Saturday, November 5, 2011

Prowling about the world

When I was a kid, and my world was divided into them Catholics and us Protestants, I used to attend mass every morning during lent with my Catholic friends. Not because I was becoming Catholic, but because it was a lot of fun to get together before school, have breakfast and start the day with something vaguely illicit.

As a shrink told me some time back when I was talking out some of my childhood memories of religious indoctrination, "You've smashed the idols of religion, but you're still carrying around the molds they came in."

I went to an Episcopal Church every Sunday my first couple years in college. It was the perfect blend of Protestantism, where my head was, and Catholicism, where my heart was. What they lacked in bells and whistles they made up in language. Like the delicious language of the prayer of confession:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.
There is no health in us! No kidding. That bad. What a tidy summary of the message that we are evil creatures, worthy of self-loathing. Beautiful Elizabethan English. And words that can kill.

Back in high school, though, when I was going to mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, what struck me as powerfully as "no health in us" were the words of the prayer to St. Michael that followed the mass:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
I couldn't get over this image of ghosts "prowling about the world" trying to get hold of my soul and drag it down into hell. I was intrigued by the thought there could be unseen evils at every turn, and that hell was a real place and I might go there to burn. It was one thing both Protestants and Catholics agreed on, after all. With such consensus, where was an insecure teenager to turn?

The prayer to St. Michael was removed from the Catholic service less than ten years later, but the image of demons is with us to this day. In fact, it made a big splash just last week when The Pilot, the official voice of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston, and America's oldest Catholic newspaper, printed a comment on October 28 by Daniel Avila, a policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), suggesting that gay people were being controlled by Satan and these very same demons we've been talking about.

The real story is not about some whack job who believes in trolls, though. The real story here is what happened next. The Pilot retracted the story with a statement by Avila, assuring readers he was not speaking for the Catholic Bishops and apologizing for causing "hurt and confusion."

For some, that will be the end of the story.

Oops. Misspoke. Sorry. Didn't mean it. Let's move on.

But in reading through a number of retellings of the event, one item caught my eye that most reports missed. Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the archdiocese, issued one of those "It's not that you're not supposed to say it; you're just not supposed to get caught" statements. Donilon criticized the publication of Avila's view. But then he assured readers that Avila would continue to write for The Pilot, even though he committed what The Pilot is now calling "a theological error." And praised Avila for his passion and commitment to the church.

The story has now gone viral. Google News lists 627 articles on the topic as of this writing, and theologian Bill Lindsey has taken time to post a list of sources of opinion and to follow the threads in the hierarchy to the likes of Oakland bishop Cordileone, head of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, which reveal the insincerity of Avila's apology and the church's rush to disassociate itself from his opinions. True, technically we're into hating the sin and loving the sinner these days, but Avila was - and remains - very much an insider, and this view of demons is not anathema. On the contrary, exorcism, defined as "the religious practice of evicting demons or other spiritual entities from a person or place which they are believed to have possessed" is listed in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church as a "sacramental" (not quite a sacrament, but moving in that direction). Paragraph 1673 is worth citing in its entirety:
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One (sic) and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.
Note the wiggle room there at the end. OK, so maybe gays are not possessed. Maybe they're just ill. Either way, there's something powerfully wrong with them, and all our moves - to remove their civil rights, to keep them from marrying and/or adopting kids, to have standing of any kind in the community, individually or collectively, are justified.

There are two ways to condemn people. One is to stand and face them, point a finger, and denounce them. A more effective way is to create an atmosphere in which condemnation hangs in the air, and you let others do the work of condemnation for you.

Avila just demonstrated how that second kind of demonization works. He speaks out. Reminds catholics who know their catechism that there are such things as demons. The church then comes in and speaks about Avila's "passion for the church." Slaps his hands for being so naughty.

Then puts him back to work.

Mission accomplished.

The demonization of gays has been renewed for another season.

Update: Looks like Avila has now resigned. Mission not accomplished after all. How 'bout them apples.


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