Saturday, December 29, 2018

Light and Dark

I can’t pretend to have insider knowledge of the workings of the Roman Catholic Church. All I know, as the saying goes, is what I read in the papers. My views remain somewhat hostile, because it's no secret the RC Church is primus inter pares among the chief sources of homophobia that still lurk in so many dark spaces, like the demons the catholics fear are roaming the earth seeking the ruination of souls. Demons is a powerful metaphor for homophobia and the other phobias that plague the church in regard to human sexuality. Rather than recognizing sex as an appetite and embracing it as something to accommodate with care and thought and sympathy, it has traditionally turned it into something to be instrumentalized and rationed by the powerful. And shamed. If you're going to burn in hell for anything, it should be for turning beautiful into ugly and clean into dirty.

Much as the folks in charge of the church want to indoctrinate their flock from early childhood into believing it was founded by a god and is held in place by that god’s specially ordained servants, it is a very human organization. And by that I mean it reflects both the best ideas human beings can come up with and the worst. Non-Christians on every continent tend to agree on the big questions of right and wrong. They all agree violence and deceit is destructive to human well-being and have developed moral codes to reflect that instinct. But just as the right-wing members of any society grab the flag and the patriotic songs and claim to be better citizens than everyone else, the church has grabbed the notion of morality and claimed it invented it. Anyone who ventures out of the village into the larger world can see most of its peoples, “all God’s children” – those of the faith and those outside the faith as well - have established ways of living good lives without the benefit of this peculiar European-flavored concoction that is the church of Rome.

I remember a discussion I had once with a Saudi student about the source of morality. Not in Saudi Arabia, of course. The year I taught there any discussion which might have suggested relativism in regard to religion would have gotten me in very hot water. I mean in one of my classes in California. The dialogue went something like this:

Saudi Student: What religion are you, Baptist or Catholic?
Me: I’m neither of those.
SS: You are a Jew!!!???
Me: Nope. Not that either.
SS: But you’ve got to have some kind of religion. We all need some kind of religion.
Me: I was raised a Christian and I’m still a cultural Christian, but I don’t share their belief in a god.
SS: Wow! But what keeps you from killing people?
Me: I have no desire to kill people.
SS: But what about when you become very angry?
Me: I still don’t have any desire to kill people.
SS: Well, you’re not like most people. Most people who don’t have a religion would kill when they got really angry.
Me: Have you ever been to Japan?  I’ve lived there for many years and I can tell you two things about the Japanese for sure: 1) very few of them believe in God; and 2) they are a remarkably peaceful bunch of people.

My point is that religious people, Muslims and Catholics being only two examples, like to believe it is their religious institution that keeps us all from going out the front door and mowing down the neighborhood. And I’ll save for another day any discussion about the work that army chaplains do to make it easier for soldiers to fight whatever enemy is bugging their leader at any given moment.

Another positive benefit of being catholic, I’m often told, is that one is associated with all the schools and hospitals the church sponsors. To say nothing of St. Vincent de Paul and other organizations formed to serve the poor. “Charity” is closely associated with “religion.”

True. Catholic schools and hospitals are often managed and operated by some remarkably generous and kindly people, to be sure. But since generosity and kindness are to be found among the non-religious as well, the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t an exclusive one.

One of the first things that strikes an outsider about the Roman Catholic Church these days is how deeply divided it is. At the risk of oversimplification, we can say there are in fact two churches, and they are quite distinct. Just as you can divide the world into those who see a glass as half full and those who see the same glass as half empty, you can divide the world into those who look for – and therefore see – light, and those who look for – and therefore see – darkness. It’s more common to divide the RC Church into “Vatican I” Christians and “Vatican II” Christians, but “light and dark” works about as well. “Dark” catholics focus on hell and punishment; “light” catholics on heaven and forgiveness. Dark on hard and fast absolutes, light on pastoral care. Dark on record-keeping of who’s in and who’s out, light on leaving it up to God to judge human lives as he will. Dark on circling the wagons in moral certainty; light on personal humility. From the perspective of gay and lesbian people who want to remain in the fold, the two distinct churches may be seen as the “Can’t Come In” Church (dark) and “Come in, but sit over there and be quiet” Church (light).

