gods. The second was bishop of Terni, renowned for his gift of healing. (Some hold that there was only one Valentine, but neither had a clear connection with courting couples. Indeed, they both may have been as purely legendary as the contents of Tinky Winky’s purse, which may contain Valentine’s bones.)

The custom of exchanging love notes may date only to the Middle Ages when it was widely believed that Feb. 14 marked the start of the mating season for birds.

Whatever the case, God reward the pastor and his Catholic imagination and his willingness to respond to needs. It reminds me of a Chicago parish that recently sponsored a self-help group for children and adults with attention deficit disorder. Parasitical ADD sufferers should not be impeached or hidden in Tinky Winky’s magic bag.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is working on a book of remedial theology. You may scratch his purple hide at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999