In this day and age when the “nones” outnumber all the other groups in polls asking people about their religious affiliation, discussions among church leaders about what the church is up against, as far as I can establish, seems to be less about Protestantism, as it was in the days of my youth, and more about the opposing flank of the church itself. Ecumenicals (light) on one side; hard-liner doctrinalists (dark) on the other. Before the administrative challenges became too much for him, Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus, once suggested that the way to go might be for the church to embrace this drop in membership and worry less about numbers and pay more attention to getting the doctrines right.  Benedict looked toward the conservative. Which is not identical to the dark church, although being dark and being conservative are often mistaken for one another. Francis seems to be trying to push the church toward the light, but it’s no easy task turning that battleship around in the water.  Like many people caught in the middle of a civil war or a family squabble, his is a thankless job. Both sides call him a traitor. Well, the hard liners call him a traitor. The “light” folks usually try to moderate their name-calling and describe him simply as “not quite up to the job,” “deeply disappointing” and the like.

The split into factions is quite serious. If you doubt that, have a look at the battle between the CFC - Catholics for Choice, an organization formed to support Catholic women who think a woman should not be excommunicated or condemned for seeking an abortion, and the traditionalists lined up on the other side insisting the CFC stop using the word “catholic” in connection with their association.

This is not to say that there is a single mindset on the “light” side. Like other progressive movements, they agree on some things and disagree on others, in comparison to those on the “dark” side. Traditionalists tend toward authoritarianism, and that means a single source, often a single man, gets to establish what is to be believed, and everybody gets in line. Republicans have greater group discipline than Democrats, and clericalists have greater unity than free thinkers. It goes with the territory.

What prompted this reflection was an item a friend called to my attention in today’s New York Times about a guy who has found refuge in the light church now facing some serious bats and bricks from the dark church. He’s a gay man who wants to be a Catholic. My advice, which I readily admit is not advice he has to take or even should take, is to give it up. Recognize that you can worship God anywhere and find like-minded folk elsewhere, as well. I understand that for a serious Catholic believer, the liturgy and especially the Eucharist is commonly central to one’s faith, and when the church pushes you away from the communion rail, it’s cold comfort to be lectured at about becoming Episcopalian. I’ve done it a number of times, and I always feel like the person who tries to comfort a grieving person with words like, “Well, be thankful he lived as long as he did!” Bad move. Cruel, even. Certainly tasteless, because it doesn’t allow for how the person is feeling inside.

So what’s to do but feel sad?  Antonio Bianco, I wish you well.

And I’m sorry the darks currently have more clout than the lights in your church.

Or should I say more bricks and bats?

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Nova Scotia, I barely knew ye - a paean to Google Maps

I do a lot of traveling in Nova Scotia these days and play tickle with my Scottish roots, thanks to Google maps. I'm totally taken with this tool for taking me to places I've known all my life of 78 years (well, much of 71 of them, at least, to be more precise). You can google the name of a town like Tracadie, for example, the sound of which amused me as a ten-year old, with its suburbs Big Tracadie and Upper Big Tracadie, and then you can zoom in with your space camera and plop yourself down anywhere and wander through the streets of the town, looking at the store fronts and the architecture, and getting an idea of how prosperous or hard-put the locals are by how shabby the place is or, or at the other end, how well-clipped the grassy lawns are and how recently the houses have been painted.

I can zoom out and view the Maritimes from Outer Space. Then zoom back in again at my cousin’s apartment house in Halifax or the Cabot Trail or at my sister's house in Goldboro or my niece's house in Pictou. Then get back on the Trans-Canada Highway and hop over to the eastern part of the province, to the two towns most familiar to me: Guysborough and Antigonish.

I once spent a month in a hospital in Antigonish, tended to by the nuns at St. Martha's Hospital and the priests who would stop by from St. Francis Xavier University next door to visit the young lad from Conneck-ti-cut and answer his questions about the Gaelic language, which they spoke natively. My folks were Protestant. Not ardently religiously so, but ardently ethnically so, and there was always something suspicious about the Catholics. We spent our summer vacation time with Aunt Carrie and Uncle Charlie, who spent most of their waking hours tilling the soil on a small farm off a small village road not far from the town of Boylston next to Guysborough, the big town we repaired to when my mother needed to get back to the city. Guysborough’s population today is 922, and it’s the county seat. I’ve written about it before. It originally carried a Mi’kmac Indian name, Chedabucto, but was renamed after the Governor General of Canada and Commander of the British Forces in 1780, as they were nursing their wounds after losing their hold on what would become the United States. I like to think Sir Guy Carleton found the gesture just compensation.

Uncle Charlie was known for his dislikes. He had strong feelings about the French and hated the fact they owned so much of Canada. I thought he was going to smack me hard one time when I suggested we should use the French name for Nova Scotia – Nouvelle Écosse – because it was more melodious. For some reason, he hated the inhabitants of Cape Breton Island even more, however. My father fulfilled a lifetime dream of Uncle Charlie’s the day he drove him across the causeway to Cape Breton so Uncle Charlie could go out into the woods and take a dump on the island. It was only 50 kilometers from the farm to Port Hastings on Cape Breton, but he’d never owned more than a horse and wagon and had never made the trip before.

The Catholic-Protestant divide that played such a big role in the social life of the adults I lived with as a child was different in Connecticut and Nova Scotia. In Connecticut, the Catholics were Italian, mostly. Some Poles, some Irish, some French Canadians. The biggest divide in my family was the Scots-Irish divide. We wore orange on St. Patrick’s Day, not green, in sympathy with the Protestants of Northern Ireland. So it was a bit of a stretch for a young teenager to get his mind around the fact that in Nova Scotia, it was the Scottish descendants of Mary Queen of Scots who were "the Catholics". There were no Italians in sight. And I had a 16-year-old’s crush on Father John, who never missed a day visiting me in the hospital that month of August back in 1956 when I lay there without other visitors for a month. My family had had to get back to their regular lives in Connecticut after my accident, and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Carrie’s horse and buggy couldn’t make the 45-mile trek, even if they could have spared a day milking the cows and harvesting green beans. Father John wanted me to come to his college, and if not for a strong-willed mentor who wanted me to go to Middlebury, I might have been persuaded. I’ve thought about Father John in the years since the child abuse scandal first broke out in the Catholic Church, wondering how many of the abuse cases involved sexually precocious 16-year-olds tempting a handsome young priest to break his celibacy vows. Always more to those stories, I thought.

Nearly three-quarters of a century of memories of Nova Scotia make the bonds insoluble. I’ll always go back there, given the opportunity. With three members of my family to consider – two dogs and my husband – getting there would require some shuffling of priorities, but I sense I’ll figure it out in time.

Joe Izard of Guysborough
I’ve written about all this before – see here for example. And I’ve included the part about learning what role runaway slaves played in the formation of these towns. I mentioned Isaac of Isaac’s Harbour (q.v.).  But just today, it turns out, I discover that they had a role in the founding of Guysborough, as well. It wasn’t just in my family where there were relatives who left New England as loyalists to the English Crown. It was also black slaves from South Carolina (and I imagine other colonies as well) who accepted the promise of freedom in exchange for loyalty to the cause. Must keep these folks in mind when I’m tempted to beat the drums about the Stars and Stripes. (OK, so that’s a sentence without substance that just rolled out of my head from God-knows-where!) Here’s a picture of Joe Izard, of Guysborough.

Now that I’m getting up there in years, much of the contact I have with this province of my
 MacLean St., corner of MacKay, New Glasgow
youth comes in the form of obituaries of family members. I recently lost a MacKay relative, the husband of a second cousin, and that brought out the fact that, in Nova Scotia, the family name MacKay is probably more common than Smith or Jones. While flying around with Google Maps over New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, I found a lovely looking house – one I’d like to live in, were I to move to New Glasgow – at the corner of MacKay and MacLean streets. You don’t hardly get no more Scottish than that. Of course, I might find others I’d like, at the intersection of MacDonald and McColl, maybe. Or where McDonald runs into MacIntosh just south of where the employees of MacLeod Insurance no doubt meet for a pint at the Glasgow Pub, just a block down.

One of the games we play these days is imagining where we’d flee to if Trump succeeds in dismantling American democracy and the financial sector collapses and chaos breaks out in the streets. Japan is top of the list because it’s where the husband's folks live and he believes the best food in the world can be found. Not Nova Scotia. He isn’t bothered as much as I am by the number of people who don’t realize they are supposed to capitalize the second C in my family name – a problem I am pretty sure doesn’t exist in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia - or any other part of the province.

And the girls? Well they may belong to a haplogroup which takes them back on their mother’s side to Mexico – they are noticeably Chihuahuan. But if we needed to, we could surely switch focus to their father’s side. They are half Jack Russells. They’d fit right in in New Glasgow.

The stock market is in the toilet and my life savings don’t look all that great at the moment.

But fortunately, die Gedanken sind frei! (one's thoughts are free!). And so is flying around in the google-o-sphere. It opens the world to me, probes the memories and piques the imagination.

A wondrous thing is Google Maps